The Problem of Pain (and Death)

The excellent Jesus Creed blog tackles a question that my wife and I have batted around: If God chose evolution through which to create the world, does that mean his “good” creation came equipped with pain and death built in?

If we have a big bang, an old earth, and evolution –  then explosions, asteroid impacts, earthquakes, tsunamis, death, and competition in the animal world are all part of God’s good creation. But this is contrary to the view of creation taught in much of our church. …

From an evolutionary perspective, before humans ever existed there was suffering in creation caused by disease and natural disaster. I stand by Wright in the idea that God will eventually renew both us and creation, restoring it to what it was meant to be before the Fall. However, I have just realized that it is very difficult for me to explain non-human evil without the literal account of creation found in Genesis. This leads me to a faith crisis. Suffering in the natural world, caused by things like cancer and earthquakes, must be explained if God is good and his creation was created good.

One of the more interesting responses the author makes is that even a literal reading of Genesis would seem to indicate the presence of death; after all, why would Adam and Eve have needed a Tree of Life? Or, even more interesting, how would all the animals God created have carried out the command to “be fruitful and multiply” without death to keep them from overrunning the planet?

In the end, the author seems to be arguing that man – whether a single couple named Adam and Eve,  a representative couple or a community of people – had the opportunity to be immortal, but that the rest of the world was created with natural processes of life and death. When sin entered the world, those processes were transferred to humanity.

This explanation would mean that we, like the rest of creation, are traveling toward an ultimate perfection, one we had the opportunity to achieve until we severed communication with God. Thanks to the restorative act of Jesus, we are again on that road – evolving, you could say, toward our ultimate destiny.

A Life in Six Words

Our first assignment is to email our professor with a six-word memoir and a “visual image of any kind” that symbolizes our life.


I always draw a blank on these things.

The six-word memoir is an interesting concept, and I’d forgotten about it until now. The origins, best I can tell, are intertwined the famous (possibly mythical) six- (or is it nine?)-word Ernest Hemmingway story, produced in response to a challenge.

For sale: Baby shoes, never worn.

Depressed yet?

Continue reading A Life in Six Words

A Different God

So why am I doing this?

Why is a 29-year-old ex-journalist who slept through as much of his undergraduate Bible classes as he could get away with taking the plunge into seminary? Why is he blogging about it?

The pat, Christian answer is: Because God told me to.

And that’s true, more or less. I certainly feel called to do this. Doors have opened in amazing ways. I couldn’t go to grad school without the discount I get for being on staff here, and I got the job here – and was able to move here – through an amazing series of coincidences that all occurred at the same time as my wife was having our second child. I have no doubt God orchestrated all of this so I could be doing what I’m about to do next week.

The real answer requires a lot more explanation, and some day I’ll describe that journey in more detail. Suffice it to say the more I learned about the Bible and thought about the troubling questions that have vexed Christians for two millennia, I realized not only was I not alone, but that the traditional means of addressing these issues – the church and Christian high schools and colleges – were simply falling down on the job.

Continue reading A Different God

Messages from Isaiah

Continuing through our dual readings of Crazy Love and Evolving in Monkey Town, my wife and I have been struck by how often Francis Chan and Rachel Held Evans are traveling down parallel pathways, tackling the same themes at the same time, but each looking at them from a different vantage point.

Chan uses his podium to express certainty, Evans to (thus far) express doubt, yet they agree on the conclusion: To love Jesus and truly practice Christianity means caring for the people he cared for – the poor, the needy, the neglected, the outcast.

But one significant disagreement is on the subject of hell. Chan does a lot in the early chapters of Crazy Love to cement the evangelical obsession with in-or-out, saved-or-unsaved, while Evans in the middle chapters of her book is breaking down those beliefs (out in front of Rob Bell, by the way), pointing out the Bible’s surprising ambiguity about what happens after we die.

Last night, the chapters we read from their books each featured a lengthy passage from Isaiah. Evans chose Isaiah 55 to illustrate the incomprehensible heights of God’s mercy, while Chan goes with Isaiah 58 to drive home the importance of responding to God’s love by passing it along to the least of these.

It strikes me that within three chapters, Isaiah essentially captures everything we should need to know about God: Continue reading Messages from Isaiah

Doubt, Faith and the Longest Day

Well, maybe it wasn’t the longest day (I remember covering some FLDS court cases that lasted until 10 p.m.), but it sure felt close.

Yesterday was orientation for those of us entering the seminary this year. Since I attended school here as an undergrad and am coming up on my third year as an employee, there wasn’t too much in it for me, but introduction to faculty and fellow students is always a good thing.

In the afternoon, we took a battery of tests and assessments, mostly to determine our personalities and motivations (least surprising result of the day: I’m an extrovert), as well as to see what kind of ministry for which we’re best suited. That last assessment was a doozy: 501 questions on 20 or so scenarios one might encounter as a church minister. The questions proved to me — and I’m sure my answers will prove to everyone else — why I don’t see becoming a minister as the reason why I’m entering this program.

In the morning, however, just before lunch, the associate dean of the seminary, an Old Testament scholar who may be the smartest person on campus, noted that when he entered graduate school to get his master of divinity degree, he wasn’t sure God existed. This led to a discussion about faith and doubt.

In the end, he said, those who have faith, behind all the explanations and apologetics and arguments and evidence, come down to the following core assertion:

I understand the difficulties, but I’m making a wager that this is true and the other is not.

My Advanced Intro to Old Testament Professor, who is new to the faculty, added the following to the conversation after mentioning he has struggled his whole life with the issue of faith and doubt:

There is nothing other than God that can bring you from doubt into faith.

I’m moving in this direction with my life because I feel God wants me to join conversations like these when college students enter into them. It is a blessing to study at a place where they are not taboo.

Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs!

The "Clash of the Titans" at the Sam Noble Museum of Natural History between Apatosaurus (right) and Saurophaganax.

Over on Alise Wright’s blog, guest poster David Nilson tapped into something I’d been realizing myself these past few months. He describes reading Evolving in Monkey Town and realizing for the first time that he could be a Christian and accept the scientific findings about how God created the world:

A couple days after reading the book I took my wife and daughter to a nearby waterfall to splash in the water in the baking July heat. I remembered as a kid looking at the aquatic fossils in the rock shelves around the falls, believing they were laid down by The Flood just like my books said, the books that showed Stegosaurs climbing a ramp onto the ark. I smiled to myself, embracing this world again, realizing I could reignite my love for science while still loving God. In fact, the two were connected; to hold a piece of coral millions of years old in my hand could be an act of worship.

Emphasis mine. I really recommend reading his whole post.

Continue reading Oh My, Oh My, Oh Dinosaurs!

Discovering Peter Enns

I’m not sure how I missed this, but I mentioned earlier how the author of Inspiration and Incarnation, one of my textbooks for the upcoming semester, is Peter Enns.

The name sounded vaguely familiar, but I didn’t give it much thought, but then it dawned on me: It’s this guy.

Pete Enns is Senior Fellow of Biblical Studies for The BioLogos Foundation and author of several books and commentaries, including the popular Inspiration and Incarnation: Evangelicals and the Problem of the Old Testament, which looks at three questions raised by biblical scholars that seem to threaten traditional views of Scripture.

BioLogos was featured prominently in the now-famous Christianity Today cover story about the questions surrounding the historicity of Adam and Eve. I’d never heard of the organization before, but its blog, Science and the Sacred, has quickly become a must-read. For the first time, I’d found a place where evangelical Christians intelligently and honestly discussed the overwhelming scientific evidence in favor of evolution as the means through which God created the world and everything in it.

Continue reading Discovering Peter Enns

Suffering, Love and Children

This sermon by Randy Harris has been making the rounds. I loved it when I first heard it last month, and when Mike Cope reposted it, I was reminded of what struck me the most about Randy’s message.

Harris tackles the age-old question of why we suffer, and he tells the story of being asked by somebody that if God truly loves us and is all-knowing, why didn’t he simply create us in heaven? We’ve all heard – and asked – similar questions before, but I’m not sure I’ve ever heard an answer like the one Harris gives:

I would ask the question, and this is the kind of question you’d expect a single guy to ask: Why do people keep having children? Because let me give you my informal observation: Children create more anxiety and pain and suffering in your life than anything you can imagine! …

The reason people keep having children, though they often disappoint them – the reason that people keep having children, though they know that the possibilities are they can get sick and die – the reason people keep having children is because they believe love is worth the risk.

And I really believe that when God in heaven – who in his very nature as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is love – looked down and decided to create, he knew, as every parent does, that this could go badly wrong. But he believed that love was such a wonderful, deep, marvelous thing it was worth the risk. That he would risk anything for the sake of love.

And then he created a world where we could learn to do it. He didn’t just drop us in heaven because we don’t know how to do this yet. He created a world where we can learn to love, and all of us know that the deepest, most profound experiences of love that we have are not just when things are going well. It’s in moments of pain and tragedy.

I have no doubt that at the end, when we reach that heavenly point, God will say, “OK. Now you get it. This is what it means to love.”

As a parent, this really spoke to me. Not a day goes by when I don’t worry in some way about my children – either about something happening to them or something happening to me or my wife. I know at least two sets of parents with young children battling cancer, and a friend whose sister-in-law just died in a car wreck, leaving behind a young boy. Often, thinking about them or my own family leads to unsettling questions about the nature, sovereignty and goodness of God.

I’m not sure we will ever have a good answer to the question of suffering. Its existence is the single most troubling part of believing in a loving, omnipotent God. But Randy’s answer is the closest I’ve seen anyone get to achieving a satisfactory response.

‘The Response’ and My Response

It’s a tough thing to be challenged in church. It’s even tougher to be challenged on an issue where you’re certain you’re right, only to wonder whether you’re not as right as you thought.

Let me explain.

I visited our old church yesterday. We have some fond memories there, in part because we still have some great friends who attend, in part because I’m not sure where we’d be today without the family we developed there. We moved just two weeks after our younger daughter was born in late 2009, but we returned a week later to have her dedicated there, and I told the congregation we named her Grace because we had learned so much about that precious gift through our time fellowshipping with that incredible community.

But it’s an unusual congregation. In many ways, it’s like how I grew up, with no single preacher and a worship service without any published order that frequently changes depending on how the Spirit moves that day. But there was also a praise band (I grew up with a cappella worship), and once in a while someone would prophecy or speak in tongues (definitely not allowed where I grew up), but probably not often enough to please most people who really believe in that sort of thing.

The leader of the local Republican Party attended, and sometimes he would blend his day job with his faith from the pulpit to a degree with which I wasn’t comfortable, but it wasn’t terribly often, so I endured. That congregation ministered to us in a dark place, and through its members, God showed us what grace was, and how, whether we knew it or not, he was going to use his grace to transform our lives.

So I was excited to return yesterday, and it was with considerable dismay that I heard the pastor say he was going to devote “however long it takes” to some testimony time from a team that had gone on a missions trip to New Orleans (no problem there) and spent the day at The Response in Houston on their way back.

But, as usual, God had some things to say to me and, not surprisingly, they mostly dealt with judgment.

Principally, just because we believe something is out of line with our convictions does not mean God doesn’t have great things planned for it.

Now, I have some friends who have been saying the same thing to me for a few days, but I mostly dismissed their arguments as tantamount to the ends justifying the means. And I’m not ready to totally concede that argument.

But listening to the testimony of people whose faith I would readily describe as stronger than mine, people who said they heard God speak clearly that he wanted them to take a team to Houston and participate in Gov. Rick Perry’s prayer event … well, how do I respond to that?

I can dismiss them as liars or deceived, or I can recognize that God is using an event with shady origins to do great things anyway. In other words, God is taking an imperfect instrument of humanity and using it anyway. Kind of like he does with me.

Continue reading ‘The Response’ and My Response