Author Archives: Mason Barge

Paul, by Frederick Buechner

He wasn’t much to look at. “Bald-headed, bowlegged, strongly built, a man small in size, with meeting eyebrows, with a rather large nose.” Years after his death that’s the way the apocryphal Acts of Paul and Thecla describes him, and Paul himself quotes somebody who had actually seen him: “His letters are strong, but his bodily presence is weak” (2 Corinthians 10:10). It was no wonder.

“Five times I have received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one,” he wrote. “Three times I have been beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. A night and a day I have been adrift at sea. In danger from rivers… robbers… my own people… Gentiles. In toil and hardship, in hunger and thirst . . . in cold and exposure” (2 Corinthians 11:24-27). He also was sick off and on all his life and speaks of a “thorn in the flesh” that God gave him “to keep me from being too elated” (2 Corinthians 12:7). Epilepsy? Hysteria? Who knows? The wonder of it is that he was able to get around at all.

But get around he did. Corinth, Ephesus, Thessalonica, Galatia, Colossae, not to mention side trips to Jerusalem, Cyprus, Crete, Malta, Athens, Syracuse, Rome-there was hardly a whistle-stop in the Mediterranean world that he didn’t make it to eventually, and sightseeing was the least of it. He planted churches the way Johnny Appleseed planted trees. And whenever he had ten minutes to spare he wrote letters. He bullied. He coaxed. He comforted. He cursed. He bared his soul. He reminisced. He complained. He theologized. He inspired. He exulted. Punch-drunk and Christ-drunk, he kept in touch with everybody. The postage alone must have cost him a fortune, not counting the energy and time. And where did it all start? On the road, as you might expect. He was still in charge of a Pharisee goon squad in those days and was hell-bent for Damascus to round up some troublemaking Christians and bring them to justice. And then it happened.

It was about noon when he was knocked flat by a blaze of light that made the sun look like a forty-watt bulb, and out of the light came a voice that called him by his Hebrew name twice. “Saul,” it said, and then again “Saul. Why are you out to get me?” and when he pulled himself together enough to ask who it was he had the honor of addressing, what he heard to his horror was, “I’m Jesus of Nazareth, the one you’re out to get.” We’re not told how long he lay there in the dust then, but it must have seemed at least six months. If Jesus of Nazareth had what it took to burst out of the grave like a guided missile, he thought, then he could polish off one bowlegged Christian-baiter without even noticing it, and Paul waited for the ax to fall. Only it wasn’t an ax that fell. “Those boys in Damascus,” Jesus said. “Don’t fight them. Join them. I want you on my side,” and Paul never in his life forgot the sheer lunatic joy and astonishment of that moment. He was blind as a bat for three days afterward, but he made it to Damascus anyway and was baptized on the spot. He was never the same again, and neither, in a way, was the world (Acts 9:1-6; 22:4-16; 26:9-18).

Everything he ever said or wrote or did from that day forward was an attempt to bowl over the human race as he’d been bowledover himself while he lay there with dust in his mouth and road apples down the front of his shirt: “Don’t fight them, join them. He wants you on his side.” You, of all people. Me. Who in the world, who in the solar system, the galaxy, could ever have expected it? He knew it was a wild and crazy business-“the folly of what we preach,” he said-but he preached it anyway. “A fool for Christ’s sake” he called himself as well as weak in his bodily presence, but he knew that “God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom, and God’s weakness is stronger than human strength” (1 Corinthians 1:18-25). There were times he got so carried away that his language went all out of whack. Infinitives split like atoms, syntax exploded, participles were left dangling.

“By grace you have been saved,” he wrote to the Ephesians, and grace was his key word. Grace. Salvation was free, gratis. There was nothing you had to do to earn it and nothing you could do to earn it. “This is not your own doing, it is the gift of god-not the result of works, so that no one may boast,” and God knows he’d worked, himself, and boasted too-worked as a Pharisee, boasting about the high marks he’d racked up in heaven till the sweat ran down and Christian heretics dropped like flies-only to find en route to Damascus that he’d been barking up the wrong tree from the start, trying to beat and kick his way through a door that had stood wide open the whole time. “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works,” he wrote; in other words, good works were part of it, all right, but after the fact, not before (Ephesians 2:8-10).


Little by little the forgiven person became a forgiving person, the person who found he or she was loved became capable of love, the slob that God had had faith in anyway became de-slobbed, faithful, and good works blossomed from his branches, from her branches, like fruit from a well-watered tree. What fruit? Love, Paul wrote the boys and girls in Galatia. Love was the sweetest and tenderest. And then “joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control” till his typewriter ribbon was in tatters and he had to take to a pencil instead (Galatians 5:22-23).

And Christ was his other key word, of course. Christ-the key to the key. He never forgot how he’d called him by name-twice, to make sure it got through-and “while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us,” he wrote out for the Romans (Romans 5:6) and for the Galatians again, “I have been crucified with Christ”-all that was dried up in him, full of hate and self-hating, self-serving and sick, all of it behind him now, dead as a doornail-so that ” it is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20). And then, to the Philippians by registered mail, return receipt requested: “For me to live is Christ” (Philippians 1:21), and to the Ephesians, for fear they’d feel neglected if the mail carrier came empty-handed, “You he made alive when you were dead” (Ephesians 2:1). Alive like him.

But there were other times too. Sometimes the depression was so great he could hardly move the pencil across the page. “I don’t understand my own actions,” he said. “For I don’t do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate… I can will what is right, but I can’t do it. For I don’t do the good I want, but the evil I don’t want is what I do… For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind and making me captive to the law of sin… Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” He sat there by himself, aiming his awful question at the plaster peeling off his walls, and maybe it was only ten minutes or maybe it was ten years before he had the heart to scratch out the answer: “Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord,” he said (Romans 7:15-25).

It got him going again, and on the next page he was back in his old stride with a new question. “If God is for us, who is against us?” He worked on that one for a minute or two and then gave it another try. “Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?” It was the story of his life, needless to say, and at last he’d laid the groundwork for an answer he could get his back into. “No!” he wrote, the tip of his pencil point breaking off, he bore down so hard. “In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:31-39). He sat there, with his cauliflower ear and a lump on his forehead the size of an egg from the last time the boys had worked him over, and when he reached for the drawer to get out an envelope, he found that his hand was shaking so badly he could hardly open it. The ups and the downs.

The fights with his enemies and the fights with his friends. The endless trips with a fever and diarrhea. Keeping one jump ahead of the sheriff. Giving his spiel on windy street corners with nobody much to hear him most of the time except some underfed kids and a few old women and some yokels who didn’t even know the language. Where was it all going to get him in the end? Where was it all going to get all of them, any of them, in the end? When you came right down to it, what was God up to, for God’s sweet sake, sending them all out-prophets, apostles, evangelists, teachers, the whole tattered bunch-to beat their gums and work themselves into an early grave?

God was making a body for Christ, Paul said. Christ didn’t have a regular body anymore, so God was making him one out of anybody he could find who looked as if he or she might just possibly do. He was using other people’s hands to be Christ’s hands and other people’s feet to be Christ’s feet, and when there was someplace where Christ was needed in a hurry and needed bad, he put the finger on some maybe not all that innocent bystander and got that person to go and be Christ in that place for lack of anybody better.

And how long was the whole great circus to last? Paul said, why, until we all become human beings at last, until we all “come to maturity,” as he put it; and then, since there had been only one really human being since the world began, until we all make it to where we’re like him, he said-“to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Ephesians 4:11-13). Christs to each other, Christs to God. All of us. Finally. It was just as easy, and just as hard, as that.

Nobody’s sure whether he ever got to Spain the way he’d planned or not, but either before he went or soon after he got back, he had his final run-in with the authorities, and the story is that they took him to a spot about three miles out of Rome and right there on the road, where he’d spent most of his life including what was in a way the beginning of his life, they lopped off his head.

At the end of its less than flattering description of his personal appearance, the Acts of Paul and Thecla says that “at times he looked like a man, and at times he had the face of an angel.” If there is a God in heaven, as even in his blackest moments Paul never doubted there was, then bald-headed and bowlegged as he was, with those eyebrows that met and that oversized nose, it was with angel eyes that he exchanged a last long glance with his executioners.

~originally published in Peculiar Treasures and later in Beyond Words

Fathers & Faith

New Poll on Struggles with Dads and God

Father and son reading Bible
Two findings emerged in a new national poll that I commissioned on fatherhood and faith: the younger the generation, the more people report having difficult relationships with their fathers. At the same time, the younger generation reports the highest percentage of people who are struggling with belief in God.

I’m wondering: are these findings related?

The poll itself can’t prove or disprove a direct correlation between those findings. Certainly, there are a lot of factors that influence a person’s belief in God. But in my case — and in many others I’ve seen through the years — a person’s relationship with their earthly father can influence whether they’ll be receptive to a heavenly Father.

I commissioned the Barna Group to conduct the poll in conjunction with my new book, The Case for Grace, in which themes of faith and fatherhood are intertwined. In the book, which came out this week, I describe my own rocky relationship with my dad, which was one of the factors that moved me toward spiritual skepticism. I was an atheist for much of his life, until a nearly two-year investigation of the evidence for Christianity prompted me to become a Christian in 1981.

Among the findings of the poll:

• The younger the responder, the more likely they are to report difficulties in their relationship with their fathers. Among the Elder generation (ages 69 and up), 15 percent said they had a poor or below average relationship with their dad while growing up. For Baby Boomers (ages 50-68), the number was 17 percent; for Gen X (ages 31-49), it was 22 percent. And for Millennials (ages 18-30), the number grew to 26 percent — or one in four.

• More than one-third of Millennials are struggling with belief in God, compared with one-quarter of Gen X and one-fifth of Baby Boomers and Elders. Put another way, 62 percent of Millennials are certain God exists, compared with 74 percent of Gen X, 82 percent of Boomers, and 79 percent of Elders.

So two findings can be identified. First, a higher percentage of Millennials report having subpar relationships with their fathers than previous generations. And second, a higher percentage of Millennials are uncertain or doubtful that God exists, compared to older Americans. While this particular survey can’t establish for sure whether there’s a correlation, I think these findings are definitely worth further exploration.

Some findings by other researchers are also relevant:

• In his book Faith of the Fatherless, psychologist Paul Vitz of New York University showed that many well-known atheists through history — including Friedrich Nietzsche, David Hume, Bertrand Russell, Jean-Paul Sartre, Albert Camus, Arthur Schopenhauser, Ludwig Feuerbach, Baron D’Holbach, Volatire, H.G. Wells, Madalyn Murray O’Hair, and others — felt abandoned or deeply disappointed with their fathers.

“That a child’s psychological representation of his father is intimately connected to his understanding of God was assumed by Freud and has been rather well developed by a number of psychologists, especially psychoanalysts,” said Vitz. “In other words, an atheist’s disappointment in and resentment of his own father unconsciously justifies his rejection of God.”

by Lee Strobel

Don’t Leave Home Without It

Don’t Leave Home Without – What?

Have I not commanded you? Be strong and courageous. Do not be frightened, and do not be dismayed, for the Lord your God is with you wherever you go.”

~ Joshua 1:9

Most people will recognize the title as the product of a Madison Avenue ad shop; it’s a slogan written for American Express and used in their television and magazine commercials. A committee of copy writers and ad executives decided we need to have an Amex card with us whenever we leave the house. But Madison Avenue is in the business of lying for money. They want to make something look better than it is, so that people who don’t need it will pay money for it, and then they can have a big salary, a summer house in the Hamptons, an ulcer and a second wife

Lies are expensive. The truth is free. There are people who do try to make a lot of money selling it, and some who succeed, but it’s free. Or at worst, you can get it used for $4 on

And the truth is, you can leave home (at least sometimes) without a credit card. But there are three things that you cannot leave home without: Love. Joy. Hope. If you have been a Christian very long, you will recognize a common theme among these three traits, which is, that they are all fruits of the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul tells us that these three abide: Faith, hope, and charity. So for convenience sake, let us bundle faith with joy and see them as two sides of the same coin.

“Abide” means, of course, “live”. And in the parlance of the New Testament, we live only by knowing Christ; as we are learning in Galatians, the essential state of salvation is that we die and are reborn in Christ. He lives in us, and (using the preposition “in” with a different twist) we live in Him. And to live in Christ boils down to our possessing the three cardinal attributes of faith/joy, hope, and charity/love.

Faith and joy are the root of belief, the beginning, the key, to knowing God. Faith means that we are so sure that God exists and has told us the truth in His Bible that we bet everything on Him. It is almost impossible to define, because it occurs in a different way than anything else we experience. It is a realization that there is something very powerful that we cannot see, hear, or touch, something more powerful than the visible reality around us. Faith is the trait, and joy is the resulting emotion, when we realize through our spirit that we have a God, who made us and knows us.

Hope is the assurance of something unseen. It has a different meaning than when we use it in everyday language, meaning that we wish for something that we are not at all sure will happen. It does not mean that we “hope we go to heaven”. It is tied to faith, but with a different emphasis, and emphasizes certainty, not contingency.

Hope is the absolute knowledge we receive, through faith, that Christ was the Son of God and that, by His sacrifice, we belong to God and He is going to look out for us. When all is said and done, we know that we will live, in peace and perfect happiness, with Christ in heaven. We have already crossed the finish line and we have won the race. It’s all over but the shoutin’, as the saying goes.

And to keep this short: read 1 John. Love is the result. It is the sign, the proof, that we are actually living in Christ. When we are careless of our faith and hope, our love recedes in proportion to how much we are living in the world. The best thing is to divorce ourselves from the world, even as we live in it, and take our love with us wherever we go, whatever we do.

Faith. Joy. Hope. Love. Don’t leave home without it.

Heavenly father, let me always live in the spirit and show Your love before all the world. Amen.

~ Mason Barge
Editor, Daily Prayer


Elijah is not the only person in the Bible who does not die. Enoch was a very early figure. In fact, he was Noah’s great-grandfather. Enocho walked in righteousness before God, and he was apparently taken somewhere by God while he still lived. (Genesis 5:21-24) The King James Version called this action “translation”: “By faith Enoch was translated that he should not see death; and was not found, because God had translated him.” (Hebrews 11:5)

The Greek word used in Hebrews, “metatithemi”, is like many Greek words unfortunately capable of more than one translation, as the preposition “meta” and thus the prefix “meta-” support a variety of meanings.  BDAG gives both definitions: 1) “to convey from one place to another”, and 2) “to effect a change in state or condition”. (3d ed. at 642)

The KJV and others take the view that Enoch was somehow changed or altered when God removed him, and the syntax supports their view. On the other hand, some modern translations say simply that Enoch was “transported”, also a defensible translation and much less laden with theological implication. God simply put Enoch somewhere else, one can reasonably claim, and this is all we know.

What is not defensible is the decision by the most illustrious recent translations to refer back to Genesis and say that God “took” Enoch. This is, indeed, what Genesis says.  But the author of Hebrews was inspired, and if he added meaning by choosing to add some information about Enoch, anyone crediting the New Testament with inspired status must honor the Greek of Hebrews as a verse different from the Hebrew of Genesis 5:21-24. One cannot call the verse in Hebrews a “misquotation” of Genesis, consistent with a claim of inspiration for the New Testament.

Moreover, the simple denotative verb in Genesis does not support the enormous connotations of “was taken by God” in modern English, set in the context of the New Testament.  Do we not have enough nonsense about heaven without the editors of the ESV, NIV, and – of all people! – the NASB, intentionally mistranslating “metatithemi”?

This post is meant as additional information to the Commentary for the Daily Devotion of August 11, 2014.

The Bestseller of 2013

120Many people might guess that the Bible is the best selling book in history. But only a few would know that the Bible was, in fact, the best-selling book in 2012, in the United States and in the world. And it will be the best-selling book of 2013. But best-seller lists do not count the Bible, because it’s unfair competition. According to an article in the New Yorker, “a conservative estimate is that in 2005 Americans purchased some twenty-five million Bibles.” The low end estimates for worldwide sales are 100 million annually, and the Gideon society reports that another 60 million are given away for free.

The kinky sex novel, Fifty Shades of Grey, has sold perhaps 30 million copies worldwide since it was published in June, 2011, with another 40 million copies sold of the two sequels. Various media call this a “sensation”; yet, it is a fraction of Bible sales.

In all likelihood, the Bible has been the best-selling book almost every year since the printing press was invented (seeing as how the first book ever printed by Herr Gutenberg was a Bible). I say almost, because it might have been beaten out by Mao’s Little Red Book for a couple of years in the late 1960s. And there might be years in which Koran sales exceed it; however, we must remember that ownership of these two books was (or is still) mandatory in many countries. I don’t think not owning a Bible has ever been a crime, even in Puritan New England. In fact, it was once forbidden in Europe and is today a crime to own one  in many countries.

So, do you want to guess how many Bible have been published in history? Hold onto your hat — estimates for the total number of Bibles ever published generally run around 6 billion.

This does not count, of course, spinoffs. How many books about the Bible are sold every year, I have no idea; but it is a lot.

My God, My God, Why Have You Forsaken Me?

Christ on the Cross by Diego Velazquez, 1632Both Matthew and Mark tell us that, just before He died, “Jesus cried out with a loud voice, saying, ‘Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani?’ that is, ‘My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?’” (Matthew 27:46; Mark 15:34) It is one of the most poignant and meaningul moments in the Gospels, yet it is also widely misunderstood.

The key to appreciating the full depth of this passage lies in Psalm 22, one of the few psalms that is truly prophetic. We must know the psalm, in fact, as fully as the audience before the cross, who were largely Jews thoroughly familiar with it. So stop for a minute and read it through, carefully, trying to grasp the overall meaning.

The first thing we notice is that the psalm is not a static description, but a dramatic work. It begins with a cry of anguish from a man who feels that God has forsaken him, and ends with a song of praise for a God who has saved him. This is a common form of psalms. The pithiest example might be the short Psalm 13, a mere 14 lines, which is almost a simplified model upon which 22 is based. It begins “How long, O Lord? Will You forget me forever?”, which it expounds in verses 1-4. In verse 5, it then declares that the poet trusts in God, reversing the tone of betrayal at the beginning. It then ends, “I will sing to the Lord, Because He has dealt bountifully with me.”

It is this same theme followed, in much more detail and depth, by Psalm 22. The psalm begins asking why God has forsaken the poet, who cries but gets no answer. But he remembers that his fathers had trusted in the Lord, and He had delivered them. (22:4-5) Next, the poet returns to his own pathetic state, this time adding that others sneer at him, saying that if he trust in the Lord, let the Lord deliver him from his predicament. (22:6-8)

This is, of course, exactly the scene given to us by the evangelists, just before Jesus’ death. “In the same way the chief priests also, along with the scribes and elders, were mocking Him and saying, . . . He trusts in God; let God rescue Him now, if He delights in Him.” (Matthew 27:41-43)

At this point, Psalm moves from the initial plaintive cry to a plea that God be with him. This section includes a prophetic description of Christ’s last moments:

Be not far from me, for trouble is near;
For there is none to help.
Many bulls have surrounded me;
Strong bulls of Bashan have encircled me.
They open wide their mouth at me,
As a ravening and a roaring lion.
I am poured out like water,
And all my bones are out of joint;
My heart is like wax;
It is melted within me.
My strength is dried up like a potsherd,
And my tongue cleaves to my jaws;
And You lay me in the dust of death.
For dogs have surrounded me;
A band of evildoers has encompassed me;
They pierced my hands and my feet.
I can count all my bones.
They look, they stare at me;
They divide my garments among them,
And for my clothing they cast lots. (22:11-18)

It is nearly impossible not to understand that this is prophetic of the crucifixion, because of the details. Christ is surrounded by “ravening lions” in the form of the high priests, who have insisted He be crucified over Pilate’s objection. “My tongue cleaves to my jaws” seems to be understood by one of the sympathetic watchers in the crowd, for “Immediately one of them ran, and taking a sponge, he filled it with sour wine and put it on a reed, and gave Him a drink. ” (Matthew 27:48)Christ_crucifixion_grunewald_matthias

Most obvious, of course, are the references to the piercing of His hands and feet in verse 16, and the dividing of His clothing, and casting of lots for it in verse 18. But the most heart-rending aspect of this middle section is the overall feeling of a man being crucified, his bones and organs failing him.

At this point, we enter the resolution phase of the drama. The poet gives us another prayer for deliverance, but the tone has shifted completely: rather than a cry of despair, it is a song of hope. The poet will praise God and tells Israel to stand in awe of Him, for “God has not hidden His face from [the afflicted man]”; rather, “when he cried to Him for help, He heard.” (22:22-24)

The final six verses are triumphant. Again, it is hard not to see a specific Christ prophecy in them, for the psalm speaks not of the restoration of Israel, but rather, the victory of righteousness throughout the entire world: “All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord, And all the families of the nations will worship before You.” (22:27)

Christ is at the point of death. The theory of crucifixion is that the victim slowly suffocate. After hanging on the cross for two days, Christ has finally become unable to breathe and will die. The opening verse of Psalm 22 is cried out with, probably, Jesus’ last full breath; we can imagine Him summoning his final bit of strength to say it. It is, literally, his last gasp.

He uses it to reference Psalm 22, for in Psalm 22 we see the exact parallel, told prophetically a millennium before, of the drama of His victory. Yes, He is telling the crowd, I will die; but my death is not the end of the story, not a final defeat, but rather the beginning of the story of God’s triumph over death — exactly as foretold in the psalm.

As Matt Slick  puts it, “Jesus is pointing to the scriptures to substantiate His messianic mission.”

You sometimes hear from people who insist that the words be taken out of context. That is, at His death, Christ felt that God had abandoned Him. Even more oddly, you will hear the theory that God turned His back on Christ, because Christ had taken on the sins of the world and God cannot look upon sin.

You might want not to argue with someone who says this. “[A] harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace.” (James 3:18)  But if you should find yourself wondering whether there is any merit to it, consider these points:

sgcluny1) Christ is God. He cannot turn His back on Himself!

2) The idea that “God cannot look upon sin” is contradicted in Scripture dozens of times. God looks upon and deals with sinful people constantly in the Old Testament and, in some parts of both Old Testament and New, speaks directly to demons or even Satan himself. Christ has a long conversation with Satan in Matthew 3 and chats with several demons while casting them out. God the Father talks to Abraham, Jonah, Moses, and many others who, although often righteous Jews, are clearly not free from sin. God the Father also talks to Satan. See Job 1:6-12.

3) If examples of God talking to sinful beings is not sufficient, the principle is stated outright, repeatedly, e.g. Proverbs 15:3, “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, watching the evil and the good.” Or Jer. 16:17 “For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my face, nor is their iniquity hidden from my eyes.” How, in fact, does God know Adam and Eve ate the apple?

You will find people quoting a line from Habakkuk as “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrongdoing.” (Hab. 1:13)(NIV)  (Making fine points of diction using the NIV, or any other dynamic equivalent translation, should be discouraged in general, for obvious reasons.) Let’s read the same line from the best widely-available literal translation, the New American Standard Bible: “Your eyes are too pure to approve evil; And You can not look on wickedness with favor.” Or better yet, let’s look at the Hebrew. The first verb in question, transliterated, is nabat. Here is Strong’s definition of nabat (#5027): “a primitive root; to scan, i.e. look intently at; by implication, to regard with pleasure, favor or care.” The line from Habakkuk is simply mistranslated in the NIV and many other Bibles, although the basic meaning of nabat is indeed “to look” (as the NASB and Strong’s Lexicon both note).

So, the place in the Bible where one finds support for the notion that “God cannot look upon evil” is a line from a minor prophet that actually means, “God does not look favorably on evil.”  Any other reading would render the verse self-contradictory anyway, for the very next line reads “wherefore lookest thou upon them that deal treacherously?” (KJV).

I am afraid I’ve over-argued the point, so let’s move on to #4:

4) This actually might belong in the #1 spot, for our starting point is to recognize that the issue is one of interpretation. The first principle of Biblical interpretation is, “What does the Bible actually say?” And nowhere in the Bible does it say that God would abandon, did abandon, or had abandoned Christ on the cross. It cannot be inspired Scripture. See 2 Peter 1:20-21.  (This assumes that the reader has a firm grasp on the difference between a positive statement and a human inference from an ambiguous statement.)

I would encourage anyone, no matter what their view of this, not to become so argumentative as to say Christ “stopped being God”. I would rather not contest the issue than lead a person to say this.

5) If someone wants to tell you that God the Father turned His back on God the Son, you might want to consider how many gods Christians worship. “I and my Father are one.” (John 10:30)

And if you really want to entertain the notionAgnus_Dei_Zubaran that one person of our single God can turn His back on another person of Himself, consider this: What Christ said was “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Nowhere in the entire Bible does Christ refer to God, the Father, as anything except Father: “my Father”, “the Father”, “my Father in heaven”, etc. Again, even if were possible for God the Son to be forsaken by God the Father, which is unthinkable, it would still be impossible for Christ to be forsaken by “God”, because Christ is “God”.

Also, Christ does not say “Father”. See #1. He says “My God, My God, etc.” Why would He choose this one moment, if He wants to distinguish between Himself and the Father, to start calling the Father “My God”?  The answer is, of course, because He is not calling out to “God”, but rather quoting the first line of Psalm 22, verbatim.

6) One might ask, why do Matthew and Mark render every word Jesus said in Greek, but write this one phrase in Aramaic? And why does Christ choose to phrase His cry in the exact words of Psalm 22, if He doesn’t mean to quote it?

7) The best argument against the notion, though, is not quite so neat and clean, because it requires judgment based on reading the whole New Testament. Sin is not an entity; it is an abstract noun, referring to an action taken in violation of God’s law. It cannot be gathered up in baskets and swallowed, as in a cheesy horror movie. When we commit a sin, we become guilty and liable to punishment. Which makes more sense: Christ, who is God, became actually guilty of sin? Or Christ paid the price for sins He was not Himself guilty of committing?

There is a line at the end of 2 Corinthians 5 that reads, “God made him who had no sin to be sin[b] for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (2 Cor. 15:21) I have left the footnote there on purpose, because here is what it says: “b. Or be a sin offering” At any rate, Christ could not literally become sin, because sin is not a concrete noun, any more than we could become righteousness. Paul is using figurative speech here; I suppose you would call it reification.

8) And, finally, Psalm 22:24 itself directly contradicts the “God turned His back” idea. To paraphrase, it says “God has not hidden His face from him.” If the psalm is prophetic — and, with Christ using His final breath to quote it, one would have difficulty saying it is not — the explicit prophecy is that God will not forsake the suffering Messiah.

Well, I spent a lot more time arguing than I set out to do. There are actually other arguments pointing out holes in the “abandonment theory”. A sacrifice to God must be perfect. (Lev. 22;21)  Why would Jesus, who had told the Pharisees that they would recognize Him as God when he was lifted up, tell them while they mocked Him on the cross, “Gee, you’re right, God abandoned me.”  But enough is enough.

It would be a shame to lose the wonderful message that Christ sends to world when, with His last breath, He sends the mockery of His onlookers right back into their faces. “I have won,” he announces, at the very point when they are about to pop the champagne bottles open.

How Many Christians Are There? And How Many Actually Go to Church?

Live in the Bible
I have heard a lot of obvious nonsense about this, but hard facts and reliable studies are spotty. So, here are my best estimates about the demographics of Christianity in the U.S. (I’m sorry I can’t do other countries right now but the U.S. is hard enough!)

“Number of people going to church” is actually comparatively easy, because there are several decent studies arguing about it. The Gallup Poll says 41 to 43%, which is pretty surely about double the actual number; but it means something, that is, people who think they should attend church every week. In fact, a Harris poll determined that 26% go every week and another 9% go once or twice a month, which is getting pretty close to the Gallup number if you substitute “every month” for “every week”. Catholic participation is a little higher than overall Protestant participation. These figures approximately agree with an in-depth study of a limited sample done by Kirk Hadaway and P.L. Marler in 1998, Did You Really Go to Church this Week.

Still, that’s better than we might have imagined. More than a third of the population are practicing Christians. Of course there are devout Christians who don’t go to church often, and complete hypocrites and/or agnostics who do, but the figures are so approximate that we can just say the two groups balance out.

Which denominations are growing and which are declining?

The denominations that are in the steepest decline are what pollsters identify as mainstream Protestant churches; and in fact, churches identified as “liberal” — by the Hartford Institute (Episcopal, Presbyterian-USA, Church of Christ) are in steepest decline. They lost about 40% of their membership 1965-2005, a period when the total population increased about 70%. The trend actually might be accelerating, as the last reported year (2010) from the National Council of Churches showed a one-year decline of 3.5%, 2.7%, and 2%, respectively. The Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which is mixed liberal/moderate (due to congregational governance) reported the largest loss of all surveyed, 5.9%.

“Moderate” mainstream churches are declining in total membership, but more slowly. This is primarily the United Methodist Church, down about 1%; some smaller denominations and the Lutherans (Missouri Synod), who would be halfway between moderate and conservative, also showed declines of about 1% for the year, as did three Baptist denominations other than Southern Baptist.

“Conservative” mainstream Protestant churches are primarily two Baptist organizations: the Southern Baptists, the largest Protestant denomination, have shown a big increase (50%) in the past 40 years but were flat in 2010; the American Baptist Conference, which is primarily African-American and somewhat more moderate, grew 4% in 2010. The little Christian & Missionary Alliance (where Billy Graham first preached) has grown enormously (400%) since 1960 but 2010 growth was not reported.

“Holding even” includes the Catholic Church, but it would seem that a decline in native membership is being masked by growth from a large number of Hispanic Catholic immigrants. I certainly know a lot of Catholics in the northeast whose parents were fairly observant but who have abandoned the church themselves; in my case, friends of Irish and Italian heritage.

The churches that are booming are, first off, what you might call two “sect” churches, whose doctrine includes writings of prophets in the past century or two: Church of Latter Day Saints (Mormons) and Seventh Day Adventists are showing solid growth. Jehovah’s Witnesses are increasing solidly. Secondly, Pentecostal denominations are growing, including the several Church of God denominations, Pentecostal Assemblies, Assemblies of God, and even the Salvation Army.

The unknown variable in all of this are independent evangelical churches, which are very difficult to count and categorize by their nature, ie. because they are not gathered into denominations. The National Council of Churches’ statistics simply ignore them, because NCC reporting is done by denomination; however, two sources (both sponsored by conservative church groups) state that these churches now make up the third largest group of churches in the U.S., after the Catholic and Southern Baptist Churches.

A Baylor University report (which must be considered potentially biased) states that independent evangelical church growth is enormous, about 150% in the past 40 years. They surmise that much of the growth comes at the expense of mainline Protestant churches, as more Biblically-oriented or “conservative” Episcopalians, Presbyterians, etc., leave to join independent evangelical churches. (The report is the first link below.) This certainly does happen — there is a large independent evangelical church here in Atlanta that was started by disaffected Episcopalians — but there has been no reliable quantification of it.


  1. Baylor Report
  2. Fast Facts about Religion, from the Hartford Institute
  3. National Council of Churches
  4. Trends in Large US Church
    Membership from 1960
    from Demographia
  5. U.S. Religion Census: Religious Congregations and Membership Study, 2010

Here are some interesting facts taken from #5. Roulette County, N.D., is 100% Catholic. There are now more Muslims than Jews in Florida. The only state in the U.S. where Hindus are the largest non-Christian religion is Arizona. The county with the largest percentage of Episcopalians is the Yukon-Koyukuk Census Area, Alaska. The Mormon Church in Madison County, Idaho, is larger than the county. (The county is “100.8%” Mormon.)

Which Bible is Best? (Part 2)


. . . contined from yesterday.

I’m mostly concerned with Bibles for study, where a word or phrase might make a real difference. If you just want to read the Bible, almost any of them are good. They all get the major issues right, overall. I say almost, because there are two exceptions: Bibles driven by the theology of an extreme sect, and translations distorted by political agendas.

Unacceptable Bibles

Most of the Bibles that intentionally and materially mistranslate the original manuscripts have such a small readership that you will never hear of them. There are two, however, that are widespread. The “New World Translation”, published by Jehovah’s Witnesses, is fairly popular. And, actually, it is a very good translation except for one thing: the Jehovah’s Witnesses do not consider Christ to be God, and they reflect that belief in their New Testament. Without going into a lot of detail, for that reason the NWT is not acceptable for Christians.

Similarly, the newest (2011) NIV translation (and even moreso, the TNIV of 2005, which was so flawed that it has been retracted by the publisher) is driven by liberal political considerations and goes too far in trying to make the Bible gender-neutral and generally not insulting to modern secular sensibilities, to the point that it cannot be considered a translation of the Bible at all.

An Example of Translational Issues

To illustrate the difference between “reading Bibles” (dynamic equivalent translations) and “authoritative Bibles” (literal translations), let’s look at 2 Peter 1:20. First, the King James and ESV, which are more literal interpretations:

“Knowing this first, that no prophecy of the scripture is of any private interpretation.”
“knowing this first of all, that no prophecy of Scripture comes from someone’s own interpretation.”

Do you see the ambiguity? You cannot be certain whether Peter is saying a) that the people who wrote the Bible did not base their writing on their private interpretation, or b) an individual’s interpretation of the Bible is not Scripture, i.e., we should not talk about our own interpretation of a passage as if it is the word of God. This ambiguity is part of the Bible. It occurs in the original Greek and, if a person or group is studying the passage, they can and should consider both options — it is good fuel for research, meditation, and group discussion.

Now let’s look at the same passage from two dynamic equivalent translations, the NIV (New International Version 1984) and the ISV (International Standard Version):

“First of all, you must understand this: No prophecy in Scripture is a matter of one’s own interpretation.” (ISV)

“Above all, you must understand that no prophecy of Scripture came about by the prophet’s own interpretation of things.” (NIV 1984)

Each of these resolves the ambiguity for us — but in opposite ways! The ISV interprets the verse as meaning we should not consider our (or other people’s) interpretations as “prophecy of Scripture”. The NIV, on the other hand, interprets it to mean that the original authors were not writing their “own interpretations”. (And yes, I chose this verse because of the irony. Both the NIV and ISV might be said to be representing their “private interpretation” to be Scripture, which is exactly what 2 Peter 1:20 is telling us not to do.)

Bottom Line

Since I set out to make a recommendation, I’ll go ahead and do it. If you just want a Bible to read, you can pretty well just pick one that you like, although I’d stay away from the New World Translation and any NIV published in 2005 or later. If you want a Bible to study, I’d recommend the King James/Authorised Version (KJV) (although the antiquated language is a minus for many people), the New King James Version (NKJV) (not the 20th Century King James), the New American Standard Bible (NASB), or the English Standard Version (ESV). The ESV is somewhat more readable than the NASB and is my personal main Bible.

You might also consider the wisdom of getting a study edition. Study editions tend to be big and heavy — I have the ESV Study Bible in my lap at this very moment, and at over 2700 pages it is heavy enough to be called a “blunt object” by the police — but they are wonderful resources, especially if you want to dig into a particular passage.

As I have said, I love both the J.B. Phillips New Testament and The Message, but they must be considered paraphrases, not actual Bibles.

If you are Catholic, the New American Bible is also a good choice, and is what you will probably hear read at Mass. There is a Catholic edition of the Revised Standard Version, but for my personal taste, it has the drawbacks of the KJV’s difficult language without the authenticity.

Which Bible is Best? (Part 1)

bible_left_250The issue of which Bible to read just confuses the dickens out of most people. So they read a translation of the Bible by sheer happenstance. A friend likes a certain Bible; or they get a Bible as a gift; or they were raised with a certain Bible. But if you are reading this, you are probably interested enough in reading the Bible to make an informed — and better — choice.

We won’t get too technical, but you do need to understand about translations, even if you don’t want a new Bible.

Accuracy vs. Readability: Types of Translations

Nobody can translate any foreign language into English absolutely literally. Some interpretation is unavoidable, because languages do things differently. For example, neither Biblical Greek nor ancient Hebrew even have an indefinite article (“a” or “an”), but nobody is going to read an entire book in English that reads “I put collar on dog man had in truck.” Furthermore, Greek has one word that can means both “and” and “but” (and also “then” and some other words); a translator is forced to interpret the meaning from the context. We don’t want to read “I like spinach and not carrots.” Not to mention, it is outright incorrect.

Literal Bibles

That said, some Bibles try to present the text in a manner as close to literal as possible. These Bible are harder to read and might sound awkward at times, but they are more accurate. If you want to study the Bible, you will want a more literal translation.

The most literal Bible is the NASB (New American Standard Bible), and it is really good. The King James or Authorised Bible is considered a literal translation and is preferred by many people, despite the archaic language, for its general accuracy and strong sense of poetry; but it is a hard Bible to read. The ESV (English Standard Version) is slightly less literal than the NASB and is my personal first choice, as it flows very nicely but retains a lot of integrity to the “actual Bible”, i.e. the Hebrew/Greek original.

Dynamic Equivalent Bibles.

Bibles that interpret more heavily, attempting to convey the meaning of a passage in more idiomatic (i.e. “normal”) English, are called “dynamic equivalent”. They try to take the meaning of a passage, written in Greek or Hebrew, and express the meaning in English, while keeping it as similar as possible to the original.

To make the difference more clear, a Frenchman would say “J’ai faim”. The literal interpretation of this would be “I have hunger”, which is understandable but clumsy English. It is not “idiomatic” English. A dynamic equivalent translation would be, “I am hungry.”

The example might make someone say, “no contest, dynamic equivalent is way better.” But there is a downside, because the Bible is complex and theological, and when someone translates it by dynamic equivalence, they necessarily impose their own ideas on the text. Such a translation can never be neutral. Every dynamic equivalent translation get hundreds of little things wrong, which is not such a big deal when you’re just reading it quickly, but can become extremely important if you are studying a passage closely.

As an example, in the NASB, John 18:37 reads:

Then Pilate said to him, “So you are a king?” Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. For this purpose I was born and for this purpose I have come into the world — to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth listens to my voice.”

But in the NIV, the most popular dynamic equivalent Bible, it reads:

“You are a king, then! ” said Pilate. Jesus answered, “You say that I am a king. In fact, the reason I was born and came into the world is to testify to the truth. Everyone on the side of truth listens to me.”

Notice the little differences, not just of language, but also of meaning. “For this purpose” in the NASB can be read as saying that part of Jesus’ purpose in being born is to be a king. The NIV removes this ambiguity — incorrectly. It makes up the reader’s mind on the issue for him (and actually, in this specific instance, they probably got it wrong). There are also fundamental theological distinctions between being “of the truth” and “on the side of truth”, and also between having a “purpose” for being born rather than a “reason”.


There are also some Bibles that stray so far from the original language, in order to make the meaning clearer in modern English, that they cannot even be called “translations”. They will completely change the words, if they think it will convey the meaning more vividly. While most of these do not merit consideration, two of them are actually excellent books: The Message , which is wildly modern to the point of using slang, and The J.B. Phillips New Testament, which reads like an erudite 20th-century novel and is, actually, a wonderful way to read the New Testamant. But you would not want to study either of them as authoritative (something their authors, themselves, emphasize.)

To be continued . . .

Bad Habits


When the unclean spirit has gone out of a person, it passes through waterless places seeking rest, but finds none. Then it says, ‘I will return to my house from which I came.’

And when it comes, it finds the house empty, swept, and put in order. Then it goes and brings with it seven other spirits more evil than itself, and they enter and dwell there, and the last state of that person is worse than the first.

Matthew 12:43-45 (ESV)

Today’s Scripture, in addition to the primary message about keeping God in our hearts, implicates a lot of more practical issues. I imagine many readers, myself included, have had struggles with a serious bad habit, one with real impact on our bodies and minds. I lost about 60 pounds at one point in my life and, although 10 of them come back from time to time, they always go away again. With God’s help, the evil spirit left and did not bring seven friends more evil than itself.

I can’t tell you Jesus really had addictive behavior in mind when He spoke his teaching about evil spirits in Matthew 12, but if we think of our bodies as God’s temples, it is not a big stretch. Our bodies are a gift. The reason God gave us this gift (at least in part) is for it to be a temple, to house his Holy Spirit.

The word “saint” comes from the Greek word hagios, which means “consecrated to God”. The New Testament repeatedly enforces the notion that, once we have accepted Christ, we become saints. 1 Peter 2:9. We are a body of people set apart for the Lord, “a holy priesthood,” the inheritors of God’s kingdom. And we may certainly find implications of holiness in the care of our bodies. I frankly do not know how Biblical are “The Seven Deadly Sins”, but greed, gluttony, and sloth are almost 50% of the list. Compare Paul’s words in Ephesians: “For the equipping of the saints for the work of service, to the building up of the body of Christ,” (Ephesians 4:12), or “But immorality or any impurity or greed must not even be named among you, as is proper among saints.” (Ephesians 5:3).

The first lesson is this: Never feel guilty, for Christ’s sacrifice abolished guilt. If Christ has made us righteous before the Father, how can we possibly second-guess him and judge ourselves guilty? We may regret a past action — even something as small as that jelly doughnut we simply couldn’t resist — and the world may extract a penalty for our behavior. But guilt is not a Christian emotion. We have God’s permission to let our guilt go. It is part of his gift to us in Christ Jesus.

The second lesson is this: How hard is it to pray about a habit that we believe is harmful and ask that the Holy Spirit guide us? And, if it is God’s will that we improve some habit we consider “bad”, that he help us overcome it? He has promised that He will. If you do not know it, and you have some problem in the nature of a personal habit, read 1 Corinthians 10:13 until it becomes second nature to you.