Does the Bible Predict When the World Will End?

According to the calculations of a writer named David Meade, several prophetic passages from Scripture point to the impending destruction of the earth by a planet called Planet X (or Nibiru). Technically, Meade says that there will be signs from heaven on September 23, but that the “great tribulation” marking the beginning of the end will likely take place on October 15. You can learn more (and see the other conspiracy theories he holds) by checking out his website.

This is just the latest of a long line of predictions about the end of the world. In 2013, John Hagee published a book called Four Blood Moons, proposing that a series of eclipses marked a significant moment in God’s prophetic plan. In 2011, Harold Camping predicted the judgment would take place on May 21 of that year (he made similar predictions about 1994). Those of us who lived through the Y2K scare remember the spate of books that came out from the usual suspects, people like Jack Van Impe and Hal Lindsey (you can get these books at a highly reduced price now.) One thing all of these ministries have in common is that they truly qualify for non-prophet status – all of their predictions were wrong!

But these con-artists know that many people do not regularly study the Bible, especially the prophetic sections. So they simply capitalize on whatever happens to be on the front page of the newspaper and deceive people into buying their products. On that score, they are certainly not non-profit ministries.

So why do these predictions always fail? It is because the methodology behind them is bogus. The claim that the Bible predicts a specific date for the end of the world is misguided for several reason.

First, these predictions are wrong because they misapply passages that have already been fulfilled. Every one of these end-times prognostications draws heavily on a body of material known as the Olivet Discourse, a lengthy teaching Jesus gave on the Mount of Olives. In this teaching (found in Matthew 24; Mark 13; Luke 21), Jesus discusses certain signs (wars, famines, earthquakes, signs in the sun, persecution) to name a few. But Jesus clearly indicated the time frame for these signs:

“Truly, I say to you, this generation will not pass away until all these things take place” (Matthew 24:24; cf. Mark 13:30; Luke 21:32).

The signs that Jesus gave to the disciples were fulfilled in the time of Jesus’ own generation, his contemporaries. And this is precisely what history shows us. The Roman legions besieged and destroyed the city of Jerusalem in AD 70, just shy of forty years from the time of the death of Jesus. And if you read the opening of the Olivet Discourse, you will see that it was a question by the disciples about the fate of Jerusalem and its magnificent temple that sparked Jesus’ message (see Matthew 24:1-2; Mark 13:1-2; Luke 21:5-9).

This is even the case regarding the “signs in the heavens” that David Meade is fixated on. The language in the Olivet Discourse about the sun being darkened or the stars falling from heaven (Matthew 24:29; Mark 13:24; Luke 21:25) is not a literal description of eclipses or planetary collisions. It is the stock imagery of the Old Testament used to describe earth-shattering historical events involving national/political powers. Seven centuries before Christ, the prophet Isaiah announced this regarding Babylon:

Behold, the day of the Lord comes,
    cruel, with wrath and fierce anger,
to make the land a desolation
    and to destroy its sinners from it.
For the stars of the heavens and their constellations
    will not give their light;
the sun will be dark at its rising,
    and the moon will not shed its light.
I will punish the world for its evil,
    and the wicked for their iniquity;
I will put an end to the pomp of the arrogant,
    and lay low the pompous pride of the ruthless. (Isaiah 13:9-11)

Isaiah clearly has one nation in mind – Babylon (see Isaiah 13:1). But he describes its downfall in terms reminiscent of what chicken little said: “the sky is falling!” But in neither Isaiah nor the gospels is this language intended to be taken literally. And in both instances, this language describes events that have long since been fulfilled.

Second, these predictions are wrong because they ignore what the Bible says about the unknown timing of the end of the world. The only point in the Olivet Discourse that Jesus discusses the end of the world, he says this:

Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will not pass away. But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. (Matthew 24:35-36; cf. Mark 13:31-32). 

Because the end could occur at any time, Scripture often uses the imagery of the coming of a thief to depict it:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved, and the earth and the works that are done on it will be exposed. (2 Peter 3:10; cf. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-2)

The Bible simply does not give us a specific date for the end of the world. That it will happen is certain; when it will happen is not.

Third, these predictions are wrong because they distort the Bible into a source of speculation rather than edification. When Scripture discusses the end, it does so to remind us of the importance of constancy in our commitment to Christ. Notice what Peter goes on to say:

Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God (2 Peter 3:11-12a).

The Bible was not intended to be a playground for juvenile speculation. It is intended to build us up in the faith. It does not require mathematical calculations or complex code-breaking skill.  When the Bible discusses the end of the world, the second coming of Christ, and the judgment to come, it does so in language that can be clearly understood and with a very practical purpose – to admonish us to live every moment for Christ.

Besides this you know the time, that the hour has come for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed. The night is far gone; the day is at hand. So then let us cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires. (Romans 13:11-14)

Don’t be fooled by those who twist the Scriptures into some kind of end-times fortune cookie. Instead, focus on living every moment for Christ. And if we are living for Christ, then whenever he comes, “whether we are awake or asleep,” we will “live with him” (1 Thessalonians 5:10).

[If you would like to hear a sermon I recently preached about this issue, please click here]

Reflections on Job, Part 11 – The Conclusion of the Book

While the dramatic climax of Job is the Lord’s appearance, the narrator concludes the book with an epilogue (just as he began the book with the prologue of the first two chapters). This final section of the book raises several interesting points.

Job Spoke Rightly?

First, the Lord tells the friends that “you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has” (42:7). In what sense did Job speak rightly about God? After all, throughout his speeches, Job levels some very serious charges against the Lord’s governance of the world (as in 9:22-24).

Some commentators assume that the Lord is only referring to Job’s statement of repentance in 42:1-6. However, as I argued in my previous post, I don’t think the best way to understand that text is in terms of Job repenting of sin. And when the Lord tells the friends that Job has spoken rightly of him, he specifically contrasts what Job said with what they had said – “you have not spoken of me what is right.” So whatever the Lord means, it must have something to do with the contrast between what Job said about God versus what the friends said about God.

Perhaps the key to understanding this is Job’s criticism of the friends in 13:4 – “As for you, you whitewash with lies.” Job is convinced that the friends are nothing more than propagandists, willing to justify anything God does. They are “yes men.” Their view is, “If God does it, that makes it right.” But Job disagrees. He believes that God should only act in a manner fitting of what is right, and his challenge is understanding how God could be righteous and allow the evils in the world.

From this point of view, Job was more accurate in his view of God than were the friends. God can’t just do anything – it is impossible for him to sin (James 1:14) or to lie (Hebrews 6:18), for instance. This isn’t because God has to abide by someone else’s rules – he wouldn’t be God if that was the case! It is because God is perfect goodness, and always acts in keeping with his own nature. While Job spouted off many inaccurate accusations against God as he struggled to understand why he suffered, Job ultimately believed that God was just, and that God would acquit him once they conferred (see 23:3-7).

But the friends assumed that the principle of retribution was the only mechanism of God’s providence, to such an extreme that if a righteous man was suffering, they would invent charges to condemn him (as in 22:5-11). In their single-minded effort to justify God, truth was the greatest casualty. Not so with Job.

Far be it from me to say that you are right;
till I die I will not put away my integrity from me. (27:5)

In 42:8, the Lord says that the friends have acted with “folly” – the same word Job used of his wife’s appeal to curse God and die in the prologue (2:10). Neither Job’s wife nor Job’s friends understood the true nature of God. For all of his errant comments, Job was committed to a pursuit of God in integrity. The friends wanted Job to admit wrong – to be dishonest – thinking that God rewards this sort of craven dishonesty (cf. 22:21-27).

Job has been genuinely groping for the truth, but the friends have spoken falsely in their attempt to defend God. More than failing to comfort Job, they have tempted him to take the wrong course out of his affliction. Since their counsel would lead Job away from the true worship of Yahweh, they are accused of folly (nəḇālâ), the denial of God’s goodness and redemptive activity in the affairs of Mankind. (John E. Hartley, The Book of Job, p. 539).

The Evil the Lord Brought?

A second curious question is the statement in 42:11 that Job’s family “comforted him for all the evil that the Lord had brought upon him.” Why does this text blame God? After all, wasn’t it The Accuser who brought harm to Job?

This statement also parallels a statement from the prologue. The second time that the Lord addresses The Accuser, he says:

“Have you considered my servant Job, that there is none like him on the earth, a blameless and upright man, who fears God and turns away from evil? He still holds fast his integrity, although you incited me against him to destroy him without reason.” (2:3)

Whatever we are to make of this language, the Lord does not flinch from taking ultimate responsibility for what happened to Job.

So who was it that caused harm to Job, the Lord or The Accuser? This is a false choice – the answer is both, but in different respects. This is clarified by what the Lord says a few verses later:

And the Lord said to Satan, “Behold, he is in your hand; only spare his life.” (2:6).

The Accuser, like all other creatures, is subject to the sovereignty of God. God gave The Accuser permission to do harm – within limits. Had God not given such permission, no harm would have occurred. It is in this sense – God’s permissive will – that God takes ultimate responsibility for what happened to Job. The proximate responsibility belongs to The Accuser.

As a reminder, this ties in to the Lord’s second speech to Job in which he challenged Job to control and contain wickedness. Job cannot – but God can, just as he can control and contain Behemoth and Leviathan. Since God is in control, and since he is at work in all things (whether by what he permits to happen or purposes to happen), we can have confidence that God limits the evil that takes place, and that he can work through it to bring good out of it.

Job’s Fortunes Restored?

A third point raised by the conclusion of the book is the restoration of God’s fortunes. Yes, Job was twice as wealthy as before (42:10). Yes, Job receives more livestock than before (42:12). Yes, Job has more children (42:13). But was this worth all that he suffered?

Bear in mind that the way the book is framed, we are not to assume that these tangible blessings were Job’s reward for faithfulness. As I argued in the previous post, Job’s reward was God himself. Job was comforted while he was still in dust and ashes, not when he got all his stuff back.

The purpose of this restoration, then, is not to show us that if you serve God he will give you stuff – that’s the outlook of The Accuser (1:9)! A better way to look at this closing section of blessings is in keeping with the idea of a period of testing. Toward the end of the dialogues, Job says that what he is going through is a refining trial-

But he knows the way that I take;
when he has tried me, I shall come out as gold. (23:10)

What Job is going through is precisely what Abraham endured in the binding of Isaac (Genesis 22). It is what many psalms ask for (like Psalm 139:23). It is how the New Testament authors describe our suffering (as in 1 Peter 1:6-8). Job is going through a period of testing. And one thing all of these refining tests have in common is that they are temporary.

What the narrator of the book is telling us in his descriptions of Job’s restoration is that his test is complete. He has passed! He held fast to his integrity in the midst of great loss, and now his refining experience is finished. This is why any effort to frame the story of Job as some sort of cynical contest between the Lord and The Accuser utterly fails. The Lord was not gambling with Job’s life, family, or wealth. Instead, the Lord was testing Job – not to destroy him, but to refine him.

As Gerald Wilson says in his excellent commentary:

It is important to note that the restoration of Job’s circumstances relates closely to the nature of Job’s loss and suffering as a test. When God tests Abraham by commanding him to sacrifice his only son, Isaac, God restores that son to Abraham once he passes the test (Gen. 22:1–18). So here the restoration of Job’s family and possessions are part of the test story formula. (Job, p. 270)

Many of us have sung these words:

Search me, O God, and know my heart today,
Try me, O Savior, know my thoughts, I pray;
See if there be some wicked way in me;
Cleanse me from every sin, and set me free.

Have we truly understood what such a test would mean? What it would look like? I suggest that it looks pretty much like the story of Job. Such a test is painful and challenging, but the blessing of refined faith is worth it – so long as we remember that our heart’s greatest joy is God.

 

Reflections on Job, Part 10 – Did Job Repent, or Was Job Comforted?

 Then Job answered the Lord and said:
 “I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.
 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you;
 therefore I despise myself,
    and repent in dust and ashes.” (Job 42:1-6, ESV)

One common understanding of the dramatic conclusion of the Book of Job is that God’s speeches are a rebuke of Job’s impatient and presumptuous challenges to God to defend himself in a lawsuit. According to this view, Job’s response is contrite repentance. God is all-powerful and all-wise, Job is not, and Job learns to be quiet.

I have already indicated that I believe this understanding is inadequate. Yes, God does indeed talk about his powerful work of creation, but he does so in the same vein that Jesus mentioned God’s constant care of the birds of the sky and the lilies of the field (see Matthew 6:25-31). Job feels alone and abandoned, but God’s pervasive care of the creation includes Job. And yes, God does challenge Job’s power to contain evil and chaos, but as a reminder that God can do what Job cannot, if Job will trust him.

But will Job indeed trust God? There answer found in 42:1-6 is an emphatic YES. Job begins by declaring his confidence in God’s power.

I know that you can do all things,
   and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted. (42:2)

This expression of faith is remarkable given the fact that at this point Job does not understand the purpose of his suffering (although we as the readers do, based on the opening chapters). Yet he is persuaded by God’s speeches to place his trust in God.

Further, Job acknowledges that he said a lot of things that – upon further reflection – were simply not true.

‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
    things too wonderful for me, which I did not know. (42:3)

In verse 3 Job quotes the Lord’s opening challenge in 38:2, and confesses that the Lord was spot on – Job had indeed spoken in ignorance. And indeed, throughout the story, Job makes many glaring errors as he lashes out at the friends and at the Lord.

  • In 7:7 Job says he will never see good again.
  • In 7:9 Job denies there is life after death (also in 10:21; 14:10).
  • In 9:17 Job claims there is no reason behind his suffering.
  • In 12:6-9 Job charges God with letting evil have its day.
  • In 13:24 Job claims that God counts him as an enemy (also in 16:9-14; 19:11).
  • And in 29:4-5 Job says that God is no longer his friend.

From the information available to us in the entire book, as well as the larger biblical storyline, we know that these allegations are simply not true. So Job was mistaken about a great many things.

But he now sees the truth – at least the truth about God – with much greater clarity.

 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
    I will question you, and you make it known to me.’
 I had heard of you by the hearing of the ear,
    but now my eye sees you (42:4-5).

Job once again quotes the opening of God’s first speech (cf. 38:3), and affirms that his previous remarks were made in ignorance – “hearsay” – and that now he sees God. And by this, I understand Job to be saying more than that he visually sees God.  He sees God with greater comprehension (just as we say to someone, “I see what you mean”).

Most every commentator agrees with what I have said so far, but there is a great deal of disagreement about the meaning of the final part of Job’s response. This is due to some degree because of the uncertainty of the actual grammar of the text. The first line of verse 6 in Hebrew simply says, “Therefore I despise ____.” There is no direct object for the verb “despise.” So what does Job despise? It it himself? That’s how the ESV renders it. Or, does Job despise what he has been saying? That’s how the NASB translates it – “Therefore I retract.” In other words, Job retracts the lawsuit he previously intended to serve to God. I think this is the right way to understand the first part of verse 6. I like the NLT here – “I take back everything I said.”

The second line of verse 6 is even tricker. Most English translations say what the ESV says: “And repent in dust and ashes.” Curiously, Job does not use a term that simply means “repent of sin.” He uses a different word (נחם, nhm), which has a much broader meaning, “be sorry, console oneself.” It is the term used in the OT in the instances where God is said to change his mind (like Gen. 6:6; Ex. 32:14; 1 Sam. 15:11).

So it is possible that Job is not repenting of sin, but simply expressing his change of heart regarding his lawsuit. In fact, the notion that Job at the end of the book suddenly confesses that he is a sinner would – in my mind – completely subvert the entire message of the book. Job is not a sinner – he is a just and upright man who fears God and turns from evil (1:1; 1:8; 2:3). To confess his sins at this point would be to concede that the friends were right after all, even though in the epilogue God completely repudiates the friends and calls upon Job to intercede for them (42:7-8).

But I actually think there is another interpretation of verse 6 that best captures what Job says, and poignantly summarizes the message of the entire book. Those of you who use the ESV will notice that there is a footnote on the word “repent” explaining that this could also be translated, “and am comforted.” And you may recall that one of the basic definitions of this Hebrew word is “console oneself.” This specific word is used seven times in Job, and everywhere else it is translated “comfort” (2:11; 7:13; 16:2; 21:34; 29:25; 42:11). I would suggest that Job’s reaction to God is not repentance but comfort.

Maybe the reason translations choose “repent” is because of the accompanying phrase, “in dust and ashes.” But technically, repentance is not associated with dust and ashes, but sackcloth and ashes. “Dust and ashes” is used two other times in Scripture. The first is when Abraham appears before God to intercede on behalf of Sodom and Gomorrah:

“Behold, I have undertaken to speak to the Lord, I who am but dust and ashes.” (Genesis 18:27)

Abraham is acknowledging his human frailty and mortality before God – not repentance.

The other occurrence is in Job, in his lament in 30:19-

God has cast me into the mire,
and I have become like dust and ashes.

Again, the meaning here is frailty and morality. Job is sitting in the ashes while his body wastes away and returns to the dust from which it came (2:8; cf. Gen. 3:19).

I believe what Job is saying is that in view of God’s speeches and presence, he realizes his lawsuit was ill-conceived, and that even though he is dying, he is comforted.

And by making this confession before the epilogue in which Job is restored to his health, wealth, and family, Job answers what I suggested is the key question of the book – “Does Job fear God for no reason?” (Job 1:9). The Accuser claimed that Job only served God because God gave him stuff. This was a lie. Job served God for the sake of God himself, and that is why – even in dust and ashes – he is now comforted.

I love these words of Homer Hailey:

God achieved His desire in Job, and Job received what his heart yearned for: a true view of God and complete fellowship with him. He now had something that could not have been acquired apart from the experience through which he had passed…When we have passed through the crucible of experience, we can say with Job, “I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,/ But now mine eye seeth thee.” This insight remains one of the great blessings and rewards of human suffering.” (Commentary on Job, p. 366)

Note: I am deeply indebted to this post by John Mark Hicks, and to this book by Eleonore Stump, for many of my thoughts about Job, especially here.

“The Dogma Lives Loudly Within You” – the Brazen Attack on Religious Freedom Continues

Professor Amy Coney Barrett

News coverage of Hurricane Irma obscured the growing threat of another kind of storm in our country, the subversion of religious liberty. Last Wednesday, Notre Dame law professor Amy Coney Barrett appeared before the Senate Judiciary Committee as a nominee for the federal appellate bench. Senator Diane Feinstein quoted from a journal article Professor Barrett wrote some time ago in which she and her co-author discussed under what circumstances a Catholic judge should recuse herself from a death-penalty case (given the objections held by many devout Catholics regarding capital punishment). Feinstein remarked:

“Dogma and law are two different things. And I think whatever a religion is, it has its own dogma. The law is totally different. And I think in your case, professor, when you read your speeches, the conclusion one draws is that the dogma lives loudly within you, and that’s of concern.”

“The dogma lives loudly within you.”

I just turned 50 years old, and I never dreamed that in my lifetime I would see this kind of anti-Catholic rhetoric from a United States senator. But anti-Christian prejudice is indeed alive and well in the halls of the Senate. Earlier this summer, Senator Bernie Sanders told one nominee for a position in the Office of Management and Budget that he was unfit to be an American, much less serve the government, because of his evangelical Christian views.

The Constitution is very clear on this matter. Article VI says:

but no religious Test shall ever be required as a Qualification to any Office or public Trust under the United States.

Clearly, some on the Far Left like Bernie Sanders and Diane Feinstein have decided to ignore this provision and subject any nominees in their purview to a strict religious test. Considering the long history of anti-semitic injustices around the world, you would hope that these senators in particular would be more sensitive on the question of religious liberty. But that is not the case – secular progressives are blindly committed to the zealous pursuit of their own dogmas.

And the notion that a devout religious adherent has no place in government is just that – a dogma. It is a creed accepted by faith, not a policy based on a reason. The First Amendment says that:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof…

It does not say that religious people are forbidden to hold office. And when any citizen takes the oath of a particular office, that citizen is to execute that oath regardless of her own religious convictions. Ironically, that is precisely what Professor Barrett’s journal article argued – a judge with religious convictions at odds with the death penalty should recuse himself from such cases, in keeping with federal recusal laws. It is this same impulse to follow the law that leads conservatives to object to gross distortions of the Constitution like the Roe vs Wade or Obergefell decisions.  The problem with these decisions from a conservative point of view is not a matter of biblical interpretation but constitutional interpretation.

But for a certain sort of secularist, there is no room for genuine debate on constitutional interpretation if this might lead someone to a different conclusion from the cherished shibboleths of the left. No, all that will satisfy them is complete conformity to the dogma of leftist ideology. There is no place for the liberalism of a previous generation (“I disagree with your opinion but I will fight to the death for your right to express it”). Senator Dick Durbin’s line of questioning framed the issue very starkly, as he asked Professor Barrett,

“Do you consider yourself an orthodox Catholic?”

If you listen to the clip of his questioning, it is clear that he believes that any Catholic who holds that church’s teaching on issues like abortion, capital punishment, or same-sex conduct is disqualified from office, regardless of that person’s commitment to follow the rule of law.

This is the real issue. Durbin, Sanders, and Feinstein are happy to accept nominees for public office so long as that person’s actual conclusions coincide with their own religious vision. This is religious discrimination pure and simple. And it should be intolerable to all Americans committed to the concept of civil society. There has been some pushback on this issue to be sure, but I am hardly optimistic that most of my friends who consider themselves “liberal” will take what was once the classically liberal position on religious liberty.

This is an important time for believers to speak up. Yes, it is true that the church is not to be confused with the civil government. Yes, it is true that we can (and must) faithfully serve Christ regardless of what the government does. But it is also true that trends in the government (and in society) can make this task much more difficult. And if we have rights that are supposed to be protected by the government, it is a matter of good stewardship to speak out on behalf of those rights.

The apostle Paul frequently invoked his rights as a Roman citizen in the spread of the gospel (Acts 16:37-39; 22:25-28; 25:10-12). Was he willing to save the Lord even when the Empire turned against Christianity? Obviously. But he used the mechanisms of citizenship as long as he could to defend the free course of the gospel.

I am not hopeful about the long-term prospects for religious freedom in America. But we need to follow Paul’s example, and fight as long as we can to defend our right to practice our faith. If we will not speak out against such clear violations of the Constitution as religious tests for public office, when will we speak up?

At some point in the not-too-distant future, the Far Left and the Far Right will discover the one thing they have in common – abhorrence for religious convictions. For now, the Far Left’s crosshairs are only trained on devout Evangelicals and Catholics, and the Far Right’s are aimed only at Muslims. Once the extremists realize the shared values of their secular dogma, the trend against religious freedom will dramatically accelerate.

Now is the time to speak up.

 

Reflections on Job, Part 9 – The Lord’s Second Speech

The first speech of the Lord drew Job’s attention to God’s constant wisdom, power, and care for creation. Job feels abandoned by God, but the Lord’s survey of his providential care for even the most isolated of animals showed Job that he was wrong in assuming God was no longer watching over him. This leads Job to retract his “lawsuit” against the Creator-

Then Job answered the Lord and said:
“Behold, I am of small account;
what shall I answer you?
I lay my hand on my mouth.
I have spoken once, and I will not answer;
twice, but I will proceed no further.” (40:3-5)

Job may be ready to drop his case, but God is not. In 40:6 the Lord once again addresses Job “out of the whirlwind.” This second speech begins with a direct challenge to Job. Can Job save himself by defeating the wicked and proud?

Look on everyone who is proud and bring him low
    and tread down the wicked where they stand.
Hide them all in the dust together;
    bind their faces in the world below.
Then will I also acknowledge to you
    that your own right hand can save you. (40:12-14)

After this opening challenge, the Lord’s speech takes an unusual turn (at least to my ears). God asks Job about two creatures, Behemoth and Leviathan. But these creatures are very different from the animals mentioned in the first speech. Instead of conventional names (like “donkey” or “ostrich”), these creatures have unusual names. Behemoth is the plural form of the term “beast,” so we might think of it as the “Beast of Beasts” (my wonderful mentor Phil Roberts, with whom I first studied Job, loved to look at me and say “Behemoth” with great relish in class!). And Leviathan means “twisting serpent.” Again, not the typical sorts of names for creatures in standard zoology.

What are we to make of these creatures? Some readers look at the descriptions of the immense size and power of Behemoth and Leviathan and conclude that they must have been dinosaurs. One theory suggests that Job’s story took place before the Flood, when (it is argued) dinosaurs still roamed the earth, but that most of them perished in the flood and the few survivors died shortly after the Flood. While I think there are many serious problems with this theory, there is one fatal objection to it that stands out above all the others. Whatever we are to make of these creatures, it is clear that in the time of Isaiah, just seven centuries before the coming of Christ, Leviathan still existed – and awaited the future judgment of God.

In that day the Lord with his hard and great and strong sword will punish Leviathan the fleeing serpent, Leviathan the twisting serpent, and he will slay the dragon that is in the sea. (Isaiah 27:1)

So what are we to make of Behemoth and Leviathan?

The first rule of interpretation is to ask, “What did this text mean to its original readers?” So our first task should be to determine if creatures described in these terms had some special meaning to ancient people. And the evidence is clear that these descriptions did indeed have a specific resonance for the ancient world, in a manner not very different from the way we conceive of powerful forces even in our own day.

If I asked you what animal represented Russia, or China, or America, you would immediately respond with the bear, the dragon, and the eagle (or if Benjamin Franklin had his way, the turkey!). Cultures have long used animals to depict national powers (like the vision of four animals/empires in Daniel 7:1-8). And cultures have also used various creatures to symbolize abstract concepts, like wisdom (the owl), memory (the elephant), or college basketball excellence (the Wildcat!).

In the ancient world, creatures were also used to depict concepts like chaos and evil. And it just so happens that two animals used for this very purpose were the hippopotamus and the crocodile. Hippos may seem fat and friendly, but they were (and are) one of the most deadly creatures on the planet. Crocs also have a well-deserved fierce reputation. They were the perfect creatures for ancient people to use as symbols of the danger found in a chaotic world.

From The Louvre

You can see examples of this in ancient Egyptian statues and inscriptions. In that country’s mythology, Seth was the god of disorder and violence, the murderer of his brother, Osiris. Osiris’s son, Horus, sought revenge against Seth. Sometimes this was pictured in terms of Horus slaying Seth as a crocodile.

 

 

 

From the website of Dr. Günther Eichhorn

Other times, this conflict against chaos and evil was pictured in terms of Horus hunting Seth the hippopotamus. Both of these examples show how ancient cultures used animals to represent powerful abstract concepts, especially in connection with disorder and evil.

And that is how I would suggest we understand Behemoth and Leviathan in Job. I think these creatures are rooted in real animals (possibly the hippopotamus and crocodile). But they are far more than that, which is why the descriptions far surpass conventional zoology. They are the hippo and the croc “on steroids,” so to speak. And in my view, the ancient readers of Job would have immediately connected them with the concepts of chaos and evil.

In fact, some very old commentators (like Thomas Aquinas) understood them to be metaphors for the devil himself. Aquinas thought that the actual creatures this symbolism was based upon were the elephant and the whale, but that the ultimate referent was the devil. Given John’s use of the images of a great beast from the sea and the land to illustrate the powers in alliance with the dragon/Satan in Revelation 12-13, this interpretation makes a lot of sense.

It especially makes sense when you consider how the Lord introduced these creatures. Remember, the second speech begins with God challenging Job to “tread down the wicked” (40:12). Can Job control the forces of disorder and evil? No. But Someone can.

And that is the point of this second speech. God can control Behemoth – it is just another one of God’s creatures (40:15, 19). The “Beast of Beasts” is beyond the power of man to contain, but not the Creator. And God can control Leviathan – why, he could put a leash on him for little girls to play with (41:1-5)! He is a terror to man, but not to the One who can say, “Whatever is under the whole heaven is mine” (41:11).

What the Lord is ultimately asking Job is whether he will trust God to limit and contain the chaos and evil in the world. Now, we as the readers know that this is precisely what God has been doing all along in this book. The Accuser could not do anything without God’s permission, and the Lord placed strict limits on his destructive power (Job 1:12; 2:6). But Job was not privy to this. He assumes that God is the one ripping away at him like a hippo or a croc-

Surely now God has worn me out;
    he has made desolate all my company.
And he has shriveled me up,
    which is a witness against me,
and my leanness has risen up against me;
    it testifies to my face.
He has torn me in his wrath and hated me;
    he has gnashed his teeth at me;
    my adversary sharpens his eyes against me. (Job 16:7-9)

But this is not true. Job does indeed have an adversary, but it is not God. And what God is saying to him in this second speech is that there are limits on what the evil one can do, and that Job needs to place his trust in the only one who can ultimately defeat this evil power.

But is God worthy of this trust? That’s the question Job must answer, and that you and I must answer.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Reflections on Job, Part 8 – The Lord’s First Speech

We have come now to the climax of the Book of Job, the speeches of the Lord. There are actually two speeches, the first in 38:1-40:2 (with a brief reply by Job in 40:3-5); and the second in 40:6-41:34 (with a brief reply by Job in 42:1-6). Even though these speeches are the dramatic centerpiece of the book, there is widespread disagreement as to what the the Lord’s speeches actually mean. A common view is that the Lord is essentially rebuking Job, asserting His incomparable power and wisdom, leading Job to repent for his rash, ill-conceived accusations. I hope to show that this understanding of what the Lord says is crucially inadequate. But first, let’s look at these speeches in the context of the book.

Throughout the book, Job repeatedly expresses his desire to bring his complaint directly to God. Some examples:

For he is not a man, as I am, that I might answer him,
    that we should come to trial together.
There is no arbiter between us,
    who might lay his hand on us both.
Let him take his rod away from me,
    and let not dread of him terrify me.
Then I would speak without fear of him,
    for I am not so in myself. (9:32-35)

Behold, I have prepared my case;
    I know that I shall be in the right.
Who is there who will contend with me?
    For then I would be silent and die.
Only grant me two things,
    then I will not hide myself from your face:
withdraw your hand far from me,
    and let not dread of you terrify me.
Then call, and I will answer;
    or let me speak, and you reply to me. (13:18-22)

Oh, that I had one to hear me!
    (Here is my signature! Let the Almighty answer me!)
    Oh, that I had the indictment written by my adversary!
Surely I would carry it on my shoulder;
    I would bind it on me as a crown;
I would give him an account of all my steps;
    like a prince I would approach him. (31:35-37)

Further, the friends and Elihu insist throughout their speeches that this will never happen – although they wish it would occur so that God would rebuke Job even more pointedly than they have!

But oh, that God would speak
    and open his lips to you,
and that he would tell you the secrets of wisdom!
    For he is manifold in understanding.
Know then that God exacts of you less than your guilt deserves. (11:5-6)

For his eyes are on the ways of a man,
    and he sees all his steps.
There is no gloom or deep darkness
    where evildoers may hide themselves.
For God has no need to consider a man further,
    that he should go before God in judgment. (34:21-23)

Surely God does not hear an empty cry,
    nor does the Almighty regard it.
How much less when you say that you do not see him,
    that the case is before him, and you are waiting for him! (35:13-14)

In light of Job’s repeated desire for God to answer him, and in view of the repeated claims of the friends and Elihu that God will not answer him, it seems to me that Job 38:1 is enormously  significant:

“Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind.”

Contrary to the ardent belief of the friends and Elihu, God does indeed answer Job. And while the speeches of God take a dramatically different turn than the lawsuit between plaintiff and defendant that Job envisioned, it is striking that God does indeed manifest himself to Job.

How many people in the Bible receive an extended one-on-one with the Creator of the universe? Moses, Elijah, Isaiah…the list isn’t much longer. To put this in perspective, I have often complained about various elected officials, and I have even boasted of how much I would enjoy letting them have it in person. Amazingly, Air Force One has never touched down on my street! The President would never give me a private audience, but the Lord came to Job in the whirlwind.

The first speech of the Lord focuses on something that other speakers in the book also touched on – God’s work as the Creator (Job discussed this in 9:4-10; Elihu in 37:1-16). We may divide it in terms of the inanimate creation and the animate creation. The inanimate creation includes things like the foundations of the earth (38:4-7); the limits of the sea (38:8-11); the storehouses of snow (38:22-24); and the constellations (38:31-33). The animate creation includes animals like the mountain goats (39:1-4); the wild donkey (39:5-8); the wild ox (39:9-12) and the ostrich (39:13-18).

But what is the point of this survey of God’s work? May I suggest that there is more going on here than the simple assertion of brute power and wisdom. It is certainly true that Job has questioned God’s wisdom, and that part of God’s answer to Job is that man’s wisdom and power are too limited to accuse God of injustice. We just don’t possess the ability to see and understand all of God’s works.

But there is something else we should get from this first speech. What is it that ties together the examples of the inanimate creation and animate creation mentioned by God? In all these examples, God is at work even though this work is  inaccessible to human observation. The angels – not human beings – sang God’s praises when the foundations were laid. No man or woman was around when God ordered the inanimate world.

The same is true of the creatures God highlights. It isn’t domesticated animals, but mountain goats, wild donkeys, and wild oxen that God singles out for Job’s consideration. In all of these instances, God is intimately involved in the sustenance of his creation – but none of us can see him at work.

Why is this important to Job? Because Job feels like God has abandoned him. Recall this lament-

O, that I were as in the months of old,
as in the days when God watched over me…
as I was in my prime,
    when the friendship of God was upon my tent,
when the Almighty was yet with me (29:2, 4-5a).

And yet God is showing that his presence pervades all of creation, even those creatures none of us can see.

This is made all the more poignant because Job used many of these same creatures as examples of God’s absence. In 6:5 he compared his discontent to the braying of the wild donkey and ox. In 24:5 he described the mistreated poor as “wild donkeys in the desert” left to fend for themselves while God (seemingly) does nothing. And in 30:20 he portrayed his isolation in terms of the animals that haunted abandoned cities –

I am a brother of jackals
    and a companion of ostriches. 

What the Lord wants Job to understand is that just because Job cannot see God’s presence, that doesn’t mean God is absent. God brings rain “on a land where no man is” (38:26). And if God is at work in all of these other areas where Job cannot see it, then just maybe God is at work in his life, even though he cannot see it.

And of course, it just so happens that we as the readers know from the opening chapters that this is precisely the case.

 

 

 

A Brief Defense of Traditional Christian Sexual Ethics

A good friend of mine recently asked my thoughts regarding this article, which offers a revisionist view of Christian sexual ethics (in this case, specifically with regard to same-sex issues). Over the years I have seen many articles like this which attempt to overthrow traditional orthodoxy on these highly personal and sensitive issues. I thought I would offer some brief thoughts in defense of the historical understanding of the biblical record on this topic. I want to begin with these crucial foundational principles of the Christian view of sexual ethics:

First, God is the creator of the universe (Genesis 1:1; Colossians 1:15-16). This means that the natural world is not a random assembly of bits of matter. Nature is the creation of God, and as such it is suffused with order, rationality, and purpose. Our rational nature allows us to discern the structures of the natural world and to live accordingly.

Second, Jesus Christ is King (Matthew 28:18; Philippians 2:9-11). He is the ultimate sovereign, and calls his followers to absolute obedience. This means denying our own desires and wishes to live in keeping with his model of cross-bearing submission to God (Matthew 16:24). This is true regardless of our own feelings, inclinations, or desires.

Third, Jesus appointed representatives called apostles to defend and extend his authority over all nations (Matthew 28:19-20). To guide them in this mission, Jesus promised to send the Holy Spirit to guide the apostles into the truth (John 16:13; 1 Corinthians 7:40). Anyone who dismisses the words of Paul or Peter or John merely because they are not in “red letters” (the words of Jesus) completely ignores what Jesus said in John 13:20 – “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever receives the one I send receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.”

I recognize that many people do not believe in God, or in the lordship of Jesus, or in the authority of the apostles. I think you should (duh!), and that there are many good reasons for doing so. If you do not share these convictions, most likely we will not agree on highly controversial issues like same-sex conduct. But for those who do accept these truths, here is a survey of what Scripture says.

The crowning act of God’s creation in the account in Genesis is the creation of humanity.

So God created man in his own image,
    in the image of God he created him;
    male and female he created them. (Genesis 1:27)

Just as there is order and structure to creation in general, there is special order and structure to the creation of humanity. Men and women share equal status and dignity as image-bearers of God, but are also different from and complementary to each other. Adam needs a partner who can be a what the old translations called a “help meet” for him, what modern version better capture as “a companion who corresponded to him” (New English Translation). This divinely ordered male-female complementarity is the foundation of everything else Scripture says about sex:

Then the man said,
“This at last is bone of my bones
and flesh of my flesh;
she shall be called Woman,
because she was taken out of Man.”

Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and they shall become one flesh. (Genesis 2:23-24)

As the biblical record unfolds, it is important to understand that the Bible is a very big story, with a huge narrative arc. So you always have to ask yourself, “Where are we in the story?” In some parts of the story, God is calling out the nation of Israel to be distinct from other nations. This is why there are certain laws that emphasize Israel’s distinct identity (through things like circumcision, dietary laws, holy days). That’s even why there are obscure laws about keeping things separate (like different kinds of seed, or clothing material). They served as visual reminders of Israel’s distinct identity. This is where the Book of Leviticus fits in with its (to our ears) unusual and strange laws. But in the larger story arc, it was not God’s intent for Israel to remain separate forever. Through Israel, God brought the Messiah into the world, and for the whole world. So then at THAT point in the story line, those laws that kept Israel distinct were no longer needed (you can read a nice summary of this big picture in Galatians 3:16-4:7).

But there are some principles that permeate all phases of the story arc. And from a traditional Christian point of view, this includes male-female complementarity in marriage. Jesus rooted this understanding in the fabric of the created order itself. Notice this passage from Matthew:

And Pharisees came up to him and tested him by asking, “Is it lawful to divorce one’s wife for any cause?” He answered, “Have you not read that he who created them from the beginning made them male and female, and said, ‘Therefore a man shall leave his father and his mother and hold fast to his wife, and the two shall become one flesh’? So they are no longer two but one flesh. What therefore God has joined together, let not man separate.” They said to him, “Why then did Moses command one to give a certificate of divorce and to send her away?” He said to them, “Because of your hardness of heart Moses allowed you to divorce your wives, but from the beginning it was not so. And I say to you: whoever divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another, commits adultery.” (Matthew 19:3-9)

The specific matter the Pharisees are questioning Jesus about is the divorce legislation found in another Old Testament legal document, the Book of Deuteronomy. But notice that Jesus draws their attention back to the creation narrative itself, to the male-female complementarity described in Genesis. And on the basis of that teaching, especially in light of the “one-flesh” union of marriage, Jesus says that divorce is wrong. He even explicitly argues that the later provisions of the Law of Moses were provisional and temporary in light of God’s ultimate purposes reflected in creation – from the beginning it was not so.

Genesis 2 did not explicitly mention divorce, but Jesus draws out the obvious implication of its teaching regarding the subject. Anything that departs from this vision of the unity a man and woman in marriage is a departure from the structure God infused into the created order. This includes:

  • Divorce, which ruptures the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.
  • Premarital sex, which ignores the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.
  • Adultery, which betrays the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.
  • And obviously, homosexual conduct, which subverts the union of male-female complementarity in marriage.

When the apostle Paul addressed the issue of same-sex conduct specifically, his arguments were also rooted in the natural order of God. For instance, in Romans 1, Paul argues that since the Gentiles supressed the truth about God revealed in the natural order, God gave them over to – among other things – “degrading passions.”

For this reason God gave them up to dishonorable passions. For their women exchanged natural relations for those that are contrary to nature; and the men likewise gave up natural relations with women and were consumed with passion for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due penalty for their error. (Romans 1:26-27)

Right in line with the creation account, Paul says that the natural sexual counterpart for a woman is a man, and that same-sex acts are “contrary to nature.” Notice carefully – what Paul condemns here are actions that are contrary to the natural order. Consequently, when the article my friend asked me to read claims that Paul “is simply not talking about loving partnerships between people with same sex orientation,” it badly misses the point. Paul does not address the modern psychological construct of sexual orientation for good reason – that is simply irrelevant to the issue. It would make no difference to Paul whether the person engaging in same-sex acts identified as straight, gay, or bi. The issue is the act itself, regardless of the underlying orientation, and it is the act that is contrary to nature.

There is one other statement from the article I would like to briefly comment on. The writer asserts:

In other words, monitoring and proscribing human (homo)sexual activity is not a particular concern of the Bible when compared to the overarching demand for justice, economic equality, and the fair treatment of foreigners and strangers. For certain Christian groups to make this the decisive Christian issue is simply a misreading of biblical values.

No one that I know believes that same-sex marriage is “the decisive Christian issue.” The decisive Christian issue is the lordship of Jesus Christ. And far too often, those who claim to follow Jesus have indeed ignored, exploited, and oppressed the poor and needy. If Jesus is truly Lord, we do not get to pick and choose which issues we intend to take seriously. But this also includes the principles of sexual morality woven into the very fabric of the created order itself.

The teaching of Christ regarding these matters was not any more popular in the first century than it is today. In the pagan world, adultery, prostitution, and same-sex conduct were widely practiced. The apostles of Jesus frequently taught about sexual purity since this was such a counter-cultural aspect of following Jesus (as in 1 Corinthians 6:9-11; 1 Thessalonians 4:1-9; 1 Peter 4:3-5).

And the lordship of Jesus defies the popular idolatries of our age. Our culture is radically individualistic, prizing personal happiness above any sense of the common good. And our culture champions subjective feelings over objective truth, favoring personal identity over structural reality. The realm of sexual behavior is just one arena in which these idolatries are cherished.

But Christ calls his people to resist the tide of culture. To rejoice in God’s love and to share it with others. Not the vague, insubstantial “love” of pop culture which twists “love” into a code word for self-gratification. But love in its true sense, that which seeks the good of others, good as defined by God.

I know many Christians who are committed to following Jesus even though it means doing his will rather than their own in these deeply personal matters. Married Christians who remain committed to their wedding vows even when the times get tough. Single Christians who remain pure in their conduct in spite of the lure of the world. Same-sex attracted Christians who embrace the self-denying cross of Jesus and follow him in obedience.

In all these ways, these brothers and sisters of mine reflect the essence of love. Love “does not insist on its own way” (1 Corinthians 13:5). The challenge of Christ’s lordship ultimately comes down to insisting on our way or his way. In other words, it comes down to love.

 

 

 

The Greatest Campaign Speech Ever – and What We Can Learn From It

On April 4, 1968, Robert Kennedy was scheduled to speak in Indianapolis during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. He was slated to speak in a predominantly black neighborhood. As his entourage made its way to the campaign stop, Kennedy received word that Martin Luther King, Jr. had been shot and killed.

Against the advice of the police (who were uncertain about the security situation), Kennedy went through with his scheduled stop. News of MLK’s death had started filtering through the crowd, but most had not heard confirmation of his passing. With virtually no time to prepare, Kennedy spoke from his heart, and delivered the crushing news to the crowd. Here is the speech:

As news of the murder of MLK spread around the country, riots broke out in over 100 cities. But one major city did not have riots – Indianapolis. And many people credit Robert Kennedy’s speech for the peace that prevailed there.

I’ve been thinking about this speech in light of the events of last weekend. What happened in Virginia is symptomatic of a much deeper issue in our current political environment. We are obsessed with identity politics. The white nationalists who gathered in Charlottesville are the most vile example of this obsession, but they are hardly unique in their fixation on a particular identity as the focus of political action.

If I may paint with very broad strokes, it seems to me that there are two very different approaches to politics. One is the current obsession with identity politics, narrow silos of political action defined by race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, or gender. These identity movements are so strictly and rigidly defined that on more than one occasion I have been told that it is not possible for me as a white man to deeply empathize  with the experiences of those from a different race. This sort of tribalism is ultimately self-defeating, since it is inevitable that identity factions will eventually turn on each other in the zero-sum game of grievance that they have created.

But the other approach to politics is one that uses as its launching pad not how different we are, but how similar we are. It is the impulse to acknowledge that though we are different, there are experiences and values we all have in common, and through those shared values we can work together for the common good. You can see this at work in the brief speech Kennedy made. Robert Kennedy was white and wealthy, enjoying privileges that exceeded not only those African-Americans who were at this rally, but the vast majority of white Americans as well. And yet he could relate to the horror of a brutal murder, drawing on the tragedy of his own brother’s death, to find common ground with those in attendance, empathizing with them while at the same time exhorting them not to respond in kind. It was perhaps the first time he had ever opened up publicly about JFK’s murder. And it was powerful.

Here is the poignant conclusion to the speech:

What we need in the United States is not division; what we need in the United States is not hatred; what we need in the United States is not violence or lawlessness, but love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another, and a feeling of justice towards those who still suffer within our country, whether they be white or whether they be black.

“Love and wisdom, and compassion toward one another.” That’s what we desperately need. And contrary to what the purveyors of identity politics would have us believe, we do have a great deal in common with each other. I have linked this skit from Saturday Night Live in a previous post, but I will include it once more, because it brilliant captures just how similar the experiences of a lot of black people and white people actually are.

Most of all, it is important for us as Christians to present to the world an alternate reality. By its very nature, Christianity is subversive to the idolatries of any age, including the idols of racial and ethnic prejudice. We show the world what love looks like that is not defined by race but by grace.

I love Paul’s statement at the end of 1 Corinthians 10 – “Give no offense to Jews or to Greeks or to the church of God” (10:32). Paul sees three possible identities: Jews, Gentiles, and the church. The church – the people of Christ – form a new and different identity, one that transcends the racial, cultural, or economic identities that matter to the world.

Back in May I spoke for a church in Chillicothe, OH. In the course of my weekend there, I learned that one of the members used to be part of a white supremacy organization, while another used to be a militant black activist. Now, they worship together as members of the same spiritual family. The only identity that counts for them now is being in Christ.

I have very little hope that our political situation is going to get better. I don’t see very many Robert Kennedyesque figures on the right or the left. But I have tremendous hope in the power of the gospel, and for the powerful testimony the presence of the church can make in our fractured culture.

Here there is not Greek and Jew, circumcised and uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave, free; but Christ is all, and in all. (Colossians 3:11)

Nazis, Morality, and Atheism

“Nazis. I hate these guys.”
Indiana Jones

Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Since the neo-nazi movement is in the news right now thanks to the debacle in Charlottesville, I thought I would use this unseemly moment to make a point about the nature of morality. Most everyone shares the sentiments of Indiana Jones about the Nazis. Nazi ideology is the epitome of evil.

But this sentiment assumes a couple of things. First, it assumes that something called “evil” actually exists. And second, it assumes that when evil exists, the appropriate response is condemnation and opposition.

As a Christian, I happen to share these assumptions. I believe there is an objective moral order that is revealed in nature and in Scripture, and that this revelation is ultimately grounded in God. Consequently I do not believe in moral relativism, the notion that right and wrong are nothing but a subjective feature of human experience that differs from culture to culture. No, I believe some things are always wrong, transcendently wrong, whether in 1930s Germany or 2017 America.

Many of my atheist and agnostic friends have also expressed outrage at these Nazi sympathizers. I do not doubt for a moment the sincerity with which my non-believing friends hold these views. But I do have a serious question as to how they justify this outrage.

On what basis can an unbeliever say that Nazi ideology is objectively immoral? Some atheists are willing to accept the implications of their own worldview and deny that objective moral values exist. One such philosopher, Alex Rosenberg, flatly acknowledges that nihilism (the belief that meaning, purpose, and morality do not exist) “can’t condemn Hitler, Stalin…Nihilism seems to cut that ground out from under us” (The Atheist Guide to Reality p. 98). The best he can offer is the observation that what really made the Nazis so terrible is that they accepted many false beliefs. It wasn’t really a moral issue so much as a cognitive one. This sounds good, until you realize that according to Rosenberg, all of our beliefs are ultimately the product of evolution, and that

There is lots of evidence that natural selection is not very good at picking out true beliefs…There are lots of moral values and ethical norms that enlightened people reject but which Mother Nature has strongly selected for. Racism and xenophobia are optimally adapted to maximize the representation of your genes in the next generation, instead of some stranger’s genes. (p. 110-111)

If this is the case, then is it even possible to fault the Nazi’s for incorrect beliefs? Or for adapting in keeping with them? Let’s say you have two cavemen, Og and Gog. Both see a stream of water. Og believes that this water comes from the runoff of melting snow. Gog believes this comes from the Water Fairy, and that the Water Fairy will only accept one worshipper. Og’s belief is correct, Gog’s is incorrect, but when Gog murders Og to take sole control of the stream, what sort of survival advantage will Og’s correct deduction have given him? And if both cavemen’s “thoughts” were nothing more than neurochemical reactions produced by the laws of physics, how could we even condemn Gog, much less hold him personally accountable? If it makes no sense to hold one cell accountable for its moral conduct, it doesn’t make much sense to hold a cluster of cells (i.e. the brain) responsible, either.

Lest you think this sort of brazen nihilism is limited to philosophy professors, let me share a comment made to me by a friend on Facebook last year. I asked my unbelieving friends to explain why (in the tragic case of Harambe the gorilla) they would justify choosing a human life over a gorilla’s life. My friend offered this response:

Why you ask? It all goes back to Olduvai Gorge. As old as the human story itself. You defend your tribe, and sapiens sapiens we be…The only obligations that would seem to exist are within one’s own tribe.

In other words, morality is ultimately tribal, not universal.

Another friend said:

Brotherhood of man is social construct — ahem, much like religion, forgive me — that unites the tribe, the society, and provides for stability and growth. It’s a force for good, or can be, should be. But it seems to me that the value of human life, any life, any thing, comes from that social stability and security, the social norm. To assign value to one life over another – the original question, right? – is relative to each situation and society.

The “brotherhood of man” is nothing but a social construct, and the value of human life is “relative to each situation and society.”

This sounds great, until the Nazis show up!

I have not seen a single unbelieving friend say, “Well, I can’t really condemn neo-nazis because all moral values are simply social constructs.” Nor has anyone argued, “Well, our tribe differs from the neo-nazi tribe, but I can’t say they are wrong for pursuing the interests of their tribe.” No, everybody has sounded like a moral absolutist – Nazi ideology is wrong, always and everywhere.

But by what standard is this judgment made? It does no good to argue some sort of vague form of charitable humanism, since that would assume that human beings possess inherent dignity as opposed to other species – the very sort of tribalism that is the basis of Nazi ideology in the first place. Nor does it help to argue on utilitarian grounds that Nazism just doesn’t work. With just a few different decisions in history, it very well could have.

And if the Nazis had won, then according to the logic of those who say morality is purely a social construct, then whatever society the Nazis would have built would have been the measure of morality. Shows like The Man in the High Castle give us a glimpse of this moral vision, a world in which killing the infirm and brutally subjugating inferior races is not merely acceptable – it is morally obligatory.

I want to conclude by acknowledging that many atheists and agnostics have displayed brotherly love with far more clarity and consistency than lots of professed Christians. It infuriates and saddens me to confess that many people who claim the name of Christ have done evil against others merely because of their racial or ethnic identity. But here’s the point – I can justify this statement since I believe in an objective moral reality. And it is this issue – justification of one’s beliefs – that is the problem for atheism if morality is purely relative.

Since I began with an Indiana Jones quote, it seems appropriate to conclude with the words of the esteemed Jake and Elwood Blues.

“I hate Illinois Nazis.”

 

Reflections on the Events of the Weekend

Photo by Samuel Corum/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images

Some thoughts about the weekend…

  1. Racial hatred is sinful. It is an affront to the image of God all humans share, and a denial of the gospel. This is obvious, but sometimes it is good to state the obvious. This is one of those times.
  2. The alt-right white identity movement is not merely anti-black. It is also anti-semitic and explicitly anti-Christian. This movement wants nothing to do with Christians, and we want nothing to do with it (other than to call its adherents to repentance and salvation in Jesus Christ).
  3. Those of you who love smearing the “religious right” may want to rethink this now that you are seeing what the anti-religious right looks like.
  4. The white identity movement is part of a larger problem in our country, identity politics. Identity politics is an acid that eats through everything it touches. I heartily join with those on the left and the right in condemning it. Civil society is at stake, and those who want a civil society must oppose identity politics wherever it tries to seep in.
  5. Using the symbols of the 20th century’s biggest mass murderers (like Nazi symbols in Charlottesville and Communist symbols in Seattle) to promote your case is poor marketing strategy.
  6. Partisans who regularly use grossly exaggerated political rhetoric (like “Romney is a racist” or “Obama is a Marxist”) create an environment in which genuine extremism cannot receive the censure it really does deserve.
  7. I am thankful to be part of a church family that completely subverts the hatred of the white identity movement by displaying love that is defined by grace and not race, and where the only identity that counts is being in Christ.