death

The Real Problem with “The Economy”: Adventures in Missing the Point

As US states and cities started to impose “stay-home” orders in mid-March, and various jurisdictions ordered certain varieties of businesses to close, an outcry arose that we were making much ado about nothing: only 65 people had died due to covid-19 across the country by March 15, and the number of cases stood at less than 4,000, far less than a flu season in any one of the fifty states alone.  Six weeks later, the underestimate of known cases puts the US total today at over 1.1 million cases (over 0.3% of the total US population), and more Americans died from covid-19 in April alone (~60,000 known) than died in Vietnam over the course of over a decade of warfare.  Yet due to the shuttering of businesses, unemployment has surged to the highest raw number of unemployed Americans ever, and as a percentage of the population the highest proportion since the Great Depression ended in WW2.  The “hottest ECONOMY on earth,” as President Trump called it, turned out to be too fragile to withstand the pandemic, and substantial segments of the American population face hunger and lack of medical care, as those were tied to paychecks which are no longer coming.  The United Nations’ World Food Program is warning that this year’s global famine could reach “biblical proportions,” and more could die of starvation worldwide than die from the disease itself.  This is the contest between lives and livelihoods, and is the reason given for several states to reopen businesses despite around 2000 Americans still dying of covid-19 every single day, and despite the continued lack of any known effective treatment for the disease which continues to infect almost 30,000 more Americans per day, at least.  This is situation that leads some, such as Texas Lieutenant Gov. Dan Patrick to suggest repeatedly that grandparents should be willing to die in order to save “the economy” for their grandchildren.

This discussion, which dominates our news and opinion pages, is the wrong way to think about the current situation, and it is driving the needless endangerment of most of the population.  Thinking about our situation wrongly increases the number of people dying. (more…)

An Open Letter to President Trump From an Evangelical

Mr. President:

I do not write to you today about politics, because you know more about politics than I do.  Instead I write about something much more important: your future, and where you will find yourself within thirty years.

The God who created the skies and the ground also created humans, so that they might worship him and enjoy everything good thing with him forever.  This includes you.

But humanity, from our first ancestors onward, rejected God and rejected his promise of eternal enjoyment.  We humans have set ourselves up as our own gods, and the result of this sin is separation from God, now and forever.  Separation from God is what causes our death, both our physical death and our eternal spiritual death deprived from the source of our life.  This includes you.

But God loved the world so much that he sent his only-begotten Son, Jesus Christ, to become one of us, to live a sinless life in poverty, to die a blameless death on a Cross, to rise again to new life since it was impossible for death to hold him, so that everyone who puts their faith in Jesus should have eternal life, not eternal death.  This is not automatic, but is an opportunity available to everyone, including you.

But do not be deceived; God is not mocked.  The free gift of forgiveness offered by Jesus Christ requires only that each sinner acknowledge their sins and turn away from them to the powerful gracious love of Jesus.  But it does require turning away from sins; any attempt to claim the forgiveness of Jesus without acknowledging the sins committed is doomed to failure.

I expect you know your sins better than anyone, but you said in 2016 that you do not ask for God’s forgiveness.  That made me worried that you were deceiving yourself, since all of us need God’s forgiveness every day.  As I have watched your presidency, it has become increasingly clear that you are in the bondage of deceit, ceaselessly peddling lies about yourself and your enemies, so that I fear you have even come to believe these baseless falsehoods yourself.  To pick examples only from the last six months, your deliberate deceptions include insisting that the Mueller report exonerated you, when in fact the Mueller report explicitly stated that it did not exonerate you (vol. II, p.8).  You have claimed your July 25 phone call to the Ukrainian president was “perfect” and legal, when you obviously set up the withholding of military aid for the sole purpose of pressuring him to help you in your reelection campaign, which is illegal.  In order to distract the news media, you ordered a poorly considered withdrawal from Syria in order to allow the Turkish armed forces to attack the Kurds, at the cost of hundreds of lives.  Just as David killed Uriah by the sword of the Ammonites (2 Sam 12:9), you have murdered Syrian Kurds by the shells of the Turkish military, all for the sake of your political benefit.  You have not saved lives; you have destroyed them.  No doubt you have other sins, but these sins are obvious, and they will be condemned by God who is righteous and accomplishes justice.  Your only hope to escape eternal condemnation is the forgiveness offered by Jesus.

It is claimed that you are a Christian.  That is a good name which I am glad to wear myself, but the label alone does not get you anything.  What matters is not what men call you, but what you are in the sight of God.  The benefits of Christ are not for those who call themselves Christians (Matt. 7:21-23), but for those who trust in Jesus, follow him, serve him, and love him.  You must ask yourself if this is what you are doing.  The Lord Jesus said, “You will know them by your fruits…  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire” (Matt. 7:16, 19).  Lying, corruption, and murder are not good fruits, but the fruits of the devil which lead to death.

Even now you have the opportunity to escape from the damnation that your sins deserve, if you will turn away from your sins to Jesus and place your trust in him for forgiveness.  If you do so, he will take command of your life, fill you with his Holy Spirit, and guide you along the path to eternal joy.  The Lord Jesus Christ, in command of your life, will lead you to apologize to those you have wronged and to begin to live rightly, which is better for you and for everyone.

There is no other way.  You may be able to escape human punishments for your crimes, and you may be able to continue spreading lies, but you will not be able to escape God’s judgment.  He cannot be tricked.  He cannot be manipulated.  He will not “make a deal.”  God has made known the only opportunity for salvation, available to you and to everyone, in his son Jesus Christ.  Be warned: Jesus himself said, “Whoever does not receive the Kingdom of Heaven like a child will not enter it at all” (Mark 10:15).  The apostle Peter said, “There is salvation in no one else; for there is no other name under heaven that has been given among men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12).  Your name and your wealth will not help you on the day of judgment (Psalm 49:16-20), only humbly acknowledging your sins, renouncing them, and turning to Jesus in submission.

You may not have many more opportunities.  You are already seventy-three years old, and none of us knows how long he will live.  You might have a heart attack and die tomorrow, or you might live for another twenty-five years; we do not know.  But we do know that when you die, whenever that might be, it will be too late then to seek forgiveness.  The opportunity to renounce sin and run to Jesus is an opportunity only in this life, and your time is running short.  Within thirty years, less than half of the length of time you have already lived, your eternal judgment will be determined.  I encourage you, by the mercy and love of Jesus Christ, not to let this opportunity go by; you may not have another.  Repent and believe in the good news!  Be cleansed from your sins, and live!

I pray for you to recognize the truth, and that the truth would set you free from the deception and lies which you perpetuate, which now bind you.  I pray for your repentance from sins, for you to accept the eternal well-being in the forgiveness which only Jesus Christ provides.  I pray for the evil you have done to be struck down and overcome by the goodness of God, who loves truth and justice, and he is merciful to you, giving you the opportunity even now to leave behind the deceit and death you have worked, and turn to his light and his life.

There is nothing more important than this.  The Lord Jesus himself said, “What does it profit a man if he gains the whole world, and forfeits his soul?” (Matt. 16:26).  Don’t be a tough guy.  Don’t be a fool.

May the Lord have mercy on your soul.

Theophiletos

Being Black in America

Today Professor Steve Locke at Massachusetts College of Art and Design posted an account of being stopped by police officers on his way to lunch.  It graphically illustrates a side of interacting with the agents of the state of which the privileged (middle class white people like me) are generally ignorant, and that makes the account moving and difficult to read.  There is something wrong with a system in which a law-abiding professional can conclude that he will probably be killed by the agents of the state to which he pays his taxes.  He was stopped because he “fit the description” of the perpetrator of a recently reported crime, but the description was stupidly broad: “Black male, knit hat, puffy coat.”  Gee, a thick jacket in Boston in December, with a head covering of the most common construction worn by Americans in winter?  How many other black Bostonians did they stop today with a description like that?

As a member of the privileged group, I recognize that my duty is to shut up and listen, and to attempt to understand situations which I will likely never encounter myself.  One aspect of the account continues to confuse me, however, and I post it here in the hopes that some kind soul might enlighten the ignorance of someone who would like to understand. (more…)

Afterlife in the Old Testament

It is often stated that the Old Testament does not present any view of heaven and hell or life after death.  This is often coupled with assertions that Hebrew authors did not distinguish between body and soul the way that we do.  Now, I do accept the critique that popular American images of heaven as pasty-faced night-robe wearing people on sedatives half-heartedly strumming harps while reclining improbably on clouds owes more to Victorian English book plates than any part of the Bible.  I also accept that most Christians today distinguish too sharply between soul and body (a quibble for another post).  On the other hand, I think what we find in the Old Testament cannot be reconciled with the common assertion that people three millennia or more ago did not conceive of personal continuity after death (apart from the obvious extra-biblical counter-example in the Gilgamesh epic).  Here I wish to focus only on a few verses from Genesis, and in particular on two revealing idioms about death.

A particular idiom is used in Genesis to describe the deaths of Abraham, Ishmael, Isaac, and Jacob: each, when he died, was “gathered to his peoples” (Genesis 25:8; 25:17; 35:29; and 49:33).  Most English versions prefer “to his people,” but the noun is curiously yet distinctively plural “peoples.”  What does this mean?  It cannot be a euphemism substituted for “died,” because in three of the four occurrences “died” shortly precedes this idiom.  The verb “died” was clearly not taboo for the author.  On the other hand, the idiom does not seem to be a description of burial, given that the act of burying the deceased is indicated separately in three of the four cases.  Indeed, the burial of Jacob is narratively separated from his being “gathered to his peoples” by most of a chapter.  So it’s not simply a colorful phrase to describe some aspect of the body.  What it did mean is difficult to say precisely, except that by death each person joined other people he was associated with.  How else might death result in a gathering, unless there is some sense of non-physical reunion after death and independently of the body?

The independence from the disposition of the body is seen in another phrase which was not as common as the preceding.  When God foretold to Abraham his death, he said, “As for you, you shall go to your fathers in peace; you will be buried at a good old age” (Genesis 15:15).  Jacob mentioned his own upcoming death similarly: “when I lie down with my fathers” (Genesis 47:30).  Since Jacob is asking to be buried with Abraham and Isaac, one might think his use of the phrase simply reflects the practice of dynastic burial.  But in fact, his grammar indicates that the act of “lying down with his fathers” occurs in Egypt, before the burial: “when I lie down with my fathers, you shall carry me out of Egypt and bury me in their burial place.”  Abraham was not buried with his ancestors, but in Canaan after having left his father’s house according to the Lord’s command (Genesis 12:1).  Indeed, the phrase was also used of Moses (Deuteronomy 31:16), whose burial place was unknown (Deuteronomy 34:6).  This phrase, like the preceding idiom, suggests a hazy concept of reunion with predecessors and other people, independently of the body, after death.  The fact that these are idiomatic phrases further emphasizes that the presupposed views were not idiosyncratic to the author, but were widely held.

Am I saying that the author of Genesis and the people described therein held to the same views of the afterlife that we do?  No, nor need I.  Even Christians today hold all sorts of theories in practice.  Am I saying that they fully understood the notion of spiritual reunion after death?  No, and I suspect we do not fully understand it either.  Views on what happens after we die have certainly changed over time.  My goal in this discussion is simply to suggest that the widespread assertion that the Old Testament authors had no notion of personal continuation after death is demonstrably false.  What notions they did have, and how those notions developed over time, is a more complex question.  But notions of heaven and hell, of personal continuation after death, did not suddenly spring into Judaism during the exilic period from Zoroastrian influence, as one of my textbooks last semester baldly (and ignorantly) asserted.

Requiescat avia mea in pace cum Christo Salvatore suo.

Once Saved, Always Calvinist?

One doctrinal formula which Calvinists bandy about and non-Calvinists like to mock is “once saved, always saved.”  Like almost all doctrinal formulas, this one is shorthand for a longer assertion.  It’s easy to expand it to “once a person has been saved, that person cannot lose his or her salvation.”  But that formulation still presumes that we know what we’re talking about when we say someone “is saved.”  Although this language is often used, especially among American evangelicals since the 19th C, I don’t think “saved” can meaningfully be used as an adjective as it always is, or even as an absolute verb (i.e. a verb without additional specification of the predicate).  Now, some folks who know their Bibles really well will immediately point out that the apostles used the word “saved” in various contexts without adding additional specification (Eph 2:5 and 8 come to mind).  But we must always ask, in every context, “What is the subject of the sentence saved from?”

Since the notion of “once saved, always saved” has come up recently in a few places, I thought I would re-post here an (edited) email I wrote back in 2010 in answer to a question from a friend.  First, his question:

What does it mean to be “saved”? Is it a once-and-for-all thing, or a lifelong process, or what? A fellow who grows up a believer and manifests all the signs of a Christian and then in, say, his late teens turns away from the faith: is he saved?

(more…)

Fighting Truth Decay

This is, at long last, an answer to a question posted by a commentator (I’m sorry to say over a month ago): “[H]ow do you see Christ as having made provisions for guaranteeing the preservation of Truth through the ages (if you see Him as having done so at all)?”  Subsequent discussion revealed that he did not mean merely since Christ’s ascension to heaven.  So this post attempts to address the question in general, but first (as a humanities scholar is apt to do), I need to clarify the issue.

Clarifying the Problem

What does it mean to “guarantee the preservation of Truth”?  In what ways is Truth not preserved?  Truth is not an organic mass which begins to decompose in the summer heat, changing color and attracting flies.  Nor is truth a substance that can be diluted or transmuted.  Truth is a property of certain beliefs, and the “preservation of Truth” is the preservation of true beliefs in the minds of people.  A true belief may fail to be preserved in the minds of people either by failing to pass it on to new people, so that the true belief may be said to end (in a sense) with the death of the last person who believes it, or by being rejected in favor of alternate (and false) beliefs.  Since no sound argument can refute a true belief, if we were fully rational beings, no true belief would ever be rejected for a false belief.  And if we were immortal and perfectly rational beings, truth would be in no danger.  But in fact, we are both mortal, so beliefs need to be passed on, and sinful, so that we often prefer convenient falsehoods to inconvenient truths.  And thus true beliefs need to be preserved.  The transfer of true beliefs to other people is a variety of revelation, the means by which those other people come to believe this truth.  The question of how sinful people are checked from simply chucking out whatever truth they don’t like is a question of redemption.  In both processes, God’s message of salvation is at stake, and therefore this is an important question. (more…)

“Choose Life”

At a climactic moment of his preaching career, Moses stood before the descendants of Israel and said to them, “I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses.  Now choose life, so that you and your children may live!”  The point was that, by loving and obeying God, things would go well for them, whereas if they disobeyed God, things would go very badly.

This is not an individualized guarantee, of course, however much prosperity gospel preachers hype it as such, but is a general statement that doing bad things leads to bad outcomes.  The clearest counter-example to an individualized interpretation of this statement is Jesus, who loved and obeyed God perfectly, and suffered horribly.  The fact that he knew the punchline three days later does not mitigate the amount of suffering Jesus experienced.  People who wonder what all the fuss was about in the Garden of Gethsemane, if Jesus knew the outcome on Easter morning, have never experienced such intense physical pain.  It is possible to feel pain so intense that you crave only for it to end by whatever means are to hand, no matter what good may theoretically come from it.  Jesus experienced intense pain, and knew ahead of time what he was in for.  No wonder he preferred, all things being equal, to dodge the bullet.

And yet, in that garden, though he asked his Father for a reprieve, for any other way, yet he chose to obey.  And in that sense, he chose his own death.  Not that he desired to die, or that he forced the Romans to kill him, but he had the means at his disposal to avoid his death and yet he did not.  (He made this point in Matthew 26:53-54, rebuking Peter’s resort to the sword.)  He had the honesty to wrestle with God about his desire to avoid experiencing torture, and he had the courage and humility to accept the Father’s plan.

Jesus chose death, so that we can choose life.  As he said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

Why does this matter?  Is Jesus just a nice augment to an otherwise affluent life, enjoying all the benefits of Western economic and educational success?

I received an email today from someone whom I don’t get to see very often because we live so far apart.  She said to call; she would have called, but she didn’t have my number.  We played phone tag all afternoon, and when I finally got to talk to her, she shared the bad news: a mutual friend, who I knew well a number of years ago, took her own life yesterday.  I knew of some of this mutual friend’s troubles, but we had not corresponded for almost two years.  I had been intending to email her again “soon” with some good news I received recently, but hadn’t gotten around to it.  I don’t know what she had been going through.

Christianity has traditionally taken a sterner rather than a more comforting line concerning the case of people who cause their own death.  In this case, when last we corresponded, my friend did not share my Lord.  We had read large portions of John’s Gospel together and discussed them, and she had been interested in reading widely about spiritual matters.  After we moved to different American cities, we corresponded by email occasionally and even spoke on the phone a few times.  I had hoped I might some day see her share in the joy of the Savior.

In cases like these, I feel grief for the loss of a friend, especially one so gifted in a number of different ways.  I have enough humanity to wonder the what-ifs: what if I had emailed her a month ago, when I first received the good news I wished to share?  What if I had been a more consistent pen pal?  Could I have done anything?  Might it have mattered?  And I pray for God’s mercy on my friend, and for his comfort for her family.

But I have no use for wishful thinking.  Jesus was not a sentimentalist: he willingly died on an instrument of Roman torture.  He said he came to give life: that is not a pleasant enhancement to life, nor an additional dose of prosperity to an otherwise okay existence.  We will all die some day, unless Christ returns first, and this physical life is temporary.  The life that Jesus came to give is the only life available, the only life that lasts.  These are matters weightier than merely physical life and death; eternity is at stake.

So let us not fool around with trivialities.  Our message to the world needs to be the same message Moses gave to the people of Israel: “Choose life!”