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Disciple All the Nations

Nations exist in space.  There are the nations of the UK, Germany and France; South Africa, Zambia and Zimbabwe; Iran, Iraq and Afghanistan.  Many Christians have gone to these and other nations.  The church I was in at university sends students out to Zambia; the church I am in now sends people to Tanzania and South Africa.

We are told to go out to all nations, telling them the good news of Jesus.  Christians make a point of trying to reach people whose ancestors had no knowledge of Christianity.  These are called the unreached people; the ones who have never heard.

But nations exist in time as well as space.  150 years ago, our nation was composed of entirely different people.  Every day new people join our nation and old people leave.  So our nation today is a new nation; people today are new people.

We cannot assume that people in the UK have heard the truth in Christianity.  Many may have heard a garbled version.  There are many people who think Jesus’ death for sin applied only to people up to the time of Jesus; who think Mary is the third person of the Trinity; who have no idea that Christians today believe God miraculously heals people; who think Christians are homophobic and misogynistic.  People are astounded when they hear the true good news.

We cannot assume that people will hear from their parents or general society.  The message people hear is that church is boring, stuck in past cultures, judgemental, intolerant.  How will they hear the truth if we make no effort to tell them, choosing instead to go to other people in other places?  How can we expect them to decide when their knowledge is incomplete and biased?

All nations today are new nations.  All need to hear about God.  Don’t forget the people around you in your own country, your own nation that needs to hear.

Noah’s Flood – Part 2

What the Bible says

Having looked at what science says, we now need to consider what the Bible says.  For Christians, the Bible is the ultimate source of truth, and if science presents a different story then it is science that is ignored.  At such times it is worth reconsidering our interpretation of the Bible, to ask if it is not science but rather our interpretation of the Bible that is at fault.

This does not mean twisting the Bible to fit a particular view.  Rather this should mean that we try to remove all preconceptions of what the Bible ‘should’ say and come afresh to ask what it does say.

 

Several words and phrases in the Noah story can be interpreted in different ways.  How we interpret them has a large influence on whether we believe the Bible to be describing a regional or a global flood.  These are:

  • the word erets (אֶרֶץ) translated earth could equally mean land, and refer not to the entire planet but to a geographical region such as the Tigris/Euphrates basin (and in fact, the concept of ‘planet’ or ‘whole earth’ in our sense is arguably anachronistic for the period of the text’s inception)
  • phrases containing the word all (qol, קֹל) would then naturally be understood as relative to the region under discussion
  • har (הַר) translated mountain could equally mean hill or (as in Har Megiddon/ מְגִדּוֹ הַר/ Armageddon) city mound
  • ‘Mt. Ararat’ is a KJV mistranslation of hare Ararat (הָרֵי אֲרָרָט) which means the hills (pl.) of Urartu, and refers not to a 16,000 ft.+ peak in the Caucasus, but to foothills just north of the Iraqi plain

Other Biblical evidence comes from the use of this account by later writers of the Bible.

  • 2 Peter 2v5 [and] if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness and seven others…

The phrase ‘ancient world’ (kosmos palaio; κοσμος παλαιος) could as well be translated ‘ancient order of things.’  It need not mean the entire earth, any more than it means the entire universe.

  • 1 Peter 3:18-21a — For Christ died for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  He was put to death in the body, but made alive by the Spirit, through whom also he went and preached to the spirits in prison who disobeyed long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.  In it only a few people, eight in all, were saved through water, and this water symbolises baptism that saves you also…

The universality of God saving mankind through Jesus does not depend on the universality of the flood, as some have interpreted this passage to mean.  The principle is the saving through water, and the universality of death applied to everyone in the area of the flood who was not in the ark.

  • Luke 17:26-29 — “Just as it was in the days of Noah, so also will it be in the days of the Son of Man.  People were eating and drinking, marrying and being given in marriage up to the day Noah entered the ark.  Then the flood came and destroyed them all.  It was the same in the days of Lot.  People were eating and drinking, buying and selling, planting and building.  But the day Lot left Sodom, fire and sulphur rained down from heaven and destroyed them all.”

The ‘all’ may mean those in Noah’s area, just as with Lot the ‘all’ meant those in Sodom.

  • Isaiah 54:9 — “To me this is like the days of Noah, when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.  So now I have sworn not to be angry with you, never to rebuke you again.  Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion on you.

God is speaking here to his people, Noah’s descendants, and thus the point made is not lost if the word erets is translated as land.  Given that as Gentiles we have been grafted into Abraham’s line, strict physical descendance is not necessary for us.

 

The existence of a global flood is possible on theological and textural grounds, but so is the possibility that it was a regional event.  Given that the scientific and historical evidence is firmly against a global flood, it makes sense to choose the interpretation that fits with other sources.

Noah’s Flood – Part 1

What Science Says

Like Creation, Noah’s flood can be a highly emotive topic for Christians.  There are those who insist it is and must be literally true in every detail and others who would prefer to say that some sort of flood occurred but some details could be interpreted differently.  Bitter arguments can quickly arise and division occur over this part of Scripture.

This is an area that science can comment on.  Because it describes an historic flood of potentially global scale, there should be evidence in the geological record of what happened.  Enough is known of the consequences and hallmarks of floods that it is possible to postulate what evidence a global flood would have left behind.  We can then look to see if such evidence exists.

 

When a flood occurs, particularly one of the extent and catastrophic nature of the flood described in Genesis, rocks become broken up and are carried away from their original place.  As the flood subsides these rocks are dropped into new resting places, creating a layer of broken-up rock.  It would be clear from the type of rock that they had not formed in their current position, but had formed elsewhere and then be carried to their current position by water.

In floods of high-energy and a catastrophic nature, a lot of material is carried of varying nature and size.  When the water loses its energy the material would be dropped together, creating a deposit of rocks that are very mixed in their size.  In other places, energy would be lost from the water slowly.  In these situations the largest rocks are dropped first, and as more energy is gradually lost increasingly smaller rocks are deposited.  This creates a layered deposit with the largest rocks at the bottom and the smallest at the top.

The flow of the water causes rocks from very different areas to all be mixed together.  The water will carry plant and animal matter along with it.  When these are deposited, there will be plants and animals dropped together that are not usually found in the same place.  There may be land animals deposited in the sea; animals from mountains found with animals from plains; those from forests found with those from deserts.

Carbon dating would reveal that these unusual deposits occurred somewhere in the last 10 000 years (depending on your belief of when the flood occurred).  Some of the deposits on land would have unusually high salinity.  Whilst some land deposits might have been eroded, the sea bed should show a continuous layer of unusual deposits in which organisms normally living on land are found mixed with the deposits of those that live in the sea.

 

None of these features are present in the geological record.  In particular, the sea bed shows no evidence of a global flood of such size that everything, except Noah and those with him, died.  There are no deposits in which animals and plants from a variety of places are found together, and neither are there any high salinity deposits.

Most strikingly, no lakes show evidence of a global flood.  Lakes have characteristic deposits, as the amount of matter that is deposited and the rate at which it is deposited varies with season.  These clear annual cycles in some of our well-studied lakes clearly stretch back for over 10 000 years with no interruption by a catastrophic flood.  Floods have occurred, but they are regional floods such that a year in which a flood occurred in one lake is not matched by evidence of a flood in the same year in another lake.

There is thus no evidence that there was a flood that covered the entire earth.

Without such evidence, some have postulated that the entirety of the sedimentary rock sequence worldwide is the result of Noah’s flood.  But this theory has many problems.  Coral reefs live in shallow water, gradually growing upwards.  Fossil coral reefs would not have formed over a few months in the turbulent seas of a global flood.  Swamps show multiple generations of channels that also would have taken years, not months, to form.

The Grand Canyon has been cited as a feature carved out by global flood waters.  But the features of the Coconino Sandstone, a rock formation in the Canyon, show that it was formed by the sustained action of wind in an arid environment.  The rounded sand grains and steep sides are inconsistent with the jagged shape and shallow slopes that water would create.

 

A worldwide flood that wiped out all humans except Noah and his family would show a cessation in human activity across the globe, at the same period of time.  There would then be a gradual return of human activity, starting in the region of Noah and spreading outwards as humans recolonized the earth.  There is no such cessation and recolonisation pattern in the global record.

There is evidence of regional flood in the Mesopotamian basin, where Noah lived.  These floods were catastrophic for the local population.

Other historical evidence would appear as oral traditions of catastrophic floods.  We have the Genesis account, and also the Greek Deucalion myth and the Sumerian Ziusudra tradition which are from the nearby territories.  Other flood stories come from across the world, but these bear less resemblance to the Genesis account.

 

The science therefore tells us that there was not a global flood.

Making a god of God

Yesterday I went to Coventry with my sister.  We went to see the old cathedral, the one that had fallen down when bombs hit in during WW2.  As we sat and chatted we started talking about God and how we relate to him.

We are often told not to make a god of money, or beauty, or success.  Time and again preachers will stand and say that we should not make these things our goal, our aim in life; that we can serve God or money but not both.  We know we are idolising them, making gods of them, when we always want more and are not satisfied with what we have.   We start sacrificing our time, our energy, our health, our friendships so that we can get more and more of our god.

We are told not to make gods of these things.  But we don’t always remember the other side of this, the positive side, that there is a God who should stand in our life as God.

How many of us make a god of God?

Knowing God should be our goal, glorifying him the aim of our life.  We should want more and more of him, never satisfied with what we have.  All our time, our energy, our wealth and beauty should be spent in knowing and serving God.  We shouldn’t even hesitate when being God’s disciple means sacrificing our health and friendships.

The people who built Coventry Cathedral knew this.  They knew what was due to God and what he was worth.  Let us become people who build cathedrals.

Creation and evolution

Creation and evolution can be emotive topics for Christians.  Some believe, or are taught to believe, that only Young Earth Creationists are Christians; it is not possible to be a Christian and believe in evolution.

What does the Bible say?  It says God created the universe and everything in it.  It says the universe had a beginning, and has not existed forever.    It says God created all life.  It says man (humankind; men and women) was made in the image of God.  It says God sustains everything.

What does science say?  Until recently, it said the universe was eternal and had existed for ever.  It says that life did not always exist; that it started simple and unicellular, and became more complex and multicellular.  It says that as each organism reproduces, some changes are transmitted to the descendants.  These changes, if beneficial, allow the descendant to reproduce at a higher rate than co-descendants without that change.  Thus these changes become widespread in the population, by virtue of producing more organisms without that change.  This is evolution.

What does the Bible not say?  It does not – necessarily – say that the universe, earth and life were created in seven literal 24-hour days.  This is because the word ‘yom’ used for day is used in other places that do not mean ’24-hour day.’ It is used to mean daylight, 24 hour day, a season, a period of time, year, forever.[1]

It does not say how God created.  He spoke, and it was so.  Did it come gradually, or all at once?  The bible doesn’t say.

What does the Bible say about the order of creation?  It says that God created the earth.  He then separated water into sky and sea; and separated the sea to give land.  Then came plants.  After that God made the sun, moon and stars visible (the Hebrew is in the past tense, meaning they had been made before the fourth day, but were not visible at this time because of the clouds.)  The next day came animals in the oceans, and flying animals.  This is commonly translated as birds, but the term correctly refers to flying animals.  These could equally be translated as flying insects.  After that came land animals, and last of all the humans.

What does science say about the order of universe and life formation?  It says the Earth formed around 4.53 billion years ago.  It says that over time the earth cooled, and water condensed into clouds and oceans.  Life began as organisms – similar to today’s bacteria – that used solar energy and released oxygen, in the way that plants do (plants contain remnants of the earlier bacteria-type organisms as chloroplasts in their cells).  Multicellular life, similar to the plants and animals we would recognise today, began in the oceans.  Plants evolved first, then animals.  Plants were also the first to get on to land, followed by the arthropods (insects, spiders, crabs and lobsters); the insects were the first organisms to develop flight.  After this, vertebrate animals moved onto land.  Much later, humans arrived.

How does this compare to the Bible?  The story of evolution is a lot more complex; many details are included.  In contrast the Genesis account of creation is simplistic and told in poetical language.  It is structured and repeats certain phrases – and God said; it was good; morning and evening; the next day.  The Bible only ever discusses plants on land, and animals.  It therefore completely misses out the bacteria, archaebacteria, fungi and water-dwelling plants.

The Bible and history of the universe agree on two very important things: the beginning of the universe, and the order of creation/formation.  There are some important things to consider.  The Bible may be referring only to things that can be seen from land, with the unaided eye.  Most created organisms are completely ignored.  Equally, the sun, moon and stars were ignored until they would have been visible from earth.

Both agree that after the formation of the earth, water condensed into sea and sky.  Plant/plant precursors were the first things to be created/evolve; these may have been left out from the creation account as the first reference to living things is plants on land.  Then came animals in the oceans, and flying animals – these would be insects, as vertebrates made it to land some time after the arthropods (insects, spiders, crabs and such like).  Having populated the oceans, vertebrates finally moved on to land, and humans arrived much later.

The Bible and science therefore agree on how life came to be.  The only question is whether God created by speaking and causing instantaneous effect in 24-hour periods of time, or whether he created through a period of evolution.  I am inclined to trust the scientific evidence, given that the Biblical account is too simplistic and misses out too much information for us to be able to glean any reliable idea from the Bible alone of exactly how God created the universe and the life in it.

A Christian Response to Suffering

I’ve been talking a lot with my family recently about appropriate responses to suffering.

One of the most common responses I’ve come across is “You need to find out what God is trying to teach you through this.”  Sometimes it’s true.  God does discipline us, so it may be that he is encouraging us to address a specific issue in our life.  He may want us to develop perseverance through the testing of our faith.  He may want us to develop character and hope.

Sometimes it’s even helpful to be told this.  Most of the time, though, I have found it to be one of the least helpful things.  It gets a bit too close to Job’s comforters, who told him his suffering was his fault, because of unconfessed sin.  It implies I am suffering because I am ignorant, or lazy, or not listening.  Sometimes it’s true.  Sometimes there is something God specifically wants to say to me, and when I start to listen, I start to get through the suffering, or learn to rejoice in it.

A lot of the time though, I feel this isn’t the case, or isn’t all of it.  What if I’m suffering just because I live in a broken world?  What if I’m suffering because of someone else’s sin – because someone else chose to act in a way to harm me, or chose not to act in a way that would help me?

Sometimes life is just hard.  It’s stressful; it’s painful; it’s exhausting; it’s unrewarding.  At times like this I don’t need to be told to “find out what God is teaching me.”  If I haven’t learnt to trust God yet, to be confident in his love, to know that he is clever enough and powerful enough to be in control, then the time when I feel let down is not the time when I learn.  The time when I learn is the good times when I learn from the Bible how he came through for others; and the time when he comes through for me.

What I need is someone to show me what God is teaching me – that he loves me.  That no trouble, hardship, presecution, famine, nakedness, danger or sword can ever cut me off from his love, stop him feeling love towards me or stop him showing love towards me.  That death, life, angels, demons, present, future, powers, height, depth, anything ever created – none of it can separate me from God and his love.

If someone would do the housework, look after the children, meet a deadline, make a cake, write a letter; then I would learn that God cares for me and takes action to look after me.  If someone would help us over the financial hole, relieve the pressure by doing some of what needed to be done for us, and remind us every day that they love us and will help us, then I would know too that God loves me and will help me.

Sometimes suffering just is.  And sometimes the best thing we can do for someone is not to preach to them, to enter a discourse on the merits of suffering, or expound on the latest self-help book.  The world is broken; people are broken.  Sometimes we need to stop theorising and get on with practical care that allows others the time to heal, without demanding that they put themselves back together through their own strength.

Science and Faith

Science as we know it began only 400 years ago, in the 16th and 17th centuries.  Before this, Plato and his pupil Aristotle were two of the first to develop the use of mathematics and deductive reasoning.  Aristotle went further, using observation and inductive reasoning to reach universal truths.  The development of science was interrupted by factors such as the division of the Roman Empire, the Mongol Conquest and the Black Death.  Modern Science in Europe restarted during the Protestant/Catholic reformation.

The scientific revolution is considered to have started in the mid-16th century.  It was a time when it became possible to question the orthodoxy that had survived.  Many previously universal beliefs were now discredited, such as the earth at the centre of the universe and Aristotle’s four elements – air, fire, water and earth.  Under Aristotle, it was observation and reasoning that led to knowledge.  Leading up to and during the scientific revolution, science began to incorporate empiricism – that the only, or primary, source of knowledge is through sensory experience.  This contrasts with rationalism, which holds that knowledge is reached through reasoning.

In relation to the truth of his own existence, God advocates both rationalism and empiricism.  He tells us that his reality is shown through creation.   “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.”[1]  God also tells us that we can verify what his disciples – previously Jews, now Christians – say by the acts that accompany them.  A prophet is only a prophet if his prophecies come true.  “Jesus of Nazareth was a man accredited by God to you by miracles, wonders and signs.”[2]  “Paul and Barnabas spent considerable time there, speaking boldly for the Lord, who confirmed the message of his grace by enabling them to perform signs and wonders.”[3]  “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and by gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.”[4]

As regards anything else, the Bible is not a scientific book.  It consists of records of history, records of prophecies made and fulfilled, songs and wise sayings, and letters of theology written to the young church.  Some statements have been interpreted as science: “Have you journeyed to the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?”[5] is taken to be referring to hydrothermal vents and ocean troughs.  “When he established the force of the wind and measured out the waters,”[6] (literally, made weight for the wind)is considered to refer to the fact that air does have mass, a concept that is held to have not been around until recently.   Yet, “Where were you when I laid the earth’s foundations?”[7] is not similarly construed as referring to the literal base of a (presumably flat) earth.  Nor is “In the heavens he has pitched a tent for the sun,”[8] taken to be literal.

It is important that we do not read into the Bible anything that is not intended to be there.  Nowhere does the Bible make a deliberately scientific statement.  There are books of poetry and prophecy which contain metaphorical and allegorical statements, some of which turn out to have correlation with natural processes.  There are statements of history which refer to perceived processes.  The world began; the Red Sea parted; the Jordan dried up; Jericho’s walls fell down; the sun rises and sets; a new star shone over Bethlehem.  The Bible records these as facts.  What it doesn’t do is go into detail about how they happened.

We can use science, historical artefacts and our knowledge of the world to work out how these happened.  Perhaps God created through evolution – maybe he even enjoyed watching all these diverse species live and change.  After all it’s his creation and he is entitled to get enjoyment out of his creative process.  The Red Sea may have been literally blown back by winds and the Jordan stopped by a landslide upstream.  Jericho’s walls may have been structurally weakened by the rhythmic marching of thousands of people.  The sun doesn’t move but the earth does rotate, creating the appearance of the sun moving.  Various explanations have been put forward to explain the Bethlehem star.

There are times when the Bible and science are in conflict.  The Bible says that the universe has a beginning, but it was only in the 1960s that the notion of a non-eternal universe became acceptable in modern science.  Up until then, science was in conflict with the Bible as regards this issue.  The idea of special creation vs evolution is another area in which some consider the Bible to be in conflict with science.

I would argue that the most important thing here is to not make either the Bible or science say something that in fact they don’t say.  There are areas of disagreement between ‘science’ and ‘the Bible,’ but these may be because of misinterpretation of the Bible or of science, or because of a lack of knowledge.  We don’t know everything, and should be able to recognise that this limits our ability to judge accurately in all matters.  It is acceptable, even logical and rational, to be agnostic over some things.

 


[1] Romans 1 v 20

[2] Acts 2 v 22

[3] Acts 2 v 22

[4] Acts 14 v 3

[5] Job 38 v 16

[6] Job 28 v 25

[7] Job 38 v 4

[8] Psalm 19 v 4