The Difference Between Truth and Fact

There is a difference, you know.

Before you argue with me, let me define my terms for the sake of the conversation.

Facts are a set that overlap the set containing truth, if you want to graph the difference.¬†Dictionaries define “truth” as “a verified or indisputable fact, proposition, principle, or the like;” they define a “fact” as “a truth known by actual experience or observation; something known to be true.”

There’s an objective value to fact. Facts are known by “actual experience or observation.” Facts can be researched, measured, quantitatively tested, verified, proven.

There’s a subjective value to truth. Truth can be a “fact, proposition, principle or the like.” Truth can be expressed, discussed, qualitatively evaluated, affirmed, accepted.

Facts populate the language of science.

Truth populates the language of faith.

Truth allows people the dignity of making an informed choice, of thinking for themselves, of meditating and considering and evaluating and coming to a point where they can say within themselves, “I believe.”

Well, this is what I believe:

creation

The Bible is not scientific study. Scientific study is not the Bible.

The study of the origins of the universe through science is not the study of the beginning of God’s story about mankind.

One looks to answer how was the world created; the other, by Whom and why.

Let me put it this way. You can look up what grass is at Wikipedia. I already have, and here it is: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Grass.

You can look up a poem that asks and answers “What is grass?” by Walt Whitman, and it goes like this:¬†http://www.poemhunter.com/poem/a-child-said-what-is-the-grass/

grass

Now, who is right?

Wikipedia? or Whitman?

Well, they both are.

They’re both “right.”

Because Wikipedia is trying to answer the question in a scientific way — with facts.

And Whitman is trying to explore the question in a poetic way — through truth.

You don’t get faith from scientific study, although many of the answers you will find within it are formed from evidence, conjecture, experimentation, AND faith in the conclusions based on the results and the logic used to reach them.

You don’t get science from the Bible, even though many of the things you read there have a basis in communicating source and order and reason and purpose. So we meditate on it, talk about it, come to conclusions, and we believe what we choose to believe.

The purpose of science is to help us find answers.

The purpose of the Bible is to help us find faith.

What might happen to our worldview if we stopped trying to see the Bible as a book communicating dry facts and tedious law, and saw it as a volume telling us the truth, a Story leading to a proposition/principle/or-the-like to be accepted or rejected?

And that proposition would answer the most important question of all:

Is Jesus the Messiah looked forward to in prophecy from earliest times … the fulfillment in full obedience of the law of God … His very Son through whom and by whom and for whom all things were created … the last Adam undoing the fatal lock of sin upon our souls wrought by the first Adam and every Adam’s child of us since … the perfect-yet-crucified-yet-resurrected Savior and Reconciler of all creation to her Creator?

How would it affect our view of others if we saw them not as good or evil; right or wrong; lost or saved; this or that; one or the other — but as beloved of God to the point that every last Adam’s child of us since Eden was worth the price of the very life of His Son?

How could it not improve our ministry of the gospel if we focused on the gospel, the Story, the main thing and not all the seeming factual contradictions or the tantalizing mysteries or the difficulties of translation or the differences of language and meaning? If we left behind the elementary doctrines of man about salvation and sanctification and predestination and excommunication — and only, singularly, lovingly told the story of Jesus over and over and over with undiminished and increasing passion; passion that is the very witness and hallmark of His Holy Spirit within us?

What if we let the facts sort themselves out by the ones who are enamored and enraptured by facts and science and proof, and we just told the simple truth?

And gave people the gift of reaching their own conclusions?

Situation Ethics

Forty and fifty years ago, Christian preachers of every stripe, color and denomination so soundly and roundly condemned this philosophical principle that people have feared to even utter the words lest they be laughed at for their stupidity as they be spirited away by hell’s flame-winged demons.

I have no fear of these two words situation ethics. I have no fear of the philosophical principle which they describe.

And I have no fear of people who would roundly and soundly condemn me for uttering them, and defending even a part of that principle.

Part of it is what I wish to defend, and all that I wish to defend.

As long as we all understand that it does not supersede scripture.

And that the end does not justify the means.

There are serious difficulties and aspects of the principle that are just plain wrong — and by that, I mean indefensible in light of scripture. But there is also a truth or two at its core that we cannot, must not so easily dispense with.

One of Satan’s most powerful tools in the war against Christianity is his myth that any given action must-be-and-is intrinsically (of itself) either right or wrong.

And we have swallowed that lie as if it were a draught from the river of life itself.

Let me state this plainly:

Not every possible action we can take is, in and of itself, morally right or morally evil.

Some actions are morally neutral. We perform thousands of them each day: Tying a shoe. Walking out of a house. Driving away in a car.

It is the situation in which those actions or objects are found that can make them morally right or morally wrong.

Tying someone else’s shoes together without their knowledge is wrong. Tying your own shoes together is stupid, but at least you’re only wronging yourself.

Walking out of a house that is on fire without telling anyone else that it is aflame is wrong.

Driving away in a car you’ve just stolen is wrong.

You get the point.

Even scripture recognizes this.

Paul wanted to take with him on his mission trips a young man named Timothy, who had not been circumcised. In order for Timothy to enter a synagogue (where Paul initially always went on those trips), he needed to be circumcised. There was nothing wrong with it circumcision just wasn’t a prerequisite to salvation (Acts 15). Paul had Timothy circumcised (Acts 16:3).

On a trip back to Jerusalem, however, Titus would not be compelled to be circumcised (Galatians 2:3) because it would have seemed to support that false doctrine, that circumcision was a prerequisite to salvation.

Is circumcision morally right or wrong?

Well, obviously, in one situation it helped the gospel and in another situation it hindered the gospel.

Isolated example, you say?

Then you need to read the entirety of Paul’s letter to Rome, but especially Romans 14. Believers were asking Paul to make rules about whether it was right or wrong to celebrate certain holidays; whether it was faithful or evil to eat meat of unknown origin; meat which might have been partially sacrificed in honor to a pagan god or idol. Paul’s response is that the good or evil of it is in your own heart; follow your conscience. If you violate your conscience, you do evil. But you cannot violate someone else’s conscience nor can they violate yours, because a conscience is a deeply personal, individually formed thing.

Christian speakers of a previous generation would have liked for Romans 14 to have ceased to exist, and they avoided and refuted it (by re-interpreting or limiting it) as much as possible. Having every action declarable as right or wrong makes things easier to control; makes it easier to judge and condemn others and frankly, too much of Christianity has been in the business of doing those things for so many centuries that a blanket condemnation of situation ethics was a very comforting blanket indeed.

Don’t start on me. There have always been, and always will be, scriptural injunctions against specific acts of evil and encouragements to specific acts of virtue. They will not change. Ever. God meant for us to discern good and evil, or the potential for it would never have been placed in the garden east of Eden, right next to the tree of life. (This, by the way, is where the principle of situation(al) ethics goes awry; it does not ask if loving God is important or if expressing it by obeying His will for us is important. It considers only love for others.)

Don’t warn me of the slippery slope. Every day we live and breathe and have our being; every moment we make moral choices, we’re facing a slippery slope. Each time we sin, it gets a little easier. It doesn’t matter what the sin is. Each time we sin, we drive a little more wedge between ourselves and God.

That’s why it’s so vitally important that we understand that this world of choices was never created in moral black and white or even just shades of grey, but in every conceivable, perceivable color and hue and shade and texture and sound and smell.

God put man in the garden to see what he would do; to see what he would name the animals; to see if man would understand that there is a difference between good and not-good, and that being alone is not-good. God gave man choice in order for him to be able to discern good from evil because He knew that we learn best by doing. Man chose the easy way, the knowledge of good and evil in one great gulp — and learned the hard way that evil has consequences and that evil separates one from God.

That was the situation God put man in.

He puts us in our situations to be able to discern good from evil, too; to act out our own ethics and learn from the experience; to taste what is good and see that it is good and to taste what is evil and to see that while it is pleasurable and self-satisfying and seems good to self, self, self … it is bitterness and poison and death in the end.

Now this puts us in very uncomfortable territory. It would just be easier to have a big book of rules and follow the rules and make God happy and generally be ignorant about life and discernment and wisdom. It would be easier for God to just keep everyone under control by giving us a big book of rules and smiting anyone who disobeys.

But that violates the very nature of God, the very meaning of the Word/ Logos, the very Spirit of Holiness. Because that one Word which makes sense out of everything that’s hard to discern is love.

God IS love.

Love the Lord your God with everything that is within you and is you.

Love your neighbor as dearly as you love yourself.

Do this, and you have the key, the linchpin on which the law hangs and the world revolves.

In any situation, it is the defining ethic.

In matters clearly defined by scripture, follow scripture. It is God’s word; God’s revelation of His very nature and His will for us. But it is not a mere rule book. It does not cover every possible and conceivable action, let alone every situation in which that action can be taken. If you’re not sure about any action you feel compelled to consider; doctrine you’ve been taught … if you can’t find it in scripture (not everything God would like to see us do and become is explicitly spelled out there!), then measure it by this golden rule:

Do for others as you would have them do for you.

That’s the way God operates. That’s the way Jesus lived and lives in you. That’s the way the Spirit moves.

He has given and given and given. He has loved and loved and loved. He wants the joy found in that life to be yours, forever.

There is no joy in judging others.

He does not want that for you.

That will be His task, as little joy as it must give Him in far too many cases, for He alone is competent, worthy, righteous, just, merciful, forgiving, perfect.

We are not.

That, my dear ones, is the situation in which we find ourselves … and find our God … and find that He has placed us.

For our own good. For everyone’s own good. And for His own good.

Why Does God Allow ___?

I’m sure that a lot of people who have seen and know me have the impression that I am in a constant state of befuddlement. Truth is, I am always open to the wonder and complexity of life, and almost always trying to comprehend it.

I’m amazed at how the interaction of opposing elements creates newness and innovation; how vital it is that there is difference so that there can not only be conflict, but also resolution and harmony and growth. So I see the wisdom of God in having both good and evil within His will, even though His will is only good.

Without evil, good cannot be shown for what it truly is, and vice-versa.

Without good and evil, there can be no real choice that builds our character and forms our souls.

Without good that leads to life conflicting with evil that leads to death, there can be no ultimate victory that glorifies God and displays His magnificent brilliance. For it is His wisdom that brought something out of nothingness, filled it with life yet made it temporary, and made its capstoning creation intelligent and rational and capable of choice — of creating and/or destroying. It is His Word that brought man to life, and when we chose evil and death resulted, His Word — through His own death and return to life — brought endless life back to all through the power to choose.

I sympathize with those who ask, “Why does God allow ___?” It is a foundational mystery about the character and nature of God. The answer I’ve been able to discern seems too simple to answer such a complex question of theodicy. It probably is.

To me, any word that fills that blank is a synonym for “brokenness.”

Our world is broken.

It may not be much of a comfort, but I believe God allows evil and death and darkness and hatred and suffering so we can see them for what they are, because they contrast so definitively with what we want — what He intends and wants for us — good and life and light and joy and peace. It is small comfort, but I believe that’s why evil and death are not His will, but allowing them is within His will. His will is goodness and life.

He wants us to see them for what they are.

He wants us to choose between them, and choose wisely.

He wants usto be part of His restoration of everything to the perfect state in which He created it — for good, for life, forever.

Something Big and Sinister

Arthur Dent: “All my life I’ve had this strange feeling that there’s something big and sinister going on in the world.”
Slartibartfast: “No, that’s perfectly normal paranoia. Everyone in the universe gets that.”

~ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy by Douglas Adams

I believe the mythical designer of terran fjords and fiddly-bits is mistaken.

There is something big and sinister going on in the world, and I think we all feel it. And we can let it lead us into paranoia and madness-that’s-even-worse and eventually total destruction. Or not.

It’s sin, plain and simple. And if you’ve read very much stuff I’ve written, you know that I believe sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath sinleadstodeath.

And death is possibly the second-most pointless and absurd and frustrating thing ever, yet absolutely necessary because sin and self cannot be permitted to endure forever and ruin the ongoing effort to bring things back to the way they really ought to be.

Look around. Look at this world. It’s a perfectly gorgeous place on the whole.

Now.

Read a newspaper. Or if you’re not haply or happily literate and reading this anyway, watch a news broadcast on the telly. This world’s a mess. It’s not getting any better.

And it’s all because people make decisions largely or solely based on self-interest, then act on them. Casually, brutally, thoughtlessly — whatever. We act on whatever we want or want to happen.

Sin, in other words.

With no particular preperception or concern regarding the consequences, particularly for others.

Sin.

The single most pointless and absurd and frustrating thing in the world.

Sin has completely screwed up our planet.

And the Person who actually created it (no, it was not Slartibartfast) did not have sin in His intentions for us. It was not what He wants for us. It never was. It separated us from Him and from all the good and great things this planet could have been and that we could have been and might yet be.

Nevertheless He has a plan to restore all that, but it is more horrifically expensive than any custom-made planet built by the Magrathean WorldWerks, or whatever it was Adams called it.

The plan cost God heaven’s dearest blood, His own Son, tortured and slaughtered at the hands of man’s sin — but brought back to life by a love that simply cannot be obliterated, bought, sold, perverted, or turned only on one’s self.

And to me, the fact that there is something big and sinister and wrong in this world is the greatest evidence that there is something — someOne — far bigger and selfless and right beyond it; and He loves without limit and He wants to make things good and right and perfect again.

The way things ought to be.

Glimpses

That’s all we get from scripture of the heavenly realms of eternity.

Snapshots. Out-of-focus. Overexposed. Short on detail, usually.

An inspired yet nameless poet puts words to indescribable chaos, creation and glory while penning the opening chapters of Genesis, but aside from His Spirit hovering over the void, God later walks in the cool of the garden. It’s paradise that He’s created. But it’s not heaven. When a choice for self and now and evil is made, man and paradise must go separate ways.

The unknown writer of Job 1-2 describes a heaven where Satan still has to check in with God. Though people talk about “God showing up” in their church these days, it ain’t nothin’ like what Job experiences in those final chapters.

A few spare words of prophecy in Isaiah 30:27-33 and 31:8 spell doom for Assyria in what seems to be a fiery, cacophonous, cataclysmic battle. In heavenly realms, perhaps it is. But the reality on earth is much more quiet: In one night, one angel obliterates 185,000 Assyrian troops (Isaiah 37:36; 2 Kings 19:35).

In Daniel 10, the prophet learns why his prayers haven’t been answered for three weeks. There’s a battle going on that has detained the heavenly messenger to the prophet, and it’s not immediately clear where it’s taking place – but if a divine prince named Michael had not intervened, the delay might have been longer.

The whole account of battle in heaven and on earth, of judgment and the descent of the heavenly Jerusalem in the Revelation to John is filled with imagery that defies any artist to master.

But all we get are glimpses. – And a deep conviction of one fact that no one can deny:

Things are very different there.

There’s a conflict in the divine realm that has a very definite ending, an ending predetermined since the beginning of eternity (if there is such a thing): Evil is destroyed. Good is forever enshrined. God is eternally enthroned.

And people who choose to be good; to be like God – those who do right and wash their robes (Revelation 22:10-15) – have a dwelling with Him there, and continue to serve there as His servants (22:3-5), reigning with Him forever and ever.

All they need do is hear, and thirst, and wish, and take the free water of life (22:17).

Paradise is restored.

But some may object that hearing, thirsting, wishing and taking the water of life is no real plan of salvation in this world. It isn’t the right set of steps we must take. Not literally. Maybe metaphorically, in those heavenly realms.

I have to wonder if we’re missing a great truth by ignoring the metaphor, though, if that’s all it is. I have to wonder if we’re missing even more by thinking of it only as a metaphor and not a heavenly reality. I have to think that the original listeners to the gospel of great hope shared in the Revelation were thinking of the prophecies they grew up hearing and the stories they heard later; stories of Jesus hinting that He fulfilled those prophecies.

Prophecies and stories like the lamb and the lion (Isaiah 11:6, 53:7; 65:25; John 1:29-36; Revelation 5:5-13 – where a kingly Lion of Judah is announced, but a sacrificial Lamb appears).

Prophecies and stories of a holy city (Nehemiah 11:1; Isaiah 52:1; Matthew 4:5; Revelation 21).

Prophecies and stories about living water (Jeremiah 2:13, 7:13; Zechariah 14:8; John 4:10-11, 7:38; and Revelation 7:17).

Prophecies and stories of a tree of life (Genesis 2:9-3:24; Psalm 1:1-3; Proverbs 11:30; Revelation 2:7; 21:2-10 and 22:19).

And of a choice that must be made, between the prince of the world that cannot last, and the Prince of the Realm that cannot end. Did you notice? Jesus stands astride them both, bridging the gap between, man-who-is-God and God-who-is-man. Yet only one realm has a future.

Glimpses. Foreshadowings. Hints and peeks and promises … that things are very different there.

More real than the tangible reality we know here. More permanent than the temporal instant we experience now. More vast than space. More lasting than time.

Glimpses are all we can get. Choices are all we can make.

From start to finish, the people God created must choose: Tree of shortcut, or tree of life. Now, or forever. Thirst, or water. Darkness, or light. Self, or Him. Good, or evil.

What we do reflects what we have chosen by faith in His grace. So we are judged by the Lord (Revelation 22:12, 14), the only One capable of judging us by virtue of His all-encompassing, eternal nature (13).

However, time is short:

Then he told me, “Do not seal up the words of the prophecy of this book, because the time is near. Let him who does wrong continue to do wrong; let him who is vile continue to be vile; let him who does right continue to do right; and let him who is holy continue to be holy.” ~ Revelation 22:10-11

And the choice is upon us all.

O.T. God / N.T. God

I admit it. When I was younger, I thought of God in those terms: Old Testament God and New Testament God.

Old Testament God was strict, unyielding, law-giving, vengeful, righteous and just.

New Testament God was loving, understanding, grace-lending, forgiving, faithful and merciful.

At first, I thought He had changed. You know, as if something unrecorded happened to His nature in those intertestamental times. Or that maybe having a Son softened His outlook toward us. He got nicer. Sweeter. More lovable. Less fearable and ferocious.

Then I thought that it was we who had changed. We grew up as a race, mankind did, because He gave us law, and we figured out how to act mature and maybe even be mature, so He didn’t have to treat us like vicious children.

Whatta buncha bunk.

God does not change (Malachi 3:6). And – like Father like Son – Jesus is the same, yesterday today and forever (Hebrews 13:8). And so are we, the same ornery human critters we have always been. (Ecclesiastes 9:3).

God has always been both loving and strict, unyielding and understanding, law-giving and grace-lending, vengeful and forgiving, righteous and faithful, merciful and just.

I just didn’t read scripture closely enough to see it before.

HE IS WHO HE IS (Exodus 3:14).

He explained that quite clearly to Moses:

“Then the LORD came down in the cloud and stood there with him and proclaimed his name, the LORD. And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the fathers to the third and fourth generation.” ~ Exodus 34:5-7

He didn’t obliterate Adam and Eve when they sinned; nor their son Cain (but showed mercy and put a mark of protection on him); nor Abram when he lied (twice!) about Sarai being only his sister; nor Aaron when he lied and said the calf sprang out of the fire; nor Aaron’s sons Eleazar and Ithamar when they disobediently did not eat an offering after their brothers disobeyed God with their offering by fire and were incinerated; nor Moses when he struck the rock … and on and on and on.

And if I got the notion that the just nature of God somehow disappeared before the star of Bethlehem shone, it certainly wasn’t from anything Jesus said:

“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. … Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” ~ Matthew 25:41, 46

Not even sins of omission – failing to care for the poor and hungry and incarcerated – are too small to escape God’s wrath.

And I certainly didn’t get my goofy perception from John, to whom it was revealed:

“Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it. Earth and sky fled from his presence, and there was no place for them. And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done. Then death and Hades were thrown into the lake of fire. The lake of fire is the second death. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.” ~ Revelation 20:11-15

Now it would be very convenient for me to be able to compartmentalize God and be done with the part of His nature that I don’t want to deal with; to have a huggy-cuddly-snuggly god who looks the other way when I do what I want to, even if it hurts him or others or even myself. Because then I could go cry to him and he would just say, “Oh, there, there. I know you didn’t mean it. Let me make that boo-boo go away” and he would undo all the laws of causality just for me and make it as if I had never done anything bad.

And I would never, ever learn anything worthwhile at all.

I could do it all my way.

How convenient for me.

Because who needs a god who gets angry and who cares about all of his created children and wants them to be good all the time and not hurt themselves or each other and doesn’t let them have their own way?

God is no capricious, arbitrary, maturing nor schizophrenic god like the creations of Greek and Roman philosophy (and many, many other religious cultures who created “god” in their own image).

He is always the same because we are the same, just as we have always been: selfish, rebellious, deceitful, ornery, violent, murderous.

He is the same because we need a constant in the chaos we have created for ourselves through the gift of choice He gives us: to be like Him, or to be like us.

What changed was that the time came for Him to make good on all the promises He had made us; to send us an example of his just-and-merciful nature in the person of His Son that we could see and imitate and choose wisely; to send us someOne who could measure up to the perfect standard that none of us could possibly approach.

And then die, to remind us that all our self and sin leads to death.

And then to live again, to prove to us that He has the power to forgive and give life to us again after sin has reduced us to dust and ashes.

That same God, manifesting a mastery of both aspects of the nature we simply cannot achieve, is One (Deuteronomy 6:4); One holy God (Leviticus 11:45); whose ways are loving and faithful for those who keep His covenant (Psalm 25:10); but who destroys the wicked (Psalm 145:20). He is stern to those who fall and kind to those who continue in His kindness (Romans 11:22), which He has expressed to us in Christ Jesus (Ephesians 2:7).

So there are two covenants. But there is one testament; a testament to One divine, perfect, unchanging nature reaching out to every flawed, selfish, human nature – each one of us – created with the ability and purpose of changing, maturing, growing better, growing God-wise and God-ward through faith in Jesus Christ. One God, over all the nations, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.

He lets us choose.

And He lets us bear the consequences.

Because He loves us: this singular, unimpeachable, incomprehensible, inconvenient God.

Pretend You’re An Angel

You were created, not born.

You’ve probably never known materiality, had a body, possessed a thing, felt hunger or thirst or physical pain or pleasure or lust.

You’ve never feared death because you were made to live forever.

You dwell in eternity, at the point of transcending time and space.

You have always known God.

At least, you have always known as much of His nature as He has chosen to reveal it to you. You have known that it was good, and loving, and giving.

Some time back, there was a parting. Some angels left to go their own way, rather than God’s way.

When He created materiality and time and life that could end and mankind that reflected His image as the culmination of creation, at least one of the rebels was involved in luring mankind away from God to go his and her own way, rather than God’s way.

You saw things go from bad to worse. Perhaps you have even served as God’s messenger to some of his mortal people. Still they went their own way.

And had nothing to look forward to but death.

Then you saw the Prince of Heaven become one of the mortals; heard Him teach and saw Him heal and witnessed His love and watched Him die at their hands … and live again, so that they would have a chance to live after death, too.

What do you make of that?

What can you understand of it?

What do you deduce?

Is there something more intrinsically powerful and desirable and magnetic than going your own way? Some joy that is deeper? Some yearning more satisfying? Some emptying of self that is more filling?

Something that these mortal creatures can somehow perceive, though they have never seen it?

Something they will give their lives to, though they can only hope for it?

Something that they will suffer in order to enjoy?

Something for which they will trade now to receive later?

Something intangible, inexpressible, irreplaceable?

What is it?

What does it mean?

To a mortal?

To an angel?

Angels Among Us

While it’s not usually a premise for a good movie, it’s been successful on television in the incarnations (pardon the pun) of Touched by an Angel and Highway to Heaven. While Disney has put them in the infield and the outfield in an attempt at motion picture comedy, Nicolas Cage’s usually-deft portrayal of a befuddled outsider faltered in the tragedy City of Angels.

Still, his portrayal of Seth and the movie’s script did not try to advance some interpretation of angels as “promoted” dead humans – and there was a hint of the bafflement that a created heavenly being might experience in the world of living saints and sinners.

Maybe it’s not as descriptive, though, as Steven Curtis Chapman’s take on 1 Peter 1:12, titled “Angels Wish.” If you haven’t heard it, try out a sample from iTunes.

A long introduction, I know, but it brings me to my point: I get the impression when reading scripture that angels, who have never experienced materiality (they’re ministering spirits, right?), must observe our world with some measure of perplexity. Just imagine how you or I would feel, being able to glimpse their realm but completely lack words to describe it. Or, better yet, read the attempts of John to do so in the Revelation.

I’m also persuaded that the church of century one believed that angels were with them in their assemblies. Paul tried to disabuse the Colossians of the notion that angels should be worshipped (just as an angel does, twice, with John during the course of his vision). Much of the book of Hebrews seems to debunk their superiority to mankind. Then it draws to its close by advising: “Do not forget to entertain strangers, for by so doing some people have entertained angels without knowing it.” (Hebrews 13:2) That’s a good old-fashioned Jewish call to hospitality, of course – but is the author referring only to the time Abraham hosted three of the heavenly host?

Do angels worship with us? Does it help them sort out our gender by having hair of short length for men and long for women? (1 Corinthians 11:10) Would angels, who are messengers by nature, really appear in our world and preach a gospel (Galatians 1:8), or is Paul using a quaint exaggeration to make his point? Would an angel take the form of someone we know (Acts 12:15), or was that a merely human misunderstanding of how they protect and serve?

Or is it that they did once worship with the church of century one, but no more? Has the day of the rebellious angels’ Judgment already come, as described by Jude?

Is it possible that God has sent these messengers among His saints – not only to protect and serve – but also to observe what faith means among those who have never seen God yet try to live pleasing lives … and report back to Him what they have seen in order for them to get a better grasp of the Really, Really Big Picture?

And if any of what I have proposed above is even remotely possible, how will it affect the way you and I regard the strangers in our assemblies come Sunday morning?

The Really, Really Big Picture

This is bigger than any 72-inch plasma HDTV or 72-foot jumbotron. It’s bigger than the color displays in Times Square or on the sides of any Goodyear blimp. It’s the answer to the question, the question, the one whose answer in the Douglas Adams universe is “forty-two” and requires the ultimate computer to spend millions of years to build a bigger computer that can correctly phrase the question.

That question was originally asked as, “What is the answer to life, the universe, and everything?”

And “forty-two” is a very unsatisfactory answer to the mortal mind, even if correct.

But out here in the mostly-non-Douglas Adams universe, it isn’t even close to correct.

I think the answer is in Ephesians 3:8-11, where Paul seems to almost brush it aside as a footnote about why God wanted Paul – and all of us – to see the gospel as a purpose in life:

Although I am less than the least of all God’s people, this grace was given me: to preach to the Gentiles the unsearchable riches of Christ, and to make plain to everyone the administration of this mystery, which for ages past was kept hidden in God, who created all things. His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose which he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord. … (emphasis mine)

I think that’s the really, really big picture.

I’m not really, really sure I understand what it means, but I am fairly, fairly willing to take a crack at it.

Why does God create us? Why does He create us mortal? Why does He give us the choice, from the very beginning of creation, between good and evil; between selflessness and self; between living forever and dying?

I believe it has something to do with the angels – that “rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms” refers to them. That there is an eternal purpose behind creation. That it displays the manifold wisdom of God.

There have been all kinds of books written about angels, and most of their content is speculation – and the honest authors admit that. We really don’t know very much about angels. We presume that they are kind of heavenly halflings: created at a point in time (or at least in eternity), and eternal thereafter. We deduce that some were given responsibilities to carry out; became rulers and authorities. (Satan seems to be referred to euphemistically earlier in Ephesians as the “ruler of the kingdom of the air,” for instance.) We conjecture that something went wrong at some point further down the timeline. Some of them rebelled. Some of them remained loyal to God: recognized His manifold wisdom (that good is intrinsically greater than evil?) and continued to obey and worship Him. The rest … fell. We don’t know when. We don’t know a better word for it. And Satan, the Accuser, seemed to be at the head of the pack.

For a while, Satan seems to split his time between prowling up and down the earth in search of victims like Job and showing up before the Lord to accuse them of treachery.

Are you seeing a pattern match here?

God believes in Job, as surely as Job believes in God. God knows that Job has the integrity to live out, even while suffering, his belief that good is intrinsically greater than evil and that His God is good. He will question God, challenge God’s mercy and justice. But he will not challenge God’s authority to do what He wills. He will not curse God and die.

It was a taste of things to come, I think.

Paul says that God’s intent was to display his manifold wisdom to these rulers and authorities (All of them? Just the rebellious ones? – I don’t know!) now and through the church.

Yup. You read that right, and so did I.

The fellowship of believers in Christ is the culmination of God’s ultimate plan. Will they continue, even in suffering, to live out their faith in God through Christ? Mortal beings, born to die, who have never seen God face-to-face (though some of them were witnesses to His incarnation)?

The former are the folks, I’m convinced, that Jesus is talking about when he comments on Thomas’ belief at seeing the wounds of the crucifixion in His resurrected body: “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29b)

That’s us. And I believe it puts us in a position of truly cosmic responsibility:

We are to judge angels. (I Corinthians 6:3)

Again, Paul seems to brush it off as common knowledge while upbraiding the believers at Corinth for being unwilling to wisely judge disputes among themselves; instead they filed lawsuits in pagan courts.

I don’t think he means it literally; scripture is abundantly clear in many instances that the Lord is the only righteous judge.

But I still believe we have a role.

Those of use who follow Christ should lead lives that daily prove good is intrinsically greater than evil; lives of selflessness and service to others; lives that speak of Christ’s sacrifice and His giving nature. If we, who have not seen, can so believe and live our faith – then for the angels who knew and saw God and His ultimate goodness yet rebelled, there can be no excuse, no pardon, no alternative than to live out the rest of their eternity in exile and the punishment of never, ever seeing Him again.

No more roaming up and down the earth. No more appearing before the throne to accuse. No more evidence will be admitted to mitigate the sentence.

Instead, the mortal believers will be changed; will become immortal; will take that place of knowing and seeing Him face-to-face and being forever blessed.

And so the angels are judged … by us. Perhaps not us as their judges; but certainly as the standard by which they are judged. That’s how the church makes known the manifold wisdom of God to the rulers in the heavenly realms.

Conjecture, I know.

Yet it is a simple answer which happens to fit all of the available facts, and I think William of Occam would be willing to shave with it.

And, for me, it’s the answer to the $64 gazillion dollar question; to life, the universe and everything – and to how really, really big of a picture we find ourselves in.