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Purpose of Angels-Aliens

This is the post excerpt.

It is truly astonishing how many strange things have happened on planet Earth. As I say in God Made the Aliens:

“The universe we inhabit is full of mystery, and there are many questions for which we will probably never have satisfying answers. More incredible things have happened on our own tiny planet than we will ever know about, much less be able to fully comprehend.”

This site involves all of those things we struggle to comprehend. From what happens at death, to biblical giants, to evidence for God, and most things in between, I cover it all. The goal is truth: plain and simple.

Will you join me in following the truth, wherever it may lead?

What Day is the Sabbath?

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Not far from where I live, there is a well-known car dealership that does something unusual by industry standards: they close every Sunday. On most of their radio commercials, they finish with a catchy tag line that says, “Closed Sundays, ‘cause it’s the right thing to do!” While they don’t directly say it, the obvious implication is that they are a Christian-run company that thinks it best to give their employees that day off every week. While most of us are aware of certain other companies that follow suit on this practice (like Chick Fil A and Hobby Lobby), this illustrates something very important. Though the “resting” part of things has mostly gone by the wayside, worshipping on Sunday is as much a Christian tradition as anything we could imagine; it is most definitely the norm.

For nearly two millennia, believers have been meeting to worship the Lord on what has been deemed by most as a sacred day. Sunday is believed to be the day that Jesus rose from the dead, and so it represents something of a “Christian Sabbath” for the church. But notice that I said for nearly two millennia, and that it has been deemed to be a sacred day. The truth of the matter is that many of the earliest Christians did not worship on the first day of the week, and those who established that Sunday should be the new Sabbath arrived on the scene after Christ and the apostles.

While those statements may appear to be provocative, it is much less controversial to say that Jesus and the apostles kept the Jewish Sabbath—the seventh day—and not Sunday. Of course they kept such a custom; they were all Jews! We are told that Jesus’ routine was to worship on the Sabbath (Lk. 4:16). Acts tells us that Paul also did so, with one purpose being to reveal Christ to his fellow Jews (17:2). Acts further reveals that others in the Christian community were meeting on the Sabbath, with Luke, Paul, Silas and Timothy joining them on at least one occasion: “And on the Sabbath day we went outside the gate to a riverside, where we were supposing that there would be a place of prayer; and we sat down and began speaking to the women who had assembled” (Acts 16:13).

We do not have a biblical record of the other apostles doing so after Christ had departed, but they most certainly did during his ministry. There is no biblical basis for believing that they traded in the seventh day for the first, so it stands to reason they continued to meet on the Jewish Sabbath.

Not only is the Bible devoid of any suggestion that the apostles regularly worshipped on Sunday—even after the resurrection of their Rabbi and Lord—it also lacks any indication that Gentiles (non-Jews) were expected to do so. That’s right: there is not a single verse of Scripture stating that the Sabbath had become obsolete, that it had been replaced, or that Sunday should be recognized as an official—much less the official—day of worship.

To be sure, there are examples that some point to in order to prove otherwise. Jesus’ statement that “the Sabbath was made for man, and not man for the Sabbath” is just such a verse (Mk. 2:27). However, this has nothing to do with eliminating the Sabbath. Rather, it was about keeping it the right way. Many of the Pharisees of that time had turned the Sabbath into a day of misery. This included adding numerous restrictions that were never commanded by God.[1] Jesus’ response was an affirmation that the Sabbath was made as a day of rest rather than a day involving more work than the others!

1 Corinthians 16:2 is also referenced as proof that Sunday worship had replaced the Sabbath. This was a command to personally set aside items (“put by himself,” literally) for the overall church collection. It says nothing about passing around a tithe dish—or anything of the sort—nor does it suggest that everyone would even be assembled together for worship.

Finally, Revelation 1:10 is occasionally mentioned, because it talks about being “in the Spirit” on the “Lord’s day.” Though some would later come to refer to the “Lord’s Day” as the first day of the week, there is no indication that the author intended this. The expression is not used elsewhere in the NT but is virtually paralleled in the OT. There, however, it refers not to Sunday but to the Sabbath (Is. 58:13). Still others look at the “Lord’s day” of Revelation 1:10 and see a reference to the time of the Lord’s visitation and judgment, which is elsewhere called the “day of the Lord” (Jl. 1:15, for example). Whatever the case, it is simply unclear what was really intended in this verse.

This is obviously a small selection of passages to choose from. Even if any of them provided evidence that Sunday had replaced the Sabbath, we would not have a lot to go on. This would leave us with an odd phenomenon, to say the least. The Sabbath was the most holy day of the week for the Jewish people for hundreds of years. They were prohibited from both working and making others work, and from carrying on with “business as usual” every time it rolled around each week. From sunset Friday evening to sunset Saturday evening—neither of these names for the days of the week existed at that time, mind you—the Jewish people turned off their normal lives and dedicated their every action to God. At least, that was the command.

With this in mind, it seems almost incomprehensible that the Sabbath would be altered in some way without Jesus and the apostles making it abundantly clear. After all, the Son of God was no doubt involved in giving the Israelites the commandments long before becoming incarnate in the man Jesus. He knew, above everyone else, how important the Sabbath was in the Jewish faith.

Before moving on to other matters, one more thing should be mentioned. Though it is celebrated that Jesus rose from the dead on Sunday morning, that is not entirely correct. Though the Gospels are clear that the tomb was empty when his followers arrived near daybreak on the first day of the week (Lk. 24:1-3), the reality is that Jesus rose before that. In fact—and according to how we reckon time—he could have risen at almost any point between sundown Saturday and first light on Sunday. The Jewish Sabbath would have ended near dark on Saturday, so Jesus would have rested in the tomb for parts of the three required days described in Scripture (Mt. 12:40). Biblical scholar, Ben Witherington III, explained the problem with pressing a literal three-day period (24 hours each) into this issue:

“The problem with this sort of modern reasoning is that it assumes the Gospel writers intended always to write with precision on this matter. In fact the phrase ‘after three days’ in the New Testament can simply mean ‘after a while’ or ‘after a few days’ without any clear specificity beyond suggesting several days, in this case parts of three days, would be involved.”[2]

With all this in mind, it may be more historically accurate to say that Jesus conquered death on Saturday night. For obvious reasons, I don’t see many churches holding late night services! While this is not likely to change anyone’s opinion on the matter one way or the other, it is certainly worth bearing in mind.

If there is no command within the NT that eliminated the Sabbath—much less a command to transfer it to Sunday—when and how did this change take place? The first part is easier to answer, though neither are simple issues. The short answer to when the Sabbath stopped being kept and was officially “replaced” by Sunday worship is that the Roman Emperor Constantine decreed the change. On March 7th, 321 A.D., “Constantine the Great” made a proclamation that made Sunday the official Roman day of rest.[3] As both the Emperor of Rome and the great patron of the Roman “Catholic” Church, this had a profound impact on the Christians living in Rome.

The change had several significant implications. It meant that merchants would not be permitted to trade, that most administrative establishments would have to close, and that farmers alone were permitted to work (in recognition that certain farm activities were impossible to set aside).[4] Since Sunday—which was then connected to the Sun God, Sol Invictus—had already been a day of celebration and thanks within Rome, it seemed like a natural fit to replace the Jewish day of rest.[5] With the tremendous power wielded by the Roman Empire, this legal decree came to dominate much of the Christian world. In fact, it has persisted within the Roman Catholic Church, the Eastern Orthodox Church, and most Protestant denominations ever since.

However, it is not quite that simple. Many will assert that the practice of keeping Sunday sacred was, by that time, a longstanding tradition. Of course, if that were indeed the case, why did Constantine need to make the decree to begin with? You don’t make an imperial decree for something that is already the standard practice. However, it is true that Christians in certain areas had adopted this belief well before that time. The second century apologist, Justin Martyr, once referenced this custom:

“And on the day called Sunday, all who live in cities or in the country gather together to one place, and the memoirs of the apostles or the writings of the prophets are read, as long as time permits . . . Sunday is the day on which we all hold our common assembly, because it is the first day on which God, having wrought a change in the darkness and matter, made the world; and Jesus Christ our Saviour on the same day rose from the dead.”[6]

There were many other Christian voices from the first few centuries of the church who left similar records, Tertullian and Ignatius being a couple prominent figures. However, we also know that believers in other areas of the world continued to keep the Sabbath, because those in Rome and Alexandria found it strange that others were still following what they believed to be a Jewish custom.[7] In fact, we have an extensive record showing that large numbers of Christians outside of Rome continued to observe the Sabbath until sometime in the 5th century.[8]

Further still, we also know that some Christians—as early as the first century—had ceased worshipping on the Sabbath out of necessity. In a sense, Christians had been forced out of various synagogues because of their obvious differences in beliefs. Specifically, Christians were often unwelcome because they did not adhere to the laws given under the old covenant, but their acceptance of Christ as Messiah was certainly a major problem as well. This predicament was no doubt part of why the Council of Laodicea (364 A.D.) much later equated Sabbath keeping with “Judaizing,” or unnecessarily abiding by Jewish customs:

“Christians shall not Judaize and be idle on Saturday (Sabbath), but shall work on that Day: but the Lord’s Day, they shall especially honour; and as being Christians, shall, if possible, do no work on that day. If however, they are found Judaizing, they shall be shut out from Christ.”[9]

While smaller groups may have begun worshipping on Sunday towards the end of the first century, the practice was by no stretch ubiquitous within the church. Early on, Christians ceased official worship on the Sabbath but did not cease to recognize the day altogether.

Now, the question of how this change became official and gained overwhelming popularity within the church is an entirely different matter. It certainly did involve both the expulsion of Christians from the synagogues and Constantine’s decree. However, something much larger was at work. With Constantine converting (debatably) to Christianity and the faith eventually becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, history would be forever changed. In short, the Roman Empire controlled most of the known world and came to be the dominant influence in Christian thinking.

Some of the most influential councils in church history—like the First Councils of Nicea and Constantinople—occurred under Roman supervision. Naturally, the most prominent theologians of the area were present at these councils and were Roman citizens. Doctrine was confirmed, and even the Bible itself was ratified—or “canonized”—into its official form during these councils. Clearly, not everything that occurred during that time was corrupt or counter to the teachings of Jesus and the apostles; many important things were accomplished during this time, and God certainly worked through the Roman emperors and their underlings in a variety of ways.

Of course, so might have Satan. It was also during this time that the very writings they officially canonized were often turned on their heads and warped into something nearly unrecognizable.[10] The point is, we could easily take one of two positions—both of which could even be false—on the matter. The first would be to believe that God worked things out so that Sunday came to replace the Jewish Sabbath out of reverence for Christ’s life, death, and resurrection. The second would be to view Sunday as a counterfeit: an unauthorized change that had its crooked origins in the earliest times of church history.

Whichever view you are prone to adopt, a case can be made in both directions.

So, what does this mean for those of us living in the 21st century? Should we keep the Sabbath, like Jesus and the apostles? Should we hold Sunday to be sacred, as many Christians began to do after the time recorded in the NT? I would like to offer a few thoughts on these questions. The first will deeply bother some readers but is true with regards to the what Bible tells us. The Sabbath was never abolished by any command given by Jesus, the apostles, or anyone else with the authority to do so. As prototypical Jewish believers, these figures worshipped on the Sabbath and almost certainly kept the day holy in every necessary way. None of them abandoned the fourth commandment or began worshipping on Sunday, and they certainly didn’t tell anyone else to do so.

As far as the Bible is concerned, the Sabbath never resigned or passed the baton to Sunday. 

That must mean that we should still be worshipping on the seventh day, and ceasing our labor between Friday evening and Saturday evening, right? There was a time that I would have said yes to both parts. In fact, I tried to persuade others of the necessity of doing so. However, further study and personal experience led me away from this practice. Just as it had for many of the Jews living at (or before) Jesus’ time, attempting to keep the Sabbath “holy” became an onerous burden for me. I missed work, missed events with friends and family, and had essentially refined myself to house arrest between Friday evening and Saturday evening. I could not work, make others work, or enjoy the usual pleasures of a normal day; this would have made the Sabbath mundane and ordinary, if not even profane.

Many have experienced these difficulties, and some find it impossible to get this time off from their jobs on a weekly basis. By the end of my Sabbath keeping days, I came to anxiously await its departure each week. This was precisely the opposite of what it was supposed to be about. Try as I might, I could never live up to my perceived expectations for the Sabbath. More importantly, I could never keep the day holy in the biblical sense.

But that leads to a significant point. In truth, it was the lack of a single NT command to observe the seventh day that reinforced my decision. While the Sabbath was not abrogated by Christ or the apostles, there is something equally important to realize: the Sabbath was never given to the Gentile converts as a required observance. Going back to the formal institution of the Sabbath, it was often mentioned that the practice was specifically given to Israel: “The Israelites are to observe the Sabbath, celebrating it for the generations to come as a lasting covenant. It will be a sign between me and the Israelites forever . . .” (Ex. 31:16).

This is crucial information, particularly when we fast-forward to the era described within the NT. For the most part, the Gentiles—those who were not ethnically or religiously Jewish—of the day knew very little about Jewish laws and customs. Jewish law and the expectations of the old covenant were extremely complex realities, particularly for those who lived outside of that community. When the apostles (especially Paul) tried to relay the significance of Christ’s coming to the Gentiles, they took great pains not to overload them with Jewish verbiage or unfamiliar concepts. This is clearly demonstrated by the decision of the first church council. After much debate, James (Jesus’ half-brother) addressed the group with a verdict:

“Therefore it is my judgment that we do not trouble those who are turning to God from among the Gentiles, but that we write to them that they abstain from things contaminated by idols and from fornication and from what is strangled and from blood. For Moses from ancient generations has in every city those who preach him, since he is read in the synagogues every Sabbath” (15:19-21).

No, this is not the only set of commands that Gentile Christians were (or are) expected to keep. However, this shows the delicate situation that James and the apostles—who were steeped in Jewish customs—found themselves in. It would have been incredibly easy to suffocate new believers with a yoke that they could never have carried (15:10). It is interesting to note that James even mentioned the Sabbath in his verdict, but not as one of the commands given to the Gentiles.

There are two other passages of Scripture that speak directly to this point. The first is Romans 14, and it addresses the friction that existed between Jewish Christians and Gentile converts. The debate between these two groups concerning the Mosaic Law–an immense number of laws given to Israel through Moses–was both fierce and divisive [11]. Among the matters that came up was whether Christians need to keep “special days,” such as the festival days (which were also called “sabbaths”). Paul addressed the friction, giving the believers in Rome this message: “One person regards one day above another, another regards every day alike. Each person must be fully convinced in his own mind” (14:5). Once more, Witherington succinctly summarized how the weekly Sabbath was involved:

“Paul does not specifically mention sabbaths here, but presumably this is because he wants to include the notion of any and all special days, including festival days and the Day of Atonement as well as sabbaths (cf. Gal 4.10; Col. 2.16).”[12]

As I will discuss momentarily, the Gentile Christians would almost certainly have understood these instructions as including the weekly Sabbath. The matter of observing special days also came up in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which dealt with an abundance of theological problems (collectively called the “Colossian Heresy”). Apparently, one of these heresies involved the belief that Christians must abide by certain philosophical principles, including holding certain days as sacred. Paul cleared this issue up, saying:

“Therefore no one is to act as your judge in regard to food or drink or in respect to a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day—these things which are a mere shadow of what is to come; but the substance belongs to Christ” (2:16-17).

Just as he had told the believers in Rome, Paul strongly discouraged the Colossians against being intimidated into observing certain days or regarding those who do as being superior.

Some have posited that in saying “Sabbath day” Paul was talking about the yearly festivals—like the day of Pentecost or the Feast of Tabernacles—and not the weekly day of worship. That seems rather unlikely, mainly because Paul specifically mentioned festivals as a separate issue. Moreover, this interpretation implies that the Gentile Christians clearly understood the difference: that they would have automatically perceived that Paul was talking about the festivals and not the seventh day of each week. Almost as a matter of certainty, most of the Gentiles would not have possessed that kind of knowledge about the OT or the Mosaic Law.

Instead, the word “Sabbath”—being used in any capacity—would most naturally have been understood as the weekly day of worship. This hits on the vital part of what is said in both Romans 14 and Colossians 2. In discussing the entire matter of festivals, Sabbath days, and the importance of special days in general, Paul never once delineated between the weekly Sabbath and any other day. He never told them to make sure they still worshipped and rested on the seventh day of each week, even though he did tell them not to worry about regarding other days as sacred.

By not making a clear distinction, the Gentile Christians almost certainly would have lumped the weekly Sabbath into the mix.

At best, Paul was giving them no reason to think otherwise. It is highly unlikely that Paul would have acted so lax about the matter if he still wanted them to observe the weekly Sabbath. Personally, I find it to be unthinkable that he would have done so.

From what we can glean from the NT, the Gentiles were never instructed to keep the Sabbath as a mandatory practice. It simply cannot be responsibly deduced from what we are given in Scripture.

This just leaves one important question: if Christians are not required to observe the Sabbath, should we be worshipping on Sunday? Clearly, I have already shown that Sunday worship is nowhere commanded in Scripture. Though it is not required, neither is it wrong to do so. I realize some would disagree with that,[13] but no day of the week—including either Saturday or Sunday—was explicitly given as a necessary religious observance under the new covenant. It is good that we meet on a consistent basis (Acts 2:46), and Sunday is a natural fit for many within our various societies.

With that being said—and please keep this in mind—no one should feel especially pious because they “kept Sunday sacred” or look down upon others for not doing so. Sunday is not sacred within the Bible, and I do not believe that God will take issue with those who did not celebrate it as such. Likewise, those who continue to keep the Sabbath should not look down on those who do not. Worship is pleasing to God whenever, wherever, and by whomever, it comes. While this at least provides my personal view on the matter, it is up to each of us to make our own decisions. Here, we can take Paul’s instructions to the believers in Rome that each person needs to resolve this for themselves (14:5).

Whatever you decide, just be sure to follow another of Paul’s commands: “Therefore let us not judge one another anymore, but rather determine this—not to put an obstacle or a stumbling block in a brother’s way” (14:13).

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon:

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

Footnotes:

[1] For a couple examples, no one was permitted to walk more than about 3,000 feet (⅝ of a mile) from their home (Acts 1:12) or even heal someone in desperate need (Lk. 13:10-17).

[2] See Witherington’s article, “It’s About Time—Easter Time.”

[3] See Schaff’s, History of the Christian Church (Volume), 380.

[4] See the article, “Constantine Decrees ‘Sun-Day’ as Day of Rest.”

[5] Ibid.

[6] See “1 Apol. LXVII in Ante-Nicene Fathers: The Apostolic Fathers with Justin Martyr and Irenaeus.”

[7] “The people of Constantinople, and almost everywhere, assemble together on the Sabbath, as well as on the first day of the week, which custom is never observed at Rome or at Alexandria.” Sozomen, Ecclesiastical History, Book 7 (ch. 19). This source also adds that cities and towns in Egypt were meeting on Sabbath evenings.

[8] I refer you to two sources on this: Socrates, “Ecclesiastical History,” (Book 7, chap.19) and Lyman Coleman’s, “Ancient Christianity Exemplified,” (ch. 26, sec. 2, p. 527).

[9] See Charles Joseph Hefele’s, A History of the Church Councils from 326 to 429: Volume 2, 316.

[10] In my book Spiritual Things, I discuss many areas where standard Christian teachings radically differ from what the Bible says on those issues. See pages 84-90 especially. These issues include what happens at death, the embodiment of heavenly beings, and others.

[11] The belief that Jesus was indeed the Jewish Messiah was obviously extremely divisive. However, the role that the Mosaic Law should play in believer’s lives was perhaps even more difficult to reconcile. These two factors were the primary reasons why Christians were expelled from the synagogues, but were not the only reasons.

[12] Ben Witherington III, Paul’s Letter to the Romans, 336.

[13] The Seventh-Day Adventists, with whom I am very well acquainted, believe that Sunday worship and the eradication of the Sabbath are both of satanic origin. I do sympathize with this perspective, if nothing else because Sunday was not instituted by God but by man. However, I differ on the ramifications of observing Sunday. To some within the denomination, Sunday worship is even considered to be the “mark of the beast” that will condemn individuals at the end times.

Is Everything “God’s Will?”

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One of the most popular sayings of our time is that “everything happens for a reason.” If you think about it, this is a rather general statement. In a sense, everything does happen for a reason. Leaves change colors because their chlorophyll is broken down and transferred into the tree. Tsunamis occur because of strong and sudden motions on the ocean floor. Animals hibernate to help them survive cold weather periods when food is certain to be scarce. These are a few of the countless examples that could be mentioned.

Of course, this is not what people mean when they say, “everything happens for a reason.” What they mean is that some type of force is guiding worldly activities in order to produce a specified outcome. For the mystics among us, this may just be the universe itself or some type of nebulous “cosmic power” within it. On the other hand, those who believe in a type of personal deity (like Yahweh) call this force “God.” It is the latter group—those who believe in God—that I am concerned with here.

Believers often advance beyond thinking there is some type of rhyme and reason to earthly activities and go to the extent of thinking that God causes nearly all of life’s events to happen. Whether we are dealing with a joyous occasion or the most horrific of tragedies, everything is “God’s will.”

Most of us can offer anecdotal examples of this line of thinking. It is extremely common to hear couples say, “it was God’s will that we found each other.” Some believe God made them lose items (like their keys), so that the lapse of time would cause them to get to the supermarket later. There, they saw an old friend or had a timely encounter with a new one. The same could be said on the negative side, where it is easily more harmful. People commonly attribute natural disasters and viral pandemics to divine ordination. I have even known individuals who lost a child to cancer or other diseases and were “reassured” that it was all part of God’s master plan.

These examples are not intended to suggest that God cannot cause things to happen in our lives, or that events should never be understood as “God’s will.” Instead, these examples illustrate an overall mindset: an approach to how we view the various events of life. Some have so overwhelmingly accepted the idea that God, in His sovereignty, is so “in control” that every detail of life must be seen through this lens. This means that God is responsible for both the good and the bad.

In fact, sometimes the bad—like the tragic examples previously mentioned—are flipped upside down and viewed as positive outcomes. And “every good and perfect gift is from above,” right ?[1]

Like any other belief, there must be some type of basis for it. But what?

There are many parts of Scripture that, if distorted, can cause us to believe that God makes everything happen. However, there are some that are especially prevalent. One of the most used—and improperly applied—passages in the OT is Jeremiah 29:11, and it speaks to this very issue. The text reads as follows: “For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.” Many interpret this to mean that, no matter how bad things get, God has a greater plan in store for each of us. In a sense, everything can be seen as being part of this greater plan. God will ensure that we come out of the darkness, that we leave the pain and sorrow behind us, and that we come into a better life.

God always has a better life in store for us. This is exciting news!

As good as that sounds, there is a clear problem to contend with. As the NIV (and others) titles this chapter, this was a “Letter to the Exiles.” Again, to the exiles. This message concerned the Jewish people who would be taken captive by the Babylonians in the 6th century B.C., after their lands had been pillaged. God was assuring His people that Babylon would not be the end of their story. One day they would return to the Promised Land, rebuild the temple and their society, and continue with the purpose for which they were called (Jer. 33:7).

This is what Jeremiah 29:11—and the surrounding parts of the book—is all about.

God is not using this part of Scripture to tell you and me that He has some grand and glorious set of plans for our earthly lives. More importantly, this is not revealing that our good fortune is set in stone or impossible to alter. It amazes me how quick we are to apply Jeremiah 29:11 to our lives, while so many other passages would never be used in such a way (like 44:11)![2]

Having a “hope and a future” certainly sounds better than meeting “disaster,” but personal preference doesn’t determine the meaning of Scripture. The words of the Bible do not change for anyone, regardless of time, place or emotional state.

Please don’t misunderstand me: this verse is just as important as any other in the Bible. It helps to reveal God’s character and His intentions with the Jewish people at that time, as well as adding valuable history about the greater salvation narrative of Scripture. However—and most emphatically—this verse is not about us, and it should not be taken that way. This applies to much of what read in the OT, especially the Historical Books and the Prophets.

If anything, the OT clearly reveals that much of what happens in life is not God’s will. From the Fall of Man, to the Flood, to the Tower of Babel, to the corrupt period of judges and kings, to the exile, to the many decisions made by God’s people (like David having Uriah killed), and so much more, it is clear that not everything is strictly determined.

God’s ultimate plans for our corporate world will not be thwarted, but individuals can certainly make a mess of things along the way.

If there were a NT equivalent of Jeremiah 29:11, it would probably be Romans 8:28: “And we know that God causes all things to work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose.” That is how the text literally reads in most of our translations.

Now, let’s consider what many of us hear when we read it: “God makes every event in my life happen, because it will serve a greater good.”

This is one interpretation, but it simply isn’t an accurate one. Scholars have noted for centuries that a key part of the text may best be translated as “God co-operates for good in all things.[3] This would represent a profound difference in how we understand the text. On the first interpretation, every event that ever happens in our lives must have some divine purpose. On the second view, every event—whether good or bad—can still be an opportunity for God’s activity in our lives. Without question, I believe the second option makes the most sense of things.

It isn’t that God planned someone’s cancer: it’s that He used a negative to build their character. It’s not that God caused the sudden death of a loved one: it’s that He somehow helped to bring about a new relationship through it. It isn’t that God caused someone to become a drug addict: it’s that He worked through them to show others that recovery is possible.

This is the difference between making God the author of evil and affirming that He is—only and always—the solution to evil.

Romans 8:28 is telling us that, even in bad situations, God can still be working some degree of good in it. A perfect biblical example is recorded earlier in Romans. Paul says, “. . . we also exult in our tribulations, knowing that tribulation brings about perseverance; and perseverance, proven character; and proven character, hope” (5:3-4). A true believer can even see the value in suffering, though it is often difficult to do so in the moment. Through suffering, God can help produce in us a better faith and a stronger character. This does not occur because God wills our misery, but because we live in a corrupt and fallen world where the forces of evil fight against us (1 Pet. 5:8).

It should also be noted that the good is not necessarily intended to “balance out” the bad. For example, forming a relationship with an estranged child through someone’s death does not replace that person or make it “worth happening.” God co-operates with us to make the best of situations.

This is a good place to pull in some of Jesus’ central teachings on the matter. In my estimation, one of his most powerful parables is found in Matthew 13:24-30. The Parable of the “Tares/Weeds among the Wheat” reveals the way the world really works and how to understand God’s general involvement in it.

The premise of the tale is that a landowner plants good grain in a field, and “an enemy” comes at night and sows bad seed in it. The field of course begins to grow both good and bad crops. Alarmed, the workers run to the landowner to see how best to handle things. Their idea is to gather the weeds and separate them from the wheat. The landowner’s response to this suggestion is perhaps the most important aspect of the story:

“No; for while you are gathering up the tares, you may uproot the wheat with them. Allow both to grow together until the harvest; and in the time of the harvest I will say to the reapers, ‘First gather up the tares and bind them in bundles to burn them up; but gather the wheat into my barn” (Mt. 13:29-30).

Later, Jesus actually interpreted this parable for his bewildered disciples (Mt. 13:36-43). Jesus revealed that he is the landowner, the evil one (Satan) is the enemy, the weeds are the children of Satan, the wheat are the sons of the kingdom, the reapers are the angels, and the field is the world we live in.

This tells us something very important: God is currently allowing the wicked and the righteous to live together, and He is not meting out justice here and now. Instead, justice will finally be done when Jesus returns. In some way, the lives of the righteous and the wicked are bound together and must not be separated here and now. Among the possible explanations is that separating the two now would destroy human freedom. This would condemn those who might later come to repentance and destroy the growth of those who already have.

For the sake of the current discussion, the “landowner’s” verdict means that a great deal of what happens in our world is not “God’s will.” There are plenty of adversarial powers, wicked people, and heinous deeds being done around the globe every day. Sometimes, the “weeds” negatively affect the “wheat.” Though God will ultimately reconcile these issues, we should not typically expect it to occur in this lifetime.

Instead of that, God will determine a precise time to “stop the play,” so to speak.

There is an often-overlooked passage of Scripture that connects to the idea behind this parable, and it is recorded in Luke 13:1-5. There, Jesus addressed two distinct events. The first concerns a horrible massacre that had transpired sometime before that. Pontius Pilate—the Roman governor of Judea at the time—had apparently ordered the slaughter of certain Galileans while they were offering their own sacrifices (13:1). Here was Jesus’ reaction to this event:

“Do you suppose that these Galileans were greater sinners than all other Galileans because they suffered this fate? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (13:2-3).

Ouch! Maybe Jesus will provide a gentler response the next time? The second example concerns another dreadful event, but this one had been more of a natural catastrophe. This time, the “tower in Siloam” had fallen,[4] crushing eighteen people who were working on it (13:4). This is how Jesus addressed the issue:

“. . . do you suppose that those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them were worse culprits than all the men who live in Jerusalem? I tell you, no, but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish” (13:4-5).

Another crushing retort! Jesus wasn’t one to parse words.

People of that day tended to believe that those who suffered did so deservingly: that they sinned and “had it coming.” In response to the man who was born blind—who, as it were, was told to wash in the Pool of Siloam—the disciples inquired: “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he would be born blind?” (Jn. 9:2). In truth, this idea went back centuries and is particularly obvious in the book of Job.[5]

Unfortunately, it is still alive and well today. It is common for people to believe that those going through times of trial must have done something to bring it on themselves. Jesus was quick to point out that this is not necessarily the case. We do not know if the people who died in the events described in Luke 13:1-5 were horribly ungodly or the greatest of saints, but we do know that neither outcome was “God’s will.”

God did not desire Pilate to have the Galileans slaughtered or for the tower to crush those eighteen unfortunate souls.

Events like these should cause us to evaluate our own lives, particularly if we fall into the trap of believing that only the unrighteous suffer. The bigger point, however, is that neither righteous nor sinful living strictly determines our earthly fates. Sometimes, bad things happen to good people and vice-versa. Ecclesiastes 8:14 notes this reality plainly: “There is something else meaningless that occurs on earth: the righteous who get what the wicked deserve, and the wicked who get what the righteous deserve. This too, I say, is meaningless.”

There is a lot more that could be said, but it is time move this post toward a conclusion. When viewed from the perspective faith, everything does happen “for a reason.” It’s just that the reason is often one that does not reflect God’s intentions for our lives. Sometimes the reason is that we live in a fallen world and have broken bodies. Sometimes it’s that evil beings—whether mortal or angelic—are doing evil things. Sometimes things happen not by anyone’s intent at all, but because of oversight or accident.

As Scripture makes clear from front to back, God is not playing the role of puppet master. If God were doing so, I would suggest that our world might look very different. This is certainly true of the biblical narrative, as we would expect to see only good things happening to the faithful and only bad things happening to the unrepentant. The Bible would not tell the story of human brokenness and divine redemption but would only reveal a world of perfect order.

The final thing worth addressing is that we are dealing in generalities: with how God (and our world) works most of the time but not all of it. Certainly, God can (and sometimes does, I think) “will” that things happen. It is even possible to perceive some of these events as “bad” things, such as God’s destruction of humanity through the Flood and Israel’s many defeats. This view, however, has it completely backwards. Those events were never intended to happen; God did not initially “will” destruction to occur but He could not overlook human sinfulness, either.

In this, we see that the issue is not simply black and white. However, Scripture has certainly revealed how things tend to operate. Our world is a fallen and broken mess, where both the “weeds” and the “wheat” are growing together, and God is typically not stepping in to disturb this arrangement. Even still, God is co-operating with those who love Him to bring out some good in even the worst situations.

To view everything—from the joyous events to the incredibly tragic ones—as God’s will is to misunderstand Scripture. This not only fails to fully account for human sinfulness, it also blames God for the work of Satan and warps our very understanding of God’s goodness.

For the faithful, these realities must never be compromised.

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon:

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

Footnotes

[1] This comes from James 1:17. Contrary to affirming that God is making evil things happen for “our good,” this verse is intended to distance God from evil. Before that, he stated: “For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does He tempt anyone” (1:13).

[2] “Therefore this is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: I am determined to bring disaster on you and to destroy all Judah.”

[3] Vatican and Alexandrian manuscripts, as well as many interpreters in history, note this point. See the Expositor’s Greek Testament on Romans 8:28, for one example.

[4] The Pool of Siloam was believed to be a sacred place by the Jewish people of the day. They would draw water from this pool and take it into the temple during the Feast of Booths, and Jesus even sent a blind man there to wash and be healed (Jn. 9:1-7).

[5] Job’s three miserable “comforters” (a sarcastic title) emphasized this idea repeatedly. Even though the book described Job as an almost unimaginably righteous man, they were certain that he had warranted his demise (22:4-11). To Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar, things always worked this way. As Eliphaz said, “Consider now: Who, being innocent, has ever perished? Where were the upright ever destroyed” (4:7)?

Angels and Men

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There are so many fascinating things about angels. God’s first-created beings truly are powerful and mysterious. They show up throughout Scripture in order to deliver vital messages, perform miracles and save humans in moments of distress. At times, even the ways they choose to appear are shocking. Most of us are at least vaguely aware of these realities, but there is something peculiar about angels that is rarely discussed: they are a whole lot like us.

When I say, “a whole lot like us,” I mean there is a closeness that is difficult to comprehend. To illustrate this point, let’s evaluate a few examples from Scripture.

During the Ascension—when Jesus disappeared into the heavens for the last time—two angels visited those who had witnessed the event. Luke described the fascinating things that transpired:

And as they were gazing intently into the sky while He was going, behold, two men in white clothing stood beside them. They also said, ‘Men of Galilee, why do you stand looking into the sky? This Jesus, who has been taken up from you into heaven, will come in just the same way as you have watched Him go into heaven’ ” (Acts 1:10-11).

Did you notice what the text literally says: that two men stood beside them? Why does it say “men” if we are supposed to be dealing with angels? That’s definitely a bit strange . . .

What’s stranger is that this happens frequently in the Bible. Let’s journey backwards in time to the situation concerning Lot and the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. Before the chaos ensued, God sent two beings to warn Lot and his family. Genesis introduces Lot’s prophetic visitors very clearly as heavenly messengers: “Now the two angels came to Sodom in the evening as Lot was sitting in the gate of Sodom” (19:1).

Later on, they are again referred to as angels (19:15). We can also be sure these were not ordinary people because of Lot’s reaction to their arrival: “When Lot saw them, he rose to meet them and bowed down with his face to the ground. And he said, ‘Now behold, my lords, please turn aside into your servant’s house’ . . .” (19:1-2 ). If there should be any remaining doubts that these were indeed beings of a higher power, the text records that they miraculously blinded the men from Sodom, after they had tried to break into the house (19:11).

I don’t know of any human beings who could have accomplished this. These were angels!

As you may have expected, there is more going on here. The same account describes Lot’s two friends just a bit differently: once again as “men.” In fact, this occurs in three different ways:

1) The group from Sodom called them “men” (19:5).

2) Lot called them “men” (19:8).    And . . .

3) The narrator/author of Genesis called them “men” (19:10, 12).

The reasons why the group from Sodom was so interested in the angels is another matter, which I touched upon elsewhere when considering the Sons of God and the Nephilim. At the moment, that is beside the point. If you are thinking that the men referenced in those verses are not the same as the two entities who are elsewhere described as angels, think again. Reading the account carefully, it is obvious that the two “men” who pulled Lot back into the house (19:10) were the same figures who blinded those who were outside of the house (19:11). Moreover, the two “men” that asked Lot who else was living with him (19:12) were the same individuals that claimed they would later destroy the city (19:13). Clearly, that was a supernatural event.

This cannot be right, can it? Is there some type of mistake in the wording, or perhaps an issue with our translation of the Hebrew text? Incredibly, there is not. The word that is translated as “angels” is from the same term (malak) that is used throughout the Old Testament to describe them. Likewise, the term (ish) that is also used to describe them as “men” means exactly that throughout the OT.

In no uncertain terms, Lot’s foreign company are described as both angels and men in this story. The same is true when the two visitors appeared to Abraham, just before that (18:1-15).

In fact, this theme is consistent throughout the rest of the Bible. One example was mentioned earlier in discussing the “men in white clothing” who appeared at the Ascension (Acts 1:10-11). There can be little doubt that these were angelic beings, because they appeared from nowhere and were dressed in white. Appearing in white clothing is an allusion almost exclusively pertaining to heavenly beings, whether that be Jesus, angels, or even those who will be purified and saved.[1]

Speaking of white clothing, this topic reveals another example to consider. The three women who came to anoint Jesus’ body the morning after the Crucifixion also encountered a person wearing white:

“Entering the tomb, they saw a young man sitting at the right, wearing a white robe; and they were amazed. And he said to them, ‘Do not be amazed; you are looking for Jesus the Nazarene, who has been crucified. He has risen; He is not here; behold, here is the place where they laid Him’ ” (Mk. 16:5-6).

This time, we are dealing with a neaniskos: a “young man.” Could this mean that certain angels start out younger than others, and that some type of aging or maturation exists even among the heavenly beings? Or, could it be that his particular appearance just seemed a bit more youthful by human standards? It is very difficult to say what the significance of him being a “young man” is within this passage. Whatever the case, it is abundantly clear that he too was not of this world.

We know this because of his white robe, his supernatural understanding of all that had transpired, and because of the women’s reactions to him. The word used for “amazed” (exethambēthēsan) is present only in Mark’s Gospel,[2] and it can also mean “awe-struck” or “greatly amazed.” Regardless, the term carries with it the idea of being shocked to the point of fright.[3] This is evident in their response to encountering the being in white: “They went out and fled from the tomb, for trembling and astonishment had gripped them; and they said nothing to anyone, for they were afraid” (16:8).

This was no mere mortal whom they had encountered. The “man” was an “angel.”

Enough already—we get it! Angels are sometimes called men in the Bible. But what point is this supposed to prove? That is indeed the critical question. I think the reason why Scripture describes angels and humans so similarly is obvious; this is not some shrouded mystery that has to be specially deciphered.

The answer is that human beings and angels really are closely connected. We are a lot alike, both in terms of our nature and our physical appearance.

(In case you are thinking that the angels temporarily manifest in order to look like us, I have debunked that in another blog. As far as the Bible describes things, the angels definitely have bodies.)

The closeness between angels and humans can help us to make sense of what is said in Hebrews 13:2: “Do not neglect to show hospitality to strangers, for by this some have entertained angels without knowing it.” Could it be that angels are sometimes among us, and that they are able to blend in because they are very much like us?

Another passage from Hebrews that now reads a lot differently is 2:5-9. Within that section, the following is recorded:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them, a son of man that you care for him? You made them a little lower than the angels; you crowned them with glory and honor and put everything under their feet” (2:6-8, NIV).[4]

The point here in Hebrews is that everything in the world was created for human beings to rule, though our disjointed world does not bear that out at present. It goes on to suggest that Jesus remedied that situation on our behalf, and that even he was “made lower than the angels for a little while” (2:9).

This further reveals that the human form is not a drastic and unrecognizable step down from the angelic form. Along with this, we already know that we were made to resemble our Creator!

For simplicity’s sake, we can look at these connections in the following way:

  • God created human beings in His image and likeness (Gen. 1:26).
  • Jesus came in our image and likeness (Phi. 2:7).
  • At the Resurrection, Jesus rose from the dead with a transformed human body that resembles the other heavenly beings (angels). He is the “heavenly man” (1 Cor. 15:48).
  • Jesus’ resurrection body is the pattern for the bodies we will one day receive (1 Cor. 15:35-49).

It is curious that, after the Resurrection, Jesus looked human but was different enough that he was not immediately recognizable by his appearance alone. This is consistent with how the Bible describes angels; they look quite human but are enhanced in some way.

When you put this information together, it is obvious that the earthly and heavenly beings resemble one another. In other words, not only were we made in God’s image, but the angels were too. Humans are lower than angels; angels are lower than God; but there are strong similarities among all three. As the previous examples prove, this even includes the way we look.

In closing, none of this is intended to suggest that we are identical to the angels (or God) in either form or power. The heavenly beings performed miracles throughout the Bible that we could only dream of doing. They also possess powers—like slipping in and out of heaven—that we could only dream of having.

However, the Bible also tells us something equally important: the gulf between angels and humans is not as large as most of us have been led to believe. When we see ourselves, we see a strong glimpse at our heavenly counterparts.

Of course, this has tremendous bearing on what it means to be made in the “image of God.” Much more needs to be said about this crucial issue, but that will have to wait until next time . . .

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon:

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

References/Footnotes

[1] For some excellent examples of the types of beings who are dressed in white, see the following verses: Mt. 17:2, 28:3; Jn. 20:12; Rev. 1:14, 3:4, 6:11, and 7:9.

[2] See 9:15, 14:33, 16:5, and 16:6.

[3] Strong’s Concordance, 1568: “ekthambeó.”

[4] This is virtually a direct quote from Psalm 8:5.

Ghosts in the Bible

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Though I have shared this story elsewhere, it is such a powerful illustration that I simply must tell it again. Years ago, I had a friend named Stephen who owned an old farm house in the country. The house formerly belonged to his grandfather, who had passed away there a short time before Stephen moved into it. Standing alone in the middle of a corn field, Stephen’s new home had an isolated feel to it. There was something eerie about the old place. More than that, it was common knowledge that strange occurrences happened on the premises; there were many things that “go bump in the night.”

Doors would close. Objects would unexplainably move. Occasionally, footsteps could even be heard on the second floor. Surprisingly, Stephen was not overly concerned about it. He strongly believed that the strange activity could be explained as the workings of his grandfather, who was probably just looking over his former dwelling. I never accepted that explanation, but I didn’t try very hard to convince him otherwise. It just wasn’t important at the time, or so I thought.

That all changed one winter morning. I remember it vividly; Stephen called me very early and, in an almost frantic stutter, explained how “something” had pushed him down his basement steps. He was positive that whatever it was had attempted to really hurt him. While he was able to catch himself on the railing before tumbling all the way down, the incident really rattled my friend. In listening to Stephen’s account, I noticed something very interesting about his description: he never once mentioned his grandfather. And why would he? He knew that his grandfather loved him and would never try to cause him harm. Instead, Stephen had come to a decisive conclusion that something (or someone) else was at work. Ultimately, he understood his experience to be the product of a demonic entity. Stephen’s family, however, came to believe that it was some other ghost (not his deceased grandfather) that had pushed him down the steps.

I didn’t buy that view then, and I still don’t.

It would be fair to say that there is something of a ghost obsession that has been going on within our culture over the last twenty years or so. Some of the more recent polling that has been done on the matter clearly displays this fact. A 2005 Gallop poll revealed that 75 percent of those interviewed believe in the paranormal, and 32 percent of those believed that we can interact with ghosts or spirits.[1] A later study by the Barna Group focused exclusively on American teens, finding that 73 percent of those interviewed admitted to making efforts to contact spirits.[2]

Since then, the phenomenon has only grown in popularity. There are now more shows dedicated to “ghost hunting” than could be mentioned, and literally thousands of books have been written on the subject.

Since secular cultural has always had a way of seeping into the church, it is no surprise that massive numbers of Christians have also come to believe in ghosts. More than that, some are actively chasing them in a way that would make Zak Bagans proud.[3] None of us can deny that the prospect of deceased people roaming the earth is, at minimum, a fascinating idea. If true, it would be exciting, alarming, and most definitely macabre. The problem is that it isn’t true. If we are basing our worldview on the Bible—as many Christians claim to (and should)—then we would never arrive at the conclusion that ghosts exist, much less that they can interact with the living.

The first thing to understand is that the word “ghost” has nearly no role within the Bible. There was no Hebrew term (OT) that directly corresponded with this notion—which is rather telling—and the Greek term (NT) for “ghost/apparition” is used only twice. Clearly, this information alone tells us that the subject wasn’t very popular or prolific for God’s people. The word is used in the New Testament is phantasma, and it is found in Matthew 14:26 and Mark 6:49. Moreover, both verses reference the same event. There, the apostles believed that Jesus was some sort of apparition (not a tangible being) because he was walking on the sea: “But when they saw Him walking on the sea, they supposed that it was a ghost, and cried out; for they all saw Him and were terrified” (Mk. 6:49-50).

In their minds, no physical creature could perform such an act! Elsewhere, Jesus set them straight by informing them that he was indeed a flesh and bone being (Lk. 24:39). In terms of finding ghosts in the Bible via terminology, we are obviously not getting very far. But perhaps such entities—beings entirely devoid of bodies—show up in other ways throughout Scripture?

As a matter of fact, something of the sort does show up in the Bible. In one of the very strangest events in Scripture, a strange entity appears to Israel’s very first king: a man named Saul. 1 Samuel 28 provides us with this account. There, it is described that the Philistine army had gathered for battle against Israel (28:4). Saul—who had already lost much of his favor with both God and man—became terrified after seeing the assembled army. In an act of desperation, Saul decided to consult an outside source for wisdom on the matter. Putting on a disguise and traveling by night (28:8), Saul set out to meet a medium from a place called Endor. Specifically, she practiced necromancy—the art of communicating with the dead—which has historically earned her the name, the “Witch of Endor.”

After arriving, King Saul asked the Witch of Endor to do something incredible: conjure the prophet Samuel from the dead. Much to any reader’s surprise (and even her own), she was indeed able to bring Samuel back to life (28:12-14). In the midst of everyone’s horror, Samuel proceeded to advise Saul on what would happen next: the Philistines would defeat Israel, and both Saul and his sons would die within the next day (28:19). Rather than finding comfort in Samuel’s words, Saul found his appearance more as an omen of doom. One cannot help but wonder if Saul was pleased with his decision to consult Samuel. Personally, I doubt it.

While this is certainly an odd account, the truth is that it isn’t talking about a ghoulish appearance from beyond the grave. The word used to describe Samuel is elohim, which may sound familiar to some readers. The reason is that elohim is the term we typically translate as “god” or “God,” and it refers not to a deceased person but to a divine being (a deity or perhaps an angel).[4] Further, the text describes Samuel as an “old man” who is “wrapped with a robe” (28:14), which would suggest we are dealing with a physical being and not an immaterial one.

For these reasons—and the fact that a pagan medium was involved—many interpreters outright reject that it was Samuel who came back in the first place. I will speak to the alternatives momentarily. In any event, this is the only record in Scripture—from front to back—where something even resembling a ghost appears. As I described, even this text probably isn’t talking about a deceased and disembodied human being.

Beyond this, the only event in the Bible that potentially speaks to the issue of ghosts is when Jesus appeared to his disciples in Luke 24:36-49. In this passage, the apostles were gathered together in Jerusalem listening to the account of the two followers who had met Jesus on the Road to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). In true Jesus fashion, he suddenly appeared to them, seemingly from nowhere. Just like when he had appeared to them on the sea, they became extremely frightened and believed they had seen a “spirit” (24:37). Jesus’ response to them was emphatic: “See My hands and My feet, that it is I Myself; touch Me and see, for a spirit does not have flesh and bones as you see that I have” (24:39).

Clearly, Jesus was not a “spirit” or any sort of disembodied being; they were not seeing a “ghost.” Further, it is highly doubtful that Jesus was insinuating that such a thing even exists. In both cases where the apostles saw Jesus and thought they were seeing a “spirit” or a “ghost,” the incredible nature of the events was the matter at stake. Human beings don’t walk across the sea (Mk. 6:49) or come back from crucifixion (Lk. 24:39)! Neither of these events point to the idea that either Jesus or the apostles believed that dead people roam the earth in immaterial form. It is functionally the same as seeing someone who appears to be shocked and disheveled, and responding: “You look like you’ve seen a ghost!” You are not telling the person that ghosts exist—even if you believe that to be the case—but are instead appealing to a belief that is prominent within our culture. In some respects, we could view these instances as utilizing figures of speech. As I will show, the Bible’s cautionary nature in dealing with spiritism and necromancy further bolsters this idea.

The cases where ghosts are presented in the Bible are extremely rare and, upon close inspection, don’t describe these types of entities at all. In addition to this, there is an entirely different reason why we can be sure that ghosts are not out wandering the world. Concerning the afterlife, the collective information contained within the Bible points to the conclusion that deceased people cannot roam the earth. In a separate blog, I described that there are a few possible destinations for the deceased. I have also detailed my position in numerous blogs and with an entire book, which is that “death” is really death (the absence of life), and that we are brought back to life at the resurrection.

Regardless of what position one takes on the details of the afterlife, the Bible provides no reason to believe that we can communicate with the deceased. If one believes that the soul of a person goes to heaven or hell at death, then the person is in heaven or hell; they are not roaming the earth. If one believes that the soul of a person goes to an interim destination between death and the resurrection—like Abraham’s Bosom or Hades—then the person is in one of those two places; again, they are not roaming the earth.

As a matter of biblical teaching and simple logic, the dead cannot be in multiple places at the same time. If we hold that they can, then we have ascribed to the dead a type of God-like power. Hopefully, the problems with doing that should be obvious.

Supposing that some of us have come into contact with otherworldly powers—which I fully believe is true—one critical question remains: If people are not encountering ghosts, what are they encountering? To answer this question, we must briefly return to the story of Saul and the Witch of Endor. Prior to consulting the pagan conjurer, the Bible records that Saul had banished all mediums and spiritists from Israel (1 Sam. 28:3). In fact, the Witch herself admitted this, saying: “Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?”[5] This shows that, in consulting the spiritist, Saul was breaking the very command he had established.

Worse than that, Saul was breaking the commands that God had previously given to Israel. On numerous occasions, God commanded the Jewish people to steer clear of those who practice any type of sorcery or attempt to dabble in what we might broadly call “the occult.” God said that engaging in such practices was both a type of defilement (Lev. 19:31) and an act of spiritual prostitution (Lev. 20:6). Those found guilty would be “detestable” to the Lord and would be driven out from the community (Dt. 18:9-13).

Clearly, attempting to contact the dead is off limits for God’s people.

This being the case, the only obvious conclusion is that practicing spiritism will not result in contacting the deceased. Instead, it can open the door to something rather worse. The Bible is replete with examples of demonic entities negatively effecting the living,[6] and this is probably what is envisioned with the insistence to avoid contacting the dead. This is what my friend, Stephen, had to learn the hard way. It was not his dear grandfather that was hanging around the house but an entity which found that disguise to be a perfect entry point into Stephen’s life.

Even those who actively “hunt ghosts” in private or on television often report being scratched, pushed, or otherwise physically assaulted. Worse, they sometimes bring an unwanted guest home with them.

The Bible clearly affirms the existence of both holy and unholy beings (angels and demons), and explains that these entities can even influence our world. However, it is equally resolute that dead people cannot. Whether you accept my overall position or are so inclined to believe that the human soul continues at death, all who base their lives on the teachings of the Bible should agree on this: ghosts cannot contact the living, and vice-versa. To the contrary, there are other types of entities that can, and not all of them are good.

Attempting to communicate with the dead is not simply a breach of biblical law; it is something done at our own peril.

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon: 

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

Footnotes:

[1] David W. Moore, “Three in Four Americans Believe in Paranormal.”

[2] Barna, “New Research Explores Teenage Views and Behavior Regarding the Supernatural.”

[3] Zak Bagans is perhaps the most recognizable “ghost hunter” in the known world. He is the star of the Travel Channel series, Ghost Adventures, which has aired since 2008.

[4] Strong’s Hebrew, “elohim” (430).

[5] 1 Samuel 28:9. Recall that Saul had disguised himself, so the Witch of Endor believed she was talking to someone else from Israel.

[6] Consider the following cases of demonic aggression: We have a man in a synagogue (Lk. 4:31-37), a young girl (Mk. 7:24-30), and even a demon who was literally attempting to murder a young boy by either burning or drowning him (Mk. 9:14-29). These are just a taste of the demonic carnage that exists in the Bible.

Judge Not (unless you need to)

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There are few personality types that are harder to tolerate than a harshly judgmental person. Being in the company of someone who is watching your every move—just waiting for the opportunity to sneer in disapproval—is nothing short of insufferable. Typically, people from this ilk are not so blunt or careless as to make their feelings obvious, but we all know who they are. More often than not, we could describe these individuals as being members of the “holier than thou” club: a select group who believe their personal piety outshines everyone else’s.

If you don’t know anyone who fits this description, then chances are that you don’t come from a very religious family, work for a religious organization, or even attend a somewhat sizeable church. In fact, perhaps nowhere is this type of attitude more prevalent than within deeply religious crowds. Sad but true.

Obviously, this presents us with an unavoidable conundrum. Aren’t Christians precisely the ones who are commanded not to judge others? Isn’t the Bible clear that we cannot set in judgment of anyone else?

If we define judgment in the way that I previously described—as a “holier than thou” attitude—then the answer would be a resounding “yes.” However, that is just one possible way that we could look at this. In reality, there are numerous ways that we might talk about judgment, and there are also a multitude of contexts involved. Before looking at some examples, it is important to understand the basic terminology presented in the Bible.

In the NT—where we (Christians) receive most of our instruction on such matters—the word primarily translated as (to) “judge” is krinó. While it could pertain to either a private or communal act, the term carried a legal connotation with it. Often, it involved deciding guilt or innocence, as in a court of law.[1] In fact, krinó is the word often translated as “to sue” in Matthew 5:40 and “to stand trial” in Acts 25:9. Even more seriously, the term is used to describe the ultimate judgment of the righteous and the wicked at Christ’s return (1 Pet. 4:5, Rev. 20:12).

While it doesn’t always carry such serious implications, casting judgment is always—at least, in the biblical sense—an important matter. One should not haphazardly cast judgment on others.

With that background in place, we can begin to evaluate what types of judgment are either permissible or impermissible. For several reasons, it may make sense to begin with the latter. One of the most famous examples we could point to came during the Sermon on the Mount. There, Jesus addressed the matter in this way:

“Do not judge so that you will not be judged. For in the way you judge, you will be judged; and by your standard of measure, it will be measured to you. Why do you look at the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not notice the log that is in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the speck out of your eye,’ and behold, the log is in your own eye? You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (Mt. 7:1-5).

On the surface, one might take this as Jesus’ way of sternly forbidding all manner of judgment. I will later describe why that is not the case. However, this passage certainly describes a context in which it is not permissible. There is an undeniable sense in which calling out the faults or wrongdoing of others is dangerous business. Jesus was clear: each of us will be judged according to how we exercise judgment.

By our “standard of measure” it will be measured to us.

Here, Jesus did not mean that we should set no standards for behavior, in an effort to prevent ourselves from being judged at all. Far from it! Rather, this was a general prescription about how we should approach those around us. This was a warning and a challenge. Could we handle the same measure of judgment we heap upon others? What type of judgment will each of us be able to bear before God?

These are excellent questions to keep in mind when dealing with our fellow man. More than that, this reveals that judging others in a stricter way than we judge ourselves is unacceptable. This idea led directly to what Jesus described as another scenario that is completely off limits: casting judgment on someone when we are guilty of an equal (or greater) charge. Jesus asks, how can we point out the “speck” in our “brother’s eye” when we are carrying “a log” in our own (7:4)? Such judgment is nothing short of hypocrisy: a sinful act in its own right. As you may have noticed, Jesus used two different words to describe our possible “eye obstructions” (i.e., sin problems). He noted that people often see the “speck” (karphos) in other people’s eyes while ignoring the “log” (dokos) in their own.

Jesus’ message was clear: we are often eager to point out the smallest faults in others but are willing to totally ignore even bigger faults that we personally possess.

Another interesting example is found in Romans 14, and it comes from the apostle Paul. In context, Paul was attempting to help Gentile and Jewish Christians settle their differences and unite under Christ. Specifically, this friction involved observance of the Jewish law and which practices believers were expected to adopt. Certain Jewish Christians were abrasively insistent that the Gentiles embrace aspects of the Mosaic Law. This proved to be completely overwhelming for the Gentiles, particularly because they had not been steeped in Jewish tradition. On the other hand, the Gentiles often expressed a type of freedom from the law that caused their Jewish brothers and sisters in Christ to stumble. Paul delivered powerful advice in this situation, saying:

“Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand . . . why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat . . . Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.”[2]

It is crucial to note that Paul was specifically talking about two main things in this chapter: observing special days and food laws. As Paul indicated here and elsewhere, these matters should not separate believers from Christ or from one another. These were not salvation issues, since Christ had nailed much of the Mosaic Law to the cross (Col. 2:14).

Therein lies another type of judgment that is not permitted for Christians. There are beliefs that do not directly pertain to salvation and are left to each of us to decide for ourselves (Rom. 14:5). Eating certain foods, fasting, holding specific days as sacred, and many others, are matters of personal preference: things that are between ourselves and God only. As such, we are not to sit in judgment of one another on any such issue.

Contrary to the type of people I first described in the introduction—the “holier than thou” crowd— there is another group who takes the complete opposite approach to the issue of casting judgment. Far from looking to belittle others, they refuse to evaluate anyone else’s conduct no matter what. Or, at least they claim not to.

Common sayings you might hear are, “Well, it’s not for us to judge” or—when it is put to someone else—“Are you judging him/her?” I want to be clear about a couple of things with regards to this perspective. First, I think that most people who feel this way are sincere and do believe they are following biblical teachings. They honestly feel that they are not supposed to weigh in on anyone’s life. Second, I think this approach is far preferable to viewing ourselves as being better than others and looking for flaws wherever we can find them. I would much rather avoid chastising others—if only in my own mind—than I would to embark on a mission to call everyone out for their wrongdoings.

But that brings us to some interesting and significant questions. Are we ever permitted to point out the sins of others? Could it be that, at times, we are even charged to do so? According to the teachings of Christ and the apostles, the answer to both questions is yes. Not only are we allowed to do this, but we are commanded to.

The first example takes us back to something previously discussed. While Jesus did forbid certain types of judgment in the Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 7:1-5), he permitted some types at the very same time. Notice that Jesus did not tell his listeners they could never judge someone else. While we are not allowed to judge with an unfair standard or if we are entangled in sin, judgment can be done (carefully) if neither of those things apply.

Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye” (7:5).

The second part there is just as critical as the first. If we are not—or are no longer—carrying sin problems in our lives, then we would be equipped to help others work on their own. Clearly, this is a high standard. Still, we are called to leave sin and help others to do so. Paul made this clear, saying: “Brethren, even if anyone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted” (Gal. 6:1a).

In both Jesus and Paul’s instruction, pointing out sin and leading others away from it is not an unacceptable form of judgment. However, it was only to be done if we are “spiritual,” meaning we have reached a higher level of faith where we are no longer slaves to sin. That is not to imply that we can become completely flawless or that we will never fall short. Instead, it means that we are at least being transformed into the image of Christ and are not continuously struggling with sin. Again, all Christians are called to this kind of life.[3]

Let’s move on to another example. One of the many things Jesus did that angered the religious authorities—even driving them to want to kill him—was that he “worked” on the Sabbath. Specifically, he saw no issue with healing people on the Jewish day of rest. During one particular Feast of Booths, Jesus secretly went to the celebration and began to teach (Jn. 7). To his detractors that were present, he said something very interesting:

“If a man receives circumcision on the Sabbath so that the Law of Moses will not be broken, are you angry with Me because I made an entire man well on the Sabbath? Do not judge according to appearance, but judge with righteous judgment” (Jn. 7:23-24).

First, Jesus pointed out that healing someone on the Sabbath was not ordinary work at all but was actually in step with the meaning of the day; he had done good, not evil.

There is another important thing to consider: he instructed them to “judge with righteous judgment.” Just as Paul later instructed the believers in Galatia (6:1), Jesus was not telling those around him that they can never judge others for any reason. Rather, he was telling them to do it in an honest and sincere way. If they had been doing so, they would never have accused Jesus of wrongdoing to begin with. Jesus’ Jewish opponents had been casting judgment with ill intent and out of willful ignorance; they were more concerned with pointing out what they errantly perceived to be sin than they were with helping their fellow man.

This practice was unacceptable for them, just as it is for those of us living today.

While others could be examined, consider one more case where judgment is permitted. While reprimanding certain believers in Corinth, Paul explained that Christians should be more than capable of dealing with petty court issues on their own. While it had become typical to take one another to public court for even “trivial cases” (1 Cor. 6:2, 7), they should have been able to deal with them on their own.

More than being able to settle small court matters, Paul revealed that “the saints will judge the world” (6:2). In fact, some of us will judge the higher beings of the heavenly world: the angels (6:3)! In truth, Paul laid out three places where judgment is permitted in this one passage. We can judge civil matters amongst ourselves, and we will have some part to play in evaluating those outside of the church and even the angelic beings. While Paul did not go into detail as to what specifically we will be judging in each of these instances, it is clear these judgments are acceptable.

The mantra that “Christians cannot judge others” seems, at best, to be only partially true. Certainly, the Bible does restrict us from doing so in a variety of ways. Forbidden instances include judging others: 1) With an insincere heart or false motive; 2) By a standard that exceeds those we place upon ourselves; 3) When we are not morally fit to do so; and 4) On non-essential matters that can only cause a fellow believer to stumble.

Perhaps most importantly, we must always bear in mind Jesus’ teaching that we will be judged according to how we judge others. This means we must look at ourselves under the microscope before we ever look to put someone else under it.

While this most definitely dictates that we exercise caution—and a large degree of good judgment—Scripture not only permits this act in some cases but occasionally even instructs us to do it! The Bible does not, by any stretch, forbid judgement across the board and in all possible circumstances. The previous study revealed that judging other people’s actions are acceptable (or even necessary) if: 1) Our intentions are sincere and genuine; 2) Our own lives are in order; 3) We have honestly assessed the situation and know the facts; and 4) We are trying to restore someone who has fallen into sin.

Clearly, there is some gray area involved in this matter, and I am not claiming that these are exhaustive lists or “recipes for judgment.” Rather, these are biblically deduced guidelines. Above all else, it ought to be apparent that the matter of judging others is one we must take very seriously.

While we should not be eager to judge others, neither should we always avoid doing so.

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon: 

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

[1] Strong’s Greek, “krinó.”

[2] Romans 14:4, 10, and 13. I recommend reading the entire chapter, in order to fully understand that situation at hand.

[3] For evidence of this fact, consider the following examples: John 8:11, Ephesians 4:22-23, Romans 6:2 and 1 John 2:1. These are just a few of the possible examples, as the theme is consistent throughout the Bible (especially the NT).

Where is Heaven?

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History is replete with images of God and the angels sitting on clouds and floating around in the sky. It is probably fair to say that most of us make a similar connection whenever we think about heaven. But is this an accurate depiction of heaven, and do God and the angels really dwell somewhere “above” us?

Before consulting Scripture, consider a quick philosophical point: If God created the universe, how could He exist within it? Obviously, God could not be confined within something that He would later (even if only causally) bring into existence. For comparison, workers could not create a building if they were standing inside of it. Technicians could not build a car if they were already sitting within it. A bird could not make a nest if it were already living in that nest. In each of these cases, the agent creating the object would have to exist outside of it.

While this point is strong on its own, the Bible provides conclusive evidence that heaven is not in the sky.

For starters, consider when Elisha and his servant were surrounded by an entire army of Aramean soldiers. Though the servant was extremely alarmed by the situation, Elisha was not. 2 Kings 6:16-17 records Elisha’s response to his servant and the events that followed:

“So he answered, ‘Do not fear, for those who are with us are more than those who are with them.’ Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’ And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”

This is one of the amazing moments within Scripture where we get a peek into the workings of the heavenly world. It’s almost as if God peeled back the curtain that prevents us mortals from peering into heaven and allowed Elisha’s servant to see the full scope and magnitude of all existence. The angelic beings (and their chariots) he saw certainly weren’t from somewhere in outer space; they appeared in an instant. They were present with both him and Elisha the entire time but were veiled from his sight.

We see something eerily similar when we look at the birth of Jesus. Right after he was born, a group of shepherds received quite a fright. While they were out in a nearby field, it is recorded that an angel “. . . suddenly stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened” (Lk. 2:9). This is another case where, seemingly out of nowhere, an angel appeared. Furthermore, these very same shepherds would see more astonishing things thereafter. Luke 2:12-14 records that a “multitude” of angels appeared in just the same way.

Notice the abrupt and unexpected nature of these events. In fact, the word used specifically in 2:13—which is exaiphnés—most accurately translates as either “suddenly” or “unexpectedly.” The angels were unseen, then were instantaneously visible all at once.

In the book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul literally referred to the existence of the “heavenly realm” on multiple occasions. In all, he mentioned this sphere of existence on more than five occasions (1:3, 1:20, 2:6, 3:10, and 6:12). Most notably, he said: “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the powers, against the world forces of this darkness, against the spiritual forces of wickedness in the heavenly places (my emphasis).

As something else to consider, we could examine Jesus’ post-Resurrection appearances. Jesus showed himself to his disciples, and many others, repeatedly after the Resurrection. He appeared to Mary Magdalene outside of the tomb just after he rose from the dead (Jn. 20:15). He appeared to the horrified apostles on two separate occasions—with more than a week between the visitations—as they huddled behind a locked door (Jn. 20:19, 26). Prior to that, Jesus met the apostles while they were out fishing in the Sea of Tiberias (Jn. 21:1). He also appeared to more than five hundred people at the same time (1 Cor. 15:6).

My personal favorite appearance of Jesus was on the road to Emmaus, where he walked and talked with two of his disciples for the duration of the seven-mile journey from Jerusalem to Emmaus (Lk. 24:13-35). Right after Jesus blessed the meal, and the disciples finally began to understand the strange man’s identity, the Gospel of Luke records that Jesus proceeded to “vanish from their sight” (Lk. 24:31). Here, Jesus did not utilize trap doors, magic curtains, smokescreens, or anything of the sort. Rather, he had completely disappeared; he was there, and then he was gone.

The question that must be asked with regards to these appearances (and disappearances) is obvious: where was Jesus the rest of the time? There is not a single verse in the Bible having to do with the post-Resurrection appearances that mentions how Jesus left the scene. Barring the Ascension—where Jesus both literally and symbolically departed “back to heaven” for the final time (Acts 1:9-11)—there is no record that Jesus flew off into the atmosphere, slipped away and hid somewhere, or simply wandered away from those around him.

Just as he had done after walking on the road to Emmaus, Jesus seems to have been able to utterly vanish from human view at will. Frodo Baggins has nothing on Jesus! Clearly, he was slipping into another world, not travelling into space.

If all of this is true, why is heaven typically thought to exist in the sky?

For one thing, it is viewed this way because the language of the Creation narrative indicates it. Simply put, the heavens and the sky can function synonymously and are sometimes derived from the same word (like the Hebrew, haš-šā-ma-yim in Gen. 1:1). The second reason is that the heavens—meaning here, God’s abode or the “heavenly sphere”—is also discussed as being “up there,” above the earth. Consider the famous statement found in Isaiah 66:1: “Thus says the LORD, ‘Heaven is My throne and the earth is My footstool. Where then is a house you could build for Me? And where is a place that I may rest’?” This is obviously intended to imply the image of God sitting in the sky, with His feet resting upon the earth. Jesus echoed this notion in his Sermon on the Mount (Mt. 5:34-35). Here again, God’s dwelling is in space, and his feet reach down to touch our world.

However, it should be obvious that these are metaphorical statements. If God truly exists above our heads, and rests His feet here amongst us, we probably would have noticed! I may be going out on a limb there . . .

In truth, this type of language permeates many parts of both the Old and New Testaments. So, does this mean that heaven is indeed in the sky after all? Well, not exactly. There is a clear connection between the sky over our heads and the heavenly world inhabited by God and the angels. If you think about it, do we not sometimes find ourselves peering into the sky when we pray, or when we are entranced in spiritual contemplation? I know I do. There is something very intuitive about it: something natural.

When the apostle Paul spoke of his trip—whether that took place physically or in a vision, he could not say for certain—to the “third heaven,” he mentioned being “caught up” into it (2 Cor. 12:2-4). Paul used the exact same word (harpazó) in 1 Thessalonians 4:17, when he described Christ’s return and how the living will be “caught up” to meet him in the air.

Further, some of the most impactful parts of the biblical narrative display the concepts of ascending and descending. At Jesus’ baptism, the Spirit descended upon him (Mt. 3:16). During the Ascension, when Jesus said goodbye to his followers once and for all, he rose into “the heavens” (the sky) before vanishing (Acts 1:9). At Christ’s return, he is described as descending to earth (1 The. 4:16) with his army of angels (Mt. 25:31). Even the fall of Satan is described with similar terminology: “I was watching Satan fall from heaven like lightning” (Lk. 10:18).

These examples show us something very important: going up into the sky and coming down to earth are clearly the best ways we can imagine how the world of the divine connects to our own. Consider the following:

  •  If the Spirit simply appeared from nowhere at the Baptism, the event would be far less of an amazing spectacle.
  • If Jesus had just vanished at the Ascension, the grandiose nature of his final exit would have been almost entirely lost; his followers would have been left asking, “what exactly just happened?”
  • What could better illustrate Satan’s punishment than a long and tumultuous fall through the sky? “I was watching as Satan disappeared from heaven” doesn’t quite hit the mark.

While God and the angels can indeed come into our world and leave their own, they occasionally make a spectacle of their comings and goings. It makes sense that this may be done mainly (though not always) for illustrative purposes; it happens so that we might better understand. It’s not that they aren’t really ascending and descending, because they are. It’s just that they do not have to come and go that way. These acts are for us, not for them.

So, what can we make of all this? Where is heaven?

Heaven is not literally “above us,” nor does it exist in the distant recesses of space. When evaluating this issue from a biblical perspective, nearly every piece of evidence concerning the heavenly abode suggests that it is not contained within our universe. Instead, heaven is another world that is going on right alongside of our own. It is typically hidden from our sight but is unmistakably real.

We might think of heaven as an invisible layer that rests overtop earth: a wholly separate location that still has significant bearing on our own world. The heavenly beings (like Christ and the angels) pass between heaven and earth with ease and completely at will.

(For a visual representation of what I am generally suggesting, please see this clip from the movie, City of Angels.)

In conclusion, heaven is a realm of existence. You may call this a different plane or dimension, if you’d like, but the thrust remains the same. Along with many other things, this explains how angels can appear from nowhere, how demons can spiritually attack individuals without being seen, where Jesus vanished to between his Resurrection appearances, and perhaps even how flying crafts can appear and disappear in an instant.

As hard as it is to comprehend, God, the angels, and the heavenly realm are always present before us. We would all be amazed to know what we are missing: to know what is hidden from our sight.

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon: 

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

References

Strong’s Concordance, 1810: “exaiphnés”

Rossiter, Brian M. Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm. Amazon Digital Services LLC. 2019.

Has the Bible Changed?

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While it is often alleged that the Bible is simply a compilation of books that are terribly marred from constant translation and re-translation, that belief is simply false. It has been debunked time and time again, but continues to be a cherished view by those who simply need a reason to deny the Bible’s credibility.

In reality, biblical translations are not completed by copying the most recent editions, or by appealing to someone’s subjective opinion about the meaning of the texts. Instead, our modern translations are created by going back to the source: back to the most ancient texts we have. By referencing those texts—and meticulously comparing them over and against one another—new translations arise.

So, what ancient texts are referenced in this process? How many are involved? The answer to the first question is that the earliest manuscripts are being used in this process. As biblical skeptics are extremely quick to point out, a “manuscript” is classified as either a full-length copy of a text or a fragment of a text. Yes, this means that many sources we have from antiquity are bits and pieces of biblical texts. The same applies to every comparable ancient text imaginable.

The available manuscripts can vary in categories like the date of writing, who wrote them, the language they used, and the location at which they were written. We have none of the original writings, which are called “autographs.” The documents literally penned by the biblical authors, like most other writings from that day and age, were lost to time.

By all professional accounts, there are at least 5,600 Greek manuscripts in existence. Further, there are more than 19,000 additional copies existing in languages like Latin, Syriac, Coptic, and others. This means at least two very important things. First, it means that we have nearly 25,000 total manuscripts of the New Testament, in various languages and from various times. The naysayers will retort to this fact, saying that having tons of manuscripts does not make it true! I have heard this time and time again.

Correct—having more copies of something does not, in and of itself, mean any of it is true. Not only could this be said of every text in existence, this objection also falls incredibly flat in another sense. Having all of these manuscripts allows us to compare and contrast them, to deduce what might be later additions or faulty translations, and to ascertain what the original content most likely was. It is sort of like having hundreds of testimonies, from many people, as opposed to having only a couple from one or two sources.

When you can compare and contrast a variety of sources, you have a much better basis for determining the actual events. It is difficult to tell if a couple of people are lying about what they saw, but it is much easier to tell who is lying when you have many voices to consider. Certain views are going to line up, exposing those that deviate.

In short, having more manuscripts does mean that we can be surer of what the original authors intended to say. Like it or not, the manuscripts matter.

This point leads us naturally to the second important thing: our wealth of copies shows us just how little we know about other aspects of ancient history. You know, concerning the types of things that most of us—especially those who doubt the Bible’s credibility—take for granted as historical fact.

Compare the Bible with other ancient works of the day, and this becomes all the more obvious. The writings of the esteemed Greek philosopher, Plato, would have been written between 427-347 B.C.. What about the earliest copy of his writings? That would date to about 900 A.D.—more than 1,200 years later. How many copies do we have? Answer: seven. Let’s look at Plato’s student, Aristotle. His writings would have come from 384-322 B.C., but the earliest copy we have of any of them is from about 1100 A.D.: a separation of 1,400 years or so. Oh yeah, we have only about forty-nine copies of his work.

Clearly, both the dates of the writings and the number of copies are not boding well. What about the second place author and his works? How does the runner-up behind the New Testament fair against it? Homer’s epic poem, the Iliad, takes the prize. This was generally believed to have been written near 900 B.C., and the earliest known manuscript we have is from 400 B.C.: 500 years later. We know of 643 copies of this text. In full transparency, we know of more than 2,000 copies of all of Homer’s works combined, but most are from far after the earliest copy.

As impressive as the evidence is for Homer’s writings, this pales in comparison to the near 25,000 manuscripts of the New Testament, and to the earliest copies we have. The earliest surviving manuscript of the New Testament is Rylands Library Papyrus P52, and it comes from about 125 A.D.. This is a fragment of the Gospel of John. That would mean the manuscript was written well within a century of the initial autograph (first writing), and perhaps less than thirty years after.

This is not to impugn the credibility of these other works (I tend to trust them), but it does show us that we have much less reason to question the credibility of the Bible, particularly the New Testament (which affirms the Old Testament). The funny thing is, I never hear people question whether or not we can trust the philosophical teachings of Plato or Aristotle, or state that the Iliad has been too tampered with to extract its original meaning. We don’t hear this about almost anything coming from the ancient world. The Bible appears to be unique in this regard as well.

There seems to be a rather prominent agenda to discredit this particular text—the hardest ancient text to ridicule in terms of its historical veracity—and to cast doubt on its reliability. Hmm . . . I simply can’t imagine why that would be.

Naturally, others have challenged the notion that our modern biblical translations accurately reflect what was originally recorded (in the autographs). Their reasoning is almost always the same: as time went on, scribes introduced alterations (and errors) into their translations. Like the old “telephone game,” the idea is that the more people you involve, the more errors in the original message that will result.

Perhaps most notably, agnostic scholar, Bart Ehrman, has popularized the view that many changes were made to the texts as the translation process progressed over the years. In fact, hundreds of thousands—as many as 400,000—discrepancies are alleged to exist between the many ancient manuscripts (see note below, “Ehrman claim”).

This assertion is true in some respects, but is also completely false in more important ways. In all, this view is extremely misleading, and the people who make the case know it. The fact is that the vast majority of places where different manuscripts vary are absolutely small and meaningless. Most of these variations consist of things like adding a word or letter (particularly the Greek letter ν, or our n), subtracting a word or letter, transposing the order of the words or letters, or substituting a word (often synonymous) or letter.

This combination of variations are said, by some, to have made the Bible into an error-ridden collection of books.

Textual critic and professor, Dr. Maurice Robinson, ran a test to see just how often meaningful changes were really made in any of these aspects. In order to do so, he took thirty random manuscripts (or, MSS) from the 2nd and 3rd centuries AD, an era proposed (by Ehrman and others) to have seen a great increase in textual variations. He compared those manuscripts against what is called the Byzantine Textform. The reason why this was a good comparison is that none of those texts are known to have arisen earlier than the middle of the 4th century AD, so they are able to compare a good cross range of texts. As Robinson said, “the amount of textual diversity and divergence should be maximized in such a test.”

Each of these manuscripts contained at least five passages, and he compared them based on the known variations above (addition, subtraction, transposition, and substitution). He used Matthew 13, Acts 13, Romans 13, Hebrews 13, and Revelation 13.

Robinson found that there is a 92.2% average stability in the text during the time when the largest number of variants are alleged to have arisen. Robinson summarized what this means quite well:

“The present experiment has shown that the text as a whole remains remarkably consistent — not merely between the early papyri and the text of the fourth century manuscripts, but between the early papyri and the text found in manuscripts dating more than 1,000 years later. Indeed, the base form of the autograph text has been substantially preserved, tending to differ only in minor details among the manuscripts. The primary base text otherwise clearly represents that which originally had been given by the sacred writers in the first century.”

We just don’t see the legitimate changes that are alleged to have occurred over the centuries of translation and transmission. No one is denying that there are differences within the thousands of New Testament manuscripts, or that there are zero authentic discussions to be had. But no one should be arguing that the translations we have today have been radically, or even significantly, altered from the texts that were originally written. That is a baseless and disingenuous charge, and it needs to stop.

The fact that most of the differences between manuscripts are petty and singularly insignificant has not even escaped people like Ehrman, who have attempted to at least project something to the contrary. In an interview included in the appendix of Misquoting Jesus, Ehrman makes an astonishing admission when reflecting on the work of the esteemed textual scholar (and his own mentor), Bruce Metzger:

“If he and I were put in a room and asked to hammer out a consensus statement on what we think the original text of the New Testament probably looked like, there would be very few points of disagreement – maybe one or two dozen places out of many thousands. The position I argue for in ‘Misquoting Jesus’ does not actually stand at odds with Prof. Metzger’s position that the essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament.”

In essence, Ehrman admits that the essential teachings within the Bible have not been altered through the transmission of its manuscripts, and that any differences would be both rare and minor. This is exactly what one might expect from someone who also wrote a book about how the Bible cannot provide a good explanation for human suffering, only to adopt a biblical view on the matter himself (see note, “Ehrman”)! Still, this is evidence that the charges of biblical tampering and unreliability have been way overblown, if not outright fabricated.

Just to provide a final piece of evidence as to why the biblical texts should be trusted—in terms of what they were meant to say, if nothing else—consider the book of Isaiah. Until 1947, the only full-length copy (or close) we possessed of this book came from 1008 AD. The change in that year was brought to us through an archaeological goldmine, called the Dead Sea Scrolls. Among the many revolutionary discoveries that came in 1946-1947 was a copy of the book of Isaiah, which was dubbed the “Great Isaiah Scroll.” The Great Isaiah Scroll (or simply, the Isaiah Scroll) is an almost completely intact copy of the book of Isaiah—which is an extremely large text—and it dates to around 125 BC.

As with any ancient text, there were of course minor differences and spelling changes; the two texts were over 1,100 years apart, after all. But no honest scholar would suggest that the two texts differed in any significant way. For all intents and purposes, a sixty-six chapter text (as we have it) had been translated over and over again for more than a millennium, and remained virtually unchanged.

Both of these copies would deliver the same information about God, and His workings in the world. So much for the idea that the copying and translating processes wrecked the Bible.

With all of this being said, there are certainly a significant number of people who continue to treat the Bible like a mistake-laden book, replete with frauds and counterfeit teachings about history. It is an easy (and false) way to dismiss a text that spiritually challenges all of us in tremendous ways. Very well. As Jesus once said, “many are called and few are chosen” (Mt. 22:14). For some people—particularly those who simply do not want to believe that the Bible could be telling the truth—there will never be enough evidence. Ever.

But there is an unmistakable and irrefutable reality that people of this stripe must come to terms with, and Christian apologists have rightly been touting it for decades now: if you dismiss the biblical texts because they are somehow “historically unreliable,” then you must—absolutely and unequivocally must—dismiss every other text from ancient history. There are no two ways about it.

We would have to throw out the Epic of Gilgamesh, the Book of the Dead, the Atra-Hasis, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey, and every single thing ever recorded about an ancient king or his respective kingdom. There was no Alexander the Great, Marcus Aurelius, Emperor Nero, or anyone else. If there was, why would we trust a single thing that was recorded about them? None of these examples have even a fraction of the available writings and historical validation that Jesus, Paul, and most of the other biblical figures have.

I am certainly not advocating this type of distrust in human history, but it is necessary for anyone who dismisses the historicity of the biblical accounts. This is even true for the miraculous occurrences, not just the mundane references to things like ancient locations and the existence of particular individuals. If you can trust the historical statements of the Bible, it seems extremely selective to believe that all the “magical parts”—as skeptics love to call them—are made up.

This is why the Bible is a book like no other. It is the most scrutinized, printed, read, researched, distributed, and influential text in all of world history, and there is no close second. On top of that, it has been verified by all manner of scholars (even skeptics) that no essential changes were made to the biblical manuscripts over the course of more than 2,000 years of transmission. While I certainly advocate that other ancient texts and traditions carry a great deal of value and truth—and that they can often reveal the ways in which God has reached out to the world—it should be obvious that the Bible must be placed on a pedestal of its own.

We can have great confidence that when we read our modern translations, we are reading what the biblical authors intended long ago. Those of faith understand something even more crucial: we are reading what God intended us to read.

 

 

If you found this interesting, please check out my other blogs on this site.

Looking for a new book to read? Click the links to check out my titles on Amazon: 

The Death Myth: Uncovering what the Bible Really Says about the Afterlife

God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

Spiritual Things: Exploring our Connection to God, the Angels, and the Heavenly Realm

 

References:

Bocchino, Peter. Geisler, Norman. Unshakeable Foundations. Pg. 256. Bethany House Publishers. Minneapolis, MN. 2001.

Edwards and Janko: The Iliad: A Commentary. Volume V.

Howe, Tom. “A Reponse to Bart D. Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus.” (pp. 17-19) http://www.isca-apologetics.org/papers/isca-2006/response-bart-d-ehrmans-misquoting-jesus

McDowell, Josh. “What are the Dead Sea Scrolls and Why Do They Matter?” Jan. 6, 2016. http://seanmcdowell.org/blog/what-are-the-dead-sea-scrolls-and-why-do-they-matter

Robinson, Maurice A. “The Integrity of the Early New Testament Text: A Collation-Based Comparison Utilizing the Papyri of the Second and Third Centuries” (Valley Forge, Pennsylvania: Evangelical Theological Society: 57th Annual Meeting, 2005), 3-4.

Slick, Matt. “Manuscript evidence for superior New Testament reliability.” CARM.org. Dec. 10, 2008. https://carm.org/manuscript-evidence

Notes:

Ehrman: This occurred in the book, God’s Problem. The purpose of the book was to show that the Bible does not provide an adequate answer to the issue of human suffering. However, Ehrman ends up agreeing with the way the book of Ecclesiastes handles the issue. As Ehrman said, “I have to admit that at the end of the day, I do have a biblical view of suffering. As it turns out, it is the view put forth in the book of Ecclesiastes.” See pages 276-78.

Ehrman claim: He makes claims like this all throughout his book, Misquoting Jesus.