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Apologetics 101

One simple question: "What do you mean by that?"

In the May 17, 2016 Breakpoint Daily, John Stonestreet shared a few questions he uses when he finds himself in a tough conversation. The first and most helpful is:

“What do you mean by that?"

The battle of ideas is always the battle over the definition of words. Thus, it’s vital in any conversation to clarify the terms being used. For example, the most important thing to clarify in the ongoing gender discussions is the definition of "gender." So when the topic comes up, ask, “Hold on, before we go start talking about personal pronouns, puberty suppression, or surgeries, I want to ask, what do you mean by gender?” Often, when it comes to these crucial issues, both sides are using the same vocabulary, but not the same dictionary. So to present the antithesis – to speak God's Truth to a confused culture – we have to begin by defining our terms. Defining terms can also serve as a good defense when you're getting attacked, not with an argument, but simply with an insult. When someone tries to dismiss you by calling you a name, the best response is to question the insult.

"You're just a homophobe!"

“What do you mean by that?”

“Um, I mean you hate gays.”

“But I don’t hate gays. I do disagree with their lifestyle – I think it harms them by separating them from God. Is disagreeing the same thing as hating?”

“Yeah, of course!”

“But you’re disagreeing with me? Wouldn’t that mean you’re hateful?”

"Well...um....but you deserve it!"

As in this dialogue above, defining the terms might not win you the argument, but it can expose the vacuous nature of what the other side is saying. And even when you don't win over your debate partner, clarifying the terms is one way to help bystanders see through the name-calling. However, the most important reason to lead with this simple question – "What do you mean by that? – is because showing the anthesis, making plain what the two sides actually are, brings glory to our God. And who knows how He might use the seed we plant?

Adult non-fiction, Theology

Heaven: what can we know?

A summary review of Randy Alcorn's Heaven

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Christians don't seem to speak about Heaven as much as in the past. There is more interest in establishing the Kingdom of God on earth than in preparing for the afterlife. SLOPPY THINKING When Christians do think about Heaven, they seem disconnected from the Scriptures. According to popular thought, where Christians go when they die is the same place they will spend eternity. Even contemporary believers base their thinking on Heaven more on sloppy, syrupy, sentimental television programs than on any clear teaching of Scripture. There is a hint in our attitude toward Heaven that it will be "angelic," that we will end up playing harps on a misty cloud in the "heavens." We will be wearing long white robes, and talking pious talk forever and ever. Some even picture Heaven as a boring place. But these conventional caricatures of Heaven do a terrible disservice to God and adversely affect our relationship with Him. Heaven is not a sing-along in the sky, one great hymn after another, forever and ever. Hell will be deadly boring. Heaven is exciting! Everything good, enjoyable, refreshing, fascinating, and interesting is derived from God. When we have an infinity of newness to explore, we can never be bored. THINKING ABOUT HEAVEN [caption id="attachment_5954" align="alignright" width="197"] 560 pages / 2004[/caption] So why think about Heaven? Because the Scriptures remind us to think on things above. Doing so gives us insight into the brevity of our time on Earth and the value of life eternal. The doctrine of Heaven then, should not be marginalized by the church. Rather, it should be preached, taught, studied and loved. In calling us to this end, theologian/novelist Randy Alcorn, prolific author, founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries, has made a beautifully written contribution with his book Heaven. Is Heaven a real place? It's as real as a morning cup of coffee. Ah, but will we drink coffee in Heaven? Alcorn asks, "Can you think of any persuasive reason why coffee trees and coffee drinking wouldn't be part of the resurrected Earth?" His answer? "No." Despite biblical references that this Heaven and Earth will pass away, Alcorn strongly argues – from Scripture, word studies, and historical theology – that the "destruction" of the current Heaven and Earth will be temporary and partial. He firmly believes in the literal fulfillment of Isaiah's prophecies about the Messiah's second coming and the New Earth because Isaiah's detailed prophecies regarding the Messiah's first coming were literally fulfilled. The ultimate fulfillment of hosts of Old Testament prophecies will be on the New Earth, where the people of God will "possess the land forever" (Isaiah 60:21). Alcorn states, therefore, that God never gave up on his original plan for human beings to dwell on Earth. In fact, the climax of history will be the creation of a New Heaven and a New Earth, a resurrected universe inhabited by resurrected people living with the resurrected Jesus. THE RESURRECTION The key to understanding the New Earth is the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ. We are told that Jesus' resurrected body on Earth was physical, and that this same, physical Jesus ascended to Heaven, from which he will one day return to Earth (Acts 1:11). Alcorn states that the physical resurrection of Jesus Christ is the cornerstone of redemption – both for mankind and for the earth. Indeed, without Christ's resurrection and what it means – an eternal future for fully restored human beings dwelling on a fully restored Earth – there is no Christianity. Because we know that Christ's resurrected body is physical and that our resurrected bodies will be like his, there isn't a compelling reason to assume that other physical depictions of the New Earth must be figurative. Consequently, the predominant belief that the ultimate Heaven that God prepares for us will be unearthly could not be more unbiblical. Earth was made for people to live on, and people were made to live on Earth. Alcorn also believes that Christ's redemptive work extends resurrection to the far reaches of the universe.

"The power of Christ's resurrection is enough not only to remake us, but also to remake every inch of the universe – mountains, rivers, plants, animals, stars, nebulae, quasars, and galaxies."

THE INTERMEDIATE STATE Christians often think about Heaven as their final destination. However, this belief is not based on Scripture. Alcorn explains the difference between the present (or intermediate) Heaven, where Christians go when they die, and the ultimate, eternal Heaven, where God will dwell with his people on the New Earth. When we die in Christ we will not go to Heaven where we'll live forever. Instead, we'll go to an intermediate Heaven. In the intermediate Heaven, we'll wait for the time of Christ's return to Earth, our bodily resurrection, the final judgment, and the creation of the New Heaven and New Earth. The intermediate Heaven then is a temporary dwelling place, a stop along the way to our final destination: the New Earth. In the intermediate Heaven, being with God and seeing His face is its central joy and the source of all other joys. We will be fully conscious, rational, and aware of each other. We will know what is happening on Earth. We will be distinct individuals, live in anticipation of the future fulfillment of God's promises. We will be reunited with believing friends and family. We will be one big family. We will be aware of passing of time. But we will never be all that God has intended for us to be until body and spirit are again joined in the resurrection. CHRISTOPLATONISM Why do we find it so difficult to grasp that the intermediate Heaven is not our final destination? Alcorn rightly blames the influence of the ancient Greek philosopher Plato. Plato believed that material things, including the human body and the Earth, are evil, while immaterial things such as the soul and Heaven are good. He asserted that the spirit's highest destiny is to be forever free from the body. This view is called Platonism. The Christian church, highly influenced by Platonism, came to embrace the "spiritual" view that human spirits are better off without bodies and that Heaven is, therefore  a disembodied state. From a christoplatonic perspective, therefore, our souls merely occupy our bodies, like a hermit crab inhabits a seashell, and our souls could naturally – or even ideally – live in a disembodied state. Christoplatonism has had a devastating effect on our ability to understand what Scripture says about Heaven, particularly about the eternal Heaven, the New Earth. The Bible, however, contradicts Christoplatonism from the beginning of Genesis to the end of Revelation. It says that God is the Creator of body and spirit; both were marred by sin, and both were redeemed by Christ. THE NEW HEAVEN AND EARTH  The New Heaven and Earth is a real, tangible place. The New Earth has dirt, water, rocks, trees, flowers, animals, people, rain, snow, wind and a variety of natural wonders. An Earth without these would not be Earth. Alcorn believes there will be animals from various nations. He believes these animals have souls, though not the same type as humans. Alcorn firmly believes that we will be eating and drinking in the New Earth. However, there won't be marriages. Alcorn notes that the institution of marriage will have fulfilled its purpose. The only marriage will be between Christ and His bride – and we'll be part of it. The city at the centre of the New Earth is called the New Jerusalem. The ground level of the city will be nearly two million miles. Alcorn suggest that we will walk on streets of real gold. The New Jerusalem will be a place of extravagant beauty and natural wonders. It will be a vast Eden, integrated with the best of human culture, under the reign of Christ. More wealth than has been accumulated in all human history will be spread freely across this immense city. We will also have our own homes. In this New Earth we will also enjoy periods of rest. Alcorn says that God prescribed rest for sinless Adam and Eve, and He prescribed it for those under the curse of sin. Hence, regular rest will be part of the life to come in the new universe. Alcorn argues that there will be a government on the New Earth. The need of government didn't come about as a result of sin. God governed the universe before Satan fell. Likewise, He created mankind as his image-bearers, with the capacity for ruling, and before Adam and Eve sinned, God specifically commanded them to rule the Earth. On the New Earth there will be no sin. Therefore, all ruling will be just and benevolent, devoid of abuse, corruption, or lust for power. As co-rulers with Christ, we'll share in the glory of the sovereign ruler himself. We will become the stewards, the managers of the world's wealth and accomplishments. Alcorn believes in the transformation of the entire universe. If the new creation is indeed a resurrected version of the old, then there will be a New Venus, after all. In the same way that the New Earth will be refashioned and still be a true Earth, with continuity to the old, the new cosmic heavens will likewise be the old renewed. It will provide unimaginable territories for us to explore and establish dominion over them to God's glory. And if Christ expands His rule by creating new worlds, whom will He send to govern them on his behalf? His redeemed people. Some may rule over towns, some cities, some planets, some solar systems or galaxies. Alcorn comments, "Sound far-fetched? Not if we understand Scripture and science." CULTURE Alcorn notes that Scripture is clear that in some form, at least, what's done on Earth to Christ's glory will survive. But he also argues that cultural products of once pagan nations will be brought in by its people "proclaiming the praise of the Lord" (Isaiah 60:6). Treasures that were once linked to idolatry and rebellion will be gathered into the city and put to God-glorifying use. Alcorn believes that Isaiah and Revelation indicate that these products of human culture will play an important role on the New Earth. But the idea of bringing into the New Heaven and Earth cultural products is also a much disputed idea. Will we still want these treasures when our whole environment will be different? He says that there will be technology, machinery, business and commerce. There will be music, dancing, storytelling, art, entertainment, drama, and books. We will design crafts, technology, and new modes of travel. We will not only work in the New Earth, we will keep on learning. Alcorn looks forward to reading nonfiction books that depict the character of God and the wonders of his universe. "I'm eager to read new biographies and fiction that tell powerful redemptive stories, moving our hearts to worship God." Interestingly, he also believes that the Bible will be in Heaven. "Presumably, we will read, study, contemplate, and discuss God's Word." But why would there be a Bible in Heaven? The Bible serves God's people in this world as a guide for their lives and to strengthen their faith. In Heaven there is no need for the Bible. We see then God face to face. We witness then the fulfillment of His promises. ETERNAL REWARDS  Alcorn argues that God will hand out different rewards and positions. He says that our works do not affect our salvation, but they do affect our rewards. The rewards hinge on specific acts of faithfulness on Earth that survive the believer's judgment and are brought into Heaven with us. Alcorn believes that the position of authority and the treasures we're granted in Heaven will perpetually remind us of our life on Earth, because what we do on Earth will earn us those rewards. IMAGINATION AND SPECULATION Alcorn asserts that God expects us to use our imagination in describing Heaven, even as we recognize its limitations and flaws. He states that because the Bible gives a clear picture of the resurrection and of earthly civilization in the eternal state, he is walking through a door of imagination that Scripture itself opens. He writes: "If God didn't want us to imagine what Heaven will be like, he wouldn't have told us as much about it as he has." But at times his imagination gets the best of him. He repeatedly uses the words "perhaps" and "speculation." For example, he claims that perhaps intermediate bodies in the intermediate Heaven – or at least a physical form of some sort – serve as bridges between our present bodies and our resurrected bodies. He suggests that our guardian angels or loved ones already in Heaven will be assigned to tutor us. We could also discuss ministry ideas with Luis Palau, Billy Graham, or Chuck Colson. He also argues that we will explore space. He suggests that to view the new heavens, we might travel to the far side of the moon and other places where stargazing is unhindered by light and atmospheric distortions. HEAVENLY MINDED. EARTHLY GOOD.  Thinking about Heaven should impact the way we live on Earth. Alcorn comments that understanding Heaven doesn't just tell us what to do, but why. It is incentive for righteous living to the glory of God. Anticipating our homecoming will motivate us to live spotless lives here and now. In other words, what God tells us about our future lives enables us to interpret our past and serve Him in our present life. EVALUATION Alcorn quotes frequently from the writings of many Reformed authors, including Francis Schaeffer, Al Wolters, Anthony Hoekema, Herman Ridderbos, Jonathan Edwards, John Calvin, Cornelis Venema, Paul Marshall and Richard Mouw. He is also greatly indebted to writings of C.S. Lewis and A.W. Tozer. His work clearly shows the impact these scholars made on him. But Alcorn also adds his own perspectives on the life to come. He writes: "I will try to make the case carefully and biblically. There is plenty in this book for everyone to disagree with." I have already stated a few of my disagreements, so let me now state a few more. Alcorn overly quotes from his own writings. His "works equal rewards" theology is questionable. I can't find any Biblical support for his suggestion that God might create new beings for us to rule over in the afterlife. The rich concept of Sabbath rest gets short thrift – rest is not something physical; it is spiritual. It is not negative, what we do or not do, but positive, something we have. This rest is a gift from God, something we enjoy in close association with Him. I suggest that Alcorn thinks about Heaven too much from an egocentric viewpoint – focusing in on what interests us the most. With all the discussions of what we may do in Heaven, we easily forget that Heaven is the place of habitation of the Triune God. I also have questions about the purpose of Alcorn's speculations. We must not say more than Scripture. God has not revealed to us what the new cosmos will be like. We don't know anything about extra territorial space travel. We easily forget that the apostle Paul says: "No eye has seen no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him – but God has revealed it to us by his Spirit" (1 Cor. 2:9,10). But my critical observations don't take away the appreciation I have for Alcorn's work. He gives new insights, and makes you think about the best that is yet to come for God's people.

Rev. Johan Tangelder (1936-2009) wrote for Reformed Perspective for 13 years. Many of his articles have been collected at Reformed Reflections. This article first appeared in the 2005 July/August issue.

Religion

The Qur’an gets the Trinity wrong

Islam teaches that the Qur’an is the perfect revelation of Allah, but that presents a problem for Muslims then when it gets things wrong. One of the more notable errors is found in its explanation of what Christians believe about the Trinity. It makes two clear mistakes, first describing us as worshipping three gods. As we read in the fourth and fifth surahs:

.…The Messiah, Jesus, the son of Mary, was but a messenger of Allah and His word which He directed to Mary and a soul [created at a command] from Him. So believe in Allah and His messengers. And do not say, "Three"; desist - it is better for you. Indeed, Allah is but one God. Exalted is He above having a son. To Him belongs whatever is in the heavens and whatever is on the earth. And sufficient is Allah as Disposer of affairs. (4:171)

They have certainly disbelieved who say, "Allah is the third of three." And there is no god except one God. And if they do not desist from what they are saying, there will surely afflict the disbelievers among them a painful punishment. (5:73)

Secondly, the Qur'an describes Christians as believing in a Trinity made up of the Father, Jesus, and Mary.

And [beware the Day] when Allah will say, "O Jesus, Son of Mary, did you say to the people, 'Take me and my mother as deities besides Allah?'"…. (5:116)

As you might expect, Muslims do have their explanations for these verses. In some translations they change 5:73’s “…third of three” to say “…one of three in a Trinity” to correct the original error. And they do the same with the "three" in Surah 4:171, changing it to "Trinity." But as Luke Wayne, of the Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry, notes in his article "Did the author of the Quran understand the Trinity?" that’s not how the earliest Islamic scholars understood these passages:

Muqatil ibn Sulayman's mid-eighth-century tafsir is considered by scholars to be the earliest complete commentary on the Quran to have survived in good condition. In it, Sulayman claims that Christians "say that Allah, powerful and exalted, is the third of three – he is a god, [Jesus] is a god, and [Mary] is a god, making Allah weak.”

To explain away the error in 5:116 the suggestion is made that Allah, rather than addressing Christians here, was addressing some obscure sect that worshipped a Trinity made up of the Father, Son, and Mary. Or some will point to how Catholics are elevating Mary to an almost god-like status. That is the best they can do. As Wayne concludes:

It is not hard to understand how a pagan Arab might make these kinds of mistakes based on second-hand stories, hearsay, and uninformed observations and thus end up with the Quran's erroneous conception of Christian belief. But to say that God Himself might get so confused as to what Christians believe is ludicrous.

Theology

PAUL vs. JAMES? Dealing with Bible difficulties

“For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law.” - Paul, writing in Romans 3:28 “You see that a person is justified by works, and not by faith alone.” - Jam­­es, writing in James 2:24

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Supposed contradictions in the Bible can be unsettling. I had a few aggressive professors in university who offered up Biblical contradictions in a proselytizing sort of way. They were looking to win converts to their atheistic (or, in one case, theistic evolutionary) ways by attacking the trustworthiness of the Bible. I had attended a Christian high school and had almost entirely Christian friends, so I’d never run into this type of attack before. I didn’t know how to respond. Did trusting God mean just ignoring these challenges? Should I just keep believing despite all these seemingly irreconcilable difficulties being offered? Well, contrary to some popular Christian notions, our faith in God isn’t meant to be blind. We trust Him, not despite the evidence, but because of His track record – He has proven Himself trustworthy again and again. And because we can trust Him, we can go all “Berean” on these supposed contradictions. We can look at them closely, without fear, knowing that because God is true, these contradictions are no contradictions at all. Now, not only can we proceed without fear, we can even delve into these with a spirit of anticipation. Why? Because some of these “contradictions” are among the most enlightening passages of the Bible – we can look closer knowing that by better understanding these difficult passages we are learning more about our God. A CLOSE LOOK AT ONE DIFFICULTY One of the most illuminating “contradictions” occurs in James 2. It’s here that James seems to take a direct shot at much of what Paul writes. In Romans 3:28 and James 2:24 the contrast is clearest. Here Paul takes a stand for faith apart from works, while James is certain that both faith and works are needed. This is a big problem here – the Bible appears to contradict itself about the most important of matters: how we are to be justified! We aren’t the only ones confused. In his book Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament Robert H. Stein calls James 2 the one biblical passage that has “probably caused more theological difficulty than any other.” Martin Luther, who loved Paul’s book of Romans, also had problems with the book of James, in part because of this seeming works vs. faith dilemma. ENGLISH TEACHERS TO THE RESCUE? There is a problem here, but it turns out it is the sort of problem that can be solved by any decent high school English teacher. It was your English teacher who taught you words can have multiple meanings. For example the word bad means both not good (“You are a bad boy!”) and very good (“You is bad boy!") depending on the context. While words have a degree of flexibility to them, there are limits to this flexibility – if a word could mean absolutely anything, no one would know what it meant (the word bad might mean both not good and very good but it doesn’t mean blue, root beer, or canoeing). FAITH The word faith also has a degree of flexibility and even has numerous dictionary meanings. As Robert Stein notes, it can mean any one of the following: a religion (the Hindu faith) a branch of a religion (the Protestant faith) a specific set of theological doctrines (A church’s statement of faith) a living vital trust in God (she has real faith) The problem that many people have with James 2 and the contrasting passages written by Paul, is that they assume both James and Paul are using the word faith in exactly the same way. This isn’t so. If we take a look at the context in which Paul uses the word we find him speaking of: faith that seeks to please Christ (2 Cor. 5:7-9) faith coupled with love for the saints (Ephesians 1:15) a faith like Abraham’s (Romans 4:9) and a faith that is accompanied by the Holy Spirit (Gal. 3:14). James uses the same word quite differently. He talks of: a faith that allows Christians to see brothers in need and ignore them (James 2:14-16) a faith that is purely intellectual (James 2:19) and a faith that even demons have (James 2:19). James and Paul are not using this word the same way! WORKS There is also a notable difference in the way that James and Paul use the word works. Paul talks about works as something men boast about before God (Romans 4:2) or as a legalistic way of earning salvation (Gal. 5:2-4) or as something that people rely on instead of God’s grace (Romans 11:6). James on the other hand talks about works as the natural outgrowth of faith. James’ use of the word works includes Rahab’s hiding of the spies (James 2:25) taking care of the poor and other acts of compassion (James 2:15-16) and works as acts of obedience to God (James 2:21). So again, Paul and James’ meaning is significantly different. THE VALUE  If Paul and James mean different things when they use the words faith and works, then the apparent contradictions between Romans and James, turn out to be no contradictions at all. But it is only by studying these “contradictions” that we can get a proper understanding of the relationship between works and faith. James’ book can be seen as a rebuke to Hyper-Calvinists – people who take the doctrine of salvation by faith alone to mean they don’t have to do good works. Paul’s many letters are a rebuke to people on the other end of the spectrum – Pelagians who believe that they have to earn their own way into heaven by doing good works. And in between these two polar opposites are Calvinists who know that faith without works is indeed dead, but that our works do nothing to earn us salvation. It is indeed by faith alone. And by grace alone. The result of wrestling with this seeming contradiction is that we’ve gained in our understanding of what God has done for us, and what God expects from us! CONCLUSION  So how then are we to deal with supposed Biblical contradictions? Ignorance is not bliss. We don’t need to turn a blind eye. God is trustworthy and that means we can trust that His Word will not contradict itself. We can trust that examining the Bible closely will not be dangerous, but only to our benefit. Trusting God also means that when answers are not so easily had, or just aren’t coming at all, that shouldn’t lead to doubt. We will be able to resolve the vast majority of troubling texts presented to us but we also need to understand some difficulties will remain, and some questions may not be answered for years. Why is that so? Because omniscience is one of God’s attributes, not one of ours. We aren’t going to understand everything. But even if we are limited, there is still so much more we can learn about God. So trust Him enough to seek solutions to any biblical difficulties you’re presented with. And trust Him enough to be content when you only get 9 out of 10 questions answered.

There are a number of very helpful books for digging into Bible difficulties including Robert Stein's "Interpreting Puzzling Texts in the New Testament," James W. Sire's "Scripture Twisting: 20 Ways the Cults Misread the Bible," D.A. Carson's "Exegetical Fallacies," and Jay Adams' "Fifty Difficult Passages Explained." 

News

“Non-binary” fellow takes on feminist law

In mid March news broke of yet another “first,” this time in an Oregon county where Venn Sage Wylde, a “non-binary candidate” – a man who doesn’t want to be identified as a male or female – is running for the position of “Precinct Committee Person.”

The interesting wrinkle here is that, by state law, these positions are to be filled with an equal number of men and women. Why? This type of law is typically meant to increase the participation of women in politics and based on a feminist ideology that declares women and men to be identical, both in interests and abilities. So the lower number of women in politics is understood as being irrefutable proof of discrimination – what other explanation could there be? – which such a law is then brought in to correct.

Of course, this sort of feminist thinking ignores the possibility that men and women might actually be different. It denies that God, in making us male and female, gave us different roles, and different abilities, and might even have given us different priorities. Could it be that more women than men find politics noxious and unattractive? Feminists deny that’s even a possibility. However, there is one gender difference feminists will tout: they say women are uniquely oppressed. So, again, that’s why we need “corrective” laws like this one.

But what happens when a feminist law is protested by a “non-binary” fellow?

Venn Sage Wylde has previously been elected a “Precinct Committee Man,” but earlier this year he went to the courts and had the State officially affirm his non-binary claim. Then, when he decided to run for a “gendered” position, that left the State with a problem.

However, it turns out Multnomah County is nothing if not quick to appease. They immediately granted Wylde his wish and created a ballot with three offices:

  • Precinct Committee Man
  • Precinct Committee Woman
  • Precinct Committee Person

What’s unclear is how this can possibly work. Originally there was supposed to be one man and one woman elected for every 500 electors. Is there now going to be one man, one woman, and one “person” for every 500? Is this 50/50 split going to now be a 33/33/33 division? And how are they going to deal with the fact that while there are roughly as many women as men in the world, there are nowhere near as many folks claiming to be non-binary?

There’s only one possible way forward: Oregon is going to be forced to eliminate their gender-based requirements. When that happens, it’ll mean that God has used a “non-binary” fellow to frustrate feminists’ ambitions; He’ll have used one rebel to correct another.


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