Monday, March 26, 2012

American Atheists Gather Forces—A good thing or a bad thing?

It is intriguing to observe in the US the rise of the atheism movement. So much so, that on Saturday there was an Atheists rally in in Washington with Richard Dawkins as the main event—the so-called “Reason Rally.” This was followed by the American Atheists’ annual convention. They are the ones who put up billboards stating “You KNOW it’s a myth. This Season, Celebrate Reason.”

The organiser David Silverman was raised Jewish but rejected the faith of his heritage and is now president of the American Atheists. He calls the event the atheists “coming out,” intentionally using the language of the gay rights movement. They see themselves as an oppressed minority and are uniting to have a more public voice—why not? Free speech is essential to western culture.  
At the rally he stated “we will never be closeted again.” He states, “I respect people; I respect humans. I do not respect religion.” Mmmm. Sounds rather contradictory. In fact, it would make a good Tui’s sign. Still, I am sure he is sincere. He and his organisation is determined to challenge the placing of bibles in hotel rooms, the raising of crosses and stopping of anything that brings religion into the public sphere.

The rally went ahead, but it rained, which raises a very intriguing question—was it God who made it rain? Or nature? Or God working in nature? I am sure it is one of the above.
At the rally, Taslima Nasrin, the author of “Shame” described Mohammed as a charlatan, a pedophile and a rapist—good luck with that! A wooden cross was placed in the middle of the crowd with a sign saying—“banish the 10 commandments in the dustbin of history.” I would have thought a good number of the 10 Commandments are pretty good e.g. do not commit adultery, do not kill, honour your mum and dad, etc. They have been quite good at helping shape western civilisation in particular. I suppose it is the first four that offend, the God-stuff. Personally, I like the summaries: love God with all you have, love your neighbour as yourself. If you don’t like the first, surely the second can be said to be “not bad.”

Some American Christians are responding very negatively. One US leader has called them vicious and that they stand for nothing.
I have a different view. While I do not agree with or get atheism, I think this movement has some positives for the Christian faith. First, it raises in public the question of God or no God and forces people to think and give a more reasonable defence of the faith. In fact, I think it is a strategic mistake to go public like this; it gives us Christians something real to present the gospel against. It also brings religion into the public arena, which of course is what secularism and atheism want to stop. One of the problems in western society for Christians is that everything is so grey and this changes things by giving a public sounding board for the faith. This is one of the reasons we see so much religious language in the American election—a “war” is on for the soul of America, a very public “war”.

Secondly, one of the reasons they despise religion is its corruption, hypocrisy, and involvement in violence. I accept that they have more than a point on this. There is no shortage of ammo for them! This should inspire us Christians not to react, but to live more peaceful, honest and loving lives—to walk the talk. It should encourage us to renounce the sort of extremism we see in some parts of the church and especially religious terrorism and violence. We need to ensure that we are not hypocrites. Many people in western countries need to see Christianity then they might listen again to its message. One way we can do this is give those who oppose us the honour of our respect and allow them the space to believe differently. One of the reasons atheists are responding like this is because they are in many cases, marginalised. Jesus was the friend of those at the margins, so we should be.
Thirdly, we can take the opportunity to expose the “logical” contradictions of atheism. The biggest problems atheism has are, first, ‘what got the ball rolling in creation?’—the problem of all we know and experience coming from nothing; ‘is something as complex as this creation really explainable through natural means?—the problem of the clear evidence of amazing order and design. God is our answer to both questions. Atheists have no answers that work, that this all emerged by chance and “natural processes” is hardly any more reasonable than the God-hypothesis. When atheists can give a rational alternative to these questions, then I and the majority of people in the world who do in fact believe in some God or gods might start to take it more seriously. (Of course at this point an atheist will likely say but God is not a rational answer. In a sense they are right. But, we don’t need a rational answer as we don’t have to play by their “reason” rules, as we don’t claim that God is knowable rationally—he is knowable through revelation and yet unknowable because he is beyond knowing in that rational sense. That is why we talk past each other so much. Then again, is it “rational” to argue for “no cause”?).

I also think we need to remind atheists and secularists that the removal of religion from the public sphere is not neutral—it is as biased as a world full of crosses or Muslim crescents. It would be neutral if such signs and symbols had never existed—but they have, so removing them is not neutral, it is an act of belief and cultural imperialism. It declares that there is no God and no religion and promulgates an alternative “religion”, atheism. The thing is, there is no neutral position, as Bob Dylan says “you’ve got to serve somebody.” So, they will meet strong resistance in trying to stop public expressions of faith. I mean, why can’t you put up a cross? They shouldn’t care as much. Personally, I am an advocate of the separation of atheism and the state—joking. They too can put up their signs etc. Let the people decide what they believe.
So, overall, it may turn out over time to be a good thing. It will certainly raise the discussion. The modern atheist movement, like extreme Islam, and increasing moral decay, gives us something to present the Jesus’ story against. When everything is grey, the light of the gospel is hard to see. The world is getting darker, and that gives us a growing new opportunity. We need to all arm ourselves with tools to raise questions of atheism—and more importantly, listen, learn and show them love.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Last Days of Dispensationalism—A Great Read

Late last year I read Alistair Donaldson’s book, The Last Days of Dispensationalism: A Scholarly Critique of Popular Misconceptions. Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2011). Now I promised Alistair I would blog on it, and so here we go.
For those who don’t know, Alistair is a lecturer teaching Biblical Studies at Laidlaw College’s Christchurch branch—and a really good bloke! The book is based on his Masters research. It is a nice easy read, a great achievement for any scholar.

In the book Alistair goes to town critiquing the theological construct of  commonly called Classical Dispensationalism. He avoids more recent developments such as Progressive Dispensationalism, which I reckon he should have interacted with—but hey, there is a limit on what a man can do. He has assured me he will write on this in the future, which would be good, because many Progressive Dispensationalists agree with some aspects of his critique.

He looks closely at the Dispensational hermeneutic (method of interpretation) and in my view, rightly questions its focus on literal interpretation especially noting its inconsistent application. He states that it is, “profoundly problematic as a basis from which to construct a biblically sound eschatological understanding” (p.30)—I agree.

He then turns his attention to the question of “who is Israel?” critiquing the Dispensational perspective on Israel as “always and without exception a reference to the literal physical nation of Jewish people” (p.37) and the absolute distinction between Israel and church. He gives an alternative picture of the nature of Israel and its relationship with the church arguing that “Jesus is true Israel, Israel-in-person” and “the church, by being “in Christ” who is Israel-in-person, is incorporated into and assumes the identity and mission of true Israel” (p.68). He rejects Zionism and sees little relationship between the modern state of Israel and “‘end time’ speculations.”

A chapter discussing the Kingdom of God follows, with Alistari arguing persuasively against the distinction between Kingdom of God (the present church age) and Kingdom of Heaven (postponed future millenial kingdom) in Dispensational thought.

The rapture and tribulation are then discussed, with Alistair rejecting the notion of a pretribulation rapture and the establishment of a millenial kingdom. He, in my view rightly, argues that the rapture is “imposed on Scripture as a consequence of prior assumptions within a system of thought that is itself already an imposition on the text of Scripture” (p.125). He is particularly concerned with the notion of a “soon-to-be-destroyed earth” which “tragically and utterly runs counter (sic) to the heart of God and love for his creation” (p.127).

The Millennium as a literal or literal-figurative notion is critiqued from the perspective that pre-millennialism fails to account for genre, is inconsistent with the two-age structure in Scripture, and over-literalizes the text of Rev 20:1–6. He concludes that a Millennium post-Christ’s return is “questionable,” “dependent on literalism,” “disregards the narrative of Scripture,” and is “biblically inadequate” (pp.146–47).

The final chapter concludes the discussion rejecting the historical and eschatological perspective of Classical Dispensationalism and offering an alternative—an inaugurated eschatology and climaxing in a restored earth. He writes:

[m]y earnest desire is to promote an understanding of an all-creation inclusive eschatological redemption that is already experienced in Christ and the gift of the Spirit but not yet fully realized. It is also to encourage a manner of life that seeks to actively participate in the outworking of God’s all-creation inclusive redemptive love for his creation, the creation that he called “very good”—including all humanity irrespective of race.”

Overall, I think he has met his goal. I consider it is a fine book—persuasive, considered, consistent, and well-argued. It is a must-read for all Christians interested in God’s purposes on earth. I think he has exposed the serious flaws in the Classical Dispensational hermeneutic, the notion of a secret rapture, and the idea of a pre– or mid–tribulation departure of the saints. His presentation on the Kingdom of God is excellent, and I will be recommending this to my New Testament Introduction students.

My only significant questions are these. First, can we be certain that the return of Christ will be the absolute end of the age as postmillenialists and other amillenialists argue? The people of Israel at the time of Christ had false expectations of Messiah at Jesus’ first coming, failing to understand a crucified Messiah. We too, need to take care not to be too dogmatic about what will happen second time around. For example, could it be that Christ’s return is followed by a period of history (which the millennium may indicate) in which living humanity have opportunity to yield to his lordship? Could this be a period of restoration? That is, could it be that Jesus may return in a manner different to many expectations? The truth is, I am not sure—can we be?

Secondly, while I completely agree that salvation is in Christ alone, and the Christian church “in Christ” is the continuation and extension of true Israel by faith (including believing Jews), I am not completely sure that we can say with utter certainty that the restoration of the land of the Jewish people to the Jews in 1948/67 is not without some eschatological significance. Could it be that it is significant in some way and that the culmination of history will center on Jerusalem?  It seems to me that the OTprophesies and Olivet Discourse (Mark 13 and pars) can be read in different ways and there may be a tie in between the modern state of Israel and the culmination of the world. For example, I won't be surprised if the world climaxes with a conflict centred on Jerusalem and Jesus returns to this city; he has to return somewhere, and Acts 1:11 suggests this. Iwonder if there is a bit more mystery about this whole thing than Alistair suggests. As such, I prefer to take a less absolute perspective. I suppose I am an agmillennialist, agnostic about the details. That's something like a pan-millennialist, it will all pan out in the end (not my idea that one).

These questions aside, I want to congratulate my colleague for a great work. I hope people don't take it as an opportunity to beat him up with horrible reviews, we are allowed diverse views as Christians!We also can't afford to be distracted by hammering each other on details, there is a world of work to do. I hope then that they receive it in the spirit with which it has been written, show respect, take it as an opportunity to dig deeper into the Scriptures, and above all, work with all their being for the God’s mission to restore his world.  

Saturday, March 17, 2012

UK Government and Crosses—Do the right thing and back off.

A most interesting storm is brewing in the UK that is of interest to Christians of all faiths. In 2006, Nadia Eweida was suspended from British Airways for wearing a cross. Nurse Shirley Chaplin was banned from working on the wards after refusing to hide the cross she wore on a necklace. The UK Equalities Minister Lynne Featherstone has instructed government lawyers to oppose these women as they go to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg to claim that they are victims of discrimination. The debate revolves around Article Nine of the European Convention on Human Rights which states:
“Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief, and freedom, either alone or in community with others and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief, in worship, teaching, practice and observance.”
The women are claiming that this right has been violated. Government lawyers are counter-arguing that the wearing of crosses or crucifixes is not a ‘requirement of the faith’ nor a manifestation of their religion or belief according to the meaning of the Article––as such, it is not covered.

This has led to a strong response. Rev Ian Galloway in Scotland has stated “[w]hatever the strict legal situation, we believe that individuals should have the right to make statements of faith, and this extends to the wearing of appropriate jewellery.” The Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, argues that the government should stop meddling in areas that they ought not to. Others note that Muslims in the UK can wear the hijab and Sikhs can wear turbans—why not a cross? Former Archbishop Lord Carey accused ministers of dictating to Christians and is another example of the marginalisation of Christianity. Current Archbishop Rowan Williams thinks wearing crosses had lost its significance and has become a substitute for faith. One news article wondered whether Charing Cross and other UK place names should be renamed as a result.
In my view the UK government is mad to take this on. First, what gives a government the right to dictate what is or is not a ‘requirement of the faith’? In this case, it places the government above God, churches, and all Christians by determining this. If these two women find it a requirement, and it hurts no-one, then they should be able to wear them. The parallel with the hijab is appropriate—a person’s religion is a matter of conscience. Clearly there are limits—no-one should be allowed to wear Ku Klux clan or Nazi regalia to work—but come on, this hardly qualifies! Rowan Williams might feel that crosses have lost their meaning, but is that true for all people? Such a view is irrelevant if the people in mind find it meaningful. I don’t feel a need to wear a cross, but another might and I support that they should be able to do so. If I did feel it necessary, I would certainly not take it off for an employer. Rowan William’s comment does indicate that the UK government is facing an uphill battle on this. Crosses are now worn by all sorts of people (e.g. Madonna)—will this mean she won’t be able to wear a cross at her next concert? Will the next step be the government backing Sports organisations to ban sports-stars looking skyward, genuflexion, wearing a cross on the arm-band etc.? This sets an interesting and potentially dangerous precedent. Secondly, at its heart is a good old employer-worker scrap. The Labour Party should get in behind these workers! But they won’t, their ideology will override their real reason for existence. While an employer should have the power to require appropriate clothing and limits to what one can wear, should it stretch to small pieces of jewellery which symbolise one’s faith? What should it matter? It becomes a power-issue at this point. I say, power to the people, power to the workers.

Thirdly, by taking this line the government is creating something that is really insignificant into a benchmark for faith, it is counter-productive. It creates a dichotomy between Caesar vs. Church that is unnecessary. Their action now highlights the cross, which had seemingly become irrelevant. It is now very relevant. I suspect it makes it far more likely that people will wear them as a statement. In fact, I would suggest to all UK Christians (Catholic/Protestant—the lot), to start wearing them to work as mark of non-violent protest and act of solidarity with these two brave saints. Let’s see how the UK government goes with a national uprising of cross-wearing.
Further, this is a denial of history, a violation of their own story (and ours)—messy as it is. British and European history is enmeshed with the Christian story since the first century. Their Queen is the head of the church after all. Seems rather strange to deny wearing a symbol of their national religion—why doesn’t the Queen step in? Just a thought Queen Liz. And then if City Councils decided to dispense with Cross etc. in place names, the government would then support it. Such names “Christchurch!” (there are three of these in the UK) or “Christian Common” would go. There are in fact 134 places names in the UK with Church in it; 131 with cross, and 50 with saint of St. in them—that will go down well. It is madness for the UK government to act in this way—it is a denial of their history and a step too far. Then there is the question of consistency across faiths. A modest cross or crucifix is hardly worth the scrap is it when there is controversy over all sorts of religious clothing etc?  

So, I say to all Christians, get a cross/crucifix, heck both, and wear them as a symbol of solidarity with these courageous women. I am going shopping.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

After-Birth Abortion—What the?

I know its older news now, but I can’t help commenting on the view expressed earlier this month in the paper, “After-birth abortion: why should the baby life?” It was written by two supposed “academics,” Alberto Giubilini (University of Milan) and Francesca Minerva (University of Melbourne), and published in the Journal of Medical Ethics. These “ethicists” argue that killing a new-born baby is morally equivalent to abortion and should be permissible. They contend that a foetus and new-born are the same in their lack of self-awareness. New-borns are unaware potential persons without any knowledge of their own existence and without any sense of a future—so killing them painlessly is morally neutral. This is particularly so where a mother has to raise a child alone, faces financial challenges, or has to face the pain of adopting the child out—it may be better to kill the new-born than place it in an orphanage etc. The editor of the journal has defended publication because it is a “well-reasoned argument.”

Unsurprisingly, this has set off a storm of response including death threats. The editor responded to this: “What is disturbing is not the arguments in this paper nor its publication in an ethics journal. It is the hostile, abusive, threatening responses that it has elicited ... Proper academic discussion and freedom are under threat." Dr Minerva has expressed surprise that she has received hundreds of death threats.

Writing as an academic myself, what sort of world are we in where so-called academics believe that they are justified by “academic freedom” and “well-reasoned argument” to justify infanticide? It suggests academia is above judgement and has the right to propagate murder, as long as one can argue it well—I suppose then that one can argue anything as long as the argument is reasoned. This shows how far academia and society has gone in some quarters—into a cul-de-sac of its own futility.

The authors’ surprise at receiving death threats shows how morally blind they are. Perhaps someone should write a paper for the journal justifying the killing of ethicists who write articles proposing infanticide?—for the greater good or to protect the new-born! It wouldn’t be difficult to argue so. Argue that such a view is a threat to the well-being and on-going existence of the society. Then argue that for the greater good, it would be appropriate for some lunatic to seek out the ethicist, and kill them, to protect society and its children. It is intriguing that on the one hand it is legitimate to argue for killing a new-born, but to then argue that it is justified to kill the one who propounds the view is uninformed. It raises the questions of the limit of academic discussion and freedom. Does it extend as far as Josef Mengele and other Nazi doctors discussing using Jews and other prisoners of war for experiments so that it can help their military to win WWII? The whole thing in my view is akin to arguing that the Holocaust was justified on the basis of just war and Nazi ideals.

To put it bluntly, the idea of killing defenceless foetuses and new-born babies is evil—it is abhorrent and a disgrace to humanity. It is always those who have been given the opportunity to live who make such arguments—can’t they see that they are walking contradictions? The foetus and new-born are God’s image bearers from conception, fully human with full personhood, albeit in the early stage of development. This is the very stage of life where human society’s duty must be to protect that child and allow the child the same opportunity to live that they have been granted. As I have written elsewhere, more people have been destroyed in the last century by abortion than any other means—aside from those extreme situations where an abortion may be justified (which makes up a tiny percentage of such situations), it is the greatest evil of present human history.

That said, in a bizarre way there is some value in their study. Their argument is premised on this—if abortion is justified because the foetus is only a potential person without self-awareness, then the killing of the new-born is also justified. By making this argument and drawing out the “logic” of the pro-choice position, they point out the real implications of the flawed philosophy of personhood that allows abortion. They show us where such ideas lead—infanticide, euthanasia, killing of the disabled etc. It could extend to genocide, as in the case of WWII and other more recent wars.

I hope by drawing out the logic, heinous though it is, it helps pro-choice proponents to realise where their “logic” goes and helps all humanity recognise that the killing of the most defenceless of all people is morally wrong.

One more point of note. This is all sounding like a rediscovery of our Greco-Roman roots and another step in the rejection of the Judeo-Christian ethic. The Greeks and Romans advocated abortion and exposure. Exposure was the practice of the newborn being left to die if rejected by the father. The Jews and early Christians on the other hand utterly rejected abortion. Are we going back to the 'good old days' of exposure as well as abortion?

While we ourselves must not resort to death-threats or hate, we who find this repulsive must continue to stand against abortion and most definitely resist the killing of new-borns! Allowing for the extreme exceptions where abortion is justified, ending this disgrace will take another Wilberforce movement stretching from the nations’ parliaments to the people. It will take a recognition that the rights of the unborn and new-born person outweigh those of the mother—on the basis of human rights, those of the least powerful and defenceless have priority over others. It will involve all Christians working together recognising that abortion and abortifacients that kill or potentially kill the foetus are of a different category to other birth control methods that stop conception—the latter is not a moral wrong, the former is. I dream of the day that a western nation reverses its stand on abortion and others follow. And as for legitimised killing of the new-born—to quote Paul on a different issue from Rom 3:6, 9: μὴ γένοιτοὧν τὸ κρίμα ἔνδικόν ἐστιν—“may it never be…their condemnation is deserved.”

Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Good On You Harold Camping

So Harold Camping—the guy who predicted the end of the world on Sept 6, 1994, and then May 21 and then Oct 21 this year—has retired and apologised. He has confessed that he was wrong and regrets leading people astray. Apparently, he has held to his view from 1992 when he developed a numerical system to work out the end of time. Anyone who knows the Bible well, particularly Jesus’ statement that no-one knows the day or the hour, knew from the first that he was wrong and didn't take him seriously. In a statement he says:

“even the most sincere and zealous of us can be mistaken… Yes, we humbly acknowledge we were wrong about the timing… God has humbled us through the events of May 21… We humbly recognize that God may not tell His people the date when Christ will return, any more than He tells anyone the date they will die physically…we now realize that those people who were calling our attention to the Bible’s statement that ‘of that day and hour knoweth no man’, were right in their understanding of those verses and Family Radio was wrong.”
Well, good on you Harold. We have all been wrong—although not many of us have led huge numbers of people astray to the point that they sell up and preach the end of the world! We all make mistakes. It takes a big man to admit you’re wrong and apologise. God bless you! There are heaps of others who can learn from your example. As a friend of mine once said, "it is not how you start that matters the most, it is how you finish." That said, I suspect there are one or two people that would like their money back. But then again, they should have known better!

The good news (for us Christians) is that Harold remains devoted to the Bible and to his faith. That said, I think he needs to learn how to read it better! If you can't get "no-one knows the day or the hour", then you're reading ability is questionable! Still it is great that he remains full of faith because at ninety years old, it won’t be long before he learns the truth, whatever it is. His story is a warning to us all as we consider the end-times—don’t get in too deep, and don’t start throwing around predictions, and don’t ever think you alone know the truth about the return of Jesus—no matter how well you know the Bible. The Jews almost all missed Jesus the first time around after pouring over the Scriptures for centuries. Only God knows that.

To Circumcise or Not to Circumcise—that is the question

I got a surprise the other day when I tuned into to Radio Talk-back to hear people discussing circumcision. My ears pricked up (pardon the pun), as any serious student of the Bible knows that circumcision is a critical theme in Scripture. The discussion revolved around a recent Sydney study which has found “overwhelming evidence” that circumcision has a number of medical benefits. Supposedly it reduces the risk of infections, cancer and other painful conditions. For example, the risk of urinary tract infection and kidney inflammation is supposedly 10x greater for the uncircumcised. Apparently, the risk of prostate cancer, penile cancer, HIV and STD’s like syphilis is three to eight times greater. Of course the latter problems can be in the main, resolved by maintaining a Judeo-Christian sexual ethic and keeping away from drugs.

Apparently in NZ 10% of boys are circumcised. Unless there are medical reasons, circumcision is self-funded at about $300-1000. The proponents of the study argue that it should mandatory to circumcise new-born boys, and the government should pay. Sounds like Abraham and Moses are back.
There have been responses. Some concede there are benefits but baulk at government funding on the basis of other priorities and limited benefit. In 2010 the Royal Australasian College of Physicians decided that the evidence was insufficient to warrant it for all boys. Apparently this represents the medical consensus.

If there are medical benefits, and such studies need to be replicated, then this is very interesting. Circumcision was the defining mark of being a descendent of Abraham, an Israelite (Gen 17). Each baby boy was circumcised on the eighth day. Moses’ life was saved by his being circumcised. Jesus himself went through the procedure. For a Gentile to convert to Judaism to this day—and remember religion in the ancient world was defined by the patriarch—one has to be circumcised. Circumcision became the centre of a storm of controversy in the early church. The question was; do new Gentile converts need to be circumcised? Jewish conservative Christians argued vociferously, yes! Paul led the charge against this and won the day—read Acts 15. The reason, there should be no barrier to a Gentile coming to Christ, for salvation is by faith. Circumcision then is not mandatory. He likely did not know a lot about the medical benefits.
Considering the medical question, this gives a deeper edge to the command of God to circumcise. One can imagine that in the ancient world living in hot Middle Eastern environs and where washing was not as easy as in our world of showers and baths, that the medical benefits of circumcision were even greater. Circumcision was likely very important to male health. The law then was for the good of the people, as were most of the laws when one studies them.

This raises the question of whether Paul got it right. He got it right in a salvation sense without a doubt. It is likely that enforcing circumcision would have slowed the growth of Christianity immensely, making it forever a sect of Judaism—indeed, it is likely Christianity would never have gone global as it has. Further, salvation is by grace through faith alone, there is no need to do anything to be saved, other than turn to God in faith—let alone chop off the foreskin.
That said, now that Christianity is global, and circumcision is so beneficial, and in an age when male health and prostate cancer etc. are big news, should we Christians endorse the right not on soteriological (salvation) grounds? Should we be now encouraging the circumcision of boys for medical reasons? What an intriguing question.

Monday, March 12, 2012

“Jesus Heals Every Disease and Every Sickness"—does he?

A Shortened Version of This is Found on the Laidlaw College Blog (
The Napier Equippers Church has taken down their “Jesus Heals Cancer” sign. As my previous blog on this indicates, I consider that this sign was too ambiguous and a potential cause of offense and so should be taken down ( I congratulate the church leaders for doing so—it shows wisdom, humility and concern for others.

However, they have now replaced the sign with this: "Jesus heals every sickness and every disease” – Matthew 4:23. There are some good things about this. First, it removes the word “cancer” which is especially offensive. Secondly, it is a quote from Scripture. Thirdly, the media seem satisfied (and threatened court action will likely be dropped). However, may I suggest that there are real issues with this new sign?

Matthew 4:23 reads: “Jesus went around the whole of Galilee, teaching in their synagogues and preaching the good news of the kingdom, and healing every disease and every sickness among the people” (my translation). The main verb is “went around”, the aorist of periagō, “lead around, go about, go around” (BDAG). The aorist tense says it is a past event. While often an aorist means a moment in past time, this is a constative aorist which summarises an activity across past time without concern for detail.
Then we have a series of participles—teaching, preaching and healing—all in present tense. The important grammatical note is that they are dependent on the main aorist verb. This means that while they are present tense and on their own might support the idea “Jesus heals”, in fact the aorist tense of the main verb carries over into the participles giving them a past sense. So, what it really says is, Jesus back in the first century travelled around Galilee and he taught, preached and healed every sickness during that journey. In Matt 9:35 the verse is repeated of Jesus all over Israel. So, neither verses actually says Jesus heals per se right up to the present; rather, they say that Jesus healed during this period of his ministry. Indeed, no English translation I can find translates it “heals”—I checked the ESV, NASB, KJV, NKJV, NIV84; NIV11; TNIV, RSV, NRSV, CEV, NET—a reasonable sample.

The sign subtly twists Scripture in two ways. First, it moves the original meaning of “healing” (past) to the “heals” (present). This falsely suggests that Jesus does in the present exactly what he did in that time, heals every sickness and disease. A reader could easily expect this on the basis of the sign. They could be drawn to this church by the promise of certain healing.

Secondly, the sign deletes “around Galilee” and “among the people” which place the text among the people of Galilee on those journeys at the time. As such, it cuts the text out of its setting in Scripture and distorts the meaning of the original verse. This creates several problems. First, it is not a genuine quote of Scripture. Secondly, it carries the same ambiguity as the original sign but arguably to a greater extent. That is, whereas the original sign claimed Jesus cures “cancer” now it Jesus cures “every disease and every sickness.” Wow! What a claim! Now we can get into discussions about timing and ask whether Jesus ultimately heals every disease and sickness. We can get complicated and say, well he does for the saved, but not for the lost? Then we can get into complicated discussions about how much is the medical fraternity, how much is Jesus—etc etc. The truth is that the claim is flawed. Even if we accept that Jesus healed every disease and sickness on the mission journeys of Matt 4 and 9, does that mean Jesus today heals every sickness and disease in the same way as he did when acting directly in Galilee and Israel? Aside from the Christian hope that Jesus will ultimately heal his people of every disease, evidence suggests that, while there are many claims to healing (I have a few I have been witness to), if we are honest as Christians in the present he does not. Even in Matthew itself in 13:58 Matthew writes that Jesus didn’t heal every disease in his hometown.
More broadly, a 100% Christians all over the world since the time of Christ have ultimately died from a variety of maladies. Yes, there are many records of miracles of healing such as in Acts and in this church and indeed my own church, but there are many more times in which people have prayed with faith and not been healed.

A sign like this “markets” Jesus as the healer of every sickness and disease per se. The uninitiated would likely read it and believe that if they come to church, Jesus will heal them of every sickness and disease. Is this not setting them up with a false expectation and potential disappointment?
Theologically, the sign uses what scholars call “an over-realised eschatology.” In the Bible there is what is called a “now-not yet tension.” There is the hope of complete healing, the end of all disease (e.g. Rev 21:4; 22:1–3). In the present we do not fully see this, the hope is “not yet” realised in the “now”. Indeed, the Scriptures themselves give indications that Jesus did not heal every disease and sickness in the time after Jesus’ ascension with Christians dying (e.g. 1 Cor 11:13; 15:6, 18, 20; 1 Thess 4:13–14). The miracles of Jesus are primarily signs of this ultimate hope, glimpse of the Kingdom in the present. Each miracle points to something about the Kingdom which is coming—the healings give hope of an end to disease; the deliverance miracles point to the end of evil’s hold on humanity and God’s world; the nature miracles suggest a new creation of Shalom; the provision miracles picture the end of famine and poverty; the reanimations point to the end of death. While they do give hope for present healing and encourage us to pray fervently that Jesus by his Spirit will heal and we find that sometimes does so as he wills, more importantly they give certainty of complete ultimate restoration.

It is a dangerous thing to “market Jesus” employing ambiguity and an over-realised eschatology. We set people up for potential disappointment? When the suffering comes, as it does for all of us as old-age catches up, it creates a needless anxiety and sense of God-abandonment. This is tragic.

If we read the Bible carefully we find that while there are miracles, the power of God is most often seen in the midst of suffering. It is seen where people get sick or face other calamities and stay strong in God, refusing to allow the suffering to dim their faith, and God’s power is seen in their weakness. Real power is seen in people overcoming. We see this in the present in the lives of the many disabled Christians who shine the light and love of Jesus with great optimism and hope, despite their broken bodies. We saw it in Christchurch as people refused to be bowed down by the earthquake, death and shattered lives. This is the thing Paul is at pains to get first century readers of his letters to grasp, as many of them fell prey to over-realised expectations. Read 2 Corinthians 12 in particular—he himself grappled with suffering from his “thorn in the flesh” but delighted in his suffering, for God’s strength was made perfect in the midst of it.
Rather than put up signs with extreme claims, we should preach Jesus embracing the now-not yet tension. We should tell the world that, suffering comes, sometimes God miraculously delivers, and yet God is with you whatever the suffering. He will bring you through. He will enable you to triumph in your limitations.

The danger of such a sign is that if are not healed after prayer, we start to think it is our problem, our fault, our sin or our lack of faith. That is the natural implication of such thinking. That is the not the message of Jesus—Jesus is with us in our sin, our lack of faith, our weakness. The truth is, as the T-Shirt says, Sh… happens. The greater truth is that, when it does, God is with us!

Another huge question that this sign raises is this: should we put signs up which reference Scripture but actually distort its original meaning? I think not. In the garden it was the distortion of God’s word that deceived Eve. In the temptation, Satan sought to tempt Jesus with distortions of Scripture. Paul wrote in 2 Cor 4:2 that he did not walk in craftiness or falsification of the word to win people. He then goes on to speak of the god of this age who blinds. All these references warn us that we must be very very careful not to distort Scripture. Jesus said stuff about millstones around necks that should be heeded.
So, while on the face of it the sign seems an improvement and has got the media off the church’s back; is it? I do not think so. I think it demonstrates a lack of wisdom toward outsiders (cf. Col 4:5). Worse, it distorts the word of truth. Then there is the whole question of “marketing” Jesus—what signs should we put up, and what signs should they see. Nothing wrong with church signs, but we need to think them through very carefully to ensure our message to the world is Christ and Christ crucified. The real “sign” of course is the church and its welcoming love, vibrant love.

What do you think?

Thursday, March 1, 2012

Jesus Heals Cancer-Please Take It Down?

Is it wise for a church to put up a sign saying “Jesus heals cancer”? The Napier Equippers Church are all over the media for their controversial sign outside their church. This raises the question, is it a good idea?

Let me first say that I have great respect for my brothers and sisters in Christ in Napier, and do not question their good intentions and sincerity. I hope my words do not offend.

Secondly, let me add that I do believe that God heals and that he can, does and, has healed cancer. I know of acquaintances who have made extraordinary recoveries from seemingly hopeless situations. So, I am a believer in the power of God in the present to heal.

I can sort of sense where they are coming from. If the intention is to say that “Jesus sometimes heals cancer,” or “we believe that Jesus can heal cancer,” or “Jesus has healed some people of cancer,” or “Jesus and oncologists can sometimes heal cancer,” then I can sort of hear where they are coming from. If they are suggesting to people, why not give Jesus a try, he can do amazing things, I get it.

The problem with the sign though is it says none of those things and begs the question—are they saying “Jesus always heals cancer?” Are they saying “Jesus heals cancer if you believe in him?” or “if you come to our church.” The ambiguity is seen in the responses of many people.
I presume the purpose is to reach out to the lost and say something inviting and challenging. The problem is that where a person has lost a loved one to cancer, as so many New Zealanders have, then it potentially hurts and offends. It begs the question, “if Jesus heals cancer, why didn’t heal my loved one?” Take for example my wife Emma’s mum who died from cancer-related illness some years ago, despite our fervent prayers and faith. And then there was Philip, a young 16 year old who was an active young man of God who died of cancer when I was a young Christian—it was a tough lesson for a young zealot charismatic Christian as I was then. Or even sadder, was the death of one of my cricket mates young 8 year old from cancer—the depth of the pain that caused was monumental. So, an ambiguous sign like this is very very risky in that it may well cause great hurt, pain, and even anger toward the church and God. If the desire is provoke comment and interest, it has sure worked—but is that the sort of publicity a church wants. 

I also wonder about how the sign relates to the great work of the oncologists and others who work in the medical profession. Are they saying a person should go to Jesus and not the oncologists? I hope not. Are they saying that Jesus heals, not oncologists and the medical profession? The whole are of the relationship of God and the medical profession can get confusing, so some people refuse medical help relying on faith. Others like myself see God working in the work of the medical profession, as they discover the powers he has placed in the natural order to healing. But all this is way too complex and the sign simply opens up a can of worms in this area.

Paul says in Col 4:5 that believers need to be “wise in the way you act toward outsiders.” Is this being wise toward outsiders? Personally, I seriously question the wisdom of this sign, despite the good intentions and sincerity of those who have put it up. It lacks wisdom because it potentially and unnecessarily alienates people—at a time when many in western countries have already become alienated from the church and Christian faith for a wide range of reasons. The last thing we need is to give them another one. The media waits to pounce on anything we do that is potentially offensive—I suggest this is another one. Why doesn’t the church get someone to write a book with the testimonies of those healed and use it as a means of telling their story to the world? An ambiguous sign seems rather a strange way to do it.
Further, according to John 13:34–35 the greatest sign that should mark us out as followers of Jesus, it is “love”—“by this all people will know that you are my disciples.” Paul prays for the Thessalonians that their love may overflow to each other and “everyone else” in 1 Thess 3:10. Is this the best way to demonstrate the love of Jesus? I suggest not.

I also wonder at the implicit theology that this sign represents. While God does heal in the present, experience tells us often he doesn’t; choosing rather to be with and strengthen the believer in the midst of suffering. This is the mystery of healing—we can never force God’s hand. God is not a Being we can manipulate. We pray with trust in God, and we leave it to him. The best example is Jesus the Lord himself. In the garden on the eve of his death he was not praying for deliverance from cancer, but he was praying for release from the cross and death which he knew was coming. He prayed in a pool of sweat and pain three times, pleading for release, yet with complete trust in God. Each time God responded,  “no.” Why? He had a different plan—indeed he needed his son to go through the torment of crucifixion for his world. He went with his Son to the cross, and he came through the other side, saviour of a world.
Paul in 2 Cor 12 too prayed three times for deliverance from his thorn in the flesh, and God again said “no”, preferring to allow Paul to live in on-going suffering. Why? Paul came to terms with it seeing in it a messenger from God to keep him humble. It takes a mature believer who gets to understand the deeper work of God to understand the mystery of healing and non-healing. Putting a sign up amidst the plethora of understandings of the world that exists in Napier and everywhere will simply lead to confusion.

We need take care not to make excessive claims as Christians. Evidence since Jesus ascended 2000 years ago is that, aside from this living generation, every believer without exception has died since that day, including the greatest people of faith like Paul, Martin Luther and Mother Teresa. Many of them have died of cancer, like the great Anglican leader and evangelist David Watson—and this despite John Wimber and others from all over the world interceding for him. The truth is that unless Jesus returns (and he hasn’t yet!), we will all die of our bodies failing—cancer or otherwise. 
With all that said, it is clear that an ambiguous statement “Jesus heals cancer” is terribly easy to misunderstand. Sadly, the people it will hurt and offend most are those suffering from cancer. What was intended as a good message inadvertently becomes a vehicle of pain! As Christians we should not be offending them with signs open to be read as over-statements or full of ambiguity, but we should be getting alongside them, and loving them, supporting them, praying for them, and where the physical healing doesn’t come, walking with them in their pain and helping them to realise that despite their suffering, God loves them and is with them.

The great news of the gospel is that God does heal, as he wills. Even greater is the truth, that he transforms the human heart. Our hope is the day of ultimate healing, where there is no more pain, no cancer, no suffering. The problem is, is that day is not here yet. We live in a world still under death’s dominion, a world which is groaning for release from its bondage to decay, death is the last enemy to be defeated. But, the miracle of the gospel is that God is with us in our suffering. The greatest thing is that Jesus has entered our humanity and our suffering, in the fullest sense. He has experienced the torment and terror of life ebbing away, through the horrors of crucifixion. That is why he is such a glorious and worthy saviour—he became one of us, he knows our pain. So, when we come to know him and realise his love for us and believe, he sends his Spirit into us. One of the primary works of the Spirit is that Jesus is with us in our pain, he will strengthen us, he will show his glory in us, whether he heals us or not. True faith doesn’t say “Jesus heals cancer” but to say “Jesus is with us through all our struggles and suffering and he will get us through, and a day is coming where our tears will be washed away forever.”
So, I humbly suggest to my beloved brothers and sisters in Napier to think about the message they are giving. There are more important dimensions of the gospel to share to the world, most especially love, not through signs outside a church but through living signs of people who walk with those in pain in the real world.

That said, perhaps it is time to quietly and humbly take it down. Wisdom would suggest that would be the sensible thing. Perhaps a carefully crafted press release explaining that they have realised that it was a sign put up with the best intentions but now realise that it can potentially and inadvertently offend. They could humbly apologise for any offence given, and take it down. They could also invite people to come and experience Jesus’ love, it is for all.
Then, like all churches, they can learn from the experience and get on with the work of the gospel, “with gentleness and respect” (1 Pet 3:15), “with conversation full of grace and seasoned with salt” (Col 4:5-6).