The last enemy

If you have not been keeping up with new film releases or reading the cinema reviews, you may well have missed it. Life in a Day is a documentary that began as a YouTube spin-off designed to provide a portrait of global life on a single day (July 24, 2010), put together from videos generated by YouTube users. It in fact mushroomed into something rather grander – a panorama of modern human life around the world.

In order to provide material for the film YouTube users were asked, while filming their video diaries on that July day, to answer three questions: ‘What do you love? What do you fear? What’s in your pockets?’ It’s a measure of how such technological innovations have spread across the world that 80,000 YouTube users in 153 countries uploaded 4500 hours of video footage. For someone scribbling a blog with a free pen, these are amazing statistics. From such raw material Life in a Day was assembled.

As we might expect the answers to ‘What do you love?’ were diverse, reflecting people’s ability to love all manner of things, animate and otherwise. Rather more interesting is the fact that in answer to ‘What do you fear?’ everyone included death. Age, ethnicity, socio-economic class, geographical location: no factor made a difference to the universally acknowledged fear of death.

That will not come as a great surprise to anyone attuned to what the Bible has to say on the subject of death. More of that in a moment. More surprising, however, is the general optimism that pervades the contributions to the project. The film’s producer commented that ‘people in the film, no matter how tough their circumstances, were overwhelmingly positive about life. In fact … we were desperately trying to find something, anything, dark to help balance the narrative, but we really struggled. People were simply inherently positive’. What are we to make of all this?

Universal fear of death is something we should expect. At the simplest level, death is inescapable: nobody who thinks seriously about the subject can really contemplate cheating death indefinitely. It’s there, waiting, sooner or later. How it will come is naturally a source of anxiety, fear, even terror. How much pain? How long to endure? When?? In that context we may understand, though we would not endorse, calls for the timing of death to be put in each individual’s hands through the legalisation of euthanasia.

Death is, of course, ‘the wages of sin’, a death that embraces much more than the cessation of physical life and a return to the dust. Death in its full biblical sense involves spiritual death: separation from God, the source of all that is good, the one whose fellowship is ‘life in its fulness’. Unless divine grace intervenes, that death will become everlasting. There is plenty of cause to fear death, with the deepest reasons often operating below the level of consciousness.

But whence the positivity? Self-reporting is of course not always reliable and it may be that the less positive didn’t offer their thoughts to the film makers. That cannot explain the overwhelming optimism entirely. For some it may well have been due to religious faith. It would seem that for many, however, an underlying fear of death is not generally allowed to colour people’s thinking too much. Perhaps it is kept locked up in an obscure corner of people’s minds so that they can avoid thinking about it or facing up to its implications for living. We can all slide into the attitude that if we don’t think about something unpleasant, it won’t happen. Unsurprisingly people don’t want to think about death if they can possibly avoid it.

That must have implications for our evangelism, since we have the only true answer to death in the good news of a crucified and risen Saviour. It is a message that gives us true hope for time and eternity, not a self-generated optimism with no solid foundation, which will ultimately prove to be an illusion.

Lookin’ good!

The camera can lie. It has always been able to, and with the advent of digital technology the possibilities for manipulating images are endless. Most of us find the possibility of looking better in our photographs than we are in the flesh quite attractive, but it scarcely matters since we do not earn our living from our looks (and just as well, too). In the fashion industry, however, appearance is everything, and for those in the media appearance is also a serious issue. Not surprisingly, many pictures of models, media ‘personalities’ and even sports stars are thoroughly airbrushed before publication. They are a symptom of a deep-seated problem.

Increasingly our society is obsessed with bodily appearance. From every direction the media bombard us with the message that in order to be happy and successful we must have a certain body image – young, slim, well-dressed, tanned (as long as it comes out of a bottle, given the dangers of skin cancer). Appearance, we are told, is everything. Nothing that is more than skin deep is really significant.

The results are devastating. More and more people are becoming anxious about their appearance, apart from those who faced facts and gave up on that futile pursuit years ago. It isn’t only the more ‘mature’ who invest their hard-earned cash in the premature rigor mortis of Botox injections. Some who would be hard-put to find a wrinkle at their age are also eager customers. For those with less money or a little more sense there are numerous cheaper options. How ironic it is that these treatments, which of necessity are repeated regularly, in fact provide a regular reminder of the ageing process. Saddest of all are the young girls (and some boys) who become so desperate to avoid supposed fatness that they develop anorexia, sometimes with fatal consequences. The day of stick-thin models may have gone, but for too many people the presence of an ounce, or more, of extra fat is a cause of shame and anxiety. And as for wrinkles….! As a result Girlguiding UK recently mounted a campaign aimed at ensuring that airbrushed images in magazines and adverts are clearly labelled as such. A petition, containing 25,000 signatures, was presented to 10 Downing Street. Whether it will have the desired effect remains to be seen.

The Christian’s first reaction to such cultural trends may well be to deny that the body has any real importance and so should be ignored, other than doing the minimum to maintain health. Isn’t the body only dust and destined to return to dust? Isn’t God interested in the soul and isn’t our task to save souls? Surely the body is of peripheral concern to Christians? In the history of the Church there has been a significant weight of opinion that encouraged the despising of the body as, at least, beneath concern, or, at worst, positively evil. Extreme versions of this outlook led some to live as hermits in the desert, trying to beat their recalcitrant bodies into submission.

It is an outlook, however, that owes more to pagan thinking than to the Bible. The Scriptures clearly teach from the outset that God created human beings with bodies as well as souls. The body may derive from ‘the dust of the ground’, but it is God’s handiwork and in Genesis 1:31 is included in God’s verdict that his creation was all ‘very good’. By God’s design, man is an embodied creature. Indeed Calvin even speculated that man’s upright position, distinguishing him from the animals, was an element in the image of God which he possessed.

The human body is of concern to God, and is therefore not to be despised or neglected. Many of the regulations of the Mosaic Law – God’s Law – related to the body. There are rules governing health, hygiene, disease, clothing, sexuality. The body matters to God. It is of course also implicated in sin. It is through the body that our fallen nature often expresses itself and the body too suffers the consequences of sin, finally returning to the dust from which it was taken.

One of the most amazing aspects of the Christian faith is the fact that in order to save men and women the eternal God actually took human nature, the body included, into permanent union with himself. The early Church quickly recognised that denials of the true bodily nature assumed by the Son were heretical and to be rejected. The redemption accomplished by Christ required bodily suffering to the point of death, followed by a triumphant bodily resurrection and ascension. The Saviour who reigns in heaven still has, and always will have, that body.

Salvation, God’s gift to sinners, embraces the body. The Lord saves people – not just disembodied souls. Paul reminds us that our bodies are temples of the Holy Spirit and that everything we do with them is of concern to God. ‘Therefore honour God with your body’ (I Corinthians 6:20). In the same vein the apostle urges us ‘to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God’ (Romans 12:1). Sanctification must involve the body, and our Christian hope is of eternal life in resurrected, perfected bodies.

The world’s obsession with the body needs to be met not with ascetic denial of the significance of the body, but with a biblical theology of the body – created by God, fallen into sin and redeemed in Christ.

God, the universe and Stephen Hawking

He’s done it! Amazing! Who would have thought it? Stephen Hawking has proved there is no need for a God to explain the existence of the universe. Forget your Richard Dawkins and the rest of the amateurs. Here is one of the greatest living physicists stating definitively that ‘It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going’. In his latest book The Grand Design, co-authored with Leonard Mlodinow, he considers the great questions ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist? Why this particular set of laws and not some other?’ His response is that a vast number of universes spontaneously created themselves out of nothing and, with so many universes on offer, one happened to have exactly the conditions necessary for the evolution of human beings. Simple, isn’t it? And you thought physics was hard!

The attacks on Christianity mounted by popular atheists like Richard Dawkins are generally at the level of knockabout comedy, trying to give tired old arguments a new lease of life, vulnerable to the same answers that Christians used to destroy those arguments the first, second or third time that they came around. Hawking is a different proposition. His case against a Creator comes dressed in impressive sounding scientific terminology.

Hawking’s explanation for the existence of this universe, and many others, is ‘M-theory’. Don’t ask what ‘M’ stands for – even proponents of the theory don’t know. It isn’t even a single theory – it’s a family of theories, each applicable in different circumstances. I would try to explain M-theory to you, but the spectacle of the blind leading the blind is not edifying, and ditches are a constant hazard. Suffice it to say that it has to do with strings – not the old-fashioned sort that come in balls and are cut with scissors, but strings none the less. Think of it – the universe is made of string. And they laugh at Genesis! The bottom line for Hawking is this: ‘According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law’.

Don’t be fooled, however. M-theory may sound impressive, and it’s certainly complex, but it’s actually as full of holes as a block of Swiss cheese. Stephen Hawking has no more disproved the existence of a Creator than has Richard Dawkins or any other noisy atheist. It’s worth noting that other world-class physicists have raised serious doubts about M-theory, and Frank Close, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, has stated, ‘I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God-debate, either pro or con’.

To begin with, Hawking is trying to tell us that ‘philosophy is dead’. Multitudes of the greatest thinkers, past and present, believing and unbelieving, would dismiss Hawking’s assertion for the rubbish it is. If only what can be observed and measured is real, what of love, loyalty and an thousand other non-material realities? Time and again such naïve materialism has been debunked, although it’s a persistent weed.

Irony of ironies, M-theory itself is not and, it is admitted, may never be open to testing. The multitude of universes of which it speaks cannot be observed, but we ‘know’ they must be there. Haven’t Christians been lambasted for speaking of God is such terms? In fact M-theory doesn’t qualify as science, even on the definition of Hawking and others of the same outlook. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is not science. M-theorists don’t need Christians to shoot them in the foot – they do it perfectly well themselves.

‘Ah’, Hawking disciples will say, ‘Religion is a matter of faith, science is a matter of fact’. A theory that asks you to accept multitudes of undetectable universes springing into existence spontaneously sounds very like a demand for a blind leap of faith, and a bigger leap than belief in a personal Creator. And by the way, scientific laws describe what happens, they don’t make anything happen, not even the spontaneous creation of universes. (And who made the laws??).

The fact is that such theories as Hawking propounds are simply ways of avoiding what is staring every human in the face: the universe is a testimony to the existence of a Creator. As Paul says with reference to all human beings: ‘what may be known about God is plain to them. 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 men are without excuse’ (Romans 1:19-20). Physicists, cosmologists and others are seizing on M-theory and similar proposals because otherwise the evidence for fine tuning and design in the universe could suggest the hand of a Creator. Much better to opt for the unprovable and untestable than to submit your mind to divine revelation and lay aside your rebellion. M-theory – more nonsense on stilts.

Mirror, muzzle, map

We live in a lawless society. It’s not that there is no law or law-enforcement, but our culture is thoroughly anti-authoritarian and so anything to do with legal requirements or legal restrictions is never viewed without distaste, even hostility. Laws are frequently given only grudging obedience, even when they are for one’s own good.

That attitude carries over into spiritual matters. The law of God is not a popular subject today. Few have any desire to hear about a God who tells people what they ought to do and how they ought to live. God’s law is written off as oppressive or unnecessary. It would be a serious enough matter if this outlook were found only outside the church. Tragically, many Christians have little understanding of the purpose of God’s law, scant sense of any need for it, and a suspicion of those who have something to say in support of it.

How is it then that the psalmist can say, ‘O how I love your law’ (Psalm 119:97)? Lest that be written off as ‘just the Old Testament’, listen to the apostle Paul in Romans 7:22 – ‘in my inner being I delight in God’s law’. The truth is that God’s law is a precious gift to the human race. It expresses in practical human terms what Gods’ holiness looks like, and so it spells out his requirements for every aspect of our life and conduct. It is vital for Christians to understand the proper place of God’s law in human life.

God’s law is first of all a mirror. God requires of every person perfect obedience to his law. As his creatures we are under obligation to keep his law in every detail. Note the divine comment in Leviticus 18:5 – ‘Keep my decrees and laws, for the man who obeys them will live by them’. Jesus himself echoes this truth when he says to the rich young man in Matthew 19:17 ‘If you want to enter life, obey the commandments’. The obligation resting on each of us is identical.

The problem is, however, that we cannot meet God’s standard: ‘all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God’ (Romans 3:23). Failure at one point is enough to constitute us lawbreakers (James 2:12), as one crack breaks an entire pane of glass.

God’s law holds up a mirror to us, showing the reality of our sin. It forces us to see that we break specific commandments. If we are willing to listen, God’s law shows us what we are really like, but it is powerless to change us. It is ‘through the law we become conscious of sin’ (Romans 3:20). Indeed, as Paul discovered, the law can even provoke sin in us (Romans 7:7-8). In ourselves we have no hope.

The mirror of the law, however, has a positive function in that it drives us to Christ. Sinners awakened by the Holy Spirit’s application of the law to their consciences realise their need of a Saviour and turn to Christ.

God’s law is also a muzzle. In relation to society as a whole, it is given to restrain the outward expression of human sinfulness. It serves to prevent some sinful actions that would otherwise have been committed. The law of God cannot change human nature, but it can restrain the manifestation of sin. That deterrent effect will operate where God’s Word is known and where the Church has some degree of influence. The law is also written on the heart of every person (Romans 2:14-15), reminding us of God’s holiness and justice. When the fear of God and respect for his Word decline, however, the muzzling effect of God’s law is reduced and sin is expressed ever more openly.

For Christians, God’s law has a third function: it is a map, a guide for life. When we are saved, we cannot forget about God’s law: the Lord has provided the wisdom and guidance we need in his law, so that we can live God-honouring lives in his world. Because the Holy Spirit indwells us, we have the desire and the power to obey. We obey not in order to be saved but because we have been saved. We are saved to do ‘good works’ (Ephesians 2:10) and God’s law shows what form they should take. If we are truly regenerate, we will, like Paul, delight in God’s law. Obedience is the fruit of love: ‘If you love me, you will keep my commandments’, Jesus says in John 14:15. The more faithfully we obey, the more we will reflect our Saviour. In a lawless age, Christians love God’s law as they love the God who gave it.

Big Bang

So much technology. So much know-how. So much sophisticated planning. So much power. Just one blast from an Icelandic volcano – and it was all paralysed. When the Eyjafjallajökull (there’s one for the proofreaders!) volcano erupted in mid-April, the United Kingdom and Ireland were forced to close their air space to all flights, and other parts of Europe had no option but to follow suit. In a matter of hours, as the ash from the volcano drifted southwards, air travel was brought to a standstill. The powerful aircraft on which so many rely were helpless. Thousands of travellers were stranded in airports, some who had to travel spent substantial sums of money on taxis and other alternative means of transport, and for several days the result was chaos. Although little attention was paid to them, the Icelanders in the vicinity of the eruption must have had a particularly difficult time. You couldn’t make it up.

Not for the first time, the pretensions of man have been put into perspective by the forces of nature. But of course it isn’t ‘nature’ as some self-contained, impersonal force – it’s ‘nature’ as an expression of the will of a sovereign God, the Creator and Sustainer of the universe. Scientists will no doubt be able to explain the processes by which the volcano came to erupt at that precise time, but any such explanation, whatever its value, will inevitably be incomplete. The crucial factor, which is not amenable to measurement by scientific instruments, is the providential working of the God who ‘works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will’ (Ephesians 1:11).

Eyjafjallajökull was fulfilling the will of God. Of that we can be sure. That is not to say that we can grasp precisely what his will was (and is) in the eruption. The divine purpose will have had many facets, most far beyond our understanding or imagination. We may rest assured, however, that every detail, down to the frustration of the last stranded passenger to reach home, was embraced by the mind of the Almighty. We are often eager to speak of God’s providence in relation to happy events, deliverances from danger, and so forth, but our doctrine of providence must also embrace a recognition that hard experiences too are shaped by that same sovereign working of the Lord.

One thing is surely beyond dispute – an event such as the eruption of a volcano reminds us in dramatic fashion of the power of the Lord. Forces are unleashed which leave our little minds reeling, as the limitations of human strength and ingenuity are exposed. There is, literally, nothing that human beings can do except flee for safety if possible. Awe-inspiring as that may be, however, it is even more sobering to remember that all such phenomena, and indeed the entire world, are in the palm of the Lord’s hand. The Lord who is ‘mightier than the great waters’ (Psalm 93:4) is also mightier than the greatest volcano.

For Christians such events, brought dramatically close by the news media, should serve as a call to humble acknowledgment of the sovereignty and power of God, along with joyful recognition that this God has stooped very low to deal graciously with us in the Lord Jesus Christ. Looking at the night sky, the psalmist wondered, ‘What is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?’ (Psalm 8:4). Our response to Eyjafjallajökull should be the same. We should never lose our sense of wonder that the Almighty is also our loving Father in heaven.

We recognise too that unbelievers have only to open their eyes to be confronted with abundant evidence for the existence of God. As the Apostle Paul says, ‘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 men are without excuse’ (Romans 1:20). Destructive phenomena such as volcanoes may not have been part of the original creation, which was ‘very good’, yet they too testify to the fact that those who attribute the universe to chance and random forces are flying in the face of the evidence. We know, of course, that only God’s grace can open blind eyes to the truth. If people did not believe when the Son of God returned from the dead (see Luke 16:31), they will not believe when an Icelandic volcano erupts, unless the sovereign God of salvation is pleased to bring them to himself. Lots to pray about after the big bang.

Promises, promises

By the time you read this, you may know which bunch holds our national political welfare in its eager hands. Not being in receipt of the gift of prophecy, I will refrain from predicting the outcome. I will stick my neck out a bit and predict that Nick Clegg will not be our next Prime Minister, but that’s as far as I’ll go. Why anyone wants the job anyway is well beyond me.

Now it will be up to one of the parties – and let’s assume there will be one with a majority – to try to govern the nation. If we are feeling cynical, we may be inclined to say that it is time for one of the parties to put away its manifesto and get on with the business of breaking all those pledges made to the electorate which they knew in reality they would never be able to keep. And cynicism about politics is widespread. It was not for nothing that the last Parliament came to be described by some journalists as the Manure Parliament, a title that for graphic descriptiveness is hard to equal. The stories of ridiculous or downright scurrilous expenses claims simply added to the general perception that politicians are out chiefly to look after themselves at the public’s expense. That no doubt is grossly unfair to those MPs who are hardworking and honest, but the perception remains.

Indeed we have reached the point where anyone who actually expected a government to keep its promises – if such a person existed – would be considered a simpleton who should not be let out alone. On the truth scale, a ‘manifesto promise’ rates somewhere below a lie and a statistic. Generous helpings of excuses are no doubt being prepared for early distribution. A government’s word is rarely its bond.

What a relief it is to know that the highest authority is not some Prime Minister, or President, or Monarch, but the God of whom it can be said that he ‘is not man, that he should lie, nor a son of man, that he should change his mind’ (Numbers 23:19). When the questions are asked, ‘Does he speak and then not act? Does he promise and not fulfil?’ the answers are obvious. God is one who uniquely keeps all his promises. In contrast to every earthly ruler, the sovereign Creator is utterly trustworthy and not one of his promises will fail. We can place our complete confidence in everything he says.

God’s words reflect his trustworthiness and reliability: ‘the words of the Lord are flawless, like silver refined in a furnace of clay, purified seven times’. Thus Jesus can state in John 17:17, as he addresses his Father, ‘your word is truth’. God’s words are true and provide the standard by which all other claims to truth are to be measured. In a world where lies and deception are so prevalent, we are not set adrift with no moorings. In God’s word we have something solid to hold on to.

What a privilege it is to have God’s words written down for us in a book. When we open the Bible and read, we are not handling merely the words of men, however holy. We are handling truly human words, but words which are at the same time the very Word of God. When Paul says that ‘all Scripture is God-breathed’ (II Timothy 3:16) he is telling us that if we were to hear God’s voice audibly, it would have no more truthfulness and authority than the written Word.

The promises of God are therefore promises we can trust and promises that will be kept. He can no more break a promise than he can cease to be God. He has promised salvation to all who trust in Christ crucified and risen. He has promised grace sufficient for every need of his children, and the ministry of the Holy Spirit to sanctify us and equip us for service. He has promised final glorification in the new creation to all his children. Christ himself is the one through whom the fulfilment of God’s promises comes and he is the guarantor that they will be brought to pass. ‘For no matter how many promises God has made, they are ‘Yes’ in Christ’. We may despair of the promises of politicians. The promises of the Lord will never fail.

Probably Not?

‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ So reads an advertisement on a number of buses in London and elsewhere. Sponsored by the British Humanist Association, the advertisement is designed to counter the claims of Christians (and, no doubt, others) in the name of enlightenment and intellectual freedom. If Richard Dawkins is to be believed (and there probably is a Richard Dawkins), humanists and other assorted unbelievers are an embattled and even persecuted minority in Britain who need to have the courage of their lack of convictions to stand up to the tide of Christian propaganda which threatens to plunge us into another dark age. Children in particular need to be protected from such threats.

Perhaps we are to imagine a poor benighted believer in God catching a glimpse of a passing bus, reading the Good News ‘There’s probably no God’, receiving a blinding flash of illumination, falling prostrate on the Edgeware Road, and entering into the joy of atheism in a 21st century conversion experience.

Perhaps members of the British Humanist Association do enjoy life. Perhaps the conviction that this life is all they have and that the grave is really the end does add a special dimension to living. Certainly, you need to enjoy it while you can, and if you are not finally accountable to anyone, maybe there are avenues of enjoyment that others dare not travel. Perhaps if you think there’s probably no God, you can stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Such a life, however, can have no ultimate significance. What is the point of life if all you will be in a few years is a handful of dust? Lasting influence on succeeding generations, perhaps? But not many are remembered for long even by the next generation. The truth is that a life lived without God the giver of life and meaning is, in the end, empty and futile. It is, in a profound sense, a complete waste.

How ironical to listen to the unbeliever use the Creator’s gift of speech to deny God’s existence. How foolish to construct rational arguments to deny that there is a God (probably) when the only secure foundation for the use of reason is the fact that God made an ordered rational world that can be understood by minds that he has created to reflect something of his rationality. The unbeliever will take another breath to proclaim that there’s probably no God only if God permits it. If anyone ever sawed off the branch he is sitting on, it is the believer in the (probable) non-existence of God.

Many Christians have protested against the BHA advertising campaign and several groups and individuals have sponsored advertisements proclaiming the existence of God. Ron Heather, a Christian bus driver in Southampton, refused to drive a bus carrying the advert, and has had numerous opportunities to bear witness to his faith. We can only applaud their efforts.

And yet… perhaps it is no bad thing to let people see the best that unbelief can do. ‘There’s probably no God’ – stirring stuff, isn’t it? The kind of belief you would die for? Probably not! It’s not too impressive, after all. There won’t be a rush of converts banging on the doors of the BHA. When the sponsors of the advertisement are handfuls of dust, the Lord will still be there and his people will still be serving him.

‘There’s probably no God’ – but what if there is? A life spent in rebellion against the Creator will end in an eternity of woe.

Watching Straws

Straws in the wind. None of them large in itself, but taken together, they show quite clearly the direction of the wind, and that direction is very clearly against public expression of religious, especially Christian, convictions.

Nurse Caroline Petrie asks a patient if she would like the nurse to pray with her. The patient is not offended, but the offer is reported and the nurse suspended from duty. A Christian foster carer is struck off the fostering register because a Muslim girl in her late teens, who had been placed with the carer, sought Christian baptism. Although there was no suggestion of coercion by the carer, council officials argued that she had failed in her duty to preserve the girl’s religion and should in fact have used her influence to prevent the baptism. A Christian Care Home for the elderly in Brighton has thousands of pounds of funding withdrawn by the local council because of its religiously-based objections to homosexuality. A five-year-old girl from Devon is reprimanded by her teacher for talking about Jesus in class and her mother, a part-time receptionist at the school, is being investigated by the school governors because she e-mailed friends at church to ask them to pray about the situation, and she could face dismissal. Draft guidance produced by the General Teaching Council for England would require Christian teachers to ‘proactively combat discrimination’ and ‘value diversity’ based on religious belief and sexual orientation.

We could fill this article with examples, but enough have been cited to support the recent claim of former Prime Minister Tony Blair that Christians are being sidelined in an age of ‘aggressive secularism’ and his criticism of ‘ludicrous decisions’ which have seen Christians punished for expressing their beliefs. Whilst many will respond with wry smiles, given Blair’s actions while in power and his reluctance to express his own beliefs before retirement, he is accurate in his comments. Although a BBC poll has shown that 62% of the 1000 Britons surveyed think that ‘religion has an important part to play in public life’ and 63% think that laws ‘should respect and be influenced by UK religious values’, it is clear that in the public square religious values, particularly Christian ones, are often unwelcome. Tolerance of diversity is the dominant value, before which all else must give way. Although the poll showed that nine out of ten Muslims and 100% of Hindus supported a strong role in public life for the religious values characteristic of the UK, political correctness dictates otherwise.

We can be thankful that a number of the situations already mentioned have been settled satisfactorily, although not all. The difficulties should not be exaggerated, and at times Christians provoke controversy unnecessarily. Nevertheless when all qualifications have been stated and allowances made, there is no doubt that Christian beliefs and values are increasingly being marginalized in the public square. The idea that Christian teaching should be allowed to shape public policy or, indeed, show its face outside the homes of its adherents or the walls of Churches, is just not acceptable, at least to the opinion-formers and policy makers. In fact, what is said within the walls of Churches is scarcely sacrosanct.

All is not yet lost. There is still a weight of opinion at the popular level supporting the public expression of Christian values. A number of organisations are working diligently to hold the line, if not turn back the tide. How long that will continue to be the case, we cannot tell. The Lord could of course act in grace and power at any time to transform the character of the nation. In the 150th anniversary year of a great revival, we can rule nothing out. If, however, it is not the Lord’s will to work in that way, the fluttering straws tell us that the wind will be in our faces in days to come.

Angels Instead

‘Granny’s Little Angel on Board’. So read the sign in the back window of the car in front, along with the name of the aforementioned ‘little angel’. Twee, sentimental, naïve – describe it how you will. Not too theologically sound in its optimistic view of human nature. Hard to see John Calvin – biblical theologian that he was – hanging that one up in his motor. Maybe Mum would have revised Granny’s view, given half a chance.

Anyway, angels are everywhere at the moment, in every imaginable shape and variety. Just take a look at the shelves of your local bookshop and see how many recent volumes are devoted to angels: how to contact them, how to engage their services, everything you ever wanted to know, plus a lot of things you didn’t know you didn’t know. With your guardian angel on your side, you can face any problem, so it seems. You can even get a little model of your angel to put on your mantelpiece or carry around with you. It’s a marketer’s paradise. The tougher the going becomes, the more you need your angel.

Curious how angels get the spotlight and God scarcely gets a look-in. Of course, angels are there to provide help on demand. They don’t make inconvenient demands in the way God does. Like all the other God-substitutes on offer, these modern-day angels are a lot easier to live with. Sadly, little that is retailed in such angelology has any basis in reality. Whatever people may ‘like to think’, the truth as revealed in Scripture is very different.

Yet again we see the truth of Paul’s words in Romans 1:25 regarding fallen, sinful men and women: ‘They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator’. It always has been and always will be so. Sinners’ thinking is futile and their foolish hearts are darkened (Romans 1:21). If it is not angels, it will be some other object of superstitious devotion. It is the essence of sin to put something – anything – in the place of God. Devotion to angels is not new. The church as Colosse was under attack from false teachers who were beginning to influence the members of the congregation. Defining the precise nature of the heresy keeps New Testament scholars in a job. Sufficient to say that the person and work of Christ were being denigrated and, among other things, angels were being exalted. Hence Paul refers to ‘the worship of angels’ in Colossians 2:18. Calvin was exactly right when he said that ‘man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols’ (Institutes 1.11.8).

The answer, as Paul so clearly demonstrates in Colossians, is to focus on Christ: ‘in Christ all the fulness of Deity lives in bodily form’ (2:9). Christ is supreme by nature and over every aspect of the created order. No created thing deserves the honour that should be accorded to him. A recognition of the supremacy of Christ in creation, providence and redemption is the antidote to all forms of idolatry ancient and modern.

Not that angels should be ignored or forgotten. Exaggerated, misplaced honour accorded to them should not lead us to swing to the opposite extreme of disregarding their ministry entirely. The holy angels, who did not join in Satan’s rebellion, are part of God’s good creation. With his redeemed people, they worship and serve the Lord. They have a very specific role in the unfolding of the divine plan of salvation: ‘Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?’ (Hebrews 1:14). The Bible gives occasional glimpses of angels at work, sufficient to remind us of their existence and activity for our benefit, but certainly not enough to satisfy our curiosity or answer all our questions. We must be content with what God has revealed, avoiding speculation that has no root in Scripture (unlike some of the Colossians). How many times God has used his angels to protect or deliver us from danger we will never know, at least on this side of glory. That they have been busy we can be sure. We thank God for the ministry of angels, and keep our eyes fixed on Christ alone.

The Boring Bits

Do we need everything that’s in the Bible? Could we not get along perfectly well without some parts of it? If we had a kind of Readers’ Digest version, with all the important bits kept in and all the boring bits taken out, would that not be far better? Just think how much easier it would be for children, new converts with no Bible knowledge, people with limited education. That way, they would not get bogged down, for instance, in the endless genealogies, bamboozled by who begat whom. There are some people fascinated by such things, but not many. Would a slimmed-down, reader-sensitive volume not serve us rather better than the present tome? If you have ever ground to a halt in Chronicles, or given up on the oracles against the nations in Isaiah, it might seem an attractive option, and if some Christians were to admit the truth, their Bible reading might as well be from a volume a lot less than the sixty-six books. Anyone for Nahum?

But what are the ‘important bits’? We might suggest the parts that deal with God’s nature, with human nature, with sin, with the identity of Jesus, with salvation. The list, however, is hard to conclude. What about the Holy Spirit, the Church, the return of Christ? Aren’t the sacraments important? Death and what lies beyond? Very soon we will find that most of the Bible is included, of necessity.

And who decides what is important, anyway? Do you think that you are qualified? I certainly don’t think I am. If we believe that the ultimate author of all Scripture is God, that he is the one who ‘breathed it out’, to use Paul’s language in 2 Timothy 3:16, then whatever he has chosen to give us is, by definition, important. Would we accuse the Almighty of wasting words? Yet by limiting our study to only certain parts of the Bible, mostly in the New Testament, that is exactly what we are doing. Although we may hold to a high doctrine of Scripture, in a day when this is very much a matter of debate, our practice must match our profession.

There are parts of the Bible that are hard to figure out, however. The mind-benders like Ezekiel and Revelation pose all sorts of problems for Bible readers, yet their very strangeness can also exert a fascination. Perhaps it’s more of a struggle with parts that don’t seem to serve a useful purpose for readers today, even if the original readers were riveted by them. The genealogies – the ‘boring bits’ to many people – are a case in point. It might be interesting, even delightful, to work out your family tree if you are a Jew returning from exile in Babylon, but how can a twenty-first century Christian gain any benefit from time spent reading a list of mostly-unpronounceable names? It needs a bit of thought, but there are answers.

The genealogies, like the other historical material in the Bible, serve to remind us that Christianity is rooted in history. It is not based on incredible myths, nor does it offer an abstract set of philosophical ideas: it is based on the actions of a sovereign God in history by which he provided for himself a worshipping and serving community of people. Our God works in history and is Lord of history. The genealogies record the names of some of the people in whose lives he worked, people who were significant to him even if we know nothing more than their names. History matters to Christians in a way that it does not matter to people of other religions. As Paul says, ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in our sins’ (I Corinthians 15:17). Biblical history, the genealogies included, matters tremendously. If we do not have reliable access to history, our faith and hope collapse.

The genealogies in particular trace the line of God’s covenant promise through history from one generation of his people to the next, an unbroken golden thread beginning with Adam and culminating in Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Redeemer of God’s people, the thread that holds the entire Scriptures together. We may not be able to trace our physical lineage in the Bible, but our spiritual ancestry is set out clearly for us. The genealogies, far from being ‘boring bits’, are shot through with the love and grace of God.