Archive for October, 2013

“Thank-You Note”: a new sermon series for November

October 31, 2013

philippians_series

“Rejoice in the Lord always,” Paul writes in his letter to the Philippians (Phil 4:4). Does “always” really mean always? Do we have reasons to be thankful to God under any circumstance?

Does it help to know that Paul himself was in prison—a harsh, life-threatening imprisonment in Ephesus—when he wrote these words, which are part of his most exuberantly joyful letter? If Paul knew the secret to being thankful, we should all want to know what it is!

With this in mind, just in time for the Thanksgiving season, I’m going to be talking about our reasons for gratitude—even in the midst of pain and suffering—in a new four-part sermon series during November. The schedule is as follows:

Date Scripture Title
11/03/13 Philippians 1:18b-26 Thank You Note, Part 1: To Live Is Christ
11/10/13 Philippians 2:1-13 Thank You Note, Part 2: The Mind of Christ
11/17/13 Philippians 3:1-14 Thank You Note, Part 3: Pressing On
11/24/13 Philippians 4:2-13 Thank You Note, Part 4: Peace & Contentment

 

God’s “causal relationship” to suffering

October 31, 2013

keller_bookMy reading, my thinking, and not to mention my experience of life over the past few years has led me to an inescapable conclusion: God has, as Tim Keller refers to in Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, a “causal relationship” to suffering.

This is not to say, simply, that God causes all suffering: it’s another way of saying that God’s sovereignty implies that God uses all suffering for his good purposes. Therefore, it is perfectly O.K. for us to ask God a question that I used to resist asking: Why is this happening to me? Or Why is this happening now? God always has a good answer to this question, whether we figure out what it is or not. And given that God is God and we’re not, we shouldn’t be surprised when we can’t figure it out.

I was more or less saying the same thing last month on this blog, and in a recent sermon, but I’ll say it again:

A while back I was going through a tough time in my life, and I was complaining to a friend, who happens to be a Jew, as well as a Bible scholar. I asked angrily: “Why is this happening to me?” And my friend, who’s sort of like an honorary rabbi to me, said, “Don’t ask, ‘Why is this happening to me?’ Instead ask, ‘Why is this happening to me now?’” In other words, he wanted me to imagine that God was using this disappointment—this setback, this bad situation—in order to teach me something that I needed to learn.

And I’m like, “Of course! You’re exactly right!” God’s always doing stuff like that, isn’t he?

Yes, he is. Always. I can’t tell you how comforting my friend’s words were to me. God is in complete control of whatever good or bad thing is happening to me. I can say this as a Wesleyan-Arminian, believing both that God doesn’t cause evil and that we human beings have free will. But by all means, God uses evil and suffering to direct history, including our lives within it, according to his purposes.

Therefore, if some good thing happens, God has a reason for it; if some evil thing happens, God has a reason for permitting it. That may sound obvious to most of you, but here’s the sharp edge we have to live with if we believe in God’s sovereignty: If God wants to prevent a particular evil thing from happening, he will do so. Why he does or doesn’t in a particular instance—which is really another way of asking why he does or doesn’t give us what we pray for—only God knows sometimes, but we should trust that God knows best.

After all, young children often perceive that their parents make decisions that are unfair and they ask why they’ve made those decisions. Parents may rightly refuse to answer this question because the child isn’t mature enough to understand. Parents need their children to trust that they know best. To say the least, if this is true in the relationship between parents and children, who relate as “like kind to like kind,” how much more will it be true of our heavenly Father’s relationship to us, infinite to finite.

One thing’s for sure: a God who himself suffers—as we Christians believe God has and does—has paid for the privilege of our trusting him.

Tim Keller says that we must hold these two truths—that God is sovereign and God suffers—in tension with one another. I know, and he knows, that we Christians tend to overemphasize one at the expense of the other. In mainline Protestant thought, we err on the side of suffering and minimize sovereignty. (It’s not even close.)

[T]here are an increasing number of theologians who are so glad to emphasize the suffering of God that they lose the idea of divine sovereignty, depicting God as one who is not all-powerful and not able to stop suffering in the world. Ronald Rittgers writes: “The idea that God has a causal relationship to adversity and misfortune is rejected by many contemporary theologians. The notion of God as co-sufferer is welcomed, but the idea of God as agent of suffering is shunned.

But Rittgers adds, “the God who has no causal relationship to suffering is no God at all, certainly not the God of the Bible… who is both suffering and sovereign. Both beliefs were (and are) essential to the traditional Christian assertion that suffering ultimately has some meaning.” That is absolutely right. If God is out of control of history, then suffering is not part of any plan; it is random and senseless… On the other hand, if God has not suffered, then how can we trust him?[1]

I now see how inadequate David Bentley Hart’s treatment of suffering and evil is in The Doors of the Sea. From his perspective, God is completely off the hook for evil and suffering, which is nice, but he gets really fuzzy about God’s sovereignty. In my view, God can and does enfold evil and suffering in his plans for the world.

This is not to say that God causes evil. Rather, evil happens (for any number of reasons, natural and, in the case of the demonic, supernatural), but look what God does with it. God always has the power to prevent it, and one day God will completely vanquish it forever. In the meantime, however, God chooses to do something constructive with it.

Dr. Hart, of course, has perfectly well-thought-out theological reasons for saying that evil is privation—the absence of good—and God therefore makes no positive use of it, but his reasons don’t accord with the overall thrust of scripture. And if I were arguing with him (which I would never want to do), I would be reduced to saying, “Yes, but what about this passage?… What about that passage?” And he would probably attack my doctrine of scripture as Western and Reformed and whatever. At some point, however, we need to put more faith in the Bible than theology.

By all means, let’s be very humble about attempting to answer why bad things happen; let’s not rush to the microphone after every hurricane, earthquake, tsunami, or mass murder and say, “Here’s why God permitted this…” (John Piper and Pat Robertson, I’m looking at you.) But let’s not be stuck with a God who couldn’t have prevented this bad thing from happening in the first place!

The fact that God didn’t prevent it means something. We don’t have to know what it means, but be sure that it does mean something.

I said earlier that if we believe in God’s sovereignty we have to live with some sharp edges. We have to test this belief against the worst cases of evil and suffering. At the risk of being accused of “reductio ad Hitlerum,” I refer to what I’ve written on this blog about how Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl put it to the test: he said in Man’s Search for Meaning that everyone, in the midst of the worst kinds of suffering, always faces a choice: we always get to decide whether this experience of suffering will be harmful or helpful to us; will crush our spirits or enable spiritual growth. He counseled potential suicides in the concentration camps: “You may want to kill yourself because you expect nothing else out of life, but life still expects something out of you: even if it’s only to walk into the gas chamber with your head held high.”

Reductio ad Hitlerum or not, we can all agree, I hope, that no one stood on higher moral high ground in saying that than he.

At the risk of tears, let me have Frankl share what he learned:

Every day, every hour, offered the opportunity to make a decision, a decision which determined whether you would or would not submit to those powers which threatened to rob you of your very self, your inner freedom; which determined whether or not you would become the plaything of circumstance, renouncing freedom and dignity to become molded into the form of the typical inmate…

Even though conditions such as lack of sleep, insufficient food and various mental stresses may suggest the inmates were bound to react in certain ways, in the final analysis it becomes clear that the sort of person the prisoner became was the result of an inner decision, and not the result of camp influences alone. Fundamentally, therefore, any man can, even under such circumstances, decide what shall become of him—mentally and spiritually. He may retain his human dignity even in a concentration camp. Dostoevski said once, “There is only one thing that I dread: not to be worthy of my sufferings.” These words frequently came to my mind after I became acquainted with those martyrs whose behavior in camp, whose suffering and death, bore witness to the fact that the last inner freedom cannot be lost. It can be said that they were worthy of their sufferings; the way they bore their suffering was a genuine inner achievement. It is this spiritual freedom—which cannot be taken away—that makes life meaningful and purposeful.[2]

Thank God there is always meaning in suffering. If God weren’t sovereign, there wouldn’t be. We would only ever be victims, with a God who stands by powerless—sorrowful and suffering to be sure, but also powerless to do anything.

I simply don’t believe that anymore.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 152-3.

2. Viktor E. Frankl, Man’s Search for Meaning (Boston: Beacon, 2006), 66-7.

Miracles, cessationism, and the “soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook”

October 30, 2013

One highlight of my trip to Kenya in February was leading a worship service alongside my clergy friend Susan. Toward the end of the service, we were told by the locals that the sick were to be brought forward for the laying on of hands, for prayer, and, well, for healing if possible.

Of course, I tried to act as if this were the most natural thing in the world, and I’d done this a million times before, but a voice within wanted to shout: “We American Methodists don’t do this sort of thing!” (Quickly followed by another voice that said, “But that’s our problem.”) The sick people didn’t speak English. I couldn’t find out what ailed them. So I placed my hands on their head, prayed a prayer asking God to heal them in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. I made the sign of the cross on their forehead.

Liturgically, I performed the rite O.K. If I had oil, I would have anointed them.

So what happened to them after I did this? Did God heal any of them? Beats me.

But here’s what surprises even myself: As skeptical as I am by nature, I’m open to the possibility that healing might have occurred. If you’re like me, you might be thinking, “Yes, but do you mean a physical healing or a spiritual healing?”

I can’t pretend I don’t understand the question, although spiritual healing, if it happens at all, seems far more important than physical healing. And who knows the extent to which a spiritual healing could manifest itself physically. We are, as I learned in seminary, psychosomatic creatures. By that, I don’t mean that our mind tricks our body into thinking it’s sick (as modern psychology might say); I mean that, contrary to the spirit of modern medicine, we are unable to neatly separate body and soul. One always affects the other to some extent.

Regardless, most of us modern Christians happily concede that God could perform a spiritual healing. I wonder why we tend to believe in one and not the other? Is it because, since spiritual means “invisible,” no one can disprove it?

But why be so skeptical? If you believe in spiritual healing—which means you believe that God actively intervenes in some way to change us—how much harder would it be for God to perform a physical healing?

So I guess I’ve made progress over these past 15 years as a Methodist. While I’m hardly a Pentecostal, I’m far more, um, charismatic than I was as a Baptist. Which is exactly as it should be: we Methodists have a more robust pneumatology, theologically speaking: we believe the Spirit is very active in our lives and world world today, and this doesn’t preclude, on principle, even miracles or tongues or prophecy. If you talk to the Kenyan pastors whose testimonies I heard (and believed), the miraculous is positively commonplace in that part of the world where the Spirit is spreading the gospel like wildfire.

Wildfire? Or should I say “strange fire”? Depends on whom you ask, I guess.

John MacArthur and R.C. Sproul, two prominent conservative/fundamentalist Calvinists with large radio followings, have recently thrown down the gauntlet against the Pentecostal/Charismatic movement at a recent conference in California called “Strange Fire.” A favorite blogger of mine, Roger Olson, a Pentecostal-turned-Baptist, wrote a nice piece about it here.

I thought about “Strange Fire” last night as I finally finished the C.S. Lewis book Miracles. I have no idea the extent to which Pentecostalism had spread to England in the middle of the 20th century, or how aware he was of it. But he wasn’t a cessationist, by any means. As far as I know, cessationism isn’t consistent with Anglican theology and worship. Lewis believed miracles still happen, although we shouldn’t expect them to happen to us. If they do, he says, it means we’re probably in the midst of trouble and persecution.

But Lewis put his finger on a potential problem with cessationists like MacArthur and Sproul. Does their firm conviction come from careful exegesis (and I find the biblical case for cessationism very thin and unpersuasive) or from our unreflective modern impulse toward Naturalism, the pervasive belief that miracles don’t happen because nothing happens beyond or outside of Nature. MacArthur and Sproul aren’t Naturalists, of course, but Lewis would say they don’t have to be. Naturalistic thinking is our habit, our default position. Unless we remain vigilant against it, we fall back into it without thinking.

Is it possible that cessationism is just a way of “baptizing” our Naturalistic outlook on life?

Lewis says that he fears this default Naturalism more than any positive argument against miracles:

that soft, tidal return of your habitual outlook as you close the book and the familiar four walls about you and the familiar noises from the street reassert themselves. Perhaps (if I dare suppose so much) you have been led on at times while you were reading, have felt ancient hopes and fears astir in your heart, have perhaps come almost to the threshold of belief—but now? No. It just won’t do. Here is the ordinary, here is the ‘real’ world, round you again. The dream is ending; as all other similar dreams have always ended. For of course this is not the first time such a thing has happened. More than once in your life before this you have heard a strange story, read some odd book, seen something queer or imagined you have seen it, entertained some wild hope or terror: but always it ended the same way. And always you wondered how you could, even for a moment, have expected it not to. For that ‘real world’ when you came back to it is so unanswerable. Of course the strange story was false, of course the voice was really subjective, of course the apparent portent was a coincidence. You are ashamed of yourself for having ever thought otherwise: ashamed, relieved, amused, disappointed, and angry all at once. You ought to have known that, as Arnold says, “Miracles don’t happen.”[†]

I’ll say more about the book later.

C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 270-1.

God’s love offered “to all people, in all circumstances, always”

October 28, 2013

george_baptism

From Cranmer’s blog: The Archbishop of Canterbury seized the occasion of Prince George’s baptism to educate the British public about the meaning of the sacrament. In the video below, he says that baptism isn’t just for royal babies but for everyone, because “God’s love is offered without qualification, without price, without cost, to all people, in all circumstances, always.”

Archbishop Justin then cited these fitting words from the prayer book of the Church of Scotland:

For you Jesus Christ came into the world: 
for you he lived and showed God’s love;
for you he suffered the darkness of Calvary
and cried at the last, ‘It is accomplished’;
for you he triumphed over death and rose to new of life;
for you he reigns at God’s right hand.
All this he did for you, though you do not know it yet.

Amen. 

Finally, I like Cranmer’s helpful clarification:

His Grace would just like to add that baptism doesn’t make Prince George a Christian any more than it makes him a future Supreme Governor of the Church of England. In baptism we begin the life of grace within the Church: it is a means of participation in the divine life; the sacrament which unites the Church to the baptism of Christ in the River Jordan, and it is water from that very river which fills the font in the Chapel Royal at St James’s Palace.

UMC emerging from “Mainline captivity” to global church

October 28, 2013

I hope Mark Tooley is right:

Traditionalists need to remember the current battles of marriage are the logical consequence of over 100 years of Protestant revisionist liberalism. And the real conflict is not over sex per se but over biblical authority, the lordship and exclusivity of Christ, and understandings of the universal church, human nature, and redemption.

If United Methodism survives intact, as I strongly expect it will, and successfully emerges from Mainline captivity to a theologically and spiritually reinvigorated global church, then the current controversies will someday be recalled as some of the most glorious. There’s always more opportunity for meaningful service, with eternal fruits and rewards, during vexing crises than during times of calm tranquility.

Here’s one hopeful scenario. In future years, when the current U.S. trend for non-denominational churches has slowed or reversed, and there is desire again for the rich traditions offered uniquely by a historic denomination, United Methodism in the U.S., by then fully globalized, may again be uniquely poised for revival.

Preaching hell

October 28, 2013

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.

Lazarus and Dives, illumination from the Codex Aureus of Echternach. Courtesy WikiMedia Commons.


Yesterday, during the last Sunday of our three-week stewardship emphasis, I preached a sermon on Luke 16:19-31, the Parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus. I joked that visitors in yesterday’s services had chosen a perfect Sunday to attend: I would be talking about both hell and giving money, two favorite topics rolled into one!

I mentioned briefly that, having been to seminary, I’ve heard plenty of creative reinterpretations of hell as depicted in the parable. The most popular goes something like this: Jesus’ point wasn’t to say anything about hell at all, or even that hell was a real place to which God sends souls after death. His point was to say something about social justice, loving our neighbor as ourselves, and preaching good news to the poor.

[But even that’s not quite right: hell was hardly Jesus’ point, since, according to this stream of thought, we know very little that was said by that barely literate, itinerant peasant-teacher Jesus. Rather, the parable reflects Luke’s evangelistic concerns. These commentators always make Luke seem like a much more interesting fellow than Jesus himself. According to these scholars, we know that it’s really Luke speaking, not Jesus, because he has Jesus use the word Hades (translated from the Hebrew sheol) rather than gehenna (translated into English as “hell”). This is the giveaway, they say: Luke is importing Greek philosophy into the parable, portraying an immaterial afterlife rather than the embodied afterlife of traditional Jewish thought.]

This is all silly, of course. Modern liberal scholars rarely get so creative about the parables of Jesus that they “agree with,” like the ones from Luke 15.

Besides, as I said in my sermon:

The point of the Parable of the Good Samaritan is not that the highway between Jerusalem and Jericho is a dangerous, crime-ridden place; the point is to say something about loving our neighbor. But just because the highway isn’t the point doesn’t mean the highway didn’t exist, or that it wasn’t filled with bandits who wanted to rob you. Just as the Jericho highway was real, so hell is real.

Regardless whether it’s called hell or Hades, Jesus depicts a two-tiered afterlife immediately following death, a Paradise on the one hand and a place of torment on the other. As for the question of whether the afterlife is embodied, orthodox Christian thinking has always understood that the afterlife consists of two stages: a disembodied intermediate stage followed by general resurrection, final judgment, and resurrected life in a newly re-created world (for the redeemed). Since the rich man’s five brothers still walk the earth, it’s clear that Jesus is describing the intermediate stage.

As I said in my sermon, many Christians object to the idea that a loving God could send people to hell. These same Christians believe that God is a God of love in the first place mostly because of what Jesus revealed. Yet most of what we know about hell comes from the lips of Jesus himself. How is this not a classic case of picking and choosing?

A worse alternative to believing that we misunderstand what Jesus says about hell is saying that Jesus—limited in his understanding, a victim of his time and place—was wrong about hell—as if we’re now the moral geniuses who know better than Jesus what a “God of love” would and wouldn’t do. I’ve made this point about Satan, but it also applies to hell: If Jesus is wrong about a doctrine as central to his teaching, why do we trust him when it comes to doctrines that we agree with? If Jesus is wrong about hell, how do we know he’s right about God’s love, mercy, and grace?

So I appreciate that “new atheist” writer (I can’t remember which one) who strongly disagreed with many of his colleagues that Jesus was the proverbial (if condescending) “great moral teacher” because he found Jesus’ teaching on hell barbaric and bloodthirsty. Good for him! Unlike so many well-meaning Christians among us, he didn’t try to separate one part of Jesus’ teaching from another.

No, a far better alternative (to say the least) is to give Jesus the benefit of the doubt: if we can’t reconcile our understanding of love with Jesus’ words about hell, then let’s assume our understanding of love is wrong.

And here, as in so many other places, C.S. Lewis helps us out. Yes, hell poses a challenge to us, he concedes. If the Bible is our primary authority—not to mention the words of Jesus himself—we can’t simply dismiss the doctrine. But if we think about it, the doctrine is also reasonable, and reason is the cause that Lewis takes up in his chapter on hell in The Problem of Pain (my all-time favorite book, by the way):

There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power. But it has the full support of Scripture and, specially, of Our Lord’s own words; it has always been held by Christendom; and it has the support of reason. If a game is played, it must be possible to lose it. If the happiness of a creature lies in self-surrender, no one can make that surrender but himself (though many can help him to make it) and he may refuse. I would pay any price to be able to say truthfully ‘All will be saved.’ But my reason retorts ‘Without their will, or with it?’ If I say ‘Without their will’ I at once perceive a contradiction; how can the supreme voluntary act of self-surrender be involuntary? If I say ‘With their will,’ my reason replies ‘How if they will not give in?’[1]

We may respond, “Yes, but who wouldn’t ‘give in’ if the alternative is an eternity in hell?” Lewis answers this question. In a nutshell, if we can’t see how that’s possible, then we’ve misunderstood the nature and power of sin. I also like Lewis’s saying that while “no one can make that surrender but himself,” many can help him make it. This gives urgency to evangelism.

I’m not persuaded (and Lewis isn’t, either) that everyone gets a second chance to respond to the gospel after death, because God knows that often a second chance, or even a millionth chance, may not avail. What we know for sure is that we have the opportunity right now to respond to the gospel. Again, our evangelistic task is urgent!

I agree with Notre Dame professor Jerry Walls that everyone, in the interest of justice, will get a sufficient amount of grace (which may differ from person to person), to decide whether or not to receive God’s gift of salvation in Christ. How or when this happens we can’t say.

I especially like this (which I quoted yesterday):

In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do? To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But He has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what He does.[2]

1. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain (New York: HarperOne, 1996), 119-20.

2. Ibid., 130.

Sermon 10-20-13: “Rich Towards God, Part 2: The Shrewd Steward”

October 24, 2013

stewardship_web_hi_res

The dishonest manager—or the “shrewd steward”—got a lucky break. He found out before it was too late that people mattered more than money, possessions, pride, or power. Our church exists for the sake of people: We sacrifice our time, energy, talents, and—yes—our money so that people in our community and around the world can experience for themselves the good news of our Lord Jesus Christ.

As I say in this sermon, this sacrifice will hurt a little bit. But we do it because we remember what our Lord sacrificed for us. Like the steward in the parable, our Lord Jesus came to our house and sacrificed everything he had in order to pay for our debts—on the cross—which we couldn’t begin to afford to pay on our own.

Sermon Text: Luke 16:1-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

Recently I decided that my son Townshend was now old enough to enjoy and appreciate James Bond movies. When I was his age I loved them, and I want him to love them, too. So we saw one of the recent vintage movies, with Daniel Craig, and it was O.K. But I wanted him to experience the real James Bond: Roger Moore. No, I’m just kidding. I love Roger Moore, but I’m referring, of course, to Sean Connery. So I bought the DVD of Goldfinger, and Townshend and I watched it recently.

And I was reminded of that classic action movie cliché in which the supervillain doesn’t just kill the hero—by shooting him, for example—getting it over with quickly. The supervillain instead devises some slow, elaborate, drawn-out way of killing our hero, which inevitably gives our hero the chance to escape. And that’s true in the movie Goldfinger: Remember the scene when Goldfinger straps Bond down to a solid-gold table, and Goldfinger intends to slice Bond in two with an industrial laser?

When will supervillains ever learn?

When will supervillains ever learn?

This laser is inching toward Bond’s body at a snail’s pace—which gives Bond about five minutes or so to try to find a way out of this predicament. When will these supervillains ever learn? “Do you expect me to talk?” Bond asks Goldfinger. “No, Mr. Bond. I expect you to die!” And he laughs. But, sure enough, while that laser is making its way toward him, Bond does talk, and uses his wits, and eventually talks his way out of certain death. And when Goldfinger turns the laser off, well, his fate is sealed. We know the good guy is going to win. Read the rest of this entry »

Are evil and suffering part of God’s plan?

October 22, 2013

keller_bookAs I’ve been reading Tim Keller’s Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, I’ve waited for the other shoe to drop. Keller, you see, in addition to being one of our era’s best and brightest Christian writers and thinkers, is also Presbyterian. But not of the hippie-liberal PC(USA) variety: he’s PCA, a Protestant’s Protestant, a full-blown Five-Point Calvinist… or at least he’s supposed to be.

He keeps these doctrinal imperatives close to the vest. Which is as it should be: as with most Protestants, what we usually divide over hardly amounts to a bucket of spit. Presbyterians tend to care a lot more about theology than we Methodists, who are more about rolling up our sleeves and getting to work.

If you’re keeping score at home, however, we Wesleyan-Arminian Christians (which United Methodists profess to be) only agree with one of Calvinism’s five points: total depravity, the T of TULIP.

Wesleyans are suspicious of Calvinism’s strong emphasis on God’s sovereignty. Their tradition tends to emphasize God’s being “in control” so strongly that they mean God controls every single thing, like a puppet-master. As R.C. Sproul has said: “If there is one maverick molecule in the universe, God is not God.” It’s hard for us Wesleyans to see, if Calvinism is true, how human freedom is meaningful, or how God isn’t the author of evil itself. Calvinists would say we misunderstand Calvinism, just as they misunderstand our view of human freedom when they say we’re semi-Pelagian.

So you’d think that reading a book about evil and suffering from a Calvinist perspective would cause all kinds of alarms to go off within this Methodist’s brain. But it’s not too bad. It’s quite good, actually. The most overtly Calvinist statement I’ve encountered so far comes on page 117:

Often we can see how bad things “work together for good” (Rom 8:28). The problem is that we can only glimpse this sometimes, in a limited number of cases. But why could it not be that God allowed evil because it will bring us all to a far greater glory and joy than we would have had otherwise? Isn’t it possible that the eventual glory and joy we will know will be infinitely greater than it would have been had there been no evil? What if that future world will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost? If such is the case, that would truly mean the utter defeat of evil. Evil would just be an obstacle to our beauty and bliss, but it will have only made it better. Evil would have accomplished the very opposite of what it intended.

I can’t see anything objectionable here. Can you?

God isn’t causing or even conspiring with evil (as I might fear a Calvinist would imply). Evil isn’t really good, if only we could see it in light of eternity. Evil is really evil, and God is defeating it twice over: not simply at the end of history when “all shall be well and all shall be well,” but by using evil (against its will—because we remember Satan) to make that end even better than it would otherwise be.

Christians already agree that God does this with the cross of his Son: He transforms the world’s greatest evil into the world’s greatest good. Had Christ won his victory over sin and death in any other way, would his victory have been as sweet? Keller, if I’m reading him correctly, is merely saying that God does this with all manner of evil.

That seems to be what Paul is getting at when he talks about Creation’s being “subjected to futility… by the will of the one who subjected it” in Romans 8:20-21, and “all things working together for good” in Romans 8:28.

How will God “wipe away every tear” in our own future resurrection if we can still look back and grieve for the evil that happened to us or through us. If, in eternity, we can’t look back on injustice, evil, and suffering and say, “I can see now—even if I couldn’t see at the time—how God was transforming that horrifying event or episode into something good,” won’t we continue to be injured by our memories? Otherwise, wouldn’t God have to erase our memories?

If God doesn’t use evil as part of his plans for our lives, how are we able to grow from our experiences of evil—which many of us undoubtedly do? We Christians often look back on the suffering that we’ve endured and say, “While I wouldn’t wish this on my worst enemy, I’m glad it happened to me, because I’m a better person as a result.”

This idea—that evil and suffering are part of God’s plan—is anathema to David Bentley Hart, an Eastern Orthodox theologian who wrote a book on the subject, The Doors of the Sea, in the wake of the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. To his credit, Keller deals with Hart’s book directly in a lengthy footnote on page 341. In one of Hart’s most powerful illustrations, Hart sympathizes with the character Ivan Karamazov from Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov. Ivan, who isn’t a Christian, “rejects a God who might be using suffering in any way to bring about a ‘greater good.'” Hart believes that he is fully justified in doing so.[1]

Keller, by contrast, says that Ivan demonstrates a self-righteousness characteristic of modern man, “who is sure ahead of time that on Judgment Day, God could not reveal any insight or wisdom that Karamazov has not already thought of.” Further, Keller writes:

It is important to hold this truth—that suffering is something God hates—together with the teaching that God is sovereign over it. If we refuse to believe that God’s suffering and evil are ever part of God’s plan, we not only turn our back on a fair amount of biblical teaching…, but we also are left without the comfort that God is somehow working in actual experiences and incidents of evil. Nor will we have much incentive to think that God might be teaching us something so that we can grow through it.[2]

I’ve read Hart’s book. I wrote on this blog about how much I appreciated it and have returned to it often. What’s clear to me now—a few year’s down the road—is that Hart hasn’t done justice to what the Bible says. It’s tempting to say that this is because Eastern Orthodox theology, of all major streams of Christian thought, is furthest from the Bible (which I believe is true), but I assume that anyone named “David Bentley Hart” isn’t as thoroughly Eastern in his thinking as that. I suspect that like many systematic theologians, he’s more systematic than this often messy and sometimes paradoxical book that we call the Bible permits us to be. God isn’t easily systematized, to say the least.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 341.

2. Ibid.

The “boomerang effect” of the moral argument against God

October 21, 2013

One seemingly strong argument against God’s existence has to do with something David Hume once wrote:

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is [God] willing to prevent evil but not able? Then he is impotent. Is he able but not willing? Then he is malevolent. Is he both able and willing? Whence then is evil?[1]

Enlightenment thinkers like Hume and Voltaire led the modern charge against God’s existence with this kind of moral argument. How can we believe in a benevolent God when there is so much evil in the world?

This remains a pervasive argument among atheists today. It was the foundation of the late Christopher Hitchens’s “new atheist” bestseller many years ago. People make the argument after natural disasters like the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami and the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, or even after appalling example of human-made evil like Newtown. If you don’t believe the argument is widespread, consult the comments section of any Huffington Post article from sympathetic Christian writers who write as if the scale of suffering and evil embarrasses their Christian faith (such articles are legion over there).

While I feel the weight of the argument viscerally, the logic of arguing from scale escapes me: If it’s wrong for God to allow 300,000 people to die in one fell swoop from a tsunami in the Indian Ocean, is it any less wrong for three people to die from a tornado in a trailer park? As C.S. Lewis writes in The Problem of Pain, arguments from scale are a red herring. There’s no sense speaking of a “sum of suffering” because no one suffers it. The worst suffering in the world is the maximum pain that one person can experience, which is horrifying enough.

If we’re going be indignant, let’s be indignant on behalf of one person’s suffering. Attempting to “multiply” that suffering by the number of people suffering should add no further indignation.

But the point of this post is indignation. Many of us are indignant about God’s permitting genocide, or holocausts, or large-scale natural disasters, or torture, or the suffering of young children. If God exists at all, God is wrong, or evil, or immoral.

As Timothy Keller observes in his new book Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering, arguing against God on the basis of morality has a “boomerang effect.”

It is inarguable that human beings have moral feelings. A moral feeling means I feel some behavior is right and some behavior wrong and even repulsive. Now, if there is no God, where do such strong moral instincts and feeling come from? Today many would say our moral sense comes from evolution. Our feelings about right and wrong are thought to be genetically hardwired into us because they helped our ancestors survive. While that explanation may account for moral feelings, it can’t account for moral obligation. What right have you to tell people they are obligated to stop certain behaviors if their feelings tell them those things are right, but you feel they are wrong? Why should your moral feelings take precedence over theirs? Where do you get a standard by which your moral feelings and sense are judged as true and others as false? On what basis do you say to someone, “What you have done is evil,” if their feelings differ from yours?

We call this a conundrum because the very basis for disbelief in God—a certainty about evil and the moral obligation not to commit it—dissolves if there truly is no God. The ground on which you make your objection vanishes under your feet. So not only does the argument against God from evil not succeed, but it actually has a “boomerang effect” on the users. Because it shows you that you are assuming something that can’t exist unless God does. And so, in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.[2]

Keller goes on to cite a few atheists who converted to Christianity on this basis, including C.S. Lewis.

Of course, nothing I’m saying (or Keller is saying) begins to “prove” God’s existence. As atheist friends would say, wanting something to be true doesn’t make it so. But let’s concede that we all want it to be true, at least the non-sociopaths among us. We want our incredibly strong intuition about right and wrong to be based on something more substantial than our personal feelings, proclivities, or tastes.

1. Timothy Keller, Walking with God Through Pain and Suffering (New York: Dutton, 2013), 85.

2. Ibid., 103-4.

If only more pastors read and quoted C.S. Lewis!

October 18, 2013

Recently, a far more popular Methodist pastor-blogger than I am quoted C.S. Lewis. Only he didn’t just quote C.S. Lewis. He prefaced the quote with these words: “Normally I hate pastors who quote C.S. Lewis so forgive me.”

To which this child of the ’80s says, “Gag me with a spoon!”

You, my humble readers, know how much I adore C.S. Lewis, and that I quote him without apology. Regardless, this blogger was being a snob, and I told him so. He replied that C.S. Lewis quotes are “omnipresent among pastors” who are apparently too “lazy” or uninformed to quote the authors that he likes.

In reply, I wrote the following: [click on graphic to expand]

blog_reply

In case this pastor ever reads this, I think he’s a really good writer—good enough to get under my skin, at least. Not everyone can do that. He’s in the same club as Rachel Held Evans!

So consider this blog post a backhanded compliment.