The Tale of the Babbling Brutes of Babel

The tower of Babel, found in Genesis 11:1-9, is one of the most fascinating passages in the Bible. As people read about the people, the tower, and the languages, imaginations are ignited. Important questions arise, such as: How tall could this tower have been? Where was Babel? Was this how the story really happened?

The ruins of Babel, correctly pronounced bay-bul, are potentially buried under the ancient city of Babylon, in what is currently modern-day Iraq, in addition to being under 5-6,000 years of history, making archaeological discovery and research difficult for what could be Babylon’s initial foundations.

Moreover, despite the popular way of saying Babel as babble – due to the word babble meaning confusion, the location of Babel, and the confusion that occurs there – the name Babel itself is not actually related to, nor does it mean, confusion. It actually means “Gate of/to God.” It was here that God encountered people and scattered them; therefore, while the people were attempting to build a gate to God, God met them instead, making it his gate – the gate of God. However, there is a poetic wordplay on the part of the Hebrew authors, who use babel or babil – a word with Akkadian roots for gate of God – and balal – a Hebrew word for confusion, to literarily show the relationship with the confusion that occurred at God’s gate. Though they are similar words, they are not related.

Finally, neither is humanity’s pride the main reason for God’s destruction of the tower and the ensuing confusion, but rather multiple failures by humanity to obey God’s command to multiply and spread throughout the earth.

I encourage you to read the following paper I wrote a few years back. It may help uncover this buried confusion: The Tale of the Babbling Brutes of Babel.

For more summary, see “The Babbling Brutes of Babel”.

God: Love, Justice, and Judgment

Who is God?

God of love,
God of peace,
God of justice,
God of judgment,
God of patience,
God of impatience,
God of strength,
God of power,
God of meekness,
God of humility.

No, this is not an exhaustive account of who God is.

God, whose character is consistent, sometimes seems to have contrary characteristics. Nonetheless, all of these characteristics are wrapped up in what can be called his holy love. It’s important to clarify that holy love isn’t our often subjective and changing definition of love, but God’s definition of love and his very nature.

As creator, God sets the standard, and we most clearly see that standard in Jesus Christ. In his opening words, John reminds us in his gospel that Jesus was there from the very beginning – not in the physical form of Jesus Christ, but certainly as one of the trinity. And as his created beings, we partner with God in his kingdom, but we do not set the standard for him; Jesus is the King and we have been invited to participate and contribute as his servants, and even as partners.

But still, with all of God’s characteristics being understood and entwined together as holy love, it can often be too easy for us, as people, to subjectively impose our standards upon him. Our western American culture is constantly telling us to let people be who they are; the same is true for God. We must understand God as who God is – not as we tell God who he is!

We don’t control God’s narrative; God controls God’s narrative. By his grace and love alone, he allows to participate and contribute in the narrative.

Then how can we understand this God? The answer begins with scripture. More than any other place, it is where God’s story with us is shared, and where we can learn the most about him: the Old Testament, the gospel accounts in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John of Jesus Christ – God in human form and the flame by which we see the fire of God – and the letters of the New Testament.

As we learn about who God is, let’s look at some seemingly opposing views of God: love, justice, and judgment.

Here’s one of the most quoted verses from the Bible when it comes to peace and understanding God’s love:

“He shall judge between the nations,
and shall arbitrate for many peoples;
they shall beat their swords into plowshares,
and their spears into pruning hooks;
nation shall not lift up sword against nation,
neither shall they learn war any more.”

This is a passage from Isaiah 2; it can also be found in Micah 4 with a slight variation. This verse that is often used to describe the peace of God and God’s kingdom; looking at the context of Isaiah as well as chapter 2, it also discusses God’s judgment and the day of the Lord – a reference to a “judgment day.” This verse certainly describes peace, and when we look at the life of Jesus Christ, we must seek after this kind of peace as his disciples. Micah also speaks of judgment, a restored Israel, and a day of the Lord. Reading the gospels and the New Testament, this revelation is not out of line with Jesus’ character.

While the focus is peace, it is a peace that God brings. In the life of Jesus Christ, we see that it is a peace that only he brings as Immanuel – God with us! As agents of his kingdom and filled with the power and authority of his Spirit, we participate in and find opportunities to bring that peace to the lives and cultures around us. Ultimately though, it refers to God and what only God will bring. In our lives, it is only Jesus Christ that can bring victory and peace to whatever it is that we are going through.

However, it is not a type of peace where anything goes, we all just mellow out, and everything is subjective, which I’m afraid our American culture tries to read when taking these passages out of context. Clearly, when reading these chapters, God has gained victory and cast judgment over evil people, nations, and entities, and those who come against him and his people. There is peace, but it is after God’s victory and his judgment.

Here’s the counterpart that’s also in scripture, found in Joel 3, and is rarely spoken about. I’m honestly not sure I’ve ever heard these verses expounded upon. They’re not particularly well-known verses because, on the surface, they contradict Isaiah and the popular way people have used Isaiah 3 and Micah 4.

“Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war,
stir up the warriors.
Let all the soldiers draw near,
let them come up.
Beat your plowshares into swords,
and your pruning hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, “I am a warrior.”
Come quickly,
all you nations all around,
gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord.
Let the nations rouse themselves,
and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat;
for there I will sit to judge
all the neighboring nations.”

Isaiah 2, Micah 4, and Joel 3 are all prophecies given to prophets, inspired by God, and found in scripture that all of orthodox Christianity believes is inspired by God.

Yet the words are directly reversed in these passages: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks,” and, “Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears.” Joel is prophesying to the nations and Isaiah and Micah are prophesying about the nations, both about the same event, yet there are two different directions they go.

Once again, when we read the chapter and look at the context, we see the same theme: God’s judgment and victory over those who come against him. Two prophets see it one way; another prophet sees it another way, though their pictures are remarkably similar. They both point to God’s judgment. On one side of the coin is world-changing peace that profoundly changes hearts; on the other side of the coin is defeat and destruction for those that come against him. There is peace, and though not always popular, there is also judgment.

It’s two sides of the same coin; so these two pictures aren’t really contradictory when we dig a little deeper. With God, there is life – incredible life that changes hearts and brings peace with his kingdom – life that is good by God’s standards and not the world’s standards; apart from God and against God; there is no life, in fact, there is defeat, destruction, and ultimately judgment. It’s not necessarily a destruction prescribed by God either; it is oftentimes more of a description of natural consequences. Paul speaks of this in his letter to the Romans and John speaks of it in his God-given revelation as well, where again, we meet Jesus. In fact, Jesus is given authority to judge in John’s revelation.

The defeat isn’t ours to give; that belongs to God. In fact, Jesus is the only one capable of bringing that ultimate victory. We must remember that, as disciples of Jesus Christ, God is the only one with power and capability to see into our hearts fully and bring appropriate judgment.

Meanwhile, before that ultimate day of the Lord comes, bringing this fallen era to a decisive close and when God’s patience finally wears out, Jesus Christ has invited as many as who are willing to be a part of his eternal kingdom, his ongoing narrative, and his everlasting story, experiencing God’s life and peace. It happens in ways that the world does not expect, such as picking up a cross and following Jesus through meekness and humility while relying on his strength, power, and sovereignty to subvert the power and wisdom of the world.

God is God of love, but also justice. And with justice and love, there will one day be judgment when one day God ushers in a new age with a new heaven and new earth and makes his home among us. God will make the wrongs of this age right for a new age to come. God alone knows the exact details of how and when he will do that.

Who is God, then? God is God of love as well God of justice and judgment, wrapped up in his other, holy love. Digging deeper in scripture, where we can truly start to know God, these characteristics are not so contradictory after all. It is who God is. And remember, God says who God is, not us!

Tasting Death?

“And he said to them, “Truly I tell you, there are some standing here who will not taste death until they see that the kingdom of God has come with power.” (Mark 9:1, NRSV)

“Then he drove it home by saying, “This isn’t pie in the sky by and by. Some of you who are standing here are going to see it happen, see the kingdom of God arrive in full force.” (The Message)

Here’s what Kent Brower says in his commentary on Mark (“Parousia” refers to Jesus’ return or second coming):

“In isolation, this statement seems to suggest that Jesus’ mission leads to the glorious appearance of the vindicated Son of Man. Through his coming, God’s rule will come in power within the lifetime of some of Jesus’ original audience.

“But if this refers to the Parousia, the prophecy fails: the Son of Man did not come before the death of some of Jesus’ listeners.

“Many scholarly proposals have been offered, including seeing it as predicting the resurrection, the coming of the Spirit at Pentecost, the fall of Jerusalem in A.D. 70, the recognition that the kingdom has arrived in Jesus’ life and ministry, the miraculous growth of the church, the transfiguration, or the crucifixion. Each of these proposed alternatives has strengths and weaknesses. The preferred solution should be the one that makes the best sense of the saying in its narrative context.” (Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, p. 237-8.)

These are all valid ideas and legitimate conclusions, certainly, but let’s set the stage for what is going on before reaching conclusions about Jesus’ prophecy.

After a long, 25-mile journey to Caesarea Philippi from Bethsaida, and even impatience and an acted-out parable on Jesus’ part because the disciples are just not getting the big picture, Jesus steers the conversation toward the Messiah.

It was evident from the conversation, though, that there was some confusion about Jesus’ identity, so Jesus asked, “But who do you say that I am?”

Peter responded, “You are the Messiah.” Here, with the backdrop of Rome and Greece at Caesarea Philippi and their glorious pantheon of gods, a simple wandering rabbi and tradesman is revealed to be Israel’s Messiah. And when Peter names him as Messiah, Peter believes he’s the one who will unseat Rome and all of the other pagan influences that have corrupted Israel for so long.

But Jesus, in fact, turns things upside down, and talks about how he must suffer instead. Many believed, based on Daniel’s vision (Daniel 7:13), that the “Son of Man” would make things right. Now, Jesus doesn’t deny his coming kingdom; the kingdom is coming, and Jesus will make things right, and fulfill Daniel’s vision, but it’s just not in any kind of way that disciples or Israel expect!

Here’s what Jesus does say about the Messiah, from the end of Mark 8:

“…the Son of Man must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.”

And this – if you want to actually follow this Messiah who just ends up getting himself killed:

“If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, and those who lose their life for my sake, and for the sake of the gospel, will save it. For what will it profit them to gain the whole world and forfeit their life?”

He makes the same point three different ways: We must die to ourselves in order to have true life in God.

In the eyes of those with power, those who have indeed gained the whole world, and those who have first saved their lives, it is shameful – like carrying a Roman cross and being crucified for all to see. Not only is there physical pain and anguish, but there’s pain and anguish in the embarrassment of it! There’s shame, pain, and anguish on multiple levels. You have to deny everything that the world puts in front of you that distracts you from God and focus on Jesus first and foremost, pushing everything else away.

Pause and ask yourself: What are those things in your life, and are you willing to risk putting those things aside, even to the point of carrying humiliation like God carrying a cross to death, to follow Jesus? Jesus casts aside the temptation of Satan in the desert and the temptation of Peter, his new accuser in this chapter, to have a worldly, militaristic, and powerful kingdom, in favor of his true Godly kingdom: an upside-down power that comes in the form of humility, meekness, and selfless love.

And what about tasting death?

At first glance, it does look like a potential failed prophecy of Jesus if we think it refers to his second coming, as Brower discusses. But looking at the context of the verse, we can see that there’s more going on.

Consider that the Pharisees earlier in this chapter asked for a sign, and Jesus responded, “Why does this generation ask for a sign? Truly I tell you, no sign will be given to this generation.” He unloads on the disciples in the boat when they are not getting it. And he talks about death on a cross to the crowds, and says to them, “Those who are ashamed of me and of my words in this adulterous and sinful generation, of them the Son of Man will also be ashamed when he comes in the glory of his Father with the holy angels.”

Perhaps, on a different level than all the other ideas – Parousia, resurrection, Pentecost, fall of Jerusalem, Jesus’ life and ministry, the church, transfiguration, and crucifixion – Jesus is implying that it will take an incredible miracle or sign, maybe one of the above events, before some people get the point about the kingdom of God, Jesus’ identity, and dying to one’s self. After all, one of the themes of Mark up to this point, and highlighted in this chapter, is people not seeing and understanding clearly the first time around. On the other side of the coin, however, is judgment: if it takes a sign like the Pharisees are asking for and depending on the motives, the consequences may be more dire than we expect.

As I close this post and as you consider these ideas, I encourage you to watch the following clip about Jesus and Barabbas. We watched it this past Sunday in the church community I am a part of. Jesus carried his cross and tasted death for each one of us because of his unconditional love and grace, even if we don’t deserve it or don’t even want to pick up our crosses in response to Jesus.

But if we are going to truly call ourselves his disciples, understanding the point of God’s kingdom and Jesus as Messiah, then we must be willing to do the same. When we taste the sacrificial death of Jesus Christ and follow in it, we find life and we find God’s kingdom in all of its power and full force.

The Wild Horse

An analogy on the nature of the Spirit:

The Holy Spirit is like a wild horse.

So often the Church has attempted to tame this wild horse. Unfortunately, many times we actually believe we have.

And still, many more times, and to our detriment, we affirm this horse’s wildness with our words but still treat the horse as if it were a tame animal by our actions, doing an incredibly foolish disservice by this doublespeak.

Many times we’ve attempted to put reins on this horse as we try to control its wildness and make the animal subservient to our desires, wishes, and direction.

And sometimes we’ve even convinced – deluded – ourselves that we as the Church have finally successfully corralled this horse that is the Spirit of God to our bidding, rather than the vice-versa it should be.

It’s time to take the reins off.

Or, at least, confess that we’ve never actually had any reins on this wild, majestic, and beautiful horse in the first place.

We must stop our attempts to manage the Spirit – God will not be managed by his Church. God – Father, Son, and Spirit – will lead; wherever that horse will run, his Church has no choice but to follow.


This is what Jesus said to his disciples and the people around him:

“No one sews a piece of unshrunk cloth on an old cloak; otherwise, the patch pulls away from it, the new from the old, and a worse tear is made. And no one puts new wine into old wineskins; otherwise, the wine will burst the skins, and the wine is lost, and so are the skins; but one puts new wine into fresh wineskins.” (Mark 2:21-22, NRSV) “He went on,

“No one cuts up a fine silk scarf to patch old work clothes; you want fabrics that match. And you don’t put your wine in cracked bottles.” (Mark 2:21-22, The Message)

Over the past several months, I’ve read through several books that have challenged me and the way I think about church form greatly. Not particularly function, but form: there is a difference. In a sense, it is a challenge to the traditional ecclesiology (a theological word that has to do with church form) that so many have become accustomed to and take for granted. These thoughts aren’t by any means intended to be a dissertation on ecclesiology, so don’t read this expecting all your questions to be exhaustively answered. However, these are some thoughts on wineskins, as Jesus discussed above.

(The books are: “Church 3.0” by Neil Cole, “MegaShift” by James Rutz, “House Church” edited by Steve Atkerson, and currently “The Forgotten Ways: Reactivating the Missional Church” by Alan Hirsch. I don’t agree with everything the authors say, but each raises excellent points.)

Here’s what one academic, Dr. Kent Brower, writes in regards to this passage in Mark: “This is a new day that cannot be contained by the old system” (Mark: A Commentary in the Wesleyan Tradition, p. 92).

I think Jesus’ analogy works regarding church form as well. I’m not the only one either and these aren’t particularly novel ideas. Jesus has given new wine – his new covenant – and it doesn’t work in the “old system.” The whole system had to change for us to drink and enjoy the new wine of his new life!

But regarding wineskins and church form – with a current society that is increasingly post-Christian, we’ve continuously been attempting, perhaps vainly, to use the wineskins, systems, and church forms that have been adapted for Christendom.

For the past 1700 years, church form has been operating with the same wineskins. It has been, more or less, the same liturgy or pattern in regards to ecclesiology: a church building, a pastor or leader up front, the professional clergy and laypeople distinction, the “service” or “mass,” etc. The list goes on, but you get the idea.

In terms of what Jesus said, we’ve taken his new wine and his new wineskin, and poured it into another wineskin after about 300 years – a wineskin that looks similar to the old wineskin of the old system Jesus was referring to – and we’ve been attempting to patch that same wineskin for a really, really long time. We’ve been continuously taking the same cloak or jacket that we’ve washed a thousand times before, putting a new piece of unshrunk cloth on it to repair a tear, and wondering why the cloak or jacket continues to look ragged after we wash it again. The new cloth tears away once it shrinks in the wash! And then we repeat with just a different brand of new cloth to see if that’ll work.

But it doesn’t really work to just patch a jacket like that, does it? And it definitely doesn’t work with a wineskin, though I’m afraid that’s what we continue to try – the church really loves the wineskins of Christendom. But to try to patch a wineskin really does demonstrate major denial of a situation because we know the wineskin could just burst completely even as we try to fix it! Nor does it really work to repair the crack on a bottle, as “The Message” translates, and then try to pass it off as a new bottle or a still functioning bottle. It might function for a little while before the glass has to be repaired again, but eventually the glass wine bottle will just break completely.

To be clear, there is no issue with the wine; the wine is better than it’s ever been! But I think it’s time to pour the wine into a new wineskin that might look more like the early church, before Constantine. In terms of Neil Cole’s book, “Church 3.0”, it’s time to stop trying to update version 2.0 to version 2.1, 2.2, or, or whatever version of 2.0 we’re on now, but go to 3.0 completely. I understand that’s a dangerous idea, because it means saying goodbye to church buildings and the traditional service and everything Christendom has become accustomed to and been familiar with over the last 1700 years. And it’s definitely a threat to people in church life who are accustomed to authority, wealth, and power afforded to them due to Christendom.

But are you willing to pour the wine into a new wineskin? In a world that looks like the pre-Christian, pre-Constantinian world in terms of ideology, now is the time to pour into new wineskins. And I’ve got a feeling that they look like wineskins the church has seen a long time ago – about two millennia ago.

The Spirit is blowing life in a new direction and will be shaping the form and the body and the wineskins. Are you willing to surrender everything – even sacred, patched, cracked, and bursting wineskins and bottles that we’ve come to know and love – and follow God’s wind to wherever it leads?

I understand that we, especially in North America, are in the midst of a transitional period and a reformational period. On one hand, we see some traditional churches of the type of the past 1700-year era having great success. On the other hand, we see other churches of the same type dying, with new life being breathed into ministries that look nothing like the traditional church. But 100 years from now, the landscape will look completely different than what we’re accustomed to.

Ultimately, where God’s wind is blowing is where God’s life is and it is where he will be breathing into a resurrected and brand new wineskin of the Church. And with that knowledge alone, we can be encouraged to be willing, have faith, and not fight against the Spirit’s direction.

Christ’s Power

Do we allow ourselves to be in awe of God? What about being in awe of Jesus and the power that he is capable of? Or even the Spirit – do we let the Spirit’s power amaze us even to the point when we may be scared of what happens next?

Sometimes we become so influenced by the idea of a cultural “hippy Jesus” that we forget the raw power that Jesus is capable of. The same applies to our understanding of the Spirit.

I’ve sometimes said that many Christians, though not agreeing with cessationism, are functional cessationists. We do not always want to be confronted with the power of who God is and the miracles, signs, and wonders he is capable of. We will even deny God’s power when it is directly in front of us.

It’s because God is a being that is beyond our control. God can be, at many times, beyond our understanding and our knowledge. Seminaries and other academic institutions have advanced degrees up to the doctoral level so that people can gain a grasp of who God is through knowledge – and when God does something incredible and surprises us, it can fly in the face of decades of effort of learning and attaining knowledge. Just when we think we know who God is, we realize we barely even know the first thing. It can terrify us.

Yes – God, Jesus, and the Spirit can be a threat to the religion of a visible church living in, and often influenced by, a fallen age. So we take steps to gain control, or at the very least, make it appear that we have some resemblance of control over God, even if that is just through knowledge.

Only five chapters into Mark, we already see the disciples, several times, in utter awe of Jesus – even to the point of terror. He exercises authority over demons in a way unlike any other exorcist. In the middle of a life-threatening storm on the Sea of Galilee, he directly commands nature, and it obeys. The disciples are terrified. And afterwards, the Gentiles are scared of Jesus after 2,000 pigs run into the sea and the previously crazed man, the demoniac, inhabited by a “legion” of demons, is sitting in a right mind, dressed, normal, and healed. The gentiles are rightly afraid and ask him to leave.

God, Jesus, and the Spirit are a power that can be foreign to us. Sometimes, and even Christians do this too, when that power is revealed, we ask Jesus and his Spirit to leave. It may not be done explicitly, but perhaps implicitly through the actions we take. The visible church of this age does not always want a God, Jesus, and Spirit whose power is revealed to be beyond our control, but unfortunately a God that we can manipulate into doing our established religious bidding.

I encourage you to seek after Jesus and his Spirit in a way that is revealed in scripture. Jesus reveals incredible power, but through that power incredible acts of love are also revealed. It is not one or the other, but both. When he called his disciples on the mountain in Mark 3, he gave them the responsibilities to be with him, share his message, and cast out demons. There is awe-inspiring power in Christ for his followers to do incredible and powerful acts, such as healing the sick and casting out demons. With his Spirit in you, there is power to do what we may even think is unthinkable or impossible! We will be surprised at the supernatural acts God is capable of through us.

But first, we must recognize that awe-inspiring power that is in Christ to do the miraculous. And though we may be terrified, and though it may even be a threat to many, but not all, visible churches influenced by a fallen age, it is who God is. Being with him, as he commanded, means recognizing his power, even if we don’t understand it or can’t wrap our heads around it with decades of knowledge.

So go, spend time with Jesus, ask for his Spirit and his gifts, share his message of a powerful, Godly love, cast out demons, command healing in his name, and do what the world, and even the visible church, may think is impossible.

Questioning David Platt and the Hindu Funeral Pyres

David Platt was recently elected as President of the International Missions Board for the Southern Baptist Convention (SBC).   And although I’m a minister in the Church of the Nazarene, the SBC is still our family in the greater kingdom of God.  We are brothers and sisters in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.  Although I disagree with many SBC teachings, evidenced by the remainder of this post, I do not doubt that God will continue to use the people of the SBC to expand his kingdom.  I pray that the heart of God expands in David as he takes on his new role.

On his website, David posted a video explaining his new role.  He states that one of the reasons he accepted this new responsibility was due to an extremely moving experience he had in Nepal.  He was hiking and came across several bodies burning on funeral pyres.

He says, “We came to this Hindu holy river, where, when we walked up, the first thing we saw were funeral pyres above this river and burning bodies on top of those funeral pyres.  We learned the custom for the people in this area was to bring up friend or family member within 24 hours of dying, and bring them to that river, put the body on that funeral pyre, and set it ablaze.  The thought is, as the ashes go down into the river, this will help that person in the process of reincarnation.  So we rounded the corner and saw this river, this scene, and I was just stopped in stunned silence as I found myself looking at bodies of people who were alive 24 hours before, now burning and realizing, ‘This is an earthly picture of a spiritual reality that’s happening right now.  These are people who died in their sin, apart from Christ, and are in an eternal hell at this moment.  They’ll be there forever.'”   If you’re interested listening to the audio or watching the video, it’s only about nine minutes long.

I respect and love David as a Christian brother, but I disagree with him theologically.   I want to say that there is nothing wrong with disagreement; I do not question his salvation nor his devotion to God and to God’s people, nor his ability to lead.  But sometimes it is good to see another point of view.  Even when one point of view is stated confidently as the Christian point of view, there are still other ways of thinking that stay within the orthodoxy of Christ’s Church.

I’ve learned to be gracious in disagreement, which is what I am attempting to do here.  We can disagree without casting people out as heretics and evil-doers; perhaps this is one area where the Christian Church can differ from secular society.

As a Christian, it’s good to think critically regarding every aspect of our faith.  We have to ask if different statements makes sense.  We have to ask ourselves difficult questions and ask whether or not our faith will hold to the test of those difficult questions.

We can even doubt, but we must learn to doubt faithfully.  I do not mean to be faithful to doubting, but I mean that we are still faithful to God through our doubt.  When I doubt, personally, it doesn’t mean I abandon my faith.  It means that I critically test my doubt with questions like, “How does this idea line up with scripture?  How does this idea line up with both my experience and the experience of others?  How does this idea line up with reason and logic?  How does this idea line up with Christian teaching?”

When I listen to people, there is often a constant track going on in my head which questions everything that the person says.   And so when someone makes a definitive claim that a person is, at this very moment, burning eternally in hell, I question it.

The main reason I question this statement is because scripture teaches resurrection.  It teaches the clear resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, Jesus Christ ascending into heaven, and Jesus Christ returning again.  But it also teaches the resurrection of all people at Christ’s return; Christ, at that point, will judge their hearts and determine their fate (Jn 6, Lk 14, 1 Th 4, Dn 12, Rv 20).   To deny this is also to deny the teaching of the Church, which affirms the historic Nicene Creed and Apostle’s Creed.  Both creeds teach a second coming, resurrection of the dead, and judgment of the living and the dead at his return.

Let us not also forget Paul’s imprisonment by the leaders of Jerusalem which led to his journey to Rome.  Paul was taken captive and beaten because he believed in this general resurrection in addition to the resurrection of Christ.  Several of the Pharisees, who believed in a general resurrection, did not want to imprison Paul.  The Sadducees, who did not believe in a general resurrection on the other hand, did want to imprison Paul because he was teaching contrary to their beliefs.  A fight broke out between the two groups over Paul’s understanding of the resurrection (Acts 23)!  (Perhaps the Pharisees were starting to come around, after all?)

Our own denominational Article of Faith, number 16, for the Church of the Nazarene reads, “We believe in the resurrection of the dead, that the bodies of both the just and of the unjust shall be raised to life and united with their spirits – ‘they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation.’  We believe in future judgment in which every person shall appear before God to be judged according to his or her deeds in this life.  We believe that glorious and everlasting life is assured to all who savingly believe in, and obediently follow, Jesus Christ our Lord; and that the finally impenitent shall suffer eternally in hell. (Gn 18:25, 1 Sam 2:10, Ps 50:6, Is 26:19, Dn 12:2-3, Mt 25:31-46, Mk 9:43-48, Lk 16:19-31, 20:27-38, Jn 3:16-18, 5:25-29, 11:21-27; Acts 17:30-31, Rm 2:1-16, 14:7-12, 1 Cor 15:12-58, 2 Cor 5:10, 2 Th 1:5-10, Rv 20:11-15, 22:1-15).”

If there will be resurrection in the future, at which point God will determine his eternal judgment, then God has not yet made a final judgment upon the people who are not in Christ.  It would be an unjust God who has revealed a promised judgment upon resurrection at Christ’s return, but instead judges immediately upon death, especially to something so serious as eternal damnation.

Moreover, it would be an especially unjust and unmerciful God who judges those who have never heard the gospel or the message of the true God to eternal damnation immediately upon death.  If there is anything we can learn from the story of God interacting with the people of this world, as demonstrated in the combined canon of the Old and New Testaments, it is that God loves both justice and mercy!

Reading immediate judgment upon death to eternal hell does not do justice to the complexity of scripture, human authors of the different books, the gospel of God in Jesus Christ, the inspiration of scripture through God in the Holy Spirit, or the love, mercy, and justice of God in the Father.  Nor does this type of reading do justice to the intellectual tradition of Christianity dating back to the authors of the New Testament.  We must learn to read scripture critically yet faithfully to God and the Church.

Unfortunately, it can easy to be misunderstood when discussing these aspects of theology.  I am not saying whether or not the people David Platt saw will see eternal life or death.  What I am saying is that I do not agree with his assumption that they “are in an eternal hell at this moment” and that “they’ll be there forever.”

Ultimately, the people who David saw burning on funeral pyres will be resurrected from their death to see the judgment of Christ.  Christ will be a just judge before them, taking everything into account.  As creatures of God, we do not know their judgment; we do not determine their fate.  We are all fallen creatures.  Humble before God, our creature-minds cannot come close to comprehending the full creator-mind of God.  But we must remember that their judgment solely rests in the hands of Jesus Christ; I have faith that whatever he decides, whether to eternal life or death, he will be just and merciful.

This is a much more beautiful picture of God, one that is scripturally accurate, and one that is true to the teaching of the Church.

We spread the gospel of Jesus Christ in order to expand the kingdom of God in this present world.   Christ’s kingdom first broke into this world when he was born to the virgin Mary.   As Christians, when we make disciples of all the different nations, we give them the promise of God in this current life as well as eternal life.  It is a much bigger picture of God’s work in this world than what happens after death (although that is also important!).  We give lost peoples the hope of God’s justice and mercy – here, now, and today.

We have the promise of eternal life with God through Christ, but we must remember that the promise of eternal life begins today, continues throughout our lives, continues through death, sleep, heaven or whatever may be in-between, and continues through resurrection!  It will be ever-expanding until Christ’s return, when the kingdom will be fully consummated on this earth and a new creation has been brought about as the creation was forever meant to be.

Still, even though I have theological disagreements with David, I believe that God’s Spirit will continue to work through him and expand the kingdom of God in this world.   The love, goodness, mercy, and truth of Christ will be shown, which is ultimately most important.   However, it’s good to have different viewpoints so that we can challenge our thinking when it comes to theological assumptions, yet still be faithful to Christ and his Church.   I pray that God will bring many blessings to David, his ministry, and the SBC family.

I’ve given some of my thoughts.  What are your thoughts?

Correctly Understanding the Theology of “Heaven is for Real”

I recently had the privilege of watching a great movie.  You might be familiar with the title.  It’s called “Heaven Is for Real.”  I had heard about the book for quite a while but never had an opportunity to read it.  When the movie came out, I put it on my list of films to watch.  But it wasn’t until a few days ago, with my fiancé, that I finally watched this story.

If you’re interested in a movie with lots of action and a suspenseful plot, it’s probably not your type of movie.  But if you’re interested in the gospel of Jesus Christ and learning about one boy’s incredible, God-given vision of eternity, then watch the movie.

Granted, the movie has been adapted to a film version from the book, so I’m sure there were some changes.  However, at the end of the day, the basic story is the same: Colton, at a young age, became sick with appendicitis, and while unconscious on the operating table, had a vision of Jesus Christ and heaven.  He recovered, only to have extraordinary and unexplainable observations and insights.

I have to admit, though, I was a bit skeptical at first.  Trained in theology, I need to be able to think very critically about stories like Colton Burpo’s.  The particular branch of theology that this movie deals with is eschatology – the end times of this fallen creation in anticipation of the coming age in a new creation.  While it doesn’t deal with the “end times” specifically, it does deal with life after death, which is related to eschatology.

That is why I can appreciate an article like Drew Dyck’s, “What Hollywood gets wrong about heaven.”   It is definitely a great article.   Drew reminds us of scriptural accounts of heaven from the prophets Daniel, Ezekial, and Isaiah.

Drew writes, “In Scripture, when mortals catch a premature glimpse of God’s glory, they react in remarkably similar ways. They tremble. They cower. They go mute. The ones who can manage speech express despair (or “woe” to use the King James English) and become convinced they are about to die. Fainters abound.”

He also reminds us of John’s revelation, in which heaven is presented as an awe-inspiring place.  But it is also quite terrifying from the perspective of our fallen and limited human understandings.  I like the text CNN uses for the link: “heaven is for scary real.”  It’s because it is for scary real.

It’s also why I can also appreciate noted Christian leader John MacArthur’s critique, “Heaven is Real; Hallucinations are not,” in which he says he simply does not believe the child at all.

However, as smart as the man is, I, along with many others, disagree with John MacArthur’s theological viewpoint. He is approaching the movie from his system of thinking, which comes from a very rigid Reformed theology.  Don’t get me wrong, though – he makes several legitimate points and has an understandable reason to write what he wrote.  His article should be taken very seriously because there can be such a wide variety of  these types of near-death experiences.  He offers great input as part of the conversation, but as a former professor used to say to me, “What’s the so-what?”

Unlike John MacArthur, coming from the Wesleyan tradition of Christianity, I cannot simply ignore someone’s profound personal experience – especially when the boy’s experience offers such unexplainable happenings like Colton recognizing his great-grandfather as a young man, Colton knowing that his mother miscarried, and Colton recognizing the Christ from a painting done by a little girl, whom he had never met or heard of, on the other side of the world who had a similar experience.

In the Wesleyan tradition, I have to at least try to reconcile a story like Colton’s with Christian tradition, Christian experience, theological reason, and scripture.  We must think a little deeper in order to figure out how this makes sense with a correct understanding of theology and scripture.  We must ask, “What’s the so-what?”  We’re on the right track; we just have to think a little harder.

We must ask how Colton’s story fits in with the greater story of God’s redemption of the creation that is explained in scripture.  The Spirit of God is at work in people’s lives today – even a child’s life – just as much as the Spirit of God was at work in the thousands of years of history that scripture covers.

Moreover, as a Christian I’m asked to believe in the possibility of the miraculous. We have to have faith, after all, in the life, death, and resurrection of a living Jesus Christ!

Perhaps the misunderstanding comes from an overly-simplified version of eschatology in which a person dies and either goes to heaven or hell, and that’s the end of the story.  However, that is not necessarily how it works.  Paul, prophets of the Old Testament, apostles and disciples of the New Testament, and most importantly Jesus Christ, the Messiah, all speak of a resurrection and judgment at the last day and of all things being made new in eternal life with God.  If you’d like to read a little further on this subject, as well as dive a little deeper into the possibilities of immediate life after death, check out a previous post, ““The Great Divorce” and Understanding Eschatology.”  Part of the post summarizes N.T. Wright’s “Surprised by Hope”, which is also an excellent resource on life after death.

What I’ve come to realize is that, most of the time, when people speak of heaven they mean the new creation that God will redeem this world into at the onset of the next age.   This fallen age will come to an end with the return of Christ, resurrection, and judgment unto eternal life or death by Christ.  The earth will be made new, and heaven (God’s dwelling place) will come down to a new Jerusalem.  Those whose hearts Christ judges worthy will dwell in this new creation.   It will certainly be heavenly, but it won’t be heaven proper.

Heaven, properly understood, is God’s dwelling place.  It is not of this earth.  It is the place described in Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John’s revelation.  It is awe-inspiring and terrifying.

But here’s the key: God did not create humans to dwell in heaven proper.  He created us as the pinnacle of his creation to dwell among the rest of his creation – the beautiful earth described in Genesis 1-3.  It is the beautiful earth we still see today.  And when this creation will finally be fully redeemed, wiped free from effects of sin and fallenness, it will so much more incredibly beautiful!

As people created to be part of a creation, being in heaven proper – a place not ultimately intended for us – would have the exact effect it had on Daniel, Ezekial, Isaiah, and John – trembling, cowering, speechless, and faint.

This quick illustration might help – you were created to drink out of a cup, not from a high-pressure firehose.  A human being in heaven proper is like drinking out of a high-pressure firehouse.  Even a short period of time will most likely produce some extreme consequences for the person!

Or think about this other example – an animal, taken out of its normal habitat, will not do too well; it was designed to function best in its original habitat.  Humans, as creations of God, are designed to function best in God’s creation.  And they will ultimately function greatest in God’s redeemed creation!

Considering everything, we must ask how Colton’s vision fits in with a correct theological understanding of God’s plan for people and his creation.  Ultimately, I just cannot dismiss Colton’s story as hallucination.  Theologically speaking, it cannot be dismissed as such either, as John MacArthur is quick to do.

It can be explained best, however, as a vision from God, given to Colton, of life in this new creation.  It is an incredible experience.  The mystery of God, in all of its greatness, made complete in Jesus Christ, and given to us by the Spirit, has given Colton a vision of God’s new creation – the place so many people call heaven.  Scripturally and theologically speaking, Colton’s vision is actually an accurate experience of the new creation.   Christ has a horse; Christ rides on a horse in John’s revelation.  The new creation is also free from the effects of fallenness; Colton describes everyone as young and with perfect vision (that’s great for me and my fiancé, because we’ve had bad vision our entire lives!).

It is certainly not an event where we can just put our foot down and exclaim with all certainty, “Impossible!”   To do so would be to put the power and mystery of God in a box and limit the work of the Spirit and the risen Christ, which will lead no where good.

God has shown his love to Colton through this vision, and in doing so, has inspired so many countless others to also turn their hearts to the reality of God and Jesus Christ.  And ultimately, hearts oriented and turned toward the love, grace, and glory of Jesus Christ is what matters most.

I pray that throughout the remainder of his entire life, Colton continues to inspire others toward the gospel of Jesus Christ.

The Witness of the Creeds

Christians all around the world adhere to two significant creeds – the Apostles Creed and the Nicene Creed.   Often, though, these are two very important pieces of Christianity that can be easily forgotten.

A creed is a statement of belief.   Both of these are short summaries of what a Christian believes!   They easily sum up the story of Christ in a concise way, yet they are also theologically and scripturally accurate. I would challenge you to seek to commit them to your heart and mind.  Seek to understand them faithfully with the guidance of the Holy Spirit.

These two great pieces of music, ‘We Believe‘ from the Newsboys and ‘Manifesto‘ by The City Harmonic, might also help.   Check them out!

When someone asks you what you believe as a Christian, or asks you what your testimony is, perhaps by joining in with the rest of the witness of Christ’s body throughout the past two millenia, you might give the best answer – simple, concise, accurate, and to the point:

The Apostles Creed

I believe in God almighty
And in Jesus Christ, his only son, our Lord
Who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary
Who was crucified under Pontius Pilate and was buried
And the third day rose from the dead
Who ascended into heaven
And sitteth on the right hand of the Father
Whence he cometh to judge the living and the dead
And in the Holy Ghost
The holy church
The remission of sins
The resurrection of the flesh
The life everlasting.

There is also another version of this creed:

I believe in God the Father almighty
I also believe in Jesus Christ his only son, our Lord,
conceived of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, dead and buried; he descended into hell,
rose again the third day,
ascended into heaven,
sat down at the right hand of the Father,
thence he is to come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Ghost,
the Holy Catholic Church, the communion of saints,
the remission of sins,
the resurrection of the flesh and life eternal.

The Nicene Creed

We believe in one God the Father All-sovereign, maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible;

And in one Lord Jesus Christ, the only-begotten Son of God, Begotten of the Father before all the ages, Light of Light, true God of true God, begotten not made, of one substance with the Father, through whom all things were made; who for us men and for our salvation came down from the heavens, and was made flesh of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man, and was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and suffered and was buried, and rose again on the third day according to the Scriptures, and ascended into the heavens, and sitteth on the right hand of the Father, and cometh again with glory to judge the living and dead, of whose kingdom there shall be no end:

And in the Holy Spirit, the Lord and the Life-giver, that proceedeth from the Father*, who with the Father, who with the Father and Son is worshipped together and glorified together, who spake through the prophets:

In one holy Catholic and Apostolic Church:

We acknowledge one baptism unto remission of sins. We look for a resurrection of the dead, and the life of the age to come.

*There is division between the Roman Catholic Church and Orthodox churches regarding this phrase.  One of the main reasons for this division is that the Western church began inserting this phrase into the creed without consulting the Eastern church.

“It’s where my demons hide”

The musical group Imagine Dragons has written quite a profound song.  You may have heard it about a thousand times on the radio recently – it’s called Demons.

However, in seeking to understand the story of humanity in relation to God, this particular song also has a certain theological significance.  Perhaps Imagine Dragons did not intend that; yet when seeking to accurately, and poetically, understand humanity, just as this group has done, an experience with God is inevitable.

The lyrics speak for themselves regarding the human condition:

When the days are cold
And the cards all fold
And the saints we see
Are all made of gold

When your dreams all fail
And the ones we hail
Are the worst of all
And the blood’s run stale

I wanna hide the truth
I wanna shelter you
But with the beast inside
There’s nowhere we can hide

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

At the curtain’s call
It’s the last of all
When the lights fade out
All the sinners crawl

So they dug your grave
And the masquerade
Will come calling out
At the mess you’ve made

Don’t wanna let you down
But I am hell bound
Though this is all for you
Don’t wanna hide the truth

No matter what we breed
We still are made of greed
This is my kingdom come
This is my kingdom come

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

They say it’s what you make
I say it’s up to fate
It’s woven in my soul
I need to let you go

Your eyes, they shine so bright
I wanna save that light
I can’t escape this now
Unless you show me how

When you feel my heat
Look into my eyes
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide
Don’t get too close
It’s dark inside
It’s where my demons hide
It’s where my demons hide

God certainly understands this condition.  The writers of Genesis state, “The Lord saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually” (Genesis 6:5, NRSV).  And God grieved because of it.  He saw the demons hiding within the hearts of people.

Granted, some have given in to the demons hiding within their hearts.  Still, some glorify the demons; a world where all people gloat in their evil ways with no sense of repentance is most likely what God saw in the early chapters of Genesis.

Others may live in denial of aspects of the selfishness that grips them.  It’s okay; I think we’ve all been there at one point or another regarding some type of evil that has gripped our hearts in one way or another.  God has a way of revealing our mistakes and shortcomings and wrongdoings in us.  But by his grace he does not strike us with lightning; rather, he works with us to patiently change our hearts toward his goodness.  We learn to respond in humility so that the tendency toward sin within us may be vanquished.

Yet the lyrics of Demons almost speak of someone wrestling with the evil – the beast – that they fear is hiding within them.  They want to do the right thing, but they just can’t seem to do it.  They desire with all their heart to do it, but the beast inside has too much of a grip of them.  The person simply says, “Don’t get too close, it’s dark inside.”

The human condition – the depravity of humanity, seemingly woven within our souls, nearly inescapable.  As we look at the state of the world, as we honestly look at the state of our own individual hearts, escape from our sins seems impossible.  Many theological traditions have called this total depravity, the idea that sin is embedded so deeply within us that is impossible to root it out and finally get rid of it; no matter what we breed, we still are made of greed.

Still, other theological traditions like my own, the Church of the Nazarene, say that through the power of Christ and his Spirit within us, that disposition toward sin may replaced with a disposition toward God’s holy love.  The theological traditions debate about this point, which is good, but it can also turn into talking past one another.

The reality is not necessarily as clear-cut as we try to make it in our finite minds.  Sin has a grip, an incredibly strong grip, on our hearts.  This cannot be overlooked; but it does not mean that God cannot form us and mold us.  It does not mean that the Spirit cannot be at work within us, wrestling the sin and changing it toward love.

At the same time, though, we press on toward the goal, made possible by Christ, of erasing the tendency toward sin and replacing it with a tendency toward love.  This is, as well, a definite possibility in this life, but it must be one approached with humility, an awareness of our temptations and sins, and an attitude of constantly asking for forgiveness from God and others.

Most of us are probably somewhere in between – wrestling the demons.  But as long as we are seeking after God while wrestling, accept God’s grace, and look to Christ through all of our pains, trials, and failures in this world, we are moving in the right direction.

In understanding our own condition, we must remember that humanity and God are on a collision course.  A song like Demons cannot be complete without God; it only tells half the story.  But the collision is not because of some convoluted idea that God wants to destroy us because of our sins; it’s because God wants to save us from our sins and the pain they cause.

The initial crash has already happened.  Christ, very much the focal point of that crash, was born, crucified, and resurrected as both God and man.  Read scripture and you will find the many lives of people whom Christ has touched – lepers, pharisees, the blind, the lame, and yes, of course, the demon-inhabited.

Through each person allowing Christ to change their heart, that crash is continuing as God’s kingdom breaks further into our world, one person at a time.  God desperately desires you to be a part of that kingdom, no matter what demons or beasts inside you may be wrestling with.

Christ came to not only show how to overcome our selfish, sinful behaviors, he came so that in him, and by the power of his Spirit, we can actually have life in victory over our sins.  Whereas Cain said yes to his overwhelming temptation of killing his brother Abel, by Christ we can say no.

The demons of greed, of failure, of darkness, of fear of whatever beast we believe is inside us that we are currently wrestling, hiding from, and running from – these are the demons that Christ casts away.  These are the demons that Christ will work with us to conquer and overcome.  These are the demons that, by the same Spirit that is in Christ, can be vanquished.

Still, in humility, remember that sin is always lurking at the door, just as it was for Cain (Genesis 4:7, NRSV).  This is the total depravity within us, yet more importantly it is a depravity that, by Christ in us, we have the power to not open a door to that lurking sin.

By the power of the Spirit, we are formed to be Christ-like.  Remember, though, it takes time; it can take a lot of time.  So wherever your demons may hide, allow Christ to work on them.  Allow the Spirit to shape your heart to God’s heart, forcing out the sin and humbly replacing it with love.

As Christ said, “And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matthew 6:12, NRSV).  May God forgive us of our shortcomings, sins, and mistakes, and may God fill our hearts with his love toward him and one another.