Worldviews, Worship, and Wineskins

The Gospel at Work in Every Context

Archive for the month “February, 2014”

A Victim Treats His Mugger Right

Morning Story and Dilbert

Morning Story and Dilbert Vintage Dilbert
February 28, 2001

Julio Diaz has a daily routine. Every night, the 31-year-old social worker ends his hour-long subway commute to the Bronx one stop early, just so he can eat at his favorite diner.

But one night last month, as Diaz stepped off the No. 6 train and onto a nearly empty platform, his evening took an unexpected turn.

He was walking toward the stairs when a teenage boy approached and pulled out a knife.

“He wants my money, so I just gave him my wallet and told him, ‘Here you go,'” Diaz says.

As the teen began to walk away, Diaz told him, “Hey, wait a minute. You forgot something. If you’re going to be robbing people for the rest of the night, you might as well take my coat to keep you warm.”

The would-be robber looked at his would-be victim, “like what’s going on…

View original post 344 more words

Black Holes & the Penumbras of Belief

The field of theoretical physics has, for quite some time, been in search of a single, “unified” theory that explains the way the universe operates. Albert Einstein discovered general relativity which is able to explain how enormous things relate, and quantum physics accurately predicts the behavior of subatomic particles. The problem is that the two can’t be reconciled.

This problem has puzzled the world’s sharpest mathematicians for decades now. On the quantum front, researchers are able to tinker with atomic particles in laboratory conditions. The Large Hadron Collider is the largest and most expensive research laboratory ever fashioned, and the fruits of research there are impressive, to hear the physics gurus tell it. They have recently confirmed the existence of the Boson Higgs particle, curiously nicknamed the “God” particle, much to the chagrin of some in the physics community. But what of astronomical physics, or cosmology? Mankind is making giant strides in teeny tiny physics, but there seem to be unique challenges facing astrophycisists. Namely, time and space.

To begin with, astronomical processes often take millions or billions of years. Thanks to Einstein, we understand that, by the time the light from stars in space reaches us, it is already old. Sometimes very old. If you point your telescope to a star that lies 100 lightyears away, the image you are seeing is one hundred years old. Astronomers who witness and study events such as, for instance, a supernova, are watching what happened when their grandfathers were in diapers. Or perhaps when Copernicus first suggested that the earth revolves around the sun, instead of the other way around. The scale of astrophysics also complicates study of the super-big. Whereas elements and atoms are subject to manipulation by human hands, galaxies are not.

The result of this is that astronomers are not able to subject their hypotheses to the same process as normal scientific endeavors. With the scientific process, an idea must be tested in a controlled setting, and must be repeatable in order to be considered an established scientific fact. This is science 101. Does that work for astronomers and astrophysicists? Not exactly. They have to wait for processes to take place, take measurements and observations and draw conclusions. In this sense, astrophysics, astronomy and cosmology, etc. would seem to qualify as deductive sciences, heavily dependent somewhat abstract mathematics and logic. They contrast with mainly inductive sciences which rely on repeatable processes and high amounts of testable data.

A very interesting example of the non-testable nature of astrophysics are black holes. No one can prove that they exist, as of yet. They are not observable, yet no one doubts their existence (can you see where this is going?) The epistemology of (the means by which we understand) black holes lies within the penumbras of real scientific certainty. But the scientific community is effectively unanimous concerning the ontology of black holes. How do we know they are there? Michael Finkel gives us a layman’s explanation in the March, 2014 issue of National Geographic:

“No one has ever seen a black hole, and no one ever will. There isn’t anything to see. It’s just a blank spot in space–a whole lot of nothing, as physicists like to say. The presence of a hole is deduced by the effect it has on its surroundings. It’s like looking out a window and seeing every treetop bending in one direction. You’d almost certainly be right in assuming that a strong yet invisible wind was blowing.
“When you ask the experts how certain we are that black holes are real, the steady answer is 99.9 percent; if there aren’t black holes in the center of most galaxies, there must be something even crazier.”

If the scientific community is content to accept the existence of black holes largely using deductive reasoning (rather than the preferred scientific method of inductive reasoning), skeptics cannot rationally reject the existence of God based on a lack of testable data. In the same way that conditions and events surrounding black holes give scientists a rational basis for belief, Occam’s Razor would seem to indicate that God is the simplest and most rational explanation for the conditions and events we see in the world—and the universe—today. Most conservative Christians who have studied the question would argue that the data in the New Testament and other 1st century writings are compelling enough, but let’s give the community of skeptics the benefit of the doubt for the sake of the argument. Black holes aside, can we find other examples of inconsistency regarding a reasonable threshold of proof?

Consider SETI, the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence. Researchers have spent millions of dollars creating a listening post whose sole purpose is to intercept and analyze radio and other signals from space. Planet earth is listening. If someone or something non-human and intelligent were to speak, SETI would hear. What might constitute evidence that a radio signal had an intelligent source? If a signal were to have an organized pattern, we can all agree that SETI researchers would have reasonable grounds to consider the source of the signal to be an intelligent being. The study of information sciences tells us that complexity does not arise at random. However, if we turn our attention once again from the macro to the micro, we will notice volumes of highly detailed and complicated messages written in every living cell: DNA. Someone is speaking. Yet for some reason, a certain contingent of the scientific community is committed to explaining how the message came to exist without an intelligent source. While I can not claim to be a professional scientist, this seems intellectually inconsistent to me. How can any rational person accept organized information as reasonable evidence for intelligence in one instance and dismiss it in another?

Please don’t misinterpret my ramblings. I don’t intend to say that the astronomy community lacks epistemic warrant for belief in black holes, nor that SETI should dismiss an organized signal in the event they receive one. What I do want to say is that religious skeptics might take a second look at the bigger question of what constitutes evidence or proof. What would we expect to see if an intelligent, supernatural being existed? To what extent could we logically say such an intelligent being owed us testable data? Has the burden of proof been met? Is it logically consistent to require “hard proof” in the case of God, but be satisfied with the penumbras of evidence for the claims of theoretical physics?

Admittedly, this post falls short of providing any evidence FOR the existence of God (or black holes, for that matter). But that was never my intention. I am simply in the learning process, like the rest of us, and asking questions along the way. The burden of proof has already been met for me, for both black holes and God. What about you?

Jesus and “The Book of Eli” (part 1)

eli

Remember “The Book of Eli”? It was one of a spat of post apocalyptic dramas with washed out color and characters who care more about surviving to the end of the day than dental hygiene. I love that genre. “Eli” came out in 2010, just a year after “The Road” starring Vigo Mortensen. In 2007, “I Am Legand” hit theaters. And more recently, television has blessed us with “The Walking Dead”. These are just a smattering of the wide array of end-of-the-world scenarios that have cropped up in the American cultural landscape lately. Why do we tell these stories? Maybe they allow storytellers to say something important about what it means to be human and what we value most. Whatever the case, I think “The Book of Eli” says something important about the place of belief in western culture.

On the surface, “Eli” appears to be a solid piece of movie-making with a subtle nod to the evangelical demographic. It has action sequences, a mysterious protagonist, a bad guy for him to fight, good visual effects and world-class acting. Plus, the inclusion of the Bible! But what does the film actually say about the Bible and its place in society?

Carnegie, the gangster who terrorizes a local populace of survivors, is obsessed with finding a copy of the Bible in order to leverage peoples’ faith for his own purposes. This is not an unrealistic idea. For hundreds or thousands of years people have misused scripture as a means of psychological leverage over those who aren’t Biblically literate. So far, so good. I can’t find anything wrong with this portrayal of how the Bible might be used in a hypothetical, post apocalyptic North America. But consider the final scene of the movie: Eli reproduces the lost text in it’s entirety, from memory, word for word. A fresh copy of the miraculously protected scripture is placed on a shelf, next to a Hebrew Torah and a Qur’an, in a repository of knowledge on the island of Alcatraz. The message of the entire movie arguably hinges on that sequence and its meaning.

What lesson are the film-makers trying to teach us? It is a subtle statement, but I suppose that they are saying one of two things about the Bible: 1. all scripture (from every religion) is sacred or 2. No scripture is sacred, but knowledge is sacred. With option 2, we would interpret the movie as depicting the preservation of one of a vast body of texts, all of which end up in California for safe keeping. In either case 1 or 2, it would seem that the subtlety presents us with a classic postmodern interpretive exercise: we insert our own preferred interpretation of the ending. (The movie “Inception” was a masterful example of that type of ending.) Let’s have a closer look at the problems associated with each option.

1. If the film is saying that the Bible is not the only text that is sacred scripture, we are presented with religious pluralism, in which each faith is accepted as an equally valid option. The problem with pluralism is that it views truth as a subjective matter, relative to the individual. However, spiritual truth is not a matter of preference or opinion, any more than the laws of physics. All truth stands in isolation from popular conceptions of truth. Is there a God? Our opinions don’t determine the answer. If not, it doesn’t matter what the evangelicals or Muslims say, he still does not exist. If so, the opinions of atheists don’t effect his existence. Either God is or he is not. One is true or the other. But not both. Is Jesus the incarnate son of God? If so, every other religion is invalid, because Jesus said, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14.6). If Jesus is NOT the incarnate son of God, the entire New Testament is useless and Jesus was a lunatic megalomaniac! There is no point in the pluralist exercise of placing each faith perspective on a level playing field, because the major world religions have mutually exclusive truth claims that cancel each other out. They do not play well with others. They also have differing levels of epistemic merit, or warrant for belief, so it makes no sense to portray them as equally valid options. If the film-makers intended to present us with religious pluralism (which I consider the correct option), they are not preaching faith in God, but faith in faith, which is no concession to the evangelical community even though the Bible is a part of the plot.

2. If the film is saying that “no scripture is sacred,” (and by extension, that Eli’s actions were free of Divine intervention or influence), it is hard to understand why they have portrayed Eli’s Hurculean efforts to preserve the book. How long would it take a person to memorize the whole Bible? There are nearly 775,000 words in the 66 books of the Protestant Canon. Let’s say for the sake of argument that Eli was aggressively working to memorize all sixty-six books, and was able to commit 100 words per day to memory. Supposing that he never missed a day, it would have taken him 7750 days, or just over 21 years. But is it reasonable to suppose that Eli could have memorized the first hundred words of Genesis in year one and still recite them 21 years later at Alcatraz? no, Eli would have to have worked harder, for longer than 21 years to commit the entire corpus of Biblical writings to memory, if, as option 2 would imply, he was merely a man walking across North America to protect a man-made book with no supernatural significance. Why bother? I think its safe to rule out the idea that the film is telling us that Eli is preserving a “man-made” Bible merely for the sake of it’s cultural-historical value.

Here we are faced with a fine piece of cinema, which perfectly embodies the zeitgeist of our age. Is there something special about the Bible? “Possibly” says the film. “You decide for yourself, you insert your own meaning. But if the Bible IS sacred, it’s certainly not alone.” If “Eli” was an attempt at finding common spiritual ground between the world and the church, it failed. Although it might appear to be making concessions to evangelical thinking, it merely places Jesus on the same field as Mohammed and Moses. No thanks, Hollywood.

What are the practical implications of a postmodern approach to spiritual truth? Wordlviews which have room for pluralism are looked upon with favor, while exclusivists are cast as backward, superstitious or hateful. A prime example is occurring right now in the Maine State Legislature, where an act written to protect religious freedom is in serious trouble. http://www.bostonglobe.com/metro/2014/02/21/religious-freedom-bill-defeated-maine-house/Pdp5JK1vC8lbQW0xE0Sq4H/story.html

I don’t intend to launch into a political commentary, but I mention this to show that philosophical foundations (pluralism, in our case today) will eventually have practical implications. I am not arguing for a theocracy, but against relativism and pluralism. The end result of rejecting objective truth as a basis for law and society is disastrous: “In those days there was no king in Israel. Everyone did what was right in his own eyes.” Judges 21.25. Tragically, in the Biblical passage that immediately illustrates this unfortunate epitaph, a man allowed his concubine to be raped to death by thugs in order to save himself from a similar fate. This event precipitated a full scale tribal war. The Israelites were not anchored morally to any fixed point, and the author of Judges diagnosed this condition as the responsible factor behind their moral failures.

Apart from any suggestion that “Eli” might have for us, we have two real-world options concerning the Bible. 1. The Bible is man-made and contains some truthful sentiments, and many misguided religious untruths. In this case, there is no sense in preserving Christianity because it is a false religion. The moral weight of the Bible is nothing unique, every human knows right from wrong whether they read the Bible or not. The books themselves are not able to make anyone good any more than a measuring stick can make someone tall. Furthermore, the message of the Bible is not primarily a message of morality, but of reconciliation with God through Jesus. So if the historical person of Jesus was not who the Bible says he was, the moral value of the Bible is redundant and powerless to effect change in the human race.
Option 2: The Bible is what it claims to be and should be taken at face value. The historical person of Jesus is the son of God incarnate and has the ability to repair the broken relationship between man and God. As such, he has ultimate authority over the affairs of earth and is deserving of unrestricted ownership of our affections and obedience. That’s what the Bible says, after all. In the next post, I hope to explain a couple of reasons we can know that the Bible is what it claims to be.

Bold Engagement to Uncover Depth of Knowing

Encounter. Encourage. Engage.

elephant and books The best way to discover what you believe and bring depth to what you think is to get out of the classroom and into the laboratory. It’s good to study, consider and develop belief based in reading, reasoning and rationale and it’s altogether better to learn why it matters. Engagement with people and circumstances turns belief into encounter. Encounter brings context and context brings greater understanding.

I know from Scripture that:

  • Jesus is the son of God who came to restore us to the Father.
  • Adoption as sons is available through the blood of Jesus.
  • Through Him, I can be an heir and co-laborer in the Kingdom of God.
  • As a son, I don’t have to strive to provide, protect or promote myself.
  • My Dad takes care of that in His love for me.

Believing in a vacuum isn’t as powerful as knowing through experience. It’s an immature faith until…

View original post 223 more words

Science, For Goodness Sakes! (Part 2)

In the previous post, I attempted to show that Scientism is a self-defeating philosophy and should be regarded as insufficient as a worldview. I also tried to show that reason and theism (faith) are not mutually exclusive. In fact, theism may be the most reasonable option, given the evidence. In this post, I intend to demonstrate that historical data do not support the theses that religion is bad and non-religious societies are better off.

First let’s consider the statement “religion is bad”. In the formal study of logic, this is known as a “universal affirmative” proposition, or a type A statement. It generally looks like this: “All X is Y”. This is the strongest categorical statement that it is possible to make in human communication, followed by type “E” (No X is Y), type “I (Some X is Y) and type “O” (Some X is not Y). As you can see, the type “A” proposition is the most difficult to defend because only ONE instance of an “X” that is not a “Y” would necessarily change the statement to an “O” (Some X is not Y). Plug in the terms of this discussion and it looks like this: “All religion is bad.” A type “A” proposition. When we find one instance of religion being good, we must adjust the statement to reflect the data to read this way: “Some religion is not bad” (type “O”), or perhaps the contrapositive: “Some religion is bad” (type “I”). In either case, the New Atheists (NA) seem to be making a difficult argument to defend. Here are four positive impacts on society that come from religion:

Literacy: The Gutenburg press was the impetus for widespread literacy and influenced education, industry and the free marketplace of ideas like no other invention before the internet. Johannes Gutenburg was a devout Catholic and one of his first mass productions was the Bible. Today, Christian missionaries commonly teach the English language as an economic development tool for non-English speakers. (This is not exclusive to Christians, but Christian missionaries are very well represented in the field of English language teachers). This activity frequently serves as a relational bridge on which discipleship activities can be built. However, many missionaries in that setting aren’t able to move past an academic level for various reasons. In any case, serving people in whatever capacity is available is consistent with the ministry of Jesus, who clearly taught that “as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” (Matt. 25:40)

Quality of Health: the contribution of missionaries in the field of medicine has been historically significant. In the past, missionaries such as Dr. David Livingstone and Hudson Taylor have practiced medicine of the body as well as the soul. In fact, the case can be made that the development of hospitals was a religiously driven activity. The same can be said in current times. Many third world settings are devoid of medical services, except for the existence of missionary clinics or hospitals. The Mercy Ships are perennially circling the globe, serving many developing nations with life-giving medical treatment. http://www.mercyships.org/

Democracy: Recent studies have demonstrated a very strong link between the presence of 19th century missionaries in colonies to current day democracy. Many factors indicating higher quality of life have been taken into account, including literacy rate, social stability, employment and women’s rights. All of these have present-day ramifications in countries where 19th century missionaries had a presence. http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2014/january-february/world-missionaries-made.html?paging=off

Social Justice and Goodness: Literacy, Quality of Health and Democracy represent three areas which are relatively easy to quantify. What may be more difficult to nail down is the goodness of a society. Are religious societies morally better than secular ones? That is too broad of a question for this space. However, the effects of Christian revivals are notable. The 1st and 2nd Great Awakenings in Great Britain and the U.S. had widespread effects, including the movement to abolish slavery in the states, as well as general reduction in crime in cities that were impacted by revival. If we turn the lens to present-day church activities, we see frequent soup kitchens run from churches, homeless shelters and entire para-church Christian organizations dedicated to combating social injustices. These include anything from World Vision, dedicated to addressing hunger and health issues, to International Justice Mission, dedicated to combating sex-trafficking. Interestingly, a large percentage of the NGO’s whose sole purpose is addressing human-trafficking are affiliated with Christian churches.

It goes without saying that we may find historical (and contemporary) instances of religious individuals and movements which are responsible for reprehensible actions. Here is where the issue becomes clouded: what is the common denominator behind evil? Certainly it is not religion, because we find crimes against humanity carried out in secular-minded societies as well! Consider the French Revolution, which was fundamentally based on “Enlightenment” principles. By the time the dust settled, tens of thousands had been butchered at the guillotines in a witch-hunt styled political purge. More recently, the communist genocides of the 20th century have shown us perhaps the most widespread inhumane cruelty ever witnessed by mankind, under atheist regimes.

At this point the question must be asked: were the communists cruel because they were atheists? Is is possible that we are mistaking correlation for causation? Certainly. It would be also be a gross oversimplification (in logic, the informal fallacy of “hasty generalization”) to say that every murder and cruelty carried out under communist rule was driven by atheist ideology. By the same token, every cruelty executed by religious movements is not attributable to the religious ideology.

The pivotal question in this discussion is this: Are people who act badly under the auspices of an ideological movement (religious or otherwise) being consistent with their ideology? More specifically we might ask “Were the crusaders being consistent with scripture?” No, New Testament ethics would tell you to love your enemies and bless those who persecute you. On the other hand, communism views the political state as the ultimate authority. (Incidentally, if there is no God, the political state IS the ultimate authority, so atheists necessarily have the same presupposition by default). If the state is the ultimate authority and morality is dependent on what political state you are born into, the communist parties are free to “genocide-at-will” without any logical basis for accountability! As the old adage says, “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” The cruelty carried out under communists is not inconsistent with its own fundamentals because for communists the government is the ultimate moral authority, and the government legally administered the deaths of millions. Not only is genocide not inconsistent with communism, it is what we might expect from the first full-scale political movement with the fundamental belief that there is no higher power than the party. (Some atheists may claim that reason is the ultimate authority. This may be true for them in theory, but in practice someone has to be in charge.)

Is this true of atheism by extension? Is it fair to say that genocide is a consistent practical implication of atheism? That might be a tenuous argument since atheists that I know tend to dissociate themselves from organizations or movements that define themselves as atheist, especially communism. But since communism is one of the offspring of atheism, and genocide is not inconsistent with communism, it logically follows that genocide is not inconsistent with atheism. At any rate, please allow me a disclaimer: I am NOT saying that all atheists are bad and all Christians are good. The atheists that I know are generally good people, concerned with the well-being of their fellow man, and everyone knows someone who calls themselves a Christian but might burst into flames upon entry to a Church. What I AM saying is that where we see Christians who live consistently with New Testament scripture, a certain level of moral uprightness can be expected, whereas Christians who have misbehaved in the past demonstrate a clear disconnect between their fundamentals and their actions. Not all religion is bad. Let me rephrase that in a pure type “O” statement: Some religion is not bad.

The common denominator behind evil is not religion, but sin, which is universal. And, we see goodness in every culture and society (some more than others). This is the condition of man: broken, but redeemable. Are you asking hard questions about the religion in which you were raised? Don’t overlook history when you consider the claims of the New Atheists. Their own claims need to be subject to the same level of skepticism as everyone else’s.

Science, For Goodness Sakes! (Part 1)

I need to preface this post with the disclaimer that I love science. I appreciate modern medicine and respect the work of the scientific community. As you will see, though, I believe the efforts of some in the scientific community to be philosophical in nature, rather than scientific. They have left the jurisdiction of science and have an axe to grind with the perceived “non-scientific” religious community. They make philosophical claims that are not scientifically testable, using the label of “science” to garner popular support. One example is the activism of those who wish to have evolution taught in schools to the exclusion of all other alternatives. (Admittedly, the recent Ham/Nye debate has been the impetus of this post, and although I disagree with Ham on the age of the earth, I agree generally with the notion that science isn’t able to speak with authority on the question of God’s existence.) I hope this post will prove to be a useful tool to someone in addressing some of the hype. If not, it allows me to get my own thinking down in print in one place!

One of the more popular arguments coming from the New Atheists (NA) says that religion always has a negative impact on society, therefore people should reject religion and adopt naturalistic materialism as a worldview. Furthermore, say the NA, religious people have used God to explain the source of morality (or origins, or consciousness, or religious belief…) but now science is able to tell us where morals came from. Since science is able to explain where morals came from, there is no need to cling stubbornly to antiquated, obsolete religious beliefs. There are a number of reasons that this argument doesn’t work. The first is that it is based on scientism, which is a flawed and self-refuting philosophy. The second is that it attacks a straw-man version of theism, where faith is the opposite of reason (a false dichotomy) and God is only needed as an explanatory force for events we can’t understand with science. The third and most important is that the historical data do not support the notions that religion is always bad and societies that reject religion are better off. Since there is a lot of material to cover, I’ll discuss the three reasons we can reject the NA argument in two separate posts, beginning with a more in-depth look at scientism.

Scientism, as I described briefly in a previous post, views science as the ultimate, authoritative source of all valuable knowledge.  It is a naturalistic philosophy, and generally predicts that greater adherence to reason and rejection of religion yields better outcomes for humankind.  Support for this idea comes mainly from sensational medical advances (such as the smallpox vaccine), and has a certain amount of veracity, as long as we consider scientific advances to be in opposition to religious institutions (which they are not).  An historical case for the antagonism of religion toward science can be built, but it relies on heavily cherry-picked data. For a more balanced an accurate examination on the question of historical religious posture toward scientific advance, see Tim O’Neill’s article here: http://www.strangenotions.com/gods-philosophers/

Naturalistic Materialism and Scientism also suppose that anything that is not observable or measurable does not exist.  This way of viewing the universe precludes the possibility of the existence of God, angels, demons or any other supernatural entity or force.  The problem here is that scientism isn’t able to test its own fundamental, distinctive propositions scientifically.  Can the hypothesis that anything non-measurable doesn’t exist be proven or disproven scientifically?  No, it can’t. Scientism fails to meet its own scientific criteria at a fundamental level. Besides, are we, as human beings, intrinsically aware of non-material things that exist?  Several things come to my mind that even atheists would acknowledge: loyalty, hatred, forgiveness, consciousness, love…morality…these things can’t be quantified but they are universally acknowledged as realities that each of is deal with.  We know this because we observe their effects on the world and ourselves. We might even see these non-quantifiable indicators as aligning themselves with basic theism, as the needle on the compass always points north.  Whereas Naturalistic Materialism seeks to find the “rational” (as though theism were irrational) explanation for these undetectable realities in non-theistic terms, they do so at the expense of scientific integrity. Does science have a bias built into it? Not in the pure sense. But scientism has a non-supernatural bias built into it, with no scientific basis for such a bias.

As inconvenient as it may be for the New Atheists, the fact that God won’t lay down on a microscope slide and dance the Charleston doesn’t mean that he doesn’t exist.  In fact, even if science found a cogent explanation for EVERYTHING observable in the universe, mankind wouldn’t have a rational reason to suppose that non-material beings do not exist.  This is true especially where they leave their fingerprints on the observable world.  I refer here to several things:

1. Documentary evidence; the Bible, which, in order to be explained in a non-supernatural fashion, must be subject to violent interpretive gymnastics that haven’t been applied to any other text that I’m aware of.  Given the possibility of miracles (standard for conventional theism), the Bible is completely consistent with history.  Indeed, early church history in particular is quite difficult to explain without a literal, historical resurrection. One might even argue that Jesus’ claims of deity mean that God actually did get “under the microscope” for mankind.
2. Cultural/Anthropological evidence; messiah legends in numerous cultures around the world, expertly surveyed in Don Richardson’s “Eternity in their Hearts”.
3. Medical evidence  http://journals.lww.com/smajournalonline/Fulltext/2010/09000/Study_of_the_Therapeutic_Effects_of_Proximal.5.aspx (Another instance of God getting “under the microscope”, but since it supports theism, every atheist—and one deist—I have confronted with this evidence have dismissed it as inconclusive. 100% of the patients in this study displayed significant measurable improvement after being prayed for, which far exceeds any placebo effect.)
4. Cosmological evidence; the second law of thermodynamics, which tells us that the universe had a beginning.  There are volumes of other cosmological data that support the so-called “Big-Bang”, which don’t require rehearsal here, but which corroborate the Biblical concept that a timeless, immaterial force initiated the universe.

Taken piecemeal, the above indicators for God’s existence may or may not be convincing.  However, given the impossibility of logically proving the non-existence of God, and the weakness of agnosticism in the face of a body of evidence like the above, theists would seem to be on safe epistemic ground. To the contrary, those who might be persuaded by the NA would do well to engage the critical thinking skills those very atheists claim to apply, and look at the relevant data before going along with an atheist agenda. Stay tuned for more!

Dear God,

Let me be caught in the vortex of that ultimate spiritual paradox: to apprehend you and yet find myself hungry for more!

Book Review: The Silence of Our Friends, by Ed West

Ed West wrote a Kindle Single called “The Silence of Our Friends: The extinction of Christianity in the Middle East”. It is a wakeup call to the western world, Christian and otherwise. The past ten years have seen an alarming trend of Islamicization and increasing hostility and intolerance toward Christians in the Middle East. There is a genocide on, and no one is noticing.

 

West presents disturbing statistics and accounts of recent persecution toward the Christians community in the Middle East, as well as a survey of Christian history in the region. Unfortunately, violence is nothing new to the church. But the extinction of an entire minority group of society should be enough to concern even the most staunch opponents of Christianity. While many view the violence in places such as Syria and Egypt as politically motivated and irrelevant to American interests, Mr. West provides cogent reasons for everyone, relgious or otherwise, to be concerned.

 

The first reason is the apparent willfull ignorance of Western (read “American and British) media and leadership concerning Muslim actions against Christians. Whether because of fear of a Muslim backlash (a legitimate concern) or because of a desire to appear balanced and/or tolerant, the public voices of western media have been anything but balanced in their reporting of the genocide. Even the U.S. State department, in public comments concerning violence, has yet to identify the perpetrators, victims, or the extent of the problem. For example, hundreds of Churches in Iraq and Syria, many of them hundreds or thousands of years old, have been destroyed. Christian men, women and children have been massacred in droves and evicted from their ancestral homes, all without a peep from the State Department and hardly a stir from mainstream Media outlets. Yet, in response to an incident of vandalism at a Mosque in Israel, the State Department released the following statement: “The United States strongly condemns the dangerous and provocative attacks on a mosque in the northern Israeli town of Tuba-Zangariyye…Such hateful sectarian actions are never justified.”

The second reason that West gives us to be concerned over the situation is that the erosion of religious freedom, even the freedom of religious groups alien to our own, ultimately threaten everyone’s freedom. Says West, “religious freedom is a secular cause too, because it is intimately linked to the freedom of unbelief, an essential requirement of a good society and one Islamists threaten. And one does not need to be Christian or religious to care about anti-Christian violence, anymore than one has to be gay or black to care about homophobic or racist violence.”

 

Divine Justice: a Necessary Component of Biblical Missiology

I recently had a difficult and honest conversation with a person who is skeptical of the value of the spreading of the Gospel message to unreached groups. This person is not a Christian, and her cheif complaint was that it isn’t fair for a hypothetical God to send people to hell who have never heard about how to get to heaven. My inadequate response was to explain that people will stand or fall on judgment day based on their own merit in God’s eyes. By His standard, we are all doomed. Therefore, the “lifeboat” offered in the person of Jesus is certainly an act of mercy on God’s part. The other party in this conversation was not impressed, as I mentioned above. She has a point. At first blush, it seems entirely unfair for people who have never heard the good news of Jesus to go to hell on judgment day. After all, they didn’t even know! How can one be held responsible for information that one never possessed?

Paul’s letter to the Romans addresses the question of how much spiritual truth is residual in the human heart apart from special revelation (the Bible). His inspired teaching on that question is found in Chapter 1, verse 20, “For His [God’s] invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature have been clearly percieved ever since the creation of the world in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse.” Chapter 2 builds on this idea: “when Gentiles, who do not have the law, by nature do what the law requires, they are a law to themselves, even though they do not have the law. They show that the work of the law is written on their hearts, while their conscience also bears witness, and their conflicting thoughts accuse or even excuse them on that day when, according to my gospel, God judges the secrets of men by Christ Jesus.” (verse 14-16). Paul continues the theme of universal responsibility before God, culminating in chapter 3 with the worst news in the world: “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God.” (verse 23). The bottom line is that God doesn’t damn people to hell, we damn ourselves. Every person from every religion, philosophy and walk of life is guilty of violating not only God’s standard, but their own conscience. Furthermore, salvation is not a question of moral uprightness before God, but of faith in his promises, specifically the person of Jesus Christ.

But this doesn’t directly address the question of apparent unfairness toward those who have never heard of Jesus. Is it fair for someone who has lived a relatively good life, perhaps in a remote jungle tribe or predominantly Buddhist city in Asia to recieve a sentence of eternal conscious torment in flames, just because they were never told the good news about salvation in Jesus? Two themes may be helpful in understanding this problem in a Biblical light.

The first, as I mentioned above, is that hell is what we deserve. (I need to temper the brashness of that statement by appealing to a more nuanced, three-dimensional, yet thoroughly Biblical version of Hell, which I hope to accurately discuss below). Whether we believe we are good people or not, the fact remains that no amount of moral bootstrapping will justify any of us in the presence of a Holy God. We all find ourselves flawed by the curse of sin and in need of redemption. The fact that God provides redemption at all is a mercy on his part. The fact that not everyone will hear about his mercy does not diminish his goodness. He tasked His church with the burden of bringing the good news to every corner of the globe, AND He promised to provide the resources for the completion of that task (Acts 1:8)! (Which begs the question, “What are we waiting for??”)

The second concept that may help to mitigate the appearance of unfairness on God’s part is with an appeal to Divine Justice. Divine Justice (as opposed to human Justice) necessarily has an element of Divine Love. Love and Justice are not mutually exclusive in the Divine Person (God). We see them overlap to a certain degree in passages foreshadowing Christ’s death on the cross, where we finally see them work in complete harmony. For example, the first passover (Exodus 12) demonstrates justice carried out against Egypt on behalf of the Israelites. A few chapters later (Exodus 21:24) we see the famous injunction, “eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In the context of 14th Century BC Canaan (or thereabouts), this and other legal stipulations were limiters on punitive action, rather than the draconian impetus for mob vengeance that we percieve from our “advanced” cultural perspective. Whereas other legal codes were (and are) famous for asymmetrical justice (the lopping off of hands as punishment for theft), God, in the Sinaitic law, set the precedent for proportional justice. The punishment was supposed to fit the crime.

Can the scheme of proportional justice be applied to the final state of unbelievers in a Biblically appropriate fashion? Is there room for any punishment besides eternal conscious torment in the Christian concept of hell? I think so. While it is impossible to be dogmatic about the exact conditions of unbelievers in Hell, Jesus made it plain that there are differing levels of punishment (Matt. 11:21-22). This certainly fits in with the idea of proportional justice. Our natural moral faculties would balk at the idea of a Hitler or a Stalin receiving the same punishment in hell as a Dalai Lama or an Albert Swietzer. (I need to qualify that statement by saying that I am not intending to be the judge on any of their final destinations–it was simply rhetorical).

Rather than the idea of a blanket punishment of eternal conscious torment for every person who does not place their faith in Jesus (including those who have never heard), the Bible gives us reason to believe that there are degrees of punishment to be meted out on judgment day, just as there are degrees of reward in heaven. As Abraham asked God in a not-so-rhetorical conversation, “Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?” (Gen 18:25).

Rather than resting on the Justice of God (as a limiting factor in punishment), Christians should be motivated by the Love and Mercy of God to bring the good news about redemption through Jesus to those who have never heard.

Post Navigation