POC Blog

The random technotheolosophical blogging of Reid S. Monaghan

Apologetics in Church History

continued from Part 2

Church Fathers/Early Patristic Period

In the first century after the apostolic era[1], we see right away the rich work of Christian Apologists emerging. Justin Martyr wrote several works of apologetics in the 2nd century AD interacting with Greek philosophical concepts and defending the faith through rational discourse.  It was not simply an intellectual game for Justin as he was executed AD 165. His crime was defending Christian teachings in a debate with a cynic philosopher named Crescens. Furthermore, in the third century, an early follower of Jesus named Origen wrote a work entitled Contra Celsum giving an answer to a Platonist philosopher named Celsus.  Apparently this guy was accusing Christians of being dumbs-dumbs and Origen sought to intellectually refute his claims. 

Augustine of Hippo

When we arrive in the fifth century we encounter the massive literary efforts of St. Augustine of Hippo. A massively influential (and controversial) theologian to this day, he also wrote a significant apologetic to the detractors against Christianity in his day.  Augustine was a bishop in the church after the times of Constantine when Church and Roman Empire had effectively become one.  The ideology of that time merged the idea of Rome as the eternal city with the idea that it was the culmination and arrival of the Kingdom of God.  The crucified and risen Jesus had brought the world-dominating Roman Empire to heal and therefore it was to be the crown of the work of God on the earth. Then something happened. Alaric, King of the Visigoths sacked Rome and the already crumbling Empire was shown to be something less that the Kingdom of God.  In this time, many pagan thinkers accused this fall of Rome on it switching its gods to the worship of Jesus. The fall of Rome, so they said, was the fault of the people abandoning the traditional gods in favor of Jesus and the Christian religion. It was in this setting that Augustine wrote his now classic City of God, which laid forth a Christian view of history and separated the city of man and the rule and reign of Jesus. Jesus’s church always traveled among the city of man but the two were not to be seen as one; they were, in fact, at odds with one another. Political rule and the rule of the King of heaven were not to be collapsed into one. They are separate.  The interesting thing about Augustine is his methodology of entering debate with the pagans. He refuted their claims and then told the greater narrative of the Kingdom that has no end which should not be identified with Rome[2]…or America for that matter. 

Thomas Aquinas

Later in the thirteenth century, Thomas Aquinas, the looming medieval luminary, engaged in a similar apologetic project with the Islamic thinking of his day. Leading up to this time the ancient works of Aristotle had been rediscovered by Arabic thinkers and were leading to various advances in natural philosophy, ethical reasoning, mathematics and logic.  At the time, Christian Europe was introduced to Aristotelian thinking through the translated works of the Muslim philosopher Averroes. In the mid thirteenth century, Thomas wrote his work Summa Contra Gentiles as an answer to the Islamic thinking that was pouring into Europe. For several hundred years Islamic forces had sought to conquer the European continent by force of arms and had succeeded in fully annexing the Iberian Peninsula. Many know that Charles the hammer Martel fought back the Islamic invasions militarily but fewer today know that the intellectual bastions of Europe were manned by Christian theologians and apologists such as Thomas Aquinas. He interacted with Aristotle, created a unique synthesis between faith and philosophy and, as some would argue, set the table for the scientific revolution which took place in Europe in the centuries that followed.[3]

Early Modern and Modern Apologists

Even further along in history we find the 17th century French philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal wagering with the skeptics of his day.  Closer to our own times we find British thinkers GK Chesterton, Dorothy Sayers, Malcom Muggeridge and CS Lewis[4] calling out in the wilderness of the crumbling Christian civilization of Great Britain.  We observe the American thinker Frances Schaeffer pushing the West to examine its effort to deconstruct itself.[5] In our own day men like Francis Collins, Michael Behe, William Dembski, Alister McGrath and John Lennox[6] are interacting with the modern sciences when that enterprise overstates a naturalistic case.  Apologist Ravi Zacharias engages the existential issues of the day[7] and men such as William Lane Craig are doing philosophy in the public sphere of intellectual debates on topics such as the existence of God, the objectivity of moral values and the historical resurrection of Jesus from the dead.[8]

In summary, we observe both in the New Testament Scriptures and in the pages of church history that God’s people are exhorted to contend for the faith once for all entrusted to the saints (Jude 3).  Pascal describes well the apologetic enterprise of the people of God in his classic work Pensées:

Men despise religion. They hate it and are afraid it may be true. The cure for this is first to show that religion is not contrary to reason, but worthy of reverence and respect. Next make it attractive, make good men wish it were true, and then show that it is. Worthy of reverence because it really understands human nature. Attractive because it promises true good.[9]

It is the work of God to convert and convict people of sin and allow them to see the light of the gospel in the face of Jesus Christ.  We are to preach the gospel as it is the power of God for the salvation of all who believe (Romans 1:16).  We are also to give a reason for the hope we have, doing so with gentleness in our flow and respect for people (1 Peter 3:15).  The ways in which we may go about the apologetic task is the focus of the next section.

Continued in Part 4 - The Practice of Apologetics - A Metaphor from Football

Notes

[1] The apostolic age or era simply refers to the first generation of Christians after the death and ascension of Jesus. This age comprises the bulk of first century Christianity and includes the work of the apostles and that of those known as the apostolic fathers (Clement of Rome, Ignatius of Antioch, Polycarp of Smyrna).

[2] See Curtis Chang, Engaging Unbelief : A Captivating Strategy from Augustine & Aquinas (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2000). Chang lays forth a strategy for apologetics derived from these two historical Christian leaders who served at different historical epochs. What he finds in common with both Augustine and Thomas is that they entered debate with Christianity’s critics with their terms, exposed the flaws in their arguments and then captures the truth they were getting at retold within the Christian story.

[3] The most influential thinker along these lines is Pierre Duhem and his massive work Le système du monde: histoire des doctrines cosmologiques de Platon à Copernic (The System of World: A History of Cosmological Doctrines from Plato to Copernicus. For an introduction to Duhem, see Roger Ariew, “Pierre Duhem,” Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (2011). http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/spr2011/entries/duhem/ (accessed 9/14/2011). See also

[4] See Markos. Louis Markos new work focuses several chapters on the thought of Chesterton, Sayers and Lewis. For those wishing to be introduced to these British apologists Markos book is to be commended.

[5] Francis A. Schaeffer, Francis A. Schaeffer Trilogy: The Three Essential Books in One Volume (Wheaton: Crossway Books, 1990).

[6] See Francis S. Collins, The Language of God : A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (New York: Free Press, 2006).  Michael J. Behe, Darwin’s Black Box : The Biochemical Challenge to Evolution (New York: The Free Press, 1996). William A. Dembski, The Design Revolution : Answering the Toughest Questions About Intelligent Design (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 2004). John C. Lennox, God’s Undertaker : Has Science Buried God?, 1st ed. (Oxford: Lion, 2007); Alister McGrath, A Fine-Tuned Universe: The Quest for God in Science and Theology (Louisville: Westminter John Knox, 2009).

[7] His early work reflected lectures given on various college campuses in the early 1990s – see Ravi K. Zacharias, Can Man Live without God (Nashville: W Pub. Group, 1994).

[8] Craig’s summary work is his textbook William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith - Christian Truth and Apologetics, 3rd ed. (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008).

[9] Quoted in Douglas Groothuis, Christian Apologetics - a Comprehensive Case for Biblical Faith (Downers Grover: IVP Academic, 2011), 25.

Finding God in Our Questions - An Intro to Christian Apologetics - Part 2

continued from part 1

Far from being an exercise in saying that you are sorry, the term apologetics is derived from an ancient Greek word which means to give a reasoned defense of something.[1] Plato’s ancient account of the trial of Socrates before the leaders of Athens was simple entitled “The Apology of Socrates.”[2] It recounts the old philosopher’s defense of himself and his work against charges levied against him of atheism and the corruption of the youth.[3] This well-traveled Greek term is the word we find as we come to the New Testament writings which describe the work of the early Christian community. The Bible both demonstrates that the early church gave a reasoned defense of the gospel as well as an exhortation for us to do so as well.  We will first look at Apologetics in the New Testament and then the robust witness in church history of Christians working for the proclamation and defense of the gospel.

Apologetics in the New Testament

In the New Testament of the Holy Bible the same term is used by two of the preeminent leaders of the early Christian movement. First, a teacher of the faith named Paul told his friends in a church in the city of Philippi that his work had been for the “defense and confirmation” of the gospel (Philippians 1:7). He goes on to say that he had been put in jail precisely due to this defense. The word he uses for defense in this chapter is the word from which we derive our term apologetics. Furthermore, the apostle Peter exhorted the early church to do several things in 1 Peter 3:15. They are to first set apart Christ as Lord in their own hearts. Second, they are to always be prepared to give a defense, an apologia, when asked for the reason they have for the hope that is within them. Finally, they are to do this in a manner that is gentle and respectful towards their friends. Openly advocating and defending the truth of the gospel was both the habit of Paul and the exhortation of Peter.

In addition to the clear New Testament witness of Peter and Paul we also have the writings of the gospel of Luke and the Book of Acts.  This two part work was compiled by a follower of Jesus named Luke who was the traveling companion of Paul and a leader in first century Christianity.  At the beginning of Luke and Acts he writes the following:

Luke 1:1-4 1Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things that have been accomplished among us, 2just as those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word have delivered them to us, 3it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, 4that you may have certainty concerning the things you have been taught.

Acts 1:1-3 1In the first book, O Theophilus, I have dealt with all that Jesus began to do and teach, 2until the day when he was taken up, after he had given commands through the Holy Spirit to the apostles whom he had chosen. 3He presented himself alive to them after his suffering by many proofs, appearing to them during forty days and speaking about the kingdom of God.

Here we see Luke, a physician by training, seeking to explain clearly the truth about Jesus in his gospel and then confirm the truth of Jesus’ resurrection and ministry carried on through his church. His concern was that a new follower of Jesus would have “certainty concerning the things he had been taught” and then understand all God had done through the apostles to expand the gospel by the power of the Holy Spirit. In the book of Luke we see all Jesus taught and did and in the book of Acts we see what his leaders were about in following his commission for their lives after he was gone. In Acts we see Peter and Paul proclaiming the gospel and giving explanations of the gospel to various audiences and contexts in the ancient world. Ajith Fernando, Sri Lankan Christian leader and Scholar, describes the messages proclaimed in Acts as all having a strong apologetic context.[4] Indeed the early church was proclaiming the good news of Jesus (evangelism) and defending the gospel as people inquired into the message they preached (apologetics). Commending and defending the gospel is the biblical model so we must maintain this intricate connection.

Continued in Part 3 - Apologetics in Church History

Notes

[1] See ἀπολογία in Walter Bauer and others, A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature, 3rd ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000).

[2] Louis Markos, Apologetics for the 21st Century (Wheaton: Crossway, 2010), 17.

[3] Atheism in that he did not advocate for the pantheon of ancient Greece and corruption in that his method was seen as deconstructive in that he questioned everything.

[4] Ajith Fernando, Acts, the Niv Application Commentary (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1998), 30.

Finding God in Our Questions - An Intro to Christian Apologetics - Part 1

Introduction

With all its twists and turns, joys and pains life certainly has a common thread. It is filled with many questions. Questions are a peculiar thing. Through them we can discover life and learn something about the universe and ourselves. Yet they can also yield great confusion. At times we ask, “What in the world is my life about?” and to be honest, the answers do not always come easily. The beauty of creation, the glories and horrors of human beings, the mystical call of the spiritual life, the centrality of love and the finality of death all provoke deep questions. What can we learn about life, beauty and meaning if we ask them honestly? Questions can be like breadcrumbs marking the trail that leads to truth and hope…even God.

When I became a follower of Jesus as a university student I had so many questions about my new faith. I had questions about the interrelations of science and belief in God. I had questions about the Bible, a fascinating collection of ancient writings I was reading for the first time. I had questions about why Christian college kids seemed to be trying to avoid both sex and beer. I had so many questions I didn’t know what to do but ask them. So ask them I did: to anyone and everyone who would listen and seemed to have some wisdom around the subjects of my interest.

At this point I ran into a couple of interesting responses. The first was a strange response from some students who grew up in certain churches. They told me that we should not ask questions but that we should just have faith. I had no idea what that meant but it sounded like a recipe for disaster. How could I learn more without asking questions about what Christians taught and believed? Furthermore, all my non-Christian friends had nothing but questions for me which sort of reinforced my desire to find some answers. In this same season of life, one of my friends said to me, “you would really enjoy reading some Christian apologetics!” Being a science and math guy and not having the most sophisticated vocabulary at the time, I quipped in response, “I’m not saying sorry to anyone for believing in Jesus.” Of course the word apology and apologetics have a nuanced meaning that I was unaware of in my own etymological ignorance. Apologetics is actually a discipline of theology that gives answers to questions about the Christian faith. We’ll pick that back up quite a bit in a moment.

What I found that God was not afraid of my questions and by following them in faith, I always ended up following him. I found God in a deep way by asking them. Questions for me were not a hindrance to faith in Jesus; they were a portal and entry way. They were a portal to a great appreciation for the breadth and depth of the truth of the gospel and led to an actual deepening of intimacy with the God I loved.

The Role of Questions

Human questions can be used in one of two directions in relationship to God. They can be used in following God or they can be used in rebellion against God. Many times people ask questions to which they really do not want answers. They only want to provoke doubt and leave people in a dark forest of skepticism and disbelief. Such questions are simply smokescreens[1] to avoid getting to the heart of the matter, or they can also be a wicked suppression of the truth like little middle fingers before the face of God. Over the years I have noticed that deeply intellectual people handle questions about faith in different ways. I have observed some with hostility to God and a mind completely closed towards the truths and possibilities of Christian faith. I have watched others with an open mind and a heart willing to follow the trail wherever it may lead. It seems to me that God’s intervention and activity in a person’s life has been the main difference here. I do know this: coming in humility and openness always leads to a better place when asking questions about God. Questions asked in the posture of faith, hope and love can be a wonderful tool guiding us towards God’s truth. Asking them with a sneering cynicism can lead one into a damnable place.

In this essay I hope to take us towards our questions in hope of finding sturdy answers for the soul as it sojourns on the earth with God. To do so I want to first introduce you to the discipline of Christian Apologetics and its helpfulness to the task of the church. I then want to encourage all of us to interact in wisdom with questions people actually have: real people, our friends and their real questions. Finally, I want to conclude with some thoughts about the interplay between our intellectual questions and the necessity for God’s help and illumination at every stage of seeking answers. There will also be two appendices on apologetic systems and the content of apologetics both ancient and modern. Now, without delay, let’s move to our introduction to Christian Apologetics.

Continued in part 2

Notes

[1] Smokescreen questions is a term I first observed used by Dr. J. Budziszewski in coaching college students to deal with questions. See J. Budziszewski, How to Stay Christian in College (Colorado Springs: Nav Press, 2004), 64-72.

An essay in many parts. Or...a hat tip towards brief posts

Hi guys,

Typically here at the POCBlog I drop in some longish writing that I do from time to time on various subjects. I sort of do this in the wind of a culture that says “write short posts, never more than a screen high, and don’t make complex arguments…cause the kids can’t read good any more.” You know you are all distracted and your brains must be slowly oozing away. Plus, who has time to read any more. Just give me some bullet points and sound bytes and I’ll be happliy on my way back to Facebook!

To be honest, I think we ought to read longer things and write them as well. Yet in a small, conciliatory hat tip towards short writing, I am going to roll out an intro to apologetics I wrote last week here section by section. So if questions about faith, reality and interacting with the truth of the gospel are of interest to you…stick around.

A few shortish posts are forthcoming. One quick comment about the footnotes. They will be numbered as they appeared in the longer piece so if an entry has footnotes that begin with the number 6 or something - this is why. I don’t have enough time to change all of them for each and every post.

Finally, if you made it this far and used a scroll bar then you likely don’t mind a longer read. If so, you can find the entirety of this series in one PDF file here.

Thanks team

Reid

New Biography on GK Chesterton

Many people may be unfamiliar with one of the foremost British authors of the earliest 20th century so I am thankful for a new biography which might introduce Gilbert Keith Chesterton to a new generation of readers. I was introduced to Chesterton through the work of Christian apologist Ravi Zacharias several years ago and have been bettered as a result. In fact, Chesterton’s works were influential on many in the English speaking world with many apologists for the Christian faith finding rich soils in Chestertonian writings. Both CS Lewis and JRR Tolkien were influenced by Chesterton who preceded them in the British literary world.

I have read (and reread) Chesterton’s book Orthodoxy to the point where I have many sections of it put to memory. I also deeply enjoyed his short biographies on St. Francis of Assisi and St. Thomas Aquinas the latter having the delightful subtitle “The Dumb Ox.” I know these works well but was somewhat ignorant as to the scope of this literary giants work. I am finishing a new biography entitled Defiant Joy: The Remarkable Life and Impact of GK Chesterton which has been of great help to me in expanding my knowledge of Chesterton and his thought.The work is by Kevin Belmonte who has done Chesterton studies a great favor with this book.

Belmonte’s biography begins with the typical early life information one expects with books of this kind but then he takes you on a fascinating journey throughout the rest of the book. As Chesterton was a man of letters, Belmonte’s work proceeds by unfolding the biography along the lines of his major works. Each chapter is focused on one of Chesterton’s literary achievements and then covers life details which surrounded the production of that work. So this book is not only a good introduction to Chesterton the man, it is also a well suited orientation to each of his major works. Each chapter gives us the background to what was happening in the thought world of Chesterton’s day, his interlocutors and the major thrust of his book, poem or collection of essays. I particularly enjoyed the interactions which Chesterton had with his ideological opponents George Bernard Shaw and HG Wells. You can learn much about a man in how he treats his friends. Even more how he treats friends whose ideas he most vigorously opposes.

The only drawback I found in the work is that due to the aforementioned strength I wish I knew a little more of the man apart from his letters. Yes, there is mention of his marriage to Frances but I found myself wanting to hear more about his family life and what made him tick. Yet as I am sure Belmonte would say, to know the man we must look to his writings. 

Chesterton has indeed left a profound literary legacy in our world and I can only commend his work to you even more after reading Defiant Joy. My own journey into his books has just begun as I soon while dive in to his The Everlasting Man, a book once commended by CS Lewis as the best popular apologetic to the Christian faith he knew of.

With the proliferation of electronic books it is amazing to see just how much of Chesterton is available free of charge for the Kindle and other ebook formats. If you must begin anywhere with Chesterton I recommend Orthodoxy as it lays forth his wonder filled view of mere Christianity in strident colors. One warning if you love quotations and reading a book with a highlighter. You may soon find yourself highlighting so much that the effort may leave little uncovered print. My hard copy of Orthodoxy is well worn, marked up with many colors of pen and ink.  One caveat as you begin to read GK. He is a master of paradox and turning of a phrase. Many of my friends “get him” right away while others have to read each paragraph really slowly to follow his creative dance of thought.  Whether you find reading him easy or slow going, I promise you the work is well worth your time.

You can grab Defiant Joy here

On Human Anthropology

I have written a couple of times over the course my long journey in graduate school dealing with the subject of human anthropology. I have had particular interest in the are of mind-brain identity and various flavors of dualistic anthropology.

For those interested in these subjects the following are posted for that tremendous horde…

  • Are Human Beings Constituted of one, two or three substances? Link to pdf
  • The Implications of Nancey Murphy’s Non Reductive Physicalism on Confessional Christian Theology - Link to pdf

Is there Evidence for the Existence of God?

Dr. William Lane Craig is one of the preeminent theistic philosophers of our time and he is also an excellent debater. He is clear, intelligent and focused in debate. 

Recently he debated Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss on the subject “Is there evidence for the existence of God” at North Carolina State University (booo! OK, NC State should exist…but booo! Go Heels!) Ok, I’m back now. The debate is online now and can be found here

Just be warned, the video is all sorts of weird at the beginning - I really felt like singing “Somewhere over the rainbow” when waiting for the debate to begin.  Do yourself a favor and drag that video slider over to 16:30 min mark where a North Carolina Supreme Court Judge guy gives the greeting and introduction to the debate. Thank me later.

Enjoy

Jesus...Fully God, Fully Human

Paul’s letter to the Colossians is a short letter with a singular focus.  He wants us to see that Jesus is enough for God’s people.  In the middle of Chapter 1 he goes to some length to explain to us who Jesus really is in all his glory.  In looking at what some have deemed the “Christ Hymn”1 of Colossians, we quite literally come to one of the mountaintop vistas in the entire Bible.  As Jesus is the central focus of the Bible (Luke 24:27) such clear and airy Christology2 found Colossians 1:15-20 is indeed one of the high points of the Bible.  This passage has been central to the church’s understanding of Jesus and has been part of a robust theological discussion over the years.

The Identity of Jesus in Early Church History

The identity of Jesus was of extreme importance to Christians in every era of history but was especially central to his earliest followers.  Jesus himself walked on the earth, lived his life with a community of people, preached, taught, was crucified and raised from death.  Jesus is truly a complex person. In the New Testament he is at once a very human, human being. At the same time he claimed to be God striding upon the soils of planet earth.  After his life, Jesus’s apostles and their associates wrote down his story, his teachings and eyewitness accounts3 of his death and resurrection in what we call the “Gospels” of the New Testament. There are four of these—Matthew, Mark, Luke and John.4 In addition to these gospels there are various sections of the other New Testament writings which speak to the identity of Jesus. 

Early Controversies 

There was some debate among the early Christians as to whether Jesus was “more human” (ala Arianism—he was not fully God) or “more God.” (ala Docetism—a view that said he just appeared human). Some wanted to focus more on his humanity, others on his divinity and some wanted to keep the divine and human separated. There is good reason for this debate.  The Bible is vehemently and without equivocation monotheistic.  There is only one God (see Deuteronomy 6:4; 2 Samuel 7:22; Isaiah 44:6-8, 45:5; Romans 3:30; Ephesians 4:4-6; James 2:19) and yet Jesus claims to be God and prays to God as his Father.  Something wonderful and different is up here! 

Historically, the truth of Jesus is found in the New Testament teaching.  Clarity on all this matters took some time, but a strong unity was forged in the early creeds and councils of the church.  The major controversy was between followers of Arias (who taught that Jesus was a created being and not eternal God) and those following the New Testament in holding God/Humanity of Jesus together in one person. This position’s leader was an Egyptian named Athanasius.  These two positions were debated at the Council of Nicea in AD 325.  This council was to resolve this debate about the nature of Jesus Christ and was not in any way a council that “gave the church the Bible” or any other of Dan Brown’s Da Vinci Code speculation.5

Theological Consensus

The council of Nicea resulted in a big thumbs down on Arias’ doctrines declaring them to be heresy.  The council also affirmed the biblical teaching with an early formation of the Nicene Creed.  This document was the statement around which Christians unified in relationship to the unique identity of the God of the Bible as a Triune being existing eternally as Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  The following is just a snippet that may sound familiar to those who grew up in liturgical church traditions.

We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God, eternally begotten of the Father, God from God, Light from Light, true God from true God, begotten, not made, of one Being with the Father.  Through him all things were made.  For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man.  For our sake he was crucified under Pontius Pilate; he suffered death and was buried.  On the third day he rose again in accordance with the Scriptures; he ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father.  He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.

The Nicene creed simply articulated the teaching of the Bible that Jesus was indeed God. More doctrinal precision was provided by the Chalcedonian definition in AD 451 which clarified the biblical teaching that Jesus was fully human and full God in one person.  He was not sort of human and really God or sort of God and kinda human.  The definition reads as follow.

Therefore, following the holy fathers [early church leaders/pastors], we all with one accord teach men to acknowledge one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man, consisting also of a reasonable soul and body; of one substance with the Father as regards his Godhead, and at the same time of one substance with us as regards his manhood; like us in all respects, apart from sin; as regards his Godhead, begotten of the Father before the ages, but yet as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin, the God-bearer; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten, recognized in two natures, without confusion, without change, without division, without separation; the distinction of natures being in no way annulled by the union, but rather the characteristics of each nature being preserved and coming together to form one person and subsistence, not as parted or separated into two persons, but one and the same Son and Only-begotten God the Word, Lord Jesus Christ; even as the prophets from earliest times spoke of him, and our Lord Jesus Christ himself taught us, and the creed of the fathers has handed down to us. 6

Though we might need a dictionary along with us to read the above, it is indeed an awesome statement.  The teachings of these creeds about Jesus are simply articulations of the teaching of Jesus and the apostles and have played a unifying role in church history.7 In fact, all Christians from every tradition—Catholic, Eastern Orthodox, Protestant, Evangelical8 are in agreement on the truths of these creeds. Why? They come from the Bible which bears witness to this unique person. In fact, Jesus is revealed in the Scripture as the most unique person who ever lived. The following will be but a simple survey of some of the biblical teaching.

The Biblical Teaching

Jesus is not normal. Never was, never will be.  In fact, he is the most startling, unique, mysterious, glorious, compelling, magnetic, loving and true person who ever lived.  The Scriptures reveal to us both truths that Jesus was God and man.  The following will be a listing of some of the biblical teaching. 

He is man

In the Old Testament we are taught that the coming Messiah/Christ would be a human being (Isaiah 7:14; 9:6,7). Jesus fulfills this in every way. First, he was born into and grew up in a human family (Luke 1-2).  Second, he exhibits the full range of human emotions in the gospels. He was tired, hungry, thirsty and in his humanity he had limited knowledge (John 4:6-7 and 19:28, Mark 13:32).  Third, Philippians 2:6-8 clearly teaches that Jesus, though was in very nature God,  humbled himself and became human.  Fourth, He was tempted just as we are yet did not sin. (Matthew 4, Hebrews 4:15) Some erroneously teach that to be human means to be sinful.  Yet we see Jesus fully human without sin.  Finally, all the gospels record that Jesus bled and died on the cross.  It is simple for us to understand Jesus was an historical human being, yet some question whether this man was truly God incarnate.  The amount of biblical testimony to this second claim is actually massive in detail.  On we go to that happy trail.

He is God

Here we will provide a sketch of the testimony of Scripture as to the deity of Jesus along five major lines. For those who desire more I refer you to a couple of clear recent works that cover the issues in some detail.10

#1 He is clearly called God and divine names are attributed to Jesus

First, Jesus is called theos the Greek word for God in many places in the New Testament (John 1:1, John 20:28, Romans 9:5, Hebrews 1:8, Titus 2:13, 1 John 5:20, 2 Peter 1:1). Second, he is called the Son of God in the gospels.  This is sometimes a misunderstood concept where many think this distinguishes Jesus from being God.  Philosopher Peter Kreeft makes the following observation that sheds light on how this title was understood.  Kreeft writes: Son of a dog, is a dog, son of an ape an ape, son of God, is God — Jews were Monotheistic, only one God—Son of God is the divine title of Jesus and everyone at his time understood this title to mean just that.Third, Jesus is called the Son of Man some 84 times in the gospels and is his most used title for himself. This title represents the perfection of humanity in the person of Jesus in contrast to the sinful nature of humanity in Adam.11 It is also a direct reference to the divine figure in Daniel 7 of the Old Testament.  Jesus used this to describe both his first and second coming. About his first coming he said, the Son of Man came to give his life as a ransom for people (Mark 10:45 and Matthew 20:28). As to his second coming, in direct reference to Daniel 7, he tells the high priest at his trial that the Son of Man will come again on the clouds of heaven.  At this he is accused of blasphemy because he had claimed to be God. See dialogue in Matthew 62-65. Finally, Jesus is called LORD, kurios, which is used for Yahweh in Greek translations of the Old Testament (Philippians 2:11, 1 Corinthians 2:8). 

# 2 Certain attributes of God are used to describe Jesus

There are certain characteristics about God that theologians calls his divine attributes. Some of these are directly predicated to Jesus as well.  Jesus is said to be unchanging (Hebrews 1:12, quoting Psalm 102:25-27, Hebrews 13:8) and all powerful (Philippians 3:20,21, Revelation 1:8) and eternal (Isaiah 9:6,7; Micah 5:2). 

# 3 Jesus does the works of God

Jesus is said to be the creator and providential sustainer of all  (Colossians 1:15-20, Hebrews 1:1-3). Furthermore, he is said to give eternal life and forgives sins that are against God (John 10:28, John 17:2, 1 John 2:25, Mark 2:5-12, Colossians 1:14, 3:13). Jesus’ miracles also confirm his power over nature, disease and death itself.

#4 He is worshipped as God by monotheistic people

The Scriptures are clear that the worship of anyone or anything is idolatry and the deepest of sins. Deuteronomy 6:13-15 teaches us that God’s people shall worship/fear only the Lord their God. Additionally, The Ten Commandments call us to worship only the God of the Bible and to reject idols and the worship of images (Exodus 20). Furthermore, the angels, various men and Jesus himself all understand that worship is exclusively for God (Angels in Revelation 19 and 22, Peter in Acts 10, Paul in Acts 14 and Jesus himself quotes Deuteronomy 6:13 to Satan during his own temptations in Matthew 4). So we find something amazing happening in the New Testament. Jesus is worshipped and he accepts worship without any hesitation at all (Matthew 2:11, John 9:35-39, Matthew 21:9-16, Luke 19.37-40 and Matthew 28:9,10, 17).  Even more amazing is that God the Father actually commands angels to worship Jesus (Hebrews 1:6) and Jesus will be clearly worshipped in Heaven (Revelation 5). 

#5 He directly claimed to be God

His own testimony is that he is the pre-existing great I AM of Exodus 3 (John 8:58), he is one in essence with the Father (John 10:30), he existed with the Father before the world began (John 17:5) and he claims to be the divine Christ (Matthew 26:63,64). His enemies wanted him killed for blasphemy because he, a mere man, was clearly claiming to be God.  

The Unique Glory of Jesus

The wonder of Jesus Christ isn’t that he was a great moral teacher. He was.  The wonder of Jesus Christ is not that he was kind, loving and compassionate to the poor. He was. The glory is found in that God became poor and one of us. He desires to walk with us, teach us and lead us. The glory is that Jesus is worthy of worship because as the unique Son of God he gave his life for us. Some might make him too exalted and far away—less human. Some might seek to bring him down from heaven and make him just a slob like one of us.11 Dear friends, the path he gives us is much better.  He shares our humanity and lives with us by his Spirit as the divine, glorified and risen Savior. He is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords—he shall reign forever and we shall worship him.  He is worthy of all that we are.

Notes

1. See discussion in Douglas Moo, The Letters to the Colossians and Philemon (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2008) See introductory section on Colossians 1:15.

2. Christology is the theological discipline dedicated to the study of the person (who he is) and work (what he has done) of Jesus the Christ.

3. See Richard Baukham, Jesus and the Eyewitnesses: The Gospels as Eyewitness Testimony (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006)

4. Matthew and John were among the twelve apostles.  Mark wrote down the apostle Peter’s account (see my introduction to Mark here http://www.powerofchange.org/storage/docs/nt_web_jw.pdf) and Luke was the traveling companion and missionary secretary of St. Paul.  Luke’s gospel, by its own prologue, was Luke’s job to pull together the Jesus story with some precision.

5. A simple, helpful book on all that schmack Darryl Bock, Breaking the Da Vinci Code (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2006).

6. Both the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition can readily be found online. Use the Bing or the Google and you’ll find these.  Or just go here—http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html

7. For a thorough treatment on creeds and there use in the Christian tradition, see Jaroslav Pelikan, Credo-Historical and Theological Guide to Creeds and Confessions of Faith in the Christian Tradition (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2003). Good buy for the library.

8. For the continued Evangelical consensus on these issues see JI Packer and Thomas Oden, One Faith—The Evangelical Consensus (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 2004) 71-75.

9. Geisler and Hoffman, Why I am a Christian, Part 5, Chapter 13—Peter Kreeft Why I believe Jesus is the Son of God (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2001) 222-234. 

10. Donald Macleod, The Person of Christ, (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1998) and Robert Bowman, J. Ed Komoszewski, Putting Jesus in His Place, The Case for the Deity of Christ (Grand Rapids: Kregal, 2007)

11. Ben Witherington III, “The Christology of Jesus Revisited” in Francis Beckwith, William Lane Craig, JP Moreland, To Everyone an Answer – The Case for the Christian Worldview (Downers Grove, Intervarsity Press, 2004) 155

12. Lyrics by Eric Bazilian , One of Us, performed by Joan Osborne, 1995.

 

Nonsense from a nontheist?

I ran across this video today by the late Carl Sagan on a blog by an atheist technology enthusiast. First, I want to say that I mean no disrespect to the dead, but I’m really unsure how such thinking is thought to be profound by those who should know better. This post is in no way meant as disrespect for Sagan the man - though I don’t understand why anyone would sue a company as perfect as Apple Computer or say some of the silly things he says in this video. 

Take a look:

The first short section (up until 1:09) is the only serious reflection and I found here with the final seven minutes dedicated towards Sagan’s seeming enthrallment with Hinduism. I do not intend to interact with Hindu thought here, but I will say that Sagan uses this jaunt to the east in order to arrive subtly where he begins - God(s) do not exist and they are the creation of the minds of humanity. 

Throughout this piece, Sagan acknowledges the universal human desire to find an explanation for our existence and the existence of all things.  He then, sadly, seems to dismiss this quest for an answer with a bit of philosophical hand waving. 

After acknowledging inflationary big bang theory, he goes on to recognize the question as to what existed before the beginning of matter/space/time.  As many societies in culture have posited at this point some sort of supernatural explanation (God or gods created it) Sagan then puts on a courageous hat and begins to discuss this answer.  In summary form his reasoning is as follows.

  • The universe appears by observation to have begun in the past at an event we call the big bang and has been expanding since that time. 
  • What was before this? This is our question. What caused our world? 
  • Theists answer - God(s) created it
  • Sagan then questions - if you are “courageous” you will ask “Where then did God come from” 

Let me stop us here for a moment.  This is a great question.  For indeed if there is an infinite regress of causes then we actually explain nothing.  What caused the universe? god! What caused that god? Another god! Ad infinitum, ad nauseum.  I quite heartily agree with him at this point.  

At this point Sagan makes a move that I find quite strange and not very brights. He asks “Why not save a step” and just assume that the universe, not God(s), was always there eternal and uncaused. In other words, something seems to need to be eternal and uncaused, so why multiply entities beyond need. We need no God, we have an eternal, uncaused universe.  In philosophy, the eternal and uncaused would be seen as a necessary entity, something that is not contingent. Something whose existence does not depend on anything else…it just IS. 

Now, my simple question is this: Did he not begin this quest with a desire to understand our universe and its origin?  Saving a step is a wise principle in philosophy that was put forth by the Christian skeptic William of Ockham. Also known as the principle of parsimony, or Ockham’s razor, this teaches us that we do not need to provide complex explanations when a simpler one will do. We need not posit something else to explain the origin of the universe if the universe itself IS the answer. The problem with Sagan’s thought here is that we can actually study this universe and conclude several things.  

  • If the universe had origin, i.e., it began to exist, then we must not assume it’s eternal existence. This is why we ask: What caused the universe?
  • What exists before (logically prior) space-time requires a different sort of answer. An explanation that actually IS eternal (not based in time - which began at the beginning)
  • If the universe is made up completely of contingent things, it is therefore must be a contingent thing and not a necessary one. And no, this is not a fallacy of composition as contingency is an expansive property.
  • If matter/space-time/energy did not always exist, we know that it is not necessary. There has to be something else that IS necessary that provides its explanation. 
  • If we can infer from science (even big bang theory, ie there was a t=0 of the big bang) and philosophy that the universe is indeed finite in time, then it is not only wise to posit other explanations, reason would compel us to do so. After-all, Sagan admits in this video that the entire human species has been, is and will continue to be obsessed with this question - not simply dismiss it.

My question back to the disciples of men like Carl Sagan is this. Why are you avoiding the question with which you begin? The answer to the explanation of all things cannot be a contingent thing in itself - it must be eternal, uncaused and necessary. If we are courageous we will ask this question and not “save that step” for that is indeed how this game was started in the first place.  

So to answer Dr. Sagan’s initial questions directly:

  • Why not save a step and assume the origin of the universe is an unanswerable question? Because it is not unanswerable - it is only unanswerable to those who do not like certain kinds of answers. Such closed mindedness is not good philosophy.
  • Why not save a step and conclude the universe always existed? Because we can study the universe and see that it has not always existed. 

For those who hold to many forms of theism, the answer is “God created the universe” and we stop at the eternal, uncaused, necessary being that by his own will created all things. We do not posit an infinite regress of gods or universes; we do save our steps. We also do not create all the unnecessary steps of positing an infinite number of universes (as many do today) or an infinite number of gods (as many have and will continue to do). To do so would simply create some bushes to hide in from our most fundamental questions.  What we will do, however, is give metaphysical and theological answers to describe the nature of the one who creates nature.  A natural explanation is not and could not be coming at this point. Why? God is not creation. God is of a different category than the universe that we can indeed study with empirical science. God is other. God is God. 

For those who do not like such answers, for whatever tendentious reasons, I give you back to the philosophical sophisms given by Sagan. Bon appetit!

Determinisms

Is the future an open ended book or is history in some way predetermined? Is there such a thing as destiny? Such questions have been on the minds of women and men since the beginning of recorded history. One thing is certain: we seem to want life to have some meaning, purpose and direction to it.  In this essay, I want us to think a little about the idea of determinism.  To do so I will first define the word and then look closely at a specific species of it.  I will then discuss the problems with the future being under determined and certain views of free will.  In closing, I will look at various theological views associated with God’s sovereignty and knowledge of the future and how this affects our own choices in space and time.  So, am I determined to write this today or shall I put down the pen? Well, either way, I trudge forward.

Determinism—Its Only Natural

Philosophically, determinism can be defined as follows: Determinism is the view that holds that events in the future are determined ahead of time by an intelligence, other events in the past and/or the current state of affairs. It might but a surprise to some, but the materialistic worldview of atheism is highly deterministic. In fact, the Stanford Encyclopedia of philosophy has just such a definition for determinism: 

“[Causal Determinism is defined as] The world is governed by (or is under the sway of) determinism if and only if, given a specified way things are at a time t, the way things go thereafter is fixed as a matter of natural law.1

Unlike my definition, here we have no room for an intelligence guiding life and history. In this view, determinism means that the universe and all that transpires in it is predetermined by the causal chain of the interaction of matter based upon the laws of nature.

In the spring of 2002 I was in campus ministry taking a course in medieval philosophy which surveyed thinkers and their works from a period of time spanning from Augustine to just prior to Descartes.  The professor asked a rather simple question of the class: “Who does not believe in free will?” Several students, who were philosophy majors of an atheistic orientation, raisee their hands.  Why? They believe in determinism because they hold that everything is just matter/energy and therefore the result  of natural forces. In this view, there are simply no supernatural entities such as human souls, God, angels or demons who make real choices. The universe starts going at some time in the distant past and then based upon some initial conditions all things simply unfold over time.  In my mind, this harsh determinism, is true if a naturalistic/materialistic philosophy is true. In this view of the world, the universe is a closed system of cause and effect without any outside influence. This, of course, includes all your choices based upon the droning forward of the chemical processes of your brain. I find this one of the horrible weaknesses of such philosophy. It simply does not account for our experience as human beings.

As such, it has always amazed me that atheists write books trying to get people to “change their minds” about their beliefs when in fact they believe our brains are already predetermined and any free choice is an illusion. Your beliefs are simply the results of matter interacting; it is physics all the way down. In fact, in this view, there really isn’t any “you” that could change “your mind.” Christian thinker GK Chesterton saw this clearly when he wrote of this kind of determinism.  In his typical wit, he reflects as follows:

The determinist does not believe in appealing to the will, but he does believe in changing the environment. He must not say to the sinner, “Go and sin no more,” because the sinner cannot help it. But he can put him in boiling oil; for boiling oil is an environment.2

This sort of categorization of the naturalistic worldview (a view which is anti-theistic) is not at all uncharitable.  For example, the “Center for Naturalism” quite openly affirms this view of life under the sun. Forgive the longish quotation but I want you to see this thinking in its own terms.

Naturalism as a guiding philosophy can help create a better world by illuminating more precisely the conditions under which individuals and societies flourish, and by providing a tangible, real basis for connection and community. It holds that doctrines and policies which assume the existence of a freely willing agent, and which therefore ignore the actual causes of behavior, are unfounded and counter-productive. To the extent to which we suppose persons act out of their uncaused free will, to that extent will we be blind to those factors which produce criminality and other social pathologies, or, on the positive side, the factors which make for well-adjusted, productive individuals and societies. By holding that human behavior arises entirely within a causal context, naturalism also affects fundamental attitudes about ourselves and others. Naturalism undercuts retributive, punitive, and fawning attitudes based on the belief that human agents are first causes, as well other responses amplified by the supposition of free will, such as excessive pride, shame, and guilt. Since individuals are not, on a naturalistic understanding, the ultimate originators of their faults and virtues, they are not deserving, in the traditional metaphysical sense, of praise and blame. Although we will continue to feel gratitude and regret for the good and bad consequences of actions, understanding the full causal picture behind behavior shifts the focus of our emotional, reactive responses from the individual to the wider context. This change in attitudes lends support for social policies based on a fully causal view of human behavior. 3

If this seems to you a bit unnerving it ought to. Think for a moment about what is being said here. Apparently a certain group of people thinks they can and should set “social policies” to control the “environments” of other people. Why? To control the behavior of others who cannot make real choices but only respond to environments. Wow.  Yet before we throw to the wind every form of determinism let’s look at the other extreme.

On the other end of the spectrum is the view that nothing in the future is determined and nothing is supposed to happen based upon current reality. This is problematic as well as certain things today surely seem influenced and even caused by events which happened before.  Our choices are never purely “out of the blue” as they are always shaped by many things.  Our upbringing, prior choices, the choices of others, education, things that happened to us, and most importantly our character influence how we act today and in some sense shape tomorrow. Furthermore, if God is God and knows the future, is it not in some way “going to happen”?  It seems that we can also take a view of “free will” that is indeed “too free” as there is some reason for actions taken in the world even when you consider individual intelligences acting. Is there a middle ground?  The Christian view has always held that there indeed is another way.

Throughout history orthodox Christians who follow the teachings of the Bible have agreed on a few principle things here. First, God indeed knows the future and there are some things that WILL happen because God wants them to. (Isaiah 46:8-11, Ephesians 1:11) Second, human beings are responsible to God for their choices and their decisions do matter in shaping our future (Deuteronomy 30;19,20 ) Where there has been divergence it has been related to how much one of these principles holds sway over the other in our theology. One focuses heavily on God’s sovereignty and meticulous providence while the other focuses heavily on our choices and responsibility.  The first view can be viewed as a sort of theological determinism4 and the latter a theological libertinism. What we must not do is think that God is not involved in all the transpires during life under the sun. Nor should we think, as in materialistic determinism, that we have no choices that are real.  What I want to put forth is a view that highly esteems God’s rule and purposes in all of life while at the same time calling us to live wisely in dependence upon our sovereign God. 

God is God and We are Human

Several passages of Scripture teach that God is in control of quite literally everything. Here is a survey of a few ways in which Scripture teaches us that God is in control.

Furthermore, Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that there is a time and purpose for every season under heaven both good and bad.  This is never meant to lead us to some sort of fatalism that we have no choices in life and we are just puppets on a string.  What we must acknowledge is that we do not control destiny. God does.  What we must see is that we are human and finite and God is infinite and knows all things.  When we see this, knowing God is in control helps us respond to his actions in history with trust and hope.  If you forgive me, I want to spend the rest of my space here with you working to persuade you that God’s sovereignty is a great thing for us to know and then willfully live in light of.

God’s Sovereignty in Bad Times

The questions pour out when thinking of the complex realities of good and evil in our world. Philosophers have discussed these issues for ages. Believers and unbelievers see the very same circumstances often in very different lights. One man suffers immensely and meets God right there, while another curses God for the pain that he experiences and sees all around him.  The Scriptures record many reasons God has for allowing suffering in our world. For our purposes here I will just refer you to my recent essay about suffering for reflection upon this.5

God’s Sovereignty in Good Times

God’s nature and character are directly reflected in all that is true, good and beautiful in our world. We call such kind providences “blessings” as we see God’s kindness and favor in so much of life.  The creation itself speaks to us (Psalm 19) and we see in our own design the goodness of God’s laws and purposes.6

God is God in All Things

If you are like me, you tend to see quickly the hand of God in the good times yet struggle to see his hand in the terrible sufferings of life. Ecclesiastes 3 teaches us that God has a purpose for every time and season under heaven and the he quite literally makes “all things beautiful in its time.”  It is never that all things are good, but the overarching plan of God for all of history is breathtakingly so. The thing that frustrates us as human beings is that we have but a finite view of things.  We cannot see all that will be tomorrow let alone see across the horizons of eternity like our God. Without a godlike view of the world we must trust the one who is indeed working all things together for the good of those who love him and are called according to his purposes (See Romans 8:26-37).

Conclusion

In closing, we are not the victims of blind time+matter+chance as in the view of atheism.  Yet neither are we the ultimate captains of our ships as some would want us to believe. The truth is much deeper.  God is captain of his world and is working all things towards his purposes. He is weaving his story through history and we only see but a small part that we play. We follow him in the fog and trust his good hand in times of pain and trial. Similarly we rejoice with God in times of immense happiness and blessing. In the end, we might sleep better at night knowing life is on his shoulders. We are free to weep deeply in our pain knowing God cares and will some day wipe away the tears.  We can rejoice triumphantly in hope that even death is not the end and an eternal glory is coming. There is nothing more frustrating and impossible that to pretend to know all things.  There is nothing more vexing than to claim to see every reason behind each ray of sunlight and the many shadows of this age.  There is nothing more comforting than to know and trust the one who does.  He is our Father, he is our Lord, he is our King…and he is with us each step of the way.

Humble yourselves, therefore, under the mighty hand of God so that at the proper time he may exalt you, 7 casting all your anxieties on him, because he cares for you.  1 Peter 5:6, 7 ESV

Walking together,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

1. Causal Determinism, Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/determinism-causal/ accessed September 30th, 2010. Emphasis in original.

2. GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy (New York: NY, Image books, 1959) 20. Originally published: New York: Dodd, Mead & Co., 1908. Emphasis Added.

3. Center for Naturalism Internet Site, http://www.naturalism.org/center_for_naturalism.htm accessed September 30, 2010. Emphasis Added.

4. By Theological determinism I simply mean that history is  in some mysterious way “determined by God” - It is a determinism that has God choosing and acting and humans responding and acting as well.  It is not the closed system universe of naturalistic/materialistic determinism as it has intelligent agents involved and not simply blind matter. It is also not “fatalism” as God is working out his good plan and we take part in the working it out.

5. Reid S. Monaghan, Thoughts on Suffering, http://www.powerofchange.org/blog/2010/7/24/thoughts-on-suffering.html.

6. See J. Budzizewski’s What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide, for a treatment of  God’s designs in us and our world.

What Sacred Games?

In the late 19th century western philosophy was starting to get honest about its godless trajectory.  Thinkers had placed the knives of reason upon thinking itself and began to come to some stark honesty about what they really believed about God, truth and morality. The pariah Friedrich Nietzsche, whose work only became popular after his death, was perhaps one of the most honest.  Many of the conclusions were that God was dead1, truth was perspectival rather than universal and morality was a fake, a ploy to keep people in chains when they were made for greatness. Nietzsche wrote many works addressing these realities many times using metaphors to describe his views.  For example, in his treatment of morality, he chose the title beyond good and evil.  In his treatment of what he thought human beings could become he chose the language of “superman” or “overman” to describe a higher human race which history and evolution would produce. To this sort of thinking GK Chesterton responded pointedly in the early 20th century in his classic work “Orthodoxy”

This, incidentally, is almost the whole weakness of Nietzsche, whom some are representing as a bold and strong thinker. No one will deny that he was a poetical and suggestive thinker; but he was quite the reverse of strong. He was not at all bold. He never put his own meaning before himself in bald abstract words: as did Aristotle and Calvin, and even Karl Marx, the hard, fearless men of thought. Nietzsche always escaped a question by a physical metaphor, like a cheery minor poet. He said, “beyond good and evil,” because he had not the courage to say, “more good than good and evil,” or, “more evil than good and evil.” Had he faced his thought without metaphors, he would have seen that it was nonsense. So, when he describes his hero, he does not dare to say, “the purer man,” or “the happier man,” or “the sadder man,” for all these are ideas; and ideas are alarming. He says “the upper man,” or “over man,” a physical metaphor from acrobats or alpine climbers. Nietzsche is truly a very timid thinker. He does not really know in the least what sort of man he wants evolution to produce. And if he does not know, certainly the ordinary evolutionists, who talk about things being “higher,” do not know either. 2

Though Nietzsche was certainly a man hiding his ideas in metaphors when he suggested to us a world “post-God” and what such a world would become I find him quite clear.  In writing about the implications of his views, Nietzsche wrote the now classic parable The Madman.3 In this short work he artfully portrays what the world after the death of God would have to be like. In this essay I want to highlight a portion of The Madman and then, in a way of sorts, look at how we have indeed attempted to answer Nietzsche’s questions.  I will then ask whether the Preacher of Ecclesiastes is a better guide for staring into the empty void of life under the sun. I will close by simply arguing that the death of God has indeed been quite the exaggeration.

It is hard to quote just a portion of The Madman, but even quoting the entirety of  even the short parable would consume too much space here for our purposes. I suggest that you take a quick trip online to read the whole thing and I will highlight a few sections here.  After a madman frantically asks the question “where is God” he is chided by some modern atheists and he replies to them in vigorous prose.

The madman jumped into their midst and pierced them with his eyes. “Whither is God?” he cried; “I will tell you. We have killed him — you and I. All of us are his murderers. But how did we do this? How could we drink up the sea? Who gave us the sponge to wipe away the entire horizon? What were we doing when we unchained this earth from its sun? Whither is it moving now? Whither are we moving? Away from all suns? Are we not plunging continually? Backward, sideward, forward, in all directions? Is there still any up or down? Are we not straying, as through an infinite nothing? Do we not feel the breath of empty space? Has it not become colder? Is not night continually closing in on us? Do we not need to light lanterns in the morning? Do we hear nothing as yet of the noise of the gravediggers who are burying God? Do we smell nothing as yet of the divine decomposition? Gods, too, decompose. God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. “How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us — for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.”

I have highlighted just a few portions of this passage for us. In the first we realize that when we loose sight of God, we realize that there simply is no higher purpose, no meaning and life is cold, dark and void.  As we stare into that void we realize that we no longer have any center to life, nothing to base our journeys on, no truth, no moral accountability and all is up for grabs.

Nietzsche realizes that humans need such things. He therefore predicts that various festivals of atonement (trying to justify ourselves and our guilty consciences) and sacred games (dalliances to fool ourselves into believing life is meaningful) will be created by to help people deal with the infinite nothingness of life with no higher purpose. Of course, Nietzsche’s own solution, was to will to power and become a great person towering over and dominating others who were stuck in the herds of humanity groveling in morality and superstitions. That, however, is for another essay.  Here I want us to look at the sacred games and efforts towards atonement that we have indeed undertaken since the unhinging of the earth from its sun, people from their creator.

Our Sacred Games

In light of the loss of ultimate meaning, some atheistic thinkers have taken up the more modest task of creating “local meaning” for ourselves.4 If we can but tell ourselves that life matters in the day to day, we can escape the reality that all those days taken together are ultimately meaningless, empty and void. If we can only tell the truth to keep quiet we can live our short miserable life in an blissful ignorance. Or at least we can tell ourselves we are good enough, smart enough and people like us. By creating these “sacred games” we can escape the truth of life’s meaninglessness and smile along a way filled with a myriad of distractions. Before we look at these games, let me affirm all of them.  They are good things to pursue, but they are horrible God-substitutes.  In fact, if there is no God, all of these pursuits will drown in their own meaninglessness. OK, to quote WOPR from War Games: Shall we play a game? Of course you would, these are the games we play to avoid facing our maker or facing the void of a world without God. 

The Distraction Game

Some might say the questions of truth, meaning of life, existence and the question of God are very important. More than often I hear them summarily dismissed. These questions are not important!?! Really? I have more important things to do in life.  Life is hard, we have to work and get by, I don’t have time for all this philosophizing. We seem to make time for reality shows, tweeting, face-booking and recounting how awesome TV show characters are.  So we stay distracted, living our lives by what is on TV tonight. Is there anything more? Don’t ask, don’t tell.  Some time ago, philosopher and mathematician Blaise Pascal marveled at our unwillingness to wrestle with the deeper questions of life.  His reflections were before internet, TV, smart phones and the wonderful distractions of the modern era. His words are as relevant as ever:

I see the terrifying immensity of the universe which surrounds me, and find myself limited to one corner of this vast expanse, without knowing why I am set down here rather than elsewhere, nor why the brief period appointed for my life is assigned to me at this moment rather than another in all the eternity that has gone before and will come after me.  On all sides I behold nothing but infinity, in which I am a mere atom, a mere passing shadow that returns no more.  All I know is that I must soon die, but what I understand least of all is this very death which I cannot escape….As I know not whence I come, so I know not whither I go.  I only know that on leaving this world I fall forever into nothingness or into the hands of a wrathful God. Without knowing to which of these two states I shall be everlastingly consigned.  Such is my condition, full of weakness and uncertainty.  From all this I conclude that I ought to spend every day of my life without seeking to know my fate.   I might perhaps be able to find a solution to my doubts; but I cannot be bothered to do so, I will not take one step towards its discovery. 5

The Knowledge Game

Knowledge and education are sacred in our culture.  It is said that education is somewhat like a magic bullet that cures all.  If we throw money at education then all will be well in the world.  I am heartily for education, but learning must have truth at its foundation.  Learning does not make life meaningful unless our knowledge serves some purpose and is guided by a moral compass. It cannot be an end in itself.  When knowledge has no moral guidance or high good in mind, we can become arrogant. As the ancient apostle wrote “knowledge puffs up” in pride.  The outcome can be a world where we think the educated are superior to the uneducated. Elitism anyone? Furthermore, being educated is preferable than a life without learning, but great evils can and have been done by the most brilliant people. 

The Pleasure Game

Another great game we play to fill our lives with meaning is the pleasure game. We can get high, we can get naked, we can go through multiple relationships one after another.  We play the game of love to get what we want and we purchase various pleasures on the internet or on the corners of city streets. We even have something called “sexual addiction” today.  Married people do this all the time and it is not called an addiction.  What changed? We unchained pleasure from its purpose and removed it from its proper context.  Why? If God is dead we can do whatever, whenever and whoever we want. Sadly, numerous children today grow up without two parents and broken bodies, disease and death line the avenues of this sacred game.

The Power Game

We like to control things so we seek out little kingdoms for our own sovereignty.  If we can control some area of life, we’ll forget that ultimately we are going towards a certain death, the day of which I have zero control over. So we try to control our boyfriends or girlfriends, our families and friends and others seek to rule in business and politics.  If life is short and death is waiting for me at least I can try to be in charge along the way.  Everyone will love me for it! Or not…but at least I’ll get mine.

Festivals of Atonement

So we have our games to prop up life, but what are we to do when we still feel guilty and we have the haunting fear that something may be wrong “with us” or even scarier “with me.”  Well, we have our festivals to atone for our many sins indeed.

Festival of Blame

We know something is wrong with us so it must be somebody’s fault.  We love the festival of blame in our culture.  It is always “their” fault that we can’t fix the mess of our lives. It is the other team’s fault. We blame the other political party, we blame other nations, we blame our culture, we blame economic systems and we absolutely love to blame our parents. After all, my teachers have told me that I am great and special my whole life, so all that is wrong must have come from elsewhere. Life is too short to feel guilty, admit sin and seek forgiveness.  Shifting blame can atone without me coming apart.

Festival of Me

Once we shift blame away, we can focus on what is truly the wonder of our universe…ME! Yes, when faced with our sins, just tell yourself you are AWESOME! Live life for your plans, your purposes, your pleasures, your successes, your happiness and all will go well. After all, if you don’t look after yourself, who will?

So what happens when our sacred games and festivals still leave us feeling empty, alone and stuck in shame? We are told to play them harder or try another game.  Such is the only recourse with a life without God under the sun.  Yet perhaps the death of God was not so rightly ascertained.  Perhaps there is a living voice speaking to us from eternity. Staring into this void, the preacher of Ecclesiastes was just as honest as Nietzsche but found another game.  It was a game of  truth and a struggle before God and not a denial of him. Solomon would tell us that knowledge, pleasure and the right use of authority have great purpose under the sun if used and aligned with the purposes and commands of God. 

Long ago another voice, one greater than Solomon7 spoke to us about looking into the world which is so prone to fear, anxiety and diversions.  While we run around seeking knowledge, pleasure, power and distraction, worrying about clothes and food and other needs his voice thunders clear: Seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. “Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.8

The madman need not incessantly look for God when his sanity arrives when he is found by his creator.  May we all be found by and rest in Him.

Notes

1. The phrase God is dead did not intimate that God was alive and now dead.  Nietzsche was communicating that the idea of God which had been the foundation of western culture for centuries had been disassembled by the thinker and philosopher of his day. 

2. GK Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Chapter VII THE ETERNAL REVOLUTION, available for free online at http://www.gutenberg.org/cache/epub/130/pg130.html

3. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Gay Science (1882, 1887) para.125; Walter Kaufmann ed. (New York: Vintage, 1974), pp.181-82.

4. See the interesting dialogue between a Christian professor and atheistic punk rocker turned scientist in Preston Jones, Greg Gaffin, Is Belief in God Good, Bad or Irrelevant?: A Professor And a Punk Rocker Discuss Science, Religion, Naturalism & Christianity (Downers Grove: Intervarity Press, 2006).  Gaffin acknowledges life to ultimately have no higher meaning but we create our own meaning through various means.  In my opinion Gaffin treats evolution/naturalism as a sort of religion which I find both interesting and revealing.

5. War Games, United Artists, 1983.

6. Blaise Pascal, Pensées

7. See Matthew 12:42

8. Matthew 6:33,34

Judge Not the Judgment of God

There is a bit of a meme1 that goes around regarding the God of the Bible.  Some would articulate it in various ways but it goes something like this: “The God of the Old Testament is wrathful and bringing judgment, while in the New Testament God is loving, meek and mild in Jesus.”  In this view, it is almost as if the Old Testament has a different God.  Here it seems God is only angry and having a bad hair day. He forgot to take his meds or woke up on the wrong side of heaven.  In the New Testament God has gone to therapy, grown up and worked out his anger issues. There are a couple of massive problems with this view. 

First, it is simply not accurate and displays an ignorance of the teaching of Old and New Testaments.  In the Old Testament, God reveals himself as “gracious and merciful abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness (Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 103:8, Psalm 145:8, Joel 2:13, Jonah 4:2, partially in Nahum 1:3). This identification is in the narrative portions in the Bible and is repeated in the poetic and in the prophets. The vision of the Old Testament is unified in this.  Furthermore, in the New Testament Jesus has white hot words for those who deny the gospel and lead people astray in self-righteous legalism.  Somehow, people forget that it was sweet Jesus that taught us most clearly and most often about the impending disaster of Hell.  Second, this meme misses the theological story of the Bible in that the whole Bible presents God as good and loving, human beings as sinners and rebels and God as our holy, severe and completely just creator and judge.  God’s kindness is manifest to us precisely because we know our guilt before Him as a holy God.  In other words, we understand the grace of God only as we realize the just and good judgment of God upon sin and sinners.

Our culture today is hyper sensitive about many things. We have very thin skin and are offended at the smallest of things.  The thought of anyone judging anyone sort of freaks us out.  Many people may not actually know much of the Bible today but many can quote a segment of Jesus’ words; usually in King James’ English: “Judge not lest ye be judged. ” (Matthew 7:1) What Jesus was saying in this teaching is that humans are quick to judge others even when they have not done any self examination.  His point was not that there should be no judgment but rather people judge hypocritically.  Let me go on record that self-righteous, hypocritical judgment is offensive and all too often the native language of some religious people.  Jesus compared it to people having a huge log sticking in their eyeball while going around picking out little dust specks off of other people’s corneas.  He found this ridiculous but people, religious and unreligious, do this all the time.  Yet Jesus never intimated that God would not be the judge of people; in fact, he clearly made judgments and taught us that we all will ultimately be accountable to God.  Jesus teaches us the difference between certain human judgments and divine judgment is that the latter will be completely and fully based on truth (See John 8).

In this essay I want to do something a bit daring.  I want to defend the judgment of God as a reasonable and very good thing.  I will do so by first defining what we mean by using the term judgment in a theological sense. Second, I will argue why judgment is not only right but also makes sense when we stop to think about it. Third, I will make the case for why we must know and understand God’s right judgment of us.  If we come to understand God’s judgment we will be in both a fearful and wonderful position before the almighty. We will know that we must be forgiven and rescued from God’s coming wrath and we will see the beauty of the cross of Jesus Christ as the place where judgment and mercy meet and grace wins.

What we mean by the term Judgment

Though the act of making judgments can be applied to various things we are using the term in a theological sense as related to God and human beings.  The Pocket Dictionary for Theological Terms has a comprehensive, yet concise definition which I find helpful.

In a broad sense, [judgment is] God’s evaluation as to the rightness or wrongness of an act of a creature, whether human or angelic, using the standard of God’s own righteous and holy character.  In a more specific sense, judgment refers to the future event when God through Jesus Christ will judge all people, whether righteous or wicked, for their works done while on earth. The NT indicates that all people, whether Christian or not, will be judged according to their deeds; however, Christians [those who place their trust in the persona and work of Jesus alone] will be accepted in light of the work of Christ on their behalf.2

Taking the word “act” above to mean mental as well as bodily acts we can say what we mean by judgment is God’s evaluation of our thoughts and actions either approving of or condemning the same.  With this in mind, is it harsh of God to “judge us” or is it the reasonable and right thing to do? Any judgments? OK, moving along.

Why Judgment is Reasonable

In both the reading of the Bible and simple every day observation of our lives there are many reasons why the judgment of God makes sense. Before we begin let me make a plea to the reader who may not want to imagine that God is not real. I ask only this of you at this time—I want you to think about what the world is like in your experience and I want you to suspend your disbelief and think about reality as if God were at its center. I know you may find this hard to do, but humor me and you might have your mind opened to some new insights. Ok, why does God judging us make sense?

God is Holy

The creator of all things made all things for his purposes.  He created human beings male and female in his image and likeness and made them unique (See Genesis 1-2).  Any understanding of God’s justice must begin by bifurcating Creator and creature.  We must understand that God is completely different from us in that his character is utterly holy and righteous.  Human beings are flawed and as such they can err, be unjust to others, have skewed opinions and are capable of downright malicious guile towards others.  God is not like this, he is holy (Leviticus 19:1,2; Psalm 99) and set apart from sin and altogether righteous by nature.  God’s judgment is pure, based on truth, based upon righteousness in a way that human judgment is not.  So when God exercises justice, it IS JUSTICE.  

Many of us have seen that human justice is incomplete and flawed.  We have seen people oppressed unjustly and we all could acknowledge that the guilty sometimes go free (particularly if they are rich) and the innocent are sometimes condemned (particularly if they are poor). The particular case of OJ Simpson comes to mind.  If OJ was falsely accused, then God knows this and will vindicate him in the end.  If OJ did it, then he did not get away with it; one day he will stand before a holy God.  In our experience, when we see injustice we either cry out longing for wrong to be made right or we rejoice in it showing our own guilt before God.  In fact, in the Old Testament Psalms, judgment is desired because the Psalmist realized that God would be the only one who could truly set things right! The truth that God is holy and righteous makes the judgment of God actually something for rejoicing!3  

Something deep in  our own hearts tells us that something is wrong in the world and many of us are angered by injustice we see in us and around us.  It is not hard to imagine God caring about sin and injustice infinitely more than we do. Furthermore, because God’s own nature is holy and righteous all together he abhors wrong doing.  This brings us to the other side of the coin of judgment as it becomes personal.  I rejoice in the truth that God will bring a just judgment to all human affairs in the end, but I pause and tremble as well because of my own sin and pride.  So while God’s holiness and righteousness make judgment a good thing, our sin and our guilt make is clear that God judging us a most sobering thing.

Human Beings are Guilty

First, both Scripture and experience tell us that there are no human beings who are not guilty of thinking, believing and doing things that are wrong.  All of this flows forth from an autonomous rebellion against our creator and his commands. I have yet to meet anyone who claims that they are a perfect person.  Even those I have known who question the category of “perfect” readily admit that they do not live up to even their own standards all the time at every minute throughout their lives.  If we are guilty it makes sense that God would know and rightly see our lives and actions.  Scripture teaches us that all have sinned and fall short of God’s intentions for us, that we all like sheep have gone astray and that we all stumble in various ways (Romans 3, Isaiah 53, James 3). It seems to me if we are in some way guilty then God is in the best position to judge.  God’s holiness and our sinfulness result in him rightly bringing us into judgment.

In Judging Us God Treats us as Human

One of the ideas that our modern world tends towards is an overly environmental and therapeutic view of everything.  In this view people are not seen as responsible, wrong and evil any longer.  Rather we see people as misunderstood, undereducated, victims of circumstance or simply mentally ill.  People need to be cured not judged for their actions.  Now I am not saying that circumstance, environment and illness do not matter. They do.  What I am saying is that our modern view blinds us at times that we are just bad. Someone can be well educated, wealthy and believe jacked up stuff. Someone can be privileged and completely sane and drive an airplane into the side of a building. As such, judgment is worthy upon us and we don’t simply need to be given therapy. The classic essay on this is CS Lewis’ critique of what he called “The Humanitarian View of Punishment”. In this work he argues that in order to treat human beings as human we both judge and punish them when their acts deserve it. Dealing with people due to their just deserts, what they rightly deserve, is actually humane. To treat people only as sick in need of a cure robs them of their humanity and the dignity of their choices. In our world a small group of professional experts make judgments as to the saneness of us all and then are given rights to “fix us” as they see fit.4  One quote from the essay is worth sharing here:

To be “cured” against one’s will and be cured of states which we may not regard as disease is to be put on the level with those who have not yet reached the age of reason or those who never will; to be classed with infants, imbeciles, and domestic animals. But to be punished, however severely, because we have deserved it, because we “ought to have known better”, is to be treated as a human person made in God’s image.5

In judging us, God treats us as our beliefs, choices and actions truly matter. What we do means something! Our acts have consequences and accountability and are capable of being good or evil. Only human beings have this moral nature standing upright or fallen before God.  As such God’s judgment of us is fair, just and expected.

God’s Judgment Removes our Self-righteousness and Brings Humility

Finally, God’s judgment is good because it levels any pretensions of self righteousness and brings a proper humility to our lives.  CJ Mahaney is his book Humility, True Greatness defines humility in categories familiar to us above: Humility is honestly assessing ourselves in light of God’s holiness and our sinfulness.Knowing that all of life is lived before God and that my life will be judged rightly by God in the end brings a sobering effect upon us.  We are slower to hypocritically judge others and see our righteousness as far above “those other people.”  If we know and understand God’s judgment we have grasped an important prerequisite to understanding God’s mercy.  In fact, if we are to “get” the good news of Jesus Christ we must realize that we are rightly under the wrath and judgment of God for our own sin.

Why we must understand the judgment of God

As we close I want to review a bit and think together about the judgment of God.  First, God’s judgment makes life and our choices consequential. What we think, believe and do in light of these things deeply matters. We are responsible and accountable for our lives. Further, God’s judgment of me is a fearful thing.  I know my own heart and realize that if I were to come under the judgment of perfect holiness I would not find a place to stand. The Psalmist echoes this clearly: If you, O Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared. (Psalm 130:3,4). This passage reminds us that God telling us the truth about our sin and his judgment is in fact a great kindness. It is a kindness that can lead us to something the Scripture calls repentance (Romans 2:4). The repentant heart sees God’s holiness and its own sinfulness and has sorrow. It is a godly sorrow in that we come to our only judge to say we are sorry, to turn from sin to that same judge for his grace and mercy.  It is here that new life begins. 

Jesus came to the earth to live the life we have not lived, a life without sin fully following the commands of God. Jesus also came to die the death that we deserved as the penalty for our sin when it is judged by God. The wrath that we deserve was taken upon Jesus willingly for us so that the mercy and love of our heavenly father might give pardon and peace. It is at the cross of Jesus that judgment is poured out—the righteous willingly giving his life for the unrighteous! It is at the cross that grace and mercy win and justice is satisfied. God is our only true judge; he is also our only true savior.  He came in the flesh in Jesus to make peace with rebels. I’ll close by having Paul, an early Christian leader and messenger, explain in the inspired words of Scripture.

1Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. 2Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God. 3More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, 4and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. 6 For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. 7For one will scarcely die for a righteous person—though perhaps for a good person one would dare even to die— 8but God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Romans 5:1-11

Amen and amen…

Notes

1. From Wikipedia— A meme is is a unit of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena.

2. Stanley J. Grenz, David Guretzki & Cherith Fee Nordling Pocket Dictionary of Theological Terms (Downers Grove: Intervarsity Press, 1999), judgment.

3. We see this in the Psalms when many times the poets are crying out for God to act against the oppressor and judge between people on the earth when great evil is done.  See the first chapter of CS Lewis, Reflection on the Psalms (Orlando: Harcourt, 1958).

4. See the essay “The Humanitarian View of Punishment” in the collection of Lewis’ writings entitled God in the Dock (Grand Rapids: Erdmans, 1970), 287.

5. Ibid, 292.

6. CJ Mahaney, Humility, True Greatness (Sisters: Multnomah Books, 2005), 22.

Thoughts on Suffering

When one arrives into the world we  are quite helpless, small without much thought to the whens, whys or wheres of our existence.  As we grow and learn we realize that the world is a puzzling place.  It is filled with great joys and goodness, kindness and love.  It is also filled with great pain and evil, malevolence and suffering.  Our world is quite mingled with good and evil and any worldview or philosophy which does not deal with this is either forgetting to smell the roses or has their head buried deep in proverbial sands.  In this essay I want to address the issue of suffering in a few ways.  First, as a human being traveling life and wrestling with this question. Second, as a follower of Jesus looking to the Scriptures for teaching about suffering.  Finally, I want to write as a pastor who has seen much and walked through suffering with many over the years.  The structure of the essay will proceed along these lines.  I will first treat the experiential and existential nature of suffering.  I will then mention various theological and philosophical ways of dealing with suffering.  Then we will look, in an abbreviated fashion, at the teaching of the Bible regarding this.  Finally, we will look at our own hearts and give some counsel in walking with God through a suffering world on the way to his Kingdom.

A Universal Experience

Chronic pain wracks someone’s body day after day.  A young woman has her heart mistreated by a selfish little boy masquerading as a man. A young family goes into the nursery of their fragile new born only to find out their precious one is not breathing.  A family watching a loved one decay to a painful disease. An aging parent looses their mental faculty as the erosion of time destroys the body. A storm of nature arises suddenly dismembering lives and property. A young girl is kidnapped and abused in the most unimaginable ways by other human beings. A mob murders a young pastor and then terrorizes his family. Warring nations and their powerful rulers create realities that destroy the lives of millions.  Whether small or large suffering is a part of our world.  It is at times minor, at times severe and always constant.  While we must never overlook the massive floods of goodness, grace, kindness, love and beauty abounding every day, suffering will visit our lives and it does need an answer. When the sun remains shining upon us we may not fully come to terms with the storms raging upon the seas of someone else’s life.  Yet the harsh realities of our world will bring the darker specter of suffering upon us and bring a need to seek answers. Many different answers are given and they are not all created equal.

Philosophical and Theological Answers

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The amount of reasoning and philosophizing given around the reality of suffering is quite astounding and the answers are variegated.  Some say suffering is because of ignorance and lack of enlightenment . Some may ignorantly accuse God of sleeping on the job. Others see it arise for the evil and sin of human beings.  Others say that it, like poo, just happens.  Most who wrestle with this question deal with three things: God, humanity and the reality of suffering.  What follows is but a small sample of what some major worldviews teach about suffering.1

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Pantheistic views of life teach all is one and all is divine or ultimate. Furthermore, any distinctions seen in reality between things is called maya, or illusion.  You and me are not different beings, but part of one great being or reality.  As such, good and evil are simply illusory as well, two sides of the same coin as it were.  Various flavors of eastern philosophy share this view (flavors of Buddhism, Hinduism) and many represent these ideas with the yin/yang symbol.  You have probably seen it in tattoos.  Pantheism solution is to say  that enlightenment comes when you realize all suffering is illusion and you escape it through various paths of meditation. You realize that you are part of the one reality and suffering no longer holds mastery over you.  So Pantheism, in effect, denies the reality of suffering. This is puzzling to me for several reasons.  First, suffering seems very real to me and not something we can meditate away. Second, it can lead to a passive acceptance of suffering particularly when coupled with doctrines such as reincarnation and karma.  If someone is suffering in this life, they have “earned it” through bad karma in a previous life and as such deserve to be in the position assigned to them.2

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Rather than removing the reality of suffering there are those who in the face of human suffering deny the existence of the divine.  It is not uncommon for certain atheists to rant against God for the suffering he allows while anger is aimed at the idea of a God they do not think is real.3Agnosticism is the position that finds no good reason to believe in God but cannot state definitively that God does not exist.  Most in the face of suffering get more specific and deny the existence of a good and powerful God as described in the Bible.  I have always been a bit puzzled by agnostics who claim that others cannot know things about God while stating to not know for sure themselves.  It is like stating everyone is NOT right even though you yourself claim to not know. To me this is not a humble position but rather arrogant. In any fashion, atheists and agnostics typically deal with the problem of suffering by saying God does not exist.  In the denial of God what then is left of reality?  In western unbelief matter is supreme and all that is.  Our lives and the entire universe are simply the result of a blind and amoral universe where time, chance and the laws of physics are sovereign.  There is no answer to suffering in this view and even more tragic good/evil are simply arbitrary assignments by arbitrary bits of matter called you and me.  CS Lewis made the classic argument here that in claiming something to be “evil, wrong” with suffering we are assuming there is standard by which to really judge such things.4  Atheism has no such standard to offer yet uses it to critique God. I find empathy with people who have such objections about life and suffering; suffering is real and it is pervasive. What I do not understand is the intellectual inconsistency in this point of view.

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There are various points of view which hold God, humanity and suffering in tension.  The three large monotheistic faiths of Judaism, Christianity and Islam have all treated the subject of suffering in various ways.  Islam teaches that suffering is according to the will of God, is the result of disobedience, lack of submission to God’s purposes or divine judgment.  Judaism teaches that suffering is mysterious and at times is God’s discipline of his people for breaking covenant. In some cases it is taught that God is unable to do anything about the suffering in the world.5  Various Christian teachings see suffering as the result of sin, God’s judgment/discipline of people, existing for redemptive purposes and only represent a temporary state.  In a moment we will look at a summary of this from Old and New Testaments but for now let us just say that flavors of theism hold in tension belief in a good God and the reality of human suffering.

Much more can be said about dealing with the philosophical compatibility of evil, suffering and the existence of a good and loving creator God.  Philosophers and Theologians such as Alvin Plantinga, Ron Nash, CS Lewis and John Feinberg have provided excellent work in this area which are compatible with various Christian theological points of view.6Yet as Christians we stand in the biblical as well as a philosophical tradition.  In fact, the Scripture has much to say about suffering God’s relationship to his creatures.

The Biblical Narrative

The question “Why is there suffering?” is not a simple issue in the Bible and we have many writings which speak to us about the mystery of evil and suffering. One thing that must be done is to see suffering and evil in the larger biblical story line of a good creation, human sin and the fall, God’s redemption in Jesus and the coming Kingdom of God/Heaven. Seeing and understanding suffering must happen within this story. The biblical literature provides many reasons for suffering. The writings compliment one another and provide a broad panoramic view of the purposes of God. God creates all good things and allows suffering in the world and the reasons are many.

The ultimate origins of suffering is in volitional creatures (beings that can choose following God or otherwise) both angels and human beings.  Scripture and Christian teachings hold that God created angels, many of which became evil in rebellion against God.  The foremost being called Satan, the accuser. In the initial teachings of the Bible, Satan is a being intent on evil who calls humanity away from joyful fellowship with God into their own disobedience and sin (Genesis 3). As a result of human rebellion the world is quite literally cursed and not the way it is supposed to be.7We now live in a world that the late British author GK Chesterton once described as a shipwreck.8  It has great good strewn about but very much in the midst of a wreckage. Ultimately all suffering and evil is the result of sin and rebellion. The creation itself is in a state that is both beautiful and chaotic displaying to us the condition of our world (See Romans 8:18-25). It is in the context that the goodness of God and the evil of this world must be understood.  A very quick and necessarily abbreviated summary of the biblical teaching regarding suffering is as follows:

  • Suffering can be the direct result of human choices. This is self evident to all and taught throughout Scripture.
  • God speaks to us in our suffering. He is not uninvolved and it is not without purposes even when unknown to us.  Our call is faithfulness to God whether in times of ease or times of extreme difficulty. The book of Job teaches us this.
  • Some suffering is the result of the discipline and judgment of God. This is the message of the Prophets and sections of the book of Hebrews, particularly chapter 12.
  • Suffering plays a part in God redeeming us from the curse of sin and death. God has purposes for suffering and uses it for good ends. See Romans 8 and the latter part of 2 Corinthians chapter 4.
  • Suffering gets our attention and creates in us a longing for redemption and for God to act. Many of the Psalms and the Prophets show this, we see this particularly in the biblical cry “How Long O Lord.”9  CS Lewis said this well: “God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”10
  • Suffering is also used by God to shape and transform us and help us identify with Jesus himself. The early part of James and 1 Peter 2 teach us this.
  • Suffering exists temporarily to glorify God for his work to overcome it through Jesus—John 9 teaches us that some situations exist so that God would be glorified.  Further, as we will see in a moment, the suffering of God himself in Jesus Christ is the ultimate expression of the glory of God. 

Due to the fact that Scripture does not give “one reason” for each instance of human pain, some have declared the Bible gives contradictory reasons for suffering. Most recently, Bart Ehrman’s book God’s Problem

11

comes to mind. In reading Ehrman, it seems he fails to see that there could be many possible biblical reasons for a particular instance suffering. The precise point we must remember is that God knows the true reason behind each instance while we, at times, do not. As such because of unbelief, some people stumble to understand and explain every bit of suffering while others believe and relate deeply to God in the midst of it. I like to say it this way: Suffering does not always lead to unbelief, but unbelief will find no answer in the face of suffering.

We desire love, relationship, peace, safety and permanence yet in this present age these elude us and result in our suffering. Sin has racked life, separated relationships, created calamity and death and we wander the earth fearful and longing for a home. The truth is that in dealing with our suffering love and relationship are central. A truthful system of intellectual answers is important but is incomplete without love. In the gospel of Jesus Christ we find both truth and relationship, hope in the midst of suffering through the love of God.

suffering_gospel.jpg

In the story of Scripture, the suffering of the world is taken on by God himself.  Jesus, who is God become man, actually bears suffering on behalf of suffering people.  Immanuel, God with us, is also God suffering with and for us.  Jesus’ death for sin is the ultimate sacrifice where God himself takes the sting of sin and death to forgive us and transform us.  Jesus’ resurrection displays that the ultimate enemy and bringing of pain, death itself, is and will be defeated by Jesus. The cross reflects God’s judgment upon sin and his reconciliation of people to himself. In Jesus we find grace, love and relationship.  In relationship with Jesus we have one that is familiar with suffering (Isaiah 53), who can sympathize with his people (Hebrews 4) and who is present with us in our grief (John 11). The gospel places Jesus in the middle of suffering to redeem a broken world through his own sacrifice and pain.

The first chapter of Peter’s first epistle summarizes the gospel view of suffering in light of the bigger picture. I will allow the Scriptures the last word for our encouragement:

3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! According to his great mercy, he has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, 4 to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you, 5 who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time. 6 In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary, you have been grieved by various trials, 7 so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ. 8 Though you have not seen him, you love him. Though you do not now see him, you believe in him and rejoice with joy that is inexpressible and filled with glory, 9 obtaining the outcome of your faith, the salvation of your souls.

Notes

1.

See discussion in chapter four of Randy Alcorn,

If God is Good: Faith in the Midst of Suffering and Evil

(Sisters, Multnomah Books, 2009). Alcorn’s book is popularly accessible yet handles the issue of suffering biblically, faithfully , intellectually and practically.

2. For more on the idea of Karma, see my A Comparison of Karma and Divine Judgment

3. Case in point are the recent writings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens

4. See C.S. Lewis Mere Christianity, 25. “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust.  But how had I got this idea of just and unjust?  A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? The moment you say that one set of moral ideas can be better than another, you are, in fact, measuring them both by a standard, saying that one of them conforms to that standard more nearly than the other.  But the standard that measures two things is something different from either.”

5. The classic popular work here is from Rabbi Harold S. Kushner, When Bad Things Happen to Good People.

6. See Alvin Plantinga, God, Freedom, and Evil; Ron Nash, Faith and Reason; CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain; John S. Feinberg, The Many Faces of Evil: Theological Systems and the Problems of Evil.

7. An excellent book on the Scriptures teaching on sin goes by this name. See Cornelius Plantinga, Not the Way It’s Supposed to Be : A Breviary of Sin for a good treatment on the doctrine of sin.

8. G. K. Chesterton, Orthodoxy, Image Books ed. (New York: Image Books, 1959), 80.

9. CS Lewis, The Problem of Pain, (New York: Touchstone, 1996), 83.

10. DA Carson’s excellent work How Long O Lord, Reflections on Suffering and Evil  (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2006) has this phrase as its title

11. Bart Ehrman, God’s Problem, How the Bible Fails to Answer our Most Important Question-Why we Suffer, (New York: HarperOne, 2008)

A small guide for wrestling with issues of creation and science

The beauty of the Christian faith is that it is based in the person and work of Jesus Christ. It is not arbitrary mythology but the story of God throughout human history redeeming the world through his appointed one Jesus Christ.  As such followers of Jesus have and will remain concerned with the truth about God, about our world and what God has done, is doing and will do in history.  Furthermore, it was from a Christian view of the world as the creation of an intelligent God which gave fertile ground to the rise of modern science.1 Christians and the civilizations in which they have traveled have thought of science as studying God’s created order and “thinking God’s thoughts after him.”2  As such, science has been done by and among people of Christian faith for hundreds of years.  This has resulted in a unique dialogue that has sometimes had tensions. 

Out of the intellectual developments in Europe there came certain non Christian philosophical movements (deism, agnosticism, atheism) which were at complete odds with the gospel of Jesus Christ.  These were not new ideas but a revival and expansion on ancient debates which have gone on for some time.  It was in this ground of conflict between competing worldviews and philosophies that a “war between science and religion” was put forth. 

Over the years enlightenment rationalism and secular thinkers have attempted to fashion an image in the public consciousness that faith and religion were at war with science seeking the demise of free inquiry.3  This view that science is the domain of agnostics/atheists has been reignited a bit as of late by the so called “New Atheists” such as Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett.4

While there is no war between science and faith they are indeed dialogue partners in our learning and understanding of our lives and place in the universe.  In this essay I want to layout in brief some of the issues and tensions associated with the science of origins and cosmology (the study of the cosmos on a macro level) and the truth of the Christian Scriptures.  This will by no means be complete as neither space nor time permits such a study in an entry of this size.

One point of note before we jump in.  I did my bachelors degree in Applied Science with a minor in Physics.  I have been around the scientific community.  Furthermore, I am two thirds of the way complete in a Master’s degree in Applied Apologetics which is focused on articulating and defending the Christian faith in the market place of ideas.  Even with my training, the issues raised by biblical studies, the sciences and the theology of the church are not simple issues to wrestle with.  In fact, there are many competing views of how such integration of science, the Bible and our theology should come together. This is among Christians who love Jesus, hold to the authority and infallibility of the Bible.  As such this debate and discussion is an “open handed issue” for us.  This means that excessive dogmatism about some of these issues is not helpful in our learning and growing in our understanding of science and the Word of God.   Finally, let me be very clear.  Science is the study of God’s creation with a desire to learn, serve the good of others and enjoy the world God has made.  Scientism is the idea that knowledge is only gained through empirical, scientific inquiry and such knowledge is superior to all other human discourses. I find this to be false both biblically and philosophically.  There are many things which are real and true which cannot be proved through scientific method.  The laws of logic, mathematics, ethical truths, metaphysical beings such as God, angels and demons, the fact that we are not trapped in the matrix, or that I did not eat breakfast today cannot be proven by empirical scientific methods.  We should love to study the revealed things of God in creation but we should never trap ourselves in the small world of materialism; that matter is all there is to everything.  Scripture uses the harshest of terms for worshipping the creation rather than the creator.  All of our scientific study should be for the glory of God and the good of others, anything less is not worthy of the gospel of Jesus Christ.  What follows is some key issues surrounding the debate and I will close by describing briefly some of the positions held by Bible believing Christians along with some recommendations for further reading.  OK, jumping in.

Key Issue—How Do you Read Genesis 1-2

There are many different ways that believers understand the early chapters of the first book in the Bible. One thing we must agree upon is that the book of Genesis is inspired by God, teaches us the truth about God and man, that it was written to ancient peoples and it would have held meaning for the original audience.  Furthermore, Jesus himself quoted from the early chapters of Genesis as reality (Matthew 19:1-9) as did the apostle Paul (Romans 5:12-21; 1 Corinthians 15; 1 Timothy 2).  With these things in mind, there is some diversity among scholars who study Genesis in how it should be read.

First, there are those who treat it as a truth teaching myth.5 I find this problematic due to the New Testament’s direct references to Genesis accounts.  There are others who see Genesis 1 as ancient Near Eastern poetry giving us a literary framework to teach us the theology of creation thematically and it was not intended to treat issues of science or chronology. This view would also hold firmly to the historical nature of Adam/Eve in Genesis 2 and the fall of Genesis 3.6 Others argue that Genesis 1 is speaking of assigning function to the creation as God’s place of operations and not about material mechanisms at all. This view does not require the mythologizing or denial of the historicity of an actual Adam.7 Finally, there are others who see it as a narrative telling us exactly how God created the world which takes the chronology to be an unfolding of “days.”8

Key Issue—The Age of the Universe

Associated with the reading of Genesis is the age of the earth and the universe.  If one thinks that Genesis 1 unfolds precise chronology it leads one to certain conclusions about the age of the earth. Putting together the genealogies of the Bible, as has been done in the past, places creation at roughly six thousand years ago.9  This would be the case if the days of Genesis 1 are strict solar days which modern people understand to mean one rotation of the earth.  However, we must ask the question if there might be biblical and scientific reasons to believe that the earth and the universe are much older. Biblically speaking, if Genesis 1 is not speaking of chronology then making such inferences would be unwarranted and dubious.  Furthermore, if there are good scientific reasons to think the universe is older than six thousand years we may need to look carefully at our interpretation of Genesis.  So where have Bible believing people landed on the question of the age of the universe?  First, those who hold that Genesis 1 is a chronological unfolding fall into young earth and old earth varieties.  The young earth person takes “day” to be one revolution of earth, the old earth person would take “day” to mean “age” or unspecified period of time. One final group of those who hold to an older earth/universe see an unspecified time after Genesis 1:1 where the long periods of time observed scientifically could take place. In this view, the chronology of the six days can still be normal days. Second, those who hold to literary framework or functional view of creation in Genesis 1 feel no reason to be bound to a young earth hypothesis. They hold that a proper reading of the ancient text does not demand any such thing. Finally, one thing which is largely agreed upon by Christians and secular thinkers regards the appearance of human beings in history.  Human beings, as we now exist, came about on the earth in the area of thousands of years ago.  Most Bible believing Christians who do not mythologize our first parents hold to a recent creation of human beings in the image and likeness of God.  How the first humans became humans is addressed by the next key issue; the role of human origins and the issues raised by biological evolution.

Key Issue—The Question of Origins

Let it be clear that the term “evolution” simply means to change over time.  Furthermore, we do observe that biological creatures do change due to environmental conditions in which life exists. Some have called this micro or horizontal evolution; change within certain kinds of creatures.  We see this readily in the biodiversity found on our planet.  It is quite another thing to say that the universe came into existence, uncaused, from nothing.  Additionally, the teaching that life spontaneously generates from inorganic materials when fortuitous conditions arise, that RNA and DNA systems with built in information transfer capacities arise without any sort of intelligence, and that simple amino acids arise and morph into functionally folded proteins without any design or cause is quite a different idea. These ideas, some would call macro or vertical evolution, has given Christian thinkers/scientists and some secular scientists pause over the years. Even atheistic scientists such as Francis Crick and Richard Dawkins have even suggested panspermia, the idea that basic life was seeded from other planets, as a “solution” to the problem of life arising spontaneously on the earth. Of course this just moves the location of the problem geographically and solves nothing.

There are several contemporary views that Bible believing Christians hold in relation to the question of origins and evolution.  All Christians believe God is the creator of the universe and life with its various latent capacities.  From this point it can get complicated. First, there are Christians who find no reason to biblically accept the theory of evolution and reject it in toto (don’t believe a lick of it).  There are also Christians, many trained scientists, who find no good scientific reason to accept a naturalistic version of evolution.  Some hold to an evolution guided by God and have rightly been challenged because the theory of evolution simply requires “no God.”  Some have accepted evolution as the means or secondary cause which God built into his creation as the way he would create the biodiversity and humanity we see today.  Putting some of this together in list form reveals the diversity of Christian thought on the matter. I have also listed some authors in each camp for you here in the list.

  1. There are young earthers who read Genesis 1 chronologically that reject evolution (see Kurt Wise, Faith, Form and Time)
  2. There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 chronologically that reject evolution for scientific reasons (see David Snoke, A Biblical Case for an Old Earth)
  3. There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 chronologically that accept some forms of evolution with progressive creation (see Hugh Ross, Creation as Science)
  4. There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 thematically who accept forms of evolution (see edited work by Keith B. Miller, Perspectives on an Evolving Creation)
  5. There are old earthers who read Genesis 1 thematically/functionally who are quite neutral on evolution (could take it or leave it depending on the scientific evidence, see John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One)

All those who accept forms of evolution and wish to remain committed to the truthfulness and authority of Scripture hold the following in some form or another. Though God used evolution to bring about the body plans of the first humans, God breathed into them the breath of life (Genesis 2:7) and made them in the image of God, distinct from their animal ancestors. I am not saying this is true, this is simply what is articulated to hold both evolution by natural processes and the teaching of the Bible.  I think the science of evolutionary biology is still a young discipline and as we learn additional things about the information involved in cellular life there will be further discussion.  Additionally, two great fronts of scientific investigation involve consciousness/brain matters as well as the complexity genetic information and expression. These will be at the forefront of discussions in future as we wrestle both biblically and scientifically with what it means to be human.10

Key Issue—Relating Special and General Revelation

In Christian theology we speak of both general revelation (God revealing himself to us through nature, conscience and design) and specific revelation (God speaking to us through Jesus Christ and the Scriptures).  On all matters to which the Scriptures speak, the written Word of God is the authority in our lives. However, through the study of nature using God given rational capacities, truth from general revelation may require us to re-think our current understanding of the biblical text. A case in point might help a bit here.  Looking at every day appearances, it seems that the sun rises and the sun sets.  It seems the Sun travels across the sky each day. There is nothing “wrong” about this understanding and you will likely hear it from the evening news weatherperson and read a similar description in Psalm 19.  Yet we now understand, due to the careful study of general revelation, that the earth rotates on roughly a 23.5 degree axis and each day/night results from this rotation. Some Christians in the past might have thought, and understandably so, that the sun rose and the sun set. The Bible uses this sort of phenomenological language but we should not use these passages to argue that the sun goes around the earth. Clarity brought from observation and general revelation has helped us to better understand what certain parts of the Bible are actually teaching.11 As we learn more about the age of the universe and developmental biology, it may cause people to rightly re-think a wooden reading of Genesis.Finally, we need not place things in someone’s way of considering the gospel of Jesus Christ by marrying oneself to a certain scientific paradigm.  Such would be unnecessary and unwise and perhaps cause us to read a certain view into the Bible ourselves.  We should remain humble and hold to the clear teachings of Scripture and remain open in debatable matters.  So what IS essential?

Give me the down, down!

In closing I want to be very clear and remind us the purpose for which God gave us the Holy Scriptures and the Genesis account. They do not intend to give every truth that can be known.  They make no such claim.  However, they are given to us to reveal who we are, who God is and how God has purposed to redeem his people and all things through Jesus Christ. Jesus is the central figure and subject of the Bible’s teaching. When coming to the doctrine of creation, we should make some things very clear.  The Word of God wants to communicate to us that:

  • God made all things and is the rightful owner and sovereign ruler over them.

  • God made human beings in his  image, unique among all creatures to know and worship God. We are responsible to God for how we live and steward creation under his rule.

  • God made all things for his purposes and redeems all things through Jesus Christ.

We might say that Genesis 1 and 2 hold the true accounting of creation and all THAT GOD DID but makes no effort at all to explain HOW (in terms of contemporary science) God did ALL THAT. As we learn through good science (not atheism smuggled in as science) we will discover wonders about our God and his infinite wisdom. I am also sure there will be secret things that remain with God alone (Deuteronomy 29:29) to keep us both humble and desiring to learn.

End Notes

  1. See Stanley Jaki, The Savior of Science and Thaxton and Pearcey’s The Soul of Science: Christian Faith and Natural Philosophy for more on this thesis.
  2. This statement has been attributed to Johannes Kepler, a Christian scientist and one of the fathers of modern astronomy.
  3. The two most seminal works from this point of view would be John William Draper’s History of the Conflict Between Science and Religion and Andrew Dickson White’s A History of the Warfare of Science and Theology.  
  4. Harris recently completed his PhD in neuroscience at UCLA, and has written a couple of books bashing faith.  Dawkins is an evolutionary biologist from England whose book The God Delusion laid out his diatribe against religious belief.  Dennett is a philosopher at Tufts University and his book Breaking the Spell sought to explain religion as a biological phenomena and artifact of evolution. For a witty response to the idea that atheism has the corner on “Science” see mathematician and philosopher David Berlinski’s The Devil’s Delusion—Atheism and its Scientific Pretensions My review of the latter work is found here.
  5. See Robin Collins’ “Evolution and Original Sin” in Perspectives on an Evolving Creation edited by Keith B. Miller
  6. See Meredith Kline’s “Space and Time in the Genesis Cosmogony” available online at http://www.asa3.org/ASA/PSCF/1996/PSCF3-96Kline.html. From Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith, 48:2-15 (1996).
  7. See John H. Walton, The Lost World of Genesis One for his view which he describes as one of “Cosmic Temple Inauguration.”  In his view Genesis 1 describes the one true God inaugurating the cosmos as his place of operations.  Walton provides an excellent summary of his view on pages 162-168 of this work.  On the issue of Adam, Walton is clear that his view sees Adam as an archetype of humanity but this does NOT eliminate that Adam could be an historical figure and biological individual.  See footnote 5 from page 71. In Andrew E. Hill and John H. Walton’s A Survey of the Old Testament, Walton does seem to hold to an historical Adam.
  8. Various Christians hold this view but disagree strongly with each other on other matters. In this group you would find young earth creationists, old earth day-age theorists and those who hold that a long period of time could exist after Genesis 1:1 and before the 6 chronological creation days.
  9. See discussion in Mark Driscoll and Gerry Breshears, Doctrine-What Christians Should Believe, p 94.
  10. An interesting recent work, Why Us?: How Science Rediscovered the Mystery of Ourselves by James Le Fanu tackles how our immense learning in these fields has actually led us to a deeper sense of mystery and an openness to discuss views of humanity without the harsh materialism and scientism recently common in our intellectual culture.
  11. See Richard Pratt, He Gave US Stories, p 38-39.

Resurrection of Jesus

As we head into Easter, many may have questions regarding the historical issues surrounding Jesus’ resurection from the dead.  Last year we wrote an essay dealing with many issues surrounding the events of Jesus’ final days on earth. 

Here is the link - The Resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth… For those who want more, the footnotes reference some excellent works.

I enjoy Bill Craig...

You might too…or maybe not :-)

An Exercise in Refuting Ridiculousness

Yesterday a buddy sent me a note regarding a video YouTube that his friend said was a good argument against Christianity. Always interested in the arguments used against the faith I checked it out without much delay.  What I found was simply an exercise in ridiculousness. At first I was going to offer a point by point refutation of this but what disturbed me most was not his rhetoric (I can’t even call it an argument).  What disturbed me most is that any Christian would not have the basic understanding of the New Testament to just laugh when hearing this guy. Unfortunately too many American churches just may have been busy doing laser light shows on Sundays and teaching repeated series on sex, money, marriage and how to be a winner.

So, what I want to do instead of refuting this is to interact with you guys and let you refute it.  Let’s call it a joint POCBlog “learn in.”  So here is the plan.  Watch the video below.  Then in the comments (if you are reading this on Facebook, go to the blog here to post your comments) list what you hear that is wrong with his argument and offer some thoughts. I’ll weigh in along the way as well and we’ll learn together how to refute this sort of rhetoric not uncommon from Muslim apologists in the West.

Are you game? Drop the knowledge below…I’ll provide a bibliography of sources at some point for reading on the history of the New Testament, but for now lets just do some work together.

Here is the first part of the assignment:

 

Three Tough Questions

As we look to find an enduring hope there are many questions that human beings must face in order to build a foundation in a relationship with God. First, we must know that God is real; this is the metaphysical question. Second, we must know how we might be in relationship with God and to know God in our own experience; this is the existential question. Finally, we must face a massive problem in our own nature. Even if we know that God exists and that he loves and desires relationship with us we still resist and turn away. This is the anthropological question. Human beings by nature are rebels and sinners; we do what we want with our lives rather than that which for God has made us. This is reflected by either active rebellion or passive indifference towards God in our attitudes in actions. In today’s essay we will wrestle with these three questions and marvel together how God has graciously answered them all in his incarnate Son, Jesus Christ.

The Metaphysical Question

From the beginning of history until now, human beings have been asking about the nature and reality of the universe. We probe the outer world and the inner world of our own souls searching for what is good, right, true, just and ultimate. Various cultures and peoples seem to all be called towards some transcendent reality as a cacophony of voices echo the names of various goddesses and gods throughout the ages. Yet our search seems to prove futile for many and some retreat into a blasé agnosticism being content to only say “I don’t know what is out there.” Such frustration is warranted for to be able to ascend the heights to look upon the face of God seems to be a daunting task. I once remember hearing one teacher describe the difficulty of describing God when someone posed to him a rather strange challenge: “define God and give two examples.” God is utterly unique so there simply are no examples of what God is—there is only God. So in order for us to wrestle with the metaphysical question we must ask if there is any help given from above. As such many traditions have held that we need God to self-define or self-reveal in order for us to know him.

Our Scriptures teach that God has been kind to human beings to do just this, to reveal himself to us in many ways. The first way God reveals himself is what we call general revelation. In some simple ways we can all know that God exists from looking at nature and conscience. The apostle Paul in the book of Romans teaches us that God can be clearly seen from what has been made (Romans 1:18-24) and that we know our moral responsibility to God from the moral law written on the heart (Romans 2:12-16). The skeptical German philosopher Immanuel Kant even realized nature and conscience as a place of profound reflection in describing his awe at the starry hosts above and the moral law within.1

Furthermore, both the every day person and philosophers have inferred from our world and conscience that there is indeed a God. Over the years I have done informal surveys with college students and other adults as to why they believe in God. The answers usually fall along these lines:

  • We are here—there must be an explanation for the existence of the universe
  • We are unique—the universe and human life gives evidence of design
  • We are moral creatures—the universe and ourselves have a moral nature
  • There must be justice—many seem to believe that there is a higher court of appeals
  • I just know—personal religious experience of God

Interesting enough philosophers for years have developed intellectual arguments along many of the same lines.2 God reveals his existence and our moral responsibility to him to all through what he has made and by impressing his law on our hearts. Yet this sort of general revelation3 only gives us a knowledge that God is real, but many still suppress this knowledge. Though all can know something of God through nature and conscience this is still not enough to definitively answer the metaphysical question.

The Existential Question

Even when we come to the conclusion that there is a God, there is still the question as to how we relate to God. Is God personal? Is God loving? Does God relate to people at all or is God a distant deity or force lurking behind the curtains in the universe. We long for there to be a path shown to us, a way demonstrated and a connection with God made. The existential question is ultimately related to how we might know God personally, rather than simply know about him.

In our experience we find life to be a mixture of good times and bad, joys and pains, struggling to find meaning and purpose. Many times life can just leave us numb, longing to be more alive than our current experiences. Most of the time we just medicate our emptiness with shopping, substances, relationships, food, drinks and toys. In doing so we place things other than God at the center of our lives and build the foundation of our hope on things which do not last.

In the ancient world, the Hebrew King Solomon had more money, power, women and influence than anyone. He would make the finances of a Bill Gates and the activities of Hugh Heffner look smallish. He had tried everything in life and all that money and power could afford. Yet his conclusion after doing it all was that life was quite empty, quite meaningless all together. The book of Ecclesiastes in our Old Testament records his meditations and reflections on the emptiness and vanities of life lived apart from our creator.

Our modern world is filled with example after example of the very rich and very successful making it “to the top” only to realize emptiness still pervaded life. The existential question longs for meaning and relationship that is stable; it reveals the longing of the human heart for a connection with the divine. Whereas the metaphysical question wrestles with the question of God’s existence and identify, the existential question is the soul begging to be connected to God in meaningfully, loving relationship.

The Anthropological Question

If we think for a minute about the human struggle, we will realize something quite strange. If someone knows God is real and knows it is possible to relate to God in loving communion and worship, why doesn’t everyone jump in. Why are people still resistant to the idea of God?

The Scriptures teach that we are not honest seekers of God and his goodness and truth. In fact, human beings rebel against God’s rule in their lives and choose to live apart from him. Even if intellectual answers to God’s reality are given to solve the metaphysical question people still will not love God. Even if a person hears of God’s love for them they may not drawn near to him. The most massive problem that needs to be overcome is the problem of our own sinful resistance to God. The anthropological problem demands that forgiveness for sin and reconciliation must happen before someone really becomes a follower of the living god.

Jesus Christ—Revelation, Relationship and Reconciliation

I have always found it fascinating that in the incarnation of Jesus, God answers deeply the longings of the human heart and overcomes our deepest problem of sin. Let me explain.

Jesus—The Revelation of God

As we wrestle with the existence of God, he chose to give very specific evidence of his nature by becoming one of us. God gives a special and detailed revelation of himself by becoming a human being and actually showing us what he is like. Jesus Christ is the image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15), God become a human (John 1:1-14) and the imprint of God’s nature (Hebrews 1:3). His apostles and prophets have told his story, conveyed his teaching and explained his message to us in authoritative Scripture. God could have written in lasers across the heavens “I am like this and I am like that” but instead he became one of us to show us his love for us in a form we most easily understand. His portrait is painted for us in the gospels of the New Testament.

Jesus—The Way to Relationship with the Father

The gospel according to John tells us that God is actually seeking out worshippers and desires to be known by them. John 17:3 declares And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. Jesus came to show to us the Father (John 14:9) and to connect us in a real relationship with our creator. Our longing for significance and purpose is fulfilled in a love relationship with God. God himself, in Jesus Christ, through the Holy Spirit, becomes the answer to all our existential longings.

Jesus—Reconciliation and Pardon with Him

Finally, and most importantly, Jesus over comes our sin by dying for us so that we can find peace and reconciliation with God. Whereas the metaphysical question is answered by the revelation of God in Christ and the existential questions is answer in knowing him, Jesus death actually makes it all possible. In Christ’s death on the cross God reconciles us with him providing full pardon and forgiveness for our sin. Our resistance to God is removed and we are given a deep desire for God that only finds culmination in worship. Former archbishop of Canterbury William Temple described the fulfillment of the human soul in worship as follows:

Worship is the submission of all of our nature to God. It is the quickening of conscience by His holiness, nourishment of mind by His truth, purifying of imagination by His beauty, opening of the heart to His love, and submission of will to His purpose. And all this gathered up in adoration is the greatest of human expressions of which we are capable.

Conclusion

So it is in the incarnation that God became human so that we might see a revelation of God. It is also in the incarnation that we come to know God face to face. Finally, it is through the work of the incarnate Son that we are reconciled to the Father. The late British journalist Malcom Muggeridge so eloquently described the marvelous effects of the incarnation of Jesus:

Thereby [by the incarnation], He set a window into the tiny dark dungeon of the ego in which we all languish, letting in a light, providing a vista, and offering a way of release from the servitude of the flesh and the fury of the will into what St. Paul called the glorious liberty of the children of God.4

The question of God’s existence was answered fully when God put his feet on planet earth. The knowability of God was established fully when God stretched out hands and feet to die for us. As Scripture teaches us, God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:8)

I will close with a small stanza of a hymn written by the 18th century song writer Charles Wesley.5 It’s words describe the amazing depth of the gospel whereby God would reveal himself, lovingly encounter us and set us free into a relationship of joy and worship.

Long my imprisoned spirit lay,
Fast bound in sin and nature’s night;
Thine eye diffused a quickening ray—
I woke, the dungeon flamed with light;
My chains fell off, my heart was free,
I rose, went forth, and followed Thee.

Following with you,

Reid S. Monaghan

Notes

  1. Immanuel Kant, Critique of Practical Reason, 1788. This was also the phrase inscribed on his tombstone.
  2. For those interested see “The Five Ways” of Thomas Aquinas in Summa Theologica, CS Lewis’ Mere Christianity and the modern philosophical arguments of Alvin Plantinga—Two Dozen (or so) Theistic Proofs found here—http://bit.ly/14bimm and William Lane Craig in Reasonable Faith-Christian Truth and Apologetics 3rd Edition (Wheaton: Crossway, 2008)
  3. J. Budziszewski, What We Can’t Not Know: A Guide (Spence Publishing, 2004)
  4. Malcolm Muggeridge and Cecil Kuhne, Seeing through the Eye : Malcolm Muggeridge on Faith (San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2005), 5-6. Emphasis in original.
  5. Charles Wesley, Psalms and Hymns, 1738.

Building Life on Despair?

The British atheistic philosopher Bertrand Russell coined an interesting phrase in his 1929 essay A Free Man’s Worship; his ideas was that future life must only be built on the firm foundation of unyielding despair. This thought came by way of his philosophical interpretations of science:

Such, in outline, but even more purposeless, more void of meaning, is the world which Science presents for our belief. Amid such a world, if anywhere, our ideals henceforward must find a home. That Man is the product of causes which had no prevision of the end they were achieving; that his origin, his growth, his hopes and fears, his loves and his beliefs, are but the outcome of accidental collocations of atoms; that no fire, no heroism, no intensity of thought and feeling, can preserve an individual life beyond the grave; that all the labours of the ages, all the devotion, all the inspiration, all the noonday brightness of human genius, are destined to extinction in the vast death of the solar system, and that the whole temple of Man’s achievement must inevitably be buried beneath the debris of a universe in ruins — all these things, if not quite beyond dispute, are yet so nearly certain, that no philosophy which rejects them can hope to stand. Only within the scaffolding of these truths, only on the firm foundation of unyielding despair, can the soul’s habitation henceforth be safely built.1

Russell was writing in a time where he was rejecting belief in God amidst a society that had a long Christian tradition. It was natural for there to be a sense of despair for those who had long thought the God and human beings were the center of the universe’s purpose.  His idea is that we must come to grips with the truth the we live in a chaotic universe, which has no overarching meaning or purpose.  All that exists is just matter and physical law…and nothing else.  Once one greets this despair in a courageous manner, he can realize how wonderful humans are and get on with life. 

The 19th century German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche made similar commentary in his works. Nietzsche saw humans as being in need of a transition.  They needed to move from acting as beasts in the herd to a few people becoming superior men: perfected, bold and completely unrestrained creatures.  His view was that we must get over the infantile ideas about God and morality and will a greater future where a few great people rule the many.  Nietzsche knew that the world would struggle to “live without God” and penned the following words in his parable The Madman:

God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him. How shall we comfort ourselves, the murderers of all murderers? What was holiest and mightiest of all that the world has yet owned has bled to death under our knives: who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it? There has never been a greater deed; and whoever is born after us—-for the sake of this deed he will belong to a higher history than all history hitherto.2

Whereas Russell would choose to nostalgically worship the human struggle for compassion in an empty world of despair, Nietzsche would recommend power.  In either case, human beings would need to go through a gate of despair and confusion, in order to go to a higher history where hope is found in ourselves.  There is only one problem with this project.  When humanity looks into the mirror, he finds neither ultimate goodness nor a creature worthy of wielding ultimate power.  So he lives perpetually afraid; his gods have become weak, they look very much like himself.

Though it is hard to persuade many otherwise, the history of human beings is not one of pure goodness accompanied by a benevolent wielding of power. In fact, it is quite the opposite.  Human beings are quite capable of killing one another for a myriad of reasons and causes.  Some do it in the name of religion, others political ideologies, and others for just plain greed and power.  Some may love to retort that religion is the source of all intolerance and war.  This is a specious claim that holds no reality.  The fact is that human beings are the source of all intolerance and war and the non religious regimes of the 20th century are convincing proof that one does not need a “god” to pillage the world.  The murderous reigns of Stalinist Russia, the cultural revolution in China and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge prove that man needs not belief in a god to destroy his neighbor, he only needs to erroneously act like he is one.

Hope is difficult to build on a lie—and building hope on the reality of the goodness of human beings is a particularly hard thing to do.  If the future belongs only to the whims of humanity and the torrents of nature, how can we have any confidence that things will go well.  In fact, it is fear which rises when we realize that we are alone.

  • Will some strange animal born virus destroy us?
  • Will we destroy the environment and bring catastrophe on us all?
  • Will we blow each other to bits over land and labor?
  • Will we be hit by a mammoth asteroid and go the way of the dinosaur?
  • Will some alien race drop in to destroy us?

In the naturalistic worldview of both Russell and Nietzsche, we are quite hopeless in the face of such possibilities.  It is but a posturing to think that hope can be built on yourself.  Hope must aim towards the future, in a reality yet to come to pass. Yet the future is certainly unknown to us and it is far from under our control.  What is our destiny both personally and corporately? The answers from the realms of unbelief are hardly encouraging.  In fact, I believe they are filled with irrationality and dread.

The boastful unbeliever pokes at those who believe in God as if people of faith are somehow weaker and in need of a crutch for life.  My contention is that God is not a crutch in the human quest for hope, but rather God is like legs for those who wish to run. When we ask human beings to find hope in the brute reality matter/energy/space-time we send him on a perpetual goose chase, he will frenzy about but make little progress.  He is running without legs. 

When we speak of hope, we speak of the future.  We speak of hope amidst a world of disease, death, war and despair.  We speak in a strange tongue to those who only have hope for this life because our hope is not from ourselves, our goodness or our plans for the world.  Our hope is in God, his goodness and his ways in the world. We desire to place our trust in God as he holds the future, knows our destiny and guides us today in our relationship to creation and one another. Hope comes to us as a gift and a virtue due to our relationship with the living creator God and his work in our lives.  God has entered history, conquered death and given us new life in Jesus Christ. He is transforming us today, will transform our world and ultimately make all things new in the end. 

Notes

1. Bertrand Russell, A Free Man’s Worship—available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/1917russell-worship.html

2. Friedrich Nietzsche, The Madman—available online at http://www.fordham.edu/halsall/mod/nietzsche-madman.html