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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?

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.

The Truth about Tongues

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Every now and then, I come across someone who insists that speaking in tongues is a necessary sign of salvation. While most Christians would not go so far, there is no doubt a great deal of confusion within the church about this issue. In this blog, I want to provide some very important points to consider that will hopefully help us to make sense of things.

The first, and arguably the most important, thing to understand is that the Bible uses the term “tongues” in more than one way.

The Greek word “glóssa” is what is translated as “tongues,” and it can pertain to the literal tongue in our mouths (Mk. 7:33, Lk. 16:24, etc.). More often, it simply refers to the various languages of the world. As a prime example, consider the day of Pentecost, as described in Acts 2. After the Spirit filled many of those who had been gathered together, we read that “tongues as of fire” rested on each of the men (2:3). As a result, they all began speaking in different languages. Due to all the commotion, a large group of people crowded in to see what was happening. Here is what occurred afterwards:

“And when this sound occurred, the crowd came together, and were bewildered because each one of them was hearing them speak in his own language. They were amazed and astonished, saying, ‘Why, are not all these who are speaking Galileans? And how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born’? Parthians and Medes and Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the districts of Libya around Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes, Cretans and Arabs—we hear them in our own tongues speaking of the mighty deeds of God” (2:6-11).

It is absolutely critical that we understand what this text is telling us. The men at Pentecost did not begin speaking in unknown, heavenly languages. Rather, they began speaking in various languages of the world: “how is it that we each hear them in our own language to which we were born” (my emphasis)? This would be no different than being able to suddenly speak in Spanish, Chinese, Russian, or any of the like. It was miraculous because people were able to communicate in languages they had not previously understood. The truth is, this is what the term “glóssa” almost always means when it does not pertain to our physical tongues.

With this said, there is also another meaning of the word “glóssa” that bears discussion. On occasion, the word seems to be used to describe an unknown language that does not have its roots in our world. Several verses of Scripture point in this direction. One is 1 Corinthians 14:2: “For one who speaks in a tongue does not speak to men but to God; for no one understands, but in his spirit he speaks mysteries.” Another example is 13:1 within the same letter, which mentions “tongues of men or of angels.” Finally, Romans 8:26b provides probably the weakest allusion to this type of tongues: “ . . . the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words.”

While few in number, these verses at least establish a precedent for a mysterious, and perhaps otherworldly, type of “tongues.”

I have always had difficulty understanding the point of such a thing, though I do not doubt that there is one. I have known numerous godly men and women whom I have personally heard speak in a personal prayer language, and I have no reason to believe it was contrived. However, what exactly it accomplishes in their life is simply unknown to me. I have always faired well in plain old English, but that’s just me.

So, there are clearly multiple types of tongues described in the Bible. The question remains though as to what role they are expected to have in the life of the church. Is everyone supposed to have this gift? Are there stipulations involved in the use of tongues? We should start with something very important that Paul told the believers in Corinth:

“Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit. And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons. But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. For to one is given the word of wisdom through the Spirit, and to another the word of knowledge according to the same Spirit; to another faith by the same Spirit, and to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, and to another the effecting of miracles, and to another prophecy, and to another the distinguishing of spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, and to another the interpretation of tongues. But one and the same Spirit works all these things, distributing to each one individually just as He wills” (1 Cor. 12:4-11).

Unequivocally and without question, the gift of tongues is not given to all believers. If this weren’t clear enough, Paul also said the following:

“All are not apostles, are they? All are not prophets, are they? All are not teachers, are they? All are not workers of miracles, are they? All do not have gifts of healings, do they? All do not speak with tongues, do they? All do not interpret, do they?” (1 Cor. 12:29-30).

“All do not speak in tongues, do they?” No, Paul, of course not. Just as some are called to be prophets, apostles, teachers, healers, miracle workers, etc., some are also called to speak in tongues. Even then, there must also be an interpreter present, otherwise the speaker must “ . . . keep quiet in the church and speak to himself and to God” (14:28). Moreover, he also said:

“Unless you speak intelligible words with your tongue, how will anyone know what you are saying?’ You will just be speaking into the air” (14:9).

Clearly, Paul had reservations about this particular practice.

As a matter of fact, Paul was more cautious about the use of tongues than any other spiritual gift, by far. He sprinkled these directives all throughout 1 Corinthians 14, and I would highly suggest reading that chapter in its entirety. Be forewarned, however, that it is often difficult to discern whether the subject is earthly languages or mysterious languages. Part of his hesitation was no doubt because the church at Corinth was infatuated with tongues, and anything else that could be used to show how “spiritual” they were (14:12).

It is also worth noting that tongues—unless there be a genuine interpreter present—is by far the easiest gift to fake. It would be difficult to prophesy, teach, heal, perform some other miracle, and the like, without having to truthfully demonstrate the gift. Tongues, however, can be faked by anyone who desires to do so. With a little practice, anyone can ramble and speak gibberish on command. This could be easily mistaken for “speaking mysteries” (14:2). This prospect may have been behind Paul’s perspective in 14:23: “So if the whole church comes together and everyone speaks in tongues, and inquirers or unbelievers come in, will they not say that you are out of your mind?”

Maybe this is also why Paul remarked: “I thank God, I speak in tongues more than you all; however, in the church I desire to speak five words with my mind so that I may instruct others also, rather than ten thousand words in a tongue” (1 Cor. 14:18-19).

Lastly, Paul repeatedly mentions that the gift of prophecy is much more beneficial to the church and should be desired above the gift of tongues (14:1, 5). He even placed tongues last on the list of spiritual gifts whenever they were discussed. Tongues went below wisdom, faith, knowledge, healing miracles, prophecy, and the discernment of spirits (12:4-11).  When you finally get to the bottom of the list, you will there find the gift of tongues. If you think this placement was unintentional, you may want to study how precise Paul’s terminology is as a whole.

With all this being said, here are our takeaways from this study:

  1. The word translated as “tongues” (glóssa) can be used in three ways: to talk about the tongue in a person’s mouth, to talk about someone speaking in a mysterious language, and—more frequently—to talk about ordinary human languages.
  2. The gift of speaking in tongues is not intended for every believer and is not a necessary sign of salvation. While it can indicate the work of the Holy Spirit in one’s life, so would the presence of any other spiritual gift. Paul was abundantly clear that some would be gifted to speak in tongues and others would not (1 Cor. 12:4-11).
  3. Adding to the previous point, Paul was far and away more cautious about the use of tongues than any other spiritual gift. He repeatedly emphasized the need for an interpreter and suggested that people should strive more earnestly for other gifts. He even said that those who speak in tongues often edify themselves rather than the church (1 Cor. 14:3).

It is also necessary to mention that we should not forbid the public use of tongues (14:39). However, there had better be a real message involved in each occurrence and someone who can accurately interpret that message. There is a time and a place for tongues—especially the use of different worldly languages—but far too often tongues are used either for self-edification or as a display of false spiritual piety.

If mysterious tongues are useful in an individual’s personal prayer life, there is value in that. If someone is able to speak to others in their own dialect, there is even more value in that. But if tongues become a mockery, a show, or a “necessary” sign of salvation, we are charged to put an immediate stop to such uses.

My personal advice on this issue would be to tread lightly: tread very lightly.

 

 

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

 

Did Jacob Wrestle with God?

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Of all the strange stories recorded in the Bible, this one certainly ranks near the top of the list. Jacob—the son of Isaac, and grandson of Abraham—abruptly encounters a mysterious visitor while preparing to meet his estranged brother, Esau. Left alone for the night, a “man” appears from nowhere and proceeds to do something rather unexpected.

Genesis 32:24-32 describes the entire ordeal in dramatic fashion:

“Then Jacob was left alone, and a man wrestled with him until daybreak. When he saw that he had not prevailed against him, he touched the socket of his thigh; so the socket of Jacob’s thigh was dislocated while he wrestled with him. Then he said, ‘Let me go, for the dawn is breaking.’ But he said, ‘I will not let you go unless you bless me.’ So he said to him, ‘What is your name?’ And he said, ‘Jacob.’ He said, ‘Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed.’ Then Jacob asked him and said, ‘Please tell me your name.’ But he said, ‘Why is it that you ask my name?’ And he blessed him there. So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved.’ Now the sun rose upon him just as he crossed over Penuel, and he was limping on his thigh. Therefore, to this day the sons of Israel do not eat the sinew of the hip which is on the socket of the thigh, because he touched the socket of Jacob’s thigh in the sinew of the hip.”

In this passage, Jacob encountered what Genesis calls a “man” (enosh), whom he proceeded to physically quarrel with all night until daybreak (32:24). Famously, Jacob refused to let the man go until he had received a blessing, even though he had been badly wounded. If we know one thing about Jacob, it’s that he was all about receiving a blessing. It seems that he would take one anywhere, anytime, and from anyone! As a result of his persistence, the visitor blessed Jacob and changed his name to “Israel” (32:28). This name would have everlasting significance, as it stood for God’s chosen people within the Old Testament narrative.

This is indeed a strange series of events, and there is literally no indication beforehand that such a thing would take place. However, two things really stand out after the altercation. The first is the man’s rationale behind changing Jacob’s name: “Your name shall no longer be Jacob, but Israel; for you have striven with God and with men and have prevailed” (32:28). Jacob had “striven with God?” Can that be right? Second, Jacob then institutes a name of his own, this time to the location where all this had transpired: “So Jacob named the place Peniel, for he said, ‘I have seen God face to face, yet my life has been preserved’ ” (32:30). Peniel (or Penuel, probably) means something close to “face of God.”

Not surprisingly, there has always been debate about who Jacob actually faced off against. Despite what was previously said, the Bible itself does not offer full clarity on the matter. If we look at the book attributed to the prophet Hosea, there is an allusion to Jacob’s battle with Genesis’ “man.” There, however, the being is not referred to as a man, but as an angel (malak): “Yes, he wrestled with the angel and prevailed . . .” (Hos. 12:4). While it is difficult to imagine, the Bible refers to Jacob’s adversary (and benefactor) as a man, an angel, and even as God! Whether directly stated or just implied, all three descriptions are present.

But there is a crucial, and often overlooked, detail in this story. After having his name changed, Jacob in turn asked the man what his name was. Humorously, the man responded in an almost rhetorical way: “Why is it that you ask my name?” (32:29). The only rational interpretation of this response is that Jacob was already expected to know the answer. This seems to be the man’s way of saying, “you know full-well who I am. I AM who I AM!”

In case Jacob still had his doubts, God later erased them while meeting with him at Bethel.

“God said to him, ‘Your name is Jacob; You shall no longer be called Jacob, But Israel shall be your name.’ Thus He called him Israel. God also said to him, ‘I am God Almighty; Be fruitful and multiply; A nation and a company of nations shall come from you, And kings shall come forth from you. The land which I gave to Abraham and Isaac, I will give it to you, And I will give the land to your descendants after you” (Gen. 35:10-12).

This event very clearly echoes what had transpired after Jacob’s primitive wrestling match. Jacob’s name is changed to Israel for a second time, solidifying the transfer. But something more interesting happens this time. Here, God outright declares, “I am God Almighty.” Whereas the “man” was unwilling to directly reveal his true identity the first time around, it seems as though he may have been more direct on this occasion. Was this God’s way of ensuring that Jacob knew just who he had been dealing with all along? Personally, I believe so.

All this meshes with the idea that Jacob’s wrestling partner may have been God Himself, and some translations even label the passage with titles like “Jacob Wrestles with God.”

Still, we should admit that we do not have certainty on what to make of this character. There is no doubt a remaining air of mystery to the whole ordeal. The best explanation is probably that God really did wrestle with Jacob. However—and this is the most important part—we can be sure about what this being was not; this was not just a normal man. Whoever it was, the figure had a heavenly origin.

Of course, some very important questions remain. Why did Genesis refer to this being as a man in the first place? If this was indeed God, how could He have physically wrestled with Jacob? Wouldn’t that mean that God has a body?  Is there something even deeper being revealed to us in this exchange?

I think there is definitely a bigger picture to be seen here. However, in order to do the topic justice, I will have to address that in a separate offering.

Until then, thanks for reading.

 

 

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God Made the Aliens: Making Sense of Extraterrestrial Contact

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

 

Are We Saved by Faith or Works?

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Last time, I discussed an issue that I believe is frequently misunderstood within the church. As part of a larger collection I am working on, I want to stay with that theme in this blog. This material is a bit more in-depth than my normal writings, but it is necessary given the breadth of the topic.

This time, I am interested in the claim that salvation comes through faith alone, without respect to our works. While it would be wrong to lump everyone into the same group—as views certainly vary—I firmly believe that a great many people within the Protestant church affirm this perspective; they do believe and teach that works play no role in our salvation.

There are a variety of historical issues involved, but one is probably central to this movement. The Protestant Reformation brought about a rejection of many things that were considered to be essential within the Roman Catholic Church, its emphases on ritual and procedure being among them. The Protestant mantra of “salvation by faith alone” fit the bill, though the claim would be that this view was derived by a rediscovery of Scripture: something that was not especially allowed prior to that time. This is of course a vague explanation of the situation, but it hits at the heart of the issue. A close look into the writings of the Reformation leaders reveals that the intention was not to eliminate works from the discussion. However, the impression was strong enough to last. Whether intended or not, subsequent generations of Christians came to believe that we are saved apart from anything we do: no works necessary!

But first things first: what are “works”? Works take on several connotations throughout Scripture. One prominent type of works is the 613 commands—or laws and ordinances—God gave to the Israelites through Moses. Anything involving the sacrificial system, food laws, temple requirements, feast days (special Sabbaths), and many others, have been rendered obsolete because of Christ’s atonement (Col. 2:13-17). If this set of commands were what most of us meant by “works”—like the “works of the law” that Paul often referred to (Rom. 3:20, Gal. 2:16)—there would be no issue, since we are clearly not obliged to keep them.

But I am not talking about this definition of works. Rather, I am referring to our moral actions and conduct. You might even prefer to call these “deeds,” in the modern sense of the term. Do we follow the Ten Commandments? Do we give of our time and money to charitable causes? Do we care for others the way the Bible instructs us to? Do we follow the guidance of the Spirit? These things, and many more, are the “works” I am discussing here. Often, these works are seen as completely separable from salvation. You can have the latter without the former.

Now that we have established exactly what is at stake, we are prepared to see what the Bible reveals on the matter. Let’s begin with Paul’s instruction to the believers in Ephesus, since it is one of the most referenced verses on this issue. There, he tells them: “For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God” (2:8). Indeed, we are all saved by grace. That is, no one warrants salvation by their own deeds or actions alone.

This is easily one of the most important things to understand within this entire discussion. Jesus aside, there has never been a human being who deserved to know God and to live with Him for the rest of eternity solely because of the quality of the life they lived. God will not look at any mortal and declare, “Now that person is so virtuous that I have no choice but to save him/her!” The Bible is emphatic: all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God (Rom. 3:23). Apart from God extending grace—or unmerited favor—to us, we would all be unworthy of salvation. Further, no amount of good works could ever outweigh our sins. Salvation is not a scale where our works must balance out our sinful deeds. As God sees things (and has revealed in Scripture), good conduct does not eliminate bad conduct. It simply doesn’t operate that way.

Regardless of how kind, decent, charitable, etc., we are, we would still need to be forgiven. This is entirely the point of the Atonement, and it is why neither atheism nor any false religion can offer salvation. No one can be saved apart from the work of Christ; his blood, and nothing else, is the agent of salvation. Sin requires a sacrifice. I have stated this point as clearly as I possibly can, so I sincerely hope it has hit its mark.

However, that is not the end of the matter. The fact that no one warrants salvation by their own works does not mean that works play no role in salvation. Let that sink in for a moment . . .

The reason why is simple but strangely complex: we are saved by faith, but faith cannot be detached from works. Put another way, true faith in Christ is accompanied by works. Perhaps the most famous passage of Scripture that deals specifically with this issue is James 2:14-26. There, James—the half-brother of Jesus—details several important facts: 1) The debate about faith and works is as old as the church itself 2) There is no faith without works (vv. 17, 20, and 26) and 3) Works actually prove faith (v. 18). James explicitly referenced Abraham—who is perhaps the greatest OT example of this teaching—because he was willing to offer his only son as a sacrifice when God commanded him to (Gen. 22). His action proved his faith: “Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up Isaac his son on the altar? You see that faith was working with his works, and as a result of the works, faith was perfected . . . You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone” (Jas. 2:21-24, my emphasis).

Imagine if Abraham had responded to God’s directive like this: “You know I believe in you Lord, but I see no need to prove it.” If Abraham had not been willing to follow through with his faith in God—no matter how difficult that would have been—it could not have been said that “Abraham believed God, and it was reckoned to him as righteousness” (Gen. 15:6). Faith is proven by action.

Sometimes, our works even include the things we choose not to do. Jesus’ Parable of the Good Samaritan is a perfect example of this (Lk. 10:30-37). In this teaching tale, the two recognized men of faith (the Levite and the priest) failed to act, whereas the despised Samaritan man came to the victim’s aid. This shows us that a failure to put faith into action either renders it useless or proves that it wasn’t authentic to begin with. Whatever the case, the lesson is the same: faith and follow through (actions, deeds, works) are inseparable. Both are necessary for salvation. James summarized this well also: “But prove yourselves doers of the word, and not merely hearers who delude themselves” (1:22).

The last point worth mentioning is that Jesus was consistent in teaching that works matter, and matter greatly. In addition to the Parable of the Good Samaritan, Jesus presented the same general message—that those who do are declared to be faithful—in many other parables (Talents, the Sheep and Goats, etc.). As if this were not enough, he directly stated that we will be judged based on our actions. “Behold, I am coming quickly, and my reward is with Me, to render to every man according to what he has done (Rev. 22:1, my emphasis). He made a nearly identical statement in Matthew 16:27, as did Paul in Romans 2:5-6. Notice that Jesus did not say the reward will be rendered according to our inward thoughts, or what we consider doing. Rather, he said it will be based on the actions we carry out.

This statement of Jesus comes to mind: “A city set on a hill cannot be hidden; nor does anyone light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a lampstand, and it gives light to all who are in the house” (Mt. 5:14-15).

As it turns out, the question— “Are we saved by faith or works?”—is fundamentally flawed. The answer is neither faith nor works, but simply yes. Salvation comes by our faith in Jesus Christ’s work on the cross and our subsequent works based on this faith. If we take “salvation by faith” to mean “we are saved without respect to our actions,” we have terribly misunderstood the gospel message. Further, ask yourself if that belief is logical. We will either be saved or condemned without respect to how we live our lives . . . does that really make sense? Alternatively, if our theology places our works as the saving agent or that which absolves our sins, then we have made a mockery of Jesus’ atoning work at Calvary.

In the end, I believe this entire misunderstanding comes down to two major problems. The first is a failure to recognize that the “works of the law” (that Paul described) are not the same as the “works” of faith (that James described). The former no longer apply to Christians, but the latter certainly do. The second problem is one involving personal responsibility: it is simply easier to believe that salvation occurs wholly apart from our actions than it is to accept that we have a part to play. If Jesus “did it all,” then nothing is left for us to do.

Every ounce of responsibility would be lifted from our shoulders. There is no doubt a warmth in that thought, but as Sister Aloysius said in the movie Doubt, that “warm feeling” is “not the sensation of virtue.”

The view that works play no part in salvation is both pervasive and dangerous. In fact, I can think of nothing that would more naturally lead to spiritual lethargy and an utter lack of motivation to do good works. And that is why this issue matters, and matters greatly.

 

 

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