Bible Reading Plans

Dear Aron,

Can I ask, how do you know so much about the Bible? I've seen your comments before and I get the impression that you know a lot about theological history too. I've always been telling myself I should learn more but I don't where to start?

Best regards,

I'll save the Church history stuff for another post, and focus on advice on how to read the Bible here.

As for why I know so much about the Bible, well, I've been interested in theology since my childhood, so that helps.  My Mom was a Sunday school teacher, who talks about the bible all the time, and I also did bible quizzing as a teenager.  I'm a fast reader.  And ah like to think ah'm purty smart two!

But there are many saints who had none of these advantages, and still know the Bible like the back of their own hand.  God promises wisdom to all those who ask him for it, without doubting.  So don't give up!

In order to learn about the Bible, I think the most important thing is to read it frequently.  And, of course, ask the Holy Spirit to teach you how to apply it to your life.  Despite what all the pastors say, I've never been able to force myself to read the Bible every day (except for a few years in high school, doing the lectionary plan (#4 below) with my mother).  Instead I read it in large chunks, and then think about it at other times when I'm walking about or doing other things.  If you don't mind gross metaphors, I guess you could call it "chewing on the cud" like a cow does.  I read it first, and ruminate on meaningful verses later. But that doesn't mean I don't think about it while I'm reading as well; I'm just looking more at the big picture.

Reading theological commentaries on the Bible is also helpful, but it is not as important as actually reading the Bible yourself.  If you want to become very knowledgeable about the Scriptures, the first priority is to actually read the entire Bible.  Then do it again.  That'll put you in a better position to judge whether the theologians are bullshitting you or not.

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long.
Your commands are always with me and make me wiser than my enemies.
I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes.
I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.
I have kept my feet from every evil path so that I might obey your word.
I have not departed from your laws, for you yourself have taught me.
How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth!
I gain understanding from your precepts; therefore I hate every wrong path.
(Psalm 119 מ (mem))

When you're reading, first make sure you understand the basic meaning of the text.  A Bible with footnotes or study notes may be helpful here, as long as you don't let it disrupt your flow when you don't need it.  (And as long as the person writing the notes doesn't have a theological agenda of their own.  The NIV Study Bible notes are evangelical but otherwise pretty neutral.  Avoid the Scofield Reference Bible, which has a complicated "end times" agenda)  Study bibles also tend to have maps, charts, and introductions to the individual books, which may (or may not) be helpful.  If you get stuck, you can also start looking at alternate translations or commentaries.

If you get confused, feel free to slow down a bit and process more carefully.  You don't necessarily need to understand everything, but if you're reading St. Paul's letter to the Romans, or something else complicated, you might need to work through the ideas verse by verse just to make sure you understand the basic ideas being expressed.  If you do feel you understand the basic literal meaning, then start asking yourself why questions instead.  Or ask yourself how it fits into the big context of the whole story of the Bible.  In a good Bible study or Sunday school class, people do this together as a group, with an experienced guide.

I never did all that much verse memorization, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't!

But if I partly remember a passage that seems relevant for what I'm thinking about, I always try to look it up immediately (if I don't remember where it is, using cross-references, Google search, or a concordance).  Same thing if I'm reading part of the Bible and it reminds me of another part.  Some bibles have "cross-references" to specifically tell you which verses are related to which other verses.  Here's a visualization of a collection of 63,779 cross references, by Sts. Chris Harrison and Christoph Römhild:

You can see from this that the Bible functions more like a neural network than like an ordinary book.  When you know it well enough, it becomes like the third hemisphere of your brain, a bundle of connected ideas which you can use to think, not only about itself, but about other things.  It's your job to figure out what are the cross-references with the things in your own life.

Start by picking a translation which you're comfortable with.  This is a matter of taste, since some translations are more literal, and some are easier to read, and you need to pick the compromise which is right for you.  Before you settle on one, check to make sure you like both the way it translates prose (ordinary narration) and poetry (the Psalms and most of the Old Testament prophets).

No translation is perfect, but here are some I can personally vouch for, at a given level of the accuracy/readability tradeoff.  In order from most to least literal:

more literal
Shocken Bible (Jewish, preserves a lot of Hebraic style, currently Genesis–Kings only)
New King James Version (or the original KJV if you're okay with archaic language)

Holman Christian Standard Version
New International Version (I grew up with this; I prefer 1984 to 2011)
(New) Jerusalem Bible (a Catholic version, I've only read the old version)

paraphrase (very readable but not as accurate for serious study)
JB Philips (New Testament only)
New Living Version (this or the Philips are particularly good for Paul's letters)
Contemporary English Version (very easy to read, particularly good for OT history)

(But I don't recommend St. Eugene Peterson's "The Message" unless you are incapable of reading anything not "written up" in bestseller cliches, or have read the bible a million times before and need an electrical shock.  This is in a category of its own, way more nonliteral than any of the other paraphrases.  His introductions to the books are pretty decent though.)

I've already discussed some of the issues that come up with translation choices before, in my post on why "word-for-word" translations are impossible.  If you don't know ancient Greek or Hebrew, the next best way to "check" a translation you aren't sure about, is to consult what the same verse says in other translations.  If there's a difference, you know people don't all agree.

Below are some possible methods for reading through the Bible.  I'm basing some of these recommendations off of these suggestions of St. Tim Isbell, the pastor of the church I grew up in.

1) Straight Through

You could just read through all the books in the order they appear in the Table of Contents.  But I don't actually recommend it.  First of all, within each Testament, the books are sorted by genre, not always chronologically.   There's nothing theologically special about that order, in fact the Old Testament books appear in a different order in Jewish bibles.  In the usual Christian order, the Old Testament is sorted into Torah, History, Wisdom, and Prophecy, while the New Testament has a similar order: Gospels, Acts, Letters, and Revelation.

There's nothing wrong with reading cover-to-cover if you want to, but there are several disadvantages:

  • One is that you won't get to the New Testament until you're 3/4 of the way throughwhich means if you give up early, you won't get to it at all!
  • Another potential problem is that it tends to group similar books together, so you may get bogged down, and it won't be as interesting as if you mix things up from different parts of the Bible.  It's kind of like eating only meat on Monday, vegetables on Tuesday, fruit on Wednesday, carbs on Thursday, and desert on Friday.  It's better to mix things up a bit.
  • Also, some books of the bible have identical or nearly identical passages.  For example, the book of Chronicles includes a bunch of summaries of earlier books of the bible, and has chapters which are identical to chapters in Samuel and Kings.  Similarly, the three synoptic gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) are all based on a common outline of Jesus' life.  Unless you are specifically interested in comparing-and-contrasting the similar passages, it makes more sense to space these books out, rather than reading them right next to each other.
  • Although Genesis and Exodus are mostly pretty interesting, a lot of people get bogged down in Leviticus because of all the weird laws about sacrifices and what to do about leprosy.  Personally I find that stuff fascinating, but you might think it's tedious.  This leads to a general rule: if you get bored with anything, go ahead and skim it on your first pass.  You can always come back to it again later.  Yes, reading the whole Bible is good, but if you aren't looking forward to reading the next chapter, you might end up putting it off 1 Chronicles 1-9 (nine chapters of genealogy) for months.  If you can't do it, better to keep engaged and moving forward.

2) Arbitrary Order

As an alternative to reading cover to cover, you may wish to simply read the books in a random order, according to your whim and/or the guidance of the Holy Spirit.  Once you've finished a book, simply mark it with a bullet point in the Table of Contents, so you know which ones are left to read.  Then you can try to use up each category of book at about the same time.  And you'll still get the same feeling of accomplishment when you've read it all!

3) Storyline Plan

For a first pass through the Bible, you may wish to just focus on the Storyline, the books which contain the main narrative of the Bible.

St. Tim writes that:

If you've never read the whole Bible story, or if your grasp of Bible stories is all jumbled, then start with this plan. It is valuable to grasp an overview of the whole Bible – and you can do this reading only the most action-packed 30% of the Bible. The other 70% contains alternative views of the same history, side commentaries written by prophets, and poetry. Reading this 30% of the Bible takes about 30 hours. If you read it like you’d read a novel, in 20 minutes a day you’ll grasp the whole Bible story in just 3 months!

For this you just need to read the following list of books in order:

New Testament:
Any of Matthew, Mark or Luke (your choice).

Old Testament:
Leviticus chapter 10
Numbers 9-27
Deuteronomy 27-34
1-2 Samuel
1-2 Kings
Daniel 1-6

When you've finished, put a bullet point by each of the books you've completed.  Congratulations, you're now about 1/3 of the way done with the Bible!  When you start reading the other books, you can start by looking at a timeline to remind yourself when they were written, to put them into context.

4) Augmented Lectionary Plan

In this section I will describe my mother's plan for reading through the entire Bible while simultaneously following the "lectionary readings" associated with each Sunday.

First let me explain what the lectionary is.  It's a rule for deciding which Scriptures to read on a given Sunday.  A bunch of liturgical churches in North America, including the Episcopalians, Lutherans, United Methodists, Catholics, etc. have all agreed to use the same cycle of readings, the Revised Common Lectionary (RCL), in their public scripture readings every Sunday.

The readings follow the six seasons of the traditional Christian calender, each of which reflects on a particular part of Christ's life:

Advent—anticipating the coming of Christ (including the second coming)
Christmas—the Incarnation
Epiphany—Christ revealed publicly
Lent—his life of discipline and self-sacrifice
(culminating in Holy Week, his last week of life)
Easter—his resurrection and appearances to the disciples
Pentecost (or Ordinary Time)his reign in heaven, and continued work through the Church

So if you think it would be cool to have your Scripture readings match what the time of year, and what a bunch of other Christians are reading, this plan may be for you,

In order to cover as much of the Bible as possible, the Lectionary cycles through 3 years, one focussing on each of the 3 synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, or Luke).  (The Gospel of John is distributed through all 3 years.)  So the cycle approximately repeats every three years, although not exactly due to things like the date of Easter.

Each Sunday has a Gospel and Epistle reading, and usually 2 choices of Old Testament readings, one which goes through the history consecutively, and the other chosen to match thematically with the New Testament reading.  When I use this plan, I like reading them both, and also reading any verses they skipped over.

Unfortunately, even in 3 years the RCL doesn't actually cover the whole Bible, since they tend to focus only on parts suitable for public reading.  Worse still, there seems to be a theological agenda to shield congregations from difficult, violent, or upsetting parts of scripture.  For example, they often excerpt psalms (unless one is reading Psalm 119, where I understand why people might lose patience, the proper unit of a Psalm is the whole Psalm!) and when they do, it is almost always the violent or cursing parts which they remove.   (The most ironic example I know is the reading for Revelation 22:12-14, 16-17, 20-21, which deliberately skips the verse threatening people with Hell.  So of course, they also had to skip the verse saying that if anyone removes anything from the book, they'll be punished with all the plagues in the book.  Who knew that liturgists had the same kind of God-defying kahunas that the Pharaoh of the Exodus had?)

On the other hand, churches that read the Lectionary are still exposed to a significantly more diverse set of Scriptures than the average church that doesn't follow the lectionary.  Unless a church takes special effort to include the whole Bible in their worship, they will normally tend to focus on only a very small subset of the Bible; mostly the nicer parts of the New Testament plus a few very selected and stereotypical pieces of the Old Testament.  (And your pastor is definitely not going to impress me with his extensive knowledge of the minor prophets by preaching on Haggai 1 when he thinks the congregation isn't tithing enough.  I've already heard that sermon several times already.  If you have to preach, try picking a passage you've seldom or never heard preached before.  In some ways it's actually easier to extract the obvious message from a new passage, than to try to say something about the Woman at the Well or the Good Samaritan that nobody's ever said before.)

Sometimes people say, but doesn't having a specific scripture for each Sunday stifle the guidance of the Holy Spirit?  (In that case, why have a private Bible reading plan either?)  My answer: if the Holy Spirit leads you to a particular text, you should definitely listen to that and not do what you were planning to do.  But we need a plan to cover the more normal situation, where there isn't an obvious revelation from God.

Anyway, for those who want to read the entire Bible AND follow the Lectionary, my Mom has created a plan for augmenting the lectionary readings so that you end up read the whole Bible every 3 years.  She does it by mixing in readings during the week which go through various books of the Bible.  Make sure to read the FAQ as well.  The rate is slow enough that if you get off track, you can catch up.  This plan is good for people who are already familiar with the main storyline of the Bible, and want to think about the connections between different parts of the Bible.

The next church year starts, not on Jan 1, but THIS UPCOMING SUNDAY (Nov 29, 2015).  So if you want to start on this plan, that would be an excellent time to start!  But you could jump on board at any time.

5) Chronological Order

You can buy Bibles which purport to put the Scriptures in chronological order.  I've never read through one of these, but it sounds fun.

It raises an interesting question: do you put the books in the order they were written in, or the order the events described in them happened?  (Sometimes these very different, e.g. the Epistles were probably written before the Gospels, but the Gospels describe the life of Jesus which was before when the Epistles were written.  Also, sometimes nobody really knows when a text was written, and people are just guessing.  So caveat emptor.

6) Anything else

Anything else you want to do?  Great!  Whichever plan actually gets you reading more of the Bible, that's the best plan for you!  People are welcome to share their own ideas in the comments.

Another idea: if you're going through the Bible a second time, one way to mix things up is to pick a different translation from your usual choice.  Or, you could try to be on the lookout for a particular broad theme (e.g. Messianic prophecies and other foreshadowings of the New Covenant).  If your chosen theme is narrower (e.g. biblical feasts and fasts) you might focus on the particular parts of the Bible which are relevant for that theme.

Appendix: A Brief Synopsis of the Bible
A while back I wrote this synopsis of the Bible for a Muslim friend, which I reproduce in a revised form here:

The Old Testament books are sorted by genre (The Jews have the same books but sort them into a different order). The first 5 books are called the Torah, the Pentateuch, or the Law of Moses, and are traditionally attributed to Moses. They are a mixture of narrative and laws:

GENESIS — narrative of Creation, the Fall of Adam & Eve, the flood, God choosing the patriarchs Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and Jacob's 12 sons who become the 12 tribes of Israel. One of the 12 is Joseph; his brothers sell him into slavery, but Joseph ends up in charge of all Egypt, and rescues Egypt and his family from famine.
EXODUS — The Israelites are oppressed and enslaved, God chooses Moses (and his brother Aaron) to lead them out of slavery, with many dramatic miracles. Introduces the Jewish Passover, the 10 commandments and other laws, construction of the "tabernacle" or tent in which God met them. The Israelites make an idol of the golden calf; God tells Moses he will kill all of them and start over with him, but Moses intercedes by praying to God, and God forgives them.
LEVITICUS laws concerning priests, sacrifices, clean and unclean animals, and other rituals
NUMBERS The Israelites wander around in the desert, sinning many times. God tells them to invade the Promised Land (Canaan), but they don't believe they can do it, and try to stone Moses. Again Moses has to intercede. God makes the Israelites wander around in the desert for 40 years, so that only the children under 20 can enter the land. The people complain of thirst: God tells Moses to speak to a rock and cause water to come out. Moses is so angry with them, he strikes the rock with his staff instead. For this sin, Moses is not allowed to enter the Promised Land.
DEUTERONOMY Moses delivers more laws as the people are about to enter the Promised Land. Most importantly, to "Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is One", not to make idols, and to "Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and strength". The death of Moses.

The next set of books are the Historical Books which deal with the history of Israel after the death of Moses.  They seem to be partly based on the writings of prophets like Samuel, Nathan, Gad, Ahijah, Iddo, Shemaiah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah, as well as the official court records and other sources.  Within this section, the books are in rough chronological order.

JOSHUA Moses's assistant Joshua leads the conquest of the Promised Land.
JUDGES a period of time before there were any kings. The Israelites repeatedly became idoloters, were invaded by foreigners who oppressed them as a punishment, and then were rescued by heroes (called "judges") chosen by God.
RUTH a romance story between a Moabite woman named Ruth and an Israelite man Boaz, who marry and become ancestors of David.
1 SAMUEL the life of Samuel, a prophet who was the last judge of Israel. The people demand a king "like the other nations". Samuel says that the king will oppress them, and is displeased because God is supposed to be their King. God says to do it anyway, and Samuel anoints Saul as king. However Saul disobeys God & is replaced by David, the shepherd and musician. David serves in Saul's court, and becomes close friends with Saul's son Jonathan, but eventually Saul tries to kill David, who runs away and refuses to harm Saul. Saul sins by consulting a medium, and is rebuked by the ghost of Samuel. Saul is then killed in battle alongside Jonathan, and David becomes King.
2 SAMUEL the reign of David. David serves God with all his heart, and is blessed by God. David decides to build a permanent building for God. The prophet Nathan tells him that instead God will build David's house, that he will never take away his love from David, that David will have a descendent who will reign forever, and that his son will build a Temple for him. Later, David sins by committing adultery with Bathsheba and killing her husband. Nathan rebukes him, David repents, and God forgives him so that he will not die, but as a punishment tells him that "the sword will never depart from your house".
1&2 KINGS The reign of Solomon, a son of David by Bathsheba. God tells Solomon he can ask for anything he wants, and Solomon asks for wisdom. He becomes the wisest person who had ever lived, and builds God's Temple. He becomes rich and famous and has hundreds of wives. However, in his old age, his wives lead him into idolatry and worshiping other gods, and as a result God divides his kingdom so that his descendents have 2 tribes (called "Judah") while the other 10 tribes become a different country (called "Israel"). The book goes on to describe the kings in Judah (some of which followed God) and the kings in Israel (who nearly all didn't). The prophets Elijah and Elisha protest against the wicked king Ahab in Israel. After several more generations, Assyria conquers Israel. Later Babylon captures Judah, and leads the Jews into captivity for 70 years, as prophesied by Jeremiah.
1&2 CHRONICLES another perspective on the same history.
EZRA & NEHEMIAH After the Persians conquered the Babylonians, they allowed the Jews to come back and rebuilt their Temple and city wall. Under the influence of the righteous priest Ezra, the Jews commit to follow only God and to obey the Law of Moses.
ESTHER The Persian King Xerxes takes a Jewish girl as his Queen. She courageously intercedes to prevent a genocide of the Jews plotted by Xerxes wicked advisor Haman.

The next set of books are called "Wisdom Literature" because they include practical perspectives on what life is like:

JOB — a dialogue about a righteous man Job, who is very rich and powerful. God allows Satan to take away everything he owns, to kill his children, and to afflict him with a horrible disease, to see if he will still serve God. Job's 3 friends come and tell him he should repent because he must have sinned. Job argues with them, saying he was righteous and complains bitterly against God, and asks God to vindicate him. At the end, God comes down and, instead of explaining himself, asks Job questions about Nature which he can't answer, and Job cannot reply. Finally, God says that he is angry with Job's friends "because they did not speak rightly about me, as my servant Job has", and requires that Job offer sacrifices for them so that they can be forgiven. God restores Job's wealth to twice what it was before.
PSALMS a book of 150 hymns (songs) for the Temple worship, about half by King David and the rest by other people. Mostly prayers of human beings to or about God.
PROVERBS advice about living a good life, mostly short sayings by Solomon and others.
ECCLESIASTES philosophy attributed to Solomon about how earthly life is meaningless, so you should find contentment wherever you can, while still obeying God.
SONG OF SONGS erotic poetry celebrating love, also attributed to Solomon.

The final set of Old Testament books are called the Prophets (even though obviously prophets were involved in the other books too, these books are usually involve the message of God given to a single, specific prophet):

The "major prophets" (called that only because their books are longer than the others, not because they are necessarily more important) are ISAIAH, JEREMIAH, EZEKIEL, and DANIEL. Of the 12 "minor prophets", the first 9 are HOSEA, JOEL, AMOS, OBADIAH, JONAH, MICAH, NAHUM, HABAKKUK,   These prophesied before or during the Babylonian exile, warning the Israelites that they would be punished for their idolatry. The nations would then be punished for their sins, and finally God would restore Israel under the reign of the Messiah, David's descendent, who will cause all nations to worship the one true God, and will reign forever.  The last 3 minor prophets, HAGGAI, ZECHARIAH, and MALACHI, were sent to encourage the people after they returned from exile, in the Ezra-Nehemiah period. Malachi was the last prophet of the Old Testament, after than there was a silence of no prophets for 400 years, before the New Testament.

[Catholics accept a few additional books in the Old Testament beyond those listed here.  These were written in the Intertestamental Period: after the death of Malachi, but before the birth of John the Baptist.  They are not included in most Protestant or Jewish Bibles.  Among them, the books I've found most interesting are 1-2 Maccabees which provide some useful historical context for this period, and Wisdom and Sirach (a.k.a. Ecclesiasticus) which are additional books of wisdom/proverbs.  The others are Tobit and Judith (fictional historical romances with obvious anachronisms), Baruch (supposedly written by Jeremiah's secretary) and various Additions to the books of Esther and Daniel.  The Orthodox accept a few more.  But I wouldn't worry about any of these until you've read the books that all Christians accept!]

The New Testament:

This begins with the 4 Gospels of MATTHEW, MARK, LUKE, and JOHN which are biographies of Jesus, the descendent of King David. Beginning with the ministry of John the Baptist, and Jesus' Baptism, they go on to describe Jesus' teachings and miracles. Then comes the Passion, in which Jesus entered Jerusalem, was betrayed to the Jewish and Roman leaders, condemned for our sins and crucified. Then he came back to life again, and appeared to his disciples after the Resurrection, commissioning them to preach the gospel to all nations.

St. Luke also wrote a book called ACTS which describes the early Church after Jesus' ascension into heaven, and how the Holy Spirit came to live inside of every person who believes in Jesus as the Messiah. It also tells about the ministries of the apostles St. Peter (Jesus' disciple) and St. Paul (who persecuted Christians until he had a vision of the resurrected Jesus appearing to him). It describes a vision in which Peter saw a sheet come down from heaven, and to kill and eat unclean animals. Peter protested, but the vision was repeated 3 times. The point of the vision was to explain how God was now going to accept non-Jewish people into the church. It is also why Christians do not have dietary restrictions about clean and unclean animals, like Jews and Muslims do.

Then there the letters (called "Epistles") which give practical instructions for living the Christian life, as part of the Church, in light of the salvation that has come to us through Jesus.  There are 13 letters by Paul to different churches or individual Christians (ROMANS, 1-2 CORINTHIANS, GALATIANS, EPHESIANS, PHILIPPIANS, COLOSSIANS, 1-2 THESSALONIANS, 1-2 TIMOTHY, TITUS, PHILEMON), plus HEBREWS, an anonymous letter to Jewish Christians which was traditionally attributed to Paul but most scholars think it was probably written by someone else in his circle.  There's also 1 letter by JAMES (Jesus' brother), 2 by PETER, 3 by JOHN, 1 by JUDE (another brother of Jesus). These letters describe the theology and practice of the apostles, and we regard them as inspired because Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would guide the apostles.

Finally, there is a book called REVELATION which involves prophecies about the end of the world (among other things), attributed to St. John in his old age.

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I'm not feeling particularly depressed at the moment, but it's something my personality tends towards in general, and I was just talking to someone about it by email.  I thought I'd collect some thoughts here.

A lot of people are deceived by what I call the "emotional prosperity gospel", that Christians should expect be happy all the time.  Many of these people would never be deceived for a minute by the financial version of the prosperity gospel—that Christians will become rich.  But both are based on a superficial reading of the Bible which totally ignores the fact that Christ was "a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief".  The prophet Isaiah, speaking of the one who was to come, writes this dialogue between God and our Messiah:

He said to me, “You are my servant,
Israel, in whom I will display my splendor.”
But I said, “I have labored in vain;
I have spent my strength for nothing at all.
Yet what is due me is in the Lord’s hand,
and my reward is with my God.”  (Isaiah 49:3-4)

This is not, of course, the end of the passage.  God's plans do end with joy.  But depression is often found in the middle of things, in the difficulty and orneriness of life.

The emotional prosperity "gospel"—which is really no gospel at all—ignores that the Prophets and Apostles often had emotional poverty as well as financial poverty.  2 Corinthians makes it clear enough that St. Paul was not always happy, even though he found joy in his sorrows.

We live in a fallen world, and our bodies and minds are broken in various ways.  Emotions are physiological, not just spiritual; our bodies affect our minds and vice versa.  So depression is partly a medical issue.  If the chemical balance in our brain is off, it can cause us to feel sad, or withdrawn, or lazy without being able to help it.  This web comic is famous for its accurate depiction of what severe depression can be like:

Because depression is partly a physiological issue, there are physical changes which can be helpful.  Many people find that getting better sleep, exercising more, and/or making dietary changes can help.  I get seasonal depression in the wintertime, and in the evenings, and I have a lightbox which produces bright light, which I occasionally use to feel better.

For severe depression, it can be appropriate to seek medical help, such as drugs or psychotherapy.  (For talk therapy, I would recommend that Christians normally try to find a psychologist who is also a Christian, if reasonably possible.  If you just want someone to prescribe drugs, this might be less relevant.)

This link says more about what to expect if you go to a doctor:

Many people are resistant to doing this because they think if they get help it means they are "crazy".  If there's one thing I've learned in life it's that we're all a little bit crazy; people should realize that mental issues are normal and common, and not look down on themselves for being born a human being.

If someone can't walk because they have a broken leg, we wouldn't just tell them to trust God and snap out of it—we might pray for a miracle, but we should also go to the doctor.  It ought to be the same when the organ that's broken is our brain.  Also, we wouldn't say that a crippled person was "irresponsible" and "immature" for using a physical crutch, if it helps them to function better in their everyday life.  So we shouldn't say this about psychological crutches either.

To be sure, the fruits of the Spirit include joy and peace.  I would question the faith of a supposed Christian who never found any emotional consolation at all in Christ's resurrection.  Despair, a belief that God can't make your life better, that is a sin.  And we need to spend time in the Scriptures learning about God's promises about salvation, prayer, and the redemption of the world.  But there are many moods in Scripture: it contains Lamentations, Eccelesiastes, and the questioning Psalms, alongside the exhortations to rejoice and be glad.  If the Bible had only authorized some kinds of feelings, it would be superficial, unadapted to the world, uninspired.  Fortunately, God gave us something better than this.  Christ was fully human, not just divine.

Emotions come and go.  Depression often dampens all emotions, making it seem difficult to feel anything at all.  It is commonplace that "love", the primary fruit of the Spirit, has to be regarded primarily as an act of the will instead of an emotion.  I would suggest that "joy" and "peace" are the same way, and that it is possible to be sad or depressed and still have an attitude of rejoicing.  And one can't forget that it's the "peace that passes understanding", not the peace that comes from a well-calibrated cocktail of genes and circumstances.

Some Christians have both kinds of peace and are naturally happy and bouncy all the time; that's okay too as long as neither kind of Christian looks down on the other kind for being different from them.  Our emotional "set point" is largely the luck of the draw, it's what we do with it that matters.  Depression can, at times, be a legitimate response to the fallenness of the world.  We are pilgrims on a journey, not yet settlers in our final home.  Sometimes we have no choice but to feel sad.  But we can try to direct our negative emotions towards the things that actually matter in the world.

God can and does rescue many people from depression in this life.  But our faith is not primarily about this life, it is primarily about looking forward to the next, which will last forever.  Remember, St. Paul opined that Christianity just isn't worth it, if it only helps us in this life (1 Cor 15:19).  This is an increasingly unpopular thing to say in an increasingly worldly age.

But paradoxically, looking forward to Heaven makes us better able to deal with Earth.  Earthly sorrows are not as big of a deal, if we know that they are going to come to an end.  If we suffer with Christ, we will also reign with him.

Posted in Ethics, Theology | 10 Comments

God and Time VI: Eternity in Holy Writ

Previously in this series, we looked at what Philosophy, Special Relativity, and General Relativity have to say about the nature of Time.   I argued that a) the idea that only one time exists "at once" is just a perception of creatures like us who live in Time, and in reality all of Time must exist, and b) God must experience Time as it really is, and therefore c) God must be eternal, i.e. outside of time.

Then we began to see what God has revealed in the Bible about the relationship between God and Time.  We discussed whether God can change (I argued no, but this requires considering some scriptures which talk as if God could change as "anthropomorphisms") and whether God knows the future (here I think the overall message of the Bible is really quite clear that he does).

Continuing on, I will ask if there are any Scriptures which directly speak of the relationship between God and Time.  If we want to know about the relationship between God and Time, it seems like a more reliable method to find places where the Bible treats this issue explicitly, rather than trying to deduce in passing from texts which are really about other things.  But are there any such Scriptures?

5. Eternal and Everlasting

It's easy enough to find passages which speak of God being everlasting (existing at every moment of time, having no beginning or end) but this is common ground in this discussion.  For example, the Book of Revelation uses as a title for God the triadic description:

Who is, and who was, and who is to come (Rev 1:4, 1:8, 4:8)

indicating that he exists in the present, the past, and the future.  But someone who thinks that God exists in time could easily interpret this as just meaning that God endures with time.  The question is whether he is also eternal (existing in an timeless present), i.e. whether he transcends our concepts of time altogether.

One could draw an analogy here with God and Space (as suggested by Relativity).  Theologically, we can say that God is "outside" of space, that is, he is not the kind of thing that is located in space at all.  This is a suave, philosophical way of saying things, which is not always the best.  It is more common to say that God is located everywhere in space, i.e. he is omnipresent; and this is equally true so long as we don't fall into the trap of thinking that he fills space in the same way that water fills a glass.  Unlike the glass of water, God does not have distinct "parts" residing in different locations.  Nor can he be said to be "contained" by this universe.  For as Solomon pointed out, even the biggest multiverse cannot contain him.  Rather, he is present at each location of space, in this sense: that every place is related to him by being an object in the divine mind, subject to his power and will.  The creation cannot be considered in isolation from its Creator; every point of spacetime is in his mind.

In the same way, if we speak of God as living "outside of time" in an eternal present, this should not be taken to deny that he is also present at each moment of time.  So if God is eternal, it is also true that he is everlasting.  (This is important to my argument, because otherwise passages like Rev 1:4 might be taken as evidence against God's eternity, and we'd just have a battle of the proof-texts.)

Furthermore, God may be specially present in places that are particularly conducive to the operation of his power and will.  This numinous haunting of particular places and people may seem embarrassing to more rationalistic theologians, as if it limited his omnipresence, but the Bible sees no contradiction between God's general presence everywhere, and his special presence in certain particular places such as the Temple.  Consider this key passage from St. Isaiah:

For thus saith the high and lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose name is Holy; I dwell in the high and holy place, with him also that is of a contrite and humble spirit, to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones.  (Isaiah 57:15, KJV)

This strange phrase "inhabits eternity" might reasonably be taken to suggest that God is outside of time, that he is eternal and not just that he persists with time.  Now, I'm not a Hebrew scholar, but it sure looks to me like Isaiah took a noun that normally means something like "forever", metaphorically turned it into a location, and then said that God lives there.

Once you've turned "forever" into an abstract place where things can be, I think "eternity" is a good translation.  While it may seem surprising that such a fine philosophical distinction would be present in the (normally more earthy) Hebrew scriptures, this passage seems to have found a poetic way to communicate that God is eternal in the strict sense.   Some of the less literal translations like the NIV dynamically translate the phrase as just "lives forever", but the majority of translations seem to agree with the KJV here.

In any case, Isaiah sees no contradiction with telling us that God is also present elsewhere.  He does not just in the heavenly realms which serve as his tabernacle, but (paradoxically) he specially dwells with human beings who are humble and lowly, and who for that very reason are the ideal throne for his grace and love.  In the Hebrew mindset, this is perfectly compatible with the other statements.

Another set of passages which suggests God transcends time is this one:

But do not forget this one thing, dear friends: With the Lord a day is like a thousand years, and a thousand years are like a day,  (2 Peter 3:8)

where the last part of the statement is a quotation from a Psalm by St. Moses:

A thousand years in your sight are like a day that has just gone by, or like a watch in the night.  (Psalm 90:4)

This indicates that God's eternity takes the long view, that to God even a long delay of millennia is not slow (2 Peter 3:9); but behold he comes soon (Rev 22:7 + parallel passages).  Billions of years ago was like yesterday.  Even this unmanageably long blog series goes by as if it were a mere tweet!

In conformity with the New Testament's frequent shift of focus to the small and little things, St. Peter adds the reverse truth, that to God, a short interval of time, even a single picosecond, is itself a whole universe of interest and bustle.  To him it does not slip away, it is not evanescent, rather it continues to endure before his face.  God is not "too big" to appreciate the little things, any more than he is "too little" to comprehend the big things.  (As St. Pascal said, he embraces both Infinities, the infinitely big and the infinitely small.)

Taken together, St. Peter's statement indicates that to God, time does not actually "flow" at any particular rate.  He is not carried away by the timestream as we are, but he sees it all from his eternal perspective.

This brings us to another pair of striking attributes indicating God's eternity.  The Book of Revelation (following Isaiah 44:6) attributes to both the Father and the Son titles like:

I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last,
the Beginning and the End.  (Rev 22:13 + cross references)

What does this mean?  First note that Alpha (Α) is the first letter of the Greek alphabet, while Omega (Ω) is the last letter.  (I looked at the Greek text to see whether the letters were spelled out as words like Αλφα and Ωμέγα.  Somewhat to my surprise, I found that Αλφα is, but Ω isn't!)  So this is as if he said he was "the A and the Z".

Clearly, Α means the same thing as First and Beginning, while Ω means the same thing as Last and End.  Taken together, the titles are highly numinous and encourage us to think of Divinity as the limiting point of all our temporal and causal concepts.  Specifically:

  • When we say that Christ is the Ω, this indicates that he is the Final Cause, that he is the purpose of all things (Col 1:16, Rom 11:36), that he will continue to exist forever in order to bring the whole world into submission to the Father (1 Cor 15:8).  In order to have the last word on creation, he must also outlast everything else.

In this way Jesus is the "the Beginner [ἀρχηγὸν] and Ender [τελειωτὴν] of the faith" (Heb 12:2).  Here end is in the sense of fulfillment, not in the sense of destruction.

But someone might ask, how can he outlast us, given that we human beings are going to live forever in the New Heavens and Earth?  But one might just as well ask how he could be eternal to the past, if there was no Time previous to the Big Bang!  In that case there isn't an infinite duration in the past for him to have existed in.  If we say that existed "before time", isn't it strictly speaking a contradiction to say that there was a moment of time before time began?

If we think God is merely everlasting (existing at every time) then these antinomies are hard to answer.  But if God is eternal, these objections miss the point.  Whether time is finite or infinite (either to the past or to the future), God is both before it begins, and also after it ends.  Now in mathematics, there is no logical contradiction in saying that you have an infinite series (like the natural numbers 0, 1, 2, 3...) and then another element of the series, ω, which is after all of them!  This gives a hint or a metaphorical way to think about God's Ω-ness.

But note that the text says "I am the Alpha and Omega", not "I was the Alpha and will be the Omega.  If God is simultaneously before time and after time, then he must be outside of the time series altogether.  In other words, he is eternal, "I am".

6. An Eternal Sacrifice?

In a previous discussion, St. Dennis Jensen brought up the question (which he attributed to St. Lewis, but I can't recall it anywhere in his corpus, though I do recall this):

Are we to believe that Jesus has and will for the endless ages be enduring the agonies of the Passion?

Speaking from the perspective of Jesus' human nature, which is temporal, the answer is clearly No.  For the Bible says that Christ "suffered once for sins" (1 Peter 3:18 + cross references).  St. Paul says that "since Christ was raised from the dead, he cannot die again; death no longer has mastery over him" (Romans 6:9).

Similarly, the letter to the Hebrews denies that Christ would need to suffer repeatedly in history, saying that:

He did not do this to offer Himself many times, as the high priest enters the sanctuary yearly with the blood of another. Otherwise, He would have had to suffer many times since the foundation of the world. But now He has appeared one time, at the end of the ages, for the removal of sin by the sacrifice of Himself.  And just as it is appointed for people to die once—and after this, judgment— so also the Messiah, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him.  (Heb. 9:25-28)

So we see that Christ's death happened only once, without repetition.  And yet, this striking phrase "from/since the foundation of the world" (ἀπὸ καταβολῆς κόσμου) appears elsewhere in the New Testament, in a way which suggests that Christ's sacrifice has an eternal aspect.  We read in the Book of Revelation:

And all that dwell upon the earth shall worship him [the beast], whose names are not written in the book of life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.  (KJV, Rev. 13:8)

The translators disagree over whether the modifier "from the foundation of the world" attaches to the slaughter of the Lamb, or whether it attaches to the names being written in the Book of Life.   The first reading more naturally corresponds to the order of words in the Greek (although Greek is normally much more flexible about word order than English is.)  The second reading is more parallel to Rev. 17:8 (which incidentally is a potential Calvinist proof text, raising severe difficulties for Open Theism, less so for classic Arminian views which allow God to have foreknowledge of the future.)  In that case, the text would simply be another verse talking about being predestined in Christ, like 2 Tim 1:9-10 (some other examples were in the post on foreknowledge).

Even if "from the foundation of the world" modifies the names being written in the book of life, one could still ask why there are names in this book.  The answer presumably still has to do with the death of Jesus.  If God foresees the Cross and takes it into consideration in advance, then this would also suggest that the Lamb's sacrifice is, in a way, an eternal reality.

Supposing the temporally mind-bending translation to be correct, this would seem to indicate that Christ's death was not only a temporal event (from the perspective of his humanity) but also an eternal event (from the perspective of his divinity).  Christ's death was in some way taken up into, or appropriated by, the divine nature.  For this reason, it makes a difference even to those who lived before 30 AD, indeed it was relevant before the time the world was created.  But this interpretation makes sense only if Christ is eternal, so that he transcends our ordinary notions of time.

Quite apart from how we translate this particular verse, on any Christian view, Christ's sacrifice was eternal in the sense that he died for the sins of those who lived before he was born, as well as those who lived during and after his human life.  But what this implies about God and Time, and how the Atonement works, is a deep question.

To me, it seems like the most natural thing to say is that Christ's sacrifice is retroactive; not limited by time in any way.  This implies that it is an eternal reality.  But, one could also imagine the Atonement more along the analogy of owing money to someone, where it can be acceptable for a debt to remain outstanding for a period of time, so long as it eventually gets paid (cf. Romans 3:25).  So on this point, I think the Scriptures are inconclusive.

7. Eternal self-existence

I admit that many of these passages so far have involved some contestable translations and interpretations.  But I have saved the best for last...

There is a key passage in Scripture which I don't really think can be taken to imply anything but that God is eternal in a sense that transcends our usual notions of temporality.  And it is not a matter of excavating some obscure implication; it comes straight from one of the central verses of the New Testament.  Here it is:

Jesus said to them, "Truly, truly I say to you:
Before Abraham was, I am.  (John 8:58)

The words "I am" are the usual Greek first person pronoun "I" (ἐγὼ) followed by the usual first person existence verb for "am" (εἰμί).  Contrary to certain modern day followers of Arius, the translation "I am" is correctly translated as a present tense in this verse.  However, the use of these words is highly unusual.

One minor point is that Greek verbs already indicate the person and number of the subject of the sentence.  Thus, the verb "εἰμί", by itself, already implies that the speaker is referring to himself.  In fact, it is common in Greek to omit the "ἐγὼ" entirely in most cases; it's optional because the hearer can already deduce from the verb who the subject of the sentence is.  For this reason, the pronoun ἐγὼ is included only when the speaker wishes to emphasize that word in the sentence.  (Likely Jesus' original words were in Aramaic, but I am presuming that St. John is correctly translating the thrust of the original saying.)

Of course, the whole saying is emphasized still further by phrasing it as a double oath or promise: Truly truly, a phrase used many times in the Gospel of John.  This suggests that whatever follows is a matter of the most solemn importance.

The second thing to note is that there is no predicate, express or implied, by the verb "am".  Thus, in this verse, Jesus is not claiming to be any particular thing, e.g. I am the Light of the World, or the Living Bread, or the Good Shepherd.  Instead he is just claiming to exist, to be there.  (There is also no predicate attached to "I am" in the earlier verses 8:24 or 8:28, as well as the later verses 13:19, 18:5-8, but there is is less obvious that no predicate is implied.)

But the really odd thing is that this claim to exist, despite being in the present tense, is also referred to a past moment of time, namely "before Abraham was".  This is not a usual grammatical construction in Greek.  In fact, the grammar doesn't even make sense unless Jesus' divine nature is outside of time!  It is deeply weird to say that something exists in the present, while simultaneously saying that it exists before something in the past.  The present tense must therefore, in this case, indicate that Jesus exists timelessly.

(One could draw a parallel with the odd pronoun usage in Gen 3:22, Psalm 45:7 or Zech 12:10, which also don't make much grammatical sense apart from the doctrine of the Trinity.)

So far, this strongly suggests that Jesus was staking out a claim to divinity.  But there is more.  The fact that "I am" is emphasized so strongly would also make any pious Jewish reader immediately call to mind the fact that "I am" is also an allusion to the Name of God given to Moses at the burning bush.

After God reveals himself by saying "I am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob", Moses still wishes to have more personal information about which god this really is.  It is written:

Moses said to God, “Suppose I go to the Israelites and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’  Then what shall I tell them?”

God said to Moses, “I am who I am.  This is what you are to say to the Israelites: ‘I am has sent me to you.’ ”

God also said to Moses, “Say to the Israelites, ‘YHWH [which sounds like the Hebrew for "I am"] the God of your fathers—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob—has sent me to you.  This is my name forever, the name you shall call me from generation to generation.”  (Exodus 3:13-15)

This is not some obscure passage from the Old Testament, rather it is a central passage of the Torah, the beginning of his revelation to Moses and Israel!

I am given to understand that in the Hebrew, the phrase "I am who I am" is ambiguous, and it could also be understood as a future tense: "I will be who I will be", giving a somewhat more dynamic impression of divine existence.  But the Septuagint translated this as as ἐγὼ εἰμί, and in the Gospel of St. John, Jesus seems to have endorsed the present-tense translation.  (The phrase ἐγὼ εἰμί also appears in  several other Septuagint passages in which God speaks, especially in the long discourse in Isaiah 41-48 in which God speaks of his eternity, and his ability to predict the future.)

Thus we find God claiming to be, not merely the historical deity who revealed himself to Abraham and his descendents, but also the God of the Philosophers, the one who has the property of "self-existence" (i.e. having absolute necessary existence, rather than existence derived from some other source), the one who is the most fundamental being, which underlies all other existence, which does not exist for some other reason outside of itself, but just IS.  But this fundamental existence is also personal—the love which existed before time began—and therefore speaks in the first person: I AM.

In response to some theologians (called "theistic personalists") who claim that Classical Theism is incompatible with the the biblical accounts of a changing, personal God, St. Ed Feser points out that the Bible itself has passages which suggest that God should be conceived of in a more metaphysical way:

For instance, Malachi 3:6 describes God as unchanging.  Exodus 3:14 tells us that God refers to himself as “I AM,” which has sounded to a  lot of interpreters over the centuries like he is indicating that he is Being Itself.  John 14: 6 tells us that Christ is the truth, and John 4:6 tells us that God is love -- as opposed to merely instantiating or having love.  (Why don’t theistic personalists ever say: “How can a person be love?  That’s Greek philosophy speaking, not the great self of the Bible!”  Why don’t they complain: “How can God be truth?  Are we supposed to believe that he is a conjunction of propositions?”

[One could also add to this Deut 6:4, the Shema, which has traditionally been understood by Jews and Christians to imply that God is simple, i.e. not divisible into parts.]

From the metaphysical picture of God as Being Itself found in Exodus 3, one could then argue directly that he must be outside of Time, and therefore Eternal.  Although this would (in my opinion) provide a good argument for God's timelessness, there is no need for somebody who accepts the New Testament to take this round-about philosophical route.  For Jesus made his own view of the matter clear:

Before Abraham was, I am.

In light of this astonishing claim, it is not surprising that the Jews recognized that Jesus was claiming to be YHWH, and immediately "picked up stones to stone him" (John 8:59).   What may pass unnoticed at first, is that this is the clearest expression of God's relationship to Time anywhere in the Bible.  (As St. E. Stanley Jones pointed out somewhere, one way we know it is not idolatrous to worship Jesus, is that whenever we apply our concepts of Jesus to the concept of God, we only find that it makes our idea of God bigger and nobler, not smaller and more constricted.)

And, of course, once we know that Jesus used this phrase ἐγὼ εἰμί as a claim of divinity, it is probably fair to read this meaning back into the other "I am" sayings in John's gospel too.  In fact, there are even "I am" sayings in the Synoptic Gospels, such as when he walks on water (Matt 14:27/Mark 6:5/John 6:20) like God did in Psalm 77:19, and when he confesses his identity at his trial (Mark 14:62/Luke 22:70), which the High Priest at any rate interpreted as blasphemy.   Some less likely (but still possible) candidates for this usage are when he refers to the claims made by false Messiahs (Mark 13:6/Luke 21:8), and when he says ἐγώ εἰμι αὐτός ("I am myself") to indicate that he is not a ghost in Luke 24:39, after the Resurrection.  But I should emphasize that, considered in itself, ἐγὼ εἰμί is a perfectly ordinary Greek phrase that anyone might say; it is only the context which can make it into something more.

To summarize, any responsible interpretation of John 8:58 must deal with both 1) the literal present tense meaning of ἐγὼ εἰμί (which implies timelessness and pre-existence) and 2) the obvious allusion to Exodus 3 (which implies divinity and self-existence).

If Jesus had merely wanted to claim that he pre-existed before Abraham was born, he should have said, "Before Abraham was, I was".  On the other hand, if he wished to claim to be divine, but without endorsing the view that divinity is timeless, he could have dropped the phrase "I am" into a present tense construction (in some way that indicated the reference to Exodus 3).  The tense twisting was unnecessary, except as a claim to exist timelessly.

So all in the space of a couple breaths, he manages to suggest that he is an Eternal Being, that he is YHWH of the burning bush, and that he inspired both the Patriarchs and the Philosophers!  Such staggering blasphemy, if it is not the truth...

Putting all this together, I think the simplest and best way to process this evidence, is to conclude that God is eternal.  In addition to being the traditional view, held by most Christian theologians historically, it is also the one that fits best with modern physics, and also with the overall message of God's Word.

Posted in Theology | 1 Comment

Keys to the Book of Revelation

Longtime reader St. TY asks:

Some commentators, atheists and anti-Christians, go so far as to say (mockingly) the writer of the Book was under the strong influence of some hallucinogenic substance. How should a thoughtful Christian interpret the prophesies in the Book so that it harmonises with the rest of scripture? The moon turning into blood, for example. I'm afraid we might find our "creative interpretation" of no help.


The Book of Revelation is part of a Jewish genre of literature called "apocalyptic literature", which includes the Book of Daniel, parts of Ezekiel and Zechariah, and several works which are not part of the biblical canon, such as 2 Esdras and the Book of Enoch (quoted in Jude 1:14-15).  So the Book of Revelation isn't coming out of the blue.  It's part of a genre which has rules and expectations (one of them being the highly symbolic visions narrated by angelic beings), which would have been understood to some extent by the original audience.

While it's obvious to anyone with an ear for literary style (excepting modern scholars) that the Letters of St. John in the New Testament were written by the same person who wrote the Gospel of St. John, it's less clear that the Apocalypse was written by the same person.

The author does identify himself as "John", and he must have been known to the original recipients.  Like the Gospel, it refers to Jesus as the "Lamb of God" and the "Word of God", and has "I am" sayings, placing Revelation in a characteristically Johannine theological tone.  On the other hand, the Greek style apparently is significantly different, as first pointed out by St. Dinoysius, bishop of Alexandria.  I'm not a Greek expert so I can't referee this dispute, but a bunch of pro and con arguments are discussed here.  Some early Christians claimed that there was a "John the presbyter" who was different from John the Apostle (the traditional author of the book).

Regardless of who wrote it, the Church decided to include it in the canon of Scriptures.  So we seem to be stuck with it.  In order to correctly interpret the Apocalypse of St. John, we need to bear in mind some fundamental principles:

1.  The book tells us at the very beginning that it is "the revelation (unveiling) of Jesus Christ".  So the main point of the book is to reveal who Jesus is (Rev 1:1).  That's the real reason we know that the book is inspired, because through it, the Spirit gives us a picture of the glorified resurrected Jesus, who speaks with the same distinctive voice as the Jesus from the Gospels.  "For the testimony of Jesus is the Spirit of prophecy" (Rev. 19:10).

You will notice this phrase "Lamb of God" keeps popping up.  Attempts to predict the exact chronology of the end times from the symbols often get distracted from what it says about Christ and his Church, missing the point of the book entirely.  It is only through Jesus that the meaning of the present and future can be seen clearly. Only the Lamb is worthy to open the Scroll which contains the meaning of history (Rev. 5).  Only through his Cross can we gain the clarity to understand "what must soon take place" (1:1).

Although the imagery in Revelation is highly violent, one should notice the deep irony in the phrase "Wrath of the Lamb".  Normally a lamb is something meek and inoffensive.  Also notice that the sharp, double-edged sword (first mentioned in 1:16) comes out of Christ's mouth, symbolic of his words, not literal bloodshed.

2. Pretty much every single image contained in the Book of Revelation is taken from elsewhere in the Bible (often by mushing several things together).  You ask how to harmonize the book with the rest of Scripture, but the book basically consists of references to the rest of Scripture!   The 7 Spirits, the 4 Horsemen, the Living Creatures, the 24 divisions of Priests, the 7 Thunders, The 2 Olive Trees, the 12 Tribes, the Moon turning to Blood, the Plagues, the Beasts, the Whore of Babylon, the New Heaven and the New Earth?  All blatant rip-offs from the Old Testament prophets.  I'd turn these into links, but you should really figure it out for yourself.  Read your Bible cover to cover, and you'll find most of these parallels on your own.

(The hardest one here is the Thunders. For this, try counting the number of times "the voice of the Lord" strikes in the lightning storm described in Psalm 29.  Whatever the "voice" is saying is beyond human hearing, but that doesn't mean it doesn't have an impact on the world!)

Once you know what it meant the first time, that will give you clues about what it means in Revelation.

3.  Try reading the book in light of a political satire of what was happening during the 1st century religious persecutions ("Preterism"), and also as a description of the universal experiences of the church through history ("Idealism"), as well as a prediction of what will happen during the end times ("Futurism").  These are usually presented as rival views, but I think a text like this is capable of resonating on more than one level with different events.  None of these ways of reading the text should necessarily be privileged over the others, though some may work better than others for particular passages.  (The 7 churches were real 1st century churches, not eras in church history, and of course the Final Judgement and the New Heaven and the New Earth are still to come.)

Ecological disasters as a result of human sin?  These are, sadly, part of present day reality.  You will notice these plagues are not as severe as those described in the Book of Revelation.  Not yet, anyway.  But beware the time of the Seventh Trumpet, when "the time has come to destroy those who destroy the earth" (Rev. 11:15).

The symbolism is fluid, many-valued.  Ways of reading the book so that it is relevant only at some past time, or some future time, are sterile and implicitly contradict the idea that all Scripture is useful for growth in godliness.

The bogus crackpot methodology is "Historicism", which tries to arrange all the material into an exact chronology of historical events, identifying whatever the current author views as the greatest threat as the to-be-Antichrist.  (E.g. Protestants said it was the Papacy.) Often culminating in an predicted end during (or shortly after) the writer's own lifetime, contradicting Christ's repeated injunctions not to predict the times and dates that the Father has set by his own authority.  This has never worked before, and your system won't work either.

4.  The numbers are symbolic, and shouldn't necessarily be taken literally.

I'd say duh, but there are too many people who, oblivious to the symbolic significance of e.g. periods of 3½ years (based on the persecution described in Daniel), try to interpret all of these as literal time periods.  Maybe after substituting years for days, so they get all excited after they find two important historical events that are exactly 1260 years apart.  Most people don't realize how easy it is to find coincidences like this.  (It's like the birthday paradox; if you have a small number of people in a room, the expected number of pairs who have the same birthday is proportional to the square of the number of people, not the number of people.  It's the same if you have a bunch of dates you want to get to line up in some pattern.)

Similarly, pretty much anyone's name can be shown to be equal to 666 if you try hard enough.  (Although Nero Caeser seems like a pretty plausible guess for the original reference.)  So don't do this.

5. Remember that it's a work of art as well as a prophetic text.  The book is full of songs; it's about worship in the heavenly Temple which is above (which is why Tabernacle imagery keeps coming up).  Christian hymns are full of references to Revelation.  It's good to remember the healthy and wholesome impact which this book has had through the ages, not just the failed crackpot schemes.

There are 7 beatitudes in the Book of Revelation; the first says: "Blessed is he who reads and those who hear the words of the prophecy, and heed the things which are written in it; for the time is near."  Readers often tend to assume that if we can't boil down the book to a bunch of propositions about what God is going to do, then they haven't gotten anything out of the book.  But the mood, the ambiance, the tone, is just as important.  God could have just given St. John a list of doctrines, but that wouldn't have been the same, would it? Notice how the book affects you as a reader, and consider that that may be the point of reading it.


Oh, and was the author on hallucinogenic mushrooms when he received this vision?  That's pure speculation, as far as I'm concerned.  (The claim that Patmos has hallucinogenic mushrooms / plants seems to be frequently repeated on the Internet, but after several minutes of googling I was unable to trace it back to any reliable seeming original source.  Anyone know where this claim originally comes from?)

But let's suppose, for the sake of argument, that St. John had accidentally ingested a mind-altering substance.  This would not necessarily prevent God from using the resulting visions to reveal a true message.  God can use anything to accomplish his purposes.  The brain is a chemical system, and what we do with our bodies affects our spirits.

I once knew somebody who was led towards Christianity as a result of a few hours of religious themed hallucinations after smoking cannabis.  (Fact: pot can, unpredictably, cause effects akin to LSD.  It can also cause permanent neurological changes.  It's a much scarier drug than people make it out to be.)  God may have used that, but that doesn't mean that it's a good idea to trip out on something and hope to have a religious experience.  Being in an altered state of consciousness could make you more open to spiritual influences of all kinds—whether divine, or diabolical, or just weird stuff from your subconscious.

So I don't at all recommend that people take such things into their own hands.  Much safer to approach God in the ways that he has appointed, through the Bible, the Church, prayers and the Sacraments.  If he wants to give you a vision, he can.

Regardless of which St. John wrote the book, he was probably one of the Lord's disciples, as indicated by St. Papias.   This presumably means that he knew Jesus while he was on earth.  After a lifetime of suffering for Christ, and now an old man in exile, God gifted him with a vision of the same Jesus, now glorified, in order to encourage the rest of us to persist through our own suffering.   The vision came because he was tripping on the Spirit.  I don't think any drugs were required.

Posted in Theology | 8 Comments

God and Time V: Foreknowledge from Scripture

Continuing from where we left off from last time...

3. God knows the future

Another set of biblical passages indicate that God knows the future, not just the past or present.  Leaving aside the passages which teach the general doctrine that God knows everything, there are many which explicitly refer to his knowledge of things to come.

The most obvious examples are all the Messianic prophecies which predicted the coming of Jesus, but there are many other examples such as the prediction in the Torah and almost all the pre-exilic prophets that Israel would sin, go into exile, and then be restored.

Sometimes individuals are predicted by name, hundreds of years in advance.  For example, the prediction in 1 Kings 13:2 that Jeroboam's idolatrous altar would be destroyed by King Josiah, hundreds of years later (2 Kings 23:15).  Or the prediction by Isaiah concerning the rule of King Cyrus, the Persion monarch who brought Israel back from exile.  The context of the surrounding passage compares God to idols and false gods, and in many passages describes God's ability to predict the future as a key divine attribute which distinguishes him:

I am God, and there is no other;
I am God, and there is none like me.
I make known the end from the beginning,
from ancient times, what is still to come.   (Isaiah 46:9-10)

Another striking example is Daniel chapter 11, which gives a blow-by-blow account of the diplomatic relationships between the Ptolomies in Egypt and the Selucids in Syria (poor Israel being wedged right in between, geographically), for hundreds of years up to the time of Antiochus IV Epiphanes, the evil king who outlawed Judaism and desecrated the Temple, whose defeat is celebrated by the Jewish festival of Hanukkah.

(These prophecies are so clear, that atheists have no choice but to postulate that these books were actually written after the events in question.  So scholars decide that Daniel wasn't written by Daniel in the 6th century BC, but actually by some anonymous person in the Greek dominated period of the 2nd century.  Even though, oddly, there are no Greek loan words in the book besides the musical instruments.  And the second half of Isaiah was written by somebody else (Deutero-Isaiah) after the return from captivity, notwithstanding the significant literary similiarities between the first and second halves of the book.  And the Torah was patched together by several sources during the Babylonian captivity, and somehow the Jews forced their bitter enemies, the Samaritans, to accept this document as the legitimate Torah.

I can understand why an unbeliever would bite these bullets; what I don't understand is why educated Jews and Christians have a tendency to automatically defer to the results of scholarship, even those based on explictly anti-religious assumptions.  Just because you're not a fundamentalist, doesn't mean you have to unquestioningly swallow everything the other side throws at you!)

In the New Testament, Jesus makes many prophecies about the future.  Humanly speaking, his knowledge of the future was limited in comparison with his Father's unlimited knowledge (Mark 13:32).  Nevertheless, he had sufficient access to the divine foreknowledge, that he predicted the circumstances of his Crucifixion and Resurrection, the destruction of the Temple, that Judas would deny him, and that St. Peter would deny him, among other things.

There are also various statements in which God asserts that he knows somebody in their mother's womb, including perhaps details of their future calling in life.  The most striking is David's statement, in a song on the theme of God's omniscience, who writes that

Before a word is on my tongue
you, Lord, know it completely.  (139:4)

No wait, that may be relevant but I actually meant to quote this one:

Your eyes saw my unformed body;
all the days ordained for me were written in your book
before one of them came to be. 
(Psalm 139:16 NIV; some translations differ)

See also Jeremiah 1:5Isaiah 49:1, and Galatians 1:15.  Oh, and also Romans 9:10-13.

This brings us to the ever-so-slightly controversial topic of predestination.  I'd actually like to sidestep the usual debate about this.  Regardless of whether St. Calvin and his followers' terrible assertions are in fact correct, it is pretty clear that there is a word (προορίζω) in the New Testament which is translated by the English word "predestination".  So all biblical theologies agree that there is such a thing as predestination, which presumably must involve God knowing in advance something about what is going to happen.  Indeed, St. Paul bases God's predestination quite explicitly in his ability to have foreknowledge about what is going to happen:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  (Romans 8:28-30)

And he is not afraid to talk about all those in the Church were predestined by God, chosen in Jesus Christ:

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.  For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us for adoption to sonshipthrough Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will—to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves.  (Ephesians 1:3-5)

Note that the "time" during which this predestination occurs is before creation.  It did not happen in time, but in eternity, which is outside of time.

Once you accept that God knows the future, a lot of the reasoning about how God somehow has to "be in time to be in relationship to us" and be "responsive to our choices" and "learn what we will do" or whatever is undermined.  God was already in relationship to us, knowing all about us and calling us, before the first star began to shine!  I don't see why God would need to "change" in response to our actions, if he already knew in advance what we were going to do.

At the level of practical theology, it is comforting to know that God already knows the future and that he isn't just guessing what he needs to do to accomplish his purposes in our lives.  Also, if God knows the future, then it follows that it is reasonable to pray for a favorable outcome concerning events which took place in the past, since when that event was occuring, God already knew that we would pray.  (Here I am assuming there is no weird time travel paradox where we would pray for X to happen only if X did not occur; if so we may be out of luck!  Also, I don't think it's reasonable to pray for things not to happen that we know did happen.  We are not asking God to change the past like a time traveller, but rather to take into account our present-day preferences back when he first created it.)

4. Supposed counterexamples

Now open theists deny that God has the power to predict the future, at least whenever it involves the free choices of human beings.  This is partly based on a philosophical belief, not derived from the Bible, that God foreknowing the future is inconsistent with free will.  (I think this reasoning involves a logical fallacy, but the important thing for now is that it is not an argument spelled out Scripture.  There are passages which may apprently seem to minimize or deny our free will in the light of God's sovereignty, and there are passages which teach the truth of human free will, but there are none which say that we can be free only if God is ignorant of what we will do.)

Many of the prophecies of the future in part 3 seem to involve events that would normally be considered free choices of human beings, assuming we have free will at all.  And, it is easy to see that any small free-will decision I make, by the "butterfly effect", will eventually have a major (usally accidental) impact on the course of the whole world.  In fact, none of us would exist if our parents and ancestors had made even slightly different free will choices.  Hence, if God cannot predict what people will do, it seems unlikely that he would have any ability to foreknow individual human beings in advance.

Some open theists say that God overrides human free will just in these special cases of prophecy, in order to get the outcome he wants.  Leaving aside the unparsimoniousness of this theory—once we admit that God knows some things in the future, it is much simpler to say that he knows them all—it's extremely ironic that this theory, which is supposed to preserve free will, only works by denying the existence of free will in salvation history whenever the rubber hits the road!

For those of us who are not Calvinists, this would also raise very difficult questions about e.g. Judas' betrayal.  St. John's Gospel tells us that "Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe and who would betray him" (6:64).  He predicted Judas' betrayal in advance, and claims it was forshadowed one thousand years earlier by David in Psalms 41 and 55, presumably based on his own experience of being betrayed by a close friend.  (I take very seriously the ability of Jesus to find typological meanings in the Old Testament Scriptures which are not necessarily clear to the rest of us.)  Since being Judas was worse for him than not being born, this would raise serious questions about God's justice, had Judas not chosen freely to be the kind of person he was.  (Presumably Jesus would not have picked him, if he had not had the potential to become a Holy Apostle!)

Back when I was arguing about open theism with St. Dennis Jensen in this thread, he brought up the scene where God (or rather the "angel of the Lord", but in the Torah this usually refers to a manifestation or vision which speaks directly on behalf of God) says

Now I know that you fear God, because you have not withheld from me your son, your only son.  (Genesis 22:12)

Supposedly, this implies God did not know it before.  That might be a valid Gricean implication if this were the only verse we were working with, but I think it's pretty weak sauce as a counter-argument to the enormous wealth of texts explictly talking about God's foreknowledge of future events.  It seems reasonable to me that the function of the "now" modifier is simply to anchor God's knowledge to the actual event that he knew.   In other words, I read this as saying: As a result of you doing this, I know (and knew, but that is besides the point so I won't mention it) that you are the kind of person who would choose to do this.  God knows that Abraham would sacrifice Isaac because he actually (almost) did.  Had God not tested Abraham, there would have been no fact of the matter about what he would have done.  God knows X because X is true, and "now" is when X occurs, so it is natural to associate God's knowledge with "now" even if in fact it is eternal.

Also, I can't help but notice that the book of Genesis uses quite a lot of anthropomorphisms in general, including when speaking of God's omnisicence.  Remember, this is the same text that says things like

But the Lord came down to see the city and the tower the people were building.  (11:5)


“The outcry against Sodom and Gomorrah is so great and their sin so grievous that I will go down and see if what they have done is as bad as the outcry that has reached me.  If not, I will know.”  (18:20-21)

What these passages lack in theological sophistication, they more than make up for in vividness of language.  Indeed, they may be taken to teach an important truth, that God's knowledge is not passive observation-from-afar, but rather a living and active presence, keen to work justice and mercy in the earth.  But since open theists still believe that God fully knows the present, it seems that they too will have to take these passages nonliterally, just as much as the classical theist.  So why can't 22:12 be the same way?

In the Divine Foreknowledge: Four Views book, the Openness guy (St. Gregory Boyd) highlights the passage in Jeremiah where God says

 They have built the high places of Topheth in the Valley of Ben Hinnom to burn their sons and daughters in the fire—something I did not command, nor did it enter my mind.  (Jer 7:31 + parallel passages)

This could just mean that it didn't ever enter God's mind to command that the Israelites sacrifice their children.  (I know we just did the story of Abraham and Isaac, but that was a test of faith and a sign, not to be imitated by future generations.  And, since God called it off, part of the function of the story is to indicate that he doesn't need child sacrifice!)  But even if we interpret this phrase "enter my mind" more broadly, it could just be a vivid way to refer to God's shock and horror that the Israelites would do such a thing.  A similar thing can be said about this more obviously problematic passage:

Have you seen what faithless Israel did?  She went up on every high hill and under every green tree, and she was a harlot there.  "I thought, 'After she has done all these things she will return to me'; but she did not return.  (Jer 3:7)

Here we have God indicating that he had certain expectations, phrased as if they were beliefs, which were not fulfilled.  But this can be taken as a poetic way to describe God's frustration.  In the same book, St. David Hunt (the guy I agree with), draws this analogy:

Learning that my best philosophy student has plagiarized his term paper, I exclaim, "I can't believe it!"  This "can't believe" must be distinguished from the ignorance I was in before the facts came out; it's a disbelief that's possible even when I know the truth.  I'm simply dumbfounded that someone with such ability, who did not need to plagiarize in order to write an "A" paper, would stoop to cheating.  God must be similarly frustrated that his chosen people, on whom he lavished so much attention, would betray him.  "It would never cross my mind that someone with all your advantages would do such a thing," he might say; and he might say it even though he knew from all eternity what they would do.  (p. 51 in my paperback edition)

I've mentioned before that I agree with the title of St. John Sander's Openness book The God who Risks, but I don't agree with most of the contents.  Sanders claims that passages where God speaks in conditional language, like when he says "if you do A, then B will happen, but if you do A', something else will happen", suggests that God doesn't know the future.  I can't agree with this argument.  God can have plenty of reasons to make conditional statements to us human beings, even if he knows perfectly well what will happen.

Indeed, in Deuteronomy, God lays out conditional blessings for keeping the Torah, and conditional curses for disobeying, shortly before predicting which of the two outcomes would in fact occur!  This does not mean that there was no point in telling them what would happen in the event that they obeyed.  As it was indeed in their power to do.  (Or was it?)  In any case the blessings were not in vain, given that some generations heeded the Lord more than others, and received part of the blessing during that time, before the inevitable happened.

None of us temporal creatures wish to be punished for something we did before we have had the fun of doing it.  So if God wants to warn us off doing something, he had better phrase it conditionally, as "IF you sin, THEN bad consequences will happen."  Even if he knows we will, as a matter of fact, disobey, a flat prediction to that effect isn't always the right way to motivate us to not do it.  Indeed, in the absence of a warning, the nature of the decision itself becomes psychologically different.  In some cases, people will do what is right only because they were warned about being punished if they didn't.

So it makes sense for God to state his relationship to us in conditional terms, and to wait until we actually sin in order to punish us.  (Or he may wait even longer, since he is slow to anger, patient and longsuffering.)  Similarly, it makes sense for him to display his wrath towards sin until such time as we repent, and then afterwards restore us to favor.  Even if he knows we will eventually repent, it does us no good to receive his blessings until we are ready for them.

Even though God knows what will happen, he also knows what could have happened.  So when, in certain biblical texts God says that "perhaps" the Israelites will repent (even though they didn't) this need not mean that he was caught short.  Instead it could refer to the fact that the intervention might have been capable, given the situation, of causing them to repent.

I think also explains all the passages in point 1 about God repenting and changing his mind.  Even if God is eternal and knows the future, we are finite creatures.  I agree that God must adapt some effectively temporal game-theoretic strategies in order to relate to temporal creatures.  I deny that he has to somehow strip himself of his eternal existence or foreknowledge in order to do this!

No matter what we say about God and Time, there are going to be some passages which post theological challenges.  Some of them may require some creative interpretation, to harmonize with the rest of the Bible.  But it seems to me much easier to explain the passages involving God repenting or coming to know things, in terms of the eternal view, then to explain why a God limited to the present would be spoken of as changeless and knowing the future.

And we haven't yet gotten to the best proof-texts yet!  To be continued...

Posted in Theology | 7 Comments