Bears Mauling “Little Children” in II Kings 2

There’s a rather obscure objection, but one I’ve heard raised, about the Bible in II Kings 2. After God takes Elijah up to Heaven in a sign of approval of his prophetic ministry, his successor Elisha is traveling to Bethel. Verses 23-24 in the KJV: “And as he was going up by the way, there came forth little children out of the city and mocked him and said unto him, ‘Go up thou baldhead. Go up thou baldhead.’ And he turned back and looked on them and cursed them in the name of the LORD, and there came forth two she-bears out of the wood and tore forty and two children of them.” Now, any atheist worth his salt knows that this is petty of Elisha and unfathomably cruel of God (I speak as a man) to curse little children and send bears to attack them, so let’s do a little case study.

In the first place, we might not need to have this discussion at all. It could be that the KJV translation is not particularly accurate in this case. (It wouldn’t be the first time.) The Hebrew word can mean children, but it is used elsewhere in Kings to denote Ben-Hadad’s troops (I Kings 20:17-20). In Samuel, it’s used for Kish’s domestic servant who accompanies Saul (I Samuel 9:3). I think the idea is more of someone in subordinate status rather than necessarily a Kindergartener. It’s like when a British officer refers to “my brave boys” or “my lads” when his troops are all grown men or when we call a waiter garcon(French for “boy”). The connotation of this word, however, is that that subordinate is not acting very subordinate, as here. It’s quite possible that the 42 “little children” in question are a gang of young ruffians out looking for trouble.

But when we consider the rest of Elisha’s life, do we see a primitive barbarian who we would expect to do something so obscene and frightful as to curse a toddler? Far from it! Kings tells two stories, one for Elijah and one for Elisha, of the prophets pleading with God for the resurrection of their hostess’s sons, which is granted. In Elijah’s case, this is after God has provided for a foreign widow and her son and brought her to faith in the God of Israel. In Elisha’s case, it’s after he’s prayed to God for his hostess to have a son when it looks like her husband is too old to sire one. Elisha, in addition to cursing the “children,” is willing to cleanse Syria’s best general of leprosy, in spite of the danger that might cause to Israel to restore him to the prime of life. When the Syrians send raiders to kill him and they are blinded by God, Elisha takes them to Samaria to have them captured, but then he refuses to allow the King of Israel to slaughter his prisoners of war. When someone loses an expensive iron axe head he has borrowed, Elisha retrieves it from the water. He weeps when he foresees the bloody judgment Hazael is going to bring on Israel. One of the recurring themes in Kings is condemnation of child sacrifice, and Elisha would definitely have agreed with that denunciation. He himself appears to have had a very caring personality.

So, what happened here? Was Elisha still so stressed about losing his beloved mentor or so vain about his baldness that he just snapped? Well, the one thing Elijah and Elisha were not gentle and understanding about was rebellion against God, which this clearly was. God had shown His almost unparalleled approval of Elijah by sparing him the pains of death, and these “children” were laughing it to scorn. This act of judgment is an object lesson in the fate of all mockers of God’s truth who don’t repent. We only think it’s overly harsh if we don’t take defiance of God when He warns us for our own good seriously. Moreover, this action demonstrates Elisha’s succession to Elijah’s place of prophethood, which was obviously intended to support his credibility before a very skeptical Israel.

One rather vexing controversy in Christianity is what happens in God’s justice to children who don’t have fully developed moral compasses. Does God send children to Hell? Well, the Bible isn’t absolutely clear on this, but here’s what we do know. The children are born sinners. They are not blank slates society makes a stain on. David, when he feels the weight of the most crushing guilt in his life, traces his evil nature back to the womb. “Behold, I was shapen in iniquity, and in sin did my mother conceive me” (Psalm 51:5). The Bible is clear that Adam passed on a sinful nature to all of his posterity. If this seems unfair, Paul explains that Adam was our representative in Eden. Since he was created as a morally perfect being and fell anyway, we must accept that all of us would have done as our representative did, so we are all under the curse. After all, would God make a representative in a perfect world who didn’t perfectly represent us?

On the other hand, Isaiah does make a reference in one of his prophecies to, “Before the child shall know to refuse the evil and choose the good” (7:16). It seems that God in His justice does take into account children’s less developed moral compasses. Also, when David’s newborn son with Bathsheba dies as judgment on his horrendous sin, David reassures himself, “I shall go to him, but he shall not return to me” (II Samuel 12:23). The traditional Reformed interpretation is that, when God takes the life of a child, it is because He intends to take their soul to Heaven. Certainly, there is no Biblical reason for parents of children who have died before they were old enough to have faith in Christ to think they will never see their children again because they are in Hell. After all, Ecclesiastes 6 refers to stillborn children having rest.

Whatever age the “children” here are, they clearly don’t have that excuse. They apparently are old enough to appreciate that all people die and express skepticism and downright scorn that anyone should go straight to Heaven without dying because they have served the Lord faithfully. So much for wide-eyed innocent babes.

What we have here is not an egregious act of barbarism on the part of the prophet, but a just punishment for rejecting God’s loving words of warning. We don’t actually know how old the “children” were or whether they were really children at all. One thing we do know is that the punishment for their rejection of a miracle was not unjust on the part of God, who wants His messengers taken very seriously when they speak His words.

The Myths that Made a Nation, Part II: The American Revolution

In a prior post, I analyzed the myths of the Battle of New Orleans which shaped the American psyche in a crucial formative period (https://deliberationsatmimirswell.blog/2017/11/21/the-myths-that-made-a-nation/). Of course, there were plenty of myths at the nation’s very beginning. Let’s examine a few that still hold currency today. Spoiler alert- the Patriot is loaded with them!

Myth #1- The Americans had an established right as English subjects to be represented before being taxed. Well, they certainly thought they did, but it was a right they made up. The rule in the English Constitution at the time was that Parliament had to approve taxes, but not every English subject could vote for members of Parliament. In fact, most couldn’t. Virtual representation, the belief that MPs spoke for the whole of Britain, even those who couldn’t vote, was a deeply flawed theory, but it was the one that was on the books at that time. Besides, the colonists told Benjamin Franklin when he went to England that he was not to accept any offers of representation. Translation: we just don’t want to pay taxes to the Mother Country.

Myth #2- The British were oppressing the Americans. Actually, the whole thing started because the British after a long and very expensive war wanted the Americans to chip in to pay for their own defense, and after all, isn’t protecting subjects the first duty of government? Didn’t the Apostle Paul tell Christians in the Roman Empire to pay some of the most corruptly levied taxes in history for the sake of law and order being protected? The amount of taxes the British were intending to levy from America were only a fraction of what subjects in Britain paid. In fact, one of the reasons it came to war was that Britain often backed off in the years preceding the war. Thus, when the British clamped down on the colonies as they became increasingly lawless, the Americans felt that they could get their way by fighting it out.

Myth #3- “Bloody Ban” Tarleton and his men were psychopathic killers who took no prisoners and massacred civilians. This is a gross distortion of their actual record, which, while not spotless, is not one of unmitigated barbarism. Certainly, they never incinerated civilians in a church like they do in the Patriot (that was the Nazis). This report of “Tarleton’s quarters,” on the basis of which the Americans themselves sometimes refused to show quarter either, mostly comes from the Battle of Waxhaws. Now, it’s true that the British Legion (whose rank and file were actually American Loyalists) inflicted frightening casualties on Buford’s command, but this was not the result of a premeditated order or natural bloodthirsty inclination. What happened (and this has corroboration from the American flagbearer’s own account) was that, as Buford’s force was being overrun, one of his officers raised a white flag, after which someone shot Tarleton’s horse out from under him. The Loyalists, thinking their commander had been killed by treachery, went berserk, or “were stimulated,” as Tarleton put it, “to a vindictive asperity not easily restrained.” The casualty rate for Buford’s command was out of all proportion to the typical figures for the war, and many Americans were badly cut up, but even then the British Legion did take some prisoners, and they didn’t execute the wounded like Colonel Tavington would have.

Myth #4- The Loyalists were largely selfish, airheaded aristocrats who cared more for their property than principle. This is the impression movies like 1776 and the Patriot try to convey, but actually there were plenty of humble Americans who fought for the British and plenty of wealthy Americans who fought for the rebellion. The richest man in America, John Hancock, was President of the Continental Congress. The British raised many units with Loyalist rank and file drawn from everyday colonists, though it must be admitted that one of the reasons they lost was that these units let them down at some key moments.

Myth #5- The Founders were inspired by the Christian religion to fight in the rebellion. Well, it’s true that the Scots-Irish Presbyterians were staunch Patriots and some representatives of the Continental Congress like the Reverend John Witherspoon were Christians, but the leaders of the movement were mostly Deists inspired by Enlightenment principles. The Declaration of Independence nowhere mentions Christ or the Bible, but merely a nebulous “Nature’s God,” which was about as religious as most Enlightenment figures got. In a question I like to pose to those who think this nation was founded largely by Christians, I ask, “Between John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Benjamin Franklin, and George III, would you like to guess who the only Christian in that group was?”

Myth #6- American militia, armed with Kentucky rifles, won the war with infallible marksmanship. Actually, while it had its moments and did inflict a lot of casualties among officers, American militia had a propensity to flee when the going got tough. Before the advent of the Minié ball, rifles could not be used in large numbers because they were too slow to load with a suitably fitted round. It had to fit the barrel exactly, and then it was hard to ram it down all the way. In fact, there were even cases like the opening of the Battle of Princeton when the British overwhelmed slower loading rifle units. Most of the heavy lifting in the war and the winning of the crucial battles was due to Continental regulars trained in European warfare. Speaking of Europe, the fact that three of the greatest European powers ganged up on Britain is a large reason why there’s a United States of America today. The British had conquered New York and Philadelphia and consistently defeated Washington when the French made them reallocate their resources and a Prussian officer taught the Americans how to fight like Europeans. At Yorktown, it was the French general’s plan, the French artillery, and the French fleet that made the whole Allied victory possible.

When the Good Guys Don’t Win

We like it when the good guys win in our entertainment. If they lose, like in Avengers 3, there’d better be an Avengers 4 where they reverse the defeat. Well, we all know real life doesn’t work that way. Sometimes it’s really depressing when the ones we’re rooting for don’t win. In those cases, we need to remember that God sovereignly planned that outcome and will work it for good. Here are some case studies.

I’m going to start with some real controversy here. I have no doubts the “good guys” lost the American Revolution. I mean, is there any other way to see it from a Christian perspective? Jesus and Paul unequivocally instructed their followers in the Roman Empire to pay some of the most corruptly levied taxes in history, on which they had no say whatsoever, to support government’s legitimate God-given task of maintaining law and order. I dread to think what they’ll say to Sons of Liberty who were essentially willing to kill people to evade a few dollars of tax to be spent on their own defense. Lord willing, I’ll explore this and other myths of the American Revolution in a later post.

But, anyone familiar with American history knows God worked marvelous good out of the lawlessness. Starting from a tradition of English liberties, the Framers of the Constitution set out to build a government that got right what every other government had gotten wrong. They succeeded in creating the best-designed government the world has ever seen. Though the U.S. was not always in the right during its expansionist phase, it built a mighty nation that toppled the greatest tyrannies the world has ever seen. And, even with its flaws, the Framers built in a system to correct the government system as the nation developed.

Or consider the even bloodier Punic Wars of the third century BC between Rome and Carthage. Now, no one would argue that the Carthaginians were a righteous nation, but they have my sympathies here. Rome displayed raw aggression towards them. The Second Punic War started when Hannibal wanted to get back at Rome for violating a peace treaty to seize Corsica and Sardinia from Carthage and demand an indemnity to boot. The Third Punic War ended with Rome wiping Carthage, now no more than a city-state, off the map because it was still a successful commercial rival. In fact, one of the reasons Hannibal lost the Second Punic War despite his genius was that he, in Carthaginian fashion, fought just to redress the balance of power and clip Rome’s wings while Rome played for keeps. That’s one reason I find Augustine’s just war theory hopelessly naïve. His position that the offended nation can only fight for status quo ante bellumseems selfless and righteous, but how many tyrants would that really stop? They’d catch their breath, cheat during the peace, and come back for round two. Besides, it’s not the way Old Testament Israel fought their wars. But I digress…

Anyway, there’s no question Rome wound up having a better impact on world history than Carthage would have. Rome had the tenacity and know-how to build an infrastructure to promote cities that God used to grow his Church. They established a peace around the Mediterranean in which the Church flourished.

1066 is known as a turning point in English history. Although most agree that the long-term effect was beneficial, many would posit that the good guys lost. I personally think that Harold violated his oath and gave William the Conqueror a casus belli, but it’s easy to sympathize with the Anglo-Saxons, particularly when one considers how brutal the Normans got in their attempt at subjugation. Assuming for the sake of argument that Harold and his men who were wiped out at Hastings were the good guys, did God use their disaster to further good purposes?

Absolutely! Without the Norman Conquest, it’s conceivable there’d be no such thing as democracy in the world today, or at least not of the kind we’re used to. Before the Conquest England was a backwards extension of Scandinavia subject to invasions and raids. The Normans built it up into a great power that could play with the big boys. Meanwhile, they developed the beginnings of the English constitutional government that inspired so many democracies around the world. Magna Carta can be interpreted as Anglo-Norman barons forcing the king to in writing commit to the mutual obligations of the feudal system they had brought over from Normandy.

This shouldn’t come as a surprise to Christians, who worship a leader who was tortured and executed in the most loathsome way possible despite His perfect innocence. Indeed, if God hadn’t willed that, none of us would have hope. So, even when the Thanos’es win, we can be sure it’s because God ordained it as part of His will for good. Anything He permits, He will work out for the best possible end.

Laughing at Sin

Comedy is a human tradition as old as art. The earliest practitioners of theatre, the Athenians, had many famous tragedies, but they also entered comedies in their competitions. Some of us devote half an hour a week for the space of a decade for shows like Cheers and Friends (okay, I’m exaggerating there, but you get the idea). Comedy is extremely varied, but much of it involves sinful actions. A character makes an underhanded scheme that blows up in his face. Someone lies and gets found out. Some shows devote most of their airtime to sexual jokes, obscenities, and profanities.

Several pastors I know of have said that it is wrong for Christians to laugh at sinful situations. I can understand their concern. Sin is a deadly serious matter. One way or another, every sin is going to result in a curse, whether it’s Christ becoming accursed for us on the Cross or that person becoming accursed forever in Hell. What could possibly be funny about that?

Well, despite the prevalence of comedy in our culture, the Bible says fairly little about it. One admonition it does give is that obscenity, foolish talking, and crude joking are not fitting for saints (Ephesians 5:4). While this does not quite answer the question of if we can laugh at those things as long as they’re not coming out of our own mouths, it does indicate to me that we should steer clear of shows where that’s the common fare. So, a whole bunch of current shows are out. Back when television standards were more tight-laced, however, there were still plenty of hilarious, albeit more refined, shows. And I don’t suppose an instance or two of those things means we can’t ever watch an episode of the show ever again. Can we avoid those things in their entirety without going out of the world?

But, let’s say the humor isn’t dirty, but otherwise sinful. The underhanded scheme gone wrong, the lie that gets found out, the lazy person trying to get out of a commitment, etc. I don’t think we’re laughing because we approve of those things or even because we wouldn’t think they were a big deal in reality. I think what makes them funny is the irony when the guilty party admits what they’re doing openly to or tries some weak excuse- in other words, it’s funny because, while we might think such things, none of us would dare to state our underhanded purpose so blatantly. The British comedies Yes, Minister and Yes, Prime Minister make fun of the bureaucratic mentality. When Sir Humphrey or one of the civil servants says what they’re up to or what their reasoning is, it’s funny because we know bureaucrats really think that way but a real one would never admit it in such plain language. Or it’s funny because the person gets themselves in a tight, awkward position through their scheming- we don’t approve of it, and it’s amusing to see them get their just desserts, usually in a broadly predictable pattern with a slightly ironic nuance.

One sin I think we should avoid as much as possible is blasphemy. In most shows today, there will be multiple “OMG”s and other taking of the Lord’s name in vain. Frankly, it would be best for us if we were as reticent about taking God’s name in vain as we are in using the N-word. The Bible is extremely reticent about this sin. I can’t think of a single time someone blasphemes and the Bible actually reports their words. It says, “The person blasphemed,” or, “On it were written blasphemous names.” If the Biblical writers are so determined not to expose their readers to blasphemy, I think we should do our best to avoid it although, again, the only way to avoid that completely is to never associate with a non-Christian again, and obviously that’s not what we’re supposed to do.

As a general rule, though, I think laughing at such sins, as long as we’re not tempted to do them ourselves, is okay. My chief evidence for this is Psalm 2. The whole world is arraying itself against God and Christ, and God’s first reaction is, “He that sitteth in the Heavens shall laugh. The Lord shall have them in derision.” Humor is largely based on irony, and what could be more ironic than utterly dependent creatures openly resisting the omnipotent God?

So, I think we need to understand what’s making us laugh in these comedy shows. Laughter doesn’t always mean that it’s not a big deal in reality. What we usually laugh at are carefully contrived fictional scenarios that bring out ironic words from the characters’ mouths. Were someone really doing these things to us, we wouldn’t be laughing. That said, there are things the Bible fairly clearly states we should do our best not to expose ourselves to. As always, we have to keep the glory of God foremost in our mind.

Infant Baptism- The Odds Are in Our Favor

Having dealt with one controversy, I should like to plunge into another, namely, infant baptism. My denomination baptizes believers’ children in addition to new converts, and I shall make the case that that is the proper way to do things.

First of all, though, I should like to say that I don’t think this is an issue worth splitting churches or denominations over. Given that Christ had Christian unity most on His heart before His death in the High Priestly Prayer, I think it’s arrogant, even sinful, how fractious the Christian Church has become. Churches, or at any rate denominations, should only be split when the current church is unrepentantly practicing something evil and dangerous. Thus, when the Catholic Church made a thorough practice of substituting or adding all kinds of things to salvation besides faith, grace, Scripture, and Christ, there was clear Scriptural warrant for the Protestants to break off. The Protestants then took to splitting off from each other in a quarrelsome spirit that is, frankly, disreputable to the Church. Growing up, I had a Muslim friend who thought one of the reasons Islam was more correct was how Christians couldn’t agree on their doctrine among all those denominations when Islam has only two branches whose differences he didn’t think were doctrinal but merely political. (The fact that those two branches were slaughtering each other in Iraq at the time didn’t seem to have much weight with him). Anyway, if it were truly evil to baptize infants or not baptize them, I think we’d have a bold print verse saying, “Thou shalt/shalt not baptize infants.” As it is, we have to go with clues from Scripture as to which way God prefers it, and I think the odds are on the side of the infant baptizers.

I live in a predominantly Baptist part of the country, so I heard their arguments in my theology class. They liked to say how the baptisms in the New Testament are all adult baptisms. “Repent and be baptized, it says, so you have to repent before you’re baptized.” “Well, hold on,” we infant baptizers say, “What about all the household baptisms in Acts?” There are four, and presumably the Apostles abided by this practice in many other instances as well. A household in those days consisted of immediate family, extended family, servants, etc.- the people under the paterfamilias’s protection and authority. What are the odds all of those households had no children whatsoever? John Piper counters that off the top of his head he can name four households in his congregation with no children, but there’s no escaping the fact that the most basic and most typical household consists of parents and children. That being the case, presumably the Holy Spirit would have clarified that the commonest conception of a household was not what He had in mind, especially if not doing so would lead most of the Church to do something wrong. It’s not hard to write, “along with all the adults of his/her household,” or, “along with his/her household, who were all believing adults.”

The clear implication of Colossians 2:11-12 is that circumcision has replaced baptism as the sign of covenant membership. Paul contrasts circumcision made with hands with a spiritual circumcision that comes from Christ and links that spiritual circumcision with baptism. It’s not something you do to announce your allegiance to God; it’s something He does to mark you out as a member of the covenant community. The Bible is clear that children are part of the covenant community. Jesus welcomed children and blessed them, and is there any other way to read Paul’s statement in I Corinthians 7:14 that the children of at least one believing parent are “holy”? Paul cannot be saying that having an unbelieving spouse is a magic formula for ensuring regenerate children since history has shown that to not be the case. Instead, he’s saying that children under the authority of a believing parent are, for that time at least, part of the covenant community, and if they are, why withhold from them the mark of admission to that community?

Baptists are apparently terrified and/or indignant that we would put a mark of covenant membership on an infant who may very well grow up to be a nonbeliever. Apparently, God doesn’t share that concern. He explicitly required circumcision of all male infants in Israel as a mark of His covenant with Abraham, and we know from the Old Testament that most of them wound up faithless and perverse. Nevertheless, God said that if they weren’t circumcised, they would be cut off from the covenant community. Given that baptism has replaced circumcision as the covenant sign, that’s about as close to an explicit command one way or the other where infants are concerned, and in this case it’s clearly a mandate to mark the covenant children.

Or perhaps you still don’t believe baptism has replaced circumcision. Here’s another question of probability. After countless generations of mandatory marking of their male children, Jewish Christians were suddenly told, “Neither circumcision availeth anything, nor uncircumcision.” If baptism didn’t replace circumcision as the sign of covenant membership, or if it wasn’t to be applied to infants, what are the odds that Jewish Christians didn’t ask, and Paul didn’t have to explicitly write a negative answer to, “Well, what do we mark our children with?” Or, put another way, circumcision was explicitly the sign and symbol of belonging to the Old Covenant, and what else is Baptism but the sign and symbol of belonging to the New Covenant?

Now, I will admit, I got a little uneasy with infant baptism when I read the Westminster Catechism say that in baptism a “solemn vow [is] made,” which “obliges” us to obedience. For the longest time, I thought, “Wow. That’s the worst thing you can do to a child who turns out an unbeliever to oblige them to obedience with a solemn vow that they can do nothing but break.” In fact, that was the reasoning of Tertullian, the first recorded critic of infant baptism. Well, besides God not having a problem with doing that to unbelieving Israelites, recently I had the “duh” moment that, “Everyone’s already obliged to obey God anyway, baptism or no!” So, no, I don’t think baptizing an infant who turns out an unbeliever increases their punishment any more than it would be already for rebelling against godly parents’ admonitions.

So, from the clues we have from Scripture, it seems more likely than not that the Apostolic Church baptized infants and that we should too. That is certainly the plain reading of the texts. That said, I don’t think we should split the Reformed camp into Baptists and Presbyterians over it. Y’all should just come over to the Presbyterian camp! 😉

How (Not) to Read Revelation, Part II: What Did Jesus and Paul Really Mean?

Well, now that tax season’s finished, I’d like to pick up where I left off. My last post looked at Revelation and concluded that John did not mean to set out a linear course of events by which we’ll know when the Second Coming is. So what is Jesus talking about when He says in the Olivet Discourse, “When ye shall see all these things, know that it is near, even at the doors” (Matthew 24:33, KJV)? He describes some pretty unusual things occurring, somewhat along the lines of Revelation. I would posit that all the extraordinary events He talks about here were signs of the fall of Jerusalem. He says, “This generation shall not pass till all these things be fulfilled” (24:34, KJV). To a Jewish audience, a generation would have meant a span of 40 years. Jesus said these words in approximately 30 A.D., and Jerusalem fell in 70, so there’s your generation. Moreover, note how Luke abbreviates his account of the Olivet Discourse. The disciples don’t ask about the Second Coming in Luke’s account, but Jesus still says that, “This generation shall not pass away till all this be fulfilled” (21:32, KJV). Evidently, these things are not referring to the Second Coming. Luke doesn’t mention the part about not knowing the day or the hour. I think this was the Holy Spirit’s subtle way of telling us how to interpret the extraordinary events of the Olivet Discourse.

Of course, how does this prediction measure up with what we know happened? Can we link all the signs to things we know happened? That interpretation actually makes a lot of sense. As far as nation rising against nation, there were a lot of wars in the 60s. Boudicca and the Britons famously rebelled against Rome, as did the Batavians, not to mention of course the Jews. Worst, Nero’s suicide in 68 A.D. led to the famous Year of Four Emperors in 69 A.D. There was civil war between four Roman emperors, a bloody event the likes of which only a centenarian, if there was any, had seen in living memory. This was the Pax Romana, after all, and Roman generals had not fought each other since Actium in 31 B.C. At one point, part of Rome burned, and Druids were proclaiming that the fall of Rome was near, a very dire prediction for people who had known a century of stability under its (admittedly stern) sway.

As for earthquakes, those were a common feature of the era. The most devastating disruption of the earth in this period, Mt. Vesuvius’s destruction of Pompeii and Herculaneum, actually occurred 9 years after the fall of Jerusalem, but it was only an extreme example of a trend that had been going on for some time before Jerusalem’s fall. As for famine, we know of at least one from the book of Acts, and no doubt there were others. The Church in Jerusalem, who would be the ones most interested in Jesus’s prophecy, needed widespread financial support from the Church throughout the world, as shown by Paul’s letters. Certainly, the persecution depicted so vividly in the Discourse occurred in Acts as well. Of course, there remains the most spectacular stuff, the signs in the heavens. Well, both the Jews (via Josephus) and the Romans (via Tacitus) reported seeing strange things in the sky during the Siege of Jerusalem.

The early Church took to heart what Jesus said about fleeing Jerusalem in this event. At one point, when the Romans inexplicably withdrew from besieging the city, the Christians took advantage of the opportunity and left the city, such that not a hair of their heads perished, as Jesus had said.

Now, I’ve been mostly looking at Luke’s account for the predictions. Matthew’s does put what seems to be a clear description of the Second Coming in verses 24:27-31, which comes before the part about relying on the signs to know it is near and the generation not passing away until these things happen. I think this is a parenthetical aside, a digression from the subject of the fall of Jerusalem for comparison to the Second Coming, which is not to be included in the “all these things happening before the generation is gone.” Indeed, to include them with the signs that will make us know when it is near is to contradict Jesus’s saying that we won’t know the day and hour.

So that’s what I think about Jesus’s and John’s depictions of the Second Coming. I will say I have a harder time with Paul’s since he does seem to indicate that certain noticeable events will take place before it. Romans 11 pretty clearly describes a large number of Jews turning to Jesus when they see the Gentiles’ relationship with their Messiah, and that has not happened yet. His statement that their reconciliation with God will be “life from the dead” (v. 15, KJV) does seem to indicate this will be part of the end of the world. I really don’t know what to make of this, though I think it does mean we should be praying and reaching out for the Jews to recognize their King since it will be something great.

Then there’s the matter of II Thessalonians 2, where Paul specifically says that rebellion and the Man of Lawlessness will come before the Christ’s coming. I think the best interpretation is probably that Nero was the Man of Lawlessness and that Paul is largely referring to his persecution and the fall of Jerusalem, which were supposed to happen before the Second Coming. Now that these things have happened, Christ can return at any second. If we turn them into signs of Christ’s imminent coming, we make Jesus talk out of both sides of His mouth. On the one hand we have him telling the Twelve Apostles no one knows the time of His coming, and then on the other we have Him telling the Apostle to the Gentiles to give the Thessalonians signs of His coming. We’d be dangerously close to a contradiction in the Bible or at the least Jesus wasting His inspiration giving signs for an event that don’t help the hearers know when it’s going to happen.

These are all very controversial passages, of course. In this case, I think the safest thing to do is fall back on Jesus’s very plain statement that the Second Coming will occur while business is going on as usual with nothing we can use to know when it’s coming. However we interpret these other passages, we shouldn’t contradict something so unambiguous. He taught a lot about His Second Coming, but when He gave all those signs, He must have been referring to His coming in judgment over Jerusalem, not over the whole world at its end. I don’t think it’s helpful to compare every world leader we don’t like to one of the beasts or read Revelation while watching the news. However you interpret Revelation, it’s not going to tell you the day or the hour.

How (Not) to Read Revelation, Part I: What Did John Really Mean?

Is there a book in history as controversial as Revelation? How many books have close to as many schools of interpretation as it does, each with their own variations inside them? I’m not even sure of the name of my own school of interpretation, and I wouldn’t tell you if I did in case that would make you tune me out. I’m not confident about the interpretation of every symbol John saw, but I can tell you a whole bunch of Christians are reading it wrong.

Here’s what I will say I believe. I think the best interpretation is that the main part with all the signs and extraordinary events is a cycle of visions (usually counted at 7) telling the same story with different emphases and intensities. You can see that many things are repeated throughout the story that you would think would only happen once. For instance, chapter 6 has the stars falling to earth and mountains and islands being removed. Then in 12:4 the Dragon pulls down a third of stars from heaven, and in 8:11 another star called Wormwood falls from the sky. In 16:20 the islands and mountains disappear again. “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen!” is proclaimed in 14:8 and again in 18:2. A voice calls out, “It is done,” in 16:17, then John sees some more things happening, and then Jesus says, “It is done,” again in 21:6. If this were a linear progression of events, why the first, “It is done,” if there’s more to follow before, “It is done,” again?

I think the point of Revelation is to reveal the cosmic conflict that goes on every day as the Church struggles against a fallen world. I don’t think we should identify any one person we really don’t like as one of the beasts, but rather that when tyrannical governments everywhere imprison and execute Christians because they won’t put the state first in their hearts, we see the first beast at work. We don’t have that problem as much in America, but we do have the Whore of Babylon tempting us away from our spiritual duties with promises of material affluence and sensual pleasures.

Of course, the strongest argument against Revelation predicting the signs of the Second Coming is that Jesus said there wouldn’t be any.

Anyway, I can tell you what Revelation is not. It is not a linear depiction of all the extraordinary things that will precede the Second Coming of Christ like many Christians make it. For one thing, Christ is born in Chapter 12, midway through a book that starts after His Resurrection. For another, everyone who has tried to predict the Second Coming as imminent in his own day based on Revelation’s “clues” about his current events has been wrong so far. Every generation or so, the interpreters have to reformulate what the symbols stand for according to what’s going on at that time, though the job never wants for volunteers. Would God give a book in the first century that no one in the Church would understand its true meaning for 2,000 years?

Of course, the strongest argument against Revelation predicting the signs of the Second Coming is that Jesus said there wouldn’t be any. This is a case where we must fall back on the tried-and-true method of interpreting ambiguous Scripture with more explicit Scripture. In Matthew’s version of the Olivet Discourse, the Apostles ask two questions: “When shall these things (the destruction of the Temple) be? And what shall be the sign of thy coming, and of the end of the world?” (24:3, KJV). As I interpret it, Jesus answers the first question and gives them signs about the fall of Jerusalem, and then He answers the second question that, “Of that day and hour (My Coming) knoweth no man” and that ,“Ye know not what hour your Lord doth come” (24:36; 24:42, KJV). I really doubt Jesus told His disciples that they wouldn’t know when He would come again and then gave them a whole book full of signs that would precede it. In fact, He says that He will come “in such an hour as you think not” (24:44, KJV), so evidently Revelation isn’t much use in regards to predicting the time of the Second Coming anyway.

Moreover, the depiction Revelation supposedly gives of the Last Days is significantly at variance with Jesus’s. He says that people will be “eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage” (24:38, KJV); in other words, life will be going on as usual. That’s not what Revelation depicts. The people can’t eat and drink because they’re gnawing their tongues in anguish and the water has become blood, and they’re not likely to be having weddings while seventy-five-pound hailstones are falling from the sky.

So, bottom line: I think the Church has been seeing the prophecies in Revelation being fulfilled for the past 2,000 years. I don’t think it was written to just describe events that have happened in the last 50 years or so. What I do know is that you can’t use it to predict the time of Christ’s coming; we have Jesus’s explicit statement that we won’t know that. Tune in next week for a discussion of what Jesus said about the Last Days.

Six More Stupid Things People Think the Bible Says, Which It Doesn’t

A while back I did a post demonstrating with six examples that to find something manifestly ridiculous in the Bible to criticize about it, you have to make it up (if you missed it, check it out here: https://deliberationsatmimirswell.blog/2018/08/05/stupid-things-people-think-the-bible-says-which-it-doesnt/). Anyway, here are 6 more:

  1. Racism- People think that the Bible condones racism against people of African descent. It’s true that that was the position of Southern slaveholders to justify themselves, but that’s really not what the Bible says. They said that in Genesis 9, when Noah got so drunk he passed out naked in his tent and his son Ham looked on him, Noah cursed Ham and his descendants into servitude to Shem and Japheth. Since the traditional understanding was that Africans descended from Ham and Europeans descended from Japheth, they reasoned that they had Biblical grounds for enslaving Africans. Well, actually, Noah curses Ham’s son Canaan, and this curse was played out in Israel’s conquest of Canaan in the Book of Joshua. As far as racism against Africans goes, consider Numbers 12, wherein it’s related that a Hebrew as saintly as Moses married an Ethiopian. Aaron and Miriam take offense at this, and in response to Miriam’s racism, God makes her white as snow- with leprosy! It definitely doesn’t look like interracial marriage bothers God at all.
  2. Male domination- Some people think the Bible was written by tyrannical patriarchs to support some sort of agenda to subjugate women. Yes, it’s true that the Bible states that the husband and father is the spiritual head of the household. Yes, women are told to submit to and honor their husbands. Yes, the Bible is very strict about the grounds over which a woman can divorce her husband. But the Bible has no comforts for an abusive husband and father. In Roman society, the paterfamilias had almost unrestricted control over his household, even getting to say when a baby would be exposed on a mountainside or trash heap to die. They were also notorious for their adultery, be it with slaves or prostitutes. To counteract this “toxic masculinity,” Paul told Roman husbands to “love your wives, even as Christ also loved the Church and gave himself for her […] so ought men to love their wives as their own bodies […] for no man ever yet hated his own flesh, but nourisheth and cherisheth it, even as the Lord the Church” (Ephesians 5:25, 28, 29, KJV). Yes, he’s the boss, and he’s the tiebreaking vote, but he’s not a tyrant. Peter tells husbands to “dwell with them according to knowledge [and here some translations have “understanding” or “consideration”], giving honor unto the wife as unto the weaker vessel” (I Peter 3:7), and he warns abusive husbands that being abusive will “hinder” their prayers. If a feminist has trouble submitting to a husband like Peter and Paul’s model for him, then that’s on her, not Scripture.
  3. Adornment- While we’re on I Peter 3, let’s back up a few verses to verse 3, wherein Peter states that, with regards to “adorning, let it not be that outward adorning, of plaiting the hair, and of wearing of gold, or of putting on of apparel.” Some people interpret this as a prohibition against all make-up and jewelry, but here as so often in Scripture, the “not” here means “not so much as.” Clearly, we have to interpret it this way, as an absolute “not” would ban wearing clothes! The point is that the Bible prescribes modesty in our outward appearance and a focus on inward thoughts and attitudes. Focusing too much on appearance or trying to call people’s attention to our outward beauty is unhealthy and causes us to overlook more important matters. Still, gold and make-up are allowed if reasonable. God Himself metaphorically says He gave Israel bracelets, a necklace, and earrings in Ezekiel 16, and God tells the Israelites in Exodus 3:22 to ask for jewelry from the Egyptians as they are leaving.
  4. Shellfish- I saw on a site titled, “25 Things the Bible Says Not to Do, But You Do Anyway,” or something like that, the prohibition against eating shellfish. Yes, there’s a whole list of things Old Testament Israel was not supposed to eat. Besides being limited to food that was safer with their primitive means of preparing it, this was a symbol to Israel of being set apart from the pagan Gentiles. Now that God has opened His Gospel call to all nations, these laws are no longer necessary. In fact, God specifically rescinds the kosher laws when he shows Peter a blanket full of unclean animals and says, “Rise, Peter, kill and eat” (Acts 10:13), tellingly, right before Peter meets with Gentiles who are interested in hearing the Gospel. I don’t care for shellfish myself, but if you do, God won’t condemn you for eating it.
  5. Women wearing pants- On the basis of Deuteronomy 22:5, some people have a problem with women wearing pants. The typical translation follows the KJV: “The woman shall not wear that which pertaineth to a man, neither shall a man put on a woman’s garment.” Well, for one thing, this is not a particularly good translation. The Hebrew is closer to prohibiting a woman from “bearing the accoutrements of a gibbor.” A gibbor is the term used for David’s “mighty men,” his elite warriors. But, really, the intent is for both sexes to maintain a distinct appearance based on what their culture associates with each gender. It seems pretty easy to me to tell women’s pants from guys’ pants, so that shouldn’t be a problem. A lot of this is cultural, as demonstrated by the fact that some of Britain’s finest gibborim, the Highlanders, wore kilts, whereas we would think of that as a decidedly feminine look. But in the wet ground of the Highlands, men working in bogs and heaths found skirts more practical than trousers, which were more for the rich gentlemen who had servants to carry them over water so their feet wouldn’t get wet. There’s a deeper issue than just a blanket prohibition on one type of clothes for everybody.
  6. God wants us to be miserable for our sin- When people think of the Puritans, they think of dour, humorless people oppressed by guilt. Besides the fact that this image isn’t true of most Puritans, it shouldn’t be true of any Christian either. God wants us to repent of our sin, and while much of that involves grief for the evil we’ve done, the other major part is finding joy in God’s ways rather than in our fleshly ways. Tellingly, there are only 7 psalms that include a really marked penitential element, but there are far more praising God. Joy is one of the fruits of the Spirit in Galatians 5:22. In fact, several times in his writings, the great Puritan Thomas Watson says that Christians going around all sulky and miserable is an insult to God that would turn people away from following Him.

Christmas- A Study in Humility

Theologians often speak of the earthly ministry of Christ up to His death as His humiliation and the period ever after as His exaltation. This Christmas, I’d like to delve a little more deeply into the humility aspect. Quite frankly, it takes my breath away. I don’t think I can do justice to it, but here goes…

I think we’re all pretty familiar with how humble the first Christmas was. Jesus’ parents were poor, so poor that a few days after Christmas they had to present the second-rate sacrifice for a firstborn specifically designated as relief for impoverished Israelites. Jesus’ first bed, as we all know, was a food trough. God called shepherds to be the first witnesses, and these people were far from royal heralds. There is a belief among Christians that shepherds’ testimony was not admissible. That is, if their saying that the Messiah had been born had been brought before the Sanhedrin, they could have been laughed out of the court.

But that’s just the beginning. For thirty years Jesus lived a life of quiet righteousness, obeying every part of the Mosaic Law but doing so little as far as the spectacular goes that the Gospels only record one event from this time period. No, He didn’t perform miracles or show off; John says His turning the water into wine after His baptism was the first sign He did. When He prepared to teach, He called uneducated fishermen with uncultured Galilean accents to be His disciples. He defended Himself resolutely against the effrontery of opponents who thought they knew so much more about the Law than He, but when these arguments turned violent, He either hid Himself or simply let them blindfold Him, spit on Him, slap Him, and finally nail Him to the cross. To any Jew this was a sure sign of God’s curse upon Him, and Romans held crucifixion in such horror that you didn’t mention the word in polite company. And even someone suffering that same fate still held himself high enough over Jesus to mock Him in His misery.

But consider what Jesus’ birthright was. He created the world and everything in it! To quote the old Jacobite song about Bonnie Prince Charlie during his time as a fugitive, “On hills that are by right his own, he roves a lonely stranger.” He could have called down fire on His enemies justly any time He had wanted to. In fact, His disciples suggested this to Him. Instead, “I gave my back to the smiters and my cheeks to them that plucked off the hair” (Isaiah 50:6). Instead of stupid disciples who misunderstood Him at every turn and the praise of fickle crowds who eventually called for his death and picked a criminal in preference to Him, His right had been constant love from His perfect Father and their Holy Spirit and the praise of tens of thousands of perfect angels. To sum up His ministry, Jesus said, “For even the Son of Man came not to be ministered unto, but to minister” (Mark 10:45).

Which we should consider next time we want to stick up for our “rights.” There’s a place for basic human dignity as a God’s image-bearer and protection of one’s rights, but sometimes there are more important things than some “rights” we think we have. Paul told the Corinthians they should rather let their Christian brothers defraud them than embarrass the Church and hinder the Gospel by making a case of it before the entire world. He repeatedly described how he gave up some of his rights for the sake of furthering the Gospel or to build up fellow believers. We should not be quick to point out every fault or criticize (let alone avenge!) every wrong done to us. For serious wrongs, Jesus gave a procedure for dealing with them (that involved keeping things as quiet as possible), but for many of the smaller things He said, “For charity shall cover the multitude of sins” (I Peter 4:8). He also issued a grave warning for those who would insist on their “rights” against penitent transgressors when God did not insist on His infinitely greater right against them.

While recognition is nice and a natural human longing, Jesus sought the infinitely more valuable recognition from God the Father.

Christmas is a time to remember Peter’s instruction, “Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God that He may exalt you in due time” (I Peter 5:6). People will do horrendously stupid things to be the center of attention. They’ll make fools of themselves before the world on Television and Internet, thinking themselves wise, or they’ll delight in mocking such people to feel superior. They’ll break promises to score cheap political points, or they’ll backstab to get ahead. What they want is the acclaim of man. While recognition is nice and a natural human longing, Jesus sought the infinitely more valuable recognition from God the Father.

And He got it. The same night He was sleeping in a food trough, a company of angels were proclaiming His praises against the backdrop of God’s Shekinah glory. Meanwhile, a special star commissioned by God was proclaiming His birth and whereabouts to neighboring Parthia’s elite who came to offer Him some of the finest gifts in the known world. God audibly affirmed His love of Him and claimed Him as His Son twice, and He was acknowledged as the great coming one by the first prophet to appear in Israel for 400 years.

But the big reward, like for us, came after His death. Paul said that, because of Jesus’ willingness to undergo such utter humiliation, God “hath highly exalted Him and given Him a Name which is above every name” (Philippians 2:9). Jesus’ glory right now is so great that one of His best friends fainted at the sight of Him. This is to say nothing of His official enthronement as King of the Universe.

One of the lessons of Christmas is that we should be worrying far more about what God thinks of us than what the world thinks. No bystander looking at a baby of peasants lying in a food trough would think that they were looking at their eternal Sovereign. When we stop seeking the world’s acclaim, we’re in a better state to seek the much more satisfying words from God, “Well done, good and faithful servant” (Matthew 25:21).

Did the Orthodox Winners Write the History Books?

“The winners write the history books.” It’s a common enough saying and one that came up prominently when I was in high school and The Da Vinci Code was published. The story went that the Christians who came up with orthodox Christianity squeezed out the other legitimate (and less demanding) forms of Christianity at the Council of Nicaea and proceeded to write them out of the Scriptures. With Gnostic gospels coming to light due to continuing archaeological work, this seemed an attractive theory for those opposed to Christ’s divinity and lordship over them. Well, the adage may be old and trusted, but it is not correct.

At the time, I had read in Lee Strobel’s The Case for the Real Jesus that Thucydides the Athenian wrote the most-cited history of the Peloponnesian War, in which Sparta defeated Athens. My teacher dismissed this as, “The exception that proves the rule.” Since then I have encountered many other “exceptions,” many of them from Biblical times. Our most reliable history of the rise of the Roman Empire was written by the Greek Polybius, who wanted to analyze for his countrymen how the Romans had been able to conquer them. In the case of the destruction of Samaria in 722 BC and the destructions of Jerusalem in 586 BC and 70 AD, for most of the time since, our main sources were from the Jews who were defeated and slaughtered/enslaved, be they the Old Testament prophets like Hosea and Jeremiah or the Jewish historian Josephus (although he and Polybius, it must be admitted, had joined the Romans by the time they wrote their histories).

Nearer to home, most anyone who is familiar with the Jacobite revolts in Scotland is caught up with the romanticism of Bonnie Prince Charlie and repulsed by the brutal, even genocidal, repression of his opponent the Duke of Cumberland (aka the Butcher). The problem is that it’s not exactly true and, more relevantly for our purposes, the Jacobites lost the war disastrously. The winners praised and lauded Cumberland at the time with honors and bonfires. Now their descendants call him the evilest Briton of the 18thcentury. Stuart Reid and Jonathan Oates in their writings do a good job of demonstrating how the Hanoverians’ suppression of the Jacobite revolt, while sometimes brutal, was nowhere near “genocidal” and in large measure motivated by revenge for earlier Jacobite brutalities against their comrades. These historians are in a marked minority, however, as the winners most definitely did not write those history books (or songs, romanticized Jacobitism being probably the most popular theme in Scottish folk music). The historiography of the Civil War and Reconstruction is complex, but for the longest time romantic notions of Southern gallantry in the war and Northern repression in Reconstruction had a hold on the popular imagination, as shown in the blockbusters Gone with the Wind and Birth of a Nation. Times have definitely moved on, but in 1940 you couldn’t argue against the crowds that the Northern winners had written the history books. Almost every Mutiny on the Bounty movie features the tale of heroic Mr. Christian overthrowing the tyranny of brutal Mr. Bligh even after the Royal Navy had promoted Bligh and the British public had lauded him as a hero.

So, the adage should be amended to say, “History is written by those who care enough to pass it on.” Today’s winners may be tomorrow’s losers, and an effective propaganda machine can turn even traitors and criminals into romantic heroes. Winners often do write the history books, but they can be overruled by those with a better story or a more literate group of descendants.

So, did the orthodox winners write the books in the Bible? Yes, but only because the orthodox party had been THE party from the start. I did a much more involved study of the New Testament’s authenticity as a first century account in my blog post https://deliberationsatmimirswell.blog/2017/10/03/lewiss-trilemma-defended/, so I’ll just summarize here. The earliest scrap of Scripture dates to 125 AD (and ironically enough it is from the book of the Bible that most emphasizes Christ’s divinity), but strong evidence indicates that many important books were written long before that. The most compelling reason that Acts ends with one of literature’s greatest anticlimaxes is that there hadn’t been the climax yet- that is, that Luke wrote Acts before Paul’s trial before Caesar. This would be sometime around 62 AD, and Luke clearly wrote his Gospel first, so that was written earlier. Then we back up to the Gospel most people think Luke drew on, Mark, and we have a New Testament book from the 50s AD referring to events of around 30 AD. There are well-respected Civil War memoirs that were written with a comparable separation of time from events, so this is clearly not unreasonable. No Gnostic gospel has anywhere close to that kind of pedigree.

So, did the orthodox winners write the books in the Bible? Yes, but only because the orthodox party had been THE party from the start.

So, if the original books were written by the first Christians, did the orthodox party change them in any way later to accord with its views? By the time of Nicaea, after all, almost everybody reading the Bible would have been reading a handwritten copy (not Xeroxes) of the previous copies copied from the originals. Well, this may seem odd for an orthodox Christian to say, but there is some evidence that tampering did take place. This is the most plausible explanation for many textual variants between the manuscripts. For instance, why did a scribe deliberately go to the trouble of changing references to “Jesus’s parents” to “Mary and Joseph,” other than to counter claims that Jesus was a mere human with only human parents? But in all the variations in the New Testament manuscripts, only an estimated 1% both actually impact the meaning of the verse and also have a reasonable chance of being the original reading. Changing 1 word in 100 over the course of 300 years doesn’t look like wholesale revision to me. And no one has ever found THE manuscript with THE textual variant that undoes the orthodox Christian doctrine, though the job never wants for volunteers. For every variant reading that casts the slightest doubt as to Christ’s divinity or perfections, there are multiple other verses on more secure footing that say the same thing. The authors of the Bible, while pursuing their own emphases and writing to their own audiences, wrote a very coherent book, often echoing the same points as their colleagues in another book. The winners wrote this book because they had been right all along!