Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Book Write-Up: From This Moment, by Elizabeth Camden

Elizabeth Camden.  From This Moment.  Minneapolis: Bethany House Publishers, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

From This Moment is set in the nineteenth century.

Romulus White is the editor of a well-respected scientific magazine that is published in Boston.  For years, he has been trying to convince Stella West to work for his magazine, since he is impressed by her illustrations.

Stella has her own agenda, though, and she is in Boston for her own reason.  Stella’s sister, Gwendolyn, recently died in Boston, and Stella suspects that Gwendolyn was murdered.  Gwendolyn had written that she (Gwendolyn) was uncovering corruption in Boston, and she referred to a mysterious ally whom she called “A.G.”  In her pursuit of the truth about her sister’s death, Stella has been challenging the police and the doctor who performed Gwendolyn’s autopsy, much to their annoyance.

Romulus is attracted to Stella and initially tries to help her, but he is disappointed when she alienates his friends and contacts in her pursuit of the truth about her sister’s death.  Things especially come to a head when Romulus receives an injunction closing his magazine!

There were many things that I liked about this book.  First, there was the suspense and the mystery.  Even after I learned who “A.G.” was, the book still left some aspects of the mystery open, which encouraged me to read on to see how the mystery would be resolved.  And it turned out that the mystery did not just relate to recent corruption in Boston, but it had roots going back to A.G.’s childhood.  That story can give one goosebumps!

Second, there were the endearing characters.  Stella was an intimidating woman, yet she was still kind to a bespectacled archivist, who had an obsession with fonts.  Evelyn was Romulus’ cousin, who also worked at the magazine, and Clyde was Romulus’ lifelong friend.  Evelyn and Clyde had been married and became separated, and (like many readers, I’m sure) I was rooting for them to get back together!  Romulus for a long time had trouble finding work, since his interests were so varied.  He lost a relationship on account of that.  But he eventually landed on a line of work that was appropriate to him: editing a scientific magazine.  There was also the crusty, no-nonsense private investigator, Riley McGrath.

Third, there were endearing scenes.  I think of the scene of camaraderie among Stella, Evelyn, Clyde, and Romulus, after the magazine had been shut down.  There is also the story about how Clyde helped Romulus when they were younger, in a significant and self-sacrificing way.

Fourth, I appreciated some of the themes about relationships.  Evelyn assessed her relationship with Clyde, and Romulus learned that, even though he had failed in a previous relationship, he could still thrive in another relationship that was better suited to how he was as a person.

In terms of things I did not like, I did not care much for the flirtation between Romulus and Stella, as necessary a part of the story as that was.  I did not really care for the physically ugly character being a major villain, while the physically attractive characters were the heroes.  That was balanced out, somewhat, by the physically attractive characters having their own set of vulnerabilities, weaknesses, and eccentricities.

Overall, though, I enjoyed this book, enough to give it five stars.  I think that it deserves a Christy Award.
I received a complimentary review copy of the book from the publisher through Netgalley, in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 27, 2016

Book Write-Up: Knowing Yourself Knowing God

Dr. John F. Shackelford.  Knowing Yourself Knowing God: From an Ego-Run-Life to a God-Run-Life.  2015.  See here to buy the book.

John F. Shackelford is a licensed psychologist.  He has a degree from the Rosemead School of Psychology at Biola University.

As the title of the book suggests, Knowing Yourself Knowing God is about how people can know themselves and God better.

The part of the book about knowing oneself discusses different parts of the ego, the false self, and various personality types.  Freud, Jung, Myers-Briggs, and the Enneagram feature in this section of the book.  Shackelford talks about the challenges that different personality types can have in relationships.  He also includes links to online tests that one can take to learn about one’s personality type, and he shares personal anecdotes and anecdotes about others.

The part of the book about knowing God is largely about taking a breather, resting, and being receptive to God’s voice.

The third section of the books has stories about people who have come to know God.  They chronicle their journeys and describe their approach to knowing God and hearing God’s voice.  Occasionally, they say where they are on the Enneagram and how that affects their spiritual life.

The book ends with a chart about ego functions. It draws from Freud, and it describes the ego functions and how people can constructively respond to them.

Overall, this is a very informative book.  There is a scholarly element to it, and the stories add a personal element.  The book sensitized me to how early experiences in life can stifle one’s creativity, if one allows that to happen.  In short, what parents or adults say to their kids can have long-term effects, down the road.

The book also talked about being open about one’s anger and concerns, and the problems that can come from internalizing anger.  This is a struggle for me.  I can easily put people on the defensive when I express my concerns, so I often end up not saying anything.  Finding a way to express my concerns constructively is a challenge.  Overall, though, I find that refraining from complaining and not rocking the boat is a fairly workable policy.

Identifying my own personality type was somewhat difficult for me.  Obviously, I fit into the “introvert” category, but am I an INTJ, an INTP, an ISTP, or an ISFP?  I do like abstract ideas, but part of me likes to be concrete.  I think that I both perceive and judge.  I am not entirely cold and methodical, as some introvert-types are characterized as being (i.e., you’re not efficient, so you’re fired).  Maybe I can take the tests, but, even there, I may have problems definitively putting myself into a single category.  Consulting others about how they see me may be helpful, provided I am not overly sensitive about their feedback.

The book could have been better organized, and the various parts could have been better integrated with each other.  The part about knowing oneself and the part about knowing God are largely independent of each other, though occasionally there are bridges: Shackelford talks about how knowing God through meditation on Scripture and listening to God can enlarge one’s soul; how listening to God can temper one’s listening to one’s ego; and how one can respond, as a Christian, to one’s Enneagram.  Largely, though, the book shied away from talking about how the various personality types can honor God, within their own personalities.  The book could also be rather meandering.

There was one line in the book that I especially did not like, but I am not surprised to find it in a Christian book.  On page 115, Shackelford is telling his own story, and he is contrasting the “drivenness and worry” that he felt with the relaxation and hospitality that he observed in his wife’s friends.  He says: “I realized the life I was living would not be a very attractive life to non-Christians.”  Here we go: Christians have to be an advertisement for Christianity to non-Christians!  We have to put on a show for the outside world!  Heaven forbid that people think Christians have flaws, since then they would not be attracted to Christianity!  I am not suggesting that Shackelford goes that far, but the evangelical idea that Christians need to advertise Christianity to non-Christians just seems to me to go against the authenticity and honesty that Shackelford is promoting, and which he exemplifies as he shares his story and his struggles.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through Bookcrash, in exchange for an honest review.

Thursday, May 26, 2016

Can Bernie Sanders Supporters Replicate the Success of the Christian Coalition?

Early in May, Rachel Maddow interviewed Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont.  Maddow asked Sanders how his vast array of support could be marshaled into a political movement after the election.  She drew a comparison with Pat Robertson’s candidacy in 1988.  Although Pat Robertson failed to win the Republican nomination for President in 1988, he went on to found the Christian Coalition, which would have a profound influence on politics for decades to come.

Could something similar happen with Bernie Sanders’ supporters?  My impression in watching Sanders in that interview was that he had not thought that far ahead.  I could be wrong on that, but it just seemed to me when I watched that interview that Rachel Maddow had more insights about how the Bernie Sanders candidacy could become a formidable political movement than Bernie Sanders cared to contribute.

In this post, I will share my understanding of what the Christian Coalition did, and evaluate whether the American Left can do something similar.

A.  The Christian Coalition’s strategy was to educate Christian conservative voters so that they would go to the polls and vote for Christian conservative candidates.  One area in which this occurred was through Christian conservative churches: you would go to a Christian conservative church and see Christian Coalition voter guides.  These voter guides were technically non-partisan: they simply said where both candidates stood on issues of importance to Christian conservatives (i.e., abortion, pornography, same-sex marriage, etc.), without telling people specifically how to vote.  Some of the voter guides recorded how Senators and representatives voted on these issues, and they would give the elected leaders a percentage based on how much their voting record accorded with the Christian Coalition’s stance.  Again, these guides were technically non-partisan, but Christian conservatives could read them and form their own conclusions about how to vote.

The American left, too, informs like-minded people about elected officials’ voting record: they do so through the Internet.  I get stuff from Move-on and People for the American Way on a regular basis.  But my impression is that the American Left does not do so as extensively or as effectively as the Christian Coalition did.  You see a Christian Coalition voter guide, and you know immediately who the good guy is and who the bad guy is.  The American Left does not do this as well.  It may criticize nationally-known right-wingers, but my impression is that it forgets that so much of politics is local: that leftists need to be educated, not just about national figures, but also local figures.  That way, progressives can make a decision that accords with their own values in congressional, Senate, statehouse, etc. races, and in local referendra.  Moreover, while leftists pride themselves on nuance, the educational outreach needs to be concise rather than complicated, particularly when it comes to mobilizing people.

The Christian Coalition had a solid social center, namely, conservative evangelical churches; you have people gathering together and hanging out with each other who share similar values, and you have a network that can be informed and mobilized (even if that occurs unofficially, or outside of the church).  The American Left probably does not have anything that effective in terms of social glue and mobilization, but hopefully it can capitalize on what it does have.  There are African-American and liberal mainline churches.  There are college campuses (though I would not want professors pressuring students on how to vote).  There are left-wing mailing addresses.

B.  To reiterate a point in (A.), so much of politics is local.  The Christian Coalition recognized this.  By contrast, its predecessor, the Moral Majority, reputedly focused more on who would win the Presidency.

Suppose Bernie Sanders does not get the Presidency.  What then?  There are politicians who support Bernie Sanders’ ideas who are running for Congress, for Senate, for the statehouse, for Governor, for city council, and the list goes on.  While I did say in (A.) that the American left seems to focus on national politics rather than the local, there is a sense in which it is making progress on the local front.  Consider the cities and states that have raised the minimum wage, or the states that are considering a single-payer health care system.  The American Left needs to be vigilant in showing up and supporting this.  National personalities come and go.  It is who shows up on the local level who decides things.

C.  To build on (C.), the Christian Coalition showed up.  You have a bunch of Christian conservatives showing up at the local G.O.P., and before you know it they are running the show, getting the important offices and making important decisions.  Bernie supporters: you don’t want Roberta Lange in charge of any future Nevada Democratic conventions?  You need to become involved in Democratic Party procedure and politics.

Some may be intimidated by the mazes of political rules and procedures.  Often, though, it just takes one politically savvy person to guide others through the process.  I one time read about a bunch of Christian Coalition people going to a political meeting.  These Christian Coalition people had strong values and wanted those values to be a part of the political process, but they were not always sure how to advance their interests when it came to voting on procedural matters. Thus, one of its members would sit up front and wear a hat when the people were to vote “yes” on a procedural matter, and he would take the hat off when they were to vote “no.”

Part of the problem is that there may be a lot of people who support Bernie, but they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, so they may not have the time to devote to political activity.  But there are many on the American Left who do have the time.  And even those without much time can do something, however small.

Church Write-Up: God's Love Is Constant

Last Sunday, I visited a non-denominational evangelical church.  This church is doing a series on disappointment.  It showed a scene from the movie Bruce Almighty in which Bruce is at Niagra Falls and learns on live TV that he did not get the anchor position that he wanted.  Bruce has a melt-down before all of his viewers!  The church refrained from showing us the part in which Bruce cusses out the network.

The person speaking to us was the retired senior pastor.  He was presenting our awareness of God’s love for us as a solution for disappointment, or at least as something that can lessen disappointment.  The pastor was saying that God’s love does not change.  Our love changes from day to day, even from moment to moment, on account of how we feel and often in response to how other people are acting.  God’s love, by contrast, is constant.

The pastor then told a story that he said he did not tell the service before us, and it was about when he was on the road and a woman was trailing him.  He deliberately slowed down his car just to upset her.  Later, he apologized to Jesus and confessed that what he did was not particularly loving.  He said it would not happen again.  The pastor then looked up at us briefly, and we laughed.

The pastor also said that God is forgiving.  He told us a story about when he was in the Navy during the Cuban Missile Crisis.  People were afraid that nuclear war was around the corner, and, for the first time, the pastor felt a need to make peace with God.  He was confessing thousands of sins, and he said that God told him, “I forgive you of all that.”

I could identify, somewhat, with what the pastor was saying about God’s love being constant.  Usually, in reading the Bible, I question that, since there is so much about God’s wrath and judgment.  There is Jesus’ saying that God won’t forgive us if we don’t forgive others (Matthew 6:15; Mark 11:26).  Is Jesus saying that God will love us in the same way that we love others?  I hope not, for our love is pretty brittle, as the pastor was pointing out!

But what if God’s love is constant, even though God judges people, or even when God withholds official forgiveness to teach people a lesson?  God wants to teach people that there are consequences of sin.  The problem, of course, is that people die in the process.  A number of people have died from God’s judgment before they even had a chance to repent in this life.  I think of numerous stories in the Bible to that effect.  I suppose we can say that God’s love is still constant, since God may give people a chance to repent in the afterlife.  I don’t know.  Universalists do like to appeal to Ezekiel 16:53, which talks about Sodom being restored.

In short, while I do not currently know how to iron things out, theologically-speaking, it makes sense to me that God’s love would be constant: that God would be that mature, in contrast to many of us, who can be easily offended.  There is something within God that keeps God committed to people, even when they disappoint them.

Something I liked about this church: it sent me an e-mail thanking me for visiting!  No other church that I have visited in this particular area has done that, even though I gave them my name and address.  “Well, they’re busy.”  Too busy to drop a line to a first-time guest?

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

Book Write-Up: Freedom, by Jeremy Griffith

Jeremy Griffith.  Freedom: The End of the Human Condition.  Sydney, Australia: WTM Publishing, 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Jeremy Griffith is an Australian biologist.  This book and his treatise have been recommended by a number of academics.  Harry Prosen, a professor of Psychiatry and former President of the Canadian Psychiatric Association, wrote the introduction to this book.  And yet, as Griffith points out throughout this book, Griffith’s ideas have been controversial and rejected by a number of academics.  But Griffith contends that many people have found spiritual healing as a result of his ideas.

This book is about why humans are the way that they are, and how they can find healing from their alienated condition.  Understanding how everything Griffith says fits together was rather difficult for me.  Griffith would have done well to have provided a lucid, concise summary at the end of the book of what exactly he is proposing.  I have to confess, though, that I did not watch the online videos that Griffith says are helpful for people wanting to understand the book.  Plus, Griffith says that a rereading of the book could make a profound difference.

What are some of Griffith’s points?  I will try to explain them, as I understand them.

Griffith is arguing against the idea that humans are naturally selfish and violent.  For Griffith, the opposite is the case: we are naturally loving and peaceful.  That is our instinct.  Griffith appeals to at least three considerations to support this argument.  First of all, Griffith points to the behavior of bonobos, apes who are very closely related to human beings.  Griffith has studied bonobos, and he contends that they are peaceful and loving.  Second, Griffith maintains that mythology contains a remembrance of how the ancestors of humans used to be.  Hesiod, Plato, and Genesis 2-3 present a sort of Golden Age in the past when humans were peaceful towards one another.  Third, Griffith appeals to archeology and the fossil record, which he believes indicate that certain ancestors of humans were peaceful.

At the same time, Griffith appears to believe that nurture played a role in how humans became instinctively peaceful.  Griffith seemed to acknowledge that there is a genetic tendency in many animals towards selfishness: a competitive desire to survive and pass on their genes.  But he argues that, at some point, ancestors of humans developed benevolence.  They did this by nurturing their children with unconditional love.  This taught their children the value of unconditional love and gave them the inner security they needed to love others.  According to Griffith, the conditions were right in certain areas for this to develop: there was material plenty, for example, and that lessened the need to compete for resources.

But Griffith maintains that there was a Fall, and that this Fall related to knowledge, as Genesis 3 says.  Consciousness and intelligence emerged.  Humans could feel free to go against their instincts in favor of pursuing their own desires.  And yet, consciousness and intelligence brought something else, according to Griffith, and that is defensiveness and self-justification: humans want to contend that they are right, against the belief that they are violent and flawed.

Griffith believes that his insights about nurturing are controversial because people do not want to admit that they are bad parents.  At the same time, Griffith’s solution is not for people to feel guilty and beat up on themselves.  His solution seems to be for people to realize that their nature is to be peaceful and loving: to become reconciled with who they truly are.

I am giving this book four stars because I did enjoy it.  As a Christian who believes in evolution, I wonder how Genesis 1-3 and evolutionary scenarios of history can hold together, and this book is helpful in that regard.  (This is not to imply that Griffith is a Christian, in a traditional sense, for he seems to have non-traditional ideas about God.)  I do not have the background in biology to evaluate Griffith’s arguments, but his arguments and his interaction with scholarship struck me as scholarly.  Griffith’s quotations of literature and pop culture also made this book interesting and relevant.  I particularly liked Griffith’s discussion of the Simpsons and how Homer Simpson had a legitimate problem with Ned Flander’s religiosity, even if Homer couldn’t articulate what that problem was.

In terms of criticisms, like I said, Griffith could have been clearer, and he could have pulled together what he was saying a lot better.  Griffith was also making controversial statements about homosexuality and autism, and he was drawing from decades-old research in doing so.  Moreover, Griffith could have toned down his save-the-world rhetoric, his narrative about how he has been persecuted, and his criticisms of E.O. Wilson.

To be honest, while I found this book to be fascinating, I am not entirely clear about what issues are at stake, in terms of Griffith’s arguments and the arguments of those with whom he disagrees.  Both sides seem to believe that humans have good and bad tendencies: they just differ on how to account for them.  What difference does that make, practically speaking?  It makes a huge difference, for Griffith, for he talks as if many people who reject his message are in denial.  Really?  It looks like an academic difference of opinion to me.

I apologize, though, for any incompleteness of understanding on my part.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, May 23, 2016

Book Write-Up: The Counselor, by A.W. Tozer

A.W. Tozer.  The Counselor.  Chicago: Moody Publishers, 2015.  See here to buy the book.

A.W. Tozer was a pastor and Christian author who lived from 1897 to 1963.  I have seen him quoted numerous times.  I have finally read a book by him.  Or, actually, this book is an edited version of two classics that Tozer wrote.  It is still quotable, though!

This book was not exactly what I expected.  I thought that this book would be about how the Holy Spirit dwells inside of Christians and counsels them.  The book, after all, is entitled The Counselor.  Instead, this book talks about the importance of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  Tozer addresses the question of why so many Christians or professing Christians are not filled with the Holy Spirit.  He also discusses what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like.

What does being filled with the Holy Spirit mean, according to Tozer?  As far as I can recall, Tozer in this book does not answer that explicitly.  But he does talk about what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like.  He looks at the Book of Acts, in which the apostles were filled with the Holy Spirit.  He also examines church history, as he refers to such examples as Martin Luther, John Wesley, and others.

For Tozer, being filled with the Holy Spirit includes a variety of characteristics: joy, an intense hunger and thirst to know God, speaking with authority, God anointing one’s preaching so that it produces results, spiritual transformation, and knowing God through the Holy Spirit rather than through intellect.  For Tozer, being filled with the Holy Spirit is not a process that stretches out over time.  Rather, it is a single event of spiritual empowering.

How does one become filled with the Holy Spirit, according to Tozer?  There is another book by Tozer, How to Be Filled with the Holy Spirit, which may give more practical steps.  But The Counselor does make significant points.

Tozer says that the Holy Spirit exalts Jesus Christ, which implies that those who desire to be filled with the Holy Spirit must do the same.  In discussing why so many professing Christians are not filled with the Holy Spirit, Tozer says that one desiring to be filled must surrender to God; so many Christians, by contrast, want to be in the driver’s seat when it comes to their lives.  In some cases, Tozer states, people can arrive at a state of loneliness and desperation, and that opens them up to being filled with the Holy Spirit.  To be filled with the Holy Spirit, one must be in agreement with God.  Hatred, lust, and egotism are irreconcilable with being filled with the Holy Spirit, whereas praying for others with an attitude of kindness is the proper frame of mind for Christians to have.  For Tozer, Christians need to clean up their thoughts and spend more time in the Bible, and that can set the stage for them to be filled with the Holy Spirit.

Tozer interacts with other questions, as well.  Is speaking in tongues a sign of being filled with the Holy Spirit?  Tozer does not regard it as a necessary sign, for he observes that several Christian luminaries, such as Luther and Wesley, did not speak in tongues.  Can one be a saved Christian without being filled with the Holy Spirit?  Tozer does not address this question head-on, but he raises various considerations, some of which lead in different directions.  He says that the disciples were converted before they were filled with the Holy Spirit.  Sometimes, Tozer expresses agnosticism about whether the Christians he criticizes are genuine Christians; at other times, he is more skeptical.

Tozer addresses certain Christian views in his day, views that he believes obscure the truth.  On the one hand, Tozer is critical of those who believe that speaking in tongues is a necessary mark of being filled with the Holy Spirit.  On the other hand, he is critical of the view that being filled with the Holy Spirit only related to the time of the apostles.  Tozer rejects the view that the disciples were unconverted when Jesus was on earth, for he believes that many Christians use that position to excuse their own carnality.  (Maybe Tozer is criticizing an attitude that I have encountered in evangelicalism: Look, Christ called imperfect disciples and used them for God’s glory, so that must mean that we do not need to worry about our own sinful imperfections!)  Tozer believes that treating being filled with the Holy Spirit as a process rather than a single event likewise allows Christians to excuse their sins and their fears about being filled with the Holy Spirit.  (They fear letting God be in the driver’s seat, or they are afraid of doing embarrassing things under the Spirit’s influence, or that God will place them in insecure situations.)  And, as you can probably tell, Tozer did not care for the over-emphasis on grace, God’s unmerited favor for Christians, within Christendom.

I found what Tozer said to be interesting, especially when he was critiquing Christian perspectives of his day and regarding some of those perspectives as excuses.  I have to admit that I felt spiritual insecurity in reading this book, for a variety of reasons (i.e., wanting to run my own life, not feeling sure that I can obey God’s commands, not wanting to be obsessed with religion, as Tozer seemed to suggest that Spirit-filled people are).  Still, I could identify, somewhat, with what Tozer said about the hunger to know God.

Tozer could have been a little more pastoral in his tone.  Rather than bragging (or so it seemed to me) about how he never holds a grudge, he could have offered advice to people who struggle with sins, or at least he could have expressed sympathy and understanding towards their situation.

I was surprised that Tozer in this book never engaged Ephesians 5:18-21: “And be not drunk with wine, wherein is excess; but be filled with the Spirit; Speaking to yourselves in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody in your heart to the Lord; Giving thanks always for all things unto God and the Father in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ; Submitting yourselves one to another in the fear of God” (KJV).  That passage seems to imply that being filled with the Holy Spirit is not just a one-time event, and it describes what being filled with the Holy Spirit looks like.

In reading this book, I wondered if being filled with the Holy Spirit could occur outside of Christianity.  Tozer would probably answer “no,” since he says that the Spirit exalts Jesus Christ.  Still, there are mystics and ecstatic spiritual experiences outside of Christianity.  Maybe they are more prominent within Christianity, but they do occur outside of it, as well.

I hope to read more books by Tozer in the future.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, May 20, 2016

Book Write-Up: If God Is Good, by Randy Alcorn

Randy Alcorn.  If God Is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil.  Colorado Springs: Multnomah, 2009.  See here to buy the book.

If God Is Good is about how Christians can interact with the problem of suffering.  This book is about 500 pages, so I doubt that I can do it justice in this one blog post (which is not to say that I will write any more blog posts about it).  But here are some thoughts:

A.  I thought that what Randy Alcorn said about hell somewhat undermined his points about suffering.  Alcorn believes that the Bible teaches eternal conscious torment in hell for non-believers after they die.  What’s more, appealing to Matthew 7:14, Alcorn argued that most people will end up in hell, since few find the way that leads to life.  In my opinion, that makes their suffering in this life rather pointless: they suffer in this life, then they go to hell and suffer eternally.  Alcorn may say that suffering in this life can encourage them to come to Christ: they can be reminded that life is short and that there are eternal matters to think about (so Alcorn applies Luke 13:3).  Maybe.  But most of them will not come to Christ, and God knows that, so does their suffering really serve much of a purpose?  What Alcorn says about hope and suffering building character in people that matters eternally does not really apply to most people, within his worldview.

B.  In light of (A.), Alcorn at one point says that we don’t suffer long, since life is short.  But, as he says elsewhere, that only applies to believers, in his theology.  It does not apply to most of humanity, who will be going to hell to suffer eternally.

C.  This is not to say that universalism (the idea that God will save everyone in the end) can be neatly reconciled with the reality of suffering.  Alcorn says that God may cause people to suffer to bring others to Christ, to make a difference in eternity.  Would that matter as much, if everyone is eventually saved in the end?

D.  There were a few times when I was reading Alcorn’s book and I said “Wait a minute.”  On page 105, Alcorn asks regarding skeptical biblical scholar Bart Ehrman: “What percentage of the royalties from Ehrman’s best-selling book has he earmarked for easing world suffering?”  That is a pretty presumptuous question.  I don’t know what the percentage is in terms of his royalties, but Ehrman does donate quite a bit of money to charity.

On page 132, Alcorn states: “As Americans reeled from the events of September 11, 2001, no one explained the terrorists’ actions from a naturalistic worldview…A naturalistic worldview just couldn’t account for such wickedness.”  What?  There were plenty of naturalistic explanations for what happened on 9/11: the terrorists hated us, so they flew planes into the World Trade Center.  Does one need to appeal to the supernatural to account for that?

E.  One can read what Alcorn says about suffering and conclude that evil is really good in disguise.  Evil, after all, serves a constructive purpose, according to Alcorn.  Why, then, should I not hurt somebody else?  Would I not be doing that person a favor by hurting him?  I would be giving that person opportunities to overcome adversity and build character, after all!

In my opinion, I have no right to put somebody else through suffering, for the simple reason that there are things that people should not have to endure, if I can help it.

Perhaps Alcorn can respond that I have no right to put people through suffering, but God knows how to do that properly.  God, after all, knows everything.  God knows what we need and what to give us.  We do not have that sort of perspective.  Perhaps.  Still, I think that Alcorn’s implication that evil is really good in disguise has troubling implications.

F.  To his credit, Alcorn is not afraid to be honest about what the Bible says.  Appealing to Exodus 4:11, Alcorn argues that God is the one who made people disabled.  According to Alcorn, that actually has given comfort to people who are disabled.  I can understand that, since it allows them to believe that their disability must have a purpose.

Alcorn says that there are passages in the Bible about God hating certain people (see, for example, Psalm 5:5).  True, but why should I assume that God only has hatred for them, without one ounce of love?  Plus, where exactly is Alcorn going with that observation?  Does God only hate extreme evil-doers, or does God regard all non-believers as workers of iniquity and hate them (since Romans 3 presents the human race as pretty bad)?  I do not think that the latter perspective would be helpful to me, as I try to love other people.

G.  A lot of what Alcorn says has been said before.  Still, I did enjoy this book.  I never felt that Alcorn was hastily dishing out pat-answers, for there was a weight in what he was saying.  Alcorn talked about his own suffering as a diabetic, and he shared stories about other people’s suffering.  In addition, there were times when Alcorn questioned traditional Christian views on evil.  For example, he questioned Augustine’s view that evil is merely a deficiency in goodness, for Alcorn thought that evil had to be much more than that, a negative force in its own right.  On how exactly evil originated, when God made everything good, Alcorn seems rather agnostic.

H.  To his credit, Alcorn was honest about tensions within the Bible.  For example, like Calvinists, he believes that God has to enable people to believe.  Yet, Alcorn also believes that God is being sincere in exhorting evil-doers to do good: that God is not playing games and telling them to do something that he knows they are incapable of doing.  At times, Alcorn admits that he does not know how these tensions hold together.  On one occasion, he seemed to be saying that free-will exists in some areas, but not as much in other areas.

I.  There were a lot of inspiring stories in the book.  My favorites were about when people were torturing Christians, and the torturers were so impressed with the Christians’ demeanor that they became Christians themselves—-sometimes subjecting themselves to the persecution that they inflicted on others.  I would not be surprised if such stories were true.  They make me think that there is something to Christianity!  Yet, they can also burden me, in a sense, since they can make me feel bad about not having that kind of effect on people: I always have to wear a smile, regardless of how I feel, since that will bring people to Christ!  That was why I appreciated Alcorn’s stories about people who hit rock bottom and needed God to sustain them.  For example, Joni Eareckson Tada is a quadraplegic, and she said that there are days when she says to God that she does not have a smile.  “Can I borrow yours?”, she aks God.

J.  I like something Alcorn says on pages 406-407: “Bertrand Russell claimed that no one could sit at the bedside of a dying child and still believe in God.  He was wrong—-countless people, including ones I spoke with while researching this book, have sat at the bedside of their own dying children and do still believe in God.”  That is a fairly effective, point, which Alcorn makes elsewhere, as when he talks about Holocaust survivors who have a deep faith.  Who are atheists to tell people what they should think and feel in response to their suffering?  At the same time, we should remember that there are people who draw opposite conclusions from suffering: they conclude from their own suffering that there is no God.

K.  Something that I wonder: how can experiencing intense physical pain help a person build character?  Perhaps it can make a person humbler and bring a person down to earth.  But how can people spiritually grow when they are experiencing distracting physical pain?  How can they set their mind on higher things when their mind is on how much they hurt, because they cannot get their mind off of their pain?

L.  Isaiah 65:17 states that, in the new heavens and the new earth, the former things will not be remembered.  I remembered Tim Keller saying that we will appreciate heaven more when we get there on account of our suffering on earth.  Randy Alcorn makes the same sort of point.  Is that inconsistent with Isaiah 65:17?  Why would God use suffering to build our character for eternity, when God will wipe our minds clean in the new heavens and the new earth, effectually wiping out anything we learned?  Alcorn addresses this question: he does not take the sentiment in Isaiah 65:17 overly literally, but he interprets it to mean that people will be comforted in the new heavens and the new earth.  Their suffering will become a thing of the past, a distant memory.  But Alcorn still believes that there is a connection, or continuity, between our experiences in this world and the world-to-come.  See here for how John Piper addresses the question.

M.   There are times when Alcorn seems to present suffering and challenges as necessary parts of life on earth.  Would we grow or be heroic without adversity, after all?  Alcorn also says that one reason evil exists is that God respects free will, for God wants people to love God genuinely.  At the same time, Alcorn presents suffering as a result of the Fall, meaning it was not a part of God’s original creation.  Alcorn states that suffering will not exist in God’s eschatological reign.  Alcorn also says that people will do what is right in God’s eschatological reign, which casts question on whether there will be genuine free will at that time, at least in the sense that people have it today (which entails the possibility of doing wrong).  To his credit, Alcorn is sensitive to this tension, and he acknowledges it.  But he did not sufficiently wrestle with it in this book, in my opinion.

N.  In some cases, I was intrigued by a view that Alcorn was trying to refute.  Alcorn was arguing against open theism, the idea that God does not know the future for certain.  Alcorn referred to a story about a woman who married a Christian man, and the man later left her for another woman.  The woman found comfort in open theism rather than the idea that God foresaw her suffering and permitted or orchestrated it for some good reason.  She particularly found comfort in the story of Saul in the Bible: God chose Saul to be king and had plans for him, but Saul forfeited that through his sins.  Alcorn made pretty effective arguments against open theism: Can we trust a God who does not fully know what will happen down the road?  Still, the view that he was refuting was intriguing to me.

I’ll stop here.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

A Religious Drifter Experiencing God?

For church last Sunday, I revisited an evangelical church.  I visited this church a few weeks ago, and it is close to where I live.  It’s about a fifteen minute walk.  It was raining outside last Sunday, and I did not want to make a huge trek searching for a church in the rain, so I decided to revisit this evangelical church.

The praise songs were about how God’s love is huge, obvious, and overwhelming.  But what about God’s still, small voice (I Kings 19:12)?  What about the argument of Christian apologists that God refrains from making himself too obvious to the world because God does not want to impose himself on people and desires for them to choose him freely, out of love?  And yet, there are passages in Scripture about God acting publicly, and people then knowing that he is the LORD.  There is Romans 1:20’s statement about God’s existence being evident to people on account of the things that are made.  God is aloof, yet God is public.  Maybe the songs were saying that God’s love is huge and obvious to the Christians singing them—-the people who have tasted that God is good.

The sermon was delivered by a youth pastor.  He was talking about how we do not serve an ordinary God, and, since we have the Holy Spirit inside of us, we are not ordinary people.  This was Pentecost, which commemorates God baptizing Christians with the Holy Spirit in Acts 2.  The preacher was lamenting that there are many young people who leave or drift out of the faith because they believe that God is ordinary.  They want results without process, and they do not think that God is worth the process.  But God is worth it, since God thought they were worth it—-enough to send God’s Son to die for them.

In what way is God not ordinary?  The preacher talked about God’s provision for a youth conference: he was not sure he would have enough money for it, but God provided.  I think that what he may have been getting at was that the Christian life is supposed to be one of adventure, of experiencing God and seeing that God is real.  After he spoke, the church’s pastor shared how God uses him to bless people’s lives.  He prayed for pain to leave the body of a man’s wife, and it left.  The pastor was saying that God can use us that way, too.

The preacher during his sermon was critical of people who drift from one church to another.  He was saying that we should consider sacrificing by becoming part of one church.  That relates to me, since I am in the process of visiting various churches right now, as opposed to settling in one place.  Was God telling me in this sermon to do otherwise?  I have no idea.  I still plan to visit various churches, in this season of my life.

Some may say my attitude here is why I do not experience God as tangibly as other Christians supposedly do.  But I didn’t experience God that tangibly when I was doing what those evangelical types said I should do, either!  Maybe I am like those young people the preacher was mildly criticizing: the ones who doubt that the process is worth the effort.  Or maybe the way that evangelicals want me to be is 180 degrees from the way that I am, and I have grown jaded beating myself up over that.

I do like this church, though, in that the sermons make me think.  I may visit it more than once, but I doubt that I will join.  What the pastor says is intriguing to me, even though I do not experience what he is talking about, and I doubt that I will any time soon.

Of course, there is the factor of visiting a church, and people recognizing me from the last visit.  Part of me prefers more anonymity.  Yet, anonymity can be lonely, and I don’t want that.  I don’t know what I want.  Maybe that’s why I’m drifting when it comes to going to church, in this season of my life.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Were the Pastoral Epistles Responding to the "Acts of Paul and Thecla"?

I recently read the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.

I think it was in an introductory New Testament class that I first heard the idea that the Pastoral Epistles in the New Testament (I-II Timothy and Titus) were a response to the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”
The idea makes sense, at first.  In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” the apostle Paul’s preaching persuades Thecla, a woman, to become a Christian.  Thecla embraces the Christian path of celibacy that Paul preaches, so she refuses to marry Thamyris, the man to whom she is betrothed.  According to Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” God wants people to be celibate.  Thecla’s decision is controversial and places her life at risk.  Thecla also teaches people the Christian faith.

In the Pastoral Epistles, we see a different perspective.  The Pastoral Epistles are attributed to the apostle Paul, but many scholars doubt that Paul was the one who wrote them; there are conservative scholars, however, who think that he did.  When I mention Paul in discussing the Pastoral Epistles, I will mean Paul as he is depicted in those epistles, whether he was the person who wrote them or not.

Whereas Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” is very pro-celibacy, Paul in I Timothy believes that women should marry and have children (I Timothy 2:15; 5:14).  In I Timothy 4:3, Paul criticizes false teachers who forbid people to marry.  Whereas Thecla in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” teaches the Christian faith, Paul in I Timothy 2:12 forbids women to teach.  II Timothy 3:6 criticizes false teachers who “creep into houses, and lead captive silly women laden with sins, led away with divers lusts” (KJV).  Some scholars think that sounds like what Paul did in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”

In short, the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” depicts Thecla converting to Christianity and rejecting society’s expectations that she become a wife and mother.  I Timothy, by contrast, maintains that Christian women should marry and raise children rather than alienating society with bizarre behavior.  And II Timothy 3:6 seems to advocate that women stay at home rather than leaving the household to follow a teacher.

In reading the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” however, I developed doubts that the Pastoral Epistles were a response to it.  Rather, the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” seemed to me to be using the Pastoral Epistles, or at least II Timothy.

The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” mention Demas and Hermogenes as companions of Paul, and they are depicted negatively.  Where have we seen those names?  In II Timothy.  In II Timothy 4:10, Paul says that Demas forsook him because Demas loved the present world.  Similarly, Demas in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” forsakes and betrays Paul when Demas is bribed.  II Timothy 1:15 mentions Hermogenes as a companion of Paul.  Moreover, II Timothy 1:16 says that Onesiphorus refreshed Paul, and Onesiphorus was a supporter of Paul in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”  Vridar has a chart here that lists these and other parallels between the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” and II Timothy.

The “Acts of Paul and Thecla” also seemed to me to be interpreting II Timothy in light of its pro-celibacy ideology.  II Timothy 2:18 attacks a heresy that says that the resurrection from the dead is past.  In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” 3:4, Demas and Hermogenes want to teach Thecla “that the resurrection which [Paul] speaks of is already come, and consists in our having children” (translation in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden).  In the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” Paul is teaching people to be celibate and to live in light of the future resurrection from the dead, but there is a heresy going around that the resurrection from the dead occurs when women have children.  According to this heresy, childbirth is a sort of resurrection.

I did some research to see what scholarship has said about the relationship between the Pastoral Epistles and the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”  My impression is that, in the 1980’s, scholars like Dennis MacDonald and others argued that I Timothy was a response to the “Acts of Paul and Thecla.”  Later, scholars were saying that these two works are independent of each other but reflected different views on what the roles of women should be in the Christian church.  Richard Bauckham argued that the author of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” drew from II Timothy.  And, in the article “I Permit No Woman to Teach Except for Thecla: The Curious Case of the Pastoral Epistles and the Acts of Paul Reconsidered” (Novum Testamentum 54 (2012): 176-203), Matthijs den Dulk argues that the author of the “Acts of Paul and Thecla” rejected I Timothy and its ideas, while drawing from II Timothy.  Matthijs den Dulk even rejects the idea that II Timothy 3:16 relates to what Paul did in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla,” arguing that there are differences between the two.

See here, here, and here.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

The Two Witnesses in Apocalypse of Elijah and the Gospel of Nicodemus

Yesterday, I talked about the topic of the evil side doing miracles, as it is discussed in two ancient religious sources: the Apocalypse of Elijah and the Gospel of Nicodemus.  Today, I will briefly talk about what these two sources have to say about the two witnesses.

The two witnesses are two prophets who appear in Revelation 11.  They prophesy, clothed in sackcloth.  God has given them power, and they can cause drought and plagues and turn the water into blood.  If anyone tries to hurt them, fire will come out of their mouth and consume that person.  When they finish their testimony, the Beast (often called the Antichrist by Christians) will kill the two witnesses.  People on earth will celebrate.  But the two witnesses will rise from the dead three-and-a-half days later and will ascend to heaven.

The two witnesses were widely discussed in my circles when I was growing up, since I grew up in a church that took the end times very seriously.  People speculated about who the two witnesses would be; some even claimed to be one of the two witnesses.

Within Christendom, there are various interpretations of the two witnesses in Revelation 11, ranging from literal to spiritualized interpretations.  Here are some posts that I wrote about the topic:

Catholic Eschatology
Zechariah and the Two Witnesses
The Two Witnesses of Revelation 11
The Temple and the Two Witnesses
Lee Harmon on the Two Witnesses

In terms of the two witnesses in the Apocalypse of Elijah and the Gospel of Nicodemus, both works identify the two witnesses as Enoch and Elijah.  Enoch was the person who walked with God, and God took him (Genesis 5:19-24).  Elijah was the prophet taken up to heaven in a whirlwind in II Kings 2.

Let’s start with the Gospel of Nicodemus 20.  Jesus is taking the first man, Adam, from hell to Paradise, and waiting for them in Paradise are Enoch and Elijah.  The saints going to Paradise ask these two men who they are, since these two men had not been with them in hell.  Enoch responds that they are Enoch and Elijah, both of whom were translated by God to Paradise.  Enoch then says:

“Here we have hitherto been and have not tasted death, but are now about to return at the coming of Antichrist, being armed with divine signs and miracles, to engage with him in battle, and to be slain by him at Jerusalem, and to be taken up alive again into the clouds, after three days and a half” (translation from The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden).

Those are things that the two witnesses do in Revelation 11.

In Apocalypse of Elijah 4, Enoch and Elijah come down and challenge the Antichrist after he has manifested himself at the Temple.  They call him a stranger who is acting against heaven and earth.  They say that he fell from heaven and they call him a devil.  The Antichrist fights them in the marketplace for seven days and kills them.  They rise again, and they challenge the Antichrist for deceiving the people of God, for whom the Antichrist did not suffer (whereas Jesus had suffered for them).

In volume 1 of James Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha, O.S. Wintermute, who introduced and translated the Apocalypse of Elijah, comments about the two witnesses.  He says on page 725: “Most interpreters of Revelation identify the two witnesses described there as Elijah and Moses, but from the time of Hippolytus onward a number of Church Fathers reinterpreted the passage in Revelation to apply to Enoch and Elijah, the two men who had never died.”  The reason that Wintermute believes that Enoch replaced Moses in ancient Christian speculation about the identity of the two witnesses is that it was clearer that Enoch did not die.  With Moses, it was less clear: Deuteronomy 34:5f. simply says that Moses’ grave was not found.

Why many ancient Christians insisted on the two witnesses being people who had not died (prior to their witnessing on earth during the end times, that is) is not apparent to me.  I can understand why a person would identify one of the two witnesses as Elijah, though, since the two witnesses, like Elijah, prevent rain (cp. I Kings 17:1).  Plus, Malachi 4:5 affirms that God will send Elijah before the Day of the Lord.  Perhaps ancient Christians concluded that, since God will send Elijah, and Elijah did not die, the other witness, too, must be someone who did not die.

Within Armstrongism, the religious movement in which I grew up, there was denial that Enoch and Elijah were even taken into the heaven of heavens.  I talk some about this belief here, here, and here.  That may have precluded Armstrongites from identifying the two witnesses as Moses and Elijah, or Enoch and Elijah.  I vaguely recall that Ron Dart was somewhat open to the idea of the two witnesses being Moses and Elijah on his radio program, but he may have envisioned God resurrecting Moses and Elijah from the dead to serve as the two witnesses, not God sending them to earth from heaven.

(See also this post on Dustin Martyr’s blog.  Dustin does not mention the Armstrongites, but he does briefly discuss John 3:13, where Jesus says that no one but him ascended to heaven.  Armstrongites appealed to that verse to argue that Enoch and Elijah did not go to the heaven of heavens.  Dustin Martyr, in discussing a book by James Dunn, refers to the idea that John 3:13 was a rebuttal of Jewish apocalyptic visions and heavenly journeys.  That would probably include literature about Enoch going to heaven.)

Monday, May 16, 2016

When the Bad Side Can Do Miracles, Too: Apocalypse of Elijah 3 and Gospel of Nicodemus 5

Christianity has long regarded Christian miracles as signs that the Christian religion is true: God, through the miracle, is authenticating to people the truth of the Christian religion.  Yet, there appears to be some acknowledgment within the Old and New Testaments that evil people, people who are not from God, can perform miracles or impressive wonders, too, and can deceive others in the process.

One can then ask a question: Are miracles trustworthy signs that the Christian religion is true, when the bad side can do miracles, too?  After all, Christianity would deny that the bad side’s miracles show the truth of the bad side’s religion, right?  So why would Christian miracles indicate the truth of Christianity?

I remember atheist Christopher Hitchens asking this question in a debate with a Christian.  Hitchens referred to passages in the Book of Exodus in which the Pharaoh’s magicians were able to do some of the same signs that Moses did (Exodus 7:11, 22; 8:7).

I have wrestled with this question before on this blog.  See, for example, my posts here and here.

In this particular post, I want to talk about how two ancient religious documents interact with this question.

The first document is the Apocalypse of Elijah.  This work has Jewish and Christian elements, and James H. Charlesworth’s Old Testament Pseudepigrapha dates it to the first-fourth centuries C.E.  Apocalypse of Elijah 3 explicitly addresses the question of the bad side’s miracles.  I will quote O.S. Wintermute’s translation.

The second document is the Gospel of Nicodemus, or the Acts of Pilate.  As I said in my post here, proposed dates for the Gospel of Nicodemus have ranged from the third century C.E. to the sixth century C.E.  The Gospel of Nicodemus 5 is relevant to the question of the bad side’s miracles.  I will be relying on the English translation that is in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.

A.  The Apocalypse of Elijah 3 has a list of miracles that the son of lawlessness, or the Antichrist, will be able to do: he will cause the sun to fall, darken, and shine; he will cause the moon to become bloody; he will descend with the heavenly bodies; he will walk on water; he will heal the deaf, the mute, the blind, the lepers, and others who are ill; he will cast demons out of people; and he will be able to transform himself visually, into a young child or an old man.

But the Apocalypse of Elijah 3 says that there is one thing that the Antichrist will be unable to do: he cannot raise the dead: “He will do the works which the Christ did, except for raising the dead alone.  In this you will know that he is the son of lawlessness, because he is unable to give life.”

The Apocalypse of Elijah 3 offers other ways for Christians living in the end-times to identify the Antichrist.

First of all, although the Antichrist will claim to be Christ, Christians can know that his claim is untrue on account of the manner in which the true Christ will return.  According to Apocalypse of Elijah 3, the true Christ will come from heaven surrounded by doves and angels, and “The whole world will behold him like the sun which shines from the eastern horizon to the western” (cp. Matthew 24:27).  If someone claims to be Christ and does not appear in that manner, then he is not the true Christ.

Second, the Apocalypse of Elijah says what the Antichrist will look like: “…a skinny-legged young lad, having a tuft of gray hair at the front of his bald head.  His eyebrows will reach to his ears.  There is a leprous bare spot on the front of his hands.”  Although the Antichrist will be able to transform his visual appearance, the characteristics of his head will remain present, however he is appearing.

I have questions about the Apocalypse of Elijah’s argument.  First, how can the Antichrist cast out demons?  When some of the Pharisees were accusing Jesus of casting out demons through the power of Beelzebub, the prince of demons, Jesus replied that Satan would not undermine his own kingdom, presumably by casting out demons (Matthew 10; Mark 3; Luke 11).  Would that not preclude the Antichrist from casting out demons?  Second, Revelation 13 depicts the Beast’s deadly wound being healed.  Some Christians (i.e., Tim Lahaye and Jerry Jenkins in the Left Behind series) interpret that to mean that the Antichrist will die and rise from the dead, or at least appear to do so.  But the Apocalypse of Elijah 3 denies that the Antichrist will be able to raise the dead or to give life.

B.  In the Gospel of Nicodemus, Jewish authorities say repeatedly that Jesus does his miracles and casts out demons through sorcery or demonic power.  In the Gospel of Nicodemus 5, Nicodemus defends Jesus and says how people can tell that Jesus’ miracles indicate that Jesus is from God.

Essentially, Nicodemus makes the same sort of argument that the Jewish leader Gamaliel makes in Acts 5:35: if Jesus is from God, then his works will continue; if not, then they will cease, or come to nought.  Nicodemus appeals to the example of Pharaoh’s magicians in the time of Moses: they were unable to copy some of Moses’ miracles, plus they and their followers perished.  Nicodemus also says that Jesus’ works are unprecedented: no one has done those sorts of miracles before, and no one will do them again.

Indeed, Pharaoh’s magicians did get to the point where they were unable to imitate Moses’ miracles.  In Exodus 8:18-19, they are unable to bring forth lice, and they acknowledge to Pharaoh that the plague of lice is from God.  In Exodus 7, when they turn rods into serpents like Moses did, Moses’ rod eats their rods, showing that Moses’ God is superior.  Although Pharaoh’s magicians could do some of the same things that Moses did, God still prevailed.

I have some questions about the Gospel of Nicodemus’ argument.  Does it presume that we should wait and see how things turn out before we make a judgment?  How long would we have to wait before we can make a decision about who to trust or not trust?

In terms of the end times, perhaps a Christian can say that there will come a point when God is obviously prevailing—-God will send plagues—-and yet people will still follow the Beast, even though God is giving them an opportunity to repent (Revelation 16:9).  Then and there, they will know the truth, yet will reject it.  In the Apocalypse of Elijah, by contrast, the followers of the Antichrist are outraged with the Antichrist because he has led them down a dead end.

Friday, May 13, 2016

Items from the Gospel of Nicodemus

I recently read the “Gospel of Nicodemus” in The Lost Books of the Bible and the Forgotten Books of Eden.  The English translation there is what I will quote in this post.

The “Gospel of Nicodemus” is also known as the “Acts of Pontius Pilate.”  Scholars have differed about its date, and proposed dates have ranged from the third to the sixth centuries C.E. (see here, here, here, here, and here).  Clayton N. Jefford in his article about the “Acts of Pilate” in the Anchor Bible Dictionary states that many medieval manuscripts have added a section to the “Acts of Pilate” about Christ’s descent into hell.  According to Jefford, these two writings combined “circulated…under the title of the ‘Gospel of Nicodemus.'”

The “Gospel of Nicodemus” covers the time from Christ’s trial to events after Christ’s resurrection.  In this Gospel, the Jewish authorities accuse Jesus before the Roman authority Pontius Pilate of violating the Sabbath.  Jewish defenders of Jesus bring in people Jesus healed to testify before Pilate, but Jesus’ Jewish opponents have their excuses to explain those healings away: that Jesus heals people with sorcery or demonic power.  Jesus is crucified.

The hostile Jewish authorities imprison Joseph of Arimathea after Joseph arranges to bury Jesus, but an angel delivers Joseph from their custody.  After that happens, the Jewish authorities begin to soften somewhat in their stance towards Jesus.  Why did this miracle, of all miracles, open them up to the possibility that Jesus may have been from God?  My guess is that they were surprised and impressed that Joseph could escape from their secure custody!  They could not explain that away, since they were unwilling to admit flaws in their security system! 

A priest and a Levite see the resurrected Jesus talking with his disciples and tell the other Jewish authorities about this.  Two sons of Simeon (the Simeon in Luke 2 who prophesied about Jesus when Jesus was a baby) were raised from the dead for a brief period of time (a la Matthew 27:52), and they testify that they saw Jesus come into hell and empty it of the souls imprisoned there.  The Jewish authorities search the Scriptures and conclude that Jesus is the Messiah, and they become Christians.

Here are some thoughts.  In a few cases, I have more questions than answers.

A.  Scholars and historians have long discussed the history of anti-Judaism within Christianity, as Christians called Jews Christ-killers.  This contributed to the persecution of Jews during the Middle Ages, and it may have set the stage for the Holocaust in the twentieth century.  Such issues were discussed in 2004, with the release of Mel Gibson’s controversial film, The Passion of the Christ.

In light of that, it was noteworthy to me how pro-Jewish the “Gospel of Nicodemus” is.  In the “Gospel of Nicodemus,” there are Jewish defenders of Jesus.  And the hostile Jewish authorities ultimately become believers in Jesus.

The “Gospel of Nicodemus” may have been drawing from themes in the New Testament.  Acts 6:7, for example, states that there were many priests who became obedient to the faith.  In addition, the “Gospel of Nicodemus” may, in its own way, have fit within an environment of Christian anti-Judaism, since many Christian persecutors of the Jews tried to pressure Jews to convert to Christianity.

B.  Jesus’ emptying of hell puzzled me for two reasons.

First of all, Beelzebub and Satan are different characters altogether in the “Gospel of Nicodemus.”  Beelzebub is the ruler of the underworld, whereas Satan was on earth plotting to get Jesus killed.  Beelzebub is upset with Satan because Satan’s plots got Jesus sent to the underworld, which Jesus is now in the process of emptying!  This puzzles me because passages such as Mark 12:23, Matthew 12:26, and Luke 11:18 appear to equate Satan with Beelzebub.  The “Gospel of Nicodemus” may be sensitive to certain tensions or complexities within the New Testament, however: that not all hostile spiritual powers are in the underworld (see, for example, Ephesians 6:12, which refers to spiritual wickedness on high); and that Satan in the Gospels orchestrates Jesus’ death (Luke 22:3), yet tries to discourage Jesus from dying (Matthew 16:21-23; Mark 8:31-33).  Such factors may have encouraged the writer of this part of the “Gospel of Nicodemus” to regard Beelzebub and Satan as two different characters, in different places, with differences of opinion.

Secondly, there is the question of the extent of Jesus’ emptying of hell.  Does Jesus only deliver the righteous souls from hell, or does he deliver every soul?  The people Jesus delivers from hell are called saints.  At the same time, they are said to be burdened under the weight of original sin and guilt over their own unrighteousness, and Beelzebub does appear to be concerned that Jesus is cleaning out the place.  Did Jesus make every soul into a saint when he delivered that soul from hell?

C.  I grew up in Armstrongism, which denied that people have immortal souls that go to heaven or hell right after death.  We believed that people were in a state of unconsciousness until the resurrection of the dead, which would occur after Christ’s second coming.

A challenge to our view was the thief on the cross, to whom Jesus said “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise” (Luke 23:43 KJV).  We argued that the King James Version and other English translations have the punctuation in the wrong place: that it should read, “Verily I say unto thee today, thou shalt be with me in paradise.”  In our view, Jesus was assuring the thief on the cross that he would eventually be with Jesus in paradise, after the resurrection of the dead, not that his soul would be with Jesus in paradise that very day.

I once heard Garner Ted Armstrong mock or question what he considered to be an inconsistency within mainstream Christianity.  On the one hand, he noted, many Christians say that the thief was with Jesus in paradise immediately after the two of them had died—-that very day.  On the other hand, many Christians maintain that Jesus went to hell after his death.  So which was it?  Was Jesus (and the thief) in hell or in heaven right after his death?

A number of Christians have offered solutions to this.  A popular answer is that paradise was the righteous section of hell, and Jesus went there after his death (with the thief) and took paradise to heaven.

The “Gospel of Nicodemus” has its own scenario: that the thief went to heaven at the time when Jesus was emptying out hell.  This, presumably, was occurring the day that the two of them died.  In this scenario, the thief was in paradise the day that he died.

That scenario raises questions in my mind, especially because Jesus in John 20:17 tells Mary Magdalene after his resurrection not to touch him because he has not yet ascended to his Father.  Does that mean that Jesus did not go to heaven before that time?  If so, would that preclude the thief from being with Jesus in heaven on the day of their death?

That depends on one’s interpretation of John 20:17, and the point that Jesus was trying to make there.  Perhaps his point was that his risen, glorified body had not yet ascended to present itself as a wavesheaf offering before God.  That does not preclude his soul from going to heaven prior to that point.  Or Jesus’ point may be that Mary does not need to cling to him because he has not yet ascended to heaven, so they still have time to see each other and enjoy each other’s company.  That, too, does not preclude Jesus’ soul from going to heaven prior to his resurrection.  See here for my post about John 20:17.

Yet, something still puzzles me.  I do not recall the “Gospel of Nicodemus” saying explicitly that Jesus’ soul went to heaven between the time of his death and resurrection.  Jesus liberates souls from hell, and they then go to heaven.  The thief on the cross also goes to heaven.  Yet, I recall nothing about Jesus going to heaven at that time.  In light of that, is the thief on the cross in the “Gospel of Nicodemus” truly with Jesus in paradise on the day of their death, a la Luke 23:43?

D.  In John 18:31, we read: “Then said Pilate unto them, Take ye him, and judge him according to your law. The Jews therefore said unto him, It is not lawful for us to put any man to death” (KJV).

The Jews say that it is not lawful for them to put a person to death, and this is why they want Pilate to do so.  Many commentators interpret this to mean that the Romans did not allow the Jews to practice the death penalty at that time.  C. Marvin Pate, on pages 329-331 of 40 Questions About the Historical Jesus, argues for this position and, using Josephus and rabbinic sources, discusses when the Jewish authorities did and did not have the authority to execute criminals.

The “Gospel of Nicodemus” appears to have a different interpretation of John 18:31, however: that the Jewish law of Moses forbids them to put a person to death, and that is why the Jewish authorities want Pilate to execute Jesus. 

The Jewish authorities in “Gospel of Nicodemus” 4:16 say, “Our law commands us not to put any man to death…”  Earlier, in 3:5, Pilate says to the Jewish authorities that “The command, therefore thou shalt not kill, belongs to you, but not to me.”

Are the Jewish authorities saying that the law of Moses forbids them to enact the death penalty, under the commandment “Thou shalt not kill” (Exodus 20:13)?  The problem is that, in 4:14, the Jewish authorities express to Pilate awareness that the law of Moses allows for the death penalty: “Our law saith, he shall be obliged to receive nine and thirty stripes, but if after this manner he shall blaspheme against the Lord, he shall be stoned.”

There are various considerations in my mind as I wrestle with this:

—-Could Pilate and the Jewish authorities be saying that it is against the law of Moses to put an innocent person to death?  Pilate in 5:46 asks, “What will it profit you to shed innocent blood?”  The problem is that the Jewish authorities do not believe that Jesus is innocent, at this point.

—-Could the “Gospel of Nicodemus” be acknowledging an aversion within rabbinic Judaism towards the death penalty, which appears in Mishnah Makkoth 1:10, and in the numerous hurdles and safeguards in Babylonian Talmud Sanhedrin 40a-b?  Moreover, according to Jacob Milgrom in his Jewish Publication Society commentary on the Book of Numbers, rabbinic Judaism understood the penalty of karet (being cut off) to be something that God does, not something that human beings do: God can kill certain sinners prematurely, or in the afterlife (pages 405-408).  Yet, as Milgrom notes, there is acknowledgement within rabbinic literature that the authorities of Israel are allowed by God to carry out the death penalty.

—-Could the discussion in “Gospel of Nicodemus” 4 concern the manner of the death penalty: the Jewish authorities want Jesus crucified, whereas their law only allows them to stone him?  They want Jesus, not just to die, but to endure the shame that accompanies crucifixion.  This is a tempting solution, since the Jewish authorities stress that they want Jesus to be crucified.  But does their law forbid them to hang a person?  Deuteronomy 21:22 seems to indicate otherwise.

Perhaps there is some technicality in the law of Moses that prevents the Jewish authorities from applying the death penalty in the specific case of Jesus, even if the law of Moses allows for the death penalty.  To execute Jesus, in that case, would violate “Thou shalt not kill.”

Thursday, May 12, 2016

Mother's Day at a Presbyterian Church

Last Sunday, I visited a Presbyterian church.

It was Mother’s Day, so the pastor gave people in the audience the microphone so they could share thoughts about their mothers.  A young man talked about how his mother taught him not to have credit card debt, and he benefited from that teaching.  An old lady talked about how her mother taught her to love people, and she said that she was still sad that she lost her mother at an early age.  Another lady, the church secretary, talked about how her step-mother accepted her years back.  Someone else talked about how his family would move a lot when he was younger, yet his mother made sure that they knew the value of education and graduating, wherever they moved.

The pastor also talked about his own mother.  He told a story about when he was little, and he was watching his mother iron.  He really thought ironing was cool, so he asked his mom if he could try.  His mom let him iron the sheets, while she watched him doing so.  The pastor also talked about when he was rebellious, and his mother loved him even then.

In the sermon, the pastor was continuing to preach through the Book of Acts.  He discussed Acts 2:42, which states that the early Christians devoted themselves to the apostle’s teaching.  In light of Mother’s Day, he introduced us to that topic by referring to Proverbs 1:8 and 6:20, which exhorts people to forsake not the torah of their mother.  The pastor said that torah, in the Hebrew, means teaching.  The pastor referred to the teaching that people in the congregation received from their mothers, which they had talked about earlier in the service.  The pastor also discussed how the teaching in the Bible is corrective.

After the sermon, someone from the congregation was making an announcement.  He was talking about the church’s coming service project.  He mentioned someone who said that he especially felt God when he was doing service work.

I’ll stop here.  Today, I’m in more of a descriptive mood than an analytical mood.

Wednesday, May 11, 2016

Book Write-Up: Amish Society

John A. Hostetler.  Amish Society: Revised Edition.  Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1963, 1968, 1971.

I bought this book a while back at the Goodwill.  It looked to me like an informative, detailed, and judicious discussion about the Amish.  The author of the book, John A. Hostetler, was himself Amish, but he left the community to pursue higher education.

Here are some items:

A.  The book talks about how the Amish began.  The Amish were a sect that broke off from the Anabaptist Swiss Brethren in the seventeenth century.  They are named after Jacob Ammann.

Ammann had disagreements with others in the Swiss Brethren.  One area of disagreement concerned the practice of shunning and excommunication.  Ammann was much stricter about these things than were many other Swiss Brethren people.  Ammann's opponents believed that shunning should only mean exclusion from taking communion, but Ammann thought that it should also include limiting interaction with shunned people and not eating with them.  Ammann also wanted to excommunicate a woman who told a lie, and he supported the excommunication of people attending the state church.

Another area of disagreement concerned communion.  Ammann's group held communion services twice a year, whereas the Swiss Brethren only had one annual communion service.  Ammann also introduced footwashing at his communion services.

Anabaptists strongly believed that Christians should be separated from the world.  This was probably why Ammann advocated a stricter practice of shunning and excommunication: he supported a purified church, truly uncontaminated by worldly ways.  But Ammann also maintained that the Christian distinction from the world should be evident in Christians' physical appearance, not just their spirituality or their practices.  Thus, Ammann "contended for uniformity in dress, including hats, shoes, and stockings," and he "taught that it was wrong to trim the beard" (pages 28-29).

The Amish migrated to America in the eighteenth century.  According to Hostetler, that enabled the Amish to survive as a community.  In Europe, they were a marginal and persecuted sect, small, scattered, and continually on the move.  Hostetler doubts that they would have survived as a community had they remained in Europe.  In America, by contrast, there was a lot of land to go around, so the Amish could settle near one another, develop communities, and cultivate their culture.

B.  Years ago, I was eating lunch with some Seventh-Day Adventists, and they were aware that I was a religious studies major.  They wondered if I knew anything about the Amish, particularly the Amish avoidance of modern technology.  I did not know anything about that at the time, but the question remained in my mind.

The 2011 Family Guy episode, "Amish Guy," manifests curiosity about that as well.  In one scene, an Amish leader is leading Amish men in prayer.  He acknowledges that God decided that the right amount of technology for humans existed between 1835-1850: "not too little, not too much."

Did Hostetler's book shed light on the Amish stance towards modern technology?  It did give some indications.  There is the factor, of course, of the Amish desire to be separate from the corrupt world.  As Hostetler states on page 48, "To the Amish there is a divine spiritual reality, the Kingdom of God, and a Satanic kingdom that dominates the present world."  But there is also a belief that humans should be closer to nature, as well as an exaltation of hard work.  This coincides with an agricultural society, with not too much technology.  For the Amish, nature is good because God made it.  Hostetler states: "For the Amish, God is manifest more in closeness to nature, in the soil and in the weather, and among plants and animals, than he is in the man-made city" (page 66).

Hostetler acknowledges, though, that there is nuance to this.  There are Amish people who use tractors, for example.  There are even Amish people who use automobiles.  The latter are often called the "Beachy" Amish.

C.  I have been reading evangelical Christian Amish fiction: Beverly Lewis, Amy Clipston, and the list goes on.  How do these books line up, or fail to line up, with what Hostetler says?  I would like to address this question as it relates to three issues: religion, intellectual pursuits, and social etiquette.

Let's start with religion.  In reading evangelical Christian Amish fiction, I have often wondered if these books' focus on God's grace and unconditional love reflects the actual religion of the Amish, or is rather the authors projecting their own evangelical Christian beliefs onto the Amish.  According to Hostetler, the Amish lean towards the "works" side of religion: doing good works and obeying God.  They recoil from any notion that people can truly "know" that they are saved in the here and now.

That is the overall picture, but Hostetler acknowledges some nuance.  Some Amish have been influenced by evangelical Christianity and Mennonites and have developed a focus on God's grace and a belief that people can be assured of their salvation.  Some form Bible study groups that believe this, and, according to Hostetler, the broader Amish community does not care for these groups.

On intellectual pursuits, Hostetler states that the Amish are not too keen about this, or about abstract thought.  They prefer to focus on the practical.  This coincides with their belief that Amish people should leave school at a certain age to focus on the farm.  In some of the evangelical Christian Amish fiction that I have read, however, there are Amish characters who read books and discuss ideas.  They are curious about the world and like to read about it.  One character in a Beverly Lewis novel left thoughtful reflections in her copy of Little Women, reacting to the book.  Another character liked to buy books about biblical history.  In Leslie Gould's Amish Sweethearts, there are thoughtful discussions about such issues as pacifism.

Is there a contradiction between what Hostetler says and what these evangelical Christian Amish fiction books depict?  I would say "not necessarily."  The Amish in the evangelical Amish fiction books still focus on the practical: agriculture, their work, etc.  The books that they read are not overly abstract.  And even Hostetler occasionally refers to Amish people talking about items of interest that they read about.

Then there is the issue of social etiquette.  Hostetler depicts the Amish as rather stoic and reserved, socially.  In his depiction, they do not consistently follow certain rules of social etiquette that many outsiders take for granted (saying "excuse me" after belching, saying "thank you").  In evangelical Christian Amish fiction, by contrast, the Amish do not look too different from others: they are polite, they express affection, they pursue romance.  At the same time, Hostetler does say things that balance out his depiction: the Amish are good conversationalists, children ask questions at mealtime, and husband and wife talk about how to manage life.

I would not be surprised if Amish society today is more liberal than what Hostetler depicts, especially since Hostetler himself talks about the liberalization that was occurring in his own day.  The Amish in evangelical Amish fiction do not seem to me to be as patriarchal as Hostetler's depiction of the Amish, and some of the Amish in that fiction still interact with family members who leave the faith.  On the other hand, there are still prominent elements of Amish society that are conservative.  The 2012 PBS documentary on the Amish depicted the suffering of those excommunicated from the Amish community.

Hostetler's book did mention some customs that I have yet to encounter in evangelical Christian Amish fiction (and there is much of such fiction that I have yet to read).  For example, Amish couples who court each other have a practice of laying down on the same bed.  They do not have sex outside of marriage----that would be severely frowned upon.  Nor do they sleep in the same bed at night.  But, at times, they lay down in the same bed.

D.  In I Corinthians 5:11, Paul tells Christians: "But now I have written unto you not to keep company, if any man that is called a brother be a fornicator, or covetous, or an idolater, or a railer, or a drunkard, or an extortioner; with such an one no not to eat" (KJV).

This passage comes up in discussions about church discipline: if a Christian is unrepentant and is being disciplined by his or her local church, to what extent are Christians allowed to associate or interact with him or her?

In light of this, Hostetler's description of how shunning plays out practically within the Amish family was interesting.  The Amish family does not avoid interaction altogether, but the interaction is limited.  The shunned person eats with the children rather than the adults.  The Amish are forbidden to receive help from the shunned person, so (for example) the shunned person cannot drive his family to church in the buggy.  He is allowed to ride along in the buggy, though.  In some cases, if a person is considered too disruptive, he is asked to leave home.

E.  Hostetler's book discussed other issues.  There are the controversies about whether the Amish should be exempt from public schools after a certain age, and the political issues surrounding that (some of them intersected with other issues, such as political factions).  According to Hostetler, the Amish have served on local public school boards (though earlier, on page 49, Hostetler says that they "refrain from holding public offices") and have started their own schools.  Hostetler also details what an Amish church service looks like, almost in a play-by-play manner.  And there is discussion about Amish who are discontent about Amish society, as well as Amish stances towards medicine.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Book Write-Up: Man, Myth, Messiah

Rice Broocks.  Man, Myth, Messiah: Answering History’s Greatest Question.  Nashville: W Publishing Group (an Imprint of Thomas Nelson), 2016.  See here to buy the book.

Rice Broocks wrote the apologetic book, God’s Not Dead, which was the inspiration for the 2014 Christian movie of that name.  Man, Myth, Messiah is associated with that movie’s sequel, God’s Not Dead 2.  The character Jesse Metcalfe plays in God’s Not Dead 2 is actually reading Man, Myth, Messiah in a scene.  Whereas the book and the movie God’s Not Dead focused largely on arguments for the existence of God, God’s Not Dead 2 and Man, Myth, Messiah look more at the issue of Jesus: did he exist, and are the things that the New Testament says about him historically accurate?

Here are some thoughts about the book Man, Myth, Messiah:

A.  If you have already read Christian apologetics (i.e, William Lane Craig, Lee Strobel, J. Warner Wallace, Gary Habermas, Mike Licona, Josh McDowell, David Marshall, etc.), you will be bored with Man, Myth, Messiah, perhaps even underwhelmed.  Overall, the apologetics parts of the book did not cover significantly new ground.

B.  There were a few parts of the apologetics sections that interested me.  Broocks talks about references by the church fathers to miracles in their day, as well as undesigned coincidence in John 6’s story of Jesus feeding the multitudes.  On the latter, Broocks argues that a detail in Luke 9:10 explains why Jesus asks Philip in John 6:5 where they can buy bread: Luke 9:10 says the miracle occurred near Bethsaida, and John 12:21 says that Bethsaida was Philip’s hometown.  Broocks states that “These connections and other similar examples show that the gospel stories were based on actual historical events.”

C.  Broocks talks in the book about the importance of respecting atheists: of listening to what they have to say before responding.  Broocks refers to Christians who inspired him in his own life, Christians who did not judge non-Christians but walked the Christian walk.

Unfortunately, Broocks did not model this approach in this book.  Although he quotes atheists, skeptics, and people who do not believe as he does (i.e., the Jesus Seminar), he rarely engages their actual arguments.  An exception would be his chapter that argues against the skeptical claim that Jesus was based on pagan religions.  Overall, though, Broocks talks as if atheists and skeptics have no logical or evidential basis at all for their beliefs, and that they are simply rebelling against God.

In my opinion, there are atheist and skeptical arguments that deserve serious engagement.  Broocks says that the evidence for Jesus is as reliable as the evidence for Alexander the Great, but Richard Carrier has argued that there is more evidence for Alexander the Great.  Broocks says that the early Christians could not have hallucinated the risen Jesus, but Bart Ehrman refers to hallucinations of religious figures to show that this is a possibility.  Broocks casually dismisses the Jesus Seminar, but the Jesus Seminar uses actual criteria in determining what in the Gospels is authentic, and what is inauthentic or implausible.  I could list more examples.

Broocks could say that he did not want to complicate the book with rabbit trails, but that he was writing an introductory apologetics work that could equip Christians with decent arguments.  Fine, but Broocks could have displayed some acknowledgment of nuance in the book, every now and then.  Plus, if the book fails to engage other points-of-view adequately, then is it actually equipping Christians to engage or debate with atheists?

D.  There were areas in which I thought that Broocks was rather inconsistent.  Broocks refers to Irenaeus’ Against Heresies 3.1.1, which says that Matthew wrote a Gospel in Hebrew during the ministry of Peter and Paul, and that Mark and Luke wrote after the deaths of Peter and Paul.  Broocks is probably appealing to church tradition to argue that the Gospels were written by the people who bear their names.  But Broocks appears to posit a different scenario for the Gospels’ composition from what Irenaeus presents.  Broocks agrees with many scholars that Mark’s Gospel was written first and that Matthew and Luke used Mark’s Gospel as a source.  Broocks believes that Matthew’s Gospel was written after Luke’s Gospel, and in the late 70’s-80’s (which presumably was after the lifetimes of Peter and Paul).  That appears to be different from what Irenaeus says.  What does that say about the reliability of church tradition?

E.  I think that Broocks could have done a better job in explaining the significance of some of the details that he was mentioning.  For example, how exactly does the multitude of New Testament manuscripts show that the New Testament as we know it matches the New Testament that was originally written down?  Broocks said that certain New Testament events are attested in multiple independent sources, but what are those sources?  And, rather than simply saying that skeptics have a higher standard of historicity when looking at the New Testament than they have for other ancient sources, perhaps Broocks would have done better to have discussed how historians determine what is historical: Do they simply believe whatever is written down?  If not, what criteria do they use?  Broocks interacted with some of these issues, on some level: he referred to specific multiple sources in arguing that Jesus historically died, and he mentioned the importance of sources being close to the events themselves.  Overall, though, Broocks book was not very critical, in terms of methodology.  On a positive note, Broocks does quote scholars, so perhaps that is an asset to this book: it can point readers to sources that do a better job, in terms of critical methodology.

F.  Broocks has a chapter explaining why Jesus had to die.  Essentially, Broocks articulated the concept of penal substitution, which states that Jesus paid the penalty for our sins, in our place.  The chapter was typical of many evangelical articulations of penal substitution, and it raised the same questions in my mind that those other articulations raise.  For example, if God needs to punish people’s sin to be just and to uphold some moral order, how exactly is God being just by punishing someone for something that somebody else did?  Believers in penal substitution like to make courtroom analogies, but how often do courts punish a person for somebody else’s crime?  Broocks at one point does distinguish between sins against others and sins against God: he says that people have to pay for their sins against others, but he asks how we could pay for our sins against God?  Broocks here is probably just setting the stage rhetorically for explaining why Christ had to die for our sins.

G.  The apologetic parts of the book were largely a turn-off to me, but the more personal parts of the book were rather endearing.  Broocks talks some about his own up-and-down experiences with Christianity, the miracles he has seen and heard about, and his skeptical brother’s conversion to Christ.

H.  The parts of the book about following Christ struck me as saying that we should obey, obey, obey, regardless of how we feel.  That was balanced out, somewhat, by Broocks’ telling of the faith journeys of Augustine and John Wesley.  Wesley, for some time, really struggled with his faith.

I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher through BookLook Bloggers, in exchange for an honest review.

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