Last week the satirical news site Babylon Bee made the national news with a post distasteful to some, mocking a health-and-wealth guru after she proved herself a fraud by dying. While that story was making the headlines, a less popular post titled “Conservative Christian Trying To Remember What He’s Supposed To Be Conserving” caught my attention. It did so because in the conservative evangelical world, there is often little agreement on what should be conserved. Some conserve a whole confessional heritage, others a block of “fundamentals,” and others a centerpiece of theology regarded as the linchpin of the Christian faith (e.g., inerrancy or “the gospel”); some conserve a formal liturgy, others a hymn tradition rich in doctrine, and others some flagging worship style that has been left behind by the progressives; some cling to a nostalgic way of life when things were simpler and common grace more abundant; and still others don’t care so long as a Republican is in the White House trying to stop abortion and get the Bible and prayer back into the public schools. Hence the Babylon Bee’s satirical confusion—what are Christian conservatives actually conserving, if anything?
As a self-identifying “conservative,” I mean by the label that I am a foundationalist. That is, I believe that within God’s order are fixed and inalienable standards of right and wrong in the spheres of truth, goodness, beauty, and in fact every philosophical sphere. The standard of right in each case is defined by God and is not subject to progress. So while the world around me experiments continually with alternative universes in which goodness, beauty, and truth are other than what God defines them to be, I refuse to do so on principle, viz., the conservative principle.
In the spheres of truth (what I know/believe) and goodness (what I ought/do) God supplies in his written Word a wealth of propositional data, and being “conservative” in these matters largely reduces to believing God’s Word: to be conservative is to believe in biblical inerrancy. Other philosophical spheres (e.g., beauty), however, are not so fully addressed in Scripture, a state of affairs captured succinctly in J. M. Spier’s Introduction to Philosophy. On p. 44 of this volume Spier suggests fourteen “spheres” which, while because of their increasing simplicity are the object of progressively less and less propositional data in Scripture, still remain fixed in the divine mind. IOW, everything is foundational to God, even what is not explicitly expressed in Scripture:
As we proceed down this list we (arguably) find less direct biblical revelation at each successive level, not because God is neutral/undecided/ambivalent about these issues, but because these issues are progressively simpler and less objectionable to the depraved mind (i.e., few people doubt that 2+2=4—not because the Bible tells me this statement is true in so many words, but because the arithmetic first principles of the Christian worldview are assumed and accepted by virtually all people without objection).
The conservative admits that warrant for identifying truth and ought in the interior disciplines is sometimes difficult (for an interesting attempt to do this, see Roy Clouser, The Myth of Religious Neutrality), but approaches the task by summarily denying the idea of neutrality (i.e., non-foundational data) in any sphere, and by affirming the need to discover and embrace what is right in every sphere. This contrasts with the non-conservative, who believes that God’s revelation is sufficient only for spiritual truth, that neutrality is a common feature of many philosophical spheres, and that there is consequently little or nothing to conserve in them.
Being a conservative is not an easy thing in a world (and sometimes in churches) that embrace progressivism (the opposite of conservatism). But the foundational nature of God’s truth system cannot ultimately survive without it.
Jeremie Roy, recent DBTS graduate and missionary to the Dominican Republic, reminds us from Romans 8:18-25 that because of the greatness of the coming Glory, we must see trials as trivial.http://dbts.edu/podcasts/Roy-5_23_16.mp3
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Last Saturday at the Cincinnati Zoo, a gorilla was killed to protect the life of a 4 year old boy who had fallen into the gorilla enclosure. The gorilla, named Harambe, was a member of an endangered species, with less than 175,000 western lowland gorillas worldwide.
This incident has created quite a bit of controversy. An online petition asking for “Justice for Harambe” by holding the parents of the boy responsible for the death of the gorilla has garnered over 475,000 signatures to date. While the petition indicates the decision to kill the gorilla was “heartbreaking” it was “made in the best interests of keeping the child…safe.”
But not everyone agrees that the child’s life should have taken priority. I read through some of the comments following a statement by the zoo posted on Facebook. Two comments in particular stood out to me (though several others expressed similar sentiments). The first said that, since the gorilla was an endangered species, his life should be worth the lives of at least ten children. The second asked how anyone could possibly argue that a human life was more valuable than a gorilla’s life without assuming an anthropocentric view of the world—the idea that humans are the most significant beings on earth.
But I think to really consider questions like those raised above, we need to step back further and ask why we would consider a gorilla’s life valuable in the first place. There is almost universal agreement that the gorilla’s death was tragic, but why would we say that? Richard Dawkins has stated: “In a universe of electrons and selfish genes, blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Dawkins, River out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life). Thus, if naturalistic evolution is true, life itself has no more real value than death. And the death of Harambe was in no way tragic, because nothing is either good or tragic. It just is.
Perhaps one could argue that life is good because survival is the goal of evolution/natural selection.* But the goal of evolution/natural selection would only include the survival of your species as a good thing. This argument would result in a extreme version of anthropocentrism, in which the only lives that matter are human lives and the only good is the continued survival of humanity. It is hard to see how a gorilla in a zoo contributed to humanity’s survival, so his death—or the death of any other creature—is in no way tragic. Rather, it is at least insignificant and at most something to be celebrated, since it diminished the population of a species that could serve as a threat to humanity’s survival.
So does a gorilla’s life matter? According to the Bible, there are at least two reasons why a gorilla’s life matters. The first is that life itself is a good gift from God, and that includes the lives of animals (Gen 1:31; 1 Tim 6:13). Death is not part of God’s good creation (Rom 5:12; 8:20-23). Thus anytime life is destroyed, it is tragic. God not only created the animals and gave them life, but He also continues to care for them. He provides food for them to eat (Ps 104:14; Matt 6:26) and wants to avoid their unnecessary deaths (Jonah 4:11).
Since God provides the basis for the value of animal life, God also provides the proper understanding of the value of human life. And God is clear that human lives matter more than animal lives, since humans are made in God’s image (Gen 1:26-27). Humans are permitted to take the lives of animals for food or to protect human life, since human life is supreme on this earth (Gen 9:2-6). God cares for the lives of animals, but that care highlights His even greater concern for the humans He has made in His image. If we understand God and His creation, we understand the value of animal life and the value of human life.
“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? And not one of them will fall to the ground apart from your Father. 30 But even the hairs of your head are all numbered. 31 Fear not, therefore; you are of more value than many sparrows.” (Matt 10:29-31)
*This is not a valid argument. It confuses “is” with “ought.” It moves from saying that evolution and natural selection are directed toward survival to saying that survival, and by extension life, is a good thing. But there is no valid reason to make that move. But since it is a common (though flawed) argument I consider it to see its implications.
As the baby boomer generation continues to age, the percentage of Americans at retirement age is expected to explode, with about 9000 reaching age 65 each year. “Forty-eight million Americans were age 65 and older in 2015, 18 percent more than just five years earlier. The number of older Americans will increase to 74 million by 2030, and 98 million by 2060” (http://www.urban.org/features/how-retirement-changing-america).
For many, retirement holds promises of travel, relaxation, and leisure. God certainly wants His children to enjoy the good gifts He has provided. But He also expects us to live our entire lives for Him, not just our working years. That’s why Christians don’t retire from being Christians—you never cease serving Christ.
I’ve had the privilege to work closely with several members of our church who have used their retirement as an opportunity to serve with our campus ministry at Wayne State University. One of the greatest examples I have seen of using your retirement for the glory of God was Clif Tally.
After retiring from being an engineer, Clif audited several classes here at Detroit Baptist Theological Seminary, simply because he wanted to better understand God and His Word. He became more involved with multiple Bible studies at different retirement homes. He helped start the campus ministry at Wayne State University in 2003 and served there faithfully for the last 13 years. He would spend 25-35 hours a week leading 10-15 different small group and one-on-one Bible studies. He built relationships with scores of international students (many of which were Chinese), spending an hour in English conversation and an hour studying the Bible with them each week. He helped to collect donated furniture and organize a furniture give-away for incoming international students each fall. He incorporated his love of bird-watching into two annual trips with international students to bird-watching events as a means of strengthening the relationships for the sake of the Gospel. Clif never retired from serving Christ, but on Monday God called His good and faithful servant home to enter the joy of his Lord.
Clif exemplified the truth that Christians do not look for their home in this world but in the world to come. They enjoy this life, but they are more concerned with investing in eternity. The years of retirement are an excellent time to serve Jesus. It’s an opportunity to take the wisdom, understanding, and experience gained over the years and pour them back into the lives of others.
Christians don’t retire. They may stop their earthly careers, but they do not stop their work for God. Because they know one day they will be called to enter God’s rest.
“So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.” (Heb 4:9-10)
After 33 years of faithful ministry at DBTS, Dr. McCabe will be retiring this year and moving with his wife to Arizona to live with their family. Paul Finkbeiner sat down with him in his office to talk about his life as a seminarian and Old Testament professor.
Paul Finkbeiner: How did you end up working at DBTS?
Dr. Robert McCabe: Robert Smith, Pastor Doran’s brother-in-law, invited my wife and me to visit DBTS while I was working on my Th.D. After we visited, I sent my resume to Dr. McCune who then offered me a job in the fall of 1983.
PF: What was it like going to seminary?
RM: It wasn’t easy. I married my wife after finishing my first year as an M.Div. student. During my Th.D. work, I worked two full-time jobs, which included working at a publishing house called Eisenbrauns and doing security work too. It took me three years to finish my thesis.
PF: Why did you pursue ministry rather than a secular vocation?
RM: After getting saved, I wanted to serve God however I could. My passion was to be in ministry.
PF: What made you interested in the Old Testament?
RM: The best teacher I had at Temple Baptist Theological Seminary was an Old Testament professor named James Price. After having him for an Old Testament Introduction class, I realized that he was a true scholar, and he became my mentor as I pursued Old Testament studies.
PF: How long have you taught at DBTS?
RM: For 33 years. Overall, I’ve taught for 37 years, and I’ve spent half my life teaching at Detroit.
PF: What have you enjoyed about teaching?
RM: Two things mainly – camaraderie with my colleagues and my students. Besides those relationships, I really enjoyed doing an Israel study hour and Great Britain study tour. Another great experience was going whitewater rafting on the Colorado River through the Grand Canyon as part of a young earth creationist tour.
PF: What was challenging for you as a professor?
RM: It was hard getting everything together when I first started and creating my own syllabi. During my first two years at DBTS, I was completing my dissertation while teaching full-time.
PF: What were some of your favorite classes that you taught?
RM: 1st and 2nd year Hebrew, OT Poetic Books, and Ecclesiastes
PF: How do you hope you have influenced your students?
RM: I hope I’ve influenced them to focus more on the Old Testament. And I hope I have influenced them to be pastor-scholars.
PF: How have your students influenced you?
RM: As I’ve aged, they have helped me stay younger. And they have helped me think more carefully about how I relate to them and to see things from their perspective as well as my own.
PF: What’s your favorite book or passage in the Bible? Why?
RM: I started teaching it when I first came to DBTS. And I have continued studying it for many years. My favorite passage is Ecclesiastes 7:13-14. With some of my surgeries these past few years, I’ve gone over this passage again and again for comfort.
PF: What have you learned during your years of study in Ecclesiastes?
RM: I think Ecclesiastes reflects life. Life is full of ups and downs. But in the midst of it all, if we have the fear of God, we can judiciously enjoy life.
PF: What will you miss about teaching?
RM: I will miss my colleagues, my students, and the friendships I’ve developed for 33 years. I’m sure my wife and I will make friends in Arizona, but it can never compare to friends we’ve had for more than 30 years.
PF: What do you plan to do during your retirement?
RM: I would like to find a good church to be involved in. I hope to find a Bible institute where I can teach.
PF: What do you look forward to in retirement?
RM: I look forward to being with my son and three daughters. And I look forward to potentially having a swimming pool in my backyard.
PF: Are you going to miss Michigan winters?
RM: Absolutely not. I’ll come back here to visit friends and family in the late spring or summer.
PF: What advice do you have for seminarians beginning their ministry?
RM: Keep your focus. There’s a lot of other sidetracks that will distract you. Keep your objectives. Keep your family intact. And do as well as you can with the time you have.
After we had completed the interview, we chatted for a little while longer and reflected on the history of DBTS and its future. Time goes on, and no one knows what the future may hold. But certainly, Dr. McCabe’s time spent at DBTS for over three decades has been a wonderful investment, and his influence here will continue as he moves on to the next phase in life. As a professor, colleague, and friend to many, he will certainly be missed.
1 Corinthians 4:1-2; 2 Timothy 1
What is true success in ministry? More importantly, how does God measure ministry success? Pastor Tracy Fressel speaks on the characteristics of faithfulness in the Minister’s life.http://dbts.edu/podcasts/Fressel.mp3
So said Paul in 1 Corinthians 9:23. And so we must agree with him. Still, I wonder whether this verse can sustain all the freight that has been loaded onto it over the years. Does it mean, as John Piper suggested a few months ago, that Christians should not carry concealed weapons or use lethal force against violent intruders/rapists? Does it mean, as one side of last week’s boycott battle over Target affirmed, that Christians should eschew boycotts? Does it mean, as a man insisted to me last month at the Menno-Hof Museum in Shipshewana, IN, that we must be resolute pacifists? The following are a few thoughts on the topic:
- While nearly every activity in which we engage has at least some remote implication for the gospel, not all things that we do in life are for the Gospel in a primary sense. Some things that we do are not primarily redemptive but civil in nature. Going to war, replacing a septic tank, buying a car, tightening a bolt firmly on the assembly line, going to a niece’s wedding, using a urinal rather than a brick wall, and a thousand other things are done primarily because of their civil ends. Yes, they all have implications for the Gospel (some more immediate than others), but they are not primarily “Gospel” activities.
- Scripture teaches that God is glorified not only by the successes of special grace, but also those of common grace. God is glorified by the restraint of evil and the performance of civic good (1 Pet 2:14), as well as the successful implementation of the dominion mandate in every sphere of life (Gen 1:26ff), whether in a field of crops (Psa 65:5–13) and even flowers (Isa 35:2) or in the intimacy of marital love (Song of Songs, passim). IOW, we can glorify God without conscious reference to the progress of the evangel proper.
- Scripture even intimates that God’s glory may be achieved in surprisingly “judgmental” ways. God is glorified when certain criminals are capitally punished (Gen 9:6)—even though it summarily ends all opportunity for their repentance. God is glorified when good triumphs over evil in violent battle (with the same end). God is even glorified in the consignment of the wicked to the Lake of Fire that effectively ends the age of special grace.
- We cannot, of course, escape the fact that Paul sees the success of the Gospel as a matter of singular import, even instructing us to temporarily curtail our enjoyment of God’s common graces (eating and drinking in our context) in our quest for Gospel success. So even as we delight in God’s common graces, pursue the dominion mandate, and attempt to resist/restrain evil (say, with a boycott), we need to be aware of the implications of our actions for the Gospel, suppressing our liberties to that end.
- The effects of our actions on the Gospel are not monolithic in nature—sometimes, in the context of our governing text, you must eat the meat and sometimes you must not eat it. Furthermore, an action may have conflicting immediate and long-term effects that must be measured with great care. For instance, a violent war might end a soldier’s chance to embrace the Gospel, but then create a “tranquil and quiet life” in which godliness and the Gospel flourish (1 Tim 2:1–4). A boycott might make some unbelievers hate God and the Gospel all the more, but might also extend God’s longsuffering just a little bit longer and cause certain other unbelievers to assess their wickedness afresh in the light of a biblical worldview.
To summarize, all that I do should be done with an awareness of all possible implications of my actions on the success of the Gospel. However, the success of the Gospel is not for that reason the only interest that informs my actions. My life must be lived attentive to the comprehensive glory of God in every sphere, including spheres both redemptive and civil.
In his last chapel message before his retirement, Dr. Robert McCabe speaks on an often-misunderstood passage in Ecclesiastes and addresses the question, “If God does not reward righteousness in this life, then why live righteously?”http://www.dbts.edu/podcasts/McCabe.mp3
Millions of people each year participate in short-term ministry trips, with many now preparing for trips this summer. I have the privilege of leading a team from our church to Zambia this summer. We will be visiting a missionary couple sent from our church with the purpose of encouraging them in any way we can; of learning more about them, their ministry, and their cultural context; and of reporting back to our church.
One thing we are doing to prepare for the trip is reading Duane Elmer’s Cross Cultural Connections: Stepping Out and Fitting In Around the World. He begins the book with an excellent little story to illustrate the importance of learning how to serve across cultures.
A typhoon had temporarily stranded a monkey on an island. In a secure, protected place, while waiting for the raging waters to recede, he spotted a fish swimming against the current. It seemed obvious to the monkey that the fish was struggling and in need of assistance. Being of kind heart, the monkey resolved to help the fish. A tree precariously dangled over the very spot where the fish seemed to be struggling. At considerable risk to himself, the monkey moved far out on a limb, reached down and snatched the fish from the threatening waters. Immediately scurrying back to the safety of his shelter, he carefully laid the fish on dry ground. For a few moments the fish showed excitement, but soon settled into a peaceful rest. Joy and satisfaction swelled inside the monkey. He has successfully helped another creature…
Here are my thoughts on the story. First, the monkey was courageous, had good intentions and noble motives. He also had zeal. However, his motives were misdirected because of his ignorance— he could not see beyond his own frame of reference. He believed what was dangerous for him was dangerous for the fish. Therefore, what would be good for him would also be good for the fish— a crucial assumption. As a result, he acted out of his ignorance or limited frame of reference, and ended up doing damage rather than the good he intended. Unfortunately, the monkey may not even have known the damage he did, because he may have walked away leaving the fish “resting.” (pp. 14, 15-16)
Far too often Americans are like monkeys on our short-term ministry trips. We are quick to act, assuming we know the best thing for the other person. Then we leave, thinking we helped when in reality we left damage behind. If we do not want to be monkeys, we need to learn how to work with those of a different culture.
Perhaps the most important skill in learning to interact across cultures is withholding a judgment of right or wrong until you better understand what is happening. We almost universally assume that our way is the right way.
For many years, Sidney Harris wrote a widely syndicated editorial column for the Chicago Tribune. Among his penetrating insights, I remember one in particular. He stated that “every book that is ever published, every article ever written and every speech delivered should have the subtitle ‘How to Be More Like Me.’” His point: We all believe that our way is the right way, our beliefs are correct and our culture is superior. So whenever I write or speak, the subtle message that transcends my words is: “You would be wise to change your ways to be more like me.” (p. 22)
Since we assume our way is right, we quickly judge a different way of doing something as wrong (immoral, inferior, less effective, etc.). If we are to be effective in working across cultures, we need to work to get our initial reaction to be “that’s different” instead of “that’s wrong.” After taking time to really learn the other culture (years of work) we are better suited to determine whether something is right or wrong—though even then we will often conclude it is just different. But we will not be able to gain that understanding on a short-term trip.
So for those preparing for short-term ministry trips this summer, be aware that your culture is different from the one to which you are going, make sure the help you are offering is something the person in that culture would appreciate, and work to label things as different rather than wrong. And pick up a book or two like Cross-Cultural Connections to give you a better understanding of these issues.
DBTS is offering four courses this summer in a module format. The courses taught residentially include Introduction to Missions, Church Polity, and Greek Exegesis of 2 Peter and Jude. Each course can be taken for credit for either the M.Div. or Th.M.
First Session: May 17-27 (8:00–11:50 a.m.)
515 Introduction to Missions (2 hours), Missions Director, D.Min.
An introductory survey of the theology, history, and methods of the missionary enterprise, with special emphasis on recent developments, crucial issues, and future trends.
Introduction to Missions will be taught by a missionary with experience in three different continents. He will be assisted by others who are currently serving on the field.
246 Greek Exegesis of II Peter and Jude (2 hours), Dr. Compton
This course will involve the student in translation, syntactical study, and other exegetical procedures. Prerequisites: Greek Syntax and Reading and Greek Exegetical Methods.
Second Session: May 31-June 10 (8:00–11:50 a.m.)
345 Church Polity (2 hours), Dr. Snoeberger
A survey and biblical analysis of ecclesiastical polity as practiced broadly within the Christian church, with particular attention given to variations of the congregational model. Specific topics discussed include the relationships of the local church, the number and description of ecclesiastical offices, the interchange between pastoral oversight and congregational rule, as well as church order and discipline.
An additional summer course will be offered at First Baptist Church in Wixom, MI from July 30-August 6. The course will be a study of the Life and Letters of the Apostle Paul. Dr. Tim Miller will lead the study for the week-long module. It will be held in the evenings from 7:00 pm to 10:00 pm on August 1-5, plus additional class time on Saturday morning, July 31 and August 6.
Also, the fall class schedule is available at http://www.dbts.edu/class-schedule/.
If you have any questions about these courses, please feel free to contact the DBTS office at 313.381.0111 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Congratulations to our five winners from last week’s book giveaway.
- Bo Bowman
- Jerry Goodwin
- Trisha Priebe
- Mark Williams
- Jason Woelm
Your books are in the mail. And thanks to all who commented on the post.
From time to time publishers send me free books in the hope that their books will be reviewed in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal. Some of these end up being reviewed in the journal, but others do not. Right now I have five books published by Crossway sitting on my desk ready to be given away. Here are the titles:
Christopher Ash, Job: The Wisdom of the Cross
Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word
Christopher Morgan and Robert Peterson, ed., Fallen: A Theology of Sin
Vern Poythress, Chance and the Sovereignty of God
David Wells, God in the Whirlwind
In order to have a chance to win one of these books, you just need to leave a comment on this post indicating which book you’d like to win. This Friday afternoon (April 15), we’ll randomly select five winners to receive the book they requested. Winners will be contacted by email, and then the winners will be announced on the blog.
In perhaps John Lennon’s most famous song, “Imagine,” he calls people to envision a world that would be at peace—where “the world will be as one.” He views certain ideas or beliefs as currently standing in the way of this utopia, including countries, religion, and possessions. But the first obstacle he names is belief in an afterlife:
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today
These lyrics reflect a common sentiment: believing in things like heaven and hell only lead to conflict. If people stopped thinking some of us are going to heaven while others are going to hell, we could all get along.
Why are beliefs in heaven and hell blamed for conflict? Perhaps it is their connections to religions, which are often blamed for the violence and fighting in our world. Perhaps it is the idea that believing you are going to heaven while someone else is going to hell leads you to be arrogant and hateful towards others. Perhaps it is the idea that focusing on the afterlife makes people not care about this present world.
Rather than trying to answer all of these potential reasons, let’s take a moment to actually imagine that there is no hell. This life is all there is, and when you die you cease to exist. Is that a better reality? Is the world better if there is no hell?
Some people may prefer this reality. Some may want no hell because they hate the idea of loved ones being in a place like hell. But others would love for there to be no hell because that would mean they could do what they want without fearing any consequences.
So what happens when people stop believing in hell? Richard Wurmbrand, a pastor who was tortured under the Soviet Regime, shares what he saw was the result of denying the existence of hell.
The cruelty of atheism is hard to believe. When man has no faith in the reward of good or the punishment of evil, there is no reason to be human. There is no restraint from the depths of evil which is in man. The Communist torturers often said, “There is no God, no hereafter, no punishment for evil. We can do what we wish.” I have heard one torturer even say, “I thank God, in whom I don’t believe, that I have lived to this hour when I can express all the evil in my heart.” He expressed it in unbelievable brutality and torture inflicted on prisoners. (Richard Wurmbrand, Tortured for Christ (Bartlesville, OK: Living Sacrifice Book Co., 1967, 1998), 36.
Let’s consider one person who did not believe in heaven or hell: Mao Zedong. As a young man he wrote: “Of course there are people and objects in the world, but they are all there only for me….People like me only have a duty to ourselves; we have no duty to other people.” [Jung Chang and Jon Halliday, Mao: The Unknown Story (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2005), p. 13]. And he lived out his philosophy. He refused to visit his mother on her deathbed because he was concerned it would leave him with an unfavorable image of her (p. 18). He abandoned his second wife (his first wife had died about a year after they were married) and three children in order to advance his military career, then married his third wife less than four months later. Later, his second wife was executed in revenge after Mao attacked the village where she lived (80). He declined to visit his third wife after she was nearly killed by a bomb because he was “tired” (149). The hardships he forced his third wife to experience eventually led to a mental breakdown (197). As the leader of the people, he confiscated private property whenever he wanted in order to build multiple expensive private residences, rarely ever visiting them after they were built (p. 193).
Ultimately, he was responsible for the death of over 70 million people during “peacetime,” many of them starving because Mao confiscated food as payment in order to buy military weaponry (p. 3). Yet, as he neared the time of his death, he was able to make deals so that his fourth wife and other high ranking officials would be punished for his evils in this world (609-10). Thus, he died a relatively peaceful death, without facing any real consequences for his atrocities in this life. And if there’s no hell, he never faced any justice.
What is often lacking in discussions of hell is the issue of justice. Crime sometimes does pay. The good die young, while evil men live long and prosperous lives. Elderly people are robbed of their retirement by deceptive schemes, while those who devise these schemes enjoy their ill-gotten gain. Innocent people are sexually abused, often for years, while their abusers remain respected and free in the community. People go on shooting sprees in schools, set off bombs in public places, and commit genocide. And without hell, many of these people would get away with their crimes. The cries for justice from those who have been abused by wicked and powerful people would go unanswered.
Imagine there’s no hell. Then thank God there is.
Once again the anniversary of Christ’s death is opening up the question whether it is proper to say that God died on the cross, with good men leveling arguments at and past one another. Some argue that God, being immortal (1 Timothy 1:17; 6:16; etc.), by definition cannot die. Others, citing passages like Acts 20:28 and Galatians 2:20, which actually state that God died, conclude oppositely.
They can’t both be right, and the Bible is never wrong, so how do we achieve resolution? I’d like to suggest that the starting point for resolution necessarily begins with theological definition. What exactly does it mean for God to die? Some theses for consideration:
- All agree that when Christ died, the Second Person of the Godhead did not cease to exist, but of course death never means annihilation anyway, so this resolves nothing.
- We must also agree that Christ did not cease to be God when he died, or else his death would have no value for his people. Only an infinitely holy divinity could bring infinite value to Christ’s sacrifice. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19).
- For the same reason, we must agree that Christ’s humanity and divinity were not divorced from each other on the cross. Christ is indivisibly both God and man, with neither division of his person nor conflation of his natures.
- We must further be careful not to affirm that the Trinity itself was in breach or suspended for a period of time while Christ was on the cross. God is eternally, immutably, and indivisibly Triune, and cannot be otherwise.
- When God “forsook” Christ and poured out wrath upon him, Christ personally experienced that wrath in his indivisible person, effectively knowing death in an experimental way apart from which God could not have known it.
- This forsaking falls short, however, of an inter-Trinitarian “estrangement.” God did not viscerally hate Christ on the cross—God is impassive and incapable of such angst. Nor did they “lose fellowship” with each other (whatever that means). His was a dispassionate and judicial wrath that in no way interrupted the stream of eternal and necessary inter-Trinitarian love and delight that each person of the Trinity has in the others. Without this, again, God would not be God (John 10:17).
So may we say that Jesus the man died? Absolutely. His material and immaterial were disjoined, the former being entombed and the latter dismissed to go elsewhere.
May we say that Christ the God-man died? An equally firm “Yes.” The hypostatic union is such that the experiences of the one person can never be partitioned off into distinct experiences of his respective natures.
May we then say that the Second Person of the Trinity died? Absolutely not. God is immortal. While it might be said that God knew death by experience through the hypostatic union in a way that he could not have experienced it apart from that union, we cannot say that he died—at least not without gutting the idea of death of all its known meanings.