How can Christians respond to some of the toughest questions today related to evil, hell, unanswered prayer, the unevangelized and more? In this interview, Sean and Scott talk with New Testament scholar Craig Blomberg about his latest book Can We Still Believe in God? Dr. Blomberg uniquely addresses these questions from within his training as a New Testament scholar, and thus offers some fresh insights.
About our Guest
Dr. Craig Blomberg is a distinguished professor of New Testament at Denver Seminary. He has written or edited numerous books including Can We Still Believe in the Bible? And The Historical Reliability of the New Testament.
Scott Rae: Welcome to the podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. I'm your host, Scott Rae, Dean of Faculty and Professor of Christian Ethics at Talbot School of Theology here at Biola University.
Sean McDowell: And I'm your co-host Sean McDowell, Professor of Apologetics at Talbot School of Theology, Biola University.
Scott Rae: We're here today with our good friend and colleague at Denver Seminary, Dr. Craig Blomberg, who is distinguished Professor of New Testament at Denver and Craig you've been there 30 plus years, right?
Craig Blomberg: It's true.
Scott Rae: That's amazing. Quite a tenure. And you've got a brand new book out entitled, Can we still believe in God? Subtitle, answering 10 contemporary challenges to Christianity. Craig's a New Testament specialist, but tackles in this book areas that are outside of New Testament, but yet you bring the same kind of insight to these questions that you do to matters of New Testament scholarship.
Scott Rae: So welcome, glad to have you with us. We so appreciate your book on this, just the wide variety of subjects. I'm sort of curious to know, to start out with, what motivated you to write this, because this is not sort of your typical New Testament scholarship that you've been involved in and how did you pick the subjects, the 10 contemporary challenges, how did you pick those out and choose to focus on those?
Craig Blomberg: Yes, thank you. Well, it was about five years ago and a little time I spent in the blog world was still enough for me to realize that I was seeing a lot of the same reasons for skepticism over and over again. And thinking that there've been a lot of good books and articles written on these topics, but they tend to come from professional apologists or philosophers, occasionally, maybe an Old Testament professor, certainly theologians, but I couldn't think of a single book in recent memory by a New Testament scholar that was addressing them.
Craig Blomberg: And I kept thinking about passages that I thought were very relevant, but that have seemed to be underutilized in these conversations. And so, I experimented by unscientifically surveying a couple dozen websites and figuring out what I kept seeing and found about 10 topics that aren't identical to probably what the top 10 might be today, although a lot of them would be the same. But you got to make decisions at a certain time and then see if anybody wants to support a book that you're thinking of writing. And I did and Baker Book House jumped at it. It's under their imprint, Brazos and behold, here's the book.
Scott Rae: So here are the questions. Some of the topics, there's a chapter on the problem of evil, there's a chapter on hell. There is a chapter on slavery, gender and same same-sex relations, chapter on miracles, a chapter on the violence in the Bible, prayer and predestination. And then one that I wasn't expecting, it was the last one, on the alleged undesirability of the Christian life. We'll get into that one a little bit more, I think in a bit, but Sean, which one of those do you want to start with?
Sean McDowell: Well, let's start with the classic question that is a timeless question, the problem of evil and suffering. And I really enjoyed this chapter, because I teach a class in our apologetics program here on evil and suffering, and I approach it as an apologist, but you uniquely look at this issue through the lens of the New Testament, so maybe unpack an insight that would help us from the angle in which you're coming to address this challenge.
Craig Blomberg: Sure. There is a passage in 2 Peter 3 that has always caught my attention, particularly verses eight and nine, which read, "But do not forget this one thing dear friends. With the Lord a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day. The Lord is not slow in keeping His promise, as some understand slowness. Instead, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance."
Craig Blomberg: Part of this is a quotation or at least an excerpt from a Psalm 90:4 were already in Old Testament times, people wrestled with the issue of if God wants to and can bring an end to suffering, why doesn't He? Why doesn't He do it quickly? And the emphasis of the response seems to be God's timing is not our timing. And in the span of eternity, what He considers quick, at times seems very long and drawn out for us. But He will bring an end to suffering and evil. When He does, though, it will be in conjunction with the day of the Lord, which we now understand to include the return of Christ.
Craig Blomberg: And at that point, there will no longer be any more chance for anyone to become a believer. And so, the line that really strikes me there in the second half of verse nine, instead He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. Jesus will return. God will make all things right. But in doing that, He has to destroy all evil, including the evil that's in people, which means people are either condemned or they're purified and resurrected and glorified. And that's not going to be a world that's similar to ours. So while it's like our current world, here are your marching orders, help as many people as possible not to perish
Sean McDowell: As a followup to that, let me ask you a question. You share in the chapter about a story from John 5 and then a story of a healing in John 9. And I think you know where I'm going with this, so I'm going to let you run with it and explain the significance of these two passages as it relates to the New Testament's perspective on evil and suffering.
Craig Blomberg: Well, there certainly are a lot of people who take one of two opposite ends or extremes on a spectrum of opinion. And one is to say, the day of miracles is gone. The day of spectacular, sometimes we call it charismatic gifts, is gone and therefore the kind of miracles of healing that Jesus worked throughout His ministry and certainly in John 5 and John 9, both involving important pools of water in Jerusalem, the pool of Bethesda and then the pool of Siloam, we just can't expect that to happen today. Whereas other people, by if you just have enough faith or obedience or some combination thereof, they'll guarantee you that God will work a miracle, including miracles of healing.
Craig Blomberg: And I sometimes encourage students to try to put themselves in the position of the 12 disciples, coming along, John 5, we learned that the pool of Bethesda is surrounded by people wanting physical healing of one kind or another and Jesus picks out one. Interesting, He doesn't try to heal everybody. Sometimes people make the erroneous claim that Jesus healed every sick person He came into contact with. Well, here He picked out one. And at the end of the story in John 5:14, Jesus finds the man He heals at the temple and says to him, "See you are well again, stop sinning or something worse may happen to you." So apparently, for that individual at least, his own personal sin had something to do with the fact that he had been lame or crippled for a significant period of time. Now imagine the disciples, a later trip to Jerusalem in chapter nine and they're traveling, they're walking. And as he went along, Jesus saw a man blind from birth. So here's a problem that the man can't have sinned, at least since he was born in order to cause.
Craig Blomberg: But the disciples are thinking along the same lines as what they thought they learned from the previous incident and so they say, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents that he was born blind?" And in good multiple choice university and seminary fashion, Jesus says neither A nor B, neither of the above, neither this man or his parents. It wasn't something that the fetus did in utero. It wasn't some generational sin being visited from the parents, but so that the works of God might be displayed in him. It's not one size fits all.
Craig Blomberg: And so, we have to be open to the fact that some suffering is a direct result of one person or a group of people's sins. Others are not in the least, other than the general fact that we live in a fallen world and human fallenness, according to Genesis 3, has affected all of creation and so, evil happens. Just an amazing diversity, so true to life, but it doesn't fit many people's one size fits all stereotypes.
Scott Rae: Craig, let's move to a different topic that you write on. The second one you address after the problem of evil is the issue of hell. And there's a couple of things that I'm interested in, in this. One is, you tackle, I think, the fairly common response that I suspect you've encountered in the blogosphere that it's just simply unfair for the unbelieving little old lady who never hurt anyone and tyrants like Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot and others, to have the same fate. So how would you respond to that? And then I'm also interested to hear some of what you think the New Testament has to say about the destiny of those who have never heard the Gospel.
Craig Blomberg: Well, here a passage that I almost never see referenced in conversations is Luke 12:47-48 at the end of one of Jesus' parables about a faithful and an unfaithful servant. And at the end, Jesus says, "The servant who knows the master's will and does not get ready or does not do what the master wants, will be beaten with many blows. But the one who does not know and does things deserving punishment will be beaten with few blows. From everyone that's been given much, much will be demanded. And from the one who has been entrusted with much, much more will be asked." So the short answer to the question of, do all people in hell suffer equally, I think, is no, not in the least. Jesus doesn't say that some of them are let off the hook altogether, but in the imagery of the parable, some are struck just a little bit and others a lot, which makes sense if you realize that throughout the New Testament, for that matter throughout the Old Testament, judgment is said to be by works.
Craig Blomberg: Salvation is by grace, but judgment is by works and everybody's works differ radically. Some people really are a whole lot more evil than others. In terms of those who've never had a chance to respond to a credible presentation of the Gospel. I go back to the conversation I had about 40 years ago when I was a graduate student. And one of my classmates, also doing a PhD in New Testament, was from Ghana. And he was already a middle-aged man at that time. So he would have grown up in the forties and remembers, and remembered, he's with the Lord now. But he told me the story of how he was a little boy when some Western missionaries came to his village, a largely animus village, and it was one of those situations that you read about and that missionaries dream about where there was quite a significant response from the villagers to the preaching of the Word.
Craig Blomberg: And he was taken with the account of what God has done for us that we couldn't do for ourselves and he asked the missionary a very sincere question. He said, "I am my father's son. My father passed away a year or two ago. If he were here, I have no doubt that he would be among those of us who are accepting your message. Where is he today?" Well, there's the question, the response the missionaries maybe don't want to be confronted with.
Craig Blomberg: But he said that they turned to Romans 2, where Paul says in verse 14, when the gentiles who do not have the law do by nature things required of the law, they are a law for themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the requirements of the law, this is verse 15 now, are written on their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times, even defending them. That has often been summed up or paraphrased with the saying, which apparently these missionaries gave to this boy that God will judge people on the basis of the light they have received. And they did not promise him, "We know that your dad's with Jesus." But they said, "There's at least good reason to hope for that."
Craig Blomberg: And what's fascinating about that is that it took place in the 1940s, which is well into the AD era of world history. And so, I've often wondered, I don't claim to be able to quote chapter and verse, but I just raised the question. Should we think of the moment or the time in a person or community's life when they first hear a presentation of the genuine Gospel as the time when BC shifts to AD for them? And certainly we don't treat pre-Christian Jews as 100% lost and yet not one of them ever heard the name of Jesus. They had some sense of Him, of a coming Messiah, just as other cultures at times have had traditions about a coming age of liberation. But it's an interesting question. It makes sense to me, it led this boy to become a believer and eventually grow up and have quite an effective ministry in Africa.
Sean McDowell: Well, I think it's super interesting and I've read, I don't know how many hundreds, of apologetics books, but there are a few times in this book I paused and was like, "You know what? I hadn't quite thought of that." And I appreciate you said, "We don't know this for sure. We're making an educated guess based on God's character and the Scriptures." But another one you pointed out was about near death experiences and the possibility that God may reveal Himself to people right before they die. Can you explain what you mean by that?
Craig Blomberg: Well, a lot of people have tried to deal with the unevangelized by saying, "Maybe there'll be a second chance after death. Maybe if they haven't been really bad people, they go to purgatory, but then they pay for their sins and then they get to go to heaven," in sort of a classic traditional Catholic belief. But are there explanations that are consistent with Hebrews 9, it's appointed to a person to die once and then comes judgment?
Craig Blomberg: And in our era of amazing medicine and surgery and the ability to save lives, there are plenty of people, I know several personally, who are as trustworthy as anybody I've met, and certainly read very credible and believable stories from others who have flat lined on the operating table and then been brought back to consciousness, sometimes after quite a significant period of time when the doctors really thought they'd lost them, and they report having met Jesus or met an angel or seen a beautiful light filled place with glorious looking people that they couldn't identify or something that turned their spiritual lives around. Perhaps they even had conversations in this visionary like time.
Craig Blomberg: But then in one way or another and sometimes with the sense of it's not your time yet, being brought back, as it were, to this world, but serving Jesus afterwards, sometimes not having been believers, sometimes having been nominal believers, but having their lives transformed by that experience. If even a few of those stories represent a genuine experience with the Lord, then the interesting question is, how many other people today and throughout history may Christ have revealed Himself to in similar fashion?
Craig Blomberg: But because we don't have modern technology everywhere and until today, we didn't have today's technology at all, those people then went on to actually die and not be able to be brought back to life at all and tell us about their experiences. I have had good friends just agonize over the death of a parent or a child or a brother or sister, who, as far as they knew, had never even come close to making a profession of faith. I think of one guy who just basically said, "Can you give me any kind of hope that's biblical?" Because all he had ever heard was if you die like that, you're in hell and it's the worst possible thing. And I said, "Well, I can't give you hope for this individual, because I know something about him that you don't know, but here, let me tell you what I have just recounted to you." And he said, "That's enough. I don't need more than that. That gives me hope."
Scott Rae: Craig, let's move to another topic that you pick up here. So, we've moved from the problem of evil to the issue of hell and what to do about people who've never heard. What about slavery? How do we understand the New Testament when it speaks to slavery either directly or indirectly? And I think in particular, looking at this from a setting that we're in today, post abolition of slavery in the United States, why do you think that the New Testament never called directly for the abolition of slavery?
Craig Blomberg: It's a question, I struggle to come up with a good analogy, but it's a question that might be something like people in a couple thousand years researching the 21st century and saying, "Why didn't those people back then ever think of moving into a dimension 548 of reality and creating utopia?" And we're going, "Dimension 500? What are you talking about?"
Craig Blomberg: I use that example, because I'm trying to think of something that would have just been almost unimaginable or incomprehensible. There had been a handful of slave revolts in the Greek and Roman world and every one of them ended up in horrible massacres by the authorities. To imagine a world in which approximately one third of everyone alive that they knew about, was a slave. What would be a world without professional or college or high school sports? I don't know. We thought we might have to conceive of that during COVID, and people have been trying desperately to avoid that notion.
Sean McDowell: That's true.
Craig Blomberg: What we do find, however, we find a brief comment in 1 Corinthians 7, when Paul is talking about not letting one situation in life, once you became a Christian, turn into some desire to change it dramatically, but he then says, "But if you can escape slavery, if you have that opportunity, take advantage of it." But then the little letter to Philemon, tucked in between Titus and Hebrews and if two pages of the Bible stick together, we might miss it all together, is just a marvelous, very low key, very tactful, it doesn't always sound tactful to us, but by ancient standards where a superior like Paul could have simply commanded a subordinate like Philemon, it really is a masterpiece of tact. Here's this runaway slave, Paul is sending him back home. What a dangerous thing to do? But he is pleading with his master not only not to punish him, not to mistreat him, but to treat him like he would Paul himself.
Craig Blomberg: He describes how he became a Christian, thanks to Paul's own ministry under house arrest in Rome. He talks about wanting to have kept Onesimus with him, which would have been possible legally only if the man had been set free. He promises to repay him, to repay Philemon for anything that he is owed, if that means Onesimus stole something or if it just means he was out all of the man hours, and then having said all of this, he says, "Confident," this is verse 21, "of your obedience, I write to you knowing that you will do even more than I ask."
Craig Blomberg: Well, there's only one thing left that he hasn't explicitly asked and that's for Philemon to set Onesimus free. If early church tradition can be believed, that's exactly what did happen and Onesimus became the Bishop in and around Ephesus in the latter years of the first century. So I really think we overemphasize the passages that just talk about slaves being good servants to their masters and forget the world that people were living in. But also forget the New Testament drops some very serious hints that there's a better way that people should be working for.
Sean McDowell: Craig, I've got one last question for you. This was perhaps my favorite chapter in the book, is when you talk about the miracles of Jesus, the reasons why Jesus did miracles, the reasons He didn't do miracles and how kind of the quantity and quality of miracles Jesus does is unique in the history of like miracle workers. Can you explain kind of the unique point you were making in that chapter for us?
Craig Blomberg: If you read one miracle at a time, not counting repeats, Matthew through John, and simply look at what the text says or implies you find that certainly Jesus works miracles out of compassion for people and He works them both sometimes in response to faith, but also to instill faith where there is none and it's about half and half that you get those kinds of references, so be aware of making any one size fits all comments there. Sometimes the issue of sin is involved, often it isn't. It does seem that there are a disproportionate number of situations where He deliberately does something on a Sabbath when it's never a life-threatening emergency. He could just as well have waited a day, but He's making a point about the true meaning of Sabbath. And there's a disproportionate number of what we might call the outcasts within Israel who get attention.
Craig Blomberg: We never have an account of Jesus healing a person who's fairly well to do of anything. But none of those add up to the pattern that you find when you look at Isaiah 35, the different kinds of miracles that are promised to be part of the Messianic Age and Jesus Himself will quote that when messengers from John the Baptist, when he's thrown in prison, come and say, "Are you the one who is to come or should we look for another?" And He just says, "Go back and tell John what you're seeing here. The blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk." And then He adds that the poor have good news preached to them. Over and over again the main reason for the miracles is, as Jesus Himself will say in another place in Luke 12, "If I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the Kingdom of God has come upon you."
Craig Blomberg: And if the Kingdom has come, there must be a King. I think of the stilling of the storm and so many sermons that end with, "And God will still the storms of your life too." Except that He doesn't always. But if you read the way the story ends, it says that the disciples marveled, and they said, "Who is this that even the wind and waves obey Him?" Above all, the miracles of Jesus are meant to point people back to Him and ask and try to answer that same question. First of all, Christological, rather than anthropological in focus, they're Christ centered rather than human centered
Sean McDowell: Craig, we are super grateful for your ministry here at Biola. You've been faithful with Scriptures just for so many years and just had a winsomeness and a kindness about how you approached this and I think people can pick up that in this podcast, but also it's clear in your latest book that we've been talking about, Can we still believe in God?
Sean McDowell: So for our listeners, we've talked about the problem of hell, the problem with evil, miracles, a few other topics such as slavery. But you also talk about, what about predestination, the problem of unanswered prayers, apparent contradictions in the Bible and is the Christian life undesirable? So we definitely want to commend this to our listeners again, it's called, Can we still believe in God? By Dr. Craig Blomberg. Craig, thanks so much for joining us.
Craig Blomberg: Well, you're very kind and I know you wouldn't want to say it, so I'll say it for you, but if there's not enough detail in that book, there's this book called Evidence That Demands a Verdict, several additions, and the most recent one is by far the best and that will have all the other good answers.
Sean McDowell: Well, you just gave me some great fuel to go to my dad and tell him that you said it's the best, so you've made my day. We really appreciate you. And for those of you listening, these are the kind of conversations that we have at Talbot regularly and our classes on philosophy, ethics, apologetics, New Testament, if you thought about going back and studying, we hope you'd consider studying with us.
Sean McDowell: So thanks for coming on Craig and this has been an episode of the podcast, Think Biblically, Conversations on Faith and Culture. To learn more about us and today's guest Craig Blomberg, and to find more episodes, go to biola.edu/thinkbiblically. That's biola.edu/thinkbiblically. If you enjoyed today's conversation, give us a rating on your podcast app and share it with a friend. Thanks for listening. And remember, think biblically about everything.