Sunday, June 6, 2021

Book Write-Up: Postmortem Opportunity, by James Beilby

James Beilby. Postmortem Opportunity: A Biblical and Theological Assessment of Salvation After Death. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

James Beilby is professor of systematic and philosophical theology at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota. He was written books and articles about Christian apologetics, epistemology, philosophy, and theology.

This book addresses the question of whether God will provide people with an opportunity to be saved after they die, particularly if in this life they failed to hear the Gospel, lacked the mental capacity to respond to the Gospel, or heard it in a distorted fashion. Those who heard the Gospel in a distorted fashion includes African-American slaves who heard a Gospel that promoted their oppression or people raised in abusive religious environments. Will God offer them a postmortem opportunity to hear the Gospel and be saved or simply damn them to hell because they failed to believe in the Gospel in this life?

Beilby affirms that, yes, God will provide people with a postmortem opportunity to be saved. He contends that God in Scripture loves all people and desires their salvation. Within the New Testament and ancient Jewish and Christian tradition is a concept of postmortem opportunity; in the case of Christianity, Jesus went to the realm of the dead between his death and resurrection and preached the Gospel, and ancient Christians sought to account for people who lived in pre-Christian times who failed to explicitly hear the Gospel.

Beilby engages questions about postmortem opportunity. If God will save people in the afterlife, why preach the Gospel in this life? After all, God will do it better than we possibly can, since we will present the Gospel in a flawed manner! And, if God offers people an opportunity to be saved in the afterlife, will not everyone be saved? If God presents them with such an opportunity, they will know that God exists and that Christianity is true and, naturally, they would rather not go to hell. Does postmortem opportunity render our decisions in this life and the warnings in Scripture irrelevant?

Beilby, in part, responds to these questions by restricting the range of postmortem opportunity, treating it as an exception to the rule: God will offer it only to people who failed to receive a sufficient chance at salvation in this life. Beilby still believes in missionary work because God commands it and it allows believers to be part of God’s work in redeeming people and saving them from the power of the devil. Beilby is still open to inclusivism: the idea that God can save people in other cultures who may lack explicit knowledge of the Gospel but recognize their need for grace or respond in faith to whatever light of divine revelation that they have. What Beilby rejects is universalism and annihilationism as defined as God killing sinners in the afterlife. For Beilby, sinners in hell exist but with their humanity destroyed.

Regarding the question of whether anyone would say “no” if God offered them a postmortem opportunity to be saved, Beilby replies that, just because people will know God is real in the afterlife, that does not automatically mean that they will reject sin and self and embrace God, especially if they have been hardened in this life from a lifetime of sinful decisions. Beilby rejects the idea that beholding the “beatific vision” of God will result in the salvation of those offered a postmortem opportunity. Beholding God did not help Satan when he rebelled in heaven, plus Beilby disputes that what people see of God at the judgment is the full “beatific vision.”

Reading this book brought to my mind discussions I have had with people about this topic, from those in favor and those opposed. There are people in my family who take a belief in postmortem opportunity in almost universalist directions, asserting that no one can be lost in this life because they lack a genuine opportunity to be saved here and now. One argument they make is that God in the New Testament attested to the truth of the Gospel with miracles, but God does not do so today, so Christianity looks merely like one philosophy among many. Why would God damn them on the basis of that? The response I hear to that from restrictivist Christians, of course, is “Why, then, does this life matter? Why preach the Gospel to others? Where is the sense of urgency to accept the Gospel or to live it out?” Then I recall a conversation I had with a Calvinist about the topic. For him, the issue of “those who never heard” is a moot point, since, if God chose people not to be saved, what does it matter if they heard or not? This is the conclusion at which Beilby essentially arrives when he discusses whether postmortem opportunity is more compatible with monergism or synergism.

This book is a careful and judicious examination of the topic of postmortem opportunity. It is informative when it comes to ancient Christian conceptions of this, as Beilby discusses voices in favor and against. Beilby’s discussion of the beatific vision and eternal torment is enlightening as well. Regarding eternal torment, Beilby questions that God would torment people in hell, seeing the eternal torment as flowing from people’s postmortem sin and rebellion against God. As Beilby astutely asks, even if God were justified to torment sinners, why would God choose to do so?

The book falls short, in my opinion, in its treatment of Romans 1:18-20, where Paul states that God wrath is on the Gentiles because they have rejected the light of God’s general revelation. Does that not imply that all people, even those who have not heard the Gospel, are guilty before God and deserving of hell because they have rejected whatever light they have been given? Perhaps a way to get around this is to say that, even if God would be just to damn them, God in God’s mercy might offer them a postmortem opportunity to be saved.

In addition, I think that a lot of emphasis has been placed in these discussions on “those who never heard.” There are plenty of people who are familiar with the teachings and doctrines of Christianity, yet they reject them, while still living rather moral lives. Why should they be damned? I can somewhat sympathize with my quasi-universalist family members who assert that God in Scripture often confirmed God’s message with a visible demonstration of its truth before holding people responsible for accepting it. At the same time, I find problematic a notion of Christianity that renders this life, or this day and age, irrelevant. One way a family member gets around this is to suggest that this life is “ground preparation”: God, in this life, can be preparing all people to learn lessons that can make them more receptive to God in the next life. That makes some sense, and yet the continual warnings in Scripture give me the impression that the decisions we make in this life, for or against God, matter in terms of the last judgment and eternity.

Beilby’s synergism and belief in libertarian free will somewhat troubles me, since I have become rather jaded and hardened over the course of my life to conservative Christianity, towards God, and towards my neighbor. I find myself saying in response to the biblical God and his commands (as I conceive them): “Even if that God is real, why would I want anything to do with him? There are a lot of assholes who are real: them being real does not make me accept them!” I still have enough faith to continue reading my Bible, but I would hope that God would soften my heart in the afterlife. Unfortunately, the way Beilby presents the matter, me in my hardened state can easily say “no” to God in the afterlife, and that would be that!

The topic of evangelism was in my mind this week. A fellow employee asked me, “Why are you so positive?” Of course, Christians are trained to see that as an opportunity to evangelize, and perhaps the employee, who knows I have degrees in religion, hoped for something substantive and spiritual. But I chose to answer honestly: “because this is a positive place to work.” Believe me, I have had the opposite, and I was not so positive in those situations!

Beilby may have added to my repertoire on these issues, and, for that, the book was worth the read.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

"The New War on Terror"

Saturday, June 5, 2021

“The Tulsa Libel”

Controversial site, but a different take on what happened in Tulsa, 1921.

“The Tulsa Libel”

UPDATE: Here is another article, from another controversial site:

“The Tulsa Myth”


Saturday, May 15, 2021

Book Write-Up: Jeremiah, by Derek Kidner

 Derek Kidner. Jeremiah. IVP Academic, 1987, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

Derek Kidner was Warden at the Tyndale House theological library in Cambridge, England. This book is a reprint of his 1987 book, The Message of Jeremiah. It is largely homiletical yet quasi-scholarly in that it discusses historical background and context.

I decided to read this book because I wanted to see how Kidner, as a Christian scholar, would address questions I have had about Jeremiah that have perplexed me as a Christian. (Nowadays, I have largely put these questions on the shelf and not worried about them so much, but I am still curious as to how Christians address them, and if there is a way to account for them while credibly accepting a robust model of the divine inspiration of Scripture.)


—-What is a Christian to do with Jeremiah’s prophecies that were not fulfilled, according to historians? Jeremiah predicted that Babylon would conquer Egypt in a devastating fashion, negatively impacting the Jews who unwisely fled to Egypt, and that Babylon itself would be conquered in like fashion. Neither took place, according to historians. Moreover, Jeremiah predicted that the Jews would be in exile for seventy years, but their exile was shorter than that: about fifty years. And, while Jeremiah forecast a glorious spiritual, national, even eschatological restoration for Israel after seventy years, her actual restoration was not that glamorous.

—-Jeremiah 33:14-26 predicts, not only that God would restore the Davidic dynasty and that it would be permanent, but also that God would do the same for the Levitical priesthood. Does that contradict the Christian view, exemplified in Hebrews, that the Old Testament priesthood is null and void because Christ is now the high priest of the new covenant?

Kidner, to his credit, attempts to address these questions. The conditionality of prophecy on human repentance (Jeremiah 18:7-8) plays a significant role in his attempt, as when he says that God shortened the exile and lessened God’s punishment of Babylon out of mercy. In the case of Babylon, Kidner speculates that God may have reduced the severity of her punishment due to Nebuchadnezzar’s repentance in Daniel 4. Kidner also states that the destruction of Babylon recurs in the Book of Revelation, meaning that an eschatological fulfillment may yet occur.

In some cases, Kidner seeks to maintain that the prophecy, as stated, actually came to pass. Nebuchadnezzar may not have decimated Egypt but he did manage to replace her Pharaoh with someone more pliable. Moreover, Nebuchadnezzar weakened Egypt, setting the stage for Persia to further decimate her decades later. And, while Nebuchadnezzar himself did not wipe out the Jewish refugees in Egypt, the Elephantine papyri indicate that Jews in Egypt suffered persecution, and a fragment from 400 B.C.E. anticipates the destruction of the Jewish community.

Regarding Jeremiah’s prediction of a permanent Levitical priesthood and whether that jibes with Christian belief in Jesus as high priest, Kidner raises various considerations: the existence of priestly converts to Christianity in the early church (Acts 4:36; 6:7), Isaiah 66:21’s extension of the priesthood to Gentiles, and the fulfillment of the priestly role by Christ and believers. Kidner also holds that Jeremiah 30:21 presents a Davidic king who would also serve as priest, which is what Jesus is: a priest-king.

On the glorious and eschatological dimension of Jeremiah’s prophecies of restoration, Kidner states that Jeremiah’s vision outstrips what happened in Judah’s historical restoration, as Jeremiah seeks to focus the readers’ attention on the Jerusalem above, not merely the earthly Jerusalem.

Is this convincing? I am not inclined to dump on it. A person who seeks to read Jeremiah from a faithful conservative Christian perspective, while accounting for critical challenges, may find Kidner helpful. Personally, in terms of whatever Christian perspective I hold these days, I am open to there being some grain of truth, somewhere, in what Kidner says. Indeed, Old Testament prophecies may have been fulfilled in a spiritual or non-literal fashion, and hopes manifest in Old Testament prophets, such as Gentiles coming to know the God of Israel, have been realized in the Christian church.

Doubts still linger, however. What Kidner says about the seventy years ignores the biblical assertion that the Jews indeed were in exile for seventy years (see II Chronicles 36:21; Zechariah 1:12; 7:5), whatever history says to the contrary. Jeremiah seems to say that Nebuchadnezzar would decimate Egypt, not that Egypt would be decimated decades later by someone else. Conditionality may be a factor in why prophecies were not historically fulfilled as written, but when does that answer become an ad hoc rationalization?

Some of Kidner’s solutions were predictable, while others raised considerations that were new to me. Overall, the book has a dreamy and homiletical tone, and much of what Kidner says was forgettable to me. But, where he went out on a limb and addressed critical challenges, he did rather well. 

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Sunday, May 9, 2021

Book Write-Up: Does God Exist?, by W. David Beck

W. David Beck. Does God Exist? A History of Answers to the Question. IVP Academic, 2021. Go here to purchase the book.

W. David Beck has a doctorate from Boston University and is emeritus professor of philosophy at Liberty University.

This book is about the classical arguments for the existence of God: the cosmological, teleological, moral, and ontological arguments.

Gary Habermas’s endorsement of the book is essentially my impression as well: “Finally! A single volume that contains as a historical narrative a compendium of arguments pertaining to God’s existence—-pro-con, and from most religious perspectives—-all under one cover. Fantastic!”

Indeed, this book summarizes the various versions of each argument for God’s existence, as well as critiques of those versions. The chapter about the cosmological argument even includes a Hindu version from the Upanishads!

IVP’s web site places this book in the “intermediate” category, and that is probably where it belongs. There were places in which the book was over my head, yet, as someone who has read introductory philosophy, I often had a general idea about what the chapters were about. A fuller appreciation of this book may entail concentration on the part of the reader and, even then, a novice or even one at an intermediate level may get lost, at times.

Overall, Beck agrees with the classical arguments for the existence of God. What is noteworthy is that he still does so, after summarizing and critiquing the critiques of those arguments. Those who blithely dismiss the classical arguments as obsolete and antiquated would do well at least to give Beck’s book a reading.

To my recollection, some of Beck’s conclusions were not too profound. He defends the cosmological argument by differentiating between conceptual infinity (as exists in mathematics) and actual infinity, the latter of which is impossible for the cosmos, explaining why it needed a beginning and, thus, a creator. That makes sense. The chapter on the teleological argument dismisses the relevance of alternate universes by saying that there is no evidence for them but also that, even if they do exist, they fail to undermine the teleological argument. The chances of everything coming together for human existence even in one universe are small, explaining the need for a creator. There, I am not as convinced. I sympathize with a critic of the teleological argument whom Beck quotes, who essentially says that, the more universes there are, the greater the chance that at least one of those universes can have life and order, without needing a divine explanation.

But, of course, there may be nuances that I am missing here.

Some elliptical parts of the book that stand out to me:

—-Beck summarizes the debate between Jesuit philosopher Frederick Copleston, author of the legendary series of books A History of Philosophy, and Bertrand Russell, who wrote the bluntly titled Why I Am Not a Christian. Russell, in disputing the cosmological argument, expresses problems with such concepts as contingent and necessary being and sufficient reason. Beck seems to think that Russell is being evasive and pedantic, but, were I to understand what Russell is saying, would I see merit in his points?

—-Perhaps a gaping hole in my understanding concerns Beck’s treatment of the ontological argument. A common objection to the ontological argument is that concept does not mean reality: just because the greatest being one can conceive must exist to be the greatest being, that does not mean that this greatest being exists. Beck says, and shows, that this objection is attacking a strawperson, that Anselm never suggested that concept means reality. What, then, is the ontological argument?

The last chapter briefly summarizes and suggests resources about other arguments for the existence of God. Beck does not go into the “ins” and “outs” of these arguments, but he likely does not intend to do so, at least not here. Some of what he suggests piques my interest, as his reference to scholarly sources that address the question of what religious experiences are authoritative and which are not. Another question in my mind concerns the universal argument for God’s existence: surely philosophers and scholars who support this argument realize that there are religions in the world that lack a concept of a supreme deity. How do they account for that?

The book is excellent for reference precisely because it is comprehensive, which is why I will keep it rather than donating it to the Goodwill.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher. My review is honest.

Sunday, April 25, 2021

Book Write-Up: The Great Deformation, by David A. Stockman

David A. Stockman. The Great Deformation: The Corruption of Capitalism in America. PublicAffairs, 2013. See here to purchase the book.

David Stockman has served as a congressman, President Ronald Reagan’s budget director, and a private equity investor.

While people with a solid grounding in economics are the ones who will understand this book, Stockman is pretty clear about what he supports and what he opposes. He favors a sound and tight currency (i.e., gold standard) rather than the Federal Reserve printing out lots of money. He is critical of debt, both government debt but also people borrowing lots of money (due to low interest rates) that they will not pay back. He is against deficits, so he favors cuts in government spending and is critical of tax cuts; he favors a VAT. His belief in fiscal responsibility encompasses both domestic programs and also the military. He wants federal welfare programs to be stricter and more means-tested, and he opposes regime-changing wars. He is highly critical of crony capitalism and favors rigorous campaign finance reform. He supports a stronger Glass-Steagall. While he supports free markets, he is not anti-regulation; he does, however, want to abolish the minimum wage.

On the issue of trade, his position is unclear. He does not seem to like jobs going overseas, and he laments that the U.S. has increases in health care and education jobs but not in jobs in the productive sphere. Yet, he argues that high tariffs contributed to the Great Depression and appears critical of the U.S. ceasing its reliance on cheap imported oil to focus on domestic energy.

The book is particularly interesting and informative in its revisionist history, on a number of fronts. Some examples:

—-The U.S. economy was gradually improving until Franklin Roosevelt became President, so the New Deal did not get the U.S. out of the Depression.

—-The severe economic downturn in 1936-1937 was not due to the government cutting its spending and raising taxes. Rather, it was due to people not spending money after their stimulus cash ran out.

—-World War II does not demonstrate the success of Keynesianism, uplifting the economy through intense deficit spending. The U.S. actually fought World War II in a fiscally responsible, pay-as-you-go manner.

—-The energy crisis of the 1970’s was not due to anything OPEC did, for what OPEC did was brief. Rather, it was part of the general inflation of the period, due to increasing government spending (Great Society, Vietnam), tax cuts, and the undermining of the gold standard.

—-Ronald Reagan’s tax cuts did not improve the economy. The Reagan prosperity was fueled by debt and assisted by Paul Volker’s drastic squeezing out of inflation. Statistics indicate that supply and production did not boom during the Reagan years but only increased slightly. The increase in government revenue that eventually occurred under Reagan was due to his tax increases.

—-Reagan’s defense buildup was unnecessary and largely relied on conventional warfare, when, for Stockman, nuclear weapons were a cheaper way to deter the Soviets.

—-The Wall Street bailout in the late 2000’s was unnecessary to save Main Street, for Main Street largely did not use those Wall Street banks.

While Stockman does not cite many sources in the course of the book, he gives his sources in the appendix. His economics numbers are largely based on Federal Reserve statistics. He also prefers many sources prior to the 1950’s, since they are not as Keynesian and do not blame tight money for the bank panics in the nineteenth-early twentieth centuries.

The book has its heroes, villains, and those in between. Franklin Roosevelt, Richard Nixon, and Milton Friedman get criticism for undermining the gold standard. Ronald Reagan is criticized for federal deficits and debt. Dwight Eisenhower, however, receives praise for supporting balanced budgets, and Gerald Ford, at least in the early stage of his Presidency, for being a deficit hawk.

This book is advanced and often went over my head, but the prose is still breezy. Stockman also intersperses his narrative with pop culture analogies, such as Lucy taking away the football from Charlie Brown.

I checked this book out from the library. My review is honest.

Book Write-Up: In the Footsteps of Faith, by John F. MacArthur

John F. MacArthur. In the Footsteps of Faith: Lessons from the Lives of Great Men and Women of the Bible. Crossway, 1998. See here to buy the book.

In this book, John MacArthur talks about fourteen biblical figures. They include Noah, Abraham, Moses, Rahab, Hannah, Jonah, Mary, John the Baptist, Peter, Paul, Lydia, Timothy, Epaphroditus, and Jesus Christ.

Here are some thoughts and observations:

A. MacArthur never explicitly says this, but his approach to Scripture in this book can be called a “moral exemplar” approach. The “moral exemplar” approach treats biblical figures as moral and spiritual examples of how people are to behave. Such an approach has been criticized, particularly in Lutheran circles, but also in evangelical circles. The reason for their criticism is that they believe that Scripture’s purpose is not to offer us moral examples, for many of the biblical characters fall short morally; rather, the purpose of Scripture is to show us that we are sinners so that we see our need for forgiveness and go to Christ for salvation. The focus here is on Christ as savior, not morality. MacArthur does acknowledge the need to focus on Christ, for he refers to Hebrews 12:2’s exhortation that Christians look to Jesus, the author and finisher of their faith. But he largely treats the biblical characters he profiles as moral and spiritual examples: Noah, Abraham, and Rahab have faith, Mary humbly and enthusiastically exalts God’s and God’s purposes, John the Baptist is unflinching in preaching God’s word, and Epaphroditus sincerely cares about the Philippian church and wants it to know he is all right. What do I think about the “moral exemplar” approach? I think that a Scriptural case can be made for it, for Hebrews 11 showcases heroes of the faith to encourage the demoralized Hebrew believers to persevere in their faith. Moreover, the “moral exemplar” approach can be interesting because it focuses on the biblical text and its distinct dimensions rather than subordinating all of it to a doctrine of penal substitution. But what if I fall short of the morality of these exemplars? What if I cannot muster up genuine, enthusiastic, God-focused worship, or sincere concern for other people? Can these things even be commanded? The way that I read and enjoy MacArthur without going crazy is that I embrace a Lutheran law/Gospel approach: the law is good and edifying, but it breaks us because we do not keep it, and that is why we need Christ as savior. Reading MacArthur is a way for me to feed on the banquet of God’s beautiful and orderly standards, but I cannot stop there, for I would be discouraged by how much I fall short. What may have made MacArthur’s book better is if he had focused more on God, not just the humility and the morality of the biblical characters. What is it about God that inspires the biblical characters to act this way? More acknowledgment of biblical characters’ flaws may have enhanced the book, too.

B. I did not like this book as much as other MacArthur books that I have read. It did not have as much depth or meat as his other books. MacArthur, to his credit, did address puzzles or questions, but I was unsatisfied by many of his answers. For instance, Jesus said that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than John the Baptist (Matthew 11:11). MacArthur interprets this to mean that, while John the Baptist is the greatest in the earthly realm, he is equal to all believers in the spiritual realm. But the text does not say that John the Baptist is equal to believers, but rather that the least in the Kingdom of Heaven is greater than he. MacArthur has a problem with Rahab lying to protect the Israelite spies in Jericho, but how else could she have hidden them? MacArthur thinks she should have just told the truth, and God would have protected the spies somehow. MacArthur tries to harmonize I Samuel 1’s apparent statement that Elkanah and his family went to the central sanctuary every year, with the prescription in the Torah that the Israelites appear before God three times each year (Exodus 34:23; Deuteronomy 16:16); his explanation was a bit of a stretch, for why would I Samuel 1 focus on years, if Elkanah went multiple times a year? In some cases, MacArthur engages questions rather adeptly, yet his engagement is very terse and could have used more meat. This was evident, to me, in his attempts to explain how Abraham’s apparent wavering in the faith in Genesis is consistent with Romans 4:20’s statement that Abraham never wavered in the faith, and his various explanations for how Moses in Hebrews 11:26 suffered for the sake of Christ. At times, MacArthur explains verses I have wondered about, as when he explains Luke 3:5’s statement that John the Baptist will lift up valleys and bring down mountains. What does that mean? MacArthur argues that it means that John’s ministry will encourage people to live moral, rather than crooked, lives. That makes some sense, but there may be other possibilities: John the Baptist brings down the religious and civil rulers while uplifting the lowly and downcast by bringing them God, or John clears the way for Jesus to come by spiritually preparing people with a message of repentance and eschatological anticipation. Occasionally, MacArthur refers to an interesting historical detail, as when he states that Lydia’s name may not have been “Lydia” but rather referred to her home city being in the Roman province of Lydia. At one point, MacArthur, echoing James Montgomery Boice, reads Reformed soteriology into Scripture, as when he contends that Noah’s finding grace in the eyes of the LORD in Genesis 6:8 was the prerequisite for Noah’s righteousness, blamelessness, and walk of faith in v. 9. That could be, but another way to read the passage is that Noah was favored by God because he was more righteous than others in his corrupt generation. There were times when MacArthur illustrated the story, as when he narrates that the Israelite spies had to cross the Jordan to get to Jericho, but the book could have used more of that. It also could have used more explanations of specific texts: why do Hannah and Mary, for instance, say that God will bring down the mighty and lift up the lowly? In what sense do they believe God does this? How does their situation relate to that?

C. MacArthur presents the Christian life as one of agony, self-discipline, and perseverance. He referred to a race that he ran when he was young, in which he was exhausted at the end! MacArthur offers biblical texts in favor of his view, and perhaps I am wrong to see salvation as a passive process in which I rest and let God transform me. But is the Christian life supposed to be one of unending, uphill toil, until death? What about Jesus’s statement that his burden is light (Matthew 11:28-30), or peace and joy being parts of the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22)?

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