For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.
Ephesians 6:12 – New International Version
Many people are preoccupied with the wrong war, I suspect. At least, if I speak just for myself, over the last few weeks I have been utterly preoccupied with war updates and the progress of the latest war. Even now as I write this, I find it hard to resist the temptation to go online and check the news. And from what I hear, I am not the only one. In fact, I know I am not the only one who is preoccupied with the latest war news. Many of us have been figuratively glued to our devices and televisions. We are understandably mesmerized by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
But it is not the only ongoing war. There are many, many others. Furthermore, it might not even be the most important war.
Now, I know that might sound naïve of me. I can imagine someone reacting with: “Of course it’s the most important war! It’s the most important war since World War 2! Don’t you realize that we might be on the brink of World War 3?! We might be on the brink of a nuclear war!”
Yes, I do realize that. I know that the invasion of Ukraine could even potentially escalate into a nuclear war. And yes, I agree that the stakes here are incredibly high.
But I remind myself (and now you) there are imperceptible battles being fought every hour and all around us for the loyalties of human hearts, the content of maturing minds, and the purity of contested souls. Are these more immediate, less noticeable battles not even more important than the glaring, blaring war in Eastern Europe?
To use a line from an old song, we could win the war over there, but lose the one at home.
On a hunch, I went online to find out what the name Kyiv means in Ukrainian. It is named for someone named Kyi, one of its founders, whether legendary or historical.
More interesting to me, though, was the emblem on Kyiv’s official flag. It depicts Michael, the Archangel, holding a flaming sword in his right hand and a cross-covered shield in the other hand. Here it is:
And here are all five of the biblical passages that reference Michael the Archangel:
As I write this, there is a physical battle raging for control of the city of Kyiv.
Readers of my blog know that I will find the final reference to Michael, that is, to the Book of Revelation, particularly intriguing. The three references to Michael in the Book of Daniel are also very intriguing, especially the last one.
What do you think? Is it of any prophetic or eschatological significance that Michael the Archangel symbolically represents the City of Kyiv?
Weeks before the current war between Russia and Ukraine began, I started reading Alexandr Solzhenitsyn’s The Gulag Archipelago. Now, with the most recent Russian belligerance (courtesy of Vladimir Putin), the book has proven to be very, very timely. Although it harkens back about fifty plus years, suddenly almost everything Solzhenitsyn talks about fits own day: Back to the USSR… lucky us.
In case anyone is confused as to what the Gulag Archipelago actually was, Solzhenitsyn refers not to a literal archipelago of islands in a lake, sea, or ocean, but instead to the vast complex of gulags that comprised the sprawling Soviet prison system. Solzhenitsyn himself was a zek, a prisoner in the Gulag Archipelago, for much of his adult life.
Here are two sequential pages (pp. 312-313 of my personal copy of the offical abridged edition), containing some of the most frequently quoted passages in the book. On these two pages Solzhenitsyn reflects on his own personal transformation during his time as prisoner:
During his time in the gulags Solzhenitsyn went from being an atheistic Marxist to a committed Christian.
If you could assign and compel all your friends to read one hundred books, which books would make your list of required reading?
One book I would very seriously consider including on my list is the abridged version of The Gulag Archipelago, by the Russian dissident Alexandr Solzhenitzyn. Hopefully, the book sounds vaguely familiar to you. If so, it may be because Time Magazine declared it the best nonfiction book of the 20th century. And Solzenitzyn won the 1970 Nobel Prize in literature. But still, few people I know have actually sat down and read it. I had not until this year.
Currently, I am both reading it and listening to an audio version of it, read (in perfect American English) by Solzhenitzyn’s son Ignat. Ignat must have lived here in the United States for at least a while, because he speaks both Russian and English fluently. His fluency with both languages and familiarity with both cultures proves to be a big help to those of us listeners who do not speak Russian or know much recent Russian history.
Should you decide to read or listen to it, I definitely recommend the abridged version, not the unabridged version. Why? Well, the unabridged version of The Gulag Archipelago is very, very long. It requires the diligence and perseverance of a reader who has the time to devote to three volumes of some very dark and heavy material. I knew right from the start that I would only have the time to devote to a single volume; and thus I opted for the abridged version.
Incidentally (and this may come as a surprise), the book does have relevance to eschatology and the Book of Revelation. How so? Well, the most significant point of connection is the tyranny of totalitarianism. The Book of Revelation speaks of a future tyrant, a totalitarian figure known as the Beast from the Abyss.
Connectedly (in my thinking, at least), the Gulag Archipelago tells the tale of what happens to a country under the strong arm of totalitarianism. Totalitarianism occurs when a government decides it deserves the ultimate allegiance of its populace. Said slightly differently, totalitarian regimes effectively declare themselves to hold the place that only God rightfully holds. A totalitarian regime demands the absolute devotion of its citizens. In so doing, it puts itself in the place of God. By requiring and compelling all its subject to submit (i.e., bow down) in servile submission (i.e., worship), it fashions itself into an idol, a subsitute for God.
The Gulag Archipelago shows how the Soviet leadership, and especially Stalin, methodically did just that. The Soviets demanded the absolute compliance and devotion of their citizens. And to achieve their idolatrous goal, they would (and did) use any and all horrifying means to coerce it.
Based on my study and understanding of the Book of Revelation, I want to suggest that whenever you see a government tending towards totalitarianism, you may well be seeing a foreshadowing of the ultimate Beast to come, the Beast from the Abyss. I believe that the Soviet Union was a very recent case study in how that future Beast will likely behave.
The Gulag Archipelago should be required reading, if only to make a relatively free people realize what can (and will) happen when they lose their freedom to a totalitarian regime.
Within the last few days, I came across an online article about a poem that serves as a treasure-hunters’ guide. The poem contains a variety of clues about where a buried treasure can be found. Doubtless, a number of people will be motivated to decipher the poem and go diligently hunt for the treasure chest. That will be the reaction of some.
And just how did I react? I read it, and immediately dismissed it. I never even seriously considered it. I deemed the undertaking to be curious, kind of fun, and somewhat interesting… but definitely not for me. No, I am not going to join this particular prospective treasure hunt.
Now, for a moment, imagine a scenario. Imagine that whoever buried the treasure actually wants me to be the one who finds it. For the purposes of our hypothetic scenario, let’s call the one who hid the treasure The Poet. Again, imagine that the Poet wants me to be the one to find the buried treasure. How would the Poet react upon learning of my dismissive attitude? How would the Poet feel about my indifference?
To start and obviously, the Poet would not be pleased. The Poet would be disappointed. The Poet would probably try to contact me and persuade me to reconsider. The Poet would suggest I at least read the Poem. The Poet would attempt to encourage me. The Poet would urge me to go search for the treasure. That is exactly what the Poet would do.
But as it is, hypothetical scenario aside, I will not go looking for treasure. And why not? Here are some reasons why I will not go search for the treasure:
First of all, I have other, more pressing things going on in my life. I have responsibilities that I consider more urgent and important than this prospective treasure hunt, this wild goose chase.
Secondly, I rather doubt myself. I believe it is highly likely that someone else will win. I think someone else is likely to find it before me. So why would I bother with the effort?
Thirdly, I know neither the Poet nor the Poem. And because I do not know the Poet, I am a bit suspicious about the whole proposition. The Poet might not be reliable.
Fourthly and finally, it sounds like it might require a lot of work. If my chances of finding the treasure are as low as I suspect, I am not sure it is worth my time.
As you may have realized by now, I am using this treasure hunt as an analogy. No, I am not making this all up. I really did recently read about a poem and a prospective treasure hunt. And I really did immediately dismiss the possibility. But eventually I realized I could use it here as an analogy, an instructive similarity.
In the Gospel of Matthew (13:44), Jesus referenced the discovery of a buried treasure in a very brief parable. Jesus said,
The Kingdom of Heaven is like treasure hidden in a field, which a man found and covered up. Then in his joy, he goes and sells all that he has and buys the field.
Jesus, comparing eternal life in the Kingdom of Heaven to hidden treasure
In just two sentences, Jesus is saying a lot. By comparing the Kingdom of Heaven to hidden treasure, Jesus wants us to understand that a lot of people — most people — will never even notice it. And by drawing our attention to the man’s thrilled reaction, Jesus wants us to understand just how invaluable the Kingdom of Heaven actually is. The man who found the treasure rightly recognized that it was worth selling everything he owned to obtain.
This parable is something I grew up hearing and reading. As a result, when now I hear about buried treasures, I do not just think about pirates and hand-drawn maps and wooden treasure chests; I also recall this parable.
Moreover, I will take a bit of creative liberty here. I will suggest that we can use the same buried treasure motif to talk instructively about Scripture itself. Scripture can be compared to buried treasure — not just treasure, but treasures, plural. God is the Poet, and Scripture is the Poem. God wants you to find the treasures that are there, just waiting to be found. God wants you to put forth diligent effort. Yet most people will not bother. They will not put forth the effort. They will not do so because of the reasons I have listed above. But as a consequence of their dismissiveness, they will miss out on what might otherwise have been theirs.
And in particular, this can be used as an analogy for Scriptural analogies, such as Jesus’ parables and the Book of Revelation. Scriptural analogies require even more diligent effort than the rest of the Bible. Therefore, perhaps they are like treasure boxes contained within a treasure chest.
If the comparison is apt, I think it is safe to assume that the treasure boxes must contain true treasures, even if they are especially hard to open. The reason I write this blog is to present what I consider to be rare and valuable treasures. I do hope some of you will concur with me, or at least be motivated to go treasure-hunting for yourselves.
Last night while browsing the BBC news, I came across an article about a scuba diver who was momentarily “swallowed” by a Humpback whale off the coast of Massachusetts. This morning, after handing her a cup of coffee, I told my wife about the article. How did she react? She gasped in delight and said…
Which is exactly how I reacted when I noticed the article. And, my goodness, who wouldn’t? Who would not immediately think of Jonah in the belly of the whale?
Curiously, the author of the BBC article nowhere mentions the name of Jonah, although the clear connection was made immediately by me and my wife. For the sake of fairness and accuracy, I should say that the BBC writer does refer to Michael Packard’s brief Humpback enveloping as a “Biblical ordeal,” and does refer to the whale as “the leviathan,” and thus demonstrates some level of familiarity with the Bible. However, no mention is made in the article of the name of Jonah. Again, I find that curious. Why not make a clear and obvious point of connection explicit?
One is left to speculate on why the author or the editor of the article declined to make the connection. Whatever the reason, I will say that the account of Jonah (and his 72-hour ordeal inside the “great fish”) has been received with a lot of skepticism, at least by a lot of adults. Moreover, Michael Packard’s brief scare does not exactly compare, in terms of duration, since, by his own estimation, it lasted less than a minute, whereas Jonah was in the belly of the whale for three days and three nights. Significantly, Jesus once made a prophetic point of that 72 hour period.
For as Jonah was in the belly of the huge fish three days and three nights, so the Son of Man will be in the heart of the earth three days and three nights.
Jesus of Nazareth, as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew, 12:40
Three days and three nights inside of a marine creature is a very long time. It is a wonder that Jonah was not digested. It is a wonder that Jonah had enough oxygen to breathe. It is a wonder that Jonah could somehow survive that. More than a wonder, it would have been a miracle. As for Jesus’ comment, a resurrection from the dead is also a miracle, indeed even more of a miracle. But Jesus’ point had to do with the duration of internalization, those 72 hours. I will speak to that duration in my next blog post.
For now, though, I will affirm that Christians do believe that the God of the Bible is sovereign over the course of history, even over curious events off the coast of Massachusetts. When a scuba diver is momentarily swallowed by and then spat up by a Humpback whale, I would suggest that the obvious biblical connection is supposed to be made. Upon hearing about it, people are supposed to react with a gasp of delight and exclaim “Jonah!”
Its precise latitude and longitude coordinates criss-cross at 31 degrees, 46 minutes, 41.2176 seconds north of the equator; and 35 degrees, 14 minutes, 9.5748 seconds east of the prime meridian. Many years ago, long before those coordinates had any meaning at all, heaven and earth intersected there, at that very location, give or take a few fractions of a second north or south, east or west. According to the Bible, the Presence and Glory of the LORD God Almighty once dwelt at those coordinates precisely, inside a magnificent temple, in an inner chamber known as the Holy of Holies. But the Glory of God has long since vacated that location, and abandoned those geographic coordinates. In the language of the Old Testament, it might now be called Ichabod. As the Prophecy of Ezekiel depicts using very evocative imagery (see, for example, Ezekiel Chapter 10), it is a God-forsaken place.
Even though the Glory is long, long gone, that same geographic spot is hotly and sometimes violently contested turf, even today, and especially today. If you happen to keep an eye on the international news, you are aware that the Israelis and some of the Palestinian politico-military factions have been firing volleys of rockets and missiles at each other over the last several days. This latest round of renewed claim-staking and blood-letting began last Friday, just a few days ago. And the back-and-forth retaliatory strikes seem likely to escalate into the foreseeable future. Alarmingly, the fighting could ripple into a wider regional war.
Why are they fighting, yet again? Primarily, the two sides are fighting about who controls that once God-forsaken geographic location. And they have even been fighting each other face-to-face, man-to-man on top of that spot, on top of the blocks of stone that cover that geographic location. This past weekend, they were sometimes literally physically fighting each other inside the hilltop complex that now stands where the temple once stood.
But who cares? Why should we care? Does it matter to anyone besides them? Does the fact that the Israelis and the Palestinians are once again fighting at that location — at the place where the Glory of God once dwelt on Planet Earth — does it have any special significance? Or is it much ado about nothing?
It might matter a lot. Whether it matters entirely depends on whether those spatial coordinates and that geographic location continue to have any special significance to the God who once dwelt there in Glory, only to abandon it later. Asked most simply: Has God forsaken that location forever?
It nearly goes without saying that I am here implicitly affirming that the God who once dwelt there is actually the LORD God Almighty, the actual Creator and Sustainer of heaven and earth, and not just a fictional, mythological being. But I will hereby make the implicit explicit. I am assuming and affirming just that. I do believe that the Creator once dwelt in Glory in a gilded chamber on a hilltop in ancient Jerusalem. Indeed, the historical events that transpired on and near that particular hilltop make that claim much more believable, when they are given careful attention and close examination. Prophecies have been made and fulfilled there, repeatedly over the centuries.
If that is indeed so — if prophecies were made and fulfilled there in the past — could it be that prophecies are continuing to be fulfilled there in the present and in the future?
In the Gospel of Luke 21:24, Jesus is recorded as prophesying this about the Jewish citizens of first-century Jerusalem:
They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled.
And guess what? History has proven Jesus right. It happened just as he once said. They did fall by the edge of the sword, and horribly so. They were led captive among all nations, and for almost two thousand years. And Jerusalem has been trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, and continues to be, especially at the very coordinates where the Glory of God once dwelt.
But when I hear the news reports and watch the Jewish citizens of Jerusalem literally physically fighting with their Gentile neighbors over that God-forsaken location, I do have to wonder if the times of the Gentiles are nearly fulfilled. Time will tell, I suppose.
They were there on the mountainside out of deference to their esteemed Rabbi from Galilee.
Catastrophes invariably provoke variations on one basic theological question: What did God have to do with this event?
One week ago, on Friday, April 30th 2021, an awful tragedy occurred on a mountainside in northern Galilee at an annual nighttime festival called Lag Ba’Omer. Forty-five men and boys were accidentally trampled to death after they fell onto the metal floor of a narrow passageway which had been constructed near a tomb-turned-shrine. No, nothing malicious occurred. There was no bomb. There was no terrorist attack. It was simply a freak accident. It was just far too crowded on the mountainside that night. Too many of their fellow festival-attendees were rushing ahead and pushing through the narrow passageway at once. Someone must have lost his footing; and then a tragic domino effect occurred. The sheer momentum of the crowd crushed forty-five of them.
So why were there so many people there on the mountainside last Friday night? Every year on Lag Ba’Omer thousands of Orthodox Jewish men and boys make a pilgrimage to Mount Meron to venerate a second-century Rabbi named Shimon Bar Yochai, also known as Rashbi, because Mount Meron is where his tomb is located; and Lag Ba’Omer is the anniversary of Rashbi’s death.
Incidentally (and of special interest to me), Lag Ba’Omer translates from Hebrew into English as “the 33rd [Day] of Omer.” The omer are the sheaves of grain that symbolize the 49 days between the end of Passover and the Day of Pentecost (see Leviticus 23:9-21 for a scriptural description of the period). Of course, the end of Passover and the Day of Pentecost are very important holy days for Christians, as well, as one happens to be Resurrection Day, and the other the anniversary of the Founding of the Church. Christians might also find it curious that Mount Meron is considered a possible site for the Transfiguration, when and where Jesus was transfigured into a glowing figure who spoke with the two long-departed Old-Testament figure-heads, Moses and Elijah. This event — this splendid, glowing Transfiguration — happened in view of three of his awestruck disciples — Peter, James, and John (see Mark 9:2-13; Matthew 17:1-13; and Luke 9:28-36). But the whereabouts of the Transfiguration is contested by scholars. Did it actually occur on Mount Meron? We don’t know. New Testament scholars cannot be certain as to where the Transfiguration occurred, because the three Gospel accounts simply say it occurred on “a high mountain.” Still, based on Jesus’ textually-indicated route from Point A (Caesarea Philippi) to Point B (Capernaum), it might well have happened somewhere in between, which would be Mount Meron.
From henceforth however, Mount Meron will be remembered as the place where 45 Orthodox Jewish men and boys were crushed on April 30th 2021 in an awful accident. Predictably, in the week hence, lots of people in Israel are asking just whom to blame for the accident. Someone even wrote an Op-Ed article saying no one person bears the blame, besides God. Although it may sound blasphemous, it is legitimate to ask if the Op-Ed writer was right. Should God be held responsible for the accident? Please ponder the matter with me before you answer that.
Whenever an event like this occurs, people ask the what-about-God question. They ask if God had anything to do with it or not. Theologically speaking, this is called the Problem of Evil, because instances of evil (perceived or actual) leave us wondering why God decreed it or allowed it to occur. Technically speaking, the Problem of Evil is reduced to just a single word: theodicy.
At the risk of sounding far too detached and clinical, over the years theologians (like me) have compiled a number of answers to the theodicy question. A six-point list may seem especially callous. But in the final analysis, detached logical reasons can actually help people grapple with such questions. So here are six possible theodicies — six theological explanations for any given catastrophic event:
Individual Judgment. God is using this catastrophic event to express some measure of displeasure with a person.
Corporate Judgment. God is using this catastrophic event to express some measure of displeasure with a defined group of people.
Individual Testing. God is focusing this catastrophic event instrumentally on an individual basis. That is, God wants to see how an individual person will respond to this circumstantial test. The person’s response will determine growth in his/her character, and may well determine his/her future.
Corporate Testing. God is using this catastrophic event instrumentally on a corporate basis. That is, God wants to see how a group of people will respond to this circumstantial test. The group’s response will determine growth in their corporate culture, and may determine their future course.
Cause and Effect. God is not directly involved in this catastrophe, insofar as it was not divinely ordained as judgment nor testing. However, God did not intervene to prevent its occurrence, either. The catastrophic event in consideration is best explained as a cause-and-effect situation.
Divine Non-Involvement. God had nothing whatsoever to do with the catastrophe in consideration. God neither ordained nor allowed the catastrophe to occur; but it occurred nonetheless. (However, given what the Bible reveals about the Sovereignty of God, I do not believe this can ever stand as a genuine theological option.)
At this juncture, I have a question: Are there any other possible theodicies that I have not listed here? If so, please feel free to let me know what possibilities you might suggest.
As for which of the six explanations fit last week’s Mount Meron accident, I will simply shrug. But if pressed, I would say I think it is probably a combination of the first five explanations — but not the sixth. I do not think the sixth explanation is viable for anyone who believes in the foreknowledge and sovereignty of God.
As a Christian theologian, I do wonder if this catastrophic event will prompt further questions about the irreconcilable claims of two Jewish Rabbis from Galilee, one of whom is buried on a slope of Mount Meron, the other of whom is not.