Ariel Sharon's stroke: God's punishment?

Sunday, January 22, 2006

Unjustified comment?

According to televangelist Pat Robertson, Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon's near-fatal stroke might well be God's punishment for dividing up God's land. According to the book of Joel, Robertson says, God is jealous for His land. In reaction, officials in Israel have announced that they are refusing for Robertson to be involved in purchasing land for building a Christian tourist center in Galilee. Robertson has sent a letter of apology for his remark, but it is doubtful that he will be allowed back into the business deal.

Certainly God is able to punish whom He wills; He has definitely done so in the past, time and again. Look, for instance, at the case of Uzziah, whom God struck with leprosy because he unlawfully offered incense in the temple (2 Chronicles 26:16-21). New Testament examples include Ananias and his wife Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11) and perhaps some of the Corinthian Christians (1 Corinthians 11:27-33).

Strokes strike the aged

It is hard to establish, however, that a massive stroke suffered by a 77-year-old is a special judgment from God. Many people that age suffer the ill effects of the increasing infirmities of the flesh; this includes the righteous as well as the wicked. According to a 1993-94 study, for example, each year 2.6 out of 1,000 white males in the age group of 55 to 64 suffer a stroke. Among 65-74-year-old white males, however, the number more than doubles to 6.7 per 1,000. For the age group of Mr. Sharon, 75-84, it nearly doubles again at 11.3 per 1,000 ("Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2006 Update, Circulation: Journal of the American Heart Association, online edition 1/11/2006, p. 22). A few days after Mr. Sharon's stroke, on January 20, 2006, Canadian film star Tony Franciosa died of a stroke, also at age 77. We wonder what sin Mr. Franciosa was guilty of. In fact, Mr. Robertson himself, at age 65, should beware of suffering a stroke himself.

Fulfillment of prophecy?

Robertson's reasoning that God may have punished Sharon because of his willingness to give up some land to the Palestinians is flawed, both because of his use of the prophet Joel and also on more general grounds concerning the place of modern Israel in biblical prophecy.

The pertinent passages in Joel are in chapter 2, verse 18 and in chapter 3, verse 2:

The LORD will take pity on His people and be jealous for His land.

I will gather all nations and bring them down to the Valley of Jehoshaphat. There I will enter into judgment against them concerning my inheritance, my people Israel, for they scattered my people among the nations and divided up my land.

Robertson has taken these verses out of context in a cavalier fashion that is sadly typical of much modern interpretation of biblical prophecy.

Context of Joel's prophecy

Joel spoke to a national crisis in his own day, perhaps the sixth century BCE. After the people suffered a severe drought, wave after wave of locusts consumed what little remained of the crops. The prophet blames this devastation on his sinful people and challenges them to do some radical repenting. "Tear your hearts, not your garments," he says, promising that when they do, God will restore what they have lost to the drought and the locusts. What's more, He will grant them a spiritual renewal as well. Joel 2:28-32 predicts how the Lord will pour out His Spirit "on all flesh." Peter on the first Pentecost after Christ's resurrection, saw the events of the day as the fulfillment of Joel's prophecy.

Now if 30 CE (or thereabouts) was the fulfillment of Joel 2:28-32, when was Joel 2:17 fulfilled? The answer must be—just after the people of Joel's day repented. At least the evidence indicates that it would have been fulfilled after the people repented and before the first post-resurrection Pentecost. This must be the time-frame for the Joel 2:17 fulfillment, if there is any fulfillment at all.

Conditional nature of biblical prophecy

I say, "if at all," because biblical prophecy has a strong conditional element in it. This is clearly explained in Jeremiah 18:1-10. The conditions need not be explicitly stated to be implicit in the prophecy, as demonstrated by the prophecy of Jonah against Nineveh. The original recipients of prophecies understood their conditional nature, as demonstrated in 2 Samuel 12:14-23 and Jonah 3:3-10; 4:1-2.

When Joel promises a restoration of what the drought and the locusts have consumed, when he reveals God's jealousy for His land and His defense of the land against those who would divide it, that is all conditioned on the repentance of his people. If you look up "land" in a concordance you will find that God has sometimes defended his people so that they possess or retain the land, while at other times, He Himself drives them off of it (e.g., Deut. 1:8; 2 Chron. 7:19-20).

The context indicates that even Joel 3:2 anticipates a fulfillment in ancient rather than modern times, for ancient peoples are mentioned, including Tyre and Sidon, Philistia, and the Sabeans (3:4, 8), and ancient weapons are formed by reshaping farm implements (3:10).

Deflected from another message

To play this fast and loose with biblical prophecy is wrong. To do so before a worldwide audience is presumptuous, self-serving, and foolish. Mr. Robertson should be enough of a Bible student to know better than to do such a thing.

What's worse: for Robertson to speculate about the stroke being a possible punishment from God deflects everyone's attention from another message God has, both for Mr. Sharon, and for the rest of us as well. His message is: "You are mortal! Death is headed for you at 100 miles per hour. Are you prepared?"

Steve Singleton,
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Too big for just one religion?

Friday, January 06, 2006

The stimulus to our thinking

    I saw this bumper sticker on the car ahead: "God is too big for just one religion." This calls for a closer examination.

    Of course, in one sense, this statement articulates a great reality. Everyone can admit the truth of the title of J. B. Phillips's great book, Your God is Too Small. We never envision God as bigger than He really is, only smaller. We regularly underestimate His capacity to love, to empower, or to execute His perfect justice.

Foolish attempts to diminish God

    This attempted shrinking of God is not limited to Christians, those whom Jesus sometimes describes as "you with such little faith." The same thing happens among ex-believers as well. John Shelby Spong, in his attack on biblical Christianity, Why Christianity Must Change or Die (HarperCollins, 1998), praises a theology professor who became an atheist because, he explains, "he felt he could no longer be part of that faith community whose god was too small to be God for him and his world" (xviii). Yet in the name of enlarging our view of God, Spong goes on to deny that God is either omniscient (all-knowing) or omnipotent (all-powerful) (see 4-10). "The God I know," Spong confides, "is not concrete or specific.... This God can never be enclosed in propositional statements" (4).

    Such a god is not the Supreme Being of the Bible. Lacking omniscience and omnipotence, it is not Supreme. In fact it is not even a Being, but something impersonal like "The Force" of the Star Wars movies that influences us from the Beyond. In the words of John A. T. Robinson, Spong's theological mentor, "God is, by definition, ultimate reality" (Honest to God [SCM Press, 1963], 29).

    Robinson, Spong, and others must see themselves as too intellectually sophisticated to believe in "God the Father, the Almighty." God's greatness dwindles away, as well as His power, His knowledge, and even His personality. Listen to Paul's commentary of such intellectually motivated, self-imposed exile: "Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.... They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served created things rather than the Creator--who is forever praised. Amen" (Romans 1:22a, 25).

Too big for temples

    The God that reveals Himself in the Scriptures is much bigger than we conceive Him to be. Nearly 3,000 years ago, Solomon perceived this: "The heavens, even the highest heaven, cannot contain You. How much less this temple I have built?" (1 Kings 8:27). Paul confirmed this view of God in his famous sermon to the philosophers of Athens (Acts 17:24-25):

    The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by hands. And He is not served by human hands, as if He needed anything, because He himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.

The god we invented?

    Although acknowledging God's infinitude, Paul is already addressing the fallacy underlying in the statement, "God is too big for just one religion." That fallacy is conceiving of religion, in typical, post-modernist fashion, as a human construct. For religion to be valid--having divine, dynamic power because it transcends the transient and culture-specific and connects us to what is real or rather to Him who is real--it cannot be a human invention, moving from us to Deity. It must instead be a divine provision, moving from Him to us.

    Paul then continues in this same trajectory (verses 26-31):

    From one man He made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and He determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live. God did this so that men would seek Him and perhaps reach out for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us. "For in Him we live and move and have our being." As some of your own poets have said, "We are His offspring."

    Therefore, since we are God's offspring, we should not think that the Divine Being is like gold or silver or stone—an image made by man's design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now He commands all people everywhere to repent. For He has set a day when He will judge the world with justice by the man He has appointed. He has given proof of this to all men by raising Him from the dead.

Putting God in a box

    God dismisses all human-invented religion as "such ignorance," and He asserts His universal authority by commanding "all people everywhere" to repent and submit to the One He has raised from the dead. Of course, this refers to Jesus Christ, our Savior and Master.

    Those who reject God's revelation about Himself in the name of making Him bigger inevitably diminish Him. For example, those who seek to impose the cultural value of pluralism on religion suggest that God's love is too vast to reject equally sincere believers of all faiths. Spong states, "I have surely met holiness in Jews, Muslims, Hindus, and Buddhists, which I am not willing either to deny or to denigrate. So what does 'God's only son' mean to those of us who cannot and will not be bound by the religious prejudices of the past?" (11-12).

    To Spong, "holiness" must mean something other than the biblical sense of likeness to the character of Yahweh (see Leviticus 19:2) and moral purity (1 Thessalonians 4:3-8), for his examples are inconsistent with each other in how they exhibit the attribute. For the Christian, holiness has one source, Jesus Christ Himself. It is not something we achieve through rigorous discipline or ascetic practices. Along with righteousness and redemption, we receive holiness as a gift when we put on Christ (1 Corinthians 1:30-31). Accepting all religions in the name of God's love eliminates God's righteousness, His goodness, and His truth. It tells God, "You must become smaller so you can fit into my preconceptions." But God replies, "I am who I am. I will be what I will be."

The offensiveness of Christianity

    This is a significant part of the offensiveness of the cross, an aspect that modern Christians, sadly, try hard to avoid. We Christians, if we are true to our God and to His religion, are exclusivists. We cannot be obedient to the Master who revealed Himself as the Way, the Truth, and the Life if we deny His claim that "no one comes to the Father but by Me" (John 14:6). Jesus' claims are exclusive, and His earliest followers understood this clearly. Peter, Paul, and John all agree that their Master is the only salvation available (Acts 4:12, 1 Timothy 2:5-6; and 1 John 2:2).

Exclusive but inclusive

    Christian exclusivism doesn't mean we Christians seek to exclude others. Our divine mandate is to "go into all the world and proclaim the Good News to every human being" (Mark 16:15), to "teach all nations" (Matthew 28:19). That's inclusive, as inclusive as the generous heart of God.

The teachings of Christianity justify its audacious claim on all of humanity. In Christ, for example, racial and cultural distinctions no longer have significance (Galatians 3:28; Colossians 3:11). Gender roles in Christian marriage involve mutual rights and responsibilities (1 Corinthians 7:2-5; Ephesians 5:21-33). The fruit of the Spirit, growing in each Christian's heart, is what we need for the "healing of the nations": love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self control (Galatians 5:22-23; see Revelation 22:1-3). Christ's aim is world conquest, though not with the scimitar or the M-1, but with persuasion (2 Corinthians 10:3-5)! These are principles that people of all nations can endorse, and as they put them into practice, they can experience throughout the world the unity that marks God's blessing.

    God desires an intimate relationship with His creatures, but in order for that relationship to be possible, He must change us, first by redemption (saving us from the multi-effects of sin in our lives), then by sanctification (accepting us as bearers of Christ's holiness, then transforming us by His Spirit in ever-increasing holiness). In other words, He must remake us into His image; we cannot remake Him into ours.

    If we resist this work of God in our behalf, we will be excluded, not by His choice, but by ours. True religion--that which comes from God Himself--is big enough to include everyone, everyone, that is, who is willing to be forgiven and transformed.

Want to go deeper?

Here are some resources to aid you in exploring the claim of Christianity to be God's only way of salvation.

Geivett, R. Douglas. "Is Jesus the Only Way?" 177-205 in Jesus Under Fire: Modern Scholarship Reinvents the Historical Jesus, ed. Michael J. Wilkins and J. P. Moreland. Zondervan, 1995.

Jeremias, Joachim. Jesus' Promise to the Nations Fortress, 1967.

Nash, Ronald H. Is Jesus the Only Savior? Zondervan, 1994.

Olkholm, Dennis L., and Phillips, Timothy R., eds. More Than One Way? Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World, Zondervan, 1995.

Steve Singleton,
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