Thursday, April 17, 2014

#40daybible Day 39 (Rev. 17-22)

And so we come to the final reading of our 40 day Bible experience, Revelation 17-22.

Some notes:
  • The woman in Revelation 17 is a different woman than the one in Revelation 12. The woman in Revelation 12 gives birth to the Messiah and may be true Israel. But this woman is "Babylon," a code name for Rome.
  • It's very hard not to conclude that the symbol of the beast is built off of the emperors of Rome. Surely the churches of Revelation would have thought of Rome when they heard of seven hills. And how easy it would be to think of Augustus, Tiberius, Claudius, Caligula, and Nero when Revelation mentions 5 kings who have fallen. There was a year with three emperors that probably doesn't count (69). Vespasian would then be the sixth king and Titus the seventh. The eighth would then be Domitian, traditionally the emperor when Revelation was written or at least finished.
  • Revelation 18 seems to look to the fall of Rome, in the first instance, perhaps a foreshadowing of some future foe?
  • Revelation 19 is once again the final battle between Christ and the forces of evil. Jesus wins.
  • Revelation 20 gives us the millennium, not an exact number I suspect. Christ will reign on earth. Revelation does not picture eternity in heaven but on a new earth.
  • But Satan will ultimately be judged, as will all the dead, cast into the lake of fire.
  • Then there is a new heaven and a new earth in Revelation 21. A new Jerusalem descends from heaven but there will be no temple in the new city.
  • Revelation 22 closes the apocalypse, the letter, and the prophecy. No one must add to or take away from the words of Revelation ("this book of prophecy").
Some words to end on:
  • Then he told me, "Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this scroll, because the time is near. Let the one who does wrong continue to do wrong; let the vile person continue to be vile; let the one who does right continue to do right; and let the holy person continue to be holy." (Rev. 22:10-11)
Here endeth the reading.

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

#40daybible Day 38 (Rev. 4-16)

Today's reading covers the middle chapters of Revelation (4-16).

Some notes:
  • With Revelation 4, the apocalyptic section of the book launches in earnest in the throne room of heaven. I've always liked the KJV of 4:11.  "Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty."
Seven Seals
  • From Revelation 5-8, we have a series of seven seals. I don't think that these are sequential or exact pictures, but fantastical apocalyptic images. 
  • Before the seals can be opened, there must be someone worthy to break them. Only the Lamb can do so. Hard to compete with Handel on Revelation 5:12!
  • A key to Revelation is that, no matter how much might be about the end of history, it is written most directly to the churches of Asia. These churches were suffering. When 6:9-11 talks of those slain for the word of God and its testimony, John surely primarily had in mind those who were being persecuted at that time.
  • The 144,000 of Revelation 7 symbolizes those in Israel who will finally be saved.
  • The great throng of those in white robes probably represents all of those who will be saved who are not of Israel--those of every nation, tribe, people, and language who had believed. They have come out of great tribulation (not the Great Tribulation, there's no "the" there in the Greek).
  • Perhaps we should think of the end of time blurred with the situation of John's day. Nothing here speaks of another special tribulation at the end of time. Revelation surely has primarily in view the tribulation of John's day.
Seven Trumpets
  • The seventh seal starts seven trumpets in chapter 8-11. With the redeemed removed from the earth, the judgment of the world now begins. Again, I don't think we should read this as sequential or exactly literal.
  • The fifth trumpet starts three woes--again, not chronological, not exactly how it will happen. 
  • When the seventh trumpet sounds, the Hallelujah chorus begins!
The Cosmic Battle
  • We've seen the redeemed. We've seen the damned. Now in Revelation 12 we see the scene from another angle, the cosmic one. It is another symbolic presentation of the same struggle all over again.
  • The dragon is Satan. I think the woman represents (true) Israel, believing Israel. She has twelve stars on her head, which sounds like Israel. The son is obviously Christ.
  • The beast probably relates to the Roman Empire. The descriptions of the beast could easily be read in terms of Nero, who committed suicide in 68.  If you take the letters "Caesar Nero" and treat them as numbers, they add up to 666.
  • The 144,000 probably refers again to the saved in Israel.
Seven Last Plagues
  • Again, we shouldn't think of these plagues as exactly chronological. We're back to the judgment of the earth in Revelation 15.
  • The seven last plagues come from seven bowls of wrath. And the final earthly battle is the battle of Armageddon
Favorite of the day:
  • Not the prettiest verse, but I love the Battle Hymn of the Republic: "The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath. They were trampled in the winepress outside the city, and blood flowed out of the press, rising as high as the horses’ bridles for a distance of 1,600 stadia" (Rev. 14:19-20).

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

What would an on-campus, competency based class look like?

The rumblings of competency based credit is out there and seeming to grow. Think Western Governor's University. The problem with WGU is that it's pretty much on the basis of self-motivation. I hear there's a really poor completion rate (unconfirmed).

What if you paid for a "class" or better, a certification, by the week? If you achieved the competency of the class in a week, maybe because of your prior learning or experience, you got the credit in a week. If it took 6 weeks, you paid for 6 weeks. If it took a year... But you would do it in an onsite class environment, with people around you to motivate and a professor who would approach a mentor/tutor...

Just a thought as I listen to our VPAA at IWU, Don Sprowl, talk about assessment and changing times...

#40daybible Day 37 (Revelation 1-3)

We start the final book of the New Testament with Revelation 1-3:
  • Revelation mixes three genres. It is, first, a prophecy. Most of these chapters are, in addition, a letter to seven churches. 
  • It is also an apocalypse. An apocalypse was a type of literature in which a heavenly being appears to a key earthly figure with a revelation about events soon to come.
  • The author is John of Patmos, perhaps John the son of Zebedee. 
Church at Ephesus
  • positive words about the past, admonition to return to their first love
Entrance to marketplace at Ephesus

Church at Symrna
Ruins of Smyrna, in the middle of modern Izmir
  • nothing negative to say, they reject the synagogue of Satan
Church at Pergamum
Theater at Pergamum
  • they have remained true, but they are tolerating some who hold to false teaching
Church at Thyatira
Ruins at Thyatira
  • they're doing more than ever, but they tolerate a false prophetess or a false church
Church at Sardis
  • The church is dead although there are some there alive.
Gymnasium at Sardis
Church at Philadelphia
Little left at Philadelphia
  • only positive words to say about this church... God will make the synagogue of Satan acknowledge they are wrong
Church at Laodicea
  • the lukewarm church
Reconstructing Laodicea, with Hierapolis in distance
Personal favorite verse:
  • "Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with that person, and they with me." Rev. 3:20

Monday, April 14, 2014

#40daybible Day 36 (1-2-3 John)

We enter the final week of the 40 Day Bible experience with 1, 2, and 3 John.

Some notes:
  • The author of these three writings does not identify himself but there are some thematic and stylistic features that seem to bind 1 John to both 2 and 3 John, on the one hand, and the Gospel of John, on the other.
  • 2 and 3 John are both written by "the elder," so we can suppose that 1 John was also and that this "elder" is also the eyewitness source of the Gospel of John. 
  • Papias, writing perhaps within 20-30 years of the Gospel of John, mentions a John the elder (see chapter 39). So it is possible that John the presbyter stands behind these four documents rather than John the son of Zebedee (see Hengel).
  • 2 John is a letter written, not to a woman, but to a local church ("lady"). John warns the church about Gnostics who deny that Jesus came in the flesh. Such individuals are antichrists. 
  • 2 John encourages this church to evaluate traveling teachers in relation to this understanding of Christ. It could be the first of all these writings (the order of 1-2-3 John is based on length).
  • 3 John is a letter written to a Gaius. It serves as a letter of recommendation and encourages him to receive a traveling teacher named Demetrius that John is sending their way. One of the elders of the church, Diotrephes, was refusing John and his teachers. Hengel wonders if this was the first or second writing in the series of John's letters and Gospel, before the split.
  • 1 John seems a little like Hebrews in that it does not have an opening greeting and, unlike Hebrews, does not even have a closing greeting. It looks, in other words, like a word of exhortation or mini-sermon.
  • 1 John was written after the Gnostic split in John's community, perhaps at Ephesus.
  • So the denials of these antichrists likely had to do with a denial that Jesus had come in the flesh. The early Gnostic group usually associated with this teaching was the Docetists, who believed that Jesus only seemed human. 
  • The audience needed to use such criteria to "test the spirits" of prophets who might come to them.
  • Perhaps some of these individuals had more economic resources than most in John's community, but they refused to help those in need. 
  • This is one of the concrete referents behind John's repeated instructions for believers to love each other. God is love--God helps others. So the true children of God love one another. They do not love the world.
  • Those who hate their brothers (in a concrete way) are not in the light. They're on the other team, the Devil's, in the darkness.
  • Jesus showed them what love was when he laid down his life for their sins. God showed his love for us by sending his Son.
  • The body and blood of Jesus is essential to the equation. Those who say they don't need his blood are deceiving themselves. In effect they are saying they do not have sin in need of cleansing by Jesus' blood.
  • Sin is wrongdoing, and John implies that the law to love is the fundamental standard. John is so bold as to say that his teaching makes it clear what God's commandment is. True believers have the Spirit.
  • John is writing in hope that the community will not sin in the concrete ways he has been mentioning. Indeed, once a person has Christ's seed in him or her, he should not be able to continue sinning in these ways.
  • John encourages the community not to fear of their state before God.
  • Pray for God to forgive those whose sin is less severe so that God may restore them. Some have sinned a "sin to death" and are severed from Christ, like those in 2:19. John does not suggest that prayer can help them.
Personal verse for the day:
  • 1 John 4:7-8: "Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. 8 Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love."

Sunday, April 13, 2014

G6. God can do whatever he wants.

The Sunday theology posts continue. You can see a map to the whole concept here.
God can do whatever he wants. But he doesn't want to do certain things.

1. God can do whatever he wants.

God has the power to do anything he wants in the universe. God has the knowledge to do anything he wants in the universe. In this article, we explore the fact that God has the freedom and authority to do anything he wants in the universe.

God has the authority to do anything he wants because he is king. He is sovereign. We call God's authority over the universe his "sovereignty." Nothing happens in the universe without God's permission.

However, Christians disagree on the extent to which God micromanages his creation. Does God determine everything that happens down to the level of detail, such that nothing could possibly happen any other way? Or does God give the creation extensive freedom to where many different scenarios might possibly play out, depending on our choices or even the "choices" of the creation?

We call those instances where God commands the creation to do a specific thing instances of his "directive will." We can contrast such instances with those where he allows humanity or the creation to do something he did not specifically command--instances of his "permissive will." In such cases, God chooses not to choose directly what happens.

Some traditions, like the Calvinist tradition, emphasize the directive will of God. John Calvin (1509-64), for example, believed that God chose who would be saved and that our human will played no role in the equation at all. God's "election" of us was unconditional, his grace irresistible. If God chose us, we would certainly come to have faith, would live more righteous lives than those he did not empower, and would make it to the coming kingdom.

Some forms of hyper-Calvinism would go even further. They would suggest that God willed that Satan fall from heaven and that Adam would sin in the Garden of Eden, bringing sin onto all humanity. They would see God not only as electing those who will be saved but those who will be damned as well (double predestination). This approach goes beyond Calvin in that Calvin believed it was possible for Adam not to have sinned and thus that humanity would not start off full of sin (totally depraved).

Christians have commonly believed that the first human, Adam, brought sin into the world when he sinned in the Garden of Eden in Genesis 3 (cf. Rom. 5:12:21). Accordingly, the default state of humanity ever since is to have an inevitable drive to do the wrong thing, a "bent to sinning," a "sin nature." For Calvin, God did not chose the majority of humanity to be damned. They were damned already because of Adam (single predestination). [1]

Other Christian traditions, such as the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition to which I belong, believe that God empowers humanity to have a greater degree of freedom in relation to our eternal destiny. While our default state of sinfulness may be the same as Calvin thought (totally depraved), we believe that God graciously empowers us to freely be able to indicate a desire for more grace. If we continue on this trajectory, God will empower our wills to have faith, then empower us to live righteously, and finally empower us to enter the coming kingdom.

As a part of this latter tradition, I believe that God has given significant freedom to the creation. God miraculously enters the time space continuum and gives every person in the world the opportunity to move toward him, a gracious offer we call God's "prevenient grace," a power that comes to us before we could possibly seek him. Indeed, God cares for the creation in general without the creation ever asking, a grace we might call God's "common grace" toward the creation. [2]

In general, God's care for the creation is called his "providence." Christians have long believed that God sustains the creation, such that the creation could not continue to exist without God's active intervention. It is, admittedly, difficult to know how this sustaining providence might work exactly. Scripture does not really address the questions raised by the rise of a scientific worldview in the 1500s and 1600s. Did God create the universe as a self-standing machine that runs by natural laws he has put into it, or does God actively direct the movement of every quark and boson? These are questions that Scripture and the early fathers did not ask and thus did not clearly answer.

What we can say is that the universe exists by God's will. It would not exist without God's will. Nothing happens in the universe without God's will--either by direct command or with his permission. I personally prefer to believe that God created the universe with some degree of freedom. It is certainly distinct from him--it's existence is distinct from his existence. It seems to follow natural laws in a way that was not understood before the modern era. And to distinguish its "will" from God's will provides us with a more satisfactory explanation for suffering in the world, as something God more allows than directly commands. This approach fits naturally within the Wesleyan-Arminian tradition.

What we are thus saying is that some things happen in the universe as a consequence of God's directive will, his specific command. Other things happen in the universe because of God's permissive will. God allows them to happen or he does not intervene to stop them from happening. In some cases, he may give us and the creation the freedom to make choices where more than one outcome was possible.

It is sometimes objected that God would not be in charge or control if he let a human disobey him. That is to say, God would not be sovereign if he gave humanity or the creation freedom.

But this is a rather anemic understanding of sovereignty and a still more troubling sense of authority. Cannot God freely choose to let someone make a bad choice themselves? What parents with any maturity do not want their children to develop the ability to make the right choices on their own? Which is better, for your spouse to love you freely because they choose to do so or for them to be constrained to be with you?

No, this is an astoundingly immature understanding of authority. This is the projection of a parent who cannot handle disobedience because of his or her own insecurity. This is someone whose sense of control is threatened by someone who will not slavishly obey. This is a picture of a god who is weak and threatened by his creation.

If God is in control, then he is free to give freedom to the creation. If God is God, he is not threatened by our choices. God is not threatened when we disobey any more than I am threatened by a slug in my neighbor's yard.

2. God can do whatever he wants, but he doesn't want to do just anything.

God's will is revealed in Scripture. His attitude toward the creation is so predictable that we can say that God has a certain "nature" that leads him to act consistently and without exception in a certain way. For example, we know that God will never act in a way that is unloving. We can thus say that "God is love" or that God's nature is loving. What we are really saying is that God will never act in an unloving way toward the creation. Everything God does fits with an attitude of love toward us.

There is an old philosophical question in Plato that pre-dates the New Testament. It asks, in effect, "Is good good because God says so, or does God say things are good because they are good?" [3]

What the question in effect is asking is whether God is subject to standards that exist above him or does God himself create the standards? Does God define what is good? Or is good a standard against which we could measure God himself?

The classic example from Scripture is when God asks Abraham to sacrifice Isaac in Genesis 22. It seems like a wicked thing to ask. What if I were to test my son by asking him to slap his sister, just to see if he will obey me but intending to stop him if he does? [4] The Christian thinker Søren Kierkegaard (1813-55) took this story as an example of how we have to surrender our reason completely to God and take a blind leap of faith into his will. [5]

So should we say that if God tells you to murder someone in cold blood, that becomes a good thing to do? Are there rules that God has to follow?  Broadly speaking, the notion that God defines the rules is called "voluntarism" or "divine command theory." It is the idea that good is good because God says so. What is love? In this approach it could be whatever God does, simply because he does it, whether it seems loving by our definitions or not.

You can see that this approach seems to make a mockery of words like good and love. They can come to mean anything.

Yet, at the same time, there is something ungodlike about saying that there are rules God has to follow. Even to say, "God is just freely following his own nature" seems to say that God did not decide who he is and is not really in control of himself. It at least looks like we are simply saying God is a big Guy, just a bigger version of us, someone who is really not completely free. It makes him particular rather than universal.

The model we have been following of creation out of nothing suggests another solution. We can think of God creating this universe as an act of will in which God made this universe to be a certain way. Within this universe, God behaves consistently, and God has revealed in Scripture exactly what his "nature" is within this universe. We can, for all intents and purposes, speak of God having a certain nature with certain "attributes" or characteristics. We have no point of reference to say what God is like in other universes or "outside" this universe. Perhaps God has, from all eternity past, chosen to be this way.

Good is good because God says so in this universe. This preserves the freedom of God without suggesting that God will ever act in a way that contradicts his revealed nature. But at the same time, it keeps us from seeing God more or less as a larger than life Guy with a personality he ultimately did not determine and over which he is not really in control. This approach befits GOD rather than diminishing him to something more like a god.

The opposite approach seems to put God inside a space that already existed, with limits he did not establish. In keeping with a weak sense of creation out of nothing, it seems ultimately to blur God with the created realm. It seems to fit a god who is at the top of this universe rather than a God who created the very emptiness in which the universe exists.

3. So God can do whatever he wants. He does not want to act in a way that contradicts his revealed nature. For example, he does not want to act in a way that is unloving toward the creation.

God freely chose to create a universe with certain necessary truths. He created a universe where 2 + 2 = 4 in base 10. He created a universe with a law of non-contradiction. He created rules of logic that apply everywhere in this universe without exception. But presumably he is free to create another universe where 2 + 2 = 6 or some logic we cannot possibly imagine.

God also has a directive will. There are instances where God commands the universe to do certain things, where his will is specific. When God commands the creation directly in this way, his will is irresistible. His word without fail always accomplishes what it sets out to do (Isa. 55:11).

In other instances, God has no specific command. He will let us choose whatever jello we want. Perhaps he will let the creation spit out of nothing an electron and positron pair without warning. In such instances he is allowing the universe by his permission to do whatever it wills.

In some cases, God collaborates with us. Perhaps in some cases, he waits to see if we will pray for something. Perhaps whether we receive or not in such cases is entirely dependent on whether we ask. At other times, he may let us wrestle, helping us grow to reach maturity, listening, suggesting, working with us toward salvation.

God does not force anyone to serve him. At times God may abandon us to spiral out of control. He will even let us walk away from him, if that is truly what we choose to do. And God sometimes allows suffering that he could obviously have prevented. We have to have faith in such instances that God's nature is still love and that there is a bigger picture that we are not in a position to understand.

God can do anything he wants, but he doesn't want to do certain things.

Next Sunday, G7 God is present everywhere in the universe.

[1] Calvin's theology is most easily found in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

[2] The idea of prevenient (or "preventing") grace comes from John Wesley (1703-91). A good overview of Wesley's thinking on salvation found in his sermon, "The Scripture Way of Salvation." The idea of common grace comes from Calvin.

[3] In Plato's Euthyprho.

[4] Interestingly, later Jewish tradition suggested that this was another example of God letting Satan test someone, as in Job 1 (compare also 1 Chron. 21:1 with 2 Sam. 24:1). For the reference, see Jubilees 17).

[5] In Fear and Trembling.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

John Wycliffe (1320s-1384)

Just wrote a short piece on Wycliffe. Here are some quick reminders:
  • Lived ca. 1320s to 1384 (died of stroke)
  • Studied, taught at Oxford (then wooden buildings, with priests as teachers, no university salaries) until he was finally forced out in 1381. From Yorkshire, so he belonged to the northern student group at Oxford (boreales).
  • He lived during the Babylonian Captivity where the Pope lived in France and was a puppet of the king of France. From 1305 on the papacy was at Avignon, and from 1378 there were actually two competing popes.
  • During the 100 Years War between England and France, no doubt further creating resistance among the English toward papal leadership
  • Corruption of the Church obvious to everyone. Simony, nepotism, if positions were left open, the salary was still paid to the Pope, false accusations to seize property... Some popes earlier and later wanted to reform but couldn't pull it off.
  • He was Roman Catholic. There was no other option in western Europe. No thought of starting a new church, only the thought of opposing the leadership of the Church and pushing for reform.
  • John had the support of the throne (especially Richard of Gaunt, the king's uncle) because he argued against monasteries having control of property. Secular authorities should decide matters relating to possessions. This position no doubt had a lot to do with Wycliffe's sense of corruption in the use of material possessions by the Church.
  • Wycliffe was protected by Gaunt from the Church most of his life... until he supported a peasants' revolt in 1381. Then he was finally forced to leave Oxford.
  • At Oxford, one of the biggest debates was over the nominalism of Occam versus the realism of earlier days. Occam had been at Oxford not too long before Wycliffe. Wycliffe took the realist side--there was a reality to things that was indestructible and went beyond the thing you can see. See Olson on this subject.
  • This led him to oppose transubstantiation, which got him into trouble since it had become the primary position of the Church since 1215. To him, bread and wine couldn't be destroyed and taken over by Christ's body and blood. Rather, he espoused something like the "real presence" view Luther would later follow. The presence of Christ is really there, but it doesn't replace or remove the bread and wine.
  • Thomas Bradwardine had briefly been Archbishop of Canterbury in 1349 but died of the plague within 40 days of taking the position. He wrote a book against the Pelagians that revived Augustine--especially the notion of predestination. 
  • The way this idea functioned is to allow people like Wycliffe to make a distinction between the visible church and the true, invisible church. So even the Pope (especially the French one after the Great Western Schism), might not be part of the true church. This allowed Wycliffe to suppose that the corrupt leaders of the church in England and elsewhere were not part of the true church.
  • Wycliffe would pioneer turning to the Bible to undermine the corruption of the Church. It provided a means of authority by which to critique the way the Church and the leaders of the church were behaving. For example, if the Church was orienting itself around wealth, he could show the value of poverty in Scripture.
  • He supervised the translation of the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, probably as part of his drive to reform the Church. Exposing the people to the Bible empowered them in his mind against the corruption of the Church and may have moved England toward greater literacy. The NT was done in 1380, the OT in 1382. The first edition was so literal a second edition had to be made in 1388 for it to be readable in the Middle English of the day.
  • The Council of Constance condemned him in 1415 along with Jan Hus. Hus was burned at the stake alive. Wycliffe's remains were dug up, burned, and scattered in the River Swift. 
  • He is often called the "Morning Star of the Reformation" and we see later reformers drawing on his rhetoric. His followers were called Lollards, a put-down that means mumblers.
  • There is a tradition that Queen Elisabeth I was presented with a copy of Wycliffe's Bible when she became queen in 1558 after the death of Bloody Mary.

Black Holes and Gravitational Waves (chaps 7-10)

The next installment of The Perfect Theory: A Century of Geniuses and the Battle over General Relativity. The book just came out this year but, amazingly, chapter 10 is already outdated!

Here are my earlier posts:
Chapter 1: Einstein in 1907
Chapter 2: The General Theory of Relativity Born
Chapters 3-6 Expanding Universes, Collapsing Stars, Cuckoo Einstein, and Steady States

Chapter 7: Wheelerisms
The namesake of this chapter is John Wheeler, who was known for turns of phrase like, "mass without mass" and "charge without charge." He's the one who popularized the term "black hole." He came up with the notion of a "wormhole" that bypasses space and time.

One of his main contributions to relativity was the way in which he helped rejuvenated interest in it. In the 1950s, physics was far more interested in quantum matters than general relativity. You could experiment with the quantum. General relativity was more a matter of distant space. Wheeler's support helped get some conferences on relativity going.

So there was the Institute of Field Physics, funded by a couple rich guys who were interested in gravity. Wheeler supported them and their appointment of Bryce DeWitt and his wife as the first employees. They set up meetings on gravitation in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, in the late 50s.

When Richard Feynman (quantum man extraordinaire and former student of Wheeler) arrived for the first conference in Chapel Hill not knowing directions, he helped the taxi driver figure out where it was by suggesting there would have been other attendees in the back of the taxi saying "gee mu nu, gee mu nu" (G_{\mu\nu}). In the words of Ferreira (author of the book), "The driver knew where to go" (109).  

Another meeting of this sort came out of oil money and the University of Texas at Austin. The result was the Texas Symposium on Relativistic Astrophysics, first held in 1963 in Dallas, just after Kennedy was shot. One of the things discussed at this symposium were "quasi-stellar radio sources" that were being detected by people like Maarten Schmidt. After the conference, they would be called quasars. They were super-massive objects that emitted lots of energy.

Chapter 8: Singularities
The 60s were the "Golden Age of General Relativity," according to Kip Thorne, one of Wheeler's students. Roger Penrose was a player in the decade. He showed that the collapse of stars after they burned out always ended in singularities or black holes, as they would come to be called.

This was also the decade where the background radiation of the universe was discovered. It showed that the steady state theory was false. The universe had a beginning. Stephen Hawking emerged at this time, showing that the universe would not only end with singularities but had also begun with one.

This was also the decade where pulsars were discovered, "pulsating radio stars." These are neutron stars, stars made up almost completely of neutrons. I'm getting a better picture now of what some of the earlier chapters were talking about. There are white dwarfs that Eddington knew of. These are smaller suns that burn out but they are not massive enough to become singularities from which light cannot escape.

There are black holes. These are the super-massive stars that, when they burn out, collapse into a relativistic nightmare from which nothing can ever escape. From our perspective, they become frozen in time. Neutron stars, of which pulsars are an example, are somewhere in between in mass, more massive than white dwarfs but not so massive as a black hole.

Chapter 9: Unification Woes
Relativity and quantum mechanics have always been difficult to fit together. Einstein couldn't do it. Paul Dirac couldn't do it, although he did it with the electron. The Dirac equation had been a landmark in the history of physics. It had predicted the existence of antiparticles, for example.

This chapter takes a bit of a detour into quantum physics, since it is on the continued attempts to fit quantum physics with relativity and gravitation in particular. The 50s and 60s saw the putting together of quantum electrodynamics (QED) and what is now called the "standard model" of physics.

Dirac, like Einstein, never accepted some aspects of quantum physics. He accepted more than Einstein. For example, he showed that the approaches of Heisenberg and Schroedinger really said the same thing in two different ways. In his later career, like Einstein, Dirac became somewhat of a recluse, a celebrated landmark who refused to stay with where the program had gone. In the summer of 1983, while at Boy's State, I touched his office door at Florida State, the year before he died. He had withdrawn from the mainstream and had become a shadowy figure from the past.

In particular, QED leads to a lot of infinities that are ignored. So even though the equations point to an infinite mass for an electron, QED "normalizes" the mass of an electron by substituting the actual measured value for the infinity. Frankly, this bothers me too and surely speaks to some inadequacy in the theory, says the guy who doesn't have a degree in physics.

Hawking did some work to show some additional places where quantum physics and general relativity might come together. Hawking showed that black holes slowly evaporate, "black hole radiation."

Chapter 10: Seeing Gravity
It is amazing to me that this book is already needing to be updated. I bought this book on March 1, 2014 at the IU Memorial Union Bookstore in Bloomington. It just came out in early February of this year. By March 17, chapter 10 was out of date. That was the date that it was announced that gravitational waves had been observed.

Einstein predicted the existence of gravitational waves, ripples in spacetime, as early as 1916. Eddington rejected the idea, and Einstein himself backed off on the idea in 1936. But Hermann Bondi made a compelling case for them at the watershed 1957 meeting at Chapel Hill. Feynman agreed.

A guy named Weber was also there and would spend the rest of his life trying to prove it experimentally. Unfortunately, he saw them everywhere. Eventually he was marginalized by the scientific community and died a bitter man in 2000. He used very imprecise measuring tools, compared with the laser interferometry that is currently used.

The idea that large objects might give off "gravitational radiation," however, was supported indirectly in 1978. Taylor and Hulse used the very equations Einstein created and whose results he then later rejected to examine two neutron stars orbiting each other. The chapter ends with LIGO in North America trying to find gravitational waves using laser interferometry. Unfortunately for them, they do not seem to be the ones that discovered them.

A final feature of interest in this chapter is the rise of "numerical relativity." For decades, attempts to solve Einstein's field equations in relation to colliding black holes, using computers, would break down the computers. The computer power just wasn't powerful enough yet. Frans Pretorius cracked that one in 2005. He solved Einstein's equations for two colliding black holes on a computer without the process shutting down--90 years after Einstein set them out.

As a side note, the drive to do numerical relativity and the need for more computing power apparently played a role in the implementation of the internet, so that multiple computers across distances could collaborate together. That was in the mid-80s when Larry Smarr was convincing the US government to fund a network of supercomputing centers.

It's quite clear that some of these discoveries would not have happened without a willingness on the part of the government to fund scientific research without immediate results. Such funding seems essential to the long term ability of the US to stay ahead of the curve. The problem is that it will not always pay off and, even when it does pay off, it can be a long time later. We just have to have the foresight to commit to scientific research without immediate results.

Friday, April 11, 2014

#40daybible Day 35 (John 13-21)

So with just a week to go, we finish today the Gospel of John, John 13-21.

Some observations:
  • The next chapters, from John 13-17, give the lead up to Jesus' arrest. 
  • Last Supper - John 13 never says it is a Passover meal, unlike the other Gospels. In fact, John seems to give us the image of Jesus going to the cross as the Passover lambs were being slaughtered to be eaten later that evening. John seems to picture Jesus dying on the morning before Passover (remembering that the new Jewish day began at sundown). There is mention of a garden, but we do not have Jesus' prayer of anguish and the Garden of Gethsemane is not mentioned. John uniquely has foot washing at the supper.
  • John 14-17 is Jesus' Farewell Discourse, unique to John. While the Synoptics mostly give us Jesus' teaching in parables, there is not a single Synoptic style parable in John. Rather, we have this more poetic discourse, "the Message version" of Jesus. John also has no exorcisms, unlike the Synoptics.
  • Going to Heaven: N. T. Wright is correct that most of the New Testament looks to the kingdom being on a renewed earth. I'm not sure if he's right about John. John more seems to picture a future where we go to heaven.
  • Holy Spirit: Very important teaching on the Holy Spirit in John. First, a masculine, personal pronoun is used of him, giving us the sense that the Spirit is a person. The Spirit dwells in y'all (plural). He is the Spirit of truth who leads us into truth. He helped Jesus disciples remember what he had taught, which the Gospels preserve. He will convict the world of sin, righteousness, and judgment. After the resurrection, Jesus breathes the Spirit on the disciples, perhaps John's version of Pentecost.
  • Two last "I am" statements: I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one can come to God apart from Christ. I am the vine; you are the branches.
  • High priestly prayer: In this prayer, presumably in front of his disciples, Jesus prays not only for them but for us (technically, this statement is probably meant for John's own community as a prayer for its unity). A key Wesleyan verse is when Jesus prays for God to "sanctify" them, to set them apart from the world and keep them pure. 
  • This section of John is sometimes called the "Book of Glory," in contrast to the first half, which is sometimes called the "Book of Signs."
  • Private questioning: John's presentation of Jesus' "trial" is more private, with the high priest. It is striking to think of a full Sanhedrin in the middle of the night. 
  • Jesus Victorious: John shows us less of the struggle. They fall over when they come for Jesus to arrest him. Jesus gives last will and testament instructions from the cross.
  • Beloved Disciple: The Gospel of John has a mysterious "disciple whom Jesus loved." Who is it? The NIV introduction is a little overconfident that it was John the Son of Zebedee. [Ben Witherington thinks it was Lazarus] He was an eyewitness at the cross and went on to take care of Mary, Jesus' mother. He runs to the tomb with Peter. He is the source of the information in the Gospel of John, although it was probably put in its final form by someone else, perhaps a Gentile.
  • Mary Magdalene: In John, Mary is the first one to whom the resurrected Jesus appears.
  • Doubting Thomas: He confesses Jesus as Lord and God. We can wonder if Matthew 28:17 might allude to him.
  • Purpose of John: Why was the Gospel of John written? So that John's audience would believe in Jesus. By the way, notice from this verse and throughout John how much differently it uses the word "signs." The Gospel of John just skims the surface of what Jesus did on earth.
  • Epilogue: John uniquely has this post-resurrection scene beside the Sea of Galilee. It addresses a rumor that the beloved disciple would live till Jesus returned and this chapter may have been added after his death. 
Personal take-away:
  • Greater love has no one than to lay down their life. God demonstrates his love for us in that when we were sinners, Christ died for us.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

#40daybible Day 34 (John 7-12)

Today's reading is John 7-12.

Some thoughts:
  • Deception? John 7:8-10 may be a bit puzzling. In many translations, it sounds like Jesus deceives his brothers.
  • Holy Spirit: In 7:37-39, we have a great prediction that the Spirit will come after Jesus' glorification.
  • Woman caught in adultery: Although it comes as somewhat of a disappointment, the earliest manuscripts don't have the story of the woman caught in adultery. The earliest manuscript to have it is from the late 400s. It is not likely to have been in the original John. 
  • Light of the world: In 8:12, we have the second "I am" statement--"I am the light of the world." It's surely no coincidence that in John 9, Jesus heals a blind man. 
  • Jesus is God: 8:58 is the biggest "I AM" statement of all. "Before Abraham was, I AM." Jesus equates himself with Yahweh at the burning bush.
  • Sin make sickness? The man was not blind because he sinned or his parents. (sixth sign, Jesus' healing the blind man)
  • Out of the synagogue: It is often wondered if the potential of being kicked out of the synagogue is a comment on John's context. It seems quite possible that it became more and more likely as the century went by that a Jew would be ousted from synagogues if one believed Jesus was Messiah.
  • Good shepherd: Unlike the "bad shepherds" that were the leaders of Jerusalem, Jesus is the gate for the sheep and the Good Shepherd
  • Hanukkah: Jesus observes Hanukkah in John 10:22.
  • The Resurrection: In John 11, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead and pronounces that he is the resurrection. This is the seventh sign in John.
  • Resolve: John presents the end resolve of Jesus to face the cup before him.  Notice the contrast in tone with Mark.
Some great verses:

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

#40daybible Day 33 (John 1-6)

Day 33 starts the Gospel of John with chapters 1-6.

Some notes:
  • The "prologue" of John is a magnificent hymn to the Logos or "Word," which is not the Bible, but Jesus. John 1:14 makes it clear that the Word come down from heaven is Christ. In theology terms, we call the event when Jesus took on human flesh the "incarnation."
  • This language of God's "word" had a history in Jewish thinking. John 1:1-3 is exactly the kind of thing that Jewish thinkers like Philo said about God's word, his will in action. 
  • John uniquely among the Gospels emphasizes that Jesus existed before he came to earth. John doesn't mention the virgin birth and the others don't mention his pre-existence.
  • The Gospel of John seems to downplay the role of John the Baptist a little. For example, while Matthew tells us that JB was the "Elijah" of prophecy, JB denies it in John. John doesn't even tell his audience, perhaps at Ephesus, that JB baptized Jesus, and Jesus' disciples uniquely baptize in John at the same time as JB. 
  • In short, John makes it very clear that JB's role ends as soon as Jesus arrives on the scene. He must increase, I must decrease. It's easy to wonder whether Ephesus had a lot of "incomplete" followers of John the Baptist, and that John has paraphrased the story in such a way as to make it clear that people like Apollos had been need to go the whole way and follow Jesus.
  • John highlights some different disciples than the other gospels. For example, there's Philip and Nathaniel, Andrew,  and Thomas.
  • John uniquely tells about Jesus turning water into wine at the wedding at Cana, the first of seven "signs" Jesus does in the first half of John. Some think that John has moved Jesus' action in the temple to contrast the old purification with the new. In the other Gospels, Jesus overturns the tables in the final week before his resurrection.
  • John 3 has Jesus' secret interaction with a Pharisee named Nicodemus, including John 3:16. Jesus is back in Jerusalem. Another unique feature of John's Gospel is how often Jesus goes down to Jerusalem. Jesus attends three Passovers in John, which is where we get the idea that his ministry lasted three years.
  • John 4 has Jesus' interaction with a Samaritan woman. The temple is already destroyed as John writes, and he makes it clear that the temple is not necessary to worship God. God is a Spirit.
  • In healing a royal official's son, he does his second of John's seven signs (although he has done other signs between the first and second in this series).
  • John implicitly shows that Jesus has replaced various Jewish institutions. In John 5, Jesus shows that he can work on the Sabbath.
  • Jesus makes himself equal to God in John to a degree he doesn't in the other Gospels (which are sometimes called the "Synoptic" Gospels because they give a similar presentation that can be distinguished from John's presentation). Nevertheless, Jesus still in John does not act without the Father's initiation.
  • The miracle of feeding the 5000 is the only miracle all four Gospels share in common (aside of course from the resurrection...)
  • John 6 has the first of Jesus' "I am" statements, unique to John: "I am the bread of life." Probably it's no coincidence that John places this saying next to Jesus' feeding of the 5000, where he multiplies bread.
  • The Gospel of John was probably written as Gnosticism was on the rise. Gnosticism believed that matter was evil and thus that Jesus couldn't have taken on flesh. Not only John 1:14 but these verses especially combat that point of view. Disciples leave him as a result, perhaps an allusion to the split that had taken place in John's community over Jesus' flesh.
Personal take-away today:
  • John 3:8 has always been meaningful to me. The Spirit blows where he wills. God has a freedom to do what he wills.

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

#40daybible Day 32 (2 Peter, Jude)

For Day 32, we read 2 Peter and Jude.

Thoughts on 2 Peter
  • Contrary to the NIV introduction, 2 Peter simply says that it is addressed to "those who through the righteousness of our God and Savior Jesus Christ have received a faith as precious as ours" (1:1). In other words, 2 Peter is for all Christians, not to the same audience as 1 Peter (I realize 3:1 says it is a second letter to someone). 
  • 1:10 urges Christians to make their calling and election sure, which implies that our election is conditional on our faithfulness, not unconditionally predestined or eternally secure.
  • 1:16-18 refers to the Transfiguration.
  • 1:20-21 is a classic text on prophecy, indicating that the prophecies of Scripture were inspired by the Holy Spirit. They were not just the prophet's own ideas. Experts disagree on whether OT prophecies or NT prophecies of Christ's return are primarily in view (in other words, whether this statement connects to doubt about Christ's return in chapter 3).
  • 2 Peter 2 seems to have largely been borrowed from Jude or a common source with Jude. The examples of false teaching are roughly in the same order but in a less specific and more generic form (e.g., 2 Peter 2's version doesn't engage apocalyptic literature so directly).
  • The primary purpose of 2 Peter would seem to be to encourage those who are distressed because Jesus has not yet returned. These verses have the well known reminder that "a day is like a thousand years" with God.
  • There are differing interpretations of the "fathers" (NIV, ancestors) in 3:4. The NIV has translated it to sound like it means the OT fathers. Others think it refers to the earliest Christian fathers. In other words, some will eventually say, "It's been years since Peter and the early Christian prophets have died, yet Jesus hasn't come back yet."
  • 3:10-13 speaks of the destruction of the world by fire and then the creation of a new heaven and new earth.
  • 3:15-16 speak of Paul's letters as Scriptures. I would argue that Paul's letters have even been loosed from their contexts. If 2 Peter is for all Christians, then Paul's letters now address "you," all Christians, and not just the Romans, Corinthians, Thessalonians, etc. This is a striking step in the development of the early canon.
  • We need to be found spotless and blameless as we face the judgment.
Thoughts on Jude
  • Written by another one of Jesus' earthly brothers
  • Written to all Christians
  • Warns against false teaching and largely consists of a list of false teachers from the past
  • 1:6 refers to the fallen angels of 1 Enoch just as 1 Peter 3 probably does.
  • This argument between the archangel Michael and the Devil seems to refer to a story in a lost Jewish work called the Assumption of Moses.
  • 1:12 probably refers to the way the early church did communion--as a love feast, like a modern pot luck or pitch in dinner.
  • Here Jude quotes 1 Enoch 1.9.
Personally meaningful:
  • What a great closing benediction Jude has! God is able to keep us from falling (which of course implies that we can fall). God wants to present us in the kingdom without fault.

Monday, April 07, 2014

#40daybible Day 31 (1 Peter)

We enter the final two weeks of the 40 Day Bible experience with 1 Peter.

Some highlights:
  • I like what Scot McKnight says about 1 Peter, that its teaching was a defensive strategy in a time of persecution. The introduction to the reading above highlights perhaps the key verse for understanding the letter: "Live such good lives among the pagans that, though they accuse you of doing wrong, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day he visits us" (1 Pet. 2:12).
  • It is written to Christians scattered throughout Asia Minor. It is written from Rome, which is called Babylon in 5:13. As Babylon had destroyed Jerusalem in 586BC, so Rome would destroy Jerusalem in AD70. Silas, Paul's missionary partner, would seem to have played a significant role in the composition of 1 Peter, which would explain its somewhat Pauline flavor.
  • The audience is primarily Gentile. Once they were not part of God's people, but now they are (2:10).
  • "Be holy for I am holy"  (1:15-16). Christians cannot give in to evil desires.
  • The idea of the priesthood of all believers comes from 1 Peter, although the way Luther took the phrase isn't exactly what 1 Peter meant. 1 Peter doesn't call the audience "priests" as an argument against temple priests. 
  • At the core of the defensive strategy is to submit to the structures of society as aliens and strangers just passing through. So slaves should submit to masters, wives to unbelieving husbands. If believers are to be criticized, may it be that they can only be criticized unfairly.
  • We should be careful not to take the instructions here to slaves and wives as God's ideal for all time but as the way to "live good lives among the pagans" in the context of 1 Peter's situation.
  • 3:15 is the great apologetics verse, but it is not about proving Christian beliefs with logical argument but about confessing Jesus as Lord when you are brought before secular authorities.
  • This bizarre set of verses (3:19-20) probably alludes to the fallen angels of 1 Enoch who sinned in the days before the Flood. 
  • 4:6 may refer to the possibility for OT saints to be freed from death, now that Christ's sacrifice is now accomplished.
Personal take-away:
  • Some great memory verses in 1 Peter. Here are three: "Humble yourselves, therefore, under God’s mighty hand, that he may lift you up in due time. Cast all your anxiety on him because he cares for you. Be alert and of sober mind. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour. Resist him, standing firm in the faith, because you know that the family of believers throughout the world is undergoing the same kind of sufferings" (5:6-8)

Sunday, April 06, 2014

G5. God knows every actual thing to know.

My continued walk through Christian theology in bullet points.
God not only knows every possible thing to know. God knows every actual thing to know. God is "omniscient" or "all-knowing."

The last article pointed out that if God made everything out of nothing, then he knows all the inner workings of the universe because he designed them. He knows all the possibilities of the universe. He at least has middle knowledge, as we're defining it. He knows every possible universe.

In this article, we want to go a step further and suggest that God not only knows every possible future. He knows the actual future. Admittedly, we are delving into matters we know relatively nothing about. Could there be multiple universes that God created? Could each universe play out a different set of choices and events? We have no way of knowing at this time. In this article, we will simply work off the assumption that this universe can be considered independently of any other universes God has created.

One issue we need to face is the fact that the Bible does not exactly say that God knows everything about the future. True, 1 John 3:20 says that God knows everything, but the context is about God knowing the state of our heart in the present. John is not making a timeless philosophical statement but a comment about God's complete knowledge of us in the present.

Much theology in the past has been based on ripping verses like this one out of context. You take a biblical sentence out of its paragraph, out of its book, out of the situation in which it was written and artificially treat it as an absolute, philosophical statement. Such practices may see truths in the words, but they take those words well beyond the limits of what they actually meant. For example, Psalm 147:5 says that God's understanding has no limit: "there is no number to his understanding." While this statement points to incredible understanding on God's part, it is not a philosophical or propositional statement. It is in a poem, where figurative and even hyperbolic statements are the nature of the game.

Similarly, while much of Scripture makes it clear that God can predict the future, there is no biblical statement that says God knows everything about the future. Even Isaiah 46:10, which says that God can tell things yet to come, is not making an absolute philosophical statement. And once again, we notice that this declaration comes in poetic form.

My point is not at all to argue against God's knowledge of the actual future. I believe that God knows every precise detail of the future. My point is to indicate how indebted we are to church history for systematizing and filling in the details of biblical faith. Orthodox Christian faith begins with the Bible, but it did not end there. We owe much to the Spirit in the early church for working out many of the details that we now see more clearly in Scripture than they originally were. We are playing hermeneutical games with ourselves if we pretend we will find fully mature orthodox faith in the original meanings of the books of the Bible.

Open theism is a fairly recent movement that has arisen primarily for philosophical reasons but that has drawn our attention to the many places in the Bible where God does not seem to know everything about the future. Open theists believe that God has suspended his precise knowledge of the future so that we can be free to make moral choices. Their thinking is that if God knew beforehand whether we would choose to do something, then we couldn't possibly do anything else. Our action would be determined, which would undermine any meaningful sense that we are moral creatures. Accordingly, they suppose that God has by his own free will decided not to know what precise decisions we will make, so that we will be free to make true moral choices for which we are truly accountable.

There are indeed many passages in the Bible where it at least sounds like God does not know certain aspects of the future. Genesis does not picture God as omniscient, for God regrets he has created humanity (Gen. 6:6)--something you can't literally do if you fully knew humanity would do what they did. In Genesis 22:12, God tests Abraham to see how he will respond, and only after the test does God say, "Now I know that you fear God."

Most if not all of the Old Testament speaks of God in similar terms. It is possible that the Old Testament authors themselves did not yet understand God's omniscience. Nevertheless, we should do as most Christians throughout the centuries and take such language as anthropomorphic. [1] It is picturing God in human categories, in categories we can understand and to which we can relate. But God would not be God if such descriptions were literal descriptions. He would just be a really knowledgeable and powerful Guy. Even open theism, while taking such imagery more literally, still interprets it from within a philosophical framework.

Let us return to the philosophical issue that underlies the drive to open theism. Does God's "foreknowledge" of the future imply determinism? The school of Christian theology known as Calvinism would say, "Yes." Calvinism would say that God both knows the future and determines it. Indeed, they would say that God knows the future precisely because he has determined it. The open theist would say that God does not know the precise future because he does not want to determine it.

But in the end, this would seem to be a silly controversy. The reasoning here only makes sense to people because they limit God to the same flow of spacetime that we experience, where the future inevitably comes after the present. Relativity has drawn our attention to the fact that spacetime is not an absolute framework. Indeed, time can move faster for one part of the universe than it moves for another, and it may be possible for spacetime to bend such that we in effect can even look at the past.

What if God is "outside time," a notion that may have become fully grown in medieval theology but that fits well with the robust sense of creation out of nothing that has only become possible in the twentieth century?  If God has already observed the future, then his knowledge of it now does not precede it happening but comes after it happening. He has observed it, not determined it, like someone who watches the recording of a game at which they were present. They know what will happen in the recording because they have already seen it and are not determining it in any way.

The essence of God is not located within our spacetime continuum. True, God's Spirit walks through history with us from past to present to future. True, Jesus, God the Son, entered history with us and suspended his foreknowledge while on earth (e.g., Mark 13:32). But what mortal could say how it is that God knows all things or "when" he knows them?

What we can say with reasonable certainty is that Christian arguments over what "must" be the case about the relationship between foreknowledge and determinism appear foolish because, even from a human standpoint, they seem to assume that God is confined to the creation. But God existed before there was a creation. He is thus, in his essence, "outside" of the universe.

What then of emotion? Does God have emotions? We can of course become emotional because of the interaction of chemicals in our bodies. We can assume that God has no emotions of that sort. More generally, emotions are our reactions to experiences. But we remember from the last article that there is no distinction in God between head knowledge and experiential knowledge. He knows all things entirely at all points of his existence.

He responds but cannot literally be surprised. A fact cannot "come home" to him. He cannot literally be reminded of a past experience. Surely biblical pictures of God getting angry, being sad, being surprised, regretting, and so forth are all anthropomorphisms to some degree, meant to help us understand him in terms we can grasp. Again, we are not surprised to find that the Old Testament, which has a less precise understanding of God than the New, has more intense imagery of this sort.

Jesus, of course, had the normal range of human emotions. God the Son suspended his omniscience while he was on earth. For Jesus, there was a distinction between experiential and cognitive knowledge. We are not in a position to know whether God the Spirit also suspended his full knowledge of the future to walk through history with us. One can only speculate whether the biblical pictures of God's emotions might relate more to God as he inhabits this universe (God in his "immanence") than to God as he exists outside this universe (God in his "transcendence").

But we can be certain that God not only knows every possible thing that might happen in the universe. He knows the precise details of every actual thing that will happen from now to all eternity.

Next Sunday, G6. God can do anything he wants.

[1] Or more accurately, anthropopathic. An anthropomorphism is a portrayal of God in human form. Anthropopathism is portrayal of God with human emotion.

Saturday, April 05, 2014

Review: God's Not Dead

Spoiler Alert: While my youngest two were at Fusion and my wife was visiting the oldest two, I snuck off to see the movie God's Not Dead last night.

1. I love the Newsboys' song, God's not Dead. What a great song to culminate the movie with! Love it. Big spoiler (skip to the next paragraph). It's really moving when everyone texts from the concert that "God's not dead," and the characters who aren't at the concert read it. It's moving enough to feel a tear coming on. To me, there was especially a lot of power to that text coming to the (now formerly) atheist's cell phone, given the irony of where he's at when the text comes. I'll leave it at that.

2. I like the humility of the main character throughout most of the movie. He got a little cocky to me in the final confrontation with the philosophy professor, but that was a deviation from his character most of the movie. In most of the movie, he takes the position that 1) it comes down to choosing faith, since God is not ultimately a matter of proof and 2) there are moral people who just don't believe.

3. However, a critique I have is that, although the movie tells us such things, it doesn't show us. IMO, the overall tone of the movie is one of "the evidence demands a verdict" and "all atheists are sleazebags." And let's face it, a lot of people are going to enjoy this movie because they like seeing intellectuals and liberals get stuffed by Duck Dynasty. The calm qualifications are overridden by the overall tone.

4. Back to the good. Most Christians are portrayed as incredibly humble and loving in the movie. Let's ask God to make us actually be like that. :-) Most real churches are probably more like the church of Corinth in the New Testament than like the perfect believers in this film.

There was of course one Christian who wasn't portrayed in dreamy perfection--that nasty feminist girlfriend who obviously didn't get the memo that the man is the head in the relationship. (sarcasm intended)

5. Ultimately, most of the characters in this movie, both Christian and non, are "flat" characters. They are predictable caricatures rather than real people.  The philosophy professor is a straw man rather than a real debate partner. I'm sure there are professors like that out there, but they are not good professors and certainly not good philosophy teachers. Philosophy is not about indoctrination but about examining assumptions.

To help illustrate what I mean by flat and straw man characters, there are some movies where Christians are portrayed negatively in a similar way to the way the professors are portrayed in this movie. There's a movie called Easy A where Amanda Bynes plays a Christian character who is infuriatingly flat and unreal. The way she acts, the way her circle prays, is an absurd representation of what Christians are like. That is exactly how this movie's philosophy professor will feel to real philosophy professors and non-believers. (John Hawthorne, did you catch the dig at sociologists ;-)

6. Josh presents two positive arguments for God and one defensive argument. The first is the argument that the world had a beginning, the cosmological argument. He gets Aristotle wrong. Aristotle actually argued that there must have been a first mover. Thomas Aquinas actually made the same basic argument Josh makes in the movie by building off of Aristotle's argument.

Josh mentions Lemaître, whom I mentioned last week as a twentieth century cosmologist who argued that the universe must have had a beginning. I may be stupid but I would at least agree with the tone of the movie toward Dawkins and Hawking, both of whom I consider cocky imbeciles when it comes to the question of God. Nevertheless, I find some of the dialog about them generally unbelievable, both in terms of how lame the philosophy professor is and in how Josh gets a little too "boo-yah" ish.

So yes, I think the cosmological argument makes it reasonable to believe in God. It doesn't prove God. It certainly doesn't prove the Christian God. It simply suggests that it is reasonable to believe in a Creator, given that the universe seems to have had a beginning.

7. The question of evolution and the problem of evil are big topics. For example, the "free will" explanation for why God allows evil is one of best, but there are other ideas and there are counter-ideas.  It's really not believable that Josh could convince the whole class with as little as he presents (or that the professor would have so little to say in response).

We need to be humble as Christians about these sorts of arguments. A lot of them make basic sense but they are far from slam dunks. They do not "demand" our verdict. As Josh also says, however, arguments to the contrary do not disprove God either.

8. Josh is right that a lot of the angriest atheists are former believers. Josh is also right that some people say they don't believe in God because they are angry with God. It's hard to believe that a real college philosophy professor would be as stupid as this one comes off, but I'm sure there are plenty of people who say they don't believe in God because they are trying to get back at him.

9. So I left thinking that I might take my kids to see it. I didn't think I would want to, going in. I'll be honest, the characters in this movie are so far-fetched that the whole movie drove me crazy, just like secular portrayals of Christians often do. But I liked the ending, for the most part. The moment with the mother was striking too, I thought. Well played.

P.S. The quote, "God is dead," comes from Nietzsche, who said it almost as a prophecy of the moral chaos that would dominate parts of the twentieth century. Agreeing with Dostoevsky, Nietzsche thought that if people didn't believe in God, then anything would become morally permissible to them. The context of this statement in Nietzsche's writing is a madmen who tells people celebrating God's death that they don't know what they have done by killing him off.

Friday, April 04, 2014

#40daybible Day 30 (Mark 8:31-16:8)

Day 30 ends up Week 6 by finishing the Gospel of Mark.

Some observations:
  • Mark 8:31 is the turning point of Mark's Gospel. Up till Peter's confession, Jesus' ministry has been very positive and public. Now the tone will become more foreboding. Jesus sets his face toward the cross and focuses more privately on his disciples.
  • Two more times after this Jesus will predict his death. Each time he predicts his death, the disciples do something that indicates they don't understand what's coming. The first time, Peter corrects Jesus about him going to die. The second time, the disciples have been arguing about who will be the greatest in the kingdom. The third time, James and John are angling to have the places of prominence in the coming kingdom. 
  • The Transfiguration happens after Peter confesses that Jesus is the Christ. This is the enigmatic moment when Moses and Elijah appear with Jesus on a high mountain.
  • Some think that Mark's Passion Story predated the Gospel. I frankly don't know how you would go about proving that.
  • Jesus enters Jerusalem triumphantly on Sunday.
  • In Mark, on Monday he overthrows tables in the temple.
  • On Tuesday he has debates
  • In Mark 13 Jesus predicts the coming destruction of the temple in AD70.
  • In Mark 14, Jesus has a Last Supper with the disciples, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane, gets arrested, gets denied, and appears before the Sanhedrin.
  • In Mark 15, Jesus appears before Pilate and is crucified.
  • Mark 16:1-8 is probably the ending of Mark that we have, giving us Jesus' resurrection. 16:9-20 were probably an early attempt to make up for what seemed an incomplete ending. There is another shorter ending among the manuscripts too. I suspect the original ending was lost at a very early date.
Personal point:
  • Mark 10:45 is very significant in Mark: "The Son of Man did not come to be served but to serve and to give his life as a ransom for many."