Tuesday, 22 December 2015

We get it, Christmas has Pagan origins...

There is a very real war on Christmas out there. There are people who are hell bent on banishing the holiday to the very depths of hell. Surprisingly though it’s not Starbucks or the people that say “Happy holidays” instead of "Merry Christmas" who have the real agenda but rather it is a small group within Christianity itself who are so against it. And I have to say that I understand where they are coming from, the roots of the holiday are undeniably pagan. There is even that passage in Jeremiah 10 which paints an eerily familiar image to the trees that people put in their homes over Christmas:-

This is what the LORD says:
2“Do not act like the other nations,
    who try to read their future in the stars.
Do not be afraid of their predictions,
    even though other nations are terrified by them.
3 Their ways are futile and foolish.
    They cut down a tree, and a craftsman carves an idol.
4 They decorate it with gold and silver
    and then fasten it securely with hammer and nails
    so it won’t fall over.

But my own personal issue is not so much with the ‘touch not, taste not’ rules that people try to make Christianity about. There is nothing inherently wrong with reminding one another of the birth of Christ on the 25th of December, the issue is not with the trees, candles or the date but rather, I believe, the problem in our day (which is also expressed in the message of Jeremiah which is actually about idolatry) is that people are worshiping the god of mammon. The consumerist spirit behind the holiday reveals a more real and dangerous problem in Christianity.

But I am off on a tangent because this is not actually a post about Christmas at all. Rather, it is about the call to abstain from anything in Christianity which has its roots in Paganism which I find so ironic. Consider the picture below which has appeared in my Facebook news feed countless times over the last couple of weeks.

Where is Santa in the Bible? More than once I was tempted to write something very sarcastic, like, “Why it’s right next to the verses about church buildings, worship bands, appeasement of a deity’s wrath via child sacrifice, the philosophy of the immortal soul and the need for professional orators in church meetings”. Let's consider just how far we really want to take the syncretism argument regarding pagan influences in the church. That would be a far more constructive conversation for us to be having. What is redeemable and what is useful when it comes to the Kingdom? Certainly when Paganism influences our ideas regarding the atonement or afterlife or any other theology we would be wise to stay far away from it. But can a church building or a Sunday sermon (both having Pagan origins) be used for the extension of the Kingdom of God? Of course! Can Christmas be used for the extension of the Kingdom of God? Of course! In Acts 17, Paul uses an ‘altar to an unknown god’ to reveal the God of heaven and earth to the people of Athens. Their idols were not redeemable, they were nothing more than useless carvings made by human hands, yet Paul used them as a tool for introducing the people of that culture to Christ. So it is with buildings dedicated to religious ceremonies, sermons and Christmas, while all have Pagan origins, all can be good and useful insomuch as they are used as tools for witnessing or serving the body. The second any of them replace Jesus and become our focal point, where we start serving the building, the meeting or the holiday rather than the other way around they should be cast away.

So if your conscience is troubled by celebrating Christmas, then by all means abstain. In fact, Paul says as much in Romans 14; but before posting that next anti-Christmas meme on Facebook. Consider some of the Pagan traditions that you may have adopted and participate in on a weekly basis and consider Paul’s warnings about your motivations for doing so (see Colossians 2:20-23, Galatians 5:1-15). I am not asking anyone to go against their own convictions, nor am I asking anyone to water anything down but let's at the very least try to be gracious toward one another and exercise a bit more humility in how we think others should be following Christ when expressing ourselves.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

But only the cults teach annihilationism...

A few years back, after several months of study, I became convinced through scripture that I had previously been in error regarding the final fate of the wicked. I used to think, like most people do, that those who reject Christ will suffer eternal conscious torment in the fires of hell, wishing in vain for death only to receive more misery at the hands of their tormentors. Nowadays though I believe that the message of the bible is that immortality or eternal life is a gift that only those in Christ will receive. All will be raised for judgment but some will go on to eternal life while others will taste of death for a second and final time.

One of the most common rebuttals to the idea of conditional immortality is that it is held mostly by Christian cults or fringe groups like the Worldwide Church of God (and its offshoots) as well as the Jehovah’s Witnesses. I would like to turn that argument around in this post and say yes, some groups with some very wrong ideas do believe that the wicked will be destroyed in hell rather than be tortured there for all of eternity. Nevertheless, they were at least reading the bible when they arrived at those conclusions, whereas the idea of eternal conscious torment and the modern imagery associated with hell, I would suggest, has more support in the Koran than it does in the bible. Don’t believe me? Consider the contrasting columns below of scriptures from both the Bible and the Koran and ask yourself which one more accurately presents the views that you have been exposed to.

 Do not fret because of evildoers, Be not envious toward wrongdoers. For they will wither quickly like the grass and fade like the green herb. - Psalm 37:1-2
Lo! Those who disbelieve Our revelations, We shall expose them to the Fire. As often as their skins are consumed We shall exchange them for fresh skins that they may taste the torment. 4:56
 For evildoers will be cut off, But those who wait for the LORD, they will inherit the land. Yet a little while and the wicked man will be no more; and you will look carefully for his place and he will not be there. - Psalm 37:9-10
They will wish to come forth from the Fire, but they will not come forth from it. Theirs will be a lasting doom. 5:37
 Though the wicked sprout like weeds and evildoers flourish, they will be destroyed forever. - Psalm 92:7
For them is drink of boiling water and a painful doom, because they disbelieved. 6:70
 But the wicked will perish: Though the LORD's enemies are like the flowers of the field, they will be consumed, they will go up in smoke. - Psalm 37:20
If thou couldst see how the angels receive those who disbelieve, smiting faces and their backs and (saying): Taste the punishment of burning! 8:50
 Mark the blameless man, and observe the upright; for the future of that man is peace, But the transgressors shall be destroyed together, the future of the wicked will be cut off. - Psalm 37:37-38
On the day when it will (all) be heated in the fire of hell, and their foreheads and their flanks and their backs will be branded 9:35
 May you blow them away like smoke-- as wax melts before the fire, may the wicked perish before God. - Psalm 68:2
Hell is before him, and he is made to drink a festering water, Which he sippeth but can hardly swallow, and death cometh unto him from every side while yet he cannot die, and before him is a harsh doom. 14:16-17
 He will repay them for their sins and destroy them for their wickedness; the LORD our God will destroy them. - Psalm 94:23
Thou wilt see the guilty on that day linked together in chains, Their raiment of pitch, and the Fire covering their faces. 14:49-50
 The wicked will see and be vexed, they will gnash their teeth and waste away; the longings of the wicked will come to nothing. - Psalm 112:10
We shall assemble them on the Day of Resurrection on their faces, blind, dumb and deaf; their habitation will be hell; whenever it abateth, We increase the flame for them. That is their reward because they disbelieved Our revelations. 17:97-98
When the storm has swept by, the wicked are gone, but the righteous stand firm forever. - Proverbs 10:25
Lo! We have prepared for disbelievers Fire. Its tent encloseth them. If they ask for showers, they will be showered with water like to molten lead which burneth the faces. Calamitous the drink and ill the resting-place! 18:29
But rebels and sinners will both be broken, and those who forsake the LORD will perish. - Isaiah 1:28
If those who disbelieved but knew the time when they will not be able to drive off the fire from their faces and from their backs, and they will not be helped! 21:29
 “For behold, the day is coming, burning like a furnace; and all the arrogant and every evildoer will be chaff; and the day that is coming will set them ablaze,” says the LORD of hosts, “so that it will leave them neither root nor branch.” … “You will tread down the wicked, for they will be ashes under the soles of your feet on the day which I am preparing,” says the LORD of hosts. - Malachi 4:1-3
But as for those who disbelieve, garments of fire will be cut out for them; boiling fluid will be poured down on their heads, Whereby that which is in their bellies, and their skins too, will be melted; And for them are hooked rods of iron. Whenever, in their anguish, they would go forth from thence they are driven back therein and (it is said unto them): Taste the doom of burning. 22:19-22
…and they shall be as though they had never been. - Obadiah 16
The fire burneth their faces, and they are glum therein. 23:104
 The strongest among you will disappear like straw; their evil deeds will be the spark that sets it on fire. They and their evil works will burn up together, and no one will be able to put out the fire. - Isaiah 1:31
For those who deny (the coming of) the Hour We have prepared a flame. When it seeth them from afar, they hear the crackling and the roar thereof. And when they are flung into a narrow place thereof, chained together, they pray for destruction there. 25:11-13
 His winnowing fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor, gathering his wheat into the barn and burning up the chaff with unquenchable fire." - Matthew 3:12
But as for those who disbelieve, for them is fire of hell; it taketh not complete effect upon them so that they can die, nor is its torment lightened for them. Thus We punish every ingrate. And they cry for help there, (saying): Our Lord! Release us; we will do right, not (the wrong) that we used to do. ... Now taste (the flavour of your deeds), for evil-doers have no helper. 35:36-37
 Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell. - Matthew 10:28
Those in the Fire say unto the guards of hell: Entreat your Lord that He relieve us of a day of the torment ... although the prayer of disbelievers is in vain. 40:49-50
 Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. - Galatians 6:8
Those who deny the Scripture and that wherewith We send Our messengers. But they will come to know, When carcans are about their necks and chains. They are dragged Through boiling waters; then they are thrust into the Fire. 40:70-72
 …but a terrifying expectation of judgment and the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries. - Hebrews 10:27 -
Lo! the tree of Zaqqum, The food of the sinner! Like molten brass, it seetheth in their bellies As the seething of boiling water. (And it will be said): Take him and drag him to the midst of hell, Then pour upon his head the torment of boiling water. 44:43-48
 But these, as natural brute beasts, made to be taken and destroyed, speak evil of the things that they understand not; and shall utterly perish in their own corruption; - 2 Peter 2:12
Those who are immortal in the Fire and are given boiling water to drink so that it teareth their bowels. 47:15
But by His word the present heavens and earth are being reserved for fire, kept for the Day of Judgment and destruction of ungodly men. - 2 Peter 3:7
Then how (will it be with them) when the angels gather them, smiting their faces and their backs! 47:27


This post is not meant to convince anyone that the mainstream view of hell is incorrect and that annihilationism is a better option, it is far from sufficient on its own to make a strong enough case for that. Rather, the point was merely to point out that the accusation that annihilationism is the playground of the cults and fringe groups is not grounds for dismissal on its own; for that would be no different than saying that the mainstream view of hell is the playground of Islam. Both views (and we may as well throw Universalism in here as well) should be judged based on their biblical merit alone rather than on who does and does not believe them to be true.

PS – If you do want to dig deeper into conditional immortality, I have written more on it in the articles linked below. Also, check out the website Rethinking Hell for tons of great resources.

Thursday, 17 December 2015

What does it mean to heap burning coals on your enemies heads?

“If your enemies are hungry, feed them. If they are thirsty, give them something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals of shame on their heads.” – Romans 12:20

I always used to wonder about this statement, it seemed to me to be a saying that had lost its meaning over the years or perhaps through our cultural differences. The old fundamentalist me used to think that it meant that we should be nice to people who didn’t deserve it because one day God would judge them and that their jerkiness in spite of our niceness would be something else that would count against them one day.Thankfully, I let go of the ‘be nice with an agenda’ mindset a long time ago but it was only recently that I arrived at a satisfactory interpretation of what this verse actually meant.
It all came together while I was reading through Isaiah chapter 6 where verses 5 to 7 say the following:-

Then I said, “It’s all over! I am doomed, for I am a sinful man. I have filthy lips, and I live among a people with filthy lips. Yet I have seen the King, the LORD of Heaven’s Armies.”
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a burning coal he had taken from the altar with a pair of tongs. He touched my lips with it and said, “See, this coal has touched your lips. Now your guilt is removed, and your sins are forgiven.

I was struck at the imagery here where the burning coal removed Isaiah’s guilt. The passage immediately made me think of Romans 12:20 and I started to wonder if there were any other references to burning coals in scripture. It turns out that there are quite a few (13 I think) but I would like to focus on the 2 that are most relevant to Romans 12:20 (which is a direct quote from Proverbs 25:22). The first is found in Leviticus 16 and deals with the sin offering that was performed on the day of atonement, verses 11 to 13 read:-

 “Aaron will present his own bull as a sin offering to purify himself and his family, making them right with the LORD. After he has slaughtered the bull as a sin offering, he will fill an incense burner with burning coals from the altar that stands before the LORD. Then he will take two handfuls of fragrant powdered incense and will carry the burner and the incense behind the inner curtain.  There in the LORD’s presence he will put the incense on the burning coals so that a cloud of incense will rise over the Ark’s cover — the place of atonement—that rests on the Ark of the Covenant. If he follows these instructions, he will not die.

The second is found in Numbers 16:46:-

And Moses said to Aaron, “Quick, take an incense burner and place burning coals on it from the altar. Lay incense on it, and carry it out among the people to purify them and make them right with the LORD. The LORD’s anger is blazing against them—the plague has already begun.”

So the burning coals have to do with the removing of sin and guilt which is important as we return to our passage in Romans because we are now able to harmonize it with the way that Jesus dealt with His enemies and the manner in which His disciples are supposed to follow Him. In turning the other cheek, in going the extra mile, even when something has been unfairly asked of us and in blessing our enemies we learn to fight like our King who laid down His own life at the hands of His enemies, knowing that His death would be the very thing that would make life (in Him) accessible to them.

What Paul is sharing in Romans 12 is that rather than getting one over your enemies, we can win them over by doing good. The verse that follows the burning coals one says, “Don’t let evil conquer you, but conquer evil by doing good.” This is not an easy teaching to follow, it is foolishness to the natural mind because to the world you will look like you are losing, when you are wronged and retaliate with kindness, when you are persecuted and respond with forgiveness and when you are taken advantage of but counter with service you are heaping burning coals on your enemies heads, not that they might be destroyed but that they might find life through the testimony of self sacrificial love shared with them.

Friday, 11 December 2015

2 views on power

This short thought is directly linked to my last post on the Lamb of Revelation. One of the images displays how the world sees and understands power while the other shows how God and the early church understood it. One relies on force and coercion while the other relies on self sacrificial love and 'overcomes evil by doing good'. I think that the modern church to a large degree tries to balance both views, when plan A does not work we move on to plan B. In future posts I intend to explore the idea that the two views are mutually exclusive and to be honest there are a lot of holes in my understanding on this still. There are so many "but what about.." verses that I need to reconcile with the revelation of who Jesus is still. These posts will be me fleshing out my thoughts rather than teaching the way things are. But for now I will leave you with the verse below in case you were still wondering which image the early church associated with the power of God.

Sunday, 6 December 2015

Jesus, the same yesterday, today and until Revelation…?

About a month back I saw a picture similar to the one above on Facebook. I think the exact words on the picture read, “The first time he came as a lamb but this time he is coming back as a lion.” The meme had almost a thousand likes and just under a hundred comments, every single one of those comments was supportive and affirming of the slogan. The idea of course is taken from Revelation 5:5 which speaks of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah, who alone is worthy to open the scroll that was “in the right hand of the one who was sitting on the throne”.

But the popular perception of Jesus in the book of Revelation goes far beyond that of Him being the Lion of Judah. Most people believe that the meek and humble Jesus of the Gospels who turned the other cheek, who loved His enemies and taught His followers to do likewise is now long gone. The Jesus of Revelation has run out of patience, His wrath has boiled over and the One who once told Peter that “those who live by the sword will die by the sword” will Himself now be waving one around chopping heads off much like the katana-wielding Michonne on the Walking Dead TV series likes to do. So what gives? Is Jesus Christ in fact the same yesterday, today and forever as Hebrews 13:8 tells us He is or is it possible that we may have missed something in what John was trying to tell us?

Now I am not denying that Christ’s first and second comings will accomplish different things or that it will not be a terrible day for those who have rejected Him when He returns. Likewise, the wrath of God and the destruction of the wicked are both clearly taught in scripture (although I think both are also often misunderstood as well). So how do we reconcile these things with the teachings and example given to us by Jesus Himself? I think the best way to do that is to look beyond the one verse in Revelation and put it in its larger context within the letter.

Firstly, Jesus is indeed the Lion of Judah, all authority in heaven and on earth belongs to Him; the demons and even the wind and sea obey Him. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords but the question needs to still be asked then, how does this King rule and overcome and what does His power look like? John tells us in the very next verse, of this lion he says:-

Then I saw a lamb that looked as if it had been slaughtered, but it was now standing between the throne and the four living beings and among the twenty-four elders.

The chapter carries on and tells us that the elders and four living beings sing a song to the Lamb, the words mention things like, “You were worthy to take the scroll and break its seals and open it. For you were slaughtered and your blood has ransomed people for God…Worthy is the Lamb who was slaughtered…Blessing and honor and glory and power belong to the one sitting on the throne and to the Lamb forever and ever”.

Funny enough, Revelation only mentions Jesus as the Lion once, immediately after that and continuing on through the rest of the book, 32 times I counted, He is referred to as the Lamb or the Lamb that was slain. The picture at the top of this article seems to kind of miss that point doesn't it? Picture this for a moment, a lion, a real king of the jungle type lion allowing itself to killed and eaten by a common household kitten. It sounds ridiculous but this is somewhat comparable to what Jesus did when He allowed Himself to be crucified and this is ultimately how He overcame sin, Satan and death, Paul said it this way in his letter to the Corinthians:-

The message of the cross is foolishness to those who are headed for destruction! But we who are being saved know it is the very power of God. - 1 Corinthians 1:18

Paul says that the early church understood the power of God was revealed in Jesus laying down His life. This is how He overcame evil, not by doing evil Himself but by doing good. This is the same Jesus in Revelation 19 who rides into battle with a robe dipped not in the blood of His enemies but in His own blood which was given for them. Similarly, the Prince of Peace has a sword not in His hand but rather in His mouth, implying that the weapon He fights with is the truth which He speaks.

It’s important to remember that the people John was writing to were facing severe persecution at the hands of Rome. John was reminding and encouraging them of how Jesus overcame and of the reward that they would have by following Him, “he who loves his life will lose it and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life” (John 12:25):-

And they have defeated him by the blood of the Lamb and by their testimony. And they did not love their lives so much that they were afraid to die. – Revelation 12:11

Let us not forget that the book of Revelation itself tells us that it is “a Revelation from Jesus Christ which God gave to show His servants the events that must soon take place (1:1)”. The book, much like Hebrews is meant to encourage us to endure suffering and keep faithful unto the end.

2000 years ago when Jesus appeared people were expecting a warrior Messiah who was going to overthrow their enemies and establish Gods kingdom on earth through the same militaristic strategies that the empires of the world use (force and coercion). Of course, He succeeded in His mission but pretty much everyone was completely caught off guard by the manner in which He achieved His purposes. Oftentimes I wonder if the church is falling into the same trap that the Israelites did. Yes, the King is coming, wrath will fall on those who war against Him and evil will be done away with but how this will transpire might just look different than we have imagined it to. These are topics for future posts which I hope to explore.

Thanks for reading.