Christian perfectionism and “Be perfect.”

by K.W. Leslie, 28 May

Matthew 5.48.

God doesn’t want us to sin. You knew that already. We’re meant to be good, to do the good works the Father spelled out for us, plus anything else which comes to mind.

The scriptures constantly warn people against sin. It alienated the first humans from the LORD, which is why he had to boot ’em from paradise lest they live forever in their sin. It obligated the LORD to inform Moses and the Hebrews what he expected of them. It’s why the prophets warned Israel time and again: There are consequences for all this evil. It’s why Jesus died: Sinful humans killed him, and he let ’em because he knew his innocent death could plaster over humanity’s sins and restore our relationships with God.

So we’re told by parents and pastors: Stop sinning! Start acting like God’s children, instead of devils who sin like they’re trying to piss him off. Be better. Be perfect, if possible—and it is possible, ’cause the Holy Spirit can make it so.

In preaching against sin, Christians will trot out this particular proof text:

Matthew 5.48 KJV
Be ye therefore perfect, even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect.

Can’t get any clearer than that, can we? God wants us to not just be sin-free, but perfect. Jesus says so. Be perfect.

Christian perfection.

Christians have written volumes about Christian perfection, the idea we can live sin-free lives through the Holy Spirit’s power. (’Cause it’s gotta be done through the Holy Spirit’s power. Otherwise we’re just talking Pelagianism, and there are plenty enough Pelagians in Christendom as it is.)

Perfectionists are really fond of this proof text. To them it’s proof we can be perfect: Jesus ordered it of his followers, and what kind of depraved Christian is gonna insist Jesus didn’t really tell us to be good? In fact he said we must be perfect, so clearly perfection is within the realm of possibility. Hey, the Holy Spirit does impossible things all the time.

Naturally there are Christians who object to perfectionism. Some of their reasons are kinda valid, and some are really obvious examples of people who don’t wanna be good and are looking for any excuse to practice cheap grace. I could easily rant about libertine Christians all day long, and you’d probably agree with most of it (unless I’m hitting way too close to home), but they’re easy targets, and the ones I really oughta bring up are the people whose arguments sound… actually kinda plausible.

First is the fact this proof text isn’t interpreted in context. (What, you thought I was gonna save that point for last? Nah; let’s knock it out now.) When Jesus spoke about being τέλειός/teleiós, KJV “perfect,” he meant consistency. He was talking about treating everyone the same, just as our heavenly Father treats everyone the same.

Matthew 5.46-48 KWL
46 “When you love those who love you, why should you be rewarded?
Don’t taxmen also do so themselves?
47 When you greet only your family, what did you do that was so great?
Don’t the foreigners also do so themselves?
48 Therefore you will be egalitarian,
like your heavenly Father is egalitarian.”

If we expect the Father to be pleased with us for reciprocity, Jesus waves it away: Taxmen do that. Pagans do that. God loves everybody, including people who don’t love him back, and have no intention of doing for him. That’s grace. We gotta be gracious like God is gracious. Our love for everyone has to be without exception, i.e. perfect.

So if you were hanging your hat on verse 48, whoops!… your hat’s on the floor.

But as I like to point out to the libertines, it’s not like Jesus never taught us to be good. In fact let’s quote their least favorite Jesus-teaching, shall we?

Matthew 5.17-20 KWL
17 “Don’t assume I came to dissolve the Law or the Prophets.
I didn’t come to dissolve but complete:
18 Amen! I promise you, the heavens and earth may pass away,
but one yodh, one penstroke of the Law, will never pass away; not till everything’s done.
19 So whoever relaxes one of these commands—the smallest—and thus teaches people,
they’ll be called smallest in the heavenly kingdom.
Whoever does and teaches them,
they’ll be called great in the heavenly kingdom:
20 I tell you, unless morality abounds in you, more than in scribes and Pharisees,
you may never enter the heavenly kingdom.”

Jesus doesn’t expect us to let up on God’s commands. Grace isn’t his substitute for obedience; it’s an aid to help us be obedient, and not give up in despair whenever we slip up. (And we will slip up.) Grace is God’s favorable attitude towards his people: It means he’s not rooting for our failure, but our success. He’s not here to condemn, but help. Nor is he here to dismiss all our sins as irrelevant; they’re totally relevant, and he hates ’em. He’s here to mitigate them, restore our relationships with him and one another, and fix creation. And either we’re gonna get with his program… or we’re gonna run our own program, one which goes totally contrary to his, and pretend we’re on board like the hypocrites we are.

“But what about legalism?”

A valid concern about perfectionism is of course legalism. It’s a valid worry. When we’re trying to be good, we’re gonna make mistakes; everybody does. But grace means we shouldn’t beat ourselves up about it: If we slip up, we have Jesus, who took care of our sins already. 1Jn 2.1-2

But grace doesn’t just mean we needn’t beat ourselves up about it. It means if we do beat ourselves up, we don’t really trust the Holy Spirit to help us stop sinning: We trust our own punishments. We trust behavioral psychology. We trust negative reinforcement. We trust pain and suffering. You see the problem? (If not, yikes.)

We’re gonna stumble. Some of us, a lot. We may find perfection to be very, very elusive. It’s not easy to follow God in a sin-damaged world, especially when we’re used to doing our own thing instead of living in the light. But let’s not lie to ourselves and others: True followers of Christ try. Hypocrites don’t bother, invent excuses for their rotten behavior, and bend scriptures in self-defense. (Or they pretend to try, and hide all their sins in the dark.)

True Christians recognize sin has messed us up and makes perfection a real struggle. Hypocrites claim it’s messed us up so much, not even the Holy Spirit himself can make us any better. They correctly point out everyone sins, Ro 3.23 presume it means even we Christians will inevitably keep sinning, and preemptively give up. We can’t be perfect till we’re resurrected, and in heaven.

Nope, the scriptures don’t teach this idea at all. On the contrary.

1 John 2.3-11 GNT
3 If we obey God's commands, then we are sure that we know him. 4 If we say that we know him, but do not obey his commands, we are liars and there is no truth in us. 5 But if we obey his word, we are the ones whose love for God has really been made perfect. This is how we can be sure that we are in union with God: 6 if we say that we remain in union with God, we should live just as Jesus Christ did.
7 My dear friends, this command I am writing you is not new; it is the old command, the one you have had from the very beginning. The old command is the message you have already heard. 8 However, the command I now write you is new, because its truth is seen in Christ and also in you. For the darkness is passing away, and the real light is already shining.
9 If we say that we are in the light, yet hate others, we are in the darkness to this very hour. 10 If we love others, we live in the light, and so there is nothing in us that will cause someone else to sin. 11 But if we hate others, we are in the darkness; we walk in it and do not know where we are going, because the darkness has made us blind.

I could quote more of 1 John. And Galatians 5, and Romans 6, and huge swaths of New Testament which condemn people who think grace gives us license to sin ourselves sticky. Jesus came to defeat sin. Not free us up to sin some more.

The fact so many Christians think grace empowers us to sin boldly, isn’t just an amusing little irony. It’s a symptom of someone who doesn’t know Jesus at all. Who’s going through the motions of Christianity, but has no relationship with Jesus, no fruit of the Spirit, who’s not saved. It’s not something to dismiss, but condemn: They need to wake up and realize being so unlike Christ Jesus suggests they’re not in his kingdom—and they need to come in!

Compassion.

by K.W. Leslie, 27 May

The ancients didn’t believe we feel emotions with, and in, our hearts. That’d be the medievals.

The ancients believed thought, logic, and wisdom emanated from the heart. Emotion came from the intestines. Despite the medievals reassigning it to the heart, the idea still managed to trickle down to our culture: People have a “gut reaction” or “visceral reaction” to various things, which means they’re reacting without thinking. It’s pure irrational emotion. And some of ’em have learned to trust their guts, ’cause they said bye-bye to logic long ago. But enough about them.

Some gut reactions are good ones. Even fruitful ones. When we truly love others—love our fellow Christians, love our neighbors, love our enemies—when we see them suffering we’re gonna feel empathy towards them. We’re gonna take pity. We're gonna have compassion.

You know, like Jesus does when he sees the needy. Here’s some examples from Matthew.

Matthew 9.36 KWL
Seeing the crowds, Jesus felt for them, because they were beaten down and thrown out,
like sheep which have no pastor.
 
Matthew 14.14 KWL
Coming out, Jesus saw many crowds, felt for them, and ministered to their sick.
 
Matthew 15.32 KWL
Summoning his students, Jesus told them, “I feel for the crowd,
because they stayed with me three days and have nothing they could eat.
I don’t want to release those who were fasting; they might faint on the road.”
 
Matthew 20.34 KWL
Jesus, feeling for them, grasped their eyes and they quickly received sight. They followed him.

The word I translate “felt for them” is σπλαγχνίζομαι/splanghnídzome, which literally means “gutted.” Not in the sense of having one’s guts pulled out, like that one scene in Braveheart; y’ever feel so bad for someone, it feels like you were punched there? Kinda like that.

Nowadays people talk about compassion as “having a bleeding heart”—dipping back into the medieval idea. But the bleeding heart idea actually comes from Jesus. Because his heart was pierced for our transgressions Is 53.5 —and when that one Roman stabbed him in the heart, Jn 19.34 the prophecy got fulfilled rather literally. Roman Catholics like to depict Jesus’s sacred, bleeding heart because it represents his love and compassion for us and for the lost. And those who like to mock others for their “bleeding hearts”—well, it just reveals their own fruitlessness. Even if we don’t agree on how to solve the needy’s problems, shouldn’t we have some empathy for those whom Christ Jesus loves?

So yeah, since empathy is an effect of love, empathy like love is a fruit of the Spirit. If you lack empathy you lack love. If you want empathy, ask the Spirit! He’ll help develop it in you.

Love your neighbor as yourself.

We’re commanded to be empathetic. When the LORD ordered the Hebrews to love their neighbors as themselves, Lv 19.18 he meant for them to put themselves in their neighbors’ shoes, to look at things through their neighbors’ eyes.

The context of this verse is the LORD forbidding revenge. May as well quote it:

Leviticus 19.18 KWL
“Don’t avenge. Don’t cling to anger against your people’s children.
Love your fellow Hebrew like yourself. I’m the LORD.”

Revenge is what people do when they lack empathy. They feel someone wronged, insulted, dismissed, slighted, or robbed them. They want satisfaction. Not tit-for-tat; not to simply get back what they feel was taken from them. Revenge wants to hurt someone—and justify itself by calling it “justice.”

But did that other person intentionally wrong us? Half the time, no. Most of the time, it’s nothing personal; they’re not trying to wrong us specifically; they’d wrong anybody, because they’re selfish jerks like that. They don’t love anyone as themselves.

If everyone took revenge for every slight we experience, society would be nothing but duels, feuds, and war. The LORD wants to kill that problem before it grows. Don’t take revenge. Don’t be selfish either. Love your neighbor. Use yourself as a comparison: You’d do this and that for yourself, so do the same for others. You’d appreciate it if people did this and that for you, so do for them. Be generous. Be kind. Don’t be a dick.

When love our neighbors as yourselves, and we see people suffering, it oughta make us feel for them. We should want to help. Not suppress our consciences by inventing good karmic reasons for why they oughta suffer: “They did it to themselves. They shoulda known better. They need to get themselves out of their own mess. They deserve it for being dumb or lesser or unworthy”—and all the other Darwinist justifications for apathy and lovelessness. Is this how Jesus thinks? Absolutely not, and his followers aren’t true followers when we adopt a different attitude towards the needy than our Lord.

For Mammonists, empathy is a struggle because they fear it’ll cost them money. (If not them personally, they fret it’ll cost tax dollars; as if their tax dollars are currently funding anything better.) And y’know, often it will cost. And we need to get over that. We invest our money in what we love most, and if that’s not God’s kingdom we aren’t fit to enter it.

In Jesus’s good Samaritan story, the Samaritan put up his own money to care for an assault victim he just found on the road. That, Jesus said, is loving one’s neighbor—and go and do likewise. He didn’t make this optional: If he’s our Lord, that’s our mandate. Be compassionate. Go out of our way to help the needy. Quit pretending to be Christian, and be Jesus for a lost and hurting world. And it starts by adopting how he feels for others.

Having clergy pray for you.

by K.W. Leslie, 26 May

One of my previous pastors was invited to a birthday party. So was I. So we’re all hanging out, chatting about something irrelevant; probably weather. And the lady of the house came out of the kitchen to tell everyone lunch was ready. So… “Pastor?”

Yep. It might be her house, her daughter who was celebrating the birthday, her lunch which she had put together. But Pastor, even though he was a guest, was expected to ask God’s blessings over the food.

Which he did, ’cause he knows how it works. It comes with the job.

It’s one of the things clergy regularly experience. Bishops, pastors, chaplains, friars, nuns, ministers of every sort: People expect them to lead prayer. They don’t even ask; they just take it as a given. “Pastor?” That’s your cue to pray.

I once had a pastor who grew tired of this, so he tried something which he thought was kinda clever: He turned to one of the other people in the room. Sometimes an elder in the church whom he knew could pray; sometimes one of the newbies or teenagers who was learning how to pray in public and needed the practice. “Kahurangi, could you lead?” With self-conscious teens, sometimes it took a little prodding, but young Kahurangi would pray.

And the host would be disappointed. And the one case of one hostess, not accept it. After the elder prayed, and everyone said amen, she said, “Thank you. Pastor?” Because Pastor hadn’t prayed yet, and it didn’t count till Pastor prayed.

Which is rubbish. Every Christian is a priest. Every Christian can lead prayer. Every Christian can pray like Elijah, and God’ll answer their requests same as everyone.

But same as people misunderstand what James taught about praying like Elijah, they presume they can’t lead prayers. Not like Pastor; not as good as Pastor. Because Pastor is more righteous than they, has a better connection to God than they, hears God better than they, and Pastor’s prayers will get answered. Theirs, not so much.

In other religions, and in Christian cults, clergy actually encourages this mindset. They want us to think they have a special access to God which others don’t. It helps keep ’em in power: You can’t overthrow the one guy who really connects with God! But it’s totally antithetical to Christianity, ’cause Jesus wants everybody to know him, connect with him, and get to the Father through him. Not just clergy. Not just Pastor.

Yeah, pastors know how to pray in public settings, and don’t (or shouldn’t!) seize up from stage fright when it’s time to bless the pizza. But they’re not the only people who can lead prayer, y’know. You can. Any Christian can.

Hannah’s prayer.

The books of Samuel begin with Samuel ben Elqana’s mother Hannah, miserable because she doesn’t have any children, going to temple to beg God for one.

At the time, temple was still held in a tabernacle, and the head priest was Eli, a man who let his thoroughly corrupt sons Khofni and Pinekhas run the place for him. The way Eli’s kids ran things alienated people from worshiping the LORD there. 1Sa 2.7 Eli should’ve fired them, but the most he ever did was give ’em stern lectures. (Eli actually wound up raising Samuel… which explains why Samuel was just as lousy a father.)

Eli wasn’t a righteous man. But he was head priest. And if Hannah held the attitude, “Gotta have the head priest pray for me, ’cause God must listen to his head priest,” man would she be off track. The fact the LORD had to warn Eli through two different prophets—an unnamed guy 1Sa 2.27-35 and later the child Samuel himself 1Sa 3.11-18 —shows Eli and the LORD clearly weren’t communicating with one another. The LORD was doing all the talking, but Eli just wasn’t listening.

So how’d Hannah get her request granted? Because she prayed like Elijah. She trusted God.

1 Samuel 1.10-11 KWL
10 Hannah’s soul was bitter, and she begged the LORD and wailed, wailed.
11 Hannah vowed a vow, saying, “LORD of War,
if you see, see your slave’s suffering, and don’t forget me your slave,
and give your slave a seed—a man—
I will give him to the LORD all the days of his life.
A blade won’t ever be raised to his head.”

Such was her bargain with God, and she did actually follow through with it when God gave her a son: Samuel was raised Nazirite, meaning uniquely holy.

Had Eli been on speaking terms with God, he might’ve been clued in that Hannah was praying; just not aloud. (People back then didn’t ordinarily pray silently. I know; times have changed.) Eli saw her lips move but heard no words, and presumed she was drunk in temple. No; she was just begging God really hard, and Eli muttered “May God grant your petition,” and that was the extent of their interaction. 1Sa 1.12-18

You realize some preachers actually claim it’s because Eli said, “May God grant your petition” that God granted Hannah’s petition? They actually endorse the idea we need to get the clergy’s stamp of approval before God can act. As if God’s in any way impressed by titles and positions and earthly authority, instead of faith. Methinks they’re projecting how they’re impressed by titles, upon God.

Samuel is the product of God’s power responding to Hannah’s faith. Not Eli’s faith. Not Eli’s anything.

Eli’s position put him in a great place to make contact with God… had he chose to. Had he wanted to. Had he been willing to listen. He didn’t, and his dismissive attitude towards God eventually got his descendants removed from being head priests. And sad to say, there are plenty of pastors and ministers who likewise dismiss their relationships with God, lead their churches wrong, and lack faith. You definitely don’t want these people leading your prayers; it’ll be pure hypocrisy.

I certainly hope the leaders of your church are nothing like Eli. (If so, get out of there!) More likely they’re good devout believers, and there’s no reason you can’t have ’em intercede for you if you’ve got a serious prayer request. Same as having any good devout believer intercede for you. They don’t have to be clergy! They just have to trust God. Faith’s what makes us righteous. Is Pastor faithful? Then Pastor can pray for you.

But more importantly are you faithful? Can you pray for yourself? Then do.

And if you can’t, now you know your homework assignment: Work on it.

Tribulation, great tribulation, and not-so-great tribulation.

by K.W. Leslie, 25 May
TRIBULATION tri.bu.la.tion noun. Great suffering.
2. The cause of great suffering.
3. An End Times period of suffering around the time of Jesus’s second coming.
[Tribulational tri.bu.la.tion.al adjective.]

Tribulation is an old-timey word which, to many people and Evangelicals in particular, has to do with the End Times. Hence writers find it useful: You wanna talk about suffering, but wanna make it sound like really awful suffering, as bad as suffering can be? You call it tribulation.

Thing is, when “tribulation” comes up in the King James Version, it means any and every kind of suffering. Not just the worst-case-ever kind of suffering. I mean it is used to describe that, Mt 24.21 but it’s used for all the other kinds. ’Cause suffering is part of the world we live in.

John 16.33 KJV
These things I have spoken unto you, that in me ye might have peace. In the world ye shall have tribulation: but be of good cheer; I have overcome the world.

Life is suffering. But Jesus has conquered the world.

So when we read of tribulation in the scriptures, it’s interchangeable with suffering. Don’t go reading great suffering into it… unless the context shows you oughta. ’Cause sometimes you oughta.

But most of the time it’s just life. And Christians shouldn’t be so surprised and outraged when life happens to have suffering in it. Problem is, we do. In the United States, Christians live very comfortably. Hence many of us are under the delusion that once we came to Jesus, our sufferings were over. Totally over. Erased by Jesus.

So whenever suffering does happen to an American Christian—or really anybody who lives in a first-world country with religious freedom and a comfortable Christian majority—we don’t assume it’s part of the usual suffering found in our fallen world. We assume it’s an aberration. Something lowered Jesus’s hedge of protection and let suffering in. Probably for one of these reasons:

  • The devil’s trying to rip us a new one like it did Job, and for whatever reason God’s allowing it.
  • We sinned, or otherwise stepped outside of God’s perfect will. God himself is out to smite us.
  • We didn’t sin—but to preemptively keep us from sinning, or build character, God’s smiting us anyway. Like he did Paul. 2Co 12.7
  • Somebody cursed us. So we need some form of supernatural deliverance; something to get the evil spirits to bug off.
  • The End has come. Or at least it’s a sign of the End, a warning of the End, a glimpse of End-Times-style judgment, or something related to all that.

Generally we go for worst-case scenarios. We never consider the very real likelihood our suffering doesn’t mean anything. We insist it has to mean something; everything means something. We’re just that important. (Or narcissistic.)

Nope. Reality doesn’t work like that. Christianity doesn’t either. Jesus never guaranteed a trouble-free existence in this age. Read that John verse again: “In the world ye shall have tribulation.” There will be tribulation, and Christians aren’t exempt. In fact we should expect pushback when we follow Jesus properly. Not even our homes are safe.

Matthew 10.34-36 KJV
34 Think not that I am come to send peace on earth: I came not to send peace, but a sword. 35 For I am come to set a man at variance against his father, and the daughter against her mother, and the daughter in law against her mother in law. 36 And a man’s foes shall be they of his own household.

Face it: The road to God’s kingdom has a fair amount of tribulation on it. Ac 14.22 Every antichrist is gonna want to pick a fight. Every hardship is gonna be waved around as if it’s proof God’s not around or doesn’t care. Even fellow Christians are gonna test our commitment to Jesus when times get rough—partly because they insist times should never get rough, and partly because they wanna blame somebody else for their suffering; and here’s where they start to pick on all the sinners in the world. Challenge them for their gracelessness, and watch ’em turn on you.

And I haven’t even yet got to the great tribulation.

The “great tribulation.”

According to Darbyists—plus all the pagans who borrow Darbyist ideas to write their pop-culture versions of the End—there’s gonna be a profoundly awful period of human suffering right at the very end of history. Right before Jesus returns to either put it to an end, or (according to dark Christians) add to it by destroying everyone they he doesn’t like.

The idea comes from this statement of Jesus’s:

Mark 13.19-20 KJV
19 For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be. 20 And except that the Lord had shortened those days, no flesh should be saved: but for the elect’s sake, whom he hath chosen, he hath shortened the days.

The KJV calls it affliction, but Darbyists go with “great tribulation.” They describe it as the seven-year period between the secret rapture, when all the Christians get magically whisked to heaven before the really bad stuff happens, and Jesus’s second coming. During this time the Beast is expected to take over the earth and make it awful, particularly for Christians.

Wait, how’s the Beast gonna make life suck for Christians when we were all raptured?—because the scriptures do describe the Beast fighting and defeating saints. Rv 13.7 Well, Darbyists imagine two possibilities: Either the rapture happens in the middle of great tribulation, which means Christians only suffer in the first half; or they figure some pagans who were “left behind” in the rapture must’ve repented, became Christian, and now have to live through great tribulation.

Hence we have three tribulational scenarios, all named after where the rapture takes place in relation to great tribulation.

  1. PRETRIB The pretribulational belief is we get raptured before any great tribulation happens. (John Hagee preaches this idea.)
  2. MIDTRIB. The midtribulational belief is we go through some great tribulation, but Jesus raptures us before the really really bad stuff takes place. (Jim Bakker promotes this idea, and really wants to sell you stuff for your End Times bunker.)
  3. POSTTRIB. The posttribulational belief is we’re already going through tribulation. And Jesus raptures us at his second coming.

For visual learners, I got an infographic.


Three timelines for the very last days before Jesus’s return.

As I said in my article on the rapture, there is no secret rapture in the bible. The rapture is far from secret: It happens when Jesus returns, with a black sky and trumpet blast and in full view of everyone. So where do Darbyists get the idea there’s a secret rapture either before or in the middle of tribulation?

Largely it’s futurism, their belief every End Times event happens in the future. John Nelson Darby was a cessationist who believed God turned off the miracles. But all the End Times visions are full of miracles, so Darbyists figure they can’t possibly take place in the miracle-free present day. Nor in any of the days since the bible’s completion. Everything must therefore happen in our future. Beginning with a secret rapture, based on various verses they take out of context to support both Darbyism and their various wish-fulfillment ideas like not suffering.

True there are some Darbyists, like Tim LaHaye, who figured some miraculous events take place leading up to the secret rapture. That’s because LaHaye was continuationist: He didn’t believe God turned off his miracles. Yet he was still Darbyist. How? Simple: LaHaye grew up Darbyist, and never thought to question the whole screwy system. He assumed it was valid, because everybody he knew treated it as valid. Lots of continuationists share this same defective boat. That’s why they’re all wet.

The historical great tribulation.

Because great tribulation must occur in the future, Darbyists tend to downplay, if not be utterly clueless about, a period of great tribulation which entirely fulfilled Jesus’s prophecy about the destruction of Jerusalem. It’s when the Romans destroyed it in the year 70, fulfilling this statement of Jesus’s:

Mark 13.30 KJV
Verily I say unto you, that this generation shall not pass, till all these things be done.

This happened four decades after Jesus predicted Jerusalem and the temple’s destruction—within the lifetime of that generation of listeners. Mt 24.34, Lk 21.32 Flavius Josephus, who personally saw it, described it like so. (William Whiston’s translation.)

Now the number of those that were carried captive, during this whole war, was collected to be 97,000. As was the number of those that perished during the whole siege 1,100,000. The greater part of whom were indeed of the same nation [i.e. also Jews], but not belonging to the city itself. For they were come up from all the country to the Feast of Unleavened Bread; and were on a sudden shut up by an army; which at the very first occasioned so great a straitness among them, that there came a pestilential destruction upon them; and soon afterward such a famine, as destroyed them more suddenly.

And that this city could contain so many people in it, is manifest by that number of them, which was taken under Cestius. Who, being desirous of informing Nero of the power of the city, who otherwise was disposed to contemn that nation, intreated the high priests, if the thing were possible, to take the number of their whole multitude. So these high priests, upon the coming of that feast which is called the Passover, when they slay their sacrifices, from the ninth hour till the 11th; but so that a company not less than 10, belong to every sacrifice: (for ’tis not lawful for them to feast singly by themselves). And many of us are 20 in a company. Now the number of sacrifices was 256,500; which, upon the allowance of no more than 10 that feast together, amounts to 2,700,200 persons that were pure and holy. For as to those that have the leprosy, or the gonorrhea; or women that have their monthly courses, or such as are otherwise polluted, it is not lawful for them to be partakers of this sacrifice. Nor indeed for any foreigners neither, who come hither to worship.

Now this vast multitude is indeed collected out of remote places. But the entire nation was now shut up by fate, as in prison; and the Roman army encompassed the city when it was crowded with inhabitants. Accordingly the multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world. For, to speak only of what was publicly known, the Romans slew some of them; some they carried captives; and others they made a search for underground: and when they found where they were, they broke up the ground, and slew all they met with.

There were also found slain there above 2,000 persons; partly by their own hands, and partly by one another, but chiefly destroyed by the famine. But then, the ill savor of the dead bodies was most offensive to those that light upon them. Insomuch that some were obliged to get away immediately; while others were so greedy of gain, that they would go in among the dead bodies that lay on heaps, and tread upon them. For a great deal of treasure was found in these caverns; and the hope of gain made every way of getting it to be esteemed lawful.

Many also of those that had been put in prison by the tyrants were now brought out. For they did not leave off their barbarous cruelty at the very last. Yet did God avenge himself upon them both, in a manner agreeable to justice. […] And now the Romans set fire to the extreme parts of the city, and burnt them down, and entirely demolished its walls. Jewish War 6.9.3-4

Josephus’s line, “The multitude of those that therein perished exceeded all the destructions that either men or God ever brought upon the world” sounds pretty much like Jesus’s, “For in those days shall be affliction, such as was not from the beginning of the creation which God created unto this time, neither shall be.” Yeah, humanity’s done worse since. The Holocaust of World War 2 immediately comes to mind. But for ancient times, when there were maybe 200 million people on earth, the destruction of a million-plus Jews is a profoundly significant disaster.

But to Darbyists, it’s not a castrophe; it’s an inconvenience. Some of the bible passages they claim are End Times prophecies, require a temple! But the Romans flattened it. Stupid Romans. Now somebody’s gotta rebuild the temple, otherwise their timeline won}t work: Great tribulation can’t effectively start, and Jesus can’t return.

How a new temple will get built without triggering World War 3 is questionable. Some Darbyists actually try to squeeze such a war into their End Times prognostications. Tim LaHaye’s novels simply stated a temple had been built already, and never say how.

Like I said, to them it’s an inconvenience. They don’t care about the death and suffering of millions of Jews when the Romans destroyed Jerusalem. They dismiss all of that as any potential fulfillment of Jesus’s warnings.

Seven years of tribulation.

The prophet Daniel had apocalyptic visions of the End. The LORD sent him the angel Gabriel to explain ’em… somewhat. Gabriel laid out a loose timeline for Daniel: Counting from Jerusalem’s reconstruction, Gabriel said there are only “70 sevens” till the end of time. Da 9.24 Most translations render this “70 weeks.”

  • Seven sevens after Jerusalem is rebuilt, Messiah appears. Da 9.25
  • Then 62 sevens of trouble. At the end of this, Messiah gets cut off, and an invading prince comes to make war. Da 9.26
  • Then the last seven of history: The prince runs roughshod over Jerusalem till someone puts a stop to him. Da 9.27

In Revelation, Jesus gave John similar visions. Because both Jesus and John had read Daniel, more than likely Jesus referred to the visions of Daniel from time to time. But Darbyists believe these aren’t merely references nor visions: This part, they choose to take literally. Even though we should know better than to take apocalypses literally. The final seven of history, Darbyists insist, means a literal seven years. Seven years of tribulation.

What evidence do they have for predicting it’s literally seven years? None.

’Cause let’s apply their literalness to Gabriel’s sevens. Yep, that means we gotta do math. (Yikes.) Jerusalem was rebuilt in 515BC and Jesus’s life on earth, birth to rapture, was 7BC to 33CE. So from Jerusalem’s reconstruction to Jesus’s life, we get between 521 and 547 years. Each unit of Gabriel’s “seven sevens” can literally represent between 10.62 and 11.16 years. For convenience we’ll round it to 11.

Do I sound ridiculously literal? Absolutely I do. But Darbyists are worse.

Now that we’ve solved for x, let’s see about the next 62 sevens of history: If each unit is a literal 11 years, each seven is 77 years long, and 62 sevens is 4,774 years long. The last seven of history?—the “seven” of the great tribulation? It should literally be 77 years long. And if Jesus isn’t returning till the end of it, expect him round the year 4850. What, you thought he was returning sooner?

I’ve already gone way farther than Darbyists will. Because any interpretation of the End which pushes the End that far into the future, they consider unacceptable. They’re quite fond of saying the rapture can happen any second. They may fight one another over all the stuff which “has to happen first,” but generally they agree the End can begin any time. So every once in a while one of ’em does the math, realizes the math really doesn’t get ’em where they want to go… and dismisses the math. But they’ll definitely stick to seven literal years of tribulation.

Since literalness is the wrong way to interpret Daniel, what’s the correct way? Simple: Gabriel wasn’t presenting a timeline. Just a sequence. First Jerusalem gets rebuilt. Messiah comes. Much, much later the End comes—in chaos. How much chaos? Dunno; but every time “the day of the LORD” is described in the Old Testament there’s chaos. Mainly ’cause plenty of people don’t want the day of the LORD to happen, and are gonna object loudly. It’ll come just the same.

A “seven” doesn’t represent a time period, but an idea. Namely the time it took God to create heavens and earth, then rest. Throughout the bible, seven represents the time it takes to get something well and truly and perfectly done. Stuff gets finished within a seven, same as God finishing creation in a week.

So the seven sevens till Messiah: The Hebrew language repeats itself for emphasis, and seven sevens means something’s totally finished. It represents the fullness of time when God sent his Son. Ga 4.4 Not the literal five centuries before Jesus, and no, you don’t divide these years by 49 to figure out how long a “cosmic day” is. (And then ditch these cosmic days when it comes to how long the final seven lasts.)

Seven years of tribulation is entirely based on convenience. Darbyists don’t wanna suffer for 77 years. (Who would?) They want it to be relatively, reasonably short. Enough time to cram their prophecies into—since they won’t accept the idea they were fulfilled over the past 20 centuries of Christian history. Seven literal years works for them.

The Beast gets to run amok for the final 3½ years of it, ’cause Revelation says it was given power to do its thing for “42 months” before Jesus overthrows it. Rv 15.5 Nope, these 42 months aren’t “cosmic months” where every month represents a literal year (even though it’d fit the 77-year tribulation scheme mighty well). Gabriel notwithstanding, Darbyists insist these are literal months.

Well. You see the vast inconsistency throughout Darbyist interpretation schemes. I hope it convinces you to ignore all their other prognostications. They’re not at all reliable.

Will there be End Times chaos? Sure. Will it be a period of unimaginable suffering, worse than it’s ever been? No; that happened already. All the suffering in Revelation can be linked to historical events. We’ve had plagues which killed more people than we see in the apocalypses. Persecutions which decimated Christians. Beasts aplenty.

What happens when we demand tribulation last seven literal years? Date-setting.

In the final Left Behind novel, Glorious Appearing, every Christian in the book knows precisely when Jesus is gonna return. Not the precise time, but the day itself. ’Cause they’re Darbyists, and they know Jesus will return seven years to the day after the secret rapture. And in the book, he does!

In real life, Jesus said nobody, not even he, knows the specific day. Mk 13.32 He’s not obligated to any of our timelines. For they aren’t his timelines. He doesn’t set one, and it’s not for us to make one. Ac 1.7 Instead, trust that God has that in hand, and go preach the good news: Jesus is coming back. But to save the world—not scorch it with tribulation first.

Warnings when persecution comes. (Unless you’re American.)

by K.W. Leslie, 24 May

Mark 13.9, Matthew 24.9-13, Luke 21.12-19.

In his Olivet Discourse, Jesus told his students about what’d happen before as predicted, the Romans destroyed the temple in the great tribulation. Many fearful Christians insist Jesus wasn’t speaking of the next 40 years, but our future; the events of the End Times. That’s largely because they don’t know first-century history, nor their bibles, and only believe other fearful Christians. If you aren’t as paranoid, peaceless, and agitated as they, they feel you’re too stupid to listen to. The End Times has gotta be all about fear, not hope—and they explain away the fruitlessness of fear by claiming it’s really “the fear of God” they’re about. Yeah right.

Today’s passage tends to trigger ’em more than most, because here Jesus speaks about the active persecution of Christians. Which, at that time, was coming soon. Really soon; possibly before the year was out.

Jesus gave this discourse during Holy Week, and he’d be killed at the end of that week. In late May, on Pentecost, the Holy Spirit would pour himself out on the first Christians and start the church. And in the very next two chapters of Acts, Simon Peter and John cure a disabled guy, preach about it in temple, and get arrested—because they claim they cured him through the power of the resurrected Jesus, and the Sadducee head priests don’t even believe in resurrection. How much time took place between Pentecost and this first persecution? Annas and Caiaphas were still running the temple, Ac 4.6 so it was certainly before Jonathan ben Annas became head priest in the year 36.

So at the latest, persecution came three years after Jesus made this prophecy. And at the earliest?—right after Pentecost. Like as early as May 33. You think the apostles would’ve waited to cure the sick and proclaim Jesus’s name publicly? But with that kind of publicity comes pushback.

Jesus warned ’em persecution was coming way before this discourse, ’cause we see parallel lessons in other parts of the gospels.

Matthew 10.17-23 KWL
17 “Watch out for the people: They’ll turn you in to the Senate and their synagogues. They’ll flog you.
18 They’ll take you to leaders and kings because of me, to testify to them and the gentiles.
19 When they turn you in, don’t worry about what you might say at the time you give a defense:
20 It isn’t you speaking, but your Father’s Spirit in you speaking.
21 A brother will turn in a brother, and a father a son, to be sentenced to death.
Children will revolt against parents and execute them.
22 You’ll be hated by everyone because of my name:
Those who endure to the end—they’ll be saved.
23 When people persecute you in this town, flee to the next!
Amen! I promise you, you won’t go through all the towns in Israel before the Son of Man comes.”

And after the Last Supper, he warned ’em about persecution a few more times.

John 15.20-21 KWL
20 “Remember the lesson I taught you?—‘The slave isn’t greater than his master.’
If they persecute me, they’ll persecute you. If you keep my words, you’ll keep watching out.
21 But all these people will persecute you because of my name
because they haven’t known the One who sent me.”
 
John 16.1-3 KWL
1 “I told you these things so you shouldn’t be outraged when they happen.
2 “They’ll make you excommunicants from their synagogues.
But the hour comes when everyone who kills you
might think it’s to offer service to God.
3 They’ll do these things because they don’t know the Father, nor me.”

If you legitimately follow Jesus, instead of following the state (or your party) and hypocritically pretending that’s following Jesus, you’re gonna get pushback. And notice in Jesus’s warnings: The pushback doesn’t come from government, like the fearful End Times interpretations claim. They come from neighbors. They come from family. Who might use the government to get their way, but the government doesn’t toss people out of synagogue; the congregation does. Jesus isn’t talking about anyone formally executing Christians in the same way he was killed (though it happens): He refers to the crowd murdering Christians. Lynching, stoning, stabbing, or other acts of vigilantism, because they think we’re heretic, and think heresy merits death… instead of simply shaking our dust off their feet. Mt 10.14

Anyway. Before the Romans came to destroy Jerusalem, Jesus warned his kids persecution would come to them before the Romans did.

They’re coming for the early church.

Mark keeps it simple. The authors of Matthew and Luke felt it wouldn’t hurt to include some of Jesus’s other warnings about persecution, ’cause they’d likely apply. Turns out they did.

Mark 13.9 KWL
9 “Watch yourselves. They’ll hand you over to senates and synagogues.
You’ll be scourged. You’ll be tried before leaders and kings because of your witness to me.”
 
Matthew 24.9-13 KWL
9 “Then they’ll turn you in to torture, and they’ll kill you:
You’ll be hated by every nation because of my name.
10 Then many will be outraged, turn one another in, and hate one another.
11 Many fake prophets will rise up, and will lead many astray.
12 The love of many will grow cold because of the spread of lawlessness.
13 Those who endure to the end—they’ll be saved.”
 
Luke 21.12-19 KWL
12 “Before everything in the End Times happens,
they will get their hands on you, will hunt you down,
handing you over to the synagogues and wardens,
dragging you off before kings and leaders because of my name.
13 They will want a testimony out of you.
14 So determine in your minds to not prepare a defense.
15 For I will give you a mouth and wisdom,
which your every opponent won’t be able to withstand or contradict.
16 You’ll be turned in by parents, siblings, relatives, and friends.
They’ll put some of you to death.
17 You’ll be hated by everyone because of my name.
18 Maybe a hair of your head might not be destroyed.
19 But when you endure, you gain your souls.”

We see this stuff happen throughout Acts, the letters in the rest of the New Testament, and early Christian history. Phonies cropped up and mistaught Christians, which is why the apostles had to write what they did to set ’em straight. Libertines cropped up and told Christians they didn’t have to obey God’s commands any more ’cause grace, producing irreligious Christians whose behavior Paul, James, Peter, John, and Jude also had to rebuke. And when the persecutions came, of course many Christians compromised: They loved peace and safety far more than they loved Jesus and integrity. (Heck, Christians nowadays will casually sell out Jesus for money and political power. Don’t even need persecution.)

The apostles preached Jesus in temple and got beaten for it. Preached him in synagogue, and Stephen got hauled before the Judean senate over it—then stoned to death. Paul wrote he’d been flogged five times, caned thrice, and stoned once, 2Co 11.24-25 and in prison or house arrest a bunch too. Jesus warned ’em everybody they thought they could trust would turn them in… same as one of his Twelve turned him in.

And Jesus also pointed out their trials were opportunities to share their testimonies. ’Cause legally they had to: The judge would wanna hear their side. And no, they didn’t have to invent an eloquent defense, and have it ready for the occasion, like so many Christian apologists struggle to memorize: Really they just had to share their God-experiences, and trust the Holy Spirit to poke the judges in their consciences. (And if not the judges, everybody else within earshot.) Trials aren’t crises; they’re opportunities.

Yes these instructions weren’t just for Jesus’s listeners at that time. They’re for Christians throughout history, whenever we face opposition, whenever we get persecuted. Whenever our Christianist neighbors come after us for not being as politically orthodox as they want; whenever atheism or some other religion becomes the state religion, and they choose to go antichrist and wipe out the churches; whenever Christian missionaries go into a nation which doesn’t trust new religious movements and gets pushback: We shouldn’t be surprised or outraged when persecution happens, and throw a tantrum like some pigheaded American tourist who can’t fathom why the soda machine won’t take his American quarters. Endure. Be patient. Gain your soul.

Ignoring this passage by pushing it into the future.

Jesus’s warnings presume we Christians are living in lands, or going into nations, where it’s not safe to be Christian. Where there’s a chance we’ll get hassled, persecuted, and killed over his name. Same as the apostles in the first century; same as all Christians till the Romans passed the Edict of Milan and legalized Christianity; same as Christian reformers who stood up to their hypocritical kings and governments and tried to really follow Jesus; and same as Christians today who leave our oases of religious freedom to evangelize other lands.

So how do his warnings affect Christians in the United States? Very little. ’Cause the States are a haven for Christians.

Most Americans consider ourselves Christian. When anyone dares interfere with our constitutional freedoms of speech, assembly, press, and religion, you better believe we scream bloody murder about it. That’s not supposed to happen here!

We aren’t taken before churches and governments and caned. We don’t stand before kings and leaders to defend our faith. We never get turned in to the cops by family members; the cops are Christian too! We aren’t hated by everyone because of Jesus.

If we ever are hated, it’s only because of our awful behavior. Many a Christian jerk will claim they’re being persecuted, but again it’s because they’re being unloving or evil. They violate local noise ordinances. Hog all the parking spaces. Take over public spaces for a church function and never bother to file permits. Proselytize people at work. Or, for the extremists among us, various cultish things. Otherwise Christians have approval and free reign in the United States—if not preferential treatment just ’cause we’re a supermajority.

This isn’t true of the rest of the planet. You can still be killed for being Christian in much of Asia and northern Africa. Same as Jesus was speaking of in these passages: He spoke of civic leaders, officials, and the government itself coming after his followers, to abuse them, cane them, or murder them.

How do Christians who live in safe first-world countries with religious freedom, ever experience the sort of conditions Jesus spoke about? Only when we leave. Only when we step beyond the hedge of protection of our homelands, and proclaim God’s kingdom elsewhere. Then we’re risking our lives to share Jesus. Not before.

But sad to say, most of us have no intention of ever doing any such thing. We love our lives, our comforts, and our freedoms too much. If we gotta die for Jesus, we’ll do it at home, standing up for our “rights” to bug our neighbors by playing our Christian music above 100 decibels. Certainly not in some godforsaken foreign land, where anybody who feels like it can just shoot you when you bug them.

Nope; we’ll send those lands our missionaries, money, old clothes, and bibles, and hope they find our websites on the internet. (Assuming the sites aren’t blocked by their governments.) But physically go into the whole world with the gospel? Don’t be daft. It’s dangerous out there.

So do Jesus’s warnings apply to us? Nope; we never let ’em.

But we can’t entirely ignore these passages. They gotta apply to us in some way… which never directly challenges us. That’s how dark Christians can easily coopt ’em for their End Times views: At some point in the future, our government’s gonna go antichrist, and then this’ll apply to us. Then they’ll round up active Christians, same as Soviets did and North Koreans do, and Jesus’s prophecies will finally come true.

Well… unless we stay vigilant, and make sure the government never, ever takes away our freedoms. And any time it looks like they might, maybe we can scream “Persecution!” and get ’em to back off.

Here’s the problem with this interpretation: No, persecution’s not happening to us first-worlder Christians. But it’s happening everywhere else. Their persecution isn’t an End Times thing; it’s a present-day thing. (Unless they’re living in the End Times and we’re not.)

Some Christians interpret it this way: Persecution is an End Times thing, so Christians don’t suffer it yet. But those people in third world countries? They’re being persecuted… because they’re not real Christians. They’re not good Evangelicals like you and me. They’re Orthodox, or Copts, or Syrian, or eastern-rite Roman Catholics, or some other denomination which we presume is heretic and works-righteousness-based. So let ISIL, the Hindus, Buddhists, and Commies kill ’em all. ’Cause true Christians aren’t getting persecuted yet.

Yeah, it’s bad theology, mixed with a fair amount of racism and nationalism. Bad theology makes it really easy to embrace all the sentiments of an antichrist, write off our persecuted sisters and brothers as if they’re irrelevant, and let them die. Bad theology kills, folks.

The fact is, Jesus isn’t talking about the End! He means the Twelve, and Christians throughout Christian history. He warned ’em wars and natural disasters and recessions and pandemics will happen. And as we look around, we see they totally do. He warned them Christians will be persecuted. And as we look outside our comfortable first-world bubble, we see they totally do too.

Now go help the persecuted church.

I have a bad feeling we American Christians are gonna be in a lot of trouble with Jesus once he returns. Because, same as in his story about sheep and goats, we don’t bother to do for the least of our sisters and brothers. We don’t bother to use our unrighteous mammon to extend the kingdom beyond our homeland. We seek the greater glory of our country and fellow citizens, not the greater glory of God.

American Christians can do a lot to alleviate persecution in other countries. Theodore Roosevelt famously said, “Speak softly, and carry a big stick”—and our government operates the most powerful military in the world, which we don’t have to use, but we can afford to speak softly to countries who want our friendship, or fear our wrath. Our allies in the government can speak for our sisters and brothers in the nations which oppress them. Maybe get ’em freed. Maybe convince these countries to change their policies about Christians. And hey, if those countries don’t want their Christians, we’ll take them! Grateful immigrants make the best Americans.

We can, through our connections with Christians in hostile countries, provide them with the resources their countrymen won’t. We can hook ’em up with food, clothing, medicine: We can empower them to bless their neighbors, to do good deeds for them, to make their neighbors think well of them, and see them as a benefit to their communities instead of a boil to lance.

So why don’t we?

A religion that’s a little of this, a little of that.

by K.W. Leslie, 20 May
ECLECTIC ə'klɛk.tɪk adjective. Belongs to no recognized school of thought or organized religion. Selects such doctrines and beliefs as they wish, from various religions and schools.
[Eclecticism i'klek.ti.siz.əm noun.]

One of the more popular platitudes you’ll hear among conservative Evangelicals is “I don’t have a religion; I have a relationship.” By which they don’t actually mean they’re irreligious… although many are. For the most part they do to to church, read their bibles, pray, and try to be good. What they mean is they reject dead religion—namely rituals which mean nothing to them. My point is they do so have a religion; there are plenty of things they do which reveal they devoted themselves to Jesus. Any pagan can see it—and they should, ’cause if there are no such signs, any “relationship” we claim to have is gonna suck, if it’s even there at all.

In comparison, your average pagan insists they truly have no religion. They don’t pray regularly, if at all. They read no holy books regularly, if at all. They never set foot in a church, temple, or mosque—except to attend weddings, funerals, recitals, 12-step meetings, christenings, go to the polls (’cause in the United States sometimes places of worship are used in elections) and to watch the rare Christmas pageant. They don’t do religion, period. You do—’cause you adhere to a particular pastor, church, denomination, or creed; and you pray and read and do Christian things.

But John Lennon songs notwithstanding, plenty of pagans do so have a religion. They do pray, read holy books, go to places of worship (or places where they worship), and base their behavior and good deeds on their spiritual beliefs.

It’s just they may not recognize they have a religion, ’cause it’s not an organized religion. They’re not a member of any organization which tells ’em what “the proper beliefs” are: They figured ’em out on their own, and now believe various things about God and spirits and the afterlife. True, their beliefs aren’t always consistent, and don’t always come from one particular source: Some of their ideas were borrowed from Christianity (i.e. God is love, Jesus was nice to everybody), and some from Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam, Beatles albums, Oprah videos, inspirational quotes, internet memes. Some even invented their own ideas, all by themselves, ’cause they’re such deep spiritual people.

Properly, they’re practicing eclecticism. They just don’t know the word for it.

Organized-yet-disorganized religion.

The human brain is designed to recognize patterns. Even when there’s nothing actually there. Hence really sloppy “logic” and conspiracy theorists.

This is why structures appeal to us so easily. Even the messiest people have some kind of structure to their chaos. They love it when one belief fits neatly with another. It’s why theology is so popular with certain Christians: They love when all their God-ideas connect like a divine jigsaw puzzle. They’re quite sure God, ’cause he’s perfect and true, should inspire a perfect and true belief system. That’s why they struggle so greatly with Christianity’s paradoxes, like the trinity. Makes ’em bonkers.

It’s also why a lot of humans prefer eclecticism. To them, Christianity is too paradoxical: They can’t wrap their brains around Jesus being God, yet totally human. So they decide to ditch one idea or the other: Jesus isn’t really divine, or “divinity” gets reinterpreted as something we can achieve by being really, really good. Or Jesus isn’t really human; he’s an avatar. Whatever simplifies things in their minds: They like a belief system which which doesn’t make taxing, inconvenient demands on their brains and lives.

And if they don’t wanna change any (or much), and wanna feel good about themselves, preferably their belief system is something which is already consistent with their existing behavior.

I’ve listened to pagans describe their belief systems. They’re quite detailed. Some are pretty clever! Often they’re more consistent with historical Christianity than they realize. (Or even wanna recognize. They much prefer to imagine they’re unique.) They often admit they’re not as good as they wanna be, or oughta be. And maybe it’s not even be possible. But they figure God makes up the difference—because grace ain’t that foreign a concept, y’know.

So they won’t join a church, follow a specific guru, or try to be a guru themselves. They just believe what they believe. They’re quite proud of the fact they put together their own system. They feel it works for them; it’s why they’ve no interest in becoming anything else. They don’t wanna be Christian, Hindu, Scientologist, Bahai, or anything—they’re fine as-is. Try to fix ’em, and you’ll alienate them.

Yeah, it’s a pride thing.

I once had an algebra student who invented his own shortcut for solving polynomial equations. Used it all the time. Used it even though I told him, more than once, to stop it… because it doesn’t work. It never got him the correct answer.

Why’d he insist on using it regardless? Because it was his.

It might’ve worked once, so he assumed it’d work every time. I never saw it work though, and couldn’t convince him of it. Even though he kept flunking papers and exams… and eventually the class. But he didn’t care that it didn’t work. Just like any inventor whose beloved gadget keeps breaking down, but he won’t stop tinkering with it, and keep using it anyway. Unlike this hypothetical inventor, my student never fixed his formula, nor swapped it with one from the book or the internet or anywhere.

No, the boy wasn’t rational. But since when are humans rational?

And when it comes to religion, people can be even less rational. Because to them, religion isn’t about what’s true: It’s about what feels good. They confuse “spiritual” with emotional, so if it makes ’em feel something, especially something good, it must be spiritual. Reason and logic and truth doesn’t make ’em feel good, so they ditch those things in favor of feel-good religion.

This is why eclecticism is so popular. An eclectic’s religion (even though they hate calling it religion) feels great. Because it’s all their favorite beliefs, makes ’em feel good about themselves, and it’s theirs. It’s their possession, their baby. Doesn’t matter if it’s utter bulls---: They make excuses for all its inconsistencies, justify anything immoral in it, and fights anyone who dares tell ’em they’re wrong.

So if I dare tell them, “Well according to Jesus…” they object. Jesus, as they’ve reimagined him, teaches no such thing. He believes as they do. Christianity is wrong; Christians are hypocrites; the bible is neither historically accurate nor infallible; they know Jesus better than any Christian. Don’t you touch their baby.

So before you share Jesus with ’em, you gotta wait till they finally give up on their beloved system. Which may not happen for a mighty long time. They gotta have a crisis of faith first. The Holy Spirit has to shake ’em hard enough to leave a crack wide enough to climb in. Till then they’re the walls of Jericho. Keep marching.

We Christians need to be careful lest we turn into eclectics. We don’t get to make up our own beliefs. We gotta follow Jesus. He determines our beliefs; he’s right and we’re not. I regularly butt heads with Christians who come up with ideas they’re sure is better than anything 20 centuries of Christian thinkers ever came up with. (As if the Holy Spirit never inspired anyone but them… least of all me.) Simply put, they’re an eclectic disguised as a Christian, and they’re following their own path instead of Christ’s. Watch out for such people.

Praying like “St. Francis” did.

by K.W. Leslie, 19 May

You know how when you’re praying in a group, and the prayer leader says something really profound which you wholly agree with, and you can definitely say amen to that?

Rote prayers are the very same way. It’s someone else’s prayer, but you’re agreeing with the prayer… and some of ’em just nail it. It’s precisely what you wanna tell God. So go ahead and borrow their words. They don’t mind. God doesn’t either.

One of the more popular rote prayers floating around out there is “the peace prayer of St. Francis.” Which, let’s be honest, was never actually written by Giovanni Francesco di Bernardone of Assisi (1181-1226), the Catholic layman-evangelist who founded the Franciscan order. True, those of us who know about Francis’s life can certainly imagine him saying stuff like this, but just like a whole lot of popular internet quotes, ’twasn’t him. The Italians call this la preghiera semplice/“the simple prayer.” I don’t find it all that simple, but it’s still a good one to pray.

I prefer translating these things myself, so I took this from the original French. That’s right, the original French; not Italian like Francis spoke, nor the vulgar Latin which medieval Catholics used to communicate. The prayer was anonymously published in December 1912 in the Catholic magazine La Clochette, as Belle prière à faire pendant la messe/“Beautiful prayer to say during Mass.”

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace.
Where there’s hatred I’ll place love.
Where there’s offense I’ll place forgiveness.
Where there’s discord I’ll place union.
Where there’s error I’ll place truth.
Where there’s doubt I’ll place faith.
Where there’s despair I’ll place hope.
Where there’s darkness I’ll place your light.
Where there’s sadness I’ll place joy.
Oh Master, I don’t seek to be comforted as much as to comfort,
To be understood as much as to understand,
To be loved as much as to love.
For it’s in giving that we receive.
It’s in forgetting that one is found.
It’s in pardoning that we’re pardoned.
It’s in dying that we’re raised to eternal life.

’Cause we wanna do as Jesus does.

There’s a lot of similarity between the St. Francis prayer and “John Wesley’s Rule,” another popular rote prayer attributed to the wrong guy. Seriously; Wesley didn’t write this prayer either. (And you thought misattribution was a recent thing.)

Do all the good you can
By all the means you can
In all the ways you can
In all the places you can
At all the times you can
To all the people you can
As long as ever you can.

Yet another nice way to stretch out “Love your neighbor.” Mk 12.31, Lv 19.18 If you were looking for any loopholes, Wesley’s rule stitches most of them shut.

Basically the St. Francis prayer is about trying to minister to others, trying to spread the Spirit’s fruit instead of throwing poop like a monkey. As humans do. It’s about how we oughta act on God’s gifts, rather than just pray they happen, while we sit by passively and wait for God to reprogram or smite sinners. It’s about how we oughta use the fruit the Spirit gave us, rather than store them up for a rainy day… whenever that comes.

The purpose of the Spirit’s gifts are to pay ’em forward. This prayer helps us adjust our attitudes so we’re reminded we’re meant to share, not hoard. Give, not just receive.

So when you’re at a loss for words with God, pray this prayer.

Love your enemies.

by K.W. Leslie, 18 May
Luke 6.27-31 KWL
27 “But I tell you listeners: Love your enemies. Do good to your haters.
28 Bless your cursers. Pray for your mistreaters.
29 To one who hits you on the jaw, submit all the more.
To one who takes your robe and tunic from you, don’t stop them.
30 Give to everyone who asks you. Don’t demand payback from those who take what’s yours.
31 Just as you want people doing for you, do likewise for them.”

Whenever preachers and ministers talk about how Jesus taught us followers to love our enemies, most of the time you can count on ’em to tell us Jesus wasn’t kidding. He really does expect us to love our enemies. It’ll be hard; sometimes darn near impossible. But Jesus said to do it, so we gotta.

Most of the time. Some of these preachers aren’t all that fruity. Hence when they preach about love, they don’t use the proper definition as spelled out in 1 Corinthians 13. They substitute conditional love and tough love.

“When Jesus told us to love enemies, he didn’t mean we should love-love them. The sort of love he meant is ‘to want what’s best for somebody.’ So that’s how he meant for us to love them: We should want the very best for them.”

And sometimes they really do want the best for those enemies: They want ’em to repent, and if not do a full 180° and befriend us, at least stop being so awful. They want ’em to be good. Love doesn’t delight in doing wrong, 1Co 13.6 so this wish sorta falls under the proper definition of love.

And sometimes they don’t. “The very best for them” means their comeuppance. Bad fortune. Getting arrested, beaten, evicted, fired, humiliated, injured, insulted, rejected, ruined. Best thing for ’em… and mighty entertaining for us. Revenge fantasies just can’t help but seep into many people’s discussions about enemies.

Revenge fantasies even seep into when we do strive to love our enemies, and behave towards ’em in Jesus-approved ways. We like to imagine being good to them, in spite of their dickishness, really burns ’em up inside: They want us to feel bad but it’s not working. They want to provoke us—an old bully’s technique, ’cause when we fight back, it makes ’em feel justified in doing even worse things to us—and dangit, it’s not working! So even grace gets reimagined as a form of revenge. Like in the old T-shirt quote, “Love your enemies. It really pisses them off.”

Heck, we even find this sentiment in the bible.

Proverbs 25.21-22 KWL
21 If your hater is hungry, give him bread. If thirsty, give him water to drink.
22 You pile embers on his head this way; it’s how the LORD repaid you.

(There’s this novel interpretation going round which claims the ancients used to help neighbors start cooking fires by bringing embers from their own fires—carrying them in a pot, which they put on their heads. Supposedly this verse is really about blessing your enemies, not sticking it to ’em by being good. But there’s no historical nor archaeological evidence for any such thing in ancient Hebrew culture; if they brought fire to neighbors it was with tongs or in a lamp. Ancient commentators knew of no such practice, and uniformly interpreted this saying as a curse, not a blessing. And this new interpretation doesn’t grammatically work either: If I carry embers to neighbors on my head, I’d pile embers on my own head, not theirs. Unless I’m giving them their donated embers back… and how does that bless them?)

Anyway. For those of us who recognize our revenge fantasies are unhealthy and wrong, but don’t really wanna love our enemies, often we’ll reinterpret love to mean passive acceptance. In other words tolerate our enemies. Leave ’em be. Distance ourselves from them. Stay away lest we’re tempted to take revenge, or lest they’re tempted to do more awful things to us. I’ve heard many a preacher say, “Love and forgive your enemies… but this doesn’t mean you need to have anything more to do with them. Don’t take revenge; don’t do anything. Just leave them to themselves. You’re not their doormat.” Love is apathy.

Of course all this redefinition means people are dodging the clear and obvious meaning of “Love your enemies.” ’Cause we don’t wanna love our enemies. ’Cause they’re our freaking enemies: Somebody needs to smite them! Either God needs to do it, or God needs to deputize us: They need smiting!

Loving your abuser.

I was abused as a child. If you’ve never been abused—or you have been abused but never really loved your abuser—this is gonna be hard to understand.

Obviously an abuser is an enemy. By the very fact they abuse you, they’re your enemy. They don’t want what’s best for you; they might claim to love you, but you’re a possession and little more. Love doesn’t abuse. Our culture correctly recognizes this, and many Christians wholly agree with the idea abusers are enemies. (Even when these very same Christians get abusive.)

Now imagine a woman whose boyfriend beat her senseless. Yet after she left the hospital, she went right back to him. Even defended him when he was arrested and put on trial for beating her. The rest of the world recoils in horror: “How could she possibly? What’s wrong with her? Where’s her sense? He beats her! Doesn’t she realize he’s an enemy?”

Well no, she doesn’t. Because she loves him. She fell in love with him despite the beatings. She finds it easy to forgive what most of us would consider unforgivable. We’d toss him in prison, and joke about how the convicts will probably beat him even worse, and maybe rape him a little. Whereas she’d turn the other cheek.

That’s what loving one’s enemy looks like. Even though she may not realize she’s loving her enemy; when you love ’em they’re not so easy to recognize as enemies.

Other abuse victims don’t love their abusers, and never did. They’re fully aware their abusers are enemies; it’s why they plot revenge, or seek a form of “justice” which hurts the abuser. They can’t possibly imagine forgiving their abusers, or establishing any real relationship with ’em. If you suggest they forgive their enemies, they’d tell you to go f--- yourself; how dare you suggest any form of grace towards their enemy.

When Jesus spoke about loving one’s enemies, he was teaching Galileans who’d lived under Roman oppression for the last half century. The Romans didn’t follow any kind of due process: If you got in their way they’d smack you, if you talked back they’d stab you, and if they thought you were a criminal they’d flog or crucify you. If a soldier decided to bully you for fun, or just to show off his might, he easily could; your life was in his hands. Romans were some of the worst kind of abusers. But you gotta love them.

Loving one’s enemies looks exactly like the abused woman who goes back to her boyfriend. And if this offends you… well that’s normal. It’s probably how Jesus’s listeners took it when he first started talking about turning the other cheek.

Y’see, grace isn’t fair. True forgiveness feels utterly contrary to human nature. Treating our foes better than they deserve—much like forgiving an abusive boyfriend—feels kinda foolish, stupid, and outrageous.

Human nature feels more like Lemékh described it in Genesis:

Genesis 4.23-24 KWL
23 Lemékh says to his women, Adá and Zillá, “Listen to my voice, Lemékh’s women; give your ears to my saying.
I killed a man for injuring me, and a boy for bruising me.
24 If seven people die in revenge for Cain,
seventy-seven die for Lemékh.”

We often say human nature seeks eye-for-eye reciprocity, but that’s not even close: Human nature seeks satisfaction. We take revenge till we feel satisfied… and some people are never satisfied. We don’t trade bruise for bruise, insult for insult: We kill people who insult us, or kill their whole family in revenge. Simeon and Levi ben Jacob murdered an entire city because its prince raped their sister; Haman wanted to wipe out every Jew in the Persian Empire because a single Jew wouldn’t bow to him. Human nature is to overkill.

The LORD had to legislate the whole eye-for-eye thing, Ex 21.24 which is a significant improvement on what we humans usually do in response. And still Jesus expects better of us.

That’s why “Love your enemies” irritates even the most devout Christians: When people forgive like a woman going back to her abusive boyfriend, our culture immediately figures there’s gotta be something wrong with this woman. She has really low self-esteem, or figures she can’t do any better, or figures she doesn’t deserve better. She must be a masochist who enjoys abuse. Our culture never factors love and forgiveness into the equation. It’s so foreign to the way humans think. Sadly, foreign to the way most Christians think too.

’Cause that’s how the world works. That’s how human nature works. We don’t love enemies. The near-universal response to such an idea is to rescue that woman, whether she wants it or not; and kill (or at least take vengeance upon) that boyfriend.

Love—actual love—doesn’t want revenge. When my dad beat me, either with a belt, a stick, or his fists, I admit there were times I wished I could beat him back. But those revenge fantasies wore off. Love puts thoughts of revenge away. It’s why police, whenever they try to arrest wife-beaters, often find themselves attacked by the beaten wife herself: She doesn’t want vengeance upon her abuser. She loves him.

Do bear in mind I’m in no way excusing abusers. Spouse-beaters, child-beaters, child-molesters, any abusers, need to go to prison for the sake of society. When I find out about such behavior, I never keep it to myself, no matter how much people beg me: I call the police. As one should. There are, and should be, legal consequences for abuse. I have no problem when abusers suffer them. I never want people to go back to their abusers for more. Christians are meant to remove suffering from the world, not look the other way.

But at the same time, forgiveness of one’s enemy is entirely right and Christlike. That’s loving your enemies. Don’t let them hurt you. Do love them.

No, it’s not easy.

The Epicurean Paradox: Why is there evil?

by K.W. Leslie, 07 May

A reader wanted me to tackle the Epicurean Paradox, as it’s called. Yeah, why not.

Epicurus of Athens (341–270BC) was the founder of “the Garden,” a philosophy school. He’s a materialist and empiricist; he believed the gods didn’t involve themselves in human affairs; he believed the purpose of philosophy was to promote peace and tranquility and alleviate suffering. Over the centuries “epicurean” evolved into a synonym for “foodie,” which is weird ’cause Epicurus preferred simple meals. He wrote more than 300 works on all sorts of subjects, but we only have three books and various random quotes.

The Epicurean Paradox is one of those quotes. For all we know Epicurus didn’t even come up with it; it was a popular ancient meme with his name attached, much like the Prayer of St. Francis. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if it predates Epicurus; somebody had to have thought of it before him.

In any event Christian philosopher Lucius Caecilius Firmianus Lactantius (ca. 250–325) quotes the paradox in his book De ira Dei/“On God’s Wrath,” in which he critiqued the non-foodie Epicureans of his day. My translation:

Epicurus said God either wants to eliminate evil and can’t; or can, but doesn’t want to; or neither can nor wants to; or can and wants to. If he wants to and can’t, he’s weak—which fails to describe God. If he can but doesn’t want to, he’s jealous—which is equally alien to God. If he neither can nor wants to, he’s jealous and weak—therefore not God. If he can and wants to, which is the only proper conclusion… God, where are you? Lactantius 13.20-21

It’s obviously not an exact quote, ’cause Lactantius’s comments—“which fails to describe God,” “which is equally alien to God”—wouldn’t be part of the meme. Anyway, the gist of it worked its way down to Scottish philosopher David Hume, who put it this way in his 1779 book Dialogues Concerning Natural Religion—placed in the mouth of his character Philo.

Epicurus’s old questions are yet unanswered. Is he willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil? Hume 10

Clearly Hume never read the source of the Epicurean Paradox, ’cause Lactantius actually does answer the old question. Which I’m now gonna quote from the Ante-Nicene Fathers translation, “A Treatise on the Anger of God Addressed to Donatus,” ’cause I don’t feel like translating the whole of it.

For God is able to do whatever he wishes, and there is no weakness or envy in God. He is able, therefore, to take away evils; but he does not wish to do so, and yet he is not on that account envious. For on this account he does not take them away, because he at the same time gives wisdom, as I have shown; and there is more of goodness and pleasure in wisdom than of annoyance in evils. For wisdom causes us even to know God, and by that knowledge to attain to immortality, which is the chief good. Therefore, unless we first know evil, we shall be unable to know good. But Epicurus did not see this, nor did any other, that if evils are taken away, wisdom is in like manner taken away; and that no traces of virtue remain in man, the nature of which consists in enduring and overcoming the bitterness of evils. And thus, for the sake of a slight gain in the taking away of evils, we should be deprived of a good, which is very great, and true, and peculiar to us. It is plain, therefore, that all things are proposed for the sake of man, as well evils as also goods. Lactantius 13

So for Lactantius, God can but doesn’t want to, not because he’s evil, but because he’s gonna teach us to fight evil alongside him, and that’s good. I like his answer. It’s not my answer, but it’s a darned good one.

But it’s an answer which won’t work at all for people who don’t believe in God, like Hume. Or who don’t think a relationship with God is even possible, like Epicurus. Or don’t even want such a relationship with God, like many pagans. They just want evil and suffering to stop already; they don’t wanna fight it; and they’ll preemptively dismiss any answer to the problem of evil and pain which involves God at all. My answer definitely won’t work for ’em.

Additions to the paradox.

So there’s this meme of the Epicurean Paradox on the internet, in which someone turned it into a flowchart. I don’t care for its design, ’cause I’m a graphic artist and I can definitely make it easier to read and follow. Looks like yea:


A redditor’s version of the Epicurean Paradox. Reddit

Like Hume, the person who created it doesn’t appear to have read the source of the paradox, ’cause it doesn’t end with “God, where are you?” It adds a few more steps.

The Epicurean Paradox part begins with the premise, “Evil Exists,” then asks, “Can God Prevent Evil?”, “Does God know about all the Evil?”, and “Does God want to prevent Evil?” These are not quite Epicurus’s questions; neither in Lactantius nor Hume’s versions. Not sure where the flowchart-maker got ’em. But after asking these three questions, it goes to “Then why is there Evil?” Which isn’t the question we put at the conclusion; it’s the very question we’re tackling. It goes up top!

I studied logic, and of course we learned to make flowcharts. Proper flowcharts reduce questions to binaries: They’re questions which can only be answered with a yes or no, a true or false, or otherwise only two options. (And not false binaries, where there’s actually a third option, but we neglected to include it ’cause we’re either being sloppy… or deceptive.) “Why is there evil?” is far from binary. The flowchart-maker only provides us three options, and there are way more than just the three. And when you have a question with dozens of possible answers, you don’t use a flowchart! You use a brainstorming chart.

Epicurus’s conclusion wasn’t “Why is there evil?” but “God, where are you?” And that’s where the flowchart goes all the way away from Epicurus. Now we get into its maker’s three rejected theories as to why evil exists:

  1. IT’S A TEST. To which the maker objects an all-knowing God shouldn’t have to test anything, since he already knows the answers.
  2. IT’S SATAN’S FAULT. To which the maker objects an almighty God should destroy Satan.
  3. ANY OTHER REASON. To which the maker objects an almighty God should’ve dealt with those reasons too.

And the maker also threw in some arrows so we can just go round in circles with these questions all the live-long day, till frustrated.

Y’know, all these additions to the paradox were actually dealt with by the paradox. Dealt with better and more efficiently.

My answer.

But enough with leaving you hanging, ’cause you probably want to know how I’d answer Epicurus.

And if I were answering Epicurus directly, I’d have to deal with some other things first. Namely that Epicurus was deist: He believed in God (or, being an ancient Greek, gods), but believed they didn’t interact with humanity. Evil exists because God might want to vanquish it, and be able to vanquish it… but he simply doesn’t intervene. He stays out of things and leaves us be. Functionally it’s the same as nontheism.

So the paradox isn’t really a paradox. I mean, it appears to be when you believe God is good, God is mighty, and God intervenes: If that’s so, why isn’t he intervening? But if you don’t believe God intervenes, or if you don’t think there’s any God there to intervene, the “paradox” simply explains the way the world works: God’s not part of the equation, so stop dwelling on it (or, for that matter, religion) and live your life.

To answer Epicurus, first I gotta show him God does so intervene. Otherwise he’s gonna look at my every potential answer as me, sputtering out inadequate arguments because the world clearly doesn’t work like my religion teaches me.

But to answer Christians who wanna know why evil exists in a good God’s universe, here y’go: God wants to eliminate evil, and can. And is.

Our problem, and the skeptics’ problem, is God isn’t eliminating it like we’d eliminate it, were we God. We’d do it faster. We’d smite evildoers harder. We’d be a lot more wrathful, a lot less subtle, a lot less gracious. We wouldn’t bother to try to save every human we possibly can first; we’d figure they weren’t worth saving. Like the dark Christians love to point out, everybody deserves hell, and we’d happily, recklessly throw them all into it so we could get our way. Much like the ancient Romans would indiscriminately crucify everybody till they finally got peace.

In eliminating evil, we’d do all sorts of evil. And because we think we have a handle on God (and we don’t really) we project a lot of our motives and means upon him, and want him to get all wrathful and smitey like we would, and fret when he doesn’t. Doesn’t he care about evil like we do?

Of course he does. But the way he’s chosen to defeat it is through love. And because we humans suck at love, we assume love is too passive for our tastes. We much prefer vengeance.

At the very end of God’s process, evil will be gone. Everything evil did, will be undone. Death will be undone. Tears will be wiped away. All things will become new. Those of us who trust him, know this era is coming. Those of us who don’t, are trying to create it already (and inadequately) through laws and peer pressure… and any other means than love. Or they’ve given up and presume God’s left the building, or isn’t there.

And they’re probably not gonna like my answer either. Oh well.