is it still night?

John 9:1-5

1 And as he was passing by, he saw a man blind from birth.
2 and his disciples asked him this: “Rabbi, who sinned, this person or his parents, so that he was born blind?”
3 Jesus answered “Neither this man sinned nor his parents; but he was born that way so that God’s works might be displayed in him.
4 We must work the works of him who sent me while day lasts. A night is coming when no one will be able to work.
5 As long as I am with the world, I am the light of the world.”

is it still night?

Jesus told his disciples that a night was coming in which nobody would be able to work the works of God. Was he referring to this present age? Are we living in an age when all miraculous works have ceased? I don’t think so. There are no recorded miracles pertaining to the time after Jesus’ ascension, before Pentecost. But there are plenty of miracles recorded after Pentecost. We are living in an age where we can do the works of God — including healing and deliverance, by the power of the Holy Spirit within us. The night Jesus referred to is over.

LORD, show us how to access your power within us to do all the works you want to do among us.


The Ukraine

Stalin Seen As the Monster He Was

We have been working our way through Anne Appelbaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine (London: Penguin/Random House, 2017).  It is grim reading, raising the question of why we persist in reading until the end.  Well, there are a number of reasons, but chiefly we feel a deep sense of obligation to hear the voices of those who suffered and died.  Maybe by reading respectfully their stories some sense can be made of their sufferings.

The famine in the Ukraine of 1931 onwards was a deliberate outcome created by Stalin.  If one ever wants an object lesson on what happens when a human being gains totalitarian control over subjects, Ukraine provides it.

Stalin set grain production targets and volumes for the Ukraine.  The numbers he came up with reflect wishful thinking on a gargantuan scale.  If villages failed to deliver the amount of grain stipulated by Stalin, they were beaten, tortured, and stripped of everything–including any remaining scraps of food.

Appelbaum writes dispassionately about starvation.  It is in most cases a horrible death.

The starvation of a human body, once it  begins, always follow the same course.  In the first phase, the body consumes its stores of glucose.  Feelings of extreme hunger set in, along with constant thoughts of food.  in the second phase, which can last for several weeks, the body begins to consume its own fats, and the organism weakens drastically.  In the third phase, the body devours its own proteins, cannibalizing tissues and muscles.  Eventually, the skin becomes thin, the eyes distended, the legs and belly swollen as extreme imbalances lead the body to retain water.  Small amounts of effort lead to exhaustion.  Along the way, different kinds of diseases can hasten death: scurvy, kwashiorkor, marasmus, pneumonia, typhus, diptheria, and a wide range of infections and skin diseases caused, directly or indirectly, by lack of food.  [Ibid., p. 246.]

In some cases the survivors have had their stories preserved.   One said that “people didn’t look like people–they were more like starving ghosts.”  Some other accounts are used by Appelbaum to “paint the picture” as it were:

Another survivor remembered that his mother “looked like a glass jar, filled with clear spring water.  All her body that could be seen . . . was see-through and filled with water, like a plastic bag.”  A third remembers his brother lying down, “alive but completely swollen, his body shining as if it were made of glass.”  We felt “giddy”, another recalled: “everything was as if in  a fog.  There was a horrible pain in our legs, as if someone were pulling the tendons out of them.”  [Ibid., p. 247.]

Millions upon millions died.

One of the greatest indictments of the human race has been man’s inhumanity to man.  Communism is one of its worst manifestations.  Stalin was its most predatory animal.  But behind him, around him, and supporting him were legions of like-minded predators.


True Grit

‘Multiple Men’ Used Their Bodies To Protect Patrons

Grace Carr | Reporter
Daily Caller7

Multiple men reportedly put their bodies on the line to protect patrons at the club in California where a gunman entered Wednesday night, killing 12 and reportedly taking his own life.

“While we were all dog-piled at the side, there were multiple men that got on their knees and pretty much blocked all of us with their backs towards the shooter, ready to take a bullet for any single one of us,” Taylor Whittler, who had been in the club during the shooting, said Thursday morning.

“And just the amount of people who made sure everyone got out okay or if they were out … they made sure, they went around to every single person around them and asked them if they were okay and if they needed a phone to call their family … just in general any way they could help. It was awesome,” Whittler continued.

The gunman entered Borderline Bar and Grill in Thousand Oaks Wednesday night around 11:20 p.m. and opened fire at a crowd of mostly college students using a semi-automatic pistol. It was “country night” at the bar. 

The suspect is identified as 28-year-old David Ian Long, who reportedly dressed in a black hooded sweatshirt. The gunman and Ventura County Sheriff’s Deputy Ron Helus is among the dead, according to NBC News.


How Long O God: Waiting On God (Habakkuk 1:2-2:1 Matthew 24:42-44)

On Monday I took this photo of two white faced heron or Matuku Moana, perched on a stone breakwater. The two birds are standing with their heads into the wind their long elegant necks down and pulled into their bodies for warmth, and they seemed to be waiting and looking out over the water. Still and focused: Waiting for the tide to turn so they could go out on the mud flats and forage for food. Waiting for the wind to drop and the warm sun to heat the day. Waiting for a mate to return to this breeding ground. I don’t know but as well as making a great photo it bought to mind Habakkuk’s posture waiting on God’s answer and his moving in history on behalf of his people. In chapter 2 verse 1 with which we finished our reading today. He says I will stand on the ramparts, like a sentry on duty, ready and alert, staring off in to the storm of injustice and judgment and waiting, waiting and looking for God’s answer to my laments, waiting for God to move. The same posture we had in our New Testament reading, where Jesus tells his followers they should be alert as they wait for the consummation of God’s Kingdom.

Habakkuk speaks to us as well to wait on God in the face of life storms, to wait on God in the face of  personal storms where we need to know God’s care and love, wait on God, in social storms, where like Habakkuk we see or experience injustice, wait on God as it seems the world just does not make sense. The series is called “As the waters cover the seas” and it refers to the verse at the heart of Habakkuk . Where we are given one reason to have hope in the face of life storms. That history seems to be like the turbulent surface of the ocean, with wild waves tossed and turned by unpredictable shifting winds, but that there is a deeper steady and unstoppable current of God’s purposes and plans that the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Glory of God, as the waters cover the seas’.

Habakkuk the prophet has a vision in which he has a dialogue with God. Habakkuk laments about the injustice he sees in Judah (verse 2-4), then we have God’s response in verses 5-11, and instead of it being about God saving his people, Habakkuk is told that God is raising up the new world super power of Babylon as his instrument to discipline. This does not sit well with Habakkuk and in verse 12-chapter 2:1 he again complains to God, how could a righteous God use such a vicious and arrogant and violent people. That’s what we are looking at today. Next week we are going to look at God’s answer to Habakkuk’s second complaint, and then finish off the series the week after looking at  chapter three which is a psalm of praise and trust from Habakkuk.

Habakkuk is writing in the seventh century BC. Judah, the southern kingdom, had been through a period of religious and social renewal under king Josiah, the reforms had been sparked by the discovery of the scroll of Deuteronomy in the temple archives. You can read about that in 2 Kings 22-23.  However Josiah is killed in battle with the king of Egypt who had marched north to support the Assyrians battling against the raising threat of the Babylonians. The Pharaoh appoints a series of Josiah’s sons as successors on the throne and we are told in 2 kings 24 that they did evil in the eye of the Lord.

Habakkuk describes this is a series of six different ways. Injustice and wrongdoing, violence and destruction, conflict and strife.  The law and the courts, which the prophet would expect to uphold the law of Moses, is paralyzed in the face of this, when he speaks of the wicked hemming in the righteous so that Justice is perverted, you get the sense that the courts themselves have become clogged up with law suites designed to rob the people not protect the innocent.

At the heart of what troubles Habakkuk is how can the God of Israel, the God who has revealed himself as just and righteous allow such things to carry on. The hope in the face of the storms of life is in the person and the character of God While our hope and history don’t rhyme. Habakkuk’s complaint does not turn him away from God, rather it turns him to look more at God. His prayers are constant and consistent, waiting for God to act. 

In verses 5-11, the LORD answers Habakkuk, and God’s answer is have you noticed the surprising rise of the Babylonian empire. In 605bc they defeated the Assyrians and the Egyptians and start their conquest of the region. The imagery that is used here speaks of their military might. The swiftness of their cavalry like a leopard and an eagle swoop. They are like a sand storm, vast and unstoppable, that picks prisoners up and swept them away. Like the Assyrians before them the Babylonian strategy to stop resurgent nationalism in the countries they conquered was to deport the population to another part of the empire and to indoctrinate and enculturate them in to Babylonian ways and religion. That is the background t the exile and the story of Daniel and his friends, who resist that process, by refusing to eat the food given to them. In Jeremiah 21 we read that the people of Jerusalem felt impregnable in their fortress on a hill.  The LORD’s answer is that these people laugh at fortified cities, they had developed the tactic laying siege and building an earthen ramp up against the walls.

The answer to Habakkuk’s complaint is that God is going to sovereignly move in history. While it may look like the rise of the Babylonian empire was their own doing and they would claim the triumph of their God’s over the God’s of those around them. The LORD says the ebb and flow of history is at his command. We may look and not perceive that as we see things unfolding and we may question and wonder. But the answer to Habakkuk’s complaint is first and foremost the sovereignty of God in history. That’s hard for us to understand its hard perhaps to see in the short term as Habakkuk finds it hard. It seems that injustice is going to be  overcome by greater injustice. But amidst this churn and blur of history God has not lost control…

The answer to Habakkuk’s complaint was that in the sovereignty of God, injustice would bring about judgment, not a popular message. But Habakkuk would have known this was the case, as God was being faithful to the covenant he had made with his people as he had bought them out of Egypt, that had been restated in Josiah’s time with the discovery of the second book of the law. That if the people of Israel continued  to ignore God and his righteous ways and law, that they would be removed from the promised land. 

But even in this pronouncement of correction and punishment there is a glimmer of hope. Judgment is never God’s final word, it is never God’s purpose or plan. It may be a spoiler alert, but this judgment was not to destroy or simply punish God’s people, rather to discipline them, after seventy years the remnant would return. Even more than that the words that the LORD starts his answer with here in Habakkuk of watch and look and be utterly amazed, because God was going to do something people would not believe even if they were told in Habakkuk 1:5 is quoted by Paul and Barnabas in Acts 13:41 to point people to the sending of Jesus Christ his death on the cross and his resurrection. God’s ultimate purpose and plan is salvation in Jesus Christ. God’s ultimate answer to injustice and oppression comes in the establishing of his Kingdom in Christ.  We live in the tension between the all ready of Christ’s death and resurrection and the not yet of his return, We too are called to wait and wrestle with the how long of injustice and judgment and the hope of salvation. .

In verse twelve Habakkuk responses to what he hears from the LORD. Again he brings a complaint, a lament. Habakkuk is aware of God’s holiness and righteousness, he acknowledges that God is his rock, but Habakkuk cannot see how God could use such a evil people as the Babylonians to achieve his purposes and plans. Habakkuk uses a vivid metaphor of the Babylonians like a cruel and arrogant fisherman, always casting the net to drag up more and more fish, feeding their own appetite with no mercy. A fisherman who worships their net as a God, and relies on and worships their own strength. The net represents the military strength of Babylon. How can a righteous and just God use these people, this nation on histories stage to achieve his purposes. It is not right…

Habakkuk stops there and takes up that posture of waiting like a sentry alert on the parapets. We will have to join him there because we know God does answer him, but we are going to look at that next week. But as I said before Habakkuk’s posture his waiting has a lot to say to us.

Firstly, in the face of all the language of military strength and overcoming fortresses standing watch on the wall seems to be a dangerous place to be. You are kind of in the front line. God has just finished saying how futile fortresses are to the Babylonians. But Habakkuk’s waiting is different it is not a dependence on his own resources and those of humans in the face of God’s sovereign action in history. It is a posture of setting up watch for God. He looks not to the troops coming over the horizon, but rather it is the posture of Psalm 130, where the psalmist also uses this image of a watchman waiting for the morning to say that in the depth he waits for the Lord with his whole being. It is a Psalm that finishes by saying Israel put your hope in the LORD, for with the LORD is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. It is a posture of hope and faith only in God. As we face life’s storms waiting is not a simple hope that things will work out, but a posture of trust in a God who cares for us, whose plans are for good and not for harm, who has in Christ already saved us from sin and death and can be trusted to act justly. Part of God’s answer to Habakkuk in chapter 2:4 is that the righteous will live by faith.

The idea of a watchman also has other scriptural ramifications. Ezekiel in his prophetic ministry is likened to a watchman in Ezekiel 33looking and seeing what God has to say and bringing that word to the people. In this oracle Habakkuk also does that as well. Waiting on God does not mean that we are Silent and passive rather we are called to speak our our hope and our faith. Our calling as people of God is to be prophetic, to witness with our words to the good news of Jesus Christ even in the face of the storm. To declare God’s goodness even when it all does not seem to make sense. Like Habakkuk to be prepared to speak  God’s justice and righteousness in the face of the storms of injustice. Not in a name it and claim it shallow faith, but with confidence and trust. On the steps of the capital building in Washington DC in 1963 as the civil rights movement was starting to pick up some momentum, in his I have a dream speech Martin Luther King Jr speaks out God’s purpose and Plan in the words of the prophet Amos “let justice flow like a river, and righteousness like a never-ending stream.” That still echoes and speaks and hopes even today…

In the Olivet discourse, Jesus other sermon on the mount in Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus turns to address his followers waiting between the crucifixion, resurrection and the full coming of his kingdom. Jesus tells a series of four parables  to instruct his followers in what it means to be alert and wait.

The parable of the faithful and unfaithful servant, he articulates that to keep waiting is to keep going about caring and loving and treating one another with the love of Christ.

The parable of the ten virgins and the oil for their lamps, Jesus says to wait is to keep on in our spiritual disciplines, to keep alive and full the presence of the Spirit of God in our lives.

In the parable of the talents, to wait on God is to continue to invest our resources and gifts into seeing God’s kingdom grow.

The parable of the sheep and the goats, waiting on God is seen as continuing to care for the poor and the imprisoned and those without, because what we do for the least we do for Jesus himself.

I wanted to finish this sermon by tying everything up and giving answers, but by stopping where we did in our reading of Habakkuk, we find ourselves like the herons in the image. Like Habakkuk on the ramparts waiting for God. It sort of feels like we are left hanging… but actually it’s a good place to be In the storms of life, in the uncertainty of the world around us, the churn and blur of history, to be alert and waiting… How Long O God is a lament… but how long O God is also that posture of hope and trust and faith… will you stand watch and wait on God…  


Signs of the Times

Oppressive Intolerance in the UK

The Barnabas Fund recently published a booklet on the beginnings of state persecution in the modern era against Christians in the UK.  It describes the following case study:

In February 2017, a CPS (Crown Prosecution Service) lawyer in England told the Bristol Magistrates Court that publicly quoting from the King James Bible “in the context of modern British society, must be considered to be abusive and is a criminal matter.

The lawyer was speaking at the trial of two men arrested in 2016 for preaching in a Bristol shopping area. The police arrested the men not because of how they were preaching but because of what they were preaching.  During the trial, the CPS lawyer went on to claim:

“To say to someone that Jesus is the only God is not a matter of truth.  To the extent that they are saying that the only way to God is through Jesus, that cannot be a truth.”

After the trial, the street preachers’ solicitor, Michael Phillips, expressed his concern at the actions of the CPS: “This prosecution is nothing more then a modern-day heresy trial–dressed up under the Public Order Act.” 

This is not an isolated case, as the Barnabas Fund booklet goes on to demonstrate.
  Whilst it provides some comfort that the courts have rejected this and similar prosecutions, the real issue is that such prosecutions could have been taken in the first place.  The British police and CPS have acted shamefully, and illegally, insofar as their actions violate hundreds of years of settled practice.

The Barnabas Fund booklet continues its discussion of the case above:

If the manner in which the men had been preaching had caused a problem, the police could have prosecuted them under the public nuisance laws. (For example, if they amplifier had been too loud and they had refused to turn it down).  However the preachers were arrested and then prosecuted for the content of their preaching, even though everything they said was consistent with orthodox Biblical Christianity down through the ages. 

We know exactly what happened because one of the street preachers was wearing a body camera.  This recorded what he and the other preacher said and also what was said by some of the hecklers who were disrupting the meeting.  From this recording it appears that some in the crowd were deliberately trying to “set up” the preachers by asking them questions about Islam and homosexuality and then calling the police.  Even though some of the hecklers were abusing and swearing at the preachers, the preachers were always respectful and never swore back.  Nevertheless, the police chose to arrest the preachers, not the hecklers.

Even though the charges were eventually dismissed, the CPS lawyer’s claim that in modern Britain it is now a criminal matter to quote publicly from the King James Bible is particularly disturbing.  . . . The two street preachers were later acquitted in an appeal to the crown court.  However, the decision of both police and CPS to prosecute the men for the content of their preaching and the CPS lawyer’s claim that it is illegal to publicly quote Scripture, represent a massive assult on freedom of speech and freedom of religion. 

The Barnabas Fund booklet is entitled Turn the Tide: Reclaiming Religious Freedom in New Zealand.   It is available free of charge from:

The Barnabas Fund
PO Box 276018
Manukau City,
Auckland , 2214.

(09) 280 4385 or 0800 008 805



And Your Problem With That is What, Exactly?

Consistency, Where Art Thou?

Dutchman, 69, Brings Lawsuit to Lower His Age 20 Years


Mr Ratelband believes changing his age will improve his chances on dating app Tinder.  A Dutch “positivity trainer” has launched a legal battle to change his age and boost his dating prospects.

Emile Ratelband, 69, wants to shift his birthday from 11 March 1949 to 11 March 1969, comparing the change to identifying as being transgender.  “We live in a time when you can change your name and change your gender. Why can’t I decide my own age?” he said.  A local court in the eastern city of Arnhem is expected to rule on the case within four weeks.

However officials were sceptical about the case, believing there was no legal mechanism allowing a person to change their birth date, local reports said.  One of the judges wanted to know what would become of the 20 years that Mr Ratelband wanted to erase. “Who were your parents looking after then? Who was that little boy?” he was quoted as saying.

‘Making the most of life’

Mr Ratelband argues he feels discriminated against because of his age, and that it was affecting his employment chances and his success rate on the dating app, Tinder.  “When I’m 69, I am limited. If I’m 49, then I can buy a new house, drive a different car. I can take up more work,” he said.  “When I’m on Tinder and it says I’m 69, I don’t get an answer. When I’m 49, with the face I have, I will be in a luxurious position.”

Mr Ratelband further argued that according to his doctors he has the body of a 45-year-old, and described himself as a “young god”.  He went on Facebook last year to describe how he had made the decision one day standing in front of a mirror, not because he feared getting old but because he wanted to make the most of life for as long as possible.  He also said he would renounce his pension if he switched his birth date.

The Netherlands’ constitution expressly prohibits employment discrimination on the basis of age.

Mr Ratelband, a media personality and motivational guru, converted to Buddhism earlier this year and is a trainer in neurolinguistic programming.  He voiced the character Vladimir Trunkov in the Dutch-language version of the Pixar film Cars 2.


gospel lessons in the temple

John 8:48-59

48 The Jews answered and said to him, “Aren’t we saying it right that you’re a Samaritan and have a demon?”
49 Jesus answered”I do not have a demon, but I am honoring my Father and you are dishonoring me.
50 I am not seeking my own glory; the one who is seeking and judging it is.
51 I am honestly telling you, if anyone keeps my message, he will certainly not experience permanent death.”
52 Then the Jews said, “Now we know you have a demon. Abraham died and so did the prophets. You say, ‘If anyone keeps my message, he will not taste permanent death.’
53 Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets died. Who do you claim to be?”
54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. My Father– about whom you say, ‘He is our God’– he is the one who is glorifying me.
55 You do not know him, but I know him. If I were to say I don’t know him, I would be a liar like you. But I do know him, and I keep his message.
56 Your father Abraham was exuberantly joyful so he could see my day; he saw it and rejoiced.”
57 That was why the Jews said to him, “You aren’t fifty years old yet, and you’ve seen Abraham?”
58 Jesus said to them, “I am honestly telling you, before Abraham existed, I am.”
59 That was why they picked up stones to throw at him. But Jesus was concealed and went out from the temple.

gospel lessons in the temple

This heated conversation is filled with amazing gospel lessons. It teaches that God the Father was in the process of glorifying his Son, Jesus. It teaches that the Son pre-existed with the Father, and is co-equal with the Father, so he could say “before Abraham existed, I am (ἐγὼ εἰμί). It also teaches about life after death. But it does not teach that believers will never die. That is a mistranslation, based on the mistaken theology that people have immortal souls that do not die. The Jews here admitted that Abraham died, and Jesus did not correct them. But Jesus taught here that believers who put their trust in his message will “certainly not experience permanent death”(θάνατον οὐ μὴ θεωρήσῃ εἰς τὸν αἰῶνα) (51). The Jews thought that Abraham had tasted that permanent death. They could not accept a Messiah who claimed to be greater than Abraham, and certainly thought it blasphemy for Jesus to claim the nature of God.

The good news is about who Christ is, and what he promises. You may not be able to understand how Jesus can be God in the flesh, but do not let that lack of understanding keep you from believing in him. You may not see why we have to be raised from the dead, but don’t let that keep you from trusting him for a resurrection. You will experience a temporary death unless Jesus returns before you die. But the gospel good news is that you do not have to experience permanent death. One day we will meet with Abraham on this earth made new, and celebrate our permanent life together.

LORD, give us the courage to believe in who you really are, and to trust you to fulfill what you really promised.


how to understand the Bible


John 8:43-47

43 “Why don’t you know anything about what I am saying? Because you cannot listen to my message.
44 You are of your father the devil, and you are eager to do what your father wants. He was a murderer from the beginning and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he is saying a lie, he is speaking his own language, because he is a liar and the father of it.
45 Yet because I am saying the truth, you are not believing me.
46 Who among you can convict me of sin? Since I am saying the truth, why aren’t you believing me?
47 The one who is from God listens to God’s words. This is why you aren’t listening, because you are not from God.”

how to understand the Bible

There are many people with advanced degrees and high IQs who are confused by the message of the Bible. Jesus was talking to a group of people like that. They were actively seeking ways to kill him, even though he was just telling the truth his Father had told him to tell. Even though they claimed to have excellent parentage, the words of Jesus fell on deaf ears.

Do the words of the Bible seem like a secret code to you. Are you secretly confused by them. There is a solution. We call it conversion. It involves two steps: First, repent of your sins. Then, put your faith in Christ. Without repentance and faith, no one can listen to God’s message. After conversion, it is possible.

LORD, help those who want to know you to put their faith in you. Then they can understand your words.


Understanding the Incarnation: An Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

“If God wanted to forgive our sins,” complains Dawkins in The God Delusion, “why not just forgive them, without having himself tortured and executed?” I will confess that, before I became a Christian around three years ago, I shared Dawkins’ perplexity. In fact, the Christian claim that, “Jesus died for our sins,” (meaning that before God could forgive us for wronging him he needed to become a man so we could murder him) was finally as strange as the claim that, “Honi the Circle-Drawer philandered for our monogamy.” If it was not utterly nonsensical then it was so impenetrably obscure that only a religious mystic could fully understand it—and even then he would then be unable to explain it to others. [1]

The Oxford professor of philosophy, Richard Swinburne, would not share this view. In The Resurrection of God Incarnate, he argues that there are good reasons for thinking that, if there is a God, he would become incarnate in order to live a perfect life filled with great suffering that ends in a miracle. In other words, not only is the crucifixion of God Incarnate not incongruous; it is precisely the sort of thing we would expect God to do if God exists.

Swinburne begins his argument with two preliminary axioms. The first is that if God exists God is by nature morally perfect—that is the sort of being whose existence we are postulating. The second is that human sin and suffering is a necessary feature of the universe God has created. Swinburne argues that such suffering is something which God (if God exists) has good reason to allow but is also something to which God (being morally perfect) is also likely to respond in a dramatic way.

In this first post it will be my concern to argue for the necessity of human sin and suffering and then discuss the first of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become incarnate in response to it. The two remaining reasons that make up the rest of Swinburne’s argument will be presented in subsequent posts.

The Sin and Suffering of Man

Suffering is an unpreventable feature of any world in which virtue and moral self-determination are widely attainable for finite agents. This was a point I discussed in a previous post.  Again, briefly: Free will ensures that we have a choice between doing good and doing evil while humans are so made that when we do good it becomes easier to do good again at the next opportunity and when we do evil it becomes easier to do evil again at the next opportunity. [2] In this way, we gradually strengthen or weaken desires of different kinds and so form a moral character.

Without free will none of this would be possible. And while God is omnipotent, his omnipotence needs to be understood in a way that allows for the constraints of logical possibility. It is logically impossible for God to create agents with free will and ensure that they do no evil. And so human suffering is a potential feature of any world in which virtue is widely attainable.

It is only because God wants us to freely become good people that he permits temporary moral evil and suffering. But it needs to be noted that it is not free will alone, but free will and moral evil together, that provide an opportunity to manifest most virtues. In other words, only if someone eventually exercises their free will to assault or abuse you can I exercise mine to show you empathy; only if you are robbed can I make personal sacrifices to provide for you. The question arises whether moral evil alone would afford adequate opportunities for everyone to form a virtuous moral character. Swinburne suggests that it would not. A world in which opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available must therefore contain natural evil.

Consider a world without disaster, disease and decrepitude; a world in which the only cause of injury and death is, respectively, assault and murder. It is a mathematical certainty that such a world would provide far, far fewer opportunities for compassion, self-sacrifice, courage, forbearance, and so forth, and highly probable that some of us would have no such opportunities at all. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, includes both. But a life that offered nothing else would make us complacent, hedonistic, idle, selfish and shallow.

The initial conditions of the argument are therefore as follows: Human beings are misusing their free will to do evil. As a result, many individuals and societies are developing a bad moral character. This fact, together with the natural evil necessary to ensure that opportunities to obtain virtue are universally available, causes human suffering that is often widespread and profound. God, meanwhile, is morally perfect. How is he likely to respond? Swinburne argues that God will likely respond by becoming incarnate. Let us now consider the first of the three arguments he gives.

To Fulfil an Obligation to Share in Human Suffering

Parents often subject their children to suffering for the sake of some greater good. Mrs Bell, for instance, may put her overweight daughter on a stringent diet. Mr Wild may ask his son to attend a “difficult” neighbourhood school for the sake of good community relations. Under such circumstances, it is good but not obligatory for the parent to show solidarity with their child by taking a share in the suffering that has been imposed. Thus Mrs Bell may decide to join her daughter in eating a green salad for dinner even though Mrs Bell herself is not overweight. And likewise Mr Wild may present himself at the “difficult” neighbourhood school to enrol in the parent-teacher association or offer to coach the soccer team.

In both examples the suffering imposed is mild. But Swinburne suggests that when the suffering imposed reaches a certain level of intensity the good of sharing in that suffering for the one who imposes it rises to an obligation. In this connection he offers the following example.

Suppose, firstly, that England has been unjustly attacked and the government has conscripted all men between 18 and 30 to defend it; suppose, secondly, that a parent may “veto” the conscription of their son if he is under 21; suppose, thirdly, that older men under 50 may volunteer. Most parents with teenage sons veto the conscription but Swinburne, in view of the gravity of the situation, refuses to do so: He insists that his 19 year old son enlist. Suppose finally that Swinburne is 45 and so himself eligible but under no obligation to serve. “Since I am forcing my son to endure the hardship and danger of military service,” concludes Swinburne, “I have a moral obligation to him to volunteer myself.” And of course in circumstances of this kind the sharing could not be incognito. “The parent needs not merely to share the child’s suffering but to show him that he is doing so.”

The relevance of all this to the doctrine of the Incarnation can be spelled out as follows: Given the amount of pain and suffering which God, though for a good purpose, permits us to endure it is very plausible to suppose that he incurs a moral obligation upon himself to share in that suffering; and given that God, being perfectly good, always performs the morally best available action, it is very plausible to suppose that he would discharge that obligation. This could be achieved by means of an incarnation; that is, by becoming human and, “living a life containing much suffering and ending with the great crisis which all humans have to face: the crisis of death.” And one way to ensure that he has shared in the very worst suffering humans must endure is to live a life that ends in a brutal and unjustly imposed execution.

A moment ago it was noted that the obligation to share in the suffering one imposes on another can not be discharged in secret. Thus an incarnation would not fulfil its purpose unless the knowledge that it had occurred were made widely available to the future human race. And since the human life of God Incarnate would be of limited duration he must also found an institution—such as the Christian Church—to proclaim his message.

Swinburne therefore argues that the terrible suffering of Jesus, including his betrayal and his brutal and unjustly imposed execution, is not incongruous on the assumption that Jesus was God Incarnate; rather, it is precisely the sort of thing we might expect of God given his moral perfection and the great human suffering which, though for good reason, he allows.

The next post in this series will discuss the second of three a priori reasons for thinking that God would become Incarnate: To provide a means of making atonement.


[1] Here one thinks of Buddha’s famous Flower Sermon. Zen Buddhism is said to have begun when Buddha held up a white lotus flower to his followers and said—absolutely nothing. No one understood the meaning of this, except for one disciple, who smiled subtly and with that subtle smile Zen Buddhism was born.

[2] As Emerson put it, “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”


why I love my grandchildren


John 8:37-42

37 I know you are a seed from Abraham, but you are seeking opportunities to kill me because my message has no place in you.
38 I am speaking about what I have seen in the presence of the Father; therefore, you are doing what you have heard from your father.”
39 “Our father is Abraham,” they answered. “If you were Abraham’s children,” Jesus told them, “you would do the things Abraham did.
40 But now you are you are seeking opportunities to kill me, a man who has told you the truth that I heard from God. Abraham did not do this.
41 You’re doing the things your father does.” “We weren’t born due to sexual immorality,” they said. “We have one Father– God.”
42 Jesus said to them, “If God were your Father, you would have loved me, because I came from God and I am here. Because I didn’t come on my own, but he sent me.

why I love my grandchildren

I currently have seven wonderful grandchildren, and I love them all deeply. I joy at seeing them, and hearing them, and I love to be around them. It’s not that I see myself in these beautiful creatures of God. No, they don’t look like me. But I can see their parents in them. And I love their parents.

Jesus’ main problem with these “seed from Abraham” hypocrites is that he could not see his father in them. He saw their father, the devil in them. They were doing the things of their father, the devil. This included their backhanded statement about not being born due to sexual immorality. They were accusing Jesus of being an illegitimate child.

The hypocrites could not love Jesus because they didn’t truly love God, even though they claimed to be a seed from Abraham. Abraham reflected God by his actions; these hypocrites did not.

LORD, help us to draw others to you by reflecting your love in our actions.