Saber-rattling between international leaders is a military tactic probably as old as saber swords themselves. But when those sabers are nuclear warheads, the threats come with a very sharp edge to them. Over the past several months, our president here in the States and the leader of North Korea have exchanged threats via state media, mass media, and social media. North Korea has been testing nuclear bombs and perfecting its long-range missile program. In response, our president has said the following about future threats: “They will be met with fire and fury like the world has never seen.” In a speech, he went so far as to say, “The United States has great strength and patience. But if it’s forced to defend itself or allies, we will have no choice but to totally destroy North Korea.”
Those are strong words, and they are backed with movement. As we speak, the U.S. has three aircraft carrier strike groups in the western Pacific, a significant military buildup meant to get North Korea’s attention. With international tensions high, we get this question from Amber in Virginia. “Hello, Pastor John. I love your podcast and your overall ministry has deeply impacted me. North Korea has been in the news a lot lately. With threats of a nuclear attack, Christians around me are starting to fear. I know so many Christians who talk of stocking food, water, and supplies — even a few considering buying and installing an underground bomb shelter in the event of such attack. When it comes to this new cold-war era (new to a lot of us), how should Christians plan wisely?”
Well, I need to make a confession right off the bat here. Eighteen years ago, as Y2K approached — does anybody even remember that? — there was all this hysteria about how the computers would not know how to handle the switch from the 1900s to the 2000s.
People thought there would be major infrastructure breakdowns and the electricity and water would go off. They thought everybody would be forced off the grid and there would be rioting in the streets and no food available for weeks. As I watched this hysteria work its way into the church, I frankly was disgusted. I’m sorry. This is a confession. I watched Christians justify their own fear and self-protection by saying they would use their generator and their extra food for ministry purposes. Really? I wonder if the watching world saw it that way. Well, I didn’t see it that way.
To me, that very bent towards self-preservation and hoarding was a bad ministry in itself. It all made me angry, and I preached that this was not the mindset of the church in the New Testament. When I say, “Let me confess this,” I do mean that there probably was sin on my part in some of what I felt about the preppers during Y2K.
But I still feel most of what I felt, so I may have to confess again — may God help me. So, if you’re one of those folks, you’re just not going to get a lot of sympathy from me. I’ll try to explain why in the next few minutes, so here we go. I’ve got five reasons why.
First, danger and risk are normal for the Christian life, not exceptional. The dominant New Testament approach to this fact is not self-protection, but self-sacrifice — the sacrifices of love. That’s the flavor. That’s the tone that we should see and experience.
For example, Paul describes his life like this:
Countless beatings, and often near death. Five times I received at the hands of the Jews the forty lashes less one. Three times I was beaten with rods. Once I was stoned. Three times I was shipwrecked; a night and a day I was adrift at sea; on frequent journeys, in danger from rivers, danger from robbers, danger from my own people, danger from Gentiles, danger in the city, danger in the wilderness, danger at sea, danger from false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many a sleepless night, in hunger and thirst, often without food, in cold and exposure. (2 Corinthians 11:23–27)
Jesus had promised that’s the way it would be:
“You will be delivered up even by parents and brothers and relatives and friends, and some of you they will put to death. You will be hated by all for my name’s sake. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your lives” (Luke 21:16–19).
Now how in the world did Paul press on? What was his bomb shelter? He said,
At my first defense no one came to stand by me, but all deserted me. May it not be charged against them! But the Lord stood by me and strengthened me, so that through me the message might be fully proclaimed and all the Gentiles might hear it. So I was rescued from the lion’s mouth. The Lord will rescue me from every evil deed and bring me safely into his heavenly kingdom. (2 Timothy 4:16–18)
So you can see what he means there: “Evil deeds will not destroy my faith. I may die, but I’ll make it to the heavenly kingdom. To him be glory forever and ever.”
Second, major efforts at self-preservation are inevitably going to obscure to the world the basic message of Jesus — namely, Matthew 16:24–25:
“If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”
Third, if you are known as a person who devotes lots of money and effort and focus on creating a refuge, it is going to make the psalms sound hollow in your mouth.
You are my rock and my fortress; and for your name’s sake you lead me and guide me; you take me out of the net they have hidden for me, for you are my refuge. (Psalms 31:3–4)
For you have been my refuge, a strong tower against the enemy. (Psalms 61:3)
On God rests my salvation and my glory; my mighty rock, my refuge is God. Trust in him at all times, O people; pour out your heart before him; God is a refuge for us. (Psalms 62:7–8)
Here is the text of the five missionaries who went to the Huaorani tribe in 1956 and were all killed by the spears:
He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will abide in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress, my God, in whom I trust.” For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence. He will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge; his faithfulness is a shield and buckler. You will not fear the terror of the night, nor the arrow that flies by day, nor the pestilence that stalks in darkness, nor the destruction that wastes at noonday. (Psalm 91:1–6)
Fourth, it is allowed in Scripture, when danger comes, to flee or to stand and suffer. John Bunyan, who spent twelve years in prison for standing firm, wrote to defend both possible paths of obedience as biblical — both to flee or to stand.
I just don’t think Americans need more encouragement to flee. So when it comes to what I want to emphasize (what I’m doing right now), I preach stay. Pastorally and prophetically, flee is just not the need of the hour. I don’t think we need to encourage Americans, saying, “Oh, you really should stop being so risky. You really should stop suffering so much. You really should stop so much self-sacrifice. Let’s all be more self-protective in our bunkers.” I think pastorally and prophetically the need is almost entirely in the other direction.
And finally, fifth, it misrepresents the value of Christ and heaven to give the impression that death is the worst thing that could happen. If we are really doing all our self-preservation out of love, what about the people who are going to die eternally for lack of the gospel? Are we taking the same steps as seriously to preserve them for eternity? Bottom line: How can we make Christ look like he really is — the supreme treasure of our lives? How can we say to the world Psalm 63:3, “The steadfast love of the Lord is better than life”?
Find other recent and popular Ask Pastor John episodes here.
John Piper (@JohnPiper) is founder and teacher of desiringGod.org and chancellor of Bethlehem College & Seminary. For 33 years, he served as pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church, Minneapolis, Minnesota. He is author of more than 50 books, including A Peculiar Glory.
(By Desiring God. Discovered by Christian Podcast Central and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not Christian Podcast Central, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)
I want to focus on an interesting question that seems to me very relevant for today, and the question is: “who’s in charge of Doomsday?” You might think that’s an odd question, but bear with me.
For all of my childhood years and really for most of the second half of the 20th century, it was widely believed the world would end in a holocaust of thermonuclear war. To give you an example from my world, I grew up in a house with a bomb shelter. My father actually made a living for a while building them, and he put one underneath our house. Two giant steel doors and a musty room with bunk beds, provisions, and even a hand cranked air purifier. It was designed for our survival through a massive Soviet missile strike and the resulting fallout, but what it turned out to be was an expensive playroom for me and my friends. And last I heard it’s now a wine cellar for the current occupants of that house.
But back then in the Cold War days, Civil Defense precautions were very common. In school we were taught to “duck and cover” in case of a nuclear attack. Air raid sirens went off at regular intervals in pretty much every city.
This all started of course with the atomic bomb being dropped at the end of World War II, and with the Soviets getting the bomb a few years later.
Also, in 1947 a group of scientists invented the Doomsday Clock, symbolizing the world’s imminent destruction from nuclear war. The closer the clock got to midnight, the closer we were to Armageddon. The clock was originally set to seven minutes ‘til midnight, and currently we’re at five minutes ‘til but it’s a little different now and I’ll tell you why later.
Several famous movies and TV shows, including one of my favorite Twilight Zone episodes, depicted the post-nuclear war Earth with only a few dazed survivors. But, low and behold, the nuclear holocaust didn’t happen. The Soviet Union eventually collapsed, and massive nuclear strikes became less and less an issue. But before that, we were all convinced that nuclear war would end humanity
So we had to find a new doomsday scenario, and this time it was overpopulation.
In the 1960’s a college professor named Paul Erlich wrote a best-selling book called “The Population Bomb”. In it he predicted that by the end of the 1970s, hundreds of millions of people would starve to death as the world ran out of food. Entire countries would cease to exist and world-wide destruction would come by the 1990s. And nothing could be done about it. It was inevitable.
Dave Murrow wrote about this recently in his Church for Men blog:
“All the smart people were certain this catastrophe would happen. But it didn’t. Despite a doubling of world population since the 1950s, famine due to overpopulation is unknown in the world today. There’s plenty of food – the main challenge is getting it past corrupt officials to the people who need it. Ironically, the U.N. recently identified obesity as the world’s number one health challenge.”
Now, maybe you’re like me and you’re thinking that all these supposedly “smart people” would come to the conclusion that when your doomsday predictions don’t come to pass, maybe you should stop predicting doomsday.
Ah, but you’d be wrong.
These great thinkers have now gone all-in on the doomsday scenario of our time : global warming.
Former Vice President Al Gore, Professor Michael Mann and even NASA scientists and most other scientists who want government grants or just to keep their jobs, are predicting world-wide catastrophe from rising CO2 and other man made factors. The doomsday clock I mentioned earlier is now predicting our demise from these and other threats instead of nuclear war. And again, these smart people have made very specific predictions about what will happen. Most of the predictions are being pushed back to occur later in this century, but there are a few timely ones that we can look back on and analyze.
Here’s just a couple I found: In 2005 the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change projected that by 2010 the world will need to cope with a stampede of 50 million “climate refugees,” who purportedly would flee their homes due to the flooding of coastal cities, and the rapid expansion of deserts. Well 2010 is three years past and this didn’t happen, and the U.N. has recently taken it all back.
Also in 2005, after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, I remember hearing predictions that the 2006 hurricane season would be unusually heavy and severe, with many large storms hitting the U.S. – all due to global warming. But the ’06 hurricane season was actually very light, with few storms even big enough to get their own name.
Again, very specific doomsday predictions. Dead wrong.
So what does this all mean? What has this got to do with “The Big Picture”?
Well, plenty. It goes back to my original question of “Who’s in charge of Doomsday?”
Again I have to credit Dave Murrow for inspiring this question. His blog post that I mentioned earlier is entitled “Why Hell Went Out Of Fashion”. In it, Dave explains that the Christian message of the end of the World and God’s judgement has been replaced by a more positive and relational message. This has happened for a number of reasons, one of them being the fact that death and eternity are no longer a concern as people are living longer and longer here on Earth. But the main reason he cites is that the story of God’s destruction and judgement of the Earth, in other words “Doomsday’, has been replaced with the previously mentioned man-made “doomsday” predictions.
The Church just can’t compete with these trendy beliefs.
But I want to take his point one step further. In seeking to replace the Biblical story of judgement, the secular world doesn’t want to just replace the story, it wants to replace the judge.
If God is the cause of Doomsday, then in the end, we’re accountable to Him. But if man can cause ‘doomsday’, then man is all powerful and we are only accountable to ourselves (more specifically to those who have power over us).
You can see this happening in our culture today. I recently came across an article entitled “Climate Change Study: Religious Belief In Second Coming Of Christ Could Slow Global Warming Action”. It’s about a study that was done which found that religious beliefs about the ‘end of the world’ are holding back government action on climate change in the U.S. This was very troubling to the authors, who’s clear implication was that eventually these problematic folks and their inconvenient beliefs would have to be dealt with.
Also, I think these man-made crises are an attempt to replace the eternal with the temporal. We need to worry about the here and now. Eternity spent with or separated from an eternal God is not relevant. We need to save ourselves NOW! And again, these assertions always come with an appeal for immediate political action, again by those who have power over us.
Now, environmental concerns are legitimate. But the secular world has adopted them as a replacement for faith. The human being has always had a God-shaped hole in it’s soul. Those who don’t want to be accountable to God will naturally seek to fill that hole with anything but God. Some worship themselves, some turn to concerns bigger than themselves. But neither will accept or tolerate the real answer to this void. I think this may be part of what the Apostle Paul meant when he said in Romans 1:25 that men would deny the attributes of God and would worship His creation. This came with a warning in the ensuing verses as to all the evils that would result when this happens.
So, in The Big Picture, in a world that is seeking a story, any story, to replace the story of God as not only Creator but also as Destroyer and Judge, the answer to the question of ‘who’s in charge of Doomsday?’ is, and always has been, God. We need to stick with that answer, and that story.
In closing, it’s time for the Great Cloud Of Witnesses, the segment of our podcast where we meet and hear the stories of those who have given, and some who are still giving, their lives by faith in the promises of God, and of whom the world was and is not worthy (if you don’t know that reference, please check out Hebrews chapter 11-12 in your Bible). Today’s witness is an un-named Cuban prisoner:
“Sign the statement!” screamed the Cuban officer, forcing a pen into the Christian prisoner’s hand. The written statement in front of the prisoner contained accusations about other Christians. His signature was all the government needed to arrest the others.
“I cannot sign this paper”, the Christian said, calmly looking the officer in the eye.
“Why not?” asked the captain with exaggerated calm, before swearing at the man. “Do you not know how to write your own name?!”
“It is because of the chain, my friend. The chain keeps me from signing this.”
Grabbing the prisoner’s hands roughly, the officer held them in front of his face. “But you are not in chains, you idiot!” he screamed.
“Oh, but I am.” said the Christian. “I am bound by the chains of witnesses, who throughout the centuries have given their lives for Christ. I am yet one more link in this chain, and I will not break it.”
Though he was threatened and roughed up, the prisoner refused to sign.”
Now I’m sure you’ve all noticed, many of the witnesses I’m finding and sharing with you are un-named. Like many of the faithful witnesses talked about in Hebrews, we don’t know their names, only God and their oppressors do. But we do know they are part of the great chain that this Cuban prisoner knew so well, and for his faithfulness, I prayerfully nominate him to the great cloud of witnesses, of whom the world, and certainly his interrogator, is not worthy.