A Visit From the Jehovah’s Witnesses

It has been a while since my last visit from the Jehovah’s Witnesses.  They appear just like the Spanish Inquisition – when you least expect them.  They may have visited Jane in the last decade, but she just sends them away, and that is fine.  But I will talk to them when I get the chance.

So the two middle aged guys in suits (two there are always – a master and an apprentice) knocked on the door after I was working on the roof, and my clothing was rather dirty and extremely casual.  But hey, it was break time, and I needed an excuse to not go on to the next task.  And it was better for them to waste their time trying to convert me, not the neighbors.

Like the 19th century door to door salesmen that inspired their evangelistic methods, they quickly tried to find common ground where we agreed.  In this case, they wanted to assure me that they believe the Bible is the Word of God.  (Though, if you inquire enough, you will find that their authority is the Watchtower Society, and their own peculiar translation of the Bible, but they won’t tell you that up front.)  They showed me their copy of The Watchtower magazine, which was about the topic of anxiety.  Coincidentally we had just covered a similar topic in our Bible study group.

I told them that I had not spoken with the Jehovah’s Witnesses in a few years, and asked if any of their beliefs had changed in the last decade or so.  They didn’t think anything major had changed.

So I mentioned that I knew of JW lady who had believed that Armageddon would happen in 1975, and had sold all her possessions to prepare for the event.  (The Watchtower strongly implied that Armageddon would happen in 1975.)  Did they now have another date that they thought would be the end?

They told me that the organization had decided that there would be no more predicting of the date when Jehovah returns in judgment.  They did this a few times in the 20th century because they believed that the 144,000 believers who were mentioned in Revelation were all gathered in by 1914, and that some of them would be alive on the earth when Jesus returned to earth.  So therefore the end had to be near, and they thought that certain years would be important.

This discussion led naturally to their idea that there are two classes of believers.  In their theology, the 144,000 are special believers who go to heaven, and other believers can only hope to “live forever in paradise on earth,” as their book of the same title promises.  I asked them if they still believed that the last of the “144,000” were all alive in 1914, as they used to believe, and if they still believed that Armageddon would happen  before this group had all died. Also, were there still only 144,000 of them, or if that number, which comes from Revelation, had been deemeed to be metaphorical.  They said that very recently, they had gained new understanding that some of the 144,000 were born after 1914, and were still alive.  They still hold to the idea that there are only 144,000 who will go to heaven when they die, and the rest of us can only hope to “live forever in Paradise on Earth.”  Neither of them expected to go to heaven, and they did not know anyone locally who did have that expectation.

Next I asked them about a very old copy of the Watchtower that I had seen (the quote, from 1904, is in this link), that said that in the New Earth, black people might lose their pigmentation and become white. They assured me that such a teaching was from a long time ago, and that they surely did not believe that now.  I assured them that I believed them when they said their organization had changed their minds about racial matters.

And then we switched to their idea of salvation.  I asked them if they still had the same approximate idea of how to be saved.  Basically, they think that Jesus’ sacrificial death is good enough to give people a second chance.  (In theological terms, this is the Pelagian heresy on steroids.)  If you are good enough, then you get resurrected after Armageddon ends the world as we currently know it.  (God will do an “Extreme Home Makeover” on the world at about that time.)  Then, you have a 1,000 year probation period where you are supposed to be instructed in righteousness, and become good enough to pass the final test.  Then, if you fail, you are annihilated, but if you pass, you “live forever in paradise on earth.”  Unless you were part of the 144,000, in which case, you go to heaven more or less directly, and you don’t seem to have to worry about failure.

I then asked them about what Paul said to the Ephesians.  For the JWs, salvation is something they hope to have in the future, by being obedient enough.  But Paul said to the Ephesians, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should boast.”  (Eph. 2:8-9.)  Now a lot of people would talk about faith vs. works here, and they probably expected that.  But we talked about how Paul could speak of salvation already having happened to us, but the JWs can only hope for salvation in the future, if they earn it.

Doug (the more talkative one) suggested that Paul was only writing to the 144,000 here.  I countered that Paul did not know all the Ephesians, so he could not have known his audience well enough to make that judgment.  He continued to insist that the Ephesians were all of the 144,000, but then I told him that if that was true, then the letter to the Ephesians was not for us, because it was telling us things that were not true for today’s believers, including him and me.  And that would mean that Scripture could not be clear to us.  He did get the point.

Their time was almost up, and I needed to get back to yardwork too, so I tried to leave them with the following thought.  We had seen that their idea of the end times had changed in the last few years, and we had seen that their ideas about race had changed in the last decades.

Therefore, I suggested to them, their ideas about salvation could very well change, and in fact they needed to change, so that they would be more in line with the Bible.

I will speak to them more if they come back, but I think that I may not see them for another decade.


Who Writes Your Obituary?

Some time ago, some of my co-workers (who shall not be named) were reading an obituary.  We all knew a bit about the fellow who had died, and the sad fact is that we didn’t like him.   To engage in some understatement, our dealings with him had gone very badly, we were far from alone in that experience, and in fact his misdeeds had been reported in other sections of the paper.

The obituary naturally said nothing about this.  It focused on the fellow’s good deeds, his religious affiliation and activities, his football fandom (for some people this is the same as religious affiliation), his being a good father and a loving husband, and all the nice things one expects to find in an obituary.  So co-worker A reads this and says, “How can they say this about him!!!”  And co-worker B, who had worked for this person, agreed.

“Um, ladies, you do remember that obituaries are written by the FAMILIES of the deceased, right?  You expect them to say nice things about him,”  I said.  They were not convinced, and I was not very convincing.  “De mortuis nil nisi bonum” was not on any our minds, and a few of us might have wanted to insert a few extra lines into that obituary.  Those lines would have been true and may have added some spice to a usually rather sober section of the paper.

We will all get in the newspaper one last time, usually on the left side of the front page, with a small article somewhere inside.  We hope someone will find something nice to say about us, and it will be even better if it is true.

But it is even more important who writes our eternal obituary.  If someone wrote your WHOLE story, there would be whole pages and chapters you would not be proud of.  It could look like something put out by “The National Enquirer”, only it would all be true.

Being a Christian means many things, but very importantly, it means that God has adopted you as His child and that Jesus is your older brother.  One consequence of that relationship is that Jesus gets to write your obituary.  That means that He takes the bad stuff out, not because He is ignorant or dishonest, but because he took care of all that.  To understand this, look at Hebrews 11.

For the atheist, Hebrews 11 doesn’t make sense.  Look at all those Old Testament characters getting a nice write-up.  Don’t you know that Noah (the guy in the book, not the character in the movie that strangely has the same name) got drunk and naked in his tent?  And Abraham, remember that story he told about his wife, and what he did with his concubine?  And Sarah laughed at God.  And Samson, what a piece of work.  And David, well, you know that story.  How can the Bible be true with a chapter like this, that only tells the good parts of these people’s stories?  Doesn’t this author remember what happened in the Old Testament?!!

Actually, the author, who is inspired by the Holy Spirit,  knows exactly what he is doing.  The Old Testament looks at these saints’ lives in real time, and that is important.  But in Hebrews, he is looking at their lives from this side of the Cross and the empty tomb.  Since Jesus has paid the price for their sins, and those sins are completely forgiven, the author of Hebrews does not feel the need to bring them up again.







Sam the Salesman’s Last Temptation

[Note: This story was inspired by a particularly annoying encounter with a door-to-door salesman.  The depictions of the afterlife found in this story are fictionalized.]

Sam was a traveling salesman with a promising future, except for one problem. You know the joke about the traveling salesman and the farmer’s daughter?  Well, in this case, the farmer was armed, and extremely angry.  On a particularly bad Monday, Sam soon found himself at the Pearly Gates, talking to Saint Peter.

Sam’s Aunt Myrtle had warned him about the wages of sin, so he looked sheepishly at Saint Peter, wondering if he really belonged there.

“Don’t look so surprised,” said Saint Peter.  “Things up here don’t work quite the way your Aunt Myrtle  said.  (She’s in room 342,978,047A, by the way.) In fact, everyone gets to choose their eternal home.  Camp out by the gate tonight, and tomorrow you will get your tour of heaven.  The next day you will get to tour hell, and on the third day you can make your final decision.”

“Well, can’t I just sign on the dotted line and choose heaven now?” said Sam.

“Sorry, Sam, I wish it were that easy.  But we have a policy we have to follow.  We like to keep our 100% customer satisfaction rating, and to do that, we need to make sure that our competitor gets to make his pitch too.”

So Sam woke up the next morning for his tour of heaven.  It was everything he remembered from Sunday School, and more.  Harps were playing beautiful music, and the heavenly choir was in perfect pitch.  He even thought he could hear Aunt Petunia’s voice.

“Is that my Aunt Petunia?” He asked his tour guide.  “She tried to get me to become a preacher.”

“Yes, that’s her,” said the guide.  “But we forgave her for that.  And for a lot of other things you never knew about.  BTW, she’s in room 342,978,048C, right next to your Aunt Myrtle.  They haven’t argued with each other once since that tornado in 1987.”  Sam was deeply impressed.

After the singing, there was the feasting, the welcoming of new arrivals, the meeting of new friends, followed by more singing and feasting, and the Ultimate Frisbee game between the Angels and the Saints.

At the end of the day, he went back to Saint Peter.  “How did you enjoy your tour?” the old fisherman asked.

“It was great,” said Sam.  “I was particularly impressed by the improvement in Aunt Petunia’s singing.  Do I have to go to the other place tomorrow?”

“Yes, we have to be ethical up here,” said Peter.  “It’s OK, a day there never hurt anyone.  You just have to get out before the Devil knows you are staying there.”  Then the old saint went to usher in some new arrivals, who had just rejected the competing sales pitch.

The next day, Sam woke up, and took the down elevator to his tour of Hell.  Satan met him, wearing an expensive looking suit, and holding a martini in one hand and a big fat cigar in the other.  “We’ve been expecting you, Sam.  Come party with us.”

Hell was definitely NOT what Sam expected from his Sunday School lessons.  It looked like one big, wild party.  There was an open bar, where men drank, smoked all the cigars they wanted, and flirted with scantily clad, willing women.  Harry recognized an old friend, and asked Satan about him.

“Oh, yeah, Stan,” chuckled old Scratch.  “No more drunk driving convictions for him.  And guess what?  His pickup lines work now.  Haha.”  Sam looked, and the hottest woman he had ever seen sat on Stan’s lap and gave him a huge kiss.

“With all this drinking and smoking,  don’t you get a hangover in  the morning?” asked Sam. “And what about the risks of cancer?” It all appeared too good to be true, and not at all like the way Aunt Myrtle described it.

“How can you get a hangover?  Remember, you are dead!  There’s nothing to worry about here.  No OD’s, no hangovers, no diseases, no jealous husbands.  When you are dead, nothing else bad can happen, so it’s one big party down here!!!”  Sam could not argue the Devil’s point.

At the end of the day, Sam went back up to the Pearly Gates, with a lot to think about.

One the third day, he went to Saint Peter.  “Well, Peter,” said Sam, “I’m glad you insisted I take the other tour.  Heaven is really nice, and I know some people there, but I think the other place fits my lifestyle a bit better.”

Saint Peter looked sadly at him.  “I understand.  The other guy makes a good sales pitch, and a lot of people choose the way you did.  Well, there is the down elevator, Sam.”  Sam walked into the elevator, with a few others who had made the same choice, and pushed the down button.

Halfway down the bottom fell out of the elevator.  Sam was dropped into a vat of burning oil, where he frantically tried to tread water.  He heard the screams of others around him, and something like a gigantic shark was swimming under him, biting at his feet, while demons stabbed at him from above with their pitchforks.  He got thirsty very soon, and begged for a drink.  A demon handed him a huge margarita.  Sam drank it immediately, only to find that it was made from habanero juice instead of lime, and the worms in the tequila were still alive.  “Drink up,” the demon laughed.  “Coffee break isn’t for 10,000 years.”

Sam looked over and saw Stan, who he had last seen in the arms of a hot babe.  Now Stan was wrestling a huge squid-like creature that appeared to be trying to dunk him in the burning oil, while trying to eat him.  “Stan,” he cried.  “What went wrong? It was so nice here  yesterday.”

Between gasping for breath, Stan relied.  “Sam, you are a salesman.  You should know better.  Yesterday you heard the sales pitch.  Today, you made your purchase.”

A Christian Looks at the Quran (Part 1)

Earlier this year, I resolved to attempt to read the Quran through, and to write about it here.  Like it or not, we will be dealing a lot more with Islam in the next century, so it is important to know what the Islamic religion really teaches.  As a Christian, it makes sense for me to compare and contrast the Quran with the Bible, since that is the religious text most of my readers will be most familiar with, and it is what I know.

The exercise has proved to be difficult, so I am going very slowly.  Reading a religious text can be difficult, particularly one that is hostile to your own beliefs.  So far I have finished first 5 Suras.   Here are two preliminary observations:

1.  I have heard people say the Quran is “just like the Bible.”  That is not at all true.  The difference in the nature of the text is very striking.

The Bible is a historical book:  It begins with the creation of the world, and ends with the Last Judgement and the end of the world.  It has a historical storyline to it, and many of the books are primarily focused on the history of God’s dealings with his people.  In the New Testament, the Gospels  focus on the life of Jesus, while Acts records the history of the early church.  Everything that happens or is taught in the Bible is part of a story.

In contrast, the Quran (at least at the beginning) is focused on instruction.  The books are not in chronological order.  They are arranged mostly by size.  Historical events (mostly alternative versions of events referred to in the Bible) are referred to, but they are not the focus, except as a way of communicating teachings for the present.

The practical effect of this structural difference between the two books is that the believer must look at the books differently.  A Christian, who understands that the Bible contains the history of God’s dealings with His people, intuitively knows that some things people did in the biblical times are not to be repeated today.  We do not worship in the way prescribed by Moses, because Christ has made that obsolete.  We also don’t make war like Joshua did, because our Promised land is not on earth, and our warfare is now spiritual in nature.  And while the Old Testament Law regulated polygamy, while not exactly approving of it, the New Testament makes plain that monogamy was always the way it should have been.  We have much to learn from what Moses and Joshua did, but their actions belong to an earlier chapter of the story.

In contrast, because the Quran does not have a historical storyline, everything I have read in the Quran so far is applicable universally, for all Muslims, at all times.  So if, for example, the Quran teaches polygamy (which it does in Sura 4.3), then Islam needs to teach polygamy forever.

2.  The Quran’s instructions to believers depend upon a conflict, often involving physical violence, with other religions, particularly Jews and Christians.  Very much of the content of the Quran that I have read so far is anti-Christian and anti-Jewish polemic.  No doubt this was useful to Muslims when they began in the 7th century.  The Muslim is expected to be at war with Jews and Christians, and is expected to continue that warfare until the enemies of Allah have submitted.  The Muslim cannot accept, for  the long term, being in a society where Islam has minority status.   When in a position of numerical, political, or military dominance, the Muslim is to subdue religious minorities.

In contrast, the Bible does not dwell that much on the content of other religions.  The making of idols, which is a feature of many religions, is mocked in Jeremiah 10, but the purpose of the mockery is to dissuade God’s people from falling into pagan practices.  (This passage is incidentally a very good piece of satire.)  For the most part, the Bible is content to proclaim the truth about God in a way that will turn people away from false religions, and will allow the details of particulat idolatrous beliefs to be forgotten.

The Old and New Testaments also portray a wide variety of possible relationships between the believer and society.  In the Old Testament, Yahweh worship is the established religion during the period that Israel was an independent nation.  However, at other periods in biblical history, believers are part of a minority, and are often persecuted.   The teachings of the Bible are more concerned with being faithful in the situation you are in, as opposed to “taking over” in any military or political sense.

Recognizing the Savior Early: A Christmas Reflection

The passages in the Bible about Jesus’ birth are so familiar, that often we take them for granted.  For example, look at these accounts of events surrounding Jesus’ birth.

Luke 1:39-44 Now Mary arose in those days and went into the hill country with haste, to a city of Judah, and entered the house of Zacharias and greeted Elizabeth. And it happened, when Elizabeth heard the greeting of Mary, that the babe leaped in her womb; and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit.  Then she spoke out with a loud voice and said, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb! But why is this granted to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me? For indeed, as soon as the voice of your greeting sounded in my ears, the babe leaped in my womb for joy.

The babe here is John the Baptist, who will grow up to be a great prophet.  But even before he is born, he recognizes the unborn savior near him.

Luke 2:8-18 Now there were in the same country shepherds living out in the fields, keeping watch over their flock by night. And behold,an angel of the Lord stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were greatly afraid. Then the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid, for behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy which will be to all people. For there is born to you this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord.  And this will be the sign to you: You will find a Babe wrapped in swaddling cloths, lying in a manger.”
And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying:
” Glory to God in the highest,
And on earth peace, goodwill toward men!”

So it was, when the angels had gone away from them into heaven, that the shepherds said to one another, “Let us now go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has come to pass, which the Lord has made known to us.”  And they came with haste and found Mary and Joseph, and the Babe lying in a manger.  Now when they had seen Him, they made widely known the saying which was told them concerning this Child.  And all those who heard it marveled at those things which were told them by the shepherds.

Shepherds were not considered trustworthy in that culture, but here they are given the message from the angels that the Savior was born.  They follow the angels’ instructions and see the baby.

Luke 2:25-32 And behold, there was a man in Jerusalem whose name was Simeon, and this man was just and devout, waiting for the Consolation of Israel, and the Holy Spirit was upon him.  And it had been revealed to him by the Holy Spirit that he would not see death before he had seen the Lord’s Christ.  So he came by the Spirit into the temple. And when the parents brought in the Child Jesus, to do for Him according to the custom of the law,  he took Him up in his arms and blessed God and said:
“ Lord, now You are letting Your servant depart in peace,
According to Your word;
For my eyes have seen Your salvation
Which You have prepared before the face of all peoples,
A light to bring revelation to the Gentiles,
And the glory of Your people Israel.”

Here, an old man had been promised that he would see the Savior before he died, and he recognized the baby when he was 6 weeks old, and came to the Temple.
Matthew 2:1-2, 9-11 Now after Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judea in the days of Herod the king, behold, wise men from the East came to Jerusalem,  saying, “Where is He who has been born King of the Jews? For we have seen His star in the East and have come to worship Him.”

When they heard the king, they departed; and behold, the star which they had seen in the East went before them, till it came and stood over where the young Child was.  When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy.  And when they had come into the house, they saw the young Child with Mary His mother, and fell down and worshiped Him. And when they had opened their treasures, they presented gifts to Him: gold, frankincense, and myrrh.

Jesus was again very young, and had most likely not spoken a word.  This did not prevent the wise men from recognizing him as the future King.  They called him “King of the Jews”, but they obviously meant that he was to be their king too, or they would not have come from a far away country.

Most of my readers are Christians, and these passages are very familiar.  To a non-Christian reader, however, these passages show something unique about Jesus.

Nearly all famous religious leaders are recognized for what they said or did.  Mohamed, for example, attracted followers in his adult life.  So did  Buddha, Confucius, and Joseph Smith.  No one looked at these future religious teachers in their cradles, and predicted their future accomplishments.

With Jesus, it was different.  The Bible records that he was recognized as Savior before he was born, and he was recognized multiple times before he could speak, or do much of anything.  He was recognized by men and women, by angels, and even by a star.  The focus in the Bible begins with who he is, rather than what he did.  His words and actions are important, not in themselves, but because he is the Son of God, sent to save us from our sins.

The Names of Jesus

If you are anywhere near a Christian church this time of year, you will hear the following Bible passage, which is from the book of Isaiah, about 700 years before Jesus was born:

For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given;  And the government will be upon His shoulder.  And His name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.  [Isaiah 9:6]

This morning’s sermon focused on these names of Jesus.

“Wonderful counselor” is fairly obvious to us.  Even most non-Christians are willing to believe that Jesus was a great teacher, and many of His sayings are memorable.  However, it is easy to see Him as only a teacher who is in the past, and to forget that He continues to teach us through the Scriptures, the preaching of the Word, and through the ministry of the Holy Spirit.

“Mighty God” is less obvious, but not less important.  Isaiah’s prophecy is that Jesus will be God himself, sent here to take the form of a man.  This makes him different from any other religious teacher.  Of course, Christians recognize Jesus in this way.

“Everlasting Father” is the hardest of these names to understand.  Instead of thinking of this in terms of the Trinity, we should think in terms of human relationships.  Leaders in many cultures are called “fathers”.  (Think of the title of a priest, for one example.)  Jesus, as the head of the Christian Church, is our Father in this sense.  He displays this role after he rose from the dead in John 21:5, where he says, “Children, do you have any food?”  Because He cannot die (he got that over with 2,000 years ago), he is an Everlasting and perfect father.

“Prince of Peace” is a title that we must have faith to believe.  It begins when we turn to Jesus for forgiveness of our sins.  Then we have peace with God.  As the kingdom of God advances, His peace will also spread, although in the present age there will be people who oppose God, and our own sinful nature creates a war within us.  However, when Jesus returns, all evil will be utterly defeated, and all things will be made new.

This Little Light of Mine: An Earth Hour Post

The nut jobs who came up with “Earth Hour” got their symbolism perfect.  For Earth Hour, we are all supposed to turn our lights off and stop using electricity for one hour, starting at 8:30 p.m. tonight.  The UN is even turning its lights off, and they are expecting to save a whopping $102 in electricity costs.

Of course many people will switch to candles, which cause 10X to 100X the CO2 emissions that are caused by a similar amount of electric light.  (They are also romantic, and may contribute to “overpopulation,” but that is another story.)  So they won’t be in the dark at all, but they will feel good about themselves while they increase the air pollution in their homes.

But the symbolism is perfect.  The inventors of Earth Hour do not understand what humans are, and so their only solution to problems facing humanity is to plunge people into darkness.  Their only solutions to the world’s problems involve reducing what people consume, or even trying to reduce the number of people on the planet to consume resources.

What they don’t understand is that people, unlike animals, produce as well as consume.  So, I can use less than $1.00 of electricity to power my computer, and create something valuable, or analyze data to reduce thousands of dollars worth of waste in a manufacturing facility.

Or a person can use less than $1.00 of electricty to power woodworking tools that will turn a pile of wood into a dining room table. 

Electricity and other forms of energy are relatively cheap, and very useful, and people who choose to stay in the dark probably don’t understand how cheap and useful it is.

So, for earth hour and every hour, you should thank God that energy is so easy to get these days (for example, you don’t have to burn cow dung for fuel, or chop down a tree and wait months for the wood to dry), and use it freely for useful things.  Instead of living in the dark, like a mushroom, let these African children set you straight: