There is a common mistake made by atheists and by many preachers who say they take the Bible literally. The problem involves knowing the difference between literalism and a literal understanding of the Bible. Literalism is interpreting a passage while ignoring who wrote it, why they wrote it, what kind of literature or teaching technique it is, and to whom it was written.
When atheists try to say that a biblical passage cannot be true, they are almost always using literalism. An example is skeptics who claim that the Bible says the Earth is flat and has corners like a sheet of paper. They use Revelation 7:1 to support this, “I saw four angels standing on the four corners of the earth…” If you don’t read the passage’s context, you might conclude that it says the Earth is flat and has corners. There is a “Flat Earth Society” that believes that today, but that is not what the Bible is saying. In the past, literalist church leaders insisted that the Bible says the Sun orbits the Earth instead of the other way around. They based that on passages that talk about the motion of the Sun (such as Joshua 19) or a passage they believed said that the Earth cannot be moved (Psalms 93:1 KJV).
A more complex example is seen in Luke 16:19-31. It’s the familiar story of Lazarus, the rich man, and Abraham. Atheists have used this account to ridicule the concept of heaven and hell and preachers have used it to justify fire and damnation sermons. Is this passage a literal description of the judgment scene? This is an excellent example of the principles of literalism and a literal understanding of the Bible.
This passage is one of a series of parables. It begins as the other parables with, “There was a …” Abraham is the only proper name used in the passage. “A certain rich man…” is never identified. The word translated “Lazarus” means “without help” in the original language. It is a description of the beggar, not his formal name. Abraham is never given the role of a judge in the scripture. He is the father of Israel, but he certainly is not God. Jesus told the story to “the Pharisees who were covetous” (verse 14) and considered themselves sons of Abraham. Jesus did not address the parable to theologians wanting to know the nature of hell. The picture of people in hell seeing people in heaven may be useful for artists, but it violates all descriptions of heaven and hell. The parable’s message is condemning the hypocrisy of people who claimed a relationship with God but did nothing to help others.
We must apply these principles to any passage we read. Were the nephilim of Genesis 6 literal giants? No, we have discussed that before. Did the animal in Job 41:14 have doors on its face? Does light shine when it sneezes (verse 18)? Do sparks, smoke, and flame come out of its mouth (verse 19, 20)? Is its heart as hard as a millstone (verse 24)?
There are many other passages where people confuse literalism and a literal understanding of the Bible. The entire book of Revelation is misrepresented by folks who use literalism instead of taking it literally. As we have said before, taking a Bible passage literally means looking at who wrote it, to whom and why, and how the people it was written to would have understood it. The Bible is easy to understand, and its message is 100% true, but, like any written message, it can be distorted and misrepresented. Sometimes skeptics do that purposely. Many times believers do it innocently because they don’t read it carefully and apply common sense to understand it literally.
I have been thinking about willful blindness. Many years ago, in a lectureship in Canada, I met a Christian lady who was born and raised in Germany before and during World War II. After the war, she became a Christian, but during the war, she was part of Hitler’s youth workers and active in the Nazi movement. As she talked about her leadership role in the Nazi movement, she spoke of being enthusiastic about the successes of Nazism and how it gave young Nazi workers pride and enthusiasm for the economic and social achievements it generated.
As she spoke, she became subdued and said that when she and other young Germans heard that Jews were being put in concentration camps and killed just because they were Jews, they didn’t believe it. “We are too smart, too religious, too kind to ever allow such things to happen. That can not be true!” She then looked up at me with tears in her eyes and said, “But we were so terribly, horribly, awfully wrong.”
I have often heard people say that they can’t understand how the German people allowed the persecution of the Jews under Hitler. The reason is willful blindness! As we are seeing and hearing the cry of our black friends and neighbors now in 2020, we need to have the courage to ask if we, too, are willfully blind.
Willful blindness is common to humans. In Matthew 21:7-11, we see people welcoming Jesus to Jerusalem with a huge parade and with cries of love and support. In Matthew 27:22-25, we see these same people crying, “Crucify him!!” In Acts 7:54-60, we see people killing Stephen and even covering their ears to avoid hearing the truth about what they were doing.
I am an old man, and I have lived and worked among people of color all my life. Yet until the last few weeks, I never heard about the horrible destruction and murder of over three hundred innocent blacks living in Greenwood, Oklahoma, on May 31-June 1 of 1921. A prosperous town known as “Black Wall-street” was made up of black homes and businesses. It was attacked, and 1265 houses were burned, 150 businesses destroyed and looted, and 9,000 left homeless.
How did I never hear of this tragedy? I never thought about the impact of how we all got here. My ancestors came to America to escape persecution and to look for freedom. My black friends are here because their ancestors were ripped away from family and home, taken on a trip they didn’t want to take, and denied basic rights and freedom. How have I ignored that fact? The answer is “willful blindness.”
In this time of having our vision restored, perhaps we need to be reminded of the words of a powerful song from the musical South Pacific and reflect on how they apply to us:
“You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear. You’ve got to be taught from year to year. It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made, and people whose skin is a different shade. You’ve got to be carefully taught. You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late. Before you are six or seven or eight, to hate all of the people your relatives hate. You’ve got to be carefully taught.”
Now and then, we come across a book that is so unique and useful that we want to share it with our friends. We publish a review of such books in our quarterly journal. Just recently, we found a book titled Reflections on the Existence of God by Richard Simmons III.
Simmons is exceptionally well-read and has accumulated a massive number of stellar quotes from people in various disciplines on the existence of God. Well documented and credited, these quotations are incredibly useful. If you are like me, you frequently know someone has said what you are trying to say, but they have said it better. A classic example in Simmon’s book is a quote of Henry Bosch from the Encyclopedia of 7,700 illustrations:
“Socrates taught for 40 years, Plato for 50, Aristotle for 40, and Jesus for only three. Yet the influence of Christ’s three-year ministry infinitely transcends the impact left by the combined 130 years of teaching from these men who are among the greatest philosophers of all antiquity. Jesus painted no pictures, yet some of the finest paintings of Raphael, Michelangelo, and Leonardo da Vinci received their inspiration from Him. Jesus wrote no poetry, but Dante, Milton, and scores of the world’s greatest poets were inspired by Him. Jesus composed no music, still, Haydn, Handel, Beethoven, Bach, and Mendelsohn reached their highest perfection of melody in the hymns, symphonies, and oratories they composed in His praise. Every sphere of human greatness has been enriched by this humble carpenter of Nazareth.”
An author like Simmons brings things to us that we would otherwise have missed. As we ponder the words of great writers, our faith in Jesus grows. We are fed and encouraged by the words of those whose creativity of expression is greater than ours.
Reflections on the Existence of God is available from Amazon. We have used other quotes from this book HERE and HERE.
By definition, we establish a memorial to help us remember certain essential things. Memorials are very much a part of Christianity and of the history of Israel. Members of different denominations have instituted all kinds of special days and given them spiritual significance. In reality, those days are not found in the Bible, and there is no biblical command to observe them. Perhaps God knew that humans would corrupt special days and forget their significance and message. Christmas is an example of that.
In Exodus 3:15, God told Moses that the exodus from Egypt would be a “memorial to all generations.” Jesus spoke in Mathew 26:13 of a memorial for the woman who anointed him for burial. In Luke 22:19-20, Jesus gave His followers the one special memorial to observe. Early Christians met on the first day of every week to remember Christ’s body “which is given for you” as they ate the bread and drank the fruit of the vine–“the new testament in my blood which is shed for you.” Even though Jesus gave us this memorial to help us remember, it was very quickly corrupted. In 1 Corinthians 11:20-34, we read that it had become a drunken feast in the Corinthian church. The memorial’s purpose was lost because they were “not discerning the Lord’s body” (verse 29). Paul goes on in this description to say, “this is why many are weak and sickly among you, and many sleep” (verse 30).
Today in the United States, we celebrate Memorial Day. The last Monday in May was made a national holiday in 1971 to honor the memory of those who died to defend America from those who would try to destroy us. It seems that each year there is more emphasis on this day being the “unofficial first day of summer” with little emphasis on its intended meaning. Like the words of 1 Corinthians 11, this day has become a drunken feast for many, and our population is weak and sickly as a result. Many of us are more concerned with Memorial Day sales and, in 2020, how to celebrate without getting the virus than with pausing to give thanks for America and for those who died to preserve it.
As Christians, we have one special memorial to help us remember the sacrifice Jesus made. Even as we stop every week to remember what Jesus did for us, we must develop an attitude of gratitude. As we thank God who sent His Son to die for our salvation, we should also remember those who died to keep us free to worship in this country.
Perhaps Christ’s transfiguration was the most significant biblical event other than the creation and Christ’s resurrection. It is described in Matthew 17:1-8, Mark 9:2-8, and Luke 9:28-36. Three men meet together on a mountain–Moses, Elijah, and Jesus.
The Law and the Prophets were the basis of Judaism. Exodus 24:13-18 tells us that Moses went up on Mount Sinai and received the Law. Deuteronomy 34:6 indicates that he had no known grave. Elijah, the prophet, went up Mount Horeb (Sinai) according to 1 Kings 19:8, where God spoke to him. Like Moses, Elijah had no grave (2 Kings 2:11).
God told the people through the prophet Malachi that the Law and the prophets would lead to Christ (Malachi 4:4-6). In Luke 9:34-35 we read of Christ’s transfiguration and the cloud which symbolized the covering of divine presence. God spoke and said, “This is my beloved Son: hear him.” The message is clear. Don’t let the Law or the prophets guide you–follow Jesus.
To this day, people want to snip out various parts of the Law or the prophets and use them in their religious practices. Jesus said in Matthew 5:17 that He fulfilled the Law and the prophets. Jesus summed up the Law and the prophets in Matthew 7:12 with what we often call the “Golden Rule.” Colossians 2:6-23 states that Jesus blotted out the written code with its regulations by nailing to the cross (verse 14).
Christ’s transfiguration leads us to real freedom. Just as Moses led Israel out of slavery to Egypt, Jesus leads all of us to real freedom from sin. Romans 6:4-23 speaks of Christians having a new life, not a legalistic political system. The Law was impossible to keep perfectly because of human weakness. Romans describes the new life we are called to. We can be completely and totally free by God’s grace and the power of love.
Skeptics of Christianity frequently challenge the concept of the Holy Spirit. That criticism is mainly due to the denominational world’s claims of miraculous acts by their religious leaders. There is no question that God can perform whatever miracles He chooses. However, many claims of the Holy Spirit entering and taking over a person are not only illogical, but they violate biblical teaching about the Holy Spirit’s work.
Numerous books have been written on the Holy Spirit, but from an apologetic standpoint, we must see what the Bible says:
2) Jesus promised to send the Spirit as a “Comforter.” The Greek word is “parakletos,” which means “one called alongside.” The Holy Spirit helps us in our Christian life but does not make us robots (John 14:15-17).
3) The Holy Spirit’s work is primarily spiritual, not physical (Ephesians 3:16-20). The Holy Spirit is not here to allow us to handle poisonous snakes, raise the dead, or calm physical storms today. The Spirit helps our prayer life (Romans 8:26-28) and helps us to be patient (Galatians 5:22-26). The Holy Spirit enables us to us give freely (2 Corinthians 8:1-7, Acts 20:35) and to live moral lives (Galatians 5:16-26, Romans 6:1-23, 8:1-17). Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we can reach out to others (Romans 8:16), and use the gifts we are given (1 Corinthians 12:1-13).
4) The Spirit gives us the power, but He doesn’t force us to act. He nudges us but doesn’t overpower us (Acts 7:48-51, 1 Thessalonians 5:16-22). John 14:15-17 tells us that the skeptic will not accept the Spirit. Rejecting God’s help makes life become a burden, not a joy.
The promises of Jesus, such as Matthew 7:7-11, are primarily spiritual. Becoming a Christian to get rich or have political power is a nonsense understanding of the Holy Spirit’s work.
Jesus taught many unique ideas. Perhaps the most unique and astounding are his teachings about how to deal with those who differ from you. One of the major problems with atheistic evolution is the “survival of the fittest” motivation. That philosophy justifies acting superior to those who are different from you and destroying them because they are less fit than you. People have used that excuse to justify slavery. We have to contrast the magnitude of hate and the love of Christ.
When the liberation of Auschwitz occurred on January 27, 1945, (75 years ago), the world saw the result of “survival of the fittest” when applied to humans. It is hard to comprehend that Nazis murdered 1,100,000 people at Auschwitz during World War II. Russian liberators told of battle-hardened soldiers vomiting when they saw the magnitude of human tragedy in that Nazi death camp. Can you get your mind around over a million people being slaughtered in one human-controlled camp?
Try as we can to comprehend the magnitude of hate and the love of Christ, we find that His teachings are also beyond the ability of most people to understand. Consider the words of Jesus: “Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you and persecute you” (Matthew 5:44). Jesus not only taught this radical concept, but he lived it. When Peter took out his sword and started to defend Jesus against those who would crucify him, Jesus not only told Peter to put the sword away but healed the man Peter had attacked. (See Matthew 26:51-54, Luke 22:49-51, and John 18:10-11.)
There are many things about Christianity that are unique. One of the most important of these is the Christian concept of forgiveness. No other religious or philosophical system emphasizes the power to forgive that we see in Jesus.
As an atheist living in an atheist home, I saw the emphasis on survival and “getting even.” One of our favorite sayings was, “Fool me once, shame on you – fool me twice, shame on me.” In opposition to that view, Peter asked Jesus how many times we should forgive someone who sins against us. Thinking he was being generous, Peter asked, “Up to 7 times?” Jesus responded with, “…seventy times seven.” In the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:12-15, Jesus taught that our forgiveness by God was dependent on our forgiving of others. The various forms of the word “forgive” occur 143 times in the Bible.
All of us have known people who carry a grudge for years and years. Long ago, I was working with two older men on a project in a basement. I had been told that these two men had not spoken to each other for 30 years because of a conflict they had with each other. One of them fell off a ladder and was hanging from a pipe. The other man was standing there looking at him when I got there and helped him down. The guy hanging wasn’t going to ask for help, and the other guy wasn’t going to help unless asked. When I asked them what had caused the problem neither of them could tell me. They hadn’t spoken to each other for 30 years, but neither of them knew why.
Grudges, bad memories, conflict, and unkind words and thoughts can eat you alive. Mental illness is sometimes rooted in problems with forgiveness. Sometimes it’s because we are unable to forgive ourselves. We need to understand that Christ died to give us the power to forgive. Even if we struggle to forgive ourselves, we need to realize that God “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to His power that is at work in us..” (Ephesians 3:20-21).
We sometimes read of a Christian forgiving a person who killed their loved one, and we think, “How could they do that?” Don’t underestimate what Jesus can do. Unlike other religious leaders, Jesus demonstrated the power to forgive, and He expects to do the same. Remember that as Jesus was being crucified, he cried out, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34).
Christmas reminds us of the birth of Jesus, but why is the birth of a baby two millennia ago relevant today? The answer to that question depends on the answer to another question. Who is Jesus? People have various ideas of who Jesus is. Some say He is God. Others say He was just a man who was a good moral teacher. But, if Jesus is not God, He could not have been a good moral teacher. Let me explain why.
There is no doubt that Jesus was born a human being. The shepherds who saw Him in the stable and the people who watched Him grow up in His hometown of Nazareth could verify that. He grew to be a rabbi, a teacher, and He had many followers. His select group of disciples who talked with Him and ate with Him and lived with Him knew that He was a man. But His teaching was like no other man. He taught with the authority of God. He claimed to be God. He claimed to forgive sins, which only God can do.
Thus, if that baby born in Bethlehem were merely a human being who grew to be a man and said the things He said, He would not be a good moral teacher. He claimed to teach the truth, and He even claimed to be the truth. He claimed to be God! If He were not God, He would be a liar or a madman, but He would not a good moral teacher.
So who is Jesus? What do we celebrate at Christmas? We remember that God took on flesh as a baby who grew to be a man. He lived a sinless life because He is God. But He did not come merely to show us how to live a sinless life. He knew that we could not. He came to redeem us—to be a sacrifice for our sins.
When Jesus was on Earth, He was truly man and truly God. He could be the sacrifice for sins only because He was God. Although Jesus was sinless, He was not a third-party victim selected to bear our punishment. It would be immoral to punish an innocent man for the sins of all the guilty people. He was also the divine lawgiver and judge, so He could choose to suffer the penalty of His own law and bear the sins of all people. One man could only bear the punishment for His own sins. God can bear the punishment for all.
So who is Jesus? On that night near Bethlehem, the angel did not merely announce the birth of a baby boy. The angel said, “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people…a Savior was born for you, who is the Messiah, the Lord” (Luke 2:10-11 CSB). Have you allowed Him to be your Savior?
In my atheist days, I ridiculed religious people for believing something that has no power. I didn’t realize the power of faith and love.
“What good does being a Christian do you that I can’t get at my local bar or club?” That was my challenge. I said that I could have fellowship and share love and material blessings without going to church. I pointed out with some validity that going to church is similar to being a member of a country club. I pay my dues and enjoy certain privileges to be a member of the club. For many church attenders, their contribution is their dues, and they get to go to social events and have some name recognition.
This distorted view of Christianity misses the point at many levels. The Church is not a social club, but a service organization. People in the Church serve the community. They provide relief, take care of the sick, educate children, and support good causes.
Even more important is the power of faith that comes by having a relationship with Jesus Christ. Jesus states things in Matthew 5-7 which are ludicrous to an atheist. How can a rational person love those who hate them (Matthew 5:44)? What is the logic of turning the other cheek (Matthew 5:39)? How can anyone be willing to go the second mile (Matthew 5:41)?
To answer the atheist challenge, just ask what is causing the problems for most people living in 21st century America. Why do we have such a high suicide rate? Why is drug usage high and growing? What causes so many people to struggle with depression? It isn’t physical needs that are the most significant problem. It is emotional and spiritual ills that push people into behaviors that sometimes take their lives.
Paul describes the power of faith expressed in love in 1 Corinthians 13:4-5. People of faith understand the love which surpasses physical needs. “Love is patient and kind: love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful. It does not rejoice at wrongdoing or keep a record of wrongs but rejoices in the truth… Love never ends.”
There is even a particular Greek word “agapao” to describe that kind of love. It’s a love that fulfills the emotional and spiritual needs that we all have, and God’s Spirit brings that love to life in us. The power of faith is available to anyone who will seek it.