Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Proximity to Christ - the Key to overcoming in the End Times

"We're more than conquerors, why? 'Through Him that loved us.' Where does the strength to overcome come? It comes through the Lord Jesus Christ. And your deliverance, your Bible study, your prayer will help you get close to Him, and to that end, they're extremely valuable to help you get through the hard times. If Christians don't get ready for hard times, when they hit they're going to think God died...
"We're more than conquerors, but it's through Jesus Christ. Now everything that gets us close to the Lord is going to get us further from these things that can overcome us. It's the consciousness of His presence with us that's going to cause us to look past the tribulation and see the glory coming, past the distress, past the persecution, past the famine, past the nakedness, peril, or sword. If you don't have that, then you're going to crumple and pile up and you may have a nervous breakdown.
"When the hard times hit...and when the bottom drops out, as it one of these days will, when that happens, you're going to see a lot of Christians have nervous breakdowns. A lot of preachers are going to have nervous breakdowns. Because they honestly have no earthly way to cope with disaster. Some of these so-called great ministers are going to just completely come apart at the seams, because they've been built on a pipe dream, and on a bubble, and when that bubble pops, there'll be nothing left to support it; it'll come crashing down...
"The people have not been taught to do anything but gather together in great big bunches saying 'Hip-tee-doo!' and 'Hallelu,' in one extreme, or they sit together like wooden Indians, saying 'Amen. Now let's go out the door.' But either way they're not getting anything that's going to take them through hard times when they hit. They have not been taught to be individual believers, and households to be individual groups, locked together for the purpose of resisting the enemy and reaching out to minister to other believers and others who are in need. It's wonderful to have a church to come to, and we should thank God every week that goes by that we're still permitted to worship without soldiers breaking through the back doors back there, and police coming and marching the preacher off to jail, because you never know when that's going to cease. The enemy is working ceaselessly...
"But you have to realize that most believers are not ready for anything like this. Their whole lives are geared to the world system, the economic and social thing, and when that tears and rips, they'll have nothing left, nothing to cling to. Have you ever thought how it would be if you came to a situation where you were suddenly swept away from your church and your preacher and you didn't even have a Bible? And all you'd have to go on spiritually would be what you could remember, from the messages you had heard, from the scriptures you had studied...all the songs you could remember and bring back to mind to sing. And maybe you're off in an isolation ward someplace by yourself. How are you going to keep from going crazy?
"You say, 'That's scary stuff. That'll never happen.' That's what everybody thinks....Do you remember the first time you had an accident in your car? You knew you'd never have an accident, you know, because you were very careful and everything. You forgot that there were other people involved. You remember the shock you had the first time you had an accident, how fast it happened? It happened so quickly you could hardly remember what happened at all. All of a sudden everything was all crumpled up, and it couldn't be! It was like something out of a dream, it happened so quick. 'Where did they come from...I didn't see anything," you know. And yet here's the two cars all smacked up, all torn up, in a moment. It happened *so* quick. And that's exactly the way the disaster will strike the world. It says like labor pains coming, just suddenly, out of nowhere...bang! Now the signs are here.
"You know, a lady who's carrying a baby has many signs that she's going to have one. You're a fool if she walks around for nine months and when she has labor pains you think, 'Oh, I never expected that!' You know, that's a little ridiculous. Because she's obviously been going to give birth for a good while. And you'd be a fool not to anticipate and make some type of preparation for the time when that's going to happen. But that's exactly what's happening in our world. This old world is pregnant with evil and wickedness, and it's going to be birthed one of these days, and we'd be a fool to stand by and say, 'Oh, I didn't expect anything like that!' And yet that's where many believers are. They have no idea that there's anything wrong at all. It's roses and buttercups all the way down the path. But God's people aren't supposed to get like that. But we *are* supposed to get close to the Lord, because in the times that are hard, whether they're moderately hard, very hard, or extremely hard, no matter how difficult they become, it's going to be your relationship to the Lord and your geography concerning the Lord that's going to help you."

- Pastor Win Worley, January, 1985

Monday, May 30, 2016

The Problem of Natural Evil

On December 26, 2004, the third most powerful earthquake ever recorded struck in the Indian Ocean, near the Indonesian island of Sumatra. The quake was so intense that it shifted the North Pole about one inch to the east and slightly increased the rotation of the Earth, thereby shortening the length of a standard day by 2.68 microseconds.[1] It also generated a tsunami that struck the surrounding coastlines, killing over 200,000 people and displacing nearly 2,000,000 more.[2]
This unfortunate incident is a prominent example of what is sometimes referred to as ‘natural evil’: a reference to human suffering caused by processes in nature—earthquakes, fires, floods, tornadoes, hurricanes, volcanoes, etc. Few things are as terrifying as when our very environment seems to turn against us, and this has often raised the question of why God would place us in a world with such hazards. Why does he allow natural disasters to claim so many lives, especially those of innocent children? What purpose can there be in it?

The Good Earth

In considering this question, it’s necessary to understand that conditions on Earth are exceedingly mild compared to the conditions we observe on other planets. In fact, to our knowledge Earth is uniquely suited for life. Our planet is located in what is sometimes referred to as the Goldilocks Zone (so named because it’s “just right”) of a stable, mid-sequence star, in an ideal position relative to the other planets of an ideally-balanced solar system, and within an ideal location in an ideal type of galaxy. If we were much closer to or farther from our sun, weather conditions on Earth would make life much more difficult than it is today. If we orbited a star in a binary system, or we were closer to the giant planets of our solar system—such as Jupiter and Saturn—gravitational stresses on the Earth could produce earthquakes far more frequent and ferocious than we can presently imagine. If our atmosphere were thinner, cosmic radiation and surface temperatures could quickly and easily prove lethal to every living thing on the planet.
These and a host of additional factors we could list demonstrate that Earth is an exceedingly privileged little world. Harsh conditions are the norm throughout the universe; to our knowledge, Earth is the lone exception. For this reason, it’s a mistake to think that God has placed us in a harsh environment. On the contrary, we have every reason to believe that he has placed us on the best real estate in the universe.
Why natural disasters then, if Earth is such a wonderful world?
Earth is an active planet—it must be in order for life to exist here as comfortably as it does—and this continuous activity, while beneficial, occasionally builds to what we might call “pressure points,” which must be alleviated. Tornadoes and hurricanes are spawned by shifting weather patterns that are part of the overall planetary balance. Earthquakes are caused by shifts in the plate tectonics that make up the crust of the Earth. This shifting of the crust quite literally recycles the surface of the planet, creating an ideal environment for life.[3] Tsunamis are caused by massive, sudden upheavals that displace enormous amounts of seawater, such as happens when earthquakes occur at sea. The water flows outward and then back again as the ocean reacts to the disturbance and establishes a new equilibrium.
Disasters result when these events directly impact human communities, but forces and processes in nature do not “kill” in the sense that human beings kill. There is nothing deliberate or malevolent about them. They are not “evil.”
Still, might we not wonder why God allows these things to impact human populations? Has he deliberately left us in harm’s way?
There are a few things to keep in mind here.
To begin with, based on what scientists have learned about Earth’s past, it is evident that we live in a comparatively stable and mild time in our planet’s history (and in the history of the universe, for that matter). One can imagine how things might be different if human beings had to contend with major geological upheavals or populations of large predators, such as dinosaurs. Needless to say, under such conditions we would not have reached the level of civilization we have achieved.
Next, we should reflect that, according to the biblical record, humanity has departed from the purposes God originally ordained for it, and in losing direct access to its creator, has undoubtedly forfeited protections it might otherwise have enjoyed.
The book of Genesis illustrates this for us in detailing the care God took of Adam and Eve when they were created:

And the Lord God planted a garden eastward in Eden; and there he put the man whom he had formed. And out of the ground made the Lord God to grow every tree that is pleasant to the sight, and good for food; the tree of life also in the midst of the garden, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil. And a river went out of Eden to water the garden; and from thence it was parted… – Genesis 2:8-10a (KJV)

While some believe and teach that the entire Earth was a paradise when Adam was first created, Genesis 2 actually suggests that paradise was restricted to the Garden of Eden, which God specially created to be a habitation for man. Eden was not the entire world, but only a particular region, and the garden was only a part of Eden. Note that Genesis 2:10 says that a river went “out of Eden, to water the garden.” This necessitates that the garden did not comprise the whole of Eden.
God did pronounce a curse on the “ground” when Adam sinned, but the nature of the curse was very specific:

Cursed is the ground because of you; in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life. Both thorns and thistles it shall grow for you; and you will eat the plants of the field; by the sweat of your face you will eat bread. Till you return to the ground, because from it you were taken; for you are dust, and to dust you shall return. – Genesis 3:17b-19

This is often taken to mean that God cursed the Earth to the effect that it should produce thorns and thistles, and that it did not produce these things prior to Adam’s fall, but this conclusion cannot be derived solely from the text. Note that, when God pronounced the curse, he followed it with: “in toil you will eat of it all the days of your life.” The Septuagint—the Greek translation of the Old Testament—renders Genesis 3:17 this way: “cursed is the earth in your labors.”[4] (NETS)
Remember that, in Genesis 2:8-10, we’re told that God caused “every tree that is pleasant to the sight and good for food” to grow in the garden. In other words, God prepared the ground of the garden to readily yield fruit-bearing plants and trees, although Adam still had a responsibility to tend it (Genesis 2:15).[5] After the fall, however, God cursed the ground that he had formerly blessed. The ground would no longer produce its fruit easily. Instead, it would readily produce nuisance plants. Adam would be reduced to hard labor in order to survive, and in the meantime would be forced to eat whatever was growing wild around him.
Thus the curse placed upon the ground here was not a general curse on all of the Earth or the universe, both of which, according to the teachings of some, are “fallen.” It was a specific curse on the ground, and was meant to render man’s labor more difficult.[6]
God also cursed man with death, as he originally warned he would do when he first instructed Adam and Eve not to eat of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Genesis 2:16-17). Note how this curse was implemented, according to Genesis 3:22-24:

Then the Lord God said, ‘Behold the man has become like one of Us, knowing good and evil; and now, he might stretch out his hand, and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever—therefore, the Lord God sent him out from the garden of Eden, to cultivate the ground from which he was taken. So he drove the man out; and at the east of the garden of Eden he stationed the cherubim and the flaming sword which turned every direction to guard the way to the tree of life.

God implemented the curse of death upon Adam by depriving him of access to the Tree of Life. From this, it appears that Adam was not created to be naturally immortal. His life was dependent upon access to the Tree of Life, without which he ultimately died. It does not appear that God cursed Adam’s body in some way in order to ensure his death; he simply deprived him of what was necessary to sustain him indefinitely. To argue otherwise, one must read assumptions into the Genesis account, which seems quite straightforward when taken literally here.
I make these points in order to demonstrate that we do not live on a “bad” Earth that God changed from its initial state in order to cause us grief, but rather that we as a race have lost the place of particular favor that was once intended for us. There is no biblical reason to believe that God changed the Earth from its original “good” creation state, creating thorns and thistles only after Adam sinned. Remember again here that the Garden of Eden was a special place, even before Adam’s fall. Thorns and thistles were almost certainly a part of the environment outside of the garden, although the curse may have caused them to become even more virulent.[7]
Some argue that plant and animal death are also due to the fall of man, citing Romans 5:12, where the apostle Paul writes, “for by one man sin entered into the world, and death by sin,” but in this passage Paul specifically says that death “passed upon all men because all have sinned.” Man is the subject here, not all of nature. Furthermore, plant and animal death is actually beneficial to the planet as a whole, in spite of the emotional reaction people may have to it.[8] The assumption that it cannot have been part of God’s original plan for his “good” creation is just that: an assumption.

Forfeited Dominion

For one last point here, consider that, not only did God initially place Adam and Eve in an especially ideal environment, he intended that they should have “dominion” over the Earth:

And God blessed them [Adam and Eve], and God said unto them, ‘Be fruitful, and multiply, and replenish the earth, and subdue it: and have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth. – Genesis 1:28 (KJV)

The Genesis account fully leads me to believe that this planet was to be our “project.” God gave us a good world, but intended for us to make it even better, to learn how to use its resources and become its masters. Among other things, we might have learned better ways of anticipating violent storms and earthquakes, or better building techniques to withstand them, or possibly even ways of alleviating them. Adam’s experience in Eden might have prepared mankind to cultivate vast portions of the Earth’s surface, almost assuredly in ways that have not yet occurred to us, and in cooperation rather than competition. Mankind might now be dispersed across the Earth in an entirely different manner, one more conducive to living in harmony with our environment. Unquestionably, the plant and animal kingdoms would also have benefited from mankind’s enhanced understanding and stewardship of the globe. Perhaps even favored pets might have been granted increased longevity as a benefit derived from a better understanding of the nature of life.
How much might God have taught us about mastering our world, and even curing diseases and repairing genetic abnormalities, had our first parents not rebelled, thereby cutting us off from intimate fellowship with the creator of all things? As it stands, the world sometimes seems like a harsh place to us because we do not enjoy the position of supremacy that we were meant to have in relation to it. Man is trying to get by as best he can in a world that he does not fully comprehend and which he cannot fully master.

The Suffering of Innocents

Invariably, the problem of evil—in either its moral or natural forms—generates discussion concerning the suffering of innocents, children in particular. Even if we’re willing to concede that man has fallen from his intended place in relation to both God and the world, it seems unfair to us that children should also bear the burden. Why would God permit this?
This is a complex subject, but I will highlight a few areas that I believe are worthy of consideration:
First, as discussed previously, God has given human beings the freedom to make moral choices. In order for true love to exist, the choice to give it or withhold it must also exist. Thus, God has given us a framework within which both good and evil choices are possible, and children are as subject to this framework as adults. If it were not possible to act in an evil fashion toward children, it would also be impossible to truly love them and do good to them. The choice is ours, as is the responsibility for the choice in light of God’s promise to judge all mankind.
Furthermore, this matter of choice not only applies to decisions that we deliberately make—for instance, the choice to show kindness or malice in a given situation—but also to what we might consider “incidental” choices, in which children are affected more in terms of the natural consequences of our actions.
For instance, if we make poor health, financial, or lifestyle choices, our children are affected as much as we are. When parents divorce, their children have to live with the fallout, including the emotional pain. If mom or dad commits a crime and is sent to jail, the children are not exempted from the negative consequences that may result to the rest of the family, such as loss of income or loss of a home. If a man decides to get drunk and then go out and drive with his family in the car, and ends up plowing into a tree at ninety-miles-an-hour, his children will suffer right along with him through no fault of their own.
Yes, God has provided the framework in which such choices are possible, but the responsibility is ours.
Second, we should evaluate our attitude toward God. Do we really seek him? Do we really care what he thinks or what his will for our lives might be? Are we willing to lay aside our own plans and submit to his will? Are we teaching our children to seek God? What sort of example are we setting for them?
The sad fact of the matter is that humanity is pretty well going about its business as if God doesn’t exist, and God has allowed us to experience the natural consequences that result from this approach to life. “You will search for me and find me,” he has said, “when you search for me with all of your heart.” But for the most part, we have chosen to give our hearts to other things, such as the pursuit of material wealth and pleasure. What right do we have to live as if there is no God, and then immediately expect him to bail us out of whatever trouble we find ourselves in? What right do we have to expect him to show up and explain himself in times of crisis when we don’t care to hear what he has to say in the meantime?
Even many of our religious practices are more about rituals, feelings, cults of personality, self-righteousness, and social obligations than about knowing God and giving him preeminence in our lives. We often honor him with our lips when our hearts are far from him, and God cares nothing for this empty form of acknowledgment. What he values is a heart that truly seeks him.[9]
Our children have been given to us. They are our responsibility. And we have effectively immersed them in a godless world by the choice to pursue other things. The negative consequences of this are no different than in any other area of life and experience. In great part, we have chosen to live without God, and he has allowed us to do so. The result has been tragic.
On the other hand, God has often shown mercy to those who are truly seeking him, and per the biblical account, has delivered them from potential tragedy.
In the book of Genesis, God warned Pharaoh in a dream that years of famine were coming to Egypt, and he provided Joseph to interpret that dream and to devise a plan to bring Egypt safely through the crisis (Genesis, chapter 41). He delivered a prostitute named Rahab from the destruction of Jericho in return for the kindness she showed to two Israelite spies (Joshua, chapters 2 and 6). He delivered three Hebrew teenagers from death in a Babylonian furnace, and later the prophet Daniel from death by lions (see Daniel, chapters 3 and 6). He warned Mary and Joseph that King Herod would try to kill the infant Jesus, and told them to flee to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-15). He delivered the apostle Peter from prison and almost certain death in response to the prayers of believers (Acts, chapter 12).
Nor is that “all in the past.” God continues to watch over his people today. He does not always intervene in their circumstances, just as he did not always intervene even in biblical times, but there are noted instances where he has done this.
I remember hearing the story of a missionary whose life was spared when villagers who had been sent to kill him in the night retreated without even confronting him. Later, after one of them was converted, he explained to the missionary that he and those with him had seen large men standing outside of the missionary’s home with drawn weapons, and this is why they had left him alone that night. The missionary should have seen these men, but he saw no one.[10]
A few years ago, I came across the testimony of a Christian who was cleaning out his garage one day, and was about to pick something up when he distinctly heard a voice telling him not to touch it. He went and got a broom to move the object and discovered Black Widow spiders nesting underneath of it.
And for one last example, I will provide a personal testimony.
My oldest son, James—now seventeen years old—is severely autistic and non-verbal. A number of years ago, when he was perhaps nine or ten years old, my wife left to visit relatives while I stayed home to care for James. I became very ill one night while she was gone, and fell into a deep sleep. Unbeknownst to me, my son got up out of bed and got in the bathtub and started playing. Like many autistic children, he loves playing in water, and this is usually harmless as long as it’s supervised. But at the time, I had no idea what was going on; I was dead asleep and had a loud box fan running.
How long he was in there, I don’t know, but I was woken from sleep by a man’s voice calling my name and telling me I needed to wake up—there was no one else in the house at the time, and no radio or TV playing. I woke immediately and heard my son in the bathtub of our master bathroom, jumping up and down with the shower turned on. He could easily have slipped and hit his head on the side of the tub or on one of the faucets, and as sick as I was at the time, I might not have been aware of his situation for hours. By the time I got up, it might have been too late.
I’m sure that skeptics could offer any number of alternative explanations for the examples I’ve provided here. It would be impossible to objectively prove that God did, or did not, intervene in these circumstances, and so I do not pretend to offer them as definitive proofs. I offer them merely as circumstances consistent with biblical examples of divine interventions, and I think even skeptics would have to agree that God, if he does exist, must surely be capable of such things. We may quibble over why God chose to intervene in these situations and not in others, but that takes us back to the issue of divine knowledge and motivations. Without knowing what God knows, how can we stand in judgment over him in regard to what he should, or should not, have done in given situation?
The point is this: as a race, we are seeking just about everything but God, when he has promised that it is those who seek him with all of their hearts who will find him.
If we live as though there is no God, is that his fault or ours?

[1] http://www.nasa.gov/home/hqnews/2005/jan/HQ_05011_earthquake.html
[2] http://earthquake.usgs.gov/earthquakes/eqinthenews/2004/us2004slav/#summary
[3] http://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/11/science/deadly-and-yet-necessary-quakes-renew-the-planet.html?_r=0
[4] http://ccat.sas.upenn.edu/nets/edition/01-gen-nets.pdf
[5] This implies that the garden would have fallen into disrepair if Adam had not tended it. It would not have supernaturally maintained itself. The laws of thermodynamics and the weathering influences of the outside world would have worn it down in time. This is more evidence that the whole Earth was not a vast paradise at the time.
[6] Undoubtedly, one reason for this was to give sinful man something with which to occupy his time. One can readily imagine how much worse the world would be today if man came by his food and shelter easily, leaving him plenty of time and energy for mischief.
[7] Genesis 2:1 indicates that the heavens and the Earth were “finished,” and that God rested from his acts of creation, so it seems likely that all types of plant life already existed prior to the fall. Furthermore, God did not say that he was going to create new organisms; he merely said that the ground would produce thorns and thistles, where it had readily produced fruit-bearing plants before (in the garden, that is). The idea that this is some sort of new creative act is an assumption based on the idea that thorns and thistles should not be present in a “good” creation. It is not supported by the text.
[8] One evident example of this is the fertilization of soil. Topsoil – the layer of earth in which plants first take root and derive their initial nourishment – is composed in large part of decayed organisms and plant matter.
[9] Isaiah 29:13; Malachi 1:10; Matthew 15:7-9; Matthew 23:1-34; John 4:19-24
[10] Compare this with Numbers 22:22-35 and II Kings 6:8-19.

*Image credit: Seymour Texas tornado, April 10, 1979. Courtesy of the National Severe Storms Laboratory (public domain image). http://www.spc.noaa.gov/faq/tornado/torscans.htm

Sunday, May 1, 2016

Do the Dead return to visit the Living?

Jacob Marley visits Scrooge

“Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God...” - 1 John 4:1

Recently, I came across a disturbing idea being advocated by some well-known Christian authors whom I otherwise respect: namely, the notion that there are “godly ghosts,” that is, spirits of dead Christians who sometimes return to visit the living. Evidence cited in favor of this idea includes the fact that Christian author C.S. Lewis believed that the spirit of his dead wife returned to comfort him in the wake of her passing, as well as a tale recounted by J.B. Philips concerning how the ghost of C.S. Lewis appeared to him, encouraging him when he was working on his translation of the New Testament. In another recent example, the father of popular Christian TV minister Perry Stone claimed that the ghost of a friend appeared to him and commissioned him for the ministry. Other examples could be cited as well, including various stories in which the godly dead allegedly returned to help the living in some way or to settle affairs they were unable to conclude in life.

In keeping with this, “godly ghosts” theorists argue that it’s possible that not all spirits of the departed reside in either Heaven, Hades (the NT equivalent of Sheol), or “Abraham’s Bosom”; instead, they speculate that some human spirits may be roaming the earth in a type of limbo (possibly what the Bible terms “outer darkness”), and that this may be why people have reported that ghosts often seem confused, tend to be found near places where tragedies have occurred, and usually appear sorrowful and tormented.

The Bible certainly teaches that there is what we might call a “spirit world,” an unseen realm in which both good and evil spirits operate, and it is clear from scripture that these spirits interact with mankind to various degrees; but I have to caution that there is absolutely no scriptural justification for the belief that spirits of the dead can or do return and manifest themselves to the living. It is my belief that all encounters with what are believed to be “ghosts” are actually demonic manifestations designed to deceive mankind into accepting delusions about the spirit world and the questions surrounding life after death.

Scripture Forbids “Calling up” the Dead

Leviticus 19:10 and Deuteronomy 18:10 specifically forbid consultations with mediums: those who communicate with the dead on behalf of the living (what we call “Necromancy” today):
“Do not turn to mediums or spiritists; do not seek them out to be defiled by them. I am the Lord your God.” 
 “There shall not be found among you anyone who makes his son or his daughter pass through the fire, one who uses divination, one who practices witchcraft, or one who interprets omens, or a sorcerer, or one who casts a spell, or a medium, or a spiritist, or one who calls up the dead.”
Thus it seems very unlikely that God would permit, or even facilitate, that which he has strictly forbidden.
Nevertheless, one proponent of the “godly ghosts” theory argues that such verses prove that communication with the dead must at least be possible, otherwise God would not have forbidden it, but this is not necessarily the case. As we can see from Deuteronomy 18:10, God forbade contact with persons who were involved in a number of occult practices, including calling up the dead, but he did not offer commentary on the validity of those practices or on how they were performed. A surface reading of the text might lead one to believe that occult practitioners have some sort of natural ability that enables them to successfully divine, perform acts of witchcraft, or to cast spells, but other passages of scripture suggest that these things are actually accomplished by the power of demons.

A ready example of this is Acts 16:16-21, where Luke provides of an account of how the apostle Paul cast a spirit of divination out of a slave girl who “was bringing her masters much profit by fortune-telling” (KJV). After the demon was cast out of the girl, she no longer had the power of divination (Acts 16:19).

For this reason, it is entirely likely that “the dead” that are conjured in the practice of Necromancy are actually demons, and not departed spirits at all. Indeed, in I Samuel 28, when King Saul was trying to communicate with the departed prophet Samuel, he specifically sought out a woman that had “a familiar spirit”—in other words, a demon (I Samuel 28:7). Obviously, Saul thought that the practice itself was valid—that is, that mediums were actually able to conjure the dead—but it’s clear from his words that he realized that a demon was necessary to facilitate it. Strangely enough, he does not seem to have considered that the demons involved in contacting the dead might not be mere facilitators, but might actually be impersonating the spirits they were supposed to be contacting. It seems rather odd to trust an evil spirit to act in good faith, but Saul was desperate at the time (more on this later).

Thus, it seems unlikely that God issued the command to avoid those who “call up the dead” because they are actually able to do it. It seems more likely that he gave this commandment in order to keep his people from being deceived by evil spirits.

Scripture tells us that the Dead are not aware of the World of the Living
“For the living know they will die; but the dead do not know anything, nor have they any longer a reward, for their memory is forgotten. Indeed their love, their hate and their zeal have already perished, and they will no longer have a share in all that is done under the sun.” - Ecclesiastes 9:5-6  
“Whatever your hand finds to do, do it with all your might; for there is no activity or planning or knowledge or wisdom in Sheol [the grave] where you are going.” - Ecclesiastes 9:10  
“Do not trust in princes, in mortal man, in whom there is no salvation. His spirit departs, he returns to the earth; in that very day his thoughts perish.” - Psalm 146:3-4
If, as the Bible indicates, the dead are not aware of what takes place in the world of the living, it’s rather difficult to see how they could be contacted, conjured, or otherwise summoned by mediums from the living world. How can you hear or respond to a voice from a reality that is hidden to you? Indeed, for those who believe that the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus in Luke chapter 16 represents an actual account rather than a parable or an allegory, the situation becomes even more complicated:
Now the poor man died and was carried away by the angels to Abraham’s bosom; and the rich man also died and was buried. In Hades he lifted up his eyes, being in torment, and saw Abraham far away and Lazarus in his bosom. And he cried out and said, ‘Father Abraham, have mercy on me, and send Lazarus so that he may dip the tip of his finger in water and cool off my tongue, for I am in agony in this flame.’ But Abraham said, ‘Child, remember that during your life you received your good things, and likewise Lazarus bad things; but now he is being comforted here, and you are in agony. And besides all this, between us and you there is a great chasm fixed, so that those who wish to come over from here to you will not be able, and that none may cross over from there to us.’ - Luke 16:22-26
It’s difficult to understand how spirits of the dead could be summoned to return to the world of the living when they are incapable of crossing a physical barrier between two different parts of their own domain! If the story of the Rich Man and Lazarus references actual events, then it is clear that spirits of the wicked dead cannot leave the confines of their imprisonment in Hades, and that even spirits of the righteous dead cannot simply come and go as they please. Angels carried Lazarus to Abraham’s Bosom, implying that he could not reach that place on his own from the world of the living, and thus making it almost certain that he could not return on his own, either.

Furthermore, note that the rich man asked Abraham to return Lazarus to the world of the living in order to warn the rich man’s brothers about the place of torment that awaited them beyond the grave. He did not ask that Lazarus be permitted to contact the living, but rather that he be sent to them. This strongly implies that the dead cannot communicate with the living from the underworld; at least it is certain they cannot initiate contact from there, and thus it is also highly doubtful that they can be conjured from there by the living.

Saul and the “Ghost” of Samuel

What then of the story of Samuel’s spirit being called up by the witch of Endor in I Samuel 28? Was this the true spirit of Samuel, or a demonic impostor?

The account in I Samuel 28 is controversial, and for good reason. In this account, the Philistines were readying themselves for battle with Israel. Saul, who had long been in rebellion against God, was desperate for help, but God was not answering him, and the prophet Samuel—who had anointed Saul king over Israel and used to serve as a guide to him—was dead. So in his desperation, Saul asked his servants to find a woman who could call up the ghost of Samuel for him.
Then said Saul unto his servants, ‘Seek me a woman that has a familiar spirit, that I may go to her, and enquire of her.’ And his servants said to him, ‘Behold, there is a woman that has a familiar spirit at Endor.’ - I Samuel 28:7 (KJV in modern English)
Once again, a “familiar spirit” is another term for a demon. In other words, Saul wanted his men to find a demon-possessed woman for him to inquire of, with the expectation that the spirit within this woman would contact Samuel and that Samuel would speak to him through the woman. In other words, he was looking for a medium who would speak to him for Samuel just as people ask mediums today to convey the words of dead relatives and friends at séances. Another word for this is type of intermediary contact is “channeling.” This is exactly the type of activity that God had forbidden in the Law of Moses, and it was at least one area in which Saul had been obedient to God, as he had nearly wiped out the mediums in Israel. Indeed, he was forced to disguise himself so that the medium would not recognize that he was the king, and he had to assure her that she would not be punished:
Then Saul disguised himself by putting on other clothes, and went, he and two men with him, and they came to the woman by night; and he said, “Conjure up for me, please, and bring up for me whom I shall name to you.” But the woman said to him, “Behold, you know what Saul has done, how he has cut off those who are mediums and spiritists from the land. Why are you then laying a snare for my life to bring about my death?” Saul vowed to her by the Lord, saying, “As the Lord lives, no punishment shall come upon you for this thing.” - I Samuel 28:8-10
Saul then asked the woman to bring up Samuel for him, and the Bible records that, “when the woman saw Samuel, she cried with a loud voice.” Many have supposed that she cried out because she was expecting a demon and was startled when it was actually Samuel who appeared, but a careful reading of the text does not support this. Consider for a moment: What is the very first thing the woman said to Saul after she cried out?

“You are Saul.”

Again, Saul had killed all of the mediums and sorcerers in Israel, and as we saw in verses 8-10, initially the medium did not even want to perform this act of necromancy for fear of her life. She cried out because the spirit within her revealed that the man who had come to her was actually the king she feared so greatly.

Moving on, there is another important detail in this story that we should note: the witch never identified Samuel by name. When Saul asked her what it was that she saw, she told him: “I see a divine being [Hebrew - elohim]...an old man coming up, and he is wrapped with a robe. And Saul knew that it was Samuel, and he bowed with his face to the ground and did homage.” The witch did not identify Samuel, and Saul did not actually see this spirit; Saul assumed that the spirit was Samuel based on the medium’s description; and given that the woman was a medium, the spirit would have spoken through her as well, just as spirits commonly speak through mediums today.

Are we really to believe that Samuel took his robe to Hades with him? Was Samuel an old man in spirit form? I believe it is more plausible that the demon deceiving Saul presented itself in a form that Saul would recognize: as the old man whom he had known in life.

It has been argued that the text itself identifies Samuel, but I would remind readers that this account was written down based on the testimony of those who were with Saul—none of whom actually laid eyes on this spirit. I am not arguing that the text is in error; only that it is an account that was based on the testimony of witnesses. It is, undoubtedly, an accurate account of what they believed took place and how things appeared to them. This is a type of chronicle, a Hebrew government record, not a divine revelation.

There are similar examples of this sort of perspective in scripture: 
  • In Genesis 18, the Lord appeared to Abraham with two angels, yet the text repeatedly refers to all three of them as “men,” which is certainly what they appeared to be to Abraham, Sarah, and Lot, as well as the men of Sodom, who also saw them and referred to them as “men” (see Genesis 19:5). 
  • Moses records for us in Exodus 33 that God appeared to him, covering Moses with “his hand,” and allowing Moses to see his “back parts” but not his “face”; yet other scriptures indicate that God is “invisible,” “a spirit,” a being without physical form, and that no one has ever seen him (John 1:18; 4:24, Colossians 1:15, and I Timothy 1:17). Clearly, God appeared to Moses in some sort of representation, a physical manifestation, but not his true essence. Yet, on the surface, the text appears to read as if God actually has a physical body.
  • When Mary Magdalene saw Jesus after his resurrection, she initially thought he was the gardener (John 20:15). 
  • In Mark 16:5, the women who came to the garden tomb on the morning of the resurrection saw “a young man” when they looked into the tomb. Luke 24:4 mentions “two men” at the tomb. John 20:12 makes it clear that the “men” the women saw at the tomb were angels, but in the other accounts they are actually called “men.” This does not mean that Mark and Luke were in error, just that they recorded what the women literally saw and reported themselves.
These accounts also demonstrate to us that spirit beings can assume physical form, appearing, speaking, and even eating as human beings do. Thus it is entirely possible for an evil spirit to have impersonated Samuel. Again, I remind the reader here that Saul assumed that the entity the medium contacted was Samuel, and even today occultists warn practitioners of the magical arts that spirits often lie and misrepresent themselves. Indeed, in I Kings 22:19-23, God actually permitted a lying spirit to speak through the mouths of prophets in order to lure King Ahab to his death.

Furthermore, consider that Samuel was one of the most righteous men spoken of in the Old Testament. In Jeremiah 15:1, God places him in the same category as Moses, who was the greatest of all of Israel’s prophets. Would such a righteous man have broken the commandment of God by communicating with Saul through a demon-possessed witch when God had specifically forbidden this practice, knowing that witchcraft is particularly detestable to God? Would God himself have facilitated this kind of contact in violation of his own commandment?

Neither of these options seems likely.

What then of the fact that the spirit told the truth when it prophesied that Saul would die in battle the following day?

Demons are notorious liars, but they do not always lie. The Pythian priestesses of the ancient world were renowned for their ability to predict events and “see” at a distance, and were even consulted by kings. The slave girl that the apostle Paul cast the demon out of in Acts 16 must have been correct at least part of the time, otherwise she wouldn’t have made her owners very much money! Consider also that the Egyptian priests who opposed Moses and Aaron were able to perform genuine miracles, yet they did not do so by the power of God. And again, remember how an evil spirit was used to do the will of God in 1 Kings 22. It’s clear from the account of Saul and the witch of Endor that “Samuel’s” prophecy of doom absolutely unhinged Saul (I Samuel 28:20-23), and probably aided in his defeat the next day.

Other Alleged “Ghosts” of the Bible

A Ghost on the Water
Immediately He made the disciples get into the boat and go ahead of Him to the other side, while He sent the crowds away. After He had sent the crowds away, He went up on the mountain by Himself to pray; and when it was evening, He was there alone. But the boat was already a long distance from the land, battered by the waves; for the wind was contrary. And in the fourth watch of the night He came to them, walking on the sea. When the disciples saw Him walking on the sea, they were terrified, and said, “It is a ghost!” And they cried out in fear. But immediately Jesus spoke to them, saying, “Take courage, it is I; do not be afraid.” - Matthew 14:22-27
The Greek word translated “ghost” here is phantasma, which Strong’s defines as meaning: “an appearance, an apparition, spectre.” The KJV renders this word as “spirit.” Young’s Literal Translation renders it “apparition.” 
Does this passage constitute biblical proof that ghosts exist, because this is what the disciples believed they were seeing?
It certainly demonstrates that Jesus’ disciples believed in what we could call “ghosts” or “apparitions,” but it does not tell us what they believed these things to be. It does not seem that they believed them to be good, however, as their immediate reaction was one of fear. It is also evident from other passages of scripture that the Jews knew that demons existed, and it may well be that they assumed that a phantasma was a visible manifestation of such a spirit. People in the Bible tended to react in fear when angels appeared to them as well, though, so it is difficult to say for certain what they may have believed a phantasma to be. The text does not offer commentary on this subject.
Furthermore, even if the disciples believed that a phantasma was indeed the spirit of a dead person, this does not mean that they were correct in that belief. The Jews of Jesus’ day were mistaken about a number of things, as Jesus demonstrated in his disputations with the leaders of the day. Indeed, the Bible tells us plainly that the sect of the Sadducees did not believe in spirits at all—not even in angels. Greco-Roman culture, which dominated Judea at this time, was, as the apostle Paul comments in the book of Acts, “very superstitious,” and the Bible is clear that the Jews were prone to picking up the beliefs and practices of the nations that surrounded them. Belief in ghosts as spirits of the dead may have been part of the superstitions they had absorbed from the dominant culture of the day. Since at least the time of the Exodus, they had believed that mediums could summon the dead, and even this was likely a belief they had picked up from the Egyptians (Egypt being the primary home of the “Mystery” religions at that time). 

The Appearance of Moses and Elijah

Three of the gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke—describe an event known as the “transfiguration,” when Jesus was revealed in glorified form in the presence of Peter, James, and John. All three gospels also agree that Moses and Elijah appeared with Jesus at this time. Does this then prove that spirits of the departed do in fact return on occasion?
Jesus himself partially answers this question for us in Matthew 17:9 – “As they were coming down from the mountain, Jesus commanded them, saying ‘Tell the vision to no one until the Son of Man has risen from the dead.”
Jesus referred to his transfiguration, and the accompanying appearance of Moses and Elijah, as a “vision.” “Vision” is translated from the Greek word horama, which can refer to “spectacles” in terms of unusual sights (such as how Moses’ sighting of the burning bush is referred to in Acts 7:31), symbolic representations (such as Peter’s vision of the sheet lowered to him from heaven in Acts 10), and to glimpses of the future (such as Paul’s vision of Ananias healing him of blindness in Acts 9:12, and the vision of the man from Macedonia saying “Come over and help us,” in Acts 16:9).
So, given the three possible usages of horama, which was the transfiguration? Was it a “spectacle,” a symbolic representation of some kind, or a glimpse of the future?
There are some clues that I believe provide the answer.
Six days prior to the transfiguration, Jesus told his disciples: “Truly I say to you, there are some of those who are standing here who will not taste death until they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom” (Matthew 16:28). Matthew then immediately relates the transfiguration story in chapter 17, verses 1-13. All of the original twelve apostles are dead, so Jesus could not have had in mind his actual second coming when he said this, given that his coming has not yet taken place. Furthermore, he said “some of those standing here.” Some, not all. And, of course, he took only three of the twelve with him when he went up onto the mountain.
In light of this, it makes sense that, when Jesus referred to some of his disciples not experiencing death until they had seen him coming in his kingdom, he was referring to Peter, James, and John witnessing his transfiguration. Therefore, the vision of his coming must have been a glimpse of his future glory. This would also mean that the vision of Moses and Elijah was also a glimpse of how they would appear in the future, given that human beings are not glorified until the time of the resurrection, when Christ comes again:
“And, behold, two men were talking with him; and they were Moses and Elijah, who, appearing in glory, were speaking of his departure, which he was about to accomplish at Jerusalem.” – Luke 9:30-31 
“When Christ, who is our life, shall appear, then you shall also appear with him in glory.” – Colossians 3:4 
“So also is the resurrection of the dead. It [the body] is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory…” – I Corinthians 15:42-43
Peter refers to the transfiguration in II Peter 1:
“For we did not follow cleverly devised tales when we made known to you the power and coming of our Lord Jesus Christ, but we were eyewitnesses of his majesty. For when he received honor and glory from God the Father, such an utterance as this was made to him by the Majestic Glory, ‘This is my beloved son, with whom I am well pleased’—and we ourselves heard this utterance made from heaven when we were with him on the holy mountain. So we have the prophetic word made more sure, to which you do well to pay attention…” – II Peter 1:16-19
This is also what he is likely referring to in I Peter 5:1 – “Therefore I exhort the elders among you, as your fellow elder and witness of the sufferings of Christ, and a partaker also of the glory that is to be revealed…”
Peter testifies that he saw exactly what Jesus said “some” of his disciples would see prior experiencing death: that is, the Son of Man coming in his kingdom, a glimpse of the glory yet to be revealed.
In other words, there is every reason to believe that what Peter, James, and John saw during the transfiguration was a glimpse of the future, of Christ glorified and of Moses and Elijah also glorified as they will be during the Millennium, after the resurrection. It was confirmation of Jesus’ identity and of his mission. It does not require that the ghosts of Moses and Elijah were actually present at the time; indeed, how could it, given that it presents Moses and Elijah “in glory” when neither has yet been resurrected?

In my opinion, there is no biblical reason to believe that “spirits of the dead” can or do return and contact the living. In fact, I believe this is a very dangerous idea. It is my conviction that all “ghosts” are demonic spirits bent on deception.

One “godly ghosts” advocate I engaged with some time ago protested against the idea that all ghosts are demons by arguing that it made no sense for a demon to pretend to be C.S. Lewis and appear to J.B. Philips in order to encourage him in his translation of the New Testament. Why would a demon do a good deed by encouraging a Christian minister in his work? Why would a demon appear to Perry Stone’s father in the guise of a friend and commission him into Christian ministry?

In reply, I ask the following: why would a demon cause the slave girl of Acts 16 to follow Paul and his friends around, saying to the people of the city: “These men are bond-servants of the Most High God, who are proclaiming to you the way of salvation.”?

Were Paul and his fellow disciples servants of the Most High God? Yes. Were they proclaiming the way of salvation? Yes.

So why would an evil spirit bear witness to the gospel? That it did so is beyond question. Evidently, demons can and will do what we consider to be good things when it suits them. The question is, why?

One answer readily suggests itself: a demon might tell the truth, or possibly appear in the guise of a “ghost” to do a good deed, if, by doing so, it can gain the confidence of those who hear of it, and thereby set them up for deception in the future. The slave girl of Acts 16 had a solid reputation as an accurate fortune teller, and was respected in the eyes of the people of the city. Her apparent testimony to the truth of the gospel could have presented a trap for new Christian converts in the city, as they would have been predisposed to believe what she said. The demon working through her could then have begun to lead them astray, thereby perverting the gospel and destroying the work that was being done in that region.

By the same token, Lewis, Philips, and Stone are well known in Christian circles, and are respected by many. Their association with ghostly phenomena lends the subject a kind of credence it could not otherwise enjoy, and thereby presents a great danger. If Christians, particularly leaders and respected authors and speakers, are led to understand that their dead Christian friends and relatives may well be able to interact with them—“Hey! It happened to J.B. Philips!”—they could be opened up to powerful demonic deceptions. They might even begin to seek out such experiences on their own. I could even see the rise of “Christian mediums,” those with prophetic gifts who could take it upon themselves to contact the dead on behalf of believers, thinking it a “safe” means of facilitating such communications.

What new “revelations” might these “ghosts” bring? What new ways of interpreting scripture? What guidance might they offer? I’m sure it will sound wonderful at first, and may be packed with scriptural truths, just as the girl in Acts testified accurately regarding Paul and his gospel message. Satan is a master con man, and con men are willing to string a victim along—sometimes for long periods of time, in what is known as the “long con”—until the time comes when they can spring their trap with maximum payoff. It may well be that the evil spirits that make inroads into the church through ghostly revelations will exercise great care in sticking close to the scriptures for a long time, and will not deviate significantly until they have their audiences thoroughly deceived and an especially good opportunity to destroy large numbers of believers presents itself.

Think it can’t happen?
“But the Spirit explicitly says that in later times some will fall away from the faith, paying attention to deceitful spirits and doctrines of demons.” – I Timothy 4:1

The height of this falling away will take place during the Great Tribulation. While discussing the terrors and pressures of those days, Jesus warned us that “false Christs and false prophets will arise and will show great signs and wonders, so as to mislead, if possible, even the elect” (Matthew 24:24). Believers under great strain during those days will be tempted to rely more on the word of respected Christian authorities than on the Word and Spirit of God (already a serious problem in the church), and if those they are depending upon to guide them are under the influence of evil spirits (as Paul warned in I Timothy 4), the result could be catastrophic for many.

The biblical record teaches that the dead are unaware (at the very least of what occurs in the world of the living), and is particularly clear that when God wants to send his people a message, he does so through human prophets, by the Holy Spirit, or by the hand of an angel. There is no record of him sending a “ghost” to deliver a message to a living person. The idea of “godly ghosts” is extra-biblical and, in my opinion, extremely dangerous.

- Unless otherwise noted, all scripture quotations are taken from the New American Standard Bible

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Encouragement for Christians Struggling with Condemnation

"Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you..." - Jeremiah 1:5

"I have not come to call the righteous but sinners to repentance." - Luke 5:32

"Therefore do not be ashamed of the testimony of our Lord or of me his prisoner, but join with me in suffering for the gospel according to the power of God, who has saved us and called us with a holy calling, not according to our works, but according to his own purpose and grace which was granted us in Christ Jesus from all eternity." - II Timothy 1:9

For some Christians, grace is a wonderfully simple concept to grasp and apply. They accept the substitutionary atonement of Christ and go on to live lives that are characterized by joy in their new-found identities in the Lord, confident that they are "a new creature" and "old things have passed away, all things have become new" (II Corinthians 5:17). They have failures in their Christian walk, but they move on quickly, not permitting these failures to hinder them.
For others, however--and particularly for those given to introspection--the matter is not quite so simple. The beginning of their new birth experience may indeed be a joyous time for them, but as they learn more of the Word, come to follow Christ more closely, and reflect on the character of God, the remaining darkness within them becomes more evident, even frightening and intimidating. In their struggles with the world, the flesh, and the devil, they come to truly appreciate what is meant when the scriptures declare that God dwells in "unapproachable light" (I Timothy 6:16) and is one in whom "there is no darkness at all" (1 John 1:5).
For such as these, every failure and character flaw can seem like an indicator of absolute unworthiness and wretchedness, bringing about a continual sense of shame and futility. They feel as if they'll never "get it right," never be pleasing to the Lord, never be able to live the Christian life as it is meant to be lived and as the heroes of the faith lived. They know who they were when Christ found them, and just how ugly they can be. They have a keen recollection of their personal history of sin, and can lay hold of it to produce an example of their wretchedness at a moment's notice. Although they might be hesitant to admit it, on some level they suspect that, rather than loving them, God merely tolerates them, and that He is keeping a detailed list of their failures in order to throw the book at them on Judgment Day. For these, the Christian walk is something akin to torture, a long walk on what they fear is surely Death Row. The ever-observant enemy then seizes on these feelings and uses them to keep such believers bound in a perpetual gloom of condemnation and despair.
If you find yourself in this latter camp, I would like to encourage you with a few thoughts, which, if you take hold of them, can be transformative for you, as they proving to be in my own life.
Before you were born, God knew you (Psalm 139:13, Jeremiah 1:5). He knew the very worst about you, all of the ugliness that you are capable of and all of the evil you would ever commit. There is no darkness in you that He did not see from the very beginning (Psalm 139:12, Hebrews 4:13). Yet, He loved you (John 3:16, Ephesians 2:1-10). When you came to Him, He washed you with His own Son's blood, the most precious substance there is, and He did not purchase you at such great cost in order to rub your nose in your sins or to throw you away (Matthew 26:27-28, Revelation 1:5-6). His plan is to bring you to glory, to make you like the Lord Jesus (Romans 8:29, Hebrews 2:10). Yes, He will convict you of sin, not to condemn, belittle, or discourage you, but to help you overcome it (Hebrews 12:11-13). When you fail, you do not shock God. You're not presenting Him with something He didn't anticipate. It's not like He sits back and says to Himself, "Wow, what a loser. I didn't see that coming." Give the Almighty a little more credit than that. He knew what He was getting into when He touched you and said, "Follow Me" - and He still did it. When He shines the light of His Word and His Spirit on something dark in you, it's not because He wasn't aware of it. He knew it was there all along; He simply wants to bring it to your attention so that you can deal with it in the confidence of 1 John 1:9 - that if you acknowledge your sin to Him, He is "faithful and just to forgive...and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness."
Yes, He knew you--everything about you--before you knew Him, and He still drew you to Himself. He is not your enemy. Don't turn away from Him; turn *to* Him, confident of His favor toward you in Christ. Don't be afraid of the Lord's correction, for it comes to build you up. So let conviction come, and strive to do better with the Holy Spirit's guidance (I Peter 1:1-10). And during those times when you feel accusation, shame, and condemnation coming down upon you, remember that these do not come from your Father, who only seeks to build you up in love, but from the enemy who seeks to tear you down (I Peter 5:6-10, Revelation 12:10). Pay heed to conviction, but not to condemnation. Rest securely in the Father's love for you. 
"For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin. Therefore let us draw near with confidence to the throne of grace, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need." - Hebrews 4:15-16

The following is an excellent message on this topic by the late Derek Prince:

* All scripture references are taken from the New American Standard Bible