Easter Sunday, Day of Surprise!
Article copyright by Bob Rogers.
Many people who doubt the truth of Jesus’ resurrection say something like this: “People in the first century were superstitious, simple-minded people, and they were much more likely to believe in a resurrection than modern people are today. So, probably something else happened, and they just wanted so badly for Jesus to live that they convinced themselves that Jesus was raised.”
But when we read the Gospels, a totally different picture appears. The early disciples were just as surprised then as we would be now.
The Gospel of Mark could hardly have used more words to describe ow surprised they were. Mark 16:5 says they were “alarmed.” The angel calmed them by saying, “Don’t be alarmed… You are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who was crucified. He has risen! He is not here.”
Mark 16:8 says, “Trembling and bewildered, the women went out and fled from the tomb. They said nothing to anyone, because they were afraid.”
“Alarmed.” “Trembling.” “Bewildered.” “Afraid.” Mark was letting us know that they were totally surprised by the resurrection. They never expected it. Jesus had plainly told them he would be raised (see Mark 8:31-32; 9:30-32; 10:32-34), but they reacted to those predictions with fear and disbelief, just as people would today. Yet it really happened!
And because it happened, world history is changed. Time is divided from B.C. to A.D., because of Jesus. Within five weeks, 10,000 Jews in Jerusalem were following Jesus, and within 300 years, the Roman Empire came under the sway of Christianity.
Best of all, because of Jesus’ resurrection, we don’t have to escape reality, we can face reality! So many people try to escape their painful lives by diversions and entertainment. But Jesus’ resurrection changes all that. The sick man doesn’t have to transport himself into the imaginary world of a basketball star who slam dunks the ball; the sick man knows that in Christ, one day he will walk on streets of gold! The unloved woman does not have to escape into a world of romance novels to imagine love; one day because of her faith in Christ, she will be in a place where everybody loves her and accepts her, and she will see the One who died and arose to save her.
Surprise! Surprise! Easter is not a myth at all. It really happened, and because it happened, we can face reality.
Five ways to keep people from tuning out your preaching
Article copyright by Bob Rogers
Just because a person is in the pew doesn’t mean he or she will listen. How do you keep them from tuning out? Here are five ways:
1. Be creative. “It’s a sin to make the word of God boring.” So said one of my seminary professors. I agree. If the congregation knows that every sermon will have the traditional “three points and a poem,” they may tune you out simply because you are predictable. Why not try a different approach from time to time? If the passage is primarily a story, consider telling the story dramatically. If the text seems to have two main points or five main points, why not preach a sermon with that many points? If the passage is poetry, consider using music or other art to illustrate the text. Jim Burnett gives more advice on how to be creative in your preaching here.
2. Speak their language. Sometimes people tune us out because we aren’t speaking to their mindset. Failing to do so is like speaking in English to a French audience. Many women tire of constant illustrations from sports, and the well-educated and young people especially tune out statements that come across as judgmental or condescending. The best way to speak the mindset of your congregation is to know your people. Spending time with them, listening to their stories and opinions, and learning about their hobbies and interests, can make all the difference in the pastor’s preaching. The preacher does not have to agree with them; in fact, sometimes he will need to challenge their thinking, but if he knows them and has earned their trust, he can speak in a way that they will listen. Along these lines, the staff of Facts and Trends have compiled a useful article on how to engage nine different kinds of people with the Bible in this article.
3. Make messages on stewardship positive. One of the most challenging topics for ministers to discuss is stewardship. I have found it useful to do a stewardship emphasis by giving short talks on principles of giving early in the service, and then preach the main sermon on a different subject. This touches on stewardship, yet takes away the excuse that “all the church does is talk about money.” It is also important to keep the subject positive, praising and thanking those who give, and talking about the great ministry of the church that people want to support with their offerings. Todd McMichen has some helpful hints on stewardship messages here.
4. Learn how to defend the faith. Many preachers and teachers recognize the need for apologetics (defending the faith), but often feel inadequate doing it. When you prepare a sermon, stop and think what objections people may have. How might a non-believer or person from a different faith background disagree? Write down the questions of your imaginary skeptic. Then seek to give a reasonable answer to the objections of that imaginary person. A great resource is The Apologetics Study Bible, which has notes right in the text to answer objections of skeptics and explain responses to non-Christian interpretations of scripture. This article by Andy McLean should help, as well.
5. Preach with passion. Passionate preaching is not about using a loud voice; in fact, it may be a low voice. Passionate preaching is from heart-felt conviction. When the congregation can feel that you are deeply convinced of what you are saying, they will be impacted by the Spirit of God. This comes from being personally moved by God by the scripture, and bathing the matter in prayer. That is why there is no substitute for much study and soul-searching prayer in preparation for the sermon.
Pascal’s wager that God exists
Blaise Pascal (1623-1662), was a brilliant French mathematician and scientist often remembered for “Pascal’s triangle.” But he was also a Christian writer. In his classic work, Pensees (Thoughts), he proposed a fascinating reason for believing in God, often called “The Wager.” Here it is. Feel free to share your reaction in the comments below:
Either God exists or he does not exist. But which view should be taken? Reason cannot answer this question. Imagine a coin is being spun which will come down heads or tails; how will you wager? Since a choice must be made, let us see where your real interest lies. You have two things at stake: truth and happiness. What is the gain and the loss if you call heads, that God exists. If you win, you win everything; if you lose, you lose nothing. A gambler, where there is an equal chance of gain or loss, would place a bet if the possible gain was twice the possible loss. But here the possible gain is infinite, and the possible loss nothing. Every gambler takes a certain risk for uncertain gain. Here you are taking a certain risk with the prospect either of infinite gain if you win, or no loss if you lose.
How can believers respond to doubters?
Recently I taught a Bible study on the story of “Doubting Thomas” to my Bible class at church, and again at a local prison. We read in John 20:24-29 how Thomas said he would not believe Jesus was alive unless he saw the nail prints in His hands and put his hand into His side where He was pierced. Then Jesus appeared to Thomas and encouraged him to do just that! Thomas responded with his confession of faith, “My Lord and my God!”
I asked both classes, What lessons do we learn about responding to doubters from how Jesus responded to “Doubting” Thomas?
The Bible class at church gave six answers:
1. Don’t “blast” them; don’t attack them for their doubt
2. Show them what they need; give them evidence, books to read, etc.
3. Allow the Holy Spirit to lead
4. Be loving, compassionate, not judgmental
5. Pray for them
6. Plant the seeds and be patient
The Bible study group in prison added two more answers:
7. Share my own testimony
8. Live my life in a way that shows Jesus is real.
How about you? What have you found that is helpful to respond to those who doubt the faith? What has helped you in times of doubt?
Why we need sermons on the wrath of God
Article copyright by Bob Rogers
“For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” – Romans 1:18, ESV
A subject preachers avoid
Many preachers like to talk about God’s love and kindness and say virtually nothing about God’s judgment. So when people see references to God’s wrath, they often get a picture of a primitive tribe in the jungle that thinks it has to sacrifice somebody to appease their angry God. Yet there it is in Romans 1:18. “The wrath of God is being revealed…” Has God lost his temper?
Apparently even the apostle Paul was aware of this kind of thinking, because in Romans 3:5 he asks, “What shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us?”
Is wrath unworthy of God?
So is wrath unworthy of God? No, not at all. When the Bible talks about God’s wrath, it is referring to His just anger, much as we have justified outrage when we hear about the abuse of a child. Our problem is that we are comfortable with sin that God, in His holiness, finds offensive. But God’s wrath is never vindictive, nor is He an angry monster. God’s wrath is something people choose, and God uses. Let me explain what I mean.
God gave them up
After mentioning the wrath of God in Romans 1:18, we read this phrase three times in verses 25, 26 and 28: “God gave them up” or “God gave them over.” What does this mean to say “God gave them up”? Does it mean God gave up on sinners? No, C.S. Lewis explained it well, when he said that basically, there are two kinds of people in the world: those who say to God “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God will say, “thy will be done.” Because when we refuse to obey God, God gives us over to the consequences of our sin.
Paul explains in 1 Corinthians 5:5 the purpose of God giving us over to the consequences of our sin, “hand this man over to Satan, so the sinful nature may be destroyed and his spirit saved on the day of the Lord.”
The purpose of God’s wrath
God knows that if we suffer the consequences of our sin, in order that we, like the prodigal son, will hit rock bottom, realize we have nowhere else to turn, and cry out to God for salvation. And that is when we understand our need for the gospel of Jesus Christ. The ultimate purpose of God’s wrath is to show us our need for the Savior.
Once I met a man at the gym, who told me his testimony of how he was a mean man, who drank and gambled and mistreated his wife and children. I asked him what happened, and he said he lost it all. His wife left him and took the children, and he hit bottom. That’s when he trusted in Jesus Christ, when he had nothing left and he realized his need for God. You could say that God gave him up. But the result was for his good, and for his salvation. That’s good news!
Why it is reasonable to believe that God exists, Part One
Many atheists today not only don’t believe in God, but they act like they are mad at God. Richard Dawkins’ The God Delusion and Christopher Hitchens’ God Is Not Great are two of the bestselling books on God, and they are written by atheists!
Peter Hitchens, the brother of atheist author Christopher Hitchens, describes this attitude as a “rage against God.” He describes how one atheist “thanked God that he no longer believed in Him.” (Peter Hitchens, The Rage Against God, p.19)
It makes you wonder why they fight so hard against somebody they don’t believe in, doesn’t it?
However, there are other atheists and agnostics who seem to have genuine struggles with believing in God. Timothy Keller is a Presbyterian pastor in New York City. He had a brilliant young scientist who struggled with this. He had a feeling that God existed, but as a scientist, he wanted proof that God exists. He said, “I can’t believe unless I find at least one absolutely airtight proof for God.” Finally, the young man began to realize that proof wasn’t necessary. What he needed was clues. If we have enough clues, we can believe. (Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, p. 127-128) After all, a jury is not required to have absolute proof to convict a criminal, they are only required to have evidence that is “beyond all reasonable doubt.”
So, can we know that God exists, beyond all reasonable doubt? Yes, I believe we can.
It is reasonable to believe that God exists.
Atheists often ridicule people who believe in God as ignorant and stupid. “I don’t believe in God, I believe in myself,” says the atheist. G. K. Chesterton points out that most people who are in lunatic asylums believe in themselves, too. (Gilbert K. Chesteron, Orthodoxy, p. 175.) A man can believe he is a chicken and believe in himself. A woman can perform for the judges of “American Idol” and believe in herself. That doesn’t make their beliefs true.
I submit to you that it is more reasonable to believe in God.
Every argument that atheists use can be turned on them, and in addition there are many, many reasons that can be given to believe in God.
For example, atheists claim that belief in God is wish-fulfillment. They say that people wish there is a God, so they dream him up. But we can reply that atheism is wish-fulfillment. Atheists wish away any moral responsibility by wishing God did not exist so that they don’t have to be accountable to Him.
Again, atheists claim that belief in God is “the opiate of the people.” That is, they are saying that people escape reality by believing in God. But we can reply that atheism is the opiate of the conscience. In other words, atheists try to escape moral guilt for their sin by saying there is no God (Art Lindsley, C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ, p. 130). Bob Gass says, “An atheist can’t find God for the same reason a thief can’t find a policeman.”
So every argument that atheists use against faith can be turned on its head. What’s more, there are many, many arguments that can be used in favor of faith in God. Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli list 20 of them. (Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, pp. 48-86.) For the sake of time, I will give you three good reasons in this essay, and three more next time. First, we will look at these reasons: a reason from logic, a reason from design, and a reason from morality and conscience.
A. Logic. (“The fool says in his heart, ‘God does not exist.'” Psalm 14:1, HCSB)
There are many logical and philosophical arguments for the existence of God.
During the Middle Ages, a philosopher named Anselm had an interesting argument for God. It’s called the ontological argument. It goes like this: He said that the fact that the idea of God exists in our minds indicates that He is real. After all, God is the greatest being there is, so if He exists in your mind, then He must also exist in reality, because reality is greater than your mind, and if He is in your mind and He is the greatest being, then He must also exist in the real world! (Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics, p. 187-188)
Over the years, people have debated back and forth whether Anselm’s argument is true or not. But even if Anselm’s logic does not prove that God exists, it is impossible to prove that God does not exist!
Proving that God does not exist is like proving that there is no gold in Alaska. It is much easier to prove that there is gold in Alaska. All one has to do is to find one speck of gold dust. But to prove there is no gold in Alaska, one would have to dig up every cubic inch of the largest state in the nation.
In a similar way, what would you have to know to prove there is no God? You would have to know everything! Once the famous atheist Madalyn Murray O’Hair was debating Jerry Root. Root asked her, “How much of that which there is to be know do you claim to know, 10%?” She laughed and said, “Okay, 10%.” Then he asked, “Is it possible that God might exist and be part of the 90% of reality that you admittedly don’t know?” She paused and was silent for about a minute. Then she said, “No,” and quickly moved on to another question. She did not want to admit the obvious—that unless you have all knowledge, you cannot prove that God does not exist. (Art Lindsley, C.S. Lewis’s Case for Christ, p. 85-86)
In fact, it is absolutely impossible to prove that God does not exist, unless you can prove that the idea of God is nonsense or a contradiction, and nobody has been able to do.
No wonder Psalm 14:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”
B. Design (“For His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly seen since the creation of the world, being understood through what He has made. As a result, people are without excuse.” – Romans 1:20, HCSB)
In December 2004, Great Britain’s most famous atheist, Antony Flew, decided at age 81 that he could no longer deny the existence of God. What caused him to change his mind? It was the complexity of the scientific evidence discovered in nature, especially the amazing evidence of DNA, that made him decide that it had to designed by an intelligent Creator.
“I think that the most impressive arguments for God’s existence are those that are supported by recent scientific discoveries,” Flew said. “… I think the argument to Intelligent Design is enormously stronger than it was when I first met it.” (“Famous atheist now believes in God,” Associated Press, December 9, 2004; David Roach, “Famed atheist sees evidence for God, cites recent discoveries,” Baptist Press, December 13, 2004.)
The design of God’s creation, from the tiniest protein to the most complex galaxy is another reason to believe in the existence of God. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
Atheists reply that the amazing complexity of nature happened by chance over millions, even billions of years. But as Antony Flew finally decided, it takes more faith to believe in chance than to believe God designed it! Why? Suppose a combination lock has numbers ranging from 00 to 99, and only one sequence of turns can open the lock (e.g., 34-98-25-09-71.) There are 10 billion possible combinations, but only one can open the lock. Saying that nature happened by pure chance is like saying that I randomly twirled the combination lock until it opened. It could happen by chance, but it might take a while. Let’s see, 10 billion seconds is a long time, isn’t it? Multiply that by every species that would have to randomly mutate into another species, and you get an idea of how unlikely it is that nature became so complex by pure chance. On the other hand, if someone turned the lock a few times and opened it on the first try, we would assume it was not by chance, right? In the same way, when we look at the complexity of creation, we can reason that it didn’t happen by chance, either, but God made it. (William Demski, The Design Revolution, p. 87)
C. Morality and conscience (“For I am Yahweh your God, so you must consecrate yourselves and be holy because I am holy.” – Leviticus 11:44, HCSB)
So we have seen that it is impossible to prove there is no God, and it is reasonable to believe in God because God has placed an awareness of Himself in each of us, but it is also reasonable to believe in God because of the scientific evidence of creation. Now let me give you a third reason to believe in God: the moral compass in your own conscience.
Leviticus 11:44 says, “I am the LORD your God; consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am holy.” Because God is holy, he calls us to be holy. We believe in morality because there is a God who is holy and good, who put that universal moral code in our souls and expects us to do right.
Atheists never get tired of telling us that everything happened by chance. We should ask them, then where did morality come from? Did we just happen to decide by chance that feeding the hungry is good and committing adultery is wrong? No, reasonable people recognize that morality is a quality within our souls. Peter Kreeft says that the “moral conscience is the voice of God within the soul” (Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 73).
Many postmodernists would say that there is no God and no absolute right and wrong because everybody has to find his or her own truth. They would claim that what is moral for you may not be moral for me. Thus they would claim that morality does not mean there is a God, because different people have different morality.
We would disagree, saying there is a universal moral code, because everybody knows that murder is wrong, and stealing is wrong, and child abuse is wrong, and that feeding the hungry and healing the sick is good. But for the sake of the argument, suppose the postmodernists were right, that everybody has to find his or her own right and wrong. They would still have to admit that there is still one moral absolute: we all need to follow our own consciences. But where did you get a conscience, and why do you have to obey it? It must have been given to you by someone higher and greater than yourself, if you’re supposed to obey it. That Someone is God.
You see, if atheists are right, then there can be no moral absolutes and there is no reason to obey the conscience (Peter Kreeft and Ronald K. Tacelli, Handbook of Christian Apologetics, p. 72-77). Most atheists are peaceful people, but most atheists live in predominantly theistic cultures, where a moral standard influences believers and unbelievers alike. But it is a fearful thing to think of what the world would be like if the predominant view was atheism, and the culture felt no accountability to a Supreme Being. I believe we have already seen how violent this could be in history, through the French Revolution, Joseph Stalin in Russia and Mao Tse-tung in China.
We have seen that it is impossible to prove that God does not exist. We have also seen that it is reasonable to believe that God does exist. It is logical because the idea of God exists in every human, because God reveals Himself in the design of creation, and because of the existence of morality. In the next essay, we will look at three more reasons: that something had to cause the world to begin, that something causes us to be conscious of our existence, and the personal experiences people have had with God. We will cover those in more detail next time. But let me conclude with this simple question: Since it is reasonable to believe that God exists, why would you not seek to know God?
Jeremiah 29:12-13 says, “Then you will call upon me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.”
If you were going to seek God, where would you look? What is the best-known book in the world that more people have consulted to know God, more than any other book? It’s the Bible, isn’t it?
And when you read this book, what person rises to the top as the theme of this book? He is God’s one and only Son, Jesus Christ, isn’t He? Listen to what Jesus Himself said about seeking God in Matthew 7:7-8: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
If you look for God, you will find Him revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus is like the magnifying glass of faith. When I put a magnifying glass over a book, the tiny letters come into focus as they become larger and clearer, and letters around the edges become distorted and unclear. When I seek God, I discover that Jesus is the magnifying glass that brings God into focus. In Jesus I see God in the flesh. In Jesus I see God’s love lived out by His sacrificial death on the cross. In Jesus I find how I can believe in God. (Philip Yancey, Reaching for the Invisible God, p. 139.)
I pray that you will seek God through His Son, Jesus, Christ.
(If you see an advertisement below this post, please understand that I have no control over these ads, and that I do not necessarily endorse the product.)
Is God a psychotic mass-murderer? A reply to Bill Maher
Recently, TV talk-show host Bill Maher said, “God in the Old Testament is a psychotic mass murderer.”
Is this true? Many people think so, because of passages in the Old Testament where God allows people to be destroyed, such as Noah and the flood, the plagues on Egypt, and the many wars that Israel fought with their enemies.
There are three things we need to understand, in order to understand the God in the Old Testament.
I. We need to understand what actually happened
Many people are disturbed by the command of God for the destruction of people and cities in the Old Testament, but they are unaware of the culture and history of the time and the Hebrew words used to describe what actually happened. When one takes a closer look at all this, a completely different picture comes to light.
In some cases, the Old Testament is merely reporting what people did, not saying that God commanded that it be done. For example, King Jehu destroyed all of the worshipers of Baal (2 Kings 10:18-27), but the prophet Hosea said that God would punish King Jehu for this act of brutality (Hosea 1:4). So don’t assume that just because the Bible reports acts of cruelty that it means God endorsed those actions.
But the conquest of Canaan was clearly commanded by God. So how do we justify that?
The Canaanites were not innocent. They defiled the land with detestable practices that included incest, pedophilia, bestiality and homosexuality. (Leviticus 18:24-25)
Deuteronomy 20:16-18 gives the invasion policy for when Joshua was to conquer the land of Canaan. God commanded their destruction (herem, devotion to the ban), because of their wickedness. However, when we study the events of conquest of Canaan more closely, we see that it was not the kind of genocide some have made it out to be.
The word translated “city” in Deuteronomy 20:16 and in Joshua is ‘ir, which can mean a walled fortress, like Jerusalem was when David attacked it in 2 Samuel 5:7, 9. We know from history that in ancient times, the ‘ir was like a walled fort. It was an agricultural society, in which the people lived on farms around the ‘ir, but the military stayed in the ‘ir, which was primarily a military citadel, not an urban city as we think of it today. So when the Book of Joshua says that they conquered city after city, they were actually destroying the walled cities, or forts, of the Canaanites. They were taking military targets.
So when Deuteronomy 20:16 says not to let any living thing survive among each “city,” or ‘ir, of the land, God was ordering a military conquest of an evil empire, not a genocide of an innocent people.
II. We need to understand God’s mercy
Notice how the Old Testament describes God’s mercy.
God waited 100 years in Noah’s day for the people to repent. (Genesis 5:32; 7:6)
God waited 400 years to judge Canaan because “the iniquity of the Amorites has not yet reached its full measure.” (Genesis 15:16)
God waited for generations for Israel to repent, sending them prophets to warn them. “But Yahweh, the God of their ancestors sent word against them by the hand of His messengers, sending them time and time again, for He had compassion on His people and on His dwelling place.” (2 Chronicles 36:15) It was only after they failed to repent that God allowed the Jews to be taken into exile in Babylon.
God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked. (Ezekiel 33:11) God is patient, not wanting any to perish. (2 Peter 3:9)
Romans 2:4 turns the question on our own generation: “Or do you despise the riches of His kindness, restraint, and patience, not recognizing that God’s kindness is intended to lead you to repentance?”
III. We need to understand God’s justice
We just read 2 Chronicles 36:15, which said that God had compassion on His people “time and time again.” But the next verse, 2 Chronicles 36:16, says, “But they kept ridiculing God’s messengers, despising His words, and scoffing at his prophets, until the LORD’s wrath was so stirred up against His people that there was no remedy.”
The other thing we need to understand about God in the Old Testament is that while He is a God of mercy and grace, He is also a God of justice.
Leviticus 18:24-25 explains that God drove the Canaanites out of the land because they had defiled the land with their sinful lifestyles, and God said, “the land will vomit out its inhabitants.” God is a God of mercy, but eventually if we do not repent, His patience will run out, and His moral stomach will be turned against sin until He can hold it back no longer.
In Genesis 6:3, the LORD said, “My Spirit will not remain with mankind forever, because they are corrupt.” God is merciful, but when mankind continues to reject God’s mercy, God will judge.
As we have seen already, the punishment of the Canaanites was anticipated by God long before it happened, as God told Abraham in Genesis 15:16 that the sin of the Amorites had not reached its full measure. The implication was that when it did reach its full measure, it would then be too late. Throughout the Old and New Testament, we see this pattern: God is a God of grace and mercy who does not wish to punish. But if we continue in rebellion and refuse to repent, eventually God’s patience will run out, and He will execute His justice. We see this with Noah and the flood: God waited 100 years for them to repent, but when they refused, God sent the flood. God waited 400 years for the people in Canaan to repent, but when they refused, He sent Israel to conquer the land. God waited hundreds of years for Israel to repent, but when they refused to listen to the prophets, He allowed them to go into exile. The conquest of Canaan by Joshua and all of the other stories of punishment are not only history, they are also prophecy. It points to the final judgment that we all must face. Hebrews 9:27 says, “It is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment.” But God has also provided a way to escape Judgment Day, by sending Jesus as a personal sacrifice for our sins.
God is not a bloodthirsty bully at all. God is a blood-giving Savior, who gave the blood of His own Son Jesus on the cross that we might be saved from judgment and spend eternity with Him in Heaven. This is the God of the Bible, both Old and New Testament.
What about those who have never heard the gospel?
Copyright by Bob Rogers
One of the most nagging questions skeptics of the Christian faith ask, is this: “If one must believe in Jesus to go to heaven, happens to those who never hear the gospel of Jesus Christ?”
Edward Boyd writes, “Doesn’t this mean that these unfortunate people—who constitute the majority of the world—are in fact going to be sent to hell by your all-loving God? But how can this be since they had nothing to do with when they were born, where they were born, what culture they were born into… How can one go to hell by the accident of where he happened to be born? (Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic, p. 155).
The dilemma that Edward Boyd asked is a dilemma for many Christians, as well as skeptics.
On the one hand, John 14:6 says that Jesus is the only way to heaven, yet we know that millions of people have never heard about Jesus. It seems unfair for God to send them to hell, especially since 2 Peter 3:9 says that God does not desire that anybody perish, but desires all to come to repentance and faith in Christ.
Some Christians try to solve this dilemma by thinking that God just gives people a pass if they haven’t heard. David Platt explodes this idea. He says, “If people have a pass just because they have not heard the gospel, what is the worst thing you can do? If you tell them about Jesus, you just increased their chance of going to hell!” Yet Romans 10:14-15 and many other scriptures plead with believers to spread the gospel. So what is the answer to this dilemma? We find some answers in Acts 17.
Acts 17 tells how Paul preached to a group of people who had never heard the gospel before. He notices that they had worshiped what they called an “Unknown God,” and then he tells them what they call “unknown” he wants to make known to them: Jesus Christ. Then he says this:
“From one man he made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.” (Acts 17:26-27, 1984 NIV)
Notice three things in this passage that helps us understand the fate of those who have never heard the gospel:
I. God knows where we live (Acts 17:26)
Edward Boyd thought it was unfair that God sends somebody to hell because they happened to be born in a land or culture where they don’t hear the gospel, but Paul says almost the direct opposite. He says in verse 26 that God determined the exact time and place where every human should live. Verse 27 even says that God did this so that men would seek Him!
Could it be that God put people who are less likely to seek Him in strongly evangelical areas, and He put people who are more likely to seek Him in non-Christian areas? I have ministered in Mississippi, one of the most heavily evangelized states in America. But I can also tell you that many of the unchurched people that I met were some of the most hardened to the gospel. However, when I went to an unevangelized area of Mexico and shared the gospel, hundreds of people responded.
The International Mission Board reports: God descended on a Muslim village in Algeria one night. On that evening in 1983, villagers later testified, the Holy Spirit moved from house to house, revealing himself through dreams, visions and angelic visitations. Some 450 Muslims in the village eventually became believers in Christ as their Savior. Christians had nothing to do with the incident — or so they thought, until they discovered this: More than six centuries ago, Spanish missionary Raymond Lull was stoned to death by Muslims for preaching where the village now stands. Lull wrote before his death that Islamic strongholds would be conquered not by force, but only “by love and prayers, and the pouring out of tears and blood.” (“Analysis: To Muslins with ‘love, prayer, tears and blood,’ IMB Connecting, http://www.imb.org. Adapted from The Commission, January 8, 1997).
So don’t think it is an unfair accident that some people live in areas where the gospel is rarely preached. God didn’t make some mistake. He knows exactly where He put every person, and God is revealing Himself. Romans 1:20 says, “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities–his eternal power and divine nature–have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.”
II. God knows our hearts (Acts 17:27a)
Paul goes on to say in verse 27, “God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him…”
God knows our hearts. God knows who is going to seek Him.
In Romans 4, Paul discusses this with the illustration of Abraham:
“What then shall we say that Abraham, our forefather, discovered in this matter? If, in fact, Abraham was justified by works, he had something to boast about–but not before God. What does the Scripture say? “Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him as righteousness.” (Romans 4:1-3, 1984 NIV)
“Yet he did not waver through unbelief regarding the promise of God, but was strengthened in his faith and gave glory to God, being fully persuaded that God had power to do what he had promised. This is why ‘it was credited to him as righteousness.’ The words “it was credited to him” were written not for him alone, but also for us, to whom God will credit righteousness–for us who believe in him who raised Jesus our Lord from the dead.” (Romans 4:20-24, 1984 NIV)
Abraham believed what God revealed to him. Jesus had not yet come, but Abraham had faith in everything He saw, and God accepted that faith as righteousness. Apparently God even revealed Jesus to Abraham, because in John 8:56 Jesus says, “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” Notice the words “he saw it.” Jesus was saying that somehow, God allowed Abraham to see and understand about Jesus.
Cornelius was another example. Acts 10 says Cornelius was a God-fearing Roman centurion. He had not heard the gospel, but he had heard about the God of Israel, and he sought the Lord, even giving generously to the synagogue and praying regularly. Acts 10:4 says an angel appeared to Cornelius and said, “Your prayers and gifts to the poor have come up as a memorial offering before God.” Then God sent Peter to Cornelius to share Jesus with him, and when Cornelius heard about Jesus, he believed.
God knows our hearts. If people live in lands where the gospel is not preached, but they seek God, then God will respond to them. If they come to the light they are given, God will give them more light!
III. God is available to us (Acts 17:27b)
Finally, notice what Paul says in the end of verse 27: “He is not far from each one of us.”
God is available. He is not far away. He can be found.
Romans 1:20 says that God has revealed Himself through creation, so that all people are “without excuse.” Everybody has been given the revelation of God’s existence through creation. When we pay attention to the light that God gives us, then God gives more light. Deuteronomy 4:29, (HCSB) says to “search for the Lord… you will find Him when you seek Him with all your heart…”
The International Mission Board reports that around the Muslim world, Christian workers report an increasing openness and turning to Christ — often preceded by dreams or visions of him among potential converts. Several examples of such phenomena were detailed last year by National and International Religion Report:
— Thousands of North African Muslims wrote to a Christian radio service asking for information. Many reported a similar dream: Jesus appears and tells them, “I am the way.”
— A young Muslim angrily took a Bible tract from a Christian worker, tore it up and threatened the worker’s life. The next day the same young man appeared at the worker’s door, not with a weapon but with a plea: “I must have another booklet.” The previous night, he recounted, he had felt two hands shake him awake and heard a voice say, “You have torn up the truth.” He read the tract and became a believer in Christ.
— In Nigeria, Muslims savagely beat a Christian convert from their tribe. As he lay dying, they heard him asking God to forgive them. That night two Muslim mullahs who participated in the attack saw visions of Christ. Both repented and took 80 followers to a Christian church to hear the gospel. (“Analysis: To Muslins with ‘love, prayer, tears and blood,’ IMB Connecting, http://www.imb.org. Adapted from The Commission, January 8, 1997).
Each of these stories illustrate the truth, that God is available, no matter where a person lives, and even people who live in areas where the gospel has rarely been heard, are hearing and coming to Christ.
A few years ago, a group of nine people from my church visited in the home of a Christian who grew up in the Middle East. She lived in a city and nation where there are very few Christians, and she had never met a Christian or read the Bible or heard the gospel. But one night, she had a dream. In this dream, she stepped outside of her door and was in a desert, and there was a cross lying on a rock. She was told to put the cross in the rock, and when she did, a city appeared with people who looked like her but spoke a language foreign to her.
Three years later, she and her husband moved to Pakistan. There she met people who looked like her but spoke a foreign language, just as in her dream. Then her husband brought home a Bible in Arabic and said, “Why don’t you read this?” She said, “Aha! I have always heard that the prophet Jesus said to follow the prophet Muhammad who is coming after him.” So she read the Bible to find this, but was surprised to read instead that Jesus said false prophets would come after Him (Matthew 7:15; 24:24). When she read this, she exclaimed, “Muhammad is a false prophet! I must follow Jesus.” She has been a faithful Christian to this day, sharing her faith with Muslim women.
Remember the question of the skeptic, Edward Boyd? After 3 years of writing back and forth 30 letters with his son, and numerous phone calls, Edward Boyd finally came to faith in Christ. So can you, and so can the lost who live in faraway lands!
Really, the question should not be, “Why did God put them in places where the gospel is rarely preached?” The question should be, “Why are we not taking the gospel to them?”
Does the Bible Demean Women?
In the United States of America, women have great freedoms and influence. Women are in influential positions all over our society; we even have women justices on the Supreme Court and a female elected as vice-president. It is often assumed in our culture that for women to have equal rights, they have the right to do anything a man does. So when they read the Bible, many people in our culture see the Bible as sexist, demeaning toward women. So let’s look at four passages often taken as demeaning toward women.
Before we view these passages, let me ask you a question. Are you opposed to women’s suffrage? My daughter, Melissa, is a school teacher, and she often asks this question and frequently gets a response of yes, that they are opposed to women’s suffrage. Then they find out that the term means a woman’s right to vote. So if you are opposed to women’s suffrage, that means you are opposed to a woman’s right to vote! But some people misunderstand the term, because “suffrage” sounds like “suffering.”
Now, if English-speaking Americans can misunderstand a term in our own language, don’t you think it is possible that English-speaking Americans today might misunderstand something written in Greek and Hebrew to a different time and culture in the Bible? So let’s take a fresh look at four major passages that are often described as demeaning to women.
Genesis 2:18 The Lord God said, “It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him.”
Eve was created as Adam’s “helper” (NIV “suitable for him,” HCSB “as his complement”). This has often been distorted as if it means the woman is the man’s servant to do whatever he commands, but the Hebrew word is translated well in the HCSB as “his complement.” That is, she completes him. He has a role, she has a role, and the marriage and family meets its full potential when the woman and man function together.
1 Corinthians 11:3: Now I want you to realize that the head of every man is Christ, and the head of the woman is man, and the head of Christ is God.
Man is the head of the woman. Greek word for head, kephale, when used metaphorically means “source, origin,” unlike the English word head which can also mean “chief, ruler.” So yes, it says that woman came out of the man and he leads her, but in the original Greek, the word “head” does not imply the domination that it does in our language. Remember, the man may be the head of the house, but the woman is the neck, and the head cannot turn without the neck!
Ephesians 5:22: Wives, submit to your husbands as to the Lord.
There is no verb in verse 22, and the verb is implied from verse 21, where we are first told to be in mutual submission to one another. Thus a wife’s submission only comes when the husband also has a humble and sacrificial attitude toward his wife. Notice as well that Ephesians 5:25 tells husbands to love their wives as Christ loved the church, and Christ died for the church. Rarely does a wife have a problem submitting to a husband who is willing to die for her.
1 Timothy 2:12: I do not permit a woman to teach or to have authority over a man; she must be silent.
The point here is that men lead the church. This is why we do not call a woman as pastor. However, this does not mean that women can never teach men, or else Priscilla would have been wrong to teach Apollos in Acts 18:26. Also there are references to women prophesying in both the Old and New Testaments,and these prophesies were sometimes directed toward men. For example, Deborah was a prophetess and judge over Israel who commanded the man Barak to take up arms against the oppression of his people (Judges 4:4-7). So the point is not that women can never speak God’s word in church and community, but that the leadership role of pastor in the church is reserved for men.
So as we study these verses, we see that while they do give a leadership role to men, they are not nearly as negative toward women as often portrayed. As we can see, these verses do not justify abuse of women at all. However, they do teach a distinctions and differences in the roles of men and women. In our culture today, we have been conditioned to think that if there is any difference in the role, there is a difference in their value. But that is not what the Bible teaches, at all.
Genesis 1:27: So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.
This verse teaches that men and women are created equally in the image of God.
Galatians 3:28: There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.
This teaches that men and women are equal in Christ.
Sharon James, writing in The Apologetics Study Bible, uses the Trinity to illustrate how equality does not mean sameness and submission does not mean lesser worth. She points out that the three persons of the Trinity, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, are equally God, but have different roles. Likewise, men and women can have different roles and still be equal in value.
She also points out that Jesus, the Son of God, submits to God the Father. Likewise, wives who submit to their husbands are not worth less just because they are submissive.
Sharon James goes on to say that the different gender roles show how Eve was made as a complement to Adam: Masculine strength can be for protection and provision, while feminine sensitivity to relationships are useful for nurture and care.
The Bible does not put down women at all; it lifts them up! Historically, wherever Christianity has spread, the status of women has improved. Those countries where women are most exploited today are those with the least exposure to the gospel.