The two-year-old speech “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” by Al Mohler has been thoroughly praised and criticized point by point since it was first given at the 2010 Ligonier Conference, and I have no intention of arguing against the particulars here. But having read and listened to it for the first time today, I was struck by how much of a misnomer it is and nauseated by what this mismatch between speech title and speech content reveals about the viewpoint Mohler is espousing.

In a conference about difficult questions that Christians face, Mohler was assigned to answer the query “Why Does the Universe Look So Old?” (You can read it abridged here or listen to it here.) Astonishingly, his sixty-six minute speech spent only the final four minutes truly addressing his topic, offering the standard two woefully inadequate answers of appearance of age and catastrophism. The first sixty-two minutes addressed an entirely different issue, namely why belief in an ancient universe and evolution wrecks the doctrine of biblical authority and demolishes essential theological issues like Adam’s role in the fall of mankind. This topic has its place, and many people have disagreed strenuously with every point Mohler made, but to me, the very approach of answering the question in this way is startling. Imagine a Q & A at your church and someone asking the preacher the question given to Mohler. Now picture your pastor beginning his response with, “Well, first off, we cannot believe in an old earth because too much is at stake to essential Christian beliefs.” This is essentially Mohler’s approach.

It Messes Up Our System and Therefore Can’t Be True

At one point, he states, “[…] the exegetical cost…is just too high. […] The theological cost is actually far higher.” In other words, it cannot be true because if it were, it would wreck everything we believe to be true about God. It cannot be true because the Bible says it is not true. This answer shows a surprising disregard for objective truth. Mohler is effectively (albeit, unconsciously) saying, we cannot consider the idea of an ancient earth to be true because it would mean that what I believe is not true. It would complicate things too much. “Galileo, your theory cannot be true because it would mess up our whole system that we have labored so hard to build.” No one will be convinced by a faith that says this; no Christian struggling to reconcile faith and science will remain in a faith that says this. In order for there to be rational dialogue on the veracity of any position, there must be an understanding that it is possible for that position to be untrue. I am sure that Mohler would concede this, but the answer he gave does not.

There Are Two Books of Revelation, But One of Them Is Illegible

Mohler acknowledges that truth comes from nature as well as from scripture. However, he lowers the volume on nature’s voice so much that not much can be heard from her. “There is a book of nature. We do learn much from it. […] God has revealed nature to be intelligible.” But, as he ponts out, Paul teaches that “given the cloudiness of our vision and the corruption of our sight, we can no longer see what is clearly there.” I would need a lot more convincing before I accepted the notion that Paul really taught such a skeptical view of the comprehensibility of nature. About our knowledge of God from nature, yes, but not about our knowledge of nature from nature. Make as many qualifications as you like about the instrusion of Ptolemaic thinking into Christian dogma, the fact still remains that it was nature’s witness, not the Bible’s, that showed us clearly that the earth revolves around the sun. The fact also remains that if the descriptions of the Bible receive nary a one “Amen” from Mother Earth, that if she responds with nothing but dissent to Mohler’s understanding of Genesis 1, then the future congregations of this earth will not believe the claims of Christianity. “Disaster ensues when the book of […] general revelation is used […] to trump scripture.” Disaster also ensues when we are told to believe only the book of books and to stop up our ears to resounding calls of general revelation, as if nature were a brood of Sirens enticing us to the rocks of shipwreck.

“We would not be having this discussion today,” said Mohler, “[…] if these questions were not being posed to us by those who assume that general revelation […] is presenting to us something in terms of compelling evidence […] so forceful and credible that we are going to have to reconstruct and reenvision our understanding of the biblical text.” This is a statement of the obvious, and I am not sure what Mohler is driving at, since the fact is that people are posing these questions as well as assuming that the evidence is compelling. The operational word in this statement, I suppose, is “assume,” and I imagine that the implication is that there IS no “compelling evidence.” But to say this is to bury one’s head in the sand.

Don’t Look Too Closely, or It Might Be Compelling After All

The mountains of compelling evidence are out there, if one will only be humble enough to survey their heights. I do not think Mohler has given much more than a cursory glance in their direction, judging from the final minutes of his speech, in which he finally turns his attention to why the earth appears so old:  “In the limitations of time, it is impossible that we walk through every alternative and answer every sub-question,” but the two basic principles for understanding the illusion, he says, are that God makes things whole (i.e., they have an appearance of old age) and that creation has suffered from the consequences of sin (the flood, e.g.). These two answers can only be satisfying from a great distance, but the moment that you begin to look more closely, the moment that you do consider a sub-question or two, the more you see just how unsatsifying and inept these responses are. It’s one thing, for instance, to say that God created light to appear as if it had traveled millions of light years to get here, but quite another when you consider that those rays that were supposedly created en route tell stories of stars that exploded a billion years ago. This is just one of many “sub-questions” that have to be considered instead of being brushed aside in the concluding minutes of a speech. Most infuriating of all, Mohler says that really, the ultimate answer we have to why the universe is so old is that it is telling the story of the glory of God. “Any more elaborate answer, is known only to the Ancient of Days, and that is where we are left. And it is safe.” No, it is not safe. Mr. Mohler is effectively saying that if data pointing to an ancient earth cannot be explained by the appearance of age or the catastrophism arguments, then we should just trust that the earth is young regardless and that the answer lies with God. We should just not worry about it.

With all due respect to Mr. Mohler whom I consider a sincere Christian brother, I urge him to consider that we cannot reject the veracity of the belief in an ancient earth based on what is at stake. It does complicate our theological systems. It does cause us to reconsider how we read scripture. But what ultimately matters is whether or not it is true. It does no good to ignore the mounds of reasons why scientists believe that age to be 4.5 billion years (or why all life shares a common descent). Nor do we get off the hook by saying that our judgment is clouded by sin. We have to acknowledge the evidence and engage it. Please, Mr. Mohler, take some time to hear a scientist out on what that evidence is before you answer this question again.

I have often heard the claim that a plain reading of Genesis clearly points to a young earth and special creation. What I have found, though, is that such readings are not internally consistent. I have already pointed to the firmament in Genesis 1 as an example of something that is not taken literally by literalists (with the “waters above” it and the placement of the luminaries beneath it.” In this post, I hope to look at Genesis 2-3 and show that literalists are not reading it literally enough either.

1.  Skipping the potentially problematic “in the day that the LORD God made the earth and the heavens,” the first point I want to make centers around the four rivers that spring from the river flowing out of Eden.

A river flows out of Eden to water the garden, and from there it divides and becomes four branches. The name of the first is Pishon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Havilah, where there is gold; and the gold of that land is good; bdellium and onyx stone are there. The name of the second river is Gihon; it is the one that flows around the whole land of Cush. The name of the third river is Tirgris, which flows east of Assyria. And the fourth river is the Euphrates. (2:10-14, New Revised Standard Version)

Notice the present tense. At the risk of insulting your intelligence, the present tense indicates a reality that is still true at the time of the telling of the story. These four rivers were flowing at the beginning of the world, and they are still flowing in the post-deluvian world of Moses or whoever is penning these words. How is this possible after a world-wide flood? A catastrophe powerful enough to create the grand canyon would surely completely rearrange the river beds, right? And notice verse 10, which seems to indicate that Eden still exists. How could it not have been destroyed by the deluge? The only explanation I can come up with is that this story stood on its own in its original form and did not presuppose a flood. That, or it was written by someone living before the flood.

The NIV and many other versions translates verse 10 as “A river…flowed from Eden.” So I asked myself why the discrepancy between the NRSV and NIV and others. Net.bible.org offers this footnote:

The Hebrew active participle may be translated here as indicating past durative action, “was flowing,” or as a present durative, “flows.” Since this river was the source of the rivers mentioned in vv. 11-14, which appear to describe a situation contemporary with the narrator, it is preferable to translate the participle in v. 10 with the present tense. This suggests that Eden and its orchard still existed in the narrator’s time. According to ancient Jewish tradition, Enoch was taken to the Garden of Eden, where his presence insulated the garden from the destructive waters of Noah’s flood. See Jub. 4:23-24.

Even if one argues for a past tense in verse 10, the NIV, KJV, NKJV, and ASV (which use the past tense in verse 10) translate the tenses of verses 11-14 as present . (The ESV still uses a past tense.) I do not know how to read Hebrew, so I cannot speak definitively on the subject, but my impression is that the rivers are contemporary to the speaker, which is problematic.

2.  My second point concerns the naming of the animals in verse 18. Saying that it is not good for the man to be alone, God resolves, “I will make him a helper as his partner.” The next verse is controversial or not so controversial, depending on which translation you use. Mine, the NRSV, reads, “So out of the ground the LORD God formed every animal of the field and every bird of the air, and brought them to the man to see what he would call them” (2:19). This translation creates a definite conflict with the creation order of Genesis 1, in which animals precede humans. Now, I do understand that many translations render the verb as “had formed,” but I find it difficult to believe that this choice was influenced by anything other than to maintain proper order of creation. Again, I have no knowledge of Hebrew, but the preceding verse seems to support the NRSV. God says that he will make the man a helper, and so he makes animals and birds to bring before him. None of them are suitable, and therefore God makes woman. Again, from net.bible.org:

To harmonize the order of events with the chronology of chapter one, some translate the prefixed verb form with vav (ו) consecutive as a past perfect (“had formed,” cf. NIV) here. (In chapter one the creation of the animals preceded the creation of man; here the animals are created after the man.) However, it is unlikely that the Hebrew construction can be translated in this way in the middle of this pericope, for the criteria for unmarked temporal overlay are not present here.

3.  The third problem I see with the so-called plain reading of Genesis 2-3 involves the serpent. “Now the serpent was more crafty than any other wild animal that the LORD God had made” (3:1) The serpent will be identified with Satan later in the Bible, but nowhere in these chapters is any sort of connection like that made, and indeed, it seems like this chapter is identifying him solely as a creature. Chapter 3:1 makes it explicit that he is an animal, albeit a clever one, and the curse placed on the serpent to crawl on its belly and eat dust all its life seems to indicate that the animal bears culpability. This does not seem fair if the serpent was just a poor animal who happened to be possessed by Satan. Instead, this story emphasizes the craftiness of the animal (3:1) by way of explanation of its ability to deceive. Ironically, a literal reading of Genesis 3 seems to bring about a contradiction with later scripture identifying him with Satan; seeing the chapter figuratively or allegorically allows for an interpretation of the snake as the devil.

4.  A final problem to point out has more to do with the traditional literalist idea that man would have lived forever had he not fallen. After the man and the woman eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, God says, “See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever–” (3:22). God then expels Adam and Eve from the garden and places a guard of cherubim before the tree of life. Note that they are not expelled as a punishment of disobedience but to keep them from living forever. I can only conclude that eternal life was not inherent in the original pair; rather, it was dependent on eating from the tree of life. In other words, death seems to have been the default destination of the human composition and had to be reversed by a special intervention.

Genesis 2-3 is one of the most important sections of the Bible, full of truth and meaning. But a stiff, literal reading creates problems of consistency and distracts from the primary message. What do you think? Can one maintain a consistent literal reading of Genesis 2-3? Can one maintain a figurative reading and still have an orthodox faith?

I have come to realize that the Achilles heel of the literal approach to Genesis 1 resides in Day 2, when God creates the firmament by separating the waters below from the waters above. I had always been puzzled by this passage in my YEC days, concluding that the firmament was just the sky and that the waters above were the clouds or water vapor. Ironically, this approach fails (in my mind) because it is not a literal reading of the chapter. Consider the following two points:

  1. God creates the firmament as a separation between the waters below from the waters above. It is not the water vapor above, nor is there any indication that the water changes into vapor. It is the waters above. In the original state of creation, there was only one body of water, and now there are two. I am told that the ancients of the Middle East believed that this is just what there was above the dome of the sky–a body of water that accounted for the heavens’ blue color. (Recall also that in the Revelation, God sits with an ocean at his feet.) How is it possible that the waters can be separated into two? Why, you need a separator, of course! Which is why the firmament must be interpreted as something solid, not mere air, for how could air lift up the waters and hold them back?
  2. In Day 4 (verse 14-15), God creates the luminaries and places them in the firmament. Now if the waters above are read as the water vapor of our atmosphere and if the firmament is simply the sky or the air, then it follows that the sun, moon, and stars are located in our atmosphere.

I just finished reading the Enuma Elish for the first time. As has been said before, the main point of contact between it and Genesis 1 is the primordial ocean, represented by the goddess Tiamat. (Tiamat and the Hebrew word tehom are etymologically related, coming from a common source word.) When the Babylonian god Marduk defeats her in battle, he splits her body into two and builds the sky from one half and the earth from the other. Likewise, Genesis 1 presents God moving over the surface of the waters and in Day 2, separating the waters below from the waters above, thus creating the firmament. What I found particularly interesting is the following passage from the fourth tablet of the Enuma Elish:

137  [Marduk] split her open like a mussel (?) into two (parts);

138  Half of her he set in place and formed the sky (therewith) as a roof.

139  He fixed the crossbar (and) posted guards;

140  He commanded them not to let her waters escape. (emphasis mine, translation from Alexander Heidel’s The Babylonian Genesis)

It is pretty clear here that the Babylonian conception of the sky consists of something solid holding back the waters above. Half of Tiamat’s corpse has been made into the sky, but Marduk has to make sure to keep the waters of her body in place, and therefore, he creates some sort of crossbar and posts guards. The passage presents us with one example of this early conception of the universe.

Many Christians will find it troubling that this is reflected in the first chapter of the Bible, but for me, it gives the Genesis account a much richer meaning. Seeing it as an interaction with the surrounding myths, even as a counter to them, gives a much more powerful message of truth than a literal step-by-step account of the process of creation. (Gordon J. Glover’s book Beyond the Firmament does a good job reflecting on just what that message is.) It also makes much better sense of Day 2.

File:ParisCafeDiscussion.png*

Francis and Ken haven’t seen each other in quite some time and have decided to catch up over some drinks at a coffee shop. After asking about each other’s families, Ken queries Francis about where the kids are going to school.

Francis:  They’re both at Ridgeland Public School, doing very well, I might add.

Ken:  But aren’t you worried about sending your children to public school?

Francis:  What do you mean?

K:  I mean aren’t you worried about what they’re being taught there?

F:  Not at all. The school system is one of the best in the country.

K:  That’s not what I’m talking about. I mean, aren’t you worried about the kinds of things that they are being taught there? Like science, for instance.

F:  What’s wrong with what they are being taught in science?

K:  Oh, come on. You know what I’m talking about. They teach kids evolution in public school.

F:  Yes, I thought that’s what you meant. I don’t really have a problem with that, though, Ken.

K:  Because you’re teaching them how to respond to it at home?

F:  No, because I believe in it.

K:  Are you kidding me?

F:  No, I’m serious.

K:  Are you not a Christian anymore, then?

F:  No, no. I’m still a Christian. Why would you think otherwise?

K:  Forgive me, Francis, but this is all coming as quite a shock to me. You have always been such a strong Christian.

F:  I hope that hasn’t changed.

K:  But how can you call yourself a Christian and still believe in evolution?

F;  Come now, Ken. I call myself a Christian because I still believe in and follow Christ. What you believe about the age of the universe and the particular method that God used to create life are perepheral issues.

K:  I don’t think that they are perepheral issues at all, but I grant that you can still  be a Christian. You can’t be a very faithful Christian, though, if you don’t believe what the Bible says.

F:  And what does the Bible say?

K:  That God created the world in six days and that he made man out of the dust of the ground.

F:  I guess I no longer interpret the Genesis creation account as literally as I once did.

K:  And why is that, Francis?

F:  Well, I have always been uneasy about the conflict between biology and the Bible, so I finally started reading for myself about why scientists think what they do concerning the age of the earth and evolution.

K:  That’s where you went wrong.

F:  What do you mean?

K:  You tried to understand issues of origin based on what man says rather than what God says. There’s nothing wrong with science, per se, but whenever there’s a conflict with what fallable man discovers (or thinks he has discovered) and what God says is true, then you know that man has made a mistake in his understanding.

F:  But, Ken, don’t you believe that God has spoken in two ways:  through the scriptures and through nature? Both must be interpreted by fallible man, and a conflict between the two could indicate a mistake in understanding the Bible.

K:  The Bible is crystal clear on this issue, Francis. It says six times,  “And there was evening and there was morning.” A plain reading of Genesis 1 rules out the possiblitiy of an old earth and evolution. How could you interpret it any differently?

F:  I think it’s far from plain that Genesis 1 must be taken literally.

K:  Okay, but why do you think that? I bet you anything that you didn’t come to that realization by just studying the Bible.

F:  Well, no, although I am sure that some people have. Like I said, I looked into the scientific evidence and found it very compelling. That’s when I decided to take a second look at Genesis 1.

K:  And you think that’s okay?

F:  I don’t understand you.

K:  What I mean is that it is not legitimate to interpret the Bible based on what fallible science says is true. You should interpret science based on what the infallible word of God says is true.

F:  I disagree. Even you, Ken, allow science to inform the way you read the Bible.

K:  I do not, but go on and tell me what you mean.

F:  Well, the most obvious example is Galileo. Everyone thought the Bible taught that the earth was at the center of the universe. Then Galileo’s observations showed otherwise. Now no Christian thinks the Bible teaches that.

K:  That doesn’t prove your point. The Bible never taught that the earth was the center of the universe. Ptolemy taught that and the Catholiic church embraced it.

F:  What about the passages that talk about the sun stopping in the sky and the foundations of the earth being forever fixed?

K:  Even today we talk about the sun rising and setting. God stopped the earth, not the sun. And as for the earth being forever fixed in place and never being moved, that’s just a poetic way of saying that the earth is securely in its orbit or that the laws of nature are fixed.

F:  Even if I grant that those passages were intended to be figurative, how did you know to interpret the Bible in that way? Isn’t your understanding of the way the universe works informed by science? And isn’t it that understanding which tells you not to read the passages I mentioned literally?

K:  I think that it is the mistaken opinions of man about the universe that have been imposed on the Bible.

F:  What do you mean?

K:  I mean that the writers of the Bible knew the truth about the universe, and people have read it through the ages through the lens of their own mistaken view of how the universe works.

F:  Come on, Ken. You don’t really believe that, do you?

K:  I do.

F:  So what you are telling me is that Moses, David, Isaiah, Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John all understood that the earth was round, that it revolved around the sun, and that it had a molten center?

K:  Well, maybe they didn’t know about the molten center of the earth, but I think they knew the other two things.

F:  Then tell me, Ken, why I never read indications of these things in the Bible.

K:  You do. Let me get my Bible out. I downloaded it on my phone recently, and it’s very easy to search. I know that the passage is in Job somewhere. Ah. Here it is.  Job 26:7:  “He spreads out the northern skies over empty space; he suspends the earth over nothing.”**

F:  I’m not sure that verse means what you think it means.

K:  Francis, it’s as clear as day. It shows that the earth is an orb in space.

F:  I didn’t hear anything about an orb there. How do you know that it’s not talking about a flat disc suspended over nothing? I have the Bible on my reader here. Let me take a look at that chapter. Hmm. Notice that verse 5 reads, “The dead are in deep anguish, those beneath the waters and all that live in them.” Do you believe the spirits of the dead go to a place underneath the waters?

K:  Who knows where the dead go?

F:  So you’re telling me that when someone dies, his soul goes under the waters?

K:  Not the souls of Christians.

F:  Fine. The souls of unbelievers, then. These souls go under-not the earth, mind you-but the waters?

K:  I am not sure what is being referred to there. The passage may be poetic, Francis. It is in verse, after all.

F:  So the passage is poetic in verse 5 in its description of the earth, but not in verse 7? What about verse 11, where it says, “The pillars of the heavens quake,
aghast at his rebuke”? Do you believe that pillars hold up the heavens?

K:  The passage is clearly being poetic at this point. I’m not so sure about verse 5, but it has to be poetic expression in verse 11.

F:  I wonder how you are able to understand what is should be understood poetically and what literally. Isn’t this a clear example where your understanding of science is informing your understanding of scripture? See, Ken, I think the passage makes a lot more sense when read in the light of other ancient views of the cosmos. If I recall correctly, many of the ancients believed that the primeival substance was a chaotic water, from which God made the universe. I’m not an expert, but it seems to me that the lands rest on the water. Perhaps, then, the souls were believed to descend under the earth and then under the waters. In fact, I think that verses 12-13 refer to God subduing the waters, like Marduk does when he kills Tiamat.

K:  Who are Marduk and Tiamat?

F:  Babylonian deities. Tiamat symbolized the sea. Marduk killed her and built the world from her body. I think the story sheds light on verses 12-13: “By his power he churned up the sea; by his wisdom he cut Rahab to pieces. By his breath the skies became fair; his hand pierced the gliding serpent.”

K:  I’m not sure I follow you, Francis, but it sounds like what you are doing is dangerous. In any case, we’re getting a little off topic. I have another verse for you. Isaiah 40:22:  “He sits enthroned above the circle of the earth, and its people are like grasshoppers.” A clear indication that scripture teaches the earth is round.

F:  Round, but not necessarily spherical. Again, I think you’re reading modern science into the text. If you look at the surrounding mythologies, I would be willing to bet that you would find a belief about the earth being a flat disc surrounded by water.

K:  There you go again, Francis, talking about mythologies of surrounding cultures. What has that to do with the Israelites?

F:  It has everything to do with them. The Israelites did not live in a vacuum. They lived in a cultural landscape with its own accepted traditions and even cosmologies. If everyone around Israel believed in a particular model of the universe, then I think it pretty likely that Israel did, too. They certainly did not have a modern understanding of the universe, from what I can tell. Keeping that in mind can bring light to all kinds of scriptures.

K:  So you are saying that scripture teaches a false view of the world?

F:  No, I’m saying that scripture speaks in terms of the ancient world’s perception of the universe.

K:  What’s the difference?

F:  It’s like this. If God wanted to speak his truth to the Israelites, would he feel the need to first correct all their scientific errors? Or would he speak spiritual truth using their current scientific understanding?

K:  I think that’s a false dichotomy. God might not need to explain the minutiae of science, but he would never say something that was false.

F:  (smiling) You mean like a parable?

K:  That’s different. Jesus’ audience knew that he was telling a story.  Your scenario has the audience not understanding that the details of science are in fact erroneous.

F:  Well, I grant you that, but I don’t have the same problem accepting the possibility of God speaking in terms of an ancient cosmology.

K:  Why don’t we go about this in an orderly way, Francis? Let’s look at Genesis together systematically and see which view is more faithful?

F:  Great idea. Next time?

K:  Next time.

* Image from wikipedia.

** NIV translation.

Children, graduate school, and teaching are keeping me from blogging, but not from Netflix. One needs one’s down time, after all. Now that I’ve finished Battlestar Galactica, my new sci-fi kick is Firefly. Yesterday’s viewing produced the following excellent scene (just watch the first minute and a half):

I totally get you, River. I’ve been trying to integrate evolution and Genesis for years, and I’m not quite sure what to do with the rest of the Bible. I’m trying to understand what it is and how I should be reading it. An inerrant understanding has become unconvincing, and an inspired-and-yet-still-human view has taken its place.

But Shepherd Book’s explanation is lame and unhelpful. “It’s not about making sense,” he says. “It’s about believing in something, and letting that belief be real enough to change your life. It’s about faith. You don’t ‘fix’ faith, River. It fixes you.” This is the Hollywood understanding of faith. It’s just something we believe that brings us comfort and peace. It helps us make sense of our world, even though it is divorced from actual truth. This I cannot accept. I have to have truth. It’s reality that matters. If Christianity is not really true, then it has lost its value. Now, I’m not saying that the Bible has to be inerrant or that Genesis has to be a literal account of origins. But the central claims of and about Jesus need to be true. Otherwise, it can’t really fix anything.

Our pastor preached his first of a series of sermons on 1 Peter today, and thankfully, he just launched into the material without going through a long explanation about who wrote it, what the scholars say, and what his response was. Such a conversation probably would have distracted from the text, but it brought up questions for me. What if it’s not Peter? I haven’t looked too extensively into this particular issue, but my impression is that the majority of Biblical critics think that 2 Peter, at least, is pseudepigraphic (if there is such an adjective), i.e., it’s author purports to be someone famous but is not. In my denomination, heated protests would immediately flare up at this point. At issue, ultimately, is the authority of this letter, which the label pseudepigraph ipso facto causes to crumble. But does it have to? I would love it if someone who knows would explain to me the following:

1.  If the author was not Peter, what were his intentions in using the apostle’s name? Was he an impostor, pretending to be someone he was not in order to deceitfully lend lend authority to his writing? Could he have been given authorityto speak on Peter’s behalf? Was he writing in the office of Peter?

2.  What did the author’s audience know? Did they think they were getting a letter from the apostle himself? Or did they know the identity of the author and had some sort of understanding about why he was writing under Peter’s name? 1 Peter seems to have a very specific audience–various congregations in Asia Minor. If the letter were written sometime after the death of Peter, then surely they were under no misapprehensions about who was writing to them. 2 Peter, on the other hand, is addressed more generally “to those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours” (NIV). If this letter was meant to be circulated generally, were the recipients intended to think it was from the apostle himself?

Central to all the questions above is the issue of deception, which I think is what makes everyone in my denomination so uncomfortable. But if, however, the author is writing in some sort of accepted tradition, then perhaps this wouldn’t be such a big deal. So, is there any enlightenment out there?

The Descent of the Dove

A lot of online hubbub about hell is going on of late, thanks to Rob Bell’s Love Wins. I have not read the book, which has sparked accusations of universalism, but I have recently started reading and enjoying Charles Williams Descent of the Dove. Below are his comments on the universalism posited by Origen:

The imaginations of the Alexandrian Fathers were courteous; their visions were humane. Origen extended that vision so far as to teach the final restitution of all things, including the devils themselves. It is impossible that some such dream should not linger in any courteous mind, but to teach it as a doctrine almost always ends in the denial of free-will. If God has character, if man has choice, an everlasting rejection of God by man must be admitted as a possibility; that is, hell must remain. The situation of the devils (if any) is not man’s business. The charity of Origen schematized then too far; he declared as a doctrine what can only remain as a desire. It was one of the reasons why he was denounced…  (p. 40)

Charles Williams makes some interesting points about universalism and hell.

1. Universalism stems from a charitable disposition. Who does not want everyone to be saved? Scripture indicates that God himself prefers to show mercy to everyone, when it says “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live” (Ezekial 33:11). Since God does in fact judge the wicked with an irreversible condemnation, the charity of universalism reveals itself to be misguided and dangerous. Misguided because our charity cannot surpass God’s; there must be something universalists are not taking into account. Dangerous because it preaches peace when there is judgment.

Questions emerge, though. Why wouldn’t God grant universal pardon, if this is indeed what he would rather do? Williams says that it is because

2. Universalism destroys free will. If man is free to choose God, then he is also free to reject him. According to Williams, God will not save a person against his will, and universalism “almost always” demands that this be so in the end. The Calvinist disputes the idea of God’s unwillingness to act against man’s will. He replies that if God waited for anyone to willingly choose him, no one would be saved. God’s Spirit must first give life and sight to the believer, and then the believer will always freely choose God. The Universalist could say the same thing in reply to Williams regarding God’s action toward the souls of unbelievers. He could illumine them and save them, too. But, I ask, if that’s what God is going to do, why wait until after death?

The third point I want to draw attention to is Williams’s view of what hell is.

3. Hell is the rejection of God. Williams and C. S. Lewis are of the same mind here. Hell is passive, they say, not active. Man chooses hell, and man is his own inflicter there. If God is life, joy, goodness,etc., then to reject him is to embrace death, misery, evil, and the rest. Rejection of God is hell. Furthermore, man willingly remains in hell, clinging to his sin and so rejecting heaven. (1)

I must confess, if this view were correct, then I would have a lot more peace about hell. I much prefer this view. I want this view to be correct. Unfortunately, I am not persuaded. I have the impression that scripture speaks more actively about hell. I have always thought of it in terms of God actively pouring out his wratch against sin. Perhaps I am wrong. What do you think?

(1) I am pretty sure this is true of Lewis, and I would bet that Williams would concur, though I am not certain.

“Surely I was sinful at birth,
   sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”  Psalm 51:5

My wife overheard a friend of ours say that she was so thankful to have her children on a schedule. She starts training them at two weeks old. Children need to be taught, she said, that the world does not revolve around them. I assume this means that at two weeks old, this mother does not pick up her child when she cries at night in order to train her to be on a schedule. Which for me brings up the question:  if an infant’s cries are to be ignored in order to teach her that she isn’t the center of the universe, then

Just how sinful are babies at birth?  More than once, my wife and I have encountered a belief from fellow Presbyterian parents that our babies’ cries from the crib are a form of selfishness, or at least can lead to selfishness if heeded too much, and it is our job, then, as Christians to oppose these seeds of sinfulness. In doing so, we are communicating that they are not the center of the universe. (I even heard from someone at work, who was recommending Baby Wise* to me, that one baby was caught on tape clearly manipulating his parents from the baby bed.) This misguided belief, I believe, stems from an overly zealous adherence to the doctrine of original sin.

So what does original sin look like in an infant? And do I even believe in it? Yes, I think that there is something in our nature that rebels against God, and I think that it is in our nature as soon as we are born and that it affects everything we do. But I do not think that original sin means that the sin inherent in our babies is full-grown. If anything, babies are less sinful than adults because they haven’t had time to develop their vices.

When an infant is crying in her crib at night, she is not thinking to herself, “I want my way now! I am the center of the universe! Come hither, Mother, and cater to my every whim!” She is thinking, “I feel afraid of being alone. I need my Mommy’s touch.” An infant has very real emotional and physical needs, and much of that involves the touch of a parent. She communicates the only way she knows how–through crying–and when she is ignored, her needs are not being met. Responding to an infant’s crying, on the other hand, is showing her that she is in a safe environment where she is loved and her needs will be met. She is not being told that she is the center of the universe, only that she is being loved.

Just who is the center of the universe anyway? I wonder if some parents are actually being hypocritical in their concern that their babies will think “everything’s about them.” If Mom or Dad strongly feels the need to make the baby’s schedule conform to his or her own, then perhaps Mom or Dad thinks the universe should revolve around them. “No, I can’t be inconvenienced by my two-week-old’s need for comfort or milk at one and three and five o’clock in the morning; she must learn to meet my schedule. After all, the world doesn’t revolve around her.” Then who does it revolve around? It revolves around Jesus, who teaches us to deny ourselves and serve others. In loving our newborns, perhaps we are really teaching them that their God in heaven loves them and will meet their needs.

Before you protest, know that I am speaking about infants here, not one and two year olds.

* Some parents believe that the Baby Wise method is “God’s way” for dealing with out babies. As Charlie Brown says, “Good grief!”

 

Now that there’s only a week until Halloween, I find myself reflecting again on All Saints’ Day, a church holiday I started observing only last year. I also find myself wondering why some in the Reformed tradition are apparently trying to redeem October 31st by celebrating Reformation Day instead of All Hallows Eve. The festivity looks much the same—there are costumes, treats, and games (including Pin the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Door at at least one congregation’s festivities)—but what is being celebrated is different. Perhaps we are recoiling from the ghoulishness of Halloween and are trying to redeem what many perceive as a celebration of evil. But perhaps we, in typical Protestant fashion, are recoiling unnecessarily from a Catholic holiday.

I don’t deny that for the Protestant, the nailing of the 95 Theses to the church doors is something to remember and celebrate, but isn’t it of greater significance to celebrate the souls of our brothers and sisters who have passed into victory? They have gone on ahead of us—through temptations, doubts, despair, persecution, abandonement, rejection, loss, torture, and death—and by the Holy Spirit’s indwelling, the Lord Jesus’s intercession, and God the Father’s eternal proclamation, they have entered into rest, joy, sight, life, and peace. In celebrating All Saint’s Day, we thank God for the work he did in the martyrs of old and in the lives of believing parents, pastors, and friends.

Why will most Protestant churches not mention this next Sunday? Perhaps it’s because All Saint’s Day technically celebrates only the canonized saints. Here, I agree with my fellow Protestants and protest the distinction made by All Saint’s and All Souls’ Day. For me, All Saint’s is All Souls’, a day of celebrating the sactification of all believers, who are all alike saved by the grace of Christ and are therefore all alike holy (Latin:  sanctus). If we want to redeem something, perhaps we can make some modifications in just who we are celebrating on November 1st, but there is no need to turn away from something so significantly hopeful to something else.

The following is Part 4 in a series reviewing the book Understanding Genesis: The World of the Bible in the Light of History by Nahum M. Sarna.

Chapter 1C: Genesis 3-4

It is a bit artificial to divide Sarna’s first chapter, which focuses on Genesis 1-4, into sections as I have done in these past four blog posts. Doing so makes it seem like the author is examining these chapters individually, but he does not. Genesis 3, then, is part of his ongoing discussion on Genesis 2.

Having focused on the garden of Eden and the two trees at its center, Sarna next looks briefly at the serpent. He notes that the creature is a common feature of Near Eastern religion, symbolizing both deity and fertility, but, as so often happens in the opening chapters of Genesis, the writer/editor of chapter 3 reduces him to a mere creature of God, devoid of magical properties. Unlike Adam and Eve, the serpent is not dignified with an interrogation by God after the act of disobedience, nor does he say anything in God’s presence. This seems to be an intentional attack against and negation of the pagan cultures surrounding Israel. Sarna, however, does not address the possibility that this episode is alluding to the lure of nearby religions for Israel’s devotion. Instead, he interprets the snake’s role as tempter in light of the cosmic conflict between God and Leviathan, since this creature of chaos who opposes God is commonly described as a serpent (cf. Isaiah 27:1 and Job 26:13).

Sarna concludes chapter 3 by noting the difference of emphasis in Genesis 2-3 from other Near East cultures. They are focused on gaining immortaility as seen from the prominent usage of the tree of life symbol, but the Hebrews are focused on godliness. The serpent’s temptation to become like God is a distortion of the need to emulate his character into the desire to be like him in power. Adam and Eve’s disobedience shows that we are indeed free to obey or disobey, and their punishment teaches that evil comes from our own decision to rebel and is not inherent in creation. This principle of human freedom and the consequences of disobedience is illustrated nicely in Genesis 4 with the story of Cain and Abel.

First, though, Sarna rejects the interpretation that this episode reflects a preference in Israel for the nomadic lifestyle rather than the agricultural one, as some have commonly posited based on the rejection of farmer Cain’s offering and the acceptance of the shepherd Abel’s. He notes that the evidence for a nomadic ideal in Israel is very flimsy and that the opening chapters of Genesis itself argue against it. It is, after all, Adam’s occupation both in the garden and after his expulsion, and the sons of Cain after him are not given their father’s punishment. Instead, they the inventors of herding cattle, playing music, and working metal, all of which are “the three pillars of semi-nomadic culture.” Cain and Abel are treated as individuals, not types, and interpretating the story in that way departs from the intentions of the author.

Next, Sarna argues that the Cain and Abel story’s incompletion is an indication that it existed elsewhere as an independent and complete story. He notes that there is no explanation given for why Cain’s offering is rejected; how God communicated his opinion of the two offerings; who Cain, one of only a few humans alive, was afraid might kill him; where the “land of Nod” is; who inhabited it; and how he got a wife there. Such questions are often answered by literalists in terms of Adam’s descendents multiplying and Cain marrying one of his sisters or relatives, but this explanation seems to me to do injustice to the story. It seems more likely that this episode was pulled from tradition by the writer/editor and used for his own purposes in compiling Genesis. Questions about where Cain got his wife were not that important to him.

Sarna’s commentary on the story begins with the idea of worship. Cain and Abel both make an offering to God without any indication from the text that they were commanded to do so. To make a sacrifice to God, then, is an innate desire, but even this can be corrupted, as the story tells us. There is not an explicit reason given for why God accepts or rejects the offerings, but we do read that “Cain brought to the LORD an offering of the fruit of the ground” while Abel “brought of the firstlings of his flock, their fat portions” (Gen. 4:3-4). Worship, then, is a matter of the heart, not of form.

The story also continues the idea of man’s ability to choose between good and evil. God’s warning to Cain that sin’s “disire is for you, but you must master it” (Gen. 4:7) indicates the presence of a conflict within us between good and evil and the necessity of mastering the latter. Of course, Cain’s failure indicates our need for God’s power in overcoming the evil within.

Sarna also points out that even though the reader knows that Cain and Abel are brothers, the chapter indicates this fact seven separate times. The point of this emphasis is brought out in verse 9: “Am I my brother’s keeper?” The answer is that we are indeed our brothers’ keepers, and furthermore, “that all homicide is at the same time fratricide.”

Sarna draws out a few other points, as well. He addresses the fact that there was an unspoken moral law forbidding murder and that it is a sin against society and against God; the question of why God did not carry out the penalty against Cain for murder; and the principle that acts of injustice cry out to God.

I appreciate looking at Genesis 3 and 4 through Sarna’s lens. His commentary on Cain and Able especially shows me how much meaning and richness is packed into Genesis and how much we can gain from understanding something about the nature of ANE culture. When the distraction of wondering how Cain found a wife is removed, the story has a lot more to tell us. To me, the historicity of this story does not negate God’s inspiration. He is free to use this medium as he is free to use others.

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