Archives For World Religions

Earlier this week, a group of 21 Egyptian Christians, members of the Coptic Church, were beheaded. The accusation against them: they were “people of the cross, members of the hostile Egyptian Church.” This unfathomable act was carried out by ISIS—an act of barely veiled evil, supposedly done in service to God. Religious people everywhere (most Muslims included) are horrified at this and other atrocities committed by the Islamic State.

As I hear about this beheading, I am in the middle of my semester, in which I am teaching two courses that give me two unique perspectives on this event. On the one hand, I am teaching about the persecution endured by the Christians in the first three centuries. On the other hand, I am teaching through the book of Revelation. The church history course gives historical perspective; the Revelation course gives eternal and theological perspective.

In talking about the early church, we have been looking at many examples of Christians who bravely met their death. From sometimes sporadic and sometimes full-scale persecutions under Roman emperors to persecutions in China, India, Egypt, Africa, and the Middle East for most of Christian history, persecution has been the church’s constant companion. Paul promised: “all who desire to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted” (2 Tim. 3:12). And he meant it. Jesus himself said, “In this world you will have tribulation,” but he also went on to say, “But take heart; I have overcome the world” (John 16:33).

Throughout history, many of our Christian brothers and sisters have boldly chosen death over disgrace, martyrdom over apostasy. Most of these martyrs didn’t actually have to die: there was a simple escape from their painful deaths (often preceded by torture). All they had to do was renounce Jesus. And yet that simple act was more than they could bear; death was a far more attractive option.

Despite numerous attempts throughout church history (and apparent victories in specific areas at specific times), evil has not been able to stop the followers of Christ from, well, following Christ—from picking up their own cross and accepting death on behalf of their Lord. As Tertullian famously said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”

These 21 men bravely joined the prestigious ranks of those who have demonstrated that Jesus matters more than their own lives. As Hebrews says, these are people “of whom the world was not worthy” (11:38).

At the same time, I’ve been teaching through the book of Revelation. Though there is much disagreement about the nature and timing of Revelation, the book was originally written to seven churches on the verge of intense persecution from the Roman empire (or “Babylon,” as Revelation refers to it). The letter of Revelation was written to keep them standing strong in the face of persecution. Some churches were in danger of flirting with the evil empire, and Revelation calls them to remain faithful. Other churches were about to suffer for their faith, and Jesus says to them: “Be faithful unto death, and I will give you the crown of life” (2:10).

Standing firm as a faithful witness to the reign of Jesus—even in the face of death—is a key theme in Revelation. Revelation calls all Christians to be ready to lay down our lives rather than deny Jesus in our words or our actions.

In calling us to be faithful witnesses to the point of death, Revelation is calling us to follow the example of Jesus. Towards the beginning of the book, John hears an announcement of “the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David,” who has “conquered” (5:5). And as John turns to look upon this conquering, kingly Lion, he seems something startling: “I saw a Lamb standing, as though it had been slain” (v. 6). What John sees interprets what John hears. Jesus is indeed the King, the conquering Lion. But the way in which he has conquered is by dying as a sacrificial Lamb. This then sets the stage for the followers of the Lamb.

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

The white lamb in the Ghent Altarpiece by Jan van Eyck

Throughout the book of Revelation, the followers of the Lamb are called to “conquer” in the same way the Lamb conquered: “They have conquered him [the dragon: Satan] by the blood of the Lamb and by the word of their testimony, for they loved not their lives even unto death” (12:11). It is fascinating that in Revelation, the same event in which Satan and the evil empire are said to conquer over God’s people (11:7, 13:7)—namely, martyring them—is also the event in which the martyrs are said to conquer Satan and evil (12:11). The evil empire believes that it is conquering by killing the saints; the saints are assured that they are conquering the evil empire by dying. We are reminded of Paul’s words:

“We do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Eph. 6:12).

Faithful witness is the call throughout Revelation, and martyrs throughout history have answered this call.

So as I heard about ISIS beheading 21 Christians and referring to them as “the people of the cross,” I thought: they got that exactly right. People of the cross indeed. People who are willing to pick up their cross and follow Jesus. And as I heard of one of the ISIS soldiers claiming, “we will conquer Rome,” I thought: they got that exactly wrong. They are siding with Rome, with Babylon, with the beast, with the evil empire. And the men they beheaded are the ones who truly conquered Rome.

Because our Christian brothers went to death for the sake of Jesus’ name, choosing faithful witness to the lordship of Jesus over their own lives, evil was conquered on Sunday. Just as in the crucifixion of Jesus, evil has been conquered in the very act by which it meant to conquer.

So to our Christian brothers who defeated ISIS: Thank you for reminding us that Jesus is better than life. Thank you for showing us that death is not defeat, that those who remain faithful to death will receive the crown of life. We are inspired by your allegiance to the slaughtered Lamb, and we are resolved to follow the Lamb into the heavenly city, where he has already wiped every tear from your eyes (Rev. 7:17, 21:4).

Jack-O-LanternI’ve written a bit on Halloween in the past, and I’ve even engaged in a very gentle debate with some of my coworkers on whether or not it’s appropriate for a Christian to Trick-or-Trick (here). Some people can be dismissive about this issue (myself included), but there are significant factors involved. It deserves careful thought.

Here’s what no one should ever do on Halloween, or any other time of the year:

  • Worship Satan
  • Call upon evil spirits, enlist their aid, or try to appease them
  • Celebrate evil
  • Harm other people or their property, whether through physical or magical means

If Halloween means any of those things to you, run from it. If taking your kids door to door to ask your neighbors for candy implies any of the above listed activities to you, then find a suitable alternative. I have no agenda to convince anyone to go against their conscience. My simple and slanted thoughts are offered only for those who aren’t sure what to make of Halloween.

Here’s what you need to know. Halloween has pagan roots. I have not done the work to verify this, but I’ve read it a couple of places and it sounds right. I’m not interested in finding a credible source to verify the pagan roots because they don’t bother me. The names of our planets have pagan roots. So do the names of the days in our weeks. So does the timing of our celebration of Christmas and several of our Christmas traditions. Same with Easter.

So the roots are pagan. Do we throw it out? Honestly, why not? Definitely feel free to stop celebrating Halloween. There’s no reason why you need to. I’m not going to argue that it’s the Christian thing to do.

Halloween Hula GirlsBut here’s something to consider. Kids have fun on Halloween. My girls love to play dress up any day of the year, so they have a good time when all of the kids in our neighborhood dress up. Our country happens to celebrate National Dress Up Day on October 31. That makes for a fun night for my kids. This event also happens to coincide with National Share Your Candy Day, which my kids also happen to love. So it’s fun for them to go door to door, say hi to the neighbors, bump into them on the sidewalk, talk about each other’s costumes, and share candy with each other.

What I’m trying to say is that I don’t believe my neighbors are engaging in the occult on Halloween. They’re having fun. They’re atypically social on this one night. Some of my neighbors have decorated their lawns with spiders, tombstones, and ghosts, but I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that they won’t conjure a single dead soul or perform a single hex on October 31. They’re not thinking through the cultic connections of some of the original Halloween practices; they’re just enjoying what our culture has made Halloween into: National Dress Up Day / National Share Your Candy Day.

I’ll admit that I could be wrong here. My neighbors could be sacrificing goats in their backyards. But from everything I know about them, they’re not closet occultists. I’ll also acknowledge that while my neighborhood doesn’t seem to be into Satanism, yours might be. If so, don’t engage in their celebration of evil. That’s an easy decision.

But statistically speaking, your neighbors and mine are more likely to be naturalists than Wiccans. Which means that they don’t believe ghosts, spirits, curses, or the any other supernatural manifestations are real. I’m pretty convinced that my neighbors are not worshipping Satan—not because I think they’re too Christian to do such a thing, but because I don’t think they believe in Satan or anything similarly “unscientific.” I think they’re dressing up and sharing candy.

To me, this means we all have an individual choice to make. You can view Halloween according to its pagan roots and avoid it as a celebration of evil. You’re entitled to make that decision, and I won’t look down on you at all. You’ve got to do what’s best. Or you can view Halloween according to the way its modern celebraters see it—as a day of fun and games and sociability. I’m choosing to see it that way, and I hope you won’t look down on me for that.

Vampire TeethIt may be difficult to overlook the evil origins of Halloween, but our Christian predecessors thought it was possible—even beneficial—to take a pagan celebration and rework it into a reminder of good things. That’s why Christmas is when it is, why Easter is the way it is, and why we have All Saints Day at the close of October. Maybe they were wrong, but they took a celebration and tweaked it for what they believed to be God’s glory. In my view, our culture has handed us a gift in weeding out the actual Satanism of some early Halloween practices and giving us a night of fun and games. They’ve done the hard work of systematically forgetting all of the pagan implications and viewing it in terms of the imagination.

If you’re still up in the air on the whole issue, ask yourself whether it’s possible to redeem National Dress Up Day / National Share Your Candy Day for the sake of your friends and neighbors.

You are free to decide.

 

I am so thankful for Christianity. That probably sounds odd, or lame, or both. But the longer I live, the more I test out my Christian beliefs in more of the real world, and the more amazed I am at Christianity’s ability to explain this world and to allow me to thrive within it.

Francis Schaeffer always said that Christianity offers an explanation for all of life. It speaks to everything. And I keep finding that he’s right about that. We sometimes think that Christianity is about going to heaven when we die, but it provides the only accurate and profound answer to everything we encounter.

I am thankful…

Return of the Prodigal Son (Rembrandt)To be able to forgive someone who doesn’t deserve forgiveness, and to know that justice is still served. Because the wicked will be punished, and because Jesus was punished on behalf of the wicked who trust in him, justice will be completely served in this universe. I can always forgive because Christ forgave first, and because vengeance belongs to him. This gives me unbelievable freedom and joy in relationships.

To be able to tell my daughters that they will see their dead loved ones again—and mean it. The loss of a loved one is unbearable. And yet I am so comforted that when a believing friend or family member dies, I will be able to look my daughters in the eye and tell them truthfully, “You will see him again, and it will be amazing!”

To be able to point my daughters to Jesus as an example of forgiveness—and everything. This morning I was talking to one of my girls about what to do if her sister hits her. How amazing that I can explain that Jesus was hit, wounded, and even killed, and that he did not hit back! Parenting would be so difficult without the example of Jesus.

To be able to explain and value the good in this world. When I see people doing good, pursuing good, praising good, I don’t have to wonder why people who don’t see the world as I see it can still do good things. I believe in a God who made a very good world, and who still showers his goodness in all corners of this world, even when some people want nothing to do with him.

To be able to explain and oppose the evil in this world. Contrary to some world religions, I don’t have to accept evil as simply “the way it is.” And I can fight against the evil in this world without fighting against God (as in some Eastern religions). This is God’s good world, and though he permits evil for a time, he has sacrificed himself to defeat evil and he will one day remove it entirely.

Rembrandt - Descent from the CrossTo be able to point people to the power of love, and know that it’s something deeper than the power of positive thinking. Love can be a cheesy concept—Why can’t we all just love one another? And yet I believe in a God who is love. I can say with a straight face that true, self-sacrificing love is the most powerful force in the universe.

To be affirmed in my deep understanding that I am not good enough, and to be reminded that that was never the point anyway. Every day I am proven right in my suspicions that I’m actually a horrible person. And Christianity told me that this is what I would find about myself. Yet Christianity also reminds me daily that my value is not dependent on my performance, and that Jesus saved me while I was a sinner. There are no words to express how amazing this reality is.

To be affirmed in my love for this world. Contrary to some religions (such as Gnosticism or Buddhism) that see this world as icky or illusory, I can look around at this world, love and enjoy it deeply, and be affirmed in this by the Creator. He made a good world and placed us within it. What a joy to have the freedom to love the world God made!

To be affirmed in my love for the people around me. I don’t have to be in competition with the people around me. I don’t have to hate them. I can value them as bearers of the image of God. I can see their value, and love them with the love of Christ.

To know that God is there, and that he loves deeply. I am part of one of the very few world religions that sees God as a personal being who cares about what happens in this world. I belong to the ONLY religion that understands that God cares so much about us that he sacrificed himself for the sake of human beings. There is so much comfort in these profound truths!

To know that no godly effort in this life will be in vain. I don’t have to wonder if my sacrifice for the sake of God and his kingdom will be worth it in the end. I am promised that every bit of suffering, every bit of effort, every single undertaking done for the Lord has value, and none of it will be wasted (1 Cor. 15:58).

This list can (and should) go on forever. Christianity is more than a dusty, lifeless belief system. It is the self-revelation of the infinite-personal God who is the only foundation for reality. I am so thankful for God and for his accurate, artful, and brilliant revelation to us.

 

Now that attention has turned from Miley to the civil war in Syria, people everywhere are wondering: Should America intervene?

The cause for intervention, of course, stems from August 21, when Syrian President al-Assad allegedly used chemical weapons against rebel forces, leading to the death of over 1,400 people including several hundred children. (Evidence that al-Assad is responsible is still inconclusive.) Should the U.S. intervene against Syria? Even though Obama is pushing hard in favor of an attack, the response from the American people has been an overwhelming “no.”

news.yahoo.com

news.yahoo.com

According to one poll, 7 out of 10 Americans are not in support of a military invasion, and Christians of all denominations (Catholics and Protestants) have been united against a military intervention. Even conservative Evangelicals, who in recent years have been the most eager for military intervention in the Middle East, are largely opposed to a U.S. backed invasion of Syria.

But why?

While I too join my Christian brothers and sisters in opposing a military intervention, I’ve been less than enthusiastic over some of the reasons people give for not intervening.

For instance, some say that America shouldn’t intervene because it wouldn’t advance American interests. Maybe it wouldn’t, but we are all made in God’s image and advancing the interests of one particular nation (possibly at the expense of people in other nations) doesn’t seem to vibe with a Christian worldview.

Or, we should not intervene because it would cost too much money. This is true, but I think we need to ask deeper questions. Let’s say that an invasion would cost 10 billion dollars and thousands of lives were spared, then we could morally argue that it was worth every penny. The question isn’t so much is it expensive, but will intervention accomplish peace? More specifically: should Christians support the use of violence to confront evil?

I’ve already argued where I stand on this, so I won’t belabor the point. Another related question is: how will an intervention affect the kingdom of God in Syria? Christians need to think theologically and ecclesiologically—not just politically—about the potential western invasion of Syria.

Syria has a long, rich Christian tradition. Currently, an estimated 10-15% of the population are Christian—many of them are former Iraqis who fled to Syria after the U.S. invasion of Iraq (2003) nearly decimated the Christian church. If the U.S. does in Syria what it did in Iraq, it will most probably wreak havoc on our brothers and sisters, who will be killed, maimed, tortured, exiled, and raped. Even worse, if the U.S. helps topple the Syrian government, this will create a power vacuum that will most certainly be filled by Islam extremists, who will further propound the violence towards Christ’s bride in Syria.

Religious historian Philip Jenkins rightly concludes:

If the U.S., France, and some miscellaneous allies strike at the regime, they could conceivably so weaken it that it would collapse. Out of the ruins would emerge a radically anti-Western regime, which would kill or expel several million Christians and Alawites. This would be a political, religious, and humanitarian catastrophe unparalleled since the Armenian genocide almost exactly a century ago.

Even if a Western invasion was inexpensive, even if no Americans would lose their lives, even if it would hugely further American interests, and even if success was guaranteed, I would still oppose a military invasion. How could I support something that will rip apart the body of Christ?

But do we only care about Christians who are, or will, suffer? Shouldn’t we also care for the non-Christian people who are suffering?

Yes, absolutely. The global community should do something. But I don’t think that either a military strike or doing nothing are the only two options. Traditional just war theory teaches that war should be waged as a last resort; that is, after all other nonviolent means have been exhausted. Has America exhausted all those means?

In my last post, I explained that Christians typically try to convince non-Christians of the truth of the Bible by proving its reliability textually and historically. But non-Christians have another way of evaluating Christianity: they want to know if they can trust the Bible morally.

whitecrossIt doesn’t occur to me to answer that question for one main reason. I have lived so long inside the Christian worldview that I forget how different our religion is. Most religions and philosophies aim to change behavior from bad to good in order to please God, be a good citizen, or feel good daily. Christianity, on the other hand, only tries to prove that something happened historically. Once you’ve proved that, you work backwards to prove the rest.  My question is “Is Jesus God who rose from the dead?” Once I answer that question then I can assume that God knows how I ought to live.

Here’s why this is great news. When a person simply evaluates from their own perspective whether or not a certain philosophy or religion will make them “good,” “please God,” or “feel good,” they’re doing the best they can. But they’re basically just reflecting the current wisdom of their friends and family and media. They cannot rise above their culture because they’re stuck in it; just like a fish couldn’t imagine walking on land because his whole world involves water. When Christianity comes along with its way of “being good,” “pleasing God,” and “feeling good daily,” the wisdom comes from another world. It’s not up for debate or evaluation because we humbly realize that God is speaking (as opposed to humans, who should be critiqued).

We evaluate the trustworthiness of our religion in a completely different way. It has very little to do with personal experience, whether it seems to work, whether it makes me feel like I’m a good person, whether I get personal peace. (It will do pretty much all of that for you even though that’s not the point.)

Evaluating Christianity goes like this: Did Jesus die as a historical event? Did he rise from the dead? If so, then he must have been someone very important. What did he say about himself? Did God approve of his message? Jesus claimed to be God. And when God lets Jesus come back to life, that seems like a pretty significant endorsement of what Jesus said. Now, with that in mind, how did Jesus say we get on good terms with God? How did he command us to live? Our aim is to figure that out, respond accordingly, and assume that God knows best how to be good rather than bad, how to please God, and how to feel good today. History comes first, and all the practical stuff is the natural result.