Wednesday, June 18, 2008

Miracles... What (And Where) Are They?

1 Chron. 16:12: "Remember the wonders he has done, his miracles..."

Neh. 9:17: "They ... failed to remember the miracles you performed among them."

Psalm 77:11 "I will remember the deeds of the Lord, ... your miracles of long ago."

Psalm 77:14: "You are the God who performs miracles; you display your power among the people."

With passages like those, we are reminded over and over again throughout the Bible, that God is a performer of miracles. We are told to think about the miracles, to wonder at them, to remember them in times of trial or temptation, and to ask for them. Jesus is seen performing miracles often in the Gospels. When the apostles come on the scene, they continue the pattern.

1 Cor. 12:28 lists "workers of miracles" as a special appointment given by God to the Church, right under apostles, prophets and teachers. Gal. 3:5 just assumes that miracles are a common occurence in the Church, asking "does God give you his Spirit and work miracles among you because you observe the Law, or because you believe what you heard?"

Miracles are frequently, especially in the New Testament, put forward as proof of the miracle worker's claims. More specifically, since only God can really perform them, miracles are seen throughout the Bible as God's personal seal of approval on someone's life or ministry. This is the case with Jesus. This is made plain over and over in statements like:

Acts 2:22: "Jesus... was a man accredited to you by God by miracles"

Hebrews 2:4: "God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles."

Jesus himself made an explicit connection between miracles and people's ability to believe in him on a number of occasions:

John 10:38: "Even though you do not believe me, believe the miracles, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me, and I in the Father."

John 14:11: "Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the miracles themselves."

John 4:48: "'Unless you people see miraculous signs and wonders,' Jesus told him, 'you will never believe.'"

Reading through the Bible, one is presented with a steady stream of stories involving miracles. From the creation itself, the flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, the sun standing still for Joshua (and going backward for Hezekiah), and on through a myriad of miraculous births, healings, resurrections, etc.

In the Bible, we are rarely, if ever, presented with the modern-day sort of miracle. We are told of a woman who wasted all of her money on doctors before coming to Jesus for healing, but we are never -- i repeat NEVER -- given to think that anyone's cure at the hands of a doctor is any sort of miracle or divine healing. Everyday occurances, such as the natural birth of a child, an advantageous business deal, a financial windfall, or that sort of thing are not presented in the Bible as miracles. They might be said to come from God, in the sense that all good things come from him, but miracles are a special kind of thing. A pleasant breeze, a sunny day or a particularly good parking space at Costco are not the kind of miracles that attest to the truth-claims of Gospel, or serve as God's seal of a approval upon a man's life or ministry.

When I was a young man, I used to thrill when missionaries and the like would tell of miracles they'd witnessed in far away lands. I remember a story of a man who prayed in a public place for a child with a deformed leg, and the leg was instantly healed. In some cases, but by no means all, I later came to find out that those stories were either outright lies, or at best exaggerations of something far more mundane that really happened.

We hear a lot about "medical miracles". I'll never forget a Discovery Channel special I saw once about a boy who lost half his head -- and half his brain -- and through the wonders of modern medicine was able to fully recover and live a normal life (except that he looked really weird). I am frequently awed by what doctors are able to do sometimes. But it's not miraculous. Doctors carefully study the human body -- they have been doing so for hundreds of years, each building on existing knowlege -- and their understanding of how it works has grown and grown until today they can do some pretty amazing things.

So what does all this come to? I must say I'm somewhat disappointed. The Bible seems to portray God as an able miracle-worker, but in my life I have yet to witness anything like a miracle in the Biblical sense. Why is that? Some of my former teachers would tell me (indeed they did tell me) that it's because I haven't believed, or have believed the wrong things, or haven't asked in faith or have asked with impure motives, etc., etc. It seems there are so many ways for God to get out of working a miracle for someone, it's a miracle that any miracles ever happened!

The Bible writers admonish us to remember God's mighty works, but how can you remember something that happened 2000 or more years before you were born? If Jesus thought the Jews of his own time couldn't believe without the help of a sign or a wonder, how am I supposed to believe?

Remember Doubting Thomas? He said "Unless I stick my finger into the holes in his hands and thrust my arm through his side, I will not believe." What did Jesus do with Thomas? Did he hide from Thomas and tell the other apostles he was no good because he had doubts? No, he appeared to him and said "stick your hands here, and your arm here and don't doubt any more, but believe!"

Jesus then told Thomas, "Because you have seen you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen, and yet have believed."

I really don't get that. Let's consider all the things that the apostles -- Thomas, along with Peter, James, John, and the rest -- had seen prior to this: Jesus walking on the water, healing lepers and multitudes of other sick, making blind people see, raising the dead, calming storms, and on and on and on! Not to mention predicting his own death and resurrection just a few days before this!

I need a little of that "not seeing" to believe! Yes, a little of the sort of "not seeing" that the apostles were able to "not see" would go a long way with me.

I hope Jesus will hear my complaint: I'm not feeling the blessedness here. I hope he won't be upset -- he knows my heart. After a lifetime of grasping at straws to hang on to belief, it really feels more like being ignored and abandoned. If one sees nothing, how is one to believe at all? How is one to distinguish the truth from the many other things one has never seen? I've never seen Zeus -- am I blessed if I believe in him? I've never seen vampires or ghosts or Santa Claus -- am I blessed if I believe in them?

The absence of miracles, in the face of what the Bible claims happened in the past, is to me a great yawning chasm opening at my feet, seperating me from faith. It seems to me that my plight is the same as those Jews in Jesus' time about whom he said "unless they see signs and wonders, they will not believe." Yes, he said it disparagingly, but he said it because it was true, and he proceeded to give them what they needed!

Will God do that for me? If so, when? And if not, why not?

Like Fox Mulder (one of my favorite fictional characters), I want to believe. No, I long to believe. I'm desperate to believe! Throw me a bone here, God! I'm crying out for help!

Thursday, June 12, 2008

My Biblical Defense of Universal Redemption

Some years ago, I made this document for a former pastor who was accusing me of heresy. Over the years I've been adding to it. Today, if anyone becomes interested in my "heretical" beliefs, I give them this document. I guess this is how I fulfil the command in scripture to "be ready to give an answer to anyone who asks the reason of the hope that is in you."

I you read this and find it interesting, inspiring, or just plain heretical, please leave a comment.

PART 1: Bible Passages Supporting Universal Redemption

These are in no particular order, except that the first two constitute the strongest case for universalism in the Bible, in my opinion.

Romans 5:18-19: Consequently, just as the result of one trespass was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness was justification that brings life for all men. For just as through the disobedience of the one man the many were made sinners, so also through the obedience of the one man the many will be made righteous.

The same “all men” who fall under the condemnation resulting from the “one trespass” also receive the “justification that brings life” resulting from the “obedience of the one”. The same group called “the many” who were made sinners, will be made righteous.

1 Cor 15:21-28: For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead comes also through a man. For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive. But each in his own turn: Christ, the firstfruits; then, when he comes, those who belong to him. Then the end will come, when he hands over the kingdom to God the Father after he has destroyed all dominion, authority and power. For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For he "has put everything under his feet." Now when it says that "everything" has been put under him, it is clear that this does not include God himself, who put everything under Christ. When he has done this, then the Son himself will be made subject to him who put everything under him, so that God may be all in all.

“As in Adam all die, so in Christ shall all be made alive. But each in his own turn.” How can this be more clear? There are three phases to the plan: (1) Christ, (2) those who belong to him when he comes, and then finally (3) everything else. At the end, every enemy has been destroyed and God is all in all. Who is suffering in hell then?

I Tim 2:4-6: who wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. For there is one God and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus, who gave himself as a ransom for all men--the testimony given in its proper time.

God desires that all men be saved. If God desires it, then it is his will (can God have desires contrary to his own will?). How can he fail to accomplish his will?

Philippians 2:9-11: Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

Since the scriptures say in Romans 10:9-10 that “if you confess with your mouth ‘Jesus is Lord’… you will be saved” and “it is with the mouth that you confess and are saved”, why won’t these people be saved? One common argument against universalism is that God has given us free will, and will not coerce us. If God will not coerce anyone to do his will, how will He get every knee to bow and every tongue to confess? If He plans to coerce them then, why will he not do so now?

Also, it says that this knee-bowing and tongue-confessing will be “to the glory of God the Father”. Can these actions bring God glory if they are coerced?

Lamentations 3:31-33: For men are not cast off by the Lord forever. Though he brings grief, he will show compassion, so great is his unfailing love. For he does not willingly bring affliction or grief to the children of men.

Another clear statement that God will never cast anyone off forever.

Rom 11:32: God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.

Who’s been bound in disobedience? By whom? This is apparently God’s plan from beginning to end! If God is going to show mercy upon everyone, why do we teach that some will not receive mercy?

Isaiah 54:8: “In a surge of anger I hid my face from you for a moment, but with everlasting kindness I will have compassion on you," says the LORD your Redeemer.

A wonderful little statement showing that God’s wrath is LIMITED, but his mercy is INFINITE. Many statements and events throughout the Bible reinforce the idea that God’s wrath and anger burn quickly and come to an end, but his love, kindness and mercy are part of his character and nature and so last forever.

Isaiah 57:16: I will not accuse forever, nor will I always be angry, for then the spirit of man would grow faint before me-- the breath of man that I have created.

Why won’t he accuse or be angry forever? Because he is concerned that he not break the spirit of men. Surely an endless, hopeless Hell is against the character of the one speaking here. Also notice the class of people that is defined by “man that I have created.” Not only does this include all people, but it implies that God assumes some responsibility for the well being of those he created.

John 12:32: But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.

Undeniably shows that the “drawing” is extended to all men, not an elect few.

Hebrews 2:9: But we see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

Whom did he NOT taste death for? And if he has tasted death for someone, why must that person taste death for themselves, except that his sacrifice was not enough?

Hebrews 2:14-15: Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might destroy him who holds the power of death--that is, the devil-- and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death.

Notice again the class of people defined by those who "have flesh and blood" and "their humanity". Whom will Jesus free? Everyone who was enslaved by the devil – namely every human being – will be freed, even those who were held in slavery all their lives. Don't miss that phrase: ALL THEIR LIVES they were enslaved by fear, yet they will eventually be freed!

1 John 2:2: He is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours but also for the sins of the whole world.

If by “ours”, John means to refer to the believers to whom he was writing, what does it mean to go further and say that Jesus Christ was the atoning sacrifice for the sins of the whole world? What point is there to saying this if those people are still destined for a hopeless hell?

1 John 4:14: And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.

How can he be the savior of the world if the world is not saved by him?

Colossians 1:19-20: For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

When all things are reconciled and peace has been made, who will be in Hell?

1 Tim 4:9-10: This is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance (and for this we labor and strive), that we have put our hope in the living God, who is the Savior of all men, and especially of those who believe.

If Jesus is the savior of all men, who will not be saved by him? What does “especially of those who believe” mean? Here the apostle Paul explicitly tells us to teach that God is the savior of all men. Why do we teach that most people will never be saved? What good is a “savior” who cannot or does not save most of the people he is supposed to save?

Hebrews 12:8-11: If you are not disciplined (and everyone undergoes discipline), then you are illegitimate children and not true sons. Moreover, we have all had human fathers who disciplined us and we respected them for it. How much more should we submit to the Father of our spirits and live! Our fathers disciplined us for a little while as they thought best; but God disciplines us for our good, that we may share in his holiness. No discipline seems pleasant at the time, but painful. Later on, however, it produces a harvest of righteousness and peace for those who have been trained by it.

Who undergoes discipline? Everyone does. There is no such thing as "illegitimate children" of God. The parenthetical statement "and everyone undergoes discipline" makes it clear that when he talks about "illegitimate children" he is talking about a hypothetical group of people. Notice also that, UNLIKE our human fathers may have done, God ALWAYS disciplines us in order to bring about some good result.

Revelation 21:3-5: And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Now the dwelling of God is with men, and he will live with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away." He who was seated on the throne said, "I am making everything new!" Then he said, "Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true."

No more death, crying or pain? Why is this said, if most people are still suffering pain and death in Hell? Why do we pretend to hope for a time when there will be no more pain and death, if we know that many will suffer pain and death forever?

2 Samuel 14:14: Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.

In this passage a "wise woman", recruited by Joab, is pleading with King David to be reconciled to his son Absolom, who had killed his brother Amnon.
Is this woman in error? If traditional Christian doctrine be true, many will ultimately become estranged from him and he will not be able to devise a way to recover them.

PART 2: Conflicting Passages
  1. First a word about context. No matter how much scripture I quote, or how much surrounding context I include, someone will say I’m taking the passage “out of context”. Without quoting the entire Bible every time, it’s impossible to include the entire context with every passage of scripture. When talking about these passages, I’ve studied them in their context, and do not believe I am using any of them in a way that is not warranted by their context.
  2. The most common objection people raise comes from Matthew 25:46:

    Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.

    The problem with this passage and others like it is the word “eternal”. In popular usage, the word eternal is commonly understood to simply mean “without end” or “lasting forever”. However, the Bible, and even Jesus himself, gives us a different definition of the word. In John 17, Jesus defines “eternal life”:

    Now this is eternal life: that they may know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

    Here we see that “eternal life” is not merely life that lasts forever, it is life that is lived in fellowship with God. It is a quality, not a quantity. This does not preclude it’s lasting forever, of course, but it does not by itself mean that it lasts forever.

    Similarly, in Jude we have a description of “eternal punishment”:

    Sodom and Gomorrah … serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.

    So “eternal fire” is not fire that burns forever. The fire that destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah does not burn today where those cities once stood. It went out after its purpose was fulfilled. Rather, “eternal fire” is the fire that comes from God, and “eternal punishment” is the punishment that comes from God.

    In serving as “an example” of what “the punishment of eternal fire” is, Sodom and Gomorrah show us that “eternal fire” does not continue to burn forever, and is “eternal” only in the sense that its source is God.

    Moreover, Ezekiel 16 speaks of a time that Sodom “and her daughters” shall be restored! In Ezekiel 16, God confronts Jerusalem with her sins, telling her that she has made Sodom and Gomorrah “appear righteous” by comparison. He then goes on to say that he will “restore the fortunes of Sodom and her daughters”, and that he will later, after a period of suffering, restore Jerusalem as well.

    So one may “suffer the punishment of eternal fire”, and still be restored later.
  3. Another common passage brought up in discussions on this topic is Revelation 14:10:

    And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.

    Taken literally and at face value, I will have to concede that this verse explicitly says that those people who take the “mark of the beast” will be tormented forever. However, I think it is a mistake to interpret this passage, and all the highly symbolic and figurative language that surrounds it in the Book of Revelation, literally.

    In the chapter before this we read of a beast emerging from the sea with ten horns and seven heads, and another with horns and a voice “like a dragon”. Clearly this is highly figurative. This book, more than any other in the whole Bible (except possibly Daniel), is filled with figurative language, the meaning of which is highly debatable. Surely it would be a mistake to form an interpretation of clear passages relating to God’s everlasting love and goodness, and the clear passages showing God’s care for all people (such as those in Part 1), by these figurative passages in Revelation.

    Later on in the book, we read that “there will be no night” in heaven. Will some people suffer “day and night” forever in Hell, while others experience only daytime in Heaven? This stretches credulity.

    Also, at the end of Revelation we find these wonderful descriptions of life with God:

    No longer will there be any curse.
    There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain.

    Are we to understand that the redeemed, who were always taught on earth to care for the hurting and love their enemies and be kind to the undeserving, are now going to live in happiness and contentment forever, while untold billions of people suffer unimaginable horrors in conscious torment? I simply cannot accept this.

    Therefore the passages in Revelation must be interpreted in a figurative and metaphorical way, and where they are hard to understand in light of more clear passages describing God’s character and plans for his creation, I must concede that I simply do not yet understand their meaning, but I am not going to lose faith in God’s goodness and loving nature simply because of a few difficult-to-understand passages.