Israel Folau decision may set a course for the future

Christians across Australia have been given a message, “don’t commit social blasphemy” and “be careful if you choose to use the Bible”.

After three days of deliberations, a three person panel has found Israel Folau guilty of a “high level breach” of Rugby Australia’s player code of conduct.  Not that the outcome was much in doubt, given that Rugby Australia and the Waratah’s had bypassed due process and instead announced to the nation that Folau’s contract was terminated and that he would never be selected again to play for his country or club. Last night’s verdict was little more than a formality.

 

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Whatever Izzy’s motives may have been for posting on social media, he has forced onto the national stage an issue that has been pulled and tugged and tested in quieter situations from the East Coast to the West; can a pure form of Christian beliefs be permitted in the public space?

What was his offence? It is believed that Israel Folau declined to sign a document in addition to the standard players’ contract, which would have placed greater restrictions on his use of social media. He did, however, sign his contract, which presumably includes a clause about adhering to the players Code of Conduct. He has been found guilty of a “high level breach” of the Rugby Code of Conduct. This breach hangs on a subjective interpretation of Part 2 Article 1.3, “Treat everyone equally, fairly and with dignity regardless of gender or gender identity, sexual orientation, ethnicity, cultural or religious background, age or disability. Any form of bullying, harassment or discrimination has no place in Rugby.”  Interpretation of this clause depends on one’s a priori beliefs and moral framework, and in this case the panel have deemed that summarising 1 Corinthians 6:9-11 is a “high” form or harassment, even though the point of that passage is quite the opposite, and so too the meaning of Folau’s post.

Legal experts are expressing concerns over the handling of the issue. Professor Nicholas Aroney has interpreted the allegations against Folau with reference to International law. He explains that

“ [What] Folau has said is not an example of hate speech, and he should not lose his rugby career as a result.” Indeed, he reminds us of the broader framework in which Folau has posted comments, “In addition to repeatedly expressing his love and acceptance of all people, Folau has confessed to having committed many of the sins about which he now warns his readers. This makes it difficult to attribute any intention on his part to advocate hatred against these classes of people, for he numbers himself amongst them”

Setting aside legal questions (which I will certainly leave to those who legal expertise) what is clear is that Rugby Australia and the social commentators who’ve joined the scrum have defined ‘orthodox’ religion. Whether Rugby Australia realise it or not, they have taken a theological stand on Israel Folau and have determined to define what is and isn’t acceptable religious belief and speech. Remember, Folau was quoting the Bible and summarising basic Christian teaching.

Yes, as I and others have said a thousand times, Folau’s comments were not seasoned with grace and kindness. They appeared blunt and insensitive, much like a Rugby footballer. Was his manner lacking? Probably, yes. Were his words untrue to 2000 years of Christian belief? No.

Footballers have been forgiven for all manner of social and even criminal offences over the last few years; have we forgotten what some NRL and AFL players have been embroiled in the last few years. But Israel Folau isn’t to be forgiven.

And what of the teammates who have spoken out in support of Folau and have even agreed with his post? Surely Rugby Australia can’t afford to lose any more players before the World Cup? Is Folau to be a sacrificial lamb, served up to warn others of what might happen should they transgress again?

Let’s not be fools, Christians and non-Christians alike are praised for quoting the Bible when they squeeze it to fit with progressive social agendas. Kristina Keneally wasn’t removed from the Labor Party after quoting the Bible against Prime Minister Scott Morrison, and Peter FitzSimons hasn’t been sacked by Fairfax for repeatedly speaking of Jesus Christ? Why not? Because their speech falls into the rut of the cultural narrative, no matter how poor their handling of Christian texts may be.

Lest we conclude that this story will soon be forgotten as a blip on the cultural radar, Rugby Australia’s stance may well soon find legislative legs. The Australian Labor Party (as the Greens have already done) have announced that they are considering expanding “anti-discrimination legislation to shield gay and transgender ­people from harmful speech if elected, in a move that has alarmed lawyers and free-speech advocates.”

“When prejudice against LGBTIQ people contributes to harassment by the written or ­spoken word, such harassment causes actual harm, not simply mere offence, to people who have suffered discrimination and prejudice, and causes particular harm to young same-sex-attracted, gender-questioning or intersex people.

“Labor considers such harmful harassment is an unacceptable abuse of the responsibilities that come with freedom of speech and must be subject to effective sanctions. Labor will ensure that anti-discrimination law provides such effective sanction.”

Depending on how the language of ‘harm’ is understood, all manner of reasonable speech may be found on the wrong side of the law. For example, former rugby league player, Ian Roberts, last week alleged that comments like those of Israel Folau play a role in teenage kids committing suicide as they come to terms with their sexuality

“There are literally kids in the suburbs killing themselves — and I say that with the greatest sense of respect — I’m not implying that Israel’s responsible solely for that, please don’t take it that way.

“But it’s these types of comments and these off the cuff remarks, when you have young people and vulnerable people, kids in the suburbs who are dealing with their sexuality, confused, not knowing how to deal with it, these types of remarks can and do push people over the edge.”

If explaining the Christian view of sexuality is deemed to be a trigger for teenage suicide, we can anticipate further public outrage and potential legislation that will restrict and prohibit words that conform to and explain the Christian message. One might respond by pointing out that thousands of Christians are killed every year simply because they are Christian, therefore we must not limit or silence Christians freedom to speak their beliefs. If we are to be morally and logically consistent, Robert’s argument works in different directions. Leaving that aside, Roberts’ comments could be taken offensively by some Christians because we too are concerned for the wellbeing of teenagers. It is good to be reminded that these conversations are not merely academic or theoretical but they relate to real people who matte. We can thank Ian Roberts for this reminder.  No one wants teenagers despairing of their worth and believing they are unloved. I am reminded of Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman, a woman who’s sexual past was complicated, to say the least. Jesus didn’t affirm or applaud her but he did love her and speak a powerful word of compassion and hope to her.

“Everyone who drinks this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks the water I give them will never thirst. Indeed, the water I give them will become in them a spring of water welling up to eternal life….The woman said, “I know that Messiah” (called Christ) “is coming. When he comes, he will explain everything to us.”… Then Jesus declared, “I, the one speaking to you—I am he.” (John 4:13-14, 25-26)

In the midst of all the myriad of questions and issues relating to the Folau case, it is important to repeat an observation that was made last month: while Folau’s offending posts are in line with orthodox Christian teaching, he has on other occasions suggested a troubling view of the Trinity. He appears to advocate Oneness theology, which contradicts the Creeds and the very Scriptures themselves. This matters because it would be unwise to use Folau as a poster for Australian Christianity should he not subscribe to one of the most basic of Christian doctrines. It would be unwise and unChristian for Christians to pedestal Israel Folau while knowing he may well reject an even more foundational belief. As I suggested at the time, it may well be the case that Folau is like many Christians who are confused about and fuzzy on the Trinity. At the very least, this is a reminder as to why it is incumbent upon Pastors to teach the Bible clearly and faithfully in order to aid their congregations to understand such crucial doctrines.

The controversy over Israel Folau was not the first case and it is far from being the last. School children in Victoria are force-fed gender theories which are often unsupported by science and best medical practice, and many families have already felt pressured to leaving the public system and forced to pay the expense of independent schooling because of this Governmental pressure in Victoria. We can expect more corporations and organisations falling for the kinds of pressures that have been exposed by the Folau situation. Australia is moving toward introducing limitations on religious freedom that we see in parts of Europe and in Canada. We are heading closer toward the situation found in China, whereby Christians cannot join a political party and they cannot speak openly about Christianity and churches must be approved of by the State. This isn’t hyperbole, this is the natural progression of authoritarian secularism who will use the sexual revolution and identity politics to push all but their sanitised version of religion out of the public square.

A culturally palatable Christianity will entail deleting most Bible verses, any references to hell and to judgment, removing the core of the faith which is the atonement, and of course, we must let go of any teaching about marriage and sex and the roles of women and men. We will be left with a very tiny Bible and one that makes little sense, and one that has no power to give life and hope to this world.

“I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” That saying of Jesus will need to go. So too will Jesus’ introductory summary of his ministry, ““The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!” Anything that challenges personal autonomy and freedom to define self realisation cannot be tolerated.

I have said it before, Christians need to start taking Jesus’ words seriously, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily and follow me.” We cannot afford to give up gentleness and compassion, grace and kindness, for these are indispensable attributes of the Gospel we claim to believe. We cannot respond to cultural shifts with hate but with enduring love because God has loved us. However, we have to accept the fact that loving others will not always be read as love because today’s secularist police will not permit views that transgress their narrow understanding of righteousness. Don’t give up on love, and don’t sacrifice truth and goodness for doing so means that we have also evacuated love from the picture.

If Christianity’s demise in Australia has been party due to Christianity’s seducement by the culture, then perhaps the clarifying disjunction between Church and culture will aid believers to regain Gospel convictions, compassion, and expectations. After all, it was communist China that created a moral and epistemic environment which catalyzed the explosion of Christianity and the conversion of 10s of millions of Chinese.  We may be disappointed by indicative direction Australian public life may be taking and the ramification this may have for our job security, education, and financial stability, but we are hopeful and joyful because Jesus Christ remains true and good today as ever. And by the grace of God, over time some our Aussie neighbours may come to realise that we are not against them but for them and have a message of hope that we alter their lives in the most satisfying and liberating fashion.

The Politico-Religious Tug Of War

The Gospel Coalition (USA) is under fire again, this time for apparently being too anti-Trump.

A notable American theologian has exclaimed with a tone of frustration, “Are all the vocal gatekeepers of The Gospel Coalition “Never- Trumpers”?”

I am staying away from the particulars of this conversation as it seems to be unfolding and there is perhaps misunderstanding on both sides. To be clear though, the issue does not relate to TGC, it concerns a comment made by a TGC writer on his own personal twitter account.  What I am interested in noting is criticisms aimed at  The Gospel Coalition’s positioning and contributions on a range of politico-ethical issues, which I think in fact reflects a healthy and constructive place.

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Over the last couple of years, there has been consternation over TGC being too ‘leftist’ and too social gospel orientated. This is quite different from the more regular criticism that is found in some Christian quarters and in the media whereby The Gospel Coalition is caricatured as overly conservative and exclusive.  In Australia, despite TGCA now being one of the major Christian websites in the country, with significant reach and influence across the nation and internationally, TGCA remains outside the radar of most Australian media and political attention; and that’s fine because they are not our audience. Nonetheless, within the smallish Christian circles that do exist in Australia, TGCA has been similarly attacked both left and right alike. 

First of all, we shouldn’t conflate every statement made on a personal social media account as representing The Gospel Coalition. I’m pretty sure that my fellow TGCA Council members wouldn’t agree with some of my personal tweets about football,  Melbourne, and food, let alone on every single theological comment I have uttered. Surely we can differentiate between what a person says under their own name and what is written under the umbrella of an organisation.

Second, the Gospel Coalition, both in the United States and in Australia (and its other chapters), does not identify with any given political spectrum. TGC(A) is not a political entity, representing any single political party or position. It is a coalition of Christian men and women who are gathered around the Gospel of Jesus Christ, and who affirm a set of theological convictions that are grounded in and are concerned for the fidelity of, the proclamation of, and living out of this Gospel of God. This coalition is made up of folk with clear theological convictions and from a wide range of ethnic groups, demographics, denominations and churches, and from many parts of the globe.

Third, it is quite possible, and indeed preferable, to critique positions on moral issues without suggesting whom we should vote for or which political party a Christian ought to support. TGC and TGCA contribute articles on a wide range of ethical and social issues, including abortion, racism, same-sex marriage, and these are argued Biblically and pastorally without taking that further step which is beyond the jurisdiction of pastors, namely to indicate how fellow Christians should vote or which party they should support.

As Australians go to the polls later this month to elect a Federal Government, I’ve heard once again the unhelpful (although probably well-meaning) voices of a few Christians encouraging fellow believers to vote for particular candidates and parties.  The problem is, sometimes their pleas become so impassioned that we are left with the impression that Christians must vote in a singular way and for only certain political parties and not others. Of course, there are very important issues for Christians that are better reflected in some party politics than others, but our cause is not Liberal or Labor, or Republican or Democrat. It is also possible that a time may come when it becomes impossible for Christians to support a particular party, given their policies are so anti-God and so anti-human, but we must be reticent to make such pronouncements, in contrast to some religious folk who seem to have this route locked on autopilot every election.

Our Gospel does not belong to and is not defined by progressive politics and morality nor by conservative politics and morality. The fact that TGC is regularly attacked by progressive branches of the media and by liberal Christians and that it is also sometimes accused of being too progressive and embracing of social issues, probably indicates that they are sitting in a wise place. It is even more important that our churches are wise when addressing social and political issues.

I don’t believe we should avoid talking about the political and social issues from the Scriptures, but we should not bind the consciences of our congregation beyond what Scripture allows. We must allow room for wisdom. In my view, unwise conscience binding includes promoting a given political party or politician (even those who purport to be overtly Christian) whether in our literature or from the Sunday church platform. I know of one church where a member of Parliament attends and is an active member. Both he and the church leadership are on the same page, making the conscious decision to refrain from presenting him or his party’s platform in the church context, lest people confuse Christianity and the Church with a particular political expression. Even on social media, Christians leaders need to be careful about aligning too closely with one candidate or another. Instead, teach our congregations well from the Scriptures, pray for them and pray for those in political authority over us (regardless of the party they represent), and trust that the Holy Spirit is working in lives of believers and giving them wisdom to discern how to vote.

Do Christians still believe in hell today? A response to Robyn Whitaker

“If you don’t believe in hell, you’ll never heard the love of God.” (Tim Keller)

 

As part of commemorating Easter, the Conversation published two articles by Uniting Church minister and theological college lecturer, Robyn Whitaker. 

Whitaker is (as I suspect many pastors have done in the past few weeks)  offering a contribution to the public debate on hell, which has followed Israel Folau’s recent Instagram comments.

Whitaker provides an interesting and at times informative account of the biblical notions of heaven and hell, but readers are left wondering whether we are meant to believe that these destinations are believable today.

It is difficult to know what Whitaker personally believes about heaven and hell. Her excurses take us through some biblical material and references to ANE religions, but there appears to be a reluctance to share what she herself believes. More problematic is the direction she is leaving for her readers.  It feels like an ethereal rendition of John Lennon’s,

‘Imagine there’s no heaven

It’s easy if you try

No hell below us

Above us only sky’

 

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First of all, where does heaven and hell come from?

Readers are given the impression that heaven and hell don’t originate with God of the Bible, but rather they are evolving compilation of many different faith traditions. Whitaker notes the possible influence of cultures surrounding ancient Israel and Judea. While the Bible at times utilises words and images from surrounding cultures, that does not mean that the biblical concepts depend on or are derived from these religious settings.

The Bible describes heaven and hell as places created by and belonging to God, as much as this universe is made by the same God. Biblical authors may at times borrow language from other places to help readers understand what heaven and hell are about (of much greater influence on the New Testament is a heavy dependence on the Old Testament), but to imply that the Biblical teaching should be traced to another religious milieu is both unnecessary and counters the Scriptures themselves (i.e. Acts 17:16-31).

Whitaker not only suggests the Bible’s teaching about heaven and hell are sourced from other ancient religions, rather than originating with God himself, dotted throughout her presentation are misleading phrases like, “mythic stories”,  which reinforce the view that the Bible is either unreliable or is little more than a superb piece of fiction. The quote by Paula Gooder is telling in this regard,

“it is impossible to state categorically what the Bible as a whole says about heaven… Biblical beliefs about heaven are varied, complex and fluid.”

Two millennia of  Creeds, Catechesis, and doctrinal statements have achieved the very thing that Gooder says is impossible! That does not mean that every aspect of the Bible’s teaching on heaven and hell are captured in any of these statements, but the essence of and a faithful representation of these teachings can be accomplished.

Second, is hell a real place?

Whitaker’s argument leaves readers believing that the answer is a likely, no. While Whitaker is more than willing to accept heaven as an ultimate place (by which she understands heaven to be the healing and transformation of this world), her confidence in a literal hell is lacking, to say the least.

For example, Whitaker makes a big deal of the Bible’s use of metaphors and imagery and does so in a way that explains away any imperative to believe these things are representative of real and concrete places.

Jesus frequently used allegories and analogies in his teaching to convey concrete realities. For example, the mustard seed describing the kingdom of heaven, or the farmer’s seed which represents the word of God. The illustrations are vivid descriptions describing very real things. Similarly, fire and smoke and gnashing of teeth may be rhetorical and symbolic but they are not describing a fiction destination but an eternal place.

Speaking of the book of Revelation Whitaker says,

“It should be noted that these are poetic and highly symbolic apocalyptic texts whose purpose is primarily to persuade people to stay faithful to their God, not to set out a precise agenda for the afterlife.”

Why create the dichotomy? Can’t such texts achieve both? The opening verses of Revelation certainly suggest that the book is presenting an agenda for life both this side of death and on the other side.

“The revelation from Jesus Christ, which God gave him to show his servants what must soon take place. He made it known by sending his angel to his servant John, who testifies to everything he saw—that is, the word of God and the testimony of Jesus Christ. Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what is written in it, because the time is near.” (Revelation 1:1-4)

In addition, there are plenty of non-poetic and non-apocalyptic texts within Scripture that explain future resurrection to either eternal life or to judgment.

“Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment” (Hebrews 9:27)

“ If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God.” (Hebrews 10:26-27)

Whitaker then suggests that the Bible itself implies that hell may not be a literal place. She contends,

“One challenge to the idea of hell as a literal place comes from the Bible itself. Parts of the New Testament record that when Jesus died on the cross he descended into the realm of the dead.”

“These fleeting references were preserved in ancient Christian creeds. Medieval Christians called Jesus’ descent to the dead the “harrowing of hell”. The theology behind it is that even the realm of the dead (hell) and death itself have been transformed by God.”

If I have accurately joined her dots together, Whitaker appears to be making the same error that some Reformed and Medieval theologians made, and that is to conflate the realm of the dead with hell. Death and hell are not the same. As Michael Bird explains in Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction,

“The New Testament distinguishes hadēs (waiting place of the dead) from geenna (judgment place for the dead).”

Part of the confusion with Jesus’ descending to the dead (or to hell) lays with a mistranslation of the creed. As Bird explains,

“the Latin creed does not say that Christ descended into hell. This wrong “tradition” is based on a mistranslation of the Latin. The Latin ad inferos found in the creed means “to the grave, the place of the dead” (i.e., hadēs). It does not say ad infernum, meaning “to hell,” the place of punishment after death…A better English translation of the creed, which is used in the Church of England, is this: “He descended to the dead.” In other words, the wrong “tradition” about a descent into hell is really a wrong translation of the Latin perpetuated by the Reformers, who did not differentiate “hell” from “Hades.”

Jesus’ death, burial, and resurrection did not close the door on hell or bring about its demolition, rather his atoning sacrifice saved from entering hell those who repent of their sin and put their faith in Him.

And what about this unnecessary yet loaded phrase, “fleeting references”? Again, Whitaker is carefully laying down rhetorical mines to undermine confidence in the Bible. It’s as though she is saying, because the number of references are few, the teaching can’t be all that important or all that reliable.  How many Bible verses are required before we ditch ‘fleeting’ and treat the subject with due seriousness? As it happens, the topic of hell and of a final judgment is pretty commonplace in the New Testament, with it being spoken of in passing commentary and in extended didactic argument and portrayed in lengthy apocalyptic teaching. Lest we forget, Jesus taught about hell more often than any other person in the New Testament.

“If Jesus, the Lord of Love and Author of Grace spoke about hell more often, and in a more vivid, blood-curdling manner than anyone else, it must be a crucial truth.” (Tim Keller)

Third, motivation for talking about hell.

Robyn Whitaker (perhaps as a swipe at Israel Folau), mocks Christians who talk about hell.

“Similarly, some Christians invoke hell to persuade individuals to repent of their sins. Such rhetoric is from a different time and place, when scaring people into faith seemed like a good idea.”

There is some wisdom here, at least in terms of emphases. Becoming a Christian is not primarily about avoiding hell. Preachers who fixate on hell and not on Jesus Christ are in danger of skewing the good news message of Christianity. The Gospel is wonderful and amazing news of reconciliation with the living God through Christ, but it not less than salvation from hell, but more. Keep in mind, it is Jesus who invoked hell as a means of warning people from ungodly living,

“If your right eye causes you to stumble, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to lose one part of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell.”(Matthew 5:29)

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell”. (Matthew 10:28)

Fourth. What God do we believe in?

In her conclusion, Robyn Whitaker reveals what the conversation is really about. Our views about heaven and hell reveal underlying suppositions about what we believe God is like.

“It begs the question – does hell continue to exist? Many Christians today would say no. Others claim an ongoing belief in a literal place of eternal punishment, which raises a different theological question: what kind of God do you believe in to think God consigns people to eternal torment?”

What we say about heaven and hell reflects what we believe about the Bible and ultimately about God.

What God do we believe in? Do we believe in a God who is telling us the truth in his word or in a God who fibbing or who has changed his mind or is unable to keep his word?

The Bible speaks of God who is love and who is holy. It is because of this love and holiness that hell exists. It is because of this love and holiness, God sent his only Son as a propitiation for our sins, and thus offering forgiveness and eternal wonder instead of his just judgment.

Part of the biblical teaching on hell is to remind and even encourage people that God is just and will bring about righteous judgment. If there is no final judgment, then what are we to suppose to conclude about justice and about God’s character and about hope for those who have suffered injustice?

Is the Bible warning humanity about a judgment that will not come? Is God’s promise of eternal life not eternal? When Jesus promised to return at the eschaton was he telling a whopper? And where is Jesus right now, following his resurrection and ascension? Major aspects of the atonement lose their power and significance, and so does Christ’s resurrection. If we follow Whitaker’s line of thinking we are left with a very different Christianity and a very different God.

What impression do her two articles leave with the reader? We conclude that hell is a minor theme mentioned by a few bible writers who were depending on other ancient religions for the concept, but isn’t something Christians really believe today, except for those few left behind angry medieval preaching type Christians. We are left sensing that both hell and heaven are difficult to pin down, and among Christians, there are diverging views and it is not necessary to that there is such a place known as hell. Is this a helpful conclusion to leave both Christians and unbelievers alike? Is this a recognisable Christian message?

If our speech about heaven and hell leaves people in doubt as to their existence, we have failed to be clear and faithful. If the Lord Jesus taught these topics with clarity and concern, should we not also?

If our speech muddies the Divine promise of a new heavens and new earth and of eternal judgment for the unrepentant, we are misrepresenting God and we are stripping people of hope. 

If our speech denies either the existence of heaven or of hell, then we have failed to be Christian. Christians may wrestle with the biblical material and be confused at times, but to explain away either heaven or hell is to ultimately set ourselves against the teaching of Jesus Christ and against God-given reasons for which he died on the cross and was raised to life.

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. The earth and the heavens fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. 12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. 13 The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what they had done. 14 Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death.15 Anyone whose name was not found written in the book of life was thrown into the lake of fire.” (Revelation 20:11-15)

Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’ or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”

 He who was seated on the throne said, “I am making everything new!” Then he said, “Write this down, for these words are trustworthy and true.” (Revelation 21:1-5)

 

 

 

 


April 30th – A friend of mine who is familiar with Paula Goode’s writings has sent me a helpful email where she points out that Robyn Whitaker seems to have quoted Goode out of context. Far from undermining the ontological reality of heaven, Goode is simply noting the difficulty facing biblical writers in finding vocabulary and imagery to fully explain the wonder that is heaven.

God is not embarrassed by Christians

It shouldn’t be difficult to say the word, after all, people can’t wait to use it when there’s an opportunity to deride those who adhere to this worldview. And when representatives of their ranks are caught in a scandal or in an evil and immoral act, the social outrage queue is long and eager.  Sometimes though, in fact, more often than not, the unnameable populace doesn’t fit with the subscribed narrative that Western playwrights are busily writing on their twitter feeds, political speeches, and op-ed pieces. On these occasions, which again is the normal state of affairs, our progressive friends are left rhetorically naked and yet bound by their own scripts.

 

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Among the cast of notables who struggled to articulate what happened in Sri Lanka on Easter Sunday were Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama.

President Obama tweeted,

“The attacks on tourists and Easter worshippers in Sri Lanka are an attack on humanity. On a day devoted to love, redemption, and renewal, we pray for the victims and stand with the people of Sri Lanka.”

Clinton released this statement,

“On this holy weekend for many faiths, we must stand united against hatred and violence. I’m praying for everyone affected by today’s horrific attacks on Easter worshippers and travelers in Sri Lanka.”

 

The death toll currently sits at 359 people, with 500 injured. This is one of worse human-made atrocities committed anywhere in the world in the past decade, and possibly the largest terrorist attack since 9/11, and yet world leaders are stumbling over their words in order to avoid noting important facts

Who or what is an “Easter worshipper”? And since when have many faiths celebrated Easter? Our Jewish friends celebrate Passover during the same period, but who other than Christians worship Jesus Christ as God and accept his death and resurrection as the payment for sins and hope for eternal life?

I realise that the West is super keen to attach ‘Christian’ with everything that is wrong with the identity of the 21st Century world. Australians have been watching our own latest melodrama with Rugby and AFL players losing the socially mandated script and instead of inserting a few Bible verses here and there. We have since been reminded that such things are outdated and unacceptable, so much so that Israel Folau may lose his contract to play Rugby for Australia.

The media don’t seem to have an issue in ascribing ‘Christian’ to moral apostates (whether real or perceived) and they are quick to Christianise heretics like Father Rod Bower. Why? Because his own version of Christianity is a perfect fit with the sexualised authoritarian secularism that is published from our universities to our schools, from our television shows to our halls of Parliament. And most genuine Christians don’t shirk at the fact that sometimes other Christians behave in ways that are wicked or unwise or insensitive; we call it out. But when Christians are believing and behaving like Christians, as in, trusting Jesus Christ and growing in obedience to God of the Bible, watch the public edifice of our culture either move toward caricature, slander, or silence.

We could respond by being a little angry or disappointed, disillusioned even; I think it’s sad.

It is ok to use the word ‘Christian’. It is not a sin to mention by name the religion of the victims in Sri Lanka, nor is it immoral to mention the religious motivations of those who perpetrated this great evil.

Christians ought to grieve with those who grieve, whether they are Christian or atheist or Muslim or Hindu. Every human being is an image bearer of God and their life is precious and their dignity, great. The world is lessened when a life is taken, and we weep. Christchurch remains fresh on our minds. Christians mourned for Christchurch, and we prayed for the many Muslims people who were injured and for the families affected by that evil attack on their Mosques. 

We may long for justice in this world, and we are not amiss for expecting such, and yet we also understand that the world is fighting against the very notions of righteousness and goodness, because of a persistent antipathy toward God.

It is sad to hear that as hundreds of funerals take place throughout Sri Lanka today and this week, national leaders and notable commentators are unable to utter basic truths about what took place. This is not uncommon either, but a surge of whitewashing facts that don’t fit with preset views about the world.

We will not serve the honour of those who died by denying who they are, and neither can society confront and address the issues facing us while our leaders play the dangerous game of avoidance. Regardless of how Governments and societies respond to those who are the most persecuted group in the world today, namely Christians, we have a higher and truer authority who is perfect in love and justice, in mercy and righteousness, and it is to him whom we ultimately place our hope and find our comfort,

Then one of the elders asked me, “These in white robes—who are they, and where did they come from?” I answered, “Sir, you know.”

And he said, “These are they who have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb.  Therefore,

“they are before the throne of God
    and serve him day and night in his temple;
and he who sits on the throne
    will shelter them with his presence.

‘Never again will they hunger;
    never again will they thirst.
The sun will not beat down on them,’
    nor any scorching heat.

For the Lamb at the center of the throne
    will be their shepherd;
‘he will lead them to springs of living water.’
    ‘And God will wipe away every tear from their eyes

(Revelation 7:13-17)

Be careful if you ‘like’ the Bible!

“All people are like grass,

    and all their glory is like the flowers of the field;

the grass withers and the flowers fall,

    but the word of the Lord endures forever.”

 

Talking about and quoting the Bible can be perilous. One can lose friends, employment, and even freedom for choosing to read and mention the Bible in public.

 

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ABC news

Gary Ablett Jnr yesterday reminded footy fans why he is one of the best players we have seen play the game in the past 20 years: bursting packs, shrugging tackles, and kicking goals. He was also subjected to loud booing by the crowd, apparently by both Hawthorn and some Geelong supporters. Jeff Kennett has come out this morning condemning the crowd’s reaction to Ablett, believing that the treatment had to do with Ablett ‘liking’ Israel Folau’s recent Instagram post.

I am reminded of a very different scene that I saw last month, footage of Christians in China unpacking, opening, and holding a Bible of their own for the very first time. They were so excited at receiving a Bible that they danced and embraced their Bible and praised God for this precious gift. The beautiful smiles on their faces said it all. These Chinese believers were an embodiment of the Psalmist’s declaration,

“I seek you with all my heart;

    do not let me stray from your commands.

I have hidden your word in my heart

    that I might not sin against you.

Praise be to you, Lord;

    teach me your decrees.

With my lips I recount

    all the laws that come from your mouth.

I rejoice in following your statutes

    as one rejoices in great riches.

I meditate on your precepts

    and consider your ways.

I delight in your decrees;

    I will not neglect your word.”

In China, as in some other countries, owning a Bible can be a risky decision. Reading and believing the Bible is an even greater risk, for there is the possibility that you’ll be arrested and imprisoned.

In contrast to those joyful scenes in China, set in an authoritarian context, in Australia today, quoting the Bible can also lead to public scrutiny and professional expulsion.

Several Australian sportsmen have been targeted by the media and in social media for committing the terrible crime of ‘liking’ Israel Folau’s latest posting. They include 2 of Folau’s Wallaby teammates and 2 AFL stars, Gary Ablett Jnr and Carlton’s Matthew Kennedy.

I guess we shouldn’t be surprised, posting Bible verses that betray the cultural morality is not the only crime we can commit; liking such posts can also get you into hot water.

This non-news news story apparently required the football clubs intervention and for the AFL to also speak with the players and to offer a public peace offering.

Ablett has issued this public statement,

“I want to make it clear that I love ALL people regardless of race, religion, gender or sexuality,” Ablett posted.

“I have always admired how strong Izzy is in his faith, it is not easy to share faith in the public sphere, and this is why I initially ‘liked’ his post.

“I understand that liking this post appeared offensive and this is why I chose to remove my ‘like’ from the post.”

Over the years I have appreciated Ablett’s public faith in Jesus Christ, and remain so. It’s hard to be a Christian in public Australia today. Some Aussies are respectful, many others think you’re an idiot or even worse.

When it comes to supporting statements made by fellow Christians on social media, I don’t have a problem with Christians not clicking the ‘like’ emoji.  When we do, we might like the post for a variety of reasons, including expressing agreement. I’m sure many Christians who didn’t ‘like’ the posts refrained not because they disagreed with the theological statements being made, but rather, Izzy’s manner and tone appeared to lack grace and kindness (at least that’s how it came across).

Of course, no matter what Bible verses we quote on social media, someone is sure to be offended. Doesn’t Jesus assume that this will be the case? On one occasion Jesus even turned and said to his disciples, “Does this offend you?”

Sadly, our culture police have determined that offence equals hatred and it must therefore be squashed and the offending parties need to enter special education programs for reprogramming. Australian culture doesn’t know how to deal with the Bible and with classic Christian belief.

Christians in China are not free to quote the Bible on social media and to talk about the Gospel of Jesus Christ in public places. This kind of social control is becoming normalised in some Australians quarters as well. That’s a disappointing state of affairs, but I trust Aussie believer won’t lose the joy and wonder of being able to own and read the Scriptures for ourselves, and where possible to keep speaking and explaining this Divine word with our fellow Aussies; not because we hate them, but because God has loved us and we love them.

 

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(the article has been updated on April 23rd, in light of yesterday’s Geelong vs Hawthorn game and Jeff Kennett’s radio comments)

A game more fierce than Rugby

The Israel Folau controversy is highlighting a battleground more fierce than any game of rugby.

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Peter FitzSimons is leading the tackle count again Izzy Folau. In his latest burst, Fitzy attempts to make the point that the only issue here is one of Israel Folau breaking his contract.

“If you cock your ear to the west, you can right now hear the thundering of keyboards, as columnist after columnist, shock jock after shock jock form up thundering rants about how this whole thing is a matter of freedom of speech, and religious freedom.

Oh yes. Despite the demonstrable damage done by Folau last year by putting up homophobic posts – and if saying gays are going to burn in hell isn’t homophobic, pray tell, what does it take? – their genuine position is he should be able to do exactly the same, ad infinitum, until the game and its finances are a smoking ruin.

Because it is about freedom of speech, and freedom of religion!

I repeat, it is no such thing.”

There are some flaws in Fitzy’s game plan, as well one strong mode of attack. Let me explain.

First, Fitz is espousing the same illogic that has come to pass as irrefutable truth in modern Australia.

“Folau can believe whatever he damn well pleases, including the illogical and offensive absurdity that the same omnipotent Lord who made some of his creations attracted to their own gender will also have them burn in the pits of hell for all eternity, for their trouble.

Yes, he can believe that. But when he proselytises those views and puts it in the public domain, despite knowing the hurt it engenders, the damage it does to his employers, and the fact that he is specifically breaching commitments he has made not to do any such thing, then he does not have a legal leg to stand on.”

Fitz is saying that Australians like Israel Folau have the right to hold religious views but they must not proselytise (evangelise) or express them in public. The first reason Fitz gives for this is, “it hurts”. Folau’s message isn’t one that embraces the current sexual milieu but is likely to offend people, and therefore it is immoral for him to share his views. Isn’t that precisely what Fitz is doing? Peter FitzSimons is attempting more than outlining an opinion to his readership, he is trying to persuade us of a point of view, one which many Aussies don’t subscribe to. Fitz is proselytising as much any religious preacher, as is Rugby Australia with its current definition of inclusion.

This is part of the complexity and shortcoming with much public discourse in Australia today. There is a dishonest bent that is postured and now often assumed by those wielding influence in the public square. Peter FitzSimons is a classic example of this, but he is by no means alone in playing this game. The public battleground is not neutral and objective Peter FitzSimons and co. over and against the biased religious.  As Jonathan Leeman was argued,

The “public square” isn’t neutral, but a battleground of gods.”

“Secular liberalism isn’t neutral, it steps into the public space with a ‘covert religion’, perhaps even as liberal authoritarianism. it depends on beliefs without conclusive evidence.”

Until those who speak in the public domain admit their own religious and moral presuppositions and agendas, whether they are social commentators, politicians, or sporting associations, it is near impossible to have an honest and constructive conversation.

Second, if Folau has breached his contract, even if his contract is unjust, he is nonetheless answerable for his actions. On this point, I share partial agreement with  FitzSimons.

This question is yet to have a conclusive answer. There is reasonable doubt as to whether Folau has breached his contract. If by breaking his contract, it is alleged that Folau contravened the code of conduct, this is far from certain. The code of conduct language is subjective and depends more on one’s pre-set worldview rather than with objective facts.

Rugby officials allege that Israel Folau shared material on social media that “condemns, vilifies or discriminates against people on the basis of their sexuality.”

Is that the case? If you believe that anything other than a complete affirmation of LGBT rights is bigotry and phobic, then Folau is guilty. If however, you believe that it’s possible to disagree with some sexual lifestyles for good reasons, then the answer is no. Jesus is a famous example of someone who certainly didn’t support every sexual lifestyle in First Century Judea, and yet would we argue that he was a hate-filled preacher (Ironically, that is precisely what the Pharisees thought and we know what their game plan turned out to be)?

Was Israel Folau insensitive and lacking grace in his comments? Probably. Is that vilifying? No, again unless you think that sportsmen must fully embrace every aspect of LGBT identity discourse.

The problem is, many of Australia’s cultural powerbrokers are not prepared to admit that disagreement on sexuality issues is not necessarily hateful. Disagreement does not always equate with bigotry. But admitting this concession opens the door for conversation and persuasion and alternate views and that’s not a road which many our notable and influential secularists wish to travel.

Third, while Fitz is attempting to make the issue solely one of Folau breaking his contract, I remember only two years ago, the same Peter FitzSimons insisting that a part of  Australian Law was immoral and wrong and needed to be amended. Was he (and others) content to say, well, the Australian Marriage Act is what it is, and we need to respect that? Far from it. The Marriage Act didn’t fit with Fitz’s worldview and so he joined with others to decry the ‘code of conduct’ and demand its change.

You see, despite Fitz’s protestations, this issue is about religious freedom. It is about the gods of this age vying for influence. It is about a national sporting code (and its chief sponsor) dictating to its players what religious speech is and isn’t permissible. Whether they understand this or not, their code of conduct is a religious manual; there is written intent to influence and control the type of religious beliefs they want to see proclaimed.

Perhaps Izzy did break his word to Rugby Australia, and if so, he ought to apologise. This remains to be seen. But let’s not fool ourselves into accepting the spin that this story has nothing to do with the toleration and intoleration of Christian beliefs. Underlying the presenting case is the broader and deeper questions of whether it is right for a football code to restrict its associates from expressing their personal religious views.

One thing I do know, and it is this,  neither Rugby Australia or an SMH op-ed writer can silence or break the good news message that is about Jesus Christ. Christians will always find a way to share the most astonishing news that can convert the hardest atheist and the most committed activist for sexual progressivism. Indeed, the paradox of Easter is that it is for the very people who oppose its message.

Tomorrow is Good Friday. It is a day when we remember the One who said he is God and who came into a world that was breaking all his rules; he loved them and he laid down his life for them. Jesus’ code of conduct is more difficult, more beautiful, more imposing and more extravagant,

“at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly.  Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” (Romans 5:6-8)

When talking about hell…

When I went to sleep last Thursday I didn’t expect to wake and find that the topic of hell had become a national conversation piece. While we cannot control the public conversation with all its warts, snidery, and well-meaning contributions, we can take responsibility for how we speak about what is a grave issue; the eternal state of people.

With a sense of humour reminiscent of Nero plucking his harp while Rome burned, columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald, Greg Growden, wrote,

“Folau’s version of hell, surrounded by drunks, homosexuals, adulterers, liars, fornicators, thieves, atheists and idolaters, actually sounds like good fun – especially if it excludes narrow-minded sporting identities.”

I don’t know anyone who enjoys talking about hell. It is a truly horrific subject. This doesn’t mean that we avoid or downplay what the Bible teaches, it does, however, necessitate that approach the topic of hell with great care and earnestness.

Unbelievers are poking fun at Israel Folau’s comments on hell with hackneyed jokes and Memes. There are Christians squirming uncomfortably as though a cactus needle were stuck erect in their chair. Hell makes people angry and dismissive, generating a range of negative reactions. So, how should Christians approach the subject of hell?

 

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Here are 4 words of advice for talking about hell

1. Be biblical

Hell is a Christian doctrine. Hell (or Gehenna) is taught and affirmed in the Bible as a real place of eternal judgment. This notion of a final judgment is included in the historical Christian Creeds and Catechisms, as well as in doctrinal statements for Christian churches throughout the ages. Such as …

He will come to judge the living and the dead. (Apostles Creed)

What is the misery of that estate whereinto man fell? A. All mankind by their fall lost communion with God are under his wrath and curse, and so made liable to all the miseries of this life, to death itself, and to the pains of hell forever (Westminster Shorter Catechism, Question 19)

The resurrection of the dead, and the final judgment of all people by the Lord Jesus Christ. (article 8, Baptist Union of Victoria Doctrinal Basis)

Jesus taught about hell frequently, and as others have observed, the topic was on Jesus’ lips more than anyone else in the Bible. In his own words …

“Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.” (Matt 10:38)

“But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” (Matt 8:12)

 “‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels…  “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” (Matthew 25:41,46)

While Bible writers, Jesus in particular, use various metaphors and analogies to convey the awfulness of hell, they do so, not to obscure its reality, but to communicate the finality and dreadful realism of what hell signifies. There is no benefit in Christians downplaying the Bible’s teaching on hell or concentrating on speculations and theories of what hell may or may not be: the Christian’s responsibility is to be biblical. By that I mean, read, understand, and communicate what the Bible teaches about hell. In talking about hell, use the range of words and reasoning that is offered to us in the Scriptures—not ignoring the contexts and arguments in which the concept appears. Such diligence will aid us in speaking of hell accurately and helpfully.

Indeed, it is difficult to explain the Christian Gospel without reference to judgment, given that the Gospel is about redemption from Divine judgment. Whereas we tend to view the Gospel through the lens on anthropological needs and problems, the Bible also views salvation in light of Divine categories (justice and the right satisfaction of God’s righteousness). We obscure God’s glory and we diminish the human condition when we ignore or downplay this doctrine, like a Doctor talking of a patient’s terminal cancer as though it was a bruised knee.

2. Be loving and earnest

Speak about hell with soberness and with tears. Talking about hell isn’t judgmental; it is an act of love. Of course, people can speak about hell in a judgmental and unhelpful way, but people can also explain the Bible’s teaching on hell with sincerity and clarity because they love their friends and neighbours.

 

3. Appeal to notions of ultimate justice

The Bible doesn’t present hell as a Russian gulag; unjust, mean, cruel, and unnecessary. It is, rather, a just outcome and the place where people prefer to be. The natural consequence of life lived for self. While Greg Growden and others might joke about Folau’s list of transgressions and how many they have broken, the reality of such things is far from funny. Marital unfaithfulness destroys lives and families. Lying breaks the bond of friendship. Theft is a betrayal of trust and leaves victims frightened, and at times, financially destitute.

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other. Our judicial system, for which we should be thankful, is not beyond making mistakes and many who perpetrate crimes escape justice, and many of the deepest wounds are not the result of criminal activity but moral and personal assault. Where is the justice for such?

Our nation, for all its blessings, is filled with extraordinary pain and sorrow caused by the greed and hate of its citizens. We are governed by thousands of laws because we don’t trust one another and because we feel the necessity to guard ourselves against each other

Do we not long for a justice that is altogether right and comprehensive? Do Australians not hope that no evil will escape the attention of justice? I suspect that there are very few Australians (no matter what their religious beliefs) who do not (at least on some scale) believe or wish they could believe that hell exists for some people. One of the things the Bible does is to show us that the problem is not only external and persistent in society, but it derives from hearts that seek to define life without God: the problem lies within each of us. In other words, we may desire justice when others are guilty, but we long for mercy we realise our own guilt.

The point is, God offers justice, the kind of justice the world is ultimately looking for, and yet paradoxically does not wish to be true.

4. Don’t forget the gospel

Our message isn’t merely hell, our message is the good news of Jesus Christ, which includes salvation from hell, and the forgiveness of sins and the gift of justification, regeneration, adoption, and eternal life. The Gospel is good news because what is deserved is taken from us and what is undeserved is given to us by God as his gracious and loving gift

We will never turn to God and seek his mercy unless we first appreciate our personal culpability and accountability before a holy God. There is no genuine turning to Christ without a manifest awareness of guilt. The gospel tells us both the bad news of our sin and judgment; and the glorious antidote to that judgment in Christ. As the writer of Hebrews summarises things:

Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Hebrews 9:27-28)

Or, as Luther puts it in his earthy and practical way:

When the devil throws your sins in your face and declares that you deserve death and hell, tell him this: “I admit that I deserve death and hell, what of it? For I know One who suffered and made satisfaction on my behalf. His name is Jesus Christ, Son of God, and where He is there I shall be also!” (Martin Luther)

Was Israel Folau guilt of hate speech, as many are arguing? He may be guilty of breaking his word by continuing to post such comments. But are his comments bigoted? If connecting a list of sins with hell is akin to hate speech, it doesn’t take much imagination to work out how our society would view Jesus Christ. Connecting sex outside of heterosexual marriage with the language of sin and hell is not inherently anti-social and anti-people; it comes from the conviction that not every action and not every attitude is good or right. Australia’s problem is that we’re suffering from Judges syndrome, everyone wants to “do what’s right in their own eyes.” Such attitudes have become mainstream platitudes. And now we want to send Izzy into the eternal Rugby exclusion zone for daring to suggest that it might lead to disaster.

The danger for most Christians today isn’t that we make too much of hell, but that we think too little of the Bible’s teaching on hell. We may not have a conversation about hell every week, but if we never talk about it, our friends would be right to wonder, do these Christians even believe what Jesus says?