Category Archives: Theology

Sin, Suffering, and the Existence of Evil

We usually think of our imagination as the faculty by which we “make up” things. It is the source of our make-believe world and of fantasy writers in “worldmaking.” It is the faculty by which we imagine unicorns and mountains made of gold. These are hybrids made out the real world in our mind.

It has been argued that the imagination is also the means by which we take all the parts of knowledge and make sense of them. It is the means by which we see the whole world; by which we connect the dots; by which we attempt to make sense of life.

Take for example, the issue of suffering. There are plenty of challenges to making sense of the world. Imagine a young woman, minding her own business, walking down her neighborhood street. A car pulls up and 4 or 5 young men get out of the car, pull sufferingher the ground and, one by one, molest her.

When I first met her, five years later, to wrestle with the issues this event created for her, I asked if she believed in God. She shook her head, “No.” For clarification, I asked, “So you say you know there is no God?” She thought for moment, and said, ‘It’s not that I don’t believe in Him. It’s just that I hate him.”

Whether a person ends up denying He exists or ends up hating Him, it does not take a genius to connect the two: that is the traumatic event with the conclusion.

This woman simplified the age-old philosophical argument against God, in practical terms; not in the technical language of the philosopher or theologian.

Thomas Warren wrote,

It is likely the case that no charge has been made with greater frequency or with more telling force against theism of the Judeo-Christian (biblical) tradition than that such theism is unable to explain adequately the occurrence or the existence of evil. For some men the idea of omnipotent, omnibenevolent (perfectly good) God is simply ruled out by the enormous depth and far-reaching extent of human suffering and moral evil which these men at least think they see in the world (Have Atheists Proved There Is No God?, p. vii).

He concludes his introduction writing,

It is difficult, if indeed not impossible to imagine a challenge with more significance and implications (ibid. p. x).

All of the debates with atheists I have read or attended have been couched in abstract terms, and we have responded abstractly to them. I think that if we address the issue in light of the Story the Scriptures tell, we may be able to make as much sense out of it or more.

God made the world out of His good pleasure displaying His great glory. Man failed his mission to glorify God, sin entered into the picture, and death through sin (Rom. 5:12). Also to be considered is our arch-enemy, the devil. C.S. Lewis wrote that we live in enemy occupied territory. We live in a war zone, and in wars there are casualties, fatalities, and collateral damage. This combined with the fact that in the Fall the whole creation was subjected to futility has much explanatory power. The storyline of Scripture goes a long way toward explaining why we sin and suffer.


The Wisdom of Israel

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I have devoted the better part of the past ten years looking at the story dimension of the Bible—the largest portion of Scripture. In my recent book, Turning Points, I state that the Story is the thread connecting Genesis to Revelation and every book in between; that the Story “…provides the context for the individual doctrines by which we do business.” I would like to elaborate on how the non-narrative parts of the Bible relate to or depend on the narrative portions by looking at the book of Proverbs.

Proverbs is classified as wisdom literature. It was a book that guided the nation of Israel into the light where practical living is concerned. The book begins by telling the reader its purpose:

The proverbs of Solomon, son of David, king of Israel: To know wisdom and instruction, to understand words of insight, to receive instruction in wise dealing, in righteousness, justice, and equity; to give prudence to the simple, knowledge discretion to the youth— Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance, to understand a proverb and a saying,’the words of the wise and their riddles (Proverbs 1:1-6, ESV).

Perhaps the theme of the book is stated in the next line:

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge; fools despise wisdom and instruction (1:7).

The first nine chapters contain a number of lectures in the form of a father teaching his son. (See 1:8, 10; 2:1; 3:1, 11; 4:1, 10, 20; 5:1, 7; 6:1, 20; 7:1, 24; 8:32). Chapter 10 begins, “The proverbs of Solomon.” Beginning with chapter 10 we find the short pithy statements the book is known for.

How does this non-narrative book of wisdom relate to the narrative portions of the Bible? Read Deuteronomy 4:1-8, and you will find the answer.

Moses says to Israel,

And now, O Israel, listen to the statutes and the rules that I am teaching you, and do them, that you may live, and go in and take possession of the land that the Lord, the God of your fathers, is giving you (4:1).

He emphasizes the importance of listening and doing the statutes and rules taught in the next few lines.

Then, Moses says,

Keep them and do them, for that will be your wisdom and your understanding in the sight of the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.’ For what great nation is there that has a god so near to it as the Lord our God is to us, whoever we call upon him? And what great nation is there, that has statutes and rules so righteous as all this law that I set before you today? (Deut. 4:6-8).

Of course, Moses is telling the children of Israel how their faithful response to the Law will affect the Gentiles, but Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and the Song of Solomon will also turn Jerusalem into a city set on a hill whose light cannot be hid.

God’s overall plan was to make right the things that went wrong in the beginning (Genesis 3). He eventually chose Abraham, then Isaac, then Jacob and his twelve sons to remedy man’s deplorable situation. Israel, as a nation, would be a nation of priests to the nations around them (Exodus 19:5, 6). The way they lived, and what they taught, would attract the nations to the true and living God. It would lead the nations around Israel to say “Surely this great nation is a wise and understanding people.”

Did they succeed? Yes and No. In the early part of 1 Kings, there is the splendid example of Solomon. The Queen of Sheba heard about his wisdom and the splendor of his kingdom, and concluded that these “rumors” were exaggerations. She took a trip to Jerusalem to see for herself and left concluding that the half had not yet been told. On the other hand, the nations of Israel and her kings became a part of the problem by becoming more like the nations around them. They failed to live according to the light given to them. They were not the light of the world or a city set on a hill in the way God intended. The potential was there, but Israel became part of the problem, rather than part of the solution.

Do you see any parallel between the nation of Israel in the Old Testament and the church today? Does the way we live attract the people around us to seek God through His Son? If there is a parallel, are we failing or succeeding?


The DaVinci Code: Just a Novel?

Some have unknowingly brushed aside the ramifications of “The DaVinci Code” by saying things like, “Even Dan Brown admits it is just a work of fiction!” But that is where they are wrong. Dan Brown does not admit that his book is “just a work of fiction.”

In an interview conducted on the Today Show, Matt Lauer asked Mr. Brown the question, “How much of this is based on reality in terms of things that actually occurred? I know you did a lot of research for the book.” To which Mr. Brown replied, “Absolutely all of it. Obviously, there are–Robert Langdon is fictional, but all of the art, architecture, secret rituals, secret societies, all of that is historical fact.”

If it were strictly a work of fiction, it could be used hypothetically to help believers consider what such an alternative approach to history would imply concerning their very lives (see 1 Cor. 15:12-19). After summarizing the book, we could entertain questions like, “If such were true, what would this make of the story told in the New Testament?” and “What difference does it make?”

T. S. Eiot observed, concerning works of fiction, that people have a tendency to let their guard down precisely because what they are reading is considered “fiction.”

N.T. Wright is recognized as one of the leading scholars of the New Testament in the world today. In an address he delivered at Seattle Pacific University concerning the The Da Vinci Code, he begins by arguing,

“The task of engaging the culture with the Christian gospel and so working to transform the world always includes three elements. First, we must speak truthfully about Jesus of Nazareth, and explain how it is what we discover who God is by looking at him. Second, we must do so in full engagement with the world of our own day, understanding its ebbs and flows, its fashions and follies, the places where it has got things gloriously right and the places where it has got things gloriously wrong. Third, we must be prepared to refute — that is, to give a reasoned rebuttal of, not simply to say we disagree with — popular misconceptions which leave people with muddled and misguided ideas about Jesus and the nature of Christian faith. And the point about The Da Vinci Code is that it raises all these issues simultaneously.”

Another recognized scholar of New Testament studies writes, “While many traditional Christians might be tempted to scoff at and discmiss such books as either mere fiction or the opinions of a few fringe scholars, this would be a serious mistake. We are facing a serious revolution regarding some of the long-held truths about Jesus, early Christianity and the Bible” (Ben Witherington, “The Gospel Code,” p.11).

More on this later.


Praising God

The following four statements have something in common.

“Of a truth your God is the God of gods, and the Lord of kings, and a revealer of secrets, seeing thou hast been able to reveal this secret. Blessed be the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, who hath sent his angel, and delivered his servants that trusted in him, and have changed the king’s word, and have yielded their bodies, that they might not serve nor worship any god, except their own God.”

“Therefore I make a decree, that every people, nation, and language, which speak anything amiss against the God of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abed-nego, shall be cut in pieces, and their houses shall be made a dunghill; because there is no other god that is able to deliver after this sort.”

“I blessed the Most High, and I praised and honored him that liveth for ever; for his dominion is an everlasting dominion, and his kingdom from generation to generation And all the inhabitants of the earth are reputed as nothing; and he doeth according to his will in the army of heaven, and among the inhabitants of the earth; and none can stay his hand, or say unto him, What doest thou? … Now I, Nebuchadnezzar, praise and extol and honor the King of heaven; for all his works are truth, and his ways justice; and those that walk in pride he is able to abase.”

“I make a decree, that in all the dominion of my kingdom men tremble and fear before the God of Daniel; for he is the living God, and stedfast for ever, And his kingdom that which shall not be destroyed; and his dominion shall be even unto the end. He delivereth and rescueth, and he worketh signs and wonders in heaven and in earth, who hath delivered from the power of the lions.”

These statements were made by pagan kings about YHWH. All are found in the book of Daniel. Nebuchadnezzar, king of Babylon, made the first three (2:47; 3:28, 29; 4:34-37). Darius, king of the Medes, made the last one (6:26, 27). See also chapter 1:20 and 5:11, 12.

The first six chapters of Daniel are hero stories. They all end with pagan kings praising the God of Daniel, Hananiah, Mishael and Azariah. The lesson these pagan kings learned was one Israel desparately need to learn themselves.

“Even so let your light shine before men; that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father who is in heaven” (Matt 5:16).


“The Da Vinci Code”

A runaway best seller, with over 8 million copies in print, and soon to be major motion picture, is Dan Brown’s novel, “The Da Vinci Code.” This thriller hooks the reader from the very beginning. It is a book about secret societies and code words and religion—in particular Christianity.

The protagonist, Robert Langdon, is forced into a life-threatening quest for the Holy Grail. But the Holy Grail in this story is not what it is traditionally believed to be—the chalice from which Jesus drank at the Last Supper. The Holy Grail is the body of Mary Magdalene. Jesus and Mary were married and gave birth to a daughter they named Sarah. After Jesus’ death, Mary fled to Gaul, and then, under the protection of secret societies throughout the centuries, the seed line from Christ was preserved. There is no resurrection in this story, just a dead Jesus of Nazareth. What makes Jesus important is not his deity, which is denied in the book. It is the fact that he came from a royal line, the line of David. This is the justification given in the book for the preservation of his descendents. It is purported that the works of Leonardo Da Vinci left clues for what the books claims to be true.

The Da Vinci Code comes complete with proposed evidence to support its claims. When asked what is true in the book, Mr. Brown affirms that all its history claims are true. Though it is a work of fiction, he argues that the particulars concerning Jesus and the Holy Grail are based on fact.

There are two main issues at stake in the book. One is the reliability of the New Testament documents. The second is the identity of Jesus of Nazareth. If you can destroy the first, you can cast a mighty big shadow over the second. For those whose faith may have been shaken by reading the book, let me recommend a few resources. The first is a book by F. F. Bruce, “Are the New Testament Documents Reliable?” Another book is by Hermann Ridderbos, “Redemptive History and the New Testament Scriptures.” A third book I would recommend is written by Lee Strobel, “The Case for Christ.” These should help put to rest much that is amiss in this novel. And any Bible bookstore you walk into today will have at least half a dozen books written for the explicit purpose of addressing the preposterous claims of this novel.

One of the characters in the book, an expert on the Grail sums up the impact of the book in this sentence: “What I mean… is that almost everything our fathers taught us about Christ is false” (The Da Vinci Code, p. 235).

I have written a manuscript concerning “The Da Vinci Code” and have posted it on my web site under Manuscripts at http://www.closerlookbooks.com.