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Studying the Bible

Why Does God Allow Evil?

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

According to a recent Barna research study, the number of young people in the U.S. who identify as atheists has doubled in a single generation. One of the most significant reasons many reject the idea of God is the reality of suffering and evil in the world. Philosophers refer to this as the Problem of Evil and it is generally stated in this way: a loving God would prevent suffering and evil if He could; therefore, God is either not loving or not powerful enough to stop it. Yet, Christians believe that God is both all-loving and all-powerful. Is this a contradiction? Or does the Bible tell us what we need to know to answer such a significant objection to God’s existence? Let’s spend some time considering what Scripture has to say about the issue.

First, let’s consider what we need to study:

  1. Is God Loving?
  2. Is God Powerful?
  3. Why Does God Allow Suffering and Evil?

If we can answer these three questions, then we can combat the Problem of Evil and help people who are suffering to see the goodness and power of God.

Is God Loving?

If God is not loving; that is, if He is not good, then it would be pointless to continue this discussion. Now, it is one thing to assert that He is loving just by stating all the good things He does. But is God loving in the midst of suffering? Let’s look at what the Bible says. 

Psalm 23 details the life of David who is surrounded by suffering for so much of his life. David writes in verses 4-6:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I fear no evil, for you are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies… surely your goodness and lovingkindness will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever. 

David recounts the goodness of God in the midst of great pain and evil. He does not praise God for removing suffering, but for being present in suffering. While David stares his enemies in the face, he is at peace because of the presence of the Lord. He does not praise God because God will certainly save him from his enemies, but that even if he were to suffer the worst possible fate, he would still be with God forever. 

The Bible is absolutely filled with examples of God being good in the midst of suffering. In fact, to be in the world is to endure suffering, whether small or large. We have the promise that He will be with us and that He will rescue us out of this world whether it happens now or only when we get to heaven. 

Is God Powerful?

So, if God is good, but there is still suffering, perhaps the reason is that He is unable to stop it. Not surprisingly, the Bible tells us that God can do anything, including preventing bad things from happening. Furthermore, there are many verses in Scripture that talk about deliverance from evil. Consider 2 Timothy 4:18: “The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom.” Or 2 Thessalonians 3:3: “But the Lord is faithful. He will establish you and guard you against the evil one.” We see examples throughout Scripture of God preventing great evils or avoiding certain disasters. God prevents the destruction of the Hebrew people at the hands of pursuing Egyptians in Exodus 14. God again prevents genocide of the same people in the story of Esther. Many other examples from both the Old and New Testament could be cited to support this. 

But it is equally clear that God does not always prevent suffering and evil. So, if it is the case that God is good even in the midst of suffering, and that He is perfectly able to prevent it, we are left with one big question:

Why Does God Allow Suffering?

As we ask this question, we must first ask ourselves what sort of answer we want to hear. 

Do we want to know why there is any suffering at all? If so, Genesis 3 begins to answer this question, and the rest of the Old Testament fills in the blanks. Suffering exists because sin has broken the perfection that existed in the Garden.

Do we want to know why God doesn’t prevent the worst kinds of suffering? If so, ask yourself how you would know if He did. That is, if God prevented all of the worst evil, then you would never know what those evils would have been, and then the second-worst evil would now be the worst from your perspective. In the end, this question is no different from asking why there is any suffering whatsoever.

Do we want to know why God allows a particular instance of suffering? There are times in Scripture when we see God give an explanation for certain evils. Think of Joseph being captured by his brothers and sold into slavery. Joseph himself says in Genesis 50:20, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good, to bring it about that many people should be kept alive, as they are today.” But many times, as in the case of Job, the reason for suffering is not given. Instead, we are asked simply to trust God.

So, Why Does God Allow Evil?

Two important and complementary answers are found in Scripture:

  1. God allows certain evils in order to accomplish certain good things. Think, for example, of the Babylonian Exile of the people of Judah. God tells His people that they are going into exile in order to be broken of their wickedness and idolatry. Or, think of the greatest example of all: the death of Jesus. God allows, and even clearly plans and purposes this evil in order to accomplish the greatest possible good. 
  2. God also allows evil to exist in general because He has created the world with a certain order which He has freely chosen not to violate. Among the most important aspects of this created order is the free will that He gives to His creatures. Scripture makes it clear that God desires for His creatures to freely choose to love, worship, and obey Him. Love that is not free is also not real.  So, God allows evil to exist because He created us with the ability to reject Him, and evil exists because we choose to reject God.

Now, as we close this discussion, we must remember that God is in control. His greatest desire is to eradicate all suffering and for us to live in perfect unity with Him forever. He promised to do exactly this, beginning all the way back in Genesis 3 and culminating in the final verses of Revelation. God’s immediate reaction to humanity’s betrayal was to promise to make everything right. He promised to personally enter into the suffering of this fallen world, thereby taking on all the sin and wickedness of humanity, putting it to death on the cross. God has always had a plan to deal with evil and suffering, and the Bible tells us the history of that plan. We, as Christians, are agents of that restoration; a restoration that will one day be complete. 

Let’s close this discussion with the great promise of Scripture from Revelation 21:4: “He [God] will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.

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Studying the Bible

What Does the Bible Say About Demons?

Author: Patrick Krentz Th.M., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

Little, red, horned creatures with pitchforks; huge, dark, scary creatures with sharp claws and teeth; shadowy, stalking, creepy creatures that speak in deep whispers… this is what most people think about when you say the word ‘demon’. But how does the Bible talk about them? Are these depictions based in reality, or are they simply figments of some author or filmmaker’s imagination? Let’s spend some time looking at what the Bible says about demons, and what Bible teachers have come to understand about this confusing and interesting subject. 

Here are some questions we want to answer:

  1. Are demons real?
  2. What are demons?
  3. What about Satan?

Are Demons Real?

Most people put demons into the same category as ghosts, goblins, zombies, and so on, and therefore relegate them to the realm of fantasy. But if you believe the Bible means what it says, then you have to take demons seriously. This is especially true because Jesus spends a lot of time dealing with them and talking about them. The life and ministry of Jesus is really the core of the Christian faith, so we can’t just explain away these encounters. 

Mark 5, for instance, recounts an event wherein Jesus meets a man who is possessed by a demon. Jesus speaks to it, and it speaks back. It even gives its name. This sort of encounter is not uncommon in the Gospels as we read about all that Jesus did. 

So, the very simple answer to the question, “Are demons real?” is yes, the Bible clearly indicates that they really exist. More significantly, then, let’s see what the Bible says about the nature and actions of these creatures.

What Are Demons?

Part of the confusion that we have about demons is the word itself. More often, we read in the New Testament “unclean spirit.” Thinking about them in these terms is much more helpful. If you go back and read Mark 5, you learn a few important details about demons. 

First, demons are spirit-entities. In most instances in Scripture, demons are not visible and do not have a physical form. Second, they are personal entities. They are not some evil, impersonal force but individual creatures. This leads to the third point: they are thinking entities. Jesus reasons with the demon as he speaks with it. The demon in Mark 5 even has a request, and Jesus grants its request. Then, fourth, demons, as personal, individual, thinking creatures, have wills of their own. This means they are not all part of the same collective mind, and they are not controlled directly by Satan.

If we compare these features to another well-known spirit-entity in the Bible, we may realize something surprising. Angels are likewise invisible, personal, thinking, spirit-entities that each have their own will. While this may be shocking, the reason for it is simple: they are actually the same type of creature.

That’s right, ‘Demon’ and ‘Angel’ are just two classifications for the same thing. The word demon simply means ‘supernatural entity’ and is a generic term, while the word angel is actually a job-description meaning ‘messenger.’ In the Old Testament, you will notice that demons hardly make an appearance. Instead, another term, eelohim, is used which also means generically ‘supernatural entity’.1 The main distinction between a demon and an angel is their relation to God. Particularly in the New Testament, this becomes clear as angels are servants of God while demons are His enemies. 

Now, the term ‘unclean spirit’ tells us that there is another distinction to be aware of. Every time we see an unclean spirit, it is possessing and tormenting some unfortunate person. Think back to what the terms clean and unclean mean in the Old Testament ritual system. Something becomes unclean when it mixes with something it shouldn’t. A person would become unclean by touching a dead body because the Holy God is the God of the living. Something that is alive mixing with something dead makes the living thing unclean. In the same way, a spirit-being mixing (or possessing) a body of flesh makes that spirit unclean. 

It is also true that these unclean spirits are evil spirits, but that is a given as the very act of possessing a person, subverting their will, is an intensely evil act. 

But where did demons come from? We know that God created the holy angels before He created humans, but when did He create evil spirits? To answer this, let’s talk about Satan.

What About Satan?

It’s amazing to realize that Satan was not always evil. God created Satan, and everything God created was good and perfect. Ezekiel 28 describes what Satan was like in the beginning. He is called the “signet of perfection,” and was incredibly beautiful. But as great and powerful as he was, he became prideful. What is really significant in this whole discussion is that Satan was merely one elohim among many; perhaps the greatest among them all, but still just a created being. 

Jude 6 tells us that the demons are, like Satan, “angels who did not stay within their own position of authority, but left their proper dwelling…” Also, Revelation 12 speaks of Satan leading a third of the angels in rebellion against God. These rebels make up the evil elohim, some of which become the unclean spirits we see in the New Testament.

While Satan himself does not control these demons, he is the most prominent among them. In several passages of the New Testament, Satan is referred to as the prince of demons, indicating a position of leadership among them. 

We know that Satan’s objective is to oppose God and His plans at every point. He also passionately hates humanity. This is why we see Satan and the other demons attacking people, but more importantly, attacking the Son of God. 

Significantly, Satan and these angels are defeated initially by Jesus’ death and resurrection, and they will be defeated ultimately when Jesus returns. At that point, according to Revelation 20, Satan and his demons will be thrown into the lake of fire. Thus, contrary to the popular view of Satan as ruler of hell, Satan himself will be thrown into hell where he will experience everlasting torment. The demons neither want to go there, nor will they enjoy their existence there, and they most certainly will not be the ones tormenting people for eternity. 

So, as you realize what the Bible says about demons, recognize that they are very real, and very powerful. We should take them seriously, but know that God is still in control. They must still answer to God, and He will judge them. Satan is our great enemy, but he is merely a creature, and he has already been defeated. While Satan and his demons are fighting with everything they have right now, let’s close this discussion with the biblical hope of their defeat as it is beautifully portrayed in the hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God”:

The Prince of Darkness grim,
We tremble not for him;
His rage we can endure,
For lo! His doom is sure.
One little word shall fell him.

 

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1 Elohim is typically translated as gods (with a small g), and sometimes even refers to God Himself. Really, the Old Testament refers to every spirit-being as a god. This is why God is called “God Most High,” because He is the God who is above all other gods.

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Studying the Bible

What’s in a Name? A Theology of Personal Identity

Author: Andrew Sargent Ph.D., Contributing Author for Foundations by ICM

 

What’s in a Name? A Theology of Personal Identity

Personal identity is at the very center of our society’s cultural debate. The important question is, who gets to determine who you are? Modern society answers emphatically that everyone has the right of self-determination. As Christians seek to answer this question, a core biblical doctrine is frequently overlooked: The Theology of names. In doing so, significant ground is ceded to ideologies that do not find their grounding in Scripture. Today, let’s spend some time thinking about the significance of names in the Bible

What’s in a name? This is one of the most famous lines passed down to us from Shakespeare. In a way, it is a great and concise articulation of the prevailing cultural dogma of self-determination. What IS in a name? Today, the answer would likely be something like this: a name is nothing more than an arbitrary designation given by someone who does not understand your true identity. We’ll come back to this later because it is not entirely incorrect. However, this is not how Scripture uses names. In the Bible, names carry a certain measure of significance and tell us something about the person. Let’s look at three ways that the Bible helps us to understand personal identity through the giving of names: 

  1. Names tell us who we are and where we’ve been.
  2. Names tell us who we belong to.
  3. Names are not our true identity, after all.

Now, as we look at this list, we might see some things that appear overly simple, perhaps slightly oppressive, and even a bit contradictory. Bear with me as we unpack these. Hopefully, you’ll see how they all tie together cohesively. 

Names Tell Us Who We Are and Where We’ve Been

How is a name not just an arbitrary designator? After all, didn’t your parents, who were young and overjoyed (and perhaps overwhelmed) by the reality of parenthood, simply pull a name at random from the ether and scratch it onto a piece of hospital documentation? Well, perhaps, but not necessarily. It likely depends on where you were born. Western society tends to put very little emphasis on family lineage or heritage when giving names. But, for much of the world, and through most of world history, this was not the case. Consider just how many genealogies you find in Scripture. Entire chapters are devoted to tracing family lines. In fact, the book of Genesis presents itself as a genealogy of the family of Abraham. Names, especially family names, tie you into that history.

This is certainly true for last names, which are not chosen but rather inherited. But this is also true of first names, sometimes more directly than others. Many families name children after ancestors, but nearly all families use names common within their own culture. Even when parents choose a name that is entirely outside the bounds of normal naming conventions, they do so for deeply personal reasons. Every parent who has named a child understands how sacred the duty of naming is. There are few decisions that rival the significance of selecting a name for another person. So, from this we can say that names tell us a lot about who we are, especially in terms of our family history. But the rite of naming brings out another important aspect of personal identity.

Names Tell Us to Whom We Belong

What does naming entail? Why, exactly, is it so significant? The answer is not always in the name itself, but also in what naming represents. Let’s consider some biblical examples:

Genesis 2:19, “Now out of the ground the Lord God had formed every beast of the field and every bird of the heavens and brought them to the man to see what he would call them. And whatever the man called every living creature, that was its name.”

Immediately after God creates Adam and places him in the garden, God gives him the command to take dominion over all creation, and over every living thing. What we see in Gen. 2:19 is Adam fulfilling the first step of that dominion. Now, naming is something typically done by a thing’s creator. When an artist finishes his painting, he gives it a name. When parents ‘create’ a child, so to speak, they name him or her. So, when God gives Adam the right to name all the living things, he is also giving Adam the right and responsibility to have dominion. This entails a sort of ownership and authority over the thing named. That authority carries with it the responsibility to care for it, as well. Whatever Adam names, he becomes the steward of those things. Parents understand this type of stewardship implicitly, with all the rights and responsibilities it entails. 

Consider a few examples that solidify this concept:

Genesis 17:5, “No longer shall your name be called Abram, but your name shall be Abraham, for I have made you the father of a multitude of nations.”

Also, consider Genesis 35:10, “And God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; no longer shall your name be called Jacob, but Israel shall be your name.’”

And one final, but powerful, example from the New Testament. When Andrew brings his brother Simon to meet Jesus, we read in John 1:42, “Jesus looked at him and said, ‘You are Simon the son of John. You shall be called Cephas’ (which means Peter).” 

What do these have in common? Each of these rites of naming involves God changing the identity of the person named. God renames someone at a significant point in his life. He changes Abram into the father of many nations. He changes Jacob into Israel, patriarch of His chosen people. And he changes Simon into Peter, the rock through whom He will build the Church. In each case, as in the case of Adam, the naming, or re-naming, involves taking ownership. God is establishing His dominion in the lives of Abraham, Israel, and Peter. But God is also promising to do great things through them. With each of these names, God makes Himself responsible for the work that would come through them. 

So, while Abraham’s mom may have named him Abram, God establishes a superior identity through a superior relationship. What is mind-blowing about this is when we realize what God has to say about our true identity.

Names Are Not Our True Identity, After All

While names tell us about who we are, where we’ve come from, and to whom we belong, the name our parents gave us is not our ultimate identity. That, only God knows. Listen to what Jesus says in Revelation 2:17: “To the one who conquers… I will give him a white stone, with a new name written on the stone that no one knows except the one who receives it.” Jesus knows you better than anyone ever could; better than your parents, better even than you know yourself. He has a name reserved for you that only He knows because, ultimately, you belong to Him if your identity is bound to Him. 

So, as you think about the concept of personal identity, ask yourself who has the right to give you a name. Society asks “What’s in a name?” and declares that you are free to self-identify, to name yourself whatever you wish. In this worldview, you are who you say you are, and that’s all that matters. But in Scripture, we see the opposite: you are who God says you are, and, ultimately, that’s all that matters. 

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Studying the Bible Uncategorized

Discovering the Temple

Author: Kevin Richard Ph.D., Managing Editor for Foundations by ICM

 

Discovering the Temple

With a story as large as the one in the Bible, it can be difficult to see how different parts of the story tie together. It has been suggested that there are four major acts that unfold in Scripture: Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Restoration. While these four categories do help us to see significant themes in Scripture, thinking of the Bible in this simplified way creates difficulty when we try to make sense of other parts of Scripture that don’t seem to fit well into these big four. What of the Garden of Eden? What of tabernacles and sacrifice? What of temples and priests? What of the role of Israel in God’s plan? What of the Messiah? The list could go on…

Return to the Beginning

The good news is that this difficulty can subside when we uncover a central theme that ties all of Scripture together…from the beginning to the end. In order to do that, however, to discover this missing theme, we must look to the beginning for this is where the theme enters into the story. The Creation account in Genesis 1-3 tells of God’s creation of the world and the purpose or function He gives to it. The way that the story of Creation is often taught today, we are disconnected from the original context. We get caught up in all sorts of debates and miss one of the most important aspects of the Creation account, the theme that will help tie all of Scripture together – God establishing His temple. 

To highlight the disconnect, consider this question: What is the most significant day in the week of Creation from Genesis 1? If you were to ask a room full of modern Christians, the answer would likely be Day 6 because that is the day that God made Man from the dust of the earth and breathed His life into him (c.f. Gen 2:7). The 6th day of Creation is no doubt significant as it tells of a special kind of creation and of a personal kind of creature that has been made in the image and likeness of its Creator (Gen. 1:26-28). But is that correct, is that the most significant day? Close, but not quite.

The most significant day of creation is Day 7. This may queue the mental head scratch and rightly so. This day of creation does not fit well into the modern narrative and often ends up being a “throw-away” day. But it makes sense that this happens, right? God is all-powerful and doesn’t need to “rest” (Hebrew shabat). The creation of the world was not taxing on His power so why does He need to rest? You will often hear it said that Day 7 is merely an example for us because we need the rest. In this view, God is modeling the week for us which includes Sabbath rest. However, this line of thinking misses the main emphasis of Day 7. While the text does say that God “rested” it does not mean that God needed to take a break, it meant that he was ceasing from His work – He was done, it was completed. He had created order and beauty out of darkness and chaos. He had created a sacred space in which to dwell with mankind. God had made His temple!

You see, one of the keys to unlocking the significance of the Creation story is the connection of gardens to “sacred spaces” or “temples.”  In Genesis 1, the earth is described as being “formless and void” as God’s Spirit hovered over the deep waters. There was darkness over the earth and it was not yet suitable for life. For the ancient reader, this language would have evoked themes of chaos and disorder. In the Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) context the waters (including the oceans) stood as a symbol of chaos. So, as God’s Spirit hovers over this world of chaos and disorder and begins to create, He is bringing order out of chaos. In the middle of the chaos and disorder, God creates Eden, a garden that is lush and teeming with life and herein lies the significance. In the ANE context, gardens (as well as mountains) were often seen as sacred spaces, or temples; places where the gods dwelt. It’s easy to see how ancient people would have made this connection. In a largely agrarian culture, a lush garden is a place of abundance, sustainability, and most importantly life. The source of this sustenance was connected to the power of the god(s) whom the people associated as creator.

But what is so important about a temple? In the ANE context, a temple was the dwelling place of the gods. The temple did not contain the gods, as if a mere building could do such a thing, rather, they were the place where the gods would meet with man. There was a sense in which the temple was the location of specific divine presence – a sacred space, a place where heaven and earth meet. The temple was also a place of ritual worship. Worship of the gods was carried out in the temple as acts of devotion and reverence. Thus, the Garden not only as a place for relationship with God but a place to worship Him. 

Another related theme becomes important here: the theme of man as an image-bearer of God. As God establishes His Temple on Earth, and the Garden as the first Sacred Space, you will see the purpose of the image-bearer. God places man in His Sacred Space and charges him to care for and expand it (Gen. 1:28). Almost immediately, however, this appointment of the image bearer raises a potential problem in the narrative. If God’s plan at creation was to create a sacred space in which to dwell with humanity, has God’s plan failed?! Already, in just the third chapter of the narrative, the image-bearers disobey the Creator and are cast out of the Garden (Gen. 3:1-24). They fail to faithfully fulfill their role and are punished. What of God’s plan, what of His intent to be in relationship with creation? This is both the beautiful and tragic beginning of the redemptive narrative of Scripture. Tragic in the sense that man’s failure brought separation, sin, and death but beautiful in the sense that God’s plan had not failed, he would not give up on His creation.

Bringing It Together

The Temple theme is central to the message of the Bible. Once you see it in Genesis, the temple narrative forms a unifying theme throughout the whole story of Scripture. From Genesis 3 onward to the end of the Scriptures, the story of Scripture is God’s plan of restoring the union that was lost when humanity was sent from the Garden, cast out of the Temple. Throughout Scripture, we can see how time and time again, God establishes the Temple with His people. In the Wilderness, it was in the Tabernacle. With the Kings of Israel, it was in Solomon’s Temple and later Zerubbabel’s Temple. There are times when God’s people are not faithful and the Temple is destroyed and God’s presence is in a sense distant or removed. But following a long period of waiting and distance, God returns and tabernacles with man in the most distinct and profound of ways – the incarnation of the Son, the Word made flesh, Jesus Christ (John 1:1-14). In Jesus, God and man come together in a unique way. He is both God and an image-bearer at the same time. He takes on the function that the first image-bearer – Adam – could not fulfill. He demonstrates his dominion over creation and establishes the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom that looks forward to the time where the Temple will be fully restored in the renewed heaven and earth (cf. Rev. 21).

In Christ, the relationship between God and man is restored, heaven and earth reunited. The role of the image-bearer has been redeemed. Those that are part of God’s people have a renewed purpose as image-bearers in the Kingdom of God. Empowered by God’s Spirit, the church body is commissioned to be that location of sacred space we first see in the Garden. In this way, a community of believers who are committed to loving God and loving others (Matt. 22:37-39) are the temple (1 Cor. 6:19-20). Through God’s Spirit, it is our love for God and love for others that continues to unite heaven and earth. Part of the church’s function then is to be curators of sacred space in a dark world of chaos and disorder. It is the church’s responsibility to share the good news of who Jesus is and what he has done and invite people into this sacred space.

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