Don’t All Paths Lead to God?

There’s a lot of conflict in our world right now. Disagreement over the pandemic and this year’s riots in America tell the story all too well. Despite the mess and division, I think most of us long for unity.

One of the ways we express this desire for peace in our times is to suggest that all paths lead to God. Many today say that that all religions are different ways of expressing the same ideas about God, the universe, and how we should treat each other.

This belief, known as pluralism, is accepted wisdom in the West. No one even feels the need to defend pluralism because it’s so widely assumed to be true. In our cultural moment, it’s scandalous to suggest, for example, that Jesus might be the only way. Pluralism seems to be a useful way to bypass the conflict and make sure we all get along.

“Most of us long for unity.”

There is a famous parable from India that conveys this idea of pluralism. You may have heard of it. It’s called ‘the tale of the blind men and the elephant’ and it goes like this:

Five blind men inspect an elephant. One feels the trunk and concludes it’s a snake. One touches its ear and decides it is a leaf. Another finds the leg and thinks it’s a tree. One puts his hand on the elephant’s side and believes it’s a wall. The final man holds the tail and says it is a rope.

The point of the parable, then, is that ultimate truth isn’t found in just one religion. Rather, by our combined insight we can arrive at an all-encompassing truth together. If we shared our wisdom, we’d realise that all paths lead to God.

But does it really work that way?

Let me first clarify that people of different faiths can get along fine without agreeing on everything. I have Muslim and Hindu friends, for example, and our friendship isn’t under threat because of our differences of opinion. If anything, when the topic of faith comes up, I find it easier talking with people from non-Western backgrounds about faith because it’s not a taboo topic for them like it is for so many Westerners.

I’m all for a society where we can talk openly and comfortably about our differences and live alongside each other in peace. But that doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. The beauty of the West, after all, is that we don’t depend on ‘blood-and-soil’ nationalism to live in free and peaceful societies. What holds us together isn’t our skin colour or religion, but our shared values.

“People of different faiths can get along fine without agreeing on everything.”

The problem with pluralism is that it tries to force agreement where there can’t be. In doing so, pluralism insults everyone (except for pluralists, of course).

Pluralism does this by failing to understand the unique claims of each world faith. The founders of every religion—and most of their followers—believe that their path of salvation is needed, precisely because the other options don’t cut it.

Think about it.

For Buddhists, enlightenment became possible only because the Buddha discovered the eightfold path.

For Muslims, the five pillars of Islam are the true path of submission to Allah.

“What holds us together in the West is our shared values.”

For Hindus, the way of release is how people can have union with the ultimate life force.

For Jews, following God’s law is the only way to truly obey him.

And the list goes on.

According to pluralism, though, none of this is true. The central claim of each faith—that salvation is only possible through their specific path—is shot down in flames by pluralism.

According to pluralism, Buddha’s eightfold path, Muhammad’s five pillars, Hinduism’s way of release, the Jewish law, and Jesus’ death and resurrection weren’t really needed, because hope could have been found elsewhere.

“The problem with pluralism is that it tries to force agreement where there can’t be.”

Notice that the parable of the blind man and the elephant is hiding a secret. Pluralists don’t mention the most important fact in the story: there aren’t five men, but six. The sixth man is the narrator, the one telling the story. Only he has all the facts; only he perceives everything objectively.

Do you see it? Pluralism congratulates itself for its tolerance, but it actually makes the most arrogant claim of all. It paints itself as the only truly objective point of view—the one that all other religions failed to see.

The blind men and the elephant is a nice story, and surely it has use in other areas of life. But if we try to apply it to the world’s religions, we create a bigger mess than the one we started with. Pluralism becomes simply another ideology—and a bad one at that—for all of us to disagree on.

“Faith seems to find an echo in every human soul.”

So where does this leave us? If we can’t find a unity between the world’s religions, do we just reject them all?

That won’t work either, because faith seems to find an echo in every human soul. In the West, we have given the secular project a good run. We’ve tried to live like the universe just is—as though God is just an optional extra. But faith hasn’t gone away. The world, even in the West, is as religious as it’s ever been.

All of the world’s religions might be wrong. But one thing is for sure: they can’t all be right.

“The world, even in the West, is as religious as it’s ever been.”

I am a Christian. That means I believe that Jesus is the way, the truth and the life, and that no one can come to God except through him. That might offend the modern world, but that’s okay. There are lots of things about the modern world that offend me. Somehow, I still find a way to live in peace with those around me.

Being a Christian doesn’t mean closing my mind to other claims about the world.

In truth, I see the fingerprints of God in every worldview. I see people with eternity written across their hearts. I see people reaching out, not just for something greater than themselves, but for a way out of our human predicament—even if that predicament is framed in a thousand different ways.

“Being a Christian doesn’t mean closing my mind to other claims about the world.”

But in Jesus, I see something unique. Instead of asking us to live better or strive harder or reach higher, I see a God who has come down to us, who has stepped into our situation, and done for us what we cannot do for ourselves.

In Jesus, I see the enlightened one that even the Buddha needed. More than a prophet, I see the truest ‘Muslim’, the one who perfectly submitted to God and enables us to do likewise. I see Hinduism’s way of release in human form. I see the God that even atheists can’t seem to escape. I see the Messiah, the hope of Israel.

Maybe I’m just seeing things. Or maybe Jesus is the true God—the one we’ve all been searching for.

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* This article is an updated version of How Pluralism Points to Jesus.

Meet the Atheists Who Are Grateful for Christianity

The Australian journalist Greg Sheridan has quipped that these days, “the academic fashion is to attack Western civilisation, not study it.”

With historic statues being trashed and toppled around the western world, and accusations of systemic racism being levelled against the fairest societies that history has produced, Sheridan couldn’t be more right.

Sadly, those trying to erase our history seem unaware that the ideals they claim to stand for—like equality, human dignity, science and human rights—arose uniquely in the West. Not only that—these values owe much of their existence to Christianity.

Over the last decade, there has been a flood of scholarly publications that highlight the Christian roots of Western Civilisation. Christian academics like Vishal Mangalwadi, Rodney Stark, Larry Siedentop and Nick Spencer have written prolifically on this topic.

But there are also many atheists and skeptics who credit the West’s successes to the Christian faith. The author Tom Holland, with his recent book Dominion: The Making of the Western Mind (2019), is one of them.

The ancient world is a familiar place to Holland, who has spent the better part of fifteen years studying and writing about it. As an atheist, Holland had assumed that cultures like ancient Rome were the wellspring of his western values. But the more he examined these societies with all their vice and cruelty, the more alien they felt to him.

Take, for example, the emperor Commodus (AD 161-192). For a gladiatorial contest, Commodus once had all those with disabilities rounded up from the streets of Rome and tied together in the shape of a human. Entering the Colosseum, Commodus clubbed them to death before cheering crowds, proudly announcing that he had ‘slain a giant’.

Or consider Rome’s sexual ethics. Men had immense sexual freedom, while a woman who was unfaithful to her husband could be divorced in a heartbeat or killed with impunity. Sexual relationships between adult men and prepubescent boys were acceptable and even idealised. 

According to Holland, “Sex in Rome was above all an exercise of power. As captured cities were to the swords of the legions, so the bodies of those used sexually… were to the Roman man. To be penetrated, male or female, was to be branded as inferior: to be marked as womanish, barbarian, servile.”

Realising that his own values contrasted sharply with those of the classical world, Tom Holland was eager to discover what had shaped him. The result of that fifteen-year search was his aforementioned book, Dominion, which he has summarised like this: 

“I have come to the conclusion that in almost all the essentials, myself, my friends, the society in which I live—the whole of the West—is so saturated in Christian assumptions, it is almost impossible to remove ourselves from them.”

Though he is still an atheist, Holland has written, “In my morals and ethics, I have learned to accept that I am not Greek or Roman at all, but thoroughly and proudly Christian.”

But Tom Holland is not the only ‘unbeliever’ to make such a claim. In recent years, there has been a growing chorus of non-Christian voices echoing this provocative theme.

British journalist Douglas Murray (1979-) has declared that “you cannot take Christianity out of the West and have anything that’s recognisably the West.” Murray, an atheist—and who happens to be gay—speaks with admiration of Christianity and “the positive role it has played in building Western civilization.” He says that westerners “still dream Christian dreams” and he even goes as far to call himself, rather cheekily, a “Christian atheist.”

Dave Rubin (1976-) is another prominent gay personality who has come to this conclusion. An American talk show host and former comedian, Rubin long considered himself an atheist, but more recently his unbelief has begun to waver.

Of western societies, Rubin has said, “I see no way around it, as much as my enlightenment brain would like to. The eternal truths told for thousands of years through biblical stories are the rudder that keeps us moving forward during the storm.”

Dave Rubin credits his new perspective to Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson (1962-), a highly sought-after speaker who has been labelled ‘the most influential public intellectual in the Western world’. Together, the two recently completed a world tour promoting Peterson’s latest book.

When asked if he believes in God, Peterson said, “I think the proper response to that is no—but I am afraid he might exist.” This uncertainty has not stopped Peterson from giving a series of Bible lectures that has attracted tens of millions of views online. What animates Peterson is his resolute belief that “the Bible is, for better or worse, the foundational document of western civilization.”

Likely you have heard of high-profile celebrities who swim against the tide of Hollywood to maintain their Christian faith. But there are far fewer from the silver screen who dare to defend Christianity from a standpoint of unbelief. The actor John Rhys-Davies (1944-), who starred in the Indiana Jones and Lord of the Rings trilogies, is one of this rare breed.

Rhys-Davies describes himself as a rationalist and a skeptic, but he has raised eyebrows by saying, “we seem to forget that Christian civilization has made the world a better place… we owe Christianity the greatest debt of thanks.”

In recent years, skeptical academics have also been weighing in on this question. Australian intellectual Chris Berg, another atheist, has said that “virtually all the secular ideas that non-believers value have Christian origins.”

Secular writer John Steinrucken claims that, “the glue that has held Western civilization together over the centuries is the Judeo-Christian tradition.”

French atheist philosopher Luc Ferry is convinced that our western belief in equality came directly from Christian teachings. Equality was “an unprecedented idea at the time,” he says, “and one to which our world owes its entire democratic inheritance.”

Most intriguing, perhaps, are those who grew up in different cultures but who speak with high praise about Christianity and its civilising power. Ayaan Hirsi Ali (1969-) is one such person. Ali was born in Somalia and raised as a Muslim.

She suffered FGM as a child, and in her teen years she was drawn to an increasingly fundamentalist brand of Islam. But Ali was also an avid reader of the Nancy Drew detective series, and she could not shake the independence and courage of the female lead character.

With lingering doubts about Islam and an impending forced marriage, Ali sought asylum in the Netherlands. Soon after, she watched from afar as al-Qaeda terrorists struck a diabolical blow against the civilisation that had offered her freedom.

Ali decided to re-examine Islam, and in 2002 she gave up her faith entirely, turning instead to atheism. She has since served in the Netherlands’ parliament, moved to the United States, and been an outspoken activist for freedom and feminism.

Despite her atheism, Ali regards the Christian church as one of the main institutions that has changed western hearts and minds for the better through the centuries. Controversially, she has even advocated for Christians to proselytise western Muslims in order to safeguard our civilisation from extremist Islam.

When so many people without a vested interest in Christianity speak up in defence of its civilising force on the world, we should pay attention.

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A Christian’s Guide to Cultural Marxism

If you Google the term “Cultural Marxism,” you will likely be told that it is a right-wing conspiracy theory. But pick a different search engine, or scroll for long enough, and you will find a more robust definition.

Cultural Marxism—for those new to the concept—is a worldview gaining immense popularity throughout the West. It refers to a collection of ideas rather than a collection of people. Cultural Marxism is a secular philosophy that views all of life as a power struggle between the oppressed and the oppressor.

The oppressor is usually an aspect of traditional western society such as the family, capitalism, democracy, or Christianity. The oppressed is anyone who is or who feels marginalised by these institutions, depending on the cultural and political debates of the moment.

“Cultural Marxism is a secular philosophy that views all of life as a power struggle.”

Several years ago, the oppressed group in focus was the members of the homosexual community who wanted to marry. Last year, it was schoolchildren who felt threatened by climate change, and biological men seeking to identify as women and compete in women’s sport. This year, it is ethnic minorities protesting police treatment.

What needs to be acknowledged up front is that this power dynamic in our culture is real, since even the most well-intentioned societies produce inequality that must be addressed.

And as followers of Jesus, we are called to care for all people, and to be particularly sensitive to those who are sidelined by society. Love for ‘the least of these’ is, after all, the example Jesus set for us.

“Even the most well-intentioned societies produce inequality.”

But if we are not discerning, our impulse for compassion will be recruited and used for harm. Jesus stood for the downtrodden—but he also stood for marriage, gender norms, private property, a God-given moral code, good pay for hard work, a faith lived out in public, and civil law and order.

Cultural Marxism, on the other hand, sees all of these divine norms as the problem. And Christians who uncritically accept the oppressed-oppressor narrative end up fighting against the very institutions that God has ordained for human safety and flourishing.

To better understand Cultural Marxism, we do well to trace its origins. To read about it in depth, see the Gospel Coalition’s brilliant exposé on the subject. For a potted version, read on.

Karl Marx (1818–1883) was a German political theorist who believed that workers were oppressed by capitalism and should rise up to overthrow it. He dreamed of a socialist or communist utopia—a classless society where all resources were shared.

“Cultural Marxism sees divine norms as the problem.”

Marx’s philosophy was trialled in Russia, China, and many other nations in the 20th century. Tragically, 100 million people lost their lives in the communist bloodbath that followed. What became clear through this experiment is that when a stable government is overthrown, bad actors will always rush in to take power—because power corrupts, and the human heart is evil.

In other words, Marxism is good in theory but terrible in practice because it fails to account for the moral complexity of humans. We are at times victims of the sin and oppression of others, as Marx saw. But we are also guilty of sin ourselves and prone to abuse power when given the opportunity.

Despite Marxism’s obvious failings, many of Marx’s followers continued to subscribe to his ideals. One of these was Antonio Gramsci (1891–1937). He believed that Marxism failed because capitalist values were still too deeply embedded in every aspect of Western society.

A culture-wide revolution was needed, Gramsci argued, if Marxism were to succeed. This would involve a reshaping of sexual ethics, organised religion, mass media, academia, the legal system, and more.

“Marxism fails to account for the moral complexity of humans.”

According to Gramsci, “In the new order, Socialism will triumph by first capturing the culture via infiltration of schools, universities, churches and the media by transforming the consciousness of society.” This dream came to be known as the “long march through the institutions.”

The doctrines of Cultural Marxism were further developed by a group of intellectuals in Germany known as The Frankfurt School—most prominent among them, Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979). Fleeing the Nazis in the 1930s, this group ended up scattered in universities across the Western world, most notably in New York and California.

Many of the seismic cultural shifts we have been experiencing over the last decade were being promoted by Frankfurt School academics as early as the 1960s. The sexual revolution, the redefinition of tolerance, radical sex education in schools, belief in gender as a social construct, the virtue of censorship, and Critical Theory can all be traced back to this group.

And as many have observed, however deliberate the campaign has been, this “long march through the institutions” is near complete.

“Cultural Marxism is a mood that defines our generation.”

Cultural Marxism today is not an organised group or a hidden society. It has its zealous prophets, to be sure. And ironically, they tend to be white, middle class, well educated, and able to cushion themselves from any chaos they might inspire—just like the Frankfurt School and Marx before them.

But more commonly, Cultural Marxism is a zeitgeist; a mood that defines our generation. Political correctness and our tendency to self-censor are some of the more obvious signs that Cultural Marxism has now gone thoroughly mainstream.

These new values are being enforced in more active ways, too. If your opinion fails to align with a narrow set of new ‘orthodox’ ideas, you will pay the price in some way or another—whether that’s your reputation, your relationships, or increasingly even your livelihood.

It is necessary to point out that people don’t need to understand the history of Cultural Marxism or own the label to openly promote its doctrines. But nor is it a conspiracy theory to describe these ideas as Cultural Marxism, since the label is proudly owned by many of its proponents, and its teachings have been in the public domain since their inception.

“If your opinion fails to align with a narrow set of new ‘orthodox’ ideas, you will pay the price.”

Today, the unmistakable cry of Cultural Marxism is that of victimhood. Put simply, the more oppressed groups you can claim membership to, the more your opinion counts and the more your demands must be met.

While seeming to promote equality, what Cultural Marxism actually inspires is a never-ending grievance between sexes, races, and other fixed descriptors that divide us. And this is a necessary component of the Cultural Marxist philosophy, since the West’s institutions will only be supplanted if enough anger can be rallied to the cause.

To this end, minority groups often find themselves being used for political advantage by those who claim to care about them the most. Radical groups hijacking the George Floyd protests is only the latest, ugly example of this.

“The unmistakable cry of Cultural Marxism is that of victimhood.”

Always, Cultural Marxist solutions are political ones. And it can only be this way, since Marxism is an atheistic worldview that only deals with a materialistic universe. To Marxists, the state is God.

This is why Christians must tread with caution. Jesus has sent us as salt and light into our culture. Most of the culture-shaping actions he calls us to actually don’t involve government at all—like intercession, care, financial generosity, friendship, community service, and civil debate, to name just a few.

Yes, Christians are called to be politically engaged as well. But according to Jeremiah 29:7, we are to “work for the peace and prosperity of the city where I sent you into exile, praying to the Lord for it, for its welfare will determine your welfare.” Our voice should be for reform and renewal, not merely joining the chorus for radical overthrow.

“To Marxists, the state is God.”

But the greatest tool we have been given is the gospel. The truth is that intolerance and oppression and bigotry aren’t some great evil ‘out there’—rather, they are sins found in each of us. As Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn noted, “the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being.”

God’s ultimate and eternal solution to these evils is for every individual to be set free from their sin and reconciled to the One in whose image we have all been made. Only on this foundation can we build a truly just society where competing tribes no longer struggle for power—but instead, where each person puts the needs of others before their own.

This side of eternity we won’t achieve utopia. But the closer our culture aligns to the ways of God, the more we will see the vision of Amos 5:24 fulfilled: “Let justice rolls down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.”

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Three Secrets to the Culture Wars

It’s been many decades since the term culture wars was dubbed, and the label is now more relevant than ever. What began as a reasoned debate on issues like abortion, multiculturalism and homosexuality has turned into a hearts-and-minds battle for the soul of our civilization.

The rapid growth of the culture wars vocab is evidence enough of this.

We’re all familiar with terms like ‘identity politics,’ ‘white privilege’ and ‘virtue signalling.’ But have you heard of deplatforming, cancel culture, red-pilled, safe spaces, cisnormativity, or Trump derangement syndrome? Most importantly, do you know what it means to be woke?

It’s not easy keeping up with the jargon. Actually, it would be far safer to let others fight the culture wars. This is especially true now that people make a sport of branding others with so many exotic new phobias.

“There is a much deeper war of ideas taking place.”

But to disengage from the culture wars is to surrender entirely. As George Orwell was apt to point out, if you control the language, you win the debate. Words and ideas matter, because they are precisely where the battle rages.

It has become ever clearer to me that underneath most verbal brawls there is a much deeper war of ideas taking place. When we learn to recognise the hidden debates, it becomes much easier to engage and stay on the front foot.

So what are these unspoken battles? I am convinced that if we understand the secrets to the culture wars, the questions behind the questions, we can avoid unneeded hostility—and instead seek out some common ground and some common sense.

Secret 1: Is the Endgame Equality or Power?

‘Equality’ has been the motto for causes of every kind in recent decades. So much so that it’s hard to find anyone today who rejects the idea of equality. Most westerners agree that all people should be raised to a place of equal worth regardless of gender, race or creed.

But in recent years, the notion of equality has been quietly transformed along with the definition of words like racism and sexism. Ironically, these -isms no longer apply equally. Among the woke, they are only allowed to be used in reference to oppressed groups—those who have faced historical injustice.

For example, if I, a ‘white male,’ complain that I have been the victim of racism or sexism, my complaint will be shrugged off—even scoffed at. I will be told to suck it up, since all Caucasians and all males have been living the good life for eons, apparently. According to this logic, it is now my turn to walk a mile in someone else’s shoes.

“In recent years, the notion of equality has been quietly transformed.”

Those who hold this line genuinely believe in the virtue of defending only those groups who have a history of ill-treatment. But at this point, they no longer believe in equality. What they are fighting for is unequal power. They want one form of privilege to give way to another.

I’ll admit that being both male and of European descent may have brought brought with it certain privileges not enjoyed by other people in the West. But for as long as I can remember, I have sought to regard all people as my equals and not expect better treatment for myself. Most people I interact with seem to live out the same convictions.

“When you see people trying to wield raw power, call them out on it.”

So while Western societies today may not be perfect, they are the most equal and just that history has ever seen: simply ask your grandparents. To whatever degree we are still overcoming the inequalities of the past, we will never be helped by replacing old injustices with new ones.

Ironically, brazen power grabs are exactly what we were supposed to be avoiding. So when you see people trying to wield raw power like this, call them out on it—and bring the conversation back to genuine equality.

And if you’re a Christian, explain the absolute that grounds this value: we have all been made in the image of God, and that is why are compelled to treat people as equally valuable and precious.

Secret 2: Are People Defending a Race or an Idea?

In some quarters, racism and xenophobia are labels thrown about far too casually. Only recently it dawned on me that, more often than not, these accusations have little to do with race or nationality. Many who brandish these terms are actually seeking to protect an idea.

The light came on for me in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic. Remember when President Trump—and many others—were accused of racism for calling it the ‘Wuhan coronavirus’?

You may not know this, but in the early stages of the outbreak, the same media who later painted Trump as a xenophobe had previously called it the Wuhan coronavirus themselves—dozens and dozens of times.

And why not? As comedian Bill Maher points out, we’ve always named diseases after their place of origin, from the West Nile Virus to Ebola, Guinea Worms, MERS and the Spanish Flu.

“Many who brandish terms like ‘racist’ are actually seeking to protect an idea.”

The renaming of COVID-19 isn’t a hill I wish to die on. But it was a convenient shift for the Chinese Communist Party who covered up the early spread of the virus and (it seems likely) pressured the World Health Organisation to delay warning the world of a pandemic.

All of this to say, naming the virus after its origin in Wuhan has little to do with Chinese people, and much to do with the villainy of an authoritarian government. This remains true even if Trump did it to take the focus off his own early failures. What Trump and others took issue with, in other words, was the communism—not the Chinese-ness—of the CCP.

Sticking to the theme American politics, this year I have followed the ‘Blexit’ movement with great interest. Founded by African-American commentator Candace Owens, Blexit is shorthand for a black exit from the Democratic party.

“Race isn’t the point—ideas are.”

The idea that black Americans might find refuge with Republicans is a shock to many. What has shocked me, however, is how many ‘Blexiteers’ report racist treatment from liberals for their decision to walk away from the Democrats—or “leave the plantation” as some even call it. Frequently they are accused of being ‘race traitors’ and Uncle Toms.

Ironically, the idea that black Americans should only vote Democrat is itself a racist assumption since it lumps all people of one ethnic group into a single category.

Put simply, race isn’t the point—ideas are. This has to be true if people of any ethnicity are able to think for themselves and vote for any political party or cause they are most drawn to.

Next time someone alleges racism or xenophobia, ask yourself this simple question: are they trying to protect a race or an idea? No one should be discriminated against for his or her ethnicity. But all bad ideas can and should be challenged.

Secret 3: Is Western Civilization Good or Evil?

This might just be the question behind the question behind the question. I have seen this and now I can’t unsee it: where the culture wars rage the fiercest, the debate is always about Western Civilization itself.

Simply put, is Western Civilization basically good and worth defending—or is it fundamentally evil and in need of overhauling entirely?

For many today, the West is an oppressive patriarchy that perpetuates, from one generation to the next, the values, beliefs and institutions that oppress minorities and divide society.

In this telling of the story, Western Civilization is one long project of colonisation—the rape-and-pillage of indigenous communities and the environment that continues unabated to this day.

“Is Western Civilization good and worth defending?”

While only the ignorant could deny the West’s many mistakes, such a simplistic version of events has too many glaring omissions. Western Civilization was also the wellspring of countless blessings that have transformed the world—science, liberal democracy, medicine, universal education, and the idea of equality itself, to name just a few.

Violence, slavery, and colonisation are not unique to the West—they have characterised almost every civilization through time. What makes the West unique and truly good is its leading role in subduing these evils, and exporting prosperity and freedom beyond our shores so that others might benefit too.

Even those who say they disagree with me on this point seem confused at best.

“We instinctively know that the West is a blessing.”

The same people who decry nations like Australia, the UK and America as evil, also insist that we open our borders so that people from other nations can flood in at will. If the West is so despicable, why would we want to torture others by welcoming them here? No seriously—why?

In truth, we all want the West to be a blessing to others because we instinctively know that the West is a blessing. We can see that our civilization is not ours to hoard, but ours to share.

And that’s why I’m willing to fight a culture war to defend it.

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Why Christians Clash with the Current Culture

It’s becoming more obvious with each passing year, and just about everyone in the West will agree: to be a Christian means to walk out of step with mainstream culture. 

It’s such a fixed feature of modern life that Christians have adapted a variety of solutions to this dilemma. Some believers relish the opportunity to cause unnecessary trouble. Others run scared—and in doing so, they compromise their stand for Jesus. Both extremes do damage to the cause of Christ.

So how can we walk the middle road? The answer to this begins with properly understanding our calling as Christians. Why do we clash with the current culture?

“To be a Christian means to walk out of step with mainstream culture.”

Following in the footsteps of Jesus certainly means acting with kindness, compassion and care. But don’t forget that Jesus was also a magnet for controversy. There is simply no way to avoid this. If we follow him, we will be too.

Acts 17:1-9 paints this picture precisely.

Paul and Silas are visiting the city of Thessalonica. They make a persuasive case for the gospel, and win many hearts and minds to the way of Jesus. And without intending to, they also cause a stir.

The fact is that if we are true to our calling like the early church was, we can expect the same as them. We should aim to be convincing; we can be confident of our message; and like it or not, we will be controversial in the process.

Called to be Convincing | v1-3

“As was Paul’s custom, he went to the synagogue service, and for three Sabbaths in a row he used the Scriptures to reason with the people. He explained the prophecies and proved that the Messiah must suffer and rise from the dead. He said, ‘This Jesus I’m telling you about is the Messiah.’”

Paul reasoned, explained and proved. These shouldn’t be dirty words for Christians. Following Jesus is a heart journey, to be sure. But it also requires our brains.

Like Paul, we are called to be convincing. Our aim is to help people see that the good news of Jesus makes sense in a world starved of meaning. We don’t need to know all the answers, and we certainly can’t argue anyone into the kingdom.

“Proclaiming Jesus is a Spirit-empowered activity.”

But God has entrusted to us the most relevant, reasonable and compelling way of life the world has ever known. Christianity isn’t a ‘leap into the dark’. It’s a very sensible step into the light. So let’s make our best case for that, as the apostles did.

In the process, there’s no need to trust our own prowess or persuasiveness. If there’s anything we learn from the book of Acts, it’s that proclaiming Jesus is a Spirit-empowered activity.

Called to be Confident | v4

Consider the extraordinary outcome in Thessalonica:

“Some of the Jews who listened were persuaded and joined Paul and Silas, along with many God-fearing Greek men and quite a few prominent women.”

In the short time that Paul and Silas visited this city, a new church sprang up. The gospel is powerful. It transforms lives and whole communities. This is why Paul calls the gospel, “the power of God at work, saving everyone who believes.” It’s a message we can have confidence in.

“The message of Jesus has a power all of its own.”

My Dad is a very skilled gardener. I am not—but I have tried. One year when I was renting with friends, I decided to plant a vegetable patch. Dad happily shared with me with seeds and compost. I dug up the soil and planted tomatoes, carrots, beans and broccoli.

As time went on and my study commitments took over, I neglected to pull out weeds, and I watered my garden with less and less frequency. Eventually, everything I planted withered and died—if the bugs hadn’t eaten it first.

But then pumpkins started springing up everywhere, even though I had never planted them. Soon there were pumpkin vines crawling all over my garden, and even under the fence and into the carport. I deduced, of course, that there must have been pumpkin seeds in Dad’s compost.

“The gospel doesn’t depend on our faithfulness, but God’s.”

Through my little failed project, I learned that even if my gardening abilities are terrible, I can always count on compost from my Dad.

The gospel is quite the same. Like Dad’s compost, the message of Jesus has a power all of its own. Whenever and wherever it is proclaimed, God is at work by his Spirit to bring people to faith. We can have confidence, because the gospel doesn’t depend on our faithfulness, but God’s.

Called to be Controversial | v5-9

Look what happens next:

“But some of the Jews were jealous, so they gathered some troublemakers from the marketplace to form a mob and start a riot… ‘Paul and Silas have caused trouble all over the world,’ they shouted, ‘and now they are here disturbing our city, too.'”

More fascinating still is the crime these Christians were accused of: “They are all guilty of treason against Caesar, for they profess allegiance to another king, named Jesus.”

All this talk of caesars and kings can sound worlds apart from our own, but in fact it’s remarkably similar. In the Roman Empire, just like today, people were free to believe in and worship any gods they wanted to. Tolerance and diversity were the catch-cry of the day.

“We are free to follow Jesus, so long as we concede that Jesus is just one way.”

There was only one condition: whichever gods you worshipped, whatever you believed or practiced, you had to acknowledge Caesar as Lord.

It was common for Roman soldiers to march into village centres, carrying an altar with a clear demand: “Pay homage to Caesar!” One by one, under pain of death, citizens would approach the altar to sprinkle incense and solemnly declare, “Caesar is Lord.”

For refusing to make this confession in either word or deed, eleven of Jesus’ twelve disciples were killed, and countless more besides. Fortunately, the price most of us pay to follow Jesus is nothing like that. But the Christian’s clash with the current culture is just as real.

“There was only one condition: you had to acknowledge Caesar as Lord.”

As in Rome, we are free to follow Jesus, so long as we concede that Jesus is just one of many ways, and not the way, the truth and the life. In any age, when diversity and tolerance are prized as the highest virtue, it can sound like treason to declare that Jesus alone can save.

When we do—ironically—there is not much tolerance given to Christians.

Let’s be clear though: we shouldn’t go looking for trouble. Scripture says:

  • Let everyone see that you are considerate in all you do.
  • Do all that you can to live in peace with everyone.
  • Always try to do good to each other and to all people.

But Scripture also declares that Jesus is Lord. And if that’s true, then the Caesars of our day are not. Regardless of whether they are despots or dogmas.

When we accept this and give ourselves permission to be controversial—come what may—we’re actually set free. We no longer need to struggle for the world’s acceptance where we were never promised it.

“If Jesus is Lord, then the Caesars of our day are not.”

Next time you’re faced with hostility for following Jesus, be encouraged.

Like the early believers, you’re called to be convincing. You can be confident that the message you carry will change lives. And if you are controversial as a result, rest assured that Jesus is big enough to handle it.

He’s king, remember?

Angie’s Supernatural Stomach Healing

Like most westerners, I grew up somewhat skeptical of miracles. I was raised in the church and believed in God, but supernatural events seemed oddly stuck in the ancient world.

In a past post, I’ve shared how my views on this have shifted over the years. I have experienced a growing list of undeniable ‘encounters’ that I can’t explain by science or luck. But hands down, the biggest miracle I’ve witnessed is what happened to my fiancé Angie late last year.

“Angie’s story was unpredictable and unique.”

Angie has given me permission to tell her story, knowing that it will leave a powerful impression on those who read it. I was there for much of the journey, and below I tell a faithful account of all that I saw.

One disclaimer before I proceed: I have come to realise that there is no formula for supernatural events. No one can twist God’s arm for a miracle, or craft a three-step plan for success. Angie’s story was unpredictable and unique, and the ending still surprises us today.

Angie Visits a Shaman

Three years ago, before Angie was following Jesus, she backpacked through South-East Asia with some good friends. While there, she visited a shaman made famous by a well-known book and Hollywood movie. Let’s call the shaman Dewi.

For good reason did Dewi gain Hollywood fame: on reading Angie’s palm, Dewi accurately described past relationships, heartbreaks and other major events in Angie’s life. She also had striking insight into a stomach condition that had been troubling Angie for some time.

A friend of Angie took notes as Dewi described her ailment and offered suitable remedies: be sure to cook your vegetables before eating them; drink lots of water; eat five small meals throughout the day.

Dewi even suggested that Angie had demons in her stomach, and that for an additional fee they could be cast out. At this point, Angie decided that her foray into the freaky had gone far enough.

“Angie’s condition kept growing more severe.”

Though this meeting with Dewi didn’t crowd her thoughts, Angie quietly took the advice of the elderly sage and modified her diet accordingly. Despite these changes to her diet, months later back home in the USA, Angie’s condition kept growing more severe. Even small meals could land her with serious bloating and stomach pain.

After many tests, Angie had an endoscopy that revealed a condition called gastroparesis: damaged nerves were causing a delay in the emptying of her stomach.

The doctor informed Angie that this was a disease without a cure. It could only be managed by changing her diet: drinking lots of water, eating small meals throughout the day, and being sure not to eat raw vegetables. Spooky, right?

Real Healing Begins

I met Angie long after these events—just over a year ago. She had since become a follower of Jesus, and was here in Australia deepening her faith in a Bible school.

How Angie and my paths aligned is a story all of its own, but I still remember our first conversation about her stomach. Angie told me in some detail about her gastroparesis diagnosis, the amount of discipline it took her to manage the condition, and how her body would punish her if she got lazy with her eating.

At some point, Angie also related to me her experiences in South-East Asia. I wondered out loud if she might have carried home some kind of curse after dabbling with dark powers on her travels.

She explained that since coming to faith in Jesus, she had renounced that chapter of her life and asked God to cleanse her of any of its effects. She had also received many prayers for healing, but to no avail.

“I wondered out loud if Angie might have carried home some kind of curse.”

Having talked all this out, we were both satisfied that her problems were purely medical. As Angie and I began spending time together, I modified my eating to mostly match hers. My sister who studied dietetics even helped Angie with a stricter diet that—if followed rigorously—helped her avoid those common bouts of excruciating pain.

This wasn’t a perfect solution. There were far less foods Angie could eat than those she couldn’t. Any time we were invited out for dinner, we had a range of terrible choices to make: suggesting recipes to our hosts; refusing what was served; or, most often, Angie going home in terrible pain.

A few months later though, something amazing happened.

We caught up with a friend of mine called Danny. Danny happened to have travelled to the same country Angie had visited. He told us his story.

For years, Danny had suffered with a severe skin condition that caused him to break out in an itchy rash in hot weather. Despite this, a few years ago he felt God had called him to tropical South-East Asia—so he took a step of faith and went. The day Danny arrived there, his condition disappeared, and has never returned since.

“In the days that followed, all of Angie’s symptoms disappeared.”

On hearing Danny’s story, Angie was filled with faith, confident that God could perform the same miracle for her.

And this might be hard to believe, but that’s exactly what happened. In the days that followed, all of Angie’s symptoms disappeared. She tried countless forbidden foods, full of sugar and fat, and high in fibre. No bloating, no pain.

Four days later, Angie and I went out for dinner. Without planning to, we ended up eating the cuisine of this particular South-East Asian country. Walking home, we were still rejoicing about her healing. But later that night, Angie’s stomach was afflicted again with terrible bloating.

We were confused, to say the least. Angie’s healing had been unmistakably real, but it only lasted four days. We decided to trust that it was a sign of things to come.

Our Return East

Fast forward two more months, and Angie and I set off on the same trip Danny took. Not in search of healing, but following God’s call there too. See, it was over there that I had originally met and become friends with Danny. It’s a place I have lived for several years, and Angie was eager to see it for herself.

This is going to sound bizarre, but on arriving in this part of South-East Asia, Angie’s symptoms completely disappeared once more. Her diet and disciplines were all over the place because of travel, but despite this, there was no trace of her dreaded condition.

“Angie and I set off on the same trip Danny took.”

And then, to our bitter disappointment, four days later Angie’s symptoms returned. Almost like clockwork. It was a head-scratching situation.

We chose once more to trust God that permanent healing was still up ahead.

A Total Break With The Past

Angie and I are currently in Australia. We arrived here at Christmas to spend time with family and friends, and to celebrate our wedding in a few short weeks.

Just before we came to Australia, back at Angie’s house in Wisconsin, she was packing for this trip. Looking through her memory box, she stumbled upon a scribbled sheet of paper. It was the notes that Angie’s friend wrote on their visit to Dewi!

Angie ran downstairs and showed it to me. I asked her, “You repented of all of this, right?” Angie told me that of course she had.

But just to be sure, I suggested that we take that piece of paper outside and burn it. It was a cold winter’s night, so we only went out as far as the garage, taking a big kitchen pot with us and some matches.

“Looking through her memory box, Angie stumbled upon a scribbled sheet of paper.”

Tearing the sheet up and setting it alight inside of the pot, we prayed. “God, everything represented by this piece of paper has been confessed and renounced. Now we pray that you would break any remaining power over Angie, in Jesus’ name.”

From that day until this, Angie has been 100% healed.

Over two months has gone by since that cold night in America, and Angie has tried every food she could possible crave since that time. Her gastroparesis is gone. There is only one explanation for what Angie has experienced: Jesus has completely healed her stomach.

God is real. Questions might remain, but one thing is certain: we live in a supernatural world.

As Ephesians 6:12 says, “Our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

Though this is true, we have a greater promise from Jesus himself: “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Angie and my adventures are continuing in 2020. If you’d like to stay updated every once in a while by email newsletter, let me know here.

Miracle Stories From The Australian Bushfires

The fires that have torn through the Australian landscape in recent weeks are without doubt the most widespread natural disaster in our nation’s living memory. Fellow Australians are hurting as they grieve the loss of properties, livelihoods and loved ones.

Yet in the flames and through the smoke, there is hope, and evidence of God at work. The generosity of friends and strangers, the Australian spirit of mateship, and the reminder of what’s truly precious in life all speak to the presence of God in the midst of tragedy.

Most profound of all, perhaps, are the mysterious stories that are coming in from all across the country. The Mallacoota miracle, for example, went viral when the BBC broadcast a local’s riveting account of it around the globe.

“There has been an unusual outbreak of supernatural activity right here in Australia.”

You can read about this miracle below, along with other stories of supernatural survival that have taken place across Australia since the fires began. As Aussies, we can be reluctant to talk about faith. But when miracles happen—especially in the midst of tragedy—we can’t help but sit up and pay attention.

One disclaimer before you read on: there is no hidden message of either judgment or favouritism in these stories. The Good Book tells us to weep with those who weep and rejoice with those who rejoice. We may never know why some people lost it all and others were protected. But we know that those who have suffered need our care and support.

With that being said, at the dawn of this new decade, there has been an unusual outbreak of supernatural activity right here in Australia. We are a nation in need of good news. So be encouraged by these great news stories.


A stranger saves a family from a firestorm

Andrew, Lake Conjola NSW

Not all angels have wings. This first story was shared on Hope 103.2, a radio station based out of Western Sydney. Andrew, a father of four, explains that he and his sister’s families—eleven people in all—were rescued by boat at the last minute by a complete stranger.

Camping on the banks of Lake Conjola on New Year’s Eve, they had been told of approaching fires up to 100 kilometres away. They had reassured themselves that the winds would change long before the fires were anywhere near them.

“The timing for this rescue couldn’t have been better orchestrated.”

At 11.59am, they were shocked to see the glow of flames on the hilltops nearby. In less than ten minutes, the group was surrounded by fire on all sides.

At that moment, Andrew explains that “a boat pulled up in front of us… [a man] was just yelling to us, ‘run to the jetty, run to the jetty’, and so we ran to the jetty and jumped in his boat and he took off.”

Escaping across the lake with just the clothes on their backs, they turned around at 12.09pm to see their cars and caravan burst into flames. Brett, the man who rescued them, had fled by boat with his dad, having just watched his own house burn down minutes earlier.

The timing for this rescue couldn’t have been better orchestrated. Read more about Andrew’s story here.


Half-finished house spared in “unexplained protected zone”

Hazel, Kangaroo Valley NSW

I just got off the phone to Hazel. Hazel’s daughter owns property on a knoll amongst the scrub, near Kangaroo Valley in NSW’s Shoalhaven region. Her daughter had been building a new home, but the project had stalled earlier in the summer due to the threat of fires.

When that threat turned to red-hot reality on January 4, Hazel’s daughter along with her young family fled to save their lives, leaving everything to the mercy of the flames. Unable to set even a sprinkler going for protection, they expected to return to an ash heap.

“The RFS were unable to defend the property.”

At the same time as this, Hazel explains, a local church had gathered to pray for everyone in the region. A friend of Hazel’s daughter received a vision of angels dressed as fire-fighters, spraying water in the shape of a large dome to protect her half-finished house.

Because of its remote location, the RFS were unable to defend the property from the ground or the air.

Days later, when firefighters were able to access the house in the wake of the blaze, it took them ten hours to hack through fallen trees. What they discovered was ash-covered soil still too hot to stand on, “like being on the rim of a volcano”, and burnt-out trees all around—some still glowing white.

But the house with its timber-framed roof was not even singed, and the plastic tank was still fully intact. A local who helped the fireys at the property described an “unexplained protected zone” all around the house.

There doesn’t seem to be a natural explanation for these events, but Hazel and her daughter don’t hesitate in giving God the credit.


Prayer shifts the winds in Mallacoota

David, Mallacoota VIC

David became the face of Australia for a few hours when the BBC, ABC and SkyNews shared his self-filmed account of a miracle all around the world.

The events took place on New Year’s Eve, in the small coastal hamlet of Mallacoota in Victoria’s East Gippsland. As the firewall drew close, four thousand holiday makers, along with many locals, were forced to flee to the town’s wharf near the beach.

“It went black as black.”

David describes the moment when they all found themselves trapped on the shore: “We could hear the roar. It was like a monster bearing down on us… It went black as black. The smoke was so thick it was hard to breathe.” Some were even getting ready to jump in the water to escape the flames.

Knowing that the only hope of survival would be a strong east wind to push back against the approaching fire, David gathered with two other “prayer warriors” to ask God for a miracle.

As soon as they began praying, he says, the wind “started blowing from the east a little bit… I felt it change. I noticed that the bolder I got, the stronger [the wind got]. I was yelling, ‘In Jesus’ name, thank you Lord for rescuing these souls. Push it back Lord, rescue us!’”

For five minutes the easterly blew, breaking the fire-front enough to stop it from reaching the throngs of people at the foreshore. “God saved us” is how David’s neighbours—who are not Christians—described the event.

“As soon as they began praying, the wind started blowing from the east.”

Despite hot embers flying into dry grass in his neighbourhood, the entire street that David lives on was spared. “There were no burn marks. There is honestly not a blade of grass singed,” he says.

David Jeffery reflects on the event now in the hope that it will help people “realise that there is a God and he does love them,” and that “it’s time for people to rise up and pray… [and] get serious about God and get back into reading his word.”

Read more of David’s account here.


The fire stopped at the foot of a large cross

Lorelle, Cobargo NSW

Soon after fires ripped through Cobargo on the NSW South Coast, Vision Radio received a call from Lorelle. She gave an eye-opening description of what happened to a couple—good friends of hers—who survived the inferno in this small rural village.

Like many brave Aussies, the couple decided to stay and defend their home. But then in the middle of the night, the noise of the approaching fires grew so terrifying that they were forced to flee.

Two days later, they returned home in grief, expecting to find everything gone. To their surprise, the fire had stopped at the foot of a wooden cross, leaning up against the shed. It’s a cross that they carry down the main street of Cobargo on Good Friday to commemorate the death of Jesus.

On reaching the cross, the fire had evidently burnt around the shed and right up to the edge of the house, singing only a bit of grass and garden. When they fled, the couple had left the sprinklers going on the house but provided no protection for the shed.

They can’t explain why the fires didn’t consume the timber shed, or indeed everything on their property. Listen to Lorelle’s call here.


It was like he had a dome over his house

Michael, Wingello NSW

Michael is a volunteer firefighter from the little town of Wingello, located at the halfway point between Sydney and Canberra in the NSW Southern Highlands.

Coincidentally, the name Wingello comes from a local Indigenous word which means ‘to burn’. Wingello is no stranger to fire, having survived an inferno in the 60s that claimed three lives and dozens of homes.

“An enormous pyrocumulus cloud began raining fire on nearby scrub.”

Michael explains that a fire had been burning for weeks in adjacent national parks. “It was like a sleeping giant,” he says. But the giant awoke on January 4 when an enormous pyrocumulus cloud, caused by the park blazes, began raining fire on nearby scrub.

Michael was posted with a crew protecting the local fire station, while his wife Helen and other family fled their property. After a long and anxious wait, fellow firefighters who had been out protecting properties returned to the station at 1am with harrowing news for Michael. “We’re so sorry. We tried to save your house but it’s gone.”

The next morning another patrol passed Michael’s property and were “gobsmacked” to find his house in fact still standing. As Michael and Helen arrived back at their home, a battle-hardened firey remarked, “You guys must have some Jesus juice. I need some of that.” 

“We are people of faith,” Michael explained to me over the phone. “We’ve had our house blessed, and we’ve always tried to live a good prayer life. We really believe we’ve been spared. We credit our Lord for this miracle.”

“I pulled my blokes out, it was an overrun, but it was like he had a dome over his house.”

Michael’s front garden and workshop were burnt to a crisp. But he is relieved to describe his house in different terms. “The fire raced towards the front of our house but miraculously burnt around it… there are burn lines right up to the front door and even to the back door.”

The Sydney Morning Herald recorded the words of the local RFS captain who said of Michael and Helen’s home, “There’s a miracle one… I pulled my blokes out, it was an overrun, but it was like he had a dome over his house.”

Check out Wingello Village Store’s account of the miracle here.


My neighbour arrived just in time to save my house

Ainsley, Cudlee Creek SA

Cudlee Creek is ten minutes from where I grew up, in a steep and gully-carved nook of the Adelaide Hills. I heard of Ainsley’s story through her fiancé, who I personally know.

Ainsley explains that her next door neighbour Eric was in Melbourne for short-term work. He finished his last job and, exhausted, couldn’t bring himself to drive the eight hours back home as he’d originally planned.

“His mode of transport happened to be a water truck.”

But for some unexplained reason, Eric felt he should set his alarm for 4am the next morning to drive home. So there he was, in the dead of night, embarking on the long journey back, not quite knowing why.

He arrived home in Cudlee Creek just after the fires had broken out on the afternoon of December 20. His mode of transport happened to be a water truck with a full 6000 litre tank and a power hose!

He arrived at Ainsley’s property the moment it had caught on fire. He fought the blaze and managed to save Ainsley’s house along with another neighbour’s property, all the while protecting his own home, wife and four kids.

Eric is unquestionably one of Australia’s many great heroes of these last months. But he’ll be the first to admit he had divine help.


Fires burnt right up to our fence lines

Donna, Mount Torrens SA

Just down the road from Cudlee Creek, good friends of mine own a small hobby farm at Mount Torrens, also in the Adelaide Hills. I arrived home from the USA just days after the Cudlee Creek fire tore through, and Donna’s was the first miracle story I heard—the first of many that motivated me to reach out around Australia for more.

Donna and her husband and daughter fled their property soon after seeing smoke billowing on the horizon. They were forced to leave behind pets and livestock. Donna recounts, “As we drove out of our driveway on the day of the fire we prayed for angels to protect the borders.”

“Donna’s was the first miracle story I heard.”

She continues. “We stayed away in the city til the next day and as I woke the next morning, the very first thought I had in that sleepy place of not quite even knowing where you are, was this: ‘The Angel of the Lord encamps around those who fear him, and He delivers them’.” Donna knew this was a verse from the Bible but had to look it up to discover where it was from—Psalm 34:7.

When they returned early the next afternoon, they were surprised to find that fires had burnt right up to their fence lines on multiple sides of the property. There were small exceptions to this, such as a charred watering trough, a burnt top paddock, and some melted plastic roof sheeting. But all of the animals survived. And the neatness of the burn lines is what make’s Donna’s story so impressive.

In an effort to track down similar stories, I posted Donna’s photo to my timeline. It was met with many incredulous comments from strangers, such as this one: “A fire doesn’t advance perfectly straight like that, the pine posts normally go up like roman-candles. The fence wires are still new and spotless with no smoke damage. Something has intervened…”

The paddocks in question are very hard to access, Donna explains. They would be a highly unusual and near-impossible site for a CFS back-burn operation, especially in a fire driven by such high winds. Something—or someone—clearly did intervene.


Afterword

As I compiled these stories, so many more miracles were told to me that space won’t permit. Even online you can find out about the miraculous wind change at Taree; the Moruya man who found his house still standing; and even an apparent devil face that appeared in a wall of flames.

I heard from strangers of fire stopping at a gate that had a Scripture written on it; of dozens of houses surviving amidst a sea of ash; and even of an elderly woman who lost everything, whose grandson was walking down the main street of that fire-scorched town when the wind blew a sheet of paper into his leg. It was a charred page from a Bible—Isaiah 64:11-12—and it read:

“Our holy and glorious temple, where our ancestors praised you, has been burned with fire, and all that we treasured lies in ruins. After all this, Lord, will you hold yourself back? Will you keep silent and punish us beyond measure?”

I don’t dare make judgments on behalf of God in the midst of such tragedy. There is so much still unexplained, when some lost everything, and others were miraculously spared.

But through the smoke, God is trying to get our attention. “For God so loved the world.” It’s a verse we all know. God loves Australia, this “Great Southland of the Holy Spirit”. And he is calling our nation back to himself, waiting for us to respond.

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What if there was proof that God became a baby at Christmas?

I love Christmas carols. They are the soundtrack of the season.

As great as carols are, it’s possible to make it through the whole month of December, hear these tunes, and yet not tune in to what the carols are really saying.

On closer inspection, Christmas carols make some audacious claims. Consider just a few lines from Hark the Herald Angels Sing:

Veiled in flesh, the Godhead see

Hail, the incarnate Deity

Pleased as man, with men to dwell

Jesus, our Immanuel

What an absurd idea. God being limited to one place at a time? God learning how to walk? God… relieving himself? It’s almost offensive.

But this is actually the central claim of Christmas—not merely that a baby was born in a manger, but that this baby born in a manger was God in human flesh. That’s what we’re celebrating for the 2019th time next week.

The famous atheist Carl Sagan once said, “Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence.” I think Carl Sagan makes a reasonable point. So let’s consider some extraordinary evidence that on that first Christmas, God really did step down into history.

History Written In Advance

The Bible is a fascinating book, not least because it made many predictions or “prophecies” of events before they happened. This makes it possible to test whether it is just a human book, or one that God was involved in writing.

The Old Testament is the first big section of the Bible, written hundreds of years before Jesus came. In its pages are prophecy after prophecy about a coming king called the Messiah.

“Christmas carols make some audacious claims.”

In Old Testament times, the Jews dreamed of the day the Messiah would come and rescue their nation from oppression, sin and judgment. The Messiah was no less than the hope of Israel.

Many specific predictions were made about this Messiah: his birthplace, how he would be raised, how people would react to him, what his mission was—and many more. So let’s take a quick look at just some of these prophecies, to see if they check out.

“The Messiah was no less than the hope of Israel.”

I am a bit skeptical by nature. Maybe you are too. Maybe you suspect that these “predictions” were forged after the event to just make Jesus look like he was the Messiah.

But actually, history doesn’t let us draw that conclusion. All the Scriptures I quote below were translated into Greek two centuries before Jesus was born, in a well-known ancient text called the Septuagint. In other words, they appeared in history long before Jesus did, so they were definitely predictive.

We will look at these in rapid fire. They throw up a lot of seperate ideas, but bear with me—we will tie all of it together at the end.

The Identity of the Messiah

The first is from a prophet called Balaam. He said:

“I see him, but not here and now. I perceive him, but far in the distant future. A star will rise from Jacob; a sceptre will emerge from Israel.”—Numbers 24:17a

A sceptre is a ruler’s staff. So in other words, this Messiah would be a ruler, and he would also be an ethnic Jew.

Next is the prophet Isaiah:

“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light. For those who live in a land of deep darkness, a light will shine… A child is born to us, a son is given to us. The government will rest on his shoulders. And he will be called: Wonderful Counsellor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.”—Isaiah 9:2,7

A second time here we have the mention of a star or a bright light associated with the Messiah’s birth. Also, he will be given lofty titles like “Mighty God”—and he will in some way form the foundation of government.

In another passage, God has more to say through the prophet Isaiah:

“You will do more than restore the people of Israel to me. I will make you a light to the Gentiles, and you will bring my salvation to the ends of the earth.” Isaiah 49:6

So far the predictions we’ve looked at focus on the nation of Israel. But here we see that the Messiah’s saving work would extend to Gentile (non-Jewish) nations all around the world.

This next prediction came to King David:

“When you die and join your ancestors, I will raise up one of your descendants, one of your sons, and I will make his kingdom strong… I will be his father, and he will be my son. I will never take my favour from him as I took it from the one who ruled before you. I will confirm him as king over my house and my kingdom for all time, and his throne will be secure forever.”—1 Chronicles 17:11-13

So the Messiah’s ancestry is narrowing. Not only will he be an Israelite, but he would be a descendant of King David, who came from the tribe of Judah.

The Messiah’s role is also narrowing. Not only will he be a ruler, but he will be a king ruling over a kingdom—a kingdom that never ends. The Messiah would also have a unique relationship to God: he will be called the “Son of God”.

Here’s another prophecy from Isaiah:

“The Lord himself will give you the sign. Look! The virgin will conceive a child! She will give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel, which means ‘God is with us’.”—Isaiah 7:14-15

Here we read that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. And the people will regard him as Immanuel—God with us.

Just a couple more prophecies to go. The prophet Micah said:

“You, O Bethlehem, are only a small village among all the people of Judah. Yet a ruler of Israel, whose origins are in the distant past, will come from you on my behalf.”—Micah 5:2

So it’s clear that the Messiah was expected to be born in Bethlehem.

A Most Remarkable Prediction

This last one is the most remarkable of all. It was spoken by Jacob, the father of the Jewish nation:

“The sceptre will not depart from Judah, nor the ruler’s staff from his descendants, until the coming of the one to whom it belongs, the one whom all nations will honour.”—Genesis 49:10

Again we see that the Messiah would come from the tribe of Judah and that the nations of the world would honour him. But most fascinating is this line about the sceptre departing.

Long before Jesus, the Romans had captured Judea and made it a province of their empire. The Jews still held the sceptre there—in other words, they retained their ruling privileges. But all that changed in 7AD. Rome appointed a procurator in Judea, and took Jewish rule away.

“Most fascinating is this line about the sceptre departing.”

This was devastating to the Jewish leaders. But they weren’t just upset because they lost the right to rule. They were heartbroken because it looked like this prophecy from Genesis 49:10 had been broken: the sceptre had departed, but “the one” had failed to come.

It’s said that in 7AD, the Jewish leaders went about in sackcloth and ashes, mourning, “Woe unto us, for the sceptre has been taken from Judah, and the Messiah has not appeared!”

Little did they know that a few days’ walk north, in the village of Nazareth, a little boy named Jesus was running the dusty streets with his playmates.

Do You Have Room for Jesus?

To summarise, we have looked at just a handful of prophecies, and things are getting really narrow. According to the Jewish Scriptures, the Messiah had to:

  • be Jewish
  • be from the tribe of Judah
  • be from the family of David
  • be born to a virgin
  • be born in Bethlehem
  • have an arrival associated with a star or a bright light
  • provide a foundation for government
  • be known about and worshipped throughout the world
  • be acknowledged as a king, as God in human form, as the unique Son of God
  • be born before 7AD

You could spend a lot of time troweling through history books but you won’t find many candidates that fulfil all of these predictions. But Jesus does. Remarkably so.

In fact, we’ve only compiled a list of ten predictions about the Messiah. We could look at another 90—among them that he would be executed, have his hands and feet pierced, that his executioners would gamble for his clothes, that he’d be buried in a rich man’s grave. The list goes on and on.

Every one of these prophecies were written in black and white hundreds of years before Jesus was born. Each of them was fulfilled down to the finest detail in his life.

“Christmas carols are a call for us to invite Jesus into our homes and hearts.”

Believing that God stepped into history that first Christmas isn’t a blind leap of faith into the dark. It’s a very sensible step into the light.

In the days leading up to Christmas, there is so much to distract us from what this holiday is all about. We can enjoy all of the Christmas tradition, and yet be just like Bethlehem’s innkeeper who had no room for Jesus.

Christmas carols are a call for us to invite Jesus into our homes and hearts. This Christmas, will you join shepherds, angels and wise men to honour the King of Kings?

Let every heart prepare him room

Come, adore on bended knee

Merry Christmas. Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth!

Religion Causes all the Violence—Just Look at the Crusades

Religion causes all the violence—just look at the Crusades. Have you heard this before? It’s a claim that many critics of Christianity make. In summary, it goes something like this:

For hundreds of years, Popes declared ‘holy war’ and sent religious fanatics marching to the Middle East. They went there to colonise, and they slaughtered anyone who wouldn’t convert to Christianity along the way.

 

So many Muslims and Jews were killed in the streets of Jerusalem that blood flowed up to the crusaders’ knees. All of this violence was condoned by the church so that Christians could expand their empire and line their pockets with wealth.

Maybe you’re so appalled reading this that you’re ready to hit the back button. Who would bother trying to defend this kind of violent hypocrisy?

Without doubt, the Crusades were a bleak period of church history. Those who fought and led had clearly ignored the words of Jesus, who said:

“Love your enemies! Do good to those who hate you. Bless those who curse you. Pray for those who hurt you. If someone slaps you on one cheek, offer the other cheek also.”—Luke 6:27-29

But it’s also true that the Crusades are victim to a lot of Fake News. If we’re going to talk about the Crusades, we need to rescue the facts from the fiction.

What Were the Crusades?

The Crusades were a series of campaigns fought by European Christians to recapture the ‘Holy Lands’—those places where all the Bible’s major events took place. Think modern-day Israel, Turkey and Egypt.

The First Crusade (1096-1099) was probably the most infamous. It was a successful but bloody recapture of Jerusalem. It also led to the founding of several ‘Crusader states’ in the Middle East.

The Second Crusade (1147-1149) was a failed attempt to retake a defeated Crusader state.

The Third Crusade (1189-1192) was launched to recapture Jerusalem after it had been overtaken once more by Muslim armies. The Crusaders failed again.

The Fourth Crusade (1202-1204) began like the others, but along the way, the Crusaders got mixed up in the local politics of Constantinople. After a dispute, they sacked the city, plundering it and killing fellow Christians. The whole episode was an embarrassment and a great injustice.

The Fifth Crusade (1217-1221) was another failed attempt to recapture Jerusalem, this time via Egypt.

The Sixth Crusade (1228-1229) involved almost no fighting. Through diplomacy, the Crusaders secured Jerusalem and other parts of Israel.

The Seventh Crusade (1248-1254) was by far the best equipped, but it ended in almost total annihilation for the Crusaders.

Other minor Crusades can be added to this list, but it’s these seven that have captured the popular imagination. With the exception of the first and the sixth, the Crusades were an anticlimax. The last Crusader stronghold fell in 1291, bringing the era of crusading to an end.

The Context of the Crusades

We’re rightly outraged by the Crusades. But there is context to these events that many people have never heard but that change the way we view them.

First, what made the Crusades unique wasn’t their violence: almost every medieval culture was extremely violent. By our standards, the Crusades were shocking, but by the standards of the time, they were unremarkable.

What made them unique was that the command to wage war was given by a Christian leader, the Pope. Not only is there no grounds for this in the teachings of Jesus: there’s also no precedent for it in Christian history—and fortunately, no repeat of it either.

“What made the Crusades unique wasn’t their violence.”

Second, not all of the violence that took place was condoned by church leaders. Popes condemned the sack of Constantinople, along with much of the violence and pillaging that took place en route to the Middle East.

Third, it turns out to be a myth that Crusaders went for fame and fortune. Most who went bankrupted themselves for armour and travel costs, and they didn’t count on coming back alive. They went because—misguided as they were—they believed it was a noble venture.

“Popes condemned much of the violence.”

Fourth, it’s a myth is that the Crusaders forced people to convert to Christianity. The purpose of the Crusades was to secure passage for pilgrims to the Holy Lands.

Fifth, the story about blood running up to the Crusaders’ knees was a myth. The siege of Jerusalem was ruthless, but it was exaggerated beyond possibility in the retelling.

“It’s a myth that the Crusaders forced people to convert to Christianity.”

All of these corrections might seem minor. But there’s one more fact many omit that fundamentally alters our perspective on the Crusades, and it’s this: the Crusades were defensive wars.

In the 6th century, most of Europe and the Holy Lands were Christian. Pilgrims were free to traverse the empire and visit Jerusalem as they wished.

But the birth of Islam changed this. While Christianity had spread peacefully, Islam spread rapidly, and mostly through warfare. Within a few centuries, Islam conquered over two thirds of what were previously Christian lands.

The First Crusade was proclaimed by the Pope, not as an act of aggression, but in response to an existential threat. The Crusades slowed the advance of Muslim armies into Europe, and probably helped spare western civilisation.

Funny how this fact barely rates a mention in the popular retelling of the Crusades.

“The Crusades were defensive wars.”

Don’t misunderstand me: I don’t condone the Crusades. Violence is not the way of Jesus. But if we view them not merely as religious conflicts and instead see them as the defence of a civilisation, they make a whole lot more sense. Context is everything.

Here’s a little more context for the claim that ‘religion causes all the violence’. The Crusades were bloody, resulting in the tragic death of around a million people. But communism—which sought to bury religion forever—was far more savage. It took the lives of over one hundred million.

Even if we correct for population growth, communism was still twenty times more ruinous for humanity than the Crusades—and in just a quarter of the time.

This isn’t a cheap-shot. My point isn’t that Christians are better because they’ve killed less people. I’m simply countering the claim that religion causes all the wars, or that more Christianity equals more violence.

“Violence is not the way of Jesus.”

On the whole, Christianity has been a powerfully civilising force through history.

Its leader, Jesus of Nazareth, didn’t merely say, “Love your enemies.” He practiced what he preached—all the way to the cross. He chose to endure violence rather than commit it.

Jesus has shaped us more than we know. He’s a big reason whyeven with all their contextChristians and critics alike still can’t stand the violence of the Crusades.

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“Don’t Judge”—What Jesus Really Meant

Fewer and fewer people today know the Bible. But if there’s one verse that’s still commonly quoted, it’s, “Judge not, and you will not be judged”.

These are the words of Jesus. And what people normally mean when they repeat them is, “It’s not your place to judge my moral choices. It’s 2019—everyone should be free to choose the lifestyle that makes them happy, so long as no one gets hurt.”

“Let me sin in peace,” is another way to put it.

But there’s a problem with this. Those who hold to this worldview are often very quick to judge Christians—even quite harshly. It has to be one of the great ironies of our time.

So apparently there is a place for judgment. As it happens, this is what Jesus himself said all along, if we read his quote in context. It’s from Matthew 7:1-6, and it famously begins like this:

1 “Do not judge others, and you will not be judged.

2 For you will be treated as you treat others. The standard you use in judging is the standard by which you will be judged.

After telling us how not to judge, Jesus goes on to highlight three ways that we should judge. 

See the Master Teacher is aware of something we often forget. As humans, we’re making judgment calls all the time. There’s no way to avoid it.

So the question isn’t, Should we judge? But rather, Who and how should we judge?

Judge Yourself Honestly | v3-5a

First, in verses 3-5a, Jesus says:

3 “And why worry about a speck in your friend’s eye when you have a log in your own?

4 How can you think of saying to your friend, ‘Let me help you get rid of that speck in your eye,’ when you can’t see past the log in your own eye?

5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye…

If this passage is familiar to us then it’s probably lost some of its original humour. Being a carpenter, Jesus knew wood, and he chose a Greek word that means a big timber beam—the main one holding the house roof up.

The picture is of two people—one with an almighty beam projecting out of her eye offering to help her friend get a bit of sawdust out of his. Slapstick at its finest.

“If this passage is familiar to us then it’s probably lost some of its original humour.”

If we’re going to help someone else sort out their problems, Jesus insists, we first need to deal with the problems in our own life. We need to judge ourselves honestly.

When we’re quick to judge others, we develop a self-righteous and insensitive heart. The only way to counteract this is to readily find the faults in our own lives before we go trying to spot them in others.

Judge Others Humbly | v5b

So is Jesus saying that our lives need to be perfect before we’re able to offer others critique or counsel? No, he’s not.

In fact, his whole point in telling us to judge ourselves honestly is so that we’ll be able to help others. That’s what he says in verse 5b:

5 Hypocrite! First get rid of the log in your own eye; then you will see well enough to deal with the speck in your friend’s eye.

Jesus wants us to see well enough to deal with the speck in our friend’s eye. There is a place for judging others, providing that it’s done with clear vision and humility.

If we’re going to be of any use to others, we need to be striving to live a life of integrity ourselves. In other words, we need to judge others humbly.

The world would have us believe that there are only two ways to respond to sin: wholehearted endorsement, or prickly hatred. But Jesus shows us a third way: the narrow way, the way of humility.

Judge Critics Wisely | v6

This passage ends with an interesting and provocative twist. In verse 6, Jesus says:

6 “Don’t waste what is holy on people who are unholy. Don’t throw your pearls to pigs! They will trample the pearls, then turn and attack you.

It may sound like Jesus has changed topics here, but he hasn’t. He’s still talking about judgment. He’s telling us to judge our critics wisely.

If we follow him on the path less travelled—the path of humility—Jesus warns us that there’s a risk involved. People may see us as a soft target, and try to take advantage of us.

A perfect example is the kind of people I mentioned at the start, who are apt to misquote this passage. “Judge not, and you will not be judged,” can be used in an attempt to silence Christians. Even to accuse us of hatred—and a phobia or three.

“Jesus opposed the proud, but gave grace to the humble.”

Maybe someone who makes these accusations is simply hurting, and they need our love and compassion. There are times when the right thing to do is apologise on behalf of other Christians who’ve caused the hurt.

On the other hand, this may be smoke and mirrors to hide a calculated motive. When this is the case, any concession or apology we make will end up as trampled pearls. And the attack will only grow worse.

This is why we’re going to need all the help that Jesus has to offer. He opposed the proud, but gave grace to the humble—and He never missed a beat. We need His wisdom to do the same.

Good and Bad Judgment

It’s easy to misquote Jesus. Even Christians can cave in to the pressures of the world and make “judge not” an excuse for sin. But this leads only in one direction: judging Christians who won’t play the game.

Judgment is part of human nature. Some judgment is good. But the only way we can avoid bad judgment—also known as condemnation—is to know that condemnation no longer hangs over our heads.

“It’s easy to misquote Jesus.”

Jesus didn’t just teach the world about judgment. He actually took the world’s judgment on his own shoulders. He suffered and died on a cross to save each of us from God’s eternal judgment.

When we know this, we’re free. We no longer need to try scramble up the heap by finding fault in the lives of others. We can rest in God’s verdict that “there is no condemnation for those who belong to Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

And then we can judge as we should, with the honesty, wisdom and humility that he supplies.

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