Category Archives: Theology

What is the Purpose of Life?

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from February 2011.

This question has been asked by every person that ever lived. We want to know why we are here and what we’re supposed to do. There is a book in the Bible that was written to answer this question. It was probably written by King Solomon near the end of his life. Solomon was well known for being very wise. He looked at all the things he had done and tried to find meaning in them. Today, we will look at what he found and his advice to others.

In this book, Solomon calls himself the “Preacher” or “Teacher”. In Greek this is “Ecclesiastes,” the name English-speakers use for the book.

Ecclesiastes 1:2
“Meaningless! Meaningless!”
says the Teacher.
“Utterly meaningless!
Everything is meaningless.”

Have you ever felt this way? Sometimes it seems like everything is meaningless. We want to look at the things we have done in our lives and think that they were worth something. We want to do good things that have value. We think that by working hard, we will add meaning to our lives. We think that living a long time will give our lives meaning. We think that getting more money or wealth will make our lives meaningful. The Preacher thought these things were true too. But he found later in life that it was not true.

The Preacher was saddened by the idea that both good people and evil people had to die. He also saw many examples of injustice. He wanted to find meaning in all of this.

Ecclesiastes 2:1
I said to myself, “Come now, I will test you with pleasure to find out what is good.” But that also proved to be meaningless.

The Preacher determined that the purpose of life might be trying to be wealthy. He tried to have as much pleasure as he could. He collected gold. He drank a lot of wine to feel good. He built extra houses, pools, and gardens. Anything that looked good, he wanted.

At the end of this pursuit, he gave up. He called it “chasing after the wind”. He learns that pursuing wealth and pleasure is not the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 4:8
There was a man all alone;
he had neither son nor brother.
There was no end to his toil,
yet his eyes were not content with his wealth.
“For whom am I toiling,” he asked,
“and why am I depriving myself of enjoyment?”
This too is meaningless—
a miserable business!

The Preacher saw people working hard all around him. He thought that hard work might be the purpose of life. He tried working harder than normal and enjoying the benefits of work. But, as he saw people around him working, he realized something. No matter how hard someone works, they will still die. All that they have earned will be given to someone else. He saw that people are born with nothing and die with nothing.

The Preacher determined that hard work is wise and a good thing. However, hard work is not the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 6:6

“even if he lives a thousand years twice over but fails to enjoy his prosperity. Do not all go to the same place?”

If all of our money and wealth disappear when we die, then they cannot be the purpose of life. The Preacher thought that the purpose of life may be to live as long as possible. This way, a person can enjoy their wealth as long as possible. However, the Preacher saw that everyone dies in the end, so living a long life is not the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 6:7

Everyone’s toil is for their mouth,

yet their appetite is never satisfied.

The Preacher is still looking for answers. People are always eating. Maybe the purpose of life is to eat good food, and eat it a lot. But, the Preacher also realized that the reason people are always eating is because they are never full. They can never get enough food. Getting more food it not the purpose of life

Ecclesiastes 9:16
So I said, “Wisdom is better than strength.”

The Preacher begins to discuss the value of wisdom and knowledge. Wisdom lets a person enjoy life more. Wisdom also leads to a longer life. Wisdom makes a person stronger than physical strength can. Wisdom by itself is not the purpose of life, but wisdom is worth seeking. Wisdom will lead you to the purpose of life.

Ecclesiastes 12:1
Remember your Creator
in the days of your youth,
before the days of trouble come
and the years approach when you will say,
“I find no pleasure in them”

The first great wise teaching the Preacher gives is this one. Young people should remember and honor the Creator. It is important for young people to do this because they are still excited about life. It can be difficult for an older person to submit to the Creator, because they are sometimes disappointed in life. Everyone should draw close to God early in life. This is the first part of the purpose of life.

Life is all about the creator of life. The reason we exist is to bring glory to the One that made us. The Preacher realized that the reason for life is outside of life itself. The purpose for our existence is to come back to God. We were made by him and for him.

Ecclesiastes 12:13
Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all mankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

The Preacher has reached an important conclusion. Nothing in life has lasting meaning because it will all disappear. Therefore, the only thing that could have meaning is something that lasts after death. After we die, our deeds will be judged. God will reward us for the times we have obeyed him. The way to fear God is to obey the commands he has given.

It is important to remember that every action we perform is seen by God. Jesus teaches that “There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known.” Since God will reward us, we must be constantly aware of our obedience.

Sometimes it seems like the wicked are being rewarded by the world. The Preacher encourages us not to worry.

Ecclesiastes 8:12-13
Although a wicked person who commits a hundred crimes may live a long time, I know that it will go better with those who fear God, who are reverent before him. Yet because the wicked do not fear God, it will not go well with them, and their days will not lengthen like a shadow.

What exactly are God’s commands? Two of the most repeated commands in the Law that the author of Ecclesiastes would be familiar with were “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength” (Deuteronomy 6:5) and “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Leviticus 19:18).

One way that we can show our obedience to God is by repenting when we fail. This requires admitting our faults and changing our behavior for the future. God’s grace is great. He forgives wickedness for those that repent.

As the Preacher looked for purpose in life, he found many wrong answers. Purpose is not found in pleasure. There is no eternal benefit to having great wealth. Even a long life must end. True meaning comes from obeying the commands of God. This is the only thing that lasts after death.

Ephesians 6:8

“you know that the Lord will reward each one for whatever good they do”

Let us live lives of meaning. Let us strive for these rewards!

Why Are the Books of the Bible in that Order?

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from June 2010.

Why are the books of the Protestant Bible in that order? Is there any sense behind it?

Well, yes. But not as much as you might think.

Firstly, it is worth remembering that different groups of Jews and Christians put their Old Testament books in different orders. The New Testament is pretty consistent across Christian traditions. No group claims that the order of Biblical books (called the “canonical” order) is divinely inspired of God. Additionally, Catholics and Eastern Orthodox Christians include books that Protestants do not.

However, the Protestant Bible was arranged with some thought. The Old Testament is arranged chronologically (in the order the events happened or the books were written) within categories. There are 5 categories: Mosaic books,  history, writings, major prophets, and minor prophets.

It begins the same in almost every tradition. The 5 books of Moses have been placed in the order—Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy—since the beginning. Since these books end at the entrance of the Promised Land, it seemed logical to include the books about the conquering of the Promised Land next—Joshua and Judges. Ruth occurs during the period of the Judges, so it is next. Following the taking of the promised land, we have the last judge, Samuel, and the first kings. Thus, 1-2 Samuel, 1-2 Kings. Then the story of the southern kingdom is re-recorded after their return from exile in 1-2 Chronicles. Ezra and Nehemiah record the actual history of the return from exile. Esther occurs simultaneous with Ezra but in a different location, so it is next. At this point, the Old Testament history books come to a conclusion.

Poetic writings come next with Job, Psalms, Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, and Song of Solomon. Job likely occurred during Genesis. The Psalms were mostly written by David, and the last three books are attributed to his son Solomon. Thus, these are arranged chronologically.

Finally, the longer prophetic books are followed by the shorter prophetic books. Isaiah warns Judah as does Jeremiah later. Jeremiah laments about the fall of Judah in Lamentations. Ezekiel and Daniel are written during the Babylonian Exile. The minor prophets begin by warning Israel, then Judah, then talking about the exile, and concluding with its return to Judah and the rebuilding of the Temple.

The New Testament is less chronological. Matthew starts by talking about the birth of Jesus and his connection to the Old Testament, thus it is placed as a connector between the two Testaments. Mark, Luke, and John are placed in the order they were likely written, though they speak about the same time period. Acts, though written by Luke, is placed after John to keep events in order.

Then the letters begin. Paul’s letters come first, arranged basically longest to shortest from Romans to Philemon. Hebrews is of unknown authorship, but just in case it was by Paul, this letter is placed next. The order of the books of James, 1-2 Peter, 1-3 John, and Jude makes no sense to me. Chronologically, topically, and categorically it makes way more sense to put 1-3 John next to Revelation and have Jude next to 2 Peter. Of course Revelation was the last New Testament book written and talks about the future.

So you see, it isn’t entirely cut and dry. Of course there are chronological Bibles out there that make an attempt to straighten this all out. However, You do run into challenges like Job. Its events occurred either pre-flood or in the patriarchal time period (Genesis), but it probably wasn’t written until the period of wisdom literature that includes Proverbs and Ecclesiastes.

A good Chronological bible reading plan may be worth considering if you want to see how different literary styles overlapped in time.

God’s Sovereignty over Time

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from April 2010.

How can God have always existed if time has a beginning? This and similar questions often grace my path as a teacher of young students. One paradigm has helped me answer them, and I want to share it with you.

It is mind boggling to think of God as always having existed. He has lived forever and will still live as long as we do. This teaching can become problematic as we deal in terms of creationism versus theories like the Big Bang. One argument against the latter theory is that it is impossible for an actually infinite number of things to exist; also the second law of thermodynamics indicates that the universe is “winding down” from a point of higher usable energy. Is God subject to these laws?

In other words, how can one say God has always existed and that matter can’t have always existed?

To answer this question, I have the help of two great theologians: C.S. Lewis and St. Augustine. Lewis argues in Mere Christianity that God’s relationship to time is like the relationship between an author and her work.

“Almost certainly God is not in Time. His life does not consist of moments following one another…He has all eternity in which to listen to the split second of prayer… Suppose I am writing a novel… Between writing the first half of that sentence and the second, I might sit down for three hours and think.” (pp. 167-168; HarperSanFrancisco, 2001 edition)

In my own words, God is not just on the entire timeline, he is outside the timeline.He created time itself. Therefore, to say God has always existed is an understatement. He invented both “existence” and the concept of “always.”

Augustine sheds more light on the issue in The City of God.

“…time does not exist without some movement and transition, while in eternity there is no change, who does not see that there could have been no time had not some creature been made, which by some motion could give birth to change…and thus, in these shorter or longer intervals of duration, time would begin? Since then, God, in whose eternity is no change at all, is the Creator and Ordainer of time, I do not see how He can be said to have created the world after spaces of time had elapsed, unless it be said that prior to the world there was some creature by whose movement time could pass. … then assuredly the world was made, not in time, but simultaneously with time.” (Book 11, The City of God)

In other words, if nothing changes, there is no passage of time. Therefore, God did not “wait” for time to pass before creating the world. He created time by the simple act of creating. Time and the world began at the same…time.

Time itself is subject to God. Therefore, issues like God existing within creation for ever are subject to this greater principle. God’s immanence is explained by his transcendence.

Answering a Fool: Proverbs 26:4-5

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from April 2010.

The Bible seems to have many contradictions. I am of the opinion that most can be sorted out by a better understanding of the text. Others are more challenging. While it would be enjoyable to confront all proposed biblical contradictions, it would be redundant as many have attempted to do it already. The Christian perspective on many of these issues can be found here.

I recently had one of these apparent contradictions brought to me by a student. The issue is how to appropriately handle a foolish person.

Proverbs 26:4-5 NASB
Do not answer a fool according to his folly,
Or you will also be like him.
Answer a fool as his folly deserves,
That he not be wise in his own eyes.

Proverbs 26:4-5 KJV
Answer not a fool according to his folly, lest thou also be like unto him.
Answer a fool according to his folly, lest he be wise in his own conceit.

Well, then. Somebody is either arguing with himself or forgot what he just said, right?

On the spot, I see two possible ways to reconcile these obvious opposites with each other. Firstly, the author could be merely stating an apparent reality. In other words, “It seems that if you answer a fool, you become foolish, but if you don’t, he thinks he’s wise!” Frustrating indeed. While the Proverbs often do this, it is not the only possible reconciliation.

I hoped to find some help by looking up the phrase “according to/as his …deserves” in the original Hebrew. Maybe they are different words for the two lines.

No dice. They were identical.

So the author used the exact same phrase twice. Don’t answer a fool according to his folly, just like it deserves. Better yet, do it.

I found one other instance of this phrase in the Hebrew Bible that was of some help. At the end of Job, God is correcting Job’s frenemies for their foolishness and says:

“Now therefore…offer up a burnt offering for yourselves, and My servant Job will pray for you For I will accept him so that I may not do with you according to your folly, because you have not spoken of Me what is right, as My servant Job has.” (Job 42:8 NASB)

The phrase seems to indicate a relationship of authority giving punishment. This works, as the context of Proverbs 26:1-5 is all about putting a fool in his rightful place…downward.

Finally I found some help from early interpretive tradition: the Septuagint. This is the attempt of Jewish scholars to translate their writings from Hebrew into Greek completed in the 2nd century BC. They rendered the phrase “according to” in two different ways in the two verses. They used “pros” in verse 4 and “kata” in verse 5.

There is a slight nuance in meaning difference here. Pros seems to indicate going toward something else on the same level. I would answer pros my wife if she asked a question. Kata seems to refer to a downward approach as with one in authority. I would answer kata my son if he challenged me. The result is something like you see in the NASB translation above. Don’t answer a fool toward or on the same level with his folly. Do put his foolishness in its rightful place.

Of course, the practical reality is that one is usually a poor judge of whether the other is a fool. It seems that the answer should only be given to correct a person that you are in intellectual authority over. Otherwise, it will look like the conversation of two fools.

Never argue with a fool; onlookers may not be able to tell the difference. – Mark Twain?

Eternal Happiness

To get this blog going again, I will be re-posting some of the most popular theology material from my former blog. This is from July 2009.

“For we mean by eternal life that life where there is endless happiness. For if the soul live in eternal punishments, by which also those unclean spirits shall be tormented, that is rather eternal death than eternal life. For there is no greater or worse death than when death never dies. But because the soul from its very nature, being created immortal, cannot be without some kind of life, its utmost death is alienation from the life of God in an eternity of punishment. So, then, He only who gives true happiness gives eternal life, that is, an endlessly happy life.” -Augustine, The City of God, Book 6, Chapter 12

Augustine here continues his tirade against those who would worship “happiness” (a.k.a. felicity) or any other trait as a god in itself. Rather, it makes more sense that God gives happiness, than that happiness is a god. Furthermore, if we want to life a life of happiness, what better way than to live an eternal life of happiness? We will all live forever, but we must determine what kind of life it will be. God who gives happiness is the only one worth pursuing for eternal life.