When Philippians Says “Every Knee Shall Bow” to Jesus, Does This Mean That Everyone Will Be Saved in the End?

Philippians 2 includes some verses that advocates of universalism often quote to argue that every human individual will be saved in the end. Let us take a look at that claim, and see if it stands up under scrutiny. First, here is the passage, Philippians 2:4-11:

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father (ESV).

The highlighted part, in verses 9-11, has phrases that puzzle many readers of the Bible, like “at the name of Jesus every knee should bow,” and “every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

What does that really mean?

Time magazine’s April 25. 2011 cover was inspired by former megachurch pastor Rob Bell’s controversial book Love Wins, with a revisionist look at the classic doctrine of hell, that eventually led to Rob Bell leaving the pastorate.

What is “Christian Universalism?”

Now, before we dive any deeper, it is important to define what is meant by “universalism.” There is a popular form of “universalism,” embraced by those who have only a shallow knowledge about the Bible, which basically argues that there is no such thing as hell. Instead, when any and every human dies they are automatically ushered into the presence of “God,” and warmly received there.

This is essentially a typical “man on the street” view of what life after death looks like. However, this rather generic view of the afterlife is to be distinguished from a specifically “Christian Universalism,” that actually engages the Bible and affirms a doctrine of hell, but that frames the experience of the afterlife in terms that are quite different from what most other Christians believe.

Advocates of “Christian Universalism” make the claim that Philippians 2 teaches that, in the end, every human individual will eventually find salvation in Christ, because this passage teaches that everyone will ultimately make a profession of belief in Jesus. In other words, even those who do not make a profession of faith in Christ in this life will eventually be won over to the Gospel in the next life.

Not all “Christian Universalists” articulate their argument in exactly the same way, but there is a common thread of logic: A “Christian Universalism” perspective argues that the experience of hell, in the afterlife, does not have a purely punitive effect. Rather, hell has a purgative effect, of redeeming the lost sinner, who has refused the Gospel in the earthly realm, only finally to be united with God, once the experience of hell removes their rebellion and hostility towards God. At the risk of oversimplifying the position, a “Christian Universalism” is basically an attempt to treat the medieval doctrine of purgatory as being applicable to all human beings, where God will ultimately sanctify every person, ranging from your kind yet eccentric uncle or aunt, who spouts atheistic sentiments, to the most terrifying persons, like an Adolf Hitler and a Joseph Stalin.

Cautions About Prejudging Any Discussion Regarding Universalism

It is necessary to say a couple of more things, before diving into the Scriptures regarding this passage. First, it must be acknowledged that over the years of the Christian church, outspoken advocates for a “Christian Universalism” have made their case for this particular point of view. Back in the early church, those like Origen, and perhaps(???) Gregory of Nyssa, have promoted some form of universalism. In the 19th century, the famed Scottish fantasy writer George MacDonald wrote in favor of a “Christian Universalism,” while others have made the claim that the great Swiss theologian, Karl Barth, did so, too (albeit in a rather obfuscated way).

In the 21st century, contemporary advocates of universalism have included the author Robin Parry; the somewhat obfuscated perspective offered by former megachurch pastor, Rob Bell, in his 2011 book, Love Wins;, and most recently, an unashamedly forceful case made by Eastern Orthodox theologian, David Bentley Hart. Hart has no qualms in announcing that the traditional doctrine of eternal hell is a cruel “obscenity” that does nothing more than terrorize young children with unfounded trauma.1

In other words, let those who believe in eternal damnation be damned themselves.

While some may find such a view of eternity as attractive, accompanied by a sigh of relief, it must be stated that “Christian Universalism” has been a minority view in the long history of the Christian church.  More often than not, Christians over the centuries have typically viewed such purveyors of “Christian Universalism” with contempt.

Some Christians have believed that all historically orthodox Christians should shun such “Christian Universalism” proponents as being nothing more than pure heretics, that deserve full-on condemnation and the utter rejection of all of their writings and teachings. However, we should be careful not to sanction a blanket dismissal of such persons. Consider just a few of these things:

  • Origen wrote the first Christian systematic theology, in defense of a Christian worldview, in the early church of the 2nd century. After Saint Paul, we owe pretty much the entire intellectual development of a “Christian mind” to the seminal writings of Origen.
  • Gregory of Nyssa championed both the doctrine of the Trinity as well as being one of the first persons to advocate for the elimination of slavery, hundreds of years prior to the Atlantic slave trade of Africans to America.
  • George MacDonald’s fantasy books played a large role in bringing the well-known apologist C.S. Lewis out of atheism to having faith in Christ.
  • Karl Barth has been credited as almost single-handedly recovering the doctrine of the Triune nature of God, for 20th century Christians, back in the day when many Christians were ready to abandon the Trinity.
  • David Bentley Hart, one of the world’s most prominent theologians, has written perhaps the most lucid, extraordinarily witty, and highly acclaimed critiques against the “New Atheists,” Atheist Delusions.

One can respectfully and strongly disagree with someone on a very important point of doctrinal controversy without having to feel the need to completely throw that other person without mercy under a bus. Christian Universalists can still be quite orthodox in other doctrinal matters. Christians can learn even from those who have heretical tendencies, on certain doctrinal matters. Or to put it another way, if you have a Christian friend who believes in universalism, it is okay for you to let your friend be wrong.

Secondly, very few thoughtful Christians relish the idea of the doctrine of hell, and for good reason. The doctrine of hell raises really difficult questions, that even the most devout Christian struggles with from time to time.

The late J.I. Packer put it this way:

“No evangelical, I think, need hesitate to admit that in his heart of hearts he would like universalism to be true. Who can take pleasure in the thought of people being eternally lost? If you want to see folk damned, there is something wrong with you!”

Likewise, I want the universalists to be right. I do not want people, for whom I deeply love and care for, to perish eternally separated from God. Even if universalism was not true, and yet there was still a way for people to somehow have an opportunity, post-mortem, to come to faith in Jesus (as some have argued), I would want that to be true. Better yet, I would want everyone to come to know Jesus, in this lifetime!

But just because I want something to be true, does not make it true. If the Bible teaches something that I have a difficult time accepting or understanding, that still does not give me the liberty to pick and choose what to believe, from the Bible. If the Bible really teaches that not everyone will be saved in the end, a viewpoint which I will argue is indeed found in the Holy Scriptures, then it is incumbent on me to be willing to submit to that teaching, out of obedience to God. If the evidence found within the Bible points towards a particular direction in establishing a doctrinal truth, then I need to hold onto that, and not waiver, even if from my limited point of view, I do not like it.

Sure, there are difficulties, such as the fate of the unevangelized, that every Christian reading the Bible needs to deal with. But one answer to that would be for Christians to be gripped with the urgency of the missionary enterprise, and do everything we can to make disciples of all of the nations. One of the biggest criticisms aimed at the “Christian Universalist” position, is that it undercuts the impetus behind world evangelization.

Alternatively, by taking seriously the Great Commission, we demonstrate obedience towards following the commandments our our Lord Jesus Christ (Matthew 28:16-20). Still, when all is said and done, it is one thing to hope for and pray for God to make a way for someone to come to know Jesus, in a manner that might completely defy our understanding. But it is quite another to dogmatically assert a belief which can not be wholly be reconciled with Scripture (I will have to save any discussion of conditional immortality, or annihilationism, as a possible alternative to the doctrine of conscious eternal torment to a future blog post).2

Thirdly, what makes “Christian Universalism” so attractive to many is that it is perceived as a solution to one particular aspect to the problem of evil. Therefore, one can share empathy with such a concern on an emotional level without giving into a denial of sound doctrine. Here is the objection: For if God so loved world that he gave his Son for us, why would God not also just save the entire world, with every person in it? The doctrine of hell, in this context, comes across as triggering a sense of unfairness, that begs for an answer, for many non-believers and believers alike. In many ways, “Christian Universalism” addresses yet another dimension of any supposed unfairness being imposed on humanity by God. However, this is where Christians need to tread carefully, for what might appear to be unfair from a human perspective many not accurately correspond to what God deems to be unfair. A truly Christian view of God requires us to have the confidence that God is indeed right and good in ways that we as humans do not fully understand.

The bottom line is this: I am called to put my trust in God, and his goodness, and therefore I must accept the judgments of Scripture, and not defiantly question the Scriptures themselves as our authority. I may have doubts and struggles, and even honest questions, but I do not have the freedom to outright reject the truth of something taught within the pages of the Sacred Text, if I truly consider myself to be follower of Jesus.

Medieval depiction of purgatory, Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry (credit: Wikipedia). For “Christian Univeralists,” the experience of hell is real, albeit in a disputed sense, but not eternal. Rather, it is the rough equivalent to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Those who do not accept Jesus in this life will eventually be purged of their sins in hell, before becoming ultimately reconciled to God in the next life.

So, What About “Every Knee Shall Bow” and “Every Tongue Confess?”

Now, with those introductory remarks out of the way, we can explore what Philippians 2 is teaching, with more clarity. Contextually speaking, Paul in Philippians 2 is making a case for the incarnation of God, as expressed through Jesus Christ. What is true of God the Father is also true of God the Son. Furthermore, we need to follow Christ’s example, in his humility in becoming human, for our sake, considering others better than ourselves. It is through this humility that Jesus the Son of God is, in turn, lifted up to be given honor and glory, just as the Father is.

What then does this “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” regarding the Lordship of Jesus really mean? Some advocates of the doctrine of hell, in the form of eternal conscious torment, suggest that Philippians 2 is teaching that the sinner, separated from God in hell, will ultimately offer some begrudging acknowledgement in the superiority and/or worshipful-status of Jesus as Lord.

The problem with this interpretation is that in just a few verses later Paul urges his readers at Philippi to “do all things without grumbling or disputing” (verse 14). Yet this would be a strange thing to say, if indeed in a couple of prior verses Paul teaches that this form of acknowledging the Lordship of Jesus would include those who do so under duress, in a begrudging manner. Why would Paul teach this “begrudging” view of Christ’s Lordship, only to flip the application upside down a few verses later to warn against “grumbling or disputing?”

Some reinforce this “begrudging” view by suggesting that those “under the earth,” in verse 10, will included Satan and the powers of evil. But the phrase “under the earth” need not necessarily refer to such evil powers. It could just as easily refer to those who have died, including those who are buried; that is, “under the earth“, who are awaiting resurrection and salvation, upon the Second Coming of Jesus.

Still, a case might be viable for a “Christian Universalism,” at this point, if this “begrudging” view is to be rejected. But is this really what the Apostle Paul had in mind? A better answer would be to consider where this language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” actually came from.

The key is to remember that the mind of the Apostle Paul, as a Jew, was saturated in the world of the Old Testament. The language of “every knee should bow” and “every tongue confess” can be found in Isaiah 45:23:

By myself I have sworn;
    from my mouth has gone out in righteousness
    a word that shall not return:
‘To me every knee shall bow,
    every tongue shall swear allegiance.’ (ESV)

In other words, Paul is forcing the reader to look back at what the prophet Isaiah was talking about, and that this gives us the clue as to what Paul is really after here. When Isaiah was writing this, he was referring to Cyrus the Great, the Persian ruler, who ended the Babylonian Exile, for the Jews in 6th c. BCE, and instructed the Jews to return back to their Promised Land (Isaiah 45:1). The favor that Cyrus extends towards the Jews in Exile is a sign of God’s faithfulness to the Jews, and therefore, the people should bow in reverence and allegiance to the God of Israel.

Interestingly, this passage of Isaiah also makes reference, not just to the restoration of the Jewish homeland, but a calling to the Gentile peoples to repent and come to know and worship the God of Israel (Isaiah 45:20,22 ESV):

“Assemble yourselves and come;
    draw near together,
    you survivors of the nations!
They have no knowledge
    who carry about their wooden idols,
and keep on praying to a god
    that cannot save….

“Turn to me and be saved,
    all the ends of the earth!
    For I am God, and there is no other.

In other words, the prophet Isaiah is talking about “every knee” and “every tongue,” not the sense of “every individual,” but rather, in terms of “every kind of person.” For Isaiah, this means that God is interested having “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, including all “the nations,” coming to know the God of Israel.

Furthermore, Paul argues throughout nearly all of letters for a view of salvation, that not only includes Jews, but Gentiles as well.  This ties in perfectly with the message of Isaiah, that Paul has brought to mind in Philippians. He specifically brings up the Jewish/Gentile issue in Philippians 3. Therefore, it is more consistent and exegetically responsible to say that the “every knee” and “every tongue” in Philippians 2 is about “every kind of person,” including not just Jews, but Gentiles as well, acknowledging that Jesus as the Son is just as much divine as the Father is.

However, for the sake of the argument, what if the “Christian Universalist” is right, by suggesting that “every knee” and “every tongue,” in this passage, is about “every individual,” as opposed to “every kind of person,” both Jew and Gentile? While this case is not likely, it is important to consider briefly what else Paul might be thinking regarding the permanence of hell.

It is true that the Apostle Paul never talks about hell specifically in any of his letters. But this does not mean that he does not address the topic. In 2 Thessalonians 1:5-10, Paul writes that at his Second Coming, the Lord Jesus will inflict “vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.” Regarding the permanence of this punishment, he goes onto say that “they will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, away from the presence of the Lord,” which indicates a certain finality to the eternal judgment against those who reject the Gospel. It is just really difficult to imagine how anyone can read this passage, while still making a compelling argument for “Christian Universalism,” though some have tried. While Paul admittedly focuses on the message of eternal life for those who do know the Lord, by always urging his readers to believe the Gospel, he never ignores the sad reality of God’s condemnation of the lost.

You really can not get away with trying to make a case for universalism from Philippians 2 without running against a central argument that both Isaiah in the Old Testament, and Paul in the New Testament, are trying to make. When we allow our “wishful thinking” for something to be true to distort our evaluation of the evidence for or against a particular doctrine, we end up creating a situation that creates more problems than it solves. In other words, “Christian Universalism” may sound like a great thing, and some might still hope for it, but you really have to bend over backwards with awkward exegetical somersaults and hermeneutical handstands to try to “make it work” with the Bible. Instead, we should soberly accept that the failure to acknowledge Jesus as Lord in this life has eternal consequences that lead to an ultimate separation from God.

To summarize the points of this post, readers might want to view the following video interviewing Dr. Russell Moore, public theologian at Christianity Today magazine. After that, for a quick summary as to why “Christian Universalism” does not work with the teachings of the Bible, take a few minutes to listen to Old Testament scholar, Dr. Michael Heiser.

 

Notes:

1. David Bentley Hart has raised a lot of eyebrows in recent years. His spat with N.T. Wright over competing New Testament Bible translations (Wright’s review of Hart’s translation, and Hart’s review of Wright’s translation) serves as a reminder that one should never simply depend on just one Bible translation, particular one done by just one scholar. Committee-based translations, like the NIV and ESV, are not perfect, but they have a built-in mechanism that prevents idiosyncratic readings from disturbing the reader, how thought-provoking they might be. Hart’s own Bible translation has come under critical review from a wide variety of sources (a positive review at the PostBarthian blog,  James Parker at The Atlantic with a mixed review,  Eastern Orthodox priest Stephen Young’s incisive review, blogger Alex Joyner’s mixed review, Bob Short’s multipart review at CatholicBibleTalk #1, , #2, #3, #4, #5, #6, and Wesley Hill’s description of Hart’s project as a “glorious failure.”). Ah, but N.T. Wright’s New Testament translation got a good work-over by Robert Gundry.  

2. In Christian circles, there are basically three views regarding the doctrine of hell: (1) the doctrine of conscious eternal torment, the most traditional view, (2) the doctrine of conditional immortality, whereby the wicked are annihilated in hell, once they have fully experienced God’s judgment against them, and (3) Christian Universalism, whereby all people are saved. There has also been a revised interest in purgatory, among some evangelicals, in recent years. Obviously, this relatively short blog post is not the place to advance any sustained argument regarding any particular view of hell. Rather, my aim here is to address one particular objection raised by “Christian Universalists” regarding one particular Bible passage, by examining the larger Scriptural context for that one Bible passage.  


Best (and Bittersweet) Wrapup of 2021 … Books and More

At the end of each year, I like to take some time looking back over some of best things I have learned, mainly from books (and podcasts), with a wrap-up of some of the biggest stories hitting the Christian world. But before I do that, I would like to report on the most bittersweet moment this past year.

It was the loss of our Italian greyhound, Digby. He was a rescue dog that we adopted, near the time when I learned that my mother was dying of cancer, back starting in 2014. He had been pulled out of a burning house, engulfed by a fire, and he needed a home. Friends who were traveling through Indiana picked him up for us, that we might give him a “forever home”. This sweet little guy gave my wife and I much joy for seven years.

He was in many ways a much better dog than Dooty, another Italian greyhound, whom we lost in 2013. In September, 2020, our newest “family member” was sadly diagnosed with chronic kidney failure. Dogs typically do not recover from this disease, but with certain types of medical treatment, they can live months, or even years after the initial diagnosis, with a good quality of life. Fourteen months later, though, in early November, it became apparent that the condition of this Italian greyhound was rapidly deteriorating. What made his death so much the more difficult was his genuinely sweet disposition to the very end. I marvel at the glory of God that was on full display by this creature.

We will miss this little guy. Hopefully, we will meet someone just like Digby in the New Heavens and New Earth (The first two following pics were from late 2020. The third was from September, 2021. The last one was from November, 2021).

 

 

 

 

 

 


Speaking of bittersweet, here is a remarkable story of forgiveness, displaying the power of the Gospel.  A Christian friend of mine, Debbie Smith, was sexually attacked in 1989, when a man entered her home and dragged her into the woods. He was eventually caught and convicted, after DNA evidence provided a positive match for the suspect. Earlier this year, Debbie spent five hours visiting this man, still in prison, where she told him that she had forgiven him.

 


 

Here is my wrap-up for 2021….

This will really show my age here, but just few weeks ago I learned that Michael Nesmith, the lead guitar player and primary songwriter for the 1960’s television pop-group, the Monkees, died at age 78. As a kid, I watched re-runs of that show, and I was drawn to Nesmith’s character, always wearing a wool hat, and who came across as the most pensive member of the band…. Just one little interesting factoid about Nesmith I recently learned: His mother invented Liquid Paper, the typewriter correction fluid, in 1954, as a divorced single mother, trying to raise her son Michael ….  Here is one of Nesmith’s musical creations, that he introduces in this silly video for the television show, “You Just May Be The One.” Mickey Dolenz, the drummer, is the only surviving member of the band:

—————————————————————————–

Onto some things of a more serious nature….

On the bright side, in the midst of disaster, it is really encouraging to see how Christians are working together to help the folks impacted by tornadoes in Kentucky, back in early December…. My wife and I visited family over this Christmas near where the worst tornado, which reached up to EF-4 strength, devastated the towns of Dawson Springs and Mayfield, Kentucky. You could see the damaged inflicted along the path the tornado took crossing Interstate 69 in several places. It made me appreciate the power of nature to inflict terrible damage, and impact many lives, as we could see debris for miles scattered over rural Kentucky…..

On the more problematic side of the church…..

One of the most significant developments that I have been seeing in the American church is the development of what might best be called “progressive Christianity,” as a contrast to “historically orthodox Christianity.” A generation or so ago, this distinction was primarily seen as the difference between “mainline Protestant Christianity” and “evangelicalism.” But with the looming collapse of the Protestant mainline, and the emergence of other churches that do not fit the older Protestant mainline mold, the category of “progressive Christianity” seems like a much more appropriate designation. Unlike in previous generations, when so-called “liberal Christians” went to “mainline churches” (with a few conservatives mixed in, here and there), and “conservative Christians” went to “conservative evangelical” churches, many churches today are a blended mix of everything, that defies easy boundary markers.

As some have said, this blending is an invitation to shallowness…..

We are now living in an age where the specific boundary between “progressive Christianity” and “historically orthodox Christianity” (certainly of the Protestant sort) can become slippery and elusive. On the one side, some doctrinal controversies can cause unnecessary division, and harm the unity of Christ’s body. Yet at the same time, the category of “disputable matters” can also become so broadly and loosely defined that the concept of knowable, absolute Christian truth becomes a meaningless enterprise. Some differences in belief and practice are simply stark and distinctive, and difficult to ignore. The following video dialogue between Sean McDowell (historically orthodox Christian) and Colby Martin (progressive Christian) provides an informative illustration as to what this chasm in the church looks like:


 

Speaking of controversy 😦   …..  When COVID started to emerge in the U.S., a little under two years ago, I first thought that this crisis might be the spark that would lead to a spiritual revival. Having people crammed up in their homes for weeks on end might encourage a massive wave of interest in spiritual things. But such was not the case. In fact, things have pretty much devolved into an unparalleled amount division in the culture… and 2021 was pretty much the wearisome ballooning of the same craziness that engulfed people in 2020!!

So much of this spirit of division is driven by the flood of post-modernism throughout the Western world. The shady world of fake news and deepfake technology has not helped matters, that is for sure (listen to this Holy Post podcast, if you are unsure what “fake news” and “deepfake technology” is)….. and our American educational system has pretty much robbed a whole generation of a vibrant appreciation of history, a situation that we have managed to export to places outside of the U.S., like the U.K, according to historian and The Rest is History podcaster, Dominic Sandbrook.

This state of affairs is pretty depressing, but there are signs of change in the air. Positive change. Even a gay atheist, like the venerable British historian, David Starkey, who last year ran afoul of the U.K.’s extreme “social justice warrior” movement and virtue-signaling “woke” crowd, laments our culture’s failure to pursue truth. What if every Christian possessed this type of desire to pursue truth?

 

Sadly, this depressing state of affairs permeates the church as well. Consider the case of Eric Metaxas. A few years ago, despite some earlier misgivings about some of his writings, I imagined that Eric was becoming the type of evangelical public intellectual who could soundly speak for the conservative evangelical movement as a whole. After reading his book on Dietrich Bonhoeffer, I was pretty excited about Eric Metaxas’ prospects as a popular-style, evangelical public intellectual. I was very hopeful about Eric, and here on Veracity I have linked to perhaps a good half dozen episodes of his talk show from YouTube (which have all since mysteriously vanished)…

…. and then 2020 came. …  Eric appeared to go off the deep end, uncritically embracing various conspiracy theories (as it would appear). WORLD News Group did an interview with Eric Metaxas in November, 2021, primarily regarding a new book authored by Metaxas, but also to ask the question that keeps popping up in my mind, “Whatever happened to Eric Metaxas?Give it a listen and make up your own mind.

Speaking of WORLD News Group, that sponsors the daily news podcast, The World and Everything In It, that my wife enjoys listening to daily, a shakeup there has everyone scratching their heads. WORLD has historically been on the more conservative side of conservative evangelicalism, under the editorial leadership of Marvin Olasky. I have had issues with some of WORLD’s reporting over the years, but I have also been grateful for WORLD taking controversial stands, in exposing various scandals inside the evangelical world, and Marvin Olasky was largely responsible for that type of journalism. Now, however, Olasky has announced his resignation from WORLD magazine, since a decision at WORLD was made to take editorial control of the magazine away from Olasky.

Olasky has his concerns about the future of Christian journalism: “The trend in journalism these days is to emphasize opinion, not reporting. Reporting is costly; opining is relatively cheap. It can lead to more ‘reader engagement’ in terms of clicks, likes, shares—and subscriptions. Challenging readers or donors can be costly: Supporting proclivities and prejudices is better at cementing loyalty. These days it makes a certain kind of economic and political sense to abandon Biblical objectivity and become known as a liberal or conservative organ.” For someone who is such a resolute conservative evangelical to make such a statement does not bode well for the state of the church.

I am continually being challenged to learn How to Have Impossible Conversations in a digital world where the social media algorithms steer us all into ideological corners, on both the right and the left, and thus facilitating outrage fatigue. Thoughtful, intelligent nonbelievers employ such conservational strategies, to avoid nonsense, but Christians would do well to do the same. Probably the best summary of this problem, from a pastor’s point of view, comes from this interview of pastor Matt Chandler by theologian Preston Sprinkle:

To get a feel for how difficult the situation is, just recently in December, 2021, the Pew Research Forum released an updated report chronicling the rise of the “Nones,” those who say that they no longer have a religious affiliation.  In 2007, the survey indicated that the “Nones” made up 16% of the American population, rising to 26% by 2019.  Now, just a few years later, we are at 29% for the “Nones.” That is almost 1 out of 3 Americans (about 3 out of 10, to be more exact), whereas this was just at 1 out of 6 Americans (about 3 out of 20), a little more than a decade ago.

On the whole, American Christianity does not seem to know what to do about this situation….


 

Now onto better things….

Before I hit the book review summaries, I like to put another plug in before the end of 2021 for the Cambridge House at the College of William & Mary. I am super-excited about what is going on there!!.This is a great effort to try to put a dent into the growing “Nones” trend, on just one local college campus, here in the United States.

Now, this is perhaps the most exhilarating story of the year… just in time for Christmas. The group of conservative Anabaptist missionaries that were held captive by gang members in Haiti for weeks made a daring escape away from their captors. Wow!! (One of the captive missionaries gives a one-hour testimony of his experience).

 


 

Some Book Reviews…..

If there is one thing I appreciate about bike commuting is the ability to listen to audiobooks (and podcasts) while I ride. Not only am I trying to get my body in shape, I am working on getting my mind (and hopefully, my heart) in shape as well. As we are s-l-o-w-l-y emerging out of the COVID pandemic, I have been able to sneak in some great listens during 2021.

First, let me say that I am trying to stay off the 24-hour news cycle, that I believe has been a detriment to the spiritual health of millions of people. We live in an age where evidence-based reasoning takes a backseat to whoever successfully can take advantage of the attention-getting algorithms propagated by social media networks like Facebook. I am thankful for a site like Ground News that takes the current headlines, and simply summarizes the stories, and organizes the reporting media based on an organization’s ideological bias. Another site, AllSides.com, does pretty much the same thing. Websites like these help to quickly cut through all of the garbage.

I want to next list off a few of my favorite podcasts. When it comes to Bible study, nothing else beats Dr. Michael Heiser’s Naked Bible Podcast. This is some of the best Bible teaching out there today, a combination of verse-by-verse exposition, apologetics, and an appreciation of current biblical scholarship, all wrapped up into one. If you think studying the Bible might be “boring,” then the Naked Bible Podcast is your antidote.

Preston Sprinkle has a wide variety of fantastic interviews on his Theology in the Raw podcast. Beyond theological topics, focusing on history, I have become a follower of The Rest is History, by British historians Tom Holland and Dominic Sandbrook, which is a lot of fun, as well as being educational. Premier Christian Radio’s C.S. Lewis podcast is a wonderful introduction to the great Oxford Don, Christian apologist, and children’s book author, featuring interviews with scientist/theologian Alister McGrath. Plus, if you have ever wondered what the whole Old Testament Apocrypha was all about, you should try the Bad Books of the Bible podcast, put out by Ancient Faith Radio.

Then there is a whole slew of YouTube channels, such as Sean McDowell’s channel, for great apologetics content; Gavin Ortlund’s Truth Unites, for an evangelical Protestant engagement with Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, and Matt Whitman’s Ten Minute Bible Hour, a Baptist look at the richness of different Christian traditions.

But hands-down, the most provocative podcast I have listened to this year has been Christianity Today’s The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill…. It is eye-opening, intense, soul-searching, spiritually challenging, and controversial, all at the same time…. In the wake of Ravi Zacharias scandals, The Rise and Fall of Mars Hill gave me a lot to think about how Christians have not handled celebrity pastor Christianity that well…..After just finishing listening to the whole series, with my small-letter “c” complementarianism in view, I confess that I am still drawn to the power, penetration, and conviction of Mark Driscoll’s message. But it is quite clear that Pastor Mark’s theological vision got hijacked by a type of control-freakish machismo that ultimately took down Mars Hill Church from the inside.

It would appear that the greatest threat to Christianity lies not in the surrounding culture, but right in the backyard of the church.

Who needs television and the 24-hour news cycle when you’ve got stuff like this to listen to?

But now for the books….

The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, by Carl Trueman. Best book of the year.

  • The Unseen Realm, by Michael Heiser. Trueman’s book only beat this Heiser book, because of the timeliness. But Michael Heiser’s research into the supernatural world of the Bible has completely shifted the way I read the Bible. The Unseen Realm, and its less-academic version, Supernatural, are destined to become classics in Biblical studies, revolutionizing how to approach the Bible as a whole, shaped by the historical context of Second Temple Judaism. I hope to be writing a lot about Dr. Heiser’s work in future blog posts. This has motivated me to dig into the Scriptures, with greater enthusiasm, than anything else I have read in the past 5 or 6 years. In my view, if we are praying for revival in the church, that might explode into a new “Great Awakening” in our culture, I believe it will start by grappling with some of the ideas and thoughts found Dr. Heiser’s books. Review here at Veracity.
  • Embodied, by Preston Sprinkle. This is the “go-to” book I would recommend to understand the crisis of gender identity overtaking the culture today, and its impact on the church, based on solid scientific research and biblical wisdom. However, unlike Trueman’s The Rise and Triumph of the Modern Self, Sprinkle’s Embodied is more focused on how to care for people wrestling with these deeply personal issues, instead dealing with the culture war questions. Embodied was also a very important personal book for me, too. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Two Popes, by Anthony McCarten. A provocative look at the relationship between the current pope, Francis, and the previous pope, Benedict. It is a great movie, too. Review here at Veracity.
  • Welcoming Justice, by Charles Marsh and John Perkins. A short but helpful book that sidesteps around the unhelpful categories of critical race theory and “wokeness” to get at the real story of how the church can effectively combat racism. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Bible With and Without Jesus, by Amy-Jill Levine and Marc Zvi Brettler. Two Jewish scholars help both Christians and Jews understand why both groups read the Bible, and particularly, the New Testament, so differently.  Review here at Veracity.
  • Finding the Right Hills to Die On, by Gavin Ortlund. When theological controversial erupts in your small group or church, Ortlund’s book is great resource to try to frame what is important and unimportant regarding how to navigate theological controversy. I found this book immensely helpful in trying to navigate a theological debate that has been tearing at my home church, for the past couple of years, and its impact on personal relationships. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Making of Biblical Womanhood: How the Subjugation of Women Became Gospel Truth, by Beth Allison Barr. An otherwise brilliant and illuminating study of the history of women in the church, making an important case for affirming the gifts of women in the life of the church, nevertheless comes up short when it comes to offering a cogent, exegetically compelling interpretation of the Bible concerning women in church leadership. To use a manner of speaking going back to J. I. Packer, Beth Allison Barr’s efforts are well-meaning, positively enlightening, challengingly corrective on certain matters… and yet still “wrong-headed” at certain crucial points. Review here at Veracity.
  • Judaism Before Jesus, by Anthony Tomasino. The best book that I have read that gives you an historical introduction to the “Time Between the Testaments,” between the Old and New Testament, otherwise known as the period of “Second Temple Judaism.”  Review here at Veracity.
  • Paul Among the People, by Sarah Ruden. A classicist scholar examines the writings of the Apostle Paul, and surprisingly concludes that Paul is not the “bad guy” that so many skeptics, and even liberal-minded Christians, think he is. Review here at Veracity.
  • Still Time to Care, by Greg Johnson. A history of the “Ex-Gay” movement, with a positive challenge for Christians to return to an ethic of care for those who experience unwanted sexual attractions, as opposed to an ethic of cure. Review here at Veracity.
  • To Think Christianly: A History of the L’Abri, Regent College, and the Christian Study Center Movement, by Charles Cotherman. An insightful history into the concept of a “Christian Study Center,” from Francis Schaeffer, to James Houston, to R.C. Sproul, and even to anticipating the new Cambridge House, near the College of William and Mary. Review here at Veracity.
  • Founding Brothers, by Joseph Ellis. A history of some significant moments in the lives of America’s Founding Fathers, and their relationships with one another. Review here at Veracity.
  • A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones (Axis Parent’s Guide). David C. Cook publishers has been putting a great little series of books, aimed at Christian parents, to help them raise their kids. Each book is short, and can be read in perhaps under an hour. I picked up one these via Kindle, A Parent’s Guide to Smartphones, and the material was brief, but entirely helpful. Other books in the series address topics ranging from “Internet Filtering & Monitoring”, to “Vaping”, to the television show “Stranger Things.” If you know of a parent who is swamped with the pressures of raising children in a digital age, books in this series would be a great gift for them.
  • Urban Legends of the Church History, Urban Legends of the Old Testament, and Urban Legends of the New Testament, respectively by John Adair and Svigel, by David A. Croteau and Gary Yates, and by David A. Croteau. These three books in the “Urban Legends” series, published by B&H Academic, do a great job dispelling a lot of the common “fake news” stories surrounding church history and the Bible. Hopefully, this book series will encourage the death of at least some of these fictions that afflict the church. Review here at Veracity.
  • Unbelievers: An Emotional History of Doubt, by Alec Ryrie. An historical study in how believers wrestle with doubt. For a “second guesser” like myself, Ryrie’s book has been exceedingly helpful on a personal level. Review here at Veracity.
  • The Legacy Standard Bible. As of December, 2021, the finishing touches have just been put on a new Bible translation (more background here), that has a good deal of momentum behind it, in some circles. The New American Standard Bible has been a favorite of many for decades, along with its cousin, The Amplified Bible, as developed by the Lockman Foundation (These translations are fine translations, but I tend to lean more towards the English Standard Version myself). Pastor John MacArthur, and the faculty at The Master’s Seminary, in Southern California, have taken the 1995 edition of the New American Standard Bible, and have modified it in a way that they hope will emphasize a very traditional outlook on English Bible translation. I have not read through the whole Legacy Standard version (available online), but looking at it so far, the LSB is for those who find themselves frustrated with all of the newer Bible translations. YouTuber Timothy Frisch has a helpful video describing the Legacy Standard, in more detail.

Michael Heiser’s Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible.  The Carl Trueman book was more timely, but Heiser’s book will probably have a deeper, longer lasting impact on me.  The second best book of the year I read in 2021.

 

I have already started on Allen Guelzo’s new biography of Robert E. Lee, and the first chapter or so is simply fantastic. I am looking forward to more good listens on my bicycle commutes in 2022!

For other reflections on the year 2021, see my post from the end of the summer.  Ah, now we await a new year, in 2022! Let us pray that God does a work in the hearts of his people for the sake of the Gospel!!

Before I sign off for 2021, why not another fun tribute to the Monkees, this time with Colt Clark and the Quarantine Kids playing “I’m a Believer”…. and to top it all off, here is the Queen of the United Kingdom, Elizabeth II, with her Christmas greeting. She is like the world’s grandmother.


Christian Urban Legends

Were the shepherds at the birth of Christ really despised, social outcasts? This popular story makes for a great Christmas sermon message, namely that lowly, poor shepherds, having the social reputation equivalent to prostitutes, were given the honorary privilege of giving testimony to the birth of the Messiah. Though well intended, it turns out that this is largely an urban legend.

“Adoration of the Shepherds,” by Gerard van Honthorst, 1622. (credit Wikipedia: The Yorck Project: 10.000 Meisterwerke der Malerei. DVD-ROM, 2002. ISBN 3936122202)

Evangelical Bible scholar, David Croteau, the Dean of Columbia Biblical Seminary, and author of Urban Legends of the New Testament, acknowledges that many other scholars over the years have commented on the supposed despised nature of 1st century Jewish shepherds, citing sources like Aristotle and the Babylonian Talmud, for support. However, Croteau points out that Aristotle was not a Jew, and lived several hundreds of years before Christ, and the Babylonian Talmud was not produced until several centuries after Christ. Furthermore, British Bible scholar Ian Paul notes that the Babylonian Talmud’s denigration of shepherds might have been shaped more by an anti-Christian polemic, rather than the actual historical context. In other words, these are not the best expert witnesses as to how shepherds were viewed by 1st century Jews.

As it turns out, Croteau cites the best evidence that counterbalances this legend directly from the New Testament itself. Luke 2:18 tells us that “all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them,” when speaking of the appearance of angels. But the people were not amazed by the supposed fact that these were “lowly” shepherds. Rather, they were amazed by what the shepherds were talking about, that of the birth announcement of the Messiah.

Instead, the Bible holds the profession of shepherding in high respect. For example, Genesis 13 notes that Abraham had much livestock, herds, and flocks of sheep. Also, Exodus 3:1 tells us that Moses was a shepherd, and that before David was king, 1 Samuel 17 tells us that David himself was a shepherd. Jesus himself speaks of being “the good shepherd [laying] down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).

True, shepherds were not wealthy, and belonged to the lower class, and thus represented the poor and humble, but they were hardly the social equivalent to prostitutes. With such an established pedigree, from Abraham to David, to ultimately Jesus, the traditional story of the “despised” Bethlehem shepherds simply does not fit the actual data.

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Did Herod’s Massacre of the Innocents Really Happen?

Merry Christmas, Ye Veracity Readers!

While you are putting the last touches on your Christmas tree, and reading the story of the Nativity to your family, someone is bound to wonder (at least silently, if not out loud), “Do we really know if this ‘Virgin Birth’ story is really true?” …

Anyone familiar with the world of mainstream biblical scholarship will know that the Christmas narratives, which are found only in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, have come under a great deal of scrutiny over the last couple of hundred years. As I have addressed elsewhere, critics will cite “contradictions” between Matthew’s story and Luke’s story, as well as problems trying to sync up the Scriptural narratives with sources outside of the Bible, notably the timing of the census of Quirinius.

The story of Herod the Great’s Massacre of the Innocents, recorded in Matthew 2:16-18, is often singled out as being implausible as well. The main difficulty is that we have no source outside of Matthew describing how Herod ordered the killing of all of the male infants, under the age of 2, in and around the town of Bethlehem. In Matthew’s story, the Gospel highlights in Matthew 2:13-15 that Jesus was able to escape the slaughter when his parents took him to Egypt, for safety.

Massacre of the Innocents, 1610-1611, Toronto. By Peter Paul Rubens – Rubenshuis, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=75942301

A Useful Fiction?

Some have sought to defend and rescue Matthew’s story by suggesting that Matthew was using a type of fictional narrative device, as a means of symbolically associating Jesus with being the “new Moses.” After all, Exodus 1:22 suggests a parallel with Matthew’s story by describing the slaughter of Hebrew infants, while sparing the life of Moses, in the days of Pharoah. The similarities are striking.

The use of fictional narrative devices to communicate truth is not unknown to the Gospels, along with other parts of the Bible. Jesus himself used parables to teach his disciples about the Kingdom of God. Furthermore, the theme of Jesus being the “new Moses” is indeed a big part of Matthew’s Gospel. But the idea of a fictionalized Massacre of the Innocents undoubtedly will strike some as suggesting that Matthew was simply “making up” a historical detail, by riffing on an idea pulled out of the Old Testament.

Mmmmm….. 

We see this same type of criticism about the Bible, more broadly, made particularly by so-called “Jesus Mythicists,” those who believe that Jesus never even existed, suggesting that much of what we read in the Gospels is simply riffing on a whole set of ancient stories of a pagan origin, and not simply depending on stories found in the Old Testament.

New Testament scholar Mike Licona uses the following illustration to show the fallacy of such thinking: ….

…. Most Americans are quite familiar with the story of an airplane, that took off from Massachusetts one morning, that at some point after 9am flew into one of the tallest skyscrapers in the world, in New York City, between the 78th and 80th floors, killing everyone on board.

Of course, you probably know exactly what event this is, right?

Are you sure you know what I am talking about??

Are you really sure?

…..

Here is the answer:

It is about the B-25 that flew into the Empire State Building on July 28, 1945.

Some readers might be surprised here, as what immediately comes to mind is 9/11, when the Boeing 767 flew into the South Tower, of the World Trade Center.

Coincidentally, both airplanes hit their respective buildings at the exact same floors! Both planes took off in the morning from Massachusetts. Both planes had no survivors, following their respective crashes. The parallels are striking, are they not?

Nevertheless, we would never draw from this example the conclusion that 9/11 never happened. But you never know what someone might think, 2,000 years from now, assuming humanity is still on this planet by then. Here is Dr. Licona explaining this:

Herod’s Atrocities Were So Numerous, They Were Hard to Keep Track

So, do we really need to accept Matthew’s story about the slaughter of babies as being purely fictional? A closer look at what is already known about Herod suggests that we need not go down that road. There is plenty of material in Herod’s life to indicate that the Massacre of the Innocents is quite plausible indeed. In other words, the absence of evidence does not necessarily mean the evidence of absence.

Dr. Paul Maier, a retired historian at Western Michigan University, tells us that Herod was a master politician, who sought to placate his Jewish subjects while seeking help from the Romans. After the Romans conquered Judea in 63 BCE, Herod acted as a governor, representing the Roman emperor. Herod rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem, restoring it to a type of glory, reminiscent of King Solomon’s temple. He created the sea port city of Caesarea over a period of twelve years by sinking some ship hulls to create a harbor area. He also built a great palace for himself, theaters, a stadium, and the famous mountain fortress at Masada.

Yet as an ambitious ruler, Herod could be quite paranoid and ruthless. The Jewish historian Josephus tells us that after some attempted poisonings within his family, he put three of his sons to death on suspicion of treason. He put his favorite wife, Mariamne, a Hasmonean Maccabean princess, to death, as well as his mother-in-law. Towards the end of his life, Herod was so rattled by threats to depose him that he even plotted to kill a stadium full of Jewish leaders, a plot that eventually failed. Caesar Augustus remarked that “I would rather be Herod’s pig than his son.”

Part of the suspicion about Matthew’s account of Herod stems from unwarranted traditions that arose within the church, over the years, that lack Scriptural support. A Byzantine liturgy stated that 14,000 infants were killed by Herod at Bethlehem. A Syrian tradition placed the number at 64,000 infants killed. During the medieval period, an attempt was made to link Revelation 14:3 with the massacre, thus inflating the number to 144,000 thousand!

The problem with these large numbers tied to certain Scriptural narratives is that other facts on the ground make such claims unnecessary. In the case of Herod’s massacre, the town of Bethlehem was known to be pretty tiny. Imagine the Bethlehem in the days of Jesus to be the rough equivalent of a rural American town that only has one traffic light in it. You might miss Bethlehem if you were driving through it and blinked! We are talking about an area, with probably less than a 1,000 inhabitants, having a relatively small number of young children. With that in mind, it is quite plausible to consider that perhaps only a dozen or so of Bethlehem’s male infant population were murdered, which would hardly have measured a blip on the notoriously brutal life of Herod, as reported by those like Josephus.

So, it should not come as a surprise to learn that Matthew was the only ancient writer to have recorded this incident from the life of Herod the Great. While some might still have qualms about the historicity of certain events found in the Bible, a strong case can be made, giving us a great deal of confidence that the story of Christmas happened exactly like what we are told within the Sacred Book.

… And with that, I wish you once again, a Merry Christmas!


Where Do “Live Nativity” Scenes Come From?

A typical nativity creche …. replete with Joseph, Mary, the baby Jesus, a shepherd and the “Three Kings of Orient are,” much like the one I grew up with. Historically accurate? Not so much. But it does give us food for thought.

 

Christmas is that time of year when many churches do their best to portray the Christmas story. In the era of COVID, indoor Christmas concerts have become tricky enterprises. But what about an outdoor venue to tell about the story of the Incarnation? What about bringing in live animals, too?!

Ah… Enter in the “live nativity”!

Saint Francis and the “Modern” Nativity

Throughout the history of church, the telling of the Christmas story has been a staple of Christian tradition. But the most well-known version of the “live nativity,” featuring shepherds and magi coming to worship at the feet of Jesus, along with “ox and ass” adoring the baby Jesus, can be traced back to 1223, in Greccio, Italy.

According to St. Bonaventure’s Life of Saint Francis, the famous 13th century evangelist created a manger scene in a cave near this Italian city, with human actors and animals playing various parts to tell the story of Christmas. Pope Honorius authorized the public display, and the popularity of the “live nativity” took off after that.

Yet while kids in particular enjoy nativity scenes today, the art of doing live nativity has some problems… and it is not about how to care for all of those animals! When astute observers read the nativity stories found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke closely, they soon discover that placing the shepherds together with the wise men “from the East,” does not fit the chronology. However, Saint Francis, was primarily concerned about bringing in all of the various elements of the story, in order to tell a simplified, cohesive narrative, to a medieval European audience who were mostly illiterate, as opposed to following a strict chronology.

Nevertheless, this distortion of what is actually found in the New Testament has created fodder for generations of critics to cast a skeptical eye over the live nativity. While significant challenges for harmonizing the stories told by Matthew and Luke do exist, it is still possible to draw together a consistently whole, coherent narrative, albeit more complex than what St. Francis put together.

A close-up of part of Fra Angelico’s fresco, in Florence, showing the ox and ass peering in from behind their stalls, to catch a glimpse of the baby Jesus.

 

Animals Who Worship the Baby Jesus

One of the more interesting aspects of the St. Francis’ nativity scene, is the use of the “ox and ass.” The popular 14th century carol, “Good Christian Men, Rejoice,” has the well-known line, “Ox and ass before Him bow, And He is in the manger now. Christ is born today! Christ is born today.

The problem is that in the Gospels, the mention of “ox and ass” is nowhere to be found. But the theological development of this idea across the centuries is a fascinating topic.

An ox and donkey are mentioned in Isaiah 1:3: “The ox knows its owner, and the donkey its master’s crib, but Israel does not know, my people do not understand.” Christian theologians across the centuries have looked upon this as an appropriate metaphor explaining why so many do not accept the Christmas story, even today. 

However, if you combine Isaiah 1:3 with the Septuagint reading of Habakkuk 3:2, the connection with Christmas becomes more apparent. Most English Bibles today read Habakkuk 3:2 as based on the Masoretic, or ancient Hebrew text of the Old Testament, something like this (from the ESV):

O Lord, I have heard the report of you,
    and your work, O Lord, do I fear.
In the midst of the years revive it;
    in the midst of the years make it known;
    in wrath remember mercy.

First century Jews across the Greek speaking world, along with the earliest Christians, read from the Septuagint, the ancient Greek translation of the Old Testament, where the phrase “in the midst of the years” reads differently as “in the midst of two living creatures,” as in something like Sir Lancelot Charles Lee Brenton’s 1844 English translation of the Septuagint:

….thou shalt be known between the two living creatures, thou shalt be acknowledged when the years draw nigh; thou shalt be manifested when the time is come; when my soul is troubled, thou wilt in wrath remember mercy.

The first mention of connecting the ox and ass to the Christmas story can be then traced back to the Gospel of Pseudo-Matthew, otherwise known as The Infancy Gospel of Matthew, most probably written in the 7th century, as a speculation into some of the otherwise unknown events of Jesus’ life, before he enters his public ministry as an adult:

“And on the third day after the birth of our Lord Jesus Christ, the most blessed Mary went forth out of the cave, and entering a stable, placed the child in the stall, and the ox and the ass adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Isaiah the prophet, saying: The ox knoweth his owner, and the ass his master’s crib.The very animals, therefore, the ox and the ass, having Him in their midst, incessantly adored Him. Then was fulfilled that which was said by Abacuc the prophet, saying: Between two animals thou art made manifest. In the same place Joseph remained with Mary three days.”

Some may object that an historical look back into the origins of today’s popular “live nativity” might ruin certain elements of Christmas for them. But it need not be thought of that way.

Instead, an honest look at where certain Christian traditions come from should do three things:

  1. It serves as a reminder to non-believers that Christians are not so crazy to believe what they believe.
  2. It prompts the believer to dig more into their own Bibles to more adequately ascertain the truth of what Christians say they believe.
  3. It reminds us all that the story of Christmas is ultimately a great mystery to celebrate and enter into, as we consider the theological meaning of God becoming human, and entering our world.

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