April 24, 2017
This is a rush transcript. This copy may not be in its final form and may be updated.
It’s Monday, April 24, 2017. I’m Albert Mohler and this is The Briefing, a daily analysis of news and events from a Christian worldview.
How should evangelicals respond to Russia's ban of Jehovah's Witnesses as "extremist group"?
On Thursday of last week, the news came that the Supreme Court of Russia had ruled that the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an organization were to be banned everywhere in the nation of Russia. They were identified by the Supreme Court on the request of the government’s justice ministry as an extremist organization.
Now what are evangelical Christians to make of this? Well, in the first place, loving the gospel of Jesus Christ, we would be very glad that a group such as the Jehovah’s Witnesses would not have an influence within Russia, frankly anywhere. We recall the fact that Christians often referred to the Jehovah’s Witnesses, and rightly so, as a cult, meaning that it is a group that denies central and essential teachings to the Christian gospel. We recall that we can trace the Jehovah’s Witnesses not just back to a knock on our front door, but back to about the 1870s, when the group emerged in the midst of the millennial fervor that marked the nation at that time.Show Full Transcript
During that time, the nations saw the rise of many aberrant groups that denied orthodox Christian teaching, and the Jehovah’s Witnesses as established by Charles Taze Russell were certainly included in that group. The Jehovah’s Witnesses explicitly deny the doctrine of the Trinity. They deny a biblical Christology, insisting that Jesus was a created being. Furthermore, they teach a message which amounts to a form of works righteousness and obedience to the principles that are set down by the Jehovah’s Witnesses. An indication of the aberrant theology of the group is seen in their own translation of the Scripture known as the New World Translation of the Scripture. For example, in John 1:1 where the Scripture clearly says that, “The Word was with God and the Word was God” the New World Translation of the Bible, under the direction of the Jehovah’s Witnesses said that, “The word was with God and the word was a God.”
That is an infinite and eternal difference. But weeks before the Supreme Court in Russia handed down its ruling, Andrew Higgins of the New York Times had explained the building controversy.
As he said, the case is, “a throwback to the days of the Soviet Union, when Jehovah’s Witnesses were hounded as spies and malcontents by the K.G.B., the denomination is at the center of an escalating campaign by the authorities to curtail religious groups that compete with the Russian Orthodox Church and that challenge President Vladimir V. Putin’s efforts to rally the country behind traditional and often militaristic patriotic values.”
In handing down the decision last Thursday, the Russian Supreme Court cited the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses do not allow for the transfusion of blood as one of the representations that they are an extremist organization. Further evidence brought against the Jehovah’s Witnesses was that they teach pacifism, which runs directly into those militaristic values of President Putin in Russia.
But the bigger issue for us to recognize is evangelical Christians is that the Jehovah’s Witnesses were here identified as an extremist group. Now the bottom line in the political reality is that Jehovah’s Witnesses lacked the political patronage and protection of anyone inside or outside Russia to keep the Russian government through its Supreme Court from making this declaration and thus making it illegal—and that means punishable by prison time—for anyone to be organized and involved with the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
The important thing we need to recognize as Christians is that this goes beyond the legal warrant of any government. A government that could identify the Jehovah’s Witnesses as an extremist group and make the group illegal is the same government that can identify Presbyterians or Lutherans or Baptists as an extremist group, simply because what is taught runs contrary to some aspect of what is affirmed by the Russian President and his increasingly autocratic state.
Furthermore, in thinking of Russia we need to understand the centrality of the Russian Orthodox Church and the fact that that church is increasingly calling upon the government to use the levers of its own power to eliminate any kind of theological competition within the country. You ask the question, why the Jehovah’s Witnesses now? And the answer is, the government had the opportunity and it seized it. But the thing we need to recognize is that when religious liberty is compromised like this, when a religious denomination, even a cult in this sense, can be identified as an extremist group, not because of any action that represents a threat against the state or the society, but rather because of its teachings including pacifism, then we come to understand that this is indeed a curtailment of religious liberty in a country in which this is becoming increasingly routine. And among the things we need to recognize in this story is that a threat to religious liberty like this will not be limited to the Jehovah’s Witnesses.
During the Soviet era, Baptists were as identified as any other group targeted for just this kind of persecution and elimination. And even now there are many evangelical groups operating in Russia, and the Russian Orthodox Church and the Russian government would just as soon see them disappear.
Rachel Denver, identified as deputy Europe and Central Asia director at the group Human Rights Watch, rightly said that the Supreme Court decision in Russia is “a terrible blow to freedom of religion and association in Russia.”
And of course it is. But just taking the story at face value, as important as it is in terms of the decision of the Russian Supreme Court, one other interesting aspects, as we shall see in a pattern of stories today, is that religion finds its way routinely into the headlines, even in an age when the elites declare we should be completely committed to secularism.
Why is the atheistic regime in communist China concerned about the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama?
Within just days of the controversy in Russia over the Jehovah’s Witnesses, there appeared a story in the Wall Street Journal with this headline,
“High Stakes in the Dalai Lama’s Rebirth.”
You’ve got that right. Here there is the description of an escalating controversy between the Dalai Lama and the communist regime in China and at the center of it, once again, is something that is inherently theological, the claim of reincarnation.
This is a truly bizarre story. It appeared in the Wall Street Journal; it was written by Gordon Fairclough and Niharika Mandhana, and it tells us that tens of thousands of the Buddhist faithful poured into the remote Himalayan monastery town in northwest India, traveling many days over rough roads from distant mountain valleys for a chance to see and hear a man they considered to be an embodiment of the divine, the Dalai Lama.
Now in the United States, the Dalai Lama is often considered merely a spiritual figure and of course a political figure, as he is understood to be a symbol of resistance against China. But throughout much of the Buddhist world he is actually revered as divine. The article in the Journal had to do with the fact that Chinese government officials were very uncomfortable with the Dalai Lama’s visit to this remote village in India. As the Journal reported,
“Beyond the lessons on meditation and Buddhist belief, some see a larger aim in the visit of the increasingly frail, 81-year-old Dalai Lama. Anticipating his own death, he may wish to signal that he could choose, as Tibetan tradition allows, to be reborn in [that village]—still part of the Tibetan cultural sphere but safely outside China.”
Now before we proceed a single word, let’s just consider the fact that the Wall Street Journal, one of most influential secular newspapers in the United States, has just told us in a straightforward news report that the nation of China is concerned that the Dalai Lama may choose to be reincarnated in a village outside of China, and thus outside of their control. Jayadeva Ranade, identified as a former Indian government official and an expert on China and Tibet, said,
“It’s a way of subtly sending the message on reincarnation. That’s why the Chinese are so anxious.”
The reporters for the Wall Street Journal go on to explain that reincarnation is the traditional means of determining the succession for Tibet’s most important sacred and secular leaders.
“The Dalai Lama’s rebirth,” they wrote, “represents a high-stakes collision of the metaphysical and the geopolitical.”
Later in the article the reporters tell us,
“The Dalai Lama—the 14th in his lineage—has indicated that he won’t be reborn in any place under Chinese control. He has also hinted that he might opt not to be reincarnated at all.”
Why? Just to disallow the Chinese from having any control over his successor. Now wait just a minute. We are seriously talking about the claim of reincarnation and the question as to where or whether the 14th Dalai Lama is going to decide to be reincarnated, this headline news in the Wall Street Journal. But if it’s interesting thus far, it just gets a lot more interesting when we read in this article,
“In 2007, China’s State Religious Affairs Bureau issued new regulations, which it termed ‘management measures for reincarnation.’ [These laws] laid out a system of government approval and permits for rebirths. Reincarnations of key religious figures must be approved by China’s cabinet. In a swipe,” we read, “at Tibet’s exiled establishment, China’s rules forbid any ‘disruption or control’ of reincarnation by ‘any foreign organizations or individuals.’”
Seriously. Here we have the largest country that is ruled by a communist, atheistic regime that nonetheless has recently adopted rules and laws on reincarnation in order to prevent the symbol of Tibetan resistance from claiming to have been reincarnated outside of Chinese government control. Make no mistake, there’s a lot at stake here in terms of the Chinese government and those who follow the Dalai Lama. The Journal reports that,
“In 1995, the Dalai Lama recognized a young Tibetan boy as the reincarnation of the Panchen Lama, No. 2 in the hierarchy of his school of Buddhism. Soon after, Chinese security forces detained the child and his family. They haven’t been seen publicly since.”
From a Christian worldview perspective let’s just take stock of what we have here. We have of course the question of reincarnation, which demonstrates a crucial distinction between the Christian worldview and the Buddhist worldview. But beyond that, we also have the distinction between Buddhist and Christian understandings of time and history. The Christian biblical understanding of time is linear; we find that from Genesis to Revelation. It is in the context of past and present and future. History, according to the biblical worldview, doesn’t happen again. Not only does it not happen over and over again, it never happens again. So for instance, in the Scripture we read in the book of Hebrews, it is appointed unto man once to die, and after that the judgment. There is no cycle of history. But that Eastern notion of history, in particular the Buddhist notion of history, is indeed pictured by a wheel—not a straight line, but a wheel, a wheel that goes over and over again in a cycle of history that is endlessly repeatable. And of course within that, that notion of reincarnation makes sense. If history is a giant wheel, a cycle that just turns and turns and turns over again, then it is conceivable that an individual soul could be reincarnated, once, twice, perhaps even multiple times.
But, of course, the Christian worldview and the notion of reincarnation are absolutely incompatible—not just incompatible because of the clear teachings of Scripture, but incompatible because of the larger worldview that is revealed in the Christian Scriptures as over against the notion of Buddhism. Buddhism’s cyclical view of history is entirely sensical with reincarnation.
But here’s something else that we have to note from the Christian worldview. We’re living in an age in which we are told that theology shouldn’t matter. But theology continues to matter. As we saw on Friday’s edition of The Briefing, the New York Times has twice in one week articles about who should be in the pulpit of Christian churches, and now you have major media dealing with Jehovah’s Witnesses in Russia and with Tibetan Buddhists in Asia, in India, and in China. And in a straightforward report in the Wall Street Journal, no less, you’ve got a report that in 2007, the atheistic regime led by the Communist Party in China officially adopted laws on reincarnation.
Now let’s be clear, the Chinese government isn’t trying to make any theological statement at all. This comes down to bare-knuckled politics and the fact that what they’re trying to prevent is any arrival of a new resistance figure in terms of Tibetan independence. But in order to get there and to assert their autocratic state control, the Communist Party in China had to adopt rules on reincarnation. The very fact that the government has rules on reincarnation indicates that theology certainly hasn’t disappeared, it just appears over and over again—not in a cyclical view of history, but in a linear story in which the Chinese party simply can’t escape theology.
Speaking of China once again, we’ll take a closer look at an important book written by Ian Johnson that recently appeared. The title of the book is, “The Souls of China: The Return of Religion After Mao.”
That’s going to be an interesting consideration, but the important thing for us to recognize is that the Wall Street Journal also in recent days ran a review by Hugo Restall of this new book. The important thing in this review is this particular paragraph. Mr. Johnson puts it this way,
“Chinese religion had little theology, almost no clergy, and few fixed places of worship. But this didn’t mean Chinese religion was weak. Instead it was spread over every aspect of life like a fine membrane that held society together.”
What’s important there? What’s important is that statement that religion in China—and that includes Buddhism in particular—Buddhism more importantly than anything else, but also including Confucianism, is a religion that doesn’t have much theology, that has almost no clergy, few fixed places of worship. Now once again, we ask the question, why would this be different? Why is there a distinction between these Asian forms of religion and biblical Christianity? Why does Christianity have a teaching ministry, clergy? Why does Christianity have a thick theology? Why does Christianity have places of worship? It is because Christianity is a theistic religion that is based upon the revelation of God in Scripture, an inscripturated revelation upon which we are dependent. It is not primarily a method of spirituality or of meditation.
The Christian worldview is based upon the fullness of doctrine, again, a thick theology. But the Buddhist worldview is based upon the embrace and goal of nothingness. That is a radical distinction. Now the lesson here is not just the radical distinction between Christianity and Buddhism—that’s important in and of itself. What’s really important is that once again in just a span of a few days we’re talking about an article in a newspaper like the Wall Street Journal that has to do with theology. Theology matters. It shows up here because it matters to the communist regime in China.
Theology matters: TIME reports Mormon leader is urging more baptisms on behalf of the dead
But next we turn back to the United States and to another group that made headline news over theological teaching in recent days. This article appeared in Time magazine telling us that one of the members of the top governing body of the church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, that is a group known as the Quorum of the Twelve Disciples, in speaking to an important conference of the church indicated that he wanted to inspire them to expand the number of dead people who are baptized within the Mormon church. These baptisms are known as proxy baptisms and they are baptisms that are done by the living on behalf of the dead.
Originally, the concern of Mormons was to identify their own ancestors so that they could be baptized by proxy by living family members who are Mormons in order to purchase or arrange for them the provision for them to embrace Mormon truth on what’s described as the other side of the veil, that is a spiritual veil, on the other side of the veil, that distinguishes between life and death. In that other world, on the other side of the veil, those who have received proxy baptism by one of their loved ones would be able to achieve the full level of blessedness by choosing to embrace the same on the other side of death. Now we need to note that Mormonism has expanded this far beyond the baptism by proxy by the living for the dead who are ancestors to other dead as well. This Mormon leader said, speaking as a member the Quorum of the Twelve, that younger Mormons had been rediscovering proxy baptism. He said,
“They have learned that this work saves not just the dead; it saves all of us.”
He went on to say,
“There are now many people who have accepted baptism in the spirit world. … This is the work of our generation.”
The Time report went on to tell us,
“The ‘proxy baptisms’ also were mentioned Saturday at the conference in a speech by Russell M. Nelson, another member of the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles who is next in line to assume the church presidency. Nelson said Mormons who keep their covenants to Jesus Christ are given ‘Godly power.’”
He went on to say,
“God’s plan provides for those blessings to be extended to ancestors who died without an opportunity to obtain them during their mortal lives.”
Another member of the Mormon leadership, that is Mark Bragg, a member of the secondary governing body,
“He applauded,” said Time, “The increase in baptisms for the deceased: ‘We are experiencing great joy and celebration on both sides of the veil.’”
That again means on both sides of what divides life and death. Now immediately recognize this is further attention to theology in terms of headlines—we’ve seen the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, now Time magazine. We’re not talking about peripheral publications in the world of American media. We’re talking about some of the most influential publications throughout the last century into the 21st century. We’re talking about publications that do themselves represent in terms of their writing and editorial staffs an overwhelmingly secular perspective. But that secular perspective is undermined by many of the headlines that these periodicals, newspapers, and magazines have to cover. After all, we’ve just been talking about the fact that Jehovah’s Witnesses and Buddhism and reincarnation and Mormons and the baptism for the dead have all show up just in a matter of a few days.
In teaching the baptism of the dead, the Mormon church takes a verse like 1 Corinthians 15:29 out of context, but the doctrinal authority is not so much Paul, but rather it is the writings of Joseph Smith and other canonical Mormon scriptures. But we’re again confronted with that radical distinction in worldview, because in Mormon theology the baptism of the dead does indeed fit their theology in a way it certainly does not fit Christian theology. No historic Christian church has ever observed the baptism on behalf of the dead. But it does make perfect sense in Mormonism, where spirits are created beings, God himself is a created being, where God is, spirit beings may one day be, and where very clearly there is the opportunity for those on the other side of death to embrace their own Mormon baptism and thus to receive the blessings the church teaches come along with that baptism.
Mormons, like Jehovah’s Witnesses in their own way, deny the doctrine of the Trinity and orthodox Christian theology. While Mormons share with Christians an affirmation of many important moral teachings, and while Mormons also share with Christians a very deep respect for the family, in Mormon theology the role of the family goes far beyond what it does in Christianity. The family has eternal significance in Mormonism, as reflected once again in this headline about the baptism for the dead.
So the next time you are told that theology doesn’t matter, and that we are entering a new secular age in which you’re not going to have to worry about religion, whatever its form, just consider the fact that the Russian Supreme Court considered the Jehovah’s Witnesses such a threat that they have made them illegal throughout the country; that China considered the Dalai Lama such a threat that it has adopted, even as an atheistic regime, laws on reincarnation; and then we look at the fact that Time magazine ran a headline in which a Mormon leader is cited as saying that more dead people should be baptized. Those who are trying to escape theology are going to have a very hard time when they look at the pages of the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal or Time magazine, or frankly, when they look just about anywhere.