Sunday, August 6, 2006


Not long ago I had the opportunity to consider a fascinating question. I was sitting in my Sunday school class when the conversation turned to the concept of altruism - the idea of total unselfishness as a motive for doing something. Then another person in the class posited the question that the "carrot" of eternal life in heaven might influence our motivation to "accept Jesus"* as our Savior and pursue a personal relationship with God. And finally we found our selves faced with the question: is there anything that we do with unselfish motives?

A couple days ago, I finished reading Surprised by Joy by C.S. Lewis, an autobiography of his conversion to Christianity. In the final pages of the book he says:

My conversion involved as yet no belief in a future life. I now number it among my greatest mercies that I was permitted for several months, perhaps for a year, to know God and to attempt obedience without even raising that question. My training was like that of the Jews, to whom He revealed Himself centuries before there was a whisper of anything better (or worse) beyond the grave than shadowy and featureless Sheol. And I did not dream even of that. There are men, far better men that I, who have made immortality almost the central doctrine of their religion; but for my own part I have never seen how a preoccupation with that subject at the outset could fail to corrupt the whole thing. I had been brought up to believe that goodness was goodness only if it were disinterested, and that any hope of reward or fear of punishment contaminated the will. If I was wrong in this (the question is really much more complicated than I then perceived) my error was most tenderly allowed for. I was afraid that threats of promises would demoralize me; no threats or promises were made. The commands where inexorable, but they were backed by no "sanctions". God was to be obeyed simply because he was God. Long since, through the gods of Asgard, and later through the notion of the Absolute, He had taught me how a thing can be revered not for what it can do to us but for what it is in itself. This is why, though it was terror, it was no surprise to learn that God is to be obeyed because of what He is in Himself. If you ask why we should obey God, in the last resort the answer is, "I am." To know God is to know that our obedience is due to Him. In His nature His sovereignty de jure is revealed.


On the other hand, while it is true to say that God's own nature is the real sanction of His commands, yet to understand this must, in the end, lead us to the conclusion that union with that Nature is bliss and separation from it horror. Thus Heaven and Hell come in. But it may well be that to think much of either except in this context of thought , to hypostatize them as if they had a substantial meaning apart from the presence or absence of God, corrupts the doctrine of both and corrupts us while we so think of them.

As I understand what Lewis is saying, there is a valid, totally unselfish motivation for a personal, loving relationship that involves worship and obedience to God even if there were no promise of eternal life in heaven, even if our existence is finite, simply because God is who He is. Fascinating.

* The following is what I consider (most humbly) to be one of many great rants from E.W. Bullinger's Great Cloud of Witnesses on the subject of "accepting Jesus".

Man's conventional talk of this twentieth century (of the present era) is about the sinner's acceptance of Christ. God's Word, for nearly sixty centuries has been about the sinner believing what He had said.

God has spoken. He has told us that He cannot and will not accept the fallen sons of men in their sins. In ourselves we are not only ruined sinners because of what we have done, or not done; but we are ruined creatures because of what we ARE. The question is, Do we believe God as to this solemn fact?

What God accepted was Abel's "gifts" (Heb. xi. 4); Abel was accepted only in his gifts (Gen. iv. 4).

So, God has told us that He can accept us, as such, only in the merits and Person of that perfect Substitute -- His Christ -- whom He has provided. Do we believe Him as to this?

If we do we shall by faith lay our hand on Him, confess our belief in God as to our own lost and ruined nature, and as to Christ as God's provided Salvation; knowing that, by this faith, God pronounces us righteous, accepts us in the person of our Substitute; and declares us as accepted in the Beloved, because God accepted His one offering when He raised Him from the dead.

Christ's resurrection is the proof and evidence that God has accepted Christ. Christ risen is the sinner's receipt which God has given to show that He has accepted Christ's payment of the sinner's debt.

There is no other receipt.

Christ's blood is not the receipt. That is the payment.

The sinner's faith is not the receipt. It is no use for a man to go to his creditor and say he believes he has paid what he owes. He must produce the receipt.

What is the receipt which we can produce to God which will prove that our debt is paid?

Nothing but the blessed fact that God's Word assures us that He has accepted payment on our behalf in the person of our Substitute, when He raised Christ from the dead.

We are to believe what He says when He assures us of this, and He is pleased to accept us in Him.

It is always the Creditor who accepts the payment which the debtor makes. And, when payment has been once accepted, no further demand can be made upon the debtor.

This is how Abel was accepted; and this is how the sinner is saved to this day.

By the same faith in what God has said, we lay our hand on that Lamb of God as our substitute; and we obtain God's witness that we are righteous. God bears His testimony to this in that He raised Christ from the dead, and has accepted the believing sinner IN HIM.

It is not a question of whether the sinner accepts Christ, but whether he believes God when he says that He has accepted Christ.

Flouting Geneva

So there I was the other night in thrall to the taut drama and machinations unfolding in the second season DVD of 24.

Determined to be patient with several gaping holes and other silliness in the storyline, I let myself be caught up in the suspense as terrorists planted a nuclear bomb somewhere in Los Angeles and set it to go off "today". The Counter Terrorism Unit led by superhero Jack Bauer is tasked with saving the lives of millions of people.

Well, what should happen but that one of the terrorists who knows where the bomb is located falls into Jack's hands. Time is short and he has to discover the whereabouts of the weapon before it explodes, incinerating everything and everyone within a radius of a couple of miles and spreading a deadly cloud of radiation for hundreds of miles more.

Naturally, the terrorist refuses to talk. Jack cuffs him about the head once or twice but he knows that such measures are futile. He could, of course, employ waterboarding but that seems to be unknown to the script writers and besides it would violate the Geneva Conventions which sagely affirm that the lives of millions of Americans are simply not worth the terror experienced by a single thug who wishes to slaughter them.

So, what does our superhero do? Those of you who are fans will find this to be very old news, but for those of you who have more important things to do on Monday nights than to watch a television show, I shall tell you and then ask a question.

Jack has anticipated his prisoner's reticence and has had, unbeknownst to the viewer, the police in the terrorist's home country (which for some reason is never named) arrest the man's family (two sons and a wife). They bind and gag the hapless innocents in chairs and train a television camera on them. The video feed is uplinked and sent to a computer screen that the prisoner in L.A. can see. Already I can envision Andrew Sullivan and the editorial staff of the New York Times yelling at their televisions that Bauer can't do this, he's flouting the Geneva Conventions, he's a cruel, amoral imperialist pig, he's no better than the terrorists, etc. But it gets worse.

Agent Bauer then tells the prisoner that unless he spills the beans right now about where the bomb is to be found he will order the police in the unnamed foreign country to execute the man's eldest son. The terrorist's resolve is shaken but not broken. Bauer gives the order by phone, and the viewer sees on the computer screen a policeman kick over the boy's chair and shoot twice. The terrorist's family screams, the viewer is stunned, mostly at how little regard Bauer seems to have for the Geneva Conventions, international law, and enlightened moral opinion.

Now Bauer is screaming at the terrorist to tell him where the bomb is or he will order the execution of the youngest boy. The terrorist cannot withstand the psychological and emotional torture any longer. He breaks and gives Bauer the information he needs. The terrorist is then taken out of the room, and the scene focusses on the computer screen where we see the foreign police untying and releasing the man's family, including the boy who was supposedly shot. The whole thing was a set-up, a ruse to deceive the prisoner into thinking that his family was being murdered when in fact they were not.

Now this ploy was certainly a violation of the Geneva Conventions on torture, even if no one was physically harmed (although no doubt both the prisoner and his family were terrified). So here's my question: Given the circumstances, was Bauer justified in deceiving the prisoner in this way?

Is what he did so beyond the pale that it would have been better to allow millions of people to die a horrible death than to lie to this man in such a way as to make him believe that his silence was costing the lives of his loved ones when it really wasn't? An awful lot of people would answer that question with a resounding "yes, it would be better that millions die than that this man have to endure the pain of that awful deception". Certainly the auhors and signatories of the Geneva Conventions would answer this way.

Doesn't that strike you as absurd?

The Crucial Difference

In the clash of civilizations between the Muslim world and the West the latter enjoys many advantages - technological prowess not the least of them. Nevertheless, the Muslim world has one advantage that may eventually tip the scales in its favor. Muslims fervently believe in life after death and much of the West doesn't.

The secular world, especially Europe, having largely abandoned religious faith a century ago, believes that this life is all there is. The psychological, if not logical, entailment of this belief is that there is nothing that is worth dying for. No matter what principles one holds, if one is dead, the principles are worthless. Since there is nothing to look forward to beyond death, this life must be clung to at all costs because once it's over there's nothing.

Muslims, on the other hand, hold this life cheap. For them it's just a temporary way-station on the road to eternal bliss. Being willing to die to promote their cause of world-wide dominance makes them exceedingly difficult to deal with. Negotiation, which is predicated on people acting in their self-interest, is futile when people who want to live seek to arrive at a modus vivendi with people who believe it in their self-interest to die. Negotiation is predicated on willingness to compromise, but people who believe that God is guiding their every step are generally not willing to yield ground.

A secular democratic society will be tempted to appease, retreat, and ultimately surrender rather than, by fighting, risk war and death. A tyrannical jihadi society will risk everything, including death, in order to prevail. In such a contest the advantage is clearly on the side of those who see death as a passage into a new life. For this reason it may be that secular societies may prove to be no match for global jihad. It may turn out that only societies which also hold to a belief in the transience of this life and the permanence of the next will have the will to resist and withstand the long-term onslaught of the Muslim fanatics.