When the Bible Goes Missing
For Christians the Word of God should be everything. It should form the basis of all our thinking about all things – not just religious, spiritual and theological, but ethical, social and political. But it increasingly seems that the Bible is just becoming an optional extra for many believers.
Not only does biblical illiteracy seem to be at an all time high amongst so-called biblical Christians, but it is getting harder to even hear it in our churches. I have been to many churches where the Word of God hardly gets a mention. Certainly in many churches the old practice of having a public reading of Scripture is gone, and many so-called sermons are largely devoid of biblical material.
And without other forms of Bible teaching (at least in America adult Sunday School is still popular), it seems there is little room in our modern evangelical churches for solid Bible teaching and study. Unless one goes to Bible college, Australian believers are more or less left to their own devices as to biblical literacy and theological education.
A prime example of this woeful lack of basic biblical knowledge occurred following the death of Osama bin Laden. Not only were many Christians actually bummed out at his death, but they tried to take the high moral ground on this. And very few of these folks in fact quoted any Scripture about this.
What did happen instead – and with annoying monotony – was for them to quote this from Martin Luther King: “I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the… death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that.”
Of course the first thing to say about this quote is that he never even said it! Bits of it, or things a bit like it, maybe – but this is not a genuine quote of his (see the link below). Yet believers all over the place were throwing it around not only as a legitimate quote, but as if it were gospel truth.
Indeed, what we had from so many Christian quarters was anything but gospel truth on this. Instead we had heaps of mushy moralising and secularist sentimentalism, but we certainly had hardly any Scriptural pronouncements offered on this.
At best, a few people started throwing around Ezekiel 33:11: “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked.” This is obviously an important passage, but it is not the end of the story. And like every other text, it requires a context. Of course there is rejoicing when people come to know God (Luke 15:7,10).
Of course God desires that everyone be saved (1 Tim. 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). But he also desires justice and social order in a fallen world, and that is why he ordained the institution of government, as well as the death penalty. The magistrate has been given the sword by God to punish evildoers in this life (Rom. 13:4).
And he has ordained that those who reject him and refuse his gracious offers of mercy and reconciliation will live in eternal separation and judgment. Thus God himself has established the death penalty for sin in this life, and he has established two separate eternal destinies for mankind.
Was he wrong in both cases? Some of these critics would seem to think so. As is so often the case, they think God is not moral enough, compassionate enough, caring enough. These people actually seem to think they can do a better job of running the moral universe than God can.
And speaking of context, Ez. 33 is about the coming exile of Israel if they do not quickly turn things around. Yahweh does not want Israel to meet this fate, but it will happen if they continue in sin and refuse to obey him. That is what Ezekiel is referring to here.
Indeed, he repeats what is found in Ez. 18:31-32, and says that death is not inevitable. This exile need not happen. It is not too late to repent and avert this fate. That is what Yahweh desires. It is the same today. God has done everything in Christ to secure our salvation. But if we refuse that, then we will fully get what we deserve.
Yahweh’s delight is to have this ongoing love relationship with Israel, and not see it all lost – at least temporarily – by going into captivity because of their hard hearts. But God here is not rescinding or reversing his establishment of the state, or the eternal fate of those who reject him.
Thus retributive justice is something which God has established and which is his will to carry out. Of course there is a lot of fuzzy thinking here which I have spoken to elsewhere, but the short story is this: retribution is not revenge, and justice is not hate.
God always delights in seeing justice maintained, and he has delegated authority to see to it that justice in this life is carried out. When Osama declared war on the US and the West, and became a mass murderer of thousands of innocent people, he was an enemy combatant who had forfeited his own right to life.
He lost his life as a result, and the world is rid of a cruel, evil and bloodthirsty terrorist. And the Bible is full of passages which speak of rejoicing at the death of God’s enemies, and of God’s people’s enemies. There is nothing at all amiss in rejoicing in the establishment of justice and the defeat of evil.
Consider just a few of many passages:
-In Exodus 15 we have the Song of Moses, in which God’s people rejoice, exalt and worship God – why? Because of the destruction of their enemies.
-In Judges 5:1-31 we have the Song of Deborah, in which she and Israel celebrate the death of God’s (and God’s people’s) enemies.
-In 1 Sam 25:37-39 we read about how David praised the Lord because the Lord had struck down his enemy Nabal.
-In the Book of Esther we read about the institution of one of Israel’s major annual festivals, the feast of Purim (Esther 8:11-17), which is a celebration of the death of God’s enemies.
-In Proverbs 11:10 we read that “When the righteous prosper, the city rejoices; when the wicked perish, there are shouts of joy.”
-In Revelation 18:20 and other passages we read about great praise and worship services – why? Because God has judged his (and his people’s) enemies. Indeed, this fulfils the deep longing of God’s people for retribution as recorded in Rev. 6:10.
There are many more such texts. Yet all the other side can do so often is throw out a MLK quote which is not even the real deal. Then I get accused by these people of taking passages out of context. Hey, at least I am using the Word of God. Most of these guys seem to be ignoring it altogether.
Another critic of mine said we should remember the flood, and spoke of “how it grieved God’s heart so that ‘He repented of Himself’ that He had even made man?” But this is getting things back to front. We are clearly told in Gen. 6:5-8 that he was grieved at making man because of his “great wickedness,” so he decreed the flood as just judgment. He was not grieving about, or repenting over, sending the flood, but of human wickedness, which resulted in the flood.
But this lack of biblical awareness is found all over the place. Consider what a letter writer to the Age said: “I watch the world rejoice at the death of a sinner, as if one fewer makes the world a better place. If that’s the case, then the world would be infinitely better if we freed it from every sinner. But who would be left?”
This is more moral and biblical confusion. Of course we are all sinners. So what? Does that mean all human justice must come to an end? If I shoot dead my neighbour and stand before the judge, can I simply say, “Yes I sinned, but you judge are also a sinner, so surely you have no right to judge me. Just let me go free.”
And the world most certainly is a better place with Osama gone. So too when Hitler met his end. People all around the world rightly celebrated the death of this horrendous dictator, and the defeat of the Nazis. They danced in the streets over this at war’s end.
Indeed, just as the Israelites did with the defeat and death of Pharoah. Just as the Israelites did at the defeat and death of Haman. Just as Deborah did at the defeat and death of Jabin and the Canaanites. Just as David did with the death of Nabal.
Just as all God’s people will rejoice and worship over the defeat of God’s enemies when he justly judges unrepentant and rebellious mankind. While we all should pray and weep over the lost, and do all we can to reach them for the gospel, we should also exalt in what God exalts in.
When he is glorified in his judgments and rejoices over them, so too should we. But to do this we need a bit of biblical awareness. Selectively citing sentimental misquotes is not how Christians are to grapple with complex ethical issues. Dealing carefully and completely with the Biblical revelation is.