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No such thing as abstract morality

4 Feb
Of Human Bondage

Of Human Bondage, written in 1915 by William Somerset Maugham, is not a Christian book. In fact, Maugham was an atheist, and the young protagonist in the novel, Philip Carey, experiences the same shifts in thought that led the author to embrace a Godless worldview. This does not mean the book is without merit. Maugham, like many atheists, was an introspective observer, and many of his insights on relationships, love, art and philosophy are penetrating. Also, the Christianity that Philip abandons is not true Christianity, but a dark legalism taught by his harsh uncle. It made me truly sad that many people are rejecting a Christianity that even I would want nothing to do with; they don’t even know what it is they are rejecting!

It was a cold morning, and he shivered a little; but he had been taught by his uncle that his prayers were more acceptable to God if he said them in his nightshirt than if he waited till he was dressed. This did not surprise him, for he was beginning to realise that he was the creature of a God who appreciated the discomfort of his worshippers.

Reading the book, I was at times frustrated with how close Philip (and the author) seemed to truth, but how far he ended up from it. As he grew up, Philip rejected the graceless God of his uncle, but Maugham understands the inconsistencies in atheism. “From old habit, unconsciously he thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.” Maugham even seems to understand that without the existence of God, there are no grounds for morality.

“Though he had thrown on side the Christian dogmas it never occurred to him to criticise the Christian ethics; he accepted the Christian virtues, and indeed thought it fine to practise them for their own sake, without a thought of reward or punishment.”

Philip is eventually forced to reckon with this inconsistency when confronted by on old philosopher.

“What do you suppose you are in the world for?”

Philip had never asked himself, and he thought for a moment before replying.

“Oh, I don’t know: I suppose to do one’s duty, and make the best possible use of one’s faculties, and avoid hurting other people.”

“In short, to do unto others as you would they should do unto you?”

“I suppose so.”

“Christianity.”

“No, it isn’t,” said Philip indignantly. “It has nothing to do with Christianity. It’s just abstract morality.”

“But there’s no such thing as abstract morality.”

Modern atheists like Christopher Hitchens claim that their morality is actually superior to Christian morality, because they are moral without the need for afterlife rewards or punishments. Maugham is at least intellectually honest enough to concede that without God, morality itself does not even exist. There is no such thing as abstract morality!- morality is based on something permanent and outside of ourselves.

Unfortunately, the author never satisfactorily provides an answer to the meaning of a life without God. The philosophy that Philip (and I presume the author) ends up with is that life may be meaningless, but we can “make a design, intricate and beautiful, out of the myriad, meaningless facts of life”; So that even though your life has no ultimate meaning, you are weaving a beautiful tapestry with your actions (that simply disappears when you die). Maugham is tricky!- He makes an empty and vain worldview sound almost sweetly sentimental. His conclusion is that life is empty, but there is beauty in living a good life, working, getting married, having children, and dying.

But here is the end of that philosophy, in a quote from Maugham one year before his death:

“When I look back on my life…it seems to me strangely lacking in reality. It may be that my heart, having found rest nowhere, had some deep ancestral craving for God and immortality which my reason would have no truck with.” (quoted by columnist Norman Ross, The Chicago Daily News, January 26th, 1964)

I am reminded by that classic C.S. Lewis quote;

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Like Maugham, Lewis was a deep thinking atheist, but one whose thirst for a meaningful universe was finally satisfied when he embraced Jesus Christ.

 

PS. This was not a negative review of the book. It’s actually a highly enjoyable read, with lots of plot twists, and concise, elegant prose. Recommended for fans of Charles Dickens.

The bitter cup is filled by His hand

21 Jan

Piper quotes Spurgeon:

“It would be a very sharp and trying experience to me to think I have an affliction which God never sent me; that the bitter cup was never filled by his hand, that my trials were never measured out by him nor sent to me by his arraignment of their weight and quantity.”

That kind of thinking is totally upside-down to what the rest of the world would like to say about God, but it is absolutely essential to the way this man was able to live in a world with real suffering! Piper: “What kept [Spurgeon] going was the absolute confidence that every blackness over his soul was a cloud sent by the living God. ” Does that sound crazy to you?

Charles Spurgeon (C.H. Spurgeon)

Many modern thinkers, frightened at the implications of this kind of God, have attempted to clip the wings of God’s omniscience and sovereignty. For example, recently developed doctrines such as “Open theism” strip God of his complete knowledge of the future. 
What brings you more comfort- a God too weak to be in control of our suffering, too loving to be responsible for suffering of any kind, or a God who orchestrates suffering for our good?

Piper says, “for Spurgeon this view of God was not first argument for debate, it was a means of survival.” Spurgeon knew from experience that at some point, each of us will face suffering. We will only swallow this cup with joy if we know that it is filled by the hand of a loving and sovereign God.

Their Lives Preach Loudly

14 Jan

John Piper (theologian)

HERE is a very awesome resource from the ministry of John Piper (a scholar and a gentleman)  that I’ve been enjoying recently.  There are about 25 sermon/biographies from Piper on some of the great heroes of the faith both anceint and modern; from Augustine and Athanasius to C.S. Lewis and Dr. Martin Lloyd Jones. They can all be downloaded as free MP3s. Piper goes into the details of their life and times, giving some helpful education on these historic figures, and brings in much application and soul-searching. If you enjoy listening to audio sermons, consider some of these biographies for  powerful change of pace!

So far I have listened to the bios of John Owen, Robert Murray McCheyne, and George Whitefield, and have gotten a blessing from each. Try not to get discouraged that we will likely never measure up to these men, and rejoice that the same Spirit who raised them up is at work in our lives and our churches today!

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us – Hebrews 12:1

An Uncommon Union of Imperfect Intimacy

9 Jan

I’ve recently finished A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards by George Marsden. I couldn’t help but be touched by Edwards the man; my impression of him was always of an extremely intellectual, even dour historic figure, but his seriousness comes across with a sweetness, most notably in his affections toward his wife. I’m nothing if not a romantic. In his last days, he was separated from his wife Sarah, and he expressed these final sentiments (in beautifully awkward and wordy archaic prose):

“give my kindest love to my dear wife, and tell her, that the uncommon union, which has so long subsisted between us, has been of such a nature, as I trust is spiritual, and there fore will continue forever.”

Theologian Jonathan Edwards

We all know that Jesus said there would be no marriage in heaven (Mark 12:25), but I love to speculate on what Edwards was thinking of when he spoke of their “uncommon union” continuing forever. 1 Corinthians 13:12 says,

For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

Of course, this is primarily speaking of our relationship and intimacy with Jesus, which will finally satisfy our desire for perfect intimacy in a way no earthly relationship ever could. But I also believe that we saints in the new heavens and new earth will share this kind of intimacy with each other. It makes perfect sense to me that the phrase, “then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known”, pops up at the end of the Bible’s most complete treatise on Love; because what is love without intimacy? You can say that you love someone, but if that person does not feel known by you, they will not feel loved.

Edwards understood that even without the institution of marriage, his “uncommon union” with Sarah would only become more richly intimate in Christ’s eternal kingdom, and that truth gave him a bittersweet joy in passing from her.

And we who still live in our momentary marriages (to use a Piper phrase) have the sweet blessing of reaching imperfectly for that heavenly intimacy here on earth, and showing forth a glimpse of the kingdom of God. And what a joy it is to be imperfectly known and imperfectly loved by a beautiful godly wife on this earth! And what a greater joy it will be to be perfectly known by her and by Jesus in eternity!

(@emily- i love you honey!)

Present Suffering and Future Justice and Russian Literature

3 Jan
 

Cover of "The Brothers Karamazov (Barnes ...

After owning the book for several years and willing myself to read it, I have finally managed to devour Dostoyevsky’s The Brother’s Karamazov, thanks to Afghanistan. I think the compulsive action of clicking the page turn button on the Kindle helped propel me through, but honestly, for a 1000 page 19th century novel translated from Russian, it was extremely readable, even enjoyable. The whole book is full of spiritual insights, but one scene in particular really grabbed me, as it just screamed with Gospel truth. The scene was a simple conversation between two brothers; Ivan, an intellectual atheist, and Alyosha, a spiritually sensitive believer. Ivan is not an unbeliever because of a lack of desire for eternal justice. In fact, in his heart of hearts, like every other person on earth, he wants nothing more than a future glory after this life. In one of my favorite quotes Ivan says,

Let me make it plain. I believe like a child that suffering will be healed and made up for, that all the humiliating absurdity of human contradictions will vanish like a pitiful mirage, like the despicable fabrication of the impotent and infinitely small Euclidian mind of man, that in the world’s finale, at the moment of eternal harmony, something so precious will come to pass that it will suffice for all hearts, for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened with men–but though all that may come to pass, I don’t accept it. I won’t accept it.

This desire Ivan expresses so powerfully is central to every human person. With the world as broken as it is, God has created us to recognize this brokenness and crave a future healing for our suffering. Ivan goes on and says,

I must have justice, or I will destroy myself. And not justice in some remote infinite time and space, but here on earth, and that I could see myself. I have believed in it. I want to see it, and if I am dead by then, let me rise again, for if it all happens without me, it will be too unfair. Surely I haven’t suffered, simply that I, my crimes and my sufferings, may manure the soil of the future harmony for somebody else. I want to see with my own eyes the hind lie down with the lion and the victim rise up and embrace his murderer. I want to be there when every one suddenly understands what it has all been for. All the religions of the world are built on this longing, and I am a believer. But then there are the children, and what am I to do about them? That’s a question I can’t answer…If all must suffer to pay for the eternal harmony, what have children to do with it, tell me, please?

Even though every part of his being longs for a future justice, for a new heavens and a new earth in which all things are made right, Ivan is unable to accept the sufferings of this life, especially the suffering of children. He goes on to tell Alyosha several true stories of innocent children suffering and dying brutal deaths, including a story of a 7-year-old boy who was torn apart by dogs as a punishment for accidentally hurting the paw of a nobleman’s favorite hound. He concludes bitterly that,

if the sufferings of children go to swell the sum of sufferings which was necessary to pay for truth, then I protest that the truth is not worth such a price. I don’t want the mother to embrace the oppressor who threw her son to the dogs! She dare not forgive him! … she dare not forgive the torturer, even if the child were to forgive him! And if that is so, if they dare not forgive, what becomes of harmony? Is there in the whole world a being who would have the right to forgive and could forgive?

Even though Ivan deepest desire is for a Savior to wipe away all the tears of the world’s suffering, he rejects him on principle, because the suffering is too much to bear. He says,

“I don’t want harmony. From love for humanity I don’t want it. I would rather be left with the unavenged suffering. I would rather remain with my unavenged suffering and unsatisfied indignation, even if I were wrong.”

I think many atheists feel this way. Douglas Wilson has a quote that goes something like; ‘every atheist says two things: 1. There is no God. 2. I hate him.’ Ivan rejects God not because his heart does not believe, but because he won’t accept the world God has created. He doesn’t want eternal salvation if it means that children must suffer, and suffer horribly, in this lifetime. I’m going to excerpt to the end of the section. Ivan poses Alyosha a difficult question. Hold out to the end, because the end is really good.

That’s rebellion,” murmured Alyosha, looking down.

“Rebellion? I am sorry you call it that,” said Ivan earnestly. “One can hardly live in rebellion, and I want to live. Tell me yourself, I challenge you–answer. Imagine that you are creating a fabric of human destiny with the object of making men happy in the end, giving them peace and rest at last, but that it was essential and inevitable to torture to death only one tiny creature–that baby beating its breast with its fist, for instance–and to found that edifice on its unavenged tears, would you consent to be the architect on those conditions? Tell me, and tell the truth.”

“No, I wouldn’t consent,” said Alyosha softly.

“And can you admit the idea that men for whom you are building it would agree to accept their happiness on the foundation of the unexpiated blood of a little victim? And accepting it would remain happy for ever?”

“No, I can’t admit it. Brother,” said Alyosha suddenly, with flashing eyes, “you said just now, is there a being in the whole world who would have the right to forgive and could forgive? But there is a Being and He can forgive everything, all and for all, because He gave His innocent blood for all and everything. You have forgotten Him, and on Him is built the edifice, and it is to Him they cry aloud, ‘Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!’ “

Alyosha doesn’t understand suffering any better than Ivan does, but he knows a powerful truth which gives him the resources to deal with suffering. Jesus Christ entered into our suffering. He was the only truly innocent child, and he was ripped up by the Roman dogs in the greatest display of earthly injustice. Alyosha gets this. It was the shedding of Christ’s innocent blood and absorbing the wrath of God that makes him able to forgive all, and able to redeem all. To paraphrase Tim Keller: we don’t know why God has allowed suffering in the world, but we know what the reason isn’t. We know it isn’t that he doesn’t love us. He proved that he loved us by entering into our broken world of suffering, where he was torn apart on our behalf. He endured what we could never have endured. In this world of suffering, we do not have to believe in a Savior who is untouched by it. Ivan would rather cling to his “unsatisfied indignation” at the injustice of the world rather than worship at the feet of Jesus. Alyosha is not the intellectual that Ivan is, but he does not need to understand suffering to love and worship the Christ who suffered. He has a simple faith that when Christ redeems this world it truly will be exactly what we’ve been longing for- in Ivan’s own words; “for the comforting of all resentments, for the atonement of all the crimes of humanity, of all the blood they’ve shed; that it will make it not only possible to forgive but to justify all that has happened”.

 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.  And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling placeof God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

Revelation 21:1-4

The Lord of Birth, Born

25 Dec
St. Athanasius, depicted with a book, an icono...

I am celebrating Christmas today by reading the Christian classic “On the Incarnation of the Word”, written sometime before 319 by Athanasius of Alexandria.  I was planning on reading the entire thing (it’s short), but at halfway I’m having to stop and digest some, because I’ve already highlighted about a third of the text.  It is not difficult reading, and I thoroughly recommend it.  At the very least, you should read C.S. Lewis’ sharp and insightful introduction to the text. Both the Lewis intro and full text can be found here. For free! Party.

I find the power of Athanasius’ words magnified by their antiquity.  These are truths that Christians have always believed, and that we still believe. I want to quickly summarize what Athanasius said about what the Incarnation was, and why the Incarnation had to happen.

 

What is the Incarnation?

We can quickly define it as God being born a man, but Athanasius unpacks this dense truth in a soul-stirring way.

“Invisible in Himself, He is known from the works of creation; so also, when His Godhead is veiled in human nature, His bodily acts still declare Him to be not man only, but the Power and Word of God… The healing of the man born blind, for instance, who but the Father and Artificer of man, the Controller of his whole being, could thus have restored the faculty denied at birth? He Who did thus must surely be Himself the Lord of birth. This is proved also at the outset of His becoming Man. He formed His own body from the virgin; and that is no small proof of His Godhead, since He Who made that (His own body) was the Maker of all else. And would not anyone infer from the fact of that body being begotten of a virgin only, without human father, that He Who appeared in it was also the Maker and Lord of all beside?”

So the baby born at the Incarnation was not just a god, but the very Maker of all things and the Father and Artificer of man. But why would the eternal creator form himself into his own creation?  Athanasius gives us 2 reasons.

 

English: Adoration of the shepherds -seems to ...

 

Why did the Incarnation happen?

1. For God’s self-revelation.

“The Savior of us all, the Word of God, in His great love took to Himself a body and moved as Man among men, meeting their senses, so to speak, half way. He became Himself an object for the senses, so that those who were seeking God in sensible things might apprehend the Father through the works which He, the Word of God, did in the body. Human and human minded as men were, therefore, to whichever side they looked in the sensible world they found themselves taught the truth.”

Of course, this could not be the only reason that God became man. Gods will was not “merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way.”  No, the primary reason was the surely second.

2. To make us alive through his death.

I love this rich, awesome quote:

“He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.”

Amazing!  It is impossible to speak of the incarnation without speaking of the cross!  Being “cross-centered” is not a fad!  1,700 years ago, Athanasius says that the death of Christ is “indeed, the very center of our faith”. For 2000 years Christians have rejoiced in the gruesome death of Christ, because it is in his death we find life. Athanasius, being gospel-centered before it was cool, says that abolishing death and saving mankind was the ultimate meaning of the Incarnation, and the eternal plan of God.
“The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection.”
That quote is as clear a summation of the gospel as I’ve ever heard. By the grace of God, the Salvation which was effective in 319 AD is no less effective in 2012 AD.  Today, together praise Christ!- “The Mighty One, the Artificer of all”, that he took on this corrupt temple as his own, so that we could claim his incorruption as our own.

Does our soteriology stand up to the awful reality of hell?

21 Dec

Okay, I know I already posted about Christopher Hitchens, but some of the chatter on the blogosphere has prompted further reflection.

Christopher Hitchens

This post, written by an unbeliever, sums up the confusion that unbelievers are sharing in response to the way some Christians have reacted to Hitchen’s death. Many Christians are sadly rejoicing in his death, causing unbelievers to scoff at their supposed religion of love. My focus in this post however, is on another group. Whether it be due to his charm or charisma, some Christians are attempting to leave room for Hitchens in heaven by saying things like- “We can’t know the mind of God so there’s no way to tell Hitchens’s fate.” This cowardly hedging is undermining the gospel, and the hypocrisy is not missed by unbelievers. The unbelieving blogger in the previously cited post points this out clearly:

“when presented with the apparent fait accompli of a decent, gifted, beloved guy like Hitchens being thrown to the fire, group three [Christians who say we can’t know] gets nervous and tries to carve out a “well, maybe God will cut him a break” exemption. Their religion says he deserves eternal damnation but their conscience tells them that’s unfair, so … they hedge. If conscience is divinely inspired, why hedge?”

Do we really believe what we say we believe? Does our professed soteriology (doctrine of salvation) waver when it is confronted by unbelievers with the awful reality of hell, and the death of “good” non-believers? The bible is very clear on the fate of those who reject God, and any attempts by Christians to gain approval from the unbelieving crowd by downplaying hell will be sniffed out for what it is: hypocrisy.

Now, I am not saying that it is impossible for Hitchen’s to have made a last minute conversion. The incident of the thief on the cross clearly shows that it is never too late to accept Christ, and I really do hope that in the end Hitchens chose Jesus. I am saying however, that if Hitchens never professed Jesus as his Lord and his God, then he is in hell. Using passages such as Matthew 25, where both the saved and the damned express surprise at God’s decision regarding their eternal state, some Christians attempt to find ‘loopholes’ in Scripture. Surely, many self-righteous men will be shocked to face an eternity in hell. Surely too will many sinners, possessing a simple faith in Christ, express surprise at being granted eternal life on the basis of Christ’s merits. But no man who blatantly rejects Christ will find God. 1 John 2:22-25 makes it all too clear:

“Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son. No one who denies the Son has the Father. Whoever confesses the Son has the Father also. Let what you heard from the beginning abide in you. If what you heard from the beginning abides in you, then you too will abide in the Son and in the Father. And this is the promise that he made to us— eternal life”

In fact, the repeated theme of 1 John is tests by which we can know if we are in Christ. Christians who attempt to soften the reality of hell by saying “we can’t know the mind of God and can’t possibly know who is in hell” are completely undermining the gospel for the sake of being accepted by the world. Equally damaging to the gospel are the supposed Christians who are taking pleasure in Hitchen’s death (another of 1 John’s evidences of salvation is love for one another!).

English: Kim Jong-il Русский: Ким Чен Ир 日本語: ...

Why does hell become more difficult for Christians to preach when the dead man in question was charming, literate, and passionate? I didn’t see a single blog post on the possibility of Kim Jong Il being in heaven “because we don’t know the mind of God”. If Christopher Hitchens or Kim Jong Il is in heaven, and either of them very well may be, it will not be because God valued their philanthropic efforts. It will not be because God credited whatever good they did in the world as in His name, even though they didn’t realize they were doing it in His name. No. They were both found wanting as sinners at the judgment seat of God. Only if, in faith, they claimed the righteousness of Christ will we meet them in heaven. And that goes for every one of us, whether you are a proclaimed atheist, a bible belt Baptist, or an evil dictator.