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Saturday, 23 September 2017

That Universal Question...

I recall 1978. Or it might have been 1979. An ordinary working day and lunchtime at what was British Aircraft Corporation, near a small town of Weybridge in Surrey. This rather spacious aeroplane-manufacturing works complex, consisting of several large buildings, each arranged symmetrically to form a grid of streets not unlike a typical American town layout, was built on a former motor-racing track, the then nationally famed Brooklands, with remnants of the racing track still visible throughout the seventies. The complex featured two large canteens, across the street from the factories, and built back to back with each canteen housed under the same roof. One was the worker's canteen with no staff, where cold snacks were available from vending machines lining the wall. The other canteen was fully staffed and served hot dinners for a discounted price. Before the Trade Union intervened, manual employees, such as skilled and semi-skilled precision machinists from the factory shop floor, such as myself, would have been forbidden to enter the restaurant where hot food was served, but instead had to be content with the cold snacks from the vending machines.  

A VC 10 under construction at Weybridge.

But by the mid-seventies the Union was successful in its campaign. And so, by the time I joined British Aircraft Corporation in the Autumn of 1977, we machinists and labourers alike were allowed to mix freely with the suited office staff, which before were the sole users of the canteen. Therefore, being such a free-thinker back then as I am now, and without isolating myself entirely from my work colleagues, I tended to avoid the cliche-culture of manual workers remaining in their groups, and tended to "invade" office staff whilst assembling among themselves at table. With a tray of hot food in my hands, I chose a table where I knew was a favourite among office staff. Sure enough, about half an hour later a group of suited men around my age or a tad older piled around me. Although I keep saying that they were suited, in reality they were allowed to work in the office without the need to wear a tie. By going by my experience with them, with a few exceptions, these more casually-dressed individuals tended to show a greater sense of camaraderie towards the likes of myself. 

I was quite popular among them, although there will always be a few who resented having a manual worker sitting at their table. Only once was I ordered to move by one angry office pen-pusher. Since this occurred very soon after returning from backpacking the USA in 1978, and going by the timing of this incident, his anger and consequential rejection of my presence might well have been motivated by jealousy. Otherwise, among them I was quite popular. On this occasion, I was alone at a table which accommodates six people. This particular group of office staff, seeing me sitting alone, all rushed to occupy the remaining five seats. Not only had I felt welcomed by them, but had the impression that they wanted to be in my presence to ask me some questions.

The one with the most pleasing personality and was sitting right next to me, turned and asked:
If your God is such a God of love, then why does he allow such suffering in the world?
Oh gosh, here we go again! Then I turned and asked:
Do you believe God himself had ever suffered?
He could not answer, but still stuck to his thinking that the existence of a loving God couldn't be reconciled with the reality of the world's sufferings.

And so within the last few weeks the news media pumps out disaster after disaster. After all, what is it about the Caribbean region and Mexico becoming the victim of two tropical storms (so far) along with two earthquakes, both hitting Mexico City with intensity? The storms, with both hurricanes reaching magnitude five, which is at the top end of the intensity scale, had devastated the islands of the Caribbean. This, together with the two earthquakes had caused a high rate of fatalities and many more homeless. Then in addition, right on the other side of the globe, an earthquake hits Japan within the same time frame. Yet it is the islands surrounding the Caribbean Sea which are worst affected, whilst the UK seemed to enjoy immunity from such forces of nature. After all, with just one centimetre of snow covering our land, the whole nation comes to a standstill - schools close, trains remain stranded between stations, roads turn into skidpans and traffic builds up into a snarling congestion. After all, nature mustn't be too hard on us British! If half-an-inch of snow can cripple us, heaven help us if a magnitude twelve earthquake was to strike, or be hit by an intense Force Five hurricane.

Indeed, how can a God of love allow for all this? And then only at some parts of the world and not in other parts? To add salt to the wound, it does look as if nature is far more harsh towards the poorer tropical nations, while the richer nations such as the UK and Northern Europe seem to escape from such disasters. Even then, sitting on a throne in Heaven, God and his heavenly population aren't at all affected by these disasters, are they? And yet we earthlings are, and it does look as if God's arm is too short to intervene. Yet the question remains: Has God himself ever experienced suffering?

By reading the Internet lately, a plethora of blogs, articles and comments began to appear as if a by-product of these catastrophes. These contributions generally centres on the concept that as these disasters grow more and more frequent, this is the sign that the Rapture and the Second Advent of Christ are rapidly approaching. Even as I write, there is talk of the world ending today, a theory advocated by some christian crackpot, and therefore giving our faith a bad reputation. The fact that I'm right at this moment typing on the computer testifies that I'm still here and this present world hadn't ended, nor are we about to face Antichrist and the Great Tribulation.

This idea of the imminent coming of Christ is taken from Matthew chapter 24. Especially in the case of this generation in no way passing away until all these things - earthquakes, disease, global warfare, etc - are fulfilled, then the end will come (Matthew 24:34). The trouble is, when did this generation came to be? Was it those born before or even during the Great War of 1914-1918, as advocated by Tim LaHaye, Hal Lindsey, and perhaps Norman Robertson? The snag with that idea is that those alive during the Great War, even children alive during 1914, have long passed away. And the end still hadn't arrived. Or what about the generation who were alive when Israel became a sovereign nation on May 14, 1948? Yes possibly, because among the veteran population, there are many still alive to this day. Even more so who were alive when Jerusalem became the capital city of the restored nation of Israel. That took place in July 1980. This may indeed be a point worthy of consideration, because Jesus began his discourse on the Temple in Jerusalem, which stood at that time, and he foretold its destruction by the Romans some forty years later. If Jesus was speaking specifically about Jerusalem, and this present generation is the actual one Jesus was referring to - the generation who saw Jerusalem declared the capital city of Israel in 1980 - then I'm one of this generation, since I was already 27 years of age when this declaration was ratified. Indeed, the Rapture could occur within my lifetime, assuming that I could have up to thirty years left to live (taking me into my nineties!) But whether plausible all this may be, my generation have not seen the beginning of "wars and the rumours of wars...nation rising against nation and kingdom against kingdom, famines, pestilences and earthquakes in diverse places, which are the beginning of sorrows (or birth pains)." Rather, the beginning of all these was seen by those alive around 1914.

Therefore a counter-argument had arisen among more recent authors, such as Benjamin L. Corey, who wrote and published books as well as posted on the Internet. These authors specify that "This generation" of Matthew 24:34 refers to his disciples who were alive in his day, and were still alive during the razing of Jerusalem to the ground by the Romans in AD 70, and this event referred to as "The Great Tribulation". This carried with it the argument that the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in AD 79 resulted in the sun turning dark and the moon blood red, and the cloud of ash obscuring the stars at night - giving the effect of "falling from heaven" as the cities of Pompeii and Herculaneum were wiped out.

I think I can see where this author is coming from. First of all, Jesus was talking specifically about Jerusalem, with its destruction in AD 70. This was nine years before Mt. Vesuvius erupted and wiped out cities which had nothing to do with Jerusalem, the two locations being about a thousand miles apart, neither had the eruption brought the Second Advent nor the end of the world as we know it. Then throughout history, volcanic eruptions of greater intensity occurred, blackening the sun rays in the atmosphere, causing the moon to turn red and taking the lives of multiple thousands. One striking example was the explosive eruption of Mt. Krakatoa in August 1883. The resulting dust cloud blown out from the caldera has created a belt of darkness around the globe, but this didn't bring the return of Christ either. And of the many, many cases of widespread famine and diseases throughout all history, none had brought the present world to its climax. So in one sense, Benjamin Corey and his ilk may have a point in their argument. But the question of This Generation still remains.

Corey bases his argument on Jesus's words, this generation - that is, the generation alive during the Lord's ministry and the immediate years to follow, that is, his disciples. It's true that some of Jesus' followers might have still been alive during AD 70, although I tend to believe that the majority of Jesus' immediate disciples were martyred long before Jerusalem was razed. Therefore could he be referring to my generation, who saw Jerusalem restored as Israel's capital? Or thirdly, could this generation be a reference to the Jewish race? 

The footnote in the Revised Standard Version of the Bible has a footnote under Matthew 24:34, which reads, or race. The late Dave Hunt, who among other books, also wrote How Close Are We? - also believed that the term this generation was a reference to the Jewish race, at present existing in unbelief for up to two millennia after the Crucifixion, and tied to Jewish culture and traditions, kept alive despite its attempted annihilation by the Roman Catholic Church over the centuries as well as by the Nazis during the Holocaust. The Jewish race lives on to this day, even in unbelief. If Jesus' meant this generation not passing away as referral to the Jews as we know them, then he is absolutely right! The Jews are with us to this day, and they will not cease to exist after the Second Advent! Rather, the whole of Israel will be converted at his coming, as these verses testify:

And I will pour out upon the house of David, and upon the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the spirit of grace and of supplications: and they shall look upon me whom they have pierced, and they shall mourn for him, as one who mourneth for his only son, and shall be in bitterness for him, as one that is in bitterness for his firstborn.
Zachariah 12:10.

And so all Israel shall be saved: as it is written, There shall come out of Sion the Deliverer, and shall turn ungodliness away from Jacob:
For this is my covenant unto them, when I shall take away their sins.
Romans 11:26-27, AV.

The idea that this generation is a referral to the Jewish race as it stands at present in unbelief certainly makes sense, and eradicates any theory of which generation will see the signs ushering the end of the age. Because, in all truth, nobody knows. But the Rapture is imminent. That is, it can happen at any moment, totally unexpected. His return has been imminent since the day he ascended up to heaven. Nobody knows when he will come back, and God himself does not wish to give any dates either. So nobody should even guess. To guess the date is not the will of God for us. 

But as we await his coming, suffering continues. Physical suffering, especially around the Caribbean Sea and the Gulf of Mexico. Earthquakes, hurricanes - demolishing property and taking lives. People suffering, both physically and mentally. And are we immune here in the UK? By no means! Statistics have shown of a rise of mental illness, with a significant rise of depression rising among the young, both boys and girls, by as much as 70% in the last 25 years.*

So the key question is: If there is such a loving God existing, then why does he allow so much global suffering?

The question can be faced with a counter-question: Has God himself ever suffered?

The answer to that is - Yes! God knows everything about both mental anguish and physical suffering. To wit, that God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them. 
2 Corinthians 5:19.

Jesus Christ, whilst at the Garden of Gethsemane, was so mentally anguished, that he literally sweated blood. Then at the cross, his physical suffering combined with the reality of being abandoned by his Father for the first time in all eternity has made his suffering the worst in history, and no other person in the whole of history had ever suffered to such an intensity. Especially among Christian martyrs, whose hearts were ablaze with the joy of the Lord in their spirits, already equipped with the knowledge of an eternity in glory. 

Is God fully acquainted with suffering? Yes, absolutely. A worthy revelation for those who sat with me at table back in the seventies.

* The Independent, 27th Feb, 2016.

Saturday, 16 September 2017

I Don't Believe in 'IF' Anymore...

Yes I am aware that for readers approximating my age range, such readers would recognise the above title as that of a song written and sung by Roger Whittaker, released in 1977. But this little word, at least according to what I have experienced, have read about, and listened to, has proven catastrophic over two millennia of Christendom. This is actually a continuation of last week's blog, When I Question My Faith, and continue to examine what I believe in, why, and to try to analyse why atheists believe the way they do.

I can't help but feel sympathetic for the average atheist. Or for that matter, the agnostic too. The main difference between an atheist and an agnostic is that the latter accepts the possibility of God's existence. In turn, the atheist denies his existence altogether. But neither would accept the revelation of God's divine creation as history. My late father was an agnostic. He believed in the existence of God. But he rebuked me, even to the point of teasing, for believing in a young-Earth creation as recent as six millennia in the past, together with the idea of a talking snake, and the thought of a shoreless ocean annihilating a whole race of men and air-breathing animals alike. Ahem. And not to mention a talking donkey rebuking a mad prophet who had dollar signs in his eyes! Not long after my conversion, and still living at home, Dad saw me read a Bible that was given to him by a Jehovah's Witness back in the 1950's. So indeed it was quite an old copy, a King James version with two columns of cross-references, one on both edges of each page. For up to twenty years this particular copy of the Bible sat at our bookshelf, totally undisturbed as it was squeezed between other books on both sides. But that particular day, after a few months reading it, Dad took the Bible out of my hands and with anger, literally tore it to shreds right in front of me.

Of course, I was horrified, and also suffered a terrible loss. Not long after, when our Catholic priest came round to have a talk to me, I agreed to attend his church on Sundays. So for a short while I started attending. This pleased both my parents and it seemed to bring peace to the household at last. But I did not feel at home in a Catholic church, and it was not long before I left, to attend a live Anglican Church in Brixton, South London, much to the disappointment of my parents. But the point is that such disagreement among Christian worshippers is fuel thrown to the fires of atheism. And to my confusion too, back in those days.

And this blog was written just a day after a terrorist incident at an Underground train in West London, where a bomb planted in one of the carriages was only partially detonated, and flash-burning every passenger who was unfortunate enough to be close to the bomb. The device failed to detonate properly. Had it, then there would have been a high number of deaths within the train, and for those further away, plenty more would have been seriously injured. I for one, am convinced that the failure of the bomb to detonate properly was from God's mercy, who imposed a "restriction" on what the device can do. Sure enough, any atheist would burst into laughter at my theory and ask why if God was able to restrict the explosion, then why not prevent it entirely? Really, was God's hand simply not long enough to have prevented the detonation altogether?

The Islamic terrorist, in turn would have asked the opposite question. After carrying out his duty so faithfully, why had Allah let him down so badly? Didn't his deity inspire his prophet Mohammed to have all unbelievers and apostates slain? Then further confusion arises, especially among the unchurched, that Yahweh and Allah is perceived as the one true merciful God, worshipped and adored by Christians and Muslims alike, according to the Vatican. Yet no matter how hard I try, I have found it to be impossible to reconcile Yahweh, who sent his Son to atone for our sins, with a son-less deity who is bent on murder, terrorism, and revenge. And yet despite such difficulty in reconciling the two entities, I can still conjure up an image of Jerusalem in my mind. A city I'm already very familiar with, having spent some time of my life there. The Old City is divided into three monotheistic religions - Muslim, Jewish, and Christian. Even the Christian section of the city is sub-divided, with the Armenians having their own Quarter, making four Quarters altogether. The other Christian Quarter has in it Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and Coptic churches, along with a Lutheran church, and an Anglican church just inside Jaffa Gate. Among all of them, the concept of Eternal Security of the Believer is relatively unknown, even if both the Anglican and Lutheran churches are perceived to be closer to Biblical truth than the other churches, which tend to lean more on custom and traditions.    

And this I can testify. I attended services at Christ Church Anglican, close to the gate, on several occasions. Behind the pulpit, the twin tablets on which the Decalogue is displayed remains in full view. And they insist on the historicity of Holy Scripture. That was why I felt that I belonged there whilst I was living in Jerusalem, even if I didn't agree with everything they taught. Oh, how short the walk was along Souq David, from my hostel to the church, passing shops open for business, Arab shopkeepers constantly beckoning passing tourists, along with the banter of daily life. Yet as I saunter through the Medieval streets of the Old City, here was the one city which was home to three different monotheistic religions - all three teaching that faith without works is dead, and that the believer, whether Islamic, Jewish or Christian, must work to a greater or lesser degree to secure his salvation. Unfortunately for the Muslims, this entry into Paradise after death often involve jihad, or holy war, where many are slain to promote Allah and to convert to the writings of the Koran, which all Muslims believe to be written under Allah's inspiration, and therefore free from error.

Christ Church, Jerusalem - interior.

Exactly like we as Christians accept the Bible to be free from error. Then you as a Christian, reading this, how would you feel if I was to say that the Bible isn't free from error, but instead contains some inconsistencies? Yes, you read that right. Would you instantly click off from this page and go elsewhere, dismissing me as an apostate or liberal? Before you do, let me ask you to read on and consider these inconsistencies:

Such as Matthew 27:9-10. Here the apostle cites an Old Testament prophecy, and saying it was a quote from Jeremiah. But actually he was quoting from Zechariah 11:12. Then we have Mark declaring that Jesus was crucified "in the third hour" - that is nine o'clock in the morning (Mark 15:25), whilst Matthew writes that by the sixth hour, that is midday, Jesus was already on the cross, and it was then it began to get dark (Matthew 27:45), with Luke fully agreeing with Matthew's testimony (Luke 23:44). However, John has Jesus still standing in front of Pilate's judgement seat at midday (John 19:14). Where there might have been some collaboration between Matthew and Luke with Mark's testimony, yet it does seem rather stretching to believe that Jesus was already crucified by nine in the morning, especially if Luke records Pilate sending Jesus to Herod sometime in between. And only Luke records this visit to Herod's palace. Furthermore, we are not told how long Jesus stood before Herod. It could have been as long as an hour. Then considering the slow movement of the crowds, along with the bustling and confusion, allowing up to thirty minutes each way to make the journey across Jerusalem, which means there have, most likely, been a break in Pilate's judgement for up to two hours, making John's testimony of Jesus still standing before Pilate at midday more credible.

But the rather wide inconsistency between Mark's testimony and that of John's testimony in the timing of the crucifixion still remains. Then again, I have little idea when exactly in the morning was Jesus escorted to Pilate's palace by the Jews. But all four seem to agree that it was early morning, most likely shortly after daybreak, which would have been sometime between six and seven o'clock. If that was the case, then Mark's testimony of a nine o'clock crucifixion does hold some plausibility. But that still does not explain the inconsistency between Mark and John.

Then there is another apparent inconsistency which can still baffle many to this day, and which I had difficulty in coping with. Consider these verses:

Now the first day of the feast of unleavened bread the disciples came to Jesus, saying unto him, Where wilt that we prepare for thee to eat the Passover? 
And he said, Go into the city to such a man, and say unto him, The Master saith, My time is at hand; I will keep the Passover at thy house with my disciples.
And the disciples did as Jesus had appointed them; and they made ready the Passover.
Matthew 26:17-19, also Mark 14:12-17, and Luke 22:7-14.

Yet John says:

Then led they Jesus from Caiaphas unto the hall of judgement: and it was early; and themselves went not into the judgement hall, lest they should be defiled; but they might eat the Passover.
Pilate then went out to them, and said, What accusation bring ye against this man?
John 18:28-29. All quotes from the AV.

If I, who had read the Bible for over forty years, still find these conflicting verses difficult to grasp and reconcile, how would a new convert to the faith feel when he comes across such contradictions? And how would the atheist gloat, grinning from cheek to cheek with glee? Many church-goers don't seem to be aware of such contradictions, and if they are aware, they tend to sweep them under the carpet and pretend that's it's not a problem. But as I see it, where atheists are concerned, these contradictions present a massive problem for us who may want to witness to them and verify the historicity of Holy Scripture. And the trouble is, many of these atheists are not Biblical ignorant. They can open the Bible and read out these verses and we can only hide our blushes by cupping our faces in our hands.

The Bible is messy. It often does not appear so straightforward. Take another example of apparent contradiction. In Romans 8:38-39, Paul assures us that we are eternally secure in our salvation, and nothing can separate us from the love of God through Jesus Christ. And that is not only confined to man's persuasion to think otherwise, but not even demons, nor "powers in the air" nor height or depth, nor anything in the whole of creation can separate us from the love of God. Then flick through a couple of pages, and you see Paul's warning that we as non-Jews are likened to branches of a wild olive tree which were grafted into the cultivated olive tree. Then he warns us not to be conceited, or else we too will be broken off, just as the unbelieving Jews were (Romans 11:16-22). Here, in the very same letter, the apostle first reassures us that we are eternally secure in Christ, then afterwards we are to fear of becoming disenfranchised from God if we become too high minded. Then turn over some more pages until you come to Paul's letter to the church in Colossae. After discussing such glorious promises in partaking in the Resurrection of the just, Paul then concludes:

In the body of the flesh through death, to present you holy and unblamable and unreproveable in his sight:
If ye continue in the faith grounded and settled, and be not moved away from the hope of the gospel, which ye have heard, and which was preached to every creature which is under heaven; whereof I Paul am made a minister.
Colossians 1:22-23.

And considering many more similar verses scattered across the whole New Testament, people has come up to me with the explanation that yes indeed, we as believers are eternally secure in Christ, and no one can take our salvation away from us, no, not even the spiritual realm of demonic powers in the air. But as long as you must yourself remain in the faith. According to them, you remain safe in Jesus Christ if you don't voluntarily walk away from the faith, or else it's hell after death. And they quote these and other similar Scriptures to prove their point.

I have looked upon history to see for myself the fruits of such a train of thinking. And all I could see was apostasy and the rise of iniquity among those who professed to have lived in a "Christian country". The Popes of Rome, for example, along with many of the Cardinals and of the clergy, were the most wicked men to have ever walked the earth! Cases of prostitution, adultery, paedophilia, murder, suppression, exorbitance, betrayal, conquest, the Inquisition with its many cases of physical torture, and many more crimes are forever etched into the history of the Roman Catholic Church spanning the centuries. And mainly, in my mind, due to the concept of the sinner "doing penitence" instead of just changing the mind about Jesus Christ being the risen Christ, the Son of God. Doing penance is the core of Catholic catechism. The process is to eradicate sin before the believer can be justified, and if sin is not eradicated, then there is little or no hope of heaven in the afterlife.

Church of St. Peter, the Vatican.

Yet despite of all this, the Bible is messy, and the atheist knows this. What I find by reading Holy Scriptures is that Prophecy, which is scattered throughout the entire Bible. By being extremely accurate in predicting events which took place even thousands of years after the prophecy was given, thus advocating the omniscience of God. And here is the crunch. If a "saved" person can simply walk away from the faith, then wouldn't the "omniscient God" be aware of this to begin with? Or to put it another way, would an all-knowing God make any effort to save a person if he already knows that that person will one day fall away? And what kind of gift is that apostate is to the one who suffered so painfully on a cross? A "naff" gift? Can't this all-knowing God choose properly? And to add to this, consider the spiritual realm. If a person "voluntary walks away" from the hand of Jesus Christ who is supposed to be holding him secure (John 10:28-30), then to walk away means that he must be going somewhere, no doubt to a more attractive location. And who is showing him that location? The Devil? If so, then the Adversary is stronger than God himself and it has also proved God to be a liar.

Questions, questions...

And yet, the Scriptures does look as if such contradictions exist in them. Free from error? There are times when I have pondered. Really, I have! I have to admit, even to myself, that I don't think that I could stand up against an atheist who knows the Bible well. Not unless I possess a Greater Power within who can not only take the knocks, but can deliver answers which would refute the atheist's every question, proving once and for all that this Jesus of Nazareth is indeed the risen Christ, and God manifest in the flesh.

And with such a manifestation of the Glory of God, in Christ I rest my case.

Saturday, 9 September 2017

When I Question My Faith...

I sit at a Starbucks coffee bar, a newspaper lying open on the table in front of me. I take a momentary break from reading to look up at the people around. A young family sit at a nearby table. Along with father and mother, there sits a three year old daughter, her lovely blond hair glistening like gold, and although acting as if somewhat flustered, her behaviour is by no means irritating to her parents or to anyone else in the restaurant. Next to the mother a Moses basket sits, containing their newborn, sleeping soundly. Just another typical British family. I sigh, as I ponder on their relationship with God, whether such a relationship exists or not. Then I return to the article I was reading in the newspaper.

The actual Starbucks Coffee Bar referred here.

Then again, had it been a Muslim family, or a Buddhist family, or a Hindu family, or even to the extent of a Jewish family, I would have felt more certain of their lack of a relationship with a Christian God, a little fact that would have caused me to sigh in despondence. Furthermore, if they claim to be Christian, then that would raise further questions in my mind. Do they regularly attend church? If they don't, then that rules out any connections they might have had with God. But if they do, then which denomination? If it's Roman Catholic, then I would mentally question their certainty of their salvation - as they repeat, mantra-style, their prayers to the Virgin Mary for her to plead to a rather truculent Son of God to show some mercy on them. Are they Jehovah's Witnesses, or Mormons, or are affiliated with Christian Science, or perhaps Ron Hubbard's Church of Scientology? Then their certainty of salvation would be under doubt, because neither of these groups confess Jesus of Nazareth to be the Christ, at least not in the same sense that he is God come in the flesh.

This is becoming rather like a computer program flowchart, something akin to this: 

10 Let r = r+1
20 If r = 3 Then Print "Non-Christian": End
30 Let a = ask family
40 Let b = baptist church
50 Input a
60 If a = b Then Go to 80
70 Go to 10
80 Print "A Christian Family.": End

Perhaps you get the idea. The computer shows that only those who attend a Baptist Church can be perceived as truly Christian. An insulting statement? No doubt it is, but in reality, because our Baptist church confessed that Jesus Christ was the incarnate Son of God who died on a cross to atone for our sins, was buried, and on the third day he rose physically from the dead, and he is now seated at the right hand of the Father in Heaven, and that the Bible is the inspired Word of God, and the Church is a group of people which God had called to be his own - all this was what I believed to be the utmost necessity, and how I thought during my younger years as a Christian believer! What was the ultimate motive which was behind such a train of thought?

It has all come down to this: the Bible teaching on the universality of sin and the existence of Hell. Drummed into me by Mother since a very young child and further endorsed by the Catholic Church within I grew up, even after conversion towards the end of 1972, I had much difficulty in accepting a God of love. Rather, for many years I had a subconscious idea that my performance must play a role in my salvation, even if this performance consisted mainly in keeping every doctrine and belief as true to the Bible as I possibly can.

But other questions arose in my mind. One question which I actually prayed aloud to God whilst alone was: Why did you create us all in the first place when our eternal destiny after death is in the fires of Hell? I must admit, there have been times when I found the concept of eternal suffering incompatible of a God of love. Very much the thinking of an atheist. Then considering Richard Dawkins' description of God of the Old Testament as a megalomaniac, homophobic, sadomasochistic, malevolent bully, and somewhere within me there is a sense of agreement. The impossible keeping of all six hundred-plus laws, some as petty as forbidding of wearing two or more garments made from different materials, makes any human being utterly impossible to enter heaven after death. And not to mention the potential of failing to love God with all your heart, with all your mind, with all your soul, and with all your strength, along with not confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord - it is Hell for Eternity. 

And as one atheist had asked, If considering that the love-relationship between Christ and the believer is likened to a husband-and-wife relationship, would the marriage last?

A good point. I can imagine the terrible pressure for the wife if her husband keeps on demanding utter perfection in keeping with his laws, or be confronted with the threat of eternal fire. Would all that engender love for him in her heart? Or would she immediately go after another man who showed her unconditional love and acceptance, and end up with an adulterous affair with such a man? Even as a Christian believer, I have pondered in my mind about the sincerity of Christ's love for me, especially when reading in the Bible about his promises of eternal resurrection and heaven, then come across that awful word if - mainly in the context of: if you stand firm in your faith - such as found in Colossians 1:22-23. This gives the impression of God's love as conditional. Imagine how a wife would feel if even though he loved her to bits, yet still stands as conditional on her remaining faithful. But over the years as a married man myself, I have wondered how I would feel if I caught my own wife in bed. At first I said to her that this would be the only cause for a separation. But as time passes by, I began to re-evaluate the situation would it ever occur.

By reading the story of the Old Testament prophet Hosea, how his wife deserted him for prostitution, and who was eventually sold on the slave market. Hosea bought her back and kept on loving her despite her unfaithfulness. Would I do the same if my wife strayed? Indeed, true love is unconditional. If she would ever stray and became unfaithful, I will ensure that I remain faithful to her and will always love her, and ask her to stay with me. And there will never be a need for all that, for such unconditional love will always result in the wife's faithfulness to her husband.

How is it that God's love appears to be far less stable, and wholly hangs on the believer's faithfulness and performance? And the very existence of Hell? A place where every human being who does not acknowledge God will end up - in an eternal fiery furnace? Looking around Starbucks, along with people everywhere, including those on television, I do find it very hard to swallow the concept that one day they will all roast for eternity for not acknowledging God during their lifetimes. Such thoughts spoil my love for such a God. It is rather like a good-tasting mug of coffee. Add a pinch of salt and the taste would be impaired. I would not be able to enjoy the coffee in the same way like I did before. So with my perception of God and the existence of a fiery hell.

I may indeed believe in Once Saved Always Saved. And there is plenty of proof of this found in both Testaments of the Bible. But just being aware of an eternal hell does spoil my perception of God. Yes, there are times - even to this day - when I feel exactly this way. Taking such ideas and feelings on this subject into consideration - I can't help about my knowledge of God's omniscience. That means he is all-knowing - nothing can take him by surprise. So I imagine a newborn, such as the one asleep in the cot at Starbucks, whom God already knows that this human will spend eternity in hell after death, unless of course, he repents, if so, then God already knows about that - even if its another twenty, or thirty, or even seventy years in the future.

As I gaze on the newborn sleeping in the cot, I can't help feeling crushed if God already knows its eternal state, especially if both parents are unbelievers or follow a different religion. Perhaps I'm wallowing in my own ignorance. After all, the Bible does ask who can understand the infinite wisdom of God. But I can't help feeling the way I do. Then I look up and remember some of my fellow Christian believers - well educated middle-class professionals who were seldom seen smiling but instead always going about their business with stone-cold expressions on their faces.

And that is a shame. As I have written here last week, whilst I visited the Kerith Centre in Bracknell, I was able to observe some regular long-standing members with cold expressions. And the Kerith Centre is by no means unique. Even in my own church at Ascot, there are some of the same stone-cold expressions, who hardly ever smile, and there is one in particular who is very much aware of the existence of Hell, and who is outright hostile towards me and very judgemental - even towards others. And I have been to other churches around London and the Home Counties, and have seen very much the same sort of thing. And going by my own experience in relating with other Christians, I have come to the conclusion that just by the mere existence of an eternal hell may be behind such cool, sombre attitudes.

The universal awareness of the existence of Hell may be one of the base-rocks of the belief in Darwin Evolution. In fact, I would not be exaggerating when I say that the majority of Christian graduates I have met and spoken to over the last forty years believe in Theistic Evolution over Divine Creation. This is quite simple to understand. To embrace Evolution - Theistic or Secular - is to deny the historicity of Adam and Eve and their Fall into sin. And to believe that death reigned long before our first parents had ever existed invalidates the significance of their deaths, and therefore robs the Atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross from any significance in restoring humanity to eternal life. If death did not occur due to the Fall, but instead, necessarily integrated as vital for Natural Selection to work and for Evolution to progress upward, then sin is not the cause of death, and if sin is not the cause of death, then there is no need for an eternal hell. By dwelling on such a concept, it does not become too difficult for me to realise that the awareness of hell provides that vital bedrock for Darwinism to flourish, and by believing in Evolution as fact provides an escape from such an awareness of hell.

It is rather like the wife who is stuck in a loveless marriage to a law-giving husband. Because of her own imperfections, she feels that she isn't really loved at all, but instead remains under the eye of judgement. When another man arrives who shows none of this judgement, it isn't long before she shares his bed. Evolution is perceived as very much like the suitor. It provides an escape from the dire reality of hell, even in the subconscious, perhaps making the faith more appealing, but at the same time denying its reality.  

Sure enough, I have written enough blogs here to demonstrate the significance of what the Atonement made by Jesus Christ on the cross, followed by his Burial and Resurrection three days after his death, all have in reconciliation and restoring us back to God. And by believing this causes the believer to have his spirit regenerated and becomes an eternal child of God. I think I have been pretty clear on all this. But the Bible also says that the wisdom and knowledge God has is beyond understanding (Job 36:26, Romans 11:33). My knowledge is far from infinite - there is many things about God which I am not aware of, and neither would I ever be aware of this side of the grave. But there is one thing that I have an inkling of awareness - and that Hell exists, its eternal, and such a dreadful place was not initially prepared for human habitation. Instead, it was prepared for the Devil and his angels.

I suppose that it's easier to understand that anyone who deliberately side with the Devil in defiance of God's calling may indeed deserve to suffer with the one he was so consciously keen to follow. But the truth is, the vast majority of humans are totally unaware that they have Satan as their "father". Even the Pharisees weren't aware of this (John 8:44), and they all thought that they were doing God's will. Such a concept, straight out of the mouth of Jesus Christ, makes me aware of the millions of Muslims, Hindus, Buddhists, alongside followers of all other heretical religions and their eternal destiny. I guess this is part of the wisdom of God which lies outside my finite knowledge. I once looked at a photograph featured in a past issue of The Guinness Book of Records. It showed the world's largest crowd assembled at a public venue. They were all Hindus, men, women and children, who all gathered there for a religious festival. But according to Jesus' own words, recorded in John 14:6, they are all destined for eternal damnation, with most, if not all, totally unaware of this. Indeed, there are times when I question God's love for the world, so popularised by John 3:16.

I don't think it's hardly better here in the UK. For example, were you aware why I was for remaining in the European Union, and against Brexit? I guess the answer to that was concealed in my subconscious, but now, in writing this blog, I became aware of the main reason in my conscious mind. By being part of the European Union was meant for easier access for the Gospel to spread across to the Continent. Instead, we as Christians have become distracted by the want of our island isolation, that we have but forgotten the Gospel altogether. We became so obsessed with our English Bulldog culture, or rather the restoration of it, that we have either forgotten the Gospel, or we were ignorant of the fact that this very Bulldog spirit we hold so dear, is responsible for the blinding of many from the true light of the Gospel.

Perhaps you may argue that throughout the forty plus years we have been in Europe, the Gospel had never spread across the English Channel. Never mind that New Frontiers International, based at a large church in Brighton, had just this in mind, and no doubt efforts were made, but now the need of tougher international barriers to hamper their mission.

This is an unusual blog, I will admit. In general I love to exalt the love of God, his power and his redemption. But this week I wanted to "out" my real thoughts and emotions, to share my doubts which at times plagues me. However, allow me to finish with a bit of Solomon's wisdom:

Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man. For God shall bring every work into judgement, with every secret thing, whether it be good, or whether it be evil.
Ecclesiastes 11:13-14, AV.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

What a Weeping Cissy!

A certain man had two wives, which means that under our present law he could be classed as a Bigamist. His first wife was the older of the two, whose weak eyes spoilt her facial beauty. However, his second wife, who turned out to be the first wife's younger sister, was strikingly beautiful, and it was of no surprise that she became her husband's true love, at the cost of his older wife's misery. However, the older spouse successfully gave birth the six of his sons in her desperate but unsuccessful attempt to win her husband's heart, whilst the ravaging beauty remained childless. Even two additional concubines each became mothers of two more of his sons, making a further four in all, totalling ten sons altogether.  

At last, his younger wife gave birth to his son when his firstborn had already grown up. Not long after this, his older wife died prematurely, most likely from a broken heart, and was buried in the family tomb. The man referred to here was Jacob, who was renamed Israel, and to anyone even faintly acquainted with the Bible through Sunday school classes, Jacob's wives were Leah and Rachel. Poor Leah! Enduring a loveless marriage, yet able to give birth to six of his sons, including Judah the fourth-born, who carried the Messianic Line. Rachel at last had given birth to Joseph whilst at middle age. As a result, Joseph became daddy's favourite, much to the jealousy of his older brothers. And this feeling of jealousy towards their youngest brother was not only universally shared, but it also morphed into hatred - especially after cockily revealing to them that he will one day rule over his brothers.

Joseph was around sixteen or seventeen years when he was rewarded with a sibling from his own mother. But this was a bittersweet experience for both Joseph and his father. His favourite wife died at childbirth, and she was buried at a separate location, away from the family tomb. Unfortunately, we are not told when Leah died, but when she did, it must have been close to Hebron where the family tomb, also known as the Cave of Machpelah, is located. However, it was most likely that Jacob was already a double-widower by the time the ten older brothers had sold their teenage sibling to the Midianites, who were heading to Egypt.

What a crush this must have been to poor Joseph! Some time after being sold as a slave to an Egyptian governor Potiphar, the handsome slave was falsely accused of attempted rape by Potiphar's wife, after having her advances and her attempts to seduce him snubbed by him during his master's absence. He was then thrown into prison, what looks to be for an indefinite term. 

Whilst in prison for a crime he didn't commit, such a circumstance could have been a just cause for self-pity, bitterness, or even rage. There was a high likelihood that he was still grieving for his late mother, he misses watching his younger brother Benjamin, whose birth he might well have witnessed, grow up into adulthood, and pondering what his father may be thinking and feeling. Does his father believe that he is still alive somewhere? Or does he believe that he is dead, and therefore grieving for his favourite son? There is no way he can glean such information. But at least he may be comforted by the fact that none of his older brothers would have been aware of his imprisonment. Such thoughts of them gloating over his fate might have been enough to send him over the cliff. Instead, by walking in the Holy Spirit, he knew how to build a good relationship with both the wardens and fellow prisoners alike. 

And so a steward reveals to a troubled Pharaoh about how a dream he had was interpreted by Joseph, and his prediction came true. The former slave was released from prison, and after interpreting Pharaoh's two dreams, he was promoted to Prime Minister, the second in rank after the King himself and therefore just about equal in authority. It was some years later, when a severe famine had struck, when all his ten older brothers arrived to buy grain to take home to their father.

Although Joseph acted stoically during their first encounter, having recognised his brothers, he had emotions which he had to hide from them. This we know, for the narrator slips in the little incident of turning to weep during a brief interval (Genesis 42:24). It could be the thought of his missing brother and his deceased mother which caused his emotions to rise. Or it could be just the presence of his own family in a strange and foreign land. Whatever it might have been, it was some time later, when his younger brother, who was also the son of Jacob and Rachel, turned up with the others. Here, the narrator does not hold back when he writes, "And Joseph made haste; for his bowels did yearn upon his brother: and he sought where to weep; and he entered into his chamber, and wept there."
Genesis 43:30, AV.

Soon after, the narrator adds, "Then Joseph could not refrain himself before all them that stood by him; and he cried, Cause every man to go out from me. And there stood no man with him, while Joseph made himself known unto his brethren.
And he wept aloud: and the Egyptians and the house of Pharaoh heard."
Genesis 45:1-2, AV.

It goes on, "And he fell upon his brother Benjamin's neck, and wept; and Benjamin wept upon his neck.
Moreover he kissed all his brethren, and wept upon them: and after that his brethren talked with him."
Genesis 45:14-15, AV.

Here is one of the most powerful rulers of Egypt, next to Pharaoh himself, yet he had no qualms about weeping in company. If God has ever been wise on how to bring out love, pity and affection from others, it is in the form of shedding tears, especially in the company of loved ones. I have always admired this particular Bible character because of this alone. Two more characters I can think of who also had no qualms weeping in company. One of these is the apostle Paul. He was the apostle to the Gentiles, used mightily by God to spread the Gospel to non-Jews across the Roman Empire and founded churches in his known world. With leanings towards a work-loving Choleric temperament, Paul had the natural ability of a strong leader, determined, courageous, and tend to persevere undaunted in his task, regardless on how difficult it might be or what obstacles he may face in his determination to finish his project. But of what he naturally lacks was compassion for the more timid, as well as being prone to anger. A striking example of this was when he came to blows with his best mate and partner Barnabas, recorded in Acts 15:36-41. The disagreement was over John Mark quitting from his role in their mission and returned to Jerusalem, which is recorded in Acts 13:13. Unlike Barnabas, with his gentle nature and willing to give John Mark another chance, Paul couldn't stand quitters, so he refused to have John Mark accompany them for the next mission.

Another example of Paul's short fuse is recorded in Acts 23:3 where he stands before an accusing Sanhedrin. A priest strikes him on the cheek, to whom he responds: May God strike you, you whitewashed wall! Then not to leave out Paul's contention with Peter for his hypocrisy shown before Gentile believers eating at table, recorded in Galatians 2:1-14, when Peter, Barnabas, among other Jews, suddenly withdrew from the table when news arrived that devout Jewish believers sent by James were due to arrive at any moment.

Then comes this verse, even if it's the only one of its kind coming from Paul's pen. It is 2 Corinthians 2:4 where he writes that, "For out of much affliction and anguish of heart I wrote unto you with many tears; not that ye should be grieved, but that ye might know the love which I have more abundantly unto you." There is one other verse which testify of Paul's tears, and it's recorded by Luke in Acts 20:31, which reads, "Therefore watch, and remember, that by the space of three years I ceased not to warn any one night and day with tears.

The public showing of emotion by someone like Paul is very much out of his natural character! His dominant emotion was chiefly anger, with a general lack of natural love, affection and compassion. And so to read of his post-conversion life as one shedding tears in public for the benefit of fellow-believers must be miraculous indeed - someone who had allowed the Holy Spirit to work within him by softening his character for the benefit of those he was to minister to. It is the power of the Holy Spirit to minimise his anger by adding tenderness, along with love and gentleness to his character. As a result, I would not be surprised to see Paul embracing another man as he cries tears on his neck - very much the same way Joseph did over his brother Benjamin.

Then who can forget the shortest verse in the entire Bible? It is John 11:35, which simply says, "Jesus wept." Here is the Jewish Messiah, the Christ, Son of God, Son of Man - weeping in public. An incident noted by all twelve disciples, along with the Pharisees, for they commented on how much Jesus loved Lazarus, who had just died recently and was buried in rock tomb. Of course, Jesus walked in the power of the Holy Spirit without a single fail. He was indeed God manifest in the flesh, and there he was, with the Cross well within his sight, crying like a child over the death of a loved one.

Which brings me to ask: Was Joseph, with his abundance of tears, a cissy? He cried out so loudly over his brother Benjamin that it was heard as far away as Pharaoh's house. Then there was Paul, the determined, hard working, persevering, opinionated, and often angry religious Jew who formerly persecuted Christian believers, rounding them up to bring them into Jerusalem to face prosecution, quite likely execution. He set off on that task with determination. He wouldn't let anything stand in his way while he was on that road to Damascus. So intense was his determination, that the Lord had to literally blind him just to make him see the error of his ways. Then, after that, he testifies of his weeping in public as part of his ministry to edify fellow believers. Had God really changed Paul from a strong, masculine and determined man into a weak, quivering wreck of a weeping Nancy-boy?

Or did God transform Paul into a proper masculine man?

Because Jesus himself was a proper masculine man, yet he had no qualms to cry in public.

And these are the three Biblical characters who had no qualms about showing emotion in public, or even to give a hug. And one of the three happens to be God incarnate. And so I write this blog a week after visiting my former church, which is now the Kerith Centre in my hometown of Bracknell. 

I became a regular member of Bracknell Baptist Church as it was then, in the Spring of 1975, just over two years after conversion. Over the years I have watched people come and go, including witnessing the deaths of many of its older members. And the arrival of new members, especially from 1978 onward, from universities across the country. This was due to several high-tech companies setting up business in our town and began trading here. These companies attracted young graduates as employees, who also began to fill our churches. Some of these graduates are still here with us to this day. And so I have seen when I paid a visit to the Kerith Centre last Sunday, when our own fellowship at Ascot had closed due to many attending West Point Bible Festival near Exeter. And so I was recognised by at least two of them, but not a single greeting, not a question asked how my walk with God is progressing, nor how my wife or family are keeping, or even if I'm enjoying retirement and what I do to occupy my spare time. Instead, just a stone-cold expression on their faces as they went about church business. Not that I was invisible. I wasn't invisible. I was seen. And I was ignored. Thankfully, I did spend some time enjoying a conversation with a couple of other members who had a genuine interest in my welfare. To them I will always be grateful. And having had a rather lengthy chat with one of them, I left the building feeling edified and with a general feeling of acceptance. But had those two had not been there, then I would have been ignored entirely by those who knew me for the past 35-40 years. 

I guess it's a very different environment from Biblical times, when men lived in tents and tended sheep. Our society of today is vastly different from Joseph's day. I realise that. Today we are far, far better educated, far more aware of class, profession, wealth, and status, and quite likely awareness of physical good looks too. And the end result being the cliquey culture, an in-group/out-group basis for acceptance depending on like attracting like. In other words, if you are different, then you're out, ignored, rejected. The trouble with this kind of set up is, if I have a genuine concern for their welfare, their walk with God, health, jobs, etc, then this makes it difficult to break the ice, because of a fear of rejection. This could mean the person whom I approaching turning and walking away, as if I'm chasing him - and believe me, that has happened before now in church! More likely it would mean delivering just one answer - "fine" - and then turning to speak to someone else or engage in a task. 

It is deplorable, coming to think of it. Then I wonder why, in a so-called "Christian Country" maybe up to 98% of the English population are heading towards a lost eternity? Do you realise that this grieves my spirit? Here I'm talking about the influence of Christian believers living in a cliquey, in-group/out-group culture. Say, for example, they arrive here in September 1980. That is 37 years to this day. Such a duration would cover 1,924 sermons preached, one every Sunday. Of course, no one would attend all 1,924 sermons. We have to allow for absences, including holidays, sabbaticals, work rota, illness, family issues, or simply the desire to stay in bed. But with the approaching of two thousand sermons, many of these sermons carrying weighty power, can lives really remain unchanged after all that time? After all, would I be able to distinguish a Christian graduate who is an established church member from another graduate, unchurched and an atheist?

Other than Jesus Christ, I think one of the Bible characters whom I lift my hat in respect has to be Joseph. Despite suffering ill-treatment throughout much of his youth by older brothers consumed by jealousy, he loved them to the end. And he embraced each one of them, and wept over each one of them unashamedly. If I had been there myself, I probably would have wept simply by watching.

There is something about Jesus instructions for every believer to love each other. He taught that this was the only way the world would know that we are his disciples. That we love one another (John 13:35) and to love one another is proof that we are born of God. And sorry to they this, but this godly love does not mean cliques! Neither does it mean listening to sermons every week then forgetting them, either. For that matter, it does not mean being good at the church electronic monitoring consoles either, or to be a good steward with a collection basket. Or to be good at the guitar, keyboard or drums. It means embracing with genuine love and acceptance all with different backgrounds and of all kinds of characteristics and personalities. 

In recent years I was told off by our church elders at Ascot for hugging too much. The main reason given was that hugging is not part of our culture. Hugging is not British. Between men, it's not masculine. It is a crying shame that because we are not physical brothers, we are culture-bound not to show affection. A limp shaking of the hands together with talk about business are acceptable, but not showing affection. 

Indeed, it's a crying shame.