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Piano Peace Prayers for Times of Turmoil and Terror

I will be playing at Ovingham Parish church, Saturday 1st July, 11am to 3pm.

It is a ‘drop in’ (enter and leave when you want) musical event for peace, and to raise awareness of ‘the hidden victims’ of terror.  Children welcome, but must be supervised.

The event is free, but donations are welcome – 10% will go to the Parish church, 90% to the Charity ‘International Christian Consulate’ (Charity number 1170909) who help Christian refugees who are badly discriminated against and persecuted, even in Europe.

If you can’t make it, but want to support them, you can also donate to them via their website http://www.internationalchristianconsulate.com/ .

You can hear a sample of the style of music in the tracks below.

      Amazing Grace - Nathanael Lewis

I realise that this is short notice, but in the light of recent events, it seemed like a good idea do it as soon as possible.  In this country we face at least three kinds of extremism – the far left, the far right, and Islamic extremism.  All of them in their own way seek to have what the far left have taken to calling ‘Days of Rage’.  We as the church need to counter that with times (and a lifestyle) of reconciliation.

The purpose of the event is two-fold – firstly to provide an environment for peaceful reflection, primarily by my improvisational piano playing (which I have repeatedly been told is beautiful and peaceful), and secondly to raise awareness of ‘hidden victims’ of terror, that don’t make the headlines, and secondarily, to raise funds for a charity helping one of those groups.  These ‘hidden victims’ include Christian refugees from the Middle East, who suffer discrimination and violence at every stage of the process, from not being able to be in refugee camps in the Middle East to be given asylum because Islamicist groups run the camps or send in hit squads to assassinate them, to suffering severe and often violent persecution within camps or the refugee system within Europe.  The other group of ‘hidden terror victims’ who virtually never make the headlines are UK citizens who have converted from Islam to Christianity (or to atheism or humanism or Buddhism) – and sometimes even Asian Christians who are not converts but can face similar hostility, including death threats and murder attempts.  I have recently worked on a report into this issue for a Christian charity, interviewing such individuals and families, some of whom could accurately be described as ‘internal refugees’, forced to live underground in fear of their lives or to move out of their homes to avoid persecution.  The report has been submitted to the Parliamentary Committee on Hate Crimes, but you can view it by clicking on the link on this page: http://www.britishpakistanichristians.org/blog/our-apostasy-hatred-report-as-submitted-to-uk-hate-crime-inquiry  .

We are commanded in the bible to do ‘good to all, but especially to those of the household of faith’, and as such I encourage people to come along if they can, but in any case, to become aware of these issues surrounding those brothers and sisters suffering in this country and continent.

 

Evolution or Creation – why we do have to choose: Part I Natural Selection’s Antidote?

The opening hymn in my village Anglican church last Sunday started:

God is love: His the care, Tending each, everywhere, God is love – all is there!

Jesus came to show Him that mankind might know him.

Sing aloud!  God is good!  God is truth! God is beauty!  Praise Him.

The image is of God as a caring nurture, wholly good, as demonstrated by the tender and merciful character of Jesus.  The gospel reading in the service was from John 14.  It has the famous passage where Jesus says ‘I am the way, the truth and the life.  No one can come to the Father except through me.’   But he goes on to say rather more.  Jesus is not just the way to the Father: ‘If you had really known me, you would know who my father is.  From now on, you do know him, and have seen him!…. Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.’

Earlier in the week, I had been to hear a talk entitled ‘Creation or Evolution: do we have to choose?’ by Dr Dennis Alexander, Christian bio-chemist and author of a book by the same title.  As a theologian who is a creationist, and has a strong interest in science, this was a chance to listen to a Christian scientist whose answer was the opposite to mine – he as a theistic evolutionist says ‘No, you don’t have to choose’.  I took copious notes, but there wasn’t really anything new for me.  I had a question which I have never seen remotely satisfactorily answered by those who take his kind of position, but I waited to hear what other questions he was asked at the end.  My question is simply this: how can the good God as revealed supremely in Jesus Christ have chosen to create in a manner that necessarily involved millions of years of suffering as part of that process?  In all his talk about how, in his opinion, there was no contradiction between biblical theology and evolution this topic of the moral character of the Creator was not touched on in the slightest, and yet it cuts to the very core of Christian doctrine and faith.

The last question Dr Alexander was asked before time meant no more questions could be asked was not one I would have expected would have led straight to this issue.  A young man got up and asked Dr Alexander to speculate as to what humans would look like in a million or so years from now.  After a bit about how any creature that lived in Jupiter, for instance, would have to adapt to totally different conditions, Dr Alexander said that assuming humanity stayed on earth, there was good reason to believe that there would be no substantial changes to the human species.  He gave two basic reasons, both to do with natural selection.  The first was because of global travel – there is now basically no room for isolated populations and associated genetic bottlenecks that would lead to developments.  The second was the one that leads directly back to the issue of God’s character.  He said that as the teaching of Jesus was obeyed more and more, so natural selection in humans would slow and stop – in particular Jesus’ teaching to care for the weak, and the disabled, and so on.

At this point, my hand went straight up, because right there was a colossal theological contradiction, and Dr Alexander just didn’t even to be aware of the problem, but unfortunately, no more questions were allowed.  At the heart of both the Jewish and the Christian faith is what is called ‘the Shema’ in Jewish thought.  In Mark 12.29-31 Jesus affirmed it as the greatest of all commandments:

“The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The Lord our God is the one and only Lord. And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’  No other commandment is greater than these.”

Now, the first part of the ‘Shema’ can equally well be translated ‘Hear O Israel.  The Lord our God, the Lord, is one.  Among other things, it holds in it the notion that God’s character is whole and undivided.  His character is constant.  This is expressed in relation to God as creator of the Sun, moon and stars in James 1.17 as follows:

Every good gift, every perfect gift, comes from above. These gifts come down from the Father, the creator of the heavenly lights, in whose character there is no change at all.

Or as one translation puts the last part: ‘with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change’.

James, of course, was the (half or step) brother of Jesus.

In the talk, at one point Dr Alexander rightly pointed out that creation is ‘Christological’ – that it has to do with Jesus Christ.  The New Testament affirms over and over that Jesus is the Creator, is somehow God.  It does so in many ways.  That reading from John’s gospel sums it up where Jesus says ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father’.  In fact, in at least one place it clearly links Jesus being the exact likeness of God specifically with Jesus as Creator, in Colossians 1:

Christ is the visible image of the invisible God. He existed before anything was created and is supreme over all creation, for through him God created everything  in the heavenly realms and on earth.  He made the things we can see and the things we can’t see— such as thrones, kingdoms, rulers, and authorities in the unseen world.  Everything was created through him and for him. He existed before anything else, and he holds all creation together.

So there is the inescapable problem – contradiction in fact.  Jesus was called ‘the Lamb of God’ for various reasons, partly to do with his role as God’s Passover Lamb, but also because of the gentleness of his character.  Matthew’s gospel tells of Jesus healing all the sick, in 12.15 on, and says it is the fulfilment of Isaiah 42, which he quotes.  Part of it, v3-4 reads:

He will not crush the weakest reed or put out a flickering candle.  He will bring justice to all who have been wronged. He will not falter or lose heart until justice prevails throughout the earth.

In fact, that passage goes on to talk of the fact and act of creation too.  So the problem is that if God, if Christ, chose to create using millions of years of suffering, sickness and death, then this the complete opposite of the character of God as revealed in Christ – who heals, relieves suffering and the like.  This is one of the reasons that young earth creationists so rigorously oppose any notion of millions of years, when they point out the bible describes a ‘young’ (in relation to the standard view today) world.  Proponents of long ages, such as Dr Alexander will typically assert that God’s glory or power as Creator is not diminished because he took billions of years, rather than the 6 days of Genesis 1.  Let us put aside for a moment the obvious reply that a gradual process of creation over vast ages might as well be specifically designed – arguably was indeed developed – to remove the need of the notion of a Creator.  A long slow gradual process does not obviously need a Creator – a very short process does.  Young earth creationists’ objection to millions of years has not been just about the time frame, but even more about the moral implications of the method that is inextricably bound up with that time frame.  Since all old earth positions take the fossil record to contain animals from millions of years before humanity and their fall, which the bible says – at least very strongly implies – is what brought suffering and death into the world as a whole, this applies to pretty much any old earth position, but especially to theistic evolution which involves a process of creation that at its core involves intrinsically and unavoidably creation by a process of death and suffering.  Regardless of whether you call it ‘survival of the fittest’ or ‘reproductive success’, the process necessarily involves ‘nature’ ‘selecting’ by means of death and suffering.  The fossils contain dinosaur remains with cancer, and evidence of other diseases, and carnivory – healed wounds and the like.  There is a total reversal of character here.

Part 2 : Mental and Moral Gymnastics

Evolution or Creation – why we do have to choose: Part II Moral and Mental Gymnastics

 

(This is the middle part of a three part series: Go back to the start, or skip ahead.)

So, how do people deal with this issue, once they become aware of it?  I have found that the responses typically come into several categories.

  • 1) ‘Total rewrite’.
  • These are typically the more liberal end of the church. They may not even recognize the moral problem here, per se, but they argue that we should totally rewrite Christian doctrine to fit with the ‘facts’ of science, which typically involves removing any doctrine of ‘original sin’ or similar and totally re-working the significance of the cross, sometimes saying it is a transformative moment – but that doesn’t address the issue of the fundamental problem of a God whose nature flips 180 degrees.  However, many would reject such approaches (rightly, in my opinion).
  • 2) ‘The mystery Fudge’.
  • One friend, a lay reader in a nearby Anglican church, and an archaeologist and amateur geologist, took me out into the field to try and persuade me why a young earth position was incompatible with the local rock record (and was surprised by the written reply I gave, including experimental evidence that would explain much that he thought impossible to explain other than by long ages).  When, on the trip, I raised this moral issue, he said something like ‘Well, that’s just a mystery we have to live with, isn’t it?’  I can’t remember whether I said to him what I thought, which was ‘That’s a complete cop-out’.  This is an issue of fundamental and unavoidable contradiction – it’s not a mystery in the sense of the ‘two natures of Christ’ or the interplay of human free-will and divine predestination, or of how God can be Trinity, all of which, although paradoxical, can have actual answers.  It has to do with the deepest moral character of God.  I would also (loosely) include in this category approaches such as that of NT Wright in a youtube video answering a similar question, where he partially answers, and then does a kind of sidestep-shuffle around the core of the issue.
  • 3) Gap-theory or ‘ruin-reconstruction’ theories.
  • These place millions of years between Genesis 1.1 (creation of heavens and earth) and verse 2, which in this view is held to be the start of a re-creation process, the most recent one, after a period of destruction.  This approach is not as popular as it used to be, and is mostly held by some religiously conservative people.  Typically, it involves a series of creation, which are then destroyed by God, who re-starts, and the record of these periods is found in the rock record (a period of creation of dinosaurs who are then destroyed, etc).  Apart from logical problems (eg, recognizable bird species in the ‘dinosaur’ rocks), this isn’t really compatible with theistic evolution, for sure (a continuous and unimpeded process).  More to the point, it still leaves the question of why God would create in such a ruinous way.  Some versions have the ‘ruin’ as God’s judgement because of ‘violence’ in the natural world, but that still leaves the question wide-open – why judge creatures for operating in the way that God created them to be.  A few versions speculate that there were sentient beings equivalent to humans in each ‘age’ who are the reasons for judgement, but that seems rather like an ad-hoc justification to try and rescue the theory, and how can God justifiable judge a creation for violence if he has created in a way that involves violence?
  • 4) ‘Divine Constraint’ theories.
  • These are views that typically say that having created matter to operate according to its own rules, God was somehow constrained to allow it to develop in a particular way, somewhat parallel to the way that God has given human beings free will and the ability to act against God’s own commands.  Aside from there being a huge difference between inanimate matter and the exercise of human free will, there is a far deeper problem here.  If God is the truly Sovereign Creator then he has the power to create matter in such a way that it does not require violation of his own character.  If God is constrained by something to act in a way that is against his nature or first choice, then that something else has at least equal power to God, and therefore is also a deity of some sort.  In other words, logically, we must abandon monotheism and thus violate the ‘Shema’, the heart of the Jewish and Christian faith.  This takes us straight back to the point in question – that we must violate God’s ‘oneness’ in a different way if we are to ascribe to him a creation method that involves immense ages of suffering.
  • 5) ‘Back-flip links’.
  • One area of the young earth creationist position that – even by the admission of many (religiously conservative) non-creationists – is especially strong and internally consistent is the way that it maintains a causal link between human sin and dysfunction and suffering in the natural world, which is the basic message of the bible on the issue.  The Genesis account explicitly puts humankind in a position of stewardship over life on earth, of sub-rule under God.  Because of this, in some way their rebellion affected all of life, in much the same way, for instance, that a parent being put in prison for criminal activity or losing their job for misconduct has a knock on effect on children in their care.    Concerning, not fair, but a logical effect due to the interconnectedness and inter-relatedness of life.  For this reason, some have tried to keep this link whilst also keeping belief in millions of years.  Typically the starting point can be that God is outside of time, and so, fore-knowing human rebellion, the effects of that rebellion are felt back in time for life on earth that is affected millions of years before humans even existed to rebel.  Typically, such approaches are certainly ingenious, and I admire the intellectual gymnastics and efforts that go into trying to make them work, but at best they are extremely problematic.  For instance, it still doesn’t get round a point that creationists have been making for a long time – that where the bible promises restoration of creation to a former state, as it does in both Old and New Testaments, then if right from the start creation has been marked by suffering and so forth, then is restoration by God to an original state really the huge hope the bible portrays it as.  This applies as much to the Old Testament (the lion will lie down with the lamb) as to the New (Romans 8.21: ‘the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay’).

 

But let us put it another way.   We find the medieval practice of ‘whipping boys’ morally repugnant.  Someone, usually a commoner, would be whipped for the misbehaviour of a prince, who was not to be punished by anyone other than the king, who was often away.  (No analogy is perfect, so we leave aside the fact that in that society it was often a desirable position in spite of the pain, because it could give you an unrivalled education you would otherwise not have.)  Someone being deliberately and directly punished for another’s wrongdoing just seems wrong (unless it was entirely voluntary, such as Jesus being punished for our sins to redeem us, and even then, many still find it problematic).  Even if humanity is a ‘prince’, made in the image of God, it seems especially morally wrong to have a situation of hundreds of millions of years of suffering by a huge number of animals relates back to moral wrongs done in a relative snap of the finger (in the long age scheme, if we just take from the start of amphibious creatures around 370 million years ago, and even if we assume the earliest possible date for ‘human ancestors’ at about 3 million years past – very generous – then we are still talking about a ratio in purely time terms of about 123 to 1, and if as most people taking this position believe that ‘sin’ came much later, say about 1/3 of a  million years ago, then it is about 1000 to 1, not even counting the huge numbers of species involved at every time period suffering for the sin of just one future species).  We are told that God’s love and redemption was brought about by engineering the suffering and death of just one for many billions of souls, so how is that compatible with creating by a process that involves the sufferings of countless trillions of creatures for the sin of a relative few billions.  God may be outside of time, but we creatures aren’t, and surely a God of love and mercy would not set things up in such a way that a link between cause and effect only applies to him, and not to the creatures he cares for, but involves them in endless suffering?

 

I have worked in human rights, and in places like Pakistan, Christian families are placed in bondage generation after generation because of the dead of an ancestor, a father or grandfather long before.  We regard this, rightly, as an affront to human rights, and deplore it because people are forced against their will to live such a life.  It is indeed antithetical to the teaching of both the Old Testament, which only allowed perpetual bondage within God’s community if it was voluntary, and the teaching of Jesus.  Passages like Romans 8 talk of creation being in bondage, but looking forward to future freedom from death and decay.  However, if death and decay is bondage, then that means that millions of years and generations of animals have been bonded slaves due to the debt incurred by a species that will only come into being millions of years later, which is at least as deplorable.  It also cuts across the pattern displayed in the bible, where even the hostile high priest at Jesus’ time stated the principle that ‘It is better for one man to die, than the whole nation perish’.     We also find in Romans 5 a sustained contrast between how specifically Adam’s sin led to death for many people, since all sinned, but that God’s gift of righteousness through Jesus Christ leads many to life.  Specifically Romans 5.16 says this:

Nor can the gift of God be compared with the result of one man’s sin: The judgment followed one sin and brought condemnation, but the gift followed many trespasses and brought justification.

In other words, in God’s way of doing things, one act of grace in Jesus covered over the many sins that came before.  Earlier in the passage, Paul notes that God didn’t count some sins as sin (v13), consistent with what he said everywhere about God overlooking sins committed by Gentiles in ignorance (Acts 17.30).  The point here for our purposes is that God is portrayed as – yes allowing consequences of sin to go on – but also overlooking things, so that God’s mercy overrides – one act of grace comes after many sins.  This is the opposite pattern to that required by the kind of position described here – where the one act of human sin is anticipated by a punishment inflicted on a great many beforehand.

  • 6) ‘Pain Denial’
  • I haven’t really seen this as a stand alone, but sometimes people will try and minimize or relativise the animal pain and suffering involved. This leads us on to:
  • 7) ‘Pot-pourri’ positions
  • These try and mix a number of the above positions in such a way as to try and minimize the problems associated with each. I don’t have space to engage with them here, but suggest that they only combine the problems inherent in each position, not reduce them.

Move on to Part 3.

Evolution or Creation – why we do have to choose: Part III Blood and Glory

(This is the last part of a three part series: you can go back to the start, or go back one part.)

This brings us back to the core issue; how can Christ the Creator have created by a method that is directly contradicted by his life and teaching?  In the early church, a major emphasis was on Jesus as example and teacher, and the coming Judge of all.  In effect, Jesus’ life was to show us what the standard of judgement was going to be – people should live like the Judge lived, and act like he acted.  You can see the issue.  If Christ the Creator spent millions of years creating in a process that directly violated his teaching (or that his teaching directly interferes with) then there is a huge problem.  We rightly deplore anyone, particularly those in power, such as judges, who act hypocritically, who judge people adversely for doing what they themselves do.  As Abraham said to God later on in Genesis: “Will not the judge of all the earth do right?”

If Jesus’ teaching blocks evolution by natural selection (notice I didn’t say natural selection per se) then how can he have created by a method his own teaching opposed?  Ancient prophecies such as Isaiah 16.5 describe the Messiah as one who will:

rule with mercy and truth. He will always do what is just and be eager to do what is right.

We instinctively know that punishing before a wrong done is wrong.   Locking people up to protect others is one thing, possibly justifiable, but punishing totally unconnected individuals (or, in this case, species) for someone else’s wrongdoing far in the future is without any possible justification.

And even if we exclude the New Testament and prophecies about Jesus, there is still a problem.  Let us take what is probably the climactic moment of God’s revelation to Moses, in Exodus 33 and 34.  Towards the end of chapter 33, Moses asks to see God’s glory (v18) and God replies:

The Lord replied, “I will make all my goodness pass before you, and I will call out my name, Yahweh, before you. For I will show mercy to anyone I choose, and I will show compassion to anyone I choose.’

Notice that Moses’ request to see God’s glory is answered by God answering that all his goodness will pass before Moses, that it is linked to God’s name (name in the ancient world and especially here means more than a word designating a thing or person – it means a person or beings reputation and character, in the same way that we might say ‘my good name is ruined’), and that it is also linked specifically to God’s mercy and compassion.

Then in chapter 34, God does as he promises.

Then the Lord came down in a cloud and stood there with him; and he called out his own name, Yahweh. The Lord passed in front of Moses, calling out,

Yahweh! The Lord!  The God of compassion and mercy! I am slow to anger and filled with unfailing love and faithfulness. I lavish unfailing love to a thousand generations.     I forgive iniquity, rebellion, and sin. But I do not excuse the guilty.   I lay the sins of the parents upon their children and grandchildren; the entire family is affected—     even children in the third and fourth generations .

Moses immediately threw himself to the ground and worshiped.  (v5-8)

All the same elements are there – God’s name, a direct linkage to compassion and mercy, unfailing love, faithfulness and being slow to anger.  Does this fit with a God who chooses to create using a method involving aeons of pain?   I would also point out that, in a fallen world, God’s judgement for sins involves implications for near descendants (as per the natural laws of causation), but not punishment for ancestors, whether near or far, which is the line taken, as we have seen, by some trying to square the circle (or circle the square) we are looking at.

However, we can be even more specific than that.  Proverbs 12.10 says this (I give two different translations):

The godly care for their animals, but the wicked are always cruel. (NLT)

The righteous care for the needs of their animals, but the kindest acts of the wicked are cruel. (NIV)

If godliness or righteousness, according to God’s word, involves people caring for their animals, but the wicked are always cruel, then what do we say to a God who – supposedly – created by a method intrinsically involving huge cruelty?  Is that really the action of a good God?  As we have already noted, Scripture itself says, in the words of the ‘father of the Faithful’, Abraham: ‘Will not the Judge of all the earth do right?’.  How can He judge people as wicked for doing the kind of things that He has been doing to billions of animals for 100’s of millions of years?  Wouldn’t this be exactly the kind of hypocritical judgement Jesus himself warned us against – it would be God with a huge plank in his own eye, judging humans for relative ‘specks’ in their eyes.

So, we come back to the issue of God’s glory.  According to God’s own definition in Exodus 33 and 34 it is his character – his justice, mercy and compassion.  If we bring this back to the specific debate on creationism, let us examine the main arguments.    Creationists will often say that God’s glory is displayed in his creation, and that God gains more glory by creating in a short period than by some huge time period.  They might quote Psalm 19.1:

The heavens proclaim the glory of God.    The skies display his craftsmanship.

However, the counter argument is – aside from the fact that time isn’t specifically mentioned there – that God’s glory can be seen in a world created over long periods of time just as well as over a brief period of time.  I’m not sure I particular buy that (if God’s glory is shown by things that point specifically and uniquely to his creative power, isn’t that undermined by holding to a view that was specifically intended  to exclude a Creator and envisage a universe that came into being without divine creation?) but let’s allow it for a moment.  Granted, God could have created by a slow gradual process (and revealed it in the bible by using analogies of wheat or plants growing in the field).  But if he declares himself to be good, kind, compassionate, how could he have created by a method that was anything but, and how is he glorified by being, in essence, a two-faced, sadistic, psychopath – Jeckel and Hyde writ large, a hypocrite who commends kindness and compassion but spent  huge swathes of earthly history doing just the opposite.

An analogy might be helpful here.  Imagine that you saw publicity for an artist, an artist who trumpeted their ethical practices, say, supported causes such as veganism because of opposition to cruelty to animals, and so on and urged us to do the same.   So you go to their exhibition, and many of that artist’s pictures are of beautiful red sunrises or sunsets.  That artist gets glory – is glorified –as everyone says how amazing and beautiful those pictures are.  The artists ethical stance is praised.  But then, it comes out that the artist has chosen to get the red for all these paintings primarily by using animal blood.  Not only that, but it wasn’t by getting animal blood from dead animals, but that the artist himself personally cut open living animals and bled them out over long periods of time, regardless of their terror and pain and suffering, for some mysterious reason.  Would that artist get glorified then – except by sadists or mad people or similar?  Someone’s character is revealed by how they create, particularly those who are resource rich and not constrained by limitations of finance and so on.  If that artist really needed blood and lived as they professed, then they could have at least bled themselves, however much it slowed down their painting process, rather than inflicting cruelty on animals – a Christ-like act, you might say.  The prophets condemned ancient Canaanite religions in part for their hideous practice of sacrificing living children to their gods, but how is a God who created by evolution any different in character to such idols?

So, we come back to where we started.  If God is truly ‘one’, and if Jesus is both Creator and Judge, and also the exact image of God the Father, then how is it that he taught things that directly cut across and block his means of creation – if theistic evolution is true?  How can a just judge condemn people for doing the same kinds of things that He has done on an immense scale over millions of generations?  Merciful and compassionate such a One certainly isn’t.  When a religious leader, a teacher, or a judge does not act as they teach or preach or judge, we rightly call a hypocrite, but how could an allegedly merciful and compassionate Creator escape that charge for creating with ages of cruelty, as required by theistic evolution and (to a very considerable extent) other long age positions?

God’s glory as revealed in his character in the method of creation is absolutely central to the biblical faith.  This is why we do have to choose between creation and evolution, and why any thinking Christian should take another long look at the supposed scientific objections to (‘Young earth’) creationism.  This article is not the place to go into them, but they are very much weaker than is generally assumed.  We don’t have to pit ‘science’ against the Bible, but we do have to engage in a careful untangling of naturalist / materialist / scientistic assumptions and conclusions from actual fact in a wide range of fields.

 

God’s Family lamb

So, this is a song that I wrote recently.  I haven’t yet put any chords to it, but it’s the kind of tune that they should just fall into place.  Here’s the PDF of the score God s Family Lamb – I hope it works for people – for some reason it won’t download from my PC, but so far every other device seems fine.

I hope to have a sound file of the tune up soon, and maybe a version with piano.

In the meantime, here are the words

Born in the fields round Bethlehem
Raised to die in Jerusalem
Sign of God’s deliverance
From ancient angel of doom
Lamb’s now born for a holy cause
To atone for God’s broken laws
But their deep significance
Points towards an empty tomb

Picked from the flock, pet for a time
Part of the family for a sign
Treasure doomed for ransoming
So God’s beloved live free
Now bearing its family’s own name
Brought out crucified on a frame
Fit for solemn consuming
The blood price of liberty.

Jesus, God’s own Passover Lamb.
God’s own family extended to man
To all who will eat the meat
Of God’s human mercy seat
Who will drink the blood of His wine
Offered by God’s perfect design
This sacrifice God has sealed:
Resurrection has revealed
The eternal life that is found
In the Divine Lamb that was bound.

As Israel’s national Lamb
Entered Zion, so too did a man
Feted in the same way
By the crowds who would watch him die
The same holy psalms, and palms waved
By the ones whose souls could be saved
By the price that He would pay
Our eternal life to buy.

On the Judgement day that is to come
We will rely on the Risen Son
On that day of wrath we’ll cry
‘The Lamb’s blood is within me’
Angels of death will surely go past
If we hold firm until the last
Flood of fire shall pass us by
Face of the Lamb we then shall see

Jesus, God’s own Passover Lamb.
God’s own family extended to man
To all who consume the bread
Of flesh risen from the dead
God’s own promise written in red
Blood to avail for all who have fed
On the Lamb who is God’s own:
For His faithful saints He’s sown
Supernatural bread that is sourced
In the Lamb that God has endorsed.

(c) Nathanael Lewis 2017

 

Paganism, Easter, and Anti-semitism : Letter to the Editor

A Mr Nevin of Bangor, County Down, wrote a letter to the Daily Mail urging that the term Easter is pagan and should be dropped as offensive and implicitly anti-semitic.  I replied, although I don’t know whether it will be published or not.  Also, since the letters are not widely available, I have set out Mr Nevin’s letter as published on Good Friday 2017 (April 14th), and added a few comments that I could not put in my letter for space reasons.  The reason I do this is because Mr Nevin’s letter is an example of some false arguments that are very commonly made.  Anyway, he wrote:

Last Monday was the Eve of Passover – Erev Pesach in Hebrew – when most Jewish families meet for an annual Seder meal recounting the story of the people of Israel being led by god from slavery and bondage in Egypt to the Promised Land.

The prayers of those Jews who were later forced from that Promised Land by the Romans in AD135 are expressed at the end of the Passover Meal with the words ‘Next year in Jerusalem!’ It was this that Jesus, or Yeshua, as a Jew, shared with his disciples before His death on Passover Even and at which He asked His followers to remember Him ‘as often as ye do this’.

So far, so good (although I should point out that Jesus certainly didn’t celebrate a Passover that followed the format of post AD135 Passovers!).

Recent reports had Prime Minister Theresa May bewailing the loss of the word ‘Easter’ in a chocolate egg hunt at National Trust venues in England.  The organisers deny they have banished the word ‘Easter’.  But has anyone ever thought where the word comes from or what it means?  It has no connection with Jesus or His death.  It’s the name of a pagan deity celebrating fertility, quoted by the Venerable Bede as ‘Eastre’ or Eostre’, appearing in different cultures at different periods as ‘Ishtar’, ‘Astarte’ and even in the Bible as ‘Ashtoreth’.  Is this a suitable title for what is claimed to be the Church’s most important feast?  Surely the Biblical word for this event should be Passover.

However, if we are to counter anti-Christian trends that sideline the central Christian feast, then I don’t think it will be any more effective to snipe at those who try to defend it.  The opponents of the Christian faith will certainly not mind if instead of a unified focus, there is internal civil war – or even just sniping – over an obscure etymological debate.  Easter is about Jesus’ resurrection, and Easter being sidelined is an issue that all Christians should be lining up shoulder-to shoulder about.

It would appear that the change suited anti-Jewish sentiments within the Church at the time, as Passover was too closely connected with the Jews – though this is hardly surprising in that Jesus was a circumcised Jew and the New Testament states ‘Christ (Messiah) is our Passover – therefore let us keep the feast’ (Passover). Rather than an outcry at the term ‘Easter’ being dropped, we should welcome it.  Pagan fertility symbols like Easter bunnies and eggs have nothing to do with the Biblical story of Jesus and it’s time the two were separated to avoid further confusion or offence.

In my reply below, I wasn’t able to address the issue of ‘pagan fertility symbols’.  These seem to have been German in origin, that in the 19th Century spread to the English speaking world and other Western cultures.  However, claims that say the symbol of Eostre were the rabbit or hare are more than a tad dubious since even if there was a goddess by that name (see below), we know next to nothing about her.  As I understand it, much of the ‘evidence’ for such links came out of the research of the Grimm brothers regarding traditional folk practices in what is now Germany.  They may well be ancient holdovers from paganism, and they certainly can these days be a distraction from the real meaning of Easter, but to say that just because they are now associated with Easter, the term Easter must be tainted is nonsensical.  The Greek church uses the term ‘Pascha’ or Passover, yet has similar customs – should we then say that the term ‘Passover’ should not be used because of this?

One further interesting point that came up in my research on Easter and Passover, that I had never realised before.  It actually came from a King James only advocate, one who talked a surprising amount of sense – in my experience, most King James only people talk a load of nonsense over the term Easter and tie themselves in knots, trying to justify the translation of Pascha in Acts 12.4 as Easter.  I’m not saying I agreed with this guy, but it was refreshing to see calm and rational thought on the matter.  Anyway, he pointed out that the early church called the celebration of what we in English call ‘Easter’ by the name Pascha, or Passover, but deliberately distinguished it from the Jewish Passover by calling it ‘the Saviour’s Passover’, which is consistent with the idea that they also changed the date to a Sunday, rather than following the Jewish Passover.  Not only that, but he pointed out there are signs of this in the New Testament, including the qualification of the Passover as ‘the Passover of the Jews’ in John’s gospel at several places.  This guy said that Acts 12.4 referred to the Christian ‘Passover’, implying it happened after the Unleavened Bread festival (that happens after the Jewish Passover proper).  I don’t really buy that – I think that ‘Passover’ was used colloquially to refer to the whole week long associated feast of Unleavened bread – but if it is so, it proves that a separation of ‘Easter’ and Passover happened in New Testament times, under the authority of the Jewish apostles – hardly anti-semitic in motivation, that’s for sure.  (Ironically, quite a lot of the association of ‘Ishtar’ and ‘Easter’ stems from King James only people trying to justify the King James’ use of Easter in Acts at this point.)

However, moving on; this is my reply, focusing on Eostre and claimed associated goddesses, and the claim that Easter is due to anti-semitism:

Mr Nevin states something as indisputable fact which is not.  Despite frequent claims to this effect, Ishtar and Oestre are not the same goddess – slight similarity in names across completely different languages from cultures over a thousand miles and centuries apart does not prove identity.  Ishtar came from a word meaning ‘flock’ or ‘increase’ and was a fertility goddess.  If Oestre existed (see below) then the root word had to do with ‘dawn’ and ‘East’.  There is, in fact, considerable doubt as to whether there was a goddess called Oestre – the evidence is rather thin and mostly conjectural, and a number of scholars think that Bede may have been mistaken.

Scholars have suggested several other possible origins of the word Easter – including a corruption of the Latin for ‘in white’, or a root word meaning ‘shine’ or an old-Germanic  term for the month of April meaning ‘the month of opening / budding’.  Since the celebration of Jesus’ the opening of his tomb to new life usually fell in that month, in English and German, the festival took on the name of the month.  Similarly, a root word to do with ‘shining’ would fit very well the symbolism of the resurrection of Jesus from out of dark death. Early church thought often used the sun as symbolism for Jesus, so associating dawn imagery with Jesus’ resurrection would come very easily.  Even if Bede was right, he never says that Easter was taken directly from goddess worship, but that the month that was then called Easter was originally named after such a goddess.   To claim that the term ‘Easter’ is offensive because it may have come from a month named after a goddess is as silly as saying we should not use the days  Monday through Saturday as they are all named after pagan gods.

More to the point, Nevin asserts that a ‘change’ from Passover to Easter suited the church of the (unspecified) time, due to anti-Semitism and trying to get away from Jewish Passover.  However, in Latin, as in most European languages, the word for Passover is used, and still occasionally in English (paschaltide).  It is only German and English that use the term ‘Easter’.  Whilst the early church did come to partially separate the celebration of Jesus’ resurrection from Passover, the main reasons had to do with serious slippage in the Jewish calendar in the 2nd and 3rd centuries (later corrected, so that they are never too far away from each other now).  Saying that it was simply due to anti-semitism is historically grossly inaccurate.

As a theologian involved in my local Messianic Jewish community, I have no problems at all in celebrating Easter, or using the term.  Nor should Mr Nevin or anyone else.

Well, they certainly shouldn’t if they are basing their opposition on arguments such as these, anyway….

Facebook Gethsemane

Tis deception to say I surely would keep
That dark watch with Jesus, that I would not sleep
As of old; Yes, my spirit too is willing,
But so too my modern flesh is yet so weak
Not with heavy eyes, perhaps, but with filling
Time with distractions – that of which I now speak
You know, the hungry gods of this age that say
‘All this activity whilst you’ve been away’ –
The mind hooks deliberately designed and sunk
Into our brains, filling them with whimsy junk.

‘Good Jesus’ I cry out, ‘Deliver me
From all slavery to this tyranny
So that I may sit at your blessed feet
In this growing gloom, and your true face meet.’

(15-04-17)

Imagery adapted from this video and Facebook icons

Tracing the Covenant Ark I – The Mystery of the Ark


This is Part one of a talk I gave at Beit Yeshua in January 2017, or at least I got through what I could in the time limits available, and what I did get through was well received.

The Ark of the Covenant  is an object that evokes mystery, controversy and sometimes, mystification, almost from as soon as it was made.   Could it be, as the famous Indiana Jones movie depicted, packed up in some secret government depository?  According to the bible, on several occasions people who got too close or who touched it died instantly, so was it really an ancient weapon – as several authors have suggested, including one who went so far as to build a replica to show that it would have built up static electricity in the desert winds.  Does it still exist, or has it been destroyed?  Will it reappear ready for the Tribulation Temple?  Can we expect to see it suddenly found – or has it been found?  Did the early church have anything to say about it?  What can we learn, if anything, from Jewish tradition, or from scholars?

There are all sorts of myths and beliefs about the ark of covenant, ranging from being buried in Tara in Ireland, or being taken by an English nobleman to his estates, to being buried in a mountain in Jordan by Jeremiah, under the Temple mount or Calvary, or else it is in a church in Ethiopia, or it self destructed at the close of what scholars call the Great Zimbabwe civilization.  Other accounts have it being carried to Rome and destroyed in a fire in a church there centuries later, or even being carried physically into heaven.  Maybe you have your own preferred theory on it; I certainly do, which I will talk about later.

I want to start by just reading out the two mentions of the ark of the covenant in the New Testament.  The first, Hebrews 9.1-5, gives a useful introduction as to what was important about the ark of the covenant:

Now the first covenant had regulations for worship and also an earthly sanctuary.  A tabernacle was set up. In its first room were the lampstand and the table with its consecrated bread; this was called the Holy Place. Behind the second curtain was a room called the Most Holy Place, which had the golden altar of incense and the gold-covered ark of the covenant. This ark contained the gold jar of manna, Aaron’s staff that had budded, and the stone tablets of the covenant. Above the ark were the cherubim of the Glory, overshadowing the atonement cover.

The second is in the book of Revelation 11.19, immediately after the 24 heavenly elders declare that the time for judgement has come and God has taken up his rule:

Then God’s temple in heaven was opened, and within his temple was seen the ark of his covenant. And there came flashes of lightning, rumblings, peals of thunder, an earthquake and a severe hailstorm.

It is from this verse that, in some Christian circles at least, the notion has arisen that the ark has been removed by God to heaven.  We will come back and look at that issue later.

Click for Part 2

Tracing the Covenant Ark II – The Making of the Ark

Back to the start at Part 1. This is part two of a talk I gave at Beit Yeshua in January 2017, or at least I got through what I could in the time limits available, and what I did get through was well received.

Let’s look at the making of the ark of the covenant.  God gave Moses fairly detailed descriptions when he commanded the ark to be built in Sinai, about a year after the Israelites had left Egypt.

Exodus 25.9-22, 40

Make this tabernacle and all its furnishings exactly like the pattern I will show you

Have them make an ark of acacia wood—two and a half cubits long, a cubit and a half wide, and a cubit and a half high. Overlay it with pure gold, both inside and out, and make a gold molding around it.  Cast four gold rings for it and fasten them to its four feet, with two rings on one side and two rings on the other.  Then make poles of acacia wood and overlay them with gold.  Insert the poles into the rings on the sides of the ark to carry it.  The poles are to remain in the rings of this ark; they are not to be removed. Then put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law, which I will give you.

Make an atonement cover of pure gold—two and a half cubits long and a cubit and a half wide. And make two cherubim out of hammered gold at the ends of the cover.  Make one cherub on one end and the second cherub on the other; make the cherubim of one piece with the cover, at the two ends. The cherubim are to have their wings spread upward, overshadowing the cover with them. The cherubim are to face each other, looking toward the cover. Place the cover on top of the ark and put in the ark the tablets of the covenant law that I will give you.  There, above the cover between the two cherubim that are over the ark of the covenant law, I will meet with you and give you all my commands for the Israelites….

See that you make them according to the pattern shown you on the mountain

Exodus 26.33-4

Hang the curtain from the clasps and place the ark of the covenant law behind the curtain. The curtain will separate the Holy Place from the Most Holy Place. 34 Put the atonement cover on the ark of the covenant law in the Most Holy Place.

Ex 27.31

In the tent of meeting, outside the curtain that shields the ark of the covenant law, Aaron and his sons are to keep the lamps burning before the Lord from evening till morning. This is to be a lasting ordinance among the Israelites for the generations to come.

Just one thing to note here.  This kind of creates a problem – God here commanded something as a lasting ordinance for future generations, but how can they carry it out if the priests have no ark, as appears to be the case today.

I don’t have time to cover all the rest of the contents of Exodus regarding the ark, so I will summarize them here.  Exodus 30 gives instructions as to the making of an incense altar and the incense, in relation to the ark, and the anointing oil, which was also to be used on the ark of the covenant.  Chapter 31 has God giving craftsmen the skill to make all the equipment of the Tabernacle, alongside the artistic directors.  Exodus 37 recounts the actual making of the ark, exactly as God presented it to Moses, and in Exodus 39 Moses inspects the ark and all the other Tabernacle equipment and materials, and on finding they have been made to specification, blesses them.  In chapter 40, God commands Moses to have the Tabernacle set up on the first day of the first month, with the ark being the very first thing placed in it, and then hidden by a shielding curtain.  Moses obeys.  He puts the two tablets of the law in the Ark of the Covenant, and puts the ark in the Tabernacle.  Once all was complete, the glory of the Lord filled the whole Tabernacle.

Part 3

Tracing the Covenant Ark III – Judgement, Death, Blood and Atonement

Start at Part 1.  Back to part 2. This is part three of a talk I gave at Beit Yeshua in January 2017, or at least I got through what I could in the time limits available, and what I did get through was well received.

Although the ark is not specifically mentioned, in Leviticus 10, two of Aaron’s sons were killed, even though they were priests, because the offered ‘unauthorized fire’ before the Lord and were consumed by fire.  It is no coincidence that when the ark is mentioned next, in Leviticus 16, even the High Priest, Aaron, was told that he could not come whenever he liked into the holy of holies where the ark was, but only once a year, on Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, on pain of death.  He could only do so then after an elaborate ritual involving multiple sacrifices, bathing in water and special linen clothes.  He had to sacrifice for himself and his family first, and then for all Israel, with the blood of the sacrifices being sprinkled on the mercy seat or cover of the ark.  V16-7 tell us:

In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the uncleanness and rebellion of the Israelites, whatever their sins have been. He is to do the same for the tent of meeting, which is among them in the midst of their uncleanness. No one is to be in the tent of meeting from the time Aaron goes in to make atonement in the Most Holy Place until he comes out, having made atonement for himself, his household and the whole community of Israel.

Now, I think I’m correct in saying that most scholars don’t think that the blood of the sacrifices was effective in taking away or covering over sins themselves.  The repeated message in the Old Testament is that God freely forgives those who repent of their sins and turn back to righteous living and true worship.  However, sacrifices were always associated, in some sense needed.  What this passage in Leviticus is telling us that the blood of the sacrifices was necessary to deal with the accumulated impurity or damage in the Tabernacle that was the result of the sin and rebellion of the people.  God forgave, but the damage or impurity in his Holy dwelling is what needed blood.  In the same way, in the New Covenant, Jesus’ message was ‘Repent of your sins, for the kingdom of heaven is near’.  He freely forgave, and continues to freely forgive, those who truly repent of their sins.   His better blood was shed to cleanse a greater Tabernacle, the heavenly Tabernacle of which the earthly Tabernacle was only a copy or shadow.

Numbers 3 and 4 tell us that the specific clan of Levites that was responsible for the care of the main articles of the Tabernacle, ’the most holy things’, including the Ark and its shielding curtain.  All the holy things were  to be covered in curtains when they moved, and if the Kohathites were to touch the holy items, they would die.  Numbers 7 ends by telling us that Moses often went into the ‘Tent of Meeting’ and heard the voice of God speaking to him from between the Cherubim that stretched above the mercy seat of the ark.  Numbers 10 tells us that the ark went before the nation of Israel when the travelled, bearing the presence of the Lord, and ends by telling us that:

Whenever the ark set out, Moses said, “Rise up, Lord!   May your enemies be scattered; may your foes flee before you.”

Whenever it came to rest, he said, “Return, Lord, to the countless thousands of Israel.”

Whatever the ark did on the shoulders of the Levites, Moses regarded the Lord himself as doing – rising up and settling down – scattering enemies, and resting among the people of God.

In Numbers 16, there is another rebellion in Israel around the issue of priesthood, leading to the terrifying, supernatural deaths of the rebels and their families, swallowed alive by the earth.  This rebellion twice nearly resulted in the destruction of all Israel.  In the next chapter, God takes the initiative to re-iterate to the community that he had chosen the Levites, and especially Aaron to the role.  The leaders of each of the 12 tribes placed their staffs in the tent of meeting before the ark, and God said he would make the staff of his chosen sprout overnight.  Aarons not only sprouted, but ‘budded, blossomed and produced almonds’.  Aarons staff was to be kept before the ark  as warning to the rebellious Israelites.

I should just say that later on, this staff, along with the pot of manna, were later stored inside the ark, as Hebrews 9 tells us.  The pot of manna, Exodus 16 tells us, was kept originally in the ‘Tent of Meeting’ along with the tablets of the law of God, even before the building of the Tabernacle and the Ark of the Covenant.

Part 4