The divine actor

We are in the last times before Jesus returns again writes Evangelical Christian Alex Monro

Evangelical ("good news") Christianity celebrates a God of speech and action who is involved in the world. Evangelicalism puts God at centre-stage in the drama of human history, which it depicts as a story of unrequited love.

This God spoke to humanity through history in a crescendo of revelation that climaxed in the life, words, death and resurrection of Jesus.

Evangelicals believe God's authorship of the universe is already communicated to us in the order, complexity and beauty of the material world. Moreover, he has made himself known through a people he chose, through prophets he appointed and, finally, through Jesus of Nazareth, "the word made flesh". (The biblical God is Trinitarian, father, son and spirit - from the first book of the Old Testament God often uses the first person plural and Genesis 1 verse 2 refers to the spirit of God "hovering over the waters" - but the perfect unity of the three persons means he can only be counted as one God).

God's authorship of all is the essence of evangelical faith. Hebrews 12:2 described Jesus as "the founder and perfecter of our faith". We believe that life, salvation and hope come from him.

Humanity plays its part in this divine drama too, but as Goneril, the ungrateful daughter who takes all her father gives him before turning her back to him. No prayers, pilgrimages, religious observance, social action or costly acts of generosity can mitigate humanity's guilt before this perfectly just God. This is the low point in the history of God's world, and the hallmarks of it are plain - discord, decay and death.

God is far from finished with mankind, however, and chooses Abraham as the first player in a new plan for the fallen creation - Abraham has righteousness "credited to him" by God because of his faith (and, crucially, before he is circumcised). The books of the Old Testament tell the stories of many such men and women of faith, and Hebrews 11 lists a number of them for us - Abel, Enoch, Noah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, Moses, Rahab and others. The writer of Hebrews says they were approved thanks to their faith in God, not to their works or ethnicity - yet even faith is from God, as Paul's letter to the Ephesians explains: "For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith - and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God - not by works, so that no one can boast"

But all these sinners are only a shadow of the climax of God's earthly play, which comes to life with an unprecedented deus ex machina that flies in the face of human religiosity. God the son becomes man, is born in a disreputable town, lives as a refugee among an occupied people in a far corner of the Roman Empire and is unjustly killed as a common criminal, rejected by his followers and his friends. He is the antithesis of a manmade God - earthly political ambition (such as Zionism) is not a feature of truly evangelical Christianity.

This shameful death is Jesus' crowning glory, as he himself pays the blood price for the sins of those who rejected his rule and his plan. He does it for no good reason, except that his justice and his love demand it as the only solution. The result is that Christ takes on human sinfulness so that humanity can take on Christ's purity, and be restored to God. The biblical accounts describe how, at the moment Jesus breathed his last, the temple curtain that had divided sinful man from a perfect God is torn in two. The curtain, it says, is torn from above - humanity has done nothing to earn its salvation. The resurrection is the display of God's final victory over sin and over its Siamese twin, death.

The play has reached its penultimate act. Christ has risen and returned to the father and these are "the last times" before he returns again. It is in these last times that Christians are called to take to heart Jesus' final words to his closest followers. "Go and make disciples of all nations", before God calls human history to an end so that justice can finally be done and followers of his "from every nation, tribe, people and language" be brought into his presence forever.

Alex studied French, then Chinese before pursuing a career in journalism. He now works for Trusted Sources, a political and economic risk consultancy, where he is a China analyst
Getty
Show Hide image

Is the Great Fire of London a blueprint for how governments deal with disasters?

Visible leadership, an established authority, and a common external enemy: an enduring defence mechanism 350 years on.

In 1968, the science journal The Lancet ran a report into human behaviour. When populations are confronted with disaster, it recommended, effective “communications, coordination, and control, and the establishment of a recognised authority” are of utmost importance (advice that should have been heeded immediately after the Brexit result in June this year).

The 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London this week seems is a good time to think about how we deal with disasters: over 13,000 homes were destroyed, 87 churches ruined and thousands of Londoners displaced.

For me, one of the most striking parts of the story of the Great Fire is not the fire itself nor the dramatic rebuilding programme that followed, but the state of flux in between.

When the fire broke out, England was at war with both the Dutch Republic and France. As soon as news reached France, the Venetian ambassador Alvise Sagredo, declared that the fire would be “worse than the plague and any other disaster, capable of making [the English] change their government and their principles”.

In England, even the London Gazette warned that England’s foes would try “to persuade the world abroad of great parties and disaffection at home against his majesties government”. Faced with unparalleled destruction and unprecedented disarray, how did the king, his advisers and civic authorities regain control of London?

With the Guildhall severely damaged and the Royal Exchange destroyed, the first step was to find a new base for civic and mercantile power. On 6 September, Charles II instructed the Lord Mayor and the city aldermen to resume governance of the city. Gresham College and buildings around Bishopsgate were taken over and efforts were immediately taken to re-establish trade. Vendors were granted permission to set up sheds in temporary markets at Bishopsgate Street, Tower Hill, Smithfield and Leadenhall Street.

“Honest and able persons” were selected to monitor the ruined city to ensure fire did not break out afresh, appeals were made across the country for charitable donations and neighbouring counties were called upon to provide sustenance. From the navy stores, ship’s biscuit was offered to the needy and canvas was provided so that the tens of thousands of homeless people stranded in the fields surrounding London could fashion tents.

The measures were not perfect. Visiting Moorfields, the diarist John Evelyn described, “the poor inhabitants . . . some under tents, some under miserable huts and hovels, many without a rag”.

Those stranded found food to be in short supply and many succumbed to the illnesses bred by a reduced condition in life, including aged playwright James Shirley, who died in October 1666.

But it wasn’t long before people started to disperse – either leaving London altogether, finding accommodation elsewhere, or returning to the locations of their former homes and shops to erect makeshift shacks above the ruins.

In the background, the trial and execution of French watchmaker Robert Hubert, who falsely claimed to have started the fire, provided a focus for any anger and rage.

With communication ruptured following the destruction of the London Gazette printing house and the General Letter Office, rumours of plots, arson and invasions had spread almost as quickly as the fire itself. Indeed, terrible violence had broken out during the fire, with mobs targeting any “strangers” or foreign-born Londoners. One French servant, for example, reported how gangs of “English women did knock down strangers for not speaking good English. Some of them armed with spits, some with bread staffs, and the captain with a broad sword.”

When the London Gazette was released the week after the fire – after only skipping one edition of its biweekly run – it provided readers with a detailed description of the catastrophe, emphasising its accidental nature and promoting the role played by Charles II and his brother and heir, James, Duke of York, in preventing the fire spreading even further.

Against protocol, the newspaper also allowed important tradespeople to advertise their new offices: the goldsmith-bankers, for example, informed readers that they had found premises along Broad Street.

By mid-September, the etcher Wenceslaus Hollar had already begun his survey of the city and plans had been submitted to the king from John Evelyn and architects Christopher Wren and Robert Hooke, to name just a few, as to how to rebuild the capital.

Writing at the time, Sir Nathaniel Hobart, believed that the “rebuilding of the Citty will not be soe difficult as the satisfying all interests, there being many proprietors”. As such, one of the most important innovations following the disaster was the establishment of a judiciary, known as the Fire Court, to untangle the complex web of formal and informal agreements between tenants and landlords. From 1667 until 1672 the Fire Court settled hundreds and hundreds of cases.

There were certainly many bumps along the way – for a while, the City of London was plundered and inhabited by gangs. Plus, anger towards foreign-born Londoners continued; owing to his Dutch background, one Johan Vandermarsh had to fight tooth and nail to keep hold of his property on Lime Street, despite helping to save many of his neighbours’ homes.

All of this considered, there was nothing like the widespread disorder that Charles II had feared and his enemies expected. On the contrary, the visibility of the king and his brother and heir – and the convenient suspicion that the fire had been started by an external enemy – worked to bind the people to their king and settle unrest. Although hard to believe at the time, there was also the promise of “a more beautiful city”.

Rebecca Rideal is a historian, factual television producer and author of 1666: Plague, War and Hellfire.

She will be speaking at London’s Burning festival on Friday 2 September – a contemporary festival of art and ideas produced at Artichoke to commemorate the 350th anniversary of the Great Fire of London. Free to the public, it runs from 30 August-4 September.