briefing, Albert Mohler

Friday, April 3, 2020

This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.

It’s Friday, April 3, 2020. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.

Part I

The World is Real (and So Are Viruses): The Christian Worldview and Modern Medicine

It is amazing, even humbling, when you think about it, how little we know even as we are this far into the COVID-19 coronavirus crisis. We do know a very great deal, and that puts us at an advantage over previous generations of human beings who have faced similar kinds of pandemics. We do have a lot of knowledge from modern science and modern medicine. We have the ability to communicate almost instantaneously by forms of modern technology, especially digital media. We are able now to have reality such as Teladocs and telemedicine. We are able to have widespread global pictures of a pandemic. But at the same time we only know what we know. Even right now, even as we know that documented cases of COVID-19 have topped 1 million worldwide, we don’t know the exact distribution of the disease. We don’t even know exactly how many people did die in Wuhan and in China.

We don’t know because we no longer trust the numbers that are coming from China about the disaster. We don’t know how many cases are in North Korea, but just about everyone knows they have to be more than the zero that the North Korean dictatorship is allowing. We don’t know what the future of this virus is, as you look continent by continent. We don’t know when a virus is going to be developed. We don’t know the answers to so many questions. But it is really interesting to see how the overlay of the biological and the theological comes at so many interesting points here. This is where Christians have to understand that what we know, more than anything else, is what we know on the basis of divine revelation and the Word of God.

What we know as the gift of God’s revelation is infinitely surer and greater than what we know by any other means. But this leads to another Christian reflection which is of great importance. As you’re looking at the rise of science as a modern phenomenon, the rise of so-called modern science, as you’re looking at modern empirical observation, observational research, as you’re looking at the scientific method and its rise as a way of knowing, we have to recognize, as historians have long recognized, that those particular forms of thought are only possible when you come with the prior affirmation that the universe is intelligible. Where does that come from? It comes from the basic Christian worldview that tells us not only that the Creator made the cosmos, but that he embedded even the knowledge of himself within the cosmos. He made it intelligible. He gave us an orderly universe.

Modern science is based upon that presupposition. It is looking for order. It is looking for explanation. It is understanding that there is a basic intelligibility. What does that mean? It means that God created the cosmos in such a way that it can be known, many of its secrets can be unlocked. Over the course of just the last several decades, human beings, by means of this kind of scientific knowledge, have unlocked at least some of the secrets of our genetic code, of the reality of DNA and its sequencing. We know of the double helix now. We know so much of the cosmos. Over the course of just the last several decades, human beings, for the very first time, have been able to launch vehicles into space and even take photographs looking back from outer space of Earth.

Going back just a short amount of time, people didn’t know about germs. They didn’t know about viruses. They had never seen one. Going back not too long ago, people had only a very rudimentary knowledge even of how many organs in the human body worked. We do know so much more now. We’re able to unlock and make visible what had been invisible. We have not only X-rays, but CAT scans and other imaging devices. We have the ability to do chemical analyses, to do analysis of the blood, to do all kinds of tissue sampling. We are able to track viruses and germs and infections. This gets back to another basic presupposition of the biblical worldview, that is realism, what is called metaphysical realism. There is a real world. The world is not an illusion. There really is matter. There really is stuff. Matter is not an illusion. A very real God created a very real world. The reality of the world is entirely contingent upon the reality of God.

But it is a real world and thus we can make real stuff. We can build real houses, we can dig real holes, we can do real things. Our bodies have reality and yes, this virus has a reality as well. And so this means that Christians can bless the gift of modern medicine. That is to say we can certainly bless the knowledge that comes by modern medicine. We can be very thankful for antibiotics and anesthetics. We can be very thankful for all kinds of modern medical technologies. Christians do have to understand the limitations of medicine. Medicine is never going to cure mortality, and thus Christians based upon a biblical worldview, understand that human beings will never resolve the basic problem of human frailty and mortality. But we are, nonetheless, very thankful because of our commitment to love of God and love of neighbor, we’re very thankful for modern medicine. We are thankful for modern medicines.

But we also understand that every one of those medical realities comes with a moral dimension as well. The same technologies that can be used to bring and enhance life can be used also, wrongly, to bring about death. We have to understand that the Christian worldview makes clear that there is nothing that isn’t moral. There’s a moral dimension to our use or our abuse of everything. Our moral presuppositions are very much reflected when we think about the exercise of medicine. Consider the front lines that many doctors and nurses and emergency rooms are having to face right now when there is a limited supply. All of a sudden on the front page of newspapers and leading in the media, also in academic journals and professional conversation right now, are questions about how hard decisions, especially in an age of pandemic and scarcity, how these hard questions are going to be answered.

Here’s where we’re going to have to look very closely at these arguments because some of them are going to be based upon some human presupposition of human life as merely a utilitarian reality. It is merely useful and we’ll decide who is more useful and we’ll decide who is less useful. Usefulness, according to the secular worldview, is one of the few ways it has to ascribe value to a human life. But it’s also interesting to note that Christians ascribe value to every single human life, not just those who are deemed more useful than others. But here’s where we also have to understand that behind every medical question, behind every clinical quandary, are basic worldview presuppositions. What we are also witnessing are the limitations of a secular worldview in being able to answer some of the questions it now has to address and ask.

The New York Times yesterday ran an article asking the question, how valuable is a human life? In answering the question, it is trying to put a monetary value on it. Interestingly, this question comes up repeatedly in tort litigation, in the aftermath of an accident or a disaster, a plane crash or something similar. It came up and to the attention of many Americans in the 9/11/2001 attacks on the United States of America, where someone had to come up with a way to try to evaluate which families would get how much income based upon the death of which loved one. There is a sense in which all of that becomes absolutely necessary in a fallen world trying to figure out its affairs, but it also points to the basic inadequacy of a secular worldview.

The Christian worldview understands that ultimately you can put no monetary price on any human life, ever. If we do believe, as Christians must believe, in the sanctity of every single human life, sanctity means sacredness or holiness, where we also understand that that means the pricelessness of every single human life. Looking back at how many of those decisions were made in the aftermath of 9/11, it is very haunting to see that there was a basic utilitarianism that was evident there. The variability of compensation given to various families had to do, for one thing, with what would have been the future expectation of earnings on the part of the one who died in the terror attack. Now, I have to admit that in a secular court of law, I don’t know how some of those decisions are unavoidable, but again, that’s not really my point. My point is that, understood in a biblical context, this cannot be an adequate answer to the question.

There’ve been some very interesting theological questions raised in the mainstream media. Yesterday, an article by Lindsay Schnell at USA Today. The headline: “Is the Coronavirus An Act of God? Faith Leaders Debate Tough Questions Amid Pandemic.” Well, the article turns out not to be all that interesting, but nonetheless, there are various theological issues that are raised here. But Christians operating out of a biblical worldview have to understand that we are facing a very interesting set of questions that we must answer very carefully. For example, if God could have prevented this virus, why didn’t he? Does this mean that God wills evil for us? Is God in control of the universe or are there forces in the universe such as this virus that he is not in control of, that are outside of his sovereignty? Or, is he doing the best he can under the circumstances? That’s an argument that has been used by some. Or, is God so inscrutable, his ways so past finding out, that we know nothing about his will, we can understand no patterns in human history? Is God good? Is God omnipotent? How do we answer these questions?

Well, Christians have learned over time to answer these questions biblically. That’s the most important thing, we answered them biblically. That means that we cannot always answer these questions in a way that is totally intellectually satisfying given all the questions we want to raise. Let’s remember how God answered Job in the Old Testament, where he did not tell Joe not to ask questions, but he did remind job that there are certain things Job could never understand, including God’s own ways. He referred to his own act of creation, asking Job, “Were you there when I did this? Were you there when I did that?”

In chapter 38, the Lord spoke to Job saying, “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth? Tell me if you have understanding. Who determined its measurements? Surely you know. Or who stretched out the line upon it? On what were his basis sunk? Or who laid its cornerstone when the morning stars sang together and all the sons of God shouted for joy?” God asked Job, “Have you commanded the morning since your days began and caused the dawn to know its place?” He said, “Have you entered into the springs of the sea or walked in the recesses of the deep?”

“Where is the way,” he asked Job, “to the dwelling place of light and where is the place of darkness that you may take it to its territory and that you may discern the past to its home?” He asked Job, “Have you entered the storehouses of the snow or have you seen the storehouses of the hail?” This reminds us of Paul in Romans 11 where in that doxology of the final verses of that chapter, Paul reminds us that God is all wise and his ways are past finding out. No one can know his mind. Now, when we say that God is inscrutable, his ways are past finding out, it means that no human investigation is ever going to uncover the reality about God, what God is thinking, what God is doing, what God will do in the future. But here’s where Christians have to step back and say, thanks be to God we are not dependent upon our own powers of investigation, because we who would be unable to investigate God, nonetheless have been spoken to by God in the Word. That’s the great miracle of God’s revelation. We could not figure these things out, but to the extent that God allows us, he tells us the truth about himself.

But then after God had addressed Job with these questions and more, Job responded to God with repentance, he said, “I know that you can do all things and that no purpose of yours can be thwarted.” Job asked, “Who is this,” speaking of himself, “that hides counsel without knowledge?” Therefore said Job, “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.”

Well, what the Bible reveals to us about God is that he is indeed sovereign, that means he is the absolute ruler of the entire cosmos. He is sovereign and he is the absolute ruler precisely because he is also the one who made the entire cosmos out of nothing. But he did not make it only to abandon it unto itself, he made it and he continues to rule over it. As a matter of fact, there isn’t an atom or molecule in the entire universe, or even sub-particle beyond that, that is not under God’s active control, that is not within his sovereignty. But God does not explain all of his sovereignty to us. He explains a lot of it. He tells us of his purpose in creation. He tells us of his purpose with Israel. He tells us of his law and his character. He tells us of his plans for our salvation. He tells us about what he has accomplished through Jesus Christ, the Son. He tells us the way of salvation and he reveals to us the past, present, and future of what he is doing, in so far as he tells us.

There is more, but here’s what we can count on, there isn’t less. In that day, when we no longer see through a glass darkly, then we will know much more than we know now, but we will know nothing that will correct divine revelation that we have right now in the Bible. There will be more. There will never be less. We also know this profoundly, if God is not in control, then we are doomed. If he is not in control right now and at every point in the future, as in the past, then we are doomed. But we’re not doomed, and this raises the issue of apocalypse. Because right now this pandemic has led many modern people in modern societies that thought themselves very modern and almost invincible, is causing those individuals and societies to ask questions like, “Is this the end? Is this the end of the world? Is this the end of humanity?”

I grew up during the context of the Cold War and the threat of atomic war, when there were many people, even from a secular perspective, who regularly asked these questions. More recently we have seen ask these questions in an ecological context, asking the question as to whether we are doomed because of climate change. But now all of a sudden, in a far more urgent context, just consider that by the way, we are now asking the question and hearing the question asked, “Does this pandemic mean the end of time, the end of humanity, the end of the cosmos?”

Part II

Is This the Apocalypse? Well, Yes and No.

In yesterday’s print edition of the New York Times on the front page was an article by Elizabeth Dias with the headline, “For People of Many Religions or None, Signs of Apocalypse.” Now, what’s also very interesting here is the use of the word “apocalypse.” We understand what she means by it. She means an apocalyptic end, a cataclysmic end to humanity, to the cosmos, or to anything that we hold precious. But the actual word that is translated apocalypse, it hearkens back to the biblical Greek, it means unveiling. It doesn’t even mean the end. Now, there’s a sense in which the ultimate unveiling is going to come on God’s day of judgment, on that great day as it’s defined in Scripture, the day of the Lord. That will be an ultimate unveiling.

But the book of Revelation after all, the book of apocalypse, is the book of unveiling which simply means revelation. You have Paul refer to the gospel as being unveiled. Unveiling means simply revelation. By the way, Elizabeth Dias, the reporter for the New York Times, recognizes that apocalypse etymologically means revelation. But as she means in the headline and in the article, it really means a cataclysmic end. Is that what is happening?

Now, on The Briefing so regularly we return to that great Christian principle that theology is always there and it always matters. For instance, in this article you have answers given by people of various theological persuasions. That would include more evangelical Christians, it would include those who identify as Christians, but are clearly more liberal, influenced by liberal theology. It would include Buddhists, Muslims, well, you go down the list. In her article, Dias writes “For people of many faiths, and even none at all, it can feel lately as if the end of the world is near. Not only is there a plague, but hundreds of billions of locusts are swarming East Africa. Wildfires have ravaged Australia killing an untold number of animals. A recent earthquake in Utah even shook the Salt Lake Temple to the top of its iconic spire causing the golden trumpet to fall from the Angel Moroni’s right hand.”

Now journalistically, that’s just an outstanding paragraph. It’s followed with this, “But the story of apocalypse is an old one. In ancient religious traditions, beyond Christianity, including Judaism, Islam, and Buddhism, it is a common narrative that arises in moments of social and political crisis as people try to process shocking events.” Now after that, Elizabeth Dias goes to various theologians and religious leaders and gets their reading of whether or not COVID-19 represents the apocalypse. The general conclusion, by the way, amongst most of the folks cited in the article is that, no, this is not the apocalypse itself. But what’s far more interesting to me is the fact that there are so many theological differences that demonstrate basic worldview differences that show up in this article. One of the first distinctions you see in this article is between Christians whose first instinct is to go to the Bible, and those whose first instinct is to go somewhere else.

Well into the article, Dias writes, “Some evangelical Christians are finding hope in a divine promise that God has saved them for eternity, a feeling of security amid so much uncertainty.” Well, that is certainly profoundly true, but you’ll notice here she identifies this belief as being characteristic of evangelical Christians, insinuating that there would be Christians who would not have such a hope. But here’s where we simply as Christians, as evangelical Christians—gospel Christians, after all is what that means—we have to come back to the fact that that is the very essence of the gospel itself. That is the essence of Christianity. If in Christ we do not have the assurance of our salvation, then what’s the point of Christianity anyway? Christianity is not about adding a little meaning to our otherwise pitiful and finite lives while we live. It’s not about giving us mere pastoral comfort in the midst of a pandemic. It is about God’s decisive act to save sinners through the blood atonement of the Lord Jesus Christ and to save those sinners, as the Bible says, “To the uttermost.”

This is where the Apostle Paul speaks of his absolute confidence that he who began this good work in us will complete it until that day, meaning that very day, the day of God’s judgment and grace. It’s also interesting that later in this article, Elizabeth Dias cites the transformation of Judaism into rabbinic Judaism after the time of the Bible, and she credits this transformation into a movement led by rabbis for the survival of Judaism under various situations of pogrom and persecution and more. She cites an Islamic professor of theology at Loyola Marymount University, she doesn’t cite the fact that the basic Muslim concept here is of God’s rule, which is determinist, which is to say God has determined his will, he’s not going to show his will, nothing we do can change his will. His will cannot be known, we merely resign ourselves to his will. That gets down to the Muslim phrase inshallah, or as God wills. But Christians don’t look at God’s will in that way. We do believe that God’s will is absolute, he is sovereign, his will is inscrutable, but at the same time he has revealed much of his will to us and he expects us to be responsible moral agents. That’s the entire texture of New Testament, of biblical Christianity.

But then her article turns even more interesting when she writes, “In Buddhism, time is cyclical, not linear, making apocalypse both an end and a beginning.” She cites Vesna Wallace, professor of Buddhism at the University of California, Santa Barbara as saying, “Apocalypse happens and then a new order starts, a new social order, a new moral order. The story repeats itself.” Well, as we pointed out on The Briefing before, that is exactly the central distinction at the most basic worldview level between Christianity and Buddhism. The Christian understanding, the biblical understanding of time is linear: past, present, and future. Time doesn’t repeat itself. Time is moving because God has created time as a part of his creation in motion, in one direction. But Buddhism does understand a cyclical understanding of history. History is not aligned. It’s a wheel. Thus, the most fundamental issue is not past, present and future as it is in a biblical worldview, but rather the continuing cycle of a wheel turning over again and again. Of course, whereas Christianity speaks of truth and falsehood, Christianity speaks of gospel, Christianity speaks of sin, Christianity speaks of individual responsibility and of salvation in individual terms, once brought on in this article is that the Buddhist concept is instead karma, of a principle that works its way out in a form of judgment over time.

Good actions lead to good karma. Bad actions lead to bad karma, future consequences that may be experienced either by an individual or a community. Thus, according to Buddhism, as this article makes clear, if a society or a civilization or a global community has bad karma, then it could be the time for the apocalypse. But because history just turns over and over again and apocalypse, in this Buddhist conception, just leads to another beginning, the cycle continues. That is not the biblical conception at all.

Part III

Yearning for Something Better, Something Promised: The Christian Hope Beyond This Fallen World

In conclusion, let’s ask ourselves the question as Christians turning to Scripture, “Is the pandemic a part of the apocalypse?” The answer to that is yes and no, isn’t it? It’s most fundamentally no in this sense. Jesus himself told us that there will be wars and rumors of wars, there will be earthquakes, there would be pandemics, there would be pestilence. These would be signs of the end, but they would not be the end. But in another sense, Jesus also taught his disciples that we are to understand that the end is always near. The problem from a Christian biblical worldview is not that some people, including some Christians, look to the pandemic and believe that it’s a sign that there will be an apocalypse, the most important issue from the Christian worldview is understanding that at no time are we ever far from the apocalypse. The issue we should face is that this pandemic is actually all too typical of a fallen world, corrupted by sin, a world in which there are tumors and germs and viruses and more.

The Christian biblical worldview thus authorizes Christians to learn from science, to learn from modern medicine, to accept the good things that it can bring. But Christians also understand that at its best, all medicine can do, all authentic medicine can promise, is to make things a bit better for a while. Put another way, Christians see the problem, not in the fact that so many people right now believe that the pandemic is the apocalypse, but because so many people before the pandemic didn’t even have a concern about the apocalypse. All of this makes Christians yearn even more urgently for something better and for something promised. What we are promised in Christ is not just eternal salvation, it is not just a better turn of the great wheel of history, it’s a new heaven and a new earth for eternity. That means that at the end of this week for The Briefing we’re going to end with the very last words of the holy Scripture.

“He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus. The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.”

Thanks for listening to The Briefing.

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I’ll meet you again on Monday for The Briefing.

R. Albert Mohler, Jr.

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