4.2 Groups, Classes, and Institutions
Volume 4: The Human Condition—Chapter 2
Groups, Classes, and Institutions
Our whole last section dealt with the most fundamental “institution” of all—the family, with all of its various moving parts. We didn’t have to scratch too far beneath the surface to discover that each component within a family was recruited by God as a symbol, meant to teach us something about His plan for mankind—our relationships with Him or each other, our roles in society, and our place in His world.
The family is but one of many collective institutions, groups, or classes employed by God to symbolize some larger truth. Even a cursory reading of the Torah reveals that Yahweh often relates with people on the basis of some “group” they belong to—even if He has to create that group in the first place by separating its members from everybody else. He plucked Abram out of obscurity and used him to jump-start a nation—eventually known as Israel. Then He contrasted Israel with “the nations”—everybody else. Then He divided Israel up into sub-groups with separate profiles.
The first thing we need to ask is why. Why did Yahweh separate the Israelites from the nations, the Levites from the rest of Israel, and then the priests out from among the Levites? Were they somehow “better” than everybody else, more worthy, more enlightened? Based on the scriptural narrative, I think we can safely answer that with a big “No.” As far as human qualifications go, it would appear that God’s “symbol selection process” fell somewhere between lackadaisical and non-existent. It was almost as if He looked at the candidates, shrugged, pointed, and said, “You’ll do, I guess.”
My point is that God’s use of a group as a symbol invariably had less to do with their qualifications than with His purposes. It was the functions and duties He assigned to them that made them conduits of symbolic significance. Don’t take this the wrong way: individuals could be (and were) given specific roles to play based on their willingness, character, preparation, and anointing. Prominent examples include Noah, Moses, Samuel, David, and virtually any prophet with a book named after him. But groups are characteristically made up of all sorts—obedient and rebellious, gifted and moronic, strong and weak. They aren’t by any measure homogeneous.
But they do have commonalities—some overarching fact that enables their people to say, “I’m a member of X but not of Y.” It could be genetic: one could say, “I am an Arab—a descendant of Ishmael” or “I am a Jew, a descendant of Jacob.” The factor could be geographic: I am an American (not a Canadian or a Mexican) because I was born south of one border but north of another one. It could be demographic: they call my wife a “baby boomer” because she was born in 1946, but although I’m only a year older, I didn’t make the cut. (I don’t know who is in charge of drawing the lines.) I’m not sure what my generation is called—“older than dirt,” perhaps. The factors could be economic: the old joke goes, “That thump you just heard was us—dropping from lower middle class to upper lower class.” Groups might be separated by our interests or abilities: I, for example, am a lifelong musician, a guitarist. But I’m not endowed with mechanical prowess like my friend Dennis. We could be categorized by our dietary preferences: I am more or less omnivorous, while some of my friends are vegans.
The most meaningful groups, to my mind, are the ones we choose for ourselves. After all, free will is our Creator’s primary gift to the human race. We’re all sinners—we were born that way, and have all confirmed that status with our own poor choices. But (in theory, anyway) we all have a choice as to how (or if) to deal with our sin. This choice was made crystal clear to Israel in the wilderness: “I call heaven and earth as witnesses today against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing. Therefore choose life, that both you and your descendants may live, that you may love Yahweh your God, that you may obey His voice, and that you may cling to Him, for He is your life and the length of your days.” (Deuteronomy 30:19-20) The choice seems pretty simple—life vs. death, blessing vs. cursing—but after a few generations in the Land, Israel (as a nation) began making poor choices, and to the extent that they did, they suffered the consequences.
I say our soteriological choices are ours to make in theory because as a practical matter, most people never even realize they have a choice—though free will is our Creator’s primary gift to our race. Our attitudes and prejudices are largely a matter of culture and upbringing—whether good or bad. Someone born in fourteenth century France is likely to have a very different spiritual outlook from somebody born in eighteenth-century China, or in twenty-first century Iran. Too often, our choices (at least as far as our eternal destinies are concerned) are limited by a lack of information. If everybody you’ve ever met is Roman Catholic (or Buddhist, or Muslim), it will be unlikely to occur to you that it is even possible to separate yourself from your whole world and “join another group.” And of course, it’s even worse when those “at the top” are actively working toward the goal of keeping you in the dark about your God-given choices.
And yet, what we see constantly in the pages of scripture is God separating one group from another, calling people out of the life they once knew and giving them a whole new “corporate identity.” The newly separated groups are invariably small, though they are intended to grow. Examples: Noah and his family became the whole human race. Abraham and Sarah became the nation of Israel—six hundred thousand families strong by the time they left their sojourn in Egypt. Yahshua’s eleven disciples were “added to” until the church became a rich and powerful caricature of its former self—a mustard seed grown into a tree big enough to shelter birds of prey.
It seems counterintuitive: God is forever splitting us up into smaller and smaller groups—focused on Him alone. Religions, on the other hand, have historically tried their best to grow into positions of world dominance: over the centuries, paganism gave way to Catholicism, which fell to secular humanism, which in turn is being eaten alive by an encroaching militant Islam. Within true Christianity, the trend is toward quality, not quantity—“church splits” often have their roots in the defense of truth. When Roman Catholicism grew totally corrupt, the protestant movement gained traction, but over the centuries, various protestant sects gradually became apostate as well, each in its turn. When they grew too far from their scriptural roots, spin-offs invariably spun off. The need for truth is an irrepressible component of human nature. Nowadays, you’re more likely to find real Christianity practiced in independent churches with no denominational ties at all—though that’s far from being a universal phenomenon.
When it comes to finding truth in groups, Christ told us what to look for, and it’s rather discouraging: “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) If “everybody’s doing it,” it’s automatically suspect. It’s not that God isn’t interested in numbers. He sent His Son to die for the entire human race, after all. But the fact remains: those who seek His face have always been a small minority, and God is neither shocked nor dismayed at this. The very word translated “church” in the Greek scriptures should have been the tip-off. It’s ekklesia, which means “called-out.” (The English word “Church,” from the Middle English chir, actually means “the Lord’s House.” It’s derived from the Greek kyriakos—“belonging to the Lord”—which isn’t at all what the original Greek ekklesia denotes.)
It’s like the old story of the doting mother whose son was in the high school marching band. During the big parade, she viewed the performing musicians and said, “Oh, look at that. Everybody’s out of step but my Johnnie.” Consensus isn’t truth, folks. It’s “left-right-left-right,” even if the whole rest of the band is marching “right-left-right-left.” There is a correct way and an incorrect way to do it. Peer pressure compels us to conform to the majority, even if they’re in error. Christ, on the other hand, says “Do right, even if the whole world is doing wrong.”
Ordinarily, group dynamics are messy. Historically, the pendulum swings back and forth between anarchy and repression. But there has always been an element of rebellion against the status quo, driven either by conscience, the sin nature, or spiritual indwelling—depending upon what the status quo is at the moment. In other words, resistance against “the system” can be a good thing as easily as a bad thing. But since the kingdom of God is accessible only through “the narrow gate,” it would appear that groups genuinely following Christ will usually be perceived by the world as “being out of step.”
Bible prophecy clearly describes two future societies—one rising right after the other—that are anomalies, in which virtually everyone is in the same spiritual “group.” There will be two worldwide cultures in which the pendulum of faith has swung hard—first to one extreme and then to the other. Each of these whole-world populations will consist, initially at least, of a single homogeneous class. There will be no fundamental dissent, no rebellion, no outliers—for a while, anyway.
Both of these “anomalies” will be the result of God’s direct action among us—something He has normally been exceedingly reticent to do in mankind’s history. There will come a time (and soon, I’m guessing) when everyone on earth will be lost, without a saving relationship with Yahweh’s Messiah. There will still be religions, of course, but faith in the true and living God through redemption in His Son Yahshua will have disappeared entirely from the earth. This sort of thing has never happened before (except perhaps for the fifteen minutes between Yahweh’s sealing of the door of Noah’s ark and the moment the flood arrived). As we noted, God has often taken steps to separate His people from the masses. This is different. What is described in scripture is the physical removal of the entire church—all of it—from face of the earth.
The church (not the visible institution that calls itself the church, mind you, but the group God has defined as those who are “called-out” of the world, those who are indwelled by His Holy Spirit) are to be “caught up” (as it’s phrased in I Thessalonians 4:17) to be with Yahshua in an event known popularly as “the rapture.” (The word isn’t found in your popular English translations, you understand. It’s derived for the Latin translation for the Greek verb harpazo, the word translated “caught up.”) Immediately after the rapture, not a single redeemed soul will remain on planet Earth.
With the Christians gone (including believing “Messianic” Jews—God makes no distinction between these groups)—and with them the indwelling Holy Spirit who restrained evil in the world through them—the world will suddenly begin deteriorating in earnest. And after a gap of some unspecified duration, the world will enter a seven-year period of time known as the Tribulation. It will commence with a treaty or covenant engineered by a charismatic individual who will eventually be revealed as the “Man of Sin,” a.k.a. “the Son of Perdition,” a.k.a. “the Antichrist,” promising peace for Israel in exchange for some significant concessions.
In short order, civilization’s fabric will begin to unravel. The peace will fail, dar al-Islam will invade Israel with genocide on its mind (so much for treaties), and Yahweh will rescue His chosen people. The war will then escalate into a nuclear holocaust that engulfs the whole western world; the entire governmental, financial, and even religious structure of the Earth will collapse, and anarchy will reign. By the middle of the Tribulation, the whole world will be clamoring for a “Messiah,” one who can rein in the madness with a rod of iron—and they will acclaim the Antichrist as their one-world dictator, their “King of kings.”
The Antichrist will deliver (sort of) what the people say they want: peace and safety, even at the cost of liberty. Once in power, he will crush all overt opposition in a political machine that will make the likes of Hitler’s, Stalin’s, or Mao’s look positively benign in comparison. Those who express “alternate opinions” will tend to disappear. But by golly, the trains will run on time.
Thankfully, his reign of repression and dystopia will last only three and a half years. If it went on much longer, “no flesh would be saved.” But this Luciferian nightmare of compliance or death will be replaced with something that, at first glance, looks as if it might be just as repressive. Yahshua the Messiah—Jesus Christ—will return to planet Earth to rule “with a rod of iron.” His kingdom will last a wee bit longer than the Antichrist’s—a thousand years. In fact, it’s the last of seven millennia Yahweh allotted to man, beginning with the fall of Adam. In other words, Christ’s reign is the actual “Sabbath” about which Yahweh went so far out of His way to teach us through the rites of the Torah.
If your idea of freedom is running amok in rebellion against God and man, Christ’s iron rule doesn’t sound too encouraging. But as far back as the Psalms, the coming Messiah was promised total dominance over the whole earth: “Yahweh has said to Me, ‘You are My Son, today I have begotten You. Ask of Me, and I will give You the nations for Your inheritance, and the ends of the earth for Your possession. You shall break them with a rod of iron; You shall dash them to pieces like a potter’s vessel.’” (Psalm 2:7-9) Note: that’s nations—plural—not just Israel.
This “rod of iron” sounds harsh, but it’s not—not really. As I wrote elsewhere, “Please recall that the ‘rod’ is a shepherd’s implement; it is used to guide the sheep in the path of provision (as the ‘staff’ is used to get the sheep out of trouble). Remember Psalm 23:4? ‘I will fear no evil, for You are with me. Your rod and Your staff comfort me.’ If we are Yahweh’s ‘sheep,’ His ‘rod of iron’ and His staff of mercy will bring us comfort, provision, restoration, goodness, and mercy, even if we’re not too bright.” There’s a reason God calls us “sheep.” Something tells me that a “rod” made of nerf-foam might not be stiff enough to get the job done.
In the Book of Revelation, we see this same description repeated several times. John saw a vision in which “the dragon [Satan] stood before the woman [Israel] who was ready to give birth, to devour her Child [Yahshua] as soon as it was born. She bore a male Child who was to rule all nations with a rod of iron. And her Child was caught up to God and His throne.” (Revelation 12:4-5) Israel’s job—the reason this nation had been set apart from the world in the first place—was to deliver Yahweh’s Deliverer to the earth. And deliver Him she did, though Satan did everything He could to prevent it from coming to pass. But Yahshua’s destiny—“to rule all nations with a rod of iron”—was not fulfilled during His first advent. This notice assures us that the suffering Servant—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—is the same Person as the promised reigning King. I find it significant that having completed the “Child’s” job, our Savior was “caught up” to God: the same word (harpazo) is used to describe the rapture of the church in I Thessalonians 4:17. We follow Him in every conceivable way.
Later, in a somewhat less esoteric description, Christ’s second coming is described: “Now I saw heaven opened, and behold, a white horse. And He who sat on him was called Faithful and True, and in righteousness He judges and makes war. His eyes were like a flame of fire, and on His head were many crowns. He had a name written that no one knew except Himself. He was clothed with a robe dipped in blood, and His name is called The Word of God….” There is no question as to His identity: this is the one of whom John spoke in his Gospel, saying “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God…. And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” He’s speaking of Yahshua the Messiah—Yahweh incarnate.
He won’t be alone when He returns: the previously raptured saints will accompany Him. As I said, we follow Him in every conceivable way. “And the armies in heaven, clothed in fine linen, white and clean, followed Him on white horses. Now out of His mouth goes a sharp sword, that with it He should strike the nations. And He Himself will rule them with a rod of iron. He Himself treads the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God. And He has on His robe and on His thigh a name written: ‘King of kings and Lord of lords.’” (Revelation 19:11-16)
So twice within humanity’s future history, the earth will be inhabited by societies that are virtually homogeneous, in which everyone has the same spiritual profile, at least at first. Both will be comprised of a single “mega-group” who have chosen to participate in it, whether they realize it or not. But they will not remain homogeneous forever, for we live an age of free will—it’s God’s primary gift to the human race. It is man’s prerogative to change his mind.
The post-rapture lost world will (almost immediately, I’m guessing) experience small but growing pockets of repentance and belated salvation. These groups will almost certainly form initially within what’s left of Christendom—people who were familiar with the rudimentary nuts and bolts of Christian doctrine, and maybe even attended a church, but had never actually given their lives to Christ. There’s nothing like a few hundred million of your closest friends disappearing suddenly into thin air to get your attention.
In the Book of Revelation, chapters 2 and 3 record seven letters to seven churches in Asia Minor (today’s Turkey), that, among other things, describe the prophetic (now mostly historical) spiritual profiles of the ekklesia throughout the age. As depressing as much of it is, they are uncannily accurate when compared with the actual history of the church—warts and all. The church of the rapture is clearly number six on the list—Philadelphia—who was given no reprimand at all, but was told “Because you have kept My command to persevere, I also will keep you from the hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth. Behold, I am coming quickly! Hold fast what you have, that no one may take your crown.” (Revelation 3:10-11)
But they (we) are not the last church on Yahshua’s mailing list. After telling the congregants of Laodicea why they missed the rapture (“Because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I will vomit you out of My mouth”) Christ tells them what they must do: “Because you say, ‘I am rich, have become wealthy, and have need of nothing’—and do not know that you are wretched, miserable, poor, blind, and naked—I counsel you to buy from Me gold refined in the fire, that you may be rich; and white garments, that you may be clothed, that the shame of your nakedness may not be revealed; and anoint your eyes with eye salve, that you may see. As many as I love, I rebuke and chasten. Therefore be zealous and repent.” (Revelation 3:16-19) Thus there will be those who come to faith after the rapture. These people are, after all, described as part of the ekklesia. The downside to their tardiness is that “gold refined in the fire” is surely a euphemism for purity achieved through persecution. The newly minted saints of Laodicea will be slaughtered for their faith, martyred by the millions as the Tribulation progresses. But against all odds, some will survive to repopulate the earth as the mortal nations of the Millennial kingdom.
The awakening to God’s plan—precipitated by the undeniable fact of the rapture—will doubtless begin in the “visible church,” those who realize too late that they’ve been “Left Behind” (as the popular fiction series put it). But I don’t expect it to end there. Indeed, many so-called “Christians” will dig in their heels, double down on their apostasy, and ride their disastrous error to the bitter end. But eventually, others, outside “Christian tradition,” will come to the same conclusion as the Laodiceans: there is a God, and we have been disastrously mistaken as to His identity, His love, and His plan. I expect Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Buddhists, secular humanists, and others to come to Christ in droves—in spite of their woefully inadequate Biblical knowledge. I hold out special hope for the Sikhs, who (as far as I can tell) are even now only one small epiphany away from trust in Yahweh and His Messiah.
So, focusing strictly on group dynamics, it would appear that the spiritually homogeneous post-rapture world won’t remain uniformly godless for very long. The neo-believers will remain a minority, of course—as travelers through the “narrow gate” that leads to salvation. But they will be driven to Yahweh primarily through conscience and logic, not teaching and tradition. Yahshua’s illustration of “the sheep and the goats” in Matthew 25 makes it clear that many of the new saints won’t have a clue as to why they’ve been accounted worthy to enter the kingdom (when others were not). They merely did what they knew to be right, heeding the conscience God had implanted within them—instead of following the crowd.
And what about the Millennial kingdom, after the tables have been turned, when every mortal—initially—will be a child of God, a follower of Christ? Will this status quo remain intact throughout the kingdom age? Sadly, no. As long as free will exists among a population with a sin nature inherited from Adam, some will choose poorly. But this time, rebellion will take far longer to surface. You see, it’s a matter of being indwelled with the Holy Spirit—as Yahshua told Nicodemus in John 3, “You must be born again”—literally, “born from above.” Once you are born, you cannot be unborn. So the initial kingdom generation will be comprised entirely of redeemed saints. But as these mortals repopulate the earth, their children will be faced with the same spiritual choices they were: to receive God’s grace, or to rebel against Him.
Granted, the subsequent kingdom generations will have some distinct advantages over their predecessors: (1) Christ will rule Personally upon the earth, making peace, prosperity, love, and longevity the rule, not the exception. (2) All of their elders and mentors (both mortals and the raptured immortals living among them) will be engaged in teaching them to Honor the King and love their fellow man. (3) Overt rebellion or crime will be dealt with immediately and decisively—bad attitudes won’t be allowed to fester, proliferate, and be passed down from generation to generation. No longer will “the iniquity of the fathers be visited upon the children to the third and fourth generations of those who hate Yahweh” (see Exodus 20:5). And (4) Satan and his demons will be locked up in the abyss, unable to influence or tempt the Millennial multitudes.
And yet, we are given this depressing glimpse of the very end of the Millennial kingdom age: “Now when the thousand years have expired, Satan will be released from his prison and will go out to deceive the nations which are in the four corners of the earth, Gog and Magog, to gather them together to battle, whose number is as the sand of the sea. They went up on the breadth of the earth and surrounded the camp of the saints and the beloved city. And fire came down from God out of heaven and devoured them.” (Revelation 20:7-9) After a thousand years of peace, prosperity, and procreation under the reign of Christ, the world will doubtless have climbed back up to today’s population levels. With no wars, famines, diseases, crime, or environmental factors to cut life short, people born during the Millennium will live to be hundreds of years old. And yet, the minute Satan—the prototypical “community organizer”—is released from prison, he will convince multitudes of people that the Messiah’s “rod-of-iron” rule is repressive and cruel, and must (and can) be overthrown. Hence there will be a repeat (for all practical purposes) of the Gog-Magog war that brought Islam to its knees over a thousand years previously. History forgotten is history repeated.
This will be humanity’s last opportunity to choose which “group” they wish to be a part of—God’s people, or Satan’s. Immediately after this, the final judgment will take place, in which the dead of all the ages will stand before the “Great White Throne” to be evaluated. Those whose names are not found in the Lamb’s Book of Life will be judged by the works they did in life—the choices they made. But remember, the believing dead resurrected at the rapture along with the living saints, and the Tribulation’s and Millennium’s saints as well, are all recorded in the Book of Life. So the only people standing before the Great White Throne (Revelation 20:11-15) are by definition unbelievers, those who neither honored Yahweh nor received His Messiah during their mortal lives. Thus the final separation of one group from another will be accomplished. The eternal state will follow for us who are “in Christ,” everlasting bliss in the new heavens, the new earth, and the New Jerusalem.
Throughout scripture, God is seen time and again dividing one group from another, and then investing the set-apart assembly with symbolic significance. He is never seen blending, combining, or bringing together groups that have fundamentally different spiritual outlooks. And that—the spiritual condition—is the Rubicon: the one thing that separates one class from another in Yahweh’s view: their relationship (or not) with Him. But of those who honor Him, He sees no distinction, whether we’re Jew or gentile, male or female, slave or free, young or old, rich or poor, gifted or slow.
It’s all a picture of holiness—a ubiquitous but often misunderstood concept in scripture. “I am Yahweh your God. You shall therefore consecrate yourselves, and you shall be holy, for I am holy.” (Leviticus 11:44) Most people think “holiness” is being well-behaved, pious, devout, or religious. But relative virtue has very little to do with it, directly anyway. The Hebrew noun for “holiness” is qodesh; the corresponding verb—to be holy—is qadash; and the related adjective—holy—is qadosh. The idea is to be separate, set apart, sacred, or consecrated. “Being good” is only a byproduct of holiness, for “good” must be defined first: it is whatever Yahweh says is good.
The verse I just quoted may seem to be a sweeping declaration of God’s purpose for Israel (and through them to all subsequent believers). And you wouldn’t be incorrect to view it that way (as Peter did in I Peter 1:16). But this is found, perhaps surprisingly, in the passage defining what animals are to be considered food, and which are not. There’s no particular “virtue” in refraining from eating pork and shrimp, but Yahweh instructed Israel not to, for the purpose of separating themselves from the nations—who were not the least bit discerning. “Because Yahweh said so” was the only reason they needed. (The scientific confirmation of His wisdom wouldn’t become apparent for another 3,500 years.)
Merely being “set apart” is not enough. Once a week, I “set apart” my house trash, taking it out to the street for the rubbish disposal guys to haul away to the landfill. My refuse is not “holy,” even though it has been “separated” from the other things in my house. To be holy, then, a thing or person must be set apart for a specific purpose—the honor of Yahweh. Thus a good working antonym for “holy” might be “profane,” not wicked or blasphemous so much as merely being “not devoted to holy or religious purposes; unconsecrated; secular,” as one dictionary definition put it. The word comes from the Latin profanus, literally, “before (outside of) the temple.”
There is nothing intrinsically holy (or profane, for that matter) about most things. Even the “big three” focal points of sin—power, sex, and money—have to be transformed from something good (or at least spiritually neutral) in order to inspire “the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life” in us. Most illicit drugs begin as something beneficial to man: it is we who change them into tools of evil. The marriage bed is undefiled: it is we who turn sex into perversion and pornography. Media of communication—the press, telephones, television, and the Internet—are spiritually neutral: it is we who decide whether such things will be used for God’s glory or man’s destruction. Music, poetry, and art are outgrowths of the creative nature Yahweh placed within our race: it is we who determine whether our gifts will be used for holy or profane purposes.
What does it mean, then, when scripture tells us that God is holy? The first part is simple enough to comprehend: He is separate from, outside of, His own creation. Considering how big His creation is now known to be, that should be impressive enough. But the implication is also that Yahweh is by His own volition dedicated, consecrated to something. He has devoted Himself to one thing: the love of mankind. And He has gone to immeasurable lengths (adjectives fail me here) to bring this love to fruition. This stunning truth is revealed between every line of scripture. The very infrastructure of the cosmos was brought into being for no other reason than that the Creator loves. The fact that He had to create the object of His love, investing us (and us alone) with the privilege of free will so we could respond, should not obfuscate the truth that the only reason He did any of what He did was that He is Love, and Love requires a beloved.
The whole “free will” thing reveals the genius—and the sacrificial love—of our Creator. It’s the most counterintuitive thing you can imagine. The premise is that God wanted an object—a recipient—for His love, but nothing (with the possible exception of angels) existed. Excuse the anthropomorphisms here, but I see the “thought” process something like this. Angels are spirit beings who are alive (actually immortal, as far as we are told), but they have not been given free will. That is, they do not have permission to defy, ignore, or disobey Yahweh. But they are sentient beings who can exercise volition—make decisions and act autonomously. So rebellion is physically possible for an angel, but love, technically, is not. Why? Because if rejection of God’s love is impossible, then accepting it is a meaningless concept. What would have been love (if free will were in play) becomes something different, something inferior—obedience, loyalty, honor, even worship. These are all good things, and the angels are said to do them—but they are not the same thing as love.
So Yahweh said to Himself (in my imagination), “In order for My love to mean anything, it must be given to a being who can reciprocate it—who can love Me back—and My angels aren’t really equipped to do that. The ‘problem’ is that the free will that makes a loving relationship possible also carries within it the potential for rejection: it implies the possibility of choosing not to respond in love (or not choosing anything, for that matter). Force must not be part of the equation, for compulsion is incompatible with love. Choice by definition includes the option of choosing badly. But being a loving God, this creates a conundrum for Me: if I make my free-willed creatures immortal (like the angels), then those who choose not to reciprocate my love will spend eternity in a hell of their own manufacture, and My love won’t allow that. There has to be an exit strategy.”
God, it would appear to our feeble minds, had painted Himself into a corner: the only way out would entail an incredible degree of Self-sacrifice. So He said, “What I need is a race of mortal beings—people whose bodies (unlike angels’) aren’t designed to live forever, but will merely serve as vehicles in which their choices can be made, shells to be discarded after that task has been accomplished. These bodies will be made alive by souls that can live forever, but only if they’re indwelled with My eternal Spirit. The physical death they will inevitably experience will serve nicely as a metaphor for the state of separation that will exist if they fail to receive My love. The choice will be strictly theirs, however: receiving My love will be the same thing as being born from above in My Spirit. “This, of course, will require infrastructure: I must invent time, space, matter, and energy—physical, concrete concepts that I have done quite nicely without for an eternity past as pure Spirit.”
If Yahweh were anything other than omnipotent and omniscient, that would be too tall a task. Something tells me we don’t remotely comprehend the scope of the sacrifice that God chose to endure, just so we could exist and have a chance to experience His love. Our mortal existence and destiny would require laws of physics, chemistry, and biology—things that were completely superfluous in the spirit realm. Life, light, atomic structure, time, sex, DNA, mysterious forces like electromagnetism and gravity, and a thousand other things that even after all this time we humans still don’t understand in the least, would have to be invented, deployed, managed, and focused—just so mortal man could be, if only for one brief moment. God had to create a home for us, prepare land, water, and air for us to breathe. He had to make an entire biosphere, because being mortal, man would have to have something to eat to remain alive. And truth be told, the whole system is balanced on a razor’s edge. If any one of a hundred factors changed by just a few percentage points, all life on this planet would cease—and with it, our opportunity to love our Creator.
All of this creation was done, as far as I can tell, for one purpose only—so Yahweh could love someone and enjoy the prospect of being loved in return: sweet fellowship. (Now you know what to get someone who has everything.) But there was still one unresolved issue. His love was genuine, but He realized that there would be no way for us to really choose to love Him back without a meaningful alternative. It would be like a game show on television. The host says, “Here’s door number one. It’s the only door there is. What do you think?” Not much of a choice, you must admit.
So He did what must have been the most painful thing imaginable: He allowed a rebellious spirit (the one we know as Satan—the adversary) to suggest an alternative to our proto-parents Adam and Eve, the first humans equipped with the capacity for spiritual indwelling—which is, when you think about it, what makes us truly human. We all know the story: Eve was deceived, and Adam (not willing to be separated from her) followed her with his eyes wide open. Sin had been invented, and with it, the perpetual human choice, the one we face to this very day: love God (and demonstrate it through our trust, reliance, and obedience), or reject His love (showing it through our unwillingness to trust Him).
All of Adam and Eve’s offspring would be born without the indwelling Spirit of Yahweh, though the capacity for it would always be there. They would have to choose to receive it—to reciprocate His awesome love by believing in Yahweh’s remedy for their (our) sin. Just after Yahshua explained to Nicodemus the necessity of being “born again” (literally, “from above”) in Yahweh’s Holy Spirit, He outlined the ramifications of our choices: “He who believes in Him [the Son of God, i.e., Yahshua Himself, as Yahweh’s sacrificial solution to our sin problem] is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” (John 3:18) We’re born condemned, folks.
Sort of. The word translated “condemned” is the Greek krino, a verb meaning to judge, decide, pick out, separate, or distinguish between right and wrong, or guilt and innocence. Basically, we come into the world separated from God by our sin natures. But this is a condition that can be changed any time, as long as we draw breath. Yahweh put us here for one purpose: to choose to be separated from the world and instead become set apart to Him—be made holy. We can’t live forever with a foot in both worlds. We must proactively choose to respond to God’s love if we wish to live beyond life.
I don’t want to muddy the theological waters, but I must point out something that is almost universally missed concerning our possible spiritual destinies. Now that another spirit—the fallen angel (demon) Satan—is part of the universal human experience, the choices before us are a bit more complicated than they might have been. We have seen that God created us as mortals with an option on immortality, so those who rejected His love wouldn’t have to live forever without Him. Once they died, they wouldn’t “live” at all: they would have no continuing existence. Their souls would simply dissipate, cease to be. No harm, no foul.
So at this point, there are two “doors” in the game show of life. Door Number One is eternal life in Yahweh’s love, achieved through belief in the efficacy of His Son’s sacrifice. Door Number Two is what happens if we fail to proactively choose Door Number One. This is the default: it is the condition described in John 3:18—we are “condemned,” separated from those who have chosen life. Put simply, Door Number Two is death. It isn’t a choice, however. It is the result of failing to choose.
But wait a minute. What about all those horrific teachings in the Bible (virtually all of them in the New Testament) unmistakably describing a hell of unceasing torment for those who reject Christ? Hell is quite real. Most of the teaching concerning this evil abode is from Yahshua Himself. The word (Gehenna or Geenna) is found twelve times in the New Testament—eleven of them on the lips of Yahshua. But doesn’t the idea of hell’s torments for ordinary sinners conflict with God’s whole merciful plan of making man mortal (so he could simply die rather than suffer hell’s torments)? Yes, it does.
And yet, Christ clearly teaches that hell exists. He even explains who might go there—those whose “father” is Satan—the “other” spirit at work in this world. Remember, He called the scribes and Pharisees “sons of vipers.” Snakes are a euphemism for Satan (because of the persona he adopted in Eden). These religious elites were “born again,” alright, but not born from above. Their spiritual parent was the devil: they were, you might say, born from below. It’s the same kind of spiritual indwelling of which Yahshua informed Nicodemus, but with a different spirit.
Therefore, there is there also a “Door Number Three” in this game show called the Human Condition. As we have seen, Door Number One is eternal life, the option God and His saints desire all men to choose. Door Number Two (the default—something you can’t actually select) is death—annihilation, ceasing to be, separation from God’s life, in a word, “condemnation.” Door Number Three is infinitely worse. It’s damnation: eternal waking torment and remorse. Here (as with Door Number One) choice is required: you can’t go to hell unless you ask to be indwelled with the spirit of Satan.
What evidence would indicate that a person has chosen Door Number Three? If Christ’s railing accusations against the scribes and Pharisees are any indication, it is one’s proactive efforts to prevent an uncommitted soul (that is, one who has not yet made a spiritual choice—one spiritually unborn) from entering the kingdom of God. Paul, Peter, John, and Jude all give us the same unshakable impression. And what sign would indicate that a person has chosen Door Number One, and has passed from death into life? In the simplest of terms, it would have to be his love for God, demonstrated through love for his fellow man. This is the central theme of the Epistle of I John, for instance.
You’re probably shaking your head right now, asking, “Why haven’t I ever heard of this before? Ken must be wrong. All I’ve ever heard in church, preached from every pulpit in the land, is a binary choice between heaven and hell, between eternal life and everlasting torment in the lake of fire.” Yes, that’s what I was taught too, and I believed it for half a century. I was given no reason to question it—even though it made it impossible to reconcile God’s mercy with His perfect justice.
But then I researched it. God’s word opened my eyes. The truth, it turns out, is everywhere you look in scripture. The problem is our unwillingness to think, our sloppy exegesis, questionable English Bible translations, and church traditions going back centuries in which the idea of God’s mercy—letting the dead simply die (“letting the dead bury their dead,” as Christ put it)—just wasn’t considered useful—whereas visions of hellfire and brimstone could motivate the masses and fill the coffers.
You’ll notice I haven’t provided any scriptural evidence here. That’s because I’ve done it elsewhere—and there’s a lot of it. For the whole story, please consult my prophecy study, The End of the Beginning (elsewhere on this website), Chapter 29: “The Three Doors.” The actual Greek and Hebrew words used in scripture make it abundantly clear that death, destruction, annihilation, and dissipation of the soul are fundamentally incompatible with concept of hell, damnation, and eternal torment. Personally, I sleep better at night knowing that Yahweh is both merciful and just.
The bottom line in our present context is that man’s privilege of free will explains why God is constantly seen dividing, separating, and sequestering His people from the world at large, while Satan constantly works toward conformity, malaise, and the lowest common denominator. Yahweh values holiness, for when we are set apart in groups dedicated to His glory, then our neighbors can perceive the contrast between their desperate, pointless lives and ours—filled with joy, purpose, and peace. Satan, meanwhile, is a proponent of top-down control, for it is all he knows. His idea of “perfection” is a small group of rich and powerful people at the top—the elite class of society—dominating and subjugating the seething mass of humanity at their feet—one big melting pot of dystopia, suspicion, hatred, and misery.
There is a Biblical “code-word” for this elite class. They’re called “Babylon,” named after the Chaldeans of old. The city of Babylon was where the practice of institutional idolatry began, only a few generations after the flood of Noah. In Biblical symbology, Babylon now encompasses every human permutation of Satan’s stranglehold on the souls of men. There are three basic areas of human endeavor in which Babylon’s overreach is concentrated:
(1) Religion and academia, where doctrine and dogma are established for the consumption of the masses. Late arrivals to this “team” would include the media and entertainment industries. The whole idea is to disseminate falsehood, or failing that, distract the masses from what God would prefer us to notice—His love, goodness, and provision. Anyone trying to fill your head with something contrary to God’s revealed word can be considered part of Babylon. (I’m not speaking of honest mistakes, you understand, but rather of deliberate deception.) If you’ll recall, this profile—the purposeful attempt to prevent people from having a relationship with Yahweh through His Messiah—reveals an association with “Door Number Three,” the highway to hell.
(2) Governments may be “necessary evils,” but that doesn’t mean they aren’t evil. Man was never given authority over other men, except in extremely limited and temporary situations. God’s prototype—theocratic Israel—had no government at all, no provision for making new laws, no king, no standing military, and no taxes (beyond the tithe—which was actually the repayment of a loan the Levites had made, at God’s bidding, to their fellow Israelites, something that had no enforcement provision). The priesthood was the closest thing there was to conventional leadership, but they had no political power at all.
Once established, governments tend to grow in reach and power, until, like a parasite or cancer, they kill their host. Include under this heading: military forces, regulators, law-enforcement agencies, taxation entities, and behind-the-scenes political power brokers, organized crime cartels, etc. As I said, governments today seem necessary, for the most part because too many of their citizens are wicked and unruly. Patriots rightly make a point of supporting their police and military services, but the measure of Babylon’s strength in this regard is how corrupt government has become. Satan’s Babylonian agenda is to join national governments into regional, then worldwide entities, making it easier to control, subjugate, and tax more people using fewer resources. But unification isn’t the same thing as unity. The current trend toward “globalization” (which will finally come to fruition under the reign of the Antichrist) is right out of the Babylonian playbook.
(3) The third and last variety of “Babylon Bouillabaisse” is just as fishy. It’s commerce, finance, predatory business practice—any concentration of wealth and power in the hands of relatively few individuals through any means other than the application of industry, ingenuity, and insight. John’s Revelation devotes an entire chapter (#18) to the prophetic record of the near-instantaneous fall of Babylon’s evil—with special emphasis on this “commercial” permutation of it.
My study of prophecy has led me to the rather ironic conclusion that Babylon’s destruction will provide the power vacuum needed for the Antichrist to ascend to the throne of planet Earth, from which he will reign virtually unopposed for three and a half years. How much of its fall he will cause himself, and how much is merely the result of unrestrained man behaving badly, is left unsaid. Four times in Revelation 18, Babylon’s demise is said to take place suddenly—in one day or one hour. “Fire” seems to be the implement of Babylon’s judgment, leading me to the conclusion that its demise is linked to the First Trumpet Judgment—doubtlessly nuclear war—spoken of in Revelation 8:7. John’s angel reports that “[Babylon’s] plagues will come in one day—death and mourning and famine. And she will be utterly burned with fire, for strong is the Lord God who judges her….” It is said that her allies “stood at a distance and cried out when they saw the smoke of her burning, saying, ‘What is like this great city?’” (Revelation 18:8, 18) When you read “city” in this context, read “system”—a socieo-economic, political and/or religious entity that is unified, self-contained, and prepared to defend itself.
Just because it is “the Lord God who judges her,” we need not assume that Yahweh Himself has “pushed the button.” It’s not hard to spot Yahweh’s usual modus operandi. For all His “reputation” as a stern judge, He almost never dispenses “wrath” proactively in this world. Our privilege of free will is much too important to Him. Far more often, He simply steps out of the way, allowing one evil destroy another one without His interference. Assyria was allowed to overrun apostate Samaria (Israel’s northern kingdom); then Babylon under Nebuchadnezzar swallowed Assyria whole. Babylon became so corrupt it was taken virtually without firing a shot by the Medes and Persians, who were in turn overrun by Alexander’s Greeks, who fell to the belligerent Roman war machine, which eventually became so decadent it was nibbled to death by successive packs of barbarian hyenas. Let’s face it: there’s a lot of evil to go around.
So it would appear that the rise of the Antichrist from the ashes of Babylon will be the world’s ultimate (and perhaps the last) example of one evil being “taken out” by an even greater one. At the end of the Tribulation then, the only evil the returning Yahshua will have to deal with will be the Antichrist and his machine—for this beast will have been given carte blanche (for a moment) over the whole earth: “The dragon [Satan] gave him his power, his throne, and great authority…. And all the world marveled and followed the beast. So they worshiped the dragon who gave authority to the beast; and they worshiped the beast, saying, ‘Who is like the beast? Who is able to make war with him?’… And authority was given him over every tribe, tongue, and nation. All who dwell on the earth will worship him, whose names have not been written in the Book of Life of the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” (Revelation 13:2, 3-4, 7-8) Only relatively small pockets of rebellion (read: holiness) will escape from his clutches—and God knows who they are.
But in our present world, Babylon is still the threat—this octopus-like mega-cartel that (truth be told) controls much of what we see, hear, use, buy, eat, owe, and work for, whether we realize it or not. That is why we’re told incessantly in scripture to flee from Babylon—not from the ancient city on the Euphrates, of course, but from the death it has come to symbolize. Note how the angel described it: “Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and has become a dwelling place of demons, a prison for every foul spirit, and a cage for every unclean and hated bird! For all the nations have drunk of the wine of the wrath of her fornication, the kings of the earth have committed fornication with her, and the merchants of the earth have become rich through the abundance of her luxury.” The very next verse tells us what we are supposed to do about it: “Come out of her, my people, lest you share in her sins, and lest you receive of her plagues. For her sins have reached to heaven, and God has remembered her iniquities.” (Revelation 18:2-5) Since the context here is Babylon’s sudden and ultimate demise, it is clear that we are to separate ourselves from her influence before that happens—at the earliest opportunity. The most comprehensive way to do that is to participate in the rapture: be gone from the earth before Babylon meets her doom. Of course, we have no idea when that will happen. But our instructions stand: we are to flee from this all-pervasive system of idolatry, wherever—or whenever—we can.
Isaiah prophesied before Babylon (as a powerful city-state) was even a blip on the radar of history. He said: “Go forth from Babylon! Flee from the Chaldeans! With a voice of singing, declare, proclaim this, utter it to the end of the earth. Say, ‘Yahweh has redeemed His servant Jacob!’” (Isaiah 48:20) As we shall learn later, Jacob/Israel is symbolic of “God’s family.” So whether he’s talking about the literal nation of Jacob fleeing the literal city of Babylon, or their symbolic equivalents—God’s people separating themselves from the world’s pervasive system of idolatry—the message is the same: holiness is crucial if we hope to survive.
Jeremiah wrote 150 years later, when Babylon was a rising world power. But despite her apparent invincibility, he too prophesied, “Flee from the midst of Babylon, and every one save his life! Do not be cut off in her iniquity, for this is the time of Yahweh’s vengeance. He shall recompense her. Babylon was a golden cup in Yahweh’s hand, that made all the earth drunk. The nations drank her wine. Therefore the nations are deranged. Babylon has suddenly fallen and been destroyed. Wail for her! Take balm for her pain. Perhaps she may be healed. We would have healed Babylon, but she is not healed.” (Jeremiah 51:6-9) Yahweh would have preferred for Babylon to repent and be healed, but alas, free will is—and always has been—ours to wield. This description of Babylon is eerily reminiscent of the way John’s angel described her—right down to the suddenness of her demise. By the time John wrote, the physical city of Babylon had been a ghost town for centuries: the reference was of necessity purely symbolic.
Zechariah offered the same advice: “‘Up, up! Flee from the land of the north,’ says Yahweh, ‘for I have spread you abroad like the four winds of heaven,’ says Yahweh. ‘Up, Zion! Escape, you who dwell with the daughter of Babylon.’” (Zechariah 2:6-7) In the context of what “Babylon” has become in today’s world—the power behind every throne—it is worth noting that when God tells us to “flee,” then such a thing is actually possible (which is not to say that it’s easy). The first step is to open your eyes to the fact that symbolic Babylon exists. That can be hard to do, because we were all born there. We’re used to it. It’s hard to see the blindfold that covers our own eyes. For some of us, it would be a real epiphany to discover just how much of our everyday lives are lived hip deep in the mire of Babylon.
In a very real sense, Babylon is the “broad highway” about which Yahshua warned us. To reprise His words, “Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it.” (Matthew 7:13-14) By telling us to “flee from Babylon,” God is pleading with us to get off the “way that leads to destruction” and take the offramp that leads through the “narrow gate” to life. He’s asking us to leave the teeming throng and set ourselves apart for His purpose—join a different group.
If you’ll recall our observations from the previous section, you’ll note that the “broad way that leads to destruction” is mankind’s default state: condemnation, separation from God. But notice that He didn’t call it “the broad way that leads to damnation.” No, this is Door Number Two, death—Yahweh’s merciful provision for the sleepers, victims, and careless who simply failed to choose life. A different offramp from the “broad highway” leads to Door Number Three—damnation in hell, the state of eternal waking torment and remorse that no sane person would wish on his worst enemy. Think about it: even though they’re both bad, death and damnation are mutually exclusive concepts.
Back in Revelation, John was given a vision of three angels who—in the context of the Tribulation—presented these same “three doors.” If you had to place this in the Tribulation chronology, it would have to come after the Antichrist takes power, but before the mark of the beast has gained much traction. Babylon is gone at this point, but “System 666” can still be avoided—hence the warning of the third angel. There’s no point in advising against doing something you’ve already done. This would place this three-part angelic warning at about the time of the Abomination of Desolation described in Revelation 13, warned about by Yahshua in the Olivet Discourse (Mark 13:14, Matthew 24:15), and referenced by Daniel in chapters 9, 11, and 12.
The first angel’s announcement was a plea to choose “Door Number One.” “Then I saw another angel flying in the midst of heaven, having the everlasting gospel to preach to those who dwell on the earth—to every nation, tribe, tongue, and people—saying with a loud voice, ‘Fear God and give glory to Him, for the hour of His judgment has come; and worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water….’” Nobody’s got a Bible, believing friends, churches, or Christian broadcasts at this point. I would guess that the Internet will have been “purged” of articles or books like this one. But Yahweh’s message gets through anyway: “Respond to the God of love, for the hour of judgment (i.e., separation from Him) has come upon the world.” Everyone will hear the message. Some will heed it, and some will not. Free will, again.
The second angel in the series doesn’t suggest making a choice, but he does make a timely observation. “And another angel followed, saying, ‘Babylon is fallen, is fallen, that great city, because she has made all nations drink of the wine of the wrath of her fornication….’” That’s pretty esoteric, so allow me to translate. “Don’t look now,” he says, “but the whole flawed system of values and beliefs that dominated your world for millennia on end has crashed and burned. The status quo is no more, and good riddance. The ‘broad highway’ of non-choice that led nowhere has finally come to a dead end. In the coming days, you must reach a decision: will it be God’s way, or Satan’s?”
So much for Door Number Two. God is apparently getting ready to lock it and throw away the key.
There’s nothing coy or cryptic about the message of the last angel: “Then a third angel followed them, saying with a loud voice, ‘If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives his mark on his forehead or on his hand, he himself shall also drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is poured out full strength into the cup of His indignation. He shall be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; and they have no rest day or night, who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:6-11) “But…but…the great leader we’ve all just hailed as our one-world Messiah, the one with all the impressive signs and wonders, has just told us we have to receive his mark of loyalty. Without it we can’t buy, sell, or even work for a living. It looks as if I’m damned if I do and damned if I don’t.”
The angel would offer this slight correction: “You’re damned if you do, alright. But not if you don’t. Yes, your mortal carcass could easily be dead within the next few years if you refuse the mark. But death and damnation are two very different things. Martyrdom is infinitely superior to hell’s torments. Choosing God over Satan, even if the beast catches up with you and cuts your head off, is the smartest thing you could possibly do. ‘He is no fool who gives what he cannot keep in order to gain what he cannot lose.’ Choose eternal life. I beg you.”
The three angels of Revelation 14, then, present the three eternal destinies that have always confronted man, couched this time in terms particularly relevant to those faced with the “hour of trial which shall come upon the whole world, to test those who dwell on the earth.” (Revelation 3:10) God is pleading with us (as He always has) to leave death behind, respond to His love, and rely upon His remedy for our state of separation from Him. The only other alternative to death is a living, eternal hell—something Yahweh designed for demons—never intending that His beloved humans might choose to go there.
The groups we choose to be a part of, then, are the focus of God’s entire plan of redemption—for better or for worse. And make no mistake: eternal life in Yahweh’s love requires a choice on our part—a conscious decision, an act of the will. It’s not a hard choice. All it takes is a willingness to admit that (1) you are not the result of a pointless series of improbable accidents of nature, but were rather created for a reason—because your Creator loves you; (2) you (along with everybody else in the world) became separated from your Creator by falling short of His standard of perfection; (3) you can’t be reconciled with Him through your own efforts; so (4) you wish to reconnect with Him by receiving His remedy for your sin, His gift of salvation.
Forget about the religious stuff, the penance, the good works, the alms, the study, and the piety. That will come (if it comes at all) more or less automatically as a result of your choice. Your decision to reciprocate your Creator’s love will result in a changed life. But you can’t change your life in order to earn your Creator’s love—He already loves you, and He has since before the foundation of the world.
That being said, the groups God invests with symbolic significance are not the sort of classes we can choose to join through one’s privilege of free will, or aspire to, or work toward. Those groups, classes, and institutions will be the focus of the next ten chapters. Much of what we’re about to explore revolves around God’s rather arbitrary relationship with Israel—a “group” He had to invent from practically nothing for this very purpose. Whether this family’s interaction with their neighbors is in view, or whether a subset within Israel has been further set apart by God for our edification, the groups we see used as symbols in scripture are not the result of our choices, but of God’s.
And that’s the point, if I’m seeing this correctly: Yahweh uses ordinary—seemingly “random”—things to teach us about His plan. We’ve seen this phenomenon dozens of times in our study so far: the “thing” itself isn’t intrinsically important—what’s crucial is the significance He has attached to it. We have but to open our eyes and ears to the truth.
(First published 2019)