Commenting on Dan.3 on the famous fiery furnace story, CKB notes about the qualifying words ‘but if not’:
If you removed these three words you would have a different story— an adventure yes, but without the heroic element. If you stop at vs. 18, ‘our God will deliver us out of your hands O, King,’ then the three men know everything will be alright. Of course it will be an adventure to go into the furnace, but only like the adventure of the experienced parachutist. He knows from experience that parachutes do not let you down, and he jumps with a thrill but not with real anxiety. ‘But if not’… that means that the fire may harm, the furnace may roast, and we may die in frightful agony. But all the same, our answer is unaltered. We will not serve your gods or worship the golden image. The alternative is: light your furnace and we will put up a better show, spike your guns with a miracle. A different story.
And not a true one. Everyone knows that this book of Daniel was written to encourage Jewish resistance when Antiochus Epiphanes was trying to stamp out Judaism and bring Jews under the one umbrella of Hellenistic life. God did very little to quench his violence. I allow myself a quotation from 2 Macc. 7.3-5: ‘At that the king, in a fury, gave orders to have pans and caldrons heated. These were quickly heated, and he gave the order to cut out the tongue of the one who had spoken for the others, to scalp him and cut off his hands and feet, while the rest of his brothers and his mother looked on. When he was completely maimed but still breathing, the king ordered them to carry him to the fire and fry him.’ No quenching of the flames, no supernatural deliverance from horror. The ‘but if not’ is plain history.
But this is more than heroism, and more than a bow to real life. This is faith. Faith is not an optimistic believing that everything will turn out alright. Of course, sometimes they do. Burning fiery furnaces do sometimes lose their power to scorch and kill. But faith is still believing when everything turns out wrong, still going on in obedience to the one true God and having nothing to do with golden images, even when they appear in the form of an electronic bank balance. Faith that lasts only when the going is good, when God turns down the heat, faith that is dependent on convenient miracles worked at the right moment to save both our skins and our faces, may perhaps be better than no faith at all, but it is hardly the real thing.