October 12, 2017
Have you ever had one of those moments reading the Bible when you think to yourself, “Ooh, I wish it didn’t say that?” Let’s talk about those moments, what makes them so hard, and how to deal with them.
As with many blog posts, this topic came up as a result of my sermon research. And the more I thought about it, the more I realized how deep it goes, so I’m going to continue the conversation next week (and possibly the week after as well).
Because I prefer to preach expository sermons verse-by-verse through books of the Bible, I have to deal with whatever topic comes up next, whether I’d choose to or not.
Personally, I love that because dealing with the hard stuff is what makes us grow. But dealing with the hard stuff is still, well, hard.
And of all the difficult and potentially divisive topics in the Bible, the idea of judgement is probably at or near the top. No Christian that I know relishes the idea of eternal punishment in hell—not the rational ones, anyway. And what the Bible says about judgement is a stone of stumbling for people in culture.
The problem is that you can’t ignore what the Bible says about God’s justice because it’s everywhere. And we’re going to encounter it in Luke’s gospel in the next passage we’re studying.
In Luke 10:1-16, Jesus sends a group of 72 disciples out ahead of him to proclaim the kingdom in advance of Jesus’ journey toward Jerusalem. And right near the end, he says this:
“Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago, sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But it will be more bearable in the day of judgement for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You shall be brought down to Hades” (Luke 10:13-15, ESV).
The day of judgement. Being cast down to Hades. If that’s not a clear statement about God’s justice then I don’t know what is.
And that’s what makes the topic uncomfortable for us.
So, what do you do when you come across difficult topics like judgement? Or sexual ethics? Or tithing? Or gender differences? It’s likely that your response falls into one of three categories.
Solution #1: Ignore It
The easiest thing to do when we come across difficult topics is to ignore them and hope they go away. It’s sticking our metaphorical fingers in our metaphorical ears and saying “La, la, la, I can’t hear you” really loudly.
We know that ignoring the problem won’t actually make it go away, but we still try anyway.
Other than this being an irrational solution, there’s another significant problem: theology is interconnected. You can’t ignore one part of it and expect the rest to make sense. It’s like cutting the leg off a stool. You could still sit on it, but it gets harder and harder to keep it from falling over.
Solution #2: Wriggle Out
Another approach we sometimes take to difficult problems is to try to wriggle out of them, usually by coming up with reasons why the Bible doesn’t actually mean what it says.
For example, when it comes to God’s judgement and the idea of hell, a common argument is that when Jesus talks about what the English translations call “hell,” the Greek word has nothing to do with hell; it just refers to the garbage dump outside of town that was always smouldering.
Don’t get me wrong: I love a nerdy debate about Greek etymology as much as the next guy, but I find these debates absurd.
Another of my favourites (and I’m really risking losing the audience here, but stick with me) is the debate about the creation accounts in Genesis. I know a number of Christians who think that science has conclusively proven that the earth is many billion years old (which it hasn’t proven), and so the creation accounts are very problematic. Maybe God was using the word “day” metaphorically to mean an indefinite period of many—possibly millions—of years.
I get the argument, but I’m not persuaded by it. It strikes me that if God, who isn’t bound by our finite concepts of time, figured out a way not only to send Jesus to earth as a man, but also to bring him back to life again after descending to hell (there’s that idea again) and paying for the sin of all humankind, then this likely all makes sense to him.
The bottom line is this: by trying to wriggle out of the hard stuff, we actually stop talking about the hard stuff and get sidetracked by silly debates about tangential things.
Solution #3: Press In
Instead of ignoring the hard stuff or trying to wriggle out of it, I’d suggest a third approach, and that’s to press in. As I said above, I’m grateful when the Bible wades into a hard topic because it forces me to dig deeper and grow into greater maturity.
I love puzzles—not jigsaw puzzles, necessarily (I’m too impatient), but word puzzles and number puzzles and logic puzzles—those kinds of things. Recently, I’ve gotten into nonograms (here’s the Wikipedia entry, and don’t blame me for your subsequent addiction), and there’s something completely satisfying about working your way through a difficult puzzle and seeing the end result.
I see the difficult topics of the Bible in the same way. No matter how challenging the puzzle seems when I first look at it, I know that there’s a solution because I know that God is completely true and completely faithful, and that he’s revealed himself to us through his Word, through the indwelling Holy Spirit, and through the community of God’s people.
And I guess that’s ultimately the point here. Maybe we’re afraid of the difficult topics because we’re worried that the Bible won’t have answers. Maybe the problem isn’t the subject, but rather our confidence in the Bible’s ability to handle the tough questions we throw at it.
But it can because truth is true, and it can stand up to scrutiny. Our job is to develop the skill set to solve the puzzles, and the good news is that those skills can be learned.
We’ll dive into that next week.