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Objection to Christianity #1: The Problem of Evil and Suffering

July 28, 2011 1 comment

Throughout the years—centuries even—this has probably been the single biggest objection to the Judeo-Christian God. Over time, I’ve learned to acknowledge the power of this line of argument and give it due respect rather than brushing it off as frivolous. I’ll try to be as comprehensive as I can (within reason), but I’m sure the war will wage on regardless. Please feel free to add and contribute in the comment section.

I’ll break this problem down into three main components:

1) Who is God anyway?

2) The Problem of Evil

3) Practical Implications

It’s important to discuss the Christian God as He actually is, rather than relying on the projections of misinformed men. So let’s start there.

1) Who is God anyway?

There are many ways to describe God and a multitude of attributes we could potentially discuss here. But I’ll try to focus on the relevant parts that normally feed into this argument.

First off, God is the creator of everything. He created every living being and the universe, including the laws and systems by which it operates. He also created angels, including those who rebelled against him and became demons.

Second, God prefers free will. Rather than creating automatons, it is clear that God holds free will in very high regard, even granting his angels the ability to leave him before the earth was even created. Likewise, He granted all of mankind free will. The Bible does not indicate whether animals have free will, but if I had to guess, I’d probably say no (judging from stories like Noah’s Ark and other examples where they seem to be controlled directly when necessary). Free will seems reserved for His higher elected creatures, and this is coming from an animal lover.

Third, God is omnipotent, or all-powerful. This point is very important. People must realize that there are certain things that God cannot do, but these “limitations” do not detract from His power and greatness. In a nutshell, God cannot act contrary to his character and essential nature, and He also cannot do some logically impossible things. God cannot lie or conduct evil himself. To say that God created evil is misleading, as evil is not a thing in itself, but rather a privation or lack of good (just as darkness isn’t a thing itself, but a lack of light).

He also cannot make a round square or create a rock so heavy that He can’t lift it. Importantly, God cannot force or ensure that free creatures will choose the right way on their own volition.

Fourth, God is omniscient, or all-knowing. Now, there is some debate as to what omniscience entails. Does it mean God literally knows everything—past, present, and future (classic view and also assumed in Molinism)? Or does it mean He knows the knowable, and perhaps some things are left open and contingent on the decisions of free creatures (open theism)? Either way, it’s safe to say with certainty that God knows every possible thing of the past and the present. He also knows what he will accomplish in the future.

Fifth, God is omnibenevolent or all-good. In Him, there is no evil or darkness.  This furthermore implies that God will always choose the path of the most good, rather than the way of more evil. He is the embodiment of love and wants people to come freely to him.

Finally, God is just and holy. Because God is just by nature, He cannot simply give people a free pass when they do wrong. He cannot tolerate sin. Due to his holy nature, God must remain set apart and separate from sin at all times. Of course, this is why He sent Jesus down to die for our sins, so that it’s possible for us to be clean in God’s sight.

I almost feel blasphemous trying to sum up God in such a short space, but I honestly believe that without this proper understanding of God, talking about things that contradict his nature (evil and suffering) is completely moot. Please know that God is so much more than what I’ve just described. I was also hesitant to start with the above section because much of it might give away the “answers” prematurely, but that’s OK. That being said, let’s proceed.

2) The Problem of Evil

This problem has been stated in a number of ways, but I’ll copy a couple that best describe this position.

Here’s the logical form:

  1. God exists.
  2. God is omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good.
  3. A perfectly good being would want to prevent all evils.
  4. An omniscient being knows every way in which evils can come into existence.
  5. An omnipotent being, who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, has the power to prevent that evil from coming into existence.
  6. A being who knows every way in which an evil can come into existence, who is able to prevent that evil from coming into existence, and who wants to do so, would prevent the existence of that evil.
  7. If there exists an omnipotent, omniscient, and perfectly good being, then no evil exists.
  8. Evil exists (logical contradiction).

David Hume—a prominent philosopher of the 18th century—put it succinctly this way:

“Is [God] willing to prevent evil, but not able? then is he impotent. Is he able, but not willing? then is he malevolent. Is he both able and willing? whence then is evil?”

Now, I’ll save you the suspense and tell you upfront that this logical problem of evil has pretty much been solved already. Many modern philosophers reject the old logical problem as inadequate and accept solutions to the problem, such as Alvin Plantinga’s free will defense. But I’ll rehash some of those ideas here in my own words, as well as infuse some of my own thoughts (may the Holy Spirit keep me from speaking falsehoods).

Basically, what the old philosophers failed to take into account are the fall of man and free will. These change everything. Perhaps in a sinless world, pre-fall, God would always choose to allow the path of the most good, no evil. He might repeatedly run up the scoreboard this way: +10 “good” points, +0 “evil” points. The good column would keep increasing, and the evil column would always remain at 0. This would have been possible.

But because of free will and man’s pride, it is no longer possible for there to be a zero in the evil column. Human beings are sinful, and the only way God could prevent them from conducting evil acts and inflicting suffering on others would be to infringe upon free will. God cannot (actually, will not) force a person to do good at all times, whether through manipulation of the mind or even of surrounding circumstances. Therefore, evil exists and God allows it.

Because there is no possibility of all good and no evil, God in his omnibenevolence chooses the path of the greater good (which by God’s estimation entails achieving good in light of free will). He has to allow some evil and suffering in order to achieve greater good. In order to get those +10 points in the good column, God might allow +2 evil (rather than the alternatives of +3 or +4). There is no option of +0 evil anymore, but even if there were, God might not choose it because it wouldn’t achieve as much good. Hopefully you’re seeing already that some of the premises of the logical argument laid out above are false.

The “best of possible worlds” argument is nebulous and highly speculative. How could a person possibly define such a thing? What is best for one person would be horrid to another. With God’s attributes of omnipotence, omniscience, and omnibenevolence, it’s not impossible to imagine that this current world is the best that was possible with free will in the picture. Perhaps a world with no troubles would never find the necessary brokenness to come to God.

What about when God himself seems to directly inflict pain and suffering, rather than simply allowing it?

Well, let’s turn to the Bible for a couple of famous examples, shall we?

In Genesis 6, we hear the story of Noah’s ark. Around this time, humans were starting to multiply on the land, but they were also becoming very wicked. God gave mankind 120 years to shape up, but aside from Noah’s family, they didn’t. So God sent a great flood to wipe out the evildoers and to start fresh.

In Genesis 18-19, we see that the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were very sinful, turning away from God. God makes known his plans to destroy them, at which point Abraham famously pleads for God to spare them. Abraham asks whether God would spare the cities if even 50 righteous men were found. God agrees. Abraham reverently pushes his luck, and asks, “well what about 45?” (I’m paraphrasing of course.) God again agrees. This goes on repeatedly; 40, 30, 20, then finally 10. God even agrees to a mere 10.

What happens? Not even 10 righteous are found in that city, so God proceeds with destroying them.

In each case, you’ll notice that God displayed great patience. Unfortunately, it didn’t matter, and like a doctor, God had to remove the cancer completely. In the real world, we know that wickedness spreads like a wildfire. Something starts out as the exception, a taboo, but very rapidly it becomes totally acceptable. Eventually, it becomes the norm. With our finite minds, we might disagree with God’s wrath, but we don’t know the whole picture. If God had spared those wicked people, it’s very easy to imagine that our world would be a much worse place today. There would much more evil, and yet people use those examples against God. He just can’t win in some people’s eyes.

Besides, God is the one in charge. Skeptics will cringe at this concept, but who are we to question Him? In Isaiah 55:9, God reminds us: “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” If God exists, don’t you think there would be things you don’t understand or agree with? What makes us think everything should agree with our flawed preferences and sentiments?

Don’t count out the Devil!

Oh boy, I can already hear the eyes rolling. But it’s true, if there is a such thing as the God of the Bible, then there is an enemy who we call Satan. You can’t count out the devil in an argument about whether God exists because that’s presupposing the very thing you’re trying to prove. If the idea of evil and suffering bothers you, you can’t hold it against God without first acknowledging the reality of Satan and his demons.

Satan is called many names in the Bible, including deceiver, enemy, father of lies, lawless one, murderer, tempter, wicked one…and most tellingly, “god of this age” and “ruler of this world.” Does this sound like someone who might have something to do with some of the evil and suffering you see today? Perhaps! The devil presents himself as an angel of light (2 Corinthians 11:14), and he is extremely attractive and cunning. He is smarter than you. He is smarter than all of us, and his lies perpetuate and spread, causing more grief and evil.

I’m convinced that Satan has tricked the scientific world into throwing labels at certain maladies and illnesses, when some of it is actually demon-induced. Consider the case of “Emily Rose” (Anneliese Michel…pictures and audio recordings here), whom the doctors tried to fix with every scientific terminology and concept in the book. They called her depressed, epileptic, and couldn’t face the fact that perhaps there was something else at work here. To the world, she looked like a victim of random chance and forces. In spiritual terms, she was attacked by demons. Until Jesus returns to vanquish them once and for all, spiritual warfare is a reality to consider. Not everything is explainable by natural means.

(Who knows? Maybe in 100 years, the devil will convince the world that love is simply a biological and chemical process, when it’s so much more than that.)

Speaking of natural, what about “natural evils” such as earthquakes, tsunamis, etc.?

I need to tread carefully here. I will say cautiously that it is at least possible that God can use these things to punish wickedness or accomplish some greater good, just as He has in past history. But let’s push this line of reasoning aside.

It has been suggested by apologists, and I agree with them, that natural disasters are a way of inspiring reverence and fear of God. It doesn’t necessarily need to target specific people, but it reminds us all that “oh yea, we’re just human…ultimately, there are forces greater than us that even our mighty technology can’t defeat.” Can you imagine a world where there were no disasters, no thunderstorms, no fearsome waves at sea? We would become even more full of ourselves as the masters of this world, and we’re already experts of pride as it is.

Furthermore, the fall of man necessitates that the world no longer functions optimally. Before the fall, we were designed to live forever. It’s hard to imagine now, but the systems and laws in place wouldn’t have been able to harm us. Gravity—a morally neutral force—would not have been able to bring us crashing to our doom from a steep drop. Thorns, if they existed, wouldn’t prick us. Animals wouldn’t carry venom. Childbirth wouldn’t be painful, and women couldn’t have serious complications from it. The plates of the earth would no longer move to create earthquakes, and the seas would probably be calm. But of course, man did sin and that all changed. Once sin entered and gave birth to death, all of the possible harms became an unavoidable reality.

OK, I know I said I would tread carefully, but I can’t help myself. As an example, let’s imagine for a minute (and I have no proof, nobody does) that God created HIV as a judgment or deterrence. Deterrence from what? Bestiality, homosexuality, and promiscuity are three possibilities (in fact, Sodom was known for homosexuality and is where we get the word “sodomy”). We know from numerous examples in the Bible that sexual sins seem very serious to God and are met with severe consequences.

Now, in what logical world would it be practically impossible for a person innocent of these things to contract HIV accidentally through blood? It is rare, but it must be possible. But rather than seeing these people as victims of God’s supposed sloppiness and negligence, we can view it in a number of ways. It is an inevitable result for a few people to befall this horrible fate because of the fall of man and because of logical possibility. It is also possible that God could be using these circumstances for the greater good. And we also know that it saddens God when people are in pain, but like a loving parent, sometimes it must be carried out.

3) Practical Implications

So what possible “greater good” are we talking about here? How could evil and suffering turn out to be good, practically speaking?

Well, the number one “good” that can result is the salvation of souls and drawing closer to God. This is not simple speculation, but rather found in the Bible over and over again. Don’t let the Joel Osteens of the world fool you; we are not meant to live on this earth in complete bliss and prosperity. In fact, even as believers, God ensures us that we will find suffering at some points in our lives. The Bible tells us to EXPECT suffering, which is the opposite of what skeptics believe Christianity should entail. When it comes, we need to have the right approach.

1 Peter 4:12-13: “12Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. 13But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed.”

James 1:2-4 (ESV) says: “2Count it all joy, my brothers, when you meet trials of various kinds, 3for you know that the testing of your faith produces steadfastness. 4And let steadfastness have its full effect, that you may be perfect and complete, lacking in nothing.”

Trials and suffering make us more complete. Hardships strengthen our character and also provide a testing ground for our faith. If severe suffering never came to us in life, we might never know for certain if we are truly saved in Christ. What is one way to test if a love relationship is real and not just temporary butterflies? See how you persevere through the rough times, whether it’s long distance/separation or even arguments to sharpen each other and clean out the selfishness.

Pastor Lon Solomon of McLean Bible Church shares that having a severely handicapped daughter—who suffered from countless seizures—was the best thing God could have brought upon his life. Lon was angry with God at first, but in the end, dealing with the emergency hospital visits and intense care-taking made him a better father, husband, pastor, and a person. His daughter, who has a mental age of a child, lives a happy life. She will live the rest of her life—and die—as a child, which most believe ensures her salvation. What more could a parent hope for their children and their own lives? Brokenness can become an enormous blessing.

Sometimes, evil can be turned on its head and turn out for good, even in worldly circumstances. Consider the story of Joseph in late Genesis, who was sold into slavery by his own brothers but ended up being enormously powerful and influential. We can’t expect to always see the end result from our very limited perspective, so the best thing is to trust rather than curse God.

And do we, as Christians, believe in an indifferent God who makes us suffer while He sits on his cushy throne? By no means! We have a savior who gave up his lordship in heaven to become a lowly carpenter, to be spit on, whipped, mocked, and crucified on a cross for OUR sins. We have a God who knows first-hand much of the things we’re going through. We have a savior who rather than being a stoic who always said things like, “Oh, suck it up,” he actually wept for the death of Lazarus (John 11).

What’s the opposite of suffering on this earth? Complete prosperity, which is often represented by wealth in the Bible. And what happens to those who flourish, live a very comfortable lifestyle, and avoid the trials that many of us endure? They become lukewarm, only to be spit out of the mouth of God (Revelations 3). Just as a person cannot gain muscle without painful exercise and devotion; just as a person cannot increase in his knowledge without diligent and arduous study; just as a person cannot become patient and strong without first enduring ordeals; a person cannot truly know God without experiencing suffering.

Many of the poorer countries in the world that have experienced great suffering are the most devout and spiritual. James 2:5 says: “5Listen, my beloved brothers, has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom, which he has promised to those who love him?” We see this to be true in various studies and surveys. In America, many SAY that they are Christian, but as I’ve made clear in my earlier posts, the actual number of saved are probably few. Our prosperity and lack of suffering have made us soft. We have become like the rich young ruler or the church of Laodicea.

Those who suffer may turn out to be the most fortunate and blessed in the end. Perhaps as we look back on our short earthly lives from heaven, we will envy those who endured many hardships for a relative speck of time, only to be rewarded in eternity.

Matthew 19:30: “But many who are first will be last, and many who are last will be first.”

Other Resources

I knew from the get-go that there would be no way for me to cover all possible areas of this topic. There have been entire books written on the subject, and even those focus on particular areas. For further insight, I suggest the following:

http://bible.org/article/why-there-suffering
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Problem_of_evil
http://leaderu.com/orgs/probe/docs/evil.html

http://www.apologetics.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&id=646:the-problem-atheists-have-with-evil&catid=43:kkla-995-fm-los-angeles&Itemid=74

Natural evil:
http://www.rfmedia.org/RF_audio_video/RF_podcast/What_About_Natural_Evil.mp3

WLC–Problem of evil:

Upcoming posts: addressing the biggest objections to Christianity

July 25, 2011 3 comments

This week, I will attempt to start answering the biggest objections to Christianity, at least in the way I’ve dealt with them. These objections have been around for many years, and they probably aren’t going away fully anytime soon. But if another perspective on things helps anyone, it’s worth a shot. Plus, it could help me shore up my own reasoning.

Roughly speaking, I believe these are the most common objections to Christianity:

1. The classic problem of evil and suffering (http://www.christianpost.com/news/the-problem-of-evil-and-suffering-52769/) — logical, emotional, and practical aspects examined.

2. The age of the universe contradicts Genesis 1.

3. There is no evidence for God and science has replaced the need for a god.

4. Christians are hypocrites and have done incredible wrongs.

Obviously, I don’t expect to conclusively settle these matters. Ultimately, the problem lies at a spiritual level. But a drop in the bucket is better than nothing at all. Reasoning and logic can’t get us to the finish line, but it can help get us started.

Categories: Apologetics

Is there such a thing as a worldly, lukewarm Christian?

July 21, 2011 1 comment

I highly encourage everyone to watch through this entire sermon: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=pBhqrtMqrv8. It’s by Francis Chan and it’s entitled “Luke Warm & Loving It.” I borrow heavily from his teachings, mixed with other thoughts.

So can you be a worldly, lukewarm Christian? If you’ve been reading my previous posts, the answer is pretty obvious. This is the last time I’ll touch upon this subject for a while, but I had to address a few more key verses before moving on.

There may be short periods of time when true believers experience worldly desires, struggles, and lukewarmness, but on the whole, no. A Christian cannot be worldly and lukewarm.

1 John 2:15: “15 Do not love the world nor the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him.”

In my opinion, America is the lukewarm “Christian” capital of the world. There’s probably no other country where being a Christian is so convenient, comfortable…and compromised. Part of the reason, I think, is due to our propensity to be open and accepting to everything—all kinds of people, beliefs, style, and now, even morality. There is no real right or wrong anymore, there’s only “what’s right for you.” (See Lon Solomon’s 4th of July message on America and how our foundations are being destroyed: http://mcleanbible.org/media_player.asp?type=large&messageID=96038.)

But I think the biggest reason for our spiritual lukewarmness is our great wealth. We Americans idolize success, comfort, and security, all of which seem directly related to how much money is in our wallets. Money in itself isn’t a bad thing, per se, but when it becomes our priority or source of happiness, it becomes extremely dangerous. The Bible tells us that wealth is a significant spiritual handicap.

Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.”

Luke 18:24-27: “And Jesus looked at him and said, ‘How hard it is for those who are wealthy to enter the kingdom of God! 25 For it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” 26 They who heard it said, “Then who can be saved?” 27 But He said, ‘The things that are impossible with people are possible with God.”

The Bible can’t be any clearer than that. A big part of true salvation is the genuine realization that we are completely desolate and lost without Christ. If we have a fat savings account, healthy nest egg for retirement, and creature comforts the rest of the world can only dream about, what is there to bring us to our knees? Don’t be fooled, the rich young ruler isn’t only referring to political leaders or CEOs. It could very well apply to most Americans today.

Some people will read Luke 18:27 and point out, “See? Jesus said it’s possible with God.” Yes, that’s true. But this doesn’t negate the previous verses at all. It is still extremely difficult and rare. What would otherwise be impossible with human effort alone is possible with God, but highly unlikely.

We’ll get to some practical application in a bit.

OK, so what about morality and behavior? As Christians, aren’t we forgiven for everything we do? Why not live it up like the rest of the world does? Well, read the following:

1 John 3:6: “No one who abides in him keeps on sinning; no one who keeps on sinning has either seen him or known him.”

The Bible tells us that if it is your mentality to keep sinning because of grace, you need to seriously reexamine yourself to see if you are actually saved. My previous posts delve into this some more, but the following verses show us why we simply CANNOT abuse the grace of God as true believers. (I started to bold key phrases and words, but almost all of the words were bolded. Read thoughtfully.)

Romans 6:1-7: “1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it? 3 Or do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have been baptized into His death? 4Therefore we have been buried with Him through baptism into death, so that as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life. 5 For if we have become united with Him in the likeness of His death, certainly we shall also be in the likeness of His resurrection, 6 knowing this, that our old self was crucified with Him, in order that our body of sin might be done away with, so that we would no longer be slaves to sin; 7 for he who has died is freed from sin.”

If we are truly saved, we are now dead to our sins, we are no longer slaves to it. If a “Christian” is still enslaved to sin and is not compelled by the Holy Spirit to sanctify his life, he was never born again to begin with.

Check out this video that powerfully illustrates this kind of faulty thinking: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IbwIagWI36o. Why not abuse grace? Because you simply cannot. You are literally unable if you are truly born-again.

I’m still not entirely sold. Is there any other passage that makes it clear that you can’t be lukewarm and saved?

I think you’ll agree with me that the following is a pretty obvious and direct passage.

Revelations 3:15-19: “15I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot; I wish that you were cold or hot. 16 So because you are lukewarm, and neither hot nor cold, I will spit you out of My mouth17 Because you say, “I am rich, and have become wealthy, and have need of nothing,” and you do not know that you are wretched and miserable and poor and blind and naked18 I advise you to buy from Me gold refined by fire so that you may become rich, and white garments so that you may clothe yourself, and that the shame of your nakedness will not be revealed; and eye salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. 19Those whom I love, I reprove and discipline; therefore be zealous and repent.”

Does this sound like Jesus is talking to believers? No, not at all. It sounds like he’s speaking to the church in America maybe, but not his beloved adopted children. He does not spit us out and call us wretched and blind.

Rather, this is how God sees those who are saved:

Colossians 1:22: “But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation.”

Please don’t believe some convoluted, reassuring commentary on lukewarmness. People will do anything to avoid the unavoidable truths that the Bible painstakingly makes crystal clear. Let’s not lean toward what’s easy on the ears, but what is spelled out for us. Jesus lovingly warns us again and again, and we’d be fools to bend his words to our will.

Practically speaking?

Well, as Francis Chan says in his sermon, if you’re lukewarm, do something about it at all costs! This is not something to be casual or slow about. Examine yourself honestly and find what parts of your life you’re clinging onto rather than giving them over to God. Some of you may find his suggestion not to eat or even go to work extreme. But really, if your eternal salvation is on the line, you can’t afford to procrastinate. The longer you put it off, the less likely it is that you’ll approach it with the proper urgency. The next time you hear a message on lukewarmness, your heart may already be hardened and your mind may check out when you hear this familiar, nagging tune. Not to mention, you don’t know how much longer you have. Even if you start now, you don’t know how long it will take to burn away all the old desires.

Furthermore, from an outsider’s perspective, I believe this concept of “lukewarm Christian” really sheds light onto some things. Why do Christians live just like the world? Why do they divorce at the same rates (or even higher) that non-Christians do? Why are there the same rates of pre-marital sex among Christians, or why is there so much hypocrisy in the church? It’s simple. In America, the vast majority of “Christians” are not saved at all. They don’t have a newness in life with Christ because they have not been willing or able to put their sinful desires to death.

If 95% of the people in America who call themselves Christians are actually unsaved, then you would rightfully expect the statistics to show no difference with the rest. I’d imagine if you went to certain other parts of the world, you would see something markedly noticeable about their Christians. Why? Because they struggle and suffer for their faith, and they don’t have great wealth to handicap their spiritual growth. This is why poorness can be a blessing. Those struggling to make ends meet for a few years on this earth can be at a great advantage for eternity. Those who achieve too much success and acquire too much don’t realize their “blessing” can really be a curse.

Of course, this isn’t to say that God desires all Christians to be poor. The Bible is rife with examples of people who had great riches. The difference is, in every case, those riches were used to advance God’s kingdom. King David ruled so that his nation would follow God. Job’s wealth became a vehicle to prove his spiritual mettle, and once his undying loyalty to God was demonstrated, nothing was withheld from him. No child of God, however, acquires wealth just because. Nothing is purely for our comfort or worldly status. It’s for His glory.

Just as most of us are not realistically capable of living a celibate life with purity (as Paul chose for himself), most of us can’t handle riches without jeopardizing our spiritual lives. Let’s refine our desires and focus intently on God himself. He’s like a treasure in the field that vastly outweighs all that you currently own. You should be more than willing to give up anything to follow him, whether or not God actually holds you to that. It’s all or nothing—if your goal is to be lukewarm, then change that goal immediately. This is one area where being “balanced” or “well-rounded” is not desirable. Being completely sold-out for God is.

Finding spiritual truth in secular places: “Flatland” (and other real-world analogies)

July 19, 2011 Leave a comment

(The video I’m referring to is here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9VS1mwEV9wA. The original concept of “Flatland” is described here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flatland.)

As you watch Carl Sagan explain the different dimensions, I can’t help but get the sense he is talking about our perspective on God. In fact, I’m surprised he had no intentional spiritual overtones in this video and that he was an agnostic/skeptic. The analogy seems so obvious…

Human beings are wonderfully complex, but we are also enormously limited. We are like 2D shapes, living in “Flatland,” going about our business and trying to make sense of the universe with only our concepts of left, right, forward, and backward. The “apple” in the illustration is like God, trying to reveal himself to us. Because of our limitations, all he can do is show us a slice of who he is. He gives us the Bible, and even sends his son to take on “2D” human form so that we can better understand the divine. But without any ability to see “up and down,” the third dimension, we cannot fully grasp the truth of God. All we can do is try our best until we go to heaven and receive our glorified bodies and fuller understanding.

The other 2D shapes will scoff at the idea of the 3D apple, claiming there is no sufficient “proof” for its existence. If only they could see things from the 3D perspective! The humble 2D shape who has experienced a glimpse of “up” (by being taken off the board of Flatland, even for a short moment) is like the person who has received the Holy Spirit. To her, it is proof enough of a third dimension—knowing the unknowable. But how can she explain it to the other 2D dwellers? All she can do is try to use what limited explanatory tools she has at her disposal. To very few, it will be enough for them to take the leap of faith and desire a relationship with that “apple.” To others, they will never see it, and technically on their own, they cannot see…if they rely on their own limited perspective and their worldview. (This is why people generally do not come to faith by logic alone.)

The “saved” 2D shape might try to explain things with analogies or put things into Flatland’s terms.

Ms. Christian Square: “OK, let’s say you’re going left to right, west to east. You know how forward and backward, north and south, are perpendicular to that line? Well, imagine if there were another line that were perpendicular, but at a different angle…”

Dr. Barker Triangle: “You mean like north-east? A 45-degree angle?”

Christian: “Well, no, not exactly…it’d be like if a line could be 90 degrees from the north line, but neither west nor east…a totally different direction altogether.”

Barker: “That’s logically impossible!”

Christian: “Well, I’ve seen it, and I know what I saw. I floated above Flatland for a bit.”

Barker: “What’s ‘above’? What you’re saying doesn’t make sense, therefore it doesn’t exist.”

Of course, this illustration ignores the fact that there are many worldly explanations that refute the skeptics’ claims. But we shouldn’t expect to understand everything with our limited intelligence and perspective. No worldly analogy can adequately explain the Trinity or other difficult concepts, like the nature of God or predestination. Ms. Christian Square might not have all the answers, but she’s seen enough to know that there is something more than just Flatland. There is another dimension, the supernatural, that transcends our world and even our reasoning.

In my own personal experience, every time I have come across an argument against God that initially sounds good, scratching beneath the surface reveals a fatal flaw or gross oversight. Usually, these arguments (like the problem of evil, or most ridiculously, “who designed the Designer?”) are overly simplistic, and therefore have a lot of public appeal. People like neatly packaged answers.

Because I like analogies so much, consider the following three. In my view, of course, the overly simplistic person is the atheist who fails to consider other non-obvious factors.

1) Bob has a can of soda. Candice has a cup that is larger than the can in volume. Candice asks Bob whether he thinks he can pour the entire can of soda into the cup without contents spilling over. Bob answers, “Of course, the can is smaller than the cup so there’s no way it would overflow.” (Bob fails to recognize that if he pours too quickly, the carbonation will cause the soda level to rise quickly and some of it will overflow. If he pours slowly with intermittent pauses, he could empty the can with no mess. The solution is more nuanced than it initially seems.)

2) Izzy, the novice science student, learns about gravitational acceleration for the first time. Based on the constant of 9.8 m/s2, she confidently calculates the time it would take for her notepad to drop from the top of a building to the ground. When she goes to actually carry out the experiment, she is dumbfounded when the notepad takes a bit longer than expected to hit the ground. She hastily concludes that the constant must be wrong and that her textbooks were either fraudulent or outdated. (She fails to take into account air friction and other real-world factors.)

3) Jan spots her friend Dirk digging into a bag of Haribo gummy bears at the beach. She sees him picking out certain ones and becomes certain that not only is he a selfish pig, but he’s also a picky eater, selecting all the good colors for himself. There is no doubt in her mind she has accurately assessed the situation. (In reality, perhaps Dirk felt guilty that he accidentally got some sand in the bag of gummy bears, so he is sacrificially eating all the sandy bears so that his friends can eat the clean ones.)

These were just a few stupid examples, but it’s not too far off from the way we jump to conclusions in more important matters. Too much confidence in our own ability and wisdom can lead to perilous mistakes when it comes to spiritual truths.

Personally, as I study God’s word and apologetics more, it feels like I’m learning where the glass ceiling is to our intelligence. Rather than being completely unaware and blindly saying, “I’m sure there’s a limit to our understanding up there somewhere,” it’s almost like, “ah, so there it is right there!” When you learn more, it’s like you also learn to recognize the difference between actual contradictions/shortcomings and what is simply beyond understanding. If I may say so without coming off as haughty, it’s not ignorance or denial to be OK with the glass ceiling, but rather honesty and discernment.

The choice is yours: God or sin

July 14, 2011 2 comments

I don’t know about everyone else, but I feel like I was brought up believing in the wrong kind of Christianity. My bible study friends know that I can sometimes turn a little bitter about this. Why has it been so hard to find the true word of God in men, even those who have devoted their lives to teaching others about it?

The following is what I used to believe, having grown up in the church.

We once were doomed to eternity in hell because of our sin. Then, because of Jesus shedding his blood on the cross, all of our sins—past, present, and future—have been wiped clean forever. Because we are clean in God’s sight now, we are guaranteed passage to heaven when we die. Our sins ultimately don’t matter anymore.

While this is technically true (more or less) in the most basic sense, there is the danger of misunderstanding. The basic foundation of our salvation is on the line here, so we can’t afford to brush past it casually. We need to take off our blinders and earplugs and see what the Bible REALLY says. For me, I had to get rid of this instinctual habit—unknown to even me—of dumping certain truths out of my mind if they didn’t fit neatly into my own picture of God. Even if the Bible’s words were clear, my eyes and mind were selective. Instead of consuming it whole, I’d pick and choose only the parts I found to my liking.

(OK, blah blah blah, what are you getting at, Joe?)

Here’s my point. The Bible does NOT say that we are all saved simply with our mouths or intellectual assent. Sin is not just a matter of making God a little happy or very happy. Instead, the Bible tells us that we have to make a choice. We need to either choose the world and its sin, or decide to follow God. One path leads to destruction, the other leads to eternal life. Simple as that.

What people don’t seem to realize is that it’s an either-or choice. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. I’m not talking about a works-based salvation, I’m talking about two choices and we have to pick one. There is no third option that reads: “I choose God and also want to keep my sinful life, thx!”

Let’s use a few illustrations, which came up in discussions with my bible study friends.

The sinking ship

After the fall of man, we’ve been on a sinking ship ever since. We’re in the middle of the ocean and doom is certain, though we don’t know exactly when it will befall us.

But suddenly, Jesus comes from a distance in a small boat to rescue us. We hear about him, we see him, and rejoice! (This is the point at which most Christians mistakenly believe themselves to already be saved.) Then we happily grab all of our belongings and rush toward the boat. Before we can get in, however, he stops us.

“You have to leave all that luggage behind. There’s no way to fit that on the boat and still get to shore,” Jesus tells us.

“But Jesus,” we resist. “I can’t leave this behind, it’s too valuable to me!”

“What’s more valuable? Those material possessions or your life? Whichever choice you make, those bags are going to end up at the bottom of the ocean anyway.”

In this scenario, would any of us really say “no thanks” to Jesus and cling onto our worldly belongings instead? Of course not. But why is it that we’re so unable to let go of this world to take Jesus into our lives? Is it because deep within us, we secretly doubt that Jesus would be able to save us anyway? That perhaps he’s a mirage? You either believe or you don’t, and many people still need to resolve their doubts (and do it ASAP).

If our doubt is strong enough, we might be unwilling to let go of this world and instead try to eke out a short time of pleasure before our time is up. Many people hedge, just in case, and don’t even realize they’re doing it. In reality, we could have had eternity ahead of us. Not only that, but Jesus promises to reward us richly once we get to “shore” anyway. Yet we still refuse.

Matthew 6:24: “No one can serve two masters. Either he will hate the one and love the other, or he will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and Money.”

1 Kings 18:21: “Elijah went before the people and said, ‘How long will you waver between two opinions? If the LORD is God, follow him; but if Baal is God, follow him.’ But the people said nothing.”

Romans 6:23: “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

Proverbs 11:19: “The truly righteous man attains life, but he who pursues evil goes to his death.”

The Bible tells us clearly that it’s an either-or situation. Sin, in the colloquial sense, is thought of as a “bad” or evil act. But in reality, it is choosing anything apart from God’s way. Of course, even true believers who have chosen to follow Jesus will falter time to time. Their eyes will wander and their minds will get distracted. What we’re talking about here is a lifestyle of sanctification, walking the narrow path.

Keep in mind that the narrow path and the wide path are not right next to each other. You can’t hop around from one to the other on a moment’s notice. They are far apart and going in opposite directions; one to heaven, one to hell. Pick one and stick with it; the choice is yours.

“Hoarders”

My wife and I have watched this show on TV called “Hoarders,” and you can’t help but be puzzled and disgusted by what you see.

The people on the show have this illness where they grow emotionally attached to everything they own, to the point where they can’t get rid of anything. It doesn’t even matter what it is; it could be an empty plastic bottle or an empty bag of chips. Eventually, over time, their entire house gets filled up by this junk and their lives start to completely fall apart.

Social services threatens to take away the children from these hazardous environments. Marriages are strained, and family members become resentful and embarrassed. In some episodes, it literally comes down to a choice between a loved one and the junk, and the hoarder has difficulty choosing. Often, they promise to get rid of everything for the loved one’s sake, but waver halfway through. It’s unbelievable.

My wife saw the lesson for our lives.

Are we really so different? Is it any less stupid to live for this world when it is literally less than a speck compared to the eternity in heaven that could await us? Again, I think the problem is that people don’t realize it’s an either-or situation. You have to be willing to give up your wealth, comfort, safety…even family. Only when you make God the Lord of your life can you really be saved.

Matthew 6:19, 20: “Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor rust destroys, and where thieves do not break in or steal;”

While we should be fully willing to do whatever God asks, know that He may not ask his followers to become poor. I hesitate sometimes to tell people this because they might cling to this hope of relative comfort.

In Proverbs, there is the suggestion that neither wealth nor poverty are desirable. Great wealth might keep you from seeking dependence on God fully, whereas poverty could lead to other kinds of sin.

Proverbs 30:8-10: “Keep deception and lies far from me, give me neither poverty nor riches; feed me with the food that is my portion, that I not be full and deny You and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or that I not be in want and steal, and profane the name of my God.”

The idea is to depend on Him and to choose the way to eternal life rather than the fleeting pleasures of this world.

So how can we stop sinning anyway?

Isn’t it impossible to stop sinning? Why even bother?

Well yes, it is impossible by our own human effort. Even if we consciously try to live without sin, we will fail. Our flesh is too weak. If we succeed at it for a while, we will grow prideful; we will look down at ourselves and see that we have become Mr. Hyde with our self-satisfaction, as Tim Keller illustrates in his book.

But a true born-again believer has the Holy Spirit living inside of them. The Holy Spirit cannot sin, he cannot fail, so the trick is to allow him total control over our lives. There is always an element of sin that wants to wrest back control of the wheel, but the more we overcome, the more sanctified we become. The Holy Spirit grows louder and more powerful in our lives to the point where it’s harder to ignore him. It doesn’t happen overnight, but it’s a process. Our lives are in a continual process where we become more Christ-like, and if the general trajectory doesn’t seem that way for you, it’s time to check yourself against the Bible.

Make sure the following verse doesn’t apply to you:

Romans 1:32: “Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”

The inexperienced quarterback

Developing a lifestyle of sanctification is like a young quarterback being coached. As my friend put it, inexperienced quarterbacks (QBs) start out with a lot of bad habits. In controlled practice environments, he might throw passes with pinpoint accuracy, but the true test comes in a game against a real-life opponent.

When an opposing defensive player gets through the line and charges toward the quarterback, the QB instinctively backpedals and wants to throw the ball immediately. Now, any fan of football will know that you can’t backpedal and get enough forward velocity to throw an accurate pass. But with inexperience, instincts trump the QB’s learning and he chucks it up for grabs. What will often happen then is that the pass will fall short and a player from the other team will get an interception. He may even run it back for a touchdown, resulting in a costly swing and momentum shift.

Why does the QB do this? Doesn’t he know just as well as us couch-potato spectators that throwing a pass while backpedaling is ill-advised? Of course he does. But he needs to develop the tendency of making the right decision. He needs to break his bad habits and replace them with good ones. How does he do this?

First, he needs good coaching. The QB needs a coach to yell in his ear every time he makes this kind of stupid decision, even if it seems to succeed momentarily against the odds. That way, he can be conditioned to do the right thing even when a high-pressure game is on the line.

Second, he needs to continually practice. No one is born with good football mechanics, so the QB needs to diligently make sure that his body and mind learn to perform correctly naturally, almost without thinking. If the mechanics haven’t become natural for him, by the time intense pressure comes, you can bet everything is going to break down and go wrong.

Third, he needs to build up a record of right decisions. That is, he needs to perform correctly over and over again. He needs to learn to take the sack or even get outside the pocket and throw the ball away. He needs to carry out the smart choice enough times until it develops into a good habit. On the flip side, every time he falters and goes back to his flawed instincts—what he naturally wants to do so badly—he makes it that much harder to do the right thing the next time the situation arises. He cements the “sin” so that it becomes more difficult to break.

Obviously, these principles apply to us in our Christian walks. We need to listen intently to the voice of the Holy Spirit. We need good teachers and accountability partners in our lives. We need to deeply immerse ourselves in God’s word and memorize scripture to equip ourselves for battle. Then, when temptation comes—as it inevitably will—we need to show God that we can overcome, that we choose Him instead of the fleeting pleasure of this world. We need to prove to ourselves that the shackles of sin have been broken. The next time temptation comes around, we’ll be ready and battle-tested. We’ll say, “I’ve seen this one before, and I remember how I got through it the last time. And I remember being glad I made the right choice.”

Sometimes, we need to see for ourselves how good it is to be victorious. For some people, simply hearing about it won’t do. Once we’ve seen first-hand that holiness is the way to go, we’ll be that much more convinced to keep up the good fight.

***For an excellent video sermon on this subject, check out Francis Chan’s “When Sin Looks More Enjoyable Than God”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iszVTWUGQQM.

Overreliance on the world’s evidence

July 11, 2011 Leave a comment

In the last 100 years, archaeology has uncovered a multitude of artifacts and writings, verifying the truth of what the Bible says. Science itself, with the Big Bang theory showing a definite starting point for our universe, has strengthened the argument for God.

This isn’t enough to necessarily lead people to faith, but it certainly helps to have some support for the Bible’s claims. In fact, many former skeptics (such as Sir William Ramsey, or more recently, Lee Strobel) have made it their mission in the past to disprove or scrutinize the Bible, only to become more convinced of its veracity. To them, the world’s evidence pushed them strongly in the direction of Christian faith. These stories are numerous and uplifting.

However, we must be careful not to place evidence and arguments as central pillars of our faith. Once we receive the Holy Spirit—in a genuine conversion experience—he is stand-alone, sufficient evidence to convict us of the Bible’s truth. The rest is extra support for something that is sturdy enough to stand the test of time anyway. For the true believer, additional worldly evidence can cause us to rejoice, possibly increase our zeal, and allow us to more effectively share with nonbelievers. But for our own faith, it is ultimately extraneous.

This is why William Lane Craig states in his book, Reasonable Faith, that even if arguments and evidence would fail to support Christianity (which they certainly do not), he would still wholeheartedly be a believer. This statement, found early in his book, has brought mockery and condescension upon him from his atheist opponents. I can see why, as it seems to demonstrate that yet another Christian seems to be wholly irrational in his beliefs and immune to reason and persuasion—even a top-flight philosopher, debater, and logical thinker such as Dr. Craig. But as Dr. Alvin Plantinga of Notre Dame has written in his work, belief in Christ can be just as “properly basic” as our belief in the external world, which we experience with the five senses.  The Holy Spirit is that compelling.

I am not trying to say that we should all stop trying to seek the truth or welcome new evidence into the arena of debate. This post is more for the already-converted believers out there. The world’s evidence is subject to the truth of the Bible, not the other way around. The main point of this post is this: Evidence can help lead us to faith, but it shouldn’t be what’s keeping us in it.

What happens when the evidence turns against us?

This is really the heart of the issue. Ask yourself, as a believer, what you would do if there were some discovery tomorrow that seemed to directly disprove some part of the Bible. What if there were a dry spell where no able and well-informed apologists could successfully hold the skeptics at bay? Would you cease to follow Christ? Would you exalt human reasoning and deem Christianity as fool’s gold?

While this would seem the “rational” response to such developments, consider the following thoughts.

– The scientific community as a whole believed that the world was eternal, with no beginning, until the Big Bang theory became widely accepted.

– People have doubted the age of biblical books for centuries, which cast doubt on chronology and fulfilled prophecies. Only in 1947 (until 1956) were the Dead Sea Scrolls discovered, putting to rest many of those doubts.

– Most of ancient history—whether religious or not—is lost forever, and early Christianity was only a small movement at that time within the world. The fact that we have as much as we do today is purely by the grace of God.

Depending on when people lived and died, there is a chance they may have had insufficient worldly evidence to buttress their faith in Christ. I pity the man—if he existed—who read Isaiah or Daniel and thought the proof of prophecy of Jesus’ life and death was strong, but then was dissuaded in 1946 by some scholar who claimed, “No one knows for sure when those books were written anyway. The Christians probably went back and altered the text of those OT books to fit the details of Jesus’ life.”

I believe much has been discovered so recently because God saw our dwindling faith, our “enlightened” minds refusing to believe apart from evidence, and he graciously offered us some. There is no guarantee He will continue to do so. (It is also a theory of mine that in His divine foreknowledge, He might withhold some evidence from those that would reject him regardless of the circumstances. This is done in order to spare these people some of his wrath. Ignorance may mitigate the severity of punishment, according to Luke 12:47-48.)

Right now, in 2011, I believe the arguments and evidence favor Christianity. But my advice is to not get too cozy in this, and to strengthen your faith with the Holy Spirit as your foundation. My guess is, if this world goes for another 100+ years, people will seriously start to question the human existence of Jesus Christ altogether. Science will come up with some novel, clever way of describing the beginning of the universe apart from God…until a better theory arises later.

Timothy Keller, in Reason for God, offers up strong arguments for God and some deep insights. I highly recommend his book for people of all spiritual walks. But in an honest way that I respect, he also admits that it is possible to reason your way out of any argument. There is no airtight proof.

Attending law school and completing the moot court requirement taught me that this is true. I remember, for the first go-around, we had to take either the side of the prosecution or that of the defense. We not only found ways to support our position, but we grew invested in it, fully convinced we were on the right side. The next semester/round, we swapped. It was amazing (and alarming) to me how easy it was to switch and find convincing evidence to support whatever we put our minds to.

Jeremiah 17:9: “The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?”

Job 5:13: “He catches the wise in their craftiness, and the schemes of the wily are swept away.”

We simply cannot rely on such fickle things when it comes to our eternal destiny. The world’s knowledge is subject to constant change and revision. If there is an absolute, unchanging truth out there—such as the Bible—there are going to be periods of history where the world and the word of God butt heads. It’s up to you to place your faith in the unchanging truth of God.

I really like this candid interview with Dr. Craig. He says it better than I can: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=S-fDyPU3wlQ.

This video with Francis Chan, while not entirely on topic with this post, is also helpful (especially the first couple of minutes where he talks about the potter and the clay): http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qnrJVTSYLr8.

I leave you with some more scripture to mull over:

1 Corinthians 3:19: “For the wisdom of this world is foolishness in God’s sight. As it is written: ‘He catches the wise in their craftiness.'”

Psalms 81:11-12: ““But my people would not listen to me; Israel would not submit to me. So I gave them over to their stubborn hearts to follow their own devices.”

Proverbs 21:30: “There is no wisdom, no insight, no plan that can succeed against the LORD.”

Isaiah 44:18: “They know nothing, they understand nothing; their eyes are plastered over so they cannot see, and their minds closed so they cannot understand.”

Isaiah 65:2: “All day long I have held out my hands to an obstinate people, who walk in ways not good, pursuing their own imaginations–”

1 Corinthians 1:20: “Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher (NASB: “debater”) of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”

What’s the difference between martyrs of early Christianity and other religions?

July 7, 2011 2 comments

Sometimes, I’m a bit surprised that people don’t see the difference between early Christian martyrs and, say, Muslim martyrs. It’s really quite clear once you think about it.

A typical conversation might go something like this:

Christian: “The disciples’ willingness to die proves that Christianity is true!”

Skeptic: “Well, other religions have had plenty of martyrs throughout their history. According to you, their religion is false, so it seems people are willing to die for things that aren’t true.”

Christian: “…”

Here’s the simple but important difference: martyrs of other religions are willing to die for their beliefs. Early Christian apostles and martyrs died for something they knew to be true—something they had seen with their own eyes.

I’m willing to give Islam the benefit of the doubt and say that Muhammad probably wasn’t intentionally deceiving people. He doubted the veracity of his own dreams and visions, even wondering if they were demonic (possibly). But his wife convinced him that he was hearing the word of God.

Now, many people throughout history have mistakenly believed to have heard or felt God, instructing them to do something or leading them in a direction. If they are wrong but delude themselves, then yes, they may be willing to die for that belief. Unless someone has actually had God speak to them for real, they probably wouldn’t know the difference between a true vision and one conjured up by their own imaginations (or demonic deception). Relying on a second-hand analysis, such as by one’s spouse, is even more unreliable. In the past, our understanding of dreams was also very poor, so this kind of misinformed conviction is to be expected.

But with Jesus’ disciples, this kind of delusion is not really a possibility. If they were making up the story of the gospel, or if they had stolen the body of Jesus, they would have ridden the wave of Christianity for as long as it benefited them…then given it up once their lives were on the line. Instead, we see all of the disciples except one (John, who miraculously survived and died years later) courageously and willingly going to their deaths.

They didn’t die for a belief or convictions from a vision. They died after having seen the risen Christ in person with their own eyes—together in groups, no less. This wasn’t a story they made up or something they heard from others. They died for first-hand knowledge of the most tangible kind.

That’s the difference.