hope

I’ve been working on Sunday’s sermon on hope, and last night Calvin’s Institutes sparked an idea. He discusses the connection between faith, hope, and love (3.2.41-43). After sleeping on it, I wrote this for my sermon. There’s still time to change what needs fixing, if you spot something.

There’s a reason why 1 Cor. 13:13 puts hope together with faith and love. Hope requires faith. It’s more than a mere wish, “hoping” that something turns out for the best. Biblical hope is a firm and certain confidence that what God promised will come true. We say “hopefully” when we’re not sure if events will break our way. God says “hope fully on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming” (1 Peter 1:13).

Hope requires love. It’s more than expecting a future event to happen, it’s hoping that it does. Biblical hope brims with desire. Hopers don’t merely believe that God will keep his promise, they need him to. They yearn for his return more than anything.

Tell me what you hope for—what you dream about when you don’t have to think about anything—and I’ll tell you what you believe. Tell me what you hope for, and I’ll tell you what you love.

coming home

If you’re able to make it, consider attending the national meeting of The Gospel Coalition next April 13-15 in Orlando. The theme this year is one that strangely warms my heart, and I’m not even Wesleyan. The title is “Coming Home: New Heaven and New Earth.”

The phrase “new heaven and new earth” raises an interesting question about our final home. The term “new” implies that something will be different and “heaven and earth” implies that something will remain the same. I expect this will be a main talking point at the conference, if the endorsements on the bottom of the website are any indication. Two of them, Tim Keller and Randy Alcorn, emphasize the continuity between this life and the next. And two, D. A. Carson and John Piper, emphasize discontinuity.

Tim Keller writes, “Christians live in the hope of knowing that the entire physical creation will be renewed into a perfect world without pain and death.”

Randy Alcorn adds, “If there is a new Jerusalem, why not a new Los Angeles? Why not a new Chicago, a new Paris a new London?”

In contrast, John Piper says, “God will make our relationship with him new and glorious.”

D. A. Carson writes, “We don’t treasure heaven much because we don’t have a right understanding of what the Bible actually says about heaven.”

Elsewhere on the site Carson elaborates on why this theme was chosen for this year, and each of his six points emphasize the discontinuity between this life and the next. I’m on the record siding with Keller and Alcorn on this one, though I appreciate the creeping liberalism that Carson warns us against. It should be a fascinating conversation, and I’m looking forward to it. Come on down if you can.

know your place

We’re halfway through our Thursday Evening Bible Class on faith and doubt. If you’re free on Thursdays from 7:30 to 8:30, come on out to the seminary for a stimulating and practical discussion about what it means to believe in God. The first four weeks have examined objective doubts—how can I know that God exists, that Jesus is his Son, and the Bible is his Word. This week we turn the page and discuss subjective doubts—what does it mean to live by faith? How can I know that I’m saved? How can I find God’s will? (or as Gary Meadors would say, I didn’t know it was lost).

Yesterday as I was driving to church I had this thought which, I’m pretty sure I covered in my faith and doubt book, Despite Doubt: Embracing a Confident Faith, but I’m not sure if I expressed it quite like this. I’d be interested in your feedback.

Here’s the thought: Is it possible that all doubt arises from, or is at least accompanied by, our forgetfulness of our place in the world? All Christian thought begins with the ontological chasm between the infinite God and his finite creation. Because we know we are God’s limited creatures, we should expect to find many things that we cannot figure out. I suspect that people who feel swamped by doubt have forgotten their finitude and, not content with their limited ability, won’t rest until they have figured-it-all-out. But this is impossible, given their creaturely place, and so they despair and say they don’t know what to believe.

Much better to remember that we are only creatures, which means there is Someone who is far above our pay grade. This should comfort us in at least two ways. First, we should rejoice that there is Someone who is stronger and more knowledgeable than us. Aren’t you relieved to know the world doesn’t depend on you? Second, we are free not to know or solve everything. We are liberated to live with unresolved questions, for they are exactly what we should expect, given our finite, creaturely status.

Bottom line: doubts can drive us to despair if we think we must prove whatever we believe. Doubts can also confirm our faith, when we use them as reminders of our place in God’s world.

profane ministry

This afternoon my Calvin class discussed Calvin’s application of the third command. In the Institutes II.8.22, Calvin says that not taking the Lord’s name in vain means, among other things, “we should not rashly or perversely abuse his Holy Word and worshipful mysteries either for the sake of our own ambition, or greed, or amusement….”

Our class immediately thought of how easy it is to take the Lord’s name in vain while preparing for or delivering a sermon. Do we study so that we will look good or to serve our Lord and benefit others? Then we thought of blogs and Bible tweets. We may pray that our inspirational tweets and blog posts will encourage others, but often they seem calculated to keep our platform alive and our name in front of others. To the extent that we share a Bible verse so that we will be noticed, to that extent we are taking the Lord’s name in vain. Calvin said so, I swear.

rethinking hell

I prepped for today’s class discussion on hell by reading a new book, Rethinking Hell, which I kindly received from one of the editors. The book is a collection of evangelical authors arguing for conditional immortality—often referred to as annihilationism—which says that the damned in hell do not suffer forever but mercifully die and go out of existence. The smoke and worms may last forever, but not the people who are sent there. Most of the essays in the book have been published elsewhere, but this book makes it easier to find them. It’s like the Amazon of Annihilationism, which is also where you can buy one.

Because these chapters were written separately, there is a bit of redundancy in bringing them together. But in some ways that is a benefit, as one can see how various authors explain differently the key passages, such as Rev. 20:10 and 14:11, that seem to teach that suffering in hell lasts forever.

Regarding Rev. 20:10, which says that Satan, the beast, and the false prophet “will be tormented day and night for ever and ever,” Edward Fudge says the beast and the false prophet are merely the “personification of civil and religious powers opposing Christ” (40). Harold Guillebaud agrees they are not human beings, or at any rate not “ordinary human beings.” If the beast and the false prophet are humans, they are “incarnations of Satan, filled with his spirit,” and so deserving of prolonged torment (170). But even Satan’s suffering must eventually come to an end, or evil is eternal. How can God claim to have defeated evil if Satan continues to exist? (172). I would respond by saying that since Satan will exist in hell, a place of torment outside of this restored world, it would be easy still for God to claim total victory.

I read first Ralph Bowles’ chapter on Rev. 14:11, which I consider the clearest passage for unending suffering. I commend his chapter for your consideration. Bowles’ argument is essentially that Rev. 14:9-11 presents an “inverted parallelistic structure,” which means that the phrase “the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever” does not chronologically follow the judgment of verse 10. John is not saying that sinners will suffer forever after the Last Judgment, only that they will suffer as long as their torment continues. I can see how Bowles’ argument would persuade those who want to be convinced, but skeptics like me might think he is working too hard to explain away an uncomfortable truth. At least it would seem difficult for lay Christians to follow the turns of his argument.

What most interests me are the theological implications of this revised view on hell. Annihilationism is not the same thing as denying the existence of hell, but it does push in that direction. The whole point behind annihilationism is to soften the suffering in hell. The authors freely admit this is what they are doing, as the concept of unending suffering is “so terrible a burden on the faith and conscience” of Christians (168). One friend confided that he was an annihilationist because unending suffering in hell was unthinkable. I responded, “I know, and that’s the point. It’s supposed to be unbearable. It’s hell.”

The annihilationist’s softer view of hell does produce a lighter view on sin. Several authors claimed that finite creatures could not deserve infinite punishment, and God would be unjust to inflict that upon them (xiii, 205, 216-17). Nigel Wright claims that a God who inflicts unending suffering on others is “not worth believing in and it is hard to blame people who find it impossible to do so” (231).

Annihilationists emphasize the love of God, but at the expense of his justice. Wright writes, “The ultimate reality about God is not the iron logic of his justice and his laws but the illogical extravagance of his love” (229). There seems to be a short step from annihilationism to inclusivism—if God doesn’t think our sins deserve unending punishment, then also he may not think they deserve to keep us out of heaven. We may not need to believe in Jesus to be saved. It may be enough to respond to whatever light we have. There is a reason why this book includes a chapter by Clark Pinnock, and why at least one author is open to the possibility of universalism—perhaps God will save everyone before it’s all said and done (227).

Rethinking Hell is a helpful book, and it comes with a website for those who want to continue the conversation. I am not convinced by the arguments, and I am troubled by the dangerous trajectory I noted above, but it’s an important discussion to have, and I’ll have it later today.

on the right road but headed the wrong way

Thanks to Bryon Morgan who alerted me to this post on religion and science from NPR. The author rightly sees the need for science to overcome its self-imposed handicap of materialistic naturalism, but he doesn’t know how to do it. He thinks it should be possible to restore wonder, passion, and value to the world without resorting to belief in God. Of course, he doesn’t attempt to explain how.

This essay gets so much right. Mostly it demonstrates the futility of any worldview that does not begin with God. We weep for a man who sees so much and yet seems totally lost. And we thank him for suggesting an excellent conversation starter with our non-Christian friends.

classic joke

Many of you have heard versions of this one before, but it’s a classic that all preachers should have in their repertoire. This one comes from my student, Tim Pike, who pastors East Tawas Assembly of God. Tuck this inside your Bible, and pull out in case of preaching emergency.

I was walking across a bridge one day, and I saw a man standing on the edge, about to jump off. I immediately ran over and said “Stop! Don’t do it!”

“Why shouldn’t I?” he said.

I said, “Well, there’s so much to live for!”

“Like what?”

“Well … are you religious or atheist?”

“Religious.”

“Me too! Are you Christian or Jewish?”

“Christian.”

“Me too! Are you Catholic or Protestant?”

“Protestant.”

“Me too! Are you Episcopalian or Baptist?”

“Baptist.”

“Wow! Me too! Are you Baptist Church of God or Baptist Church of the Lord?”

“Baptist Church of God.”

“Me too! Are you Original Baptist Church of God, or are you Reformed Baptist Church of God?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God.”

“Me too! Are you Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1879, or Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915?”

“Reformed Baptist Church of God, reformation of 1915!”

To which I said, “Die, heretic scum!” and pushed him off.

Apple Watch

The cover story of this week’s Time magazine, by Lev Grossman and Matt Vella, contains some powerful and chilling commentary on Apple’s new roll out. Here are three key paragraphs to consider before buying this latest new thing.

“It’s intoxicating and also a bit disconcerting to have this much functionality perching on your wrist, like one of Cinderella’s helpful bluebirds. Wearables get inside your personal bubble. We’re used to technology being safely Other, but the Apple Watch wants to snuggle up and become part of your Self. This is technology, after being repeatedly repulsed, finally establishing a new beachhead. To wear a device as powerful as the Apple Watch makes you ever so slightly posthuman.”

“This is new and slightly unnerving. When technologies get adopted as fast as we tend to adopt Apple’s products, there are always unintended consequences. When the iPhone came out it was praised as a design and engineering marvel, because it is one, but no one understood what it would be like to have it in our lives. Nobody anticipated the way iPhones exert a constant gravitational tug on our attention. Do I have email? What’s happening on Twitter? Could I get away with playing Tiny Wings at this meeting? When you’re carrying a smartphone, your attention is never entirely undivided.”

“The reality of living with an iPhone, or any smart, connected mobile device, is that it makes reality feel just that little bit less real. One gets overconnected, to the point where one is apt to pay attention to the thoughts and opinions of distant anonymous strangers over those of loved ones who are in the same room. One forgets how to be alone and undistracted. Ironically enough experiences don’t feel fully real till you’ve used your phone to make them virtual–tweeted them or tumbled them or Instagrammed them or YouTubed them–and the world has congratulated you for doing so.”

an unusual 9/11 devotional

I saw this illustration in Neal Plantinga’s latest (and typically stellar) book, Reading for Preaching, p. 32, and thought it would make a good start for a devotional for Our Daily Journey. I’d like to turn it in tomorrow, so if you see something, say something. Thanks!

Seth MacFarlane is the precocious creator of an animated cartoon called “The Family Guy,” which is one of the most cynical shows on television. MacFarlane was booked as a passenger on one of the airplanes that flew into the World Trade Center on 9/11, but he was late to the airport and missed the flight. Years later an interviewer asked, “After that narrow escape, do you think of the rest of your life as a gift?” MacFarlane answered, “No. That experience didn’t change me at all. It made no difference in the way I live my life. It made no difference in the way I look at things. It was just a coincidence.”

God says MacFarlane is a fool. Romans 1 declares that everyone knows God exists, but left to themselves they refuse to worship Him or even give thanks for the world He has made. Their ingratitude leads them “to think up foolish ideas of what God [is] like,” which makes their minds “dark and confused.” They become “utter fools” who worship themselves and commit whatever sin they feel like doing. Their “lives [become] full of every kind of wickedness, sin greed, hate” and so on.

How to avoid this debauched end? It starts with gratitude. Gratitude says I know I’m not God. I depend on you, who helped me, and God, who used you to help me. I can do nothing on my own. I can’t even control my own existence. I did not bring myself into existence; neither can I take myself out. If I were to commit suicide I would continue to exist somewhere, so long as God chooses to keep me around. And He will, because He’s given me His word (Psalm 16:10-11).

Only a fool can look straight into the blessings of God and blow it off as mere coincidence. Don’t be a fool. Thank God.