Whether they recognize it or not, most people have an intuitive need to learn the rules. Whether it’s a game, or a new pursuit or interest, or the nuances of a tax form, we seem to naturally realize that some rules are at play and that learning them, and following them, are important.
In fact, it’s pretty well known that kids do better when the rules of the home, or of the classroom, are clearly set forth and enforced. I reflected on this today while thinking about the upcoming World Series. Most of the rules of the game make sense, once the framework of the game is understood. But many are simply arbitrary. Its three strikes that will get a batter out, not two or four. When the third strike is dropped by the catcher, the batter still has a chance to get to first in some, though not all, leagues. In short, to play effectively, the team must know the particular rules that apply and recognize that they – the members of the team – don’t get to alter the rules.
Nor can they decide whether their performance is “good.” Looking at what the ump calls a third strike will still make you “out” regardless of whether you believe it was a strike or not; the ump gets to make the call. It struck me as odd, then, to realize that this sense of the need to learn and follow “the rules” doesn’t seem to take hold today for the game of “life”, even among those who call themselves Christian. Many, perhaps most, don’t believe in a last Day of Judgment at which, as Jesus said, the wheat would be separated from the chaff. They seem to think that everyone eventually ends up in heaven, because a loving God will see that they are basically “good” and accept them.
But isn’t “good” a standard of performance, like judging whether a pitch is a ball or a strike? And how is one to know if he or she is “good” at all, let alone sufficiently “good” to meet the standard of an infinite and perfect rule-maker? After all, there is no scoreboard to check as we go. Why then is there so little concern, let alone fear, that the rule-maker and ump may take a different view of our performance here on Earth than we do? Why do so many assume that, as to this most important “game” we call life, there are no rules and we are free to do what we like, as long as we don’t “hurt” anyone?
Could it be that this affinity for learning and using the rules was in fact left behind in us by God, as a marker calling us back to right relationship with Him? Maybe this sense we have is there to remind us, repeatedly, that there is an ultimate set of rules to which we must, in the end, submit our will if we are to one day be made perfect. His rules are simple: there is only one ultimate Creator, one Sovereign, and that’s Him. That may sound petty to some, but that’s because they don’t fully grasp that awe and adoration are simply what a perfect being merits. The second rule is to love God and to love your neighbor, fully, completely, unselfishly. For without love, freely given and freely received, there is no basis for eternal fellowship with Him.
Of course, giving flesh to these rules requires a bit more thought and reflection, and trying to follow them without also putting your trust in Jesus won’t “earn” you anything. But thinking that there is no rule-maker, or that we can make up our rules as we go, isn’t a very smart way to approach the game.
Posted by Al Serrato
apathy, Christian doctrine, last judgment, relativism
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Considering the likelihood of God’s existence from this starting point will often cause the atheist to engage in circular thinking, as evident in a challenge I received in response to a blog post: “For gods to be gods they have to be supernatural – agreed? For something to be supernatural it has to exist outside of the universe – agree? Since the universe IS everything, there is nothing outside, there is no ‘outside.’ Therefore nothing can be supernatural, which means that any being demonstrating the traits of a god is nothing more than a powerful evolved creature that lives in the same universe as we do, therefore is not a god and not deserving of worship. I’m on solid ground when I say no gods exist. Disagree? Prove they do.”
With just a bit of reflection, it is apparent that the skeptic has built his conclusion right into his premises. By defining the “universe’ to be “everything,” and “supernatural” as being “outside the universe,” the only possible conclusion is that there is no God. Restating the syllogism, the challenger is saying: To exist, a being must be within the universe. By definition, God is that being which is outside the universe. Therefore, God cannot exist.
The problem with the conclusion is not the logic employed but the accuracy of the premises involved. Why should we assume that the universe is everything, that there is nothing outside of it? The challenger presents no evidence to support his claim, nor does he provide an argument. He simply assumes that the universe is all that there is. This is very shaky ground upon which to build a belief system. When a Christian refers to the “universe” – at least an “old earth” believer – he is usually referring to the thing that popped into existence from “nothing” some 14 billion years ago. “Nothing” does not mean some prior void consisting of a vacuum, or consisting of some type of precursor particles; such things would be somethings. No, “nothing” means the absence of anything and, while difficult to comprehend, is what makes this universe so extraordinary.
The universe, as we know it, consists of length, width, depth and time. Physicists tells us that in the first fraction of a second, it also consisted of additional dimensions. There was a before to the universe – a point at which the universe did not yet exist – and there will be an after; otherwise the universe itself would be infinite and eternal, which science tells us it is not. But if time as we know it began with the Big Bang, then this “before” and “after” exist in a way in which our temporally based minds cannot fully comprehend. Since a “something” cannot come from “nothing,” this universe needs a source adequate to explain its presence. Intuitively we know that the source must be immensely powerful, given the size and grandeur of what we see, and immensely intelligent, given the precise mathematical order built into the laws of nature. This source must be artistic, for the universe contains incredible and exquisite beauty. But the source, while capable of entering this universe, must exist outside and apart from it; otherwise it would be part of the universe and itself in need of explanation.
The skeptic’s challenge is not unlike a person who examines a house he comes across. He sees that it is built to precise specifications, that it is functional and that its appearance demonstrates a symmetric elegance. Because he was not present when it was built, and because the present owners acknowledge that they did not build it, he concludes that it must always have existed, that there were no architects, no carpenters, no plumbers. No rational person would draw such a conclusion, because the existence of precisely built things requires a builder adequate to the task.
But, in holding his view, the atheist has abandoned rationality in order to arrive at the place he began.
Posted by Al SerratoBig Bang, circular reasoning, origin of the universe
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“The quality of mercy is not strain’d, It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven Upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: It blesseth him that gives and him that takes.”
So says Shakespeare, in the Merchant of Venice. His point? That mercy cannot be forced, and that for human beings anyway, it benefits both the one who gives mercy and the one who receives it. This accords with a common definition of mercy: “compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence.” We recognize these as good things, as enlightened behavior. So if mercy is good, then unlimited – infinite – mercy must be even better. Right?
Maybe not. Atheists often contend that God’s requirement of a “blood sacrifice” shows that he is not infinitely merciful. Infinite mercy, it is claimed, would be mercy not requiring such a sacrifice. An non-believer advanced the argument like this:
“Since I can forgive without the shedding of blood, I put it to you that I am more merciful than YHWH, therefore YHWH is not infinitely merciful since there are those more merciful than he. The idea that YHWH is still forced to punish people means YHWH is not infinitely merciful since the amount of mercy could be increased. That doesn’t address the question which is; how can YWHW be infinitely merciful if mere people are demonstrably more merciful? Indeed, under the Law everything is purified with the shedding of blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” Heb 9:22″
While it may appear on first glance that the skeptic is on to something, this challenge works only if the meaning of the term “mercy” is not closely examined. Mercy is not a thing like, say, health, for which it may be argued that more of “it” is always better. No, mercy is a freely given gift, from the one in power toward the other, for reasons of compassion or pity. But mercy must also be balanced against other virtues, such as justice. Consider: it was merciful for the Allies to help rebuild their former Nazi foes. But would it have been similarly “merciful” if they had assisted the Nazis before they were defeated? While they still occupied most of Europe? After all, the later mercy came at the price of millions more dead than would have been the case had peace been declared in 1942. But allowing the Nazi war machine to dominate would not have been good, because assisting such a regime would defeat justice. Any desire to treat mercifully with the Nazis would have to be balanced against the desire for justice, and the greater evil that derives from justice denied.
The skeptic’s challenge refuses to recognize this basic distinction. Instead, we are to believe that if some of thing “x” is good, then an infinite amount of thing “x” is always best. But that depends on what “x” is, and against what “x” is balanced. Take for example the quality of patience. Patience is a virtue. Plugging “patience” in for “x,” we would have to conclude that infinite patience is better than finite patience. But infinite patience would result in never taking action. Loyalty is another virtue. Is infinite loyalty to be exalted, even if the person to whom the loyalty is attached has committed offenses which demand punishment?
No, the flaw in the skeptic’s challenge is that he refuses to recognize that these qualities exist in a balance; God’s perfection applies to how these attributes find perfect harmony together, perfect expression. It is not a simple child’s game of counting up the score. To conclude otherwise would be to hold that God’s infinite perfection is in fact a limitation – if he exercises perfect patience, he is trapped into eternal inaction.
But what of the specific challenge: that the skeptic does not require the shedding of blood, which means he is more merciful than God, who does. Has God just been outdone in the area of mercy? The first flaw in the challenger’s argument is that he assumes that he has the power to exercise mercy – he says that he does not require any sacrifice to do so. But since the skeptic did not create mankind, and has not been offended by mankind’s rebellion, by what right, and through what power, is he to accomplish this forgiveness? Can he also forgive a rapist for the crime committed against some other person? In so stating, the skeptic betrays a profound misunderstanding of what mercy and forgiveness actually involve. Moreover, the challenge fails to consider why a “blood sacrifice” – Christ, to be more specific – was required. When is blood shed? Usually, this refers to when something is killed. Christianity teaches that the wages of sin is death. When man rebelled, it brought death into the world. Death is the consequence of the rebellion, a consequence which God’s perfect justice demands. But God also provided a solution, which also came through death. Consider: if we never died, we would be eternally separated from God, in bodies that decay with time. Hardly a pleasant prospect. When Christ came into the world, and died after living the perfect life, he offered his life and death as a sacrifice to atone for the guilt of the rest of us. His blood – his sacrifice – is God’s solution to the problem that man’s rebellion created. And His gift is free to all of us – no work is required on our part.
It’s hard to see that as anything other than infinite mercy: He came to set us free and suffered and died in our place. If our free will is keeping us from accepting this unmerited gift, it is hardly God’s lack of “mercy” that is to blame.
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, God's mercy, justice
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Making sense of the existence of a place like Hell is a common struggle for Christians, both for their own peace of mind and in trying to convince others of God’s love and fairness. Almost immediately, we are placed on the defensive, being asked to justify how a “loving” God could condemn any of his creation to a place of constant, and eternal, torment. I’ve often heard the challenge brought like this: “Isn’t God’s love for us is like that of a parent? Can you imagine any loving parent ever wishing, or wanting, such extreme punishment for their own child?”
The answer, of course, is no. No parent would delight in tormenting his children. And neither does God. But just as human parents must sometimes resort to court orders to keep their children away, so too does God employ the equivalent of an eternal “restraining order.” Though they do not intend to use it this way, the analogy of parental love actually works against the challenger’s case, because it makes clear the need, even in the context of what was intended as a loving relationship, for enforced separation to be imposed. Everyday across the length and breadth of this country, there are parents who are being victimized by their children. In many cases, the children want something that the parent is not able, or willing, to give. Often, the abuse consists of verbal or physical assaults or of some form of theft, and many times the problem is fueled by an underlying drug or alcohol addiction. In many such cases, the abused parent seeks assistance from the police and the courts to have their offspring restrained from contacting them. Unable to break through their depraved hearts, and unwilling to continuing being mistreated, they resort to the law to provide separation – and justice. This ultimate step must break their heart, but it is often the only means by which the parent can safeguard his or her well-being. In some, more extreme, cases, the parent’s testimony in court might contribute to a conviction which will land the child in prison, sometimes for life. The point is simple enough: love has its limits, and there comes a time when separation from an abuser is the only path that is left. If this causes the child pain, that pain is not “intended” by the parent; it is, instead, an unavoidable consequence of the path set in motion by the child.
Applying this analogy to an eternal setting has its drawbacks. God, of course, cannot be victimized. He has no fear of us, and no need to incarcerate us in order to protect Himself. But He does have the same right to association that we do. When a person uses the free will God has given us to rebel against his Creator, that rebellion need not be ignored by God. Indeed, if God truly is a perfect being, it cannot be ignored. For God to maintain perfect justice, there must be an adequate consequence, an adequate response, to wrong-doing. On earth, that justice often involves incarcerating the wrongdoer, to minimize his ability to continue to use his free will to harm others. Similarly, God makes use of His power to separate those who refuse to accept the gift of life that He offers, an offer He makes on his terms only.
For those who have died in rebellion, no further chance is offered them. Eternally “restrained” from fellowship with God, they experience eternity aware of all that they have lost. Consider: what bring joy in life are not, ultimately, money and toys and success. While these things are sought after, they would mean nothing if a person were utterly alone. That’s why solitary confinement is so destructive to the human mind, and so punitive. No, it is human companionship – relationship – that brings joy to life. Conversely, the loss of relationship, in whatever form it might take, can lead to depression and in some extreme cases even suicide.
But every relationship on earth involves a flawed human being, one who does not embody perfection and is therefore a mere shadow of the Being that does. When we begin to consider the joy of love, or conversely the agony of the loss of a loved one, and multiply that experience not by millions or billions, but by infinity itself, we may begin to see why human writers, even divinely inspired ones, cannot quite grasp the horror of the thought. A lake of fire would seem tame by contrast.
But this place of suffering is internal,self-centered, self-focused. An eternity of caring only about oneself, apart and alone and without hope of reunification with the source of love. It is not a place where God inflicts torture, but rather one in which infinite torment awaits on the far side of the abyss. God derives no pleasure when He acts to restrain an unrepentant sinner. Indeed, He provides an alternative – a means of salvation – to all. For those who refuse His gift, they will have only themselves - literally, and eternally – to blame.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal damnation, God's love, nature of hell
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“God is perfectly just, and yet he sentences the imperfect humans he created to infinite suffering in hell for finite sins. Clearly, a limited offense does not warrant unlimited punishment. God’s sentencing of the imperfect humans to an eternity in hell for a mere mortal lifetime of sin is infinitely more unjust than this punishment. The absurd injustice of this infinite punishment is even greater when we consider that the ultimate source of human imperfection is the God who created them.”
The challenger contends that a “limited” offense does not warrant unlimited, or eternal, punishment. Such punishment, he concludes, would constitute a greater injustice than the “mere mortal lifetime of sin.” For many people, including perhaps a majority of “believers,” this argument is accepted uncritically. But upon closer examination, it is apparent that the conclusion the challenger draws is based upon a misunderstanding of what “just” punishment entails.
The first step in the analysis must be to consider the nature of the “sovereign” against whom the crime is committed. If I commit a crime in California, state authorities in Colorado could not impose punishment. Their laws have not been broken. To be just, the laws of the sovereign must be made known. Although “ignorance of the law” is not an excuse, a fair system makes known its laws, so that they can have the intended effect: to shape behavior by encouraging the good and discouraging the bad. State authorities are by nature limited and flawed. The scheme of law they pass reflects that the lawmakers cannot expect perfection.
But who is the lawmaker that can sentence us to this “eternal” punishment? It is, of course, an eternal being, and more importantly, an eternal being who embodies and comprises perfection. That he would separate himself from a creation in rebellion is hardly unjust. And if separation from God is in fact the “hell” of which we speak – the agony of seeing but not being able to experience the joy of his presence – then those who reject his gift are in store for an eternity of this experience. This is not a sentencing choice that a capricious lawmaker has conjured up, but the necessary consequence of 1) living eternally and 2) being eternally separated from the source of perfection.
When California enacts “three strikes” legislation, the sovereign has made known that there are offenses which carry with them a punishment of life imprisonment – separation for the rest of one’s life from the society that has been victimized by the offender’s behavior. The third strike may be much less serious than the prior offenses, an offense that on its own would not merit such a sentence. But coming as it does after a series of more serious violations, it tips the scales in such a way that this conclusion – that separation is warranted – becomes just.
Re-examining the challenger’s conclusion in light of these reflections reveals what is at play: the challenger has ignored the fact that a single offense, committed against an eternal and perfect being, could be sufficient in his mind to justify separation from him. But of course it is worse than that, for we humans in rebellion have racked upon sin upon sin, offense upon offense. But, the challenger complains, is there no proportionality between the offense and the type of punishment? Can’t God come up with a lighter punishment?
Again, this misunderstands the nature of the problem. God is not devising ever more wicked ways of inflicting punishment on us, hoping to make hell as torturous a place as possible. The punishment of hell is, simply, the natural consequence – the byproduct – of being separated from God. God does nothing more than that, but unfortunately for us, this is experienced as torment.
Finally, God embodies infinite perfection, so rather than sinning against another human being, who himself has flaws and needs forgiveness, these offenses are against a being who is infinitely holy. Considered this way, eternal separation from God starts to make a bit more sense. The good news, of course, is that God is also infinitely merciful. Knowing that we cannot solve this problem on our own, he solved it for us and made that salvation available to everyone. Perfect justice, perfect mercy, perfectly balanced. It seems to be a just and elegant solution to our problem.
But what of the challenger’s further indictment of God for creating imperfect human beings and then punishing them for being imperfect? This conclusion also rests on faulty reasoning. God created beings with free will and each of us chooses to use our free will to defy Him. As the creator, he has the right to respond to that rebellion, by separating himself from us. Consider how you might react if you built a robot to clean the bathroom and he eventually refused, claiming that he wished to be served rather than to serve. You could easily unplug him, or disassemble him, because as his creator you would have that prerogative. So too with God. We get what we deserve – eternal separation from Him – because we do not choose to obey His wishes. Rather than condemning God for this, the smarter move is to thank Him for also providing us the solution.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal separation, God's justice, hell, justice
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There has always been evil and suffering in the world, and how to make sense of it is a principal object of Christian apologetics. Often, the argument is made that God gave us free will and, as a result, people have the liberty to choose to do evil. But this answer does not satisfy the atheist; often, he will challenge God’s goodness, with comments such as the following:
You claim your God is omniscient. When he created the universe, he saw the sufferings which humans would endure as a result of the sin of those original humans. Surely he would have known that it would have been better for those humans to never have been born (in fact, the Bible says this very thing), and surely this all-compassionate deity would have foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering…or alternatively only create those humans who will freely choose God, and eliminate the possibility of their suffering.
This challenge has considerable intuitive appeal. We all rail against the suffering that each of us must face, to varying degrees, as our lives progress. We realize the fragility of our human condition, and how inhospitable this creation seems to be to flesh and blood human beings. It is frightening, indeed, to think of all the ways that our lives can be tragically altered, or ended. But does the harshness of this reality “prove” that God is not “good”?
The first step in responding to this challenge is to get a better idea of what is meant by “good.” Generally speaking, “good” is a measure of quality; how a thing or an idea measures up to a standard of performance. A “good” knife is one that well performs its function, or its intended use. A “good” person is one that lives up to a standard of behavior. But how can one determine what that standard should be? For example, any time two opposing forces are in conflict, whether they are teams, or armies or ideas, the quality of the outcome will be decided from the perspective of the party involved. For instance, the American victory in World War II was a “good” outcome for Western democracy, but a decidedly “bad” outcome for those who staked their future fortunes on the Nazis. A good outcome for my son’s soccer team is when the other side loses. Generally speaking, then, a “win” is good for the winner and bad for the loser.
With this basic distinction in mind, it would seem that, at least preliminarily, answering whether it was “better” to have “foregone the creation of a universe destined to imperfection in which many of the humans were doomed to eternal suffering” would depend on the person being asked. For those spending eternity in heaven in the joyful bliss that an infinitely loving and power God can provide, He certainly did the right thing in creating us and in giving us this opportunity. Infinite and eternal joy and fulfillment versus, well, oblivion – that’s not a difficult choice. By contrast, for the person suffering torment in hell, realizing that he will spend eternity aware of, but separated from, this awesome being, it will probably seem “better” that man was never created.
But let’s take it to a deeper level. How does one decide which of two sides is right in claiming that a successful outcome according to their desires is an objectively “good” outcome. For example, the Nazis deemed domination of Europe a good outcome. Would their victory actually have made Nazi control of Europe a “good” result? The purpose of the Nuremberg War Crimes Trials after World War II was to establish that crimes against humanity had been committed. The underlying premise was that the “good” accomplished by the Allies was not a subjective good, i.e. we’re glad we won and you lost, but an objective good, i.e. Nazi officials were guilty of conduct that was objectively bad, and therefore justly punished. The premise of the trials was that such objective knowledge of good was available to us, and not that the might of the victor makes right. But how can this objective assessment be made, if each side can claim that “good” is what suits them?
This, of course, is a frequent argument of the theist. While an atheist can be moral, he cannot ground his morality, because only the existence of a transcendent being provides the basis for judging objectively the “good” or “evil” of conduct here. Without such a judge, the atheist’s conclusions are mere opinions, mere statements of likes or dislikes. By that standard, the challenger is left saying that having people end up in hell displeases him. To conclude that allowing anyone to suffer in hell is worse than not creating at all, the atheist must appeal to a standard of right and wrong, a standard of goodness. But what is that standard?
Christians can at least make sense of this standard: it is for the creator to decide. Given his perfect knowledge, he is in a better position to judge which is a better outcome. Indeed, challenging God in this fashion seeems rather presumptuous. The creator of this universe is obviously immensely intelligent and powerful. That we should decide what He should do in creating – how he should go about assigning a value to competing options – makes about as much sense as my dog giving me advice on careers or on moral issues. Without the proper frame of reference, a basic sense of humility should prevent us from telling God how he should have approached his creative work.
In the end, foregoing creation would not have been a “good” solution for the many individuals who responded to God’s gift and are, or will be, experiencing eternity in His presence. When you combine this with the realization that people who are separated from God are separated by their own choice and not simply chosen at random, then it would not be fair to deprive so many of such joy when those who have refused God’s gift have done so willfully.
Posted by Al Serratocreation, eternal separation, eternity, God's goodness
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“If something is perfect, nothing imperfect can come from it. Someone once said that bad fruit cannot come from a good tree, and yet this “perfect” God created a “perfect” universe which was rendered imperfect by the “perfect” humans. The ultimate source of imperfection is God. What is perfect cannot become imperfect, so humans must have been created imperfect. What is perfect cannot create anything imperfect, so God must be imperfect to have created these imperfect humans. A perfect God who creates imperfect humans is impossible.”
The challenger here raises an interesting point, and it appears that he is using valid logic. If something that is perfect can only create perfection, then the Christian God is disqualified. But the challenger’s first sentence is not proven; it is simply an assertion. So too is the claim that what is perfect cannot create anything imperfect. So, for the argument to have force, there must be some support for the premise that a perfect being is “limited” in what it can do, namely, that it can only create perfection. But the very articulation of this notion betrays the problem embedded in the assertion: it purports to limit the power of a perfect being. In other words, immediately after acknowledging God’s infinite power – his perfection – the skeptic, himself an imperfect being, attempts to limit the types of things God can do.
But how could he possibly know what God can or cannot do? On what basis can he conclude that a limitless, all-powerful being is constrained in the options available to him? Certainly, the possibility that a perfect being could create something less than himself is not contradictory. The opposite, of course, would be true; an imperfect being would be unable to impart to his creation something that he himself does not possess. So, it would be contradictory to claim that an imperfect being could create God. But why would a greater being be unable create something that is lesser than himself?
But there is an even greater flaw embedded in the challenge. That is, the skeptic assumes that God set out to create a “perfect” universe and somehow failed. But how does the skeptic arrive at this conclusion? What evidence is there of God’s purpose or that God failed to achieve this purpose? To arrive at such a conclusion, one would first have to know the intent of the creator. Is not “perfection” in the eyes of the person setting the standard? After all, perfection denotes a quality or performance or attribute that cannot be surpassed. For example, perfect vision would mean vision that cannot be improved upon. But to know what perfect vision is, one would first have to know what is to be accomplished with vision. Is it simply seeing in daylight, or also in complete darkness or underwater? Only with a clear understanding of the designer’s purpose could one know how close to the mark he hit.
The challenger would no doubt respond that this universe is imperfect under any definition. But by this he would mean that things break, that health suffers, that people do evil, or other things of this nature. But what was God’s goal in creating this universe? Could it have been to allow for the development of beings who can experience true love, freely given? In other words, beings capable of exercising free will, and by so doing, necessarily capable of doing evil? Could the struggles we face in this broken world be part of a process by which we are developed, and refined? If so, then perhaps this universe is in fact a creation optimally designed to maximize the number of people who will freely choose to love God.
With sufficiently clear vision, it is possible to see that creating a universe filled with robots and other perfectly functioning things would not have accomplished God’s purpose. Indeed, what God had in mind was far more ambitious – and wonderful – and creating something that fits our definition of perfection simply wasn’t part of his plan.
Posted by Al Serrato
God's attributes, God's goal, limiting God, perfect being, skepticism
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Truth is an important unifying theme in the Bible. In fact, the Bible itself is referred to in places as the “word of truth” (2 Tim. 2). We are admonished to think about those things which are true, and noble and just. (Phil. 4). We are warned not to be taken captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy which depend on human traditions, rather than on Christ, and we are told that whoever “lives the truth comes to the light, so that his works may be clearly seen as done in God.” (John 3) Jesus talks repeatedly about the truth, referring to himself as “the Truth” (John 14) and to Satan as the opposite of truth, the father of lies, who has no truth in him. (John 8) Jesus also tells us that by living according to his word, we will know the truth and the truth will set us free. (John 8)
Christianity also teaches that man, in his fallen and sinful condition, has rejected the truth. More precisely, men through their wickedness suppress the truth and “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” (Romans 1)
So why, then, with such emphasis on truth within its pages, does the atheist accuse the God of the Bible of being a liar?
The first reason, I suspect, is that he has not fully contemplated what his accusation means. Truth, after all, is that which conforms to the way things really are. If I say that the earth revolves around the sun, I am making a true statement. It conforms to reality. The way to test truth is to discern the extent to which the statement or belief corresponds to actual reality. But what is behind all reality? What grounds reality and provides its contours and limits? None other than God, the creator of all that there is. God, then, is the standard for truth, because he is the reality behind all that there is.
Now think for a moment about what a lie involves. First, it is not a matter of opinion; I don’t lie by saying that chocolate is the best flavor for ice cream. Second, it is not merely being mistaken. I don’t lie by saying that I saw Sally earlier today when I have mistaken Susie for Sally. A lie, by contrast, is a deliberate misstatement of the way things really are. And why do people lie? Because they seek to obtain some benefit from doing so. Perhaps they wish to avoid detection for some wrongdoing, or they seek to obtain some advantage that would otherwise not accrue to them. Behind every lie, then, is a limited being who hopes that his misrepresentation will confer a benefit upon him.
Seen in this way, then, it is easy to understand why God refers to himself as total truth. For God, with unlimited power and knowledge, would never need to lie. The way he “really is” is not only true, but also best, complete, without limit or liability. He needs no advantage, has no motivation to conceal truth and derives no profit from misleading his creation. He offers his love freely and undeservedly to us, and wants and needs nothing from us in return. It stands to reason that he would be true in himself, and to himself, and also true to his spoken word.
The second reason has to do with the approach the skeptic takes. Skeptics often cite several Bible verses they claim support their position that the God of the Bible is a liar. But, as in most such challenges, they proceed from an erroneous assumption. They treat the Bible as if it were a collection of “true statements” standing alone. Take a sentence from the Bible and ridicule it, or argue that it is false, is the approach they take. But the Bible is much more than that. The passages must be read, not in isolation, but as part of a whole; it must be understood to be a rich and complex fabric upon which the story of God’s people and God’s plan for salvation has been woven. It is not always easy to understand, but it is profitable for man to ponder and to attempt to plumb its depths. Take, then, three examples the skeptic often claims proves that God is a liar. The first is 1 Kings 22:23 – “Yahweh has put a lying spirit into the mouth of all these your prophets.”
The context of this passage is the conversation between Ahab, king of Israel, and Jehoshaphat, king of Judah, regarding whether Jehoshaphat will join Ahab in attacking the city of Ramoth-gilead. Ahab’s prophets told him what he wanted to hear; Ahab had already decided what course of action he wished to pursue and was not interested in God’s view of it. Jehoshaphat insisted that Micaiah’s opinion be obtained. The quoted passage comes from words attributed to Micaiah. He is, essentially, conveying that Ahab’s “prophets” have deceived him and are not speaking God’s truth. This, then, is a literary device Micaiah is using, a parable of sorts, in which he uses imagery to convey to Ahab that the information his prophets are giving him is false. Far from making God a liar, God had provided a truthful witness, but Ahab refused to listen. And eventually died.
The second example comes from Ezekiel 14:9 – “And if the prophet be deceived when he hath spoken a thing, I the LORD have deceived that prophet, and I will stretch out my hand upon him, and will destroy him from the midst of my people Israel.” This passage is, similarly, talking about God removing his guidance from false prophets and abandoning them to their false beliefs. Similar to the language used by Paul in his letter to the Romans, the thrust of this passage is that God will eventually abandon a person to his wrongful beliefs.
The third passage cited is 2 Thess. 2:11 – “For this reason God sends them a powerful delusion so that they will believe the lie.” Read the entire letter and you will see that, in context, Paul is talking about those who have been exposed to the truth but who have rejected it. This passage, like the previous one, reveals that God will eventually stop reaching out, and will abandon people to their evil desires and beliefs. In other words, he will not overcome their free will and make them believe the truth.
These reflections are, of course, not meant to be a full treatment of the cited texts. Much more can be said. But hopefully they help show that the skeptic’s claim – that the God of the Bible is a liar – is a variant of the straw man fallacy. Propping up a “false” God by picking and choosing passages and then knocking that “God” down is an example of fallacious thinking. And, sadly, it leaves the challenger no nearer the truth that he claims to be seeking.
Posted by Al Serrato
apologetics, Old Testament God, Truth
Posted in Writings | 1 Comment »
Many atheists claim that the God described in the Bible is not possible. They raise philosophical challenges meant to show that inherent in the very nature of God are contradictions which make belief in him foolish. This is how a recent challenge along these lines was phrased:
“If God was all that existed back then, what disturbed the eternal equilibrium and compelled him to create? Was he bored? Was he lonely? God is supposed to be perfect. If something is perfect, it is complete–it needs nothing else. If God is perfect, there can be no disequilibrium. There is nothing he needs, nothing he desires, and nothing he must or will do. A God who is perfect does nothing except exist. Therefore, a perfect being that creates is impossible.”
Challenges like these can be daunting, especially for someone not interested in philosophy. On its face, the challenge appears to have validity, reasoning to a conclusion about God. But in fact what is at play here is the “straw man” fallacy. The challenger sets up a God whose attributes are not those of the God of the Bible, and then argues from that the God we worship could not exist.
Notice what is implicit in the challenge: the skeptic seems to be acknowledging God as an eternal being, but his questions assume that God has no power to control time. Time becomes a force over God, and not one that God created and controls. Consider: the challenger asks “what compelled God to create?” as if God is sitting around for eons wondering what to do. He uses words like “bored,” “lonely,” “needs,” and “desires.” Each of these concepts is temporally based: “boredom” means an awareness that one’s present circumstances lack sufficient stimulation and an anticipation of changing this condition by engaging in some future activity; “lonely” means an awareness of the lack of others to help bring meaning, activity or joy into one’s life; “desires” means an awareness of something lacking and the formation of a plan to acquire that thing in the future. Each of these concepts imply a limited being, a being who lacks something necessary for fulfillment.
With each question, the skeptic betrays that he has not grasped the attributes of the God we worship. The God of the Bible describes himself as the “I am.” Though we cannot, in our limited present circumstances, ever truly grasp what He is, it is apparent that as an eternal being, all times (as we perceive them) are in an eternal “present” to Him. He was never “alone.” Composed of three persons in one being, He is in an eternal loving relationship and has no needs, fulfills all desires and lacks no stimulation. In fact, these concepts are nonsensical to such a being, who created and set in motion what we perceive as the timeline (through the creation of this universe), because each of these concepts makes sense only if viewed from the perspective of a being that is limited or controlled or defined by time.
So, to specifically answer the questions: Nothing “disturbed” the eternal equilibrium. Time was not flowing “against” God and no force can disturb Him. Nothing “compelled” Him to create, because a compulsion would require a source greater than God. He created the universe and this timeline because he chose to for reasons of love. The love he exercised was in the agape sense – not seeking gain, motivated by nothing desired in return. God was not bored or lonely and is and always was complete. There was no disequilibrium. His act of creation was a positive one, adding relationship with human beings created in his image to the already existing eternal relationship of the “three persons in one God.”
The challenger might respond by saying that God added to his distinctiveness when he created us. He went from a “before” to an “after.” He “changed,” therefore he wasn’t “perfect.” But this challenge again fails to recognize that God is not trapped by time, but created it. Moreover, it fails to consider what “infinity” involves. As an infinite being, God added nothing to himself by creating, for it is not possible to “add” to infinity. Consider it this way: imagine, for a moment, a hotel with an infinite number of rooms, all of which are filled. An infinite number of new guests arrive seeking lodging. What does the innkeeper do? Is he not “full up?” No, actually, at least not when infinity is involved. He simply moves everyone from the room he or she is in to the room whose number is two times the original room number. By so doing, he opens up an infinite number of new rooms – all odd numbered – for his new guests. The point is that when you are dealing with infinity, limitations simply don’t exist.
The challenger’s most glaring error is the claim “A God who is perfect does nothing except exist.” This would seem to reduce God to nothing more than a jellyfish – alive, perhaps, but showing few signs of it and simply existing. Infinite perfection is, well, perfection which lacks any limits. This “condition” does not constrain God, and to suggest that it leaves him essentially powerless – he simply “exists” – is to get things precisely backwards.
Posted by Al Serrato
eternity, God's attributes, infinity, nature of time
Posted in Writings | 1 Comment »
As Christians, we’re commanded to love God with all our minds, as well as our hearts and souls. The mind, of course, is the tool we use to make sense of the world. It requires that we use logic and reason for it to work at all. Consequently, to love God fully, we cannot depart from logic and reason. Though we can never fully understand an infinite being, what we do understand of him must be at least consistent with logic and reason. Otherwise, we are no longer using our minds, but risk “losing” them.
In recent posts, we have tried to set forth the classic Christian formulation of understanding God’s omnipotence. When biblical texts refer to God doing the “impossible,” we understand that to mean that God is capable of doing many things that are impossible to mere humans, such as allowing an elderly woman to become fertile again, or raising someone from the dead. We do not extend this power to extremes that require us to embrace contradictions, for embracing contradictions would be a departure from reason. For example, God does not possess the attribute of “non-goodness,” so it is nonsensical to ask if God can sin, that is, be “all good” and “not all-good” at the same time. God cannot make a square that is also a circle, to use another common example.
But the atheist is not satisfied with this response. He insists that we interpret the Bible literally. If it says that God can do all things, even the impossible, then we must accept as true that God can make a square-circle. But how does this help their case? Is this not simply circular reasoning? They begin with the premise that doing the impossible is, well, not possible. Consequently, adhering to a book that claims that the impossible is in fact possible is irrational. Holding to an irrational faith is itself irrational. Consequently, Christianity must be irrational and therefore not worthy of adherence.
But there are two principal problems with this analysis, besides the obvious circular reasoning that is employed. The first is that the bible does not demand literal interpretation. There are many places in which it speaks metaphorically, not the least of which are the words of Jesus himself, as he conveyed many ideas through the use of parables. The Bible was never intended as a physics manual. It was not written by physicists for physicists, so insisting that it be read that way is not a question of interpretation of a passage, but of taking the entire book out of context. Once again, the straw man fallacy is at work.
The second problem with the atheist’s position is that, even if we were forced to accept the words as literally true – God can even make a “square circle” – there is no way to show that God does not have this power. All we can say is that the human mind is incapable of making sense of such a claim using logic and reason. But scientists tell us that there is much more to the universe that what meets the eye. They are only now beginning to make sense of things such as dark matter and dark energy. They tell us that in the first nanosecond of the universe’s existence, there were more than 10 dimensions, which reduced down to the four that we now perceive. Other scientists posit the existence of multiple universes – the mulitverse – whose characteristics cannot be assessed because they lie beyond our ability to perceive them. Perhaps in these other dimensions, the “impossible” is not only possible but easily done.
Consider it this way: like the am/fm radio in one’s car, our minds possess limited abilities in receiving and processing the “signals” that surround us. The air around the radio is full of signals of varying kinds, but the radio is capable of capturing and converting only a small portion of them. It takes these signals and processes them to produce sound which is recognizable to our ears. Our minds are “receivers” of a sort as well, processing what our senses take in through the use of reason and logic. We are operating within the four dimensions. If there are other dimensions, other ways of knowing things, they are beyond our ability – at least at present – to access them. The car’s radio may be within range of an aircraft or marine transmission, or may be alongside a police car being dispatched to the scene of a crime. That the am/fm radio cannot process these signals is not evidence that the signals are not there. So too with us. From the perspective of other dimensions, perhaps reconciling a square with a circle is easily shown. But we will never know, at least not this side of eternity.
In the end, this challenge is easily seen for what it is. By reasoning to a result that is embedded in the premise, the challenger is sure to come up with the wrong answer, the one that he assumed when he asked the question. He is engaging in circular reasoning and getting his “signals” crossed.
Posted by Al SerratoChristian truth claims, circular reasoning, doing the impossible, God's attributes
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No, what it proves is that the challenger is, well, challenged when it comes to asking a rational question. The challenge goes something like this:
“Since God is omnipotent, making an object that is simultaneously square and circular should not be beyond the power of this being.”
These arguments have surface appeal, because they appear to apply logic. The listener is urged to follow the chain of reasoning to the only possible conclusion. The atheist “wins” by the force of the logic. But in fact these arguments constitute an abandonment of logic and reason, rendering them, in the end, nonsensical.
When we employ reason, we do something which is natural to all human beings. We utilize a way of thinking that others can grasp and utilize. We follow rules of logic which are at some level apparent and self evident. We know, for instance that A will always equal C, if A equals B and B equals C. This rule applied thousands of years ago and will always hold true; it is not subject to change. Similarly, we know that if all men are mortal, and Socrates is a man, then Socrates is also mortal.
How do we know these things? How do we know that it is valid to form conclusions based on evidence? Who has proven that it is “reasonable” to use reason in this fashion? No one, of course. Reason is the starting point, the given that we must all employ to reach a logical – a correct – conclusion. Abandon reason and you may have emotion and feeling and opinion, but you will not have a conclusion that must be accepted.
The skeptic knows this intuitively, and seeks to use reason, but by rejecting the source of reason and logic – the being that grounds them – his conclusions are often fallacious. How does God “ground” reason? It’s rather straightforward, really. When I am thinking about a thing, such as a dog or a car, I am holding in my mind something real that exists. But all things are subject to change. When I am thinking instead about a feeling, I similarly realize that feelings, like things, are subject to change. But, when I think about certain eternal truths, like the logical statements made above, or like mathematical equations such as the value of pi, what am I thinking about? These are neither feelings nor things, both of which are subject to change, but are themselves changeless. Since neither mind nor matter is permanent, but these concepts are permanent, there must exist something else that is permanent, that ground these ideas that we access through the use of our minds and reason. That something is God.
What we can know about God has limits, but to know anything about God, we must employ reason. We cannot abandon it, as the square-circle challenge does. What things, then, can we know about God? We know that he must have certain perfections for the concept to make sense. As St. Anselm framed it, if you can conceive a being with powers greater than “god,” then you have not yet grasped the concept of God, for God is that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. This is the starting point.
With this in mind, let’s take a closer look at the challenge. Let’s start with the square circle. To contend that God “should” be able to make a square circle, the skeptic has descended into the nonsensical. A square is a defined object consisting of straight lines and angles; it exists as an idea and whatever word is put to it, its essence remains that. A circle, by contrast, has neither straight lines nor angles. To suggest that God should be able to merge those two concepts is simply another way of asking if an object can be a square and not a square at the same time. It is stating a contradiction, and those who hold to a contradiction are acting irrationally. They have abandoned reason.
“But,” the challenger might persist, “Why would god not be able to bend reality in such a way that something we think would be impossible (in this this case a square circle) could be shown to us? Why can’t god defy logic in this way?”
This too is nonsensical. Reality describes the way things really are; fantasy, by contrast, is an imagined, unreal thing. In reality, “square” and “circle” are words we use to designate two different objects. Whatever sounds (words) we associate with these concepts, their essence remains the same. So, the question becomes why can’t God change the way things really are to make them the way things really are not? Again, this is little more than gibberish. Logic is not a force that controls God; it is a reflection of God’s nature. He would no more “defy” logic than he would defy himself. It is a part of what and who he is. So expecting him to depart from logic is another way, yet again, of asking a contradiction: can God be God and not God at the same time. Why can’t God change his nature to be “not-God.”
It is easy, of course, to continually ask “why” questions. Digging deep enough to realize what the questions say about the questioner takes a bit more work.
Posted by Al Serrato
God's attributes, logic, nature of God
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Christians acknowledge that atheists can be moral. In fact, many are fine, upstanding, “good” people. What atheists cannot do is validly ground their morality. Without a source of truth from a divine source – a transcendent source – at best they can make “moral” noises, but what they are expressing is not a genuine assessment of good versus evil, but simply a preference.
In my last post, I argued that a creator God can do what he wishes with his creation – a computer simulation has no right to argue with the programmer, nor does the pot have the right to challenge the potter. A skeptic challenged my claim, saying:
“If a computer animation or a pot were to be sentient, it would, indeed, have the right to complain about any mistreatment at the hands of its creator. But, consider this,” he went on. “If your god decides the bible was a big joke (ha-ha) and throws christians into torment, what is your recourse? What consolation do you have? You may not think it much, but if your god does that sort of thing to me, I will at least have the consolation that I did not pronounce it just, that I was simply overpowered by a wicked tyrant. But you, you say he has every right to do whatever he wants with you. It is possible for human judges to overstep and abuse their authority. And they do sometimes use ‘officers of the court’ to facilitate this. That your god might have the power to enforce his whims (of which I, currently, see no evidence) does not negate the fact that, as described, he is unjust. He demands a respect of which he is not truly worthy. I would like to refer to your doctor analogy. The doctor is concerned about what harm the quack may cause his patients. He does not, however, threaten to impose harm himself on those foolish enough to listen to the imposter. With your god, it is quite different. The idols themselves do nothing, good or bad, for their worshippers. They are, after all, mindless stone or wood or what have you. No, the only danger that will come to people will come from what your god does to those who don’t worship him the way he wants them to. All this, of course, is according to the claims of the bible. I do not vouch for the accuracy of the text.”
Perhaps the writer does not realize it, but this response sneaks in moral language which he makes no attempt to ground. Why does a “sentient” being, as opposed to other types of life, have this right? How can he claim that God is a “tyrant” and a “wicked” one at that? I responded by seeking to know the source of the “right” that the skeptic claimed:
“And where would that “right” be grounded? If there is no god, then your conclusion that something is unjust is merely a feeling, like being hungry. How could you possibly know what a ‘wicked tyrant’ is if you don’t first have a standard of ‘good’ against which to measure it? Human judges are bound to a higher authority. That’s how you know they have overstepped their bounds. Where is that authority to be found? In your worldview, where can you find limits? Those are simply your feelings, once again. God’s ways are difficult to understand, and each of us risks being mistaken. But your moral indignation is ultimately baseless in a God-less universe. In fact, you are sneaking in a standard, which you wish to attribute to some generalized sense of human decency. But in the end, without transcendent grounding, it remains just an opinion.”
The writer responded:
“But Al, I do have a standard of good against which to measure. It’s based on the fact that causing pleasure is good and causing pain is bad. However, I would like you to consider the fact that for the common christian claim that ‘god is good’ to have any meaning, there must be a standard of good that isn’t based on that god’s whims.”
But of course this doesn’t help. Far from being an objective standard, it is a form of saying: I want what I want and I like what I like. Good is what I say good is. Here was my response:
“I think you need to keep working on that standard. Otherwise, the murderer who causes ‘pleasure’ by killing his grandparents to obtain their wealth would end up being ‘good,’ while the doctor who causes ‘pain’ while administering a cure is ‘bad.’ Your position ends up being circular – good is what I think is good while bad is what I think is bad. God doesn’t have ‘whims.’ He has a nature that we seek to understand, however imperfectly. You just happen to disagree with what you believe to be his nature, as it does not conform to what you think is right or wrong. That, by the way, is how you know there is a standard there. It is pressing against all of us, and we all to varying degrees are rebelling against him. As C.S. Lewis explained, we all know there is a ‘law’ there (morality) and we all violate it.’
In response, the writer said:
“That murderer may give himself pleasure; but he is causing his grandparents much more pain. This is, of course, unless we are talking about pulling the plug on life support when they are withered away and suffering a fate worse than death. You say God doesn’t have ‘whims.’ He has a nature that we seek to understand, however imperfectly. But if it looks… like a duck, and it quacks… like a duck, and it waddles… like a duck, it’s probably not a cow. This looks like christians making excuses for the whims of their god.”
No, what it looks like is someone who doesn’t see the ramifications of his worldview. The murderer, in my example, could be giving pleasure – in the form of wealth – to a dozen people who might stand to inherit. So, does the pleasure of the many outweigh the pain of the one? What if you drug the person first, so he feels no pain? Does that make it “good.” Contrast that with Christianity. Take the protection of life, a timely topic. Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image of God. Consequently, no one has the right to take the life of another, innocent human being. Whether the innocent life is a fetus, and elderly person who “refuses” to die willingly, or a member of a race that another race wants to enslave or destroy, there is no need to analyze who gains pleasure and who is caused pain. This provides a workable, transcendent standard – it was the code upon which much of our law was once based.
In the end, chasing pleasure won’t make for a just society, or for a happy one. Haven’t we learned that by now?
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, God's goodness, morality, utilitarianism
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In my last post, I tried to make the case that God does not “need” our praise. I acknowledged that He does expect it, because praise naturally flows to a perfect being. But is it fair to say that he actually “demands” it? And will punish us if we refuse?
In raising this challenge, a skeptic quotes from the Ten Commandments. Doesn’t God say that man should not bow down and worship false idols? Does He not describe himself as a “jealous” God? What then are we to make of God’s position? The skeptic concludes his challenge:
“So, whilst you state that god doesn’t demand worship, he DOES threaten dire punishments to those who don’t worship him!
‘You don’t have to worship me, and I’d never ask such a thing of you, but if you don’t I’ll crush you, and your kids, and THEIR kids, just to make sure my message is clear’ seems to be the way god is saying things are.
So, here we have a supposed perfect being, in a supposed revelation in his supposed holy book, saying that he’ll be angry if he isn’t worshipped!
We come back to the question – why would a perfect demand worship?”
These are good questions, and they deserve an answer. But the questions reveal quite a bit about the skeptic and the reasons he cannot make sense of the Biblical model for right relationship with God. It is apparent that the skeptic refuses to, or cannot, recognize that:
1) God is not our equal. As our creator, he has the absolute right to do what he wants with us. We have no more basis to complain than would a computer animation to the computer programmer, or to use a more ancient example, the pot to the potter. This is an unpleasant thought, especially for Americans steeped in the tradition of equality. But equality refers to the relationship between people, not the relationship between God and his creation. A child does not dictate to his parent what fairness is. Nor does the robot tell the supervisor to take his place on the assembly line. If you persist in thinking that a being capable of thinking this universe into existence somehow must answer to you, or justify himself to you, you will never gain the answers that you claim to be seeking;
2) God is not emotional. While He is “personal,” and while he inspired the Biblical writers using emotional imagery, He is not a histrionic drama queen ready to throw tantrums. Selectively quoting Scripture to paint such a picture distorts what the Bible teaches about God’s true nature. Negative emotion, after all, is a characteristic of a limited being that has fears, wants and desires. It is a failing. More precisely, negative emotions like jealousy, lust and greed are perversions of the good. Like evil generally, base emotions are a departure from the standard that God is, and that God sets. A limitless, timeless Being doesn’t “hope” for a good outcome, or “fear” that he will not “get the girl” or seethe with “envy” against a rival. He has no needs, lacks nothing, and has no rivals. He is all good.
So, why then does God use emotional language? Probably for the same reason that I speak one way to adults in a courtroom setting and quite another way if I’m talking to children at a daycare center. The style and content of the conversation is tailored to the needs and capabilities of the audience. Using emotional language conveys God’s message much more vibrantly than simply setting forth instructions.
3) The Biblical reference to jealousy, l
ike all Biblical texts, must be taken in context. The usual connotation of “jealousy” is quite negative. It conjures up images of a jilted boyfriend stalking his girlfriend as he suspects her of infidelity. But the actual definition is more varied; under “biblical” it includes: “intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry.” As I argued in the previous post, God’s self-assessment is accurate. He has every right to expect worship from His creation, because praise and worship are what perfection merit. Equally, He knows the harm it does us when we worship a lie as opposed to the truth. It is, then, an expression of love for him to desire that we return to right relationship with him.
Consider an analogy. A town doctor spends years earning the trust of his patients. One day he learns that an untrained quack has begun tending to his patients, pretending to be him and doing much harm with his medications and treatments. The doctor loves his patients and wants what is best for them. How, then, should he react? I submit that anger and jealousy – an intolerance of the harmful “rivalry” – would be an appropriate response. So too with God. He loves us enough to warn us against the danger we face when we persist in our rebellion against Him; He loves us enough to be angry when we turn away.
In sum, the skeptic wants to claim equality with God and expect God to view things the same way. He does not want to give God the love and respect to which He is entitled, by His very nature. And he wants God to accept this disrespect as appropriate. But God, by His nature, will also demand the response to which He is entitled. Think of it this way. Why does a judge demand respect? Why does he have a bailiff ready to establish order if a heckler decides to interfere? If a human judge can demand that to which the law entitles him, how much more can the ultimate Judge, the Creator of all that there is, demand respect from his creation? After all, we are subject to His law. What should that respect look like? Well, for the judge it means being addressed with a proper tone of voice, proper language and proper behavior. But what about for the ultimate judge? What does a perfect being deserve?
Simply this: to be recognized accurately for what he is. And when we do that, we see that worship and praise are the appropriate way of responding to Him.
The point of this excursion has been to show that there is a rational way to reconcile God’s goodness and perfection, on the one hand, with the Biblical references to God’s “jealousy,” anger and expectation of worship, on the other. While on the surface these things may seem inconsistent, on deeper reflection a fuller picture of God begins to emerge. For this, we are indebted not just to the Biblical writers but to the pillars of Christian philosophy, giants such as Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Somehow, though, I doubt the skeptic will accept their views, or these. By his very nature, the skeptic will continue to do what he does best – believe in nothing.
Posted by Al Serrato
Biblical teaching, God's perfection, jealousy, worship
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Christians claim that God is a perfect Being. Perfect beings lack for nothing so why, then, does God demand our praise? As one challenger put it, “why does this being that doesn’t need anything need praise? A perfect being shouldn’t want for anything, including the worship of its creation.”
The question can be restated in the form of an argument denying that the God of the Bible is perfect. It would go like this:
• A perfect being has no needs and no wants.
• The God of the Bible needs and wants praise and worship.
• Therefore, the God of the Bible is not perfect.
Of course, a non-perfect “God” is a contradiction. Either he doesn’t exist or the real God is not him. Either way, the Christian loses.
The value in restating the question lies in the clarification it brings to the challenger’s assumptions. The syllogism set forth is logical. If in fact the God of the Bible needs and wants praise and worship, he could not rightly be viewed as perfect. The problem with the challenge is not the implied logic; instead, the problem is that the assumption about God – that he has a need or a wish for praise – is false. The God of the Bible has no such need.
To see why, one must first spend a moment considering what “praise” and “worship” entail. To “praise” is to express approval or admiration. It derives from the verb “to prize,” or in other words, to highly value something. To “worship” derives from “worth” and means to revere or to adore. To “revere” means to regard with awe, an overwhelming feeling of fear or admiration produced by that which is grand, sublime or extremely powerful. These concepts all boil down to the same basic thought: praise and worship are a recognition and expression of awe in the presence of something great.
In considering praise and worship, two things are apparent:
1) To be meaningful, praise and worship must be freely given. Like love, praise or worship that is coerced by threat or by promise is of no value. One cannot be forced to admire or to feel awe.
2) Praise flows naturally from recognition of greatness, even if I refuse to convey praise to the person I am admiring. For example, I may dislike the Blue Angels, but contemplating the great skill required to control high performance aircraft travelling inches apart at near supersonic speeds would cause me to feel awe; the performance of the pilots is worthy of praise, whether I like them or not. Similarly, I may dislike overpaid baseball players yet still admire the ability required to hit a curving ball travelling toward the batter at 90 miles per hour.
Recognizing what praise and worship involve, it is apparent that no leader – certainly not a perfect one – would demand it. It simply does not work this way. Review the pages of the Bible, and you will see that God does not demand praise and worship. Where those concepts are discussed, they are the words and exhortations of other people talking about God. But God does expect our worship and praise, for this conforms to the natural order of things.
This point bears emphasis. God knows the way things really are. His self assessment of his infinite perfection is accurate. Such perfection is worthy of praise and awe and reverence. For God to think otherwise would not be humility, but error. Having no limitations, God rightly expects that we view him in the correct way, the only way that conforms to reality. Consequently, whatever attributes a person finds worthy of praise, God possesses these in infinite measure. Getting one’s mind around the immensity of a perfect God – of the utter overwhelming greatness that he possesses – one would necessarily be overcome with awe, fear and reverence. Whether we “like” Him or rebel against Him, our urge to praise and worship Him flow naturally from recognition of His greatness.
Now add to this the fact that God created us from nothing. He offers us the opportunity for union with Him, the chance to partake in His eternal loving relationship. When we contemplate the notion of what living eternally in the presence of perfection will be like, we will naturally, in recognition of the proper order of things, overflow with praise and worship, as well as gratitude and love. This is what the Bible is capturing when it speaks of the need – our need – to give praise and worship to God.
For those looking in from the outside, this will make little sense. They will mock our rituals as primitive or as a form of wishful thinking. For they do not yet understand. They have closed their minds to Godly things. Think of it this way: a person encounters a scuba diver for the first time. Watching him ascend a set number of feet and then stop for a period may seem quaint. The observer might imagine that the diver is saying prayers to the gods or partaking in some other primitive ritual. But the diver knows better. Understanding the workings of nature – that rising too quickly will result in that dangerous condition known as the bends – he periodically stops his ascent to comply with the natural order of things. It may seem like silly ritual to the uninformed, but to one with actual knowledge of the way things really are, it is indispensible.
So too with eternal matters. While our prayers and beliefs and rituals may seem foolish distractions to the secular world, they are in fact a proper recognition of the “worth”ship of God. We bend our knees voluntarily to His sublime excellence, for it is the natural order of things.
Posted by Al SerratoBible, God's perfection, praise, worship
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“I’m not much on religion. The way I look at it, organized religion is really a bad thing. They’re all pretty much the same – home to a bunch of hypocrites telling you what to do but not doing it themselves. It works for people who can’t think for themselves. It’s not for me, that’s all I know.”
My colleague didn’t mean to offend. She was being candid about why she moved away from the Christian faith of her childhood. A lot of emotion and feeling were packed into that statement and changing her mind was neither likely at that moment, nor was it my goal. As a believer, I of course wanted to “make the case,” but I could tell from her manner that she was not open to hearing it. Her mind was made up. But perhaps I could give her something to think about.
“I know what you mean,” I replied. “And much of what you say is true. And, it sounds to me like what is true actually matters to you. You don’t want to follow rules for some deity in the sky that you don’t think is really there. You don’t want to be fooled, or mislead.”
“Well, I certainly hope so,” she said.
“That’s important,” I agreed. “That’s why I wanted to make sure we were on the same page on this. While I agree with you that some religions are false, and therefore bad, and that some followers of what I would call true religion are also bad, I can’t agree that there’s no place of religion, that religion generally is just a bad thing.”
Her expression suggested that she wasn’t interested in a discussion, a kind of “I’ve heard it all before” look.
I pressed on. “When you think about it, the same thing you just said could also be said about other things. Take food, for example. Some things we might think of as food are actually poisonous, like some types of mushrooms. Other things like, say, sushi, can be toxic if not prepared correctly. And some things, like most fast food, are just plain bad for us. Some people misuse food, either intentionally or not intentionally. Food’s track record, when viewed this way, is pretty dismal; more harm comes from misusing food or consuming the wrong things than we can even begin to imagine.”
I could see she was listening.
“But you wouldn’t take these observations and conclude from them that all food is bad, would you?”
She began to slowly shake her head.
“Of course not,” I went on. “What you would conclude is that you must be discerning. You need to stay away entirely from things that are either poisonous or otherwise harmful, and what you do eat you should eat in moderation and in a balanced way. Your goal in eating, after all, is not just enjoyment of the taste but also nutrition and good health, so that you can fuel your body in a way that is likely to produce in you the best physical health. Right?”
“Wow,” she said. “I’ve never thought about it that way. I’ll have to think about that for awhile.”
“Please do. I would love to talk to you more about this. I just want you to see that as food and drink are the fuel needed for the body, we are not just bodies. We have a spiritual side to us, one that I think all people realize, even those who have rejected formal religion. Even you, I suspect, recognize that you are not just flesh and blood, right? You have a body and a mind, both of which you are making use of. You are not just a body or a mind, right?”
She nodded, still processing what I was saying.
“Well, that part of you that ‘has’ a mind and a body – your spiritual side or soul – doesn’t it make sense that this needs nourishment as well? That there are things that help make it healthy and things that by contrast can make it sick? Ignoring food indefinitely will lead to illness and death. Why would ignoring food for the soul be any different?”
Her face became more animated. “Why should that be?” she countered. “I’m not sure I agree with you on that.”
“Because,” I began, “all living things are by definition growing and changing. When things no longer grow, they die. If your spirit stopped growing, it would not be alive within you. And all growing things need nourishment of some kind. So why would your soul be any different? It may not need material or natural things to keep in living, but if it is alive, and it is growing or changing, it needs something. Doesn’t it?”
I could see that she wanted to process what I had said so far, so I concluded.
“Pursuing truth actually matters in the world. That’s how we stay alive and healthy, by being able to distinguish good things from bad things. Finding ‘truth’ in religion is no different. Christianity is making certain truth claims both about things that occurred in history – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – as well as ultimate things – why man is here at all, what his purpose is, and what his ultimate destination is. These are, in fact, among the most interesting and fascinating things to think about. All I’m asking is to give it some thought. Don’t close your mind to these things and conclude that all religion is bad. At least do some investigation before you reach such a broad and final conclusion.”
She was about to respond, then stopped herself.
“Let’s talk later. I need to think about this,” she said. I hope she does.
Posted by Al Serrato
Historicity of Jesus, religion, Truth, truth claims
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Most skeptics today feel pretty comfortable concluding that there really isn’t “evidence.” After all, when we think of “evidence,” we usually think of things like witness statements or documents or fingerprints left at the scene of a crime. Since no one has “evidence” relating to things outside our universe, or to a being who preceded the Big Bang, it’s a safe bet that the Christian won’t come up with any “evidence.” Or is it?
Seeing the unspoken premise in the question highlights what is at play: the challenger assumes that such “evidence” is the only way we can know things. But this is simply not true. While evidence and inferences from evidence are valid ways of determining what is true, they are not the exclusive way. For example, when I know that no circle is also a square, where is the evidence for that? Or that A = C, when told that A = B and B = C? Or that rape is always wrong. These types of knowledge – based on logic and reason and a basic moral sense – are part of the normal functioning of every human mind.
Like a computer, our minds come equipped with certain basic programs, like the ability to acquire language and to understand and to make use of concepts such as fairness and right and wrong. Watch a child develop and you will see these subprograms at work. We don’t teach children how to learn a language; we simply teach them the language. From a very early age, they have and display an intuitive sense of fairness and can recognize when something is unfair. The mind also has the ability to conceptualize, to make sense of patterns by grouping things into categories. By realizing what a square is, we “know” that a circle can never be one. By knowing that people have a right to the integrity of their bodies, we know that rape – which violates that right – is always wrong. By employing logic, we know that A = C when A and C are both equal to B.
What does this have to do with God’s origins? Just this: it is by conceptualizing what is meant by God that we can determine – that we can know – certain important things about him. When we think of God, we are thinking of that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. He embodies infinite perfection. Such a being must necessarily exist, because necessary existence is an attribute of a perfect being. That he is the source of this universe, and all that is in it, is a product of recognizing that all created things had a preceding cause, sufficient to bring them into existence. There are no known exceptions and no reason to suspect that there are any exceptions. Moving to the very beginning of the space/time universe we occupy, there must be a source adequate to the task of creating it. Two possibilities exist: the creator of the universe was himself created, and therefore had a beginning; or he was infinite, having no beginning. If you choose the former, you haven’t gone far enough in your reasoning. You need to keep moving back in time, because your conception of God is not fully developed. Anselm of Canterbury is credited with first developing this argument. When you follow where reason leads in conceptualizing what God entails, you realize that he must be an infinite being who necessarily exists.
He was not created. He never came into being, and will never cease existing. All that there is, or was, or ever will be is contingent him upon him for existence, while he is complete in and of himself, contingent upon nothing. This is the only rational conclusion that can be drawn from the existence of something from nothing; it is where the “evidence” leads.
The skeptic will usually persist in his challenge: why doesn’t your god need a cause? But again, to ask the question betrays the mistake in reasoning of the questioner. The error is in the premise: all things do not need a creator, only those things in this universe. Something outside of the universe, something that is the source of all things, does not need to be created. In fact, reason leads us in the opposite direction. Since things don’t create themselves, there must be, at the very beginning, a being who always existed, who was never created and never in need of anything. Seen in this light, the question becomes nonsensical, translating into: who created the uncreated being, or who caused the being which needed no cause? It is no different than asking what time it is on the moon. The time of day is a function of where on earth a person is; it is nonsensical when applied off planet.
None of this proves the God of the Bible, who by the way does provide witness testimony of his eternal nature. But the skeptic will never begin to consider the truth claims of Christianity if he remains stuck doubting the very existence of that God.
Posted by Al Serrato
ontological argument, proof of God's existence, reason, St. Anselm
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Many atheists seem content with naturalistic explanations for real world events. They believe that if they’ve determined the cause of an action, then they need look no further. For instance, I recall watching an interview Bill O’Reilly conducted with atheist David Silverman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BCipg71LbI), in which O’Reilly argued that nature is complex and needs an explanation that atheists cannot provide. Unfortunately, O’Reilly used as an example the action of the tides: they come in, they go out, and they never mis-communicate, was the way he put it.
O’Reilly’s statement was criticized as simplistic. Of course we “know” how the tides do this. It’s very simple: the gravitational influence of the moon is the “cause.” It’s not really a mystery, so invoking a diety to explain it sounds silly to modern, secular ears. It’s sounds little different than attributing the tides to Thor on Mt. Olympus, as Silverman suggested.
The problem with O’Reilly’s comment is that he did not take the time to explain it in more detail. He was actually using the argument (for the existence of God) from causation. That argument begins with the universal recognition that for every event, there must be a preceding cause. The tides are caused by the moon, true, but this is still the beginning of the analysis. Moving backward in time, there must be a preceding cause for all things, including the water that is being pulled, the moon that is exerting the force, and everything else in the solar system that is functioning in unison for this purpose. Moving backward along the timeline, there must exist a first event – a First Cause – before which there was nothing. What caused this first event must itself be uncaused; it must be infinite and eternal. Otherwise, it too would require an earlier cause.
The only alternative to this conclusion is that there was no beginning, that this universe is itself infinite. This may have had more appeal in the past, before scientists confirmed the beginning event known as the Big Bang. This universe is simply not infinite in age. But even without scientific evidence, it’s apparent with a little thought that had the universe really been infinite, today would never have arrived. To arrive at today from an infinite past would require the passage of infinite time, but the presence of every “tomorrow” that we experience confirms that an infinity of time has not yet been reached.
So, we live in a universe that had a cause that set it all in motion. This Cause is another label for God. What his attributes are, we cannot know from this argument. But He is there. It’s worth noting that this is not an appeal to ignorance. We are not saying that because we don’t know how something occurred, we need to invoke a deity to explain it. Instead, it is a rational conclusion flowing from stated premises.
A more concrete example might help make the case. Take for instance the internal combustion engine. To paraphrase O’Reilly: the pistons go up, the pistons go down, never a miscommunication. Like the tides, this motion is easily explained. The explosion of fuel causes expansion in the cylinder, driving the piston up, and then the piston travels back to its starting point, before the next explosion moves it up again. Mystery solved. The only problem is that this answers the wrong question. The question posed by atheism is not how “it” works, but whether someone created it and set it in motion, or whether there is instead no creator. Looking at a motor, the question is whether there is cause to believe that a mind created the intricate mechanism in which chemistry and physics combine to produce motion, or whether it just happened. The universe, and all that is it in, is like the engine. Knowing how it works doesn’t change the answer to the real question at play: how was it built? Did a mind design and construct it, or did it just happen?
Concluding that there must be a God is of course merely the first step in the journey. But for many atheists, it is a step they mistakenly refuse to take. Many stubbornly insist that this form of argument is an appeal to ignorance – a resort to a “god of the gaps.” But it is no such thing. We conclude that an Uncaused Cause must exist because reason supports it.
You don’t even need to be running on all cylinders to see where this logic must lead you.
Posted by Al Serratoatheism, cosmological argument, First Cause
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The Oscar-winning blockbuster Avatar thrilled audiences with its 3D special effects. The plot, an allegory about the evils of corporate greed, thrusts a paraplegic space marine – Jake Sully – into a role pivotal to the future of the native population of a lush moon circling a distant star. Inhabiting his hybrid Avatar body on this distant world, Jake is forced to choose between doing his “duty” and protecting aliens to whom he is growing increasingly attached.
What does the film have to do with Christian apologetics? Very little, on the surface. But stories are often the best way to get a point across. With apathy and hostility two common responses to the Christian message, using a popular film to make an apologetics point can be an effective ministry tool. Perhaps a film like Avatar can make a point about a very controversial topic: how it is a “loving” God can allow people to spend eternity in Hell. Making this point involves recognizing that Hell is not a place of torture, but is instead a place of torment brought on by separation from an infinitely perfect – and therefore infinitely desirable – Being.
Life in our current bodies is, in a sense, like living on Jake’s ship. Our bodies, like Jake’s, are quite limited, and not at all suited for life on the world that is our destination. The ship we inhabit is capable of supporting us, and for providing the means of transition to a fuller life. In the movie, that transition involves a rather arduous conversion. Anyone on board can conceivably master the means of escape, the “pod” that serves as the interface between the ship and the lush garden world, but using the pod requires self discipline and training. Not everyone will be willing to undergo the rigors of this process. We are all free to reject the pod training, but if we do that, we have no choice but to stay within the confines of a room in the ship. With nothing much else to do, and no other way to make it to the garden paradise, we remain trapped on the inside, spending eternity thinking about – ourselves.
To get out into the new physical world, by contrast, we need to look outside ourselves. We need to be willing to think of others, and to sacrifice. The struggle is worth the effort: on this other world, there is unlimited opportunity to live forever in a perfected body with others that we know and love. The choice is ours: from inside the ship, we are separated and inward looking; we can never unite with those on the new world.
Contrary to what many today believe, God is not in the business of punishing people to satisfy some sadistic desire. But this current life is not the destination – it is the ship we inhabit. The journey may at times be arduous, but it was never meant to be the final destination. In the end, God does all the work in transforming us into our Avatars. But we must willingly enter the pod, and begin the process of shedding our old, selfish selves and looking outward. If we do, He offers unlimited rewards. If we don’t, well… we end up with what we are asking for – agonizing separation and loneliness.
But for many, despite the rewards, the cost seems too high. They reject the option of loving God, and loving their neighbor, and instead concentrate on loving themselves, never realizing what they are giving up along the way. In the end, those who choose to stay on the ship – to stay walled in and to think only of themselves – cannot complain that God did not force them into the pod, and into heaven. They will have only themselves to blame.
This analogy is a bit strained, admittedly. And not useful to teach doctrine or present the Good News. But a first step, perhaps, in engaging a nonbeliever by talking about something to which he can relate.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal torment, hell, Salvation, selfishness
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Few people today find apologetics to be a stimulating pasttime. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the efforts of the apologist to be met by a yawn, or a quizzical look. But for those inclined to ponder inponderables, dialogue with another seeker can be quite rewarding. Recently, I considered the following question regarding whether we can sin in heaven:
1. If evil exists because love is a choice, then can there be love in Heaven where there is no evil? By the time we get to Heaven ourproclivity to sin will be removed, but if sin is not an option, can we still use our free will to love God? Can we have freewill in Heaven if we cannot choose whether to love or to sin?
2. Will we have a proverbial tree of good and evil in heaven so that we can still actively choose to love God after our sinful natures have been removed? If we do have an ability to sin in heaven, as Adam andEve had in the utopian garden of Eden before sin entered humanity,then would we swap eternities and be sent from Heaven into Hell?
To begin to respond to the question, it is important to make sure we are using words in the same sense. For instance, “love” can mean many things. Here, I think we are referring to the concept of “willing the good of the other.” Inclining your will toward the good of another is, of course, a choice. No one can force me to direct my will in a particular way. I can be forced to do an act, for example to help someone, but if my will is not inclined toward their good, or if I am simply indifferent, it would not be “love.” So, love does require a choice on our part, and while actions can be compelled, true love cannot. The Bible also speaks of love of God in terms of following His commands. (See John 14 and 1 John 5) So, we might say that freely loving God requires that we direct our will toward obeying His commands.
Let’s take evil and sin next. The question assumes that God allows evil to exist so that love can exist through choice. Drawing from Augustine, Aquinas and other Christian thinkers, it is important to recognize that “evil” is not a thing that exists. If it were, then God, who created all things, would be the creator of evil. But God could not have created evil, for that would make Him the source of evil, and therefore evil Himself. Instead, “evil” is the label we apply to the corruption of the good. It is not a thing, and therefore was never created. It is the extent or degree to which we have used our free will to depart from God’s will, by taking what He has given us (all of which is good) and corrupting it. On a practical level, we see evil, in the form of acts that are taken, as “things” but what we are seeing are acts of free will that constitute evil because they violate God’s law and nature.
With these observations in mind, I would offer the following thoughts about what heaven will entail. I think the question correctly notes that without free will, we can’t really love God. If love is a function of the will – a desire to obey God’s commands – how can the will be functioning if it is being directed? It is no longer an act of will but simply the act of a robot or a machine. If this is the true state of heaven, there may be harmony, but it would be the harmony of robots or computers humming along according to their programming. So, I think we must conclude that to love God we must still have free will in heaven.
The questions continues: “Can we have free will in Heaven if we cannot choose whether to love or to sin?” But this begs the question. Why should I conclude that I cannot choose to sin? If free will is operating, I can choose to defy God’s will – to not follow His commands – and this would be sin. Is this not what the angels – and Lucifer – did? The problem in the analysis is this: becoming free of our desire/inclination to sin does not remove our free will. We remain free but freely choose to worship perfection – God – because He is deserving of such love and worship. Notice two keys differences between now and then: now, we are temporal beings, who cannot see with clarity the harm that each of our choices will make. We have an amazing ability to deceive ourselves into doing what we want to do rather than what we know we should do. These desires are largely based on our corrupt human nature. Then, we will no longer be trapped by time. With the ability to see the future as part of an eternal present, we will have no desire to choose to depart from God’s will, because we will have clarity in seeing the evil that would result. We will also be free of our corrupted human nature, in which a selfish desire for pleasure is one of our strongest instincts. Second, and more importantly, we will see God in a more direct fashion. Perhaps, this world is the training ground for that, preparing us for the immensity of experiencing perfection. Seeing the infinitely perfect God with clarity, I would suspect that I will be in awe, and in love, with Him. He will be all consuming, all encompassing. Whatever Earthly good or pleasure I can imagine, He will be that multiplied by infinity. The magnitude of this is truly staggering, if you think about the implications.
Putting these things together – clarity of vision as to God’s nature and no self-deception by clouding what the future will bring – I think heaven will be a place of eternal presence with God in a state of communal love. I will want to direct my will toward following God and I will do so freely, as He desired. By way of analogy, I may have grown up as a smoker, which indulgence made stronger. Given a choice, I might always opt for a cigarette to take the edge off or to feel better. If my nature is improved, so that I see that smoking is harmful to me, I could eventually learn to give it up. After enough time, the craving for it might completely cease, replaced by a better way to deal with stress. At that point, though my desire for nicotine is gone, I have not lost my freedom, even though I use it to choose a healthy alternative. Finally, even if cigarettes are banned and no longer available, my free will remains. I simply won’t choose cigarettes, regardless of whether or not they are accessible to me, so nothing is lost.
Now, I think these views leave open the problem of why the angels fell initially, an interesting issue I do not address here, but which in a way leads to the second question: can we choose to sin in Heaven and thereby be sent to Hell. I think that the answer to that is probably yes, but given the above analysis no one who is saved – in whom God made a transforming work – would ever choose to do so. The Bible teaches that we live once, die once and face judgment. The Bible seems consistent in its message that this judgment is permanent. There is no suggestion that we can lose salvation once in heaven, as there is no possibility of bridging the divide from hell to heaven by starting to love God. So, it would seem that this swapping of heaven for hell is simply not going to occur. To use my analogy, seeing the ugliness of smoking as a way of life, and having through time and discipline eliminated my addiction, I am not ever going to be tempted to go back.
A lot to ponder. But given the stakes, certainly worth the effort.
Posted by Al Serrato
eternal punishment, free will, Heaven, hell, sin
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The biggest obstacle to most apologetics efforts is apathy. It’s not that the skeptic is considering our truth claims and rejecting them, or countering them with evidence that they are false, or that his worldview is true. Instead, most skeptics I’ve dealt with have developed a comfort level regarding what they consider the “unknowability” of ultimate things. They often argue that the fact that people disagree about such things – that they have differing views – is itself evidence that no one can ever know whether God is, what He is about, or most importantly, what He may want of us. And so, they often don’t bother to try to investigate these things for themselves. But if the Christian worldview is correct, such apathy may itself be hazardous to one’s spiritual health.
Recently, I tried to make this case in a conversation with a skeptic. It went something like this: “Let’s say this was 50 years ago, and when I saw you, you were chain smoking cigarettes with your kids always nearby. I know where medical science is headed, so I tell you that you are hurting yourself, and your kids. You respond that no one can really know such things; after all, you can point to doctors who advertise cigarettes and smoke them themselves, and you feel fine when you smoke. I point to other doctors who think that it’s really bad for you. You respond, ‘See, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe, or what they want to believe.” “Do you see,” I asked, “that the conflict between the doctors should not lead you to conclude that neither is right, or that the answer is not knowable? As a friend, should I keep trying to bring you back to the truth about cigarettes, or should I let you persist in believing something that is, in the end, hurting you and your loved ones?”
My friend’s response was not unexpected. It went like this: “Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad or wrong only at certain points in a cycle? Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs; give your kids soy, soy is bad; babies should sleep on their backs, no their stomachs, no their sides, no their backs etc., etc. When my daughter was born I would put her on her back to sleep and when I left the room my mother would put her on her side and when my mother left the room my grandmother would put her on her stomach. Over time the answer comes full circle. Why go around and around with it? What I am saying is not just throw up your hands and quit; what I am saying is that I do what feels right to me and that is the best I can do. Sometimes I listen to friends (and doctors) and sometimes I don’t. I think the “answer” to many of these things is unknowable.”
Fair enough. Some things are unknowable, and for some things, it doesn’t really matter. But that of course is the point of being thoughtful: deciding which is which. So, I conceded that for some things, the right answer might be “it doesn’t matter.” For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. Eggs or soy might be good for you or bad, depending on your health and how much you eat. But for other things – like smoking – it will never “come back around.” Science will never say that smoking is good. It might say that it won’t necessarily kill you, but not that it will “balance your humours” like they said 200 years ago.
“So,” I concluded, “the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like smoking with my kids in the room? I hope you see the answer matters. If you were smoking 10 hours a day with your kids present, you would be harming them. Getting the right answer on that would matter. Getting the right answer on your relationship with God also matters, both to you and to the people you influence.”
I don’t think I persuaded her. As with smoking, not everyone bothers to read the warning label.
Posted by Al Serratoapathy, apologetics, relationship with God
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