N. T. Wright: “God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil”

What does our culture think of evil? Why do we pretend it doesn't exist until it hits us in the face? And what has God done about it? Is He distant and watching, waiting? Or is He working from within His creation? Does the cross address more than our personal sin? In this brilliant guest lecture from N. T. Wright, given on a visit to Seattle Pacific University, he addresses what he calls the "new problem of evil" and what Jesus has done– and what He will do– about it.


NT Wright: "God, the Tsunami, and 9/11: The New Problem of Evil from Glenn Packiam on Vimeo.

Click HERE for the link of the near-exact transcript of the talk.

Science, Miracles, and God

It is largely assumed that miracles are inherently unscientific. But let’s examine the premise for this belief. Science, it is said, shows us a predictable universe, one that follows uniform laws and rhythms. Miracles, by definition, are an aberration of those laws, a suspending of the norms of nature, and therefore are improbable if not impossible.

The secular philosopher David Hume wrote in his Essay on Miracles
that there are two questions to be answered: “Do miracles occur?” and
“Is Nature absolutely uniform?” Because he answers yes to the latter
question, he answers no to the first one. But, as C. S. Lewis points
out, Hume has engaged in philosophical sleight of hand for the two
questions are the same one. By asking is miracles occur you are simply
asking in another way if nature is always absolutely uniform. So, the
real question we have to wrestle with is the one of nature’s uniformity.

How do we know that the universe follows a uniform pattern of behavior?
Our first response tends to be: by experience or by observation.
But the truth is all we can say by experience and observation is that during the period of time that we have observed nature, we have observed her to behave is such and such a way. Even the longest periods of observation– decades for many things, centuries for a few things– is a relatively short period of time in light of the relative age of the universe. For scientists who believe in an earth that existed millions of years before mankind, even the short history of humanity (6000 years at our best guess?) is not enough to to answer the question of nature’s uniformity by experience alone. In fact, when we try to say that we believe in Nature’s uniformity because of our observation and experience, we are simply saying that we believe that the patterns we have observed are ones we believe to have been around before our observation and experience and will continue even beyond our observation and experience. And you would officially be in a circular argument.

Our second response is that we wish it to be so. This, of course, is irrational. And yet, highly practical. We couldn’t live day to day if we did not count on some level of predictability or reliability in nature. Life would be disastrous. And since it is beyond our control anyway, we assume that things will continue tomorrow as they have today, and that tends to work out in general. But such an answer cannot be enough.

Our third and most honest response is that science depends on a predictable universe and if we have up the sense of uniformity and order in nature we would lose science. We are now getting closer for we are admitting that science is predicated on a kind of faith: a faith in the general orderliness of the universe.

But what sort of belief system allows for that conviction? For the pure Naturalist– the one who believes Nature is all there is, that there is no God, no Spirit, no Force, no Mind– he is in a bind. The Naturalist is forced to admit that since there is no guiding Force or Mind, his own “deepest convictions are merely the byproducts of an irrational process” and therefore cannot be trusted. A person’s convictions– about the uniformity of the universe or anything else– is simply a fact about that person (like the color of his hair) and has no grounds for treating his conviction as more valid or reasonable than anyone else’s. (C. S. Lewis in Miracles wrote on this in Chapter 13). The Supernaturalist– one who believes in a Rational MInd/Force beyond nature– has the best grounds for accepting the uniformity of nature. He believes there is a great rational force that has set the universe in motion and its motion follows a sense of rationality for He is rational. “Men became scientific because the expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (Lewis).

The “catch’, however, is that the same grounds that lead you to accept a rational, uniform universe allows leaves you defenseless against the possibility of miracles. For if there is a God– a rational, creative Being– then we can expect the universe to be orderly; but we must also admit that if that God chose to break into His creation He could.

What sort of God would break into His creation? Here is where we turn away from what science alone can tell us and ask what religion tells us. The bulk of religion chronicles man’s search for God. But it is the Jewish-Christian story that begins with God’s search for mankind. “Adam, where are you?” God said in the beginning of our story. For the Jew and the Christian, God has always broken into time and space. And those occasions are often called “miracles”. For the Christian, the ultimate invasion of God into His world is in the person of Jesus Christ. Through Him we see the most dramatic miracles: the virgin birth, the incarnation itself, the resurrection.

By no means does science prove God or miracles. But neither does science preclude it. Furthermore, because science itself needs to believe in an orderly universe, it admits the possibility of a “God”. But by admitting the possibility of a “God”, it must admit the possibility of miracles. So, our answer to Hume’s questions are yes, miracles can occur; and, yes, the universe is generally almost always uniform. It is my view that the Christian story best reconciles these questions. And it does so it a breathtakingly beautiful way.

[NOTE: I am indebted to Chapter 13 of C. S. Lewis’ Miracles for the content of this post. If you are intrigued, I recommend his book for further reading. You can also listen to my recent sermon on “Miracles and the Christian” HERE.]

Toward a Better Theology of Healing, Pt. 2

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Read the previous post, “Toward a Better Theology of Healing, Pt. 1”, for introductory remarks and points 1-3.]

4. The fruit of what was gained for us through Jesus has begun and is manifesting in us here and now; but it will not culminate in its fullness until He returns.
The Kingdom of God has come, but it’s full and ultimate reign is not yet. The favorite theological phrase is “already, but not yet.” It doesn’t appear to make much sense, but the tension between the “already” and the “not yet” is seen throughout the New Testament. Salvation itself is described as something that has happened, something that is happening, and something that has yet to occur. Traditionally, these “tenses” of salvation have been described as “justification”, “sanctification”, and “glorification”. Consider Paul’s letter the Ephesian church. In Eph 1:3, Paul says God “has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.” But a few verse later he says that “his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ” will “be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” (Eph. 1:9b-10). Again in verses 13-14, he writes that we “also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.”

We have the deposit. Moreover, we have the guarantee. But the culmination will be when “the times have reached their fulfillment”.  This is an idea that modern Americans struggle with. How could you make the down payment for something and not enjoy it fully now? We make a down payment on a house and expect to move in right away. Not so in the ancient world. A deposit guarantees that it is yours. But it is not fully yours yet. It’s not to dissimilar from buying a gift for your child and placing it under the tree as a sort of guarantee that it is his, and yet asking him to wait until Christmas morning to open it. Here is the point some Charismatics can’t grasp: just because a thing is paid for doesn’t mean you will have it all now. 

If we didn’t believe this, that what’s coming is better than what is, that the fullness of what Jesus paid for will culminate later at the end of time, then we should not stop by claiming healing for cancer. We should take authority over baldness and weak joints and shortness of breath after exercise. We should not expect to die at all. After all, what Jesus paid for was more than healing: it was the ultimate restoration of all things: no more bodies that age and break down, no more injustice no more tears, no more suffering of any kind. If we want it all now, we should never have another believer die. Instead, we ought to remember, as C.S. Lewis pointed out, that Lazarus was raised from the dead only to die again. In other words, the best, the fullness of what Jesus paid for is not all to be enjoyed here and now. Those who insist otherwise are not being consistent in their behavior…neither is the universe, for that matter, for people age and die. And, what’s more troubling to that point of view is the fact that none of the apostles– not Peter who quotes Isaiah 53, not Paul, not James who tells us to lay hands on the sick, not John who outlives all the apostles– taught the no believer should get sick or suffer disease if they had enough faith. Furthermore, to my best knowledge of church history (and though I am no scholar, I am a student of church history), no one has taught that theology of healing– that all should be healed if there is no sin and enough faith.

5.  We Can Enjoy the Firstfruits (i.e. Healing and Miracles) Here and Now
This may challenge some who believe that healings and miracles were only for an age but are not for now. While it is true that what is coming is better than what is, it doesn’t mean there is nothing to enjoy now. There is the “foretaste of glory divine”, the beginnings of what is coming in fullness. To put it plainly, we can enjoy healing and miracles here and now. That is not to say we ought to demand it or simply claim it. But it does mean we should pray for it and believe. We can receive the foretaste of God’s ultimate “restoration of all things” here and now. This is what Jesus meant we He announced, “the Kingdom of God has come.” It is here. That explains why when He sent out the 70 (or 72) he simply told them to heal the sick. He reaffirms this in the Great Commission, telling them that for “those who believe” (i.e. disciples), they will “lay hands on sick people, and they will get well”. (Mk. 16:18) 

Throughout the Christian centuries, there are instances of healings and miracles that take place at the hands of certain devout men and women. Gregory Thuamaturgus (the “Wonderworker”) is an example in the early centuries. But the list continues through the saints. And since there is no indication that it was merely for an age, I would contest that it continues through followers of Christ today.

So, what are we to conclude? Chiefly that God is good. That His ultimate plan for us is total and complete healing. And that He has suffered and paid for it on through Jesus. And based on His goodness and His ultimate plan for us, we should pray and ask for healing here and now. But above all, we have hope: for what is coming is better than what is.

Toward a Better Theology of Healing, Pt. 1

Labels can be useful, but they can often be misleading. So telling you that I am a Charismatic may not be helpful—to you or to me!—because the term can denote views that I don’t hold. When we talk about healing, labels can sound more like accusations than theological dispositions. So, in talking about healing, I’ll try to describe points of view rather than labels or denominations.

Let me say up front that I believe in the work of the Holy Spirit through the Church today. In certain streams of the Charismatic movement, the view of healing is as follows:

Because (a) God is a good God and, (b) healing is always His will, and (c) healing has been paid for in the cross, therefore, (d) our faith or sin is the only remaining barrier to having healing here and now.

We have enough decades behind us now to sensibly say that such teaching is problematic at best. What are we to make of the multitude of Christians—including popular faith preachers and pastors—who have died from illness and disease? Should we suggest they didn’t have enough faith? And if that is our conclusion, how much faith is enough? Didn’t Jesus say faith the size of a mustard seed is enough? But how do you measure faith anyway?

To be fair, when this teaching arose, there was a broad view of God as a cold, indifferent Being who sometimes sent sickness and suffering according to “His good pleasure”. The Christian was left no choice but to quietly acquiesce, and to view their condition as their divinely appointed lot in life. Such a view has more to do with the fatalism present in Buddhism than the teachings of Christ. Passive acceptance of suffering as the will of the supreme Force of the universe is not what Jesus ever told a sick person.

I suspect it was a reaction to this view of God as a distant, unsympathetic Being assigning diseases to people in His sovereign will that led many to revolt. Where some may have tried to simply teach that God is good and that sickness and disease is not His wish for any of us, others took it a step further by claiming that we should never pray “God, heal me if it’s your will” for it is always God’s will to heal. Working themselves into a logical loop knot, such healing preachers have had little choice but to claim that if any person remained un-healed, it was no fault of God’s; there must have been some sin or a lack of faith that prevented them from receiving what was rightfully theirs.

I suggest a view of God and healing that the Church has held for centuries prior, one that presents God neither as a cold school master who refuses questions nor a sugar daddy who is good only as we understand the word. Let’s begin.

1. Sickness was not God’s original design.
Adam and Eve’s bodies were not made to break down, grow weary and weak, or be susceptible to diseases and pain. Heck, they weren’t even supposed to sweat prior to the Fall. Adam and Eve were never made to grow old or bald or wrinkle or die.

2. Sickness is not God’s final outcome.
There would be not point in saying that in heaven every tear would be wiped away if there would only be more tears to come. No, when God bring the restoration of all things, there will be no more sickness, disease, injustice, or suffering of any kind. Such is the picture that John’s revelation and the heavenly and apocalyptic visions from Isaiah, Daniel and others provide (Rev. 21:1-5).

3. Jesus entered into our suffering, took it upon Himself, and, in His death and resurrection, made the way for the restoration—full healing—of all things.
Having set the original intent and the final outcome, we must ask how it is possible that will reverse the cures on the earth and humankind. How did God undo the suffering of humanity? In short, by entering it. By the incarnation, Jesus entered into our human suffering. He knows what it feels like to be abused, abandoned, beaten, bone-weary; He knows what it’s like to witness the death of a friend, or to watch a companion self-destruct in suicide. He knows what it’s like to ask the Father for a cup to pass and yet to surrender to the Father’s will above His own.

But because of His resurrection, He did more than enter it; He conquered it (Jn. 16:33). Jesus became the “firstborn from among the dead” (Col. 1: 18) so that now we have hope for the restoration of all things. As N.T. Wright, the preeminent New Testament scholar of our day, says, “God will do for the universe what He has done for Christ Jesus.”

When Isaiah wrote that the Messiah would suffer for our transgressions and that by His wounds we would be healed (Is. 53), we must see a wider picture than simply physical healing. Isaiah’s Messianic vision is of one who would end wars, bring healing to the division of God’s people, and, in short, right all that is wrong with the world. When Peter quotes Isaiah (1 Pet. 2:23-24), he is talking about right relationship with God, and then right relationships between one another. Right before quoting Isaiah, Peter describes the unjust suffering that slaves experience under the hand of the masters. He encourages their patience and forgiveness for Christ suffered unjustly too. Moreover, Christ’s suffering paid for our healing: of wounded relationships, of all injustice…and yes, of physical suffering too.

Thus far, it seems we have done little to offend. But, Part 2 is coming. 🙂 [HERE is PART 2]

Are Worship Pastors Becoming Extinct?

MCP5151792  Over the past seven years, I have served as the Director of the New Life School of Worship, a 9-month program designed to train worship leaders for local churches. We believe that to effectively prepare our students for local church worship ministry they need to be trained in more than music. They need to be grounded in theology, familiar with church history, and responsible with their handling of the Scriptures. Moreover, they need to learn what it means to be a pastor: to shepherd the people under their care. 

But it seems that some churches aren't looking for that. They would prefer a musician who can lead the "singing", oversee the tech team, and produce recordings of their original songs. None of these are bad expectations, of course. But are we looking for these trade skills at the expense of other, more essential pastoral qualities? Are worship leaders simply highly skilled technicians who have a "steady gig" at a church? 

Today's worship leader may spend more time with his Macbook than with a real book. She may be more familiar with GarageBand than the people in her band. He may be better versed with directing the choir than providing spiritual direction. 

Of course, the trade side of being a worship leader and the pastoral side are not mutually exclusive. A person can be good at Pro Tools and at pastoring the people on his team. The trouble is we've lost the sacredness of the pastoral vocation. Any person who says their core role is to pray, study, and provide spiritual direction is not as "useful" to the corporation we call church. What else can you do? we ask. Then we proceed to fill so much of their time time with scheduling bands, arranging music, and working with the latest recording software that they are no longer doing any pastoral work. Musicians and singers become cogs in a wheel, things we use to fill slots. True, the administration needs to be done. And yes, musical excellence is valuable. But at what price?

Ross Parsley, the long-time worship pastor here at New Life, is fond of saying that music ministry is not about music; it's about people. Worship ministry is first a sort of a "helps" ministry that serves the Body of Christ. But more to the point, it is an excuse for us to connect with one another. Music is the table we gather around, the place where we see each other face to face, and then learn how to walk alongside one another in this life of faith.

Perhaps the question every church who hires a worship pastor– and every aspiring worship pastor– should answer is this: What will Jesus ask us about: the music we produced, the services we programmed? Or the people we pastored, the sheep we fed?

Take time today and think about the people on your team. Pray for them. Pick up the phone and call them. Break bread with them. Talk to them about more than the setlist. Remember your calling as a worship pastor, not a music program manager. Clear some of the clutter from your week. Maybe it's time to appoint others to do the tasks that are keeping you from your role as a shepherd. You have never met a mere mortal. Our music will not last forever; these people will.

Is God Angry?

The long-standing view of God is that He is an angry school master, ready to bring the full weight of His wrath upon us at the slightest provocation. His holiness, it has been thought, necessitates His rage, but somehow Jesus persuaded the Father not to smite us– as if Christ were a poor boy begging his father not to hit his mother any more. As a counter response to this warped view, the trend in our age is to paint a picture of God as being so loving that He would never be displeased or disappointed by anything we do (as Paul Young suggests in The Shack). "God is love", we quote the Scripture, but then proceed to fill out the picture of what "love" looks like by using our human examples. But it is not human love that leads us to understand what God is like; it is God's love that sheds light on what Love is.

The pages of Scripture (particularly in the early history of Israel and in the later in the prophetic passages) are full of examples of God's anger toward sin and His destruction of sinners. There is very little doubt that God gets angry. We also understand that His anger is rooted in His justice. He can't tolerate sin and still be called "Holy". But is His anger the last word? How does His anger interact with His love? Based on both Old and New Testaments, here are some thoughts:

1. God's Love Comes First.
"But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness." Ps. 86:15 (NIV)

In Deuteronomy, when Moses is giving Israel a recap of the law and final reminders before they enter the Land without him, he reminds them that that God did not choose them because of their righteousness. In fact, as Moses goes to great lengths to remind them, they are a "stiff-necked" (stubborn) people (Deut. 9:6). But God chose them and set His affection upon them…just because (Deut. 10:15). This is grace at its clearest: God chose us before we had anything to say or do about it. Before the law was given, God chose Israel. Before they had the chance to obey, God rescued them from Egypt. As Andy Stanley points out, the law was never meant to be a means to a relationship with God; it was always designed to be proof of it. God's love always comes first; in theological words this is called the "primacy of grace". 

2. God's Anger is Superseded By His Love.

"For his anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning." Ps. 30:5 (NIV)

Before Moses restates the Law in Deuteronomy 5, he reminds them of the seriousness of the sin of idolatry. Why idolatry is such a big deal to God is the subject of a different blog, but for now what we need to notice is that God warns of a punishment by exile (Deut. 4: 24-28). If you're familiar with Old Testament history, you know that exile indeed is what they got for their sin of idolatry. But what is remarkable is how God, even while warning them of His judgment, promises His grace if they repent (Deut. 4: 29-31). He will not forsake His covenant, made to them out His love. In Deuteronomy 5, while listing the commandment against idolatry, God reiterates that idolatry will be punished to the "third and fourth" generations (which is about what they got in exile before returning to their land), but His love goes on for "a thousand generations"– a metaphor of unending love. Even in the Old Testament, God showed Israel that His love would always supersede His anger. Punishment? Yes. But love that redeems and restores in the end? A more resounding "Yes".

3. God's Love Does Not Ignore His Justice. 

"But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God's wrath through him! For if, when we were God's enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life! Not only is this so, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation." Rom. 5: 8-11 (NIV)

Sin cannot go unpunished. God's justice requires it. This is maybe the biggest difference between our love and God's– and maybe the best reason why we can't use human love as a lens for interpreting God's love: God's love is not a glossing over wrong; it is a covering over sin: a covering that, just as it did in Eden, requires bloodshed. Here is where our thinking can get weird. Jesus didn't step in and sway the hand of an angry Father. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because They are in Their very nature Love know that Their Love will always triumph over anger; collectively and communally They knew the only Way for that to happen: for Jesus to take on human flesh, die for our sin, and rise again, conquering sin and death once for all. The Father didn't not kill the Son for us. In Jesus' own words, "no man takes my life; I lay it down" (Jn. 10: 11, 15, 17, 18).

4. Our Enmity Toward God Is The Real Issue.

"You yourselves are a case study of what he does. At one time you all had your backs turned to God, thinking rebellious thoughts of him, giving him trouble every chance you got. But now, by giving himself completely at the Cross, actually dying for you, Christ brought you over to God's side and put your lives together, whole and holy in his presence. You don't walk away from a gift like that! You stay grounded and steady in that bond of trust, constantly tuned in to the Message, careful not to be distracted or diverted. There is no other Message—just this one. Every creature under heaven gets this same Message. I, Paul, am a messenger of this Message." Col. 1: 21-23 (The Message)

It is no longer God's anger toward us that stands in the way of our coming to God– thanks to Jesus! It is now our anger, our choice to be a rebel, to live as an enemy of God, our refusal to bend the knee that keeps us from Him. If we are in a hostile relationship with God, it is not because He has made us His enemy but that we have insisted on making Him ours.

So, if we ask the question in the present tense– Is God Angry?– the answer is "no". But the answer is "no" not because He never gets angry since He is "love" (as Rob Bell more than hints at in his DVD "The Gods Aren't Angry"). The answer is "no" because His love ALWAYS finds a way to trump His wrath without violating His Justice. And that Way– once and for all– is Jesus.

Thanks be to God!