Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Friday, February 25, 2011

Why should we worship God?

A question that people who aren't Christian often ask is why should we worship God? What right does God have to legitimately want worship from us? Isn't God a megalomaniac for making heaven involve praising Him?

There's an analogy I've started to use a lot to explain why I would want to worship God that borrows from everyday life.

Let's say you have a friend who is an amazingly good person. They are 100% genuine, kind, respectful, trustworthy, dependable, etc. They are generous to a fault, and are a very kind husband/wife who works very hard to support their family. They sacrifice a lot to help others, even people who aren't their friends or relatives.

Now, you would, I suppose, respect them a lot, and this would just be a natural reaction to the truth of the situation.

Now, what if God is perfectly loving (and not just perfectly good but also can't be tempted otherwise), infinite in abilities and knowledge, and is the creator of everything? Then respecting God and putting God at the centre of one's life is not anything different from one's presumed reaction to that friend - it would just be a natural reaction to the truth.

And we say, as Christians, that God really is all those good things, and so worshipping God is a natural reaction to the truth of the situation like respecting that friend is a reaction to the truth.

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Thursday, February 17, 2011

Jesus' prediction of his second coming, Part 1

There are two occasions where Jesus is interpreted by some as having said that he will return to the world and usher in the Kingdom of God within the lifetime of his disciples. In this article I want to examine this claim and argue that contextual evidence shows that Jesus plausibly did not say this and would not have been interpreted by those listening to have said it.

In this article I will deal with the passages called the 'Olivet discourse' in Matthew, Mark, and Luke which some have said involve Jesus making a mistake. Here is the passage in full from Matthew's gospel, 24:3-35 (NIV):

3 As Jesus was sitting on the Mount of Olives, the disciples came to him privately. “Tell us,” they said, “when will this happen, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”

4 Jesus answered: “Watch out that no one deceives you. 5 For many will come in my name, claiming, ‘I am the Messiah,’ and will deceive many. 6 You will hear of wars and rumors of wars, but see to it that you are not alarmed. Such things must happen, but the end is still to come. 7 Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be famines and earthquakes in various places. 8 All these are the beginning of birth pains.

9 “Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me. 10 At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, 11 and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. 12 Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, 13 but the one who stands firm to the end will be saved. 14 And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.

15 “So when you see standing in the holy place ‘the abomination that causes desolation,’ spoken of through the prophet Daniel—let the reader understand— 16 then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let no one on the housetop go down to take anything out of the house. 18 Let no one in the field go back to get their cloak. 19 How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! 20 Pray that your flight will not take place in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great distress, unequaled from the beginning of the world until now—and never to be equaled again.

22 “If those days had not been cut short, no one would survive, but for the sake of the elect those days will be shortened. 23 At that time if anyone says to you, ‘Look, here is the Messiah!’ or, ‘There he is!’ do not believe it. 24 For false messiahs and false prophets will appear and perform great signs and wonders to deceive, if possible, even the elect. 25 See, I have told you ahead of time.

26 “So if anyone tells you, ‘There he is, out in the wilderness,’ do not go out; or, ‘Here he is, in the inner rooms,’ do not believe it. 27 For as lightning that comes from the east is visible even in the west, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. 28 Wherever there is a carcass, there the vultures will gather.

29 “Immediately after the distress of those days
“‘the sun will be darkened,
and the moon will not give its light;

the stars will fall from the sky,
and the heavenly bodies will be shaken.’

30 “Then will appear the sign of the Son of Man in heaven. And then all the peoples of the earth will mourn when they see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven, with power and great glory. 31 And he will send his angels with a loud trumpet call, and they will gather his elect from the four winds, from one end of the heavens to the other.

32 “Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. 33 Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. 34 Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened.

Some people have argued that 'this generation' in the last sentence must be taken to mean the generation alive when Jesus is speaking, which gives a timeframe for Jesus' return of about 30-40 years.

But I don't think that Jesus would have been taken to be referring to those presently alive with 'this generation' when you read it in context. For example, in the same speech Jesus says that before He returns:

'many will come in my name, claiming, 'I am the Christ,' and will deceive many.'

Now, if Jesus thought he would return in about 30-40 years, then there wouldn't be many Christians to deceive, because the whole world would pretty much be non-Christian. Unless Jesus thought that the whole world would immediately convert on hearing about Jesus. But that presumes a level of optimism on Jesus' part that doesn't seem sensible, especially considering how many people rejected his message during his ministry (John 6:66-67).

But one could say that Jesus just thought that other people would claim to be Christ and attract a following like he did.

I guess Jesus could have thought that within a very short time frame, 30-40 years let's say, there would be many people claiming to be Christ. But I feel that this 'jars' a bit as an interpretation because every century or so there would be a couple of people claiming to be Christ, but I think it would be odd to think there would be a large increase in the numbers of Christ-claimants within 30-40 years in addition to the usual number of a couple a century (if I recall correctly).

This site says there were 2 people before Jesus who claimed to be the messiah, 4 in the first century (not counting the emperor Vespasian), 2 in the second century, none for ages, then 1 in the fifth century, etc.

So it's not really all that common.

This is why I think Jesus is speaking, with his 'you', to all Christians throughout many centuries, and not just his disciples, in that section of his discourse.


'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.'

'Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.'

What I wonder is how can a small Jewish sect that very few people have heard of spread the 'gospel' message to every nation in the whole world within 30-40 years? How could one sensibly expect that under any scenario? By the end of the 1st century 99% of people had probably not heard of Christianity, let alone been 'preached to'. It's not like preaching to everyone in the world is easy. So assuming that Jesus was a sensible thinker, he must be talking about events much further into the future.

One could say in response that the ancient Jews had a terrible knowledge of world geography and so it makes sense that the first Christians could preach to and become hated by all nations within 30-40 years.

But here is a list of countries that were in the Roman empire at some point:

Portugal, Spain, Andorra, United Kingdom, France, Monaco, Luxembourg, Belgium, Netherlands, Germany, Switzerland, Liechtenstein, Italy, San Marino, Vatican City, Malta, Austria, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia, Croatia, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Albania, Greece, FYR Macedonia, Romania, Bulgaria, Turkey, Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Syria, Iraq, Kuwait, Cyprus, Lebanon, Jordania, Israel, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Sudan, Lybia, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Palestine.

Keep in mind the Romans also knew about China, but didn't have much contact with them because the powerful Parthian and Kushan empires lay between.

They didn't know about Japan, Antarctica, and the Americas, and they didn't know about Australia, although Claudius Ptolemy hypothesised there must be a land to connect the east coast of Africa with China, which he called 'Terra Australis' (The Southern Region). But they (people at that time) knew about the other continents: Africa, Europe, and Asia.

So when you read:

'And this gospel of the kingdom will be preached in the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come.'

'Then you will be handed over to be persecuted and put to death, and you will be hated by all nations because of me.'

And if you assume that people knew about the aforementioned places, which seems quite likely since almost all of them were part of the Roman empire at that time, then is it really reasonable to interpret that was referring to a time span of a mere 30-40 years? Assume also Jesus is a reasonable person.

If you take actual Christian evangelism 40 years after Jesus left his disciples, it didn't cover anywhere near that much territory. It was many centuries before Christian missionaries even got to China.

With regard to the quote about being 'hated by all nations', if Jesus thought he'd come back in about 30-40 years, then who would care that much about Christians and Christianity? I can understand persecution, because occasionally small cults would worry the Romans. But why would first century Christianity with a small number of followers near Palestine be 'hated by all nations because of me'? The vast majority of people and nations would never have even heard of Christianity. And even if they had, they probably couldn't care any less about a small cult in Palestine that was powerless. So this is just puzzling if Jesus thought He would return in 30-40 years. Or he was crazily optimistic, but that's unfair to the Bible's portrayal of Jesus as a reasonable guy.

Now, it's true that Jesus and his followers did have a rough time at the hands of the local government, and so persecution wouldn't have been unexpected.

But Christians were not really persecuted heavily by a secular government until Nero, which was I think in the 60s CE, which is already 30 years after Jesus left, and moreover this is only one government, albeit a very large one, not all governments that were around. Most of their persecution before Nero, in any intense way, if I recall correctly, was from the Jews, only one small nation.

'At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold.'

What's going on with the second sentence if Jesus thought He would return very soon? The 'increase in wickedness' must be referring to society as a whole, which influences Christians' love to grow cold. But this seems a little odd given that, at this point in history, life had pretty much been continuing as it had before for thousands of years, only this time the Romans were the people you had to obey. Just something interesting to note (on the other hand, if Jesus is talking about many more years from now it does make sense that values in society could somehow drastically change for the worse).

But maybe Jesus thought that false prophets appearing very soon after he leaves the world would cause a lot of wickedness and his followers to turn against each other?

And yet this is such a short time span for that to happen though, it seems. After 30-40 years Christianity would just be starting up and gathering a small number of followers, and then just as it's starting everything gets really intense. How would we normally read that statement in terms of time?

'So if anyone tells you, 'There he is, out in the desert,' do not go out; or, 'Here he is, in the inner rooms,' do not believe it.'

If Jesus thought he would return in 30-40 years, then this conversation would presumably only be happening between a small group of followers of Jesus. But it has undertones of being a really significant discussion that a lot of people are having instead of a debate that is happening among 0.001% (or less) of the world's population.

But maybe Jesus is thinking that someone else will come and make use of Jesus' success? That someone will make use of Jesus' movement for his own ends?

But this is a pretty small timeframe to talk about someone making use of Jesus' movement for his own ends, a mere 30-40 years after he leaves.

So with this contextual evidence let's look again at the 'this generation' comment that has caused confusion.

The way we normally use 'this' is to refer to the object close at hand in terms of what we are talking about. For example, if I say, 'This book at the library that I've been talking about is actually by an American author', then even though the book is far away (at the library), it is being referred to with my 'this' because it is close at hand in terms of what I'm talking about.

So, using the contextual evidence, if we look at the generation Jesus is talking about when he says 'this', it seems to be the generation that sees all of these horrible events happen, and is not necessarily the one around now. This is the generation close at hand in terms of what Jesus is talking about.

So I would say that 'this generation' refers to the generation in the future that sees all this end-timey stuff happen, not the generation of Jesus' day, which is an interpretation helped by the contextual evidence.

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Saturday, February 12, 2011

Where analogies break down with the atonement

Many analogies have been proposed for the atonement of Christ to help us understand exactly what happened when Jesus died for us.

One analogy about the atonement in particular gets criticised a lot for not making sense, and the criticisms do have a point. This is the analogy where the atonement is likened to an innocent person volunteering to be punished in a guilty person's place in a local court. When you think about it, this implies that the sacrifice doesn't change the guilty person, who is now free, and so maybe he/she wants to go out and commit some more crimes.

There's one thing that this analogy gets really right, which is that the innocent position the guilty person is in afterwards is like the position we are in as Christians. For God considers Jesus to have 'paid' for our sins on our behalf. After accepting Christ people will certainly keep sinning (1 John 1:8), but as long as Christ is accepted, then all of our sins are dealt with. Thankfully, Christians won't abuse this system because genuinely believing that Jesus dealt with our sins necessitates that we will care about what God wants (Rom 6:1-2).

I think the biggest problem with this analogy is that no one would ever support a system for everyday life where an innocent person could walk into a courtroom and take the punishment meant for a guilty person. This is partly because 1) then the guilty person is free to threaten the community, and, 2) they have, e.g. murderous, intentions that need to be changed.

The Bible says something interesting about this analogy in Colossians:

Col 2:13-14: "You were dead because of your sins and because your sinful nature was not yet cut away. Then God made you alive with Christ, for he forgave all our sins. He canceled the record of the charges against us and took it away by nailing it to the cross."

Note how Jesus taking our punishment is combined with our sinful nature being cut away.

As Col 2:13-14 illustrates, when Jesus died for us it was not like an innocent person going to a court and saying, "Put me in prison instead of this murderer". Because when Jesus died for us, Jesus' act of taking our sins into Himself actually cut away our sinful nature.

This does not mean that Christians are perfect; 1 John 1:8 says that "If we claim to be without sin, we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us." But it does mean that something has happened that has dealt with our sinful nature but which which is not 'fully manifested' or 'fully shown' in this life (Eph 4:30).

A modified analogy that better fits with what the Bible teaches (but which also has problems) would be that an innocent person and a murderer volunteered for a strange procedure. The innocent person will be punished in the place of the murderer, but the punishment does something very weird. In the punishment all the guilt and badness of the murderer will be transferred to the innocent person. As a result the murderer will become no different from an average, law-abiding citizen who has never murdered anyone. And they get off scot free because their past self, which committed the murder, is no more. They are fundamentally not a murderer.

This would fit with our sinful nature getting cut away by Christ's death for us, which also we and Christ are happy to have happen.

One conclusion from this is that Christ's atonement for us is not like anything we have experience of in this world. No human process can accomplish this or reflect it accurately. The second is that one analogy that gets criticised a lot by skeptics of Christianity is not actually accurate.

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Tuesday, February 01, 2011

Do we lose ourselves when we go to heaven?

One concern that a lot of people who aren't Christian have about the Christian concept of heaven is that you have to be a certain kind of person to go to heaven. That is, you have to fit a certain set of personality traits; you have to conform to whatever personality God says you need to have. And these traits won't necessarily be ones that you see as really being 'you'.

One response to this is that you can divide personality into two areas: personality and character, and that improvements in character never betray who we really are, and God only changes character.

Personality is like whether you are introverted or extroverted, whether you like reading, sports, horror movies, video games, etc. Character is whether you treat other people in the way you would like to be treated, i.e., your tendency to do the right thing.

An example of why this distinction is important comes from this thought experiment: if you are an introvert, you would probably feel like becoming an extrovert would 'betray' who you really are as a person, and if God imposed extroversion on you, it would seem a bit like mental slavery, perhaps. But think about this: does anyone feel that way when it comes to changes in character?

I would contend that everyone always accepts improvements in character as being consistent with who they really are. For example, suppose you had someone who was really rude to staff at restaurants and other places, and then someone is rude to them one day and they feel bad about it, so they decide not to be rude to staff any more. Nowhere in this process, it seems, would they stop and say, "Hang on, being more empathetic and treating people the way I'd like to be treated is not consistent with my true self!" It seems that if someone has realised that they ought to relate to people differently, there would be no sense of betrayal of one's true self.

These examples illustrate how the problem is resolved when you say that God changes us in character, not in personality. So when God changes us it's more like someone suddenly realising they should e.g. work on being more honest and empathetic, rather than deciding to become an introvert or an extrovert (a personality issue). And in heaven (or rather the new heavens and the new earth) we will be different because our characters will be perfect, but our personality will stay the same (if we want it to).

This verse seems a bit relevant, 1 John 4:7: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God."

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