Sunday, May 29, 2011

Yes, there are just wars

The death of Osama Bin Laden has revived questions about U.S. involvement in war.

At present, our military is fighting in Iraq, Afghanistan and in the NATO-led resistance in Libya. Even some of the most patriotic theists struggle with supporting war.

The Hebrew Bible offers no shortage of stories of violent conflict among nations. Many times, Israel’s leaders were instructed by God to wage battle with foreign powers. Some use the Old Testament accounts to bolster an argument that war is always justified, especially when the United States, a nation founded on Judeo-Christian principles, engages with non-Christian nations.

On the other extreme are those who suggest that it is never appropriate to engage in war, quoting the Decalogue, “Thou shall not kill.” Furthermore, the incarnation of Jesus instituted a new covenant rooted in grace in sharp contrast to the sometimes-callous nature of the law. Jesus quoted from the law, saying, “You have heard it said an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth,” and then redefined it by urging people to “turn the other cheek.”

Not enough biblical evidence exists for either argument to prevail, but there are instances when war seems justified. In his letter to the church in Rome, Paul suggests peace is not always possible. “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Military force should never be the first response; diplomacy should be preferred. There are times when sanctions can be equally effective, but there are times when war is justified. For instance, when Japan bombed Pearl Harbor, the U.S. retaliated in self-defense. Similarly, with great wealth and power come great responsibility; we cannot ignore genocide in any part of the world or attacks on allies unable to defend themselves.

The terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, proved that there are those who have no regard for human life. We live in a world where ideological and religious differences can prompt violent responses. If this were not the case, we might be able to adopt an absolute anti-war stance. While we do not want to become that which we despise, we cannot allow such evil to prevail.

Christians are called to live in peace with others, but peace is not always passive.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

The final Word on hell: it’s real

A recent Time magazine cover read, “What if there’s no hell?”

The article discusses the views of Pastor Rob Bell, author of a new best-seller, Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived. Bell struggles with the traditional interpretation of hell as an eternal place of literal fire and torment, reserved for those who reject Jesus’ substitutionary death on the cross.

Bell is not alone. Preachers often talk about heaven but may rarely allude to hell. It is difficult for many Christians to harmonize the concept of a loving, merciful God of grace with eternal punishment. It is also hard to acknowledge that a loved one or a person who does many good things but does not accept Christ before death, could end up in hell. And does God really banish babies to hell?

Such unsettling notions have led some to attempt to redefine the orthodox view of hell to make it more palatable. The metaphoric view suggests that the biblical text is not describing a place of literal flames. However, proponents maintain that the metaphor does not dilute the intensity of the punishment, therefore the metaphorical view is not really an improvement.

Annihilationists do not deny the reality of hell but they lessen the severity by contending that the punishment is only temporary; those banished to hell eventually perish. Universalists view hell’s flames as a refining fire; ultimately everyone ends up in heaven.

The problem with these theories: They have little scriptural support. The scriptures teach that while God is loving and merciful, he is equally just. It is because of his love and mercy that he extends the invitation of eternal life to all through Christ.

Still, his justice is believed to be exercised upon those who willfully reject his open invitation. Theologians generally agree that children who die before the age of accountability do not go to hell.

While the thought of hell bothers Bell and many others, traditionalists hold that Christians who adhere to inerrancy of the scriptures cannot reject a doctrine solely because it does not bode well with them.

Certainly preaching hell, fire and brimstone is not the best way to present the gospel message. But if hell is indeed real, denying it will not change that reality.

Monday, May 2, 2011

No true Christian would burn the Quran

The burning of the Quran by a Florida pastor triggered protests across Afghanistan and led to the death of seven U.N. employees.

Last year, the Rev. Terry Jones threatened to burn the Muslim holy book amid controversy over plans to build an Islamic center not far from Ground Zero in Manhattan. Political and religious leaders persuaded Jones to abandon his cause. But, on March 20, Jones reneged and streamed his distasteful stunt on the Internet.

The obscure Florida minister has been labeled a Christian fanatic with a particular disdain for Islam. It seems more appropriate to call him an attention-seeking lunatic.

No Bible-believing Christian would endorse such an action; it violates Christian principles.

Certainly, significant doctrinal differences exist between Christianity and Islam. The scriptures teach Christians to proselytize — but with conditions.

Peter, for instance, encouraged Christians to be ready to “give a defense” to anyone who asks about the faith, but to do so “with gentleness and respect.” Paul says, “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.”

Torching the Quran does not satisfy any of these stipulations. Furthermore, the heart of the gospel message is love — with Jesus urging Christians to love even their enemies.

Some Christians are uncomfortable with tolerance, fearing that it suggests some sort of compromise.

It is possible to be tolerant of beliefs without accepting or endorsing them.

Tolerance does not require silence.

It does demand respect for people.

All religions have fringe groups that misinterpret scriptures and tarnish the faith. Jones’ battle is not against the Quran but rather Muslim extremists who kill in the name of God.

Ironically, Jones’ actions could give credence to this movement.

Rather than burning the Quran or any religious text, Jones should read the Bible and practice its principles.

Bible offers perspective on recent catastrophes

The recent earthquakes in Japan and around the world, and the revolt of nations in the Middle East, have eschatologists debating whether the end times are here. In the gospels, Jesus describes some signs the end of time is approaching: “Wars and rumors of wars … nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom. There will be earthquakes in various places and famines.”

Christians believe before the end of the earth as we know it, there will be a period known as the tribulation. The tribulation is believed to be seven years in which God will finally unleash his wrath on the earth through a series of devastating events. It will culminate with God conquering evil and restoring the earth to its original perfect state.

The Book of Revelation is the primary source for Christian eschatology. There is debate as to whether the book is to be taken literally or figuratively. The author uses a lot of imagery that is clearly symbolic. But despite various interpretations, Revelation is understood to be describing a period of great calamity on Earth.

There is disagreement as to the time period of the tribulation.

Preterists hold that nearly all the prophecies in Revelation are directed at the time period in which they were made. Futurists believe the prophesies are still to come and relate to the end time. Historists take a middle position: Revelation includes prophesies from the past and the future. Most mainstream Christians are futurists.

The apostle Paul speaks of Christians being “caught up to meet the Lord in the air.” This is known as the rapture. Theologians hold varying views on when the rapture will occur. A pre-tribulation view is one in which the rapture happens before the start of the tribulation. In a mid-tribulation view, the rapture occurs during the tribulation period. In a post-tribulation view, the rapture is at the end of the tribulation.

Proponents of the pre-tribulation view argue God would not allow his people to go through such suffering and thus he raptures the believers. Proponents of the post-tribulation view believe at least some Christians must be left on Earth to proselytize during the tribulation.

The catastrophes in the world today appear to be escalating, thus suggesting the end is near, but Jesus said, “No one knows the day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”

Since it is impossible to predict when the end will come, the theist’s time is better spent evaluating his life and preparing for what lies beyond the grave.