“Where exactly are you headed?”: Of gender and destinations

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Imagine this scenario for a moment: someone approaches you in the town where you live asking for directions.  You agree and ask, “Where exactly are you headed?” to which they reply “I’m not really sure actually, but I know I need to get there. It’s where I’m supposed to be.  Can you help me?”

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Anyone in this situation would very likely ask how this person intends to get to their desired destination when they don’t even know where it is they need to get to.  Knowing your destination seems like necessary information to have if you “need” to get somewhere; if it’s where you’re “supposed” to be.

  Enter every discussion, article read, and information found regarding gender dysphoria.

In a genuine desire to understand, I’ve asked the question yet again in the comment section of recent articles in the Huffington Post and the Vancouver Sun, each time finding sadly inadequate responses (or no response at all) to:

“What does it mean to be a girl and not a boy?”

Now perhaps that sounds, at the outset, like an overly philosophical, navel-gazing-esque, type of question.  But really the question it quite basic.  I’m simply asking the parents of the toddler-aged trans child, as well as the child themselves, to define this destination to which they say they “need” to get to; that they are “supposed” to be at.

I tried to focus the question even further and ask,

“Ok, putting aside for the moment even, the differences in ‘plumbing’ and the stereotypes often attached to gender in C21, what does it really mean for a boy to say he wants to be/is a girl?”

… Crickets.

I even had two women recently tell me that the question itself was irrelevant to the discussion!  Really?!  Being able to actually define the destination you are certain you must get to is irrelevant?

Maureen Mullarkey in a recent article in First Things entitled Androgyny, rightly states that gender is “a linguistic signifier, not a biological one.”  And yet, haven’t you seen how often the two (linguistics and biology) are confused and treated as synonymous when convenient to the transgender discussion?

And most nod and smile and say, “Yes, yes. Were not talking about biological sex but gender.”  But it must be conceded that the 4 year old boy is not saying that his “linguistic modifier” is wrong but that his sex is wrong.  The very use of the term “gender”, then, allows one to skip, indiscriminately and invisibly, between linguistics and biology.

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And so I asked my 7 and 8 year old daughters just the other day, “What does it mean to say that you are a girl and not a boy” and I framed the question with the same modifiers (‘plumbing’ and stereotypes excluded in age appropriate ways) but also under the heading of Gen. 1:27

“So God made man in His own image, in the image of God He created him, male and female He created them” (ESV)

I asked, “If God made both boys and girls in His image, what is it that is different about the two?”

And then they talked about it for a while.  But it was my 8 year-old in the end who said,

“Well, God made girls to have eggs inside them and to be able to hold babies, and that’s different from boys.  And he made boys to have sperm that fertilize those eggs, and also strong to be able to protect their families – that’s different from girls.”

And so I asked,

“Would you say then that one way girls show the image of God is by creating and caring for children like God does?  And that being strong and seeking to protect their kids is one different way that boys show the image of God in them?”

“Oh yeah!” they both said.

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Now, that’s not everything of course.  But we have to say that – even from an 8 year-old child’s understanding – the definition of the desired “destination” then (if that is even the desired destination), is one that is biologically, hormonally, physiologically, as well as according to divine design, impossible to reach.  And yet, what we are also really saying today is that simply “believing really strongly” that something is true, trumps all those other things; that it makes both the definition of, as well as the reality of, that destination unarguably legitimate.

Welcome to the 21st Century.  Insert your GPS firmly within the glove compartment – it will be of no use to you here.

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Eternal functional subordination within the Trinity: a thesis

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No doubt, when many people hear the word subordination, they immediately conjure up images in their minds like this one above, or worse.

Use the word submission, they think of this:
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 And, outside of Christian circles, if you mention the word “Trinity” many people might immediately think of this:

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There’s no question the words can appropriately be used in those ways, and yet, when referring to the trinitarian God of the Bible, none of them would actually be accurate.  Problem is, the propensity for our minds to jump to these sorts of images – particularly the first one – is one of the first hurdles that needs to be overcome when we try to deal with the subject of the eternal functional submission of Christ within the Trinity.  For the minute you hear “subordination” and think “subjugation” or “superiority” you’ve immediately lost the true picture of what is meant.

There are two key terms often used in theological circles when referring to the Trinity. The first refers to the nature or being of the Trinity both corporately and with respect to each Person of the Trinity (Ontological/Immanent Trinity).  The second refers to how the various persons of the Trinity operate, basically what they do (Functional/Economic Trinity).  Opponents of the eternal functional subordination (EFS hereafter) of Christ often state that these are, essentially, one and the same thing but, respectfully, and logically, I see difficulties in saying that who someone is in the essence of their being (deity or not) is the same thing as what they do or their function – the two are, no doubt, very closely aligned, but certainly not interchangeable.  I will not labour to prove that premise further, but simply leave it there as a largely self-evident truth.

So what is meant when referring to the eternal functional subordination of Christ?  I’ll deal with this in two parts:

1. The subordination of Christ in His incarnation

Here, actually, both sides generally agree that Christ was – in some measure – subordinate to the Father in His incarnation. After all, Jesus is the One who is sent, not the Father (John 20:21); Jesus is the One who suffered and died and was raised back to life, not the Father (1 Cor. 15:3-4); Jesus is the One who left His glory in heaven and took on flesh (Phil. 2:5-11), all according to the Father’s will (John 6:38), not the Father.  So most would agree that Christ was subordinate to the Father in His incarnation and all that His earthly life entailed, carrying out the will of the Father who sent Him.

2. The eternal subordination of Christ within the Trinity

The real disagreement comes when one begins to say that Christ was only subordinate to the Father in His incarnation, and that now He is no longer so.  This is where those fancy terms I mentioned earlier become so important.  Opponents of EFS often are quick to say that all the members of the Trinity are equal and it is problematic to speak of hierarchy within a co-equal Trinity.  Proponents of EFS would actually agree and quickly point out that this is why the position is called eternal functional subordination, not eternal ontological subordination.  To speak of Jesus (or the Holy Spirit for that mater) as in any sense being less God, contradicts both the Scriptures and what is clearly laid out in both the Nicene and Chalcedonian creeds.  All three Persons of the Trinity are absolutely co-equal in essence (ontology).  And yet, for someone to function in a role that is subordinate, submissive to, or “beneath” another person, in no way necessitates seeing them an ontologically inferior.  If you have a boss that you work for, doing his will and performing your job in no way means that you are somehow less of a person by nature; a lower form of humanity somehow.  Wives are commanded to be submissive to their husbands (Eph. 5:22-24) and yet that in no way makes them inferior human beings and not co-equal image bearers of God; co-equal in significance and dignity.  The same could be said of children and parents (Eph. 6:1).

So we see that functioning in a role beneath someone, does not mean that they are in any sense lesser.  This is how we can say that Christ (as well as the Holy Spirit for that matter) are functionally subordinate to the Father.  Along with that, we could say the Holy Spirit – though equally God Himself) is also functionally subordinate to Christ in that one of His primary roles is to point, not to Himself, but to Christ (John 15:26).

Where do we see Christ eternally functioning in a subordinate role in Scripture?

Good question – I’m glad you asked.  There are a few key passages where I see this:

1. 1 Cor. 15:27-28

Here Paul is very clear that Christ will deliver the kingdom to the Father, and that the Father will put all things in subjection under Christ, but he is also clear that the Father will not be put under Christ, basically b/c He (the Father) is the One placing all rings under Christ, so He Himself must have a superior role. “The Son Himself will also be subjected to Him who put all things in subjection under Him, that God may be all in all.” (v.28)

2. Rev. 13:8

Here John describes Christ as “the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world (NIV84).”  Therefore, as above, if we are already in agreement that Jesus’ function as the One sent to accomplish the Father’s will, as coming to live and die for the sins of mankind, was a subordinate function, then here the Scriptures tell us this was, in some sense, accomplished before the foundations of the world. This is surely how the saints of the OT could be justified by a forward looking faith in the Seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15) b/c Christ’s mediatory function was already, in some sense, accomplished.  From this we could say Jesus was functionally subordinate before His incarnation.

3. Acts 1:11 (cf. Phil. 2:5-11)

This is, perhaps, less obvious but if we are in agreement, again as above, that Jesus’ function was a subordinate one in His incarnation, then Acts 1:11 tells us that a part of the subordinate function (taking on of flesh) actually continues on to this day (albeit it is now a glorified flesh) b/c we are told that Jesus will “come in the same way as you saw Him go into heaven.”  Therefore, Jesus continues to this day, and until He returns, in His humble, subordinate nature that He took on and we read about in Phil. 2:5-11.  Now yes, Paul tells us in Phil. 2 that b/c of Jesus willingness to do this God “exalted Him to the highest place and gave Him a Name that is above every other” but He does not say that His now glorified body was taken off.  In fact, given what we said in the verse above (Rev. 13:8) it also may not be inaccurate to say that, for Jesus to be “slain before the foundation of the world” that He already had taken on human form, in some sense anyways, in order to be able to be slain.  The point is, however, that Christ still continues in His subordinate form that He “took on” and we read about in Phil. 2, and so we can say that He continues to function in willing subordination to the Father even after He ascended into heaven.

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Harold Lindsell and Charles Woodbridge are quoted as saying,

The mind of man cannot fully understand the mystery of the Trinity.  He who has tried to understand the mystery fully will lose his mind; but he who would deny the Trinity will lose his soul.

This is undoubtedly true.  And yet I trust I have proved (at the very least) that it is entirely acceptable to speak of the eternal functional subordination of the Son (Jesus) to the Father, w/o doing any damage to biblical, Nicene and Chalcedonian understandings of the nature and Person of Christ; the second Person of the Trinity.

Peter’s conundrum: living between the mount of transfiguration and the empty tomb

 

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If you’ve ever had that moment of confusion and disillusionment like Peter Pan’s kids in the Disney movie “Hook”, where someone you love and trust is given the opportunity to rescue both you and themselves, and they can’t (or won’t), then you understand the apostle Peter very well.  If you’ve ever cried, “Why not here God?” or “Why not now?” or “For me?” or “This time?” then you understand the apostle Peter’s deep struggle within the story of Easter.

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Speaking out of the unshakable assurance he has now in the strength of Christ, and seeking to corroborate that truth, Peter writes in 2 Peter 1:16-18 of his eyewitness experience of Jesus’ transfiguration. This was where Jesus, for all intents and purposes, ripped open His robe to reveal a big red “S” (or maybe a “J”) underneath, showing His inner circle of disciples that He was, in fact, God in the flesh.  This experience followed shortly after Peter’s confession that Jesus was the Christ; the Messiah, and it must have confirmed in his mind, without a shadow of a doubt, that Jesus truly was who Peter had said He was.

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But all of this probably only heightened and intensified what must have felt like a hard sucker-punch to the stomach not many days afterwards, as Peter stared into the eyes of armed men and guards led by Judas Iscariot in the garden of Gethsemane.  When we read in John 18 that Peter – likely recalling that very moment on the mount of transfiguration – boldly steps forward and attacks one of the guards, cutting off his ear, only to watch in shock and amazement the all powerful God-man Jesus, whose glory he had witnessed … do nothing; to tell him to put away his sword; to look now so … so, weak and helpless.

This alone must have utterly shattered all of Peter’s confidence and trust in what he thought he knew about Jesus.  But still we see, only a few verses later, Peter huddled by a fire of coals in the high priest’s courtyard, clinging to the vestiges of hope in what he had seen on the mountain, as well as all that he had seen Jesus do before this; surely hopping against hope that now Jesus will finally burst once again from his fleshly shell and blow outta that place.  But once again Peter’s hopes are disappointed.  And more than that, now people begin to press in on him; circling around him like sharks with blood in the water … and Jesus is nowhere to be seen.

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Peter is now swirling in a whirlwind of questions and doubts; fully mind-jacked and devastated at Jesus unwillingness to show His power now and rescue both of them, or worse … unable to save them?  The fulfilment of Jesus’ prophecy about Peter’s three denials only throws more wood on the fire burning inside Peter’s heart and mind, and in bitter distress and consternation, Peter runs full out into the black of night; he’s already in pitch black internally, so he may as well be there externally as well.

And then we hear, or see, nothing of Peter until after Jesus’ death; huddling in a locked room and trying to figure out where they all are supposed to go now from here.  He is not present at Jesus’ crucifixion; the sight of this would likely send him into madness.

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In sermons and counselling sessions and hard conversations, we always jump quickly to say how renewed and joyous Peter was at the news that Jesus was alive; that all his dashed hopes and dreams were still very much intact; that he had been right after all about who Jesus was, and he hand’t needed to be so afraid or so full of doubt.

But what we lose in getting too quickly to that good news is that, for many many people today, this side of eternity or Christ’s return, we still – like Peter in this moment – are living between the mount of transfiguration and the empty tomb.  And we can’t see then end.  And we can’t discern God’s hand.  And our fingers are slipping from the last branch of hope.

For of course, Peter was right about Jesus.  Peter was utterly safe in this moment of his disorientation and this winter of his discontent … but, he didn’t know that he was.

And whether it’s you, or someone you’re ministering to, we must always deal with people where they are, not where they should be.  In this place where Romans 8:22-23 piercingly reminds us,

“For we know that the whole creation has been groaning in the pains of childbirth until now.  And not only creation, but we ourselves, groan inwardly as we wait for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.  For in this hope we were saved.”

(I love how honest the Scriptures are about suffering and pain in this life!)

But then, in that difficult place, the hope we find, or offer, in this “middle-earth” is found in the very next verses of Romans.  In vss. 24-26 we read this,

“Now hope that is seen is not hope.  For who hopes for what he sees?  But if we hope for what we do not see, we wait for it with patience.”

and then

“Likewise, the Spirit helps us in our weakness.”

Hebrews 11:1 adds that,

“faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”

Jesus tells Thomas as his own doubts are overcome,

“Have you believed because you have seen Me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet believed.”

The most telling words, as it relates to all of this, are what Jesus tells Peter in John 13:7, before any of this confusion begins, and He surprises/offends Peter’s ideas of “what should be” again by the washing of his feet, and saying,

“What I do now you do not understand, but thou shalt know hereafter.”

The hope we can cling to, or extend to others, in the groaning; the doubts, and the pitch black, we can learn here from Peter: Jesus was no less in control of, or caring for, Peter in this moment, than He was before, or after, this crisis fell upon him.  But the experience of that hope is only found as a child, holding all the more tightly to the hand of their Father in the darkness, trusting that He will be faithful – even there – to lead them through.  The hope to be found (or offered) is in trusting His sovereign control of all things, even in the groaning, hard places.  For He is no less in control there, then He is when the path is smooth and easy.

“When darkness veils His lovely face, I rest on His unchanging grace.  In every high and stormy gale, my Anchor holds within the veil.”

 

Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 3 – Hell “lite” and an alternative viewpoint from Matthew 20

 

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Ok, so I’m not going to do a post 2.5.  I feel I’ve already given more time to this subject than I have to give presently and, as has been been mentioned, this is certainly not a pressing, closed-handed issue worth much more time anyways.  So, in the interests of closure and summary, I will finish out the topic for now with this last post from the series.

For interest’s sake, I would say in brief as it relates to the parable of the the unfaithful servant in Luke 12:35-48, there is a strong case, both from a plain reading of the text as well as a number of the commentaries I’ve read, that Jesus does not answer Peter’s query in Luke 12:41 b/c He is, in fact, speaking to Peter and the disciples particularly, yet with implications for all.  Judas Iscariot could be seen in vss. 45-46; perhaps Peter’s anguish at his betrayal is in view in vs. 47 while Thomas’ doubt and rebuke could be seen in vs. 48. Beyond this, neither Jesus’ hearers nor the original readers of this would have likely understood a meaning of degrees of punishment in the afterlife from Jesus’ words.

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Hell “lite”:

The first thing to say in summary is that the whole discussion of degrees of punishment in hell has the very real danger of actually promising some degree of hope to the “average sinner” who doesn’t sin/rebel against the God of the universe “too much.”  To such as these, even presenting the idea of degrees of punishment in hell could, in reality, offer out some unrealistic (and unbiblical) hope for some kind of a “hell lite” which – although it surely isn’t nice – is more like having to eat eternally at Denny’s instead of the Ritz Carlton, than it is a lake of eternal fire and eternal separation from God and all His common grace currently bestowed upon us.  The latter is as unthinkable as the bible presents it; the former may not actually be seen as that bad as long as I get to thumb my nose to God in this life and do what I please while I’m here now.

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 The levelling effect of Matthew 20:1-16

The last thing to say in summary of my argument can be found in the very familiar parable of the labourers in the vineyard in Matthew 20.  Here we see those who begin very early, and labour much for the Master throughout the day receiving the very same wage/payment as those who accomplish only a little (comparatively) and for only the last hour of the day.  Jesus says very plainly that this is what the kingdom of heaven is like.

Now, surely, one thing being highlighted here is the generosity of God to all, but it must also be stated that – though the labourers who began first clearly believed they would receive a greater reward/payment/benefit than those who had accomplished much less and worked for a much shorter time – they are all given the very same, previously stated/agreed upon payment.  If we understand this in an eschatological sense, this may indeed be saying that there are not, in fact, degrees of reward in heaven, but that we all receive the One, true Reward which is Christ Himself (and truly, what more could be given or desired to possess than Him?).  This would also be consistent with Jesus teaching in Luke 17:7-10.

The corollary, then, as it relates to our subject at hand, would simply be that – irregardless of one’s “labours” in defiance and rebellion of their Creator and Lord, the “payment/reward” for their labour is also one and the same for all.  This would be consistent with Paul’s teaching in Rom. 6:23,

“For the wages of sin is death but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

He does not say that the wages/payment for a few sins is death but that the wages for a lot of sin, or really bad sins, is extra death; nor does he state that the reward for obedient trust in Christ is anything more, or less, than eternal life with Him.

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Now, believe me, I’m with you totally in saying that, even writing those last few paragraphs pushes BIG buttons inside my head and my heart as well as activating my inner-lawyer (as Paul Tripp call him).  “Objection!  That’s not fair!” I complain.  “How can someone who’s lived a basically good life but just rejected Christ, get the same punishment as a Hitler or a Stalin or some serial killer?!  That is not just!”

Well, the first thing we have to admit is … Seriously?! You wanna say that “all” someone did was “just” reject Christ?  Secondly, while applying verses like Rom. Romans 9:20-21 to our understanding of justice in this life, we need to be finally brought to reverent silence before passages like Rom. 11:33-36:

“Oh, the depth and the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God!  How unsearchable are His judgments and how inscrutable His ways!

For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been His counsellor? Or who has given Him a gift that He might be repaid?  

For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be glory forever.  Amen.” [emphasis mine]

The parable in Matthew 20 gives the same sobering answer to the cries for justice, as we see it a least, in both the positive and the negative sense:

“Jesus, how can you offer the same payment/reward to those who are more deserving of punishment or more deserving of extra reward?”  The gavel He swings down in Matthew 20 to both questions is,

“Am I not allowed to do what I chose with what belongs to Me?  Or do you begrudge My generosity?”

Selah.

A Dangerous Calling: book review

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The saying goes that an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.  As a pastor just entering into pastoral ministry, I found Paul Tripp’s book “A Dangerous Calling” to be a pound of prevention, as well as cure, all rolled into one.

It’s nearly impossible to truly anticipate the kind of pressures and temptations one will face in pastoral ministry when you’ve just left the starting line.  Also, like you often see with youth, there can be a kind of naive confidence (arrogance even) when you’re just leaving the dock and sailing out into the ocean of church-work.

So, from my own place in life, “A Dangerous Calling” is a series of large, blinking, neon signs, pointing out areas of danger and disaster that many other pastors have had to discover the hard way.  It would be foolish for anyone entering the pastorate (or any professional calling for that matter) to not learn from, and sit under, the wise, collective counsel of those who have been around the block more times than they can count anymore.

I’ve also, however, had the great blessing of reading through this book with a number of other seasoned pastors.  The strength and breadth of this book is that – by their own testimony – this same book is also a surgeon’s scalpel, a diagnostic tool, and a lighthouse in the storm, to call those long into their ministries and out in the deeps of the ocean, back to fidelity to their calling as well as encouraging them along the way that they are not alone in their struggles.

The book itself is divided into three main sections:

1. Examining Pastoral Culture – I found this to be the most formative to me as a new pastor about dangers that can strike right from the beginning.  The one that comes to mind most, and which was convicting to me, is how theological knowledge does not necessarily dictate one’s level of spiritual maturity.

2. The Danger of Losing you Awe (Forgetting who God is)

3. The Danger of Arrival (Forgetting who You are)

These next two sections lay out some of the major pitfalls and land mines that Paul Tripp has either experienced himself or seen countless times as he listens to and counsels other pastors.  This was most helpful to me in thinking about how I can prepare now so as to avoid these very real and present dangers in my future ministry.  one thing that came to mind was how helpful it would be for pastors to read through this book with their wives; with them being the closest person to you, it would serve you both well for your wife to know what she should be looking out for in your life and ministry.

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The sum is, if you are just thinking about entering into pastoral ministry/seminary or if you’ve been pastoring for the past 30+ years, this book is about you and for you.  I would highly recommend “A Dangerous Calling” to anyone in either of these places in life.

* I received a review e-copy of this book from Crossway

Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 2 – Leviticus 20 and different punishments for different sins

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In the David Fincher film “Seven” (a troublingly brilliant film I would recommend cautiously, and never pastorally) we see detectives seeking to find a psychopathic killer who is carrying out ghastly murders on people he sees to be guilty of the seven deadly sins.  One such unfortunate victim – a man he deems guilty of the sin of sloth – is kept in a room and tortured every day for an entire year, all the while still being kept alive.  When the two detectives find him, still alive, and get him to the hospital, the doctor says these words to the detectives,

He’s experienced about as much pain and suffering as anyone I’ve encountered, give or take; and he still has Hell to look forward to.”

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In the last post I considered the argument from Matthew 11 that Jesus was teaching degrees of punishment in hell by describing hell as more “tolerable” for some than for others.  I laid out the case there that, perhaps, the tolerable-ness of hell had to do with one’s experience of hell based on their level of opportunity/revelation beforehand, and not on any differing degree of punishment.

Here now in the second post, I want to consider a second argument:

Argument #2: The different punishments for different sins in the Mosaic law,  demonstrate that there will be degrees of punishment in hell.

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A cursory read of Leviticus shows God laying out his laws for life, holiness and priestly service (among other things) in Ch. 1-19, with Ch. 20 making a decided shift to describing some of the punishments God requires Israel to carry out for breaking those laws.  The point that those who see degrees of punishment in hell draw out from here is that God deals with different sins differently.  It’s not simply death for every offence of the law.  One receives death, while one receive a sentence of childlessness; one is burned by fire and one is cut off from the people.  This is also not, it should be noted, by any means the only place where we see God laying out different punishments for different sins in the OT law.  The implication, it is said, we can clearly draw from these, and other passages, is that God does not punish all sins equally.  On this point I would actually agree up and to the point of conceding that God certainly does command His people to punish the differing sins present among them differently.  The question needs to be asked immediately though, “Is it reasonable and necessary to extrapolate from these different punishments God commands His people to carry out, a corresponding truth statement that would say God Himself punishes people differently in hell?”

The answer, I believe, is found in answering the corresponding question:

What is the purpose of the law?

Paul tells us in Romans 7:7 that the law is what reveals sin to us. He says earlier in Romans 5:20 that the law also came to “increase the trespass” (and by that statement, and in that context, I take that to mean the trespass of Adam).  So the law was meant to reveal sin to us (just as Adam broke the first “law” of God in the garden of Eden) as well as to increase or magnify the trespass, which I take to mean to show us more and more of both how very opposite we are from the holy perfection of God, as well as, increasingly, how much in we are in need of a Saviour.  The point is, the law – and its corresponding punishments – has a very specific purpose.

And yet, right after simplifying the whole discussion of rewards and punishments, and stating simply that continuing in sin gives you death but that receiving the free gift of God gives you eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord in Romans 6:23 (the chapter divisions are not inspired BTW) Paul says, “Or do you not know brothers – for I am speaking to those who know the law – that the law is binding on a person only as long as he lives?

Now, there are clear spiritual implications for the Christian and the non-Christian here – yes – but I think it is reasonable to conclude that God may also be saying here that the pattern of the law, and its corresponding punishments – this way of operating towards Him and others that He handed down to Moses – was intended for our own temporal existence/history alone.  This would make extrapolations from this text, beyond this life, about the way God punishes sin Himself, spurious and moot.  Of course, this does’t mean for a moment that God doesn’t punish sin.  But if the way God commands His people to operate before Him and with others is said to only be in effect, lit. “binding”, as long as we are living, it stands to reason that the way He operates towards sinners once they’ve died, i.e are not living, cannot be deduced from the way He commands us to operate towards sin while we are still living.

The simplest illustration I can think of is as it relates to sexuality and my kids.  Right now, as children (and unmarried all the more) I have a very clear way I command and expect them to operate towards sexuality, viz. they are to have zero, none, zip, nada sexual relations with anyone, and I will also lay out various consequences for them (beyond the natural) should my children disobey that command.  Yet I would state, even now, that this command/law is intended for as long as they remain unmarried, and that once they are married, the way I operate towards them as it relates to that command/law will look very different (ala. Romans 7:1).  Given all that information, you would look foolish to say that, based on my former command/law, I would continue to operate in the same way toward my daughters and sexuality as I do now, once they are married, and that I would also seek to punish them in the same way.  When they marry, the command/law no longer defines the way I operate towards them.  I think this is also how Romans 7:1 gives reasonable doubt to the premise that the way God commands His people to punish different sins differently in the OT law, defines a pattern for us to see how God will punish some people more in hell than others.

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Which leads us back to my opening illustration.  In no way do I take my theological cues from films, and yet the principle displayed in the film is sound: the punishments handed down to this unfortunate man for his “sins” are clearly distinct from the imminent punishment of hell that this man is about to – in the mind of this doctor anyways – experience.  I’ll explain more of what I think that means in subsequent posts, but suffice it to say for now, I see hell itself as the supreme and final display of God’s justice on all the unrighteous, unqualified or quantified, and in and of itself.

There will, actually, be a post 2.5 before my conclusion in post 3, as some have enquired how this all relates to the parable of the servants in Luke 12:35-48.  This is what I will seek to deal with in the next post.

Are there degrees of punishment in hell? Considering the arguments in 3 parts. Part 1 – Matthew 11 and the “tolerable-ness” of hell

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Are there degrees of punishment in hell?

No.

Ok, maybe I should qualify that with a, “No, i don’t think so” because, according to some folks (*ahem* “Love Wins” promo video), unless I’ve been to hell myself I can’t say anything authoritatively about what happens there.

So the real question then is, “Does the bible teach that there are degrees of punishment in hell?”

There are three main [here summarized] arguments I’ve heard that would say, “Yes, the bible does teach this” that I want to interact with over the next few posts,  They are as follows:

1. In Matt. 11:20-24 Jesus talks about people in the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and  Capernaum finding hell less “tolerable” on the day of judgment than the cities of Tyre, Sidon, and Sodom.  Therefore hell will be more severe for some than for others.

2. The punishments laid out for sin in Leviticus clearly reveal that different sins are to be punished with greater or lesser consequences, so this clearly reinforces the idea that there are differing levels of punishment in hell.

3. The bible speaks about greater and lesser rewards in heaven (2 Cor. 5:10, 1 Cor. 3:12-14, Matt. 16:27), and so, conversely, there must be greater and lesser degrees of punishment in hell.

*Note: The third argument is, in my view, a bit of a non sequitur and does not have the logical strength (on the level of saying, “Well, hell is a lake of fire and very hot so obviously we know that heaven is very cold.”) nor the biblical support to stand on its own without factoring in the other two, so I’ll spend my effort responding to the first two arguments in the next few posts.

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Argument #1: Jesus’ teaching in Matt. 11 teaches degrees of punishment in hell


The first reason I disagree with this interpretation of Matthew 11:20-24 is because the plain reading of the text actually says nothing about greater or lesser punishments in hell (this is assuming we can infer that “Judgement Day” is meant to be metonymy for the great white throne judgement), but refers only to subjective experience, viz. how “tolerable” it will be for them.

The second reason I disagree with this interpretation is because of the reason Jesus says that it will be more tolerable for Tyre, Sidon and Sodom than for these unrepentant cities of Chrorazin and Capernaum.  Jesus says to these last two cities, “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes” (vs.21) and later, “For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.” (vs.23).

So the reason, according to Jesus, that the day of judgement will be less tolerable for Chorazin and Capernaum is that, based on the amount of revelation they had (as compared to Tyre, Sidon and Sodom) they are then more responsible for their un-repentant, un-believing attitudes toward God.  But it must be stated, in light of the first point, that one’s experience of something does not, in any way, mean that the thing being experienced is different in any discernible way.

The way I see that working itself out is this:

Let’s say there are earthquake/tsunami warnings being posted all over – news paper, radio, television, etc. – and people are being told to evacuate Vancouver.  But b/c I live on higher ground in Kerrisdale, I feel like my family and I will be ok regardless, and so I don’t pack up and leave.  Consequently, the earthquake comes and flattens my building and, tragically, one of my children is killed.  But, let’s say at the same time, there is another family in my apartment building that is brand new to Vancouver and doesn’t speak a lick of English.  And so, they also don’t respond in time to the information being given to them (though, of course, for a very different reason) and their family also loses a child in the disaster.

The question we need to ask is, “Is the result of not heeding the warnings and evacuating Vancouver any different for either family?”  Answer: No.  We both lost a child and it is, by itself, equally tragic for both of us.  And yet, the experience of it for me is devastatingly less tolerable because I heard and understood the warnings and didn’t take the needed action to protect my family.  I had a greater responsibility to act based on what I saw and heard, and though the result is identical for both families, my experience of that is understandably less tolerable.

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This is, i believe, what Jesus is describing for the unrepentant cities of Chorazin and Capernaum, viz. the judgement you receive on that last Day is going to be monumentally less tolerable for you.  And it will be that way, not b/c your punishment is going to be more severe than it will be for those other cities that didn’t repent either, but b/c the signs performed in your cities testified to Who it was that was in your presence (the promised Messiah) and so you therefore had a greater responsibility to act based on what you saw and heard.

Jesus is basically saying it will be like that moment in the film The Usual Suspects when the US customs agent, Dave Kujan, discovers that he just let the most notorious criminal in the United States (Keyser Söze) walk out the front door of the police station after holding him and interrogating him for hours, never to be found again.  The result is the same – you didn’t have him in custody before and you don’t have him in custody now – and yet the experience of not having him in custody now is all the less tolerable b/c he didn’t respond accordingly to what was staring him in the face and now it’s too late to respond.

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Jesus is not describing degrees of punishment in hell – at least not in Matt. 11:20-24 – but rather, the different experiences individuals will have in response to their judgement based on their responsibility to act in light of the information they had in front of them.

In the next post, I will seek to deal with the second argument for degrees of punishment in hell based on the legal code laid out in Leviticus.

Cake baking, picture taking and same-sex union making: Oh my!

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Would Jesus bake a cake for a gay wedding?

Should a photographer be forced to violate their conscience and have to offer services for an event they are morally opposed to?

These, amoung others, are some of the questions being batted around cyberspace and spilling much e-ink these days.  And, at the risk of getting a few punches myself, i thought i’d throw my own hat in the ring and offer a few thoughts of my own to consider.

To begin, as a friend of mine said earlier today regarding all this, i too feel sympathy for those who feel they are being forced to act against their consciences and make themselves complicit (in their view) with acts they deem to be morally wrong.  It doesn’t seem fair after all.  Why can’t these patrons just find another cake baker or picture taker?  Why make it a big legal battle and, potentially, ruin a hard-earned business for someone acting sincerely according to their conscience?

One particular article/post responding to all the hurly-burly caught my attention.  As i interacted with the author in the comment area, one point he made in particular was very clarifying for my own thinking on the issue.

I had stated that in his article, he seemed to be attaching a moral character to cakes and flowers that simply did not exist by stating that creating either one of those things for a same-sex union made the maker of that cake, or arranger of those flowers, complicit somehow in the union they felt morally in conflict with.  In his response he replied,

If it was just about cakes and flowers, I would agree. But it’s about the use of gifts and talents to create special works of art for purposes that we deem to be immoral.”

Now, applying biblical logic to that argument, would that not, necessarily, make God Himself complicit in acts He says are against His revealed will in the bible?  For has God not also used His own creative powers to create (and sustain!) creatures of whom He surely knows (infinitely) will be used (or use themselves) for sinful purposes/ends?  Therefore, looking at it this way, this also removes, i think, the argument that it is more knowledge of how a creation is to be used that is the real issue of conscience in these widely publicized legal battles.

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In the end, i don’t think i know what the right answer is.  No one will stand before me at the end of time and give any account for anything.  But i offer two ideas of my own in closing for consideration:

1. In Matthew 5:43-48 we read,

““You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ 44 But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, 45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven. For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. 46 For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? 47 And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? 48 You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”

In the example of Christ while He lived on earth, “loving your enemies” certainly was never about winking at sin or lowering the bar of holiness.  But what it was (to a large degree) was about serving, and entering into people’s lives where they were at (surely, with the purpose of not leaving them there), and (ultimately) laying down His life for those who were His “enemies” (cf. Rom. 5:10) to ransom them for God (Rev. 5:9).

So, given that, what then does loving your enemies/those who hate you and persecute you look like for a Christian baker, for example, in a secular, fallen world?

2. In an interview at the Veritas forum, Tim Keller said something very insightful that i think would also apply to these type of situations.  He said something to the effect of, [my paraphrase] “Yes, the bible says homosexuality is a sin.  But the bible also says to love your neighbour.  And there are some Christians who take the biblical imperatives to love your neighbour very seriously, but they ignore what the bible says about the sinfulness of homosexual behaviour.  And there are also others who take the moral imperatives against homosexuality very seriously, but who also ignore the command to love their neighbours.  And both are wrong in the end”

So, when faced with these very real moral and ethical dilemmas in life, and for the Christian in particular, i think we would do well to ask ourselves:

1. What would loving my enemies look like in this situation?

2. Does loving my enemies mean surrendering my own moral/ethical beliefs about any given subject?  Did it mean that for Jesus?

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Selah.

People should know when they’re conquered: Homophobia, Duck Dynasty, and pluralism

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In the opening scenes of the film Gladiator, a meagre but undaunted force from Germania stands across the valley from a overwhelming sea of Roman soldiers, waiting for the next move on the chess boards of war.  Focusing in on the Roman general Maximus and his military advisor Quintus, we watch them surveying the opposing army as they continue to roar and shout victoriously, even in the face of a sure defeat.  It is then that Quintus says incredulously to Maximus,

“People should know when they’re conquered.”

Continuing to watch across the valley, Maximus replies, “Would you, Quintus?  Would I?”

It’s a genuine statement form Quintus (isn’t it as obvious to them as it is to us that they are already defeated?) and a realist response from Maximus (he knows – and desires Quintus to know as well – that, were the situation reversed, they would be no less defiant and undaunted in the face of sure defeat).

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Arising out of the deluge of commentary on the Duck Dynasty/Phil Robertson interview in GQ magazine in recent days, floated something – amongst all the other muck and debris – that looked very much like this scene in Gladiator.

A good deal of the response to Phil Robertson’s comments about homosexuality; stating (however ineloquently) that he thought it was a sin, was this same sort of incredulous questioning that Quintus offered to Maxiums on the battlefield, viz.

Doesn’t Phil Robertson know that this issue has already been settled?  That this battle has already been won?  Sure, there are still a few backward places like Russia and Africa.  But how dare anyone from North America claim that they still hold a defeated viewpoint like this anymore!

People should know when they’re conquered!

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Now i’m not even making any statement about Phil Robertson’s views or A&E here.  I’m simply pointing out that this is yet another clear example of the myriad of occurrences where we witness (what i think D. A. Carson coined) “the intolerance of tolerance” in society.  Tolerance used to mean, Carson states, what Voltaire famously quipped, “I may disagree with what you say entirely and yet i will defend to the death your right to say it!”  So, in other words, tolerance used to mean we could actually have opposing viewpoints on a particular subject and still, you know, tolerate one another.

But it’s become the soup of the day, it seems, to seek to silence all voices that will not toe the party line.  “Diversity?  Sure!  As long as it looks like everybody else and conforms to today’s standards of right/wrong. just/unjust, acceptable/unacceptable.  Stray too far, though, and you will simply be categorized (religious nut), labeled (homophobic, hateful) and dismissed (irrelevant).

Is that the kind of diversity we want?.

In fact, we know historically that societies thrive and stretch and grow all the more broadly and creatively when there is such diversity of opinion fostered and encouraged within it  (i’m not suggesting a free-for-all, anything goes!)  Consider the Roman empire as an example: a veritable hodge-podge of diverse opinions on art and literature, epistemology and science , religion and politics and one of the greatest civilizations the world has ever known.  Given that, i might even go so far as to say that perhaps pluralism is not the enemy of Christianity we were all once led to believe it was, nor is it the enemy of the homosexual worldview!

We don’t always find areas of agreement – and he is certainly no friend of the conservative Christian worldview – but i think a few people now have mentioned what Bill Maher once said during the whole Paula Deen controversy, which i think applies in this instance as well,

Do we always have to make people go away?”

I think the clear answer is, “No.  No we don’t.”  Nor should we seek to.

Selah.

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Felix Culpa, the problem of evil and the Incarnation

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Whenever one talks about or considers the fall of man as described in Genesis 3, the connotation is almost always negative.  This was the deciding point in history when Adam, as our federal head, sinned and – in so doing – brought sin into the world and all his posterity after him (cf. Romans 5:12).

The understanding of the fall presents a problem of sorts for the theist however, and particularly for the Christian theist who has a high view of God’s sovereignty in all things but also believes in the omnibenevolence (supreme goodness) of God.  For if we say, “God, from all eternity, did, by the most wise and holy counsel of His own will, freely, and unchangeably ordain whatsoever comes to pass” as the Westminster confession of faith states (WCF 3.1), then we must necessarily say that God – in some manner at least – ordained the fall of mankind.  One of the clearest places we see this implied is in Romans 8:20-21 which states,

“For the creation was subjected to futility, not willingly, but because of him who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to corruption and obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. (ESV)”

The Initiator of the “subjection to futility” is clearly God.  The intended purpose of said subjection is clearly stated as a hopeful expectation that it will be liberated from it.

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The understanding of how this all works together – reconciling the sovereignty of God with the goodness of God in the fall of man – has traditionally been referred to as the “problem of evil.”  Various reasonings and explanations have been offered up over the years to explain this; some more consistent with their own belief systems than others.

But one in particular that intrigues me, and seems to scratch where i’m itching, is that which is suggested by St. Augustine of Hippo (354-430 A.D).

Screen Shot 2013-12-11 at 10.52.24 AMIn his consideration of the fall of man and the problem of evil, he introduced the phrase Felix Culpa from the Latin “Felix” (meaning happy, lucky or blessed) and “Culpa” (meaning fault or fall).  In the Catholic tradition this has been translated as “Fortunate fall” and the concept, at my present understanding of it, seems to reconcile both God’s ordaining of the fall and a purpose worthy of God behind it.

Augustine wrote,

Melius enim iudicavit de malis benefacere, quam mala nulla esse permittere.”                    (For God judged it better to bring good out of evil than not to permit any evil to exist.)

In the Eater vigil hymn “Exsultet” it is sung,

O felix culpa quae talem et tantum meruit habere redemptorem.”                                                    (O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer.)

Other notable voices in history such as Aquinas, Anselm and Gottfried Leibniz have also adopted this thinking in their understanding of the problem of evil; Leibniz particularly in his ” Théodicée  (or Theodicy: meaning “God’s justice”) refers to “felix culpa” as his answer to the objection that he who does not choose what we see as the best course of action must necessarily lack either power, knowledge or goodness.

To be sure, this does not summarily “answer” the problem of evil, nor does it remove mystery or more questions.  It also is surely a sole prerogative of a perfectly holy, righteous God and not for mankind; to seek to bring about evil so that the glory of Christ may shine all the brighter in the darkness (cf. Rom. 6:1-2, 12:17,19, James 1:19-20).

 But i believe it does give us a greater insight into understanding both the sovereignty and goodness of God in the history of the world, culminating at the Incarnation (which we are currently in the season of celebration). For as Gal. 4:4-5, Rom. 3:23-36, 1 Peter 1:20 tell us plainly, God not only ordained the problem, but also the glorious Solution to it.

And so, as it has been said: just as a light in plain daylight does not shine as brightly as a light in the darkness, so the love of God in Christ shines all the more brightly in the darkness permitted by God than it would have, had no darkness ever existed.

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“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them has light shone.”   Isaiah 9:2

In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.”   John 1:4-5