In the beginning….(pt 2)

How and why the book of Genesis became part of the Bible

So how do we come across as credible Christians in the world we find ourselves in? Our hope is that people are drawn to God because of us, but we’re up against the disturbing reality that we’re living in a ‘post-Christian age’ in which the religious beliefs of Christianity have been rejected or forgotten. Where would you start, for instance, in answering your High School children or grandchildren (or other non-Christian family members) about what you believe as a Christian and not sound like a quaint religious oddity, or an out-of-date dinosaur from a distant past?

The first two verses in Genesis illustrate the challenge we Christians are up against. We live in an age, first of all, where Science is ‘God’ and only scientific explanations for how our world began and developed are accepted. The idea that there is another source of knowledge and explanation for our world, the one we Christians believe in – namely revelation from God – is not being taught anywhere, it seems, other than in our own Christian colleges and congregations, and by Muslims and Jews. But as Christians we then make an unfortunate mess of God’s revelation as well, because in just the first two verses of the Bible we’re already arguing as to what they mean. So now we face a second challenge, in how we must look to other people when we can’t even agree among ourselves, or even be willing to reason together. It’s embarrassing.

So, here are the two verses: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth (verse 1). Now the earth was formless and empty, darkness was over the surface of the deep, and the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters (2).”

For Young Earth Christians these verses are saying the Earth was created by God in a formless state about 6,000 years ago, and in the next six days God filled the Earth and the skies above with life and light, and this was the time when the first humans were created, and so were the sun, moon and stars. Old Earth Christians, however, believe there was a gap between verses one and two that could be billions of years in length. They read verse 1 instead, therefore, as the Earth starting off in great shape, but something dreadful happened in verse 2 that left this planet empty and useless. Some time later God then set about restoring the Earth with new life and new inhabitants in six days.

So now we have Young Earth Christians and Old Earth Christians at odds with each other, and neither group willing to budge or even bend. Both groups have a convincing supply of Scriptures to support their case, and they both resort to convincing facts of Science as well – BUT – they both interpret Scripture and Science differently. So the battle rages on, Christian against Christian. Trenches are dug, debates rage, the internet is hot with criticisms going both ways, neither side is the least bit interested in hearing the other out, and the credibility of Christianity takes another well deserved hit. No wonder people reject Christianity because of Christians. It really is embarrassing.

And I realize that no matter what I say next, it probably won’t change a mind that’s fixed on justifying its own position, but I’ll take a shot at it anyway. So let’s start off by saying something good about the Young Earth Christians, first of all, that they have a point, and a very good one – that the main topic in Genesis Chapter 1 is the six days of creation, not what happened before the six days of creation. So the Young Earth Christians have got us concentrating on what Genesis concentrates on first and foremost, to which I say ‘well done to them’.

But I can’t ignore the Old Earth Christians either, because if there is a gap between verses one and two – be it thousands, millions or billions of years – it allows room for all those geological ages taught in Science classes in school. And since it’s our children and grandchildren who’ll be carrying the banner of Christianity into the future, it should be them we are concerned about so that they can be credible Christians in their world and culture.

We old-timers probably won’t be challenged on what we believe Genesis is getting at, but the upcoming generation of Christians will be, so ‘the gap theory’ is jolly handy for university and college students seeking a career in the Sciences. All that tricky stuff presented in class about evolution, the fossil record, the Ice Age, when dinosaurs lived, and the Earth being billions of years old, can all be placed in The Gap. It really helps our kids and grandkids if the Bible itself provides the possibility of an Old Earth going back billions of years as well.

The Gap Is also jolly handy for finding a place in Earth’s history for Lucifer’s rebellion, because there’s no mention of Lucifer rebelling in Genesis, so if he didn’t rebel after the six days of creation, at what point in Earth’s history DID he rebel? Well, that can handily be placed in The Gap too. It’s not surprising, then, that ‘the gap theory’ has gained momentum, to the point now that all sorts of explanations for what happened before Adam are being accepted.

One explanation goes like this – that in the gap between verses one and two God filled this Earth with another fully functional and perfect paradise full of plants, animals, birds, fish and human-like creatures, that either evolved over time or were created that way from the beginning. God then put this creation, and maybe our entire solar system, under the rulership of Lucifer, an incredibly beautiful and powerful angel, perhaps the most gifted and perfect creation God had yet made (Ezekiel 28:12, 15).

Some have suggested, therefore, that during Lucifer’s early rule great cities and civilizations emerged, ruins of which can still be found in many places on our planet, and so are drawings on rocks and walls – and in other strange phenomena – that hint of a highly advanced society.

The story then continues, that to begin with under Lucifer’s rule, all was well, and the dinosaurs during this time were harmless, non-violent vegetarians, not predatory killers and eaters of meat. Perhaps, as one Christian author wrote, God even gave Lucifer the gift and the chance to create animals, birds and fish that reflected the beauty and perfection that God had placed in Lucifer himself.

So here was Lucifer, king and (possible) creator of all he surveyed, with one third of the angels under his command. That’s a lot of angels, because Revelation 5:11 speaks of ten thousand times ten thousand (100 million) angels circling God’s throne, so one third of that number would be 30 million, meaning Lucifer ruled a mighty empire – with all the power and skill of millions of angels too. No wonder people believe that civilizations far more advanced than ours today existed in Earth’s distant past.

It’s also not surprising that Lucifer got to thinking he was a ‘God’ too. What else could have got him and millions of angels thinking they could charge up to God’s throne and topple him? Lucifer clearly considered himself God’s equal – and millions of angels thought he was too. And why shouldn’t they, when God had given Lucifer the same power he had to create life forms? Was God actually testing Lucifer, though, to see what he’d do when given such power?

The fossil record seems to support that too, because the dinosaurs became a lot bigger and more violent. Huge predatory dinosaurs with teeth for ripping appeared, so did dinosaurs with massive destructive tails, armour plating, spikes and clubs, all hinting at an increasingly violent and vicious world, and all suggesting a sinister change in Lucifer himself.

Did Lucifer create such animals as power went to his head? Did he enjoy creating violent creatures and watching them fight and destroy each other, like some mad Roman Emperor entertaining his people with blood sports and combat? And did the angels become so attuned to such violence and combat that on Lucifer’s decision to attack God (Isaiah 14:13-14) they followed him willingly into battle, truly believing they could win with Lucifer in command?

The battle did not go well for Lucifer and his angels, however. God sent them packing back to the Earth (Luke 10:18) and their home base was shattered. The entire solar system was pummeled, destroying whatever civilizations and beauty existed. One planet collapsed and exploded under the bombardment, huge scars appeared on all the other planets and their moons, and the Earth took a direct hit from one or more gigantic space rocks that very quickly enveloped the Earth in a dust cloud that blocked out the sun and brought on an Ice Age. Dinosaurs and other life forms were instantly killed, buried or frozen, and some were so well preserved that soft tissue can still be extracted from their bones. And there are hints in the fossil record and ice cores (and in ocean creatures that may have survived the darkness through to our creation today) that this happened only a short time before the six days of creation in Genesis.

This, then, becomes the explanation for the Earth becoming “tohu and bohu,” or empty and ruined, in Genesis 1:2. The Ice Age was probably already receding, leaving in its wake a barren landscape and layers of buried plant and animal life as the melt waters swirled and swished over the entire planet – an appropriate picture of Lucifer and his angels being called “raging waves” in Jude 1:13. The Earth that God had originally designed to be inhabited (Isaiah 45:18) – that also made the angels shout for joy in Job 38:7 – was now a dark, lifeless wreck. It was God’s way of bringing down judgment on Lucifer’s rebellion. With sin comes death. God allowed Lucifer time, yes, but there comes a point when he acts with devastating power and consequences.

And that, according to one explanation from Old Earth Christians, is how and why Genesis opens as it does in Genesis 1:1-2. In verse 3, God then begins the process of making this dysfunctional planet become functional again. It’s a handy explanation for Christian kids in school and college for maintaining God as Creator, as well as the latest observations of Cosmology, Archaeology, the dating of fossils, the layering of the rocks, the Ice Age, and the existence of massive and violent dinosaurs. It also provides a handy place in Earth’s history for Lucifer and his rebellion. So I say ‘well done’ to the Old Earth Christians too.

But I also have to say it’s still only a theory based on the latest findings of Science combined with a sprinkling of scriptures that seem to support those findings. It’s also been thoroughly challenged by Young Earth Christians using both Science and Scripture as well. So how can we reconcile these two groups of opposing Christians, especially when our credibility as Christians in the eyes of people we hope to attract to God is at stake here too? What do non-Christians see in how we treat each other as Christians when we have differences?

Well, hopefully what they see is a humble and genuine attempt by both sides to find agreement. Surely both sides agree, for instance, that THIS era of Earth’s history that began with Adam and Eve is the most important. And surely both sides can also agree that the most important statement in Genesis 1:1-2 is the bit in Genesis 1:2, that “the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters.” In other words, GOD was directly involved in what was happening, so isn’t the primary focus of both groups to get down to what God made this creation in Genesis for – not on whether the Earth is young or old?

And in seeking to understand God’s purpose for this world, surely both sides can also agree on the best way of going about it. We ask ourselves the obvious questions, like “To whom was Genesis written?” and “Why was it written that way?” And can both groups then agree that Genesis wasn’t written in 21st century terms to a 21st century audience, it was written to Israel in the 15th century BC (or thereabouts) by the Israelite Moses, because it was through ISRAEL that God’s purpose was primarily being revealed by the Holy Spirit?

Hopefully, then, there are three points already that Young and Old Earth Christians can agree on to ease the tension between them, that:

1) It’s THIS era of the Earth’s history that we’re interested in most of all.

2) It’s GOD’S PURPOSE for this creation that we seek to understand most of all.

3) It’s through ISRAEL that God revealed his purpose most of all.

And there’s a fourth point that Young and Old Earth Christians can hopefully find agreement on as well, and that’s when – and why – this story in Genesis officially became part of the Bible. Moses probably wrote Genesis and the story of creation in the time between 1446 and 1445 BC when Israel was camped at Mount Sinai, but the Bible wasn’t put together until a long time later. So is there any relevance, or even importance, in the timing of Genesis being included in Scripture? Is there? It’s a question that both Young and Old Earth Christians could benefit greatly from in seeking an answer. So let’s take a look and see.

At heart and core the story of the Old Testament is the endless state of crisis that Israel, and then the Jews, were in. The height of that crisis came 700 years (or so) after Moses wrote the Creation story, when Israel was ripped out of their land by the Assyrians and taken into captivity, followed by the Jews also being removed and taken captive by the Babylonians a century or so later, and their beloved city of Jerusalem and its temple left in ruins.

These two events became the most traumatic and tragic time in Israel’s history. As one author wrote: ‘The Israelites understood themselves to be God’s chosen people: they were promised the perpetual possession of the land, the glorious temple as a house of worship, and a descendant of David sitting perpetually on the throne. With the exile (of both Israel and the Jews) all of this came to a sudden and devastating end. Israel’s connection with God was severed: no land, no temple, no sacrifices, no king. Rather than prompting the other nations to acknowledge the true God, which was Israel’s national calling, Israel was humiliated by these nations. Rather than the nations streaming to them, they were slaves in a foreign land. Israel was estranged from God.’

Everything that had connected them to God as God’s people in the past was now gone – except one thing. They still had the memory of their history tucked away in their heads from oral traditions passed on faithfully from generation to generation, as well as a patchwork of written documents they carried with them, the most important of which were the five books written by Moses (or mostly by Moses) from Genesis to Deuteronomy.

Those five books were all they had left to remind them of who they were. They were like treasured photo albums keeping the memory alive that the great God who made the world had made a covenant with them. It was to and through them, Israel, that God was revealing both his character and his plan as an immense blessing to the rest of humanity. In those five books, therefore, were all the secrets of God and the universe contained.

But they also contained a fearsome warning in Deuteronomy 29 and 30, that the great Creator God who had chosen Israel to represent him would react with “furious anger” (29:28) if Israel forgot what he’d chosen them for. Terrible calamity would result if they strayed from their calling, including being ripped out of their land. And then, only hundreds of years later too, it actually happened – they lost their land. God had warned them and they hadn’t listened. Suddenly, those five books, including Genesis, became more important than ever.

The importance struck so hard that this is what stirred the making of the Bible. Up to this point, nine hundred years after Moses had written Genesis, no actual Bible existed. There was no formal book as yet that had put all the oral and written stories of Israel’s history into one sacred text. The Israelites and Jews had kept the memories of their past alive by telling and retelling the stories of their history through the centuries – but now, suddenly, their history had come to an abrupt and horrible halt. They’d lost everything. There was nothing left anymore that identified them as God’s special people.

They’d been in trouble in the past too, and God had bashed them around a bit, but never had he deserted them like this. Were they still the Israel of old and the people of the covenant, therefore, or had they pushed God too far?

With no temple to seek God’s counsel in, but with eyes opened to their dismal failure, the Jews turned to the only solid and reassuring evidence they had of God’s promises to them. It was those five books that God had spoken to and through Moses. It was their beloved Torah, the five books from Genesis to Deuteronomy, that they clung on to. It was all they had left as reassurance that God had not deserted them.

And this is how the Old Testament began to take shape as one book and one sacred text. It began in the depths of despair while the Jews were in captivity in Babylon, having lost everything that identified them as God’s people. They were in desperate need for assurance that God was still with them, and that assurance came in the first five books of what we now call ‘the Bible’. It was in response to God’s clear judgment on the Jews for deserting their post as God’s people, therefore, that the Bible began to be formed.

Every time we turn to Genesis, then, this is what we are reminded of: It’s how and why it became part of the Bible. Can we add that, then, as a fourth point that Young and Old Earth Christians can agree on? The fourth point being, that it’s why Genesis became part of the Bible that we concentrate on most of all.

It means putting ourselves in the shoes of the people it was written to in the first place. It was written to Israel, the one group of people through whom God decided to reveal his purpose in this era of the Earth’s history. Genesis was also one of the five books that would remind and reassure Israel many years later that God was still with them and his promises still stood as true as ever, despite the embarrassing mess that Israel and the Jews had made of their calling.

The putting together of the Old Testament, therefore, started during the Jews’ exile in Babylon, and it continued for some time after the Jews returned to their homeland, with other books of prophecy, wisdom and poetry being added, and new books written.

But the motivation behind it all remained the same, to go back to the beginning and rehearse their story, this time with their eyes opened to what it all meant. Who made this planet and humans, and what did he make them for? What went wrong, and how did God deal with it? And why did God set up such a specific line of people from Seth through Noah to Abraham to the formation of Israel as a nation and God choosing them of all nations as his solution to what went wrong? And again, what went wrong with that plan too, and was God still working with and through Israel to reveal himself and his purpose, despite Israel having conclusively failed him?

To seek an explanation for all these things the Jews looked to the past. Somehow they’d lost the plot and allowed themselves to be captivated by the idols and ideas of the world they were living in. But that’s not surprising when we’re experiencing the same thing happening in the Christian church today. The Jews weren’t the only ones to be captivated by their culture, because here we are today as Christians being captivated by Science when reading Genesis, either to support a gap theory or to counteract evolution, when Genesis isn’t the least bit interested in either subject. They weren’t what Genesis was written for.

Looking back to the time when the Bible was put together, we find it was stirred by God’s people realizing they’d lost the plot, who then did something about it, which is reassuringly relevant for us Christians today who’ve also lost the plot when using Genesis to prove whether our planet is young or old.

To a Jew our arguments over Genesis must seem ridiculous and trivial, and serve (rather embarrassingly) as further proof to Jews that Christianity really is a splinter group from Judaism that jumped the rails in its pathetic understanding of the Old Testament. Perhaps, then, we can learn from the Jews’ own experience of jumping the rails in their understanding of the Old Testament, that they did something about it. They woke up to the state they were in and they went back to the beginning for answers, as to who they were and why God had called them.

And that’s the context in which Genesis came to be part of the Bible. It’s in the Bible to remind those God has called to represent him – to do their job.

It also reminds us of how God reacted to those who didn’t do their job. Look what happened to Adam and Eve. And look what happened to Israel later on too, when it was their turn to represent God and they too failed in their duties. God let Israel become powerless, irrelevant and a public embarrassment (Daniel 9), and that has to be slightly unnerving when Christianity today is also being called out-of-date, irrelevant, and an embarrassment.

Young and Old Earth Christians, then, could make Christianity a lot more credible by getting back to why Genesis is in the Bible. It’s ironic that Genesis became part of the Bible because the Jews realized God had judged them for failing to represent him properly, when here we are as Christians living in a ‘post-Christian age’ in which young people are finding it hard to accept the God of Christianity because of our odd views of Science and our divisive attitudes toward each other over the meaning of Genesis. Could it be, then, that we too are experiencing a taste of God’s judgment in Christianity being rejected and forgotten?

But like the Jews we can do something about it. We can go back, like they did, to the book of Genesis, recognizing, as one Christian author wrote, that Genesis “underscores the fact that the people of God are not the product of natural human developments, but are the result of God’s sovereign and gracious intrusion in human history. He brings out of the fallen human race a new humanity consecrated to himself, called and destined to be the people of his kingdom and the channel of his blessing to the whole earth.”

That’s who we are. That’s who Adam was supposed to be too, and so was Israel. We’ve all been called to be the People of God, because that’s the real story of the Bible. It’s about people who lived and/or failed in their duties as God’s image-bearers and representatives. Paul takes us right back to Genesis too when writing about Jesus, calling him a ‘second Adam’. Jesus, in other words, did what the first Adam should have done, and what all the People of God after him are supposed to do, which is shine forth GOD’S love, goodness and wisdom. It’s all there in the book of Genesis, thanks to the Holy Spirit in Genesis 1:2 hovering over the waters ready to do his duty “in the beginning” too, in bringing life and God’s love and wisdom into our world.

In discussing Genesis, then, we’d do well as Christians to stick to how and why Genesis came to be part of the Bible in the first place. That’s our area of expertise, because in that lies our credibility and service to the world we live in.

(Part 1 was on March 10/18. Part 3 is on May 5/18)


In the beginning….(part 1)

Part 1 – Explaining God from Genesis is where Paul began with the best brains in Athens… 

Imagine being Paul in Athens in Acts 17:19-20, and having a group of high and mighty Greek philosophers challenge you in public to explain “what this new teaching is that you are presenting,” and being told that “You are bringing some strange ideas to our ears, and we want to know what they mean.”

These Athenians were usually open-minded about “the latest ideas” (21), but Paul’s preaching “about Jesus and the resurrection” had not gone down well with the Epicurean and Stoic philosophers, who accused Paul of being a “babbler advocating foreign gods,” verse 18. So they managed to get Paul hauled up before the high Council of the Areopagus to explain himself.

So there was Paul standing before the most authoritative court of judges and noblemen in Athens with the opportunity handed to him on a plate to explain the gospel. On a smaller scale it would be like one of us being asked at the dinner table, with all the family present, to explain what it is we believe, or what a strange idea like the Trinity means, or as one member of my family asked me at a family gathering in earshot of everyone, “What is your religious capacity?”

That was exactly what the Greek philosophers wanted to know about Paul. What religious right, or capacity, did Paul have to teach and talk about another god in a sophisticated city like Athens that already had 30,000 gods? The city was “full of idols” (16), including an altar TO AN UNKNOWN GOD to make sure they had every god covered and they hadn’t missed one, so what did Paul’s God have to offer that they hadn’t already got? And likewise, what right or capacity did I have to promote my version of God, when the world is already full of religions and churches that are fully convinced their version of God is the best? Who’s to say what I believe and teach is any better?

I was facing a similar challenge to the one Paul faced. Could what I say to my family member make the God I believe in stand out as being any better than the ideas about God he already had in his head, or that my God was worth looking into compared to all the other versions of ‘God’ out there? Like Paul, I’d been landed with the chance to say something, but what?

I look back and wish I’d remembered how Paul dealt with those Athenians, taking into account that Athens was a culture just like ours today. It had all sorts of “objects of worship” that made it appear “very religious,” Acts 17:22. And it’s typical in our culture too for people to think of themselves as being “very spiritual.” People get all tingly about music, art, ancient philosophy, eastern religions and all sorts of other human-devised stuff, believing they’ve tapped into hidden powers or discovered the divine within themselves.

So we understand the Athenians. They believed they were bringing the spiritual to life in their gods, idols and great temples, just as people today think they’re bringing their spirituality to life in drug-induced altered states of consciousness, or in mystical experiences while watching sunsets, or meditating like Buddhists, or going on pilgrimages, or in visions of heaven. So in a confused, jumbled mess of a culture just like ours, believing it’s discovered ‘God’ and ‘the spiritual’ in all sorts of things, where did Paul start in making HIS God stand out as different?

He took his cue from the Athenians themselves, Acts 17:23, “For as I walked around and observed your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: To An Unknown God.” Despite all their religiosity and spirituality there was still an element of doubt in their minds, that maybe they were still missing something. And that exists today as well, when people ask, “Why does a loving God let innocent people suffer?” In other words, they accept the possibility that God exists, and maybe they even want to believe he exists, but it’s hard making sense of him, so can somebody please help them out? And that was the situation Paul found himself in, that despite the Athenians coming across as very religious they were still open to someone making sense of God.

So in front of some of the best brains in Athens Paul talks about God, and in such basic terms too. In verse 24 he sounds almost like a Grandpa telling a bedtime story to his grandkids, because he starts off with, “The God who made the world and everything in it.” He starts off with the first verse in the Bible: “In the beginning, God…”

It’s so basic, but this is the picture Paul cements in their minds first of all, that in the beginning there was ONE God who made everything, and that this one Creator God was also “the Lord of heaven and earth.” In the beginning, therefore, there was one God who made the universe – and, take note – he’s also in charge of it and in complete control.

There were no yells of resistance from the Athenians at this point either – despite the Greeks believing the world did NOT begin with a Creator God. To them it began with what they called chaos and somehow gods and goddesses were produced in this chaos, most of which were completely bonkers – including their top god, Zeus, whose entire family was certifiably insane and should have been locked up. They abused women, ate children, and did amazingly sickening things in their craze for supreme rulership over the gods’ HQ on Mount Olympus. A warning to parents, therefore: Greek mythology does not make for happy reading at bedtime for children. It’s the stuff of nightmares.

But even the mighty Zeus was subject to fate, or The Three Fates as they were called, pictured in Greek mythology as three old women (wonderfully displayed in all their nuttiness in the Disney movie, Hercules). So Paul is really putting out a challenge here, to compare the infighting, immoral, insane mess of Greek gods, whose divine will and power could be overruled by three old women, to his one Creator God who planned everything from the beginning, controls every aspect of human life and death, and was on course to making his plan for creation work out exactly as he purposed.

In Paul’s mind this is where it all began. He doesn’t start off with “God loves you,” or “Are you saved?” or “Have you repented of your sins?” Nor does he give a detailed explanation of the Trinity. What he starts off with instead is where the Bible starts in the book of Genesis: “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.”

So there you are with your family round the dinner table with their forks poised in midair waiting for your answer to what you believe, and you say, “Well, I believe God made the universe and he’s doing a jolly good job of running it.” And with a casual wave of your own fork you add, “It’s all there in the book of Genesis,” and you stab a carrot and carry on eating.

And amazingly this is where Paul began with some of the best brains in Athens. He talked about God, just like Genesis talked about God. He then went a bold step further too, that God doesn’t “live in temples built by human hands” – which must have raised a few Athenian eyebrows, because looming over Athens was the Parthenon, an architectural gem of white marble built for the goddess Athena to dwell in. But Paul’s God needed no such edifice. In fact, Paul says in verse 25, God doesn’t need anything from humans, “because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”

Imagine telling that to your family at the dinner table, that the God you believe in doesn’t need massive cathedrals or any building dedicated to his glory. In fact, he doesn’t need anything from us that costs money, nor does he require sacrifices, rituals, gifts, or human service of any kind, because he’s already got everything he needs. It’s an insult to God to even think he needs something from us, when he was the one who gave US existence and life in the first place.

And why not go one step further while your family is waiting for dessert, and add that God is nothing like the gods OUR ridiculous world creates and worships either, like the gods of fame, security and body image, that demand we serve them with huge dollops of our time and money – but for what, pray tell, when one day we all die?

Paul, therefore, is presenting a God that’s nothing like the gods we create today, nor was his God like any god the Athenians knew either. And what a relief that should have been for them, because their gods were a pain in the neck. They demanded all sorts of rituals and sacrifices, and temples and statues (like the massive golden statue of the goddess Athena in the Parthenon) to keep them happy and placated. The Greeks also lived in fear of their gods every day, because the gods would severely punish any human who stepped out of line.

The hypocrisy of the Greek gods, therefore, was staggering, because their OWN behaviour on the most part was deplorable. If you think movies today are stepping way over the line of human decency, the lives of the Greek gods were ten times worse. Their morals and ethics were far worse than the humans they demanded service and worship from.

The Greek gods also showed little interest in humans – beyond abusing them or punishing them – and they deliberately hid themselves from people too. Any human who dared venture too close to Mount Olympus where the gods dwelt and ruled from was sent packing, like poor old Bellerophon on his trusty steed Pegasus, who was sent hurtling back to earth by the lunatic Zeus to spend the rest of his life as a crippled wreck.

But Paul paints a completely different picture of his God as being intimately involved with humanity all through our history, as he explains in Acts 17:26, how “From one man God made every nation of men, that they should inhabit the whole earth, and he determined the times set for them and the exact places where they should live.”

Here was a God who actually chose where nations and races of people would live, and was personally involved in when nations and empires would rise and fall. And Paul’s God was never hiding from people either, because as Paul explains in Acts 17:27, “God’s purpose in populating the Earth and creating nations was to get a response from people, that they seek him out and find him, because that’s when they discover he’s not that far away at all.” And anyone could discover that too, that no matter who he was or where on the planet he lived he could get in personal touch with the Creator God at any time.

And this, Paul is saying, is what God designed this Earth and all that happens on it for, which – as an aside – helps explain why bad things happen too.

And this again is where Paul’s God differed, because with the Greek gods bad things happened to people as punishment, but with Paul’s God everything, good and bad, was designed to stir people to seek him. It explains why there are wars between the tribes, nations and empires that God set up. All these unstoppable horrors teach us, as one Christian minister wrote, that “It is ridiculous, absurd, nothing but a self-delusive, deceitful trick, and dishonest in the extreme, to think that anyone can operate, as a man or a woman, without God.”

The Greeks were soaked in this self-delusion too, because their entire system did not start with God. It began where most people today begin, with no idea why evil exists, or why we can never stop people of different nations, races and genders attacking each other. It’s all so horribly confusing, but our world has always been in a state of chaos, with endless tragedies happening to innocent people and helpless children, and we still have no answers. And at some point that chaos hits close to home as well, when a marriage falls apart, or a tragedy happens to a family member, or a natural disaster wrecks the family home, and suddenly you wonder, “What’s the point of it all? What is there to hope for?” and it dawns on you that if God does not exist life is completely pointless.

But that’s what human history exists for, Paul says, so that God in some way or other can reveal himself through our human circumstances to stir us to seek him. It could be out of desperation that eventually we seek him, or out of anger, or depression, or curiosity, or from frustration at our helplessness, but one thing God has designed into his creation for ALL of us is the gradual or sudden realization in verse 28 that “in him we live and move and have our being,” because, Paul writes – quoting a Greek poet from his own hometown – we are in fact God’s “offspring.”

The poem Paul quotes from was written by Aratus, a well-known Stoic, so Paul is tapping into what the Stoics in his audience believed, the first few lines of the poem being:

“Let us begin with Zeus, for every street, every market-place is full of Zeus.

Even the sea and the harbour are full of this deity.

Everywhere everyone is indebted to Zeus.

For we are indeed his offspring…”

In other words, everything exists because of Zeus. He’s the father of all creation; we are his offspring. It’s in him, therefore, that we humans live and move and have our being. So Paul simply takes their Stoic belief about Zeus being the reason for life and existence in all things – which must’ve surprised his audience that he even knew what Aratus wrote – and he applies it to God. John did the same thing in his gospel when he wrote, “In the beginning was the Word,” the Word being Logos in the Greek, Logos also being the term used as the reason for life and existence of all things. John simply takes the Logos and applies it to Jesus. Paul takes Zeus and applies it to God.

In both cases God is being revealed in terms a Greek audience would understand. It’s also telling them that such a God exists, that there really is a Creator who is the cause and reason for life and existence in all things. It is true, then, that “in him we live and move and have our being,” and therefore we are truly his offspring as well.

So in one way the Greeks got it right, that we are the offspring of a great God. But they had no idea that this one great God was calling out to his children through his creation and through their circumstances, nor did they believe that God was there for them any time they needed him. They were open to all sorts of other ideas and philosophies offering an explanation for the sad, mad world they were living in, but they’d never heard of the explanation Paul was presenting.

But here’s your family at the dining room table living in exactly the same kind of world as those Athenians. Our world is sad and mad too, and it too is chock full of theories on how to explain this chaos we live in, and how to live in hope when there are no solutions to evil and no guarantees of anybody’s life being lived happily ever after. But here WE are, armed with what Paul has just said in Acts 17, that there really is a God who made everything, and the reason he made everything the way he did is because we are his offspring, he’d like us to get in touch with him, and we’ll soon discover HE ISN’T hiding too.

Well, imagine the excuses leaping into your family members’ minds for NOT getting in touch with him, like having to join some church or religion, and having to go along with all their rituals and weird doctrines, and putting up with horribly self-righteous, religious-sounding people.

Paul has an immediate answer for that too, though, in Acts 17:29, “Therefore since we are God’s children (and HE created us), why do we think he’s like something that WE would create?” We’ve created temples, statues, religions, works of art, icons, rituals and rules, all focused on our ideas of what God is like and what God wants, when all God is really interested in is his human children realizing they’re his kids and getting in touch with him.

In other words, all this paraphernalia that religions churn out, all based on “an image of God made by man’s design and skill,” verse 29, is actually a complete waste of time and money. So tell that to your family members and watch their reaction, including the Christians in the group, who’ve probably been loaded up to the gills with their own denominational rituals, icons and weird ideas about heaven and hell, and when the Earth was created, and should we drink alcohol or not, and is the Sabbath on Saturday or Sunday, and is the Holy Spirit a power or a person, and is Jesus God or not, and how do you fit three days and three nights between Good Friday and Easter Sunday, and should baptism be by sprinkling or immersion, and why do we need unpronounceable Greek words to explain the Trinity? And on an on it goes.

Paul, meanwhile, has just taken a large broom and swept the lot of it into a big pile and said, “Let’s put all that aside for a minute, shall we? And let’s go back to the beginning and ask the question, that if there truly is a God who created this world of ours – and we include in that the evil and the chaos too – then what on earth did he have in mind, and why on earth did he do it this way?”

And isn’t that the question your family members would like answered too, as to why bad things happen, and why innocent children suffer at the hands of predators, and why, if God is truly loving and all-wise he lets brutally selfish people get away with their greed and exploitation of the poor? And wouldn’t they like to know why bad things happen in their own lives too, like accidents, natural disasters, the tragic death of a child, or dementia in a loved one?

But to what – or to whom – are they looking for answers? Do they think the answer is in something of their own creation, or in the God who created them?

And this was the question facing those Athenians too, because up to this point in their lives (in Acts 17) they’d been looking for answers in the gods of their own creation. The Greeks had thousands of gods covering every aspect of life, but how could intelligent people like themselves think there were solutions in these gods when they’d actually made these gods up in their own imaginations?

It’s time, then, Paul says, to grow up – or as he phrases it in Acts 17:30, “In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent.”

Enough of this nonsense, let’s get back to basics: In the beginning there was a Creator God who made humans to be his children, and he created a world that would enable and encourage his children to seek him and find him. What we humans have done in response to that is ignorant, stupid, and as dumb as the gods we’ve created, because what have the gods of our creation and imagination done for us instead? The world hasn’t changed one bit for the better because of them; and we still live without solutions to evil and awful things happening too.

So we can either persist with our nonsense or consider Paul’s alternative – that there is a Creator, we are his children, and he hasn’t given up on us. And to prove how much he hasn’t given up on us, verse 31, he’s “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”

Oh no, that dreaded phrase Judgment Day and all the negative things it brings to mind, right? But where is the negativity in the word “justice”? Isn’t that exactly what we all want? We’d love to have justice done, where evil gets it just desserts, and so do the people who are bent on evil too. So, yes, the Creator God who loves his children is going to sort this mess out, because he can and wants to. But notice HOW he sorts it out. It’s not by a group of insane Greek gods unleashing their vicious anger and revenge on humans, it’s by A MAN who understands humans, who can dispense justice correctly and appropriately.

This was radical, because the Greek gods would never trust a man. The gods loved power, and any threat to their power by humans was crushed. The idea, then, that a HUMAN had been appointed by the Creator God to do the judging was staggering, because it did away with all the Greek gods and their nonsense. And isn’t that what we’d love our family to know as well, that the solution to all our ills isn’t religion, nor is it joining a church or trying to be spiritual; it’s about a man, a human like ourselves, who has the power to put things to rights.

It’s like a great big broom sweeping away all our human religiosity and so-called spirituality, and in the empty space where that huge pile of confusion about God stood, there is a sign that says, “It all comes down to that man.” And the reason it comes down to that man, and why he’s so special and credible, is God “raising him from the dead,” Acts 17:31.

And in God raising him from the dead, we’ve got a man who can now take us right back to the beginning to start all over again with what God created us for, which is exactly what Paul is telling these Athenians. Paul has gone right back to Genesis and what God intended for humans from the start, because that’s what God appointed his man to do, to straighten out the whole sordid story of what has happened to his children and to his creation since the Garden of Eden.

And that’s what makes our God different and better than anything this world has to offer with all its human-inspired religiosity and spirituality and its many idols and gods. Our God raised a man from the dead as proof that a great Creator God really does exist, and as proof that he cares, as proof he is in charge, as proof he has a plan, and as proof he’s working that plan out through humans who clue in to what he’s up to, who then repent of their ignorance and want a part with God’s appointed man in straightening out this mess of a world we live in.

It’s interesting to see, then, what those Athenians objected to most of all in Paul’s presentation, as a clue to what our family members might object to most of all as well. It wasn’t about there being one Creator God, or that he’s intimately involved in everything that happens on this planet, or that we’re his offspring who can contact him at any time. None of those things were the issue for the Athenians.

What they objected to most of all, verse 32, was “the resurrection of the dead” – a human coming back to life again as a human. But that’s totally understandable, because like most people today, including probably our family members too, the Greeks thought the future of dead humans was life in some other world, or some other existence, not life as humans back here on the Earth.

But what our God has done in resurrecting Jesus is give us hope, that this mess we’ve made of his purpose for us can be repaired and we can try again, thanks to him not only resurrecting a man capable of straightening out the mess, but also offering us the chance to join him as humans now and as resurrected humans later. And with his help and wisdom we can begin to experience for ourselves what God made us and his creation for – in the beginning.

(Part 2 is on April 7/18)