The Parable of the Mysterious Stranger

In time of war in an occupied country, a member of the resistance meets one night a stranger who deeply impresses him. They spend that night together in conversation. The Stranger tells the partisan that he himself is on the side of the resistance – indeed that he is in command of it, and urges the partisan to have faith in him no matter what happens. The partisan is utterly convinced at that meeting of the Stranger’s sincerity and constancy and undertakes to trust him.

They never meet in conditions of intimacy again. But sometimes the Stranger is seen helping members of the resistance, and the partisan is grateful and says to his friends, ‘He is on our side.’ Sometimes he is seen in the uniform of the police handing over patriots to the occupying power. On these occasions his friends murmur against him; but the partisan still says, ‘He is on our side.’ He still believes that, in spite of appearances, the Stranger did not deceive him. Sometimes he asks the Stranger for help and receives it. He is then thankful. Sometimes he asks and does not receive it. Then he says, The Stranger knows best.’

Sometimes his friends, in exasperation, say, ‘Well, what would he have to do for you to admit that you were wrong and that he is not on our side?’ But the partisan refuses to answer. He will not consent to put the Stranger to the test. And sometimes his friends complain, ‘Well, if that’s what you mean by his being on our side, the sooner he goes over to the other side the better.’

Basil Mitchell

You can read more analysis of this in its original context here.

Further Thoughts on Genexis 2019

In my last post I said that I planned to write about each of the Genexis talks as I attended them. I haven’t done so because I didn’t feel that I could say enough to justify six more posts, unless I went into detail about the subjects in a way I’m simply not qualified to. Yes, I have my own thoughts about creation, life, consciousness, ethics, resurrection and the rest. I write about all those subjects to some extent here from time to time, and no doubt I will continue to do so for as long as this blog exists. But ultimately when discussing these lectures it would be a simple case of agreeing with most of what’s been said, and questioning the odd point, but not adding anything significant beyond what the speakers have presented. Some of the talks are now available here and hopefully the others will be added soon.

So I will just make a few observations about my reaction to the events. And the first is to say that I was very impressed with all the speakers. Some were more eloquent than others, but all were clear and informative, speaking with authority but humility, and at a level that was suitable for a wide range of listeners. The people I knew – John Lennox and Tom Wright in person, Francis Collins and Lee Strobel digitally – lived up to expectations, but the other speakers and hosts were all well worth listening to as well.

When it comes to the content, I retain the mixed feelings I described in my previous post. Occasionally I would have my eyes opened to new ideas, either scientific or apologetic. For the most part I was just happy to see pieces of the jigsaw put together by the speakers, presenting a more coherent and persuasive argument for God than I would be able to articulate. But no assumptions were made. The arguments were based on evidence and logic rather than speculation or wishful thinking. The general pattern was to present the latest scientific understanding of the topic, and in doing so point to where current knowledge breaks down, either as unknown, or perhaps even unknowable. At this point several of the most well regarded theories would be described, and logically critiqued. In doing so, the flaws of the “non-God” theories were made clear, although they were never dismissed out of hand. By definition, we just don’t know.

So the most satisfying outcome for me was to be reminded and reassured that an intelligent critical thinker can believe in God. I get this from articles and podcasts, and it’s something that good preachers can offer in church, but it’s great to be in a large mixed audience of believers and sceptics and to hear these fine minds make their excellent points. At the same time, I was always hoping (unrealistically) for that evidence to become inarguable proof, and was inevitably disappointed that this didn’t come to pass.

One of the lectures was less persuasive than the others, and that was the talk about consciousness by Sharon Dirckx. This is not a reflection of Sharon’s skills as a speaker or as a scientist. I think the subject matter was simply less compelling in providing an argument for God. In presenting ideas about the connections, and differences, between brain and mind, too much weight was given to current brain-scanning technology, and the fact that it can’t be used to identify individual thoughts, for example. As this was a presentation for the general public, maybe it didn’t include some vital but deeply technical information. However, my impression was that we are still in the very early days of the technology, and there seems to be no reason why future developments, improving the resolution of scans, and perhaps their nature, couldn’t eventually make thoughts “visible” to the observer.

Of course, whether or not such advances are made in this field – or equivalent ones in the other areas discussed – it seems doubtful that these observations will ever provide proof of a Creator God’s existence or otherwise. That seems to be something that just has to be experienced, for now on the part of individuals as they come to faith, and in the future for the whole of humanity when God reveals Himself to us again.

It was disappointing that there was no time for questions in the last three sessions. I have to assume it was a timing issue, as there’s no doubt many questions would have been asked. But as each of those three sessions covered two subjects rather than one in the first, I think it’s understandable. Maybe something can be done about this next year.

Finally, I want to give credit to the many people involved in the running of these events. Stewards, AV personnel, tech support, administrators and organisers of all kinds come to mind. If you were part of Genexis in any capacity, thank you for helping to create an informative, entertaining, and spiritually satisfying series of talks. And thank you to everyone at Coventry Cathedral for allowing us to meet in such a magnificent venue. I look forward with optimism to Genexis 2020.

…But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect…

1 Peter 3:15

Thoughts on Genexis 2019 – Beginnings

I was excited to hear about Genexis – a series of talks at Coventry Cathedral aimed at presenting “an evidence based case for a creator God.” If you’ve read many of my posts I expect you’ll know that I have a sincere interest in apologetics, and this was a rare opportunity to hear the arguments, and the evidence, in person and close to home, presented by renowned experts. The talks continue on Mondays throughout September, people of “all faiths and none” are welcome, and the tickets are free, though very limited now. It’s my intention to write some thoughts here on each of the sessions. I’m not expecting to give lengthy reviews or to delve too far into the topics myself, as this is something I naturally do in the course of my thinking and writing. But hopefully I’ll give a small flavour of the sessions, and my strongest take-aways from them.

The organisation and presentation of the first session was encouraging, my ticket was quickly scanned and I was able to find a seat fairly close to the front, although large screens were available to give a good view to the whole audience, as well as showing helpful illustrative slides. The atmosphere was welcoming, and there was clear encouragement for the idea of asking difficult questions and thinking critically about the given answers, rather than just accepting any “information” given, either religious or not, on the basis of “blind faith.” The format of the evening was a series of introductions about the event and the speakers, leading to Sir Stephen Males talking about the nature of evidence and expert witness (he is a judge in the Court of Appeal of England and Wales) before he introduced the main speaker, Professor Ard Louis. Professor Louis then presented his evidence for God in the creation of the universe, before taking a few pre-selected questions from the audience.

I made an audio recording of “Beginnings” but unfortunately the sound quality is dreadful. I hope that video of the talk will be made available in the near future.

To start at the ending, I left the cathedral at the end of the evening feeling disappointed. On further reflection, I realised that this was based on natural but unrealistic expectations I had brought to the event. Because what I was hoping to find was something irrefutable – the silver bullet that could destroy the atheist argument once and for all. Of course this wasn’t going to happen! It’s very frustrating, but I’ve written some previous thoughts about why this might be necessary. Maybe I’ll try to get a question into a future session on this subject though, as I’d like to get a second opinion.

Ard Louis is a theoretical physicist. His topic was ostensibly “creation” – how the universe came into being, and how this points to a creator God. I think this specific point actually took up quite a small proportion of his presentation. This is understandable, because while it is possibly the most fundamental aspect of the “does God exist” question, it is probably the hardest area to actually find “proof” for, due to the limitations of observation, and the laws of physics (more on those later).

Louis first described the huge size of the universe, and then went on to talk about the origins of the “Big Bang” theory, including a very helpful presentation slide showing the size of the universe over time – which really put the concept of “inflation” into context for me – I’ve always had a soft spot for astrophysics.

He then discussed the question of where the universe came from, and suggested that this was in fact the wrong question, and we should really ask where did the laws of physics come from? This is because those laws are apparently what brought about the big bang, and also because (as a later session will detail) they are extraordinarily well tuned for the purpose of allowing life to exist. He said that this points to two possibilities – a multiverse, or a Creator.

So where did the laws of physics come from? No one knows definitively, but Louis described three plausible answers to the question, which I will paraphrase here.

  1. They have always existed
  2. They randomly came into existence from nothing
  3. They were designed by an external intelligence

Louis admitted that all three of these possibilities are troublesome in their own ways, but he found the third answer the most coherent and compelling.

And that, I suppose will be the theme of the whole series of talks – which answers are most coherent and compelling? Given that some truths are unknown (and possibly unknowable) where does the balance of the evidence point? Our own “instinctive” answers will be based on the worldview that we have adopted, but we always need to keep our minds open and question our assumptions, or else we will fall into the “blind faith” trap, and that is neither scientific or Biblical.

“Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” 1 Peter 3:15

A significant percentage of the talk dealt with the supposed conflict between science and faith. I can’t recall a time that I was convinced that such a conflict existed. To my mind they are largely looking for answers to different questions, in two different realms – mechanism and meaning. But Louis also gave many historical and contemporary human examples to demonstrate the fallacy.

These were presented in a section he called “zombie myths” about faith and science – zombies because no matter how many times you cut them down they keep coming back. This section gave me my most satisfying moment, when a truth I was instinctively aware of was articulated in a way that I’ve never managed to do. This is the myth of the “pink unicorn” as Louis put it. Basically it’s the criticism that believing in a creator God is the same as believing in a pink unicorn, or a tooth fairy, or a flying spaghetti monster.

The response is so simple. These comparative examples are constructs “within” the material universe. They are figments of imagination, just as I can imagine a phone that transforms into a car when I touch it with my nose. Such an object or creature cannot exist unless it evolves or is built. A creator God by contrast, and by definition, exists outside of the universe and does not need to be bound by the physical laws of His creation.

I think this is also suggested in the Bible, for example in John 4:24 – “God is spirit, and his worshippers must worship in the Spirit and in truth.”

Maybe I still haven’t articulated the rebuttal very well, but then I’m not Ard Louis!

I’m looking forward to the next three Genexis evenings, which will each contain two sessions. I hope I’ll do justice to them in my future posts.

I Recommend Unbelievable?

I know that not everybody has the same enquiring mind as I do. I have a tendency to over-think, and over-analyse, nearly everything if I give myself the chance. When it comes to faith I think there’s a delicate balancing act to perform. On the one hand, absolute certainty (whether that’s religious or atheistic) can lead you down a fundamentalist road that damages both you and those you influence, no matter how pure your intent. And certainty allows no room for spiritual growth and development. Can you ever truly believe you have all the answers? On the other hand, too much doubt will leave you open to being like a wave blown and tossed by the wind (James 1:6, Ephesians 4:14).

Apart from my internal questions about what my faith means and how I should live it, I am fascinated and sometimes disturbed by the reactions to faith that I see in the world. I want to understand why people, who often seem to have access to all the same evidence as me, can interpret it in such different ways. Partly I want to understand so that I’m better able to express my own reasons to believe (1 Peter 3:15), but I also want to learn from them. Because I do believe that we can all learn something from every other human being on this planet if we take the time to do so. Everybody, even your closest relation, has lived a different life to you, and has something unique to teach you from their own life experience. In some cases you may learn something, like a way of thinking, that you completely reject, but even that has value.

This is why I’m so pleased to have recently discovered “Unbelievable?” on Premier Christian Radio. That’s the same source as “Be Still And Know” that I’ve written about previously. Unbelievable? is a weekly debate hosted by Justin Brierley and typically involving a discussion between a Christian and a sceptic, although there can be variations on this format. I listen to it as a podcast, but for other methods you can check out the show page here.

I’m not going to pretend that I always find the discussions satisfying – in fact that is very rarely the case! Even in the nearly hour and a half dedicated to each topic it’s obvious that sometimes we are only scratching the surface. And I will often find myself frustrated by unconvincing arguments put forward by both sides of the conversation. Nevertheless, I learn something about other worldviews, and I also learn something about my own, understanding more about the areas where I have surety and those where I am less confident.

No matter what belief you have, if you are interested in the big questions of life, and what it means, I recommend that you have a listen to Unbelievable? It’s guaranteed to provide food for thought.

 

A Glimpse of Cross Vision

I would be very interested to read your comments on this article, Frank Viola’s interview with Greg Boyd:

http://www.patheos.com/blogs/frankviola/gregboydnew/

It’s a lengthy interview, in which Greg discusses some of the ideas in his latest books, The Crucifixion of the Warrior God and its shorter version Cross Vision.

The principal argument of Boyd’s work is that when you read the whole Bible – specifically the Old Testament – through the lens of the cross, all kinds of problems we have with the picture of an angry, violent OT God can disappear. In Boyd’s words

On the cross, God stoops to meet us, and to enter into solidarity with us, right where we are at, which is in bondage to sin and to Satan. And he does this to free us and to bring us where he wants us to be, which is united with him in Christ.  The cross is thus the paradigmatic example of God mercifully stooping to accommodate people in their fallen conditioning.

In a similar way, every time we prove ourselves incapable of living up to God’s ideal behaviour, God will Himself “stoop to accommodate” us. This even extends to allowing Himself to be portrayed in the Bible as something other than His “true” self, because culturally His people have been conditioned to believe that this is what a god is “supposed” to look like.

In fact, many passages that exalt Yahweh as a warrior contain phrases from songs that Israel’s neighbors sang to their own warrior deities. The biblical author just switched out the name of the pagan god and replaced it with Yahweh.

After reading the whole interview a few times I’m left with several thoughts. The first is that I want to read Cross Vision, and understand the reasoning – scriptural, cultural and logical – that lies behind Boyd’s claim. Because I very much want this to be true. To finally have a solution to one of the most troubling issues of Christian (and Jewish and Muslim) faith would be beyond exciting.

And that leads me to my next thought, which is that when something seems to be too good to be true, it usually is. This lens of the cross, while on the surface it seems totally Biblical, is surely just too simple. I find myself returning to Isaiah 55.

‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts,
neither are your ways my ways,’
declares the Lord.
‘As the heavens are higher than the earth,
so are my ways higher than your ways
and my thoughts than your thoughts.’

Isaiah 55:8-9

And the most troubling thought of all is this: if I can use God’s “stooping to accommodate” as an explanation for the particular “atrocities” mentioned in the book, why can’t I use it to explain anything at all that I don’t like? And how can we tell the difference between the times that God is pleased with an action and the times that he is accommodating us? And how does this then apply outside of scripture, in our daily lives? What can we trust to be God’s genuine will? Do we just follow the 10 commandments and for everything else do our own thing, confident that God will accommodate us?

There are answers to these questions, the simplest one being that if the Holy Spirit dwells within us we can have confidence in what He says to us. But nevertheless I think Greg Boyd’s ideas are just as likely to unsettle as to comfort us, and if I can be sure of one thing, it’s that his books will not end the debate about the “Old Testament God”.

But I’m very much looking forward to reading more.

Ricky Gervais v Stephen Colbert – The Real Answers- An Open Letter

This is a nice little article which provides succinct responses to some of the standard “New Atheist” arguments. No argument or response in itself is likely to change anyone’s mind one way or another, but I hope and pray that articles like this can at least convince some people to open their minds to the possibility that they could be wrong. Every thinking person, whether a believer or not, has a duty to themselves to consider this possibility from time to time.

TheWeeFlea.com

gervias-colbert

This article is now on the Premier Christianity website

Dear Ricky,

Loved your appearance on the Stephen Colbert show – two of my favourite entertainers discussing the most important subject in the world – what’s not to like?!   I would like to answer some of the questions you raise in the clip below.  I have heard you raise them several times before as though they were slam-dunk unanswerable questions.  Let me at least do you the courtesy of assuming that they are genuine questions and not just accusations.

The whole thing resurrected some memories (of which more later)…I’m really sorry that you got that obnoxious tweet about going to hell and the various things that the Tweeter wanted done to you.  Don’t get me wrong, I’m not personally apologising, or apologising on behalf of the church or God, anymore than I expect you to apologise for the numerous tweets I…

View original post 2,279 more words

Is That All There Is?

It’s not entirely surprising that our reaction to some artistic works changes with our worldviews. When I first heard this song, twenty or more years ago, I think my first thought was “hmm, a bit old-fashioned,” and then when I listened to the words, I found them sadly sweet, and because my life too felt sadly sweet, it struck a chord and became one of my favourite songs to chill to.

So it has remained on my playlist, but since finding Christ this is one of many songs I wonder about, thinking is it right for me to still connect with this. After all, the twin themes seem to be nihilism and hedonism, neither of which are exactly fruit of the Spirit.

 

Well, I can think of at least two reasons to value this song.

First, if it connected with me, then it will connect with others, and maybe it will help them, comfort them to know that there’s someone who saw things the same way they do. It’s a truth too easily forgotten in our darkest times, that “you are not alone, you’re not the only one who has felt like this.”

Second, a song like this challenges me to think about big questions, and talk about them like I’m about to do right here.

The song is actually based on a short story called “Disillusionment” by the German writer Thomas Mann. You can read it here. It is the story of a man for whom everything in life is a disappointment because nothing in the real world is ever as great, or as awful, as it is in his imagination. It is very dark, and like the song, it ends with the speculation that death itself will be the final, maybe the greatest, disappointment.

When Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller adapted the story into a song, they added a chorus which suggests that as our imaginations and expectations can only lead to disillusion, we might as well stop worrying and just enjoy empty pleasures. In other words, eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die – a corrupted conflation of verses from two very different passages of scripture (Isaiah 22 and Ecclesiastes 8).

When I listened to this song a few days ago, it brought to mind quite a well known interview that Stephen Fry gave to Gay Byrne early last year. He starts his reply to the question about what he would say to God…

“I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain. That’s what I would say.”

There is much to be debated in that answer, and in the rest of Fry’s opinions articulated in that interview and elsewhere. But today I want to focus on how I connected his diatribe with the Peggy Lee recording.

Because in truth, if I could look at this world, and even this universe, in all its beauty and all its horror, with all its grandeur and all its injustice, and if I honestly believed that this is “all there is,” then I would probably do two things. First I would rant at God “if there is one” about how unfair and mean and stupid he is. Second, I would break out the booze and have a ball.

Because really, if that’s all there is, what else is there to do?

Now I can’t give a neat answer to the question “what’s bone cancer in children about?” There are many, many awful things that happen on this Earth. Some are manmade, and others are out of our hands. But let’s just imagine for a minute God creating the universe and making it perfect – perfect in the sense that nothing can go wrong, there can be no evil, no pain and no tears. According to the Bible there is such a place, but it isn’t Earth. Even in Genesis 1, before everything went wrong, Earth and everything in it is not described as perfect, merely “very good.”

In fact if this world and we human beings had been created perfect we would never have had a choice about how to live. We would only ever be able to make the decision that is right in God’s eyes – because by definition the Creator decides what is right in His creation. We would be robots, programmed not with Asimov’s three laws but with God’s ten commandments. The world would be beautiful and perfect, but our part in it would be meaningless. And if we were somehow given free will but nature held no peril, what purpose would our lives really have?

This outcome would not be so different from the atheist’s alternative. Theirs is a universe where there is no creator and no reason for creation to take place. It just happened, and from that moment on everything that has occurred has been entirely subject to the laws of physics. Every atom of every cell of your body is in its place because of the interaction of fundamental forces and particles. Every thought you have and every action you take is predetermined by those same natural laws. Because “if that’s all there is,” then you, as an individual, have no control over what the laws of physics lead you to do. And ultimately this means that your life, and this entire universe, has no purpose or meaning whatsoever.

Disillusionment.

There is another possibility. This is the possibility that God created the universe with intentional ‘flaws’, and that He created us with free will so that we could choose whether or not to follow His direction; so that we could decide how we wanted to respond to the threats that an ‘imperfect’ world presents; so that we could experience pain and grief and thus understand what joy really means. And all of this gives meaning to our lives. What we do, or even just try to do, matters. What we say and what we think matters, because they really are our thoughts, words and deeds. We have responsibility, and we have purpose.

And yes, there is a place of perfection, described in Revelation 21. A place where a child who died of bone cancer can live again with no tears and no pain. Maybe the broken life will be forgotten, or maybe it will be remembered in a way that heightens the joy of the new life. I don’t know. I don’t really know any details of what heaven and hell will be like. I think their reality is beyond the description of words, even the words of the Bible’s writers, even the “extravagantly rich” words that led Thomas Mann’s protagonist to his unhappy conclusions.

When every other option speaks of futility, I will choose to believe in the one that speaks of hope. And I will try to make good choices when facing the difficulties of this world, and I will try to enjoy the good things it offers, and I will know in my heart that the best is yet to come.

The Gentle Touch

If you gave me a handful of beans I could prove something to you. I could show, you by careful separation and addition of beans, that two plus two does not equal zero.

I could also show you that two plus two does not equal one. Or two. Or three. Or five. Or six.

Need I continue with this illustration? If anyone came to me with their own proposition for the value of two plus two, I could use my handful of beans to prove them wrong. But as long as people kept coming to me with their different ideas, I would spend all my time proving that they were each wrong.

I would much rather show once that two plus two equals four, and then get on with my life, using the simple proven principles to help me in my daily tasks – shopping, time-keeping, cooking and so on. If anyone suggested to me that two plus two equals twelve, well I’d have my evidence for four, and I could show them, and we could discuss any questions they had about it. If they chose to ignore my evidence and refute my conclusions, that would be their right and they would have to live with the consequences.

I was attending a Christian apologetics course this week, and the subject of the session was different worldviews and religions. Much of the discussion that evening took the form “Islam teaches this…”, “Hindus believe this…”, “Muslims practice this…”, it seemed that we could find an endless list of everything that is wrong with every other worldview.

And I couldn’t help thinking “two plus two does not equal zero”, “two plus two does not equal one”…

Then a wise participant spoke about the danger of telling someone what their faith means, and advised that dialogue should start by asking them what it means to them, and then take the discussion from there.

These ideas have been running around my mind and started me looking at issues of evangelism, apologetics and conversion, maybe in a slightly different way than I did previously.

I don’t like to be told I’m wrong. I don’t even like the idea of people thinking I’m wrong. The idea, or the words, will annoy me, depending on the subject maybe even anger me, and will certainly make me very defensive. It doesn’t matter how sound and logical my reasoning is on the matter, I feel under attack, and my response is emotional and flesh-driven. I will fight back, and because my emotions are taking control, I won’t necessarily use the correct or appropriate tactics. The result may be that I weaken my original position through faulty arguments, or I damage my adversary with an over-zealous counterattack and risk losing my integrity.

I’m sure I’m not unique in this respect. I think it’s part of our human nature. It takes true wisdom to see that we’re wrong, real humility to admit it, and immense strength to repent. Sometimes it’s only with the help of the Holy Spirit that we can achieve any of this.

Whenever we encounter somebody whose beliefs differ from ours, we have to remember this part of our common nature. We have to understand that Newton’s third law of motion can apply to ideas too – to every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction.

And this doesn’t just apply to the difference between a theist and an atheist. It could be between a monotheist and a pantheist, a Christian and a Muslim, a Methodist and a Catholic, or two Baptists who disagree on a single line of scripture. We’re talking about the meaning and purpose of our lives. Nothing could be more important. The most minor criticism could feel like an assault on the very foundations of our faith.

Nobody – no human being – is going to convince me that I’m wrong and they’re right by telling me so. And I’m not going to convince anyone else by that method.

Nobody is going to shatter my faith by explaining how I’m wrong; nor can I achieve the same result in someone else.

It’s not my job to convince anyone, that’s where the Holy Spirit will do His work. My duty is to give an account of my faith, explain the truth of how I’ve come to the understanding that two plus two equals four. And if I live according to my faith, then my hope is that my words and my life will be a testimony, and will open a mind to a possibility, or strengthen the faith of a fellow believer.

It’s valuable to know how other belief systems operate, and it’s definitely worth understanding for yourself how they fail to live up to God’s truth in Christ. For the sake of peace it’s worth talking to anyone who has ears to hear, no matter where they stand on matters of faith.

But I don’t see the value of engaging in a war of words, as if any argument you make will be the one that nobody has formulated in the last two thousand years – will be the one that stops the Muslim, the atheist, the Scientologist, the Hindu or the Jew in their tracks and convinces them of the folly of their ways. No, sorry but it just isn’t going to be that easy.

Focus on what you know and believe. Understand what God has said to you, and keep seeking Him. Let your actions be evidence of His truth. Confront opposition not with hard words, mocking and inflammatory; but gently, compassionately and patiently.

Be wise in the way you act towards outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Colossians 4:5-6

Unprovable God

I enjoy reading articles on ChurchLeaders.com. I don’t always agree with them, indeed there have been a few that I would question strongly, but in general they are helpful in getting me to look at my faith and my life in ways I wouldn’t otherwise.

I was very excited when I saw that a recent article was titled “Why God Does Not Want To Be Proven.” I was excited because I’ve been feeling so frustrated recently when reading the public comments attached to various news stories related to Christianity. I’m sure I’m not alone in this. Take the recent announcement of the new Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby. The constant flow of mocking comments from atheists can be disheartening. Many will refer to the ‘victory’ of science over faith. Of course, nobody has ever proved that God does not exist, but they can counter that with similar tales of Flying Spaghetti Monsters etc. How I wish that I could just prove to them what I know of God.

Well, Matt Appling’s article makes some good points, and some not so good. I’ll let you make your own judgements on it. But as I read it, a clear message came to me, which wasn’t actually mentioned in the article, so I’ll state it here:

God doesn’t want to be proven because He loves us.

I’d better explain. I find one of the most persuasive arguments for why God allows people to do evil things, is that He loves us enough to give us the choice of whether to follow Him or not. I believe strongly that if we didn’t have that freedom – if God really was the Almighty Puppet Master – that there would be no purpose to our lives. It is only by having an option of doing wrong, that doing right has any merit, and can bring us real joy.

In a similar way, if God was to make Himself known to the world in a way that would convince the most hardened atheist – whether it be by regally floating above our heads, or by reversing time like Superman – then there would suddenly be no room for faith, and the choice of believing in Christ and serving Him as our Lord and Master would lose most of its meaning.

There’s a big part of me that wishes it were so in any case, so billions of people could see the wonderful glory of God for themselves and become part of His family. But that’s not the way He has chosen to work His plan in these days. There was a time when He was intervening regularly with the Israelites (for example, Exodus 12). There was a time when He walked among us as a Man (John 1:14-18). And since then His Spirit has moved among us, connecting to those of us who reach for Him (John 14:15-18).

He will come again, and He will be unmistakeable (Matthew 24:29-31). The proof I want atheists to see is also evident all around us right now (Romans 1:18-23).

I’ll continue to state my case for God, by logic and by my testimony, whenever it can serve a purpose, but I think I’ll have to take a more relaxed approach to the militant and mocking atheists. It’s not my arguments that will change their minds. It’s only their own choice to open their minds to a new possibility and allow the Holy Spirit to work in them that will save them. And if I can help anyone through any part of that process then I will thank God for the privilege of doing so, as I thank Him now for giving me the freedom to choose life in Jesus Christ.

Imagining John Lennon as a Christian

I don’t know everything he said, and of course even less so everything he thought, or how his views and beliefs changed throughout his life, but I think it’s reasonable to say, from my limited knowledge, that John Lennon didn’t consider himself a Christian. he gave quite a strong hint in 1966 when he said:

Christianity will go. It will vanish and shrink. I needn’t argue about that. I’m right and i will be proved right. We’re more popular than Jesus now; I don’t know which will go first, rock ’n’ roll or Christianity.

But I was thinking about “Imagine” yesterday, and the idea came to me… I wonder whether there would be much negative reaction if one of today’s popular Christian songwriters were to pen these words:

Imagine there’s no countries
It isn’t hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people living life in peace

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people sharing all the world

You may say I’m a dreamer
But I’m not the only one
I hope some day you’ll join us
And the world will live as one

I’ll grant you that there probably isn’t enough direct reference to God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit in there, but look at the words. I’ve omitted the first verse for obvious reasons, but we’ll return to that later. In the lyric above I can see echoes of so much of what Jesus said during his earthly ministry.

Imagine there’s no countries… I think of Luke 10:25-37, the parable of the good Samaritan, which Jesus tells in answer to the question “Who is my neighbour?”

Nothing to kill or die for… in the sermon on the mount, Matthew 5:43-44, Jesus says

You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you.

Also consider the description of the new heaven and new earth in Revelation 21:4

He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.

And no religion too… no religion! Yes, read what Jesus had to say about religion, the soulless hypocritical show of tradition and law; the total opposite of the relationship with God, our Father, that Christ exemplifies. You can find his statement on the subject in Matthew 23:1-36. He doesn’t sit on the fence.

Imagine all the people living life in peace…

“Blessed are the peacemakers, For they shall be called sons of God.” (Matthew 5:9)

Imagine no possessions… no need for greed or hunger… in Matthew 6:25-34, Jesus exhorts us not to worry about such things as clothes and food, which we will be provided with if we first seek God. This is straight after He warns us not to serve mammon – money. Also look at His instructions when sending out the apostles to preach the gospel and heal the sick, the simple lifestyle described through Matthew 10:9-10.

I hope some day you’ll join us, And the world will be as one… A brotherhood of man, Imagine all the people sharing all the world… it reminds me of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17:20-23:

I do not pray for these alone, but also for those who will believe in Me through their word; that they all may be one, as You, Father, are in Me, and I in You; that they also may be one in Us, that the world may believe that You sent Me. And the glory which You gave Me I have given them, that they may be one just as We are one: I in them, and You in Me; that they may be made perfect in one, and that the world may know that You have sent Me, and have loved them as You have loved Me.

I also think of Paul’s description of the church in 1 Corinthians 12:12-26, which starts:

For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body—whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free—and have all been made to drink into one Spirit.

It seems that the kind of world John Lennon is imagining looks very similar to the one that Jesus pointed to, and that Christians are praying for and working towards.

So what does he have against Christianity? Why is he so convinced that it will go? Maybe the answer is in that first verse, the one I can’t imagine Matt Redman writing…

Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people living for today

Lennon is looking for a world where everyone lives for today. In itself I don’t see that as an un-Christian way of living. Jesus taught us not to worry about tomorrow, not to store up treasures on earth. The difference is that Christ tells us to store up treasures in heaven. But Lennon doesn’t want heaven or hell, because (in my opinion) he doesn’t want to face the consequences of those places being real. It’s too difficult to live by the all the rules that have been written down in scripture, and if the consequence of breaking those laws is eternal damnation, well I can understand why that would worry him.

This world view seems to be laid bare in his song “God” in which he finally claims “I just believe in me.” Self-reliance and self-determination are sweet incentives to draw you into atheism, but they are delusions, and truth is rather that “No man is an island entire of itself.”

The fact is that it is too difficult to live by God’s laws, and be “righteous” by ourselves. We can all look at our lives and see so many reasons why we don’t deserve to go to heaven. And that’s because we simply don’t. We’ve disobeyed the eternal, omnipotent ruler of the universe so many times and that makes us deserving of eternal punishment.

But God loves us and understands our weakness, our imperfection, our inability to live up to His standard. So He’s given us an escape route, another chance, he offers us salvation in the form of Jesus Christ, sent not only to show us the perfect example of how to live, but in His death to take the punishment that would otherwise be ours. Accept Jesus as your Lord, and your Saviour, and you are clothed in His righteousness, accepted by God.

You don’t have to imagine no heaven and no hell. You can live for today without fear of tomorrow. You can live in peace, in a brotherhood of man, eliminating greed and hunger. You can do it without nationalism or xenophobia, and without religion. All you need is love – God is love. (1 John 4:16)

A Final Word…

While I was researching the notion that “Imagine” is an atheist anthem for the purpose of this blog post, I came across the following article which runs along very similar lines to my own, but with (mostly) different scriptural references. You might be interested to read the opinion of a Professor of Theology and Public Issues and compare it to mine – I’m never likely to be a professor of anything!

http://www.odt.co.nz/opinion/opinion/141124/faith-and-reason-imagine-really-atheist