Leviticus and Social Distancing

After writing on the Bible and Social Distancing, I reached out to a friend I consider one of the top authorities in the world on Leviticus and Numbers in the Bible, Dr. Roy Gane. He was gracious enough to share the following thoughts on my blog and the larger context of the issue in the Pentateuch (books of Moses). I highly recommend his terrific commentary: Roy Gane, Leviticus, Numbers. NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2004. The words that follow are his.

The purpose of the quarantines in the Pentateuch was not to prevent the spread of disease per se, although that would have been a side effect in some instances, especially in cases of so-called “leprosy” (a scaly-skin malady that is not the same as modern Hansen’s disease, although perhaps it was an ancient relative of modern leprosy). The stated purpose of the quarantines was to prevent the spread of physical ritual impurity that would defile the camp in which God’s holy sanctuary was located (Num 5:1-4). So any application to the present Covid-19 pandemic (including references to various modes of transmission in Lev 15) would be indirect.

However, some biblical principles that we can derive are as follows:
(1) As you have pointed out, ancient Israelites who were infected were separated from the others, who could go on with life as usual. Today, testing is crucial to accomplish this distinction in order to avoid spreading the problem.

(2) In Lev 13:45, the infected person voluntarily adopts a distinctive appearance (in this case of mourning) and notifies others at a distance of his/her condition so that they will know not to approach. It would be helpful if those currently infected by Covid-19 would take analogous precautions by marking themselves in some way (that could be standardized by the government and/or social media) and telling others to stay away if they (the infected) must go out and about.

(3) Although God punished Miriam with “leprosy” (Num 12; and later Gehazi and King Uzziah), there is no indication in Leviticus 13-14 that those who are infected with the disease have committed a sin for which they deserve punishment (cf. John 9:1-3). Covid-19 is similar in this respect, so those who are infected should not be additionally burdened with a social stigma or discrimination, as if they deserve to suffer or belong to a people group that is blamed with causing the outbreak.

(4) If it proves true, as has been widely reported, that the disease originated in a “wet market” in Wuhan, it is possible that some animal-to-human transmission of viruses in “wet markets” could be prevented by respect for animal life (an implicit topic of legislation in Leviticus and other pentateuchal books) and restriction of human diet to “clean/pure” creatures that the Lord has identified as fit to eat (Lev 11; Deut 14).

(5) A key overall Leviticus principle is to “love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev 19:18). If we are infected or could be infected, pending up-to-date testing, let’s protect others as best we can.

The Bible and Social Distancing


The great dilemma facing the world’s leaders right now is a new disease (COVID-19) with the following features: 1) we have no preventive (vaccine) and no cure, 2) it appears to be highly contagious, 3) it can be spread by people who don’t even know they have it (no symptoms), and 4) it is substantially deadly. We don’t yet know how deadly. Based on today’s statistics, lethality ranges from one percent (Germany) to over ten percent (Italy). Given that so many who test positive are completely without symptoms, it is more likely that the actual range is something like .5% to 5%. Since the deadliness of the common flu is about .1%, these are serious numbers which merit a serious response. To date, the primary response of the world’s leaders (in addition to emergency-level health care for the sick and an all-out drive to find a vaccine and a cure) is social distancing; a substantial portion of the world’s people largely confined to their homes. But this remedy threatens to completely collapse the world’s economy, which would likely have consequences more lethal than the virus itself (suicide, starvation, and increased susceptibility to disease among other consequences).

In light of this situation, I thought it might be helpful to take a closer look at what the Bible has to say about social distancing as a response to contagious disease. There are three main texts: Leviticus 13:45-46, Numbers 5:1-4, and Numbers 12:10-15. I will take them in the order they appear in the Bible. “The leprous person who has the disease shall wear torn clothes and let the hair of his head hang loose, and he shall cover his upper lip and cry out, ‘Unclean, unclean.’ He shall remain unclean as long as he has the disease. He is unclean. He shall live alone. His dwelling shall be outside the camp.” Lev 13:45-46, ESV. Leprosy is today known to be a mildly contagious disease with extremely debilitating consequences. Back then, there was no treatment and no cure. When a person was identified as having the disease, they were to live alone and signal their condition by dress and voice whenever they were in public. In the previous verses of Leviticus 13 (verses 1-44) are elaborate procedures to diagnose the disease along with 7-14-day quarantines during the period when it was unclear if the symptoms were actually leprous or not.

Numbers 5:1-4, ESV: “The LORD spoke to Moses, saying, ‘Command the people of Israel that they put out of the camp everyone who is leprous or has a discharge and everyone who is unclean through contact with the dead. 3 You shall put out both male and female, putting them outside the camp, that they may not defile their camp, in the midst of which I dwell.’ 4 And the people of Israel did so, and put them outside the camp; as the LORD said to Moses, so the people of Israel did.” This text is similar to the previous, without the elaborate procedures for diagnosis and adding a couple of other triggers for isolation (bodily discharge and contact with the dead). The remedy for leprosy was to distance those infected with the disease outside the camp of Israel.
In Numbers 12:10-15, Moses’ sister Miriam is found to have leprosy. Moses prays to God for her healing and Miriam is healed. Nevertheless, in line with the procedures outlined in Leviticus 13:1-44, Miriam is quarantined outside the camp for seven days to verify that the healing had, in fact, taken place. So social distancing is clearly a biblical remedy for contagious disease and those who follow the Bible should have no qualms about observing it under the current situation, even to the extent of avoiding gatherings for worship.

There are, however, two significant differences between the incidents recounted in the Bible and the situation today. First, in the Bible, it was the infected who were isolated socially, not the healthy. By identifying and isolating the diseased the contagion could be controlled. Second, the Israelites were dealing with a disease that had observable, physical symptoms. As we have already noted, with COVID-19 a person can be infected, and infectious, and yet have no symptoms. To some degree that makes social distancing in this case a fool’s errand. In the context of crowded cities, the disease can still be passed on within households and in the context of the search for food and other essential supplies. People who feel completely fine and have no symptoms can still unknowingly spread the disease to the people around them.

What guidance can we take from these texts for the current situation? The “biblical” solution to COVID-19 would seem to involve two things: 1) Find a vaccine and a cure, so the wider population need no longer fear infection from social interaction. But since those remedies are thought to be 12-18 months away at best, what can be done more immediately to stem the tide of the disease without collapsing the world economy? 2) Ramp up testing for COVID-19 to separate the asymptomatic from the healthy. With a contagious disease, diagnosis is critical (Lev 13:1-44). If no one knows who has the disease, social distancing in the biblical sense will not be possible.

There is still the hope that COVID-19 will somehow burn itself out like many similar flus have done in the past. But in the meantime, the “biblical” approach would seem to be, 1) Determine who in fact has the virus and who does not, and 2) Isolate those who are infected so that the rest of the population can go on with their lives and avoid the consequences of a long-lasting global shutdown.

This is a work in progress and there may be flaws in the above that I do not see. But I share this publically for what it is worth in dealing with the present crisis.


Corona Virus Update

The following is an update and expansion of the original blog including some elements of the original and additional biblical evidence.

Since the outbreak of the corona virus pandemic, many people are asking faith-based questions. Is this a judgment of God on the human race? Is this a sign of the End? Does Bible prophecy speak about it? Even if people don’t believe in God or the Bible, they are wondering what their Christian neighbors are thinking about the subject. So I will address what the Bible has to say about contagious diseases and the role they may play as signs of the End in Bible prophecy. Is the current pandemic the Big Event that many have feared?

For starters, let’s all take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of pre-mature deaths, but it still pales in significance to the Spanish Flu of a hundred years ago. That resulted in 50-100 million deaths all around the world, at a time when world population was less than two billion (it is close to eight billion today). And further back in history is the Black Plague, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (1347-1351 AD) at a time when world population was less than 500 million. That is a ratio of one out of every three people in the world, more or less. So while the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what one might call “apocalyptic proportions.”

So what does the Bible have to say about contagious diseases or pandemics? In the older portion of the Bible, the primary language is ancient Hebrew. The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the “Old Testament”. The root word in the Hebrew has the meaning of “destroying,” with an extended meaning of “pestilence” or “plague.” Ironically, this word is not only associated with contagious disease, it is often associated with animals; it is the “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). God was planning to use the threat of pestilence to scare off the Canaanites (locale inhabitants of the land of Canaan), so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the “promised land” (Num 14:12). We know, from current experience, how easily a pandemic can induce panic and irrational behavior.

The most common occurrence of “pestilence” in the Hebrew portion of the Bible was as a consequence of Israel’s unfaithfulness to God. When Israel was unfaithful to God, they lost His protection, with the result that enemies would invade their land and cause destruction. In that context we repeatedly find the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of an ancient city. War drives a people inside the walls of the city, famine follows as the siege continues, and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). The important point for the questions at the beginning, it that contagious disease (Hebrew: dever) is not in these contexts portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jer 27:13; 32:14; 34:17; 38:2). Pandemics don’t come because God is angry with people, they are the natural consequences of human foolishness and rebellion.

The more recent portion of the Bible (the New Testament—written in the common Greek of the Roman world) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. The word is not found in the part of Luke 21 that addresses the end of the world (Luke 21:25-28). A parallel text to Luke 21:11 is Matthew 24:7. There you will find “pestilence” in some Bible versions but not others. The reason is that the Greek manuscripts the translations are based on sometimes include “pestilence” and sometimes don’t. It is likely that “pestilence” is not original with Matthew. But even if it were, Matthew 24:8 does not place this at the End of the world, but as “the beginning of birth pains.” Pestilence was seen by Jesus as something general to the human experience, not something especially associated with the End. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” That derogatory reference is, of course, no clue as to the meaning of COVID-19 today.

There is another Greek word that is often translated as “pestilence.” It is thanatos—a common Greek word for “death.” For whatever reason, it as the usual word chosen in the ancient Greek Old Testament (LLXX) to translate the Hebrew word for contagious disease, dever. So the Greek word for death at the time when the New Testament was written, can carry connotations of “pestilence,” or pandemic. It is used in this way three times in the book of Revelation. In Revelation 2:23, it is used in the context of a specific event that is in the past today. The second reference is found in Revelation 6:8. The rider on the pale horse is given authority over a fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence. Like Matthew 24 and Luke 21, pestilence is predicted to be a general characteristic of human history, which has certainly been the case.

The third reference to thanatos (death/pestilence) is clearly in an end-time context, however. Pestilence is one of the consequences of “Babylon’s” fall just before the second coming of Jesus. This text does not tell us that COVID-19 is a sign of the End, there is not enough information to be that specific. But it does indicate, more than other biblical texts, that pandemic is likely to be a feature of the end-times. There is one other end-time text that could be relevant to our questions, and that is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who have the “mark of the beast.” While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used there.

The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. 1) Pandemic as such is not a “sign of the end.” Since far worse pandemics have occurred in history, it COVID-19 should not be used as an indicator of where we are in history. If the end-times are at hand, other indicators will prove to be more significant that this one. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the End,” neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End. 2) Pandemic is not a direct, active punishment of God, it is a consequence of the human condition that the Bible calls sin and rebellion against God. According to the Bible, God (through Jesus Christ) is the author and sustainer of life (John 1:3-5). But there are forces in the universe that oppose God and create pain and destruction (Job 1:6-12; 2:1-6). To the degree that the word “judgment” is appropriate in a pandemic, it is God allowing the human condition to take its course and reap its consequences.

Is there anything else in the Bible that may be helpful in the current crisis? In the Old Testament contexts, contagious disease was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jer 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is, in fact, social isolation (Num 5:1-4; see also Num 12:10-15 and Lev 13:45-46), the very thing many of us are now experiencing. It is important for a community to place a separation between those who have the disease and those who do not, as far as this is possible. Co-operating with authorities in these matters should not create an issue of conscience for believers, in fact, conscience should encourage co-operation in a crisis like this (Rom 13:1-5).

Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25-26). Could COVID-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist, or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. COVID-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publically stated) as many as two million Americans and tens of millions worldwide. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but it does not seem likely to me (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than 3% right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In Germany, a nation where testing has been much more widespread than most places, the death rate is currently about eight-tenths of one percent, around a quarter of the world rate. In the USA it is currently less than 2%.

My greater concern for the future is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20% or more in the USA if the lockdowns last 6-12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face to face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline of the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and in today’s climate, a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution.

A couple of years from now, it is very possible that the current, global response to COVID-19 will be perceived as an over-reaction. But since we will never know for sure if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. As to when the final events of earth’s history will happen, the words of Jesus remain relevant, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.

Corona Virus and Prophecy

I have been hesitant to speak out on the new corona virus (COVID-19) and its potential implications for prophecy and vice versa. There is so much that we don’t know yet. But with a total lockdown in the state of California and many other places (leaving the house only for exercise and food gathering), people are anxious and want to know if I have any advice.

First of all, take a deep breath and get some perspective. COVID-19 has sadly led to thousands of premature deaths, but it still pales in significance to the Spanish Flu of a hundred years ago. That resulted in 50-100 million deaths all around the world, at a time when world population was less than two billion (it is close to eight billion today). And beyond that is the Black Plague, which is estimated to have killed 75 to 200 million people (1347-1351 AD) at a time when world population was less than 500 million. That is a ratio of one in three, more or less. So while the current situation is very serious, in human terms, it is not yet at the level of what one might call “apocalyptic proportions.”

The Hebrew word for contagious disease or pandemic is dever. It occurs around fifty times in the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament). The root word has the meaning of “destroying” and it came to have the meaning of “pestilence” or “plague,” hence the association with contagious disease, and often associated with animals; “cattle disease” (Exod 9:3). It was how God planned to scare off the Canaanites so Israel wouldn’t have to fight to enter the promised land (Num 14:12). It is was also a consequence of disrespecting the covenant, often associated with war and famine in the famous trio: war, famine and pestilence (Lev 26:25; Jer 24:10; Ezek 14:12-21). The three together portray the siege of a city. War drives a people inside the walls, famine follows and the end-result is contagious disease followed by exile (Lev 26:21-26; Jer 21:6-9; Ezek 7:15). This dever is not portrayed as an active punishment from God, but rather as the consequence of disobedience, which results in a loss of God’s protection (Jer 27:13; 32:24; 34:17; 38:2).

The Greek Bible (New Testament) has less to say about contagious disease. Luke 21:11 associates pestilence (Greek: loimos, loimoi) with earthquakes, famines and heavenly signs that would occur at the time of the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70. Late Greek manuscripts include pestilence in Matthew 24:7, probably because of familiarity with the Lucan wording. In other words, loimos/loimoi is one of the consequences of the siege of Jerusalem by Titus. The word is also used metaphorically in Acts 24:5, as in, “This Paul is such a pest.” The only other text in the New Testament that contains a word often translated “pestilence” is Revelation 6:8. The rider on the pale horse is given authority over a fourth of the earth, to smite with sword, famine, and pestilence (Greek: thanatos—a common word for “death” and the usual translation of dever in the Greek OT). In historicist SDA interpretation, Revelation 6:8 is not a sign of the end but something common to the whole age between the opening of the scroll and the Second Coming. The one end-time text that would seem at all relevant here is Revelation 16:2, which speaks of sores afflicting those who had the mark of the beast. While these sores are serious, the biblical words for contagious disease or pandemic are not used.

The short conclusion of this biblical study is two-fold. Pandemic is neither a “sign of the end” nor a direct, active punishment of God, but it is one of the consequences of sin in the broadest sense. In the OT contexts, it was a condition that could and should be alleviated by human action (Jer 27:13; 38:2). The most practical remedy offered for contagious disease in the Bible is social isolation (Num 5:1-4; see also Num 12:10-15 and Lev 13:45-46), the very thing many of us are now experiencing. To put it plainly, Bible prophecy does not indicate that pandemic is a key element of the “signs of the End,” neither does it rule it out as one of the troubles of the End.
Having said all this, prophecy clearly indicates that panic is one characteristic of the final events (Luke 21:25-26). Could COVID-19 lead to eschatological levels of panic? I am not a prophet, an economist, or a scientist, so take the following with a grain of salt. COVID-19, as we experience it, could get a whole lot worse, killing (in the worst case scenario publically stated) as many as two million Americans. That would put it in Spanish flu territory, but not Black Plague numbers. The greatest concern would not be the current virus, but a mutation of the virus into something even more dangerous. This possibility is something to watch closely, but is not likely (I am open to correction on this from scientific sources, not internet speculation). Viruses tend to decrease in potency over time rather than increase. And due to lack of widespread testing, the death rate is probably much lower than 3% right now, as many people who have COVID-19 don’t even know it. In South Korea, where testing is widespread, it is 0.7%. Current numbers for Germany (another nation ahead of the curve) are 0.3%, one-tenth of the rate reported in China and Italy (75 deaths out of 21,000 reported cases). In the USA, the current rate is about 1.2%.

My greater concern is the economic fallout of social isolation over many months (if that proves necessary). Worst-case estimates are that unemployment could reach 20% or more in the USA if the lockdowns last 6-12 months. This could trigger another Great Depression. Given the panic buying already occurring, the social order in a Facebook, post-Christian world could easily break down, leading to rioting, looting and other consequences. Among the likely consequences would be the end of face to face higher education as we know it, a long-term decline in tourism and international travel, a major decline of the restaurant industry and in–person retail, and a serious increase in perceived anti-Christian persecution in this country. In the words of Jesus, “stay awake, because you don’t know. . . .” Matt 24:42.

If you want my speculation–for what it is worth, and it isn’t much–I think a couple years from now, we will consider the current, global response to COVID-19 an over-reaction. But since we will never know if that is really true, I am glad we are doing what we are doing, just in case. But even if we find ourselves in the Kingdom a couple years from now (whether through death or the Second Coming), no one will complain that they are missing out on all the excitement here below.

Questions and Answers (20:12)

Lou: You referred to the struggle that Romans 7 describes. What is this struggle? When is it? Is it before conversion, or is it after conversion?

Graham: Let me summarize what Paul says there: “The good that I would do, I don’t do; and all the evil that I don’t want to do, is what I do. I delight in the law of God in my inner man, but in my body I feel captive to the law of sin” (based on Romans 7:19-23). People say, “That couldn’t be a converted person.” And yet if he delights in the law of God, he sounds like a converted person. If you are struggling before conversion, if you are struggling during conversion, if you are struggling after conversion, if you are ever struggling, then look to Jesus Christ. It doesn’t really matter. It’s unnecessary to squabble about when the struggle occurs. Struggle is also mentioned in Romans 8, which all interpreters recognize as applying after conversion (Rom 8:18-25). Whenever you are struggling; before, during, or after conversion, be thankful to God for Jesus Christ our Lord.

Lou: Since we are talking about peace, it seems to me that human beings often live with a sense of guilt. Guilty people are surely not at peace with God. What is God’s remedy for guilt?

Graham: What worries so many people about guilt is the fear that goes with it. “I just got caught with my hand in the cookie jar, what is He going to do to me?” There is a lot of fear mixed in there. There is also a loss of dignity and self-worth. The woman taken in adultery felt very guilty and very ashamed. And the first thing Jesus did was to restore her dignity and self-respect. He did that time after time. How can we act with dignity, as people created in God’s image, if we have had our self-respect destroyed? Often, the chronic torture of unnecessary guilt is one of the negative consequences of the legal model.
In the great controversy model, the emphasis is on the truth about God. How does God regard His child who is in trouble? Look at the prodigal son. The father says, “Don’t even finish your speech of repentance. Come home and get a shower and put on the best clothes I can give you. I’ll even give you back your ring of authority” (access to his father’s bank accounts). By so doing the father endeavored to give him back his self-respect. And the son said, “But I am guilty; look what I have done!” And the father said, “Look, I’m willing to forget it if you will.”
Who was the one who wanted to rub the son’s nose in his misdeeds from time to time? The pious older brother, of course. But as far as God is concerned, He’s our physician, He doesn’t want to talk about guilt. He doesn’t even want to dwell long on forgiveness. He says: “Son, you’re My patient; you’ve come home; you trust Me. Let’s not waste any time on the past. Let’s work from here on. I want to make you well. And if you’re depressed about what you’ve done, it’s going to retard your healing. So please forget about it the way I have.” The real remedy for the anguish of guilt is the truth about God. The remedy for guilt is to know what God is like.

Lou: All right. We know what God gave up to have peace in His universe, but I guess I’d like to close with this question, What is it that we have to give up to really have peace?

Graham: There is a sense in which we don’t have to give up a thing. The gospel is about God not about us. Yet, at another level, there are things we have to give up or they will get in the way of what God wants to do for us. We need to co-operate with the Great Physician. So we do have to give up prejudice, bias, and fixed opinions. We do have to give up our unwillingness to listen, a self-satisfied stubbornness that there can be no new ideas. We do have to be willing to investigate the evidence. But in the end, we don’t give up a thing. The great good news about God is His gift to us. And I wonder sometimes how anybody could turn it down.
Think how the Son of God was the most skillful and persuasive teacher of the truth there will ever be, God Himself in human form. And He came to a very pious people who had bought into the Devil’s picture of God. Driven by that understanding of God, they were doing many of the right things, but for the wrong reasons. They were moved by law and by fear. And in most cases, Jesus couldn’t change their minds. But He did change a few minds, the very ones who gave us the marvelous picture of God we find in the New Testament.
Perhaps even today we have “dear idiots” scattered all over the planet, like the “dear idiots” of Galatia, who seemed to have a spell cast over them (Gal 3:1, Phillips). We must realize the Devil is our foe. He does not want us to see the truth. He does not want the Great Physician to heal us. He does not want us to become friends of God. But the good news about God is too good to turn down. It is everything that the old English word “gospel” implies. What good news!

Lou: Someone once said, “The gospel we preach must be the gospel by which our own souls are saved.” As we draw this book to a close, could you summarize your understanding of that gospel one last time?

Graham: For me, the heart of the gospel is this. God is not the kind of person His enemies have made Him out to be: arbitrary, unforgiving and severe. Jesus said, “If you have seen Me, you have seen the Father” (John 14:9). God is just as loving and trustworthy as His Son, just as willing to forgive and to heal. Though infinite in majesty and power, our Creator is an equally gracious person who values nothing higher than the freedom, dignity, and individuality of His intelligent creatures. He desires that their love, their faith, their willingness to listen and obey, may be freely given. He even prefers to regard us not as servants but as friends. This is the truth revealed through all the books of Scripture. This is the everlasting good news that wins the trust and admiration of God’s loyal children throughout the universe.

Questions and Answers (20:11)

Lou: Here’s another question. “God has the power to take away our eternal life. But does He have the right to take away our life on this earth?” I think this question is talking about the first death that you referred to. Why should or would God ever want to interrupt our pursuit of happiness?

Graham: There are two things to consider there. Who determines what God’s rights are? As Sovereign, He’s going to do precisely as He wishes to. We don’t give Him His rights. However, the kind of sovereign He is, He does want His children to see Him as doing what is right. That is a great concern to Him. Does He have a right to intervene? I would say, if God had not intervened, we would have destroyed each other long ago. It isn’t a matter of whether He has a right to interfere with my pursuit of happiness; had He not intervened, there wouldn’t be any of us left to pursue happiness. The consequences of our own choices would long ago have destroyed us. So I’m glad He has intervened. He didn’t do it to deprive us of our freedom; He did it to preserve our freedom. But He has had to take emergency measures to do that.

Lou: This question touches on something you referred to in the first part of the chapter. There are texts (such as Rom 8:34; 1 Tim 2:5; Heb 7:25) which indicate that Christ intercedes with the Father. So this questioner says: “Here are the texts. Christ intercedes for us. Now, in what sense is that true?”

Graham: Well, we need to refer to the questions in Romans: “If God be for us, who can be against us?” Romans 8:31. “Who can bring any accusation?” Romans 8:33-34. But we have sometimes turned that around and made God the one who is against us. We need to remind ourselves who the accuser of the brethren is, the one who accuses them day and night before God (Rev 12:10). Satan is the one who is against us. And Christ does meet his charges through intercession, for the enemy of God is our enemy, too.
There are times, though, where I think God has said: “I have given you priestly intercession, even My Son in between, because I know how scared you are of Me.” And so as an emergency measure He has sometimes spoken of Jesus coming in between. But we need to read John 16:26-27. Really, there is no need for anyone to intercede with the Father, not even the Son, because the Father Himself loves us. So we need to put all those passages together.

Lou: Our problem is making a distinction between Father and Son, isn’t it? It is easy to think of Jesus as more kind and loving than the Father.

Graham: How sad when people come to that conclusion. And yet, if the Father sees us thinking the Son is kinder than He is, He’s not jealous of His Son. He just wants us to get the message. And many of us will arrive in the Kingdom more comfortable with the Son than with the Father. And I keep imagining what it would be like to arrive in the Kingdom and say to the Son, “Thank You for begging the Father not to kill us.” And things like that. And by and by He will say, “Look, it’s time you met My Father.” So He will take us into the Father’s presence and we will stand there, maybe looking at the floor in fear. And the Son will say, “Look a little higher. Look into His face. What do you see?” And we will see a face that is just as kind as the face of the Son. When that time comes don’t say, “Father, thank you for letting the Son persuade You not to kill me.” He wouldn’t be angry about it, but He would know you still need a little work. He will want us to grow up, but He will be patient even then.

Lou: Let’s shift gears with this question: “If God knows what we need, why do we have to pray in order to be provided with our needs?” That touches on a previous chapter in this book (Chapter Fifteen—“Talking to God as a Friend”).

Graham: Yes. God provides us with what we need whether we pray or not (Matt 5:45). That is what is so generous about Him. Does that mean that we should not pray? Of course not. Prayer is “conversation with God as with a friend,” and He really is our friend, so we will talk to Him about these things anyway. After all, prayer is more than just begging Him for today’s groceries.

Lou: That’s right, that isn’t the way we treat our wives or our friends, talking with them only when we need something! Here’s another interesting question: “Should we pray to the Holy Spirit?”

Graham: I think that would be most appropriate. Father, Son and Holy Spirit—all three are co-equally, co-eternally God. However, I think there’s special historical meaning in praying to the Father in the name of the Son. It is the Son who revealed the truth about the Father with the help and inspiration of the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit also helps us, because we don’t know how to pray as we should. He reminds us of God’s whole way of winning us back to the truth. So what I like to do is pray to the Father in the name of the Son, in grateful recognition for what He’s done, but with the help of the Holy Spirit.

Lou: I guess we don’t have to worry about the Holy Spirit getting His feelings hurt.

Graham: The members of the Godhead go out of their way to honor each other.

Questions and Answers (20:10)

Lou: “If God does not punish, then who sends the fire down from heaven on the wicked?” Rev 20:9. You’ve already alluded to that. Also, “Who caused Ananias and Sapphira to fall dead?” Acts 5:1-11.

Graham: I would want to make a difference between two kinds of death. What happened to Ananias and Sapphira is what the Bible calls the first death, and they will be resurrected. Their future, in which resurrection they will arise, is between them and God. But what happened to Ananias and Sapphira is different from this awful death at the end. Now when fire comes down from God and consumes the resurrected wicked (Rev 20:9), God is there, no doubt about it. But as we have discussed before, this “fire” is His life-giving glory which is described in the Bible as having the appearance of fire (Ezek 1:26-27; Dan 7:9-10; Rev 4:5). In fact, if we were among the saved, we would have been living in this life-giving glory for a thousand years, and it won’t have hurt anybody. It’s only if we’re willfully and rebelliously out of harmony with God that this glory is damaging. God in mercy has veiled this life-giving glory for our sake. His so-called “strange act” (Isa 28:21) is when He ceases to veil His life-giving glory. When this earth is no longer a dark place, and His glory fills the earth, all that is out of harmony is consumed. He doesn’t turn His back on this. He’s there. He’s watching His children. It’s His glory. But He’s not torturing His dying children to death. That’s the difference.

Lou: You once told me that we will bask in that glory for all eternity. We will never want it to go out.

Graham: Oh, I like the fact that this is everlasting fire. If the fire is God’s glory, it had better not go out. We will live in this everlasting fire for eternity, but it’s His life-giving glory.

Lou: Someone raised the same basic question about the Flood. “Are you saying God doesn’t kill? What about the Flood?”

Graham: This is a similar question to the one about Ananias and Sapphira. The deaths at the time of the Flood belong to the first death. I see God bringing the Flood as an emergency measure, and a very serious one at that. The Flood was a very risky thing for Him to do, lest we serve Him from fear. And certainly the Flood didn’t win their hearts. The survivors built a tower to escape Him not long after (Gen 11:1-9). But He did it to preserve contact with the human race. Those who died in the Flood died the first death. And all who died in the Flood will be resurrected.

Lou: A related question: “How do we explain where God in the Old Testament told His people again and again to wipe out the enemy? Here are God’s children being instructed by God to do this. How do you reconcile that with a loving God?”

Graham: That was truly an emergency measure. But before He did that, He said to the children of Israel, “When I take you out of Egypt, I’ll send my angel ahead of you. I’ll send hornets ahead of you. I’ll use the forces of nature to remove your enemies one way or the other. Let Me do it” (Exod 23:23-30). But they didn’t trust Him on this, as with so many other things He sought to do for them. And so He stooped and met them where they were and helped them fight. But while He helped them, He still hated the fighting. How do we know? When David wanted to build the temple, God said, “You’re a great man as a warrior, but you’ve been a man of blood (1 Chr 28:3). That’s not My ideal,” and He went on record as not wanting the fighting. He never designed His people to fight their way into Canaan. But in their lack of faith, He helped them fight.

Questions and Answers (20:9)

Lou: What are the redeemed, those who are saved, doing during this thousand-year period? That’s a long period of time.

Graham: I like to remember what Peter said: “With the Lord a thousand years is like a day” (2 Pet 3:8). You could translate that “a millennium is like a day, and a day is like a millennium.” I don’t think we need to worry about the time. I think that a thousand years with the Lord will seem like a day. But there are important things that have to happen during that time. The loyal angels will have had a chance before the Second Coming to meet as a heavenly family and consider candidates for the Kingdom. That way our future neighbors and friends can be satisfied that it’s safe to admit former rebels like us into eternity. But what about us? We’ve not seen the evidence that they examined. I think during the Millennium those who have been adjudged safe to save will have their opportunity to ask questions, to see the evidence, to find out why mother isn’t there. I would find her absence very sad. But God will be fair about it, He will show me the evidence so I can understand.
There’s something else that may need to happen during the Millennium. We will be preparing ourselves to face that awful scene when the wicked die in a fiery moment of destruction. We will have to see that someday. Are we ready to see it and not become afraid of God? Those of us who live to see Christ come, will have become so settled into the truth that we can see the seven last plagues and not become afraid of God. But think of all the babes in the truth who have been saved from the foot of Mount Sinai through the centuries. Think of the thief on the cross. Think of all the others who have not had time and evidence to become confirmed in this.
Everyone must be ready for that awesome day when God says to those inside the New Jerusalem, “Children, you know what’s coming next. Do you want to come out to the wall and watch? Or do you want to hide in the basement somewhere? I’m about to give My rebellious children up, and untold numbers of them are going to die. And you know why I’ve waited so long.” And so we stand, perhaps, and watch our God, as fire comes down from heaven and the glory of Him who is love consumes all that is out of harmony. And we will know that, as the wicked die, God will be crying: “Why will you die? How can I give you up? How can I let you go?” Hosea 11:8. He’s no more angry with them than He was with His Son when He gave Him up in Gethsemane and on Calvary.
When it’s all over, I can see God turning to us and saying, “How awful that was. But children, I have one last question to ask you all. Have I made you afraid? Because if I have, I’ve let it happen too soon, and I would have waited longer.” But hopefully we will all be so settled into the truth that we will be able to draw close and say to God, “It’s all right, there was no other way.” And from then on there will be peace forever, in spite of that awful end. Are we ready to see that and not be made afraid? Because if it makes us afraid, then we’ll serve Him from fear, and the obedience of fear produces the character of a rebel. If any of us serves God out of fear after that, God will still have the seeds of sin in His universe, and He will not have won the war. We would be back where it all began.

Lou: At the end of the book of Revelation there’s that beautiful statement, “God will wipe away all tears from their eyes” (Rev 21:4). It just struck me as you were talking that maybe we will need to wipe the tears even from God’s eyes.

Graham: Oh, I like that thought very much. As His children, wouldn’t that be appropriate? To get a little closer and say, “It’s all right, God. It’s all right.”

Questions and Answers (20:8)

Lou: What about the accusation that God is unforgiving? Consider Adam and Eve. It is their very first offense, and they have to leave their garden home. Why couldn’t God have been the way Jesus said we ought to be, forgiving “seventy times seven”? Matthew 18:21-22. Why couldn’t He have just said, “Well, you’ve made one mistake, that’s your first, we’ll overlook that”?

Graham: If sin were merely breaking the rules, if sin were merely a legal matter, He could have forgiven and let it go. In fact, I believe He did forgive Adam and Eve. He treated them like the father of the prodigal son treated him. The father forgave his son even as he left home. He regarded him with forgiveness even as he wallowed in the pigpen. The problem with a focus only on forgiveness is that sin changes people. Forgiveness does no good in the long run unless one responds. Forgiveness by itself doesn’t heal the damage done by sin. It is not that God is unforgiving, but that, having sinned, we are changed. And what is needed is not so much forgiveness as healing the damage done. So I would say that of course God forgave Adam and Eve. But that was not all that they needed.

Lou: We’re back to that crucial point that you made rather early on; it matters how we understand what went wrong, the sin problem.

Graham: Sin is not so much a legal problem as a real problem. It calls for healing and not just some kind of legal adjustment.

Lou: Back to Satan’s accusation that God is severe. I can hear someone saying, “Isn’t death too severe a punishment for not loving and obeying?”

Graham: If death were a penalty, that would be incredibly severe. But if it’s a consequence, that’s something else entirely. Death tells us that sin is a very serious matter. It changes us. But unfortunately, we often speak about death as an imposed sentence or penalty. That puts God in a very severe light. Death is ultimately a consequence of sin and not a penalty that God imposes on us.

Lou: In the book of Revelation, God is described as resurrecting the wicked at the end of the Millennium. Why does God do this? They are wicked and rebellious. They are lost anyway. Why not just leave them asleep? Isn’t it harsh to bring them back to life only to let them burn up?

Graham: I imagine the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah arising at the end of the Millennium (Rev 20:5), looking around and saying, “Here we go again!” It seems cruel and inhumane to resurrect them, doesn’t it? There has to be a purpose.
The word “millennium” means a thousand years. The Millennium of Revelation begins with the Second Coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the righteous (Rev 20:4-6). At that time Jesus takes the righteous to heaven (John 14:1-3), while the wicked die and/or remain in their graves. At the end of the thousand years is the third coming of Jesus and the resurrection of the wicked.
Why would God resurrect the wicked after all that? What suffering that would cause! How terrible to be in the New Jerusalem and see one’s loved ones outside (Rev 20:7-10). God would only do this if it said something of very great importance that would contribute to our understanding and to the security of the universe. For example, we might wonder why Uncle Bill is not in the Kingdom. Uncle Bill was the one who said, “If you’d just prove it to me, I’d come in.” And you see Uncle Bill out there. He is looking at the New Jerusalem. He sees Christ in His human form at the apex of the city. Here’s all the evidence, plain to see, and Uncle Bill is not moved one bit. In fact, Revelation goes on to say that Satan moves among these rebels who have been resurrected and he deceives them into marching against the New Jerusalem as if to destroy Christ again (Rev 20:8-9). And you will be able to say, “God, your diagnosis was right. More time and more evidence would not have done Uncle Bill any good.” The cause of his death is something much more important than simply imposing a penalty for his refusal to believe. Uncle Bill is simply not safe to save. God shows him all the evidence at the end of the Millennium, and he still does not respond. You’ll weep when you see it, but Uncle Bill will not respond. So these events will be a final demonstration of the character of God and, by contrast, the characters of Satan and all who follow him.

Questions and Answers (20:7)

Lou: I believe I hear you emphasizing that peace comes through knowing the truth about God and knowing that Satan’s charges against God are false. Satan’s charges against God have been summarized in five words that you’ve used again and again: God is accused of being arbitrary, exacting, vengeful, unforgiving, and severe. I’d like to address these five terms one by one.
Why can’t God be arbitrary? Don’t we say that God is sovereign? Didn’t God create the world? Can’t He run it any way He wants to?

Graham: Absolutely, God is sovereign. It reminds me of our earlier discussion regarding Romans 9, the potter and the clay. In the larger, great controversy view, God is definitely sovereign. He created this universe precisely as He wished it to be, and He runs it precisely as He wishes to run it, and He always will. But the question that flows from that is, how does God run the world? Is He arbitrary in His government? No, He values nothing higher than our freedom. If we want to say that God is arbitrary about anything, He’s arbitrary about freedom. He would rather give up everything than give up freedom. That’s how arbitrary He is on that.

Lou: I take it you’re comfortable with the word “sovereign,” as long as His being sovereign still allows us to be free. If God were arbitrary, it would mean we are not free.

Graham: That’s right. God exercises His sovereignty in a way that respects our freedom.

Lou: What about the seventh-day Sabbath? Isn’t it true “because God chose a particular day and that’s all there is to it”?

Graham: It might seem arbitrary on God’s part if all we had of the fourth commandment was, “Remember the Sabbath Day to keep it holy” (Exod 20:8). But we have much more than that. The fourth commandment also refers us back to creation (Exod 20:11). That means the seventh-day Sabbath reminds us of all the evidence about God that we find there. The Sabbath is a reminder that God respects us and values nothing higher than our freedom. It reminds us of the Exodus from Egypt, and also the answers given during crucifixion week. There are so many reasons for the seventh-day Sabbath, it can hardly be regarded as evidence of His arbitrariness. He gave us the Sabbath to remind us of all the evidence that He is not arbitrary. So it seems to me almost perverse to suggest that the Sabbath is an arbitrary test of our obedience. Just the opposite! It’s a monument to His not being arbitrary.

Lou: All right. Let’s look at the accusation that God is exacting. I think of that reference in the book of James where it says, “If you break one of the Commandments you’re guilty of all” (James 2:10). That sounds rather exacting, doesn’t it?

Graham: Yes, until we stop and take a closer look at the Ten Commandments. Until we look at Moses’ summary of the Ten (Deut 6:4-5; Lev 19:18) repeated by Jesus (Matt 22:36-40) and then by Paul (Rom 13:10). To love God with all our heart and our neighbor as ourselves is the fulfilling of the law. It doesn’t matter which one of the Ten you break; to break any one of the Ten is to show that you are not a loving person. So it’s not about God being exacting. It doesn’t matter which commandment you break. The Ten Commandments, as we have them, are really an expansion on the one, which is love (for God and for each other). Love cannot be commanded anyway.

Lou: All right then. What about God being vengeful? I think about the book of Hebrews. “Vengeance is Mine; I will repay” (Heb 10:30). What about the destruction that takes place at the End, for example? I think we’ve had more questions on this than on any other topic.

Graham: Well, since God says that, and He is clearly involved in the destruction at the End and in many incidents throughout Scripture, we have to look at all those stories very carefully. We need to ask ourselves the question, “When God exercises ‘vengeance,’ how does He do it?” As we have covered earlier, it may be in a form of discipline, or it may even result in Him winning people over rather than destroying them. And when it comes to the final events you have mentioned, how the wicked perish in the end is demonstrated by the cross.