A Jeremiad

The America I knew and loved growing up is almost completely gone. The name, at least, remains. Some call it progress. I call it destruction. The people in charge are those who yell and scream, not those who debate with reason and analysis. The political world consists of those who have become so practiced in screaming that I wonder they have any vocal cords left. All political orthodoxy is assumed, not proven, not debated. It is shouted. The power of the shout, and the accompanying shatter of glass, is the only power that means anything today.

This same hatred has poured forth into the Christian world, the theological world, even the “academic” world. Freedom of opinion is not allowed any more. Only certain voices can be heard, because they shout the loudest.

For what then can we weep? Must we not weep for the wrath of God that is coming even through these glass-shattering shouts? Must we not weep for the silenced voices (which are not the voices the world thinks are silenced)? Must we not weep that we will shortly be joining our martyr brothers and sisters in other parts of the world as of a piece with the persecuted church? Must we not weep for the veil Satan has drawn over so many people’s eyes so they cannot see the spiritual warfare?

What hope have we? We have the hope God gives us. God gives us hope that silenced voices are only silent on earth. They are not silent to God. Abel’s blood cried out to God from the ground, though his voice on earth was silent. We have the hope of resurrection. Like Abel, Jesus’ blood also cried out, but in a far higher key, to God for our forgiveness. It thunders in heaven. And because of that thundering, God raised Him from the dead. We have the hope that God’s shout of wrath is not the only loud voice He has, though even there, that voice is far louder than the world’s voice. His voice of many waters thunders forth judgment on the enemies of God, but also grace for God’s people.

It is right to weep for the loss of peace and tranquility for the Christian, though not right to cling to the idol of comfort. It is right to weep for the lost, who seem to be growing more and more blind. It is right to weep for the saved, who must now find a backbone where little was required before.

On the other hand, it is right to rejoice in trials of various kinds, counting them pure joy. The church will be a lot smaller five or ten years from now. All the fair-weather friends of Christianity will be gone. The fear of man will have scared them spineless (not that they ever had a spine!). The only people left will constitute a much more pure church. And a much more pure church can have a much more positive effect on the world. All of this is happening to purify the church. Remember that world history exists for the sake of church history, not the other way around. God is heading up all things in Christ the Head. His providence is still at work, even when around us all we seem to see is evil. Evil will not have the last word. God will.

A Great Felicity of Heaven

From Jean Taffin’s The Marks of God’s Children, p. 31:

Suppose that someone of whom you are as fond as you are of yourself were to experience the same joy as you. Would not the overflowing joy that you feel in that blessedness be doubled because of the joy and glory of the one whom you cherish as much as you do yourself and for whose well-being you are as happy as you are for your own? And should two, three, or even more whom you esteem all experience the same blessedness, would you not rejoice in the happiness of each of them as much as in your own? How then will this not be the case in that perfect love, with which we will love all the divine angels and all the elect, loving each of them as much as we do ourselves and being no less happy in the joy of each of them than we are in our own joy?

Taffin goes on to note on the same page that not even this amazing happiness is the greatest joy of heaven. For even the joy of the community will pale in comparison to the joy of the Triune God’s fellowship. The thought I had about this is simple: we aren’t getting much of a head start on this joy today, because we are too individualistic. The same problem, on the negative side, prevents us from being very sympathetic for our Chinese and Nigerian brothers and sisters, who are undergoing the most severe persecution right now.

Is Hell Eternal Separation From God?

Many Christians define Hell as eternal separation from God. However, I wonder if this is born out by Scripture. It seems that a lot of people go to Jesus Christ’s cry on the cross to prove this point: “My God, my God, why have You forsaken me?” If Christ experienced Hell on the cross, as most Reformed believers rightly believe, then Hell seems to be defined here as being forsaken by God.

Another argument that seems to point in this direction is the relationship of Revelation 20 to Revelation 21. In Revelation 20, the dragon and the two beasts are thrown into the lake of fire, along with Death, Hades, and everyone whose name is not written in the Lamb’s book of life (Revelation 20:15). When one reads on into Revelation 21, it says that God will dwell with His people, which seems to suggest that He is not dwelling with those who are in the lake of fire.

To answer the first argument, it is not true that God the Father abandoned God the Son at the cross. The cross did not result in a rift in the Trinity. The abandonment consists of the God-man suffering the full wrath of God the Father. It is a giving up of Jesus to the judicial wrath, not an ontological abandonment. This becomes clear when the judgment context of Psalm 22 is taken into account, from which Jesus’ cry comes.

To answer the second argument, I wonder Who keeps the lake of fire hot? Who throws Satan into it? Who torments Satan day and night forever? Are these not divine passive constructions? Who can administer the justice but God alone? How would we ever trust that the punishment fits the crime perfectly unless it is God who punishes?

A passage that gives a bit more light on this is Revelation 14:6-13. In this passage, those who worship the beast, and receive the mark of the beast will drink the cup of the wrath of God, poured full strength (verse 10). This torment is eternal (verse 11). Therefore, John is talking about eternal punishment in Hell in these verses, not a temporal punishment. The key phrase, then, for our purposes, is the last part of verse 10: “in the presence of the holy angels and the presence of the Lamb.” It is the torment that will happen in the presence of the Lamb and of the angels, a torment that lasts forever. It is, therefore, true that the torment will last eternally in the presence of the angels and of the Lamb.

Another argument can be deduced from the principle of God’s omnipresence. If God is everywhere (see Psalm 139 for an extensive proof of God’s omnipresence), then God is present in Hell as well. Some of us might be uncomfortable saying that, as if God shouldn’t be involved in the punishment of Hell, as if it would dirty His holy hands. I would counter by saying that I wouldn’t want anyone BUT an omniscient God administering punishment for eternity! How else could permanent justice be assured?

I conclude that the formulation of Hell being eternal separation from God needs a bit of tweaking. Hell is eternal separation from the grace and mercy of God. It is not eternal separation from God entirely. I believe that people will fervently wish that they could escape the judging presence of God! Hell is a place where God is present only to judge and punish. Heaven is the place where God is present only to love and cherish.

Shaking Things Up: Hebrews 12:26-29

(Posted by Paige)

Here is another Hebrews puzzler for you! In our study we have finally made it to ch. 12, and I am contemplating possible readings of 12:26-29, where the author exposits Haggai 2:6 re. the “shaking” of the earth and the heavens. In his 2010 commentary Peter O’Brien sums up the general consensus on this passage when he writes in a footnote:

The shaking that God will do ‘once more’ is usually taken to mean that the whole universe will be shaken to pieces and the only things to survive will be those that are unshakeable. It is understood as the eschatological judgment to be visited upon the earth at the end of the age, when the material universe will pass away (1 Cor. 7:31; 2 Pet. 3:10, 12; Rev. 21:1). At that point only the kingdom of God will remain, the kingdoms of this world having been utterly destroyed (Guthrie, 422). (O’Brien, p.495n.262)

This eschatological reading seems largely to be based on the phrase “ὡς πεποιημένων,” usually translated “that is, created things.” But John Owen points out (in an appendix of Calvin’s commentary) that this could also be read as “things that are completed, accomplished, finished,” allowing us to read as the object of “shaking” the Old Covenant, or the Jewish religion, instead.

I am wondering whether there is any legitimacy to the suggestion that the author has in mind here NOT the final eschatological transformation to new heavens and new earth, still pending; but rather the completed, accomplished, finished “shaking” of heaven and earth that occurred when Christ entered the heavenly sanctuary and inaugurated the New Covenant, new kingdom, new world order by the sprinkling of His blood (cf. Heb. 12:22-24). This event would still have been future in relation to Haggai’s time, but (in contrast to the eschatological reading) would have already been accomplished by the time Hebrews was written.

Although I have not encountered it in my resources outside of Owen, I find this possible reading compelling in light of the stress in this epistle on the dramatic and decisive change from Old Covenant to New; and it is also in keeping with the author’s assertion in v.28 that “we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” indicating that this unshakeable kingdom is already an accomplished state of affairs.

What do you think? Does this passage give us information about a future event involving the material universe, or is it conveying the earth-and-heaven-shattering nature of the already-accomplished work of Christ?

Thanks in advance for your perspective!

Don’t We All Worship the Same God?

This is a fairly common occurrence. The person you meet who has been in about 5 different denominations tells you that all those denominations worship the same God. The implication (stated or unstated) is that we should stop fighting anything, since we all worship the same God. To them, no other doctrines seem to matter except the doctrine of God. Now, there is a grain of truth to this plea. We should never ignore common ground that we have with people from other denominations, as that is usually a good place to start, and shows good will. However, the unity that is usually (and rightly!) desired by people who believe in the same God cannot be achieved by simply stifling debates and lowering other doctrinal matters to the status of insignificance. This unity cannot happen by simple fiat. It is in fact naive to think this way. In fact, the emphasis really ought to be in focusing on our differences, so that the Biblical record can be examined once again to see if these things be so. A book I read fairly recently by a Roman Catholic author quite convincingly argues that ecumenical endeavors that focus entirely on common ground will inevitably stall. Instead, our attention should rather focus on the areas of disagreement. People these days seem to be allergic to disagreement. Folks, disagreement does not equal hatred!

It is not true that the doctrine of God is the only doctrine of importance. It is quite obviously of central importance. However, we cannot reduce Christianity to our doctrine of God. What about our doctrines of Scripture, Christ, man, salvation, Holy Spirit, church, and sacraments? Are they now to be completely ignored in the interests of ecumenicity? Honestly, many of the early heretics of the church would have claimed to worship the same God we do. And some of them would have been correct. Just because one is correct in one’s doctrine of God (posit, for instance, that a person is orthodox in his doctrine of the Trinity) does not mean that one is orthodox in all other areas. One could have a correct view of God, but a heretical view of Christ’s natures, for instance.

Lastly, it is not always true that these denominations have the same view of God as the other denominations. We have said before that it is not enough to state the truth in a positive way. The wrong views must also be refuted and denied. Many mainline denominations may have correct statements about the doctrine of God. However, functionally speaking, they will not discipline a minister who holds to a heretical view of God. If a denomination states an orthodox view of God, but then does not discipline their ministers for heretical views of God, then that denomination is not holding to an orthodox view of God. The reasoning for this is simple: the denomination, by failing to discipline heretical views, is stating that a variety of views on God’s person is acceptable. That is their functional position. People have forgotten just how important the denial of errors is (especially in today’s theological climate!). Of course, this also underlines the importance of church discipline for the church. I would argue against those who exclude discipline from the definition of the true church. Without discipline, the church stands for nothing. Without discipline, the church is like parents who never spank their children: they are abusing their children! It is, in effect, not parenting at all.

We really need to think much more carefully about this ecumenical business. It does need to be done. However, we need to be wise in how we do it. We can never shove differences under the rug. Otherwise, a superficial unity will result that pleases no one, least of all God, who wants a church unity that is characterized by the truth.

Deaths and Resurrections

This post will be a sort of work in progress for me as I think through my position on Revelation 20 in relation to the two deaths and the two resurrections. My position might easily change, but this is what I currently think. I have found, through emailing Dr. Fowler White, that this is the Augustinian position. My understanding of it has definitely been shaped by Dr. White’s own work.

There are two deaths. The first death is the death of the body, and the second death is the death of the soul while both body and soul are in agony in Hell (this needs to be qualified by the fact that the unbeliever’s soul is always dead throughout life, death, and the resurrection of the body). There are two resurrections. The first resurrection is of the soul (this is identical to regeneration, which Paul describes in Ephesians 2 with resurrection language), the second resurrection is of the body, reuniting the body with the soul (though not automatically specifying which eternal destiny results).

The first death (of the body) that Adam and Eve brought upon themselves in the Garden of Eden established a link to the second death, in addition to securing the perpetual death of the unbelievers’ souls. For natural unsaved humanity, the first death leads to the second death. That link is what Christ came to break. Jesus simultaneously established a link between the first and second resurrection while breaking the link between the first and the second death. This new link is a guaranteed link, and it guarantees two things: it guarantees the second resurrection and, even more importantly, freedom from the second death (this is what Revelation 20:6 is talking about, according to Augustine). At the second resurrection, of course, believers are freed from the first death as well. So the first resurrection frees us directly from the second death and, through its guarantee of the second resurrection, frees us indirectly from the first death.

Lastly (and this is most directly influenced by Dr. White’s work), both resurrections have a certain irony to them. The first resurrection has this irony for the believer: it does not free him from experiencing the first death. It promises eventual emancipation, but not immediate freedom. The second resurrection has a mirror image irony: it does not free the unbeliever from the second death.

A Problem With Premillenialism

I have been reading Sam Storms’s outstanding book on Amillenialism. He poses a number of questions which I believe are insuperable problems to the premillenial view. The most significant has to do with death in the millenial age. The premillenial position requires that there be death during the millenial kingdom, since there will be great battles towards the end of it. The premil position also holds that the second coming of Christ comes at the beginning of that millenial reign. The problem is that the annihilation of death is not tied to the end of the millenial period in biblical revelation, but rather to the second coming of Christ. In Revelation 19, the wedding supper of the Lamb is followed by a description of the second coming of Christ, in which the beast and his followers are all cast into the lake of fire. The destruction is total and complete (see in particular verses 19-21). This makes chapter 20 a recapitulation of chapter 19, not a temporally subsequent chapter. The rest of the New Testament bears out this simple fact: it is when Christ comes back that the judgment happens, the annihilation of all the enemies, and the double resurrection (not first one group and then the next) occurs (see Storms’s book for an outstanding treatment not only of the passages involved, but also of the hermeneutical issues). This means that the millenial reign happens before Christ’s second coming, not after. Amillenialism and Post-Millenialism are the only viewpoints on the millenial kingdom that can account for these particular data.

Sixth Plenary Address: From Beginning to End- God’s Garden to God’s City (Derek Thomas)

Text is Revelation 21:9-22:5

These final chapters of Revelation are a bookend to the first chapters of Genesis.

G.K. chesterton once said, “Don’t believe in anything that can’t be told in colored pictures.” Fantasy literature provides a context in which people can, perhaps, understand Revelation better: fantasy literature works in highly colored, almost cartoon-like extravagance of color. This is what Revelation feels like (minus the fiction aspect, of course).

We exist in two different realms right now as believers. Jerusalem is a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. The imagery of the cube-shaped new Jerusalem comes from the Old Testament. The main occupation of God’s people in the new heavens and the new earth is worship. This is a test: does that idea thrill us? We can hardly expect to be thrilled in worshiping God in the new heavens and the new earth if we are not thrilled in worshiping God in this life. New temple, new heaven, new world. Things in the world never stay new. But the new heavens, new earth, new temple, new world, will always retain its youth and newness. This new existence cost Jesus an unimaginable price. Jesus experienced the very reverse of the Aaronic blessing in Numbers 6: The Lord curse you and turn away from you. The Lord turn His face away from you, and be just to you. The Lord lift up His wrath upon you and give you (literally!) Hell. Jesus experienced this so that we could experience the beauty of the blessing.

The Devil in his Redemptive-Historical Context

(Posted by Paige)

Here is a pair of theological questions related to the “fear of death” topic and deriving from the same pair of verses, Heb. 2:14-15. One of my curious laypeople asked about it in our Hebrews study:

In what sense did the devil ever hold “the power of death”?

How was this power altered by Christ’s defeat of the devil?

We are looking for a way to speak accurately about the “Before” and “After” of the devil in redemptive history. Any insights?

The Hebrews verses again are:

“Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Slavery to the Fear of Death (Heb. 2:15)

(Posted by Paige)

Here’s a theme that I would like to develop into a written piece sometime; I thought I’d toss it out to you here to gather some of your good thinking, and thus expand my own. See which of these questions sparks ideas in you…

1) In what ways have cultures (and individuals), from ancient times to the present, told stories and pursued actions that reflect slavery to the fear of death?

2) In what ways has this universal fear of death been exploited by the powerful?

3)Would fear of death have at all influenced the lives of OT saints (up to and including Jesus’ disciples, pre-resurrection)? In other words, was OT revelation sufficient to remove, or at least mitigate, this universal fear of death?

Here is the text from Hebrews 2:14-15 (ESV):

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery.”

Thanks in advance for your ideas!

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