Eternity On Our Hearts, V.

Previously:

Part I: An Existential Crisis
Part II: What Pontius Pilate Asked
Part III: Assumptions, Axioms and Authority
Part IV: In the Beginning was the Word

Part V: The Word Made Flesh
What is the Gospel? 

We can talk about objectivity and reality all day, but those are just philosophical underpinnings. In the last few essays, my hope was to provide sound reason and evidence for the integrity of truth, and the truth of the Bible. The ultimate point of it all, though, is the resounding message of the Scripture: the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

In The Prodigal God, Tim Keller takes a piercing and beautiful look at the Gospel through one of Jesus’ most famous parables—commonly known as the parable of the prodigal son, Keller refers to it as the parable of the two lost sons, and the prodigal, lavish grace of God the Father. (You can read it in Luke 15).

“Jesus uses the younger and elder brothers to portray the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: the way of moral conformity and the way of self-discovery. Each acts as a lens coloring how you see all of life, or as a paradigm shaping your understanding of everything. Each is a way of finding personal significance and worth, of addressing the ills of the world, and of determining right from wrong.” –Tim Keller

In antiquity and modernity, we see people divided into these two basic frameworks of living. Of course, many people are a mixture in some ways, but we tend to either adopt the worldview of living by good, upright moral standards (and condemning those who turn from them), or we adopt the worldview that we should pursue our own goals and fulfillment according to what pleases us, regardless of culture and convention.

The former can be crushing, because we are never up to par. The latter can be destructive, as our hearts lead us into spirals of greed, addiction and selfishness.

The Gospel of Jesus enters with a denunciation of both these inadequate, hopeless paths, and offers a radical alternative.

The problem of sin

Sin traces its roots back to the Garden of Eden. God created all things and saw that it was good, including Adam and Eve. But when they actively disobeyed God, sin entered the world and affected all of mankind and creation. Because of sin, there is death, disease and decay. Above all, there is separation from God because He cannot tolerate sin. That’s why there were so many rituals and sacrificial laws in the Old Testament about how men had to approach God, because by nature, all were unclean and sinful.

Most of us think sin is breaking God’s rules. But when Jesus came and condemned some of the most religious, moral people of his day, he revealed that sin is more profound than that: it is displacing God in our hearts, and putting something else on the throne. (Adam and Eve’s ultimate sin wasn’t just eating fruit, it was a heart that desired to be like God). We are all worshipers by nature—don’t think you are ‘free’ if you don’t worship God. You can worship self, money, success, relationships, and a host of other things.

That is why Paul says in Romans 3:23, “All have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.”

The character of God

I’ve been asked before: so why is that so bad? Why does God care so much anyway if we worship Him or if we sin?

The Bible begins with the declaration of God as creator. “In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) As creator, God has the right and authority to tell us how we must live. One analogy used in Scripture is that of a potter and clay. In discussing God’s sovereignty in the New Testament, Paul writes:

“You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?’ But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, ‘Why have you made me like this?’ Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use?” (Romans 9:19-21)

So why is God’s law and standard so high and impossible? In short, God’s law is reflection of His character. In it, we see his perfect and pure moral standard. God is holy, and He cannot tolerate sin. That sounds harsh, especially to our culture today. But if you even think about human courts of law, we see that they are designed to execute justice, even if it’s done imperfectly. We are rightly outraged if criminals are let off the hook. God cannot be a God of justice if He lets sin slide. That would compromise His righteousness. And because He is God, He has the authority to declare what is right and wrong and execute judgment.

No one can give you a ‘reason’ why God has this or that particular standard – we tend to ask that when we encounter parts of God’s law that are especially hard to swallow or naturally distasteful to us. But in knowing God’s character, we must understand His love and His law are not set in opposition to each other. Like a child dislikes his parents’ command to not eat all the cookies, we often chafe against God’s law because we fail to see how they are for our good. A child just knows sugar tastes delicious; he doesn’t think about calories or diabetes. In the face of God’s infinite wisdom, we are more limited than a child before his parents. Our asking ‘why’ must stop somewhere, and in short, the end of questioning must be because God has spoken. He does not owe us any explanations.

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” (Isaiah 55:9)

The Gospel

This all sounds horribly bleak. But the bad news must come before the Gospel, which literally means ‘good news.’ We can’t fully appreciate how good the Gospel is unless we understand how desperate our situation is: as sinful and helpless before a holy God, rightfully deserving condemnation. If the way of salvation were only by keeping the law, no one would make it. This is where the Gospel comes in – that Christ, who is God, came as a man to live the perfect life that we could not, and die as a substitute in our place, taking the punishment for our sin and satisfying the justice of God.

Probably one of the most famous verses in the Bible: “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16) The law will only condemn us, not save; salvation is by grace alone through faith in Christ alone.

Future glory

The Gospel does not end at the cross. Christ’s death bore the punishment for our sins, but His resurrection gives the hope of eternal life. The Apostle Paul vigorously defends the literal, bodily resurrection of Christ as the cornerstone of Christian faith and doctrine:

“But if there is no resurrection of the dead, then not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain. We are even found to be misrepresenting God, because we testified about God that he raised Christ, whom he did not raise if it is true that the dead are not raised. For if the dead are not raised, not even Christ has been raised. And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Then those also who have fallen asleep in Christ have perished. If in Christ we have hope in this life only, we are of all people most to be pitied.” (1 Corinthians 15:12-19)

He goes on to joyfully proclaim the future resurrection believers can look forward to because of Christ’s victory:

“For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this perishable body must put on the imperishable, and this mortal body must put on immortality. When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:52-55)

This, then, is the radical alternative of the Gospel. It does not begin with a call to live better or obey more. It does not begin with meditation or philosophy or trying to reach some higher spiritual plane. We are helpless to reach God, and foolish to try by our own definitions or self-made formulas. The Gospel begins with the lavish grace of God, who sought out sinners that never sought Him.

“Jesus does not divide the world into the moral “good guys” and the immoral “bad guys.” He shows us that everyone is dedicated to a project of self-salvation, to using God and others in order to get power and control for themselves. We are just going about it in different ways. Even though both sons are wrong, however, the father cares for them and invites them both back into his love and feast.” –Tim Keller

Note (but an important one): I’ve tried to summarize and capture the heart of the Gospel as best I can. A lot of people have condensed it into key bullet points, tracts to hand out, etc. These are all good and helpful, but I think it’s very important to remember that God did not give us the Gospel in bullet points or blog posts. He gave us the whole of the Bible, filled with stories and laws and poetry and prophecy. That is how God chose to reveal Himself, and there’s really no adequate summary for the fullness and depth of Scripture. Otherwise, I think God would’ve delivered that to us.

Next time: What is faith?

Eternity On Our Hearts, IV.

Previously:

Part I: An Existential Crisis
Part II: What Pontius Pilate Asked
Part III: Assumptions, Axioms and Authority

Part IV: In the Beginning was the Word
Can we trust the Bible?

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth.” Genesis 1:1

“In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” John 1:1

Undeniably, the Bible makes sweeping declarations about realities we could never reach through human reasoning or deduction—declarations about the beginning of all things, the eternality and pre-existence of God, and prophetic visions of glory to come. Spoken with authority and finality, the claims of the Bible can never be relegated to merely “good, moral teachings.” The content of the Scriptures can only lead to two conclusions: it is either an insane book that propagates falsehoods, or it is the Word of God.

I’m going to work directly off the second point from the previous essay: why faith in the Bible is not blind. There are massive tomes of apologetics dedicated to these topics, but I will just briefly touch on a few major points.

Falsifiability: the Bible is grounded in history and reality 

Falsifiability is simply the ability to be proven false. Most the world religions are not falsifiable—you have eastern religions that consist entirely of abstract spiritual philosophies, which you either adopt or don’t. They make no historic claims that could definitively render them untrue. You have other major world religions that begin with one leader’s private, unverifiable encounter with God (Muhammad or Joseph Smith).

Christianity, on the other hand, began in a public forum. Christ’s earthly ministry drew thousands of eyewitnesses. The Old Testament itself is also rooted in historical narratives, with genealogies, locations and famous figures. With the advance of science and archaeology, the text leaves itself easily exposed, easily disproved if it proclaims falsehoods.

Christianity stands or falls with the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ. If you think about it, that’s an absurdly difficult lie to perpetrate for centuries. I would not have wanted the job of keeping that façade up. All critics had to do was produce a dead body.

But instead, they never do, and rather you see eyewitnesses of the resurrected Christ boldly preach the Gospel in the face of persecution and personal ruin. That’s a foolish, unlikely price to pay for a lie.

Consistency: the Bible was written over 1500 years, made up of 66 books, and resounds with 1 consistent message 

The 66 books of the Bible were written by 40 different authors—prophets, kings, fishermen, physicians, and more—over 1500 years in 3 different languages (Hebrew, Greek and Aramaic) on 3 different continents (Africa, Asia and Europe).

For the Bible to be the Word of God, we believe God worked uniquely through these authors so that the books of the Bible were divinely inspired and entirely true. This wasn’t some massive, ancient-day social network collaboration—most of these authors didn’t know each other, and didn’t work together to maintain consistency or avoid contradiction.

Yet the message of the Bible, throughout all of its books, resounds with one consistent message: God’s creation of all things, the fall of man, God’s holiness and wrath towards sin, God’s love and provision of redemption, and a way of salvation through Christ.

Fulfilled prophecy

About 2,500 prophecies foretelling events of the future appear in the Bible, and about 2,000 have been fulfilled (with remaining ones reaching into the future). In the Old Testament, God sets the standard for identifying a true prophet: they must be 100 percent accurate in their predictions (Deuteronomy 18:21-22).

If you like math, the probability of 2,000 independent, accurately fulfilled prophesies about very specific events and people is—I don’t know, but extremely, insanely small. If you consider this to all be random and by chance.

Here are just a few examples:

  • In about 700 BC, Micah said Bethlehem would be the birthplace of the Messiah (Micah 5:2). This is fulfilled at the birth of Christ.
  • Before 500 BC, Daniel prophesied that the Messiah would begin his ministry 483 years after the decree to rebuild Jerusalem (Daniel 9:25-26). He prophesied the Messiah would be “cut off” prior to Jerusalem’s second destruction. King Artaxerxes of Persia issued the decree in 458 BC, and 483 years later, Jesus began ministering in Galilee. The rest of the prophecy is fulfilled in Jesus’ death and later destruction of Jerusalem by Titus in AD 70.
  • Daniel also interpreted two dreams (Daniel 2 and 7), accurately predicting the course of major empires in the next five centuries: he describes the rise and fall of Babylon, Medo-Persia, Greece and Rome. He predicts the rise of Alexander the Great, and the division of his empire by 4 of his generals.
  • The famous prophecy of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, fulfilled fully in Christ: “But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities… He was oppressed, and he was afflicted, yet he opened not his mouth; like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” (Isaiah 53:5-7)

Correspondence to reality

We are unable to see the spiritual realm with our physical senses, and we are unable to discover things of eternity past on our own. But we can look at the world around us, and we can look at our own hearts, and see how the Bible explains reality to us.

For instance, what’s wrong with the world? How do we understand why there is so much suffering, evil and brokenness? Apart from God, people are desperately searching for answers and solutions in political systems, economic reform, psychology, social reform, you name it. But do we believe any of these can really save us? Turning to these systems or philosophies for hope implies that we believe they address our deepest need: that our deepest need is political, or economic, or psychological.

The Bible says our fundamental problem is sin, that we are separated from God by it, and that is the cause of all our trouble. No man-made solution will fix this.

A newspaper once posed the question, “What’s wrong with the world?” Renowned Christian thinker G.K. Chesterton apparently wrote a brief response to them: “Dear Sirs: I am. Sincerely yours, G.K. Chesterton.”

And what about our conscience? Why do we have an innate sense of right and wrong? The Bible says it is because there is a real moral law, and that is written on our hearts. Philosophers can explain relative morality theoretically, but I challenge you to find someone practicing it. Imagine parents letting their kids do whatever they want. That doesn’t happen, does it? But if morality is relative, why enforce some arbitrary standard on your children?

I could go on. But I’ll leave it at that, and leave you with this thought. As I mentioned in the last essay, no one can ultimately prove the Bible to you. No one can prove who the authority on truth is but the truth itself. I believe the Bible because as I read it, the text manifests God’s glory and its divine origin. I read it and cannot believe it was man-made, or resulted out of human speculation and philosophy.

Ultimately, it takes faith. But remember, it also takes faith to hear the message of the Bible, understand the evidence for it, and reject it as untrue.

The beauty of the Bible is that it takes faith to believe, but with faith, you see the truth with deeper and greater clarity. Augustine said: nisi credideritis, non intelligetis. “Unless you will have believed, you will not understand.”

Consider the analogy of getting married: When you marry someone, no one, including you, can prove he/she will be a good spouse. You take a (huge) step of faith in marriage, but its not blind—you’ve seen evidence for his/her good character, kindness, reliability, etc. But it is only when and after you take that step of faith, you accumulate greater evidence, even proof, that he/she is a good spouse. Similarly, the manifestation and reality of God’s promises become more evident and personal as you place faith in and walk with Christ.

And another Lewis quote:

“I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.” –C.S. Lewis

That’s all for now, friends. Next time: What is the Gospel?

Eternity On Our Hearts, III.

Previously:

Part I: An Existential Crisis
Part II: What Pontius Pilate Asked

Part III: Assumptions, Axioms and Authority
What do you believe in?

There is no such thing as intellectual neutrality for us as humans. Every framework of thinking is built upon presuppositions and assumptions. All thought must first define and explain reality and whether knowledge is even tenable. Skeptics accuse Christianity, and religion in general, as systems of thought built on unproven assumptions. And they are right. But so is math, with its unproven axioms. So is science. It assumes there is some rhyme and reason to the natural world, and it assumes we can discover some of its principles. Even more basic than that, it assumes there is sense to human deduction and experimentation.

We all live by faith, even if we don’t think about it. You probably believe the world won’t fly out of orbit tomorrow, so you plan for the future. You probably believe 1+1=2. You probably believe what you see and experience is reality, and that we don’t exist in some kind of matrix. You probably believe your reasoning and rationality are trustworthy, at least to some degree. And even without thinking about it, each of these beliefs carries out its consequences in the way you live your life.

In his Confessions, Augustine marks this realization before he came to faith in Christ:

“If I took into account the multitude of things I had never seen, nor been present when they were enacted—such as many of the events of secular history; and the numerous reports of places and cities which I had not seen; or such as my relations with many friends, or physicians, or with these men and those—that unless we should believe, we should do nothing at all in this life. Finally, I was impressed with what an unalterable assurance I believed which two people were my parents, though this was impossible for me to know otherwise than by hearsay.”

Out of a backdrop of academics and philosophers who doubted everything and fluctuated between various opinions, Augustine came to this understanding. If we are to doubt all things, we must doubt our doubts as well. Belief is foundational to human thought and life.

Of course, that circles back to the question: What is truth?

What is worthy of belief?

One of my friends recently asked me what the point is of anything having truth-value if we cannot ascertain truth in the strictest sense. Aren’t we in a windowless room with the lights off? And doesn’t that make it impossible for faith to be anything more than wishful thinking?

To begin with, a conclusion that truth cannot be known or ascertained is in itself a truth claim—thus making it self-contradictory. But the analogy of a windowless room is an excellent one in many ways. That mirrors our situation well (though perhaps an even more accurate analogy is a blind man in the room). Left on our own, we are helpless to do more than conjure up continuous, un-answerable questions through human philosophy. But suppose this: someone from outside walks into our windowless room and tells us what is really out there, and what is really true. Then the question becomes, do you believe him?

Truth cannot ultimately be reached by human rationality. Our ability to reason and know is limited by our intellect, our senses, and our finitude. This is where revelation comes in. The only possible way we can know Something or Someone beyond ourselves and our dimension is if He (God) reveals Himself to us. As an imperfect analogy, consider getting to know another person: If you see and observe me regularly, you can figure out some things about who I am and what I’m like. But there’s a lot you would never know unless I told.

With God, there is what we call general revelation; that is, God has revealed Himself through creation. We can look at the universe and creatures in existence and get an idea of what He is like: a God of beauty, order, power, etc., when we see the vastness and complexity of galaxies, or even of a human cell.

But general revelation won’t tell us everything about God. We need specific revelation, otherwise we would never know God’s law, how He relates to us, or the intricacies of His character. The foundation of Christianity is faith in a self-revealing God, who has made Himself known to us, both in creation and in the Bible, His special revelation to mankind.

But how can we know the Bible is actually the Word of God?

Simply put, no one can prove the Bible is God’s Word. That’s why we are called to faith. But I will make two points, the second of which I’ll elaborate more on in the next essay: first, why it is only sensible that believing the Bible must be by faith and not by proof; and second, why it is not a blind or random faith.

Why it must be by faith: No field of study or human reasoning can prove the Bible is true. If the Bible is the Word of God, it is the highest authority in existence. Anything that can prove something else implicitly claims a higher level of authority. For instance, if we say archaeology or science can definitively prove the Bible, we are ascribing those fields higher authority than the Bible (in which case, you have contradicted the “hypothesis”—whether the Bible is the Word of God, and the highest authority—you presume to test). No one can prove who the authority on truth is but the truth itself. Truth must make itself self-evident.

We all yield to one authority or another. If you deny the Bible’s truth claims based on personal distaste or emotion, you essentially announce yourself as the authority on truth. Do you trust yourself? Christians are often accused of dogmatism and arrogance for claiming to have the only true way of salvation. I respectfully but firmly disagree: Christians, above all, acknowledge our complete helplessness to determine truth by human means. We cast ourselves in total dependence on the revealed Word of God—and in that, we humbly submit to its authoritative teaching. We don’t decide what the truth is, but we must be loyal to it at all costs. Consider this: real arrogance is when we pick and choose what truth we like. Real arrogance is when we declare ourselves the judge of truth, and the judge of God.

Why it’s not blind faith: There is a lot of evidence for the veracity of the Bible. I want to spend a greater deal of time on this, so I’ll reserve the meat of this for the next piece. As a preview, here are the major points I want to cover:

  • Falsifiability: the Bible is grounded in history
  • Consistency: 1500 years, 66 books, 1 message
  • Fulfilled prophecy
  • Correspondence to reality

Next time: In the beginning was the Word…

Eternity On Our Hearts, II.

Previously:

Part I: An Existential Crisis 

Part II: What Pontius Pilate Asked
What is truth?

In Star Wars, Obi-Wan tells Luke Skywalker that the truths we cling to depend greatly on our point of view.

Yes, our natural disposition, upbringing, and culture make certain belief and value systems more appealing to each of us. But does the uncertain, variable nature of our own hearts nullify the existence of an objective truth?

In our post-modern culture, many people think faith and belief are entirely functions of nature and nurture: biological and genetic hard coding, family values, and society. It’s come to be widely accepted that objective truth doesn’t really exist, or doesn’t matter, and you should just believe what works for you and makes you happy. Life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness, right?

While I agree that we are shaped by our culture and environment, truth cannot be confined or defined by these boundaries. If you say there is no absolute truth, you just made an absolute truth claim. If you say truth cannot be found, you just made a truth claim you believe you found. A worldview founded on subjectivity—where truth is relative, or every person can have his or her own truth—is fundamentally self-contradictory.

Consider these questions: Where did the universe come from? What happens when we die? Is there a God, and if so, what is He like?

“I like to think God is a kind, fatherly figure up in the sky who gives us an allowance of daily wishes.”

That sounds very pleasant, but unfortunately, that has no bearing or influence on the reality of things.

Ultimately, these questions have objective, factual answers, whether or not we know the answers, and whether or not we accept them. Truth is by nature exclusive—when something is true, it follows that anything contradicting that is false.

We tend to see questions like “What is our purpose and the meaning of life?” as subjective and up to each individual. But the reality is, if there is a creator God who made us for a specific purpose, trying to define our own purpose is empty and foolish. It’s like a potter who makes a cup, and the cup tries really hard to be a chair. No, really, you can sit on the inside! We cannot conform truth to our preferences and desires, but we must conform ourselves to truth. You can insist that 2+2 is 5 because you like that better, but you will be wrong, and on a test you will lose points.

Okay, but does objective truth necessitate the existence of God?

No one can definitively prove the existence of God. As humans, we are limited by our cognitive capacity, our finitude, and our physical and space-bound limitations. How can we prove Something or Someone beyond our dimension and narrow understanding? If we could “prove God,” wouldn’t He be limited and boxed in by the reach of our minds and reasoning power? We would then have a man-made idol, a human conception of god, not God Himself.

Certainly, it takes faith to believe in God. Truth cannot ultimately be reached by human rationality. It also takes faith to disbelieve in God—to look out at the universe and inwardly at our being, and to say everything came from nothing.

Consider you hear this news report: a tornado blew through a junkyard yesterday, and today we found a fully-functional Boeing 747 there, somehow pieced together from the random scraps of metal and trash that perfectly aligned and joined together as the winds swept through. Cockpit, controls, seats, wings, everything. Do you believe it? I mean, I guess it’s arguably a non-zero probability (depending on what kind of junk was in that junkyard), but the chances are so miniscule most of us would dismiss it.

How infinitely more complex is the universe? Or the human body?

This guy sums it up very well:

‎”Supposing there was no intelligence behind the universe, no creative mind. In that case, nobody designed my brain for the purpose of thinking. It is merely that when the atoms inside my skull happen, for physical or chemical reasons, to arrange themselves in a certain way, this gives me, as a by-product, the sensation I call thought. But, if so, how can I trust my own thinking to be true? It’s like upsetting a milk jug and hoping that the way it splashes itself will give you a map of London. But if I can’t trust my own thinking, of course I can’t trust the arguments leading to Atheism, and therefore have no reason to be an Atheist, or anything else. Unless I believe in God, I cannot believe in thought: so I can never use thought to disbelieve in God.”

—C.S. Lewis

Next time: Assumptions, axioms, and authority (because I like alliteration).

Eternity On Our Hearts, I.

Dear friends and readers: I am beginning a short, 6-7 part series of essays on the Christian faith. It’s a blend of apologetics, explanation, and thought experiment. I wrote it with a casual, conversational tone, and I hope its helpful and thought-provoking to both non-Christians and Christians. I’ll update regularly, since I’ve drafted the whole series. Thoughts and comments welcome throughout! [/end introduction to the introduction]

Part I: An Existential Crisis
What’s the point? 

In high school English class, they taught us to make our thesis clear in the introduction. I remember that all-important statement needed to come in the last sentence of the first paragraph, and it had to exhibit clarity, take a stand, and pave the way for all the trailing paragraphs. (If you wanted to make an A, at least.) A tall order for a single sentence. Anyway, those were the days before we learned that real writers, whoever they are, usually break the rules.

Well, this is my introduction, and since I’ve freed myself from those Scarlet Letter and Shakespeare spark-noting days, you won’t find anything much like a thesis here. It’s more of a philosophical and personal note—a motivation for my writing this series of essays, and a heartfelt hope that you will consider the content.

2016 turned out to be a bizarre year for many people I know, and the world at large. Perhaps it’s this strange conglomeration of farfetched world events, the stage of life many of my friends find themselves in, etc. etc., orchestrated by God’s providence, that opened the door for a number of thought-provoking conversations and correspondences. Conversations about politics, philosophy, purpose. Conversations with friends of different backgrounds and beliefs. They’ve forced me to wrestle with questions of my faith and worldview, and for that, I’m grateful.

Whenever we go beyond the superficial, our questions ultimately converge to a search for truth and meaning. Where did our universe come from? Is this life all there is? What happens when we die?

What’s the point?

In the halls of elite universities, I hear that question reverberate. We are frail, mortal beings, a vapor that appears for a time on this earth, and then vanishes. Sometimes, I desperately want to throw that question at people I know, pushing their kids into sleepless exhaustion and endless SAT prep, wondering if they remember we are all going to die one day. Harvard or community college, prince or beggar, engineer or janitor, at 35 or 90 years old—we are all going to die. And then what?

(My mom reminds me that would not be a polite thing to do.)

So instead, I felt led to write this: a series of essays explaining and defending the Christian faith, the only worldview, I believe, that consistently, truthfully and beautifully answers the deepest questions of humanity. The only worldview that sees the world and the human heart through, maskless and naked, and offers real hope—God-given, and not man-made.

A disclaimer, since this—like a high school English thesis—is obviously a tall order: I’m a poor, young grad student, not a biblical scholar or theologian. (You can probably already tell from my tone and overuse of parentheses, if nothing else). Nothing I say here is really original, but you’ll find it said by better and wiser people than me. (Many of them probably dead for centuries). But I wanted to write this, partly as a reference for myself, since much of this I gathered and learned and reasoned through over years and different resources—books, sermons, late-night philosophizing with friends. I wanted to consolidate the highlights in one place, and a lot of this content was informed directly by conversations with others.

This is also for you: my friends, both Christian and not. I hope it will encourage you. I hope it will make you think, and ask yourself hard questions. And I hope, by God’s grace, this might be a small stepping-stone on your journey to find truth.

Outside of the church, I have grown up and lived most my (short) life in a progressive, secular environment. I have listened to the anthems of post-modernism marching through our world. And something I’ve learned: even in our open Internet, free-speech touting days, we tend to hear what we like. Echo chamber. Donald Trump’s win suddenly made this phrase a phenomenon. But it’s true, there are such things as “Christian bubbles” and “liberal bubbles” and many more. Sometimes, when I flit in and out between the two, I step back and think of how something that can be spoken in passing, taken for granted, in one circle would be so shocking and senseless in the other.

If you are a skeptic, I simply ask you to consider these things, to question your own assumptions, to doubt your own doubts. We should all do that. I submit these thoughts and arguments to you humbly, but not without conviction, because I stand not on my own authority, feeling, or intellect, but on the Word of God.

Here’s an outline of what’s to come:

  • Objectivity and the existence of God
  • Assumptions and axioms we live by
  • The authority of truth
  • How can we know the Bible is true?
  • What is the Gospel of Jesus?
  • What is faith, and what are its ramifications?

 

* I drew the title for this collection from the following verse, which speaks to the eternal longing and God-shaped vacuum in our hearts:

“He has made everything beautiful in its time. Also, he has put eternity into man’s heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” Ecclesiastes 3:11

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter XI

The conclusion. I hope you enjoyed, and thanks for following along! I have more posts in the works, so I won’t go radio silent for months again. 😉

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII], [Chapter IX] and [Chapter X].

Chapter XI

The Sparrows said that the man who climbs the Adamaris once is a victor, and the man who climbs it twice a fool.

Kaede’s body ached, and the truth of that saying came to mind with sharp clarity. But a small, steady hope invigorated his worn limbs. While his last journey with Alethea filled him with dread over the outcome, he found a new core of strength this time. Now, they had a real, fighting chance at ending the curse. He clung to the fragment of faith Rafa inspired in him, unable to dwell on the possibility of failure.

With his thin, wiry frame, his traveling companion was adept at maneuvering the cliffs and making precarious leaps. Even though he underwent no formal training, Rafa demonstrated innate agility during their trek. Being fresh and well rested, he began pushing further ahead than Kaede, who felt challenged to keep up.

“Stars, I keep looking behind to see if Abi is following us.”

Kaede laughed. “I think Lord Demarion feared the same. He nearly placed her under lock and chain.”

“She will dare anything. That is who she is.” Rafa shook his head, but fondness warmed his words. He threw a sideways glance at Kaede. “All these years, and I never expected the same of Lethe.”

“It is not audacity. Not with her.” Kaede released a long breath. “She will sacrifice anything. That is who she is.”

“Mm. Perhaps they spring from the same foundation.”

Their conversation lapsed in and out of thoughtful silence. For the first time since they met, Rafa seemed open and genuine. Kaede bit back a smile—perhaps it had something to do with Abigail.

“I usually read the signs so well,” he muttered, half to himself, but he garnered Rafa’s attention. “I insisted to Alethea that you were in love with her.”

The expression Rafa wore made Kaede smirk.

“Well,” he returned after a moment, “we told Alethea that you were sweet on her.”

“Poor girl,” Kaede murmured, “everyone trying to tutor her, yet she knew best and hid it all in her heart.”

Rafa raised a brow. “But we were right.”

Kaede felt his face flush. Though Alethea’s state was horrific in every sense, the tragic shadow it cast made her family more than merciful towards his political manipulation. Abigail dismissed it without much misery, moved by the realization of Rafa’s longsuffering patience and steadfast love for her. Rafa, of course, could only be glad that Kaede did not ensnare Abigail’s heart. And the entire family hoped beyond hope that Kaede’s affection for Alethea would prove to be her deliverance.

Now, it is only Alethea. Will she be glad when she awakens? Will she despise me, let alone have any regard for me?

“Kaede, look!”

He swung his gaze in the same direction as Rafa. Among the dry, yellow shrubbery, small patches of green sprouted out of the soil.

“The famine!” he exclaimed. His breath caught in his throat. “Is it ending?”

A new thought came to him. Here they were, from three different clans, struggling together for one another’s survival. Could we be reversing that curse already?

When they arrived at the mouth of Sela’s cavern, they paused by silent consent and looked at each other. Kaede felt fear, hope and a hundred other unnamed emotions stir inside him. Only a few days prior, he stood in the same place and watched Alethea march to her fate, helpless to stop her, awash in his self-reproach and remorse.

In a surprising gesture, Rafa laid a hand on his shoulder. “Just think of her.”

Is that how he found his strength? Kaede suddenly imagined his companion alone in his room, poring over old Phoenix documents. In the swirl of chaos, he nearly forgot that Rafa’s life had just shifted dramatically in revealing the truth of his identity. What ramifications must he contend with at home after all this? But he followed through with all of his plans for Abigail’s sake.

“I do.” Kaede hesitated, but the memory of Rafa’s revelation encouraged him. “I fear your counter-curse will not work—because of me. My love is not as unfaltering as yours. I fear it’s weak and selfish, and I do not trust myself.” His thoughts turned to his mother suddenly. She was like that. Even with Kaede, she loved him as her son, but he was also a pawn in her political pursuits. I am too much like her.

“You are a man. Who among us can claim to truly love well?”

“But—”

Rafa stopped him with a hard look. “In knowing your own weakness, you give me confidence.” His face softened. “I love Abi, but not perfectly. And I believe you love Lethe.”

Kaede soaked up his words like a dry leaf, willing for Rafa’s conviction to sink into him too. He nodded.

“Ready if you are.”

They took only a few steps into the cavern before Sela met them.

“You are a glutton for punishment.” There was a note of amusement in her voice. Kaede assumed she addressed him.

“We are here for Alethea, not you.”

“Ah, I see you brought a Phoenix friend. And last time you were saying there were no more in the mountain…” Her gaze swept over Rafa, who stood rigid and unflinching beside Kaede. “Ironic. Demarion could never rid himself of the Phoenix disease, could he?”

“We are not here to waste words with you,” Rafa said. “Where is Alethea?”

She gestured towards the back of the dimly lit cavern. “If you think you can reverse the curse, I certainly will not stop you.”

Kaede felt his heart drop a little. He expected Sela to show more resistance, perhaps even violence, to keep them from Alethea. Her calm, flippant composure shook him. Did she simply not care if they lifted the curse? Or was she hiding something else? 

If the same thoughts crossed Rafa’s mind, he covered it well. He strode in the direction she pointed, and Kaede trailed behind him, grateful for his resilience.

Sela’s voice, soft yet haunting, followed them. “She has a golden heart. Better than her father’s. Certainly better than you deserve.”

The words echoed through him like a small bell in a cathedral. He shivered.

“She is trying to unbalance you,” Rafa murmured.

But she is also right.

They found Alethea swaddled in thick blankets, lying beneath a massive canvas of flying beasts—dragons, sparrows, and phoenixes. A spool of thread, unspun from a spindle, spilled out beside her.

She wore a peaceful expression, one Kaede had rarely seen since meeting her. He recalled, even in her gaiety, she bore an air of melancholy, burdened by the cares of her family and clan. Without her worries and guardedness reflected on her face, she looked regal.

Kaede knelt beside her. In his periphery, he caught Rafa closing his eyes and murmuring something unintelligible.

Returning his attention to Alethea, he clasped her cold hands to his gently. The rest of the world seemed to fade into the distance, and even Sela’s lingering words lost their impact. Please, come back from wherever she trapped you. Please do not hate me—stars, I would give up the chieftainship, anything, for you to come back to me.

Compelled by his fervor, he leaned in and kissed her forehead. Her face was also cold like marble. His chest ached.

He felt a slight pressure on his fingers. Alethea stirred.

Tears stung the back of his eyes.

“Kaede?” Her voice was quiet and wondering.

He only gripped her hands in response, not trusting his voice. Rafa came nearer, a smile breaking across his face, but he kept a tactful distance.

“How did this happen?”

“I will explain everything.” Kaede swallowed. “But tell me you do not despise me.”

She did not even hesitate. “How could I?” Alethea said softly, almost musically. And for the first time, he felt her dark eyes invite him in, revealing her heart.

Something inside him soared.

What followed passed by Kaede in a blur. Rafa came over to Alethea and they embraced. Kaede faintly heard him scolding her—lightly—for her brashness, and then offering a quick summary of the last few days’ events. Her post-slumber stupor quickly wore off, and she punctuated his retelling with exclamations of surprise and delight. Kaede merely listened, dazed and enshrouded in sweet relief.

Eventually, Rafa came and touched his arm. “We need to go.”

He nodded, and as he rose to his feet, Alethea said, “Sela simply allowed you both to come in?”

Kaede glanced at her. “It seemed… she did not think you deserved such a curse.”

She fell silent, pondering that. Then she looked at him again, almost shyly. “So, you did not love Abi, but—” she broke off, blushing.

“I set my sights high, milady.”

Rafa glared at him. “Watch your words.”

They laughed, and Kaede felt a genuine camaraderie snake around them. He and Rafa helped Alethea to her feet. There was no sign of Sela as they made their way to the cave entrance, and his spine tingled slightly, wondering where she hid in the shadows. He quickened his pace, but Alethea stopped them midway.

She turned around. “Sela,” she called.

Alarmed, Kaede grasped her arm. “What are you doing?” But Rafa shook his head briefly, and he reluctantly released her.

“My father offered this to you once. I ask again. Will you come with us?”

They waited, but nothing in the darkness flickered. Only the echo of her quiet, sure voice returned to her. Kaede reached for her arm again, this time in support.

But Alethea smiled at him, the same, slumbering peace he witnessed earlier spread across her face.

“Let’s go home,” she said.

The end

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter X

One more installment after this one. Enjoy!

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII], [Chapter VIII] and [Chapter IX].

Chapter X

Sacrificial, unflinching love—what other counter-curse could there be?

He pushed the stack of crinkled parchments aside, burying his face in his hands. Could it be so simple? It seemed sensible. Only an effective counter-spell or curse transfer might save her, and a transfer demanded the same selfless love on the receiver’s part.

A desperate, almost frenzied euphoria set his blood humming. I will need the right words, and a true heart. 

Rafa reached for the top parchment sheet again, his eyes flying over the ink symbols.

Loud footsteps pounded down the hall. He opened the drawer beside him swiftly and threw the papers inside as Demarion surged through the door.

“What is it?” Rafa rose to his feet, alarmed at his countenance.

“It’s Abigail,” he said, and Rafa’s heart leaped into his throat, “she’s awake!”

What—?

“Ziva is with her now. Hurry!” Demarion was already turning away, gesturing for Rafa to follow him. His legs numbly complied, carrying him along. “I—I don’t know how long it will last, and how the curse could make such a provision.” He stopped abruptly, flinging an unguarded, fearful look at Rafa. “I am afraid it is a cruel trick of Sela’s.”

I have not cast a counter-curse yet! How could she awaken? Dread mixed with hope coursed through him. He remembered reading that poorly crafted curses could weaken over time until they lost all power.

He suppressed that strand of optimism. Phoenix lore was ancient and complex, particularly concerning the mechanisms of magic. While Rafa had gathered what surviving documents he could find, his knowledge remained pitifully limited.

She was sitting upright in her bed when they arrived. Ziva was coaxing hot broth into her mouth when her eyes found him and Demarion. She pushed the spoon from her lips.

“Rafa!” The familiar high pitch and brightness in her tone sent a thrill through him.

“Abigail,” he whispered, his voice suddenly hoarse. He felt paralyzed in place, uncertain if he should move nearer but unable to tear his gaze away, fearing that the curse would reclaim her again.

Her glance flitted across each of their faces, amusement coloring her expression. “You all look terrified I’ll faint away again.”

Ziva seized her hand. “How do you feel?”

“Fine, Mother,” she replied, half-reassuring and half-exasperated. “I feel as well as I did on my last day awake.”

“What happened? When you were unconscious?” Rafa asked, finding his voice.

“Nothing,” she murmured. “It was a dark, dreamless sleep. Sometimes I knew I was under a curse, but I was not afraid. It was like being in a cage, imprisoned but peaceful because there was nothing around to harm me.”

Demarion stepped over to her bedside and touched her arm. “You are home now. The cage is gone.”

“I know.” She beamed. “Where is Alethea?”

Her question jolted Rafa. He looked at Demarion—why did he fetch him, but not Alethea, when Abigail awoke? A troubled look crossed the Dragon Chief’s face and Rafa felt a tremor in his chest.

“I could not find her. I assumed she was out in the village with Kaede.”

But there was no sign of her yesterday either. Rafa grew accustomed to seeing less of Alethea, given her courtship with Kaede and the bourgeoning tension between them, but it was odd to go without a glimpse of her in so long. A strange, foreboding premonition began to breed in his mind.

“Kaede!” Abigail exclaimed. She flushed as their gazes all returned to her.

“The Sparrow Chief’s son,” Demarion explained quietly. “Much has happened while you were sleeping.”

Uncharacteristic concern fell over Abigail’s face like a shadow. “Tell me everything.”

“You need to rest first,” Ziva insisted.

“I have done nothing but rest for however long I slept!”

Rafa could not suppress a brief smile at her restless and impatient spirit. She spied his expression and turned an imploring look to him, as if she found a sympathetic opening.

“When the curse took you, a famine fell over the Adamaris too, like the Phoenix prophesied. Alethea posed as you and we went to negotiate with Sparrow clan for peace. They proposed a courtship followed by marriage between Kaede and Alethea.”

Abigail drew in a sharp, painful breath, her eyes fluttering shut. Demarion reached over and gripped her shoulder in distress.

“Abigail!”

She held up her hand. “No, I am fine. It’s simply—oh, Lethe, I am sorry,” she murmured.

Rafa shared an anxious look with Demarion and Ziva. “We can continue the story another time,” he decided. “We should find Alethea.”

As if in response, a servant appeared in the doorway, short of breath and flushed from running.

“Chief.” He bowed. “We tried to stop him, but Kaede insists on coming up.”

Demarion’s brow furrowed. “I will see him, but we cannot meet here with Abigail. Is Alethea with him?”

“No, Chief.”

Rafa felt the ominous portent grow in his mind. Was this another rudimentary Phoenix instinct, like the one he experienced when he sensed something awry with Abigail’s flowers? Demarion instructed the servant to hold Kaede in the guest room downstairs until he could meet the Sparrow chief’s son. The servant left in a flurry. Suddenly, Rafa noticed Abigail’s expression grow pale and frantic.

“Abi—” he began, but was interrupted by the growing sound of footsteps. He stood up in alarm, but Kaede was already in the doorway.

His garments were soiled and despite his broad stature and handsome face, the dark circles under his eyes and unkempt hair considerably marred his features. He looked at each of them swiftly before his gaze settled on Abigail and visible horror entered his eyes.

Rafa moved to stand in front of Abigail, though he knew no physical shield could force Kaede to undo the sight he had seen. If he tells the truth to Meike… 

“Kaede,” Abigail choked, assaulted by tears.

Kaede leaned against the doorpost, his back bent as if the strength went out of him. “Stars, she did it.” His eyes closed.

Demarion was on his feet now too, and all of them looked from Abigail to Kaede. Rafa felt they stood on the cusp of some terrible realization and he reached for a nearby bookcase to steady himself.

“You know each other?” Demarion demanded.

“Father,” Abigail began, a pleading note in her voice, but stopped when Kaede dropped to his knees before them.

“I am to blame, Lord Demarion. I met Abigail before the curse fell and we began courting. Thus, I saw through Alethea’s masquerade as her sister—”

Ziva gasped, whitening. “Demarion!” Her husband moved to her side and drew a protective arm around her before fixing a stern, unforgiving look on Kaede.

To his credit, the Sparrow did not flinch. “Please,” he said quietly, holding up his hand. “I have more to say. I confronted Alethea immediately.” A distant look overtook him as an unwitting smile crawled up his face. He glanced at Demarion. “She is stronger than you think. She laid the whole truth before me, trusting in my loyalty to Abigail. I agreed to help her. My mother does not know any of this.”

Rafa’s initial agitation began to ease, but another slow, blade-like pain spread through him. So he was the suitor that enthralled Abigail. He could not deny the stir of envy in his heart. He never trusted Kaede, even if he won Alethea and the rest of the family’s faith. It was vain and selfish, but he could not help disliking the man even more now, in spite of his good deeds.

Demarion was kneeling down beside Kaede. “What is there to blame you for then? You have handled this more nobly than me.”

Kaede could not look at him. “I do not know how to say this.”

A tense silence fell over them until Kaede rose and stepped to Abigail’s side. He pulled a pendant out of the folds of his cloak and slipped it into her palm.

She stared at it. “My pearl!” Perplexed, she glanced at him. “Why do you have it?”

Sudden understanding crashed down on Rafa like merciless waves. He let out a strangled sound and moved towards Kaede, thrusting a trembling finger at him.

“You let her take the curse.”

His words dropped like a heavy hammer in the room.

What? What are you speaking of, Rafa?” Abigail exclaimed.

Kaede’s silence confirmed Rafa’s suspicion. “Phoenix curses cannot be undone.” Each word felt dry and dreadful on his tongue. “They can only be counter-cursed or transferred. You took Alethea to see that witch!”

“Is this true?” Ziva cried.

The Sparrow only bowed his head. “Yes. We scaled the Adamaris and found Sela. She said the same thing about curses. Alethea insisted on transferring it. I could not convince her otherwise because…I failed her earlier. She told me to respect her choice, to go home and return Abigail’s pendant.”

Crimson agony burned through Rafa, but it felt more like regret than anger. “Why did she not even confide in me?” he murmured to himself.

Demarion, Ziva and Abigail all appeared stricken by the revelation.

“Sela must know this cruel twist cuts even deeper,” Demarion said. “To have both my daughters suffer, and Alethea to go willingly…”

Rafa glared at Kaede. “How could you let her?” Helpless fury mounted within him. “Why did you not take the curse for Abigail, if you love her—”

“Rafa,” Demarion cut him off, admonition in his eyes. Even now, he was still a Chief.

“Her sacrifice was needless!” he exploded, ignoring the warning. “I found a counter-curse!”

All eyes turned to him. “What?” Demarion asked, registering disbelief.

He jerked his sleeve up to reveal his bare forearm and the red phoenix emblazoned there.

“You have been searching the Adamaris for Phoenix,” he said quietly, “not knowing you took one into your care many years ago.”

The silence grew thick enough for a knife to cut. Rafa could sense, keenly and painfully, the spectrum of emotions splattered across each face—disbelief, wonder, a hint of fear, and sadness.

Abigail found her voice first. “Did you always know?” she asked, and he felt a rush of gratitude for her gentle tone.

“No. I thought of myself as a full-bred Dragon since Demarion found me.” He met the Chieftain’s eyes briefly. “A few years later, I began to develop unusual instincts, having vague premonitions and heightened sensitivity to trouble. Then my clan mark formed, and I knew.” Rafa glanced at the phoenix tattoo, recalling his quiet terror. “I scoured for documents and stories to learn about my…abilities. It was hard to find things, but my motivation grew when Abigail was cursed.”

“Oh, Rafa.” Ziva’s eyes crinkled with compassion. “You should have told us.”

“How could I?” he murmured. “You were cursed by a Phoenix.”

Demarion’s hand came down hard on the table. “You think we would have judged you by her actions?”

“No. But someone in the clan would, once news spread. The Chieftain’s family, adopting a Phoenix by mistake?” Rafa looked at him levelly.

They became silent again, and he could imagine this startling revelation settling into their minds, becoming a part of the fabric of their lives. He felt a twinge of distress as he watched them wrestle with their new reality. Though he had prepared for this moment ever since Abigail fell unconscious, it came more suddenly than he expected.

Kaede, while similarly shocked by Rafa’s outburst, accepted it more easily. He did not need to consider years of secrecy, and he returned them to the matter at hand.

“You said you found a counter-curse. Can you use it for Alethea?”

Rafa closed his eyes and exhaled. “It will not work. I designed it for Abigail.”

“Why?” Abigail demanded. “What is it?”

It seems today is the day for laying all secrets bare. 

“Apart from transferring the curse to another, I think there is only one viable counter-curse.” He paused. “A love that binds two lives together, for better or worse. A love that will bear anything for another. In some ways, this demands more than taking on the curse in another’s place. It is that, and more. Such love is the only thing powerful enough to restore life.”

Their gazes burned into him, particularly Abigail’s, as understanding dawned over her.

“Oh,” she whispered quietly, and words seemed to elude her. A deep blush crawled over her face.

“And here I thought—” Kaede began, before breaking off, shaking his head with incredulity.

Rafa looked at him, girding himself for a verbal onslaught. He had done no less than confess his heart for Abigail in front of her and her suitor.

And yet, Kaede did not appear enraged or protective. He had expressed no affection, or even relief upon finding Abi awake. Rather, he had seemed almost horrified…

Then, in a final twist to the day’s events, Kaede looked at him with the first glimmer of hope and said, “Perhaps your counter-curse will work.”

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter IX

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI], [Chapter VII] and [Chapter VIII].

Chapter IX

Alethea felt Kaede’s hand rest on her shoulder, warm and heavy. Subtle etches of pain cracked the otherwise stony guise he wore. His expression hearkened back to their first meeting, as he stood grim-faced beside his mother. Since their acquaintance was born, she could not recall seeing him with such a severe look, even in his somber moods. Like a war drum heralding battle, her heartbeat quickened, thrumming loudly in her ears.

“She cannot help us.” Kaede looked at her, but he seemed distant. His tone was strangely contradictory, half-commanding and half-beseeching. “Let’s go.”

The life of the girl you cheated. Was Sela intending to stir up strife between them and drive a blade between her and Kaede? Still, the Phoenix’s words rang with an uncomfortable degree of truth. And instead of outrage or dismissal, Kaede seemed suddenly withdrawn.

But she could not question him here. Alethea nodded dully, and he took her hand to lead her out of the cavern. She felt Sela’s gaze follow them, but she made no comment or motion to stop them.

When blue skies broke overhead, she drew in a deep breath. Kaede also paused, before beginning to pace on the ledge before her. With sunlight blazing at his back, he appeared to her a shadowy form, his shoulders bent and hands clasped behind his back.

Alethea watched him for a few moments, feeling the air escape her lungs more swiftly with each breath.

“Does she know something about you?” She asked quietly, but ached as the words fell out.

He saved my life today. Though her conscience accused her, she could not shake the nagging doubt formed from Sela’s words.

He stopped pacing and finally met her gaze. His stark expression burned away, replaced with sorrow.

“I have not been forthcoming about everything.” He sighed, casting his eyes to the ground. “I can tell you all, but I fear you will hate me.”

The words choked in her throat, but she spoke them calmly. “Tell me.”

He opened his mouth and closed it, as if testing his account mentally before speaking aloud. “I did not love Abigail,” he said finally, forcing his gaze up to hers. Though it felt like hot iron bars closing in around her, she could not look away. “When we met and I learned who she was, I thought to use it to my clan’s advantage. My mother encouraged our courtship. If I married the Dragon chief’s daughter, I would be in position to challenge your father and—” he broke off, before continuing, “It was not out of mere ambition, though I cannot deny that played a part. I wanted peace between our clans, and this was an opportunity to pursue to it.” A brief, defensive note entered his tone before it dissolved into contrition.

Alethea took his words in, waiting for the agony to break through her. In bracing herself for the inevitable wound, the shock of his revelation came and went, only grazing her fleetingly.

But she only felt numb and hollow, like someone reached inside and emptied her.

“Alethea.” His voice came to her through a fog, and an awful dose of reality struck her. “Please, say something.”

She lifted her eyes to his face but instantly turned aside. She faintly noticed the pain begin to bleed through her.

Kaede. My only friend outside of my family. I owe him my life. She thought of his friendly mockery and moments of unguarded honesty, his strong arms the only thing between her and a thousand foot death-plunge. How could he be untrue?

But all she said was, “So Meike will expose the curse to my clan and try to depose my father.”

He blinked in bewilderment before understanding dawned. “No—I was honest when I said she does not know the truth. She knows nothing of the curse or you.”

“How can I believe you?” The question sprung out coldly but softly as she felt her heart close towards him.

Kaede did not disguise his hurt. “I have no reason to lie to you now.”

“And what reason did you have to only betray us half-heartedly? There is neither kindness nor prudence in that.”

Alethea felt none of the hot anger she expected, but bitterness frosted over her feelings.

A passing struggle flashed across his face. “It was not out of kindness or prudence that I guarded your secret,” he murmured, “but I will only deepen the injury if I tell you.” He paused. “Alethea, I am sorry. I have no excuse or integrity to stand on before you. But for the little it is worth, I have been genuine in my dealing with you. Though I did not love Abigail, I admired her and sincerely wanted to remedy the curse. And I wanted your happiness.”

She absorbed his speech and felt a rock-hard resolve take shape in her mind. A knot began to form in her stomach, but she ignored it.

“Kaede, I cannot deny what you have done for me. If you mean those words, grant me a final favor.”

Wariness flickered in his eyes. “If I can do anything for you…”

Alethea unfastened the coal-colored pearl pendant around her neck. She held it out to him, and he opened his hand to receive it.

“Return this to Abigail. If you can spare her your admission, then spare her. And do not marry her.”

He reached out and clutched her shoulder in a vice-like grip. “You cannot go back there.”

“Do you know me so well, that you know my plan?” she murmured, half to herself, before fixing a soft, sad gaze on him. “Yet, I do not know you at all.”

Kaede did not release her. “Then, let me tell you what is in my heart and we can leave this cursed place.”

“No.” Alethea moved out of his grasp and closed his hand over the pearl, almost tenderly. “This is all I ask. Go home.”

“Alethea—” A dark storm brewed in his eyes.

“My life has been a tale cobbled together by the decisions of others. Do not take this choice away from me.”

His head bowed, and for a moment, she could envision the weight of the Adamaris pressed onto his shoulders. A blaze of empathy blew past her but it quickly faded as the dark cavern loomed in her mind. With a pang, Alethea knew Kaede could say nothing more to her, and such was her intent.

Perhaps she could not defeat the famine, or even save her family’s honor and position. Yet a small hope for Abigail’s fate still gleamed and called out to her.

She turned on her heel abruptly and strode into the cavern. Kaede made no move to stop her.

Sela remained by her makeshift fire when she reached the end of the dark corridor. The Phoenix glanced at her, a strange but knowing look in her face.

“Men are worthless, aren’t they?”

Alethea simply stared into the flickering flames, watching the orange light burst into swift and desperate dances before the shadows extinguished them.

“You stepped out of your shelter into a world of bloodshed and betrayal.” Sela rose to her feet slowly. “Perhaps you can understand why I seclude myself here.”

She met the older woman’s gaze. “There is bloodshed and betrayal, but there is also beauty. We see the world through the window of our heart,” Alethea echoed an old Dragon proverb. “If we are bitter, we will find bitterness everywhere. No cave or cabin can shield us from ourselves.”

“Have you come here to lecture me?” Sela merely raised her brow, but the mockery in her tone rang clear.

“You know why I’ve come.”

She seemed unsurprised, and beckoned Alethea to follow her. They went deeper into the cavern, where the fire provided only a faint light to guide them. Alethea felt her heartbeat quicken but the exhaustion from Kaede’s revelation and their arduous journey up the mountain dulled her fear.

When Sela came to a halt, she studied their surroundings. Alethea drew in a sharp breath.

Life-size paintings of flying creatures rose on the jagged rock wall before them—a dragon with its wings unfurled, a pack of sparrows soaring beneath it, and a red phoenix bathed in flames.

A lone spindle with a full wheel of thread stood under the vivid canvas of images.

“Every life, every clan, is a slowly-turning spindle,” Sela said quietly. “Unraveling in numbered days until the thread snaps. Life to death. Dust to dust.”

“Yet in between, we can fight so hard and bleed so greatly.”

Alethea felt their eyes meet in a passing moment of kinship. In some small measure, she knew the other woman’s pain of loneliness and rejection, and Sela knew that too.

“It is folly.”

The connection faded, and oddly enough, Alethea felt a small smile turn her mouth up. “That is the difference between us. I think it is glorious.”

They stood in silence before Alethea asked finally, “What do I need to do?”

Sela laid a hand on the spindle. “When the thread you spin runs out, you will take the curse, and your sister will return to life.”

Alethea knelt on the hard ground and touched the wooden axle. The thread felt rough and thick in her hands as she ran her fingers over it. A sudden memory charged through her—sitting in her cabin with Rafa days after they lost Abigail, confessing her anguish. The curse should have been mine. Look around you. It was already mine.

But now I have tasted a little of life. Alethea felt a wrench in her chest as she thought of the village’s cobblestone paths at dusk, the wild plains of the Adamaris, and even her adventures with Kaede. These things tugged at her heart, as if bidding her to hold on to life, to walk away from this madness.

No. This is for Abigail. The image of her sister’s face, the mischievous glint in her eyes and laughter, rose to mind and hardened her conviction.

Alethea pulled the thread out of the spindle.

Beneath the Dragon Skies, Chapter VIII

Read [Prologue], [Chapter I], [Chapter II], [Chapter III], [Chapter IV], [Chapter V], [Chapter VI] and [Chapter VII].

Chapter VIII

He watched the rocky foothold break loose against her heel and opened his mouth to shout a warning. Alethea swung her arms out to grasp the protruding ledge above her but the reach was too far. Sweeping his gaze around their precarious station in a lightning second, Kaede made a small leap up the narrow incline until he was directly under her. He spread his feet and bounced his knees lightly, his hands splayed out like a small net in front of him.

She cried out as she plummeted backwards. Before he could react, Alethea slammed into him, her spine pressed against his palms. Pure survival instinct rushed through Kaede. He gripped her waist and propelled them both forward, away from the thousand-foot drop at his back.

His hand found a small crevasse and wrapped white-knuckled fingers around it. When he felt their weight stabilize, he leaned against the side of the mountain and closed his eyes.

Alethea’s arms were wound tightly around his middle, her breath coming in gasps. He touched her arm gently, trying to reassure, but felt his own body trembling like a leaf.

When she pulled away, he guided her hand to the same crevasse to steady her. She remained silent for a long moment, wide-eyed and pale.

Kaede mustered a smile, attempting to dispel the fog that followed their brush with death. “We live to Phoenix hunt another day.”

His voice seemed to shake her out of fear-stricken stupor. The sudden clarity in her gaze was almost unnerving.

“Kaede—” she began, and then faltered. “I—”

“Oh, please, no eloquent speeches.”

He felt a small thrill of pleasure and relief when her lips quirked upward. A measure of color began returning to her face.

“Thank you,” she said simply.

His chest throbbed. No one else could steal his ready wit with the simple authenticity Alethea possessed. Her dark hair fell like a messy frame around her face and he felt pain pulse through him as he considered how terribly close an encounter she had with mortality.

She is not like Abigail. He recalled his earlier, vague comment, which hung between them.

Her sister was a risk-taker and adventure-seeker. She could lead a clan with her spirit and courage. Kaede admired Abigail, certainly, and found her wit and daring a worthy match to his.

Alethea chased after none of that—peril, renown or glory. Yet she would brave hell and high water for those she loved. She can inspire men, and she does not even know. With a pang, Kaede thought even his mother could not do that, though she dedicated her life to the pursuit of prestige and influence among the Sparrows.

His instinct urged him to deflect her gratitude with a jest, but he resisted. “My pleasure,” he returned genuinely. In a lighter tone, he quipped, “I’m not brave enough to face the witch alone.”

She laughed, but he heard the quiver in her voice.

“Look. We are nearly there.” Kaede motioned at the ledge a few feet above their heads.

When they clambered over the final ridge, he sank onto a large rock, feeling the fatigue in his bones. The last segment of their climb was the most hazardous, and he had slept poorly the night before, turning over in his mind ways to shield Alethea from the inevitable sorrow she would endure. If they failed, Abigail would remain in her deathly state. If they succeeded, she would learn of Kaede’s deception—and a secret, selfish part of him almost hoped Abigail would not awake to expose his duplicity.

It was a terrible thought. Alethea, in all her simplicity and artlessness, put his character to shame.

“Kaede.” Her voice reached him in a hushed, strained tone.

He rounded a small bend to find her staring at the mouth of a cave, flanked on both sides by great stone monuments that resembled wings.

A breath caught in his throat. “This is what Demarion described?”

“Yes—Kaede,” she said, whirling to face him abruptly, “I have not told you…” she trailed off.

His chest tightened with mingled fear and anticipation. But the thought of his own deception pressed painfully in his mind and stirred up earnest empathy. “You can tell me.”

A glint of desperation flashed through her eyes.

“I am afraid we will fail,” she whispered finally.

Kaede did not know if it was her quiet voice or her honest admission that inspired a steely, protective spirit within him. He gripped her arm and felt her startled gaze lock with his. In the back of his mind, he vaguely hoped he did not overstep the bounds of propriety.

“While I stand and breathe, Alethea, she will not hurt you.” His voice sounded rough but sure in his ears.

She bit her lip and cast her eyes downward. “What of Abi?”

He felt a wave of helplessness but stifled it quickly. Kaede had no power over that.

“We can only try.” He sensed the weakness of his words, though Alethea still nodded and forced a grateful smile.

The inside of the cavern was dark, but a small light glimmered in the back, flickering like candlelight. A subtle but persistent dank smell wafted around them. Kaede rested his hand on Alethea’s shoulder, though he was uncertain if the gesture offered any consolation or simply made her uncomfortable.

A billowing shadow fell over the dim flame, darkening his vision entirely. He felt Alethea tense as they stopped moving.

“I have not entertained visitors since your father last came.”

Her voice was smooth and unthreatening but something in her tone made Kaede grow cold. The shadow fell away and the light suddenly glowed twice as brightly, revealing an older woman with gray hair, wrapped in a deep crimson cloak.

“Hello, Sela,” Alethea said.

Sela’s mouth curved up, though her smile carried no warmth. “You have Demarion’s eyes.”

Kaede gripped Alethea’s shoulder more tightly, but she hardly flinched. He sensed a quiet conviction and composure enshroud her.

“Your curse took my sister. I need you to undo it.”

Admiration and brief astonishment at her newfound courage pierced Kaede’s haze of anxiety like a spear.

“Ah, dear Abigail. She had the hot blood of the Dragons, like your father. You, on the hand—”

“How do you know these things?” Kaede broke into her musing.

She glanced at him for the first time, a haughty but penetrating look in her dark pupils. Wordlessly, she lifted her cloak off her shoulder and exposed a blood-colored Phoenix tattoo.

“The gift of foresight,” she returned. “Though,” she muttered quietly, “I did not anticipate a second daughter—” Her gaze returned to Alethea.

“Undo the curse,” Kaede repeated.

Sela did not respond, but rather moved further into the cavern, beckoning them to follow her. Painfully aware of how vulnerable they were—he suspected that swords and knives would serve no use here—he trailed after Alethea.

They arrived at a dead end in the back of the cave. A small fire burned on wooden logs haphazardly tossed together. If she plans to kill us…

“I cannot undo the curse.”

Alethea became very still, but a slow, steady fury began to burn inside Kaede, like Sela’s fire.

“Why not?” he demanded.

“Phoenix limitations. The creator of a spell cannot reverse it.” She paused, shifting her gaze intently from Kaede to Alethea. “I can only transfer it, or another Phoenix must conjure up an appropriate counter-curse.”

“A counter-curse?”

“Phoenix spells are binding. A counter-curse cannot simply reverse the original; it must make a new provision or develop an antidote. Few,” Sela emphasized, “are ever effective.”

Hopelessness and resentment churned in black waves within Kaede. “There are no more Phoenixes in the Adamaris.”

“What do you mean, you can transfer it?” Alethea asked suddenly.

Sela raised a thin brow at her. “I can remove the curse from Abigail and give it to another. Curses cannot be destroyed, but they can be passed along.”

Kaede felt a sick horror in the pit of his stomach as he watched Alethea’s face. She could not think—

“No!” He moved in front of her, half-shielding her body from the Phoenix, as if the effort might protect her from her own deliberations. He glowered wrathfully at Sela, his earlier qualms vanquished by revulsion. “You are wretched.”

The older woman appeared unaffected. “I do not make the rules.”

Alethea stepped out from behind him, touching his arm as she did. “What about the Adamaris? The famine still lies over the mountain.”

“I offered an remedy for that one. Peace between the clans.”

“We won’t have peace without Abigail!” Alethea exclaimed in a sudden burst of passion, her face reddening. “We won’t have peace without her marriage to Kaede.”

Sela did not respond right away, but turned to look at Kaede. He felt her hawk-like gaze blister him, peeling away his layers until the core of him lay raw and naked and bleeding. Cold dread filled him and his lungs closed as if he were underwater. For a brief moment, he wondered if she was casting a spell over him, but the dismay he experienced originated from his own, familiar demons.

“How fully she trusts you,” Sela murmured. “Odd, isn’t it? It was your ambition that the curse used, and yet here you are, asking for the life of the girl you cheated.”

His blood ran like ice through his veins. Alethea turned to him, perplexed, but with a hint of trepidation in her eyes that cut through Kaede.

“What is she talking about?”

Sela’s gaze did not move from him. “Now,” she purred, “who is the wretch?”