Archive for the ‘Theodicy’ Category

what about hellIs the Bible’s teaching – and Christians’ belief in – Hell, a valid reason to reject the Christian faith?

Just in case you were wondering, here is “Gentle Jesus, Meek and Mild’” teaching on hell:

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matthew 10:28)

“As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matthew 13:40-42)

“…if your eye causes you to stumble, pluck it out. It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where, ‘the worms that eat them do not die, and the fire is not quenched.’” (Mark 9:47-48)

There is not doubt that Jesus both believed in and warned people about God’s judgement, and the finality of the final Judgement which for some will result in ‘Hell’.

There are a number of popular objections to hell, among which are:

  • If God is love, how could he send people to hell?
  • How can eternal damnation be a fair punishment for my relatively small mistakes?
  • I know plenty of Muslims, Buddhists and Atheists who are decent people. What should they be sent to Hell just for not believing in Jesus?
  • A loving God wouldn’t use fear as a motivation to be good – even if some of his followers do!
  • The whole idea is primitive and superstitious.

A number of objections to Hell are simply a rejection of a wrong understanding of what Hell is, based more on Medieval mythology than on the Bible.

We could say that, from the Bible’s perspective, Hell is God’s final response to remorseless or unrepentant sin. So, our view of Hell will be shaped by our view of sin.

It makes sense that many in the modern West have a problem with the idea of God’s judgement, because our general view of humanity is that we are OK – people are essentially good (or at least neutral), and we occasionally make mistakes or act selfishly – but no-one in themselves is bad enough to warrant hell. From this perspective, Christians are seen as harsh in believing in such a thing as Hell.

So, a correct understanding of the biblical concept of sin will enable us to also get Hell into perspective:

1. Sin is essentially the rejection of a relationship.

Popularly, sin is thought of as naughty things we do, which are tallied up and used to assess whether we are good enough to get into heaven. This is not a Christian idea.

These sinful actions are simply symptoms or expressions of the state of the heart – a heart that has no interest in being in a right relationship with God. God created us to not only know about Him, but to be in personal relationship with Him – in which we experience His loving care for us, and we live lived that honour Him. Instead, we turn to things in this world thinking they will provide for us what only God can give. Jesus described this as ‘slavery to sin’ – the things we think will fulfill us ultimately become our master, because we invest ourselves in them instead of God.

The Christian ‘Heaven’ is knowing this relationship with God not in part, but in full; not by faith, but by sight. The true pleasure of ‘Heaven’ is not being in a nice place, but in knowing God face-to-face. By contrast, the pain of Hell – described in pictorial language as being like fire and darkness and being eaten by worms – is the pain of absolute exclusion from God’s favour and goodness, with no longer any hope of release.

If we do not want a relationship with God in this life, why should we think we will want it for eternity? In that sense, Hell is God handing us over to that which we have chosen – life in the absence of His favourable presence. What most people don’t realise is that in this life, God is continually giving good things to us – whether we acknowledge or thank Him or not. All the pleasures and joys of life are gifts from God, designed to demonstrate His kindness and patience. Hell will be the removal of everything that is good – and it will be what we have chosen. As Tim Keller says,

Hell is the freely chosen, eternal skid row of the universe.”

2. Sin is personal – and it’s against God.

Sin isn’t breaking a set of abstract and arbitrary rules. Because God’s Law is His law, to break it is a personal offence against Him. We all know that justice demands that the penalty fit the crime. This is reflected in our own justice system, where penalties vary depending on the seriousness of the crime. If sin is just breaking a few rules, then eternal punishment in Hell is certainly unfair. However, if sin is actually treason against the Creator and Ruler of the universe, this puts Hell into perspective. God is infinite in worth, and deserves the worship and honour of every creature. Sin is essentially saying that He is worthless compared to all the other things that we place great importance on – not the least our own desire to be autonomous and accountable to no-one but ourselves. Such an act of treason deserves a penalty that fits the crime – this fitting penalty is exclusion from God’s favour forever.

We also need a proper perspective on God’s character:

3. God’s anger shows His love.

We would all agree that anger against injustice or suffering of innocent people is good. We would also think it strange and heartless for someone to not be angry when their loved ones are hurt. Why then do we not want to allow God to be angry at sin and evil which brings destruction to the creatures whom He loves? It is because God is Love that he is angry with anything or anyone who harms the objects of His love – true justice is ultimately the expression of love. We very often want God to bring justice for us when things don’t go the way we think they should for us, yet we don’t like the thought that God could bring justice on behalf of those whom we have hurt or offended. The fact that God acts against evil and injustice demonstrates His desire to see justice for those He loves.

God is ‘triune’ – three persons existing in the eternal unity of the one God; Father, Son and Holy Spirit. This means that God has the right to be angry towards those who dishonour him, without him being selfish and insecure as human beings generally do when we are offended or hurt. The Father is angry at those who reject his Son; the Son is angry at those who dishonour his Father, and so on. So even if it were possible (and it isn’t) that our sin caused no harm whatsoever to another human being, it would still be right and good and loving that God is angry towards us.

A God who looked at the sin and evil and destruction in the world and the human race, and then did nothing in response would be a far, far worse god, unworthy of our worship, than one who acts decisively to judge evil and bring it to an end.

4. God has mercy on sinners.

We may feel that God is harsh when we read about his judgements and about Hell. However, God’s speaking about Hell is not vindictive, but gracious. He tell us of His judgement as a warning – calling people to turn from sin to Him so that they do not need to face this judgement:

“Son of man, say to the Israelites, ‘This is what you are saying:“Our offences and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?”’ Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel? ’(Ezekiel 33:10-11)

We can know this not only because of passages like this in the Bible, but by what the Bible tells us about Jesus. Jesus stated very clearly that the primary reason He came was to deal with the fact that human beings deserve Hell – by going there himself on our behalf:

Jesus called them together and said, “You know that those who are regarded as rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their high officials exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be slave of all. For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:42-45)

Jesus is teaching his followers about what it means to live truly as a human being – in humbleness and service to others. He states that he himself is the ideal example of this, in that while he is God’s chosen King (Son of Man), he came to serve. The way he served was to ‘give his life as a ransom’ – in other words, he gave his life and faced Hell himself, to provide a way for us to not face Hell.

How can we charge God with harshness and injustice when the very thing we deserve to face, He Himself has faced for us?

If we say something like ‘I’m not bad enough to go to hell,’ or ‘I know plenty of good people who don’t believe in Jesus – why should they go to hell?’ then we are saying essentially that what is required for a person to not go to Hell is their good works – their moral performance. This is actually more exclusive than the Christian view which says that no matter who you are or how ’bad’ your sin is, grace is available to the worst of sinners; entry into ‘Heaven’ is not based on how good I am, but on how good Jesus has been for me.

A much more exclusive approach is to say, ‘People who are ‘good enough’ should not be sent to Hell.’ This sets us up for elitism – the presumption that we in ourselves are able to achieve a goodness that deserves God’s eternal favour, where the good are in and the bad are out. It means that we store up our record of good, and then God somehow owes us and gives us Heaven. The Gospel says that those who think they are good enough for God demonstrate they are not – because we were never made to be ‘good enough,’ but to live in dependence upon Him. Rather, those who recognise that they are, and never will be good enough, and instead rely on God’s grace and mercy shown in Jesus who came to rescue us from Hell, are welcomed.

This is an offer not just for those who are good enough, but for anyone who will simply trust him.

(Some of these ideas are stolen from Tim Keller, but since he most likely got them from somewhere else, I won’t bother referencing them in detail…)

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This chapter would have to be one of the most confronting and shocking passages in the whole Bible; yet also one of the most profound and significant. If it were adapted into a screenplay it would not pass the censors; some verses (9, 25, 26, 36) carry connotations that I dare not explain in this context. The chapter begins with images of tenderness, compassion and love, but by verse 15 the reader is shocked into revulsion as the language deteriorates into crude, even semi-pornographic imagery. This is definitely a chapter that Sunday School teachers should skip.

Yet this passage is a very significant one, because it highlights three key ideas:

  1. The nature of God’s covenant relationship with His people,
  2. The degrading horror of human sin, and,
  3. The magnificence of God’s lavish grace.

Israel’s history is retold, using the imagery of a woman and her marriage to a prince.

3

Amorites and Hittites were two dominant inhabitants of the land of Canaan when Israel entered the land, and continued to be a thorn in their side throughout their history. Abraham began life as an Aramean (a region north of Samaria, in modern day Syria), living in Babylon, as much an idolator as his neighbours, until God in grace singled him out and called him to be the recipient of the Promise. God is reminding the Jews of their origins; in and of themselves, they are no different to anyone else. The only thing that makes them unique is not found in themselves but in the action of God in making His covenant with them. God had made it clear (Deuteronomy 7:7, 9:5-6) that His choice of Israel was not because of them, but because of his faithfulness to His promises to Abraham – which were made not because of Abraham, but because of God’s purpose for the nations.

4-5

Not only are they of pagan origin, but they are not even of worthy pagan origin. This child that symbolises Israel was rejected and discarded by her parents, thrown into an open field as soon as she was born. Infant abandonment was not uncommon in the ancient world. The most common victims were girls, who were left to the mercy of the elements and wild animals. Local laws stated that if an abandoned child was rescued, its rescuer had the right to make the child their slave; and if it was rescued with its birth fluids still on it, the birth parents had no right to claim it back, since by their actions they had relinquished all legal ties with the child. This child was unwanted from the moment of birth, considered worthless and unclean, and had received the immediate sentence of death; a child left in a field would only last hours before weather or wild dogs killed it.

6-7

A Prince rode past the field, saw this abandoned baby, and decided to rescue her. By his decree, this child was not to die, but live, and be brought into his household. Yet this is not just another child to add to a collection of slaves. God repeats Himself in verse 6 to drive this point home: the statement ‘…In your blood, live!’ was most likely a legal term declared over a child who was being adopted. Unlike the god of the nations, God does not see people as slaves, but as members of His family – as sons and daughters.

This corresponds to the period of time when Israel were slaves in Egypt, and God heard their cries and determined to send them a deliverer. The child, while adopted by the prince, was still living like a slave (slaves in the Ancient Near East were normally sold naked, so that their buyer could see exactly what he was getting).

8-14

The girl reached puberty, and the appropriate age for marriage. Rather than find a husband for her among the slaves, the prince married her himself! Verses 8-9 depict the marriage ceremony and the first night in the bedroom: ’you became mine,’ was the result of him making his vow to her; ‘spreading the corner of my garment over you,’ was symbolic of her coming under his care and protection and headship, of sharing in all that is his. Verse 9 describes an incredibly intimate moment after the bride and groom have made love for her first time.

Does it bother you that God depicts his relationship with His people by using such images of marital intimacy? Yet this is intended to communicate the depth of intimacy and openness for which we are created; an unashamed, free giving of our entire selves to Him, just as He gives His entire self to us. Human relationships and marital intimacy are supposed to be a reflection of this, since we are made in His image. This is why any sexual expression outside of committed, faithful, loving, monogamous marriage between a man and a woman is considered an abomination by God – it is not merely breaking laws about sex, but is a degradation and distortion of the image of God in a person, and hence an attempted degradation of God Himself.

Overnight this abandoned Canaanite slave girl found herself exalted to the place of royalty and international renown. Yet she was reminded that her glorious position was never anything of her own doing: ‘…it was perfect through the splendour that I had bestowed on you, declares the Lord God.’ (14)

15-34

Verse 15 breaks in with devastating force. What was this new queen’s response to all of this tender, generous love shown to her by her rescuer and husband? She ‘played the whore’! This was no mere secret extra-marital affair. She used her privileged position to indulge herself in complete ungratefulness to her husband. She took all that he has given her – clothes (16), jewels (17), embroidered garments (used for special ceremonial occasions) (18), gourmet food (19), and squandered and defiled it all in her adultery. And in the ultimate act of rebellion she sacrificed their own children! (20).

She set out to destroy and defile all the good things she had received, thinking that her satisfaction will be found in anything except her own husband.  This is the essence of idolatry. As Paul describes it in Romans 1:23-25,

‘…they became fools 23 and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images made to look like a mortal human being and birds and animals and reptiles. 24 Therefore God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity for the degrading of their bodies with one another. 25 They exchanged the truth about God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator, who is forever praised. Amen.’

Idolatry is looking to find in created things that which only God can give us, and which only He has the right to give. Just as Adam and Eve looked to the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, human beings ever since have forsaken God’s glory to worship and serve the creation. Things that are good in themselves, nevertheless become the most evil, vile and corrupting force simply because they are set up in the place of God. An idol is anything that we take from God’s good creation, thinking that it will serve us and our own desires, but which then turns and enslaves us so that our desires become captive to it. We think it will give us dignity, worth, security, identity and fulfilment, but instead it robs us of all those things and sucks us dry. As our idols steal our joy, we seek bigger and better and more exciting idols thinking they will solve our emptiness, but they just make our slavery greater.

We see this progression happening with this adulterous queen. She turned from the local Canaanites to the great nations of Egypt, Assyria and Babylon (26-29) but even after this ‘you were not satisfied’ (29). And in the ultimate degradation, we see her paying her ‘lovers’ – she sank lower even than a prostitute, and men would only sleep with her if she payed them to.

35-43

Finally the adulterous queen is brought to justice, and her punishment fits her shameful crime. She is stripped naked, stoned, and her corpse hacked to pieces – by the very idols she had sought her satisfaction from! God’s judgement is to had us over to the outworking of our own sin. To live in the degradation, shame and alienation that sin brings is the essence of Hell. God sends to Hell those who have chosen it over the joy of knowing Him.

44-59

The seriousness of the people’s sin is rubbed in by comparing them to Sodom and Samaria. Sodom was known as the epitome of pagan sinfulness, being destroyed by God by raining sulphur (Genesis 18 & 19), and Samaria (The northern tribes) were considered even more given over to idolatry, and had been captured and scattered by the Assyrians 150 years earlier. Yet the sin of the people of Judah, smugly sitting in Jerusalem thinking they were OK, made these two peoples seem righteous by comparison! So much so, that, ‘…your sisters, Sodom with her daughters and Samaria with her daughters, will return to what they were before; and you and your daughters will return to what you were before (55) – ie. they will be restored to their former glory; but you will be restored to your former status, as an abandoned child, left to die in the wilderness.

60-63

This is the most shocking part of the entire chapter!

God has just brought his case against the people, and shown them that they deserve all that they are about to receive from the hands of the Babylonians. Justice would demand that the prince cancel the covenant, divorce His wife, strip her of all that He had given her, and cast her out into the streets with nothing, left to be destroyed by her sin and her idols, and abandon her forever – just as her original parents did. But He doesn’t!

In the face of horrific, degrading, abhorrent sin, God remains true to His gracious promise to bring restoration to the world. He will ‘remember the covenant I made with you in the days of your youth’ – ie. the promises made to Abraham: ‘…in your blood, live!’ – and establish it as ‘an everlasting covenant’ (60). This is lavish grace. We may often think of grace as God being a bit soft, thinking nice things about us, and saying, ‘You’re all right, I guess!’ However true, biblical grace is when we, deserving the worst, are given the best; when God acts with pure unmerited favour towards those who have spat in His face and shown nothing by disdain for Him; it is God loving his enemies and praying for those who persecute him (Matthew 5:43-44). Grace leaves us with no delusion that that we deserve in any way any of the good that God does towards us in saving us from our sin. Grace is not God overlooking or ignoring sin, but accepting sinners on the basis of the atonement that He Himself, at His own cost, makes for sin (63). This is why God is so explicit and crude in his depiction of sin; so that the beauty and magnificence of Grace may be seen for what it truly is.

This section also contains a hint of the fulfilment of God’s promise to bring blessing to the nations. The restoration of Samaria and Sodom have never happened in a physical way, however in the book of Acts we see the Gospel go out to Samaritans and then to Gentiles. God’s people will receive ‘…your sisters, both your elder and your younger, and I give them to you as daughters, but not on account of the covenant with you (61) – in other words, God will do something new – a New Covenant – that will bring the pagans and the estranged Samaritans in to become one family with the Jews. This covenant was established through the atoning death and resurrection of Jesus. Ezekiel 16 gives a message not just for 6th century BC Jews, but of all people everywhere:

  1. Know the purpose for which you are created: An intimate relationship with God
  2. Recognise the greatness of your sin; the destruction and degradation it brings, and the judgement it deserves; and
  3. See the lavish grace towards you, displayed in the death and resurrection of Jesus for your sin, and put your trust in Him.

Recent events in Indonesia, with the execution of two men caught for drug trafficking, have caused many to speak out with their views on the rightness or wrongness of capital punishment.

There are two things that bother me when it comes to this issue.

  1. Christians (often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment to be right and call for its reintroduction and application to all crimes touched on by Old Testament law.
  2. Christians (also often of the evangelical variety) who declare capital punishment as evil, primitive and barbaric, with no place in modern society.

Let me start with the second first. Such a view casts moral judgement on the principle of capital punishment by calling it wrong.

Straight away this view has a problem because it runs up against the God of the Bible who not only commands and upholds the death penalty in Old Testament Israel, but who Himself actually practices the death penalty. ‘The wages of sin is death.’ (Romans 6:23) ‘The day you eat of it you shall surely die.’ (Genesis 2:17) ‘The soul that sins shall die.’ (Ezekiel 18:20). Death is a fitting penalty for all who defy God and defame HIs glory. The punishment fits the crime. Any attempt to overthrow the eternally valuable Creator of all things deserves the fitting penalty of exclusion from His favour for eternity. Death is not merely the ceasing of animation of our physical bodies, nor the termination of existence, but existing under the curse of God, with all the blessings of ‘common grace’ removed. Death is ultimately God getting the justice that He deserves, and so He is perfectly within His eternal rights to see that justice is served.

For this reason – the eternal worth of His glory – God delegates to human beings, creatures made in His image to rule over creation, to be defenders of that glory by administering justice in creation. And so Genesis 9:5-6 he states:

‘…for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning: from every beast I will require it and from man. From his fellow man I will require a reckoning for the life of man. Whoever sheds the blood of man, by man shall his blood be shed, for God made man in his own image.’

The primary thing at stake here is the image of God, before it is the bearers of the image. This is not primarily a defence of the worth or value of human life, but a defence of the glory of God, which is supposed to be accurately portrayed and worshipped by all creatures under humanity’s headship. The logic here is that any person (or animal) who attacks the bearer of the image is essentially attacking God, and so forfeits their own right to live. This exempts their executioner from the same crime, because what is happening here is not revenge or retribution, but justice. Crimes in Old Testament Israel that were punishable by death all in some way can be traced back to this offence of attacking or defiling the image of God.

(If you think that makes God out to be selfish – in that He is only concerned with His own honour – that concern is answered by a Trinitarian understanding of God; but we don’t have time to go into that here. Wait for a future post in which I will address that.)

So, as I mentioned at the start, if we declare the death penalty in principle to be wrong, evil or barbaric, we risk being guilty of the heresy of Marcionism – the view that the god of the Old Testament was an angry, spiteful god who was replaced by the nice, loving tolerant God of Jesus and the New Testament. Or at least they portray God, who was angry and malicious in the Old, having been pacified by gentle, meek, pacifist Jesus.

We also risk cultural arrogance – assuming that somehow we today are more intelligent, morally astute, or just ‘better’ than those who came before us or who still practice capital punishment, because we have somehow ‘grown up’. That’s a very Western, arrogant stance to take.

Not only that, but we as Christians risk caving in to pressure from the world to conform to its values and principles, largely in the name of being liked by the world. Just because the world – using the rhetoric of compassion – declares something to be wrong and unjust, does not automatically mean that it is. We should be seeking to, ‘take every thought captive to make it obedient to Christ’ (1 Corinthians 10:5), not accepting unquestionably every thought and making look like obedience to Christ.

So what about the second view? You may think that in light of all I have just said I would be an advocate of that view. I have just shown Biblically that capital punishment is right, right?

Not so fast. This second view, that we should insist and expect our governments to apply capital punishment can tend to overlook a significant shift that took place in the transition from the Old Covenant to the New. In the Old, God’s chosen people constituted a national, political entity. The Kingdom of God was expressed in the people of Israel, defined by their ethnic, political, and religious distinction from all the nations around them. All this was preparation for the coming of the Messiah, and when He came, personified in Jesus, a momentous shift occurred. Jesus stood before the representative of one of the most powerful human empires and declared ‘My kingdom is not of this world.’ (John 18:36) This statement signifies the change that would happen with the establishment of the New Covenant. No longer would any one nation be God’s representatives and mediators of His promises; the Kingdom of God was now being opened up to people from every tribe and tongue and nation, and its citizens will be defined as all those who declare, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ regardless of their earthly location or allegiance.

What this means is that Christians have no place to insist that secular national governments and rulers act as if they are administrators of God’s Kingdom. That place is reserved – and filled – by the risen Jesus. To try to get Old Testament Israel’s laws introduced as the foundation of secular government not only ignores the reality of Biblical fulfilment (that fact that Jesus’ arrival means that many of Israel’s ceremonial and civil laws are now obsolete and done away with), but also gives to that government a level of responsibility that God has not given it. Christians are nowhere called to lobby or campaign for change to worldly governments’ policy or practice, but rather to pray for, pay tax to, and honour their rulers, and by doing so honour God who instituted them (Romans 13:1-7). This implies living with laws that we do not necessarily agree with, or see as unrighteous.

This works both ways on this issue. Both sides can insist that their view is based on Biblical, Christian principles; one on the truth of the Bible, and the other on Jesus’ principles of compassion. Yet insisting that our government conform to either of these is still expecting the kingdoms of this world to adjust and conform to make themselves out to be the kingdom of God. And the Bible is clear: the rule and reign of Jesus Christ over all creation will not be made manifest by the kingdoms of the world conforming to His rule, but by their eventual fall and replacement by His rule:

‘…there were loud voices in heaven, saying, “The kingdom of the world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he shall reign forever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

What happened in Indonesia in the execution of two Australian drug traffickers was a indeed great tragedy, but not because the Indonesian government has no right to enforce capital punishment on those who commit crimes it sees worthy of death. It was a tragedy because it highlights the fact that we live in a fallen world as fallen people in which death reigns – even before any executions have taken place. The fate of these two young men who faced the justice system of an earthly ruler should be reminder to all people that we all stand accountable before a much greater, infinitely more just, Ruler of our souls, who will never be unfair or mistaken in His verdict and sentence upon us. This is the Ruler who, in the face of our certain death, stepped down into our situation, placed himself into our chains and stood in the prison cell in our place. This Ruler faced the execution squad for the crime of treason that we are guilty of, and ensured that through faith we may receive not justice, but mercy. In the cross the Father’s justice was satisfied, as the blood of the true Image of God was shed in the place of the one’s who had taken the image and defaced and defiled it. Now this Ruler stands as our Judge – a judge who is ready to pardon death-row sinners on the basis of His own self sacrifice.

In His goodness and mercy, God brought these two Australian men to know and trust in this truth before they died.

Will you also believe and trust?

man ignoreJesus’ death changed everything?? Really?

You may question this claim that Jesus’ death changed everything. While it could be argued that many of the improvements in civilisation have connections with the Christian worldview and Christian ethical values, we must admit that the world in many ways seems the same – if not at times even worse – than it was the the time of Jesus. There is still plenty of violence, injustice and war. There is pain and suffering, caused both by human beings and by natural processes beyond our control. And while many Christians (and others) seem to speak of a change that is coming, possibly very soon, the world seems to be just going on as it always has.

However, by saying the death of Jesus changed everything I am saying that Jesus Christ, unlike anyone before or since, has given us a perspective that not only helps us to understand why the world is the way it is and how we fit into it, but which also gives those who trust in him a sure, certain and unshakeable hope in the future not just for them, but for the world.

Easter is a reminder that the heart of the Christian faith is the crucifixion, death, and resurrection (coming back to life) of Jesus – but it does not have implications just for Christians, but for everyone. Let me explain why the death of Jesus changed everything:

1. It shows us once and for all who God is 

In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven. (Hebrews 1:1-3)

This part of the Bible tells us that Jesus Christ is the great ‘unveiling’ of God. In the past God has communicated something of who He is, in very specific ways, but in Jesus we are give the full, crystal clear picture. Notice how the writer says that God spoke through prophets, but He has spoken by his Son. Jesus is not just another prophet, but is himself the Message. That’s why Jesus was able to say, ‘If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.’ If we want to know who God is, we simply need to look and listen to Jesus. The first think he shows us is that God is all about relationships. He is the Father, who has a Son. That’s what Christians are talking about when they say God is One God in three persons -the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He is a God who relates, and who loves, and His loves overflows towards us in that He want us to also have a relationship with Himself.

But notice also how he unpacks a very specific way in which Jesus unveils God to us: the line, ‘he had provided purification for sins’ is a reference to Jesus’ death. Jesus shows us that God is willing to enter right into our human situation, and walk alongside us in our suffering, pain, loneliness, grief and doubt. The answer to the question, ‘Where is God when I suffer?’ is ‘Right there in Jesus, hanging on the cross. If anyone knows and can sympathise with us in our human situation, it is Jesus.’ In Jesus we see that God cares so deeply about the problems of the world and our lives that he doesn’t just deal with them from a distance in a clinical or judicious way; instead He comes to lift us out of our mess by coming right down to be with us in the thick of it.

This leads us to the second way that Jesus’ death changes everything:

2. It gives us an answer to the dilemma of injustice and evil

God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood —to be received by faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because in his tolerance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished — he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:25-26)

A dilemma we may have when we think about the problems of this world is, ‘If God is supposed to be all good and all loving, then why hasn’t he done anything about the problem of evil? The answer is that He has been incredibly tolerant – or patient – and the reason he has been patient is because the problem of evil actually starts and finished with us. If He were to simply wipe out all the evil of this world, then none of us would be left, because we are all complicit in some way with evil and injustice – even if it’s simply the fact that we don’t dedicate our whole lives to working to help others who face injustice.

In fact, sin is more than just the things we do or don’t do. It’s not a list of broken rules, as if God is keeping a ‘naughty or nice’ record to decide if we’re good boys and girls. Sin is a state of the human heart that has said ‘No’ to God. It is an attitude of defiant, self-sufficient rebellion. It is high treason against the one who not only made and rules the whole universe, but who also owns the right to our affections and loyalty. The ‘sins’ we commit are simply the evidence that our hearts are far from God, and the pain we experience as a result is simply God allowing us to see how foolish we are to trade a relationship with Him for our own ambition.

Rather that wipe us all out as we deserve, God has chosen another way – a way in which justice can be preserved, but we can still be reconciled to Him. This way is Jesus’ death. The phrase ‘sacrifice of atonement’ means that Jesus has taken our place, and faced the punishment we deserve. Instead of punishing us, God has punished him. It may not sound just for God to punish someone else in our place – until we see that Jesus willingly, voluntarily, and out of a deep love for us, went to the cross to pay this price.

And so, we are told, if our trust is in Jesus, we are ‘justified’ – brought back into a right relationship with God through full and complete forgiveness. If you have ever experienced forgiveness – either someone who forgave you, or visa versa, you will know how liberating that is. Because of Jesus, those who trust him can know this liberation multiplied by a million, knowing that God will never, ever again hold anything against you.

3. It shows us that death is not the end.

Now Thomas… was not with the disciples when Jesus came. So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!” But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”

A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Jesus’ death is not the end of the Easter story. On Sunday morning, when some of Jesus’ followers came to embalm his body, they found the tomb empty, and then came face-to-face with Jesus, alive again.

You may feel that the claim that Jesus came back from the dead is the most unbelievable part of the Easter story. We all know that people don’t just come back from the dead, especially after they have been brutally beaten and crucified as Jesus was.

However, if you could believe there is a God, who created and runs this entire universe, then it really is is no stretch to believe that He is capable of raising a person from the dead. So I am not going to try to prove to you that it happened, I’m just going to tell you it did, and why it is so significant.

If Jesus had remained dead, we would never know, never be sure, if God had actually done enough to deal with our sin, forgive us, and bring us to Himself. However, Jesus’ resurrection is like God the Father’s way of saying, ‘Jesus has done it! He has lived the life you failed to live, and he has willingly died the death you deserve to die, and so now I am going to raise him from the dead and make him the one that anyone can put their trust in to be forgiven and reconciled.’ The fact that Jesus is alive today is an assurance to anyone who trusts him that God will, hands down, accept you into His family.

It’s more than that though: Because Jesus died and came back to life as a human being – as one of us – his resurrection is the promise to us that life for does not need to end at the grave. Probably the most famous statement from the Bible is Jon 3:16: ‘God so loved the world, that He gave His only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish, but have eternal life.’ This eternal life is a quality of life that is so solid, so durable, that it never wears out or perishes. And it starts now for anyone who trusts Jesus. It is a life in which we are set free to become the person we are truly meant to be; the person God created us to be, who is able to truly love God and love our neighbour – and to find that the most satisfying, fulfilling thing to do.

Finally, there is one more way in which Jesus’ death – and resurrection – has changed everything:

4. We all have to respond to what God has done for us in Jesus.

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.” (Acts 17:30-31)

In the 1960’s, a version of the Bible was published with the words on the cover, ‘The Man You Can’t Ignore – the life and teaching of Jesus’. He still is the man you can no longer ignore.

The leaders of every other religion will tell you that the solution to human problems is simply, ‘Work hard at being good, and if you work hard enough, you may make it in the end.’ Jesus stands alone and says to us, ‘It is done. I did it for you. I did what you were unable and unwilling to do. So simply trust me.’

This is what the word ‘repent’ means. When I repent I basically say to God, ‘You are right, and I am wrong. On my own I am lost and hopeless. My only hope is that you will will do something about my mess.’

To repent means to no longer put your confidence in yourself, but in Jesus. It means trusting that He is alive, and that He has the power to transform you through forgiveness to become the person you are meant to be.

Because Jesus has died and come back to life, we must respond to what God has done in Jesus. We may receive what He has done, or we may outright reject it, but we cannot sit on the fence. He has not given us that option.

If you are reading this blog today it is no coincidence. God is calling you to respond to Jesus by putting your trust in Him and acknowledging that He is the only one who has the right to rule your heart. I urge you to put your faith in him. You may feel that to do so seems like the most difficult and risky thing to do. You may feel that you have too much to lose – the respect of friends or family; a certain lifestyle that at the moment seems to be making you happy; maybe even the dreams and ambitions that have brought you here to study at Uni. Being a follower of Jesus may mean losing some things in this world; however what you receive is far, far greater and more enduring.

1 Corinthians 7:25-31, 1 Peter 1:13-25

Our world recently has had no shortage of crises that have had some impact on us.

The Christians during the first century were no stranger to crises; in fact a significant proportion of the New Testament exists to some extent because of various crises happening either in the church, in the world, or both. Jesus was very clear that the time between his first and second coming – what we call ‘the Last Days’ would be a time of turmoil and tribulation, with God’s people by no means being immune from trouble. Christians are assured that we will be in a battle – a battle with a world which is hostile to Him; a battle with circumstances that comes from living in a world that is under a curse and is full of chaos, danger and confusion; a battle with others within the church who distort or water down the Gospel, or grasp for power; and a battle with the devil and with our own sin.

We are in a privileged position at the moment in Australia, where by and large life feels pretty stable. We all have access to our basic human rights, and can feel relatively secure with a stable government system, a wealthy economy, good law and order, and no major conflicts with our neighbours. For the majority of our Christian brothers and sisters around the world this is not necessarily the case. Many of them are born into crisis situations, and will die never having left them.

We should not become complacent to think that our comfort is going to continue forever for us or for our children or grandchildren. Recent events with terrorism happening on our own shores have reminded us that we live in a bubble – and some are fearful that this bubble will burst more easily and sooner than we might think.

And all of us also, no doubt, have experienced – or are experiencing – crises on a more personal level – in our family, work, community, finances or health. So, how should we view – and respond to – crises?

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

In our first passage, Paul is having a conversation with the Corinthians about the place of marriage. In the midst of this conversation he refers to a principle that should not only shape their approach to marriage, but to all of life:

‘The present form of this world is passing away.’ (31)

This is the reason he gives for why, ‘those who have wives [should] live as though they have none, those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods…’ (7:30) summed up I with the phrase, ‘…those who deal with the world as though they have no dealings with it.’ (31)

At first glance Paul’s words here might seem a little extreme. Is he calling for Christians to dissolve all their marriages, get rid of all their possessions, and live a life of complete detachment from all desires – as if there is something wrong with this physical world and bodies in which we live? When he says ‘the appointed time has grown very short,’ is he implying that Jesus will return within their lifetimes – even within the next week or so, and so they should simply sit and wait for His appearing, and to make any plans for the future is pointless and wrong?

A look at the context of Paul’s comments – both within the letter of 1 Corinthians and in the historical setting – will help us to understand not only what Paul was saying to the Corinthians, but also what God is saying to us, particularly at times of crisis.

What is ‘the world’?

Firstly, we need to understand what he means when he uses the word, ‘world’. Today this word can tend to mean simply the physical reality of the planet in which we live – our location within the universe. Sometimes the Bible uses it in this sense. But in this context, ‘the world’ is referring to the human world, the reality of human life and civilisation and its social, political, religious and moral systems. In and of itself it is not necessarily a negative term, however because of sin and human rebellion it most often is negative – ‘the World’ is a humanity that is living in organised, sophisticated rebellion against God, and whose culture – despite occasional glimpses of goodness and truth and beauty – is by and large striving to topple God from His throne and to set itself up as the masters of the universe. This is the world about which Jesus warned his disciples, ‘in this world you will have trouble,’ but then immediately comforted them by saying, ‘but take heart! I have overcome the world.’ (John 16:33) It is the world about which one day we will see the truth that, ‘the kingdom of this world has become the kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ, and he will reign for ever and ever.’ (Revelation 11:15)

‘The present crisis’

Secondly, in verse 26 Paul mentions ‘the present distress (or crisis)’. The Corinthians were facing some kind of crisis that was having a significant impact on their lives, causing them to have to think carefully and wisely in their decisions about what would normally be ‘everyday things’ such as marriage, business and leisure. Most likely, this ‘crisis’ was a famine which we know impacted this region around the time that Paul wrote this letter. With a shortage of food also came a degree of social unrest, as people developed uncertainty about their future, mistrust of authorities, and competition with their neighbours. Corinth was a wealthy city, but would nevertheless have been impacted by this famine.

The ‘world’ in which the Corinthians lived was, it seemed, crumbling.

So Paul’s advice about who should and shouldn’t get married is in the context of a particular time of crisis. Getting married was a big event, one that required many resources and much time. The Corinthians were to remember what it meant for them to live as God’s people, and how this living reflected the power of the Gospel. At the end of chapter 15 Paul tells them to ‘be steadfast, immoveable, always abounding in the work of the Lord, knowing that in the Lord your labour is not in vain.’ He goes on in 16:1 to straightaway talk about the need for them to make a collection to help their much poorer brothers and sisters in Jerusalem. He is calling them to be other-person-centred, to think of the needs of others before their own, and so to put on hold some of their own activities for the moment in order to demonstrate God’s generosity to others.

A wake-up call

It is in times of crisis that we are called to reassess our priorities. God’s actions of judgement upon the world are also a mercy and a gift, designed to shake us out of our complacency; to make us wake up to how much we have become engrossed in the things of the world instead of the things of the Lord.

I have recently returned from a trip to New Zealand, where we did a tour of Christchurch and heard stories of the 2012 earthquake. We heard of neighbours developing a closer sense of community as they were drawn to work together to support one another. Apparently some people who used to sleep naked now wear pyjamas, since when an earthquake strikes at night you don’t even have time to put your clothes on. We also heard of the controversies that have arisen as people debate how the city should be rebuilt, with many complaining about the Anglican church not being willing to spend nearly 200 million dollars and 6 years to repair the cathedral (maybe some of those people might also complain that the church has too much money and should be spending their resources on feeding the poor instead of making moral judgements and trying to convert people.)

We had boarded the plane for New Zealand unsure of what was going to happen with bushfires burning in the Mt Lofty Ranges just 20 km from our own home. But even at that time, there was an almost overwhelming response of generosity from people offering accommodation and assistance to those affected by the fires. Possibly the magnitude of this response had something to do with the shock we had felt as a nation just weeks earlier with the Martin Place siege; people realised the importance of standing together as neighbours.

Now, these are examples are of non-Christian communities! These are people who do not necessarily know anything of the power of the Gospel to transform and reconcile. Yet these people are nevertheless people made in the image of God, and while crises can often bring out the worst of people’s selfishness and sinfulness, they are also marked by glimpses of how we should be. God, in what theologians call ‘common grace’ at times enables people to act in a way that is contrary to their own sinfulness, maybe so that people will stop and take stock, and say to themselves, ‘Hey! What just happened – what I did, or what someone did for me – seems to resonate with my humanity. I know that this is the way I should be all the time – so what am I not like it all the time? Why do I by default operate out of selfishness and greed? Is there any way that I might be able, somehow, to attain to this picture of goodness and generosity that I have just glimpsed?’

So we should be willing to welcome crises, knowing that the Father only ever gives good and perfect gifts; and our first response in these times should be, ‘Father, what are you teaching me in this? How are you using this time of trouble to make me more like your Son?’

Looking towards the End

While Paul is referring to this very specific situation here, he deliberately uses the kind of language that is also used to refer to the end of the age, the time of Jesus’ return. ‘distress’ is often associated with the last days. ‘The appointed time has grown very short’ and the present form of this world is passing away’ speak of the expectancy of a soon to come resolution to the turmoil of this life; the kind of language used by someone who is expecting Jesus’ return to be just around the corner. Paul wants them to think not just of their immediate situation, but in light of eternity. Times of crisis remind us that this world does indeed have a ‘use by date’. It is a kingdom that is being shaken, and will one day be completely overtaken by the reign of God the Father through His Son. Crises remind of who is truly King, and enable us to look forward with hope to the goal He has for us and His creation.

And so the reason for the Corinthians to make wise choices about how they live their lives is not simply a moral or ethical one on its own – as if there is some abstract moral standard that makes something right or wrong in itself. Rather, it is about Who deserves – and receives – the glory. And the One who deserves the glory is the One who is the true King of all things. This is a big focus in this letter – and in fact in the whole scriptures. We are created to be for the praise of the glory of God. Ethics and morality is not about conforming to a certain standard; it is about loving the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, mind and strength – or in short, doing all things to the glory of God. Loving God is not about a warm mushy sentiment, but living in such a way that makes much of him, so that people see our lives and say, ‘God is good! God is love! God is gracious! God is my Father who is working all things together for good! God is worthy of all my worship!’

The power of the Cross

We will only be enabled to live such lives when we are able to say, ‘The world has been crucified to me, and I to the world.’ (Galatians 6:14) And we will only be able to say such thing when we have a vision of the cross of Christ. This leads us to our second passage.

1 Peter 1:13-25

In this passage Peter sums up some general principles that Paul applied when giving advice to the Corinthians about marriage: being prepared for action, making wise, sober decisions, all in the light of the promise of Jesus’ return. (13) We are to desire to be holy – not for the sake of holiness in and of itself, but because ‘he who called you is holy’ – in other words, we should desire to have lives that bring glory to God be reflecting His character in our actions. And he reminds us that this world is not our home – we are to see ourselves as ‘exiles’ living temporarily living in the kingdom of this world until we see His kingdom break in.

What is the secret to living this kind of life – one of integrity, love and certainty in hope? It is simply knowing something: verse 18-20 We have been ‘ransomed… by the precious blood of Christ.’ This phrase in itself contains enough significance for a whole series of sermons, but we will look briefly at it, to see what kind of vision of the cross enables us to face crises with a confidence and hope that far outweighs anything this world has to offer.

Firstly, we have been ransomed.

This means that we were once slaves. This is terminology that comes from the slave market; a slave could be given their freedom by having someone pay all the debts they owed, effectively purchasing them and then setting them free. We were once slaves – slaves to sin and to our sinful desires, and slaves to the world and its systems, unable to resist all the empty promises of happiness and power and self-fulfilment that it offers. The world, the flesh and the devil – our three greatest enemies were once our masters, and when they said, ‘jump’ we said, ‘how high?’. Jesus has set us free from these masters by cancelling the debt that stood against us, and for which God, in His justice, had rightfully handed us over to. He has come and fought against the strong man, and has overcome him, and he now has possession of all that is in his household, including us. We are now free. Our citizenship in this world has been replaced with citizenship in heaven, and we no longer have to conform to this world and its demands and desires because we know that the world is passing away.

Secondly, the ransom was at the cost of his own blood.

Jesus taught his disciples, ‘…whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me and for the gospel will save it. What good is it for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul?’(Mark 8:35-36) He said these words as the one who had already stood in front of the devil, who had offered him all the kingdoms of the world in exchange for worshipping him, and said, ‘“‘You shall worship the Lord your God, and him only shall you serve’ (Luke 4:8). He then did just that – lived a life of total obedience to the Father, that took him to the cross to make that redeeming payment for our sin. This not only shows us the magnitude of our sinfulness – that it requires the blood of the eternal Son to atone for it – but also the great assurance we can have in our freedom, that we have truly been crucified to the world and the world to us. It is not just a metaphor; it actually happened that day at Calvary.

Thirdly, this blood bought ransom is precious.

It was not merely sufficient, something that just got the job done. And it was not just costly – worth a lot. It is precious – a word that means honourable, or held in high esteem. The Father looks at the obedience of the Son culminating in his willing death on a cross and says, ‘That is precious to me! This is the thing that I hold as supremely important over all things, that my Son has given himself as a ransom for sinners.’ That is what is meant in part by the phrase, ‘He was foreknown before the foundation of the world’ (20a). The Father created the world, knowing – in fact pre-ordaining –  the corruption and turmoil that would enter into it, because His goal was that His Son would be honoured and glorified above all things because of his willing incarnation and death to save sinners. Knowing the inestimable worth of Jesus’ sacrifice to the Father should make it of inestimable worth to us also. It should make the crises of this world fall into their proper perspective, when knowing him is far more precious to us than anything in this world that we may lose.

Ecclesiastes 3:16-19 

The presence of wickedness and injustice is an enigma if we do not know of the patiently seeking, sovereign Father. But if we do, we know that He is not ignoring injustice or compromising His own righteousness when the evil seem to go unpunished and injustice seems to triumph. Because the march of time is the outworking not of blind fate but of the patience of a seeking, saving God,  we can be sure that in the end, His justice will finally prevail. “I said in my heart, God will judge the righteous and the wicked,” why? because, “…there is a time for every matter and for every work.” (Ecclesiastes 3:17) The Teacher is reminding us of the poem he gives us at the start of this chapter:

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;
a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8)

Notice that in verse 1 the Teacher uses the term, ‘Under heaven’. This phrase is used only 3 times in Ecclesiastes, unlike ‘Under the Sun’ which occurs 25 times. ‘Under the Sun’ means looking at life from a purely horizontal level, as if there is nothing beyond the Sun. ‘Under heaven’ implies a greater vision; there is something beyond the Sun – or rather, Someone. Under heaven implies the vertical dimension; to live under heaven means to live with an awareness of God and His oversight of all things.

This adds a new dimension to our poem. What at first seems like a meaningless cycle is in fact a meaningful, purposeful cycle. Nothing happens without purpose, because there is a Person behind all that happens.

Paul says as much in his address to the Athenians, after declaring to them God’s sovereign hand over all people:

‘The times of ignorance God overlooked, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed; and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead.’ (Acts 17:30-31)

The absolute sovereignty of God is the only thing that enables us to be confident of this coming Day of justice.

It is in Jesus Christ we find that these two ‘dilemmas’ of the absolute sovereignty of God and the problem of evil are both answered in one action:

‘…this Jesus, delivered up according to the definite plan and foreknowledge of God, you crucified and killed by the hands of lawless men. God raised him up, loosing the pangs of death, because it was not possible for him to be held by it.’ Acts 20:23

All the times and events under heaven had been leading up to this time. This was a time of death, uprooting, killing, breaking down, mourning, hating, war, as the human heart and its hatred of God was exposed as we crucified His Son. It was a time of silence – not silence from the crowds who mocked, or from Jesus himself as he cried out, but silence from the Father as He gave no response to the cry, ‘My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?’. It was the time when wickedness was truly in the place of justice and righteousness as the Righteous One hung in the place of the unrighteous ones and all the wickedness of the world was heaped upon him and judged. If there was any work for which there was just the right time, this was it.

And because this was the right work at just the right time under heaven, this also became the time for birth, planting, healing, building up, dancing, for loving and for peace, as God raised him up ‘loosing the pangs of death’. The poem of Ecclesiastes 3 is a perfect combination of positives and negatives, of matters of death and matters of life, but it points us to the even more perfect combination of death and life; the cross and resurrection of Jesus. Maybe this is why – even without realising the full implications of his words – the Teacher used the phrase ‘under heaven’ in introducing his poem. His certainty about the ‘definite plan and foreknowledge of God’ was pointing him forward in types and shadows to that moment which we now look back on with clarity and enables us to say, with Paul,

‘What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son but gave him up for us all, how will he not also with him graciously give us all things? …in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.’ (Romans 8:31-32, 37-39)

Can it be that, despite all of our expressions of consternation in the face of evil and innocent suffering, we are all too prepared to trivialise the mystery of evil? Have we accepted only the gentleness and love of God and quietly set aside the word of judgment? Yet as we contemplate the suffering of the Son, we see more clearly the seriousness of sin, and how it needs to be fully atoned if it is to be overcome.”
Cardinal Ratzinger (First ever living ex-Pope)

I don’t normally make a habit of quoting Roman Catholic theologians, but in this case he’s right on the money…