Doctrine of God (part 7)April 04, 2010 Time: 00:34:03
I. B. 3. b. Application.
1. Attributes of God
We have been talking about divine eternity and God’s relationship with time. We now want to come to an application of this to our lives. How does this impact our lives, this fact that God is eternal? I want to share two broad applications.
First is what I call the paradox of time. Time is paradoxical, when you think of God’s being eternal. On the one hand, God has all the time in the world – and more if necessary! Therefore, God is never forced to hurry. He has no clock to punch. He has no deadlines to meet. God isn’t pressed for time. Take Moses, for example. Moses, in the prime of his life at 40 years old and prince of Egypt – you would think now is the time that God would call him to lead his people into the promised land. But no! Instead, God leads him out into the desert to spend another 40 years as a shepherd before he is ready and prepared to lead the people into Israel – when he was 80 years old, after those 40 years of desert existence. God was in no hurry with Moses. 2 Peter 3:8 says that “With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day.” So God’s time table is right on schedule, and he doesn’t need to be worried about things’ falling behind.
One the other hand – and this is the other dimension of this paradox – time is short. Time is short for us. We have a transitory life that is fleeting and passing away. Therefore, we need to be engaged in doing the work of the Lord before it is too late. In Romans 13:11-12a, Paul says, “Besides this you know what hour it is, how it is full time now for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we first believed; the night is far gone, the day is at hand.” So Paul says there are few hours left, wake up, and be about the work of the Lord. Similarly, in John 9:4, Jesus, somewhat changing the metaphor, says something very similar: “We must work the works of him who sent me while it is day; night comes, when no man can work.” Jesus is emphasizing in a slightly different way that the time is short and we need to be engaged in doing the works of God while we have time.
I think this paradox is both a comfort to those who are exhausted in the Lord’s work but also an incentive for those who are lazy. For those who are exhausted in well doing, God says, “Don’t be frazzled and hassled about it; things are under control; things are right on time; you don’t need to burn yourself out in service to me.” But on the other hand, for those who are living in self-indulgence and laziness and not really serving the Lord energetically, the time is short, and you’d better get it in gear – you’d better get moving and get going because soon the night is coming when no man can work. That is the first application.
The second application is that in virtue of God’s being eternal we need to live in light of eternity. We are not just temporal creatures, we are now, in virtue of knowing Christ and being born again, immortal creatures, who will live forever, and so we need to live in light of eternity. How can we do that? Let me mention three ways.
First of all, God’s being eternal is an incentive to right living. Basically, what the Scripture says here is that we need to be ready to die. Our life is fleeting and transitory, we never know when it is going to end, and therefore we need to be ready.1 James 4:13-17:
Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and get gain”; whereas you do not know about tomorrow. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we shall live and we shall do this or that.” As it is, you boast in your arrogance. All such boasting is evil. Whoever knows what is right to do and fails to do it, for him it is sin.
So James is saying, don’t presume about tomorrow. Tomorrow may never come for you. Rather, be prepared to die and make your plans with the contingency that if the Lord wills, then we will do this or that.
Similarly, Paul, immediately after that passage in Romans that we read before – in Romans 13:12b-14 – gives the application:
Let us then cast off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us conduct ourselves becomingly as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.
In light of our unexpected but impending death, we need to be sure that we are living in a way that we are prepared to meet God, should we be called upon to do so.
Secondly, I think that living in light of eternity involves having a comfort in suffering. There is a comfort in what we suffer when we keep God’s eternity and eternal life in mind. Sometimes the suffering of this life seems so intense, so unbearable, so grotesque in its cruelty; and yet from a Christian point of view, this life is just a cramped and narrow foyer that leads into the great banquet hall of God’s eternity that we will someday inhabit. When we keep this perspective in mind, it can make our trials seem short by comparison. 1 Peter 5:10: “And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, establish, and strengthen you.” In light of the eternal glory in Christ that we will have, Peter says, suffer during this life for a little while, until you go into the eternal glory with Christ.
2 Corinthians 4 is one of the greatest reflections on this contrast that is in the New Testament. In 2 Corinthians 4:16-18, Paul talks about all of the things that he suffered in his ministry and in his life. He then says,
So we do not lose heart. Though our outer nature is wasting away, our inner nature is being renewed every day. For this slight momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, because we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen; for the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal.
Here Paul compares the suffering of this life with the infinite stretch of time that we will spend in eternity with God. And he says, compared to that infinite eternity of joy with God, the sufferings of this life by comparison shrink to an infinitesimal moment. That is why Paul can call them a slight, momentary affliction. They are simply overwhelmed by the ocean of divine eternity and joy that God will bestow upon his children in heaven. So when we go through times of difficulty and intense suffering, keeping eternity in mind and living in that light can help us to bear with grace and strength those trials that God calls upon us to bear.2
Third, and finally, God’s eternity holds out for us the wonderful prospect of eternal life. For us who are in Christ, all of eternity awaits us. John 3:16: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” God has given us everlasting life in Christ. That is what awaits us! How will we spend eternity? Ephesians 2:7 has an interesting reflection on this. Speaking of how we will be raised up with Christ, Paul says, “in the coming ages he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus.” God will spend eternity showering upon us his kindness from his immeasurable riches of grace! That is how we will spend eternity, enjoying the kindness of God, which is just like an ocean rolling over us for all eternity.
Now what a contrast for those who are outside of Christ, who have no hope of eternal life! For those who are outside of Christ, time is a devouring beast. The life that they have now is fleeting, transient, ephemeral, and will soon come to an end. Paul says in 1 Corinthians 15:32, “If the dead are not raised, let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die!” Basically life becomes meaningless. I am reminded of those lines of Shakespeare in Macbeth where Lady Macbeth, near the end of her life, seeing the disaster that has ensued from her and her husband’s conspiracies, about to take her own life, says,
Out, out, brief candle! Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player that struts and frets his hour upon the stage and then is heard no more. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
That is what life is to those without Christ. The book of Ecclesiastes 1:14 says, “All is vanity and a striving after wind.”
Of course, the reality is that it is not just annihilation that they face but the terrible prospect of judgment before the throne of a Holy God. Matthew, in his Gospel, gives the teachings of Jesus concerning the final judgment in Matthew 25:34, 41, and 46:
Then the King will say to those at his right hand, “Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” . . . Then he will say to those at his left hand, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” . . . And they will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
What a contrast there is between those who know Christ and those who don’t in terms of this wonderful prospect of everlasting life that an eternal God has given us!
In all of these different ways, we as Christians need to live different kinds of lives than the secular person lives. We need to live, not in light of the immediate realities of this ephemeral and transitory world, but we need to live in light of eternity and its values. God, who is from everlasting to everlasting, has given us everlasting life.3
Question: Some critics of Christianity accuse us of being fatalistic. How do you avoid fatalism if you say the world we are living in is unimportant?
Answer: I do not think you are talking about fatalism because fatalism is the view that everything that happens happens necessarily, that there is nothing you can do to avoid your fate. That is a very different doctrine. I think what you are talking about would be a kind of other-worldliness that would see this world as unimportant in light of eternity – that we believe in pie-in-the-sky-by-and-by and therefore Christians are not engaged in, say, the fight against poverty and disease and the ills of this world.
I think that fails to recognize two very fundamental factors. First of all, this world is the preparation for eternity. This world is not unimportant because how you choose, during this life, determines where you will spend eternity. We have a freedom undreamed of by the existentialist philosophers, namely, the freedom to determine our own eternal destiny. So the choices we make in this life are infused with eternal significance, whereas on the naturalistic view, ultimately, the entire universe is doomed to perish in the heat death of the cosmos, and nothing really matters. The contributions of the scientist, the research of the doctor to alleviate pain and suffering, the effort of the diplomat to secure peace in the world – all of these sacrifices ultimately come to nothing on the naturalistic view because they don’t make any difference. On a Christian view, we see this life as filled with an eternal significance in light of its outcome.
But then, secondly, that attitude fails to take account of the ethical teachings of Jesus. Jesus has given us certain ethical rules about the way to live, and that includes loving your neighbor as yourself. This is the second and great commandment. So, of course, the Christian would be concerned about poverty and education and disease and so forth because we are committed to loving our neighbor as ourselves and living out the life of Christ. So don’t think that the fact that we have this wonderful hope and should live this life in light of it in any way makes this life unimportant or trivial. I would say quite the contrary is true.
Question: About time and eternity – you had mentioned that God entered the universe at the point of creation and from there to eternity is within time. If time started at creation, then at the end of creation, would then time not also end?
Answer: Very good question! When we speak of creation, we are speaking in the most general terms possible. Anything that exists that is not God is creation. Remember our discussion about divine aseity: anything that is other than God is a creature; it is made by God. Only God is self-existent and independent. So in that sense creation will never cease to exist. There will always be creation. There will be angels, there will be human beings, there will be a new heavens and a new Earth. God is not going to annihilate creation and return to just existing alone, just the three persons of the Trinity. There will always be creation. But what will happen – and you are correct to point this out – is that this universe will be in some way destroyed or transformed, to be replaced by a new heavens and a new Earth, which may operate according to very different laws of nature, for all we know. In that sense, our clocks would not perhaps work in that new universe, that new heavens and new Earth. So, in that sense, the kind of physical time that our clocks measure and that scientists talk about, yes, may well come to an end, when this cosmos terminates. But it doesn’t mean that time itself will come to an end because there will always be a before and after. Resurrection bodies are dynamic and active entities; they are not frozen like ice statues. We are going to be acting and interacting with one another. So there will always be before and after and, hence, time. So you are quite right that it may be a time that is quite unlike our physical time.4
Question: If time started at the point of creation, are you saying that the origin of Satan as a fallen angel, that the creation of angels, were they part of a time sequence or did that happen prior to creation?
Answer: That is a very good question. I am assuming for the sake of simplicity that time began at the Big Bang, at the beginning of the universe. But, conceivably, it could have begun before, when God created angelic realms. In fact, there is nothing in the Scripture that I can find that indicates when God created the angels and those that fell that became demons. As far as I can tell, it could be subsequent to Genesis 1:1, which says, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth.” So just for the sake of simplicity, I am assuming that time begins at the moment of the creation of space. But theoretically, it could have begun earlier if there were a creation of spiritual, angelic realms and that was followed by a physical cosmos. But I don’t know any biblical verses that would support that it was done that way.
Question: Regarding to your first application, the moral incentive. How would you respond to the skeptic that would say that we don’t need a sky-daddy to give us an incentive to do the right thing. We can do it on our own.
Answer: That is sort of what the humanist is saying: “Just do good for goodness sake.” I do want to agree with that to a certain extent. We don’t do good with an eye toward the reward we are going to get. It is not as though we love our neighbor because we are going to get another present in heaven. But, nevertheless, the point I was trying to make is that knowing you are going to be held responsible for your moral actions does add seriousness to the moral life. Anybody who has faced temptation knows that it is hard to do the right thing when you are confronted with temptation or an easy way out. Knowing that you are ultimately going to be held morally responsible for your actions does have a morally bracing effect, as opposed to thinking that it really doesn’t matter how you choose. That is why Robert Adams, who is a great ethicist at Oxford University, has said that atheism is really a demoralizing worldview. By “de-moralizing” he meant that it tends to undermine the moral life because it is hard to do the right thing sometimes, and thinking or being convinced that it really doesn’t matter how you choose, that ultimately your actions will not contribute to the universe’s being a better place, tends to inculcate a sort of futility and sense of cynicism about the moral life, in contrast to Christian theism, which says that we will be held morally accountable.
Question: From a humanist perspective, why do they feel harmed or wronged by believers in Christ? What is their motivation to debate you? Why don’t they just live their life, and why do they have these campaigns on messages on buses and all that?
Answer: I think there are two motivations that are possible. One would be that they believe that people are victims of this gigantic superstition, this fairy tale, and that, therefore, it is better for these victims to know the truth about reality then to live in this fantasy world. They believe these victims need to grow up and be disabused of this illusion under which they suffer. But, secondly, – and now this is especially the case with the so-called New Atheists like Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens and so forth – they believe that religion is positively injurious, both personally and to society as a whole, that it is the cause of war, bigotry, other-worldliness, child abuse. They attribute almost every societal evil to religion and lay it at religion’s doorstep. So the New Atheists are not just committed to getting rid of religion in the public square; they want to see religion entirely eliminated from society, even in the private realm, because they believe religion is so positively deleterious to society. Having said that, I think this is an enormously naive view of western civilization, that, in fact, the contribution of Christianity to the Western world is just overwhelmingly positive. In fact, someone just shared with me a book that has statistics in it on the history of warfare, where this fellow lists all the wars that have been fought since 2000 B.C. or so up to the present and – correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t he say that the percentage of religious wars, in which religion was involved, was something like 6.8%? And if you eliminate Islam as one of the contributing factors, then it is down to 3.2% or so. It is simply not true that religion is a major source of international conflict.5
Question: We are taught that life expectancy has increased, and most of us think without careful consideration, well, we are guaranteed 80 years, but that means half of us don’t live that long. We have to consider this brevity of life.
Answer: Thank you! These questions strike at the deepest existential issues of life and how we live.
Question: When atheists say that some sort of trick is being perpetrated on us – if they don’t believe in good or bad, why do they care?
Answer: This is important! We must not misrepresent the humanists here. Humanists like Fred Edwords do believe in good and bad. They are committed to the intrinsic value of human beings in an atheistic universe. It is at that very point that I think the critique needs to be offered. They are affirming the same moral values that were once based in Christianity. It is because we are created in the image of God that human beings have intrinsic moral value. Having now discarded the foundation, they still want to claim the values. But once you get rid of God, then it is just not obvious why the herd morality evolved by humans on this planet is objectively true. Why is it that this species of primate, rather than orangutans or chimpanzees, is somehow the possessor of intrinsic moral value and has moral responsibilities and prohibitions to follow? Where did these come from on a naturalistic worldview? So, as depressing as it may sound, I find myself much more convinced, frankly, of the nihilistic, Richard Dawkins view of humanity if atheism is true. I find the writings of people like Dawkins and existentialist philosophers, who emphasized the absurdity of life without God, to be very helpful and convincing here. Humanists find themselves in a real dilemma in wanting to continue to cling to these moral values and the specialness of human beings while having robbed human beings of any foundation for thinking that they are morally special.6
Question: In light of the question about whether angels were created before or at the same time of the universe, Job 38:4-7 seems to indicate God created the angels prior.
Answer: So you are suggesting that that passage says the angelic host was created first and already existed and then rejoiced in God’s work. I find that very persuasive. Thank you for sharing that passage with us! It is possible that what Job is talking about there is laying the foundations of the Earth, which comes in Genesis 1:2, prior to which came the creation of the universe. But, nevertheless, I think you are right in saying that that verse is potentially relevant to that issue.
Question: People still want to place an intrinsic moral value on humans. Even if aliens came to Earth and exterminated every human for alien food, they won’t call that “good,” even though on the naturalist view that’s just natural selection on a cosmic scale!
Answer: The example you raise is a great example. Michael Ruse, who is an atheistic philosopher of science, actually wrote an article called, “Is Rape Wrong on Andromeda?” and he argues that we can imagine a civilization in some other galaxy in which rape would not be considered to be wrong. But then he begs off discussing what would happen if these aliens were to visit the Earth and what would be right and wrong for them to do. I think your question brings this right to the fore in terms of the kind of cosmic relativity that results in the absence of a transcendent, divine vantage point for determining what is really right or wrong.7
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