Friday, April 10, 2015

John 19:11 – Who is from above? And who guilty of the greater sin?

I went to church last week for Good Friday and Easter Sunday services. I can vaguely recall what the sermon was about for easter, but there was one point made on the passage of John 19 when Jesus was being interrogated by Pontius Pilate which stuck out to me. In verse 11, Jesus answered Pilate after Pilate had told Jesus that he had the power to crucify him and release him that Pilate could have no power against him unless it was given from above, and therefore, the one who delivered him to Pilate has the greater sin. According to the pastor, Jesus was telling Pilate that God’s power was greater than Pilate’s, and that if God had not ordained Pilate to have such power, he would not have been able to boast of it. With regards to who is being referred to as having the greater sin for delivering Jesus to Pilate, the pastor says that this refers to the chief priest, Caiaphas.

I was perplexed by this verse because the sentencing suggest some relation between the power that had been given from above to Pilate, and the one having the greater sin for delivering Jesus to Pilate. It seemed that a literal interpretation might suggest that the one from above is guilty of the greater sin for delivering Jesus to Pilate. I was checking commentaries about this passage during service, but the more devotional sources online expresses similar opinions with what my pastor says, although some commentaries suggest that Judas Iscariot was included in the one referred to as having delivered Jesus and thus being guilty of the greater sin.

I looked up the passage online again today, and found that there were a few forums (see here and here) where some commentators expressed the same perplex about the verse. One answer on the forum referred to the original language of the word ‘from above’, anōthen, as being used in other passages of the bible, and in most instances referring to God or heaven, but it disapproves of the idea that the authority mentioned as being guilty of the greater sin refers to God and that this refers rather to the Chief Priest and the Sanhedrin. However, it doesn’t really explain why the logical structure of the sentence is the way it is. Why is there the word ‘therefore’?

I looked up the word ‘therefore’ in its original language on blue letter bible. The original language is in greek, and is called dia. I am wondering whether ‘therefore’ has a different connotation in its original form. From my brief perusal, it would seem that the word ‘therefore’ is used in a manner largely consistent with how one may understand it in today’s times. But there are some instances in other passage where the way ‘therefore’ is used in other parts of the bible where I find them as perplexing as the John 19:11 verse. For example, Matthew 12:30 – 31 writes “Whoever is not with me is against me, and whoever does not gather with me scatters. Therefore I tell you, every sin and blasphemy will be forgiven people, but the blasphemy against the Spirit will not be forgiven.” I am again perplexed as to how the second part of the passage relates to the first. What relation does blasphemy against the Spirit being unforgivable have to do with whether one is with or against Jesus?

I was hoping that the easier solution to John 19:11 would be to interpret the one from above as mentioned by Jesus as referring to the authority who had delivered Jesus to Pilate. I thought it would make sense if it was Caiaphas who had given authority to Pilate to put Jesus to death, and is therefore guilty of the greater sin for being the principal of the decision. But in light of the argument that ‘from above’ in its original language has largely been used to refer to God or heaven, I don’t think this interpretation is as viable as I would had first thought.

If the correct interpretation to be taken is that the one from above refers to God, and the one who delivered Jesus to Pilate and is guilty of the greater sin is the Chief Priest, perhaps a way to explain the logical connection would be that God has given the right to Pilate to put Jesus to death, but this is not so for the Chief Priest, and therefore, the Chief Priest is guilty of a greater sin since his exercise of authority to crucify Jesus is not intended by God, whilst that of Pontius Pilate is.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Lee Kuan Yew

Today brings about the passing away of Singapore’s first Prime Minister and Founding Father, Lee Kuan Yew. I learnt about this news while on my way to school in the morning, and had turned on the facebook application on my phone to see people sharing news on the matter.

It certainly is a momentous event in Singapore, and a ubiquitous conversation topic amongst people from all circles of Singapore society for the day. For many people in Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew cuts a larger-than-life figure that is almost intertwined with the core of Singapore identity. For supporters, Lee Kuan Yew was chiefly responsible for the economic success and well-rounded development of modern Singapore society, whilst for detractors, he was an authoritarian whose heavy-handed methods suppressed democratic ideals and civil liberties. I know of a handful of people around me who fall into one camp or the other, though often, I am unsure about the reasons for either their support or hatred. I would like to be objective, but this is certainly not an easy task. I just think that credit should be given where they are due, and criticisms levied for where they are justified.

The only time I have come across Lee Kuan Yew in person was when I was walking through the Botanic gardens after school. That was some time ago last year in October I think. Lee Kuan Yew was being driven in a golf cart within the park, with two bodyguards sitting at the back of the cart. I was caught up with excitement with the sighting, and turned to an unacquainted schoolmate walking behind me to exclaim in as calm a manner possible that the person in the cart upfront was Lee Kuan Yew. But the cart moved quickly, and it wasn’t long before it had moved into another section of the park out of sight, so the schoolmate whom I had exclaimed to didn’t get to see it.

I guess a part of me was in awe, another somewhat intimidated, and yet another eager enough that I just might have called out “Hey! Uncle Harry! Take a photo with me!” But that would have been downright awkward and inappropriate given the formidable figure Lee Kuan Yew is. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Salvation of the unevangelised : inclusivism, monolism, and universalism

I came across an old email featuring a discussion my cell group in the varsity Christian fellowship had a few years ago. It was about the topic on the salvation of the unevangelised. A fellow cell group member had shared an article with us giving an answer to the issue. In that article, the writer, who goes by the name Craig Bluemel, talks about how the passage in Roman 2:14-15 allows for those who do not know the gospel to be saved by living to the precepts of God’s ‘Law’. According to Craig Bluemel, this ‘Law’ is summed up with the saying ‘Ye shall love your neighbor as yourself’. Craig Bluemel then goes on to talk about how knowledge of such a law is inherent even in those who have never heard the gospel, such the indigenous people whom the missionaries visited, who “instead of finding ‘savages’ or those still practicing cannibalism in remote parts of the world, to their amazement, they find people with a sweet, gentle, and even childlike nature, who also possess a strong faith in the ‘Creator.’” Craig Bluemel writes that Jesus can bring these people into oneness with the Father as sons and daughters of the Most High, and that once they have made a heart confession of Jesus, they can partake in the path of the glories of salvation found only.

I shared a Q and A article by the Christian apologist William Lane Craig with my group where he talks about the basis for his subscription to the idea of Molinism when it comes to salvation of the unevangelised. Molinism speaks about how God has arranged for those whom he knows would be receptive to the gospel to be placed in parts of the world where they would be exposed to the gospel. The corollary to this idea of Molinism is that God has placed those who are not receptive to the gospel within parts of the world where they are not exposed to the gospel. The reason why William Lane Craig subscribes to Molinism is because he thinks it would be unfair if God sends to hell those who would have believed in the gospel, but did not because they were not exposed to it, and also failed to believe in God based on general revelation according to Romans 1:18 which states that God is apparent from creation and therefore, there is no excuse not to believe in him.

I have some thoughts about these two ideas regarding salvation of the unevangelised. With regards to Craig Blumenthal, I wonder whether his idea that those who did not receive the gospel can be saved through following the ‘Law’ is adequate. For one, it appears to me that this creates the problem whereby those who did not receive the gospel are held to a higher standard in that they have to fulfill the ‘Law’ before they can obtain salvation, rather than simply by believing in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior. I don’t think following the ‘Law’ by simply loving your neighbor as yourself is as easy as what it would appear to be. According to mainstream Christian thoughts, it is precisely because of humanity’s inadequacy in following the ‘Law’ which is the reason that God provided Jesus as the means for salvation. So I really am not too sure whether it is so easy a solution to the problem of salvation of the unevangelised for Craig Bluementhal to say that a lot of these people intuitively followed the ‘Law’ and are thereby saved.

And with regards to William Lane Craig’s Molinism, I also wonder how adequate it is. For one, I think it doesn’t quite get rid of the notion of unfairness that William Lane Craig is concerned with regarding God sending unevangelised people to hell, even if they should have believed if they had been exposed to the gospel. I mean, how can God be justified in sending these people to hell on the basis that they would never have believed even if they had been exposed to the gospel? That seems to me to be the same as if a judge would send someone to be punished for a crime which he didn’t commit on the basis that he would have committed it given a different circumstance. Secondly, it would appear to me that Romans 1:18 is saying that there is no excuse for someone not to believe in God based on general revelation alone, even if he would have believed if he had been exposed to the gospel. Taken literally, it is saying that God is just in sending to hell those who are unevangelised and did not believe based on this general revelation alone. Nevertheless, I personally do think that this is quite a harsh outcome and can agree with Craig that this seems unfair.

Honestly, I have been toying with the idea of Christian universalism when it comes to the issue of salvation. If one wants to talk about fairness, it would seem to me that the fairest outcome is for everyone, whether believers or non-believers, to be saved into heaven. No one deserves hell I think, except for really wicked or evil people. But I realize that this idea doesn’t square off with mainstream Christian beliefs or explicit texts of the bible. I am just attracted to this idea based on my thoughts of what would be fair.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

Meeting with Mormons – a reflection of personal attitude to faith

I had a chat with some Mormons whom I encountered while walking through the Botanic Gardens a few months ago. The two Mormon guys said that they were from America, in particular, the state of Utah. I have read up a little about Mormonism in the past, and occasionally see these caucasian Mormon missionaries in public places, but this was the first time that they had approached me. I know that within mainstream Christianity, most people regard Mormonism as a cult and not part of Christianity. Nevertheless, I decided to listen to what the two Mormon guys had to say.

The introduction was fairly uncontroversial, with talks about believe in Jesus Christ and his death on the cross for salvation of sins. Then comes the clutch, where one of the Mormons ask whether I would like to have a closer and more personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This, even though I had told them that I was already Christian and believe in Jesus Christ. What came next was talks about how a prophet in America named Joseph Smith established the true church of God, with the sole authority to administer forgiveness of sins on earth. I asked the Mormons why they regard Joseph Smith as speaking the truth. They described the account of Joseph Smith and his encounter with God in his prayers in which he asked which is the true church of God on earth, with God replying him that none of the churches on earth is true. I probed them further about why they should believe whatever Joseph Smith says. They came to a concluding remark that this is something which one can confirm by asking God, and cite James 1:5 on how one can receive wisdom by asking God.

I suppose I kind of expected the answers that they had to give. And I doubt that I would be able to give any conclusive rebuttal to whatever they are saying. All I can hope to do is to draw out doubts.

As I recount my encounter with the Mormons, I also reflect about my Christian faith. How far is Christianity similar or different to Mormonism? Is there a double standard in the way in which I express skepticism about Mormonism as compared to with Christianity? I am put off by the Mormon’s claim of exclusivity to have the sole authority of God on earth as a church, but I figure that the exclusivity of Christianity in proclaiming a belief in Jesus as the sole means to salvation could similarly be off-putting to people of other religions. The Mormon’s prod to take a step of faith to believing would also be similar to how Christians would prod a nonbeliever. Also if you should ask for a sign as proof, the Mormon would assert that faith is believing what you cannot see, and quite a number of Christian would also use that as a reply should a nonbeliever ask them for a sign. In likewise fashion, a Mormon would instruct a non-Mormon to seek wisdom from the Holy Spirit or God to know the truth, as would quite a number of Christians to a non-believer.

I wonder then what would be the superiority of mainstream Christianity over Mormonism. I suppose a Christian may argue that there is more credentials and testimonial witnesses to the historical account of Jesus and his claims than for the claims of Joseph Smith. I also suppose that a Christian may argue that Jesus did signs and miracles in his time on earth to prove his authority as God, but I suppose a Mormon may claim likewise about Joseph Smith. Sometimes though, I wonder how far signs and miracles are conclusive of a person’s divinity or divine authority. Can’t Satan and demons do wonders and miracles as well? Some Christians may very well charge a nonbeliever for blasphemy against the Holy Spirit for questioning whether the signs and miracles of Jesus are that of God. But I suppose a Mormon can very well lay the same charge on someone who questions the works or miracles of Joseph Smith.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Law IV 2015

I watched the Law IV concert on Saturday last week. The Law IV concert is an annual concert produced by the graduating batch of the law cohort at the National University of Singapore. I would have been in this year’s graduating batch if I had not taken my medical leave of absence, so I do know recognize most of the cast for the concert production. I wasn’t participating as part of the cast for the concert, but I did help out a little in the sponsorship team. This theme for this year’s Law IV concert is in commemoration of Singapore’s jubilee 50th year of independence.

The timeline of the story is set in the era of the 1960s or 1970s. The main plot revolves around the implementing of the suitability certificate for university admission by the government in order to deter communist influences within the university. There are some information about the suitability certificate on the Law IV production website here. The suitability certificate was introduced by the British pre-independence, but was kept by the local government until the late 1970’s. In the fictional account portrayed in the concert, a boy named Ah Seng was unable to get into university because of the communist background of his parents. He comes from a humble background, supported by his sister, Ah Mui, who runs a food stall at Great World City selling the local noodle dish, Mee Pok. Their parents were either detained, or deported by the government, or had already died.

A student at the university named Ah Hock, decided to organize a peaceful protest in the school campus. Ah Hock is a capable and popular guy in campus who had secured a scholarship to study in Singapore from Malaysia. He was also the President of the student committee. The protest was indeed a historical incident, and took place at the upper quad, which is part of the current law faculty which I am now studying at. Ah Hock was also in love with the Ah Mui, the sister of Ah Seng. I am not sure how they initially encountered each other because I was 20 minutes late for the concert, , but I presume that they must have met when Ah Hock ordered from Ah Mui’s Mee Pok stall. Anyway, Ah Seng decided to join in the protest organized by Ah Hock. The protest was sabotaged by another student named Richard who called in the police alleging the protest was organized by communists. Richard came from an affluent background, whose family owned the Great World City. He was particularly jealous of Ah Hock for being more popular than he was, and thereby sought to ruin him by calling in the police at the protest. He was also, in what would seem rather unlikely, best friend with Ah Seng, whom he was a childhood friend with. Because of the clampdown on the protest by the police, Ah Seng was caught by the police and detained in prison. Richard was remorse about his act, and offered evidence about his false allegation to the police, and Ah Seng was released.

Ah Hock’s scholarship was thereafter revoked for the protest he organized. He was not able to say goodbye to Ah Mui because she wasn’t around at her stall when he came by, and he thought she was angry at him for including her brother Ah Seng in the protest. The epilogue of the story shows Ah Seng helping out her sister with the Mee Pok business, which had expanded and become very successful. A radio announcement was heard overhead announcing the end of the suitability certificate policy. When asked by the friendly neighboring Malay stallholder whether he intends to go back to study now since the end of the suitability certificate, Ah Seng replied that his priority is with his fledging Mee Pok business. Throughout the scene, an unidentified person sat at a stall table with his face covered by the newspaper he was reading. When Ah Mui went up to the person to ask for orders, the person slowly lowers the newspaper, revealing that it is Ah Hock, who casually replied for a bowl of Mee Pok.

During the credit stage of the concert, Professor Tommy Koh, who was in the audience was invited up by the producer of the concert to speak. Professor Tommy Koh, who was then dean of the law faculty, had personally advised the student organizers of the protest to avoid confrontation with the authorities and confine the protest to the school campus. In the actual historical event, the police did not clampdown on the protest, but the authorities threatened to do so if the protest took place in the public. According to Professor Tommy Koh, some prominent Singaporeans, such as Kishore Mahbubani, current dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, was part of the protest against the suitability certificate. In Professor Tommy Koh’s concluding remarks, he thanked the concert producers for aptly portraying the dark side of Singapore history along with its happier side for this jubilee year concert.

I wonder whether the suitability certificate was really a necessary policy, or whether it was too draconian. I wouldn’t want to be too critical of it, especially since communism was deemed to be a particular threat then. But it would seem harsh to me if people like Ah Seng could not get into university because his parents had communist affiliations. I would think that the purpose of the suitability certificate would be to deter admission of students who had strong communist affiliations themselves. So I don’t think it would be fair to simply characterize the suitability certificate as an infringement on academic freedom or freedom of speech. There are probably national security at stake as well, considering that communist students from other schools had created public disorder by starting riots against the government.


Saturday, February 7, 2015

Does God heal to a limited extent?

I have been suffering from a tension headache for about 2 and a half years now. I honestly wish for my tension headache to completely go away, and pray often for this request. Yet, it would seem like my prayers are inefficacious, given its persistence despite 2 and a half years of waiting. That said, I can’t deny that its severity has alleviated quite substantially from its beginning, and thus do not want to discount the possibility of God’s intervention in my situation. The question which puzzles me though, if indeed God is responsible for the alleviation of my tension headache, is why God doesn’t go the whole mile and relieve me completely of tension headache? Why just the half-mile, whereby vestiges of my tension headache lingers? Would it be valid for me to think that there is no God in my healing, which is more to be credited to the natural healing capabilities of the body over the casual elapse of time?

I just don’t want to be presumptuous either way, whether this be presuming God’s benign intervention, or his absolute apathy. But given the persistence of my tension headache, albeit in its alleviated form, my reasoning seems more inclined towards attributing my healing process to impersonal healing capacity of the body, rather than towards God. Unless, it can be thought of that God heals, but only to an extent and not completely. I am just unable to understand the reason though why God would heal in such a limited form, rather than exercise his powers to its ultimate effect of complete healing. All this said, I can’t disprove either that God would heal, but only to a limited extent. But I am more inclined to believe that if God heals, he would heal completely and not in such half-baked measures.

Friday, January 30, 2015

Confessions by Tetsuya Nakashima, and thoughts on the inadequate juvenile laws of Japan

I was rewatching snippets of a Japanese movie that I had watched about 5 years ago when it was first released in cinemas. The movie is titled Confessions directed by Tetsuya Nakashima. I was interested in watching the film because it was nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film at the 83rd Academy Awards. The movie is about this strange plot of a junior high school teacher whose daughter was killed by two of her students, and who sought revenge against those students of hers. The two students of hers were not punished for their crimes because under a certain constitutional provision in Japan, juveniles were protected from being punished under criminal laws for murder. One of the student who killed the teacher’s daughter is a psychopath genius who knows he can get away with murder under those laws and therefore deliberately killed the teacher’s daughter for the fun of it. The two students were ostracized by their classmates for their crimes, and even physically assaulted by some of the male classmates. One of them turned insane from the torment by his classmates. A girl classmate sympathized with the other murderer boy, and sought to befriend him. There was even some romance between the two.  She sought to understand his motivations, which was to impress his estranged scientist mother who had always held high expectations of him for intellectual achievement when he was a child. The boy wanted to attract the attention of his mother by doing something newsworthy, even if this amounted to killing someone.

However, the girl herself was killed by this psychopathic boy as well. The boy then decides that he would next kill himself and his schoolmates by blowing up a bomb in the school assembly while he is due to give a speech for being the top student. However, the bomb he had planted failed to go off when he pressed a remote detonator at the end of his speech. He received a call from the teacher whose daughter he had killed. She tells him that she had kept tabs on him, and was aware of his plans. She had defused the bomb and placed it into a box which the boy had kept his various scientific inventions. The boy had intended to take the box containing these items to his mother at her workplace at a research institute upon learning the location of the workplace of his mother. The teacher had actually imposture as the boy’s mother over the internet to inform the boy of the locations of his mother’s workplace. She kept track of the videos uploaded by the boy describing his intentions to blow up the school so as to impress his mother. The teacher told the boy over the phone that she saw the boy taking the box containing the bomb to the mother’s workplace at a time when she wasn’t around, which he angrily threw to the ground and left in anguish when he was told by a fellow staff that his mother was on a honeymoon with a new lover. By now, the boy was in tears at the realization that he could have accidentally killed his mother with his own bomb. The film did an artistic reverse slow-motion take of the blowing up of the workplace of the mother, with a scene showing the mother sitting at her desk and looking at a newspaper cut-out containing a write-up on a scientific prize award won by her son, a gentle tear strolling down one of her eyes, before the bomb blew up on her. The boy collapsed on the floor of the school hall in utter dejection, much to the bewildered and frightened stares of his school mates. The teacher, with the phone still beside her ears, walked up slowly to where the boy was at the scene. The last words of hers to him before the end of the film was “just messing around with you.”

I do like the aestheticism of the film, even though it is quite macabre in nature. However, I struggle to understand what the moral of the story is. All throughout the viewing of the film, I couldn’t find myself having any love for the villain of the show, the psychopathic boy, who killed with impunity and without remorse. Even the girl character who had sought to befriend him in her own endeavor to find out more about what she believes to be a misunderstood character was herself killed. I was also wondering to myself about whether the film’s portrayal of the way the law works in Japan regarding juveniles is true. For one, it seems like the boy and his friend who killed the teacher’s daughter were still able to walk freely in society and attend school as per normal without any form of detention. If it were Singapore, I think the authorities would have had them detained up in a boys’ home, even if they are not charged with murder punishable by the death penalty. But perhaps, Japan’s juvenile laws is based on the assumption that a child below a certain age can never form the requisite intention to murder, and therefore should not be punished in any way for killing someone. My gripe is how much of a devil incarnate the boy is in having a knowledge of this law, and seeking to exploit it to kill innocent people for his own amusement. While the teacher sought to teach a boy a lesson by placing the bomb into a box which was to be sent by the boy to his mother, I can only assume that she did not carry out her plan in the end. Perhaps the ending part where the teacher tells the boy that she was just messing around with him is just a cheap plot twist to add to the aesthetic nature of the film, or perhaps, it can be seen as the magnanimity of the teacher that instead of devastating the boy by actually killing his mother, she sought to teach the boy the importance of life by making the boy realize that as much as he values the life of his mother, he should value the life of others around him as well. I really am not too sure about the point of the ending, but from the way the film had portrayed the boy throughout the film, I don’t think that there is any likelihood of redeeming the boy from his sheer evilness. He seems more likely to find another way to effect his plan to commit mass murder than to change his ways. If it is true that juveniles like him bent on killing people can walk around freely in Japan, I think it is an indictment of the way the law works in Japan, and there should be reforms to ensure that even children at that age are placed in detention so as not to endanger the lives of others in society.

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