INTERNATIONAL DESK - STRANGE cities can be lonely places at night — Vienna, Austria, is no exception. Some Austrian friends had invited me to dinner, but I had decided instead to attend the Vienna Opera House. Unfortunately, even on a cold winter's evening the performance of Der Rosenkavalier was nearly sold out. The clerk was apologetic. "The only seats left are in a place where you won't be able to see anything." He added, "That's not a good introduction to our wonderful Opera House. Please wait until you can buy a good seat."
I walked up Mariahilferstrasse to my hotel, past the brightly decorated shops. Many people were still out doing their Christmas shopping. It began to rain, and I took shelter in a crowded little restaurant. Finding a seat at the last vacant table, I ordered a bowl of goulash soup.
I looked up to see an elderly lady loaded down with several large shopping bags. "Do you mind if I join you?" she said, in heavily accented English. "All the other seats are full."
She ordered some coffee. "It is cold outside, nicht wahr?" I agreed. We exchanged views about the weather, the news, Vienna. "You are a tourist?" she asked.
"Not really. I am a writer."
"I wish I was a writer. I want to write a book. But I am just ordinary," she said.
She didn't seem "just ordinary." I could see from her conversation that she was well educated. And although she was now old and her clothes were shabby, she still had a certain dignity. She was, I realized, a person who had seen better times. She seemed to want to tell me about herself.
"I am now a widow — I married twice — both my husbands are dead. My first husband died before the war. But before he died, he gave me a son. Let me see... " She looked at me keenly. "Yes, my son would have been about your age now."
"Would have been...?"
She explained her infant son had contracted a serious disease, and had lain close to death for several weeks.
"Every day, I would visit him in the hospital. Then I would go to the church, and beg God to spare his life. Day after day I would do this. Then one day, I said to myself — this is wrong. I must not be so insistent in telling God what to do."
"So next day, after I visited my son, I went to the church and prayed, 'Father in heaven, Thy will be done.' And I meant it. The next day, my little boy died."
She paused a moment. "I know now that was the Best answer to my prayer."
"Why do you say that?"
"Because.... I didn't tell you... my first husband was a Jew. So my little boy was half Jewish. I think you know what that would have meant."
Yes — she didn't have to elaborate.
Within a year or so of her son's death, Austria was annexed by Hitler and became a part of the Third Reich. The whole world now knows what that would have meant for a little boy who was half Jewish. Children were not spared from the "final solution."
"So, I accepted my little son's death as a blessing in disguise. Also, in those days, I had faith. I have always been religious. I asked the priests, I read books and I looked in the Bible — and I knew that I would see my little boy again."
Her mood changed. Her eyes were filled with tears.
"In those days, I had such strong faith. Now I am not so sure. I wonder if I will see that little boy again."
"Why do you wonder?"
"Because, back then, I believed. But now I have to question my belief. The world has changed so much in the last 40 years. People don't believe in God like they used to. Even religious leaders in the same church do not always agree with each other. I just don't know what to believe anymore."
"You will see your son again," I told her.
"You sound very sure."
"I am," I said, and I told her why.
I wonder how many more millions of people there are whose faith has been pushed, pulled and then shattered by the changing tides of religious opinion. How many of our readers have, in the past, been made to doubt things that are true — and equally dangerously — have been taught to believe things that are not.
One of the most pathetic sights I ever saw was on an island in the South Pacific. The native people had made a small clearing on which they built a platform — a poor imitation of an air traffic control tower as used in the Second World War. On the ground lay several crude representations of airplanes, made from palm leaves and bamboo. These people belonged to the Cargo cult..
During the Pacific War their parents had seen the wonderful things that were unloaded from the military airplanes that landed on their islands. These simple people had no understanding of the war raging around them. All they saw was that the white men had powerful "gods" who sent them presents by means of a "big bird." So, they reasoned, they would also build an "airfield" and maybe one day the big bird would again bring presents to them.
Poor people — so utterly deceived. Even a helicopter couldn't land safely on their pathetic little clearing. What they wait for so patiently is never going to happen.
But what about you? Are you also pinning your hopes on something that is never going to happen? Or — like that lady in Vienna — have you given up believing in something that is? What does it take to make you believe — or not believe — something?
For example — what do you believe happens when you die? And why do you believe it? Most readers of this magazine consider themselves as belonging to the Christian faith. Most Christians believe that if they live a basically good life, they will go to heaven when they die. That is what a Christian should believe, because that is what Jesus said would happen, isn't it?
No it isn't.
Have you ever looked to see for yourself, exactly what Jesus Christ said happens when you die? You may be surprised. If you were to compare other things he said with the time-honored beliefs and customs of today's Christian churches you would have more shocks coming.
Jesus knew that after his crucifixion, it would be "open season" on his teachings. So he warned multitudes of his would — be followers that they would be worshiping him in vain if they taught — and practiced — their own ideas of what is right and wrong (Matt. 15:9).
How do you worship Christ? Good Christians go to church every Sunday, or at least, they should. right?
But did Jesus say you should go to church on Sunday? In the 4th century A.D., the observance of the Sabbath — the seventh day of the week — was changed to Sunday at the command of church leaders. But who said they could do that? Did Jesus sanction that change in his doctrine? The Sabbath is the fourth commandment — part of God's eternal, spiritual law. Jesus said that heaven and earth would pass away before even one jot or tittle (the dotting of an i or the crossing of a t) of the law would be abandoned, let alone a major point of it (Matt. 5:18).
But then, some schools of thought maintain that that law is done away. It is a burden and Jesus did us all a favor by nailing it to his cross, they say. Where did they get that idea? What if it isn't right?
While we're on the subject of Jesus — what about his birthday? What instructions did he give us for celebrating that? Many who firmly believe they are followers of Christ would be astonished to learn that neither he nor his disciples ever celebrated his birthday — or anybody else's, for that matter. Christmas was an ancient holiday centuries before the birth of Christ.
God made it clear to the prophet Jeremiah what he thought about people who cut down trees and decorate them as a part of their religious observance. He said it was a vain custom, and we should not learn it (Jer. 10:2-5). But that is one custom that has become firmly entrenched as a part of today's celebration of "our Lord's" birthday. Jesus said, "Why call ye me, Lord, Lord, and do not the things which I say?" (Luke 6:46).
There are so many ways in which most Christians do exactly the opposite to the things Christ said. Most do not do them deliberately — they just have not seriously thought for themselves what they believe and why. They trust their ministers to teach them what is right. But today, even members of the clergy in the major denominations say they can no longer accept the time — honored beliefs of their churches. They embrace innovative ideas, and lead congregations into greater confusion.
This is nothing new. In his earliest epistles to the people of Asia Minor and Greece, the apostle Paul warned against confused and misled teachers who would seek to change the teachings of Christ, and bring in their own ideas. Jesus prophesied that many would be coming in his name, saying he is Christ, but having their own ideas about what he taught. But he warned us not to be deceived by them (Matt. 24:4-5).
A wrong idea can eventually become accepted as an established truth. When it was first suggested that the Sabbath be changed to Sunday, and the New Testament Passover to Easter, it caused a major controversy in the churches. But today, these festivals are accepted by most Christians without question. They are as much a part of Christianity as church steeples, Good Friday and having a newborn baby baptized. (You might want to investigate where those traditions came from.) But because a new doctrine or belief becomes acceptable it doesn't automatically make it right. Or just because learned men question something Jesus said, it doesn't therefore become suspect.
Scholars have questioned whether Jesus was really the Son of God, or even whether he existed. Ministers have openly debated whether he actually did die on the cross. Today we have theologians who have suggested that God is after all not all powerful. They think that he would like to do something about this awful world, but he can't. He lacks the power to combat the overwhelming evil.
This kind of nonsense is being advanced by some who claim to be Christian teachers. The apostle Paul described them well — ever learning but never coming to the truth! The trouble is, they take others down with them. Like that woman in Austria.
I hope what I told her gave her some of her faith back.
I explained to her that the clear words of hope that she had once read in the Bible were still there. But I also warned her that before she "bought a line" from a teacher, she had better check if he is telling the truth.
In matters of religious belief, a person had better be sure of where he stands. During centuries past an honest man had to consider carefully what he believed. In the casual religious climate of the West today, we can get away with being nonchalant and superficial. But we are again coming to a point in history when religion will be of great consequence. If we are to believe Bible prophecy (do we?), millions are going to be deceived, and will be caught up in a massive lie: Thus, Jesus Christ is coming again — in spite of those who say he isn't. Tragically, millions who believe themselves to be devout Christians will resist him with the full fury of modern warfare. They will have been told that he is the Antichrist — and they will have believed it, having accepted someone else as the Christ.
Could you be among them? You could — if you are not basing the things you believe on a sure foundation of truth.
For 50 years, this magazine has claimed to be The Plain Truth. Yet editor in chief Herbert W. Armstrong has always said, "Don't just believe us — check it up in your Bible." In other words, make sure what you believe is the truth.
Today, it will mean a renewed faith, confidence and peace of mind.
Tomorrow, it may mean life itself.