Can You Tell The Difference?

I wrote something quite provocative yesterday. I wrote that I could say with "absolute confidence" that Harold Camping does not know, and is not known by, Jesus. Absolute confidence? There are not too many things in this world of which we can be absolutely confident, least of which, typically, is the genuineness of another person's faith commitments. The statement either represents something resting on an unshakable foundation, or that I am arrogant in the extreme.

I believe it is the former.

It is not as though I make it a practice to evaluate whether somebody's profession of faith in Christ is genuine. Usually, such analysis is fraught with peril, and I do not recommend it. The Harold Camping issue is, however, unique. Jesus himself expects his followers to be on the watch for false prophets-people predicting and pontificating authoritatively in the name of Jesus about matters on which Jesus has not authorized them to speak (Matt. 7:15). And the timing of his Second Coming is something about which Jesus explicitly disclaimed any knowledge (Matt. 24:36). Is the student above his Master?

Not only has Harold Camping been exposed as a false prophet, as today is now May 25th, four days out from his apocalyptic prediction, but the fact is he has been exposed as such before. He once predicted the end of the world in 1994. False prophets are not "known" by Jesus, and he will not recognize them at his return. Jesus even emphasizes that this is not something ambiguous or difficult to ascertain: "I will tell them plainly, 'I never knew you'" (Matt. 7:23). We have it on the authority of Jesus, who himself hearkens back to the Old Testament standards for prophets ("If what a prophet proclaims in the name of the Lord does not take place or come true, that is a message the Lord has not spoken. That prophet has spoken presumptuously. Do not be afraid of him." Dt. 18:22), that Harold Camping is a false prophet who will stand under God's judgment. That means that whatever feelings of love and devotion he has for Jesus, they are not reciprocated. They are feelings rooted in self-deception.

So far, so clear. But this post is entitled, "Can You Tell the Difference?" What happens if the case is not so clear? What if the teaching is not something empirically falsifiable, like Camping's prediction? What if a person, in the name of Jesus, teaches something that seems to be at odds with basic biblical teaching? Can we distinguish between the true representative of God and the false?

Note very carefully: I am not yet asking how we tell the difference. I am asking: can we tell the difference? That is, are we authorized to tell the difference? The Christian community recently ran up against this question quite pointedly when a well-known Christian pastor wrote a bestselling book denying the reality of hell. A firestorm of controversy erupted, as should be expected. The one thing that filled me with more dismay than anything else was the notion, relentlessly repeated on message boards, blogs, and Facebook threads, that people are in no place to judge Rob Bell. To do so was just another example of petty, vindictive, intolerant, narrow-minded heresy hunters persecuting a brother.

Those who know me know that I have very little time for petty, vindictive, intolerant, narrow-minded heresy hunters. ("When I was a child I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put childish ways behind me." 1 Cor. 13:11). I am far from the crowd John Frame has now infamously named "Machen's Warrior Children," those Reformed brethren dedicated to rooting out and demolishing every theological formulation that is not a direct quote from the Westminster Confession of Faith.

No matter how generous of spirit I am by God's grace, however, I simply cannot, and the church simply cannot (also by God's grace) flirt with the sentiment, repeated so often about Rob Bell, that nobody is in a position to evaluate and distinguish true teaching from false. The sentiment is exactly that: just a sentiment. And pure sentiment is sentimentality. Yes, perhaps Rob Bell is sincere. Maybe he exudes a love for Jesus and others. Maybe he is "just asking questions." But if those attributes are all it takes to inoculate someone in a position of pastoral authority from scrutiny, then it follows that we simply cannot tell the difference between true and false teachers.

It is characteristic of the cultural age in which we live that sharp distinctions are purposely blurred. Postmodernism can be adequately defined in three simple words: Loss of confidence. Confidence about the truth, confidence about goodness, and confidence about beauty. That someone sees the world in "black and white" is said as a degrading slur these days. Much more laudable is a person of "nuance," who sees the world in differing shades of gray. There is always an element of truth, of course. People can be confident of the wrong things or in the wrong ways. Their "black" may not be truly black, and it is possible their "white" is just "eggshell." But that sort of nuance is not the point of our Zeitgeist, the spirit of our age. The point is to demolish confidence all the way down. "Who are you to judge?" Those words will be the ironic epitaph of our civilization, which seems quite determined to die on the sword of complete moral relativism.

It so happens that Jesus, not surprisingly, provides an answer to our question: Can we tell the difference? Can we distinguish between true and false, black and white? Are we authorized to do this? Emphatically: Yes.

Jesus was a master of metaphor. Lilies of the field, birds of the air, mustard seeds, wheat and tares. I happen to think that his finest metaphor (If I can take the purely artistic liberty of "rating" them) is this one about false prophets: "They come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves" (Matt. 7:15). We have heard that metaphor so often I believe we are dulled to how utterly brilliant that image is. Wolves dressed as sheep. Jesus expects us to tell the difference. But it means that there will be outward similarities. There will always be things about the false teacher that people can point to: "Look at all the beautiful wool! The soft, doe-like eyes! Look how he loves the rest of the flock! He wouldn't hurt a flea!" Jesus wants his people to not be distracted by the similarities. As Little Red Riding Hood figured out, the big ears and sharp teeth are discontinuities that must be accounted for. The true nature of the false teacher is pure, ferocious, cold, calculating Alpha Male.

Following the sentimental reasoning of many of Rob Bell's defenders, Jesus' teaching in this regard would be nullified. For it would be impossible to detect the differences between synthetic wool and the real thing. But that is not Jesus' view of things. Most importantly, Jesus does not leave us in the dark with respect to the "how," either. He gives us a direct criterion for evaluation. Immediately after he tells us that he will not recognize the false prophets on the Day of Judgment (Matt. 7:23), he continues: "Therefore (don't miss that word!) everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock [....] But everyone who hears these words of mine and does not put them into practice is like a foolish man who built his house on sand." What is the distinguishing criterion between wisdom and folly, truth and error, white and black? The very words of Jesus.

Jesus is continuing, amplifying, and co-opting a long Hebrew tradition of distinguishing between two distinct kinds of people. He is directly reminiscent here of Psalm 1: Blessed is the man who "meditates on Torah day and night." Those who do not heed Torah will not "stand in the judgment." We can now get a glimpse of why Matthew tells us: "When Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were amazed at his teaching, because he taught as one who had authority, and not as their teachers of the law" (Matt. 7:28-29) Yes, Jesus openly identifying himself as the true Torah, the very Word of God, the very criterion between truth, wisdom, and blessedness on the one hand, and error, folly, and curse on the other hand would be rather amazing for Jewish listeners. Who does he think he is, Yahweh? Moses and the prophets pointed people to the law; Jesus points people to himself. Those who assert that Jesus never claimed to be God simply aren't reading or listening very hard.

I want to bring the point home this way. Jesus says that the measure by which we tell a true sheep from a ferocious wolf is by their fidelity to his words. Harold Camping obviously does not care about Jesus' words, for Jesus said "no one knows the day or hour," and Harold predicted both the day and the hour. Rob Bell is, at first glance, a bit of a harder case. But not really. For it is an undeniable fact that there is one person in the history of recorded humanity that spoke and taught more than anybody else about the reality of hell. That person is Jesus of Nazareth. Rob Bell is denying one thing about which Jesus was the most prolific known advocate. By definition, then, Bell is not hearing Jesus' words and putting them into practice. By definition he is engaged in folly, building a house upon the sand, and leading others to do the same.

If we listen to Jesus and put into practice what he has just taught us, then, not only can we tell the difference between a wolf and a sheep, but we can do so in this particular instance. For all the sincerity and niceness, feigned humility (always astonishing given that this is a man claiming to be wiser than nearly every other Christian teacher in history), and persuasive sentiments and words, he is an Alpha Male in the worst sense of the term: the leader of a ferocious wolf pack. It gives me no pleasure to write that. I wish it were otherwise.

In our cultural moment, the loss of confidence produced by postmodernism has had an incredibly destabilizing effect. Many have wondered the way out of our culture's relativism and lack of nerve when it comes to identifying truth, beauty, and goodness. The way out is the way Jesus identified: "I am the way, the truth, and the life" (John 14:6). Putting our trust in Jesus, the very Word of God made flesh, will save us not only from our sin and corruption, the Day of Judgment, and, yes, hell, but also from the sinking sands of postmodernism. For we will be building on the Rock.

Yes, we can (and must) tell the difference.

Brian Mattson