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.

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.

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!

The West’s Ingratitude

Reformed theologians now speak of a post-Christian culture. Whereas European cities once spent more than a century building just one church to glorify God, now churches are closing down for lack of funds throughout Europe. Whereas almost everyone in the West once went to Church on Sundays, now some Western countries are calling Christian doctrines hate speech. Distinctly Christian values are attacked or at least mocked rather than promoted in everyday culture. This is ironic because the privileges enjoyed by the West are largely due to Christianity.

Nowhere in the world enjoys the level of freedom, stability, and prosperity that the West does, except some Asian countries that consciously adopted Western models. For the better part of 2,000 years, the West was also the only really Christianized part of the globe. Coincidence? I contend not.

One thing people don’t associate with Christianity is tolerance and intellectual humility, but compared with other religions we have a relatively good track record in that area. We’re not like the Muslim conqueror who torched the library of Alexandria with the reasoning of, “If the books don’t say what’s in the Koran, they must be wrong, and if they do say what’s in the Koran, what’s the use for them?” Yes, we believe our theology is the only sound one, but we don’t think we have a monopoly on reason and common sense. It was Churchmen like St. Thomas Aquinas who brought pagan Greek philosophy back into the West after the barbarians forgot it and cultures mingling with Muslim philosophers rediscovered it. That’s quite different from the Chinese approach of shutting the country off from all foreign influences whatsoever because they thought they had everything they needed. It’s largely due to Greek philosophy and reason that we had the scientific advancements that make our unparalleled health and comfort possible.

But the men who actually made those advancements were very frequently Christians, or at least theists. The father of modern biology (Charles Darwin) we all know was not a Christian, but the father of modern chemistry (Robert Boyle) was wholeheartedly one, and the father of modern physics (Sir Isaac Newton) at least believed the universe he was studying was a created one. And in case you think atheists have a lock on biology, the discoverer of genetics (Gregor Mendel) was an Austrian monk, and we still use the taxonomic system Carolus Linnaeus invented to classify God’s creatures. Christians believe that God created the world and upholds it with wise natural laws (without ruling out the possibility of His direct intervention in miracles), and many Christians have devoted their lives to uncovering those laws and harnessing them for the betterment of humanity. As the verse that the great physicist James Maxwell had inscribed over his laboratory says, “The works of the LORD are great, sought out of all that have pleasure therein” (Psalm 111:2, KJV).

Slavery is outlawed throughout the West, but before Christianity it was the mainstay of every economy in the West, if not the world. Yes, Peter and Paul were willing to work within the context of slavery, telling slaves to be obedient, but they also asserted their equality before God and encouraged them to gain their freedom if they could do it lawfully. Once the Church had influence, it ended slavery throughout Europe, and when slavery reared its ugly head again in the New World, it was Christians like William Wilberforce who led the fight to abolish it.

This equality before the law for everyone is a specifically Christian concept. Most people balk at the eye-for-an-eye retaliatory system in the Old Testament, but they don’t seem to appreciate that that legal system also stressed equal treatment for rich and poor and that God punished Israel severely for not following that principle. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s rallying cry of, “Let justice roll down like water,” comes from Amos 5:24. Paul stressed that everyone is equally accountable to God, and while the West certainly does not always live up to that standard, it remains our ideal.

One of the expressions of that equality is universal education and social mobility, which has meant that some poor children have grown up to be famous discoverers. The West’s emphasis on education is distinctly Christian. When the barbarians toppled Rome, most of them didn’t even have a written language, but the Church kept literacy alive in its monasteries. Later, the Puritans came up with the idea that, rather than only educating the children of the elite like most cultures did, all the citizens’ children should be taught to read. Their reasoning, of course, was so that everyone could read the Bible, but once someone can read the Bible, they can read textbooks.

If you think about it, many of the current Western ideals that put the West into such conflict with Christianity are really Christian values gone awry. I like to say that we’ve made an idol out of compassion and that an idol made out of compassion is still an idol. By that I mean, we’ve made such an emphasis on making everybody happy that we’ve stopped preaching the Gospel to them and exhorting them to forsake sin for their own good. We thus take God’s command to love our neighbor (which means we should truly want our neighbor to be happy) and twist it out of recognition. Do other parts of the world care so much what other people think like we do? Can you imagine the silly protests and lawsuits over mere off-handed comments we have in America happening in China?

By this I conclude that the West is extremely ungrateful. It enjoys a standard of comfort and ease enjoyed by no people since Adam and Eve, largely due to the influence of Christianity in its history, and yet it goes out of its way to spew mockery and hatred towards the religion that gave it its prosperity. How sharper than a serpent’s tooth, indeed!

My All-Time Favorite Moment of Providence

Few people today know how close the world came to disaster in May 1941. Adolf Hitler came within a whisker of winning World War II. He basically lost it because he took on too many enemies at once, but in that month, it was still just him and Britain at war. The German navy thought they had the perfect plan to bring the war to a conclusion right before Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Britain needed unceasing convoys of imports to sustain her people and her war effort, so the Kriegsmarine decided to strangle her with its most powerful weapon, the battleship Bismarck. The world’s most powerful warship would go up the North Sea, sail between Greenland and Iceland, and then sink as much of Britain’s precious cargo as it wanted.

Part of what made this so exciting was that it was a desperate enterprise on both sides. The British had more ships, so the Bismarck had to avoid being caught at all costs, but if she could take the Royal Navy on one ship at a time, victory was all but assured. The Bismarck had an inestimable advantage (gun-control advocates, take note): the British had abided by the naval limitation treaties when they had designed their ships while the Germans had flagrantly ignored them. The British ships could match the Bismarck’s firepower, but they had had to make cuts in tonnage somewhere, so their ships had smaller, slower engines. If the Bismarck could just reach the vastness of the North Atlantic, she could commerce-raid with all but impunity.

Once the British detected the Bismarck and the Prinz Eugen with their radar in the Denmark Strait, which lies between Greenland and Iceland, the battlecruiser HMS Hood and battleship Prince of Wales steamed to intercept her. The breath-taking Hood had acquired an illustrious reputation before the war, but the British squadron had some serious disadvantages. The Prince of Wales was still under construction, with civilian contractors still working on her as she sailed to the battle, and the Hood, for the sake of speed, had very thin deck armor. The British planned to make up for this by rushing in close to minimize plunging fire, but they lost contact with the Germans in the night and had to grope their way in from the side. This meant that the Germans had the very advantageous position of “crossing the British T.” The Bismarck and Prinz Eugen could send plunging fire at the British from all their guns while the British could only reply with their forward-facing turrets.

The battle was a brief, vicious disaster. The Bismarck blew the Hood up, killing all but 3 of her crew of 1,400, and the Prince of Wales had to retreat with a jammed turret. The British public was shocked, and the way into the North Atlantic was open- or was it? In the brief exchange of gunfire, the British had scored one good hit in the Bismarck’s fuel tanks. Instead of turning her loose in the open ocean, the German admiral had to put in for repairs in France. Strategically, this was more of an inconvenience than anything else, since the Bismarck could leave France into the Atlantic as soon as she was repaired.

As the other British ships scrambled to catch the Bismarck, the British had to call in airpower. In this they were still badly handicapped. Their search planes were the modern American-built PBY Catalinas, but their torpedo bombers were Swordfish biplanes, little more advanced than a World War I fighter. They were slow and fired only one torpedo. The British launched an air strike, but it did nothing to stop the Bismarck, which soon eluded them. The only good news was that the Bismarck’s anti-aircraft guns had been designed to shoot at faster, more modern planes, so they couldn’t be adjusted slow enough to hit the Swordfish. That was, no doubt, small comfort when the Bismarck got away with minimal damage from one torpedo hit. After a tense search, an American pilot found the Bismarck in his Catalina, but the news wasn’t promising.

By the evening of May 26, it must have looked to the British like the war was lost. The Bismarck was too far ahead for any British ship to catch her, and in the morning, she would be in range of air cover from France. The Luftwaffe could chew up the antiquated Swordfish like sardines, so the British needed what Ludovic Kennedy called, “a miracle.” With enough daylight left for one final strike, the British sent the Swordfish out again.

And they got their miracle! The last torpedo fired- the last torpedo the British couldfire- hit the Bismarck in just about its only vulnerable spot. The Bismarck’s only real design flaw was that she couldn’t steer using her propellers rather than her rudder. By something too coincidental and earth-shaking to be called mere Chance, the British torpedo had hit the Bismarck’s rudder just as the ship was turning and stuck it in a course back to the British fleet. Other ships might have manipulated their propellers into changing course, but the Bismarck couldn’t. In an instant the war had gone from being hopelessly lost to being winnable!

The next morning, the British set upon the Bismarck with their battleships HMS King George V and Rodney, as well as several smaller vessels. The Bismarck didn’t stand a chance. The British shells shredded her until the Germans scuttled the ship to avoid capture. Germany would never again come so close to defeating Britain. In a month she had made the catastrophic blunder of attacking the Soviet Union, and by year’s end she had declared war on the US.

A godly Presbyterian once said, “He who doesn’t see the hand of God in this is blind,” and I think much the same can be said of that torpedo. The British had only the remotest chance of catching the Bismarck at that point, and they scored the one hit that could do it just under the wire. From a Presbyterian point of view, God does things the hard way like this so He can demonstrate His wisdom and power to redound to His glory. I’ll explore, Lord willing, this unpopular belief in a future post, so stay tuned. In the meantime, whenever you’re discouraged and feel like giving up from doing the right thing, think of that providential torpedo hit that saved the world at the last possible second.

Getting Ready for Christmas… for Centuries

If you’re like me, Christmas Season is as enjoyable, if not more so, than Christmas itself. First we break out the decorations. We relish the memories from all the years for each item while listening to CDs of the Nutcracker and O Holy Night. We get to sing songs we’ve been waiting for all year. Then there are the parties with coworkers and friends. Don’t forget all the treats! (Whether picking out the gifts is enjoyable or not depends on what the selection’s like on Amazon.) Anyway, there’s too much delight there to pack into one day. I love our Christmas traditions and look forward to them for months before they actually get here.

Well, the first Christmas took a lot of planning itself. Centuries of it, in fact. Paul says in Romans 5:6 that Christ died “in due time” (KJV). The life of Christ was the most carefully planned event in history. If you look at the forces at play, you’ll find that they created an opportunity for the work of the Messiah and the creation of His Church at the most favorable time like never before or ever since. What’s astonishing is that the very things you think would hinder God’s plan of salvation actually paved the way for it.

Technically, God had been preparing for Christ’s coming since the beginning of history. In Genesis 3, a matter of hours after the first sin, God promises that He will send someone to crush the serpent’s head and vanquish sin forever. I’m just going to focus on the immediately preceding centuries, though.

I’ll start with the Babylonian conquest of Judah in 586 BC. You wouldn’t think that a tragedy that could inspire the Book of Lamentations and that saw mothers eating their babies would have anything to do with mankind’s salvation, but it did. This campaign led to the Jewish Diaspora. Fleeing the Babylonians’ wrath, Jews settled throughout the known world. That way, when Christ came and commanded His people to spread the Gospel throughout the world, there were ready-made nuclei of churches in the Jewish synagogues all around the Mediterranean. Yes, most Jews were hostile to the early Church, but you see the pattern again and again of Paul preaching as a rabbi in a Jewish synagogue and starting his church-planting there. Rodney Stark, in Cities of God, demonstrated that a Greco-Roman city with a Jewish community was more likely to have a church earlier than one without one.

These Jews had been given a list of prophecies to verify who the Messiah would be and what His plan of salvation would be like when He did come. The Jews in Judea completely missed the point, but there were Jews in the Diaspora like the Bereans who confirmed what Paul taught them by searching the Old Testament. The canon of the Old Testament was not universally agreed upon yet, but all the books were in existence and well known. In fact, there hadn’t been a prophetic word in Israel for over 400 years by the time Christ was born around 6-4 BC. That way, when it did come, in the person of John the Baptist around 29 AD, people were thirsting for it.

Interestingly, during that time of silence, Judaism had actually deteriorated. Jesus found them “like sheep without a shepherd.” The two leading religious groups were the Pharisees, who believed they could earn their way into the New Jerusalem, and the Sadduccees, who denied there would even be a New Jerusalem. When Jesus told them both they were wrong, they killed Him. It’s kind of surprising that God would let His people fall into such unpreparedness before He visited them, but when you consider that their rejection of their visitation led to the extension of God’s offer of salvation to the whole world, it makes perfect sense.

Also, the ruler at Christ’s birth was a raging tyrant. Herod the Great would kill anyone he even remotely considered a threat, be they his family members or even little babies in Bethlehem. I’m sure God had a reason for putting Herod in power before the first Christmas, but I don’t know what it is. The only thing I can think of is that he built one of the most magnificent temples in the ancient world, which the early Church was wont to worship in until its destruction in AD 70. (As an aside, I once asked my pastor how Herod was able to build a more splendid temple than Solomon when he ruled a smaller kingdom. He replied that he was just that much better at fleecing his people. That’s saying something when you consider that Israel eventually broke off from Solomon’s kingdom because of his rigorous taxes.)

300 years before Christ came, Alexander the Great conquered the known world. The conquered peoples actually took up Greek culture enthusiastically. That way, when Paul set out to evangelize or write his epistles to churches he had planted, he could do so in one language. It is a very descriptive one at that. It has four words for our word love, for instance, not all of which the New Testament needed. Thanks to the Ptolemies in Egypt’s desire for an exhaustive library at Alexandria, the Gentiles could read the New Testament in that language as well instead of having to learn Hebrew. The New Testament uses the Septuagint translation of the Old Testament to cite prophecies. Even Rome went crazy for Greek. As one Roman put it, “Conquered Greece conquered Rome.” When Paul wrote the epistle to the Romans, he wrote it in Greek because the Romans had so thoroughly adopted the Hellenistic culture.

The Greek tongue was the major contribution of the Greeks to the preparations for Christmas, but their culture was part of it too. John 1 makes extensive use of the Greek concept of the overarching Logos (in English, the Word) overseeing the universe. Paul had a lot to criticize about the Greeks and their idolatry, but he didn’t hesitate to refer to Greek culture when reaching out to them. He quotes two Greek authors talking about Zeus in his speech to the Athenians at the Areopagus and maybe makes an allusion to Polyphemus’s blinding in the Odyssey when he talks about mankind groping for God. Even when writing to his friend Titus, he quotes a Greek poet about the Cretans. Years later, when the Church had to define its orthodox position, it relied heavily on Greek philosophy with all that talk about essences and substances.

By far the most conspicuous development in the years before Christ’s coming was the rise of the Roman Empire. By this time it encompassed virtually the whole Mediterranean. Now, you might think that an empire that fed Christians to lions and insisted that sacrifices be made to its emperors would be an obstacle for the Church to overcome rather than a factor in its success, but God didn’t ordain their authority over the known world for nothing.

First of all, there was the famous Pax Romana, the Roman Peace. On the frontiers, Roman emperors still sent out armies to conquer lands and glory, but all around the Mediterranean they had established an area of relative peace and stability. Thus when Paul sent his couriers with his epistles, they could travel with comparative security, and churches in, say, Ephesus were not wiped out in a sack of their city. The contrast between Julio-Claudian order and the preceding centuries of war between Alexander’s successors or feuding Roman generals couldn’t be starker.

Even though the Roman Empire turned on the Christians before a full generation had passed, for the Church’s most formative years, it largely protected it. Since it recognized Judaism as a legal religion, until it came to see Christianity as a separate religion, it had no real problem with it. You see Paul several times in Acts using his Roman citizenship to secure protection from hostile Jews. In all likelihood, Nero martyred Paul in 67 AD, but the mobs in Ephesus and Jerusalem would’ve been happy to do it for him many years before. If the Roman soldiers hadn’t carried Paul away from the frenzied Jews trying to pull him apart, we wouldn’t have the Prison Epistles (Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians, and Philemon) or the Pastorals (I and II Timothy and Titus).

Moreover, there’s the Roman infrastructure to consider. Rome’s economy was very primitive compared with ours, but they could support what was for that time large cities that it could supply with food and water along roads and with aqueducts. This was important because Christianity largely spread through cities. Luke reports Paul’s activities in Acts according to the city where he was preaching, and most of Paul’s epistles are grouped by the city the church is in (so are the seven letters to the churches in Revelation). The word pagan, in fact, comes from the Latin for field because the rural populations were the holdouts for the old religions as Christianity spread.

There’s another interesting historical aside I’d like to pursue. The concept of adoption is crucial to the New Testament and our identity as God’s children, but it’s almost entirely absent from the Old Testament. Other than Mordecai adopting Esther, I can’t think of any Jews doing that. The Romans, however, were all about adoption. They even took it to the most farcical extremes. Augustus adopted his wife Livia in his will. Earlier, Roman patricians had had plebeians adopt them so they could run for the influential office of tribune without forfeiting their patrician status. One of Julius Caesar’s opponents had had himself adopted by a plebeian who was younger than himself! Anyway, however ridiculous the Romans got, it would be a theme Paul’s readers would readily relate to. In the same vein, he describes Christ’s Second Coming with the imagery of a Roman triumph, a parade that often celebrated the most unjust wars and ruthless campaigns.

So the first Christmas came at exactly the right moment, one that took centuries to lead up to. Never has the Mediterranean world experienced such unity and stability of language and politics as it did in under the Julio-Claudian dynasty. It proved a splendid nursery for the infant Church.

Something you probably noticed throughout this post is how surprising these developments were. Jeremiah bewailed the miseries that befell his people under Nebuchadnezzar’s army, but God used it to pave the way for the expansion of His kingdom. You wouldn’t think God would let the world become saturated by a culture as perverse as the Greco-Roman one before He sent His Son into it, but that was the one He deliberately set up to work with. He put in power a man who tried to murder His Son right after He was born, and He put influence in the hands of those who finally did find a way to murder Him. This Christmas, I hope you’ll enjoy Matthew and Luke’s accounts but also say with Paul, “O the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are His judgments, and His ways past finding out!” (Romans 11:33, KJV).