A treatise on vanity. This is basically the book of Ecclesiastes. What a depressing book. How is a book like that ever to be read and enjoyed, especially with our modern sensibilities? We need stuff that will make us feel good even if it is not the truth, right? Isn’t that what we need? That, at any rate, is what much of society would have us believe.
At first glance, it seems that the book of Ecclesiastes is a book that would throw you into nihilistic depression just short of suicidal. So what use has it in Scripture? Or, what, at least, use do we have for it today?
Well, it does no good to build upon a shoddy and cracked foundation. We can build all we want but all we do is for naught if the building will never truly stand. If we are to truly build something that is worth anything we must start anew. We must strip it down to the bedrock. To say that all is vanity is to say that all is cracked, you cannot build upon it. That is not to say that these things are inherently bad, they are not. But for us to understand these things, whatever they may be for you, we must first know they are desperately cracked. They can never hold anything of substance. They can truly never be built upon. They can’t hold the weight. Thus, if we experience discomfort from Ecclesiastes it is the doctor’s scalpel. It is the necessary pain for the healing of our life.
I have been reflecting on Uncle Tom’s Cabin, it has made me think about “the problem of evil.” In fact, at the end of the book Tom himself, one of the spiritual heroes of the book, is wrestling with the problem himself. In the book, there are all sorts of terrible realities that represent actual events. Injustice after injustice happen to the people in the story, and again, these stories are based on actual real life events.
One could try to do away with these sad and confused thoughts by just saying that slavery ended long ago. However, this does not solve the problem. Evil continues, injustice continues, ramifications continue. Further, there is still slavery. There is still abuse. Some live life as a mere dash in-between agony and futility. That is all they know, tossed on an endless wave of seemingly nothingness. So one does not escape the question by saying things are now good, or at least not so bad. What then is the answer to the pain, the suffering, the injustice?! Why do people, millions of people, live painful lives, just to die in greater pain?
Research shows that the “evangelical church” lost around 10 percent of her people in the last decade. There are many factors that are involved that have resulted in this decline. Further, most churches that are growing are just taking people from other churches, not converting people. The Great Evangelical Recession explores the factors involved in the decline of the church and offers suggestions for the future. I found the book helpful and thought-provoking.
Jesus and Jihad
I talked to a Muslim friend recently that said Islam and Christianity are ninety-six percent the same. I strongly disagree with him and believe most informed Muslims would as well. There is an irrevocable difference between Christianity and Islam. Some Christian missionaries go and die if need be, whereas some Muslim “missionaries” go and kill if need be. This is because Jesus died and said take up your crosses whereas Muhammad killed and said take up your swords. Jesus promises salvation through justification; Muhammad claims it comes through jihad.
It is important to understand that Jesus (Isa in the Qur’an) is quite prominent in the Qur’an and is held to be a prophet. The Qur’an assumes that its readers will have a working knowledge of Jesus and His teaching (cf. Surah 2:136; 4:29; 5:46). Islam even teaches that Jesus will return and carry out justice and “break the cross.” However, there is a very large contrast between what the Qur’an teaches about religious use of violence and what Jesus teaches on violence. So, let’s look at what Jesus has to say about violence.
Nabeel Qureshi, once a devout Ahmadiyya Muslim, is now a Christian apologist. Qureshi holds an MA in Christian apologetics from Biola University as well as an MA in religion from Duke University. So, Qureshi is qualified to write on the subject. He is personally knowledgeable not only about the academic aspects of Islam but also the relational and experiential aspects as well.
It was enlightening to see how difficult it is for a Muslim to convert to Christianity. Qureshi at one point questions whether or not Christians understood what an impact their message would have on him (p. 120). He even said, “My battle against the lordship of Jesus was an organic outgrowth of everything that defined me” (p. 172). Qureshi knew that if he decided to become a Christian he would shame his family with incredible dishonor. He was not sure if he could do that to his family after they had done so much for him (p. 252).
Hearing about Qureshi’ struggle as he thought about what it would mean to convert to Christianity was helpful. It will help me to be appropriately empathetic will discussing Christianity with Muslims. It is helpful to realize that “Muslims often risk everything to embrace the cross” (p. 253). I appreciated hearing his prayer: “O God! Give me time to mourn. More time to mourn the upcoming loss of my family, more time to mourn the life I’ve always lived” (p. 275). I also appreciated what he said about the cost of discipleship: “I had to give my life in order to receive His life. This was not some cliché. The gospel was calling me to die” (p. 278). Continue reading
What we do in this current life has an eternal impact. The New Testament insists on the decisiveness of this life. In the early church, the “idea that the coming judgment will be based on deeds done in this life was widespread.” For example, “Do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather fear him who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matt. 10:28).
All through Scripture it talks about the Day of the LORD (sg.). The Bible does not talk about judgments starting at the Great White Throne Judgment (Rev. 20:11ff) and going from there on into eternity where people have multiple chances to repent. That’s why it says, “Behold [ἰδοὺ], now [νῦν] is the day of salvation” (2 Cor. 6:2; cf. Ps. 32:6; Is. 55:6). Acts 17:31 says God “has fixed a day [sg.] on which He will judge the world in righteousness by a man whom He has appointed; and of this He has given assurance to all by raising Him [i.e. Jesus] from the dead.” Hebrews says, “it is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment [sg.]” (9:27). Thus in Scripture, we do not see that people can repent after the Judgment. Actually to get the idea of repentance after the Judgment you would have to add to Scripture. Yet, listen to Revelation: “I warn everyone who hears the words of the prophecy of this book: if anyone adds to them, God will add to him the plagues described in this book, and if anyone takes away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God will take away his share in the tree of life and in the holy city, which are described in this book” (22:18-19).
The goal here is not to give an exhaustive commentary on each passage but merely to show that there are very viable interpretations that are faithful to the whole of Scripture and do not lead to universalism.
“Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God, and there is no other.  By myself I have sworn; from my mouth has gone out in righteousness a word that shall not return: ‘To me every knee shall bow, every tongue shall swear allegiance.’”
In the LXX (the Greek translation of the Old Testament) απιστραϕητε is an imperative and means “turn around.” It has to do with changing ones beliefs and ways. It translates the Hebrew word (פָּנָה) meaning “turn” which is also in the imperative. So God here is not asking people to turn to Him, He’s commanding it. And it says that all people (from the farthest stretches of the earth) who turn to Him will be saved. But it implies that all who don’t turn to Him (in space in time before the Judgment) will not be saved. So we see precedence for “all” being saved here, that is, if any turn to the Lord from all over the earth they will be saved. Whosoever believes will be saved, Jew or Gentile. It was (in the OT and NT) an amazing thing for Paul for example that Gentiles can now be welcomed in (he called it a mystery). All the uncircumcised, the Egyptians that enslaved Israel, the Babylonians, all people that turn to the Lord (in space in time before the Judgment) will be saved. They will be saved from the terror of the Messiah’s Second Coming and the Final Destruction.
In the context, this passage would strike fear into the hearers, not comfort. This passage is saying, “repent and turn or else!” Further, v. 25 says “all the offspring of Israel shall be justified,” i.e. all those who have faith (see e.g. Rom. 2:28-29; 4:1-16; 9:6), not all without exception. “Yahweh’s speech ends with a prediction of destructive fire for those who do not submit to his reality and reign (Isa 47:14-15)… There is voluntary submission for some and involuntary submission for others.”
When we interpret “forever” in English, as well as in Greek, context is king. For example, when someone gets back from the DMV and says to us, “that took forever,” what do we interpret that phrase to mean? We take a number of things into account in our interpretation. We understand that it takes a relatively long time at the DMV and we understand that people very often joke about how long it takes at the DMV. We also take into account that the person is standing in front of us saying, “that took forever” which clearly demonstrates that it did not in fact literally take forever.
The person that said “forever” was using it as an expression for “a long time.” However, if that same person said, “God is forever” we would understand that we need to interpret that “forever” differently. Why? Because context is king. And context is telling us that the referent in this case is “God,” not the DMV, and that fact changes the meaning of the word “forever.”
The Bible tells us that certain things are eternal/everlasting. For instance, God is eternal (Rev. 4:9-10), Jesus is alive forevermore (Rev. 1:18), heaven is eternal (Jn. 3:16), and judgment in hell is eternal. If we say judgment in hell is not eternal then we lose grounds for saying that God, Jesus, and heaven are eternal since the same words are explicitly and very intentionally used to express the eternity of each subject under question (and the eternality of hell and heaven are even paralleled in Matthew 25:46).
All throughout the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, we see two distinct groups. God has called particular people from all nations. As James Hamilton has said, “People are either seed of the serpent, on the side of the snake in the garden, or seed of the woman, on the side of God and trusting in his promises.”
The careful reader of Scripture can see the enmity between the two seeds in Genesis and in fact through the whole Old Testament. There are physical decedents of Eve that are spiritually seed of the serpent. This is not just something we see in the Old Testament though. We see it through the whole of Scripture (cf. e.g. Matt. 13:38; Jn. 8:44; 1 Jn. 3:8). We see two distinct seeds with two distinct ends from the beginning of Genesis (cf. esp. Gen. 3:15) to the end of Revelation (cf. e.g. Rev. 21).
Notice that in 2 Thessalonians 1:7-10 there are two groups: 1) those who did not believe and thus receive judgment and 2) those who do believe and thus enjoy the presence of God and marvel at Him. And notice Jesus separates the goats from the sheep based on what they did in their earthly lives (Matt. 25:32ff). People are gravely either goat or sheep, wise or fool, darkness or light, faithful or faithless, in Christ or damned.
As I have said, the Bible shows to different humanities, one lost and the other saved, one in heaven and one in hell. This is what we see throughout the story of Scripture and this is what we see reflected in other places in the early church’s teaching. For instance, the Didache (50-120AD) says, “There are two ways, one of life and one of death, and there is a great difference between the two ways” (1:1).