Is God Doing This?

An Edgy Question

crucifix.jpgI want to ask the question that is in the back of the minds of a lot of religious adherents right now, and perhaps even in the mind of a few skeptics. Are the terrible things that are happening in the world right now a direct activity of God?

Australia was just ravaged by fires, which destroyed over 32,000 square miles and over 1000 homes, and killed a couple dozen people and millions of animals. Immediately on its heels, locusts plague Africa and the Middle East – I mean like biblical quantities of locusts. Look it up. The story has been buried behind the coronavirus, which has now claimed 9,000 lives with a frightening mortality rate and brought the earth to a grinding halt.

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To top it all off, there was an 5.7 earthquake in Salt Lake City, Utah on March 18th, which normally might not raise eyebrows, but this one knocked the trumpet out of the hand of the gold statue of Angel Moroni standing atop the spire of the pompous Mormon Temple in the heart of their homeland. Even without all the rest of today’s chaos, that one would certainly make the orthodox zealots call out to the heavens, “Nice one, Lord!”

So the question is a bit surprisingly a rational one – is God mad at us?

Surprising at least for those raised on a Western, naturalistic view of the world, a “scientific worldview” we call it, although by that we mean committed to presuppositions which empirical science cannot substantiate. That is – we assume there’s nothing supernatural, so science can only give natural explanations.

The problem, Science, is that most of us, most of humanity, believes in God. Not only that, many gods, angels, demons, an afterlife, miracles, ghosts, and all the rest of it. Most – a majority – of all humanity present and past. Scientists even now speculate that some part of evolutionary history wired us to be religious, even if there were no God out there to be religious about. But whether there is a God is a subject of another post. Here I want to ask, for those who do believe in God, is God actually, you know, doing this?

Some religious people, those with especially guilty consciences, assume that when something bad happens to them, it’s because of something they did. Karma is essentially the same idea. But the disasters befalling the world are too broad for even the worst narcissist to assume they’re causing it all.

So is it because of us, all of us? And do we have the power to change world events through our behavior, through repentance?

It Has Happened Before

Clearly, readers of the Bible can see, this jibes with what the Bible says God has done in the past.

God says to King Solomon in 2nd Chronicles 7:

13 “When I shut up the heavens so that there is no rain, or command locusts to devour the land or send a plague among my people, 14 if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land.”

Repeatedly God forewarns of doom for disobedience and reward for faithfulness. When Israel is taken into slavery in Babylon, they say it was because King Solomon wasn’t faithful. When Jesus’ disciples come across a man born blind, they ask Jesus, “Is it because he sinned or his parents sinned that he was born this way?” (John 9:2). In the book of Revelation, God even warns rejection of churches that are not faithful, because God disciplines the people he loves (Revelation 3:14-20).

Two Options

However, Jesus’ answer to his disciples about the man born blind is that his blindness is not a result of anyone’s sin. His blindness is an opportunity for God’s power to be shown through him. Likewise, in the book of Job, a man named Job loses everything – his family, his wealth, and his health. His friends gather around and tell him he must have sinned. God shows up at the end of the narrative and vindicates Job – in fact, he hadn’t done anything wrong.

So Answer #1: Bad things are not always tied to God’s punishment. There’s a biblical basis for saying this. Furthermore, those who believe in Jesus believe that he died on the cross for our sins, so we are now completely forgiven. There is no anger left for us, and God does not destroy his children as punishment. Jesus aims to shape us in to healthy, loving, faithful people; he did not come to condemn us (John 3:17).

But, Answer #2: The terrors of this world are in every way a tool in the hands of God to lead the world to repentance. However, rather than causing suffering willfully, I think the Bible suggests that they come about in another way. Romans 1 says that God’s worst punishment for us is to let us have our own way (Romans 1:21-24). He “hands us over to our lusts,” it says. Allowing us to live in a broken world without his intervention is its own punishment. We live in a horribly broken world, and as we reject God and push God away, we can hardly complain that he allowed bad things to happen. He’s literally done exactly what we asked for. The consequence, sadly, is a world that doesn’t look like heaven. The hard part for those who follow Jesus is that we are all in this together, and the brokenness of the world drags us all down.

Our Hope

There are three places in which to put our hope:

  1. If you choose to invite Jesus into your life, he will immediately begin a remodel that will turn something broken into something beautiful. You can do that through a simple prayer – Jesus, I invite you in. Please take my life, forgive me, and lead me.
  2. When we follow Jesus and are filled with the Holy Spirit, we get to witness miracles. Jesus empowers his followers in the world to do exactly the same kind of things that he did, and that brings people out of brokenness and into healthy life. Against the backdrop of a world of storm clouds, a light shines through in the lives of the faithful.
  3. There will come a day when this present darkness will be chased away by light, and we will enter a world where there is no more mourning or crying or pain, and every tear will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4). Until then, we work to build the kingdom of God on earth; on that day we will rest.

Don’t be afraid. Jesus is still on the throne. When you believe in him and follow after him, he will save you. He’s not out to punish you and he doesn’t hold grudges. His business is forgiveness and redemption. Whatever origin story we believe in about the catastrophes of the world and the coronavirus, let them sharpen our minds and point us towards the one in whom we find true hope: Jesus Christ, our Lord.

Life of the Mind

Telescopic Thinking

There’s a little event that happened in 1633 which is an important conversation piece in Christianity today.  There was a guy named Galileo who studied the stars and who wanted the world to look through his new telescope.  Apparently, he said, we’ve got it wrong.  The earth goes around the sun and not vice versa.

The Catholic Church of his day was doing a little investigation of its own now called The Spanish Inquisition, in which they were forcing people to accept Christian doctrine or face torture.  They read the passage in the Bible, Joshua 10:13, that says that the sun stopped in the sky.  Well, the sun can’t very well stop if the sun isn’t the one that’s moving.  So they told Galileo to take back his doctrine, which he did.

bookTo this day, that story is told to high school students to emphasize the fact that religious legends can be destructive tools that oppose the pursuit of truth.

One of the most destructive things a Christian can do is make decisions out of fear.  Fear doesn’t help you determine facts.  And fear-based decisions will make your worldview look ridiculous to thoughtful people. We should have let Galileo’s telescope enlarge our view of the biblical text.

I want to address what I think is one of the most grave ills of the Church in this generation. And that is – that the Church is filled with educated people who don’t know what learning is for.

Education is Worship

The standard American church is filled with people whose decisions about education have been informed by their socio-economic standing and not by their theology. We learn because it pays – through qualifications, jobs, and the consequent salaries. We don’t learn as a form of worship. I would suggest that education is not a means to a material end – it is an expression of worship.

Did God give you your brain to make money, or did God give you your brain to explore the creation that he has made, to marvel at its beauty, to mold it into works of art, engineering, and medicine, and to find him in it, because, indeed, he is not far from any one of us (Acts 17:27)? The mental life is designed for reflection and contemplation, not to be used as a tool for material gain. It’s more like an incubator than a hammer; it allows things to grow within it rather than pounding out the world around it.

I was in a two-week long retreat with Dallas Willard and twenty other pastors at the Sierra Madre retreat center. Dallas began the conversation by saying, “You often think of Jesus as loving, as holy, and as powerful. But do you ever think of him as smart? Because Jesus was smart.”

What would society look like if people saw the Christian church and immediately thought – “They really know their stuff!”? “They are truth seekers, and they are not lazy. They read. They study. They write. They teach. Their people are at the heads of every department in academia.” If it came to a debate between a Christian and an atheist, you could trust that the Christian was well-studied and not just quoting the Bible at people.

I hold out to you that that’s not just how it could be, it’s how it should be, and it could be so in a single generation, if we will take this message seriously. There are four things we can do to turn the tides on this failure, and I’ll lay those out in a next blog, but for now, I just want to impress upon you one thing: education is a form of worship.

What Will The Kids Think?kid

I remember going to a church camp when I was in high school, a fiery Baptist camp held in deep in the woods in the Texas hills, so that no one could get away. And I remember asking a guest preacher a string of questions about faith and science. Midway through my questions he got tired, and just scolded me, “Jim, sometimes you just need to stop asking questions and believe.”

That’s a bunch of trash.

Pursuit of truth leads to Jesus, and if you stop asking questions, you won’t end up at Jesus, you’ll end up with an idol.

Don’t be afraid of where the pursuit of truth will lead you if you believe in the guy who said, “I am the truth.” To pursue truth is to pursue Jesus.

If you want something to wring your parental anxieties out of you, try this. If you raise your kids with a kind of fundamentalism that requires them to hide their heads in the sand, one day your kids will get out in the world, and they will listen to the news, they will talk to their peers, they may go to college, and they will realize that brilliant minds have come to believe in things that are different than what they’ve heard from you.  If you tell them that the Christian faith hangs on their rejection of the findings of science, you will put them in the position of holding onto ideas so rigidly that their ideas will one day break them.  Kids aren’t leaving the faith because of Darwinism.  They’re leaving the faith because parents, churches, and pastors are telling them that Christianity and science are opposed to one another, and they have to choose either science or Christianity.  They’re going to choose the one that is most serious about the pursuit of truth.

Shouldn’t that be the Church? Shouldn’t we be the ones to love truth more than our secular friends?

Let’s recall a teaching of Jesus that he said was more important than all the rest – Love God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind.

Life Without God

AdamBefore we commit to something, if we’re wise, we weigh the consequences.  Before we take a job, we consider the pay, the hours, the benefits, the commute, the effects on our families, and the relative enjoyment and fulfillment we will find in it.  Sometimes we take one because we’re desperate, and anyone who has done so knows about how well that works.  When we date and marry, if our friends are wise, they ask us if our romantic interest is good for us, if they’re fun, if they fulfill us, if we can see ourselves with them over the long haul.  We’re often too enamored to ask these questions ourselves, but this is what the voice of wisdom would say.

It concerns me that there is another decision which the bulk of the population makes wholesale without wise consideration of the consequences, and that’s the decision to live life without God.  Whether by tacit negligence of explicit rejection, we choose to do life on our own terms without God.  I wonder how that decision might go if we weighed the consequences as we do with a profession or a partner.

No Origin

Without God, we come from nowhere.  We are not designed.  We have no purpose.  When we talk about living a meaningful life, we really can’t mean “meaningful” in any traditional sense, because without an origin, we aren’t made for a purpose.  We are, in stark terms, an accident, blindly wrought by inanimate forces of nature, a marionette of physics.  If we were sensible about this, we would never have reason to get out of the bed in the morning, because there is nothing for which we are made.

No Destination

Similarly, we’re not going anywhere.  From the dust we come and to the dust we return.  As a result, there’s obviously no goal.  Again, meaning must be crucified as a twisted prank of evolutionary forces.  The most basic of purposes – making the world better – is a stupid waste of time.  The world is going to perish in the eventual heat death of the universe, long after human life is gone, with no one left to remember it or appreciate it.  Self-awareness will have been a cruel mistake.  Raising our children is an arbitrary pastime.  Accomplishments are trophies thrown in the fire.  With nowhere to go, we have absolutely no reason to live.

No rules

Realize the tectonic implications for politics and ethics.  Any rules we have to govern human life are arbitrary constructs.  Might does make right, by sheer virtue of the fact that no one else can.  Values like civility or fairness or justice are tools of power for the manipulative to use to force a gullible (and religious) lower class into behaving and working to produce luxuries for the rulers.  Voltaire was right – if there is no God, he must be invented to keep the peasants in line.  Nietzsche was right – if there is no God, values are the whims of the strong.  If there is no God, the only real morality is anarchy, and complex political systems to reign that anarchy in are just stalling techniques to help the rich die in peace.

Without God, the obvious consequence is that we have no past, no future, and a horrible present.  This in no way proves that there is a God, it simply, and wisely, lays out the consequences of casually ignoring the possibility that He exists.

Certainly Agnostic

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Posted on the Christian Apologetics Alliance

When I offer an apologetics seminar that I call “Know Why You Believe,” I find that the skeptical attendees have a preferred label for themselves.  “So I’m an agnostic,” says the first person to raise his hand, and that is the preface to his question.  A few others nod their heads eagerly.

I’m not sure if I believe him or not.  But I’ve finally come up with a good, brief answer….

Read the rest here.

The End of the M.Div.?

Christianity Today’s Out of Ur published an article I wrote about the future of the Masters of Divinity degree and the future of seminary education. 

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Long the gold standard of seminary education, the Masters of Divinity degree is a requirement for ordination in many denominations. It requires students to make a serious commitment—usually three years, long study hours, and thousands of tuition dollars. They immerse themselves in biblical Hebrew and Koine Greek—some eagerly, some begrudgingly. The result has been a trusted and standardized course of theological study.

But things are changing.

Four significant influences have shifted students, and consequently schools, away from the M.Div. and into alternative learning tracks. The rise of non-denominational churches that no longer require seminary education, significant financial debt incurred by students who are headed into a profession that will not necessarily empower them to pay it off, the rising possibility and acceptability of online education, and the decline of mainline Protestant denominations have all raised questions about the viability of the M.Div.

“We’re in a huge paradigm shift….”

Read the article here.

The Bestselling Jesus

A review of Killing Jesus, by Bill O’ReillyImage

By James W. Miller

The Last Temptation of Christ witnessed lines of moviegoers and waves of bookbuyers when it was released, largely because Christians threatened to boycott it.  The Passion of the Christ made over $611 million dollars from the hands of the passionately faithful and the militantly opposed.  Zealot, a book that depicted the historical Jesus as something less than the Messiah of God, raced to the bestsellers lists this year, though critics say it offered no new twist on the historical retelling of the life of Jesus.  Bill O’Reilly’s new book, Killing Jesus, is not bound for that kind of glory, for one simple reason: it doesn’t say anything controversial.

Released on September 24th, Killing Jesus, by O’Reilly and cohort Martin Dugard, hovered around #4 on the Amazon bestseller list in the days leading up to it.  By the end of the first day, it was still at #3, standing behind the latest Stephen King and the fourth installment in a young adults science fiction series.  Then on his evening Fox TV show he proclaimed that his book is creating controversy, and that some people think he’s “going to hell for writing it.” Who are these critics?  A few unnamed letter writers.  O’Reilly had a priest and a pastor on the show.  He told them he was getting a lot of heat from evangelicals.  The pastor told O’Reilly that evangelicals “ought to love this book.” O’Reilly replied that “the anti-Christian people” don’t want anyone to read this book.  The priest told O’Reilly that people won’t like the book because it defends the Bible’s accuracy.  O’Reilly assured the audience that the book is footnoted with the facts.  The ordained yes-men assured him he was right.   “I learned a lot,” said the priest.

Finally made it to #2.

But honestly, there’s no controversy here.  The book alternates between a fairly straightforward retelling of the biblical story with only minor narrative expansion, and a fairly unsurprising retelling of the details of the Roman Empire.  As to the latter, the authors hone in on that which is most violent and most sexually depraved, without any particular exploration of the psychology of the Caesars.  The story runs from Herod’s slaughter of the innocents, through the assassination of Julius Caesar, through bloodthirsty stories of Roman military conquests to vile sexual exploits of the subsequent Caesars.  None of this contributes meaningfully to the story of the life of Jesus.  And apparently it’s not scary enough to top Stephen King.

What the book does rightly is to show insistently that Jesus’ life and teachings are inextricably interwoven with the claim to his deity.  This isn’t just a demythologized, historical Jesus narrative, despite the fact that the authors tend away from the miraculous (the disciples “claim” to have seen him walk on water).  And there is an evangelical quality to the book for that reason.  There may be some stragglers who don’t read the serious literature about Jesus but pick this one up from the airport newsstand and end up in some kind of serious exploration of faith.  The Lord works in mysterious ways.  If you just wanted some superficial historical details about the first century world, it’s a fairly painless way to get them.  But the book’s popularity won’t come from a serious literary merit.

Of course, the drawback is that the rising population of Millennials will no longer take the story of Jesus from the hands of Caucasian men in their 60s who talk more about their political agendas than their faith.

The two Catholic authors previously partnered on bestsellers Killing Lincoln, which was criticized for factual inaccuracies, and Killing Kennedy, which the New York Times called “gerund-happy” while accusing the authors of “word mangling.” Both of them stayed on the bestsellers lists for months, the first one for more than a year.  Killing Jesus will be a bestseller as well.  The O’Reilly Factor has around 3 million viewers, and if history serves, he’ll spend the coming months promoting it on a daily basis.  Plus, it’s just hard to get around the fact that Jesus is still a subject that everyone wants to hear about.  But the book won’t be remembered for contributing anything new to conversations about Jesus, either historical or theological.

hardwired cover  Check out Hardwired:Finding the God

  You Already Know (Abingdon 2013)

Advance Praise for Hardwired

I’m so thankful to the scholars and ministry leaders who have given my new book Hardwired a thumbs up.  After the investment of years of work, it’s nice to have someone else enjoy it.  And when you write, you’re never sure that it will happen….

JWHardwired is for all of us who live with doubt and uncertainty about the Christian faith. With wisdom, insight and clarity Jim points the way for anyone struggling with insecurity and disbelief to firmly grasp the idea that what they already know is the perfect place to realize a belief in God. This is a book I will recommend to every young adult wrestling with core and fundamental truth. It is a book I will recommend to every mature and older adult looking for a path forward through doubt, frustration and seasons of distress. It is a book I will recommend to anyone open to the idea that God exists and that He loves them and wants them to know Him. In fact I recommend Hardwired to you. I am certain it will open your understanding of God and deepen your belief in God.”

Jon Wallace, President of Azusa Pacific University

TS“I like Hardwired a lot. It’s smart, confident and quite funny. Miller drills to the core of detached claims to neutrality about God. I can’t wait to give this book to friends of mine.”

Tim Stafford, author of Miracles and Senior Writer for Christianity Today

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TC“A fascinating and highly readable argument for God. Miller avoids the complicated jargon of much contemporary apologetics, and argues in conversational style reminiscent of Lewis and Chesterton that many of our deepest held convictions about the world point unavoidably to a personal God. The book will be of great help to those struggling with doubt. I warmly recommend it.”

Thomas M. Crisp, Chair of the Department of Philosophy at Biola University and Associate Director of Biola’s Center for Christian Thought

JS“Miller’s book is going to provide a map for readers who are yearning to understand how we know what we know to be true regarding faith and life.  There will be lots of insight for who cherish the line by Pascal – ‘The heart has its reasons that reason knows not of.'”

Rev. Dr. Jim Singleton, Jr., Associate Professor of Pastoral Leadership and Evangelism, Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary

SD“Here is a fresh and original look at religious unbelief. In Hardwired, James Miller surprisingly argues that we all—atheists, agnostics, and believers alike—latently believe that God exists and that we depend on God. The book is clever, well-written, and convincing. I recommend it highly.”

Dr. Stephen T. Davis, Russell K. Pitzer Professor of Philosophy, Claremont McKenna College

DG“Rather than gathering evidence that demands a verdict, James Miller plumbs the depth of the human heart, showing us that the things we take for granted provide a sure foundation for deep, abiding faith. The whole approach is surprisingly fresh and compelling. Add to that Miller’s gift for just-the-right analogy and his clear, spare style, and you’ll know why I’m excited to recommend this book.”

Dr. Diana Pavlac Glyer, author of The Company They Keep: C. S. Lewis and J. R. R. Tolkien as Writers in Community

AM“…he [Miller] has the mind of a scholar, the heart of a pastor, and the ability to synthesize those features in a way that few leaders can. In this book Jim challenges many of the intellectual assumptions of traditional apologetics, which start with what we don’t know, and suggests that the most compelling and heartfelt case for the Christian faith starts with what we do know. Just like in his preaching, he takes apologetics out of the ivory tower and brings it to the streets where people live.”

Adam S. McHugh, author Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture

PC“James Miller’s book is a very readable reinforcement of the fact that God has placed eternity in each of our hearts. It helpfully supplements various contemporary apologetical arguments by highlighting the personal, practical, and existential themes familiar to all humans—themes that can touch the heart and move it in a Godward direction.”

Paul Copan, Professor and Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics Palm Beach Atlantic University, West Palm Beach, Florida

JRHardwired has flipped my traditional thinking of Christian apologetics upside down with sound and logical intellect, peppered with Jim’s quiet humor and personal vignettes. Our hearts are indeed “God’s Positioning System” – the case for Christ has been and is made, we just need to discover it!

Dr. John Reynolds, Executive Vice President – Azusa Pacific University, California and Chancellor, Azusa Pacific Online University

DC“In a world of debate and challenge to the Christian way of thinking, this book is a breath of fresh air in giving guidance and principles of understanding of how faith really works and pulsates in one’s life. Offbeat, different, creative, it’s a new way of looking at how faith is given, nurtured and survives.”

Rev. Dr. Dan Chun, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu, co-founder of Hawaiian Islands Ministries

CC“Jim Miller does an excellent job of turning our questions upside down and helping us know how much we didn’t know we knew.  He suggests a major shift from trying to prove things to people to helping them realize what they already know.  He helps us examine our assumptions and discover what has been missing in our thinking.  This is an engaging and thought-provoking book.  I highly recommend it.”

Rev. Dr. Clark Cowden

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