This is a thought-provoking book, one which is sure to provoke a bit of controversy. Steven Keillor is an American historian, who also happens to be a Christian. He argues that a primary way of understanding Christianity is to see it as an interpretation of history. The Judaeo-Christian religion is indeed grounded in history.
Jews and Christians worship a God who acts, and who is very much involved in the affairs of this world. As such, they reject deism, the idea that God initially created the world but has had nothing to do with it thereafter. No, the Biblical God is one intimately involved in this world, and in human history.
And part of this involvement is the judgment of God. This judgment, which can be understood in part as a sifting process, is a double-edged sword. There is not only judgment of unbelievers, but of believers as well. It is often a testing process, one that allows us either to come nearer to God, or to get further away from him.
And this sifting happens to nations, not just individuals. This is quite clear in the Old Testament. The question is, are nations still judged by God in New Testament times? Keillor believes God still does judge nations today, even though there is relative silence about this in the New Testament.
Such questions especially came to the fore after September 11. Was God judging the US?, many asked after that tragic event. Keillor rejects any simple yes or no answer to that difficult question, and he rejects many of the explanations offered by those on the left, the centre and the right. But he does allow for the possibility that God was somehow involved in that fateful Tuesday morning.
Keillor tries to deal with these current situations by first examining what the Bible has to say about judgment. That God is judge is clear, in both Testaments. And Yahweh certainly was judge of the nations in the Hebrew Bible.
Of course modern man is squeamish about the idea of judgment. The Enlightenment did give us deism, and many are unwilling to believe that God – if he exists – is even remotely concerned about the affairs of men. But the Biblical picture is a far cry from this view.
God is overwhelmingly concerned about us and our activities, and is involved in what happens on planet earth. But New Testament believers may still ask if God is the same as Yahweh in terms of judgment. Keillor argues – rightly, I feel – that God has not changed between the Testaments, and is equally a just, holy and judging God, as he is loving and merciful, throughout all of Scripture.
When Jesus was on the scene, his life and teachings constantly brought separation and division to his hearers. Sifting, or judgment, in other words, was the inevitable result of confronting Christ and his claims. As Jesus said in John 9:39, “For judgment I have come into this world”.
Says Keillor, “From beginning to end, Jesus’ life and teachings involved a sifting-out based on responses to him”. And he experienced the judgment of God on the cross, when he suffered for our sins. Moreover, one day he will come back as judge of the entire world. Thus judgment is part and parcel of the life and work of Christ.
After seeking to make the case that God may well still judge nations today, Keillor offers two test cases: the 1814 burning of Washington, and the American Civil War. He notes that many people living during these events did see God’s hand of judgment at work. For example, Lincoln was convinced that the Civil War was God’s judgment on the evils of slavery, although he saw both sides as sharing in the guilt.
In all this Keillor rightly recognises that unlike Old Testament times, we have no clear prophetic word from God on the events of the day, so great caution must be exercised here. What Keillor is mainly trying to establish is that God is actively involved in this world, and has not become an absentee landlord in the New Testament dispensation.
This is an intriguing book. One may not agree with every detail found here. But it seems that the general theme of the book is heading in the right direction. And Keillor is quite right to begin his book with a quote from Os Guinness: “The cross of Jesus runs crosswise to all our human ways of thinking. A rediscovery of the hard and the unpopular themes of the gospel will therefore be such a rediscovery of the whole gospel that the result may lead to reformation and revival”.
We certainly have shrunk away from proclaiming the whole counsel of God, and his holiness and justice must be maintained as adamantly as his love and grace. Anything less is a distortion and truncation of the Biblical record. Thus Keillor is to be commended for getting us to think more carefully about who God is, and how we are to understand his current dealings with planet earth and its inhabitants.