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Your eternal destiny is not cosmic retirement; it is to be part of a tremendously creative project, under unimaginably splendid leadership, on an inconceivably vast scale, with ever increasing cycles of fruitfulness and enjoyment. That is the prophetic vision which “eye has not seen and ear has not heard.”
Have you ever been alone somewhere when you hear the raucous sounds of a party nearby? Everyone sounds like they’re having a great time, and there you are, lonely and excluded. The temptation to sneak down the hall and peer in seems irresistible. You even dream of wrangling an invitation to join in. We seem wired to run toward the action and away from loneliness, especially if it involves interesting people and significant events. Nobody enjoys being left out.
Suppose there was a party going on right under your nose—one that you couldn’t see physically but that was nonetheless real. Think of it this way: scientists agree that there is something counterintuitive about our universe. Total mass–energy calculations seem to indicate that there is no such thing as empty space, as most of us understand the phrase. No matter where we look in deep space, we can only see about 5 percent of what we think of as ordinary matter. The remaining 95 percent of what exists is a mysterious combination of something called dark matter and dark energy, which are totally invisible and thus far unmeasurable by conventional means.
The Bible tells us that there are two primary components to humanity’s perceived existence which are every bit as mysterious as the physical universe we just described. There is the natural realm, which is visible to our eyes, and there is a supernatural realm, which is completely invisible to the eyes. Not unlike dark energy and dark matter, the supernatural realm is every bit as real as the visible realm, though undetectable to the naked eye. The Bible teaches that the supernatural realm is ultimately more powerful and will last longer than the natural realm.
The Bible also indicates that, although one portion of this supernatural realm is constrained by time and space, another portion exists outside of time and space and is eternal. All universal power and authority reside in and emanate from this eternal supernatural realm, which Jesus Christ referred to frequently as “the kingdom of God.” This kingdom is ruled by a single person who is simultaneously manifested as three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Dr. Arthur Custance, a Canadian anthropologist, scientist, and author specializing on science and Christianity, in Doorway Papers, described the difference between the realms of time and eternity this way:
The really important thing to notice is that time stands in the same relation to eternity, in one sense, as a large number does to infinity. There is a sense in which infinity includes a very large number, yet it is quite fundamentally different and independent of it. And by analogy, eternity includes time and yet is fundamentally something other. The reduction of time until it gets smaller and smaller is still not eternity; nor do we reach eternity by an extension of time to great length. There is no direct pathway between time and eternity: they are different categories of experiences. The fundamental point to grasp in all this is that when we step out of time, we step into eternity, and we cannot be in them both at once. But God can.[i]
Many mythological writings depict heaven as a stagnant place where its inhabitants are sitting on their own private little clouds strumming harps. Dr. Custance debunked such fanciful notions, with a much more vibrant portrait of heavenly reality:
When I find myself in his [God’s] wonderful presence, it will not be as a miserable wretch, apologizing before God for my ragged soul that would seem scarcely worth the price of its purchase. No, it will be a glorious new me! It will be a perfected spirit (with all that belongs to the old sinful self—buried and done with forever) reunited with a resurrected body made like unto his “glorious body” (Philippians 3:21) to form in some wholly satisfying way a new, yet identifiable, Arthur C. Custance. But because that name represents the old person and not the new, that name, like the old person it represents, will no longer be used or even remembered. I shall have a new name (Revelation 2:17). This is the promise of eternity…a glorious new nature worthy to behold the Lord in his glory and to form a part of his royal court.
Think about it—if God is as resourceful as to create all this, why would he stop here? Suppose he has much more to do, and he’s inviting us to participate as charter members of his royal court?
The best part of the story is that God is eagerly recruiting new members into his eternal enterprise, and those new members will populate his heaven with an all–volunteer army of joyous co–creators.
Your Personal Invitation into the Mind of God
Right under our noses, the most remarkable communication in human history calls out from the realm of the supernatural and beckons us upward into the very mind of God. At first, the Bible appears to be a jumble of ancient writings, speaking of long–forgotten people, during times that hardly seem relevant to our lives today. Yet strangely, perhaps miraculously, those few who take the time to study its pages are rewarded with a glimpse behind the scenes into the eternal workings of an invisible kingdom. And at its heart, this kingdom is centered not upon some force or omnipotent thing but upon a person. A person with whom we share many divinely implanted characteristics which make it possible for us to know him, communicate with him, and to love him. And, best of all, he has been speaking to us from the very beginning of time. We just need to be willing to stop long enough to listen. Here is how Bible scholar John Phillips put it:
A certain copy of the Constitution of the United States was once executed in superb penmanship by the hand of an artist. In some places the words are all cramped together, while in others they are spaced far apart. Looking at the manuscript closely, there seems to be little reason for such a spacing of the words. Standing back, however, and looking at the production from a distance, the artist’s purpose becomes clear. He not only wrote out the Constitution but also portrayed the face of George Washington, his cramped and spaced–out words forming lights and shadows on the page.
Thus it is with the Bible. The creation of the stars is covered in Genesis 1 in five short words, “He made the stars also.” Yet the story of the tabernacle is spread over some fifty chapters of the Bible. All we know of the life of Jesus between His birth and His baptism is covered in a single page of scripture. Yet page after page is devoted to genealogies which perhaps appear endless and pointless to us. We ask, “Why such an uneven choice of subject matter?” The answer becomes clear when we take a survey look at the Bible. Woven into all the scripture is the perfect portrait of God’s beloved Son.[ii]
What are the “qualifications” to join the party?
So, do I have to go the “right” church, be baptized, perform religious rituals, and read certain books? What does it take to belong, and how much do I have to pay? How will I know if I’ve joined the right organization? Sadly, this is where things can get murky for most people.
If you were to ask one hundred people what a Christian is, you would likely get one hundred different answers. There is widespread confusion on this issue, due in no small part to relentless pressure on churches to dumb down the message to attract the maximum number of people. We get mired in religious minutia and, in the process, lose the “pearl of great price” that lies at the center of our very reason for being. No, it is not about the building we meet in nor the denomination we belong to. Nor is it about some theological test that we think we’ve passed.
We’re all familiar with a Geiger counter, which detects the presence of radioactivity and emits a strange crackling sound in response. Suppose there was a “Holy Spirit counter,” which could positively identify whether a person has been “signed, sealed, and delivered by the Holy Spirit”? Ultimately it’s simple, either you have the Holy Spirit, or you do not. Either you are “God’s own possession,” or you are not.
Scripture asserts unequivocally, “You, however, are not in the realm of the flesh but are in the realm of the Spirit, if indeed the Spirit of God lives in you. And if anyone does not have the Spirit of Christ, they do not belong to Christ.”[iii]
A touching illustration of the clear mark of belonging to God comes in a decidedly candid exchange between God and Moses, Israel’s leader during their exodus out of slavery in Egypt. At a time when God was frustrated with Israel’s continued intransigence in following Moses’ leadership, Moses approached God with this:
Look, you tell me, ‘Lead this people,’ but you don’t let me know whom you’re going to send with me. You tell me, ‘I know you well and you are special to me.’ If I am so special to you, let me in on your plans. That way, I will continue being special to you. Don’t forget, this is your people, your responsibility.”
God said, “My presence will go with you. I’ll see the journey to the end.”
Moses said, “If your presence doesn’t take the lead here, call this trip off right now. How else will it be known that you’re with me in this, with me and your people? Are you traveling with us or not? How else will we know that we’re special, I and your people, among all other people on this planet Earth?”
God said to Moses, “All right. Just as you say; this also I will do, for I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.[iv]
What is the unmistakable mark of belonging to God? His very presence with you. That’s where the sealing and indwelling Holy Spirit comes in. It also means, as God said to Moses, “I’ll see your journey to the end… I know you well and you are special to me. I know you by name.”
It is the same today as it was 3,500 years ago—not a relationship with a detached, remote, standoffish God, but with One who is invested, connected, and involved—a God who knows your name!
The divine gauntlet
Jesus Christ laid down a challenge to the religious know–it–all’s of his day. And it still rings true today:
Hearing that Jesus had silenced the Sadducees, the Pharisees got together. One of them, an expert in the law, tested him with this question: “Teacher, which is the greatest commandment in the Law?” Jesus replied: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.” This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.[v]
This pivotal exchange between Jesus and his fiercest critics came in the form of a challenge: “OK Jesus, since you’re so smart, boil it all down for us, summarize what you think the whole Bible has to say about what God requires of us!” They and the crowds who witnessed the scene were startled at Jesus’ succinct, brilliant, authoritative reply. His hecklers were silenced, and his piercing words have driven religious pretenders to cover their ears ever since.
You’re kidding, right?
As I read those words of Jesus and ponder their implications, my inner skeptic whines, “That’s easy for you to say Jesus, but what about the rest of us ordinary earthlings? How are we supposed to pull that off?”
Perhaps you might even dare to say, “Love God? I’m not even sure if there is a god. How am I supposed to love someone or something that I can’t even see?”
Or, a bit closer to home, “How do you expect me to love my neighbor? Your neighbor maybe, but not mine! You have no idea how much of a jerk my neighbor can be.”
Have you ever felt that way? When those words of Jesus sink in, do you feel like Wile E. Coyote, with his ears down, as the train comes barreling toward him? The Bible can seem like a collection of impossible demands and unreasonable standards, with no obvious payoff. No wonder it’s thought of by many as something for religious fanatics and monastic loners.
And then, to make matters worse, Jesus lifts the bar even higher with this: “And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”[vi]
You might be thinking, “Oh great, now all I have to do is be perfect! Here we go again. Impossible.”
Could we be missing something?
It is a sad fact that most people, churched or not, have the idea that the Christian life is something they need to live up to on their own and that there will be serious consequences if they fail to do so. They see it as a religious system of dos and don’ts, to which they are expected to conform—or else! Is it any wonder that so few dare to even try?
Yet, paradoxically, we learn that when Jesus walked the streets of Palestine, children, drunkards, prostitutes, and broken people flocked to him. No such crowds were spotted shadowing the Pharisees, the religious leaders of the time, who always seemed to view the “unwashed heathen” with particular disdain. In fact, Jesus was more in conflict with the religious establishment of his day than with any other group of people—including the all–powerful Roman occupiers. So, what accounts for the appeal of Jesus to the street people and for the hostility of the religious know–it–all’s?
To begin with, this was no concocted “Hollywood Jesus.” He wasn’t a six–foot–tall blond Caucasian, with freshly coifed flowing locks, speaking impeccable English in a slow, measured cadence for maximum persuasive effect. This was a working man from the backwoods of Galilee, with a country accent, calloused hands, and an unremarkable appearance. He would have been short by our standards, likely dark–haired and dark–skinned. The Old Testament prophet Isaiah wrote of him hundreds of years before he was born:
For he grew up before him like a tender shoot,
And like a root out of parched ground;
He has no stately form or majesty
That we should look upon him,
Nor appearance that we should be attracted to him.
He was despised and forsaken of men,
A man of sorrows and acquainted with grief;
And like one from whom men hide their face
He was despised, and we did not esteem him.[vii]
This was hardly the kind of résumé that you would expect for a first–round draft pick to quarterback a world–shaking spiritual movement. And yet the effects of that solitary life have been rippling down through the centuries ever since. Jesus never pulled any punches during his earthly ministry. If he were trying to attract people to his religious movement in modern times, he would be defying conventional wisdom. This was no feel–good preacher trying to fill auditoriums with customers who pay to be “blessed.”
Far from presenting himself as a dispenser of limitless blessings, he reminded people of the difficulty of the path he was calling them to. He explained that his cause would be violently opposed by dark spiritual forces, entrenched religious and political powers, and faced with innumerable individual prejudices. And, not least, it could very well cost them their lives. He was not trying to win a popularity contest.
It could not be said that Jesus was anyone’s buddy nor that he was easy to figure out, like you might expect, were he the simple carpenter from Nazareth that his detractors alleged. Quite the opposite. He confounded his harshest critics, terrified his closest associates, and exuded genius in every encounter. Far from being predictable, he shocked his friends and enemies with astonishing insights, brilliant observations, and breathtaking acts of healing and dominance over nature.
The effect that Jesus had on observers may well have been like the way people reacted to the genius Albert Einstein. An article in The Wall Street Journal recounted:
Once Albert Einstein was at a film premier with Charlie Chaplin, and the crowds went wild. Chaplin explained to Einstein what was going on: “They cheer me because they all understand me, and they cheer you because no one understands you.”[viii]
The comparison of Jesus Christ to a genius is not entirely misplaced. Another article in The Wall Street Journal, entitled “The Secret of Immigrant Genius,” observed:
Uprooted from the familiar, they [immigrants] see the world at an angle, and this fresh perspective enables them to surpass the merely talented. To paraphrase the philosopher Schopenhauer: Talent hits a target no one else can hit. Genius hits a target no one else can see.[ix]
If ever there was an immigrant, it was Jesus. The introductory chapter of the gospel of John instructs:
There was the true Light which, coming into the world, enlightens every man. He was in the world, and the world was made through Him, and the world did not know Him. He came to His own, and those who were His own did not receive Him.[x]
That sad commentary dogged the steps of Jesus all his life. Yet he stood head and shoulders above his religious contemporaries, because, as Schopenhauer stated, “Jesus was not just talented though he was, but he could see what no one else could see.” After all, Jesus came from heaven, he dwelled in eternity, he had been immersed in the kingdom of God’s wondrous glories. He was privy to scenes no humans had ever set eyes upon:
I saw Holy Jerusalem, new–created, descending resplendent out of Heaven, as ready for God as a bride for her husband. I heard a voice thunder from the Throne: “Look! Look! God has moved into the neighborhood, making his home with men and women! They’re his people, he’s their God. He’ll wipe every tear from their eyes. Death is gone for good—tears gone, crying gone, pain gone—all the first order of things gone.” The Enthroned continued, “Look! I’m making everything new. Write it all down—each word dependable and accurate.” Then he said, “It’s happened. I’m A to Z. I’m the Beginning, I’m the Conclusion. From Water–of–Life Well I give freely to the thirsty. Conquerors inherit all this. I’ll be God to them, they’ll be sons and daughters to me.”[xi]
One of the Seven Angels who had carried the bowls filled with the seven final disasters spoke to me: “Come here. I’ll show you the Bride, the Wife of the Lamb.” He took me away in the Spirit to an enormous, high mountain and showed me Holy Jerusalem descending out of Heaven from God, resplendent in the bright glory of God. The City shimmered like a precious gem, light–filled, pulsing light. She had a wall majestic and high with twelve gates. At each gate stood an Angel, and on the gates were inscribed the names of the Twelve Tribes of the sons of Israel: three gates on the east, three gates on the north, three gates on the south, three gates on the west. The wall was set on twelve foundations, the names of the Twelve Apostles of the Lamb inscribed on them.
The Angel speaking with me had a gold measuring stick to measure the City, its gates, and its wall. The City was laid out in a perfect square. He measured the City with the measuring stick: twelve thousand stadia, its length, width, and height all equal. Using the standard measure, the Angel measured the thickness of its wall: 144 cubits. The wall was jasper, the color of Glory, and the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. The foundations of the City walls were garnished with every precious gem imaginable: the first foundation jasper, the second sapphire, the third agate, the fourth emerald, the fifth onyx, the sixth carnelian, the seventh chrysolite, the eighth beryl, the ninth topaz, the tenth chrysoprase, the eleventh jacinth, the twelfth amethyst. The twelve gates were twelve pearls, each gate a single pearl.
The main street of the City was pure gold, translucent as glass. But there was no sign of a Temple, for the Lord God—the Sovereign–Strong—and the Lamb are the Temple. The City doesn’t need sun or moon for light. God’s Glory is its light, the Lamb its lamp! The nations will walk in its light and earth’s kings bring in their splendor. Its gates will never be shut by day, and there won’t be any night. They’ll bring the glory and honor of the nations into the City. Nothing dirty or defiled will get into the City, and no one who defiles or deceives. Only those whose names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life will get in.[xii]
The glory continues:
Then the Angel showed me Water–of–Life River, crystal bright. It flowed from the Throne of God and the Lamb, right down the middle of the street. The Tree of Life was planted on each side of the River, producing twelve kinds of fruit, a ripe fruit each month. The leaves of the Tree are for healing the nations. Never again will anything be cursed. The Throne of God and of the Lamb is at the center. His servants will offer God service—worshiping, they’ll look on his face, their foreheads mirroring God. Never again will there be any night. No one will need lamplight or sunlight. The shining of God, the Master, is all the light anyone needs. And they will rule with him age after age after age.[xiii]
Jesus was just passing through this world and knew he was on his way back to heaven and its glories. But no one who knew him, who took the time to listen to his words and peer into his eyes, could mistake his otherworldly perspective and his eternal optimism about the future. He’d been there—in the future that is—and he came back to invite us, anyone willing, to join him there.
This gentle rabbi from the sticks talked as much about hellfire and damnation as he did about heaven and happiness. But people never shrunk back from him. He spoke with authority and with great personal concern, unapologetically warning people of dangers ahead and, at the same time, pointing them to the only available safe haven—himself. He didn’t attract his hearers to a religion, an organization of men, much less to buildings and paraphernalia. He drew them to himself, and the people loved him for it. He calmly declared himself to be the ultimate starting point of authentic spiritual transformation, and he called anyone and everyone to follow him.
Somehow, the people knew that, in coming to Jesus, all the doing and conforming would take care of themselves. They trusted that his character, his words, and his actions were all the proof they would ever need.
A Brand–New Deal, a New Covenant
Nothing is quite as exciting as a treasure hunt, especially when it involves mysterious clues and hidden messages. Over the years, popular movies have held audiences on the edge of their seats, as heroes and villains frantically race to find “the holy grail.” The details vary, but there always seems to be a professor or white–coated scientist who alone is can connect the dots and find the treasure. Imagine, for a moment, that there has been a real–world treasure hunt going on since the dawn of time—one that leads directly to the secret of eternal life. I’m not talking about gold, riches, or anything material. Who among us isn’t fascinated by the notion of living forever, of never having to die, never going out of existence? Add to this the tantalizing notion of taking part in a grand adventure for a noble cause against formidable opposition. It’s the stuff of countless novels, movies, and plays.
But, as far as mysteries, secret codes, numerical keys, fascinating characters, UFOs, and alien creatures, nothing beats the Bible. And, most importantly, woven throughout its pages is the secret of eternal life, progressively revealed from cover to cover. But the dots need to be connected by the reader. The Bible’s true treasures, its deeper secrets, can only be discovered by true seekers who are willing to patiently follow its clues.
Who doesn’t love being let in on a mystery? Especially if the mystery has confounded the best minds in human history. This brings us to the point where Christianity parts company with all the other religions of the world. Here is how the Apostle Paul put it:
That is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has now been manifested to His saints, to whom God willed to make known what is the riches of the glory of this mystery among the Gentiles, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.[xiv]
The long–hidden mystery of eternal life was none other than the God of the universe taking up residence inside of every single believer in Jesus, “Christ in you.” Not only does this cohabitation characterize every true believer’s life in the world, but it is the means by which he imparts that promised eternal life in the first place.
God would not stop at just laying out the rules and expecting His followers to adhere to them—that would hardly be good news. No, he quite literally would come and live out the Christian life in them! An ancient prophecy in the Old Testament says:
I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.[xv]
Now that’s more like it.
Don’t be put off by the metaphysical intermingling talk. You stay you, but there is another dimension added to your character that slowly but surely works its way into your decisions, actions, and aspirations that are distinctly Christ–like. It isn’t so much that we bring God down into our lives as much as it is that God brings us up into His. The relationship is decidedly upward, and a whole new heavenly perspective begins to appear before our eyes.
Jesus viewed the intimacy of this human–divine relationship as a living, functioning organism. “I am the vine; you are the branches. If you remain in me and I in you, you will bear much fruit; apart from me you can do nothing.”[xvi]
That is, on your own, you can do nothing of eternal value. Self–effort has no place here. Either it comes from Christ dwelling within, or it carries no eternal weight—however well–intended and “religious” it may appear to be. This reduces the believer’s job to simply getting out of the way and letting God do His thing. After all, what does a branch need “to do,” besides simply be there and bear the fruit which is naturally produced by the vine?
Christianity’s basic value proposition
The unique proposition of Christianity is that any willing person can have a direct encounter with the living, resurrected, and ascended Jesus Christ in a personal, conscious, ongoing manner. No such promises are made by any other religious system. The founders of all other religions died and stayed dead. Jesus promised, “And lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age.”[xvii]
And best of all, Christ offers membership in an elite band of believers whose sole purpose is to join him in heaven and to bring glory to God for all eternity.
Our ultimate purpose
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they reveal knowledge.
They have no speech, they use no words;
no sound is heard from them.
Yet their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.[xviii]
This psalm refers to the heavenly bodies of our universe reflecting the glory of God for all on earth to see. Paul’s letter to the early believers in Corinth highlights another dimension to mankind’s original purpose, going all the way back to creation, as recorded in the book of Genesis:
For God, who said, “Light shall shine out of darkness,” is the One who has shone in our hearts to give the Light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ. But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.[xix]
The moon, while merely a lifeless rock, faithfully reflects the light of the sun to a benighted earth. Likewise, we get to take our proper place in God’s cosmic order by reflecting his glory back to himself, all the while shining the light of his presence to our fellow–men on earth. Now that’s a value proposition on a global scale.
None but the hungry heart
At any given time, the countless versions of man–made religions in the world share a common feature: the entire process of belonging, adhering, and maintaining is left up to you. The organization provides the system, and it’s up to you to follow it. Jesus would have none of that. He made rather a startling promise:
Believe me: I am in my Father and my Father is in me. If you can’t believe that, believe what you see—these works. The person who trusts me will not only do what I’m doing but even greater things, because I, on my way to the Father, am giving you the same work to do that I’ve been doing. You can count on it. From now on, whatever you request along the lines of who I am and what I am doing, I’ll do it. That’s how the Father will be seen for who he is in the Son. I mean it. Whatever you request in this way, I’ll do.[xx]
Notice where the intention, energy, and power lies in this unequivocal declaration. It’s not about you and me at all. It begins and ends with God. Someone has said that man–made religions are always saying, “Do, do, do,” but the Christian message is, “Done, done, done.” Done by the power of the implanted Holy Spirit. Here is Christ’s own invitation, which still stands today:
On the final and climactic day of the Feast, Jesus took his stand. He cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. Rivers of living water will brim and spill out of the depths of anyone who believes in me this way, just as the Scripture says.” (He said this in regard to the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were about to receive. The Spirit had not yet been given because Jesus had not yet been glorified.)[xxi]
The single qualification is that you come thirsty.
Jesus once said:
A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path; it was trampled on, and the birds ate it up. Some fell on rocky ground, and when it came up, the plants withered because they had no moisture. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up with it and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil. It came up and yielded a crop, a hundred times more than was sown.
When he said this, he called out, “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear,”[xxii] which implies that we have a pivotal part to play in the process. This parable involves a farmer sowing seed (the seed being the truth of God). But, evidently, only a few people ever open their hearts up and allow God’s secrets to penetrate their carefully constructed defenses. The truth goes right over the heads of those who are not seriously seeking it in the first place.
Making sense of your life
The Bible reveals a person who, at last, makes sense of life, death, and the hereafter. This is not a detached, sterile set of principles or rules to live by. This is a flesh–and–blood personal revelation of a divinely winsome Lover, who grabs us by the heart and sweeps us into his arms. Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him.”[xxiii]
He meant it.
The Bible promises us eternal life, strength to face life’s challenges, peace and joy here, and unimaginable bliss in the hereafter. It boldly states that God exists, God has spoken, and the Bible is his message system. And, most importantly, God assures us that we are not powerless flotsam set loose like a bobbing cork on a boiling sea. We have been created for a divine purpose and are encouraged to tap into the most potent force ever invested in a created being—to exercise our personal free will and choose for or against our Creator’s plans for us. C.S. Lewis wrote:
It is a serious thing to live in a society of possible gods and goddesses, to remember that the dullest most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you say it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare. All day long we are, in some degree helping each other to one or the other of these destinations. It is in the light of these overwhelming possibilities, it is with the awe and the circumspection proper to them, that we should conduct all of our dealings with one another, all friendships, all loves, all play, all politics. There are no ordinary people. You have never talked to a mere mortal. Nations, cultures, arts, civilizations—these are mortal, and their life is to ours as the life of a gnat. But it is immortals whom we joke with, work with, marry, snub, and exploit—immortal horrors or everlasting splendors.[xxiv]
We are much more in charge of our destiny than we ever imagined. In our power to choose and, specifically, in our power to choose what to believe about ourselves, we act in a way most like God. As he breathed his very life into that first handful of dust in Genesis, he endowed this highest and most noble of creatures with a fearful, terrible power—the ability to forge our own destiny.
Every child of Adam and Eve is the product of his or her own decisions, the most momentous of which is, who will be my god? Do I choose to live my life conscious of his presence or to live it out as though he does not exist?
It is in that singular choice that our destiny and life purpose are cast.
Socrates instructed that “the unexamined life is not worth living for man.” We arrive at defining moments in our lives, preceded by piercing self–examination, and, in that moment, decide that we are either hapless victims of unknown forces or children of destiny. Two thousand years ago, Jesus Christ unapologetically called to men everywhere to, in effect, write their own life story by embarking on a road less traveled, when he instructed,
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it.[xxv]
A higher calling
Sadly, our westernized strain of Christianity often is infected with the mistaken impression that God is our butler. A sense that we can just pull him into our lives when we need something or when things are falling apart. This “Chap Stick Jesus” approach assumes that God is just waiting around until we develop a sore spot somewhere and then he magically appears to make it all better. Nothing could be further from the truth. When Jesus was raising up a group of followers at the beginning of his public ministry, he was unusually blunt in his approach:
As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” At once they left their nets and followed him. When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.[xxvi]
Note the direction of the invitation. Jesus was not saying, “Hey guys, mind if I join you?” This was a big paradigm shift. He was inviting them upward into his program—not volunteering to go downward into theirs. This was no prosperity gospel, no appeal for blessings, health, and riches. The call was upward, on Jesus’ terms, which included laying down their own nets and “taking my yoke upon you…” They were about to enter the spiritual “Twilight Zone,” filled with a dizzying mix of unknowns, rejection, danger, excitement, terror, and conflict, all pregnant with eternal meaning. Jesus was about to turn the then–known world upside down and was inviting this motley crew of laborers to join him. They would never be the same again.
Have you ever wondered what would have happened to these ordinary men had they not responded as they did to Jesus’ call to join his extraordinary adventure? They would have died in obscurity, never heard from again. Instead, for example, the humble fisherman, Peter, has the spectacular St. Peter’s Basilica named after him, which, in the words of one historic expert, is no small accomplishment:
Located within the Vatican City, the Papal Basilica of Saint Peter, commonly known as Saint Peter’s Basilica, is the greatest of all the churches of Christendom and the centerpiece of the Vatican, which contains the government for the Roman Catholic Church… After Jesus’s death, the apostle Peter found his way to Rome where he started to establish the foundations for the Christian Church. Peter was crucified head down and buried in Rome during the time of Nero who blamed the Christians for the Great Fire of Rome in AD 68. For many years the Christians were persecuted until the Emperor Constantine was converted to Christianity and reversed that persecution. It was Constantine who constructed the first Basilica in the year 326 over the spot where Peter was believed to have been crucified and buried.[xxvii]
In addition to the original twelve apostles, most of the additional “seventy disciples” of Jesus have been commemorated in similar fashion throughout Europe and the ancient Middle East. Millions visit these sites each year, still influenced by the ringing testimonies of these great men’s lives and their heroic deaths.
As Admiral William Halsey put it, “There are no extraordinary men…just extraordinary circumstances that ordinary men are forced to deal with.”
In a tantalizing portion of scripture, we are told how God miraculously transforms ordinary people, like his first followers, into beacons of light to the world:
Remember, our Message is not about ourselves; we’re proclaiming Jesus Christ, the Master. All we are is messengers, errand runners from Jesus for you. It started when God said, “Light up the darkness!” and our lives filled up with light as we saw and understood God in the face of Christ, all bright and beautiful.
If you only look at us, you might well miss the brightness. We carry this precious Message around in the unadorned clay pots of our ordinary lives. That’s to prevent anyone from confusing God’s incomparable power with us. As it is, there’s not much chance of that. You know for yourselves that we’re not much to look at. We’ve been surrounded and battered by troubles, but we’re not demoralized; we’re not sure what to do, but we know that God knows what to do; we’ve been spiritually terrorized, but God hasn’t left our side; we’ve been thrown down, but we haven’t broken. What they did to Jesus, they do to us—trial and torture, mockery and murder; what Jesus did among them, he does in us—he lives! Our lives are at constant risk for Jesus’ sake, which makes Jesus’ life all the more evident in us.[xxviii]
Something to look forward to
For most sentient people, the idea of death is terrifying, if for no other reason than they have no idea what lies on the “other side,” if anything at all. Although we’ve all heard about “near–death” experiences and even about people claiming to have gone to heaven, the accounts seem so anecdotal, so infrequent and isolated, that we often dismiss them as the products of someone’s imagination.
The Apostle Paul [formerly known as Saul of Tarsus] was not given to fanciful imaginings or flighty conjecture. He was a highly placed Jewish Pharisee and biblical scholar before he dramatically converted to Christianity, resulting in his being hunted as a fugitive for the rest of his life. In the latter part of his ministry as a Christian evangelist to the Gentiles, he wrote touchingly, even longingly, about what lies ahead for all believers as they face the end of their earthly journeys:
For instance, we know that when these bodies of ours are taken down like tents and folded away, they will be replaced by resurrection bodies in heaven—God–made, not handmade—and we’ll never have to relocate our “tents” again. Sometimes we can hardly wait to move—and so we cry out in frustration. Compared to what’s coming, living conditions around here seem like a stopover in an unfurnished shack, and we’re tired of it! We’ve been given a glimpse of the real thing, our true home, our resurrection bodies! The Spirit of God whets our appetite by giving us a taste of what’s ahead. He puts a little of heaven in our hearts so that we’ll never settle for less.
That’s why we live with such good cheer. You won’t see us drooping our heads or dragging our feet! Cramped conditions here don’t get us down. They only remind us of the spacious living conditions ahead. It’s what we trust in but don’t yet see that keeps us going. Do you suppose a few ruts in the road or rocks in the path are going to stop us? When the time comes, we’ll be plenty ready to exchange exile for homecoming.[xxix]
Dr. Custance built on Paul’s thoughts and surmised what it might be like to die as a Christian believer. Hang on to your hat for this one!
When any Christian dies, he passes from this realm of time and space into another realm of pure spirit, that is to say, out of time as we experience it into a state of timelessness, the ever–present of God. As he makes this passage, every event in God’s scheduled program for the future which, as revealed in Scripture must come to pass before the Lord’s return, must crowd instantly upon him. He does not “wait” for the Lord’s return: it is immediate. But the Lord’s return is an event which, in the framework of historical time, cannot take place until the church is complete and the end of the age has come. It must happen for him, therefore, that these events are completed instantaneously, though the living who survive him await these events in the future.
Yet, for him, those who survive him must in his consciousness also have completed their journey home, and therefore he will not even experience any departing from them, but they with him rise to meet the Lord on His way for His second triumph with all other saints. Within the framework of time, this general resurrection is future, but to the “dying” Christian, it is a present event. This is the meaning of the Lord’s words “The hour is coming—and now is.” (John 5:25). There is no difference between “is coming” and “now is.”
The thief on the cross said, “Lord, remember me when Thou comest into Thy Kingdom.” The Lord who knew that His kingdom was not to come yet, historically speaking, also knew that the man who spoke would “die” that day and in his experience would that very day be with Him in His kingdom (Luke 23:43)! We have put the word die above in quotation marks: he did not die! While each man dies in so far as his contemporaries are concerned, they therefore need the assurance of resurrection that he may live again. But in his experience he passes at once to meet the returning Lord without any conscious interval and therefore without any conscious dying. “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live,” said the Lord, speaking to the living who remain to mourn the lost one; but “he that liveth and believeth in me shall never die,” says the same Lord to the saint who is about to depart (John 11:25–26).
As each child of God passes into glory, he therefore experiences no death nor the slightest pause in consciousness, nor even any sense of departure from the loved ones who remain. For him, the time that must elapse until they too “follow” is completely absent. They depart with him. Is it any wonder that men can die joyfully in the Lord and show no sadness in “leaving their loved ones behind”?
Now, this can be carried a little further. The experience of each saint is shared by all other saints, by those who have preceded and those who are to follow. For them all, all history, all intervening time between death and the Lord’s return, is suddenly annihilated so that each one finds to his amazement that Adam, too, is just dying and joining him on his way to meet the Lord: and Abraham and David, Isaiah and the Beloved John, Paul and Augustine, Hudson Taylor and you and I, all in one wonderful experience meeting the Lord in a single instant together, without precedence and without the slightest consciousness of delay, none being late and none too early.[xxx]
Now that’s a party! One of the great attractions of the Christian life is that it’s not centered upon us after all, though we benefit immeasurably from its influence. We get to join a party that’s been going on since forever and all we must do is show up. And even better, it’s about God in us, a very different and far more interesting reality. Or, we can ignore all that and put “our eggs” in the fleeting “basket” of our earthly lives…
Earthly Life is Uncertain. Big time.
what ship plays with icebergs
and plays soft music as it sinks into the ocean?
… yes, a ship of fools
but there are fools and
those who only appear to be
Simon Jenkins, 1977
Ship of fools[xxxi]
On that clear, cold, starlit night in April 1912, the mighty behemoth steamed proudly onward at 22 knots through the darkness, its captain confident that he could win at a game of chicken with an armada of floating icebergs. In the first–class decks, the pampered nobility slipped their pedicured feet between starched and ironed sheets, and pulled their downy quilts under their chins, slipping into peaceful slumber, secure in the belief that they were in the best of hands.
Hours later, a strange, barely detectable shudder reverberated through the ship’s massive structure, awakening a few of the lighter sleepers, who sensed that something had gone terribly wrong. As they peered sleepily out of their portholes, a surreal vista assaulted their rapidly awakening senses. Instead of the expected inky–black night sky, a brightly moonlit wall of white and blue ice towered over their ship, like an angry leviathan.
The elite captain’s luck had just run out, as the colossal iceberg slashed a fatal gash in the hull below the waterline, yet most passengers aboard remained oblivious to the rapidly unfolding reality that they were doomed. The designer of the fabled Titanic happened to be on board for this maiden voyage and, to his dismay, calculated that the ship had but a few hours to stay afloat.
Filled to the limit with the rich and famous, including American and European royalty, along with industrial tycoons, plus a host of ill–fated peasants in steerage, the resulting horrific loss of life stunned the world. How could this “unsinkable” ship, the pinnacle of modern marine technology, fail to avoid such a fate, and, after having failed, how could it be unable to save only a handful of passengers? How could the highly trained crew, utilizing state–of–the–art navigation, plow straight into an ice field, despite a steady stream of wireless warnings of danger ahead?
Compounding the tragedy, the Titanic carried just twenty lifeboats, only enough to accommodate 33 percent of passengers and crew. Even then, as the great ship sank to the bottom of the sea, most of the lifeboats were only partially full, leaving 472 unused spaces. There was plenty of time for more to abandon ship, but most stayed aboard despite rapidly unfolding evidence that she was going down. As one observer said, “It is believed that this low number was due to passengers being reluctant to leave the ship, as initially they did not consider themselves to be in imminent danger.”
And the band played on
Remarkably, even as the great ship listed severely and was taking on water, the band played on. Here is how Senan Molony, in his book Killing Them Softly, described it:
The strains of classical music early in proceedings conveyed the message that everything was as near normal as could be. Every wafting note spoke sweetly that the emergency was not what is was—an emergency—but instead a temporary inconvenience. The playing of the band ran directly counter to the entreaties of officers and crew that women and children should enter the boats.
Classical music in particular has a comforting, relaxing effect—which is why it is increasingly to be heard in dentists’ and doctors’ waiting rooms. But it also creates a mood of conviviality, of unity, of optimism. Conviviality meant staying with the crowd; optimism meant safety in numbers; unity meant preferring the majority. Those brave souls who opted to enter tiny lifeboats were defying the prevailing mood, a mood encouraged by the fact that music was playing at all. They were swimming against the tide, but their conscious and independent choices would save their swimming later.
How foolish it was to play music! How sad that it helped to encourage jibes at those who did enter the boats—“You’ll miss breakfast!” “You’ll need a pass to get back in the morning!” “We’ll see you in New York”—such that those who risked entering them also risked being ridiculed later. “How innocent you were, my dear. Danger, indeed! Why, we had a lovely time here all night, listening to the orchestra.”
Ultimately, the popular bet isn’t always the safest bet:
The risk was in staying, not in going, yet it was made psychologically more difficult for passengers to enter an early lifeboat by a shipping line that compounded reckless navigation with grotesquely misplaced complacency and pride—even after their surpassing vanity had been devastatingly punctured.[xxxii]
We’ve all been born on a sinking ship
Throughout his ministry, Jesus Christ reminded his followers that life consists of more than meets the eye and that our time on earth is very brief. He warned that the world we know is fatally flawed and is scheduled for demolition. He cautioned us not to be taken by surprise by this but to look forward to a time when he will return to establish his kingdom which will never end. He put it this way:
Now learn this lesson from the fig tree: As soon as its twigs get tender and its leaves come out, you know that summer is near. Even so, when you see all these things, you know that it is near, right at the door. Truly I tell you, this generation will certainly not pass away until all these things have happened. Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.
But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.[xxxiii]
The “days of Noah” were times of willful ignorance which were followed by a catastrophic worldwide judgment that ended all human life, except for a tiny remnant with which God repopulated the earth.
In his book Earth’s Earliest Ages,[xxxiv] G. H. Pember showed how conditions in those days bear a striking resemblance to conditions in our more modern times:
- Worship of a god who is neither personal nor caring—the god of the theist or deist. This “god” is more of a “thing” than a personal being who possesses the characteristics of personality namely, intellect, will, and emotion.
- An “undue prominence of the female sex,” “a change in the relation of the sexes,” along with a “disregard for the primal law of marriage.” Today, gay rights, women’s rights, abortion rights dominate the headlines, divide whole societies, and are charged with extraordinary emotion.
- An explosion of “creature comforts”—luxury, automation, entertainment, all of which greatly mitigate the curse in the Garden of Eden. With possessions comes the soul–deadening desire for more, coupled with a boastfulness about what one already has.
- A steady, corrosive movement to join the nominal Church with the world’s culture, virtually obliterating any distinction between the two. This is also marked by grand buildings, ornate ceremonies, and outlandish wealth, while still proclaiming allegiance to a founder who died a penniless criminal.
- A vast increase in the population of the world. The population of the world in the antediluvian days of Noah was likely in the range of five million, the numbers had skyrocketed from a handful of tribal families in a relatively short (geologically speaking) time–period. Likewise, the population of the “modern” world has increased geometrically from about three hundred million at the time of Christ to upwards of 7.3 billion in 2015. It is noteworthy that we did not cross the one billion mark until the year 1800.[xxxv]
- A hardening of men’s hearts to the pleadings of God through his word and his ministers to repent and turn toward God before it is too late.
- An increase in occult practices which intermingle human and angelic spirits. This is particularly prevalent in today’s New Age movement.
Pember concluded, of these two ages:
These causes [listed above] concurred to envelop the world in a sensuous mist which no ray of truth could penetrate. They brought about a total forgetfulness of God and disregard of his will; and thus, by removing the Great Center who alone is able to attract men from themselves, rendered the dwellers upon earth so selfish and unscrupulous that the world was presently filled with lewdness, injustice, oppression, and bloodshed.
Do these conditions sound at all familiar? It’s like reading today’s newspaper headlines or listening in on many college philosophy or social science classes. Don’t you think it’s time to check the bilges of this creaky old ship and to start thinking about alternative transportation?
But don’t be surprised if you find yourself leaving a lot of friends and relatives behind. It’s sobering that “those brave souls who opted to enter tiny lifeboats were defying the prevailing mood, they were swimming against the tide, but their conscious and independent choices would save their swimming later.”
The cosmic war for your mind
There are known knowns; there are things we know we know.
We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say, we know there are some things we do not know.
But there are also unknown unknowns—the ones we don’t know we don’t know.
—Former US Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld
In the field of modern military conflict, electronic counter measures (ECM) are routinely employed to jam the command and control systems of opposing forces, rendering them effectively useless. Suppose there were similar techniques being employed, in the spiritual realm, right under our noses?
In his book The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction, Matthew Crawford observed,
From mall Muzak to text messages, pop–ups and robocalls, there is no shortage of claims on our attention…we have become ‘isolated in a fog of choices,’ many of them unwelcome.”
He added, rather ominously, “We are afflicted by a cultural crisis of attention imperiling not only our mental health but also our ability to function as responsible citizens in a democracy.”
He said, “It’s hard to open a newspaper or magazine these days, without reading a complaint about our fractured mental lives, diminished attention spans, and a widespread sense of distraction.”
Ultimately, he warned, “Our interior mental lives are laid bare as a resource to be harvested by others.”[xxxvi]
In his satirical novel, The Screwtape Letters, C. S. Lewis wrote of the fictional demon “Screwtape,” who is training his novice nephew “Wormwood” in the fine art of tempting humans. “Whatever their bodies do affects their souls. It is funny how mortals always picture us as putting things into their minds: in reality our best work is done by keeping things out.”
The most effective technique for squeezing good knowledge out of one’s mind is to consume its “bandwidth” with so many distractions that nothing else can get in. Those distractions don’t need to be particularly bad (or good for that matter), just compelling enough to hold the subject’s attention. Screwtape put it this way:
Nothing is very strong: strong enough to steal away a man’s best years not in sweet sins but in a dreary flickering of the mind over it knows not what and knows not why, in the gratification of curiosities so feeble that the man is only half aware of them, in drumming of fingers and kicking of heels, in whistling tunes that he does not like, or in the long, dim labyrinth of reveries that have not even lust or ambition to give them a relish, but which, once chance association has started them, the creature is too weak and fuddled to shake off.
Addressing this grave and subtle peril two thousand years ago, the Apostle Paul wrote to a fledgling group of believers embedded in the decadent and corrupt culture in the Greek metropolis of Corinth, with these words of warning:
The world is unprincipled. It’s dog–eat–dog out there! The world doesn’t fight fair. But we don’t live or fight our battles that way—never have and never will. The tools of our trade aren’t for marketing or manipulation, but they are for demolishing that entire massively corrupt culture. We use our powerful God–tools for smashing warped philosophies, tearing down barriers erected against the truth of God, fitting every loose thought and emotion and impulse into the structure of life shaped by Christ. Our tools are ready at hand for clearing the ground of every obstruction and building lives of obedience into maturity.[xxxvii]
There is a furious, ongoing Satanic assault aimed at the target–rich spiritual lives of distracted and preoccupied modern men and women for control of their minds. The weapons employed are ideas, values, and principles that wreak as much devastation inwardly as bombs and bullets do outwardly.
The postmodern worldview has clouded our mental perspective very much like when airplane pilots fall prey to whiteout—a weather condition that causes disorientation and low visibility due to snow, overcast clouds, and fog. The pilot loses sight of the horizon because of the snow–covered terrain against the backdrop of a similarly colored sky. In the same way, in the field of ideas, philosophies, and beliefs, it is possible to lose sight of absolutes, truths, and fixed principles.
As John Stonestreet wrote, in an article entitled “Ideas Have Consequences, How Postmodernism Changes the Rules”:[xxxviii]
Postmoderns deny that there is any overarching story, or metanarrative, to the world. Therefore, we all come from a perspective, or bias, that is shaped by the culture, or the “little stories,” we inhabit. As American theologian Kevin Vanhoozer states, “Postmoderns are so preoccupied with the situated self that they cannot get beyond it.”[xxxix] Because of this “situatedness,” no one can claim objectivity for his or her views.
In the postmodern worldview, everything is contingent; nothing is fixed. There are several implications of confronting reality this way. This leads to at least two rather disorienting effects:
First, reality is ultimately unknowable. Our “situatedness” prevents us from directly accessing the real world or having true knowledge about it.
Second, truth and knowledge are constructions of language. They reflect the perspective of the one who is claiming, but should not be confused as a statement of fact about actual reality—there is no absolute truth; there are only “truths.”
Is reality negotiable?
As of 2015, countries in the West are well into their third generation of young people who have been immersed in the postmodern worldview through their schools and culture. In less than fifty years, the shift in popular views have been unmistakable in at least five ways:
- We have redefined God into either a mythical remnant of ages past or an impersonal “higher power,” “force,” or “thing” that is distant and unknowable.
- We have redefined mankind, as Randy Alcorn pointed out, into a:
Descendant of a tiny cell of primordial protoplasm washed up on an empty beach three and a half billion years ago. You are the blind and arbitrary product of time, chance, and natural forces. You are a mere grab bag of atomic particles, a conglomeration of genetic substance. You exist on a tiny planet in a minute solar system in an empty corner of a meaningless universe. You are a purely biological entity, different only in degree but not in kind from a microbe, virus, or amoeba. You have no essence beyond your body, and at death you will cease to exist entirely. In short you came from nothing and are going nowhere.[xl]
- We have redefined truth as something we make up as we go along, to serve the purposes of society at any given time. Truth is, therefore, relative and changeable—at least in the postmodern worldview.
- We have redefined evil into no more than the result of social conditioning—rather than a “thing” itself. Therefore, what we call “evil” is presented as the result of bad socialization and as something curable through reeducation and psychological therapy.
- We have redefined salvation and the hereafter as achieving an earthly utopia, where man is sovereign and secular humanism is our savior.
Where these ideas can take us
For that, look no further than a 2013 article by Dr. Keith Ablow, a psychiatrist and member of the Fox News Medical Team, entitled, “Are we raising a generation of deluded narcissists?”[xli] He highlighted the reality–distorting effects of Twitter, Facebook, computer games, and “helicopter” parents that tend to give children the impression that they are the center of the known universe. This carefully inbred narcissism gives trophies to losing athletes and good grades to mediocre students, and it makes bad behavior, like Internet–bullying, acceptable if everyone else is doing it. No wonder so many of these children are on tranquilizers, stimulants, and other legal or illegal mind–numbing potions.
Reviewing the book Lives of the Selfie–Centered, by Nancy Jo Sales, Virginia Heffernan of the Wall Street Journal wrote,
What do teenagers use their phones for? Bonding, backbiting, bullying—and texting naked pictures…
“Social media is destroying our lives,” a 16–year–old girl in an L.A. shopping mall tells Ms. Sales. But then the girl’s friend shoots back: Without social media, “we would have no life.”
“Every girl wishes she could get three hundred likes on her pictures,” says Teresa, a 17–year–old in Livingston, N.J. “Because that means you’re the girl everybody wants” [xlii]
As these children grow into adolescence and look outward for adult inspiration, they encounter dysfunctional government and public institutions bent on their own perpetuation, unscrupulous business leaders skirting the law, an unfairly rigged stock market energized by “the greater fool” principle, and a society that “wants it all, and wants it now.”
Alas, the bubble of unsustainable self–aggrandizement is bound to burst and the resulting feeling of emptiness and unworthiness all too often leads to depression, suicide, and even homicide. While today anecdotal examples of this abound, an outright epidemic appears to be on its way as these relativistic departures from truth and absolutes become ever more prevalent. The “chickens are coming home to roost” and they threaten to eat us all out of house and home.
And although individuals are affected at all levels by the cultural and moral tsunami engulfing our country and our world, so are the institutions of government. Consider a commentary by Anne Graham Lotz, daughter of evangelist Billy Graham, during an interview on the Early Show with Jane Clayson, just days after the horrific events of September 11, 2001:
Jane Clayson: I’ve heard people say, those who are religious, those who are not, if God is good, how could God let this happen? To that, you say?
Anne Graham Lotz: I say God is also angry when he sees something like this. I would say also for several years now Americans in a sense have shaken their fist at God and said, God, we want you out of our schools, our government, our business, we want you out of our marketplace. And God, who is a gentleman, has just quietly backed out of our national and political life, our public life. Removing his hand of blessing and protection. We need to turn to God first of all and say, God, we’re sorry we have treated you this way and we invite you now to come into our national life. We put our trust in you. We have our trust in God on our coins, we need to practice it.[xliii]
Salman Rushdie observed, “One of the extraordinary things about human events is that the unthinkable becomes thinkable.” Look no further than how a “civilized, advanced, enlightened” culture, in the short span of forty–two years, has come to accept the notion of state–sponsored, tax–supported killing of human beings and then selling the parts by the ounce. How is it that decent people quietly stand down and turn a blind eye to these atrocities but get up and march in the streets over the threatened endangerment of a spotted owl?
So, have these ideas just bubbled up spontaneously within the heart of the average modern man, or is there a more sinister, sweeping, and pervasive plan unfolding that is being systematically orchestrated from outside the human sphere altogether?
Where these ideas come from
In his book, Streams of Confusion: Thirteen Great Ideas That Are Contaminating Our Thought and Culture, Brad Scott, a professor of English, humanities, and communication, traces the roots of modern ethical relativism back to thirteen influential thinkers and shows how their philosophies and ideologies have led to our modern moral chaos. “What if,” he posited, “most of our modern philosophical and literary authorities aren’t heroes but villains, not benefactors of humanity but destroyers of civilization?”
Armed with that question, Scott examined the key ideas of Hobbes, Hume, Rousseau, Mill, Darwin, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, Russell, Sartre, Skinner, and Huxley, as well as a group of contemporary theologians, to see how they have influenced the modern mind. The result is a jeremiad rooted in the history of ideas that focuses on “trickle–down ideonomics”—the effect of these philosophers on how modern people think about their lives and values. The brooks formed from their flawed ideas merge together to form “the mighty river of ethical relativism.”[xliv]
These become streams of confusion and ultimately turn into roaring waters that drown out the voice of truth and overtake the world. Over time, these ideologies have not only changed the western world but also have taken on the status of unquestioned assumptions.
Do you doubt the power of ideas? Go all the way back to the beginning. Dallas Willard once observed, “When the Devil approached Eve in the Garden of Eden, he didn’t hit her with a stick, but with an idea.” The Devil’s ghastly notion was sown in the fertile mind of Eve that God’s intentions were not good toward her and that she had better protect herself by learning all she can about good and evil. After she brought Adam on board with that whopper of a lie, the actions followed in lockstep. That’s all it took to redirect the course of human history, and it’s been that way ever since.
When the Hitlers, Marxes, and Pol Pots of the world embark on a campaign to control a country, their first targets are the thought leaders who might stand in their way. Isaiah Berlin warned, “The first people totalitarians destroy or silence are men of ideas and free minds.” Joseph Stalin made no secret of his beliefs in this regard when he said, “Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas.” Is it any wonder then that the Devil’s great workroom throughout history has been academia, youth culture, politics, and government, where the leverage is strongest to manipulate and shape the minds of the idealistic and naïve? This war of ideas has been going on for a long time—all the way back to the Garden of Eden.
Everything depends on your perspective
Jumping from the “grotesquely misplaced complacency and pride” of Titanic’s creators, fast forward to 1969, following the most spectacular scientific quest in human history:
In press reports from January 10, 1969, Frank Borman, an Apollo 8 astronaut, exclaimed:
I think the one overwhelming emotion that we had was when we saw the earth rising in the distance over the lunar landscape. …It makes us realize that we all do exist on one small globe. For from 230,000 miles away it really is a small planet. …It was hard to think that that little thing held so many problems, so many frustrations. Raging nationalistic interests, famines, wars, pestilence don’t show from that distance.
Jim Lovell, Apollo 8 and 13 astronaut, in his interview for the 2007 movie, In the Shadow of the Moon, added,
We learned a lot about the Moon, but what we really learned was about the Earth. The fact that just from the distance of the Moon you can put your thumb up and you can hide the Earth behind your thumb. Everything that you’ve ever known, your loved ones, your business, the problems of the Earth itself—all behind your thumb. And how insignificant we really all are, but then how fortunate we are to have this body and to be able to enjoy loving here amongst the beauty of the Earth itself.
And Neil Armstrong, the first astronaut to walk on the moon, said:
It suddenly struck me that that tiny pea, pretty and blue, was the Earth. I put up my thumb and shut one eye, and my thumb blotted out the planet Earth. I didn’t feel like a giant. I felt very, very small.
Carl Sagan, author of Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space (1994), summed it up this way:
Look again at that dot. That’s here, that’s home, that’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was, lived out their lives. The aggregate of our joy and suffering, thousands of confident religions, ideologies and economic doctrines, every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization, every king and peasant, every young couple in love, every mother and father, hopeful child, inventor and explorer, every teacher of morals, every corrupt politician, every “superstar,” every “supreme leader,” every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there—on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.
What they believed, from childhood, to be “terra firma” was hanging by a thread attached to absolutely nothing. Those astronauts were treated to a rare glimpse of our “third rock from the sun” and came away profoundly changed. Is it possible that, if we got a similar view of our lives—from God’s perspective—we might be similarly moved to reconsider our place in the universe?
So what? What difference can a broader perspective make for people just trying to survive in a dog–eat–dog world? Could it be that one of the many unique properties of human beings versus the animals is that, over time, we gain insights from our surroundings that literally have the power to drive more positive behaviors toward one another? A fascinating study by UC Irvine supports this notion:
Inducing a sense of awe in people can promote altruistic, helpful and positive social behavior, by feeling diminished in the presence of something greater than oneself. It is this reduced sense of self that sways focus away from an individual’s need and toward the greater good.
When experiencing awe, you may not, egocentrically speaking, feel like you’re at the center of the world anymore. By shifting attention toward larger entities and diminishing the emphasis on the individual self, we reasoned, awe would trigger tendencies to engage in pro–social behaviors that may be costly for you but that benefit and help others.
Across all these different elicitors of awe, we found the same sort of effects—people felt smaller and less self–important, and they behaved in a more pro–social fashion. Might awe cause people to become more invested in the greater good, giving more to charity, volunteering to help others, or doing more to lessen their impact on the environment? Our research would suggest that the answer is yes.
A passage in Psalm 90 brings it home:
We live for seventy years or so
(with luck we might make it to eighty),
And what do we have to show for it? Trouble.
Toil and trouble and a marker in the graveyard.
Oh! Teach us to live well!
Teach us to live wisely and well![xlv]
NOTES: Chapter 2. There’s A Party Going On!
[i] Custance, Arthur C. “Time and eternity: studies in the consistency of scripture with itself and the assured findings of research.” 2nd Ed. 2015. Edited by E.M. White, R.G. Chiang. Vol. VI: The Doorway Papers. Doorway Publications, Canada. Pt. I, CH. 4. p.27–32.
[ii] Phillips, John. “Climbing the Heights.” Exploring the Scriptures. Chicago: Moody, 1981. N. pag. Print.
[iii] Romans 8:9 New International Version (NIV)
[iv] Exodus 33:12–17 The Message (MSG)
[v] Matthew 22:34–40 NIV
[vi] Matthew 5:47–48 NIV
[vii] Isaiah 53:1–3 New American Standard Bible (NASB)
[viii] The Wall Street Journal, “The Life of the Mind”, May 9, 2015, p. C5.
[x] John 1:9–11 NASB
[xi] Revelation 21:2–8 MSG
[xii] Revelation 21:9–27 MSG
[xiii] Revelation 22:1–5 MSG
[xiv] Colossians 1:26–27 NASB
[xv] Ezekiel 36:26–27 NIV
[xvi] John 15:5 NIV
[xvii] Matthew 28:20 NASB
[xviii] Psalm 19:1–4 NIV
[xix] 2 Corinthians 4:6–7 NASB
[xx] John 14:11–14 MSG
[xxi] John 7:37–39 MSG
[xxii] Luke 8:5–8 NIV
[xxiii] John 14:6–7 NIV
[xxiv] Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001. Print.
[xxv] Matthew 7:13–14 NIV
[xxvi] Mark 1:16–20 NIV
[xxvii] “Famous Historic Buildings & Archaeological Site in Italy – Rome, Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon.” Famous Historic Buildings & Archaeological Sites in Italy – Rome, Colosseum, Forum, Pantheon. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 May 2015.
[xxviii] 2 Corinthians 4:7–12 MSG
[xxix] 2 Corinthians 5:1–8 MSG
[xxx] “Time and Eternity (Vol.6) – Pt.I, CH. 4.” Time and Eternity (Vol. 6) – Pt.I, CH.4. N.p., n.d. Web. 20 Oct. 2015.
[xxxi] The ship of fools is an allegory that has long been a fixture in Western literature and art. The allegory depicts a vessel populated by human inhabitants who are deranged, frivolous, or oblivious passengers aboard a ship without a pilot, seemingly ignorant of their own direction. This concept makes up the framework of the 15th–century book Ship of Fools (1494) by Sebastian Brant, which served as the inspiration for Hieronymus Bosch’s famous painting, Ship of Fools (c. 1490–1500), in which a ship—an entire fleet at first—sets off from Basel to the paradise of fools.
[xxxii] Titanic’s Band: Killing Them Softly by Senan Molony, http://www.encyclopedia–titanica.org/
[xxxiii] Matthew 24:32–39 New International Version (NIV)
[xxxiv] Pember, George H. Earth’s Earliest Ages. S.l.: Defender Pub Llc, 2013. Print.
[xxxv] “How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth?” How Many People Have Ever Lived on Earth? N.p., n.d. Web. 29 Apr. 2015.
[xxxvi] Crawford, Matthew B. The World beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual in an Age of Distraction. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
[xxxvii] 2 Corinthians 10:4–6 The Message (MSG)
[xxxviii] “Resources: Truth and Consequences – Ideas Have Consequences – Summit Ministries.” Resources: Truth and Consequences – Ideas Have Consequences – Summit Ministries. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Nov. 2015.
[xxxix] Kevin Vanhoozer, “Pilgrim’s Digress: Christian Thinking on and about the Post/Modern Way” in Penner, Christianity and the Postmodern Turn: Six Views, 76.
[xl] D’Souza, Dinesh. “Survival of the Sacred: Why Religion Is Winning.” What’s so Great about Christianity. Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Pub., 2007. N. pag. Print.
[xli] Ablow, Dr. Keith. “We Are Raising a Generation of Deluded Narcissists | Fox News.” Fox News. FOX News Network, 08 Jan. 2013. Web. 19 June 2015.
[xlii] “Lives of the Selfie–Centered.” WSJ. N.p., n.d. Web. 24 Feb. 2016.
[xliii] http://web.archive.org/web/20010913185312/http://www.cbsnews.com/earlyshow/healthwatch/healthnews/ 20010913terror_spiritual.shtml
[xliv] “Religion Book Review: Streams of Confusion: Thirteen Great Ideas That Are Contaminating Our Thought and Culture by Brad Scott, Author Crossway Books.” PublishersWeekly.com. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Aug. 2015.
[xlv] Psalm 90:9–12 MSG
Chapter 3. Man’s “Cinderella Syndrome”