One of the simplest yet most significant insights of my theological education was the day Yandall Woodfin’s philosophy of religion textbook noted that because neither human nor divine nature change, God’s word is perennially relevant. The issues it addressed in its original setting are still the same issues we face today. Our job as preachers and pastors is simply to remove the cultural roadblocks that have grown up over the centuries so those we serve can hear the intended meaning of the text.
When we do this, God’s Spirit uses God’s word to speak to human hearts with the same clarity and power as when he first inspired the sacred text.
I say all of that to say this: Scripture contains the answers we need to the questions our people are asking in this day of crisis in the Middle East. Let’s identify two of them, then use them to lead those we serve to embrace eternally relevant truths.
Are these the end times?
The first question people seem to ask when conflict arises in the Middle East is whether these are the “end times.” This is understandable given Israel’s remarkable role in human history and prophetic literature. As I’m sure you know, there are a variety of ways theologians have understood this role over the centuries.
Whatever your tradition and the viewpoints of your people, I believe we should always bring the question around to a fact everyone should agree upon: we are one day closer to eternity than ever before. Whether the Lord returns today or a thousand years from today, you and I could go to him today.
The sudden and shocking nature of Hamas’s attack on Israel highlights the fact that tomorrow is promised to none of us. Those who died when these atrocities were launched had no idea when the day began that it would be their last day.
James asked us, “What is your life?” Then he answered his question: “You are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes” (James 4:14). Consequently, “Now is the day of salvation” (2 Corinthians 6:2).
We can use our people’s eschatological questions to lead them to this abiding truth: we must be ready today to meet the Lord.
Even if we knew we had three decades more in this life, the best way to live every day is to live it in preparation for judgment. If you knew you would meet the Lord next week, what would you change this week? Are there people you would forgive or seek forgiveness from? Things you would do or stop doing? Ways you would prepare?
Do them now.
You have only today to prepare for eternity.
Why does God allow war?
This is one of the hardest questions Christians must face because we believe four apparently contradictory truths:
- God is all-loving.
- God is all-knowing.
- God is all-powerful.
- Evil exists.
We can resolve our problem by minimizing or denying any of these truth claims. If God is not omnibenevolent, we wouldn’t wonder why he allows so much innocent suffering. If he is not omniscient, he wouldn’t know about wars and conflicts in time to stop them. If he is not omnipotent, he would not have the power to do so. If evil is illusory (as the Hindu tradition describing it as maya states), the problem is only apparent but not real.
Of course, to deny any of these is to create a greater problem than we “solve.”
This is a very complex issue, one I have addressed in numerous books and articles over the years. In the context of the war in Israel, let’s highlight one factor: the prevalence and power of human freedom.
God created us to love him and each other (Matthew 22:37–39), but love requires a choice. As a result, he created us with the ability to choose between good and evil (cf. Genesis 2:9). When we misuse this freedom, the consequences are not God’s fault but ours. The person who gets drunk and then wrecks his car has no one to blame but himself.
This explains why God knew about Hamas’s attack before it was launched but did not stop it. If he prevented every consequence of our misused freedom, we would not be free.
However, the “free-will theodicy” popularized by Augustine does not explain the innocent suffering that is resulting from this ongoing tragedy. Hamas’s victims did not misuse their freedom to become victims. We do innocent sufferers a horrible disservice when we blame them for their suffering.
Nor does this theodicy explain fully the issue at hand. God sometimes does intervene to prevent the consequences of misused freedom, as when he kept Herod from executing Peter (Acts 12). In the Hebrew Bible, he miraculously protected Israel from her enemies again and again.
Why did he not do the same last Saturday?
When wrestling with this tragic issue, I think it is best to explain the biblical options to our people and then settle on this practical fact: God grieves as we grieve (John 11:35). He walks with us through our deepest pain (Isaiah 43:1–3). Since we are in his hand (John 10:29), he feels all that we feel and hurts as we hurt.
Then we can invite them to trust him with their own pain, whatever it is.
From crisis to opportunity
In crisis, people are open to biblical truth in ways they are not otherwise. The war in Israel is an opportunity to help them prepare for eternity themselves and to lead them to serve those in need. It is an invitation to “pray for the peace of Jerusalem” (Psalm 122:6) and to love our neighbors wherever they live.
One day we will understand what we do not understand today (1 Corinthians 13:12). In the meantime, the less we understand God’s ways, the more we need to trust his love.
As the song says, when you cannot see his hand, trust his heart.