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.

 

My Violent God

I heard a radio discussion about people who use the violence in the Old Testament as an excuse for terrible acts of abuse. As we know, it’s also true that the violent acts done by and on behalf of God, and recorded in our Holy Book, are a rich source of material for atheists wishing to ascribe to Christianity a deep-seated immorality and malevolence.

I wanted to make this the subject of a small group meeting, and I wanted to start by playing this ten minute broadcast, but when I started my preparations, I couldn’t find the programme.

What I found instead was a different, and wonderful, podcast from Ancient Faith Radio, in which Father Thomas Hopko, an Orthodox Christian, talked about many aspects of Old Testament violence, and gave it a context and meaning that I had never heard before. As this is one aspect of God’s word that I have struggled to understand for many years, I am very encouraged, and grateful to Fr. Tom for his insights.

You can listen to the entire podcast, which is just under an hour long, or read a transcript, here, but below I have written an abridged version. 99% of the words are Fr. Tom’s, while I have shuffled the order sightly, and provided section titles. If what you read below interests you, then I encourage you to listen to or read the original which has far more depth and detail.

The Violence of Man

We can speak of the kinds of violence that we find in the Bible. First of all, there’s the violence and the murdering that comes simply from sin. Human beings are sinful, and they kill each other. And the very beginning of the Bible is that. Cain kills Abel. That’s how humanity starts. You have Adam and Eve apostatizing, rebelling against God, refusing to love God by keeping his commandments, listening to the devil, being cast out of paradise, and then all the enmity and the strife and the hostility enters the human race, the human beings are given over unto death in enslavement to the earth, and then Cain kills Abel, one kills the other.

Now, in the Old Testament, you also have violence and killing done as a kind of vindication by human beings against evils done to them. Like, for example, in Genesis 34, when Simon and Levi kill Shechem and they kill all the males in the land and they plunder the whole city and they take all the women and the children and everything because Shechem has violated their sister Dinah. You return the evils by evils in order to vindicate your righteousness against the unrighteousness of those who harmed you.

The Violence of God

Then you have another issue in the Old Testament Scriptures to deal with, and we’ll see how the New Testament resolves all this, but God himself does acts of violence.

A Response to Sin

And God said to Noah, “I have determined to make an end of all flesh, for the earth is filled with violence through them. Behold, I will destroy the earth.” And then he tells him to make this ark, which is a prefiguration of the holy Church. That’s what the New Testament Scriptures say clearly, in the letter of Peter, that Noah’s ark prefigures baptism and the ark of salvation is the Church.

The point we want to see here is that you have violence, and then what happens is God acts pretty violently. So that’s another thing that you have in the Hebrew Scriptures and in the Bible. When people sin against God and do evil, God renders evils to the people. He destroys them. So in the time of Noah, he just drowned everybody.

An Act of Rescue

Then you have that wonderful statement in the fourteenth chapter of Exodus, where the Lord through Moses says to the people, “Listen, have faith, stand firm, be quiet, be still, I will fight for you. I will fight for you, and this very day, you will see the Egyptians perish before your very eyes. I will save you. I will rescue you. I will deliver you.” And in the Old Testament, that meant a violent act of salvation in, literally, killing the enemies. And God is killing the enemies all the time in the Old Testament. That’s what he’s doing day and night, so to speak, and some people are scandalized by it, but the Bible reader, in the light of Jesus Christ, would say, “What was God to do? How else was he going to proceed? He’s dealing with a violent world where people are killing each other all the time, and in the names of their gods they’re killing each other.”

Evidence of His Power

Now, in the Passover exodus story, eight times you have that expression with these plagues that God says, “I am doing this that you may know that I am God, that you may know that I am your God, that the nations and the Egyptians may know that I reign over all creation, and that you may know that I am the only God that there is.” So the violence in the Old Testament and the violence of God himself against his enemies—because those people who are enemies of Israel, they are enemies of him—here we should see that the warfare in the Old Testament is not so much, so to speak, a warfare between peoples. It’s a warfare, actually, between gods. It’s the one true and living God fighting against all the false gods and all those who are evilly inspired into idolatry by those false gods, by the powers of evil, by the demons.

Evidence is Needed

There’s a great Protestant thinker, a theologian named Karl Bart, who said, “Until God can establish his power over the false gods, until he can show that he can kill and make alive, that he can cast down, that he can raise up, and that he is the God of gods and the Lord of lords, then God cannot really show mercy.” Because if he would show mercy without showing his power, people would think that he didn’t have the power, and that’s certainly a teaching of the Old Testament. God has to establish his power, and the way you establish your power is by killing your enemies. Sadly, that’s the truth.

An Act of Cleansing

But the most amazing thing is that God says to his own people in the Old Testament Scripture, “I am against you. I am against you, because you are trusting in horses. You think you can manipulate me. You think that because I told you you are my people that you can do whatever you want and you can be unrighteous and sinful and break that Law and not keep the commandments and not keep the Sabbath or anything else.”

So here you have the violence of God, which is needed, first of all, to preserve his people from their mortal enemies on earth and then at the same time to preserve the righteousness of his people by even showing his wrath and anger against them.

So you find all of this in the Scriptures, all this kind of evil and murder and going-on, and it’s there all the time.

The Power and the Mercy

Now, if that were the last word, then we would really have a scandal on our hands, but for Christianity that is not the last word, as we will see in a second and as we already know, I hope. In Jesus Christ, you do not have that any more. You have a radical reversal of God’s activity, because once he has established his power, then he can send his Son to show mercy and to show what the power of God really is, which is the power of truth, the power of righteousness, the power of love, which is absolutely, fully, completely, and totally revealed in the Cross of Christ and in the crucified Messiah.

Because in the Bible, all of this is done, Orthodox Christians would believe and Bible readers who read the whole Bible would believe, all this violence was done so that God’s fidelity could remain, so that his soteriological plan could be completed, which means his plan for saving the world, for sending Christ, for redeeming, for forgiving.

What people have to realize is we are all God’s enemies in some way. Jews and Gentiles, whoever we are, we are those who are in need of the mercy of God, and the Gospel of God in Jesus is he shows mercy on all.

Violence Against God

Christ sheds his blood on the Cross for everyone that Yahweh killed in the Old Testament. Everyone that was killed in the Old Testament in any way, whether it was Jephthah’s daughter who had to be sacrificed because he made a vow, whether it’s that concubine who was chopped up into twelve parts and sent through Israel, whether it’s the ravishing of the young maidens outside Sodom and Gomorrah and in other places in the Bible, whether it’s Cain killing Abel, whatever it is—all those murders, all that violence—that is all subsumed in the flesh of Christ on the Cross, and he endures it all. And it is God Almighty that is in human flesh that’s enduring it in order to have mercy on all.

Now here I would say this very clearly: if God did not so love the world that he sent his only-begotten Son, that those who believe in him would not perish, and if he did not give the opportunity for everyone to repent, and if the final judgment, when the Lord appears in glory, is not the moment of truth when anyone can finally repent of all their ignorances and their evils, their passions and their crimes, and if God did not die for everyone and shed his blood for everyone without exception, then we would have real problems with the murders of the Old Testament. All that violence would be nothing but scandalous violence. But the scandal for Christians, the scandal of the Cross replaces, so to speak, heals all the violence of men, even the violence of God himself that he had to perpetrate in the Old Testament in order for his plan to be completed for the Messiah to come.

Conclusion – Eternal Violence

Now, will God kill and destroy his enemies, ultimately, in the coming kingdom? Well, the ancient Christian scriptural answer is no. He will have mercy on everybody. But still, people may not accept that mercy, and then God’s love and his truth and his righteousness and his blood will torment them, and they will be tormented forever and ever if they blaspheme the Holy Spirit for ever and ever. The demons and the evil people who love the demons and hate God, they will suffer from the mercy of God forever, and that’s the fire of hell. But God is no longer destroying. God is no longer destroying. People are destroying themselves by opposing the righteousness of God.

So we read about the violence and the murder and the killing and the violence of God and the violence of people and the sinful violence and the unrighteous violence, but then the necessary violence that is necessary for God’s plan to be completed, we read about all this in the Old Testament. We see it fulfilled in the non-violent Christ, who as a Lamb is led to the slaughter and opens not his mouth, who is denied justice, who takes upon himself the sin of the world, and who dies for all those for all those who have died in any way, and he dies even for those whom God himself has killed in the Old Testament, because the final word does not belong to death. The final word does not belong to destruction. The final word belongs to mercy and forgiveness. The final word belongs to resurrection and life. The final word belongs to the peace of God, not the violence of God.

So let’s think about these things, but let’s know for sure that all that violence of old was necessary to produce the Christ, and then the Christ comes and takes the violence upon himself and forgives everyone everything. And that’s the teaching of the Gospel. And the victory of God ultimately is one when his Son dies the most violent, degrading, horrible death on the Cross. So for Christians, we preach Christ crucified, scandal to Jews, folly to Gentiles, but the wisdom and the power, the ultimate wisdom and the ultimate power, of God Almighty himself.

The “R” Word

In March 2011 I sat down to complete my UK Census form. For the most part it was straightforward and uncontroversial, but then I reached a question and my heart sank. I had to make a decision about whether to lie or to express my beliefs.

I chose to lie.

What question could cause me such a dilemma? Why would I lie? Here is the question:

20 What is your religion?

  • No religion
  • Christian (including Church of England, Catholic, Protestant and all other Christian denominations)
  • Buddhist
  • Hindu
  • Jewish
  • Muslim
  • Sikh
  • Any other religion, write in ____________________________

Ever since I was saved, and for a short while before that, I’ve had it drummed into me, from preachers, from God’s word in the New Testament, and from the Holy Spirit’s influence within my heart and mind – that I don’t have a religion, I have a relationship with God through His Son and my Lord Jesus Christ. My faith is in Him, and my relationship with Him is what persuades me to do things that the world might consider “religious”. But to me, religion is the law, religion is doing what I’m told out of fear of consequences, religion is following traditions for their own sake, or to fit in to a group. It is so many wrong things.

I wrote about religion in my John Lennon post. I referred to what I consider to be Jesus’ response to that religion which I just described, found in Matthew 23, from verse 13. I don’t want any part of religion, and I don’t want to be thought of as religious.

I haven’t read any of his books yet, but whenever I’ve heard Richard Dawkins speak about his atheism, I can only recall him rallying against ‘religion’, rather than particular faiths. Yes, he will use an Old Testament example of his “evil God” idea, but the main thrust of his argument seems to be against religion in general, and the way he thinks it stops people from thinking critically or objectively because it forces people (especially vulnerable children) to accept blindly and unconditionally what the religious leaders tell them.

This isn’t the Christianity I recognise. I am expected to test the spirit of those who teach (2 Corinthians 11:3-4, Hebrews 13:9, 1 John 4:1). I am expected to give the reason for the hope I have (1 Peter 3:15).

Maybe there was once a definition of religion that concerned itself with obedience to God’s commands out of the love of God – a reflection, or consequence, of our faith, rather than being its own purpose. Maybe this is the religion we see mentioned in the Bible, for example in James 1:26-27. But the definition in common use today seems very different.

So I was strongly tempted to answer the Census question with “No religion,” but I realised that this would be a hollow kind of protest against a poorly worded question. And I would be reducing the official count of Christians in the country, which definitely felt like a foolish thing to do. So I chose to read “religion” as “faith” and answered it accordingly.

I’m reminded of my Census quandary every time I read or hear the word “religion” in the media. And it still troubles me. But why do I have such a problem with the word? Am I just making a big fuss over nothing? Am I getting tied up in an argument about semantics and does it hinder me when I want to spread the good news of Christ’s sacrifice for our salvation? I think probably yes, and I think I need to get over it. I include “Religion” as a category for my posts because I think it is something people will search for. It hurts a bit to do so, but perhaps I’m making a start in my rehabilitation.

What do you think? Words are important, and we need to use them wisely, precisely, to be properly understood. Has religion become a barrier between man and God? Does the word “religion” and its connotations form another kind of barrier? Or is it commonly understood in a more positive light than I see it myself?