John Piper and the Prosperity Gospel

John Piper is one of the more outspoken critics of the so-called prosperity gospel, which is a pejorative term for what I think is a biblical, yet often misconstrued doctrine. In his view, the prosperity gospel is a different gospel, echoing the apostle Paul’s anathemas pronounced upon legalizing heretics. Along with Piper, I agree that ministers of the gospel that are twisting the scriptures for their own profiteering are deserving of serious censure; one need only to turn on certain Christian television shows to see such ridiculous and abominable practices. These are blemishes on the body that discredit the gospel and diminish God’s love and glory. But one should not lump all Christian ministers who teach that God is interested in blessing us materially as heretics.

Prosperity is a theme woven throughout the bible, from the biblical narrative of creation to the coming of the New Jerusalem. The writer of Proverbs unashamedly says that the blessing of the Lord makes one rich and he adds no sorrow with it. (Proverbs 10:22) Moses tells us that God would give his people power to get wealth, but warned them not to forget him when they were experiencing days of heaven upon the earth. (Deut. 8:18-21) The apostle Paul said that he desired that the Corinthians be made rich in every way for all generosity. (2 Cor. 9:8-11) Paul also mentions giving as one of the varieties of gifts in the body of Christ, and clearly one cannot excel in giving if that person has little wealth. (Rom. 12:8) These verses affirm the goodness of God’s creation, which includes material wealth as part of his blessing.

Piper raises a few scriptural arguments as defeaters of the prosperity message, but clearly the Bible cannot denounce prosperity and affirm it at the same time and remain a reliable revelation. So somewhere Piper’s arguments must have gone astray.

He refers to the story of the rich young ruler and Jesus words about the difficulty of those with riches to enter into the kingdom of God. This may be true, but if one is already in the kingdom and gains wealth through exercising godly traits such as diligence, honesty, wisdom and generosity would have any difficulty maintaining their place in the kingdom if their nature and character has already been formed in Jesus. Moreover, what of other rich men in the Bible that God praises for their generosity, hospitality and faith — such as Abraham, David or Joseph of Arimathea? I would also add that I don’t see how given Piper’s Calvinism anything could hinder God from saving whoever he chose for salvation. On Piper’s view, God’s grace is irresistible, so whether one is rich or poor if they are part of the elect, they will be saved regardless. But leaving that aside, the problem was not so much the young man’s riches but his heart. In the young ruler’s case, riches was a hindrance because of the condition of his heart. He valued wealth more than following Jesus. But if one already values loving Christ more than above all else, then for that person riches would be a tool to bless, not an idol to distract.

Piper goes on to quote 1 Timothy 6:9 and says that those who want to be rich are on par with the person who is suicidal or self-abusive, for Paul says to Timothy that those who “will be rich pierce themselves with many sorrows”. But Paul tells Timothy very clearly that the love of money is the root of all evil. There is nothing inherently evil about money itself. Money is an instrument, as a weapon is. There is nothing wrong with guns, it is murderous people with guns that cause problems. Likewise, there is nothing evil about money, it is money in the hands of covetous people that is harmful.

Piper continues by implying that the so-called prosperity gospel will not work in the poorer parts of the earth. But given that financial prosperity is relative from nation to nation or even state to state in America, what is wealth in one place is poverty in other place. So a villager in a third world country who has enough water to share with his neighbors would be considered prosperous. But a person in America who has taken for granted the luxury of running water yet is unable to afford to pay their bills would not really be considered prosperous in the biblical sense of being “all sufficient in all things and able to give into every good work.”

I believe the heart of the issue is that Piper’s view of sovereignty is at odds with the prosperity message simply on the basis that if God wants someone to be rich, they’ll be rich. And if he wants them to be poor, they will be poor. Because on his view God’s will is never thwarted, God cannot possibly want every Christian to be rich, because there are many believers who God has chosen to be poor until the eschaton. But imagine a wealthy billionaire who had two sons. He provided for one son all that he needed, but for the other he refused help no matter how legitimate the other son’s needs were or how much he pleaded for help. And say that before either of the children were born this father purposed in his heart to care for one but withhold from the other. We would not call this father morally praiseworthy, we’d call him capricious and arbitrary at best.

1 Timothy 5:8 says that those who do not care for those in their own household are worse than an infidel. God’s good cannot be our evil; his commands are a reflection of his loving nature. He has revealed himself as our Father. That means he will not only train us and discipline us so that we may have good character but that he will also take care of us.

So I agree with Piper that those who are teaching prosperity in a deceptive and perverted manner are worthy of condemnation, I strongly disagree with him that wealth is evil or cannot be pursued by the godly believer. If such were the case, the person who aspires to be successful Christian entrepreneur like Samuel Truett Cathy (Chick Fil A), Mary Kay Ash (Mary Kay cosmetics) or David Green (Hobby Lobby) is in sin, which is absurd.

We do well to remember that God’s creation is good, it is only our rebellious wills that are evil that turn money into a false god. Poverty is a man’s destruction (Proverbs 10:15) and should be met with resistance, and not acquiesced in as part of God’s mysterious sovereign plan. While we should shun covetousness and the idea that wealth is a sign of godliness, we should not allow the traditions of men to stagnate any person’s God-given desire to prosper financially, assuming their motives are pure.

Butterflies, Daddy! (A Review of Metamorphosis)

Male Monarch Butterfly, Danaus plexippus

Image via Wikipedia

Metamorphosis: The Beauty and Design of Butterflies is Illustra‘s latest offering in a growing collection of documentaries. I am a dad of two boys, ages 4 and 2, and having seen it with me, now they beg me to watch it over and over with them. “Butterflies, daddy!”

I think that is a major testament of how aesthetically pleasing and approachable this movie is among Illustra’s other excellent documentaries.

The cinematography is breathtaking. More than just that, the producers do an excellent job of piling layer upon layer of the complexity and intricacy that goes into the design of the life of a butterfly. The case for design becomes intuitively stronger as the documentary goes on, but the philosophical/theological points aren’t made until the last few minutes of the film. Meanwhile, you learn and see all sort of interesting things about the life of a butterfly. You get to see the architecture of the egg from under a microscope. You get to see an up close of the chubby little caterpillars molt and become larger and larger chomping machines. There is step-by-step computer imagery that takes you inside the transformation that goes inside the chrysalis. Defying the logic of natural selection, you see the caterpillar self-destruct only to rebuild  itself from well… goo. The producers illustrate this by a Model T driving down the road, suddenly unfolding a garage over itself, collapsing, and then out of the rubble emerges a helicopter.

The producers also explore the journey of millions of Monarch butterflies who make the improbable migration from North American to a Mexican mountain range every year. The butterflies have an internal navigation which is sensitive to magnetic fields that guides them where they need to go.This migration is especially odd; most Monarchs live only 2-4 weeks. But during migration time, the Monarch lives up to 9 months to make this journey south for the winter to lay eggs.

As I said, the philosophical argument comes towards the end of the film. The viewer has already seen the complex step-by-step process of the metamorphosis of the butterfly. Each process must go perfectly to make sure for survival, there is no room for the tinkering of the slow, step-by-step process of natural selection. It all has to work perfectly on the first go, or there is no butterfly, if I understand the argument correctly. If this is so, then a purposeful and intelligent mind makes more sense in explaining this process working over the unguided process of neo-Darwinian evolution. This isn’t a quote from the movie, but mathematician Granville Sewell makes basically the same point that Paul Nelson and the other scholars on the film make when he says:

The process of transforming a caterpillar into a butterfly is surely far more complex than anything ever accomplished by man. The information needed to control this process, stored somewhere in the caterpillar’s cells, must be far greater than that stored in any man-made computer program. And explaining how this enormous program arose through many “5 or 6 character” improvements is even more challenging here, because now the intermediate stages are not just useless, they are fatal. Metamorphosis involves the destruction of the caterpillar: the butterfly, with an almost completely new body plan, is constructed from dissolved and recycled tissues and cells of the caterpillar. Now we are not talking about climbing Mount Improbable, we are talking about building a bridge across an enormous chasm, between caterpillar and butterfly.

Until construction of this extremely long and complicated bridge is almost complete, it is a bridge to nowhere. Unless a butterfly (or another organism capable of reproduction) comes out at the end, the chrysalis only serves as a casket for the caterpillar, which cannot reproduce. Now we do not have to simply imagine uses for not-quite-watertight vacuum chamber traps, we have to imagine a selective advantage for committing suicide before you are able to reproduce, and that is a more difficult challenge!

There is also sheer gratuitous beauty of butterflies that seems to defy just blind, natural forces at work. The design and beauty seem to be more at home in a theistic worldview than on a purely naturalistic worldview. Over all, this is probably the video I would start with in introducing anyone to intelligent design. It’s very accessible, visually appealing and you learn a lot about the life of a butterflies from the first two parts of the movie. The inference to intelligent design is made poignantly at the finish, but it’s made without overstatement.  It’s a great blend of art, philosophy and science all rolled into one that people of all ages could appreciate.I have definitely come away with a greater appreciation for the flair and imagination of the Creator from watching this film.

You can view the trailer below:

For more information, go to illustramedia.com

The Test of Tebow

Tim Tebow

Image by Jeffrey Beall via Flickr

Lately there has been quite a stir on the internet about Tim Tebow, the professional football player that so many love to hate. Ever since he’s come into the spotlight a few years ago, I’ve honestly been surprised and made uncomfortable at some of the irrational hatred directed towards Tebow. A few weeks back, George Weigel voiced what I’ve often wondered:

No, Tim Tebow is a target of irrational hatred, not because he’s an iffy quarterback at the NFL level, or a creep personally, or an obnoxious, in-your-face, self-righteous proselytizer. He draws hatred because he is an unabashed Christian, whose calmness and decency in the face of his Christophobic detractors drives them crazy. Tim Tebow, in other words, is a prime example of why Christophobia—a neologism first coined by a world-class comparative constitutional law scholar, J.H.H. Weiler, himself an Orthodox Jew—is a serious cultural problem in these United States.

While I’ve thought this, I never wanted to express it out of fear of looking like a christian with a persecution complex. But hatred for Tebow because of his religious convictions is really out there, it’s not something that we can just dismiss. Take for instance this ugly, hate filled rant by Jeff Pearlman (who has written for Sports Illustrated and ESPN.com).

Tim Tebow scares me, and judging from his father’s website, his upcoming Super Bowl ad and mounting knowledge of his way of life, he should scare you, too. Tim Tebow doesn’t play football merely for the joy of the game. He plays football because he wants to spread the word of Jesus Christ. But not merely spread it. He wants you to accept it and, if you don’t embrace it, he wants you to think again about embracing it. And, if you still don’t embrace it, he wants you to think again. And again. And again. If, in the end, you’re still not sold, you will burn in hell. This is not merely Tim Tebow’s opinion ”but he knows it, in his soul and heart and mind. Christians who accept Jesus will spend an eternity in bliss. Those who don’t are doomed.

Some call this faith.

I call it f***ing insanity.

I know, I know ”everyone has a right to believe what they want … faith is admirable … you’ve gotta respect his feelings. Well, bulls***.

I do not have to respect this sort of damaging craziness, where a group of people go to foreign, oft-Third World nations and convert the so-thought-of “savages” (ie: those who don’t know Christ).

Forgive the expletives and straw men. I suppose I can appreciate Pearlman’s honesty. Don’t misunderstand me, it would be absurd to say that everyone who hates Tebow hates him because he did a pro-life Super Bowl ad with Focus on the Family, or that he said he was going to save himself for marriage, or that he does missionary work and puts scriptures on his eye black.

I’m sure there are a ton of people who dislike him for the same reason they dislike Brett Favre. Call it media-fatigue syndrome. People simply get annoyed of hearing how “he wears his heart on his sleeve” and “he just knows how to win”. As a fan of the St. Louis Cardinals, I can sympathize. The fanbase falls in love with just about every undersized hustling scrub that dons the birds on the bat. (see Eckstein, David) I’ve come to loath the adjectives “scrappy”, “gritty” “little things” and “hustle” when they come out of people’s mouths.  Dealing with fans of those players makes me tired.

But can we just admit that some — like Jeff Pearlman and his merry band of followers for instance — despise Tim Tebow because he is an outspoken evangelical Christian? Or to put it more mildly, can’t we just confess that some fans would dislike Tebow just a bit less if he shared their same worldview? What if he was the same player, but was very outspoken about animal rights, or gay marriage, etc.? Sports tends to bring out our irrationality, but I’ve seen too much mockery, derision and just plain venom spewed in his direction for comfort.

I will grant that I believe that because Tebow is so outspoken about controversial issues does open himself to criticism. I think every person’s worldview is up for debate and should be tested on its logical consistency, correspondence to reality, explanatory scope and power, etc. But far too often this isn’t the case, rather we get the really bizarre and irrational disgust and disdain. Or often I see that “he should just keep his beliefs more private”, but these people are often not private about their own beliefs, like the belief that Christians or pro-lifers should keep their mouth shut.

For Christians, I think Tebow presents us with a challenge and an opportunity to discuss our faith, or the Christian perspective on the abortion issue and premarital sex. In case you haven’t noticed, here in ‘merica a lot of people pay attention to football, and many that don’t at least pretend to around the lunch table. And these people very likely have an opinion about Tebow.

If it comes up, I believe we should come right out and ask why it is that  they don’t like him. If they bring up some of his convictions, ask them what about his convictions they disagree with. Hopefully you’ve done your homework and obeyed 1 Peter 3:15, which says “but in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect”

If you haven’t, well…get with it. There are a ton of places on the internet where Christians can begin to become equipped to make the case for Christianity and handle some of the toughest objections critics can raise. There’s really no excuse for Christians to not be able to offer reasons for their faith. Being the lightening rod that Tebow is, he’s given believers an open door to get into the game in the field of sharing our faith, if you can pardon the terrible pun. I believe that is pretty much what Tebow is going for.


Paul’s Conversion: Evidence for the Truth of Christianity

Conversion of St Paul

Image via Wikipedia

“And here let me pause to say that it is impossible to exaggerate the importance of St. Paul’s conversion as one of the evidences of Christianity. That he should have passed, by one flash of conviction, not only from darkness to light, but from one direction of life to the very opposite, is not only characteristic of the man, but evidential of the power and significance of Christianity. That the same man who, just before, was persecuting Christianity with the most violent hatred, should come all at once to believe in Him whose followers he had been seeking to destroy, and that in this faith he should become a “new creature”—what is this but a victory which Christianity owed to nothing but the spell of its own inherent power? Of all who have been converted to the faith of Christ, there is not one in whose case the Christian principle broke so immediately through everything opposed to it, and asserted so absolutely its triumphant superiority. Henceforth to Paul Christianity was summed up in the one word Christ.

And to what does he testify respecting Jesus? To almost every single primarily important fact respecting His Incarnation, Life, Sufferings, Betrayal, Last Supper, Trial, Crucifixion, Resurrection, Ascension, and Heavenly Exaltation. We complain that nearly two thousand years have passed away, and that the brightness of historical events is apt to fade, and even their very outline to be obliterated, as they sink into the “dark backward and abysm of time.” Well, but are we more keen-sighted, more hostile, more eager to disprove the evidence, than the consummate legalist, the admired rabbi, the commissioner of the Sanhedrin, the leading intellect in the schools—learned as Hillel, patriotic as Judas of Gaulon, burning with zeal for the Law as intense as that of Shammai?

He was not separated from the events, as we are, by centuries of time. He was not liable to be blinded, as we are, by the dazzling glamour of a victorious Christendom. He had mingled daily with men who had watched from Bethlehem to Golgotha the life of the Crucified,—not only with His simple-hearted followers, but with His learned and powerful enemies. He had talked with the priests who had consigned Him to the cross; he had put to death the followers who had wept beside His tomb. He had to face the unutterable horror which, to any orthodox Jew, was involved in the thought of a Messiah who “had hung upon a tree.”

He had heard again and again the proofs which satisfied an Annas and a Gamaliel that Jesus was a deceiver of the people. The events on which the Apostles relied, in proof of His divinity, had taken place in the full blaze of contemporary knowledge. He had not to deal with uncertainties of criticism or assaults on authenticity. He could question, not ancient documents, but living men; he could analyse, not fragmentary records, but existing evidence. He had thousands of means close at hand whereby to test the reality or unreality of the Resurrection in which, unto this time, he had so passionately and contemptuously disbelieved. In accepting this half-crushed and wholly execrated faith he had everything in the world to lose—he had nothing conceivable to gain; and yet, in spite of all—overwhelmed by a conviction which he felt to be irresistible—Saul, the Pharisee, became a witness of the Resurrection, a preacher of the Cross.”

-The life and work of St. Paul, Volume 1, By Frederic William Farrar pp 114-115

Can a Christian vote for a Mormon?

Governor Mitt Romney of MA

Image via Wikipedia

Mitt Romney’s Mormonism has been put into the campaign spotlight once again. Per the NY Daily News:

The Rev. Robert Jeffress of First Baptist Church in Dallas was introducing Perry to conservatives at the Values Voters Summit when he dissed Romney, saying that, as a Mormon, he isn’t really Christian and, thus, isn’t competent to run the country.

“I think Mitt Romney’s a good, moral man, but those of us who are born again followers of Christ should prefer a competent Christian,” Jeffress told the crowd in Tiffin, Iowa.

Romney is a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, also known as Mormons.

“Rick Perry’s a Christian. He’s an evangelical Christian, a follower of Jesus Christ,” Jeffress said. “Mormonism is not Christianity. It has always been considered a cult by the mainstream of Christianity.”

There are a lot of troubling things with this statement by Rev. Jeffress. To start with, the world “cult” is often thrown around loosely in Christian circles. If you define “cult” in the harsher sense as “a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents” then I’m not quite sure Mormonism qualifies. If Jeffress means “a religion regarded as unorthodox or spurious” then I think his criticism hits the mark. Mormons do have some rather weird beliefs that do not mesh with orthodox Christianity, such as the doctrine of divine progression, that God has a physical body and lives on the planet Kolob, etc. However, how this exactly is all relevant to Romney’s candidacy is a bit hard for me to follow. Mormonism might be theologically out to lunch in the sense that its teachings are unorthodox and its claims are based on fables, but it doesn’t follow that all of their beliefs and ethics are therefore untrue.

For example, if I understand the Mormon view of humanity correctly, God the father used to be a man on another planet. The father god progressed into Godhood by living after the laws of the God on that planet. He then came to this world with his wife (a goddess?), and that they had billions of spirit babies in heaven. These children include the entire human and angelic race on earth, from Jesus to Lucifer to me and to you. All of our memories of that pre-existent state in heaven are erased at our birth. Therefore, human life is a sacred gift and elective abortion is grounds for being dismissed from the church.

Now, that is an odd theological view of humankind, but nonetheless it serves as their basis for being pro-life, which I think is a correct ethical belief. Someone else who may have no faith at all might simply believe simply read an embryology textbook and find out that human development begins at fertilization and come to the same conclusion as the Mormon, that abortion is wrong. The point is that people can hold true beliefs that are derivative from that faith but can be defended as true separately of it, and that includes people whose faith we might think is pretty “out there”.

What is important is not how Mr. Romney derives his beliefs, but what his real beliefs actually are and how they are relevant to the presidency. As far as I can tell, Mormons like most theists (and even many non-theists) hold that human life is precious, that morality is objective and binding, that all have certain natural rights etc. One’s theological beliefs should not decide whether one is fit for the presidency, but their qualifications to actually do the job in question. I think that attacking a person’s credentials to be president based on their faith is wrong, and only serves to further the unfortunate stereotype that Christians are illogical bigots.

(In case any of you are wondering, I have no dog in this fight. I am undecided and probably will remain so up until the time of the primaries. I did not vote for Mr. Romney in 2008.)

Is Intuition an Unjustifiable Reason for Faith?

The Thinker

Image by 4johnny5 via Flickr

The writers at LiveScience.com tell us that those who are more intuitive are people who are more likely to have faith in God.

Shenhav and his colleagues investigated that question in a series of studies. In the first, 882 American adults answered online surveys about their belief in God. Next, the participants took a three-question math test with questions such as, “A bat and a ball cost $1.10 in total. The bat costs $1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?”

The intuitive answer to that question is 10 cents, since most people’s first impulse is to knock $1 off the total. But people who use “reflective” reasoning to question their first impulse are more likely to get the correct answer: 5 cents.

Sure enough, people who went with their intuition on the math test were found to be one-and-a-half times more likely to believe in God than those who got all the answers right. The results held even when taking factors such as education and income into account.

The headline of the article reads that “belief in God boils down to a gut feeling”. I think some may read this article and walk away with the feeling that belief in God is therefore unjustified, or even irrational. To use an example, a football coach may decide to “go for it” on 4th and short based on a hunch and have it end up backfiring and costing his team valuable field position, or possibly even the game. The last thing fans want to hear from the coach is that he went with his gut. Intuition isn’t always the best justification for our beliefs.

But when considering the question of God’s existence, the answer is not like taking a math quiz or gambling field position in a football game. Some truths that are known intuitively are perfectly justified. Intuition could be defined as pure, untaught, inferential knowledge. In other words, some things are self-evident. Take for instance moral facts. Moral facts cannot be proven scientifically. You can describe what happens to a woman psychologically or physiologically when she is being raped by a man, but science cannot tell you why one ought not to rape a woman. That is something we infer based upon on our moral intuitions. We just know that some things are just plain wrong. Thomas Aquinas once wrote  “A truth can come into the mind in two ways, namely as known in itself, and as known through another. What is known in itself is like a principle, and is perceived immediately by the mind….It is a firm and easy quality of mind which sees into principles.”

Moreover, if we continue to ask for justification for everything we can possibly know, we fall into an infinite regress. Greg Koukl states that..

If it’s always necessary to give a justification for everything we know, then knowledge would be impossible, because we could never answer an infinite series of questions. It’s clear, though, that we do know some things without having to go through the regress. Therefore, not every bit of knowledge requires justification based on prior steps of reasoning. Eventually you’re going to be pushed back to something foundational, something you seem to have a direct awareness of and for which you need no further evidence.

Furthermore, if God does exist and he wants to be known and he wants us to act a certain way towards him and our fellow-man, one way he can make himself known is through instilling in intuitions so that we respond in such a way he would like. We can then choose to stifle those intuitions, play dumb and demand an unreasonable amount of evidence – or we can choose to respond.

Finally, I would also say that being a more reflective person does not necessarily mean one will end up being an atheist or an agnostic. Quite the contrary. As Francis Bacon famously quipped. “A little philosophy inclineth man’s mind to atheism, but depth in philosophy bringeth men’s minds about to religion.”

When one seriously reflects on things such as what could be the first cause of the universe, or why the universe displays such exquisite design, or what is the basis for moral facts, or how the Christian faith originated, they will find that faith cannot only be grasped intuitively, but also intellectually.