Woodmen Valley Chapel: Evil, Suffering, and the Goodness of God

imageWe have attended Woodmen Valley Chapel in Colorado Springs since we arrived here three years ago, and have truly fallen in love with it. Pastor Josh Lindstrom is likely the best teaching pastor we have ever heard, and we look forward to his message every week. Pastor Andrew Reichart, a fellow theologian and basketball player, became our Campus Pastor a few months ago, and we’ve grown in friendship ever since. A few months ago, Pastor Andrew asked me to give the Sunday morning message while Pastor Josh was on sabbatical. We agreed on the topic that I have recently become all-too-familiar with — God, evil, and suffering. The text of that sermon is below, and you can watch the video here (Click on “Summer 2018”):

Woodmen

https://woodmenvalley.org/interact

How has your year been so far? Anyone having a rough one? Internationally, the news is not generally good…our economy is rebounding, but we are still in great debt. Russia, China, Iran, Syria, and others continue to create conflict on the world stage. Domestically, we are probably as divided as we have ever been, with both our families and our faith under attack like never before. Last week, I had lunch with Mo, a good friend and an old co-worker of mine. This man knows suffering, a kind of suffering I hope I will never know. His brother was killed in Afghanistan, and when his sister heard of his death, she committed suicide. When Mo’s mother heard that she had lost two children in basically 24 hours, she had a heart attack. My dear friend Mo lost his brother, sister, and mother within days of each other, then two months later his 6-year old drowned in a tragic accident. Closer to home, almost two million people will be diagnosed with cancer this year, and almost half will die from it. I was a part of that diagnosis statistic in 1999, and I’m still fighting – hoping and praying not to add myself to the other statistic for quite some time.

But it’s been a tough year! After 8 years of remission, my cancer came back this last year, and it’s been a rough go ever since. Since my cancer diagnosis in 1999, I have often struggled with the why question – why does God allow this to happen? Why me? What did I do wrong? Why do I have to suffer to greatly? But, can you imagine the prayers Mo must have prayed? How can God allow so much suffering? I like the way Josh put it in his sermon on Mark 6 last month: “There’s no way Jesus understands what I’m going through. If He did, He wouldn’t allow it.” I’ve felt that way before, and I’ll tell you a bit about it. Perhaps you’ve felt that way too – maybe for you, it isn’t cancer. It could be anything – cancer, diabetes, addiction, depression, dependency, obesity, whatever else – we are all facing something, and we are all suffering. There is comfort that we aren’t the only ones. You not only have fellow sufferers here with you, but Jesus also knows what you’re going through. He’s been there. In fact, there is great comfort in knowing that there is no pain that you are experiencing that is worse than the pain Jesus felt when He was beaten and crucified; no grief that you are facing that is worse than the grief He felt when He was momentarily abandoned on the cross; and no burden you are bearing that is heavier than the burden of every sin that has ever or ever will be committed. Jesus knows what you’re going through. Paul comforts us in this regard as well.

If you have your Bibles, turn with me to 2 Corinthians, Chapter 1, starting in verse 8. The context here is that Paul has already visited Corinth at least once, and there is a strong and developing church there. During his travels throughout Macedonia and Asia Minor, he hears from Timothy that there are divisions and struggles in the church, and in Macedonia (probably at Philippi) Paul writes Second Corinthians to get the church back on track. In that letter, he describes to the Corinthians the trouble he has endured during his travels.

1. Pressure or stress beyond our ability to endure.

Paul says that he was facing pressure or stress “beyond his ability to endure.”

But Paul was a pretty tough guy – probably an athlete, I like to think he was a runner (physical training is of some value (1 Tim 4:8), run with perseverance (Hebrews 12:1-2), run in such a way as to win the prize (1 Cor 9:24), I have run the race and kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7), etc. He had developed endurance far beyond most people. In 2 Cor 11:23 – 28, Paul essentially gives us his credentials, his ͞race rag͟ to match all others. Imprisoned, flogged severely, exposed to death over and over again, whipped with 39 lashes five times, beaten with rods three times, stoned, shipwrecked three times, sleepless, hungry, thirsty, and more. These are the circumstances that Paul is referring to when he says he was “…under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure.” Let’s look at just one example.

In Acts 14, Luke records just one of these instances that Paul endured. In Iconium, Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time preaching the gospel, but they angered both the Jews and the Gentiles who were there, such that Paul and Barnabas had to flee for their lives to Lystra. In this city, in Asia Minor, Paul and Barnabas were again preaching the gospel and healing the sick, when Jews from Antioch and Iconium arrived, likely having followed them. In verse 19 we read that ͞They stoned Paul, and dragged him outside the city, thinking he was dead.͟ Stoned and left for dead — now, I know this is Colorado, but this isn’t THAT kind of ͞stoned.͟ Can you imagine the pain, the misery, the bleeding and bruising? Think about that next time you’re complaining about being stuck in traffic on Powers, or when that promotion or raise doesn’t come through, or when your 10-year-old daughter just WILL NOT go to bed, or any time you’ve convinced yourself that you’re having a really bad day. Stoned, and left for dead. And this was just one of the many encounters Paul describes in 2 Cor 11, a list that he considers ͞boasting about things that show his weakness.

Reading Paul, I sometimes think I have a few things to boast about. But I’m pretty tough too. Perseverance and endurance are my calling cards. Surgeries, chemotherapy, radiation, infections and more…but also marathons, triathlons, adventure races, you name it – I’ll do it. I tell some people about the races I’ve run or the endurance events I’ve competed in, and I get responses like, ͞Twenty-six miles? You ran? I don’t even like driving 26 miles! There is no race too difficult, no race too long, no weather too bad, no condition that is beyond my ability to endure. We looked at one example from Paul, let me give you one from my own life.

I was diagnosed with brain cancer a long time ago – December 9th, 1999 [SLIDE]. I’d never had any symptoms, on the contrary, I was the picture of health. I don’t smoke, don’t drink too much, eat right, exercise six days a week, no history of cancer in the family, literally in the lowest risk group on the planet. Twenty-seven years old, diagnosed with terminal brain cancer. What do you think is the first question that plagued my mind? Yes…how long do I have? Five years. Maybe six, with aggressive treatment. And that was 19 years ago! I figured I’d better get that bucket list started. One of the first things on the list was running a marathon. Sure, I can do that! Little did I know that the initial diagnosis would turn into a major brain surgery, followed by another surgery and then chemotherapy. As timing turned out, I ran my first marathon in between my 10th and 11th rounds of chemotherapy, which means that I did allmy marathon training while going through chemotherapy. Training during chemo was difficult, no doubt – but certainly not ͞beyond my ability to endure. Sure, there were times when I didn’t want to run. But everything I could think of – it’s too dark, too cold, too early, too windy, too rainy, I feel too sick, I’m too tired, the list is long – and every single one of them is nothing more than an excuse. This little voice in my head began to grow, saying, “Shut up, get your shoes on, and get out the door.”

My reasoning was simple, but on the border of what some (like my wife…) would consider insane. I began to equate running (or training) with beating cancer. If I didn’t go out and run, it meant that cancer had kept me inside that day. It meant that cancer had won that round, and I vowed to never let that happen. Then I got out of bed, put my shoes on, and started my run. There were times it sucked. There were times I had to stop to get sick, then get back on my feet and finish the run. But let me tell you my ͞Lystra͟ story. Once, at the Seattle Marathon in 2010, I was struck with horrible leg cramps, about nine miles into the race. I couldn’t even bend my knees, or my hamstrings and calves would cramp horribly. An experienced marathoner by this time, I’m wracking my brain for the cause – dehydration? Malnutrition? Hills? Cold? Went out too fast? I made it to the next aid station and, for the first time in my life, I quit. I just sat down, struggling with my decision to DNF. It was going to be a long wait for the bus. I had never before failed to finish a race of any distance…but after a few minutes, I decided that I wasn’t going to fail this time either. I slowly stood up, careful not to bend my legs too far and start cramping…then walked 17 miles to the finish line.

Now, before you get impressed with my petty achievements, let’s return to Paul’s story. When we left the story in Acts 14:19, Paul and Barnabas had fled Iconium for fear of being killed, then Paul was stoned in Lystra, dragged outside the city, and left for dead. Driven out of Iconium and forced to flee to Lystra, then stoned and left for dead, you’d think Paul would get a clue. You’d think he’d get the message. But read on, to verse 20. What does Paul do? He gets up and goes back into the city!! He went back to the very people who pursued him from Iconium, stoned him, and left him for dead. What would you do? Would you go back? I’m probably Barnabas in this situation. Um, Paul…I hate to be difficult, but…Keep reading, now on to verse 21. After spreading the gospel to Derbe, he goes back AGAIN, and not just to Lystra where he was stoned and left for dead – back to Iconium as well, where the mob pursued him. Why? To ͞strengthen the souls of the disciples, and encourage them to continue in the faith. Who are these disciples that he wants to strengthen? Who is he setting an example for? It’s not just those he left in Jerusalem. It’s you and me. And what an example he sets.

For me, Paul’s persistence in sharing the gospel despite considerable pressures and numerous threats is a tremendous encouragement. But now, my confession. I’m pretty tough, but once…only once…I felt the pain that Paul felt as he wrote to Corinth. I felt a stress, a pressure, a burden far beyond my ability to bear. After 18 years of fighting cancer, and after enduring three brain surgeries, two reconstructive surgeries, 42 rounds of radiation, 29 rounds of chemotherapy, and countless other treatments, Angie and I finally thought we were done. DONE. The cancer was in full remission, and we had thrown at it every treatment we could find. I was having routine brain scans every 90 days or so, just to make sure everything was still fine. Unexpectedly, devastatingly, in October 2016, the cancer was back for a fifth time (brief explanation of what the slide shows). I vividly remember driving home from the Cancer Center in Denver, rehearsing in my head how I was going to tell Angie. I came up empty. I had nothing. I got home, and for the first time in my life, I collapsed at her feet, completely broken. Spiritually, mentally, emotionally, physically broken. I curled up on the ottoman (which likely wasn’t built to accommodate a 6-footer), and just sobbed. My friends, I was experiencing first-hand a “burden beyond my ability to endure.”

2. We felt we had received the sentence of death.

Not only was I stressed beyond my ability to bear, the cancer had upgraded. Higher grade, larger, more malignant, more aggressive, and faster growing – the prognosis was not good. Continuing our walk through this verse, what had I received? I had received, like Paul, the sentence of death. So I had received news like this before, and normally these prognoses mean nothing to me. But it did this time. The cancer had recurred as Grade IV, a significant upgrade from the prior Grade II, and was now a massive tumor called a Glioblastoma Multiforme, the most fatal of all cancers. Nicknamed “The Terminator,” its median survival rate is only 9 – 11 months. You’ve probably already done the math in your head – that prognosis was in October 2016. My time was up more than six months ago. To make matters worse, the five-year mortality rate is 99.8%. That means that I have a 0.2% chance of living five years after diagnosis – a 0.2% chance of seeing my daughter graduate from high school, go to college, get married, and a 0.2% chance of celebrating our 25-year wedding anniversary. The news of another recurrence was bad enough, but a recurrence, plus an upgrade, plus an increase in size and aggressiveness, was more than I could bear. This was it. It’s over. This is not only beyond my ability to bear, the sentence of death has been passed, I’ve fought the good fight for 19 years, time to turn it in. No. NO. Did Paul? Even with what I’ve been through, my suffering doesn’t come close to what Paul endured, let alone Jesus Himself, and they NEVER gave up. Paul endured that he might strengthen and encourage the disciples, Jesus endured so that He might conquer sin and death, and I must endure as well. Have you ever been there? Have you ever felt stressed beyond your ability to bear? Maybe it’s not stonings and beatings. Maybe it’s not cancer.  Maybe it’s just getting your 10-year-old daughter to go to bed. Maybe it’s one more day at work. Maybe it’s just getting out of bed in the morning. In those situations, I encourage you to think of Jesus. Think of Paul. Think of me, if you need to. But whatever it is, get it done. Get your shoes on, and get out the door.

For me, one thing that made this part of endurance so difficult was facing the hardest question of all – WHY. I waffled between ͞Why me?͟ and ͞Why, God?͟ Maybe you’ve asked similar questions at some time in your life, maybe you’re asking them now. Why this suffering? Why must I endure, again? Is this punishment for some sin I’ve committed? Is this making me an example to other sufferers? Is this the refiner’s fire that Zecharaiah and Malachi prophesied, or is God testing my devotion like Job? Can I even ask the question, and do I even deserve an answer? He declined to answer Paul, simply telling him “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in your weakness.” His sovereignty ruled against removing Jesus’ suffering. He answered Job, but it’s not the kind of answer I ever want to receive. “Where were YOU when I laid the foundations of the world…” then spend FIVE CHAPTERS rebuking Job for questioning God’s omniscience, power, and sovereignty. God forbid I ever be guilty of the same. Still, I struggled with what I called the ͞Law of Diminishing Returns.” With each recurrence of cancer, my testimony actually wasn’t getting a lot stronger. I was suffering a lot more, without a concurrent return on that investment. ͞Okay, boss, I’m starting to lose the big picture here. Why must I go through this again? What possibly could I gain, or could I learn, that I haven’t already learned or gained in the last 19 years? I have already committed the rest of my life to serving you full-time, what more do you want? My testimony is already tremendously powerful as a four-time brain cancer survivor, will making me a five-time cancer survivor really gain that much? 19 more rounds of chemotherapy, really?  For decades I had been able to avoid the “why” question, but now it just weighed me down to the point where I could barely stand. I think it’s time for this cosmic bully to pick on someone else. But a great conviction followed this struggle, this time of spiritual brokenness. I was reminded of a book I read years ago called “Days of Anguish, Days of Hope.” It is about Chaplain Robert Preston Taylor, and his struggle to survive World War II. He survived the Bataan Death March, only to be imprisoned in camps in Japan, Okinawa, and Manchuria. In his three years as a POW, he spent more time in solitary confinement than any other prisoner on record. This solitary confinement was a 4×5 bamboo box, just small enough that you cannot stand up or lie down. It’s impossible to get comfortable. There is a pint of water and a cup of rice a day, if you’re fortunate. No bathroom facilities. No cot. Nothing. Most were driven insane or died from malaria and dengue fever within the first 10 days. As Chaplain Taylor entered his fourth month in the ͞hot box,͟ he heard guards outside his door. The door opened only briefly enough for them to throw another prisoner into the cell with him, a young man he nicknamed Benny. It seems the Japanese had underestimated the number of POWs in the camp, and had run out of room – so they decided to fit two prisoners in cells not even large enough for one man to stand. Incredibly, Chaplain Taylor tells the story of how he praised God for the company, because now he had someone with which to share the gospel, as “Benny” was not a believer. As the war drew to a close, Chaplain Taylor was placed back into general population, and gave a sermon that Sunday.

“In solitary, I knew I had to keep my mind busy if I was going to stay sane. My Bible. That is the best tool.͟ As he picked up his Bible, he felt a calm that he had not felt in months, and he prayed that God would forgive him for being afraid. If god has a purpose for him, then surely he will survive.  “But dying,” thought Chaplain Taylor, “…dying would be so much easier.”  Bible in hand, Chaplain Taylor leaned on a bamboo cane for stability as he preached, ͞If you could turn me inside out and look at my heart, you would see a man who still believes in the power of God.  We have been subjected to the most depraved tortures, and seen our captors violate every civilized code in the free world. They force us to dig our own graves, and carry our buddies out of Zero Ward on bamboo stretchers. The food – meager in quantity, inferior in grade – would poison my pigs back in east Texas. Open latrines cause major sanitation issues. We have no utensils. Our clothes are so dirty that our captors won’t even touch them. We are subjected to constant abuse. If we walk within 20 yards of the fence, we are shot. Many men have been taken into headquarters, and have never returned. And if not our captors, the flies and mosquitoes will annihilate us all. But we will not give up. We will live, and we will make this world a better place. This will not become a graveyard for the nameless dead, because God is with us. I’m sick, I’m dirty, I’m nasty, and all I have is my Bible and my underwear. I can smell my own rotting teeth, but listen to me – I WILL NOT DIE. I am going to live, and you are too, because God is going to give us the strength.”

Chaplain Taylor lived [SLIDE], and in 1962 – at the recommendation of General Curt LeMay – President John F. Kennedy appointed him Major General Taylor, the US Air Force Chief of Chaplains. And Benny accepted Christ in that hot box, in his underwear, surrounded by flies and mosquitos. Chaplain Taylor believed that the reason he was in solitary confinement for four months was to lead Benny to Christ. So, here is the spiritual awakening I experienced when thinking about that sermon, and about Chaplain Taylor in the hot box with Benny. Why must I endure a fifth recurrence, with the associated surgeries and chemotherapy? There will be people I meet during this fifth battle that I didn’t meet before. Nurses, doctors, orderlies, fellow patients, whomever – but every one of these new people is a new opportunity to share the gospel, a new opportunity to allow God to use my testimony to change their life. Any one of them, could be my “Benny.”  Here was the revelation, the realization that changed my life: if everything I’ve been through – 4 brain surgeries, 4 reconstructive surgeries, 29 rounds of chemotherapy, and 42 rounds of radiation – if all of that reaches ONE person, it is worth it. It has to be. Why? Because of Jesus. He would have endured everything He went through – far worse than even Chaplain Taylor – for only you. For one person.

Returning to our key verse, the next phrase is a big blow to those of you, like me, who are self-reliant and think you can handle anything. You think you can do it all.

3. This happened that we might rely not on ourselves, but on God.

I am terrible, just terrible, at relying on other people, and at asking for help. I ran that marathon. I walked those 17 miles. I endured 29 rounds of chemotherapy. I can beat it again. I can run any race. I can take anything cancer can dish out. NO. YOU. CAN’T. At least, not alone. I was still relying on myself, still taking the credit, and God was still teaching me a hard lesson. He taught it to Paul as well. Why endure beatings and stonings? Why go back? To strengthen the disciples and encourage them in the faith. Chaplain Taylor said he will not give up – why? Because God is with us. He refused to die, why? Because God is going to give us strength. If these examples are any indication, it seems that some of His hardest lessons are taught through suffering. One thing I know: God is sovereign. That means that there is nothing in His creation that He does not either cause or allow. We are also promised that as Christians, we will suffer (1 Tim 3:12 and elsewhere). God both causes and allows suffering into our lives for a number of reasons. In my two decades of suffering through terminal brain cancer, I’ve discovered three insights into why God allows suffering.

a. Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness. Why does God let us suffer? Why does He bring suffering into our lives? We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18). God has predestined us all to conform to the likeness of His Son, but we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well. This doesn’t make it easy – even Christ begged for the suffering to be taken from him, and so did Paul. But like a good parent, God knows that sometimes the greatest medium for communicating His message is suffering. Fortunately, that’s not all….

b. Suffering brings us closer to God. As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might rely not on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him. I believe this is the case in my own life. In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.” And, like Paul, I think this forced me to rely on God rather than myself. C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.

c. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool. Simply stated, suffering reaches unbelievers. It reached Benny, and we see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man. He didn’t cure leprosy, He cured the leper. He didn’t eradicate lust or adultery, He forgave the adulteress. Why?  Because in all three cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done. Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries. His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock the props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him. It has worked for me! I’ve beaten brain cancer five times, and I will continue to fight. What does “beating cancer” look like? Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway. Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ, and it will never succeed. Beating cancer, you see, simply means remaining committed to Christ. This profound truth leads me to our final point.

4. He has delivered us, and he will deliver us again.

The cancer is coming back. It has nearly a 100% recurrence rate, and I’ve exhausted almost every option known to medicine. But look at how today’s verse ends – He has delivered me, and He will deliver me again. This is how Paul could get up, walk back into the city that just stoned him and left him for dead, and continue to preach the gospel – then come back and do it again. He knew that God would deliver him. In the words of Chaplain Taylor, ͞We will not give up…because God is with us. I am going to live because God will give me the strength.͟ He may want me serving Him and teaching His Word here on Earth for another 45 years…or, He may want me by His side, praising him in His presence. We never know if God is going to walk with us in the Garden of Eden or cry with us in the Garden of Gethsemane, but we know that He will be there. My friends, I do not know what you are facing today, but I know that every one of you is facing something. Maybe it’s not cancer, maybe it’s a kind of suffering that I may never know and cannot even understand. You may be burdened beyond your ability to bear, you may have even received the sentence of death – but I assure you this: rely on God, and He will deliver you, just like He delivered Jesus, Paul, Chaplain Taylor, and me. In Him alone is our hope.

“Practical Apologetics” at White Sulphur Springs

I just finished a wonderful week at White Sulphur Springs Conference and Retreat Center — a beautiful Christian retreat in the Allegheny Mountains of Pennsylvania.  Paul Robyn and his staff run a top-shelf operation, and they asked me to come speak to summer “retreaters” on the topic of “Practical Apologetics” — the real boots-on-the-ground, tactical approach to sharing and defending your faith.  We went through four or five presentations on that topic, then added a few on textual criticism, creation/evolution and old Earth/young Earth, and several sessions of dedicated Q&A.  As promised, below are the slides and audio from the entire week.  Huge thanks to Josh Crabtree for his outstanding A/V support!

Friday, 22 June:  Basic Bio and Introduction

1 – WSSRnR2018_Intro

 

Saturday, 23 June:  Atheist Role Play and New Testament Textual Criticism

2 – WSSRnR2018_NTTC

 

Saturday, 23 June:  Discovering Truth

3 – WSSRnR2018_Truth

 

Sunday, 24 June:  Morning Sermon (Why God Allows Suffering)

4 – WSSRnR2018_Sermon

 

Monday, 25 June:  Tactics, Part 1

5 – WSSRnR2018_Tactics1

 

Tuesday, 26 June:  Tactics, Part 2 and Q&A

6 – WSSRnR2018_QA

 

Tuesday, 26 June:  Logical Fallacies

7 – WSSRnR2018_Logic3

 

Thursday, 28 June:  Creation/Evolution, Old Earth/Young Earth

6 – WSSRnR2018_Creationism2

TCTC Podcast!

Yes, it’s true!  I’ve been trying to find the time to expand the ministry, and retirement gave me the very time I needed.  Rather than just a blog, The Clear-Thinking Christian (TCTC) has expanded into podcasting, and soon will be adding video.

These two podcasts were supposed to be up around Easter, but I had a few technical difficulties, and I’m still struggling with getting them uploaded to the iTunes Store.  For now, you can get them here — and post your questions, comments, concerns, or other feedback.


The resurrection of Jesus Christ is the foundational event of the Christian faith (1 Cor 15), and belief in the resurrection is one of the defining beliefs of Christianity.  But did it actually happen?  Is this actually an historical event, or something we just “take on faith” because the Bible says so?  These two podcasts examine the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from an evidential perspective, using the “Minimal Facts Approach” made well-known by Dr. Gary Habermas and Dr. Michael Licona.  Enjoy!

The Resurrection, Part 1:

The Resurrection, Part 2:

References:
Habermas, Gary and Licona, Michael, The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus, Kregel Publishing, Grand Rapids, Michigan, 2004.

Licona, Michael, The Resurrection of Jesus:  A New Historiographical Approach, InterVarsity PressDowners Grove, Illinois, 2010.

Biblical Authenticity: The Apocrypha

BibleThe last blog I posted — “Biblical Inerrancy and Textual Criticism” — has been by far the most popular blog I’ve ever written.  It got a few comments on WordPress, but got 53 comments (so far) on Facebook, some of which continued into fairly involved debates.  The most I can say from the feedback I’ve received so far is that I may have overstated the case against the authenticity of the long ending of Mark, but my position on the issue remains unchanged.  However, the most popular question I received on that blog is with regard to which books are included in our current Bible, and how those decisions were made.  Especially since the publication of The Da Vinci Code, this is an issue that cries out for some clear thinking!

This topic — which books are included in our Bible — covers not only the differences between the Roman Catholic and Protestant Bibles (the Apocrypha), but also the so-called “Gnostic” gospels, the role of the Council of Nicea, The Da Vinci Code, and several other closely-related events that collectively call for a blog to address the question.  I’ll try to cover all these issues with some clarity in the next few blogs.  Let’s start with the Apocrypha.

  1.  The Apocrypha.  Plainly stated, some Christian denominations — specifically, the Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, and some Protestants — add six or seven books to the Old Testament canon, as well as additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.  These additions are called the “Deuterocanon” (second canon) by those denominations, and the “Apocrypha” (hidden writings) by nearly all others. These additional books and edits to Esther and Daniel are normally included in the Revised Standard Version and the New American Bible, and include:

The First Book of Esdras
The Second Book of Esdras
Tobit
Judith
Additions to the Book of Esther
The Wisdom of Solomon
Ecclesiasticus (also called Sirach)
Baruch
The Letter of Jeremiah (often combined with Baruch as a single book)
The Prayer of Azariah (normally added to Daniel 3)
Susanna (normally added as Chapter 13 to the book of Daniel)
Bel and the Dragon (normally added as Chapter 14 to the book of Daniel)
The Prayer of Manasseh
The First Book of the Maccabees
The Second Book of the Maccabees

These books range from 300 BC (The Letter of Jeremiah) to about 30 BC (The Wisdom of Solomon), are not included in the Hebrew Bible, but remain in dispute.  Even this list itself is not agreed upon by all.  For example, the Roman Catholic Church accepts this list as canon, with the exception of 1 and 2 Esdras and the Prayer of Manasseh.  Eastern Orthodox accepts the list as canon, but includes both books of Esdras and Manasseh.  This expanded (“second”) canon was proclaimed as the divinely inspired Word of God at the Council of Trent in 1546, though previous councils (including some in the first four centuries) rejected them.

But are these books Scripture?  Are they inspired, are they canonical?  This is the question.  The answer is we simply don’t know, and there are reasonable arguments on both sides of the debate.  Some of the early church fathers accepted the Apocrypha as canonical (Augustine, Irenaeus, Tertullian, Clement), others rejected them (Athanasius, Josephus, Cyril, Origen, Jerome).  Our earliest Greek manuscripts — Codex Alexandrinus, Codex Siniaticus, and Codex Vaticanus — include portions of the Apocrypha, interspersed throughout the Old Testament.  Some believe that the tortures mentioned in Hebrews 11:35 are referring to the torture of the Maccabees recorded in 2 Maccabees 7 and 12, so advocates have at least one potential New Testament reference to the Apocrypha.  However, the New Testament never directly quotes from any book of the Apocrypha, and never refers to any of them as Scripture, authoritative, or canonical.

Modern scholarship remains sharply split, largely along Catholic/Protestant lines.  Great Protestant theologians and scholars (Norman Geisler, William Lane Craig, Bruce Metzger, William Nix, F. F. Bruce) continue to strongly reject the Apocrypha, citing many of the reasons here.  Geisler, in particular, vehemently rejects these additional books based more on their content, which he calls unbiblical, heretical, extra-biblical, fanciful, sub-biblical, and even immoral.  For those interested in further study, I’ve included a bibliography below.  Next up — the Council of Nicea!

References:

Bruce, F.F., The Canon of Scripture, InterVarsity Press, Downer’s Grove, IL, 1988
Geisler, Norman and Nix, William, A General Introduction to the Bible, Moody Press, Chicago, IL, 1986
Hauer, Christian and Young, William, An Introduction to the Bible:  A Journey into Three Worlds, Second Edition, Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, NJ, 1990
Metzger, Bruce, An Introduction to the Apocrypha, Oxford University Press, New York, NY, 1977

Why Do We Suffer?

polycarpIn the prior blog, we presented the logical problem of evil — how can evil and suffering exist if God is perfectly loving and all-powerful?  Upon closer examination, there is no contradiction here.  It simply means that God allows man free will, and God allows Satan some degree of freedom to tempt and to act.  In other cases, God causes what seems evil to us in order to accomplish some greater good.  In short, God may — in fact, God must — have a morally sufficient reason for allowing suffering.In some cases, suffering works to glorify God.  We know from Romans 8:28 that all things (not just good things) work together for the glory of those who know the Lord, and are called according to His purpose.  There are also times when what man intends to be an evil act can be redeemed by God for good, such as when Joseph was sold by His brothers to slave traders and then to Pharaoh (Genesis 50:20).  Of course, the ultimate example is Jesus Christ Himself — tremendous evil was done to him, and it was the greatest act of goodness (love) in all of history.  In my case, I know that my cancer will glorify God.  I may never see it, and I may die not knowing exactly how my cancer brought Him glory, but I know that it will because Scripture assures me so.

So given that evil and suffering exist, and we are promised that we are going to suffer (1 Tim 3:12, elsewhere), why does God allow it?  We know that he must have a morally sufficient reason, and that it will eventually glorify Him.  But Scripture is even more explicit.

  1.  Suffering is necessary for conforming to Christlikeness.  We are all in the process of sanctification, the process of conforming to Christlikeness (Romans 8:29, 2 Cor 3:18).  But we also know that Christ suffered tremendously, and therefore to be like Christ we must suffer as well.  Fortunately, that’s not all…
  2. Suffering brings us closer to God.  As Paul outlines in 2 Corinthians 1:9, “Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death, but this happened that we might not rely on ourselves, but on God, who raises the dead.”  Yes, there are times God allows us to suffer in order to bring us to reliance on Him.  I believe this is the case in my own life.  In fact, I have received “the sentence of death” four times, with four separate cancer diagnoses, each one supposedly “terminal.”  And, like Paul, I think it happened to force me to rely on God rather than myself.  C.S. Lewis agrees, calling pain “God’s megaphone,” and explaining in both “The Problem of Pain” and “A Grief Observed” how pain and suffering (his own, and his wife’s) initially drove him away from the faith, and then back to it in even stronger faith.
  3. Finally, suffering not only conforms us to Christlikeness and brings us closer to God, it can be a tremendous evangelistic tool.  It reaches unbelievers.  We see this throughout Scripture — Jesus didn’t heal blindness, He healed the blind man.  He didn’t eradicate leprosy, He healed the leper.  Why?  Because in both cases, and in many others, those who were healed then went back to their families, towns, and villages to tell them what Christ had done.  Even the way Christians handle suffering — not just Christ and Paul, look at the history of the Christian martyrs from Polycarp forward — has been used to change the hardened hearts of unbelievers from the earliest centuries.

So, did God give me cancer?  I’ve struggled with this one for almost two decades.  I think He did.  His goal in causing or allowing my cancer was to knock props out from under our hearts so that we rely utterly and only on Him.  It has worked for me!  Paraphrasing John Piper, cancer doesn’t win if I die — that’s going to happen anyway.  Cancer wins if it succeeds in turning me away from Christ.

 

The Problem of Evil

evil-emoticon_318-40171Well, the clear-thinking Christian is back!  After almost a year off, I’m back to blogging with a great deal to share.  In short form, I’m now retired…after 24 years of Active Duty in the Air Force, I’m moving on to other things, one of which I hope to be blogging more regularly.

Shortly after my announced retirement from the Air Force, I was invited to White Sulphur Springs — a Christian retreat center in Pennsylvania — to give eight talks in six days on this extremely difficult topic.  I have an interesting perspective here, since I can speak to the topic both as a theologian, and a brain cancer survivor who has known more suffering than most.  For those who attended that retreat, this blog is for you — essentially the written form of the first lesson or two I taught during the plenary sessions.

So if there is a God, at least the Christian concept of Him, why do we suffer?  Why is there so much evil in the world?  This is classically known as “The Problem of Evil,” and an attempt to answer it is formally called a “theodicy.”  If God is loving as we claim, then He would want to prevent all evil and suffering.  If God is omnipotent as we claim, then He would be able to prevent all evil and suffering.  Yet, it exists in abundance — so which is it?  Does it exist and He allowed it, so he is not loving?  Or does it exist and He couldn’t prevent it, so He is not powerful?  This is traditionally presented in this form as the “logical” problem of evil, often offered by atheists or critics of Christianity as a potential inconsistency or even a contradiction in the Christian concept of God.

But is there a contradiction or inconsistency here?  As Christians, we cannot deny either His sovereignty and omnipotence or His goodness.  Scripture is clear with regard to both.

  1.  God is loving.  We know from Scripture that our God is a loving God.  We can read in 1 John 4:8 that “God is love,” and we can read in 1 Corinthians 13 how He defines love.  That means we can take the description of love in Corinthians and actually apply those as attributes of God.  This means God is patient, kind, does not delight in evil, always protects us, hopes, and perseveres.  His love never fails.  Of course, the greatest expression of His love is found in John 3:16 and Romans 5:8, that while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us — and greater love has no man than this.  Why did He do that?  Because He loves us.  Ephesians 3:18 tells us that even the saints of God struggle to comprehend the width, length, height, and depth of the love of God.  There can be no question that God loves us beyond comprehension.
  2. God is powerful.  This is hardly in dispute, but Scripture is equally clear here.  This is evident from the very first chapter of Genesis — as the One who has created the universe — all space, matter, and time — He is spaceless, timeless, and immaterial, and immensely powerful.  Job tells us in Chapter 42 that “…you can do all things [this is omnipotence], no purpose of yours can be thwarted.”   Who can thwart God’s plans?  No one.  He is too powerful.
  3. Evil exists.  This is likely the least disputable of the three points normally offered in the “problem of evil” critique of Christianity.  Worthy of its own blog, evil is generally categorized into two “camps” — moral evil (man’s inhumanity to man), and natural evil (natural disaster, disease, etc).  In his book The Many Faces of Evil, John Feinberg documents the true extent of man’s inhumanity.  Dr. Clay Jones, my professor on this topic at Biola University, also wrote an article several years ago on human evil.  The facts are chilling.  In the 20th Century alone, communism has killed between 20 and 26 million, most in horrible fashion — such as the forced starvation of 6 million Ukrainians.  Under Mao, it is another 30 million, and Mao at one point bragged that he had buried alive 46,000 scholars who disagreed with him.  Read the Rape of Nanking — and we haven’t even mentioned the Holocaust yet, with its 17,000,000 dead.  This only scratches the surface — the human capacity for evil is unimaginable.  Natural evil is often more inexplicable, from the Asian tsunami in December 2004 to the Haitian earthquake a few months later, even cancer…if God is good and powerful, how are these things possible?

This is the “Problem of Evil,” classically presented.  The world is full of evil, both moral (human) evil and natural evil.  As a five-time cancer survivor, I have seen it and felt it first-hand.  In the next blog, we will work to present a basic theodicy — that is, a basic explanation of how the three facts presented above are not contradictory.  God is good.  God is powerful.  Evil exists.  This is not a contradiction.

(Note:  You can listen to audio from this presentation here:

Part 1:  Introduction and the Logical Problem of Evil 

Part 2:  Can God be Both Good and Sovereign, Given Evil?  

Part 3:  The Kinds of Evil, Mankind’s Capacity for Evil  

Part 4:  God’s Sovereign Will, Why God Allows Suffering  

Part 5:  Sermonette:  God, Evil, and Suffering  

Four Quick Tips on Conversing with Muslims

ChristianityIslam    Many times, when fellow Christians hear of my apologetic and evangelistic focus on Muslims, they are simply aghast. “I wouldn’t even know how to talk to a Muslim!” they say. “Weren’t you scared?” ask others. “How did you know what to say?” Well, I don’t always know. But I’ve talked to Muslims in Egypt and Turkey, and I’ve had lengthy conversations – some spanning years – with Muslims from Oman, England, Pakistan, and elsewhere, and I’ve never been scared, and I can hopefully shed some light on how to approach these difficult conversations.

  1. Approach them prayerfully.

If prayers for Muslims are not a part of your regular prayer life, they should be. As I pointed out in a previous blog, these wonderful people are beautiful creations of God, and God has already told us that He desires all men to be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and come to a knowledge of God. We are also clearly instructed by Jesus Himself to love our enemies, and to pray for those who persecute us – this may apply to Muslims, or atheists, or almost any other unbeliever. How many of you have made ISIS a topic of regular prayer (for their salvation, not their destruction)? You are clearly commanded to in Matthew 5:44. The first step to any successful engagement with Muslims is to make them a regular part of your prayer life, and this may include your own attitude as well, so that your heart is “in the right place” to converse with Muslims.

  1. Approach them respectfully.

Muslims, and unfortunately many others in our society, are quite used to being disrespected and “talked down to” by Christians, especially those who are trying to evangelize. Muslims are not just backwater Mongols who led the Ottoman Empire to conquer a third of Europe in the 16th Century – they are prominent members of American society today, from doctors and lawyers to educators, business owners, even Nobel prizewinners in physics (Abdu Salam) and molecular biology/chemistry (Aziz Sancar). This is actually a good rule of thumb for all engagements in life, as you never know when you may be talking to a Muslim (or a Nobel prizewinner). I have a friend who is a devout Muslim, but rides a Harley and looks the part! Not all Arabs or middle-easterners are Muslims, and not all Muslims are middle-eastern or Arab, so approach each conversation with great respect for the person and the religion. You don’t have to agree with it, but my all means don’t disrespect it.   If you do, your conversation will be over before it starts.

  1. Approach them fearlessly.

This may come as a “shocker” to some. Let me say it again, very clearly – I am not afraid of Muslims, and you shouldn’t be either. When I left for Cairo to continue my Middle Eastern focus for my last Master’s Degree, many of my Christian friends strongly cautioned me not to talk to any Muslims (probably not possible in Cairo), and certainly not to advertise or talk about Christianity. Others assumed that every Muslim in the world is just wandering around looking for Christians to behead. This is ridiculous and ignorant. Though the numbers vary depending on which study you read, militant/jihadist Muslims constitute between 5 – 15 percent of all Muslims, and they are largely concentrated in certain areas overseas (Syria, eastern Sinai, parts of Saudi Arabia). In other words, there is about a 95% chance that any Muslim you encounter wants the exact same things that you want – to go to work, perform well, feed their family, and essentially live their life in peace. There is absolutely no reason to fear them, and no reason to be afraid of talking to them about nearly any topic. Others believe that all Muslims live by the mantra “convert or die,” which is more misinformation and ignorance. This is a good segue into our last point…

  1. Approach them deliberately.

What do I mean by “deliberately?” I mean that in order to engage in meaningful and productive conversations with Muslims, especially on the topic of religion, you must learn about them, study them, and truly work to understand them. By doing so, you are respecting them (point #2), you will quell many of your fears about them (point #3), and you will not make key errors that could derail the conversation. If you believe that all Muslims want to convert you or kill you, or that all Arabs are Muslim, or that all Muslims hate Christians, these false impressions will dramatically affect how you approach any conversation with Muslims. You must be deliberate – intentional – about how you approach them, and about with whom you converse. If your friend is a devout Muslim and you start the conversation with whether or not Muhammed is a real prophet, your conversation won’t get far. If your friend is a Sunni and you start trying to convince him that the twelfth or “hidden” Imam isn’t really coming back, you’ve just exposed your ignorance (this belief in a “hidden” Imam is exclusive to a subsect of Shi’a). Educate yourself about the basics of Islam – two great resources are “Understanding Islam” by Thomas Lippman or “Islam: A Primer” by John Sabini. When a Muslim you’re conversing with realizes – and it won’t take long – that you’ve made the effort to understand their religion and just want to talk, you’ll be amazed at the doors that will open.

Conversations with Muslims don’t have to be tense or standoffish, nor will they inevitably devolve into violence or disagreement. If you prepare for these conversations prayerfully, respectfully, fearlessly, and deliberately, you’ll find most Muslims to be kind, engaging, respectful in return, and willing to answer nearly any question you ask. And if you’re still not sure where to start or still have questions, just comment on the blog – I hope these past few blogs have helped your understanding, and I’ll answer any other questions that come up in my final blog next week.