Separation of Christian and World

PEI Vacation Day 3-1008The Christian’s relationship with the world has always been a complex and rocky one. In theory it seems straight forward and clear. In John 17:14-16 Jesus prays to the Father about His disciples:

“I have given them your word and the world has hated them, for they are not of the world any more than I am of the world. My prayer is not that you take them out of the world but that you protect them from the evil one. They are not of the world, even as I am not of it.”

In His prayer Jesus outlines the relationship between His disciples and the world. Jesus describes his disciples as being not of the world or not of the world’s system of beliefs and views. The disciples were given a different worldview, one that is centred on Christ. The difference is so striking that Jesus acknowledges that the world has hated them because they are not of the world any more.

The divide between Jesus and His disciples and the world is strong and clear. The two are by nature so different that a gulf of animosity exists between them. Yet, Jesus prays that His disciples not be removed from the world but that they be protected from the prince of the world, Satan. Like it or not, disciples of Jesus Christ must live in the world with this tension until He comes again.

The Cover Of Christendom

Not too long ago, it was easier for Christians and the church to live in the western world since Christians had more in common with the culture in which they lived. This was mainly because the culture drew much of its own formation from Judeo-Christian teaching and tradition. Even though people would not consider themselves religious, they still had a basic respect for the church and the Bible. Basic Christian morality was widely incorporated into the laws, institutions and basic practices of society. There was a time when almost everyone went to church, when the Lord’s Prayer was prayed in public schools and stores were closed on Sundays.

The key reason why it is getting harder for Christians to live in the western world is because of the collapse of Christendom. Western Christians have had it easy over the centuries by living in the world without being openly rejected and persecuted by the world as Christendom provided the foundation for that ease.

Today, broad acceptance of Christian values has turned into indifference, dismissal or even outright hostility. Christians in the west are continuing to find themselves in an environment where they must tread carefully while trying to live out their faith in the public square. Not only has the world discarded Christian values and beliefs, it seeks to actively discredit them and to portray Christians as harmful and dangerous bigots whose religion must be kept in the closet. A growing number of secularists believe that Christianity must never have a seat in the public square again.

Many churches and Christians have reacted to this sudden shift from accommodation and respect to rejection and hostility by doing what 1 John 1:15 tells them not to do. They reverse biblical teaching and embrace the morality of the world that is in contradiction to the plain teaching of scripture in order to gain the acceptance of the world. This has taken place in the areas of the value of human life, sexual morality, the reliability of the Bible and even the nature of Christ. This has been particularly noticed in churches that were once solidly biblical for centuries but who have rapidly abandoned certain key doctrines by replacing them with the world’s key doctrines.

Such churches should look to the historical record of Christian liberalism. Its main focus over the past few centuries has been to shape Christianity into the mold of the world, thinking that this is its future and that the world will be more accepting of Christianity. However, the liberal Christian experiment has failed massively in this regard. Churches that have gone down this path have found their membership in steep decline while the world considers them more and more irrelevant anyway. Liberal churches may be escaping the axe of persecution for now but their pact with the world system is sending them down the spiral of spiritual oblivion.

Living in the World

How can orthodox churches and Christians in the west live out the gospel of Jesus Christ in an environment that ignores them and displays open hostility towards them?

The first step is to continue to be faithful to the Word of God and to Jesus no matter what happens. The western church needs to look at her brothers and sisters in Christ in many parts of the world who are being persecuted for their faith but who have not bent their knees to other gods. Jesus has made it clear that those who love him will be hated by the world (John 15:18-19). Western Christians have forgotten this because of the cover of Christendom but with that cover rapidly disappearing, they are now discovering anew what Jesus was talking about.

The second step is to live in the world by loving its people and not its system. Much has been written on this subject and it is not easy to do but it is what Jesus Himself did when He walked the earth. He interacted with and loved people who were lost and hurting while calling out the world system everyone was trapped in. He calls on His disciples to do the same by loving and serving people genuinely even if they are indifferent or hostile to Christianity, while challenging the world system they embrace. This is especially difficult in the west today as most westerners believe you must accept the belief system of a person in order to accept them. However, the gospel of Jesus teaches that humans are much more than the values they find their identity in; they are made in the image of God.

The third step is to live prophetically in the world by living the out the gospel in a manner that is pure and loving while being prophetic at the same time. Christians must declare to the people in the world that there is a better way than the false gospels of the world.

The fourth step is to remember the promise that this tension will not last forever. As James wrote:

Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him. – James 1:12

Maranatha, Come Lord Jesus.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

Advertisements

The Unethical Evangelist

IMG_5322Is it possible to do evangelism unethically? That question may seem hard to understand. How can you do evangelism unethically when it’s the gospel of Jesus you are sharing? What can be wrong with that?

To be clear, the gospel itself is not unethical, although I can think of a few prominent atheists who would consider it unethical and worthy of banishment from society. The gospel itself is not a problem as it is something that Jesus Himself communicated during his three-year ministry and entrusted to His apostles. The gospel is good news, a message of hope to all humanity rooted in the very person and work of Jesus Christ.

A problem can arise in the transmission of that gospel in the form of evangelism, which is the vehicle that communicates the gospel from the church to the world, from one person to another. Can evangelism itself be corrupted to the point of being unethical?

Unfortunately, the answer is yes. A dramatic example was the great tele-evangelism scandals of the 1980s where corruption, fraud, immorality, deceit and more were used in peddling the gospel of Jesus for profit and power. It was a horrible stain on the church and made a mockery of the gospel and Christianity in the public square for years.

Thankfully, the vast majority of Christians do not turn personal evangelism into a means of making a quick buck. Unfortunately, it is quite possible to be the unethical evangelist and not even know it.

Evangelism as Business

One characteristic of unethical evangelism is the turning of evangelism into a straight business model that is geared mainly to generate results. Running a business is not unethical but evangelism is not a business. This philosophy turns evangelism into a series of actions where success is measured by getting people to attend events, getting them to talk about certain things and, ultimately, to make decisions for Jesus. On the surface, it all looks okay. After all, how can you argue against people making decisions for Christ? Isn’t that the whole purpose of evangelism?

It is unethical if this is the heart and soul of evangelism. Getting people to do certain things, to make certain sounds and giving the appearance that they have been born of the Spirit (making decisions in ignorance), can be horribly misleading. It can give people the impression that being a disciple of Jesus is all about learning a certain lingo, attending certain events and doing a few different things. This is not discipleship but the practice of an ancient religion known as Christendom, which gives the appearance of Christianity but does not possess the Holy Spirit within it. Evangelism is unethical if it misrepresents the gospel of Christ as the gospel of Christendom which is nothing more than a cultural form of Christianity.

Insurance Policies for Heaven

Evangelism can be unethical if it becomes a means of selling life insurance policies for heaven. In the past, certain forms of evangelism were concerned about selling people a means of getting into heaven through the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross. While this is a wonderful theological truth and a terrific gift of the gospel, it is not the full gospel. In this form of evangelism, heaven and self become the ends. It is all about me and me getting into paradise. Jesus becomes strictly the means.

Jesus is the way whereby people enter into heaven. This is a marvellous biblical truth where Jesus Himself said that no one comes to the Father except through Him. (John 14:6). However, unethical evangelism misses the greater point where heaven is not the ends but Jesus is. To coin a phrase, it is all about Jesus. It isn’t all about getting to a specific place but about being with a specific Person. After all, who is in heaven and is central in heaven? An evangelism that is too heaven-centric and less Christo-centric can misrepresent what is truly important about the gospel message.

I may be too harsh to call this kind of evangelism unethical but in doing so I’m pointing to a large problem that needs to be dealt with. When the gospel places the emphasis on heaven being the good news, there is a tendency to assume that we have secured tickets for our destination (heaven) and nothing more needs to be done except to make sure our bags are packed. If evangelism emphasizes Jesus as the good news, there is a tendency to to assume that we must follow and commit our lives to Him as His disciples. This includes denying ourselves, taking up our cross daily and following Him (Luke 9:23).

People as Projects

A final form of unethical evangelism is the “people as projects”. In this form, the unethical evangelist treats people as projects to achieve their aims rather than as persons who are created in the image of God.

The unethical evangelist will pretend to be interested in and care about people only if they reciprocate by being interested in the gospel message or at least in spiritual things. If they are not interested, the unethical evangelist gives up on them and moves on to more promising prospects.

This form of evangelism is devoid of the unconditional love that the gospel conveys, where people are viewed as being made in God’s image and thus are worthy of respect and love regardless if they are interested in Jesus or not. In ethical evangelism, love, care, concern and friendship are not dependent on how people respond to the gospel but are bestowed upon people as an act of God’s grace. We love others because He first loved us (1John 4:19), not because they love us or the gospel in return. The true gospel of Jesus calls us to love the whole person and to be a source of good for that person regardless of how they respond to a particular evangelistic project.

The Ethical Evangelist

The gospel of Jesus Christ is truly good news. It is the news that God has come into the world in the Person of His Son to redeem humanity from its sinful state and be brought into communion with God. The gospel of Jesus Christ brings with it many things including peace with God, a new ability to love others unconditionally and eternal fellowship with God in heaven. But the gospel is not simply a spiritual transaction that gives us these things. It is the news of being in a relationship with Jesus and how the Christian’s life is transformed as a result.

Evangelism is a call to invite others to receive this good news and enter into relationship and discipleship with Jesus. Anything less distorts the gospel into self-serving spirituality and misrepresents what being a disciple of Christ is all about. May God preserve His church to be truly ethical in her evangelism.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

The Disappearance of Bible Study

20160319-Bible-3The Importance of Study

Education is considered the ticket to success. If a young person finishes high school but doesn’t go on to post secondary education of some kind, most people will consider their chances of achieving career and financial success very slim. Thus, high school students are being strongly encouraged to do post secondary education and many of them do, otherwise the message is clear: if you don’t have a university degree or a college diploma you will never get a good paying job.

Even after students complete university, many of them will continue into graduate and post graduate work before starting their careers. Many who do embark on their respective career paths after their undergrad will get an masters degree in their field part time or enter into an MBA program while they are working. Depending on career aspirations, the drive to acquire more education can be almost never ending.

Getting a formal education involves many things: books to buy and read, labs to do, assignments to complete, lectures to attend and so on. One of the major activities that students will have to do as part of their education is to study. Many students hate studying, mainly because it takes a lot of time to do and requires an enormous amount of concentration that is usually accompanied by outright frustration. Students have to study because students have to write exams. One cannot pass an exam unless one has mastery over the material and that comes primarily from studying.

For Christians, a key component of their spiritual development and training is Bible study. The Bible is so indispensable for Christian growth and development that it is impossible for any disciple of Jesus to walk with Him without a generous and continuous intake from His Word. As Paul wrote to Timothy,

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – 2 Timothy 3:16

By study, I mean study, not reading. Studying the Bible is very different from reading the Bible. High school and university students know the difference. They know that reading their textbooks and their lecture notes once or twice is insufficient to gain mastery over the material and do well in their exams. Even if they had a photographic memory they would know the data cold but to really know a subject goes beyond committing the simple facts to memory. It means understanding what those facts mean, how they interrelate with other facts and how they can be applied in different situations. Students know that they need to study the material over and over again. Through studying, a student knows the nuances and particulars of the subject. Their exams test them on the understanding not the memorization.

The same applies to the Christian who wants to experience significant growth and communion with God. Simple readings of the Bible, while good and important, cannot take a person into a deeper understanding of the Word and of God. The Bible must be studied.

What is Bible Study?

So what is meant by studying the Bible? It can mean many things but it basically comes down to three actions: observing what the text says, interpreting what the text says and applying what the text says. Into these areas come all the tools and techniques that are used in doing a proper study of the Bible such as the use of concordances, Greek and Hebrew dictionaries, general Bible dictionaries and surveys and even commentaries. It also means taking the time to look at the text, ask questions of it, find answers and writing down your findings. The details on proper Bible study are beyond the scope of this essay but the point is there is more to it than just reading. Once you move beyond mere reading, the great treasures contained in the Scriptures will be found that would be easily missed.

The Bible Study Challenge

Most Christians do not have personal Bible study as part of their spiritual routine. Many struggle with Bible reading and prayer and to add personal study on top of that seems to be even more difficult. Yet, every Christian must ask themselves if they are already devoting time in the study of other things. What about those who are studying for their MBA part time while juggling the demands of a job? What about those taking golf lessons and practicing on the driving range on a regular basis? What about those who are taking guitar lessons and practicing on a daily basis? If Christians are finding time for these kinds of study in order to advance their career or to pursue personal interests, why is time not being taken for the timeless Word of God? If we really have a desire to accomplish something, we will take the time and effort to study in order to achieve it. Do we have the desire to pursue Christ through the Bible that radically?

My challenge to all disciples of Christ is to take up a personal project in doing a study of one book of the Bible, something short and achievable such as the the book of James or 2 Timothy. Spend at least an hour a week studying a book verse by verse, chapter by chapter and seek to find the treasures buried within. Use whatever tools you have on hand and record what the text is saying, the questions you asked, the answers you found and the gems you discovered. I can guarantee that you will not be disappointed and that, over time, your walk with the Lord will deepen.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

The Decline of Bible Reading

20160310-Bible Cover

People of the Book?

According to Islamic tradition, Jews and Christians are referred to as “the people of the Book”, in this case, the Book being the Bible. Christians have been known as the people of the Book, not just because the Bible is their holy book, the book of ultimate importance to the faith, but also because they are a people who read, study, meditate, memorize and talk about the Book. Being “people of the Book” means people engaged with the Bible.

The Canadian Bible Engagement Study (CBES) conducted by the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada (EFC) in 2013, casts some doubt if Christians in 21st century Canada can still hold on to that ancient title. The study, called Confidence, Conversation and Community: Bible Engagement in Canada, conducted a survey of 4,474 Canadians on their views on how they engage the Bible in their lives. The full report can be read here.

Regular Bible reading has been on the decline in Canada for several decades and the CBES report bears this out but what the report has to say about those who self identity as Christians is of particular interest. As more Canadians don’t consider themselves Christian, it is understandable that this group pays little attention to the Bible but are Canadian Christians far behind?

Taking Christians as a whole, the report’s findings were remarkable. For those who identify themselves as Christian, six percent read the Bible daily, six percent read it a few times a week and only three percent read it once a week. Astonishingly, 70 percent of Canadian Christians seldom read or never read the Bible. This kind of survey result would seem to indicate that Christians are no longer the people of the Book and might be called the people who ignore their Book.

But is that the end of the story? The study breaks down the numbers a bit further into Christian traditions. Catholic and mainline Protestant Christians read the Bible far less than their Evangelical cousins. Mainline Protestants and Catholics who read their Bible a few times a week or weekly are in the single digits. Monthly French Catholic readers are in the single digits as well while English Catholic and Mainline Protestant monthly readers are in the double digits but just barely. Evangelicals seem to do much better with those reading their Bibles at least a few times a week at 44 percent, weekly at 51 percent and monthly at 58 percent.

Although some may see this as evidence that Evangelicals have healthy Bible reading habits, the results also tell us that the other half of Evangelicals are not reading their Bibles even on a weekly basis, let alone a monthly one. Mainline Protestants and Catholics have seen weekly Bible reading decline by more than one half since 1996 but Evangelicals have seen daily readers fall by one third in the same period. Evangelicals may be the tradition with the strongest Bible readers but a sizeable number still do not have regular reading habits and the trend in daily readership is not that encouraging.

Followers or Disciples

So why is Christian reading of the Bible falling in such dramatic numbers? The survey found two key factors that affected regular Bible reading amongst Christians: confidence in the Bible and a seriousness about their walk with Jesus.

The survey showed that those who had a strong confidence in the reliability and the authority of the Bible were found to read it once a day, week or month by a wider margin than those who had even a moderate confidence in the Bible. Those who reflected on the meaning of the Bible in their lives, who engaged in discussions about the Bible outside of church activities and who regularly attended worship services, were found to read the Bible much more frequently than those who did not.

The scriptures teach that the Bible, the Word of God, is critical to the spiritual development of Christians. As Jesus famously said to The Adversary, “Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes form the mouth of God”. The Bible is spiritual food to feed humanity’s spiritual soul. If this survey showed that the majority of self identifying Christians in Canada only ate physical food once a week or even once a month, there would be screams of a crisis in Canadian churches. Christians seem to be starving themselves by eating the spiritual food of the Bible very sparsely and yet few within the church seem to be concerned.

What can be done to turn the situation around? Simply telling people to read their Bibles because they need to is an exercise that will fall on deaf ears. Christians who are not reading the Bible regularly need to recognize their own spiritual malnourishment and to see the Bible as true food.

One key way to address this problem is to re-establish confidence in the reliability and power of the Bible. Many Christians have fallen victim to the secular modernist take on the Bible that in effect waters down its reliability and, by extension, its relevance to life. By marginalizing the Scriptures, Christians will turn to other writings to find spiritual fulfillment such as the latest self-help book. Christian leaders need to not only do a bit of apologetics for the Bible in the church but they also need to encourage everyone to share how the Bible has and is changing their lives. The Bible says that it is living and active. Let others share their stories of how it has been living and active in their lives and not just a repository of ancient knowledge.

The second key way to address this self-starvation of the Bible, is to show Christians that Christianity is not about showing up on Sundays and getting to use the title Christian in their spiritual resume. Christian leaders of all kinds need to show to those under their spiritual care that Christ is calling them not be mere followers of Him but to be His disciples.

The words follower and disciple seem to mean the same thing but in reality they are not. In the Gospel accounts, Jesus had plenty of followers who followed him all over the countryside. Those who followed Him did so looking for free food, free healthcare and political freedom from the Romans. But when Jesus pressed them on the cost of following Him to the point of denying oneself and taking up one’s cross in order to follow Him, many left Him. Jesus wanted disciples to deny their lives for Him, not followers who could come and go as they pleased.

Followers of Jesus will treat the Bible as an optional reading lesson. Disciples of Jesus will treat the Bible as the bread of life. Serious Christians will see the Bible as indispensable in knowing Jesus more deeply. Causal Christians will see the Bible as a dusty, boring book that has little relevance to their earthly pursuits. If the church in Canada wants to regain the title people of the Book, she must be willing to disciple her people and show them the riches and treasures contained in God’s Holy Bible.

2016 © Ed LeBlanc

Christian Lukewarmness – Book Review: Crazy Love: Overwhelmed by a Relentless God by Francis Chan (2008)

Crazy LoveCrazy Love is a book about the Christian’s relationship with God but in particular, it is a book about the serious state many North American Christians are in regarding their relationship with God.  At the crux of it is an incorrect view of who God really is and a failure to grasp his eternal, holy, all powerful and all knowing nature.   As a consequence, many Christians place themselves in the centre of their lives and rather than the Lord Jesus.

Chan tells his readers to get over themselves:

To be brutally honest, it doesn’t really matter what place you find yourself in right now.  Your part is to bring Him glory – whether eating a sandwich on a lunch break, drinking coffee at 12:04 am so you can stay awake to study or watching your four-month-old take a nap.  The point of your life is to point to Him.

Within that realization is the truth of the great love God has for His children and the love we are to have for Him.  If we grasp who God really is, Chan argues that our lives should then be characterized by a great transformation. But there are distractions.  As Chan puts it pointedly “Are we in love with God or just His stuff?” God’s stuff, His material creations that He has provided to us for our sustainment and enjoyment, often serve as distractions or worse as idols.

In probably the most pointed part of the book, Chan recalls Jesus’ parable of the sower and cautions the reader “Do not assume you are good soil.”  He believes most churchgoers in America are the soil that chokes the seed because of the thorns; those worries, riches and pleasures of life.

Then Chan makes this stunning statement:

A lukewarm Christian is an oxymoron; there’s no such thing.  To put it plainly, churchgoers who are “lukewarm” are not Christians.  We will not see them in heaven.

Chan points to Revelation 3:15-17 where Jesus talks about the lukewarm within the Laodicean church and that He is about to spit them out of His mouth (3:16).  Chan says many believe this passage is talking about the saved but Chan argues how could the saved be spitted out of Jesus’ mouth?  In other words, Chan does not see this as a form of discipline but an outright rejection, an “I never knew you. Away from me you evil doers.”

But is this interpretation correct?  Looking a little further in Revelation 3:19, Jesus says to the church at Laodicea, “Those whom I love, I rebuke and discipline. So be earnest and repent. ”  It seems here that Jesus is saying His statement on the spitting out of His mouth to be more of a correction than a rejection.  He still loves those whom are lukewarm but will spit them out as a form of rebuke and discipline, not a taking away of their salvation.

This corresponds to Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians where he details a set of serious spiritual and moral problems that many in the church are participating in.  Some, such as incest, are so serious one could question if these people really are true believers in Jesus.  Yet Paul calls them brothers, expresses love to them and never questions their salvation.  He affirms in his letter that God has called them into fellowship with His Son Jesus Christ while at the same time rebuking them and calling on them to repent.

Chan follows up with another bombshell:

In an earlier draft of this chapter, I quoted several commentators who agreed with my point of view.  But we all know that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take. you can even tweak word studies to help you in your effort. I ’m not against scholarship, but I do believe there are times when we come to more accurate conclusions through simple reading.

Rather than examining a verse and dissecting it, I chose to peruse one gospel in each sitting.  Furthermore, I attempted to do so from the perspective of a twelve-year-old who knew nothing about Jesus.  I wanted to rediscover what reasonable conclusions a person would come to while objectively reading the Gospels for the first time.  In other words, I read the Bible as if I’d never read it before.

This is the weakest point in the book.  In order to defend his conclusions on what it means to be lukewarm in the faith, Chan relies on an exegetical defence from the Gospels.  However, he sabotages that effort in two areas.

In the first area, he says he was prepared to quote several commentators who agreed with his conclusions but he decided not to so for the odd reason that you can find quotes to support any view you want to take.  Although this may be true to a certain degree, it does not invalidate the use of the thoughtful and rigourous findings of others who have seriously studied the scriptures. In effect, Chan is committing one of the gravest mistakes of contemporary evangelicalism: the personal interpretation of the Bible while ignoring 2000 years of serious biblical exegesis and scholarship by saints who have gone on before us.  Chan decides to ignore the work of others and rely solely on his own reading of the Bible, as if that gives his conclusion greater objectivity.  If anything, it is an example of subjective hermeneutics.  He himself says that one can tweak word studies to help you in your effort. How do we know that Chan didn’t do such “tweaking” in his simple reading of the Gospels?

In the second area, Chan didn’t want to examine a passage by dissecting it but to read each gospel in a single sitting and to do so like a 12 year old for the first time.  It isn’t at all clear how this method of exegesis is superior to doing proper basic Bible study.  Chan gives little in the way of explaining how this method provides greater objectivity than pondering the verses over and over again to see what Jesus is saying.  It would appear that Chan is saying simple Bible reading is superior to in-depth Bible study but he fails to provide arguments as to why this is the case.

Chan concludes:

Jesus’ call to commitment is clear: He wants all or nothing.  The thought of a person calling himself a “Christian” without being a devoted follower of Christ is absurd.

Despite weaknesses in his exegetical approach, Chan draws an accurate conclusion.  Contemporary pop theology has produced a weakened definition of what it means to be a disciple of Jesus. Jesus was quite firm about the need for obedience in order to truly follow Him and that it was not simply a matter of calling Him Lord (Matthew 7:21)

Chan writes: “Let’s face it. We’re willing to make changes in our lives only if we think it affects our salvation.”  In other words, the main focus of much of contemporary evangelicalism is ‘am I going to heaven and what do I have to do to get there’.   Going to heaven becomes more important (an anthropocentric view of the faith) than loving the Lord Jesus and following Him (a Christocentric view of the faith).

Chan could be accused of promoting a works-righteousness gospel but he rightly points out that all of us have lukewarm areas in our lives.  The difference lies in striving for obedience and surrender to Jesus day by day, all the while being covered by His grace.  The hardened lukewarm would never concern themselves about the areas of their lives that were not under Jesus’ lordship and it is to those people that Chan is speaking to.  He questions their motivation: Can I go to heaven without truly and faithfully loving Jesus?

Crazy Love highlights the depth of God’s love for His children and how that should motivate the Christian to live for Him and to move out of his comfort zone.  The book is a challenge to all Christians, and those who call themselves Christian, to examine themselves and determine if their lives reflect being a true disciple of Jesus, as the Scriptures define it.

Despite the weaknesses of his exegetical method and view of lukewarm Christians, Chan’s conclusions are consistent with what the scriptures do say about true discipleship and authentic Christianity.  Chan is not advocating a kind of works gospel but rather a true conversion that leads to repentance, dependence and obedience to the Master and Lord.  It is a message that many North American Christians need to hear and heed.

Three out of five stars.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

Hell Revisited: A Book Review of Erasing Hell by Francis Chan and Preston Sprinkle

erasing hell - Google SearchFrancis Chan’s book on hell is a no nonsense treatment of a very difficult subject. Chan pulls no punches and addresses the subject of hell in a direct and very thorough manner. His examination of hell is rooted in the scriptures and Chan goes book by book, verse by verse to carefully see what the Bible says. It is not a theological text but it is also not a puff piece that lacks intellectual rigour.

Chan doesn’t study hell from an academic ivory tower. Throughout the book, he agonizes over it. At the start, he recalls witnessing the death of his grandmother who was not a Christian:

Even as I write that paragraph, I feel sick. I would love to erase hell from the pages of Scripture.

Does he?

Chan begins by reviewing the writings of contemporary Christians, such as Rob Bell, who deny hell’s existence or who don’t believe God sends anyone there. He wrestles with their arguments and examines them against what the Bible says. Ultimately, he finds their arguments unconvincing and their justifications falling short of what biblical text is saying.

He then proceeds to examine what the entire Bible says about the subject, starting with the Old Testament, what Jesus had to say about hell and what the rest of the New Testament writers wrote. He even goes into great detail on what the Jewish nation in the first century thought about hell in order to give context to Jesus’ teaching on the subject.

Chan’s grand sweep of the Bible leads him to an unmistakeable conclusion: hell is for real and people are there and headed there. Chan’s analysis reveals that almost every book in the New Testament speaks about hell or God’s judgment on those who refuse to believe.  Hell and God’s wrath against sin is not relegated to a single obscure verse but crops up throughout the scriptures.

Chan is not happy with this conclusion but he knows it has to be faced and acknowledged. He warns us:

Expect then that Scripture will say things that don’t agree with your natural way of thinking.

This is a theme he keeps emphasizing in his book: even though there are things in the Bible that we may not agree with or like, doesn’t mean they are not true. Nor does it give a Christian an automatic exemption from believing it and obeying it. I noted this also in my essay A Few Burning Thoughts on Hell.  As Chan says towards the end of the book:

I don’t feel like believing in hell. And yet I do.

Chan submits himself to the authority of scripture, even if he doesn’t feel like it. In treating the subject manner in this way, he provides a major service to the church in his book. The Bible is not a set of options that we can pick and chose from. It is the very authority of God that is to be submitted to. As he writes,

It’s incredibly arrogant to pick and choose which incomprehensible truths we embrace.

Chan’s approach not only applies to how we view hell but everything else the Bible talks about. He also writes:

The more important question is not whether or not you want to, but could you believe these things, if in fact God says they are true?

In the current age where evangelical ambivalence towards biblical authority seems to be more common place, Chan’s exhortation on the matter is a refreshing change.

Chan wrestles with the question of the duration of hell. Do people experience its punishment forever or only for a time until they are annihilated? He concludes that he leans on the side that says it is everlasting but that he is not ready to claim it with complete certainty. Although he points to scriptures that seem to imply a limited duration, he shows much greater scriptural evidence that it is everlasting. It leaves a bit of a curious question on why there is some uncertainty when Chan has already shown overwhelming evidence.

Erasing Hell is a sobering book but a very important one. It should give every Christian pause as to what it means in how they live their lives and how important the gospel really is to their lives. As Chan says:

When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong. This is not one of those doctrines where you can toss in your two cents, shrug your shoulders and move on. Too much is at stake. Too many people are at stake. And the Bible has too much to say.

Four and a half out of five stars.

2014 © Ed LeBlanc

 

The Bible in the Public Square

Parliament Building Tour106The Bible continues to be a widely influential book all over the world.  It has been translated into hundreds of languages, inspired billions of people for countless centuries and, despite its Middle Eastern origins, continues to cross all kinds of cultural boundaries as it is embraced by countless people groups.  The libretto for Handel’s Messiah, considered by some (including this writer) as one of the great masterpieces of Western civilization,  is completely based on the text of the King James Bible.  Hollywood, for good or for ill, continues to use the Bible as a source of ideas for various movie and television projects.

Despite it’s vast historical and cultural influence and authority, the Bible has fallen on hard times in the modern/postmodern Western world.  In certain parts of the West, Bible verses have been removed from some public buildings due to court orders.   Bibles are not permitted in many public schools with the odd exception, such as for literary purposes.    Many in academia and in places of high culture consider the Bible to be an anachronism, a throwback to an ignorant age and an embarrassment to modern sensibilities.  

That embarrassment extends to the reading and use of the Bible in the public square.  When issues of faith and morality are discussed in public forums such as radio talk shows, those who start quoting a text from scripture are typically cut off by moderators or shouted down by others.  The rest simply roll their eyes and tune out.  The Bible may be nice for art, literature, music and the odd movie but it is considered bad form to take it seriously when it comes to issues of public import.  To modern minds, the Bible simply has no place in the public square.

What is a Church to Do?

In generations gone by, quoting the Bible in public and quietly listening to it with a respectful attitude was the cultural norm.  Even people who were not regular church goers always held the Bible in high regard, even in the public square.  Hence, it was easy to discuss what the Bible had to say about issues related to morality and faith.  

How has the church in the West adapted to this relatively new cultural environment?  It usually has taken the form of two polar opposites.  At one end of the pole are those who unabashedly and sometime forcefully, speak the word of God in all kinds of public forums and they are not ashamed to do so.  If they are engaged in public or private conversation about a moral issue, they will not hesitate to read or quote a passage from the Bible that addresses it.  

At the other end are those in the church who do not bring up the Bible in any debate regarding faith or morality.  They appeal to logic, to history, to science, to psychology, to anything except the Bible.  In other words, they attempt to defend a Christian world view of things without mentioning the origin of that world view, namely the Bible.  The belief is that any attempt to quote or speak from the Bible will result in the automatic loss of credibility and authority in speaking a Christian world view in public forums.  In order to keep the conservation going and to preserve a place at the table, best not to say “Thus saith the Lord” on the evening newscast.  

Which of these two approaches is the correct one for the church to pursue?  Are they both ineffective?  If so, is there a third way?  This essay will attempt to demonstrate the shortcomings of these two approaches and propose a third way that can be both effective and faithful to the Bible in the public square.  

Old Fashion Bible Thumping

Evangelists of long ago would stand atop a podium in the local marketplace and gather a crowd around themselves while they preached from the Bible on the good news of Jesus.  In many ways, it was a kind of outdoor church service that was open and very public.  Evangelists and preachers were not afraid to read from the Bible and passersby often stopped to give a listen to what was going on.  Today, most people are not interested in listening to someone shouting out John 3:16 while they are on their way to work or running errands.  The typical person would usually keep their head down, avoid eye contact and quickly walk past.  Feelings of embarrassment and resentment usually set in.  

Is it wise to keep on quoting the Bible when it seems to turn off your audience and no one is listening?  In many parts of North America, quoting the Bible in serious public forums is a sure means of being ignored or laughed at.  Reading what the Bible has to say about sexual morality, the nature of God, etc., is a quick way of being labelled the pejorative Bible thumper.  

So why do some people continue to practice this approach of unabashed public Bible quoting?  One reason is that some do so out of an incorrect attitude that the Bible possesses a certain kind of magic.  If you speak verses into the air, they will somehow cast a spell on the unbelievers and they will be struck down with conviction.  However, the Bible is not a magic potion where Christians can unleash its power at their command.   For others, they believe that what is important is the act of quoting verses verbatim into the air regardless of how people react.  Such an attitude misunderstands what really is important.  Is it to speak the Bible into the air or to communicate the word into the hearts of people in a manner where those hearts can understand it?  To do the former with out the latter is equivalent to a missionary reading or teaching the word on a street corner in Ulan Bator in Spanish to a Mongolian audience.  It may make the missionary feeling good of what he has done however, it would leave the  Mongolians confused.  

Avoiding the Bible

The other end of the pole is the philosophy that the Bible should not be used at all in the public square when debating moral, ethical or faith related issues.  In this view, biblical morality and the Christian worldview can be defended in the public square without even mentioning or quoting the Bible as a source of authority.  Logic, science, reason and other tools can be used instead to buttress the biblical cause.  For example, the immorality of sexual practice outside the bounds of marriage can be defend by the medical, social, mental, relational and emotional consequences that such practices have historically produced.  The attending harm sexually immoral practices produce is sufficient warrant to justify and convince secular opponents of the folly and immorality of such practices.  Thus, using the Bible to demonstrate that sexual immorality is wrong, is unnecessary since it can be shown through other means.  

This approach does have strong appeal.  Since it does not directly involve the Bible, a potential stumbling block is removed in the public debate. It  also gives the church new opportunities of defending the Christian world view to an audience that will now listen as long as the Bible is not involved.  It also has a strong logical and pragmatic element that immediately appeals to western sensibilities.  

Despite its attractiveness, a main drawback to this approach is that it attempts to carve out a Christian worldview in the world without referencing its source, the Bible.  The danger lies in producing Christian views on a secular foundation of logic, reason and pragmatism, something that can change over time and that offers no firm basis upon which to be justifiable over the long term.  This approach may be sufficient to direct people in the right direction but suffers from an inability to lead them to the final destination: Jesus Christ.  

A Balanced Approach

The Word of God is the church’s main tool in proclaiming the good news and presenting the Christian worldview.  However, it is not the only  tool that God has given us in relating to the world.  The church would be remiss to neglect the general revelation of God that is available to all.  Even the Bible makes mention of God’s general revelation in Psalm 19.  General revelation would include areas such as the sciences, logic, etc that God uses to declare about Himself (Psalm 19:1).   

This points to another problem in the argument: it has become binary.  Christians frame the issue in a strict word versus logic argument or a battle between special revelation and general revelation.  The thinking goes that the church must use one but not the other but the church does better by employing both special and general revelation, in its relationship to the outside world, to glorify God.  What is important for the church to keep in mind is the relationship between special and general revelation and the characteristics of each.  

The keys to a balanced approach are contained in the Apostle Paul’s speech in the Areopagus of Athens to Greek philosophers as recorded in Acts 17.  Paul’s speech demonstrates that you can lead people to the truth by using general and special revelation at the same time.  In this situation, Paul was dealing with a nonJewish audience who knew nothing of the Torah, the prophets of Israel or even the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  To quote the Old Testament to them would have left them totally confused.  Instead, Paul uses logical observation, their own idol entitled “To An Unknown God” and the writings of two of their own poets in an attempt to direct them to the true God of the Universe.   

But in quoting Greek poets, is Paul is showing us that avoiding the Bible in dialoguing with secular minds is the best practice?  Not quite.  Look at Acts 17: 31.  “For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice the man he has appointed.  He has given proof of this to all men by raising him for the dead.”  Paul concludes his secular apologetic defence by referring to the resurrection of Jesus from the grave.  The resurrection is definitely not a secular, scientific or logic argument.  It is unabashedly supernatural and biblical.  Paul did not directly quote a verse but he did address a biblical concept head on.  

And what was the reaction of his pagan audience?  Verse 32 reads, “When they heard about that resurrection of the dead, some of them sneered.”  When they heard the Bible, some of them immediately reacted like many 21st century western secularists would, with derision.  However, the verse also reads, “but others said, ‘We want to hear you again on this subject.’” Others in his audience had a different reaction and wanted to learn more.  

It would appear that Paul did use that end of the pole that doesn’t use the Bible in defending the Christian world view in the public square.  However, he does not do so exclusively.  Rather, he used secular approaches as a pathway to the special revelation of God.   Paul did use the Bible towards the end of his speech however, he did this without quoting it, showing us that the proclamation of biblical principles is a sound and proper way of communicating the Word in another form.    

It is important to note that before Paul spoke at the Areopagus, he was preaching in the marketplace to Jews and God-fearing Greeks about Jesus and the resurrection. As was Paul’s custom with Jews, he quoted Hebrew scripture.  But some pagans where there and their reaction was “what is this babbler trying to say”?  In other words, they did not understand the Hebrew scriptures or a Messiah.  But when he got to the Areopagus, he changed tactics and started from basic concepts, making way for a more detailed biblical analysis in the future.  Paul started with generalities to whet appetites.

The church must not be embarrassed by the Word of God or hide the Christian faith in the public square.   The church cannot ignore the current environment in the same way that Paul did not ignore the environment of his pagan audience.   The direct quoting of the scriptures many not be the first step in the relationship with the outside world.  The church must exercise wisdom in communicating biblical truth beyond that of picking out a set of proof texts however, she still must communicate biblical truth.  

The church must also move beyond sound arguments of logic and principle.  Such things lay the beginnings of understanding for unbelievers but  the church must then speak more directly about God’s revelation in His word and in His Son.  After Paul’s initial speech at the Areopagus, Acts 17:34 says “Some of the people became followers of Paul and believed.”  To Paul it was not a binary approach but a holistic one of reaching his pagan audience with the aim of leading hearts to understanding and then to repentance and faith.  The church universal would do well to emulate Paul’s example.  

2014 © Ed LeBlanc