Thinking About Prepping

Original version: November 7, 2011

This is a response to a few questions that were posed to me by a parent and uncle, in response to my forwarding of this article.

Do I believe a “crash” is coming?

So I have a question for ya. Do you think this nation is going to crash in the near future? I do not understand how the United States can be 14+ trillion in debt, yet still have a functioning monitory system. Just curious what your opinion might be.

Well, there are several definitions of “crash.”  A number of folks commenting on Médaille’s “Will There Be Zombies?” article made the point that Rome wasn’t built in a day, and didn’t fall in a day either.  (Shoot, I imagine even the sacking by the Visigoths took, what, two or three weeks?  😀 )

Point being, if America and/or the West is “in decline,” then we should calibrate for that.  But although a cataclysmic overnight disaster is possible (and works better in films or novels than a hundred-years’ slow disintegration), I’m not convinced it’s imminent.  I can imagine it; but I can also imagine a slow waning of America as a strong and influential nation.  Empires have been conquered in a few years; but I don’t see that happening to us, probably.  The world economy is a big mess, and pretty “fragile” (to go back to Médaille’s critique), but I think a crumbling slide is more probable than a quick implosion.

That said, no, I don’t believe our current national debt—with its other related fiscal delinquencies, national or individual—is sustainable.  It’s a balloon that keeps getting filled with more and more hot air.  There are two possible outcomes: (a) people (meaning both the nation’s leaders and the populace at large) start making radical spending cuts—at the individual, local, state, and federal levels—and tighten their belts for the good of posterity, or (b) general badness ensues.  I predict (b), and hope that (a) will then occur shortly afterward.

How should we prepare?

It is basically prudent to have be reasonably prepared for an unexpected disaster.  Red Cross wishes everyone was prepared to be able to live in their house for at least 3 days, and preferably up to 2 weeks.  They have books on this. (It would make their job easier!)

Preppers are storing up food, moving to the country, collecting ammo and weapons, banding together in like-minded communities and many more things like this.  There are conferences and an entire industry has sprung up to support this.

Are you thinking like this?  Are your peers?  What steps are you taking in this direction?

Well, again, see the “Zombies” article and my response.  I quote myself:

Alarmism is out of the equation because the kinds of things Médaille is arguing for are precisely the kinds of things we should be doing in any event, whether cultural collapse is imminent, or generations ahead, or ten years behind.  Because our kingdom is not of this world, our task does not change with the ebb and flow of empires.  Christ calls us to build the Kingdom, but he does not call us to build heaven on earth: heaven is coming by storm, soon enough.  Thus the means of preventing, delaying, preparing for, mitigating, weathering, recovering from, or repairing a “crash” are all one and the same: build the Kingdom.  Build healthy communities composed of serious disciples of the coming Lord.

By the phrase “healthy communities” I mean to include (a proper degree of) self-sufficiency, preparedness, health, capacity for self-defense, etc.  These things are not of primary importance, but they are, to a degree, prerequisites.  I’ve concluded that living in a wholistic, intentional, communal, self-consciously Christian way will, in and of itself, push us towards things like: having networks of (local) friends and neighbors whom we trust and can rely upon; gardening; being financially responsible (out of debt, etc.); having means (and attitudes) that allow us to assist others who are in whatever kind of distress; providing for our families’ well-being even in less-than-ideal circumstances; and so on.

Therefore I think that if you are living well, “prepping” becomes significantly less necessary.  I would rather focus on this goal first, and then put specific preparedness measures appropriately down the totem pole, as circumstances, available resources (including time), and judicious foresight suggest.

What are we doing, right now?

So what are you thinking/doing to prepare for either

  1. A slow economic decline (we cannot deny the inflated food prices that keep going up) or
  2. A crash or
  3. A crazy disaster (EMP, failure of the electrical grid, etc) things that Preppers are prepping for?

I know first of all we need to trust the Lord with our lives and livelihoods.

We know many generations have weathered hard times of various kinds…and been better off in many ways for it.

Well, we’re not doing a whole lot, honestly.  Not quite as much as we should.  Again, time and resources are limited.  (Our current house has about 12 square feet of garden space, including pots.  We intend to remedy that when we move to our next house.  Etc.)

But before we take significant practical steps, I want to be sure we’ve thought it through from the right directions.

I attended the Iron Sharpens Iron men’s conference in VA this October, and ran into one of the vendors there who, I felt, pretty much nailed it on this issue.  For a while, he was “obsessed” (his term) with the prepper/survivalist cult(ure), but eventually realized that the motivation behind it was almost entirely selfish.  So he pulled back and reevaluated.  Now he gives seminars on preparedness based on a motivation of “equip yourself to be in a position to help others” when disaster strikes—of whatever type—for the ultimate purpose of being able to be Christ to them and share the gospel with them (verbally and visibly).  Plus, it’s kinda silly to worry about the end of the world, if the thing that will actually threaten my life is a flood or tornado or extended winter power outage.  Here’s his/their web site: not a whole lot here, but you get the gist.  If you’re ever in the mood to put on a seminar for your friends & neighbors, these are guys I’d recommend checking out: http://www.evangelisticsurvival.com/seminar.html

(By the way: I highly recommend ISI to any of you who are men.  The conferences seem to run every spring and fall.  Get on their mailing list and sign up for the next one in your neighborhood.  You’ll be encouraged and exhorted to deeper Godly manhood.  Here, you can listen to Stu Weber’s keynote address from the VA conference, entitled “Stay in the Battle.”  Do it.  It’s good.)

All of which to say: sometime—sooner rather than later, but not immediately: maybe in the next 2-3 years—I’d like to spend some time thinking through this issue with my wife, and maybe in company with some other local friends, and sketch out a plan to begin implementing.  Water storage; keeping a full pantry; maintaining a garden; etc.  Networking as possible.  I’m probably never going to be a hunter, but it wouldn’t be a bad idea to cultivate friendship with the few guys I know who do hunt.  Maybe we’ll trade venison for blueberries, sometime :)—disaster or no disaster.  We already get our eggs from friends with a farm.  They’ll still give us eggs if the electrical grid is down for a week or three.  Why shouldn’t they?  We’re friends.  Plus, they won’t be able to refrigerate them all for themselves.  😀

After solidifying our (practical) philosophy on the topic, I think it’d make sense to get one of the Red Cross books my mom mentioned, and collect the items it suggests.  Maybe do occasional “fire drills” as our kids get older (and include a few more long-term items in the bags).  That seems sensible, easy, responsible, and not too obsessive.

Contra “Survivalism”

Our primary calling in life is not to ensure, or even specifically to prolong, our own survival.  After 80 or 90 years, you lose that battle, regardless.  Life is precious and good, yes, but this earth is not our home.  (Well, ok, actually it is, but it kinda has to get burned and remade first.)

In my original response to “Zombies,” I said: “God does not call us to survive.  He calls us to make disciples.”

My aunt replied: “Which is sorta hard to do if you’re dead.”  True enough.  This is why survival is, as I said, a prerequisite to the rest of life.  But it is not life itself, which is why survivalism, in the usual individualistic “me and my family first” sense, is non-Christian.

My friend Jonathan’s response to her statement is about all that needs to be said:

Since I’m getting ready to teach a series on Mark (which has the thrice-repeated emphasis in the middle section: the Son of Man is here to die, and if you intend to follow Him, you’d better be grabbing your cross-holdin’ gloves and building those shoulder muscles)… isn’t dying precisely what being a disciple—a follower of the crucified Lord—looks like?

God calls us to resurrection.  Which is sorta hard to do if you’re alive.

The tendency to diminish the Church (for all its problems), and/or to promote the family (with its own problems) to a place superior to the Church… simply has no New Testament basis.  (I think you could make an OT argument, if you’re willing to ignore the NT witness; and of course the family is important for the NT; just not of paramount importance.)

Repeat after me: “He cannot have God for his Father who does not have the Church for his mother.”  There is no union with Christ apart from the Body of Christ.

Or, if you don’t like St. Cyprian, try St. Paul: “The eye cannot say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you,’ nor again the head to the feet, ‘I have no need of you.’’”  And, “…we, although many, are one body, and individually members of one another.”  And, of course, Ephesians 5, which suggests that what marriage (the start of a new family) is all about, where it finds its ultimate fulfillment and purpose and meaning, is precisely in the union of Christ and His Church.

Whatever the next “crash” is, and however big or bad it is, the Church will survive.  If the next “crash” is Armageddon and The End of the World, the Church will survive.  Which means I and my family will survive, in the ultimate sense.

Should I therefore be stupid and reckless and wholly unprepared, being unable to read the signs of the times?  Uh, no.  That’s nowhere in Scripture.  Should I be obsessed with preserving this body that’s going to age and die?  Well, that’s equally silly.

So as time, resources, circumstances, God’s evident calling, and seasons of life permit, I will prepare my family for possible crises of whatever kind, in both general and specific ways.  And then I’ll go about the business of living, which I feel is more pleasant, useful, and biblical than worrying about how not to die.

Living

One more point to respond to: how to prepare for slow economic decline (which we’re probably already in).  Well, again, this is pretty much the same as asking “how do you live well”?  Because even if we believe that “the economy is going to go up and up and up and things will get better and better forever,” we still aren’t justified in pursuing ever-increasing spending and rampant materialism.

So what will we do?  We’ll:

  • Continue to improve our cashflow through wise investments (things like real estate, over which—if we do our homework—we have some measure of control; as opposed to the stock market, over which we have no control), and through multiple streams of as-passive-as-we-can-make-it income.
  • Continue to decrease expenses, or hold them at a minimum, through simple living, couponing, and not buying junk we don’t need (including more house than we can honestly use).
  • Continue to build means of self-sufficiency, like a garden, which brings monetary savings at the expense of time, but which also provides other benefits (fresh air, exercise, nutrition, variety, observance of nature, etc.).
  • Continue to build networks of local friends with whom we can trade baby-sitting favors, food, work, skills, and other things, with the multiple benefits of building friendships, having fun, and saving money.  (Aside: my wife received four baby showers when she was pregnant with our first child.  Four.  Carter’s took in maybe $20 of our money after his birth, for some extra pairs of socks, I think.  We bought next to nothing.  It was amazing.  There is a serious economic repercussion to this kind of communal generosity.  Now, when she teaches one morning a week, a family from church watches him.  Not because they’re “trying to serve us,” like it’s a sacrifice.  Because they like it.  They like him.  They don’t charge us anything.  They’re friends.)

So again, I’ll restate the theme: live well.  That’s how you prepare; that’s how you survive; that’s how you rebuild.  And most significantly, that’s how you show Christ to others through every stage of the ebb and flow of the cultural tides of fortune.  It’s the rhythm of reality.  It’s just waves.  There’s always one in front of you, one behind you, and one under you (or perhaps over you).  Keep swimming.  Ride it out.  Don’t panic.  We know the One who sets the boundaries of the sea, and who sends the storm, and who calms it.

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Rights, Romans, Caesar, and Taxes

This is a response to my friend Manny Edwards’s brief argument, “Why God Has the Right to Tax, and Governments Don’t.”  I think he’s dead wrong on this topic, but he does have a lot of useful info on his sites (especially if you’re interested in crisis preparedness; on which topic there will be more in my next post), so check them out sometime.  [I’m semi-hesitant to make that recommendation, because half of you will think Manny’s stuff is the best thing since gun safes, and the other half will think he’s completely bats.  But that’s the price of having a diversity of friends, I guess…]

                                                   

Manny,

I like you, but I’m gonna take you to task on this one.  I’m going to 1. challenge your underlying premise, 2. provide biblical support for my position, and then 3. demonstrate why your argument is not self-consistent.

The Purpose of Government

Firstly: Government has the authority to tax because government was instituted by God, and endowed (delegated) with certain kinds of authority by Him.  In America, government has also been delegated and entrusted with certain powers by the people (certain powers, which are constitutionally very limited; all others being “reserved to the States respectively, or to the people”).

Government exists to maintain order in society.  It does not exist, as you say elsewhere, to “preserve individual liberty.”  This is a modernist view, post-Adam-Smith, and probably descends from his error of viewing the mobile individual (as opposed to the family, clan, or perhaps even the township) as the fundamental economic unit of production.  The concept of “individual liberties” dates approximately to Locke and the Enlightenment, and has very little in the way of ancient or Biblical support.  The Founders (especially Jefferson) may have believed that, and it really is a useful concept at times; but thinking in terms of our duties, as “neighbors,” to other human beings made in the Image of God, is a much more Biblical and helpful matrix.  I can talk about the “rights” of the unborn or the oppressed, but by its nature, the idea of “rights” always starts with the individual—i.e., me—and assumes entitlement first, responsibility second.  Neither of which is a particularly Christian place to begin constructing morality.

So again: government exists to maintain order in society.  Now, there are other considerations in play, and many constraints on this truth: for instance, government does not get to define “order” however it pleases, and it does not get to enforce it by any means necessary (or convenient).  It is not right or just for government to collect as much in taxes as it wishes, in order to carry out projects that are outside its mandate and its delegated authority.  But it IS legitimate for government to collect taxes for the carrying out of its God-ordained responsibilities.  It’s even legitimate for these taxes to be on income.  (Aside: I do believe that, in this country, the income tax is probably unconstitutional, and so on that ground should be legally opposed.  Regardless, it’s far too high, and should be legally reduced.  But it is not unbiblical or immoral as such.)

Romans 13

Secondly, I must stress that, while libertarianism is advancing some very important freedoms, and reacting against some serious abuses of power, still, the libertarian view on the issue of government and taxation is not the Biblical one.  Romans 13 is very, very plain on this topic.

“Let every person be subject to the governing authorities.”  That’s a pretty clear command.  Tough to get around that one, in my opinion.

“For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God.”  Government has real, legitimate, God-given authority.  But there’s more here: this is also an implicit limitation on how government can think about itself: it’s not absolute, it’s subordinate.  That’s important.

“Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment.”  This is based in exactly the same principle as the command to “honor thy father and mother.”  I am to obey my parents (when a child) and to honor them (always) not because they “created” me (they didn’t), nor because they “own” me (they don’t), nor because they have a “right” to the fruits of my labor, nor because they’re bigger and stronger than I am (Hobbes’s “Leviathan” argument), nor even because they’re older and (presumably) wiser.  I am to obey them because God gave them authority over me.  Limited authority, but real.

The libertarian principle of “individual rights above all else” paves the way for absurdities like kids “divorcing” their parents, sexual perversion as long as it’s “in private and between consenting adults,” and the legalized abuse of drugs on the grounds that “I’m only hurting myself”—which is false, by the way.  These kind of rebellions and abuses can and should be kept in check—by appropriate use of force, if necessary.  And because they are communal and social acts, not merely private acts—for even your most private sins make you a weaker and less upstanding neighbor—government has, and should have, the authority to regulate them.

Note: the right to regulate is not the same as the right to define.  Government may oversee and authorize marriage—because marriage is a social as well as a religious, spiritual, and familial institution—but it may not presume to define (or redefine) marriage.  God defined marriage when he ordained it.  Government’s role now is to protect the institution, and to punish those who damage it.

“For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad.  Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority?  Then do what is good, for he is God’s servant for your good.”  Paul was writing this under Nero, let’s remember.

“But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain.  For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer.”  Did the Roman government really promote full God-glorifying righteousness across the Empire?  Clearly not.  But did they maintain order and punish wickedness?  Well, yeah, to a large degree, they did.  (And as they moved further and further away from restraining wickedness, and more and more towards promoting it, the Empire slid further and further towards decline.)  The vicious tyranny of the Roman emperor is still preferable to the anti-authoritarian anarchy of the mobs of the French Revolution—if only because one tyrant can never do as much damage as a million individual tyrants.

“Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath, but also for the sake of conscience.”  God’s wrath, it says, not the government’s.

“For the same reason you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing.”  —Meaning the rewarding of righteousness and the punishment of evil.

“Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.”  Do I owe a bully my lunch money because he demands it?  Legally, no, I do not.  (As a Christian, it’s more tricky: “If someone takes your cloak….”)  If a government official, operating legally in his official capacity, demands taxes from me, do I owe them to him?  Yes, I do.  If he’s demanding a bribe, well, then he’s just a thug, and that’s a separate matter.

In Paul’s day the highest authority was the Emperor.  Eventually, the lords of England (the lords, mind you, not the people at large) eventually changed that pattern by means of the Magna Carta, saying “No, the highest authority in our land is not a king, but rather the Law itself.  The king is not above the law.”  This holds true in America and (ostensibly) most other modern nations.  (Which is why we call them “nations” and not “kingdoms.”)

That’s fine.  That’s a perfectly good arrangement.  But there are still “governing authorities,” just as in Paul’s day, and the people are still subject to them.

This is why we pay taxes.  You said:

The only way you could own what belongs to someone else is if you actually owned that person.  So the government’s underlying justification for forcing the payment of taxes is that it owns you.

But the conclusion does not follow from the premise.  There are at least two other reasons why someone could rightly demand your money:

  1. If he provided something to you, for which he was then owed payment.  Example: you check the “bill me later” box and send in the postcard.  The first issue of the magazine shows up.  Then the bill shows up a few weeks later.  Eventually, if you keep ignoring the letters, the bill collector shows up.  This is the basic situation.  We say “protect us”; government says “ok”; then they send us the bill.  That doesn’t imply that they “own” us.  We just owe them payment for a service rendered.  (So you say, “But I didn’t ask for THAT service!”  Maybe not, but you did ask for the government when you came of age and elected to remain in the country, instead of moving to Antarctica.  But maybe they have some kind of government even down there.)
  2. If a higher authority, who does in fact own you and your possessions, gave him the right to do so.

Delegated Subordinate Authority

Finally, Reason #2 up there, Manny, is why your argument defeats itself.  You say “If God owns you, he can justifiably demand your money. He can also dictate your behavior.”  Ok, granted.  But if God also says “I delegated some of my authority to this person or institution; now obey it, and moreover, fund it so it can do its job”… then where does that leave you?

Now, sure: governments can declare themselves to be the top authority in the universe, worthy of all our honor, service, and worship.  (Nero did this pretty explicitly, as I recall.)  This is government failing to see itself rightly.  This view should be opposed, and when government demands that we do something God has plainly forbidden, or has reserved to himself (“bow down and worship the golden image of Nebuchadnezzar,” as the obvious example), the proper response is “No.  Kill me if you like, but NO.”  Which is what Daniel’s three friends said.

But you’ll note they did not say “You have no authority over us at all,” nor “Ok, that’s it, you’ve just illegitimized yourself as our authority; we won’t obey you in anything any more,” nor “Enough of this! Let’s start a revolution!” nor “All government is illegitimate: it’s anarchy and individualism for us now.”

Your argument, I have to say, is pretty much the same as the one that Jesus mocked in the Pharisees.  They would say to their parents “Sorry, folks, I want to honor you an’ all, but I’ve just pledged everything I own to God—it’s all corban now—so I really can’t help ya out in your old age.  But aren’t you glad I love God so much?” (My paraphrase of Mark 7:11)  Jesus saw right through this spirituality-gilded selfishness.

Your argument, as near as I can see, thumbs its nose at government in essentially the same way (though I hope not for the same motive).  Yet if God says “honor your parents” and Jesus interprets that to include “provide for their material needs,” then when God also says “be in subjection to the governing authorities,” how can you arrive at “they have no right to tax us”?  It just doesn’t parse.  God has commanded us to obey our public servants and to pay them for their work.  We either do that, or we’re in rebellion.  I know there are gray areas around the edge of this; of course there are—and much more so when authority is being abused.  But the core principle is plain.

A final piece of evidence is Christ’s reply to the Pharisees’ disciples: “Give to Caesar what is Caesars, and to God what is God’s.”  You can argue about what exactly that means, but two things at least are clear: 1. Christ assumes that some things do belong to Caesar; and 2. if he believed paying taxes to Caesar really was dishonoring to his Father, he could and would have said so: he tended not to keep quiet on that issue.

The truth is, Jesus didn’t show tons of respect or approval towards the authorities of his day, either political (Herod, Pilate) or religious (Pharisees, Sadducees).  And when their petty rules got in the way of God’s command, he stepped right over them, with no apology whatsoever.  And yet we cannot call him a rebel, an anarchist, a libertarian, or even a theocrat.  If your basic assertions were correct, Jesus would have fulfilled the Zealots’ ideals of freedom, overthrown the oppressive authority structures, and set up heaven on earth.  Instead he submitted, even unto death.

If we disregard God’s appointed subordinate authorities, we do not honor him, we rebel against him.  Am I going to let my son disobey and dishonor his mother just because I’m the “head authority” in the home?  That’s not enforcing my authority: it’s abdicating it.  A God who doesn’t back up the subordinates he’s appointed is not thereby more authoritative: he’s a slacker; he’s a bad leader.  God is my ultimate authority, yes: he clearly reserves that position for himself.  So you’re on target there.  But the fact that he’s my ultimate authority does not mean he’s my only authority.  He nowhere makes that claim; in fact quite the opposite.

Your Biblical exegesis, and your basic logic, simply don’t hold up to serious scrutiny.  You’re trying to use a single Biblical teaching to justify and support a secular, modernist, individualist, selfishness-based political hypothesis, and it just doesn’t work.  I suspect that I agree with you on ninety-plus percent of the governmental policies and programs you take issue with: there are plenty of abuses happening.  And so I’m very grateful for the work you’re doing to protect and promote liberty.  We need it.  But you can’t base your activism on this kind of reasoning.  It’s not valid, and it’s not Biblical.

Hellish Speculation

Original version: October 26, 2011

This is a response to Rod Dreher’s “Is Hell for Real?” and to the multitude of comments it spawned.  You should read the short original post, and enough of the comments to get a general feel for them.  They’re mostly intelligent and civil.

I quote in full the specific selections to which I want to respond, however.

There’s Religion, and Then There’s Religion.

“You have touched on what I think is the basic divide between religious believers today: whether religion is primarily about what God says to man about how to behave, or whether it is primarily an expression about what man says about God. I know that in reality, things aren’t as clean-cut as that, and that there is a dialectical relationship there. Still, if one believes that religion is our attempt to conform our lives to a transcendent moral order that exists independent of ourselves, one will be ‘conservative’ on theological matters; if one believes that religion is our attempt to say something about our own values and our conception of God, one will be ‘liberal’ on theological matters.” – Rod Dreher

This is a basic problem.  Dreher’s two categories may suffice for religions “in general,” but neither captures the core of true Christianity, which is distinct from all other religions in that it affirms that religion is not our attempt to accomplish anything.  It is our response to what God has accomplished in Christ.  We may conform to God’s transcendent moral order (and we will be more or less happy to the degree that we do), but we will never do it perfectly, and we will never do it for wholly good motives, apart from the power of Christ in us, worked out via his Spirit.

The distinction between classical (god-centered) and modern (man-centered) religions may, I suppose, be conveniently termed “conservative” and “liberal.”  But the distinction between true Christianity (God’s-grace-based) and everything else (man’s-works-based) is something else again, and something even more radical.

Moral Freedom

“Hell is a necessary consequence of the fact we have moral freedom. If we have real power of choice, then it must necessarily be possible for a person to choose to reject the good. Possibly forever.” – Hector_St_Clare

This is on target, generally.  I would add that Hell is also a necessary consequence of the fact that our being created in the Imago Dei includes our eternality.  And also a necessary consequence of the fact that God is just and holy.  Some may argue that Hell is really just the single facet of God’s overwhelming Love that the rebels are allowing themselves to experience.  This isn’t specifically in Scripture, but it’s not inconsistent with Scripture, and I think I’d tend to agree.  But I think it’s not hard to make a biblical case that that single facet goes by the name of “Justice.”  Also it’s pretty obvious from Scripture that God’s concern for his own glory, honor, holiness, reputation, and character trumps his concern for us.  (The mind-blowing paradox comes when you realize that God’s character is also what drives him to DIE for us.  So we’ll have no talk of “divine pride” here, thank you.)  But if God is going to fudge on his own holiness by letting sin into heaven, he’s going to cease being God.  Which is kinda bad for all concerned.

Limitation, Humility, and Fairness

“… I tend more towards the Hindu/Buddhist view, or that of some Jewish schools of thought that see Hell as of limited duration—a sort of more intense version of Purgatory, in a sense. From the Christian perspective, it seems to limit God’s love and/or power to say that somehow a finite person can permanently say ‘no’ to God with no chance of ever changing. To say that the damned are ‘fixed’ in their denial begs the question; I can’t see any logical reason why this must necessarily be so, given the postulates of Christian theology. Anyway, I think the words of one of the Eastern fathers are a good way to look at it: ‘Live as if all are saved and I alone am damned.’” – Turmarion

This guy reasons plausibly enough, but it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to argue “from the Christian perspective” while pretty cavalierly ignoring what Scripture has to say on the topic.  And this, frankly, is the common error that runs through most of this discussion, including the original post.  People are cherry-picking verses (and historical factoids and philosophers) to support their points, but almost no one seems to acknowledge that a systematic study of Scripture (in the “systematic theology” sense of the term) winds you up with a corpus of data that makes it mighty difficult to think about hell as a “metaphor” or a “super-purgatory,” or what-have-you.  Can you interpret the whole of Scripture that way?  Well, yeah… but it’s quite a stretch.

Similarly, most everyone seems to be ignoring the overall consensus of Christendom throughout the ages.  Yes, *a few* of the early Church fathers were universalists, but the most notable of that crowd was Origen, and he was a mighty odd duck.  Never quite got declared a heretic, but anyone who postulates that in heaven we will all be spherical, because that is the shape of perfection, should probably not be cited as an authority on the afterlife.  Suffice to say that by far the prevailing view has held hell to be real, literal, and eternal.

Also I don’t see any problem with God’s power being limited.  Clearly God limits himself all the time, in all kinds of ways.  If God makes a promise to do something, then he will “limit” himself by eschewing all contradictory courses of action.  If God determines that he will create man as an eternal soul, then of course he will “limit” himself to not annihilating that eternal soul.  If he determines that man will have free will, then he will “limit” himself by not contravening it every time it does something inconvenient.  The issue is not whether God is “limited” by man; the issue is whether he is self-consistent.

Still, I rather like this guy’s closing quote: “Live as if all are saved and I alone am damned.”  I think it underlines the fact that doctrines don’t exist primarily for us to argue about exactly where their boundaries fall.  Doctrines have functions, and cannot be applied wherever and however we please, because no doctrine sums up the whole of reality, and each one has to be kept in balance by several others.  We must use doctrines in the same way that Scripture does.  E.g., Scripture uses the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in the context of saints undergoing tribulation, but not so much in the context of evangelism.  We preach election to the elect, and repentance to sinners (whether saved or no).  Hell appears in Scripture in the contexts of: a) rebellion against God (Psalms, Gospels, etc.), and b) God’s eternal victory and dispensing of ultimate justice (prophets, Revelation, etc.).  It’s not a doctrine that we are required to reconcile logically and fully with God’s mercy and love, because Scripture doesn’t necessarily give us enough data to do that.  We can do our best, but we’re not going to finally sort it out.  Which is ok.

The other thing I like about this final quote is that it shifts the responsibility back to me on this issue.  It’s convenient to worry about the mythical “people in Africa who have never heard,” but they’re not really my responsibility to the same extent that I am.  Have I examined myself first?  Have I done my own business with God and accepted his grace for myself?  If I reject God because “I knew you were a hard master,” when I know the truth and the way of salvation, well then, I got no business complaining if I end up further down in hell than the pagans who died in ignorance.

Here’s a longish quote cited recently in a sermon I heard:

After giving a brief survey of these doctrines of sovereign grace, I asked for questions from the class. One lady, in particular, was quite troubled. She said, “This is the most awful thing I ever heard! You make it sound as if God is intentionally turning away men and women who would be saved, receiving only the elect.”

I answered her in this vein: “You misunderstand the situation. You’re visualizing that God is standing at the door of heaven, and men are thronging to get in the door, and God is saying to various ones, ‘Yes, you may come, but not you, and you, but not you, etc.’ The situation is hardly this. Rather, God stands at the door of heaven with His arms outstretched, inviting all to come. Yet all men without exception are running in the opposite direction toward hell as hard as they can go. So God, in election, graciously reaches out and stops this one, and that one, and this one over here, and that one over there, and effectually draws them to Himself by changing their hearts, making them willing to come. Election keeps no one out of heaven who would otherwise have been there, but it keeps a whole multitude of sinners out of hell who otherwise would have been there. Were it not for election, heaven would be an empty place, and hell would be bursting at the seams.”

That kind of response, grounded as I believe that it is in Scriptural truth, does put a different complexion on things, doesn’t it? If you perish in hell, blame yourself, as it is entirely your fault. But if you should make it to heaven, credit God, for that is entirely His work! To Him alone belong all praise and glory, for salvation is all of grace, from start to finish. – Mark Webb

Is this “fair”?  Who knows?  Probably not.  But I’m the vessel, not the Potter.  Knowing what I know of God, I know that if he’s ever “less than fair,” it’s really because he’s being vastly, incomprehensibly more than fair.  I am certain of this: no one will be in hell who does not absolutely deserve it; and no one in hell will receive any more punishment than he deserves.  I’m nearly as certain of this, too: no one will be in hell who did not choose to be there and who (in some sense) still wants to be there.

Speculation

“As for people being condemned for all eternity to hell, that of course is not how God works, and the Therapeutic Deists are correct in that regard. But it does work out that way if one turns away from God forever. The mind that sins makes time out of the timeless, and that time can certainly seem to be ‘forever’ to the sinner. But once one turns to God, in that instant all time is rendered meaningless, and eternity stand before you. That is heaven.” – Conradg

This is another one of numerous (almost ubiquitous) examples of folks talking out of their own metaphysical speculations, as opposed to just simply reading Scripture and taking it for what it says.  How the dickens does this guy know that “that of course is not how God works”?  Cite a text, man!  There’s a lot more of general relativity and neuroscientific hypotheses in these comments than actual biblical knowledge.  I have as much fun as anyone else, trying to sync Scripture with what I know (or think I know) of time, eternity, the possibility of a multiverse, chaos theory, the intersection of brain, spirit, and soul, and all the rest.  Fine.  Go ahead.  A lot of it is plausible enough, anyway.  But when that rather juvenile sophomore-philosophy-class fantasizing starts to take precedence over what God has plainly declared, we have a real problem.

There’s plenty we don’t know; but there’s plenty we do.  Go read Revelation 20.  The sequence is very plain: 1) the souls of the martyrs are raised and given new bodies, and they reign with Christ for 1000 years (v. 4-6); 2) Satan & co. are released, revolt, and are defeated (again) and cast eternally into the lake of fire (7-10); 3) all the dead are judged; everyone gets out of Death and Hades (presumably raised into new bodies), and Death and Hades go into the fire too, along with anyone whose name is not written in the Book of Life (11-15).  Then chapters 21-22 are about heaven.  Is this metaphorical?  Doubtless.  But it also reads quite literally.  Don’t hurt yourself trying to twist it round to something that makes sense.  It makes plenty of sense on its own.

Fact is, I’m getting rather tired of all this idle philosophizing.  It smacks of the sluggard in Proverbs: “wiser in his own eyes than seven men who answer discreetly.”  God has said what he’s said.  Maybe Christendom has added on to it at points, but if so, that doesn’t license everyone with an internet connection to make the same mistake.  (Revelation has some warnings about that practice, too.)  You don’t have to like it, but “conscious eternal torment” is a very fair distillation of the verses that discuss hell.  The question isn’t whether you like it, or whether you like what [you think] it says about God.  The question is: how are you going to deal with it?  Are you going to sign up for God’s team, or are you going to wait until you’re sure he plays according to your definition of “fair”?

Joy in Justice

“If I happen to arrive in Heaven and discover that Hell doesn’t exist, or that Hell exists but no one but the Devil is in there, I will rejoice.” – Dreher

There were plenty of interesting responses to this one, which can speak for themselves.  For my part, I concur.  And if in Eternity, every so often, a soul walks out of Gehenna, upheld by angels, and into the New Jerusalem, I’ll rejoice about that also.  And if part of our job there consists of evangelizing the damned and calling them out of hell, I’ll rejoice at that too.  (Neither seems to have any support in Scripture, but then hell doesn’t get a full metaphysical description anywhere, either.  So this is kinda up there with extraterrestrial life: I doubt it, but I’ve got nothing against it.)  But to answer the atheist that replied to this comment, yes: if hell does exist, and is as bad or worse than anyone can imagine, and is full of nine-tenths of humanity, I’ll rejoice then too.  Not that people are perishing forever (God himself can’t rejoice at that), but that justice is being done.  America and the secular west doesn’t really grasp this sentiment, but other ages would have.  The Psalms are thick with it.

But we’d rather see injustice legislated quietly away, or “remediated” with padded rooms and drugs and counseling, rather than absolutely and righteously furiously destroyed.  There are multiple reasons for this, one of which is that our dim view of (and thus low respect for) true justice makes us tolerant of injustice; but the best of them is that, after Christ, we have a fuller understanding of the grace and mercy and patience of God, than people did before.  And America, at least, is or was Christian enough to reflect this heavily in our laws and culture.  Which is good!  But it’s beside the point when we discuss hell, and shouldn’t really be allowed to drive the discussion.  This is because God’s grace and goodness and kindness and patience and mercy [and justice] were all consummated in the Cross.  God’s plan of salvation, redemption, and glorification is the apogee of his mercy and the greatest display of his love that we can ever experience.  If we reject that, what is left but wrath?  First for our sin, and then for our blasphemous ingratitude.

For if we go on sinning deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful expectation of judgment, and a fury of fire that will consume the adversaries. (Heb. 10:26-27)

The Mind of Christ and the Love of God

“But will you rejoice, to find that Hell exists and hosts the torment of everyone who didn’t believe in Jesus as savoir, from Thomas Jefferson to Albert Einstein? Well, how could you not rejoice? Your god will have remade you, so that you will see that as his perfect plan, and enjoy its fruition for the rest of eternity. The faith you have to carry somehow is that that is the Rod Dreher you want to become.” – Russell

Pretty bitter stuff.  But the answer-with-backbone is the only one to give to a double ad-hominem like this: Yes, that is who I want to become.  I want to have the mind of Christ.  I want to view reality, and righteousness, and sin, and justice, and mercy, the way that he does.  I want to love what he loves, and hate what he hates.  I want to change from how I currently am, and be conformed to him image.  Of course I have my own notions (shaped by family and experience and culture and my own sin).  Of course I have my own ideas of how the universe could have been set up, and how it ought to be run.  But this is the whole point: if you prefer your own way to God’s, you cannot be with him.  He, being holy, cannot allow it; and you, being willful, will not stand for it.

All these people haggling with God about why he can or can’t have such-and-such a kind of hell, are chiseling out for themselves flagstones of arrogance that make “good intentions” look like pebbles, and paving their own broad road to the hell that really does exist, in despite of all their rationalizing.  You can’t stand on the riverbank lecturing the flood about how high it’s allowed to rise, or saying “good flood!” if it takes your obnoxious neighbor’s house, and “bad flood!” if it takes your own.  How childish.  Go read God’s rebuke of Job.  Get a grip on your own place in the cosmos.  “Think of yourself with sober judgment.

If you think you know better than God, if you’re determined to have things your own way, to insist on your own rules of morality (constructed no doubt to conform to the way you’re already acting), to demand that everyone be treated “fairly” in accordance with your own ideas of justice, to insist that certain sins really aren’t so bad after all—then, God says, fine: go to hell.  That’s what it’s there for: “every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God.”

So, if in the Judgment I see the demons abridging Thomas Jefferson with pen-knives the way he abridged the living Word of God, then yes, I will rejoice at God’s justice.  And if instead I find Jefferson sitting on the riverbank beneath the Tree of Life, interviewing every one of the miraculously-fed 5000 as he prepares to illuminate that page of the miraculous Manuscript on his lap, then I’ll rejoice all the more at God’s fathomless mercy.

The love of God is greater far
Than tongue or pen can ever tell;
It goes beyond the highest star,
And reaches to the lowest hell

– Fred­er­ick Leh­man, 1917

On Resisting Zombification

Original version: August 31, 2011

I finally finished reading John Médaille’s “Will There Be Zombies?” article over at Front Porch Republic.  It is good.  It clearly identifies the problem—the end of the world—and does so in a persuasive way.  It understands and explains the interdependencies of all the failing cultural systems, while maintaining both a sense of humor and a (non-utopian) sense of hope—and, what’s more, a basic plan of action.

I urge anyone reading this post to read the article.  Before you read these ramblings, in fact.

Done?  Ok, here we go.

1. Survivalism Is Insufficient.

It’s easy to preach (sell?) a message of “head-for-the-hills survivalism,” but that kind of libertarian self-sufficiency is not particularly compelling, being compatible neither with Christianity, nor long-term living, nor any sort of cultural upbuilding.  Of course it’s legitimate to move to a new location out of concerns for physical safety or spiritual health; and of course preparing for a possible crisis (of whatever kind) could be very prudent.  But not if the goal of it all ends with mere “survival.”  People want more, obviously, than mere survival.  They want a full, rich life with eternal significance.

Médaille is a rarity, in that he deals with the whole problem, not just an isolated portion, and in that his worldview is robust enough to see that (a) whatever happens, it’s not The End, and (b) there are things we can do about it, now, during, and afterward.  Which I consider very refreshing.

2. Technology and The Present Crisis

I can’t judge all of Médaille’s factual/historical interpretations.  As is evident from the comments section, plenty of people have a different perspective on many of the issues he deals with (oil, the collapse of empires, etc.).  But I think, in the main, he’s right: there are unique crises in our era which, in some ways, are without precedent.

Most of these unique crises, it seems to me, are unique to us because they are bound up with technology.  Now, it’s no good criticizing technology-as-such: technology has been around since Adam first levered a stone out of his field with a stick, and human beings are obviously, by design, technical creatures.  But we’re also social, rational, and skeptical creatures, and socialism, rationalism, and skepticism haven’t worked out so well.  Technologicism is showing the same cracks.  Like the pursuit of most things—all things, probably, apart from love of God and love of neighbor—the pursuit of technology is subject to the law of diminishing returns: the more of it you have, the less it buys you.

One reason for this is precisely what Médaille has identified: in order to fulfill its (present, erroneous) purpose of providing man with absolute control over nature, technology has had to become a version of magic.  And magic always requires a magician—that is, a man who works by obscure means and, as a result, holds some degree of power over lesser mortals.  In seeking power, we have put ourselves at the mercy of others who are more powerful than we are.

However, the system is now so big that we’re no longer ruled by a small cadre of priests.  Now we have a priesthood-of-all-baccalaureates.  Almost everybody (except those who compose the welfare state) is a minor wizard of something; and so everyone is at the mercy (or mercilessness) of everyone else.  As Médaille says:

…no matter how many doctorates one holds in computer science, at some point the system disappears into a world of magic. Thus the hardware engineer finds operating systems bewildering, while the systems programmer is mystified by telecommunications, and the communications engineer can’t help you with applications. Expertise is one area is matched by ignorance in other areas, so that to each practitioner of the computer arts, at some point the whole thing fades into a world of wizardry. This is why, when you call him for help, and after pressing “1” for English, Sanjay in Mumbai often appears to be bewildered by your problem; he is not always the wizard to help you, but you both know a wizard is required.

An Anecdote

For about two weeks this month our internet connection was, literally, on the blink.  Multiple times per day, with no predictable pattern, the “DSL” light on our modem would cease to shine steadily and begin blinking.  This told us that we were no longer connected to the internet.  It did not tell us anything else.  After placing perhaps four calls to Verizon’s Sanjays in Mumbai (who all courteously, efficiently, and semi-intelligibly asked me the identical series of diagnostic questions, all to no avail), and after receiving two equally courteous but equally unhelpful computerized calls informing me that the “problem on the line has been resolved” (the first of which occurred while the modem light was cheerfully blinking away), the issue was “escalated” to the network technicians at the Home Office.

A week later one of these magi called to tell me that the problem was a “card” of some type, which would occasionally stop functioning, with the result that all of the cards below it would similarly fail to functionrather like a string of Christmas lights, I gather.  This is a device whose name I do not know, whose function I cannot divine, whose location I am wholly ignorant of, and which I could not repair if I had the design manual, because the failing component was in all likelihood invisible to the naked eye.  Fortunately this wizard, or one of his fellows, eventually found the time to heed my prayers, and had a replacement handy (and fortunately he did not require any additional sacrifices or libations in repayment for his service).

During this period, my jobwhich is performed 100% on the computer and 80% onlinewas thus rendered very difficult to perform.  For the latter half of it I was on vacation and computer free, but for the first half I did my work at Starbucks, drinking tea and eating muffins, and thus bolstering the local economy.

Despite my tone, I don’t really mean to criticize Verizon in all of this.  Their folks were pleasant, and as helpful as they could be given the unusual issuenot to mention the strike they were experiencing at the time.  But all these elements illustrate that they are a part of a system that is very obviously, to use Médaille’s term, “brittle.”

Supernatural Magic

With technology, we have succeeded in taking magic out of the domain of the occultic witch-doctor, de-demonizing it, and making it considerably more democratic.  Thus we’ve (perhaps) circumvented the explicit prohibitions of Scripture against sorcery and have thereby made magic acceptable to Christendom (or at least “family friendly”).  But in many ways the end goals are still the same: godlike sway over the natural word and thus (we think) over our circumstances and our destinies; glorification of self in the eyes of our neighbors, who are left in awe of (or at least dependence on) our own small sphere of arcane knowledge; and transcendence of the moral law.  In fact, by whatever means possible, we want to be as God.

Resistance

My own life—or lifestyle, I should say, to be perfectly accurate—is pretty firmly bound up with technology right now.  I don’t know how to extricate it; though, given some sudden “crash,” I would probably figure it out.  But I can resist its pull:

  • I can refuse to buy a new car simply because it’s new and (purportedly) requires less maintenance: my old car is not tremendously reliable, but it works, and also we don’t drive very much.
  • I can refuse to buy a new computer simply because they get “faster” and “cheaper” all the time: the laptop my company provided meets all my current needs, and I didn’t have to pay for it; I’ll buy a new computer when I actually need one.
  • I can refuse to own a microwave: it would simply take up valuable counter space, bias us towards leftovers or pre-packaged “foods,” produce unhealthy and less-tasty outcomes, and discourage planning ahead.  We put ours in storage on top of the dryer, and after several months of not missing it, gave it away.  (I’ll admit, we replaced it with a toaster oven which is just as computerized, bulky, and difficult to repair.  But it’s more versatile and more healthy.)
  • I can eat lettuce from my garden, instead of from the grocery store, during whichever months of the year I can manage to grow it.
  • I can leave the GPS off when I actually know the way to where I’m going.
  • I can let the calculator rest and (try to) do an occasional multiplication problem in my head.
  • I can be content with no FiOS, no cable, no television for that matter, and (as my father-in-law would call it) a “dumb phone.”  This last costs about one-fifth as much per month as its more highly evolved successors and, if it doesn’t actually diminish the time I spend staring at a screen, it at least keeps me from staring at a small one and being reduced to the two fingers I used before I was taught to type.
  • And I can refuse to sign up for Facebook.

(I use the first person in all of this, but really my wife has been the motive force behind many of these practices, and we agree on and implement them together.  It probably says something about people in general, and also about the gravitational pull of the tech, that this kind of resistance is easier and/or more necessary in the context of a family, versus bachelorhood.)

I don’t want to brag about all the bits of technology I decline to use, as if there’s a particular virtue in being spartan or technophobic; there isn’t.  Even self-sufficiency (so called) is as much a temptation as a benefit.  So really I’m not condemning any of these technologies.  (Not even Facebook: I’ve seen my wife, for example, make a conscious effort to use it well—i.e., to resist or transcend the bent, perhaps even the design, of the technology.  Most of the time she succeeds; it just takes discipline.)  But I am criticizing the cumulative force that these “improvements” apply to our lives.  I am criticizing the “zombifying” effect they tend to produce, when they are used as their creators, or at least marketers, too often intend: that is to say, without intentionality, deliberation, or restraint, and not in response to any actual need.  I feel that zombification at work in myself, and I don’t like it.  Therefore I have begun to resist.

3. Neighborliness

I am not a particularly good neighbor.  I am not even an especially good friend.  I am not adept at forging deep, meaningful relationships.  Maybe this skill takes a lifetime to learn, and maybe no one is expert at it, but I do feel that many people are better at it than I am.  I have not been well taught, and I haven’t made sufficient effort to learn.  I really do try to care for people—at least when they have a specific need that I know, or think, I can meet.  But as much as I denounce individualism, I find I would rather trot off with David to the playground down the street, than make an effort to help him play with the rather obnoxious and rowdy boys next door.

This specific set of neighbors, I’ll say as an aside, is a curious case study: whatever their faults of laziness, dissipation, irresponsibility, inconsideration, and general annoyingness, they are, without doubt, vastly more “neighborly” and communal than we are.  We like our privacy.  They probably never lock their doors and have perhaps a couple of dozen persons who commonly turn up on their back porch at all hours of the day.  True, they spend most of their time smoking, drinking, and talking in elevated tones about not-very-elevated topics, but I suspect that when one of them has a need, he doesn’t call an expert (a magician, that is): he calls one of his friends.  They are Godless, and for that and other reasons they are evidently not very happy; but also I suspect they do not experience the same hectic loneliness that plagues most of the townhome-dwellers in our area, who commute an hour east towards D.C. every day to perform mechanical tasks in support of governmental ends they are often ignorant of, or do not believe in, so that they can be oversalaried with taxpayer dollars, so they can collect things they don’t have time to enjoy.  Our neighbors buy cheap beer, I have no doubt—and probably more than their bodies or wallets can afford—but they do seem to enjoy it.

Should we try to make them our best friends?  Well, no: the influence of friendship goes both ways, invariably.  But I do envy them their multitude of friends-within-walking-distance.

4. Learning Community

Our parents’ generation, it seems, got a solid dose of “anti-establishment” worked into their psyches.  It still crops up in various forms: homeschooling, alternative health practices, home churches and/or chronic church-shopping (or mere non-attendance), scorn of the government, and so on.  Now, granted, most of the establishments had serious problems (and still do), so these reactions were understandable and in many cases unavoidable (and in some cases good).  But the unintended result is that we, their children, are just plain bad at forming, reforming, or living with establishments, organizations, church congregations, neighborhoods, or communities of whatever kind.  If Médaille is correct, and I suspect he is, we are going to have to change this.  Or at least we will have to go a long way towards equipping our children to change it.  Which will mean that, among other things:

  • We must settle in a (good-but-not-perfect) community and stay in it long enough to learn how to work out problems.
  • We must teach our children how to research, study, observe, build, garden, repair, invent, maintain, share, befriend, and self-govern.  And teach.
  • We must strip all the “fat” out of our lives and simplifying (i.e., focusing) to the point where we actually have time and energy to do these things.  This will mean we have to find the above activities more compelling, desirable, and positively fun than our own continued “entertainment.”  Entertainment—or rather let us say re-creation—is well and good and vital to life, but as Médaille points out, we’ve outsourced far too much of this, too.  We must learn to coax music out of other instruments than the radio or the portable DVD player.  We must stop buying, and start making.  And when we do, I suspect we’ll find that most of what we lose in terms of efficiency, ease, and expense, we gain back in terms of quality, fun, and fulfillment.
  • We must spend less time “friending” and “following” our acquaintances, and more time being friends to them.  We both need it.  And moreover this is the primary distinctive of the Church, as far as the world is concerned: “By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”  Love is what draws people to Christ.  It is very possible to love someone through a computer (such is the common grace of God), but it is impossible, or nearly so, to do it wholistically.  I can give you truth, Scripture, prayer, encouragement, a listening ear, and good advice; but I cannot give you a hug or a bag of my surplus tomatoes.

And all this, I’ll say again, is a broader vision than simply “surviving the crisis,” which is valid enough for the short term, but which is fundamentally a self-centered goal; a means, not an end.  God does not call us to survive.  He calls us to make disciples.  I’ll quote at some length from a letter I recently received from Ken Myers of Mars Hill Audio (to which I subscribe, and which I recommend heartily):

Without some vision of the specific form our cultural lives ought to take, being involved in cultural activity can become merely a fancy form of evangelism.  I’ve got nothing against evangelism, but I’m more interested (as were Jesus and Paul) in moving beyond the making of converts to the building of disciples, to the encouragement of the followers of Jesus to honor his authority in all things.  The discipleship enjoined in the Great Commission is finally a task of enculturation, of encouraging some forms of life while discouraging—in fact, renouncing—other forms as unfitting for the Kingdom.”The work of cultural analysis that Mars Hill Audio has pursued for almost twenty years has always assumed that some cultural forms are truly better than others.  The people I have interviewed have insights into cultural life that I hope will be taken up into the form of life practiced by Christians as an expression of faithfulness and a witness to world.  The content of these interviews may be intellectually stimulating, but if that’s all they are, we haven’t really done our work.  (The “we” in that last sentence includes you, by the way.)  The cultural reform we hope to advance has to be visible in our own communities before it can be effected in society.

The obvious prerequisites to all of this are (a) evangelism, and (b) community.  We must improve at both.

5. Neither Utopia nor Dystopia, but Kingdom

One last point.  Médaille, for all his apocalyptic banter, is not an alarmist, nor a doomsday prophet.  (I hope none of my own comments have trended that way either.)  Alarmism is out of the equation because the kinds of things Médaille is arguing for are precisely the kinds of things we should be doing in any event, whether cultural collapse is imminent, or generations ahead, or ten years behind.  Because our kingdom is not of this world, our task does not change with the ebb and flow of empires.  Christ calls us to build the Kingdom, but he does not call us to build heaven on earth: heaven is coming by storm, soon enough.  Thus the means of preventing, delaying, preparing for, mitigating, weathering, recovering from, or repairing a “crash” are all one and the same: build the Kingdom.  Build healthy communities composed of serious disciples of the coming Lord.

I could probably go on—it’s a big topic—but this train of thought has grown about as long as the engine can pull.

Thanks again to JMK for sending the article in the first place.  Keep similar stuff in the pipeline, please.

The Suffering God

Original version: September 29, 2009

This is a response to Andre Sullivan’s “What Is Evil For The Darwinist?”—his reply to the many comments on a previous post—at The Daily Dish, which was forwarded to me by my brother.  Skimming the comments may be helpful background to my thoughts which follow.

The Meta-Problem

This discussion of the theodicy subject is encouraging: a civil debate, with thoughts clearly expressed, is much more pleasant than the general bulk of public dialogue.  Nevertheless, I am troubled by what I’ve read of this particular debate, on account of the rather thin presence in it of a deeply relevant topic: the suffering and death of Jesus.  The whole exchange has been very centered on man’s suffering, and on man’s solutions, and on man’s reason, and in a debate about God, this seems not as it should be.

The problem with trying to present “rational” explanations for God, for evil, for the sovereignty & freedom interplay, etc. is not that they don’t get you anywhere helpful, but that they become such great temptations to think that you might somehow be able to—as Milton described his own attempt—“justify the ways of God to men.”  And this, from my reading of Job, is something not even God cares to do all that much.

God doesn’t say to Job (or to most of us), “Look, I know you’re suffering, and here’s the deep reason behind it that gives it meaning.”  He says “Job, are you God, or am I God?”  Which is the first question we all have to answer.  As long as we insist on being God, we are frustrated by suffering, because it falsifies our sense of control.  However, when we admit that God is God, we come to the place where God’s reasons can begin to make sense to us.  Previously, as Paul says, they are “foolishness.”  We cannot completely know the purposes of God, but when we value what He values, and have our minds renewed and conformed to His, we can begin to see or to guess why He acts the way He does—because we know Him.

The Author’s View of Good and Evil

The crux of the whole matter, and the thing that makes this even plausible, is as usual the Cross of Christ.  When you view reality through that lens, you realize that the Christian God is not one who arbitrarily inflicts suffering (as some of your readers so bitterly assert) but rather one who takes suffering onto Himself.  He is not a God who erases suffering, but rather one who makes it meaningful by through it working redemption for us, overcoming our alienation from God, which is sin, which brings spiritual death—all of which things are, in God’s economy, immeasurably worse than the physical or emotional sufferings of Auschwitz or Nagasaki.

If God was primarily concerned about disease and war and “not being nice,” Christ would have come in 6000 B.C., stuck around forever, and popped all over the planet like Superman, plugging up volcanoes, healing lepers, producing bumper crops and keeping the genome on track.  He didn’t—and not only because human free will and its consequents are important to Him.  He didn’t, because God is not a divine slot machine to make up our deficiencies or bring “peace on earth” in the way that the sillier Christmas songs mean it; rather, He is a loving Father who disciplines his children for their good.  He is an artist and an author who is telling a good story through the history of earth, of mankind, and of redemption.  Like any good author, He loves His characters—even when He takes them through dark chapters, even when they reject Him and spit in His face.

This last truth is why I’m baffled at the sharp distinction being made by several commenters (and perhaps even by yourself) between “reality” and “fable,” or between history and allegory.  Whatever your view of Genesis or of the entire Bible may be, if you call it “Word of God” in any sense, it should be very clear that God LOVES parable, fable, myth, allegory, and the whole lot.  So if God wants to structure the tapestry of history with mythic or allegorical elements, or according to the principles of good art, is this a problem?  Should it even be surprising?  Here again we have a case of men trying to impose their own categories on God, without taking the trouble to actually get to know Him and the way He operates.

By “getting to know God,” I do not mean mere personalized, subjective experiences (feelings, insights, visions, small miracles, epiphanies, “warm fuzzies,” etc.).  These do indeed play an important role in how we—as individual emotional beings—know God.  But we are also rational, communal, inter-relational beings.  Thus I also come to know God through taking a theology class, or discussing His attributes and works with a friend, or studying how His hand has worked in history, or basking in the beauties He’s fixed in geometry, chemistry, or the glories of an organism or ecosystem.  I also come to know Him by taking Him at face value, hearing the propositions (and poetry, and historical narratives) that He gives about Himself in His written Word.  And perhaps most significantly, I encounter God in His Body—meaning both a) the Church, which is the Body of Christ on earth, and the people of God into which we are redeemed, and b) His Body and Blood given to us in Communion, which is the spiritual food of the Church and Her central act of worship.

God, by His own verbal Account, is deeply interested in solving our physical problems.  This is why Christ did more than just die and rise again.  But, by His own Account, He is chiefly interested in solving our relational problem—with Him.  Which is sin, rebellion, self-worship, hubris, self-will, “going our own way.”  The Great Physician is interested in getting to the root of the problem, not just fixing symptom upon symptom.  To do that would be false to His own justice, to human nature as He created it, and to the Natural Laws by which He orders the universe.  Rather, the great Author (with full irony) and the just and merciful Judge (with full poetic justice) works to turn Death back on itself, conquering limited human suffering through infinite Divine suffering, conquering the shallow human grave through a descent to the very bottom of Hades, conquering sin through the greatest expression of sin ever unleashed against a perfect God: rejecting, blaspheming, and murdering His humbled human Son.

Συμ-πάθος [sym-pathy – “co-suffering”]

Because Immanuel values relationship with us, He is also interested in suffering with us.  This is why “Jesus wept” with Mary and Martha.  He knew He was going to raise Lazarus.  He knew He was going to fix the problem and end the suffering.  But in that moment, because He cared about His friends, He took time, actually prolonging their suffering, so that He could show His desire to be with them in and through it.  This is foolishness to a human mind (especially a male mind, since we men are so much more interested in the fix; whereas women are more interested in sympathy and understanding), but when you realign yourself to God’s priorities, you discover that disconnectedness from Him is worse than (and, ultimately, the source of) any other suffering you might experience.  Then and only then do His paradoxical actions begin to make sense.

The problem of evil is a very real problem, for any worldview.  It’s more of a problem for the atheist (who has also to explain the existence of good) than for the Christian, but it’s a problem for everybody.  However, in many of its manifestations, the “problem of evil” is merely the pragmatist belief that suffering is the worst possible evil, and that non-suffering is the best possible good.  That, frankly, is a lie.  If God exists, then being at odds with Him is the worst possible evil.

When the problem of evil is expressed with “evil” properly defined as sin (and this cannot be done without the knowledge of God; hence the problem with trying to convert an atheist via theodicy), then it becomes evident that the true problem of evil has already been solved by the work of Christ.  The war is won; all that’s left is the mopping-up action.  The Ring has gone into the Cracks of Doom, and all that’s left is the Scouring of the Shire.  This is hard to assert in the face of the vast evil that parades through all the twentieth century, but it is true.  Our view is myopic: the Real Story is wider than the cosmos, and the twentieth century and all its evil is a breath.

And yet, somehow, the God who stands above the universe, and above the whole timeline of history, can take a moment to stand with His friends beside the grave He has conquered, and weep with them.

Blessed be God.

Why This Blog

Raisons d’être:1

  • Because I found myself writing longer and longer epistles via e-mail, and putting enough time, thought, and effort into them that I felt they were worth sharing with people outside the original conversation.
  • Because I got tired of trying to remember (and usually forgetting some of) all those additional intended recipients.
  • Because e-mails are less permanent, less formattable, and less easy-to-read (and to find) than a blog is.
  • Because writing for the public, even a very limited public, is a greater incentive to do better writing.
  • And, perhaps most of all, because my wife suggested it.

So if you send me an article or personal musing to which I (or the people I’ve been reading recently) have a worthwhile reply, please know there’s a decent chance it’ll end up here.

Notes:

  • This blog is a medium, a venue, not a project.  As the title suggests, I have no goals for how often I will put content here.  My only goals are to speak when something needs to be said, to communicate clearly, and to benefit those who listen.
  • Over the next few days, I’ll be dredging up, editing, and posting some of my more recent e-mail missives (about technology, the problem of evil, the end of the world, and hell; but it’s really not as grim a lineup as it sounds, I promise!).  After that there’s no telling.  It could be anything from a book review to a recipe.
  • Unless your replies to anything I put here are specifically private, please post them as comments, rather than responding via e-mail.  I know others will be interested.

p.s.  The template I’ve originally selected for this blog is titled “Dusk To Dawn.”  The template may change at some point, but I do hope that thematic vector holds true for whatever gets posted here.  There may be some heavy topics at times, but if so, I intend always to end with the Living Hope of life in Christ.  So if I wander into actual griping and ranting, kick me, ok?