Earth on Peace and Peace on Earth

Shane Rosenthal
Tuesday, November 2nd 2004
Nov/Dec 2004

Early in Mark Twain's classic work The Adventures of Tom Sawyer is an interesting scene in which Tom and Huck witness Injun Joe in an act of wicked deception. Twain writes that the boys stood dumb as they "heard the stony-hearted liar reel off his serene statement, they expecting every moment that the clear sky would deliver God's lightnings upon his head, and wondering to see how long the stroke was delayed."

On one hand, there is an admirable and refreshing sense of God's holiness and justice in these words, for what child in our day would think along such lines? On the other hand, there is an implicit childishness here that needs to be considered and rejected. How often is it, after all, that people are judged by God immediately after committing a sin? Anyone who is familiar with the story of Tom Sawyer knows that Tom and Huck weren't innocent little boys themselves, yet, curiously, they never sat dumbfounded wondering why God failed to end their own lives. Perhaps they only thought that God was concerned with "really big" sins, or as many would have it, the "really big sins of other people." It is easy to see why such a view is opposed to Christianity, for if God judged everyone instantly, who would live long enough to turn to God in faith?

It may be easy to spot Tom and Huck's theological error, but similar, albeit more subtle, views abound in the modern world. You may have been asked at one time or another, If there is a God, why does he allow so much evil to go on? Do you see the connection? Twain's characters were surprised that God's judgment was delayed, that the wrong was not immediately righted, yet many people in our day have this view of God as well. They expect that if God exists, he must right all wrongs instantly, or perhaps even prevent the wrongs from ever coming to pass in the first place. Such a view, from the perspective of classical Christian orthodoxy, is basically a form of idolatry. Why? Because a person with such a view has created a God of his or her own imagining, whereas the God who has revealed himself is, simply put, not like that. On the one hand, he is infinitely holy and just, yet on the other hand, he has allowed sin and injustice to run its course throughout the history of the world.

This is a tough pill to swallow for many people. Indeed, often it is difficult for believers themselves to come to grips with this (see, for example, Job 21:7 and Jer. 12:1-2). Perhaps it is difficult because, though we are fallen creatures, we still bear the image of God. Though we have been expelled from Eden, we still long for heaven on earth.

U2's Bono does a masterful job of making this point in his song "Peace on Earth" (included in their CD, All That You Can't Leave Behind). The song was written about a terrorist bombing in Northern Ireland on August 14, 1998, in which 29 innocent people were killed. Bono writes,

Heaven on Earth, we need it now.
I'm sick of all of this hanging around.
Sick of sorrow, sick of the pain,
I'm sick of hearing again and again
That there's gonna be peace on Earth.

These words reflects the longing in human hearts for ultimate peace, liberation from evil, pain, suffering, and so on. Initially I found the last two lines to be cynical in tone, that Bono is sick of hearing there is going to be peace on earth because there never will be any. But recently I have come to see these lines as emblematic of this rock star's impatience with words of promise about some coming future peace. He wants peace now, rather than mere words about peace in the midst of the world's suffering.

In their 2001 release titled Weathered, the rock band Creed joined in on the conversation. Their input did not amount to numerous questions about theodicy, however, but reminded us of the chief problem at the root of the human condition. In the song "Who's Got My Back Now?" we find the following lines:

Run … hide.
All that was sacred to us,
Sacred to us.
See the signs,
The covenant has been broken
By mankind
Leaving us with no shoulder …
with no shoulder
To rest our head on.

The imagery reminds us of the plight of our first parents who ran and hid from God after breaking his holy covenant (Hos. 6:7), the result of which was that we now have no heavenly shoulder upon which to rest. Expelled from Eden, humanity is now on its own. And as you may recall, very soon into this brave new world came murder, pride, and sins of every kind. This leads the band to repeatedly ask:

Who's got my back now?
When all we have left is deceptive
So disconnected
What is the truth now?

Unfortunately, this is the reality of the situation for life on earth. We each must look out for ourselves because some Cain out there may decide that the world would be better off without us. Perhaps, too, we can perceive Tom and Huck's concern in these lines. After all, living in a world where deception rules the day, what becomes of truth if God is not present with us to arbitrate?

Yet in the midst of all this pessimism, the band offers us a glimmer of hope:

There's still time.
All that has been devastated
Can be re-created.
We pick up the broken pieces
Of our lives.
Giving ourselves to each other …
ourselves to each other
To rest our head on.

Here is our hope. The way for us all to overcome our estrangement from God is to band together. We'll watch each other's backs and comfort one another while we're here. But can this give us the rest that each of us ultimately seeks?

The Quest for Utopia

Writing around the time of Augustus Caesar, the poet Virgil wrote an amazingly powerful and engaging epic called the Aeneid, which is still regarded as one of the world's most treasured texts of the ancient world. In this classic work, Virgil creates a fictional history of Rome's past, connecting his nation's stock to the ancient Trojan bloodline, and revealing prophecies of their future world dominance. In Book One we find the following lines:

The Romans, masters of the whole round world,
Who, clad in peaceful toga, judge mankind.
… Lo, Caesar comes! whose power the ocean bounds,
Whose fame, the skies. He shall receive the name
Iulus nobly bore, great Julius, he.
… Then will the world grow mild; the battle-sound
Will be forgot … The dreadful gates
Whence issueth war, shall, with close-jointed steel
Be barred impregnably; and prisoned there
The heaven-offending Fury, throned on swords,
And fettered by a hundred brazen chains,
Shall belch vain curses from his lips of gore.

This utopian vision may seem a bit far-fetched to modern readers who know something of Rome's barbarism, but Virgil was clearly tapping into the felt needs of the ancient Roman people who knew war as an almost constant and ever-present reality. Some not only expected the line of the Caesars to bring an end to all wars, but in their view hellish Fury itself would be chained up and locked away, not merely for a thousand years, but for good! Once again, the longing for heaven on earth is present, but how far the reality!

Virgil's solution is similar to Creed's. The Roman people would band together and, under the right leadership, would put an end to war and discord of every type; finally they would have rest. This is the solution of many religious and political movements of our day as well. If we can just get the right person elected into office, if we can just get equal rights for all Americans regardless of race, sexual orientation, and more, if we can just band together to force global corporations to stop polluting our atmosphere, if we can just get people everywhere to stop eating meat! … then all will be well with the world. The irony of all these utopian efforts is that the more fervently one adheres to a particular vision, the more one is willing to fight for that vision.

Thomas More's Utopia hardly convinced anyone anywhere to do anything, but this was not the case with Karl Marx, whose vision of societal harmony by means of communism was simply "to die for!" And so they did-by the millions. Hitler, too, had a vision, and he was the messiah to usher it in for us all. In our own day, we can think of Osama Bin Ladin. Here is a very religious man who longs for a world of peace defined according to his particular version of Islam, and September 11, 2001, was an indicator to us all of just how strong his convictions truly are.

At the end of the day we have to face the facts. The desire to create heaven on earth has often created a living hell as people fight over their competing visions of earthly bliss. At best, the band-together solution is merely a Band-Aid fix for a terminal disease. Whether we unite by political philosophy, race, gender, peer group, nation-state, or whatever, we may watch each other's back for a while, but we are still at war, if not with each other, then with a neighboring tribe. Though we long for peace, we are nonetheless built of Cain's stock, which ensures that there will never be an earthly paradise apart from Tom and Huck's expectation of some kind of divine intrusion.

Divine Intrusion

In Daniel's prophetic visions, we find an amazing description of the rise of Rome as a world power, hundreds of years before it came to be a great empire. This was to be a kingdom of "iron, because iron breaks to pieces and shatters all things" (2:40), though its leadership would be brittle as clay (2:41-43). In fact, this new world power would "be different from all the kingdoms, and it shall devour the whole earth and trample it down" (7:23), and would also make "war with the saints and prevail over them" (7:21). This is not exactly Virgil's vision of peace and tranquility, but it's accurate, nonetheless. Yet in that day, Daniel writes, "The God of heaven will set up a kingdom that shall never be destroyed…. It shall break in pieces all these kingdoms and bring them to an end, and it shall stand forever" (2:44, 7:13-14). Here Daniel incredibly predicts the intrusion of an everlasting kingdom during the rise of the Roman Empire. But what intrusion can Daniel be thinking of? There isn't a kingdom on earth that has continued without break for over two thousand years. Ahh, but that's just it. It is not an earthly kingdom! When asked by Pilate whether or not he was a king, Jesus responded, "My kingdom is not of this world. If it were, my servants would fight to prevent my arrest by the Jews. But now my kingdom is from another place" (John 18:36). And Jesus, you may recall, was born "in the days of Caesar Augustus," Rome's first official emperor.

Thus, it was a real kingdom that Christ set up that has according to Daniel grown from a small stone into "a great mountain and filled the whole earth" (2:35). And it is also an eternal kingdom (2 Pet. 1:11). While all of man's attempts at creating peace on earth will ultimately fail, here we have something completely different. Daniel describes the stone which destroyed the mighty kingdoms as rock cut "by no human hands" (2:45). He writes of "one like a son of man" graciously descending, and bringing his kingdom with him (7:13-14). Perhaps now we'll finally have peace on earth!

Peace on Earth, Can It Be?

As Christ is born in Bethlehem, a large multitude of the heavenly host announce his advent and praise God, saying, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased" (Luke 2:14). Now I don't know about you, but I have just about memorized all the words of the world's most unlikely Christmas duet between Bing Crosby and David Bowie titled, "Peace on Earth, A Christmas Wish." The song from 1977 begins as follows:

Peace on Earth
Can it be?
Years from now
Perhaps we'll see.
See the day of Glory
See the day when men of Good Will
Live in Peace
Live in Peace again.

There are a number of important differences to point out between these lines and the text from Luke on which it is based. First, Luke's passage in context is radically Christ-centered, whereas the song by Bowie and Crosby is fundamentally Christ-less. Second, peace on earth comes in this song to men of good will, whereas in Luke's account, it comes only to men with whom God is pleased, or as the NIV puts it, "peace to men on whom his favor rests" (see also John 3:8). In other words, it is not a general peace experienced by the world at large, but a particular kind of peace for a particular people. Again, this is what Daniel had prophesied when he wrote not of the whole world indiscriminately, but that "the saints of the Most High will receive the kingdom and will possess it forever and ever (7:18).

The song continues:

Every child must be made aware
Every child must be made to care
Care enough for his fellow man
To give all the love that he can.

Now here's a novel idea! The problem is an educational one. We don't have peace, we don't yet see utopia, because, well, our children just haven't been made aware of all the various problems that can sidetrack us, but now we're going to take care of all that. We'll teach them to band together with their fellow men, and sometime soon, we'll bring in the day of glory in which men live in peace, because a few good men decided to get in there and take solid leadership roles. Hmmm. I think we've covered this ground already.

Of What Kind, Peace

So what is the nature of this peace that the angels speak of? In his letter to the Romans, Paul does a masterful job of explaining the character and effects of the new peace we have been granted:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God's love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (5:1-5)

The rock band Creed at least diagnosed the problem correctly. Because the covenant had been broken, the human race was estranged from God. But now, because Christ has fulfilled the terms of the covenant for us and justifies us by faith, we can, once again, be at peace with our Maker. We were, according to Paul elsewhere, God's enemies, but now have been reconciled with him and are presented as blameless before him (Col. 1:21-22).

One thing that is very clear about the Romans 5 passage is that Paul does not have in mind some kind of utopian vision. Yes, we have peace with God, but all is not yet right with the world. As newly adopted saints of God, we are called to rejoice in our sufferings. Obviously, therefore, we have not yet reached the end of all things in which all wrongs are righted and where peace reigns on every corner. But peace has begun to break through the cracks of this present evil age. Daniel's vision hints at this as well. God introduces his everlasting kingdom, but his saints are persecuted for a time.

Finally, we should consider the words of our Lord. Though God has graciously granted peace, not to the world generally, but specifically to various individuals scattered throughout the world with whom he was pleased to give it, Christ makes plain in the following passage that the peace he is giving is not to be confused with the worldly variety:Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth. I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, and a daughter against her mother, and a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law. And a person's enemies will be those of his own household. Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me. And whoever does not take his cross and follow me is not worthy of me. (Matt. 10:34-38)I'm just guessing, but these are probably not the verses Hallmark has chosen for its new Christmas card line this season. Perhaps we need to reintroduce our Lord to a world that doesn't really know much about him anymore. Here in this text, even if our focus is on the family, Christ is, apparently, more important. And we also need to be willing to take up our cross and suffer with him. Clearly this is not "peace on Earth" as the world understands it.

The Wonder of Delay

Tom and Huck wondered what delayed the stroke of justice. Indeed, many are impatient with enduring sin, evil, suffering, disease, and more. Even the disciples were ready at points to call down fire from heaven on a particular town, only to be rebuked by Jesus (Luke 9:54-55). So what is God waiting for?

Some see the delay as problematic. God either does not exist or simply isn't concerned about evil and suffering in the world. There is a hint of the latter in another line from U2's "Peace on Earth":

Jesus, can you take the time
To throw a drowning man a line?
Peace on Earth.
Tell the ones who hear no sound
Whose sons are living in the ground
Peace on Earth.
No whos or whys
No one cries, like a mother cries
For peace on Earth.

Now there's no question that some of the psalmists offer similar concerns to God in prayer. For example, Psalm 44 asks, "Why are you sleeping, O Lord? Rouse yourself! … Why do you hide your face? Why do you forget our affliction and oppression?" Though it was not true that God was sleeping, it certainly is true that this sometimes appears to be the case from our vantage point, especially at times when our faith burns low. But the song continues:

Jesus, in the song you wrote
The words are sticking in my throat
Peace on Earth.
Hear it every Christmas time
But hope and history won't rhyme
So, what's it worth?
This peace on Earth.

As I mentioned earlier, Bono's lament is based on a 1998 terrorist bombing in Northern Ireland. Because he is troubled by suffering and evil in the world, so he complains that the words "peace on earth" that he hears every Christmas time must not be worth much. Again, this is a classic mistake that many people make. Christ did not come to usher in a utopian kind of peace on earth in the here and now. The peace that he does bring does not rid the world of suffering, but ends the hostility between God and men. To borrow an illustration from C. S. Lewis, we are living in the time before D-day. God's new kingdom has been announced in advance over the wireless behind enemy lines. Included in this message are announcements concerning the assured victory of the Allied forces and the terms of surrender for all enemies. We have words of hope and promise, but we still live in a time of war.

If Bono is right that hope and history won't rhyme, then we are all doomed. The Christian faith is perhaps the only faith on the planet which asserts that the two in fact do rhyme. Our faith is not vague natural religion of eternal principles or aspirations, but it is a religion with the name of an ancient Roman magistrate embedded into our creed (he suffered under Pontius Pilate). Daniel's hope and vision seems to rhyme with later world history, and Paul even writes that if Christ did not actually come back from the dead then our faith is useless. So, as he says, "Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die" (1 Cor. 15:14, 32). The Christian claim is a faith founded on history, and our hope concerning the future will have a historical fulfillment as well.

So what's God waiting for? Why does he allow terrorist bombings, plane crashes, mosquito bites, and hurricane after hurricane to devastate our lives? First, if he were to allow us to create a utopia in the here and now, would we long for heaven? We must never fail to remember that something is wrong with the world, or we will never opt out of its system. This, in my opinion, is why faith is more difficult in opulent cultures, and why Jesus said, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God" (Matt. 19:24). Material self-sufficiency easily mutates into spiritual self-sufficiency.

Second, God does punish evil, but in his own timing. Though wicked people may seem to prosper for a time, there will always be hell to pay. God's justice will be vindicated. Finally, the wonder of God's delay is, for me, primarily a wonder of God's grace. Immediate bolts of lightening leave no time for redemption. The fact that he is pleased to delay the culmination of all things shows he is continuing to have mercy on those he will have mercy (Rom. 9:15). There was a time, however, when God decided he would not delay his wrath and vengeance any longer, and we call this Good Friday. Here Christ played the part of Injun Joe in Tom and Huck's wish, fully bearing the lightening bolts of God's wrath agianst sin, wickedness and deception. And because the wrath was fully borne, it was fully extinguished and turned aside God's wrath toward us. According to Paul, "This was to show God's righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus" (Rom. 3:25). In the cross of Christ, God proved once and for all that he was not unconcerned about evil and injustice in the world.

Finally, Peter wrote that Christ was too busy adding to his church to end the world and usher in an altogether new and perfect reality, saying, "The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance" (2 Pet. 3:8). Frankly, I'm at peace with that.

Tuesday, November 2nd 2004

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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