Friday, March 21, 2014

Hell and Jehovah's Witnesses

I have a meeting coming up with some Witnesses who come to my door occasionally. I've actually been praying for more Witnesses and Mormons to come by to give me more of a chance to practice proclaiming the gospel to people. Anyway, the main Witness really wanted to discuss hell the next time he comes by. I've always shied away from wrangling about details of Hell, wanting to focus on a basic Gospel presentation. But this will be the fourth or fifth time with this particular gentleman, so I figured I'd finally give in and discuss the particular subject he wants to discuss. As the subject leads to a good Gospel presentation (which his partner may never have heard), I'm happy to talk about this.

I'm basing some of my presentation on information presented on the official JW site, including this page that talks about who goes to hell and this page, which incorrectly asserts that hell is "really" Hades/Sheol. The word "hell" is not in the bible, so if we are to use it, we need to define what it means. The JW site is assigning a meaning to the word "hell" just like Christians do, no more supportable from scripture. Both are arbitrary meanings. The difference is that Christians have been using their usage for 2000 years, not 150. 
They then go on to deprecate the Christian idea of hell in favor of their annihilation-oriented Gehenna. My first point to the Witnesses when they return will be to ask where they think the traditional Christian idea of hell came from. Let's look at three images of Gehenna that the Bible presents.

(1) Gehenna means "Valley of son of Hinnom," and a reference is given to Jeremiah 7:32 (I use references from the NWT throughout). When you read this (or any Bible passage), don't just read the words: get a picture in your mind like the original author intended. This was the valley which was "prophetically spoken of as a place where dead bodies would be strewn" according to the JW glossary (which then goes on to make a completely unwarranted conclusion that is really just a restatement of their own unique doctrine on hell). Got it? Also, read the very next verse, which the JW site glossary does not mention: verse 33 "And the dead bodies of this people will become food for the birds of the heavens and for the beasts of the earth, with no one to frighten them away."
You can see why the JW web site didn't include the reference to verse 33. Who is speaking here? God. What is the image he's presenting? This place where worthless things are thrown, to be picked apart bit by bit. How does a bird consume something? One little bit at a time. Imagine something with me: imagine your body being picked apart by birds and torn apart piece by piece by wild animals. That is the image of hell that God himself presents - not your body disappearing suddenly and painlessly, but birds picking apart your body bit by bit over a long period of time. It's a very depressing picture, and God himself presents it.

(2) Revelation 21:8: "But as for the cowards and those without faith and those who are disgusting in their filth and murderers and the sexually immoral and those practicing spiritism and idolaters and all the liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur. This means the second death." Does it hurt to die? Some die painlessly, but usually, yes. And look at the image again - a lake that burns with fire and sulphur. Burning sulfur - from MSDS "Sulfur dust suspended in air ignites easily... Toxic gases will form upon combustion." Do you know what burning sulfur smells like? Volcanoes. The image God is presenting here in revelation - a lake of fire with the smell of sulfur - is that of a pool of lava. Imagine standing in front of a pool of lava and then having somebody throw you in. What do you think of? Not that you'd be annihilated and go into non-existence if you fell in, but that you'd suffer intense burning pain if you fell in. That's how Jesus's hearers and John's readers would have understood this image.

(3) Mark 9:47 "And if your eye makes you stumble, throw it away. It is better for you to enter one-eyed into the Kingdom of God than to be thrown with two eyes into Ge·hen'na, 48 where the maggot does not die and the fire is not put out." Here is Jesus quoting his father Jehovah in Isaiah 66:24. They are both giving pictures of something eternal. They both make a very clear and repeated point of this eternality, Jesus speaking directly to his hearers. Do you think he chose his words carefully? I think he chose them carefully, knowing exactly what effect they would have in his hearers. If all he meant was that hell would go on forever but his hearers would not be there to suffer, what would be the point? He'd be emphasizing something that really made no difference to his hearers. (Why would I care how long hell goes on, if that duration cannot possibly affect me or my loved ones?) No, Jesus's point (and Jehovah's in Isaiah) is clear: the people they're talking about are going to suffer forever.

SO... Let's put it all together. The pictures that God are presenting are that many people will be thrown into this valley of death, to be painfully picked apart by birds and other animals for years and years. It adds the image of your body being thrown into a fiery volcano, full of incredibly hot molten lava that comprises the lake of fire. Finally, that this will go on forever for those who go there. Sounds a lot like the traditional picture of hell to me, doesn't it?

Question: since the bible presents this picture of hell so clearly, why would you not believe it?

There is a related question: Who goes to hell? In Matthew 5:22 Jesus tells us "I say to you that everyone who continues wrathful with his brother will be accountable to the court of justice; and whoever addresses his brother with an unspeakable word of contempt will be accountable to the Supreme Court; whereas whoever says, ‘You despicable fool!’ will be liable to the fiery Ge·hen'na.'"

Look at that: fiery Gehenna! The JW web site says "The Bible shows that some people become so steeped in wickedness that they are beyond repentance." That sounds nice because you can think to yourself, well that doesn't include me. But look at what the Bible says is enough to get you thrown into Gehenna - lying (Revelation 21:8) or calling somebody a fool. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever called somebody a fool?
Hebrews 10:26 says "For if we practice sin willfully after having received the accurate knowledge of the truth, there is no longer any sacrifice for sins left, 27 but there is a certain fearful expectation of judgment and a burning indignation that is going to consume those in opposition." I have given you an accurate knowledge of the truth. I'm praying for you right now, that you listen to what I've told you. Don't deceive yourself - don't blame your own sin on Adam. James 1:14 says "But each one is tried by being drawn out and enticed by his own desire. 15 Then the desire, when it has become fertile,* gives birth to sin; in turn sin, when it has been carried out, brings forth death." Where is Adam in here? Nowhere. It's all on you and me. Your sin and my sin have made us worthy of only hell.

Thankfully, God didn't leave us in our sins and trespasses. He gave His only son to pay the penalty you and I deserve. And Christ will take that penalty for any person who turns to Him in repentance and faith. I pray that you have ears to hear.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

An easy to understand view of "extreme" 5-point Calvinism

Any systematic understanding of the Bible, which is what "Calvinism" is, cannot be reduced to just a few sound-bite bullet points. Many who don't understand the first thing about the theology they deprecate want to do this. It's understandable, in a way. I mean, they despise something, so they don't want to spend a lot of time understanding it. (Pastors should be called to higher requirements, of course.)

So, I thought it might be useful to summarize what the 5 points of Calvinism really mean in a sound bite format, as well as a (very!) slightly more in-depth description of each. Anybody who is against Calvinism should at least understand what it really teaches, not what their traditions and intuitions tell them it teaches.

Total Depravity
Sound bite: We really truly are dead in our sins and trespasses.
Slightly more information: Sin pervades every part of our lives. It does not erase anything in our nature, but it weighs us down. This is clearly true of our physical bodies (we get sick and die) and mental facilities (we are limited in our understanding and our "foolish hearts are darkened"); so why should this not be true of our wills also?

Unconditional Election
Sound bite: God loved me enough to save me in spite of the fact that I hated Him.
Slightly more information: God did not wait for me to choose Him, because (due to Total Depravity) I never would have chosen Him on my own. He chose me not because I was better, not because I was smarter or more spiritually sensitive: just because He loves me. Otherwise, I could take at least some credit for "accepting Jesus" - sure, maybe God did 99%, but my 1% would still be the deciding factor.

Limited Atonement
Sound bite: Jesus's death actually saved me.
Slightly more information: Jesus's death on the cross didn't just make me morally neutral so I could make the choice on my own. It didn't just make me savable, my salvation waiting for my own good will to activate. Rather, it actually saved me - Jesus's sacrifice really did pay my sin debt and save me from the hell I deserve.

Irresistible Grace
Sound bite: God loved me enough to save me in spite of the fact that I would have rejected Him.
Slightly more information: Our depravity really does hold down our will. It's not that we don't have free will. It may surprise you, but Calvinists believe that we DO have free will. The problem, as Jonathan Edwards wrote, is that our will can freely choose only from the options that our nature presents to it. Sadly, the natural man's nature (short of God's grace) presents only evil options. Even when we do things that seem on the surface pleasing to God (helping somebody), there are always sinful motives involved. And ultimately, God's common grace is what supplies those better motives, so that all the glory goes to Him.

Perseverance of the Saints
Sound bite: God keeps me safe even though at times I want to run from Him
Slightly more information: God doesn't just save me initially: He keeps me saved in spite of myself. When God saves us, we are spiritually reborn (2 Cor 5:17). This does not mean God removes our sin nature immediately - that will happen when we are glorified. We are saved from the penalty due to us for that sin. But, just as man kept his animal nature when given a spiritual nature, we keep our sin nature even when we are saved from it. If God didn't keep me safe, again I could take credit: sure, God, you saved me originally, but I was the one who kept myself saved.

A final note: My Arminian Christian friends may be objecting right now. "No Christian would ever say they even get 0.001% credit for their own salvation." That's totally true. But that's what I believe their tradition logically requires. Now, I am glad for my Arminian friends' inconsistency on this point. I've noticed that when they talk about their own salvation, they are effectively Calvinists: they always talk as if God did everything. It's only when they start talking philosophically, talking about what God theoretically does to other (unnamed) people, that they start straying into Arminian directions. It's like the old saying: even a metaphysical solipsist looks both ways before crossing the street.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Tuesday, December 06, 2011

String Theory and Theology

A facebook friend turned me onto this video from Brian Greene, a string theory physicist. It's interesting. mind-blowing stuff. Brian Greene is obviously a smart guy. His understanding of physics is way beyond mine, no doubt about it. His ideas about string theory are very interesting and may turn out to be true. I kind of hope they are: it's very cool, and it explains a number of physical mysteries we still have. It may turn out to be true, or, if not, surely something more complicated will. However, I have two questions.

First, I understand why we should respect somebody like Brian Greene as a professional physicist; I don't understand why we should listen to him as an amateur theologian. He speaks elsewhere of his veganism, or his ideas that there must be a copy of you and me out there in the multiverse, because somewhere along the way there's an infinite number of collections of atoms just like us. But whence does he get the idea that we are merely the atoms we are made of? That's Greene the amateur metaphysician and theologian stating his philosophy of reductionist materialism, not Greene the professional physicist talking about the science he's spent years studying and teaching. I'd rather give credence on that subject to those who have been in touch with the Creator of this universe, the authors of the Bible.

And second, why do we think that string theory has anything to do with the truth explained by God in the Bible, "In the beginning, God created the heaven and the earth" or its companion "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God"? String theory, if true, will turn out to be yet one more amazing demonstration of God's power and creative ability.

God is beyond any theory in physics, because He created the reality that physics attempts to describe. Now, I'm all for science (and have studied a lot of it over the years); but let's not let speculations about what COULD BE wipe out our innate knowledge of who we are and who God is. Science is a wonderful tool for understanding God's creation: I believe God gave us minds to understand the mysteries of His handiwork and give Him the praise He deserves. And, of course, nothing I could say says it better than this: "since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse."

We know we're sinful; we know we are accountable to a holy God for the sins we continue to commit every day. No amount of physics, no amount of speculations that distract our minds from what we know to be true, will overcome that. Have you, having been handed the map that shows you how to get to the correct destination, let yourself become so distracted by speculations of what kind of ink the map is printed with, that you disregard the actual directions written on the map? I love the map, I love to explore the details, and I praise the Mapmaker for them; but it seems to me that the wise man does not let himself be distracted by those things so much that they do not reach the proper destination.

Monday, November 28, 2011

Pondering Quantum Consciousness

A facebook friend (an interesting person whom I don't actually know in real life) recently sent me a link to a movie called "What the Bleep do We Know." She told me that it showed there's a lot more to life than meets the eyes, and the ideas behind the film are supported by modern science. Well, as I obviously do believe there's more to life than meets the eyes, and I'm all for science, I thought I'd look into the movie. The first problem is that it makes its claims on the basis of quantum mechanics. Now, I was an engineering major in college, not a physics major. I did study quantum mechanics a bit, but it had been far too many years. So I undertook a refresher on QM.

Thus armed, I started watching "What the Bleep." (My impressions below are based on an imperfect understanding of QM; I would gladly be corrected on the science involved.) What I saw was interesting, but I very quickly ran into a difficulty. It turns out that all scientists agree on the fact of QM: that it works, that it represents reality in some way, that superposition is real, and so forth. What they do not agree upon is (as usual in science), the interpretation of those facts. There are, in fact, many interpretations of what QM really means. There is one common interpretation called the Copenhagen interpretation (named after the location of the laboratory of Neils Bohr, an early quantum researcher); it's difficult to tell, but it seems that the movie might follow this interpretation. But this is far from the only interpretation. Many quantum physicists follow the many-worlds interpretation, many-minds, etc., as discussed on the appropriate wikipedia page.

Compounding the problem of interpretation is that, from what I know, Copenhagen does not support their conclusions. It may be true that when we measure a quantum system, the wave function really does collapse as a result of this measurement in reality, and that's all there is to it. I read an article whose author was proposing the Copenhagen interpretation rules out the idea of the Christian God. This seems to be the viewpoint of the film's makers. However, I am not sure why this should be so. My understanding is that there's no agreement on what mechanism actually would cause the collapse proposed by Copenhagen. And unless we know what the mechanism is, how can we be sure that a "measurement" by God would trigger it? And do we even know that God would need to make such a measurement? Couldn't He know the quantum state of every particle in the universe, not because He measured them, but perhaps because He created them with something like entanglement with Himself? (As I said, I welcome correction by somebody who really knows quantum physics. This is purely a negative conjecture, by the way, not a statement that I think this is the reality. Like the movie makers, I really don't have the right - the quantum mechanical chops, so to speak - to opine on such things.)

So, despite that difficulty, I started watching the movie. One of the early examples given in the movie was a Native American tribe who saw Columbus' ships coming over the horizon but did not respond to them. According to the movie, since they were unfamiliar with the ships, they simply did not see the ships - that is, until a local shaman noticed a disturbance in the water and told them what they were seeing. First, even if the story were as described, this would not be an example of not seeing, it would be an example of not perceiving; there are many different reasons why they would not perceive the ships even if they actually were in plain sight. Second, the evidence (as noted in the wikipedia article above) seems to be that they did see the ships: they just ignored them because they didn't perceive imminent danger.

But let's use logic for a second. First, we don't have direct access to any of these Native Americans. Therefore, we can't know what they really saw or perceived: only through reports, primarily in their language, would we know. And their language may well have been insufficient to describe Spanish Galleons: they may have seen the ships but not known what to call them. But even more, let's use common sense. This tribe was living on the water. It may have been true that they had never seen a Spanish Galleon, but surely they had smaller boats. Surely somebody from that tribe would have discovered the useful fact that things can float on the water? And unless they were really ignorant they surely would have recognized the Galleons as just a larger and more complicated version of the boats they already had.

The next interesting bit in the movie was about superposition: the star (Marlee Matlin) walked up to a young man playing basketball, who explained to her the secret of quantum superposition using basketballs. Superposition is certainly true, and one of the many things that makes QM weird to our classical sensibilities. It is also true that, upon observation, the superposition collapses into a single particle with a specific position. Unfortunately, the way the movie presents it is not supported by QM. The movie implies that it's the observer who is choosing how the superposition collapses, but this is not true: it collapses probabilistically, and according to the Born Rule, the probability of observing the particle in any one place is proportional to the amplitude of the original wave. Therefore, when you make your observation, you get a single reading that is random based on the probabilities involved. If the superposition was very simple (such as s|A> + s|B>, where s=sqrt(1/2)), 50% of the time you'd get A and 50% of the time you'd get B. There is no concept in QM of choosing your own reality. The movie makes it look like the will of the conscious observer is what chooses the final state.

This is as far in the movie as I have gotten; I will write more as I watch more. But already it's become clear that the movie is an attempt to make its audience feel better about being independent of God. We all know that we are small, imperfect, sinful creatures; we all know there's much more to reality, not only than we can see, but than we have ever imagined. The question is, where do we take that knowledge? It seems to me that the makers of this movie use their knowledge of QM as an excuse to remove themselves from under God's hand; just use QM rightly and “you will be like God.” An example of this is the state-choosing representation of collapsing a particle in superposition state. If all your futures are just superpositions - including the future where you end up in heaven or hell - then, according to this teaching you can choose your own destination. Sadly, neither the Bible nor QM teaches this.

On the other hand, I am all the more in awe of God. He cannot be put into any classical box. Some day, no doubt QM will be shown to be incomplete; the history of science shows us this cycle repeatedly. I have no doubt that God will continue to be the God of the latest science every bit as much He is God of everything else.

Finally, I should note that it is true that you can choose your future; but not in the way the makers of this movie imply. If any one of us repents of our sins and turns to God through faith in Jesus, then we will have chosen our future. That's what John 3:16 says: God loved the world in this way, that He sent His only Son, so that every person who believes in Him would not perish, but have eternal life. That's the choice we must make, not choice of one superposition state or another; and I pray that every person reading this makes it.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Abusing Texts: 2 Peter 3 (part 2)

In my last post, I talked about two misuses of 2 Peter 3:8-9; now, perhaps the most egregious misuse. I mean, of course, using it as "evidence" against particular redemption. First off, the theme of this passage is not individual salvation at all, but rather is a reassurance to believers regarding the end of the world and why God is delaying it. (This is why the Campingites actually have a better leg to stand on than most evangelicals; at least the passage is about judgment.) I mean, just read the passage. (The whole passage, not just verse 9.)

Verse 3 starts off as mentioning a specific group of people, the "scoffers." In fact, there are three groups involved here:
  • The addressees of the letter, who are believers. These are addressed directly in the second person ("you").
  • The scoffers, who are unbelievers, the "scoffers." They are addressed indirectly in the third person ("they").
  • The apostle, who might have addressed himself in the first person (as "I" or as part of "we" with "you")
As you read this passage, follow the pronouns. What is the apostle saying? He's saying that unbelievers will scoff at our belief in Christ, and that they do so, not because they cannot believe nor that their "felt needs" have not been addressed, but because their desires are evil. Belief in Christ has always interfered with our sinful desires: that's why people don't believe. "Where is this coming He promised?" You might as well be reading a modern atheist's blog.

The apostle goes on to give two reasons why we have not yet seen the second coming of Christ.
  • Because we do not understand God's time rightly. The apostle is speaking here of the Greek καιρός, not χρόνος. We want things to happen right now, on OUR appointed time scale. But just because a thing has not happened in the time frame when we think it should, doesn't mean that it hasn't happened in God's καιρός.
  • Because (flowing from the first) God has not seen fit to place all His elect into the time (χρόνος) we might think He should have. God's elect numbers more than the stars in the sky (Gen 15:5). We know that the end has not yet come because God has not yet gathered all His elect. It's sheer presumption to think that all of them should be gathered in by our particular lifetimes.
However, when the end does come, as verse 10 says, it will come quickly and without warning. When God has gathered in all His elect, it will come immediately; everybody will see.

Given that this is the flow of the passage, whence flows the maxim "God wants everybody to be saved?" The answer should be obvious: not from this passage at all. From where then? Clearly, from our traditions and emotions. It constantly amazes me that people who claim (like Dave Hunt) that they have no traditions are absolutely tradition-bound when "exegeting" passages like 2 Peter 3. They reach conclusions that have absolutely no basis in the text and simply state them; apparently, in their minds, the passage is so obvious that no exegesis is needed. Norm Geisler does a bit better, attempting to give a bit of exegesis on this passage to support his view that it disproves particular redemption. Unfortunately, his skimpy and rather apoplectic exegesis (found on page 249 of Chosen But Free, 3rd edition) demonstrates nothing more than his traditions overcoming his logic.

I have a few other thoughts about this passage, but I'll finish them up in a third installment.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Abusing Texts: 2 Peter 3 (part 1)

What is the most abused passage in the Bible? Matthew 7:1? Leviticus 19:19? Probably both good candidates, but my vote is for 2 Peter 3 (especially verses 8-9). For one thing, the former two passages are usually abused by non-believers, whereas the last is usually abused by people who are (at least professing) Christians.

But more, 2 Peter 3 stands out as having been abused by so many different kinds of professing Christians! First, we have the old-earth creationists. There's evidence for and against old-earth creationism, and frankly I don't know which side of that debate I come down on. But surely 2 Peter 3:8 is not good support for any Christian? Its context has absolutely nothing to do with creation. As far as I know, until the mid-19th century nobody took this verse as support for an old earth. If it is support, then we'd have to admit a fatally flawed hermeneutical method, wrenching the verse out of context to make a point. This is called eisegesis, and I don't think we want to go there.

The second kind of Christian who have abused this passage is that group who recently had their day in the spotlight, followers of Harold Camping. Although their books provide many convincing (well, to "true believers" anyway) proofs of the October 21st end of the world, this verse is the foundation. Read for yourself in Camping's booklet "We are almost there". This understanding has a little better support than the first case of abuse (or frankly, than the third) since the passage is actually about judgment. But taking this as a mathematical formula, adding it to an assumed and arbitrary date of Noah's flood, and coming up with a date that conveniently falls with Camping's lifetime is a bit more than the text will bear, especially as the entire chapter of Matthew 24 militates against this as a possibility. (Note the tenor of the entire chapter fights it, not just 24:36, regardless of what Campingites would have us believe.)

But the third, and perhaps most egregious case of abuse against 2 Peter 3:8 is by traditional evangelical Christians. Everybody from Chuck Smith to Norm Geisler to Dave Hunt use this passage as one of their primary proof-texts against the doctrine of unconditional election. But surely this is a terrible case of eisegesis?

In my next note I will 'splain.