Are You Armed For Spiritual Warfare?

ttSince it first hit the big screen, the Star Wars movie series has wowed audiences with its spectacular special effects. In that galaxy far, far away, the ageless struggle between good and evil rages on, built around the story of a good “knight” who is seduced over to the Dark Side. It makes for great entertainment, as it re-tells a story that is as old as man.

But here, closer to home, are we engaged in that same kind of struggle? Are we in a spiritual battle, a battle being waged for our very souls, in a realm beyond that which our senses can perceive?

Secularists, and sadly many modern “believers,” simply reject this view of reality. They insist that what can be perceived is all there is, as they place their “faith” in science to eventually explain away all mysteries. They don’t believe in simplistic notions like Hell, and if it exists at all, they view it as a destination reserved for the very few, for the worst of the unrepentant. Evil, in their view, is an amorphous, faceless force and not reflected in an identifiable “person.” In sum, they hold to a modern notion that they are basically “good” and that their goodness will, in the end, be recognized by any God that might happen to exist.

These modern views on good and evil may be comforting, but they find no support in the teachings of Jesus, in the Bible or in the traditions of the Church. These sources tell us that Satan, the original fallen angel who inhabits the real Dark Side, is a person, and that Hell is a real and horrible place. Jesus clearly viewed reality this way. He knew Satan to be an actual person, and spoke directly to him when He was tempted him in the desert. Jesus also interacted with lesser demons, which recognized Him as the Son of God and which spoke to Him. In Matthew 8:28-32, Jesus cast a group of such demons into a herd of swine. (See also Mark 9) Jesus also spoke often of Hell as a real and horrible place, likening it to the perpetual garbage fires in the region known as Gehenna. Jesus admonished us not to “fear those who deprive the body of life but cannot destroy the soul. Rather, fear him who can destroy both body and soul in Gehenna.” Matthew 10:28.

The Bible also teaches that Satan acts purposefully and has each of us in his sights. In fact, the Bible warns us to “stay sober and alert. Your opponent the devil is prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” 1 Peter 5:8. It teaches that the battle we face here is not against human forces, as it may seem to us from the information provided by our senses, but against the “the principalities and powers, the rulers of this world of darkness, the evil spirits in regions above.” Ephesians 6:12. It tells us that salvation is not something we can earn through our own works or that we can merit through acts of goodness. The way to avoid condemnation is through belief in Christ, for “whoever does not believe has already been condemned, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the verdict, that the light came into the world, but people preferred darkness to light, because their works were evil.” John 3:1-19

What are we to make, then, of this battle for our souls? Is there a “force” we can appeal to for salvation? Or are we left to trust our feelings and to make it on our own? Many people today have lost their way on this question. They speak of being “spiritual” but not “religious.” They feel free to pick and choose what to believe and what not to believe, what to accept as true and what to discard as outdated. They rationalize their immoral behavior and then convince others to join in their rationalization, as if, by force of democratic vote, God’s moral law could be changed. This form of false spirituality is quite seductive, as it responds to the inner desire to know God without requiring the effort to actually learn about Him.

So, how do we find our way out of the Darkness? The answer lies in learning about the true nature of God, as He revealed Himself to us through Holy Scripture. It begins with the central truth that God the Son, the Word, became flesh and made his dwelling among us. John 1:14. Christ is the original light that shines on in darkness, a darkness that did not overcome it. John 1:5. By taking up His cross, and shedding his blood for us, He “cancelled the bond that stood against us with all its claims, snatching it up and nailing it to the cross. Thus did God disarm the principalities and powers. He made a public show of them and, leading them off captive, triumphed in the person of Christ.” Colossians 2:14.

Jesus told his followers that if they lived according to his teaching, they will know the truth and the truth will set them free. John 8:31-32. And therein lays the rest of the answer. If we are to engage in this great spiritual battle, we must first become informed of the true nature of things from God’s perspective. Paul, in his epistle to the Ephesians, explains how to begin. Using imagery that would be familiar to his audience (but unfortunately not to us), he urges them to arm themselves for the battle by putting on the “armor of God” so that they can “resist on the evil day.” He encourages them to “stand fast, with the truth as the belt around your waist, justice as your breastplate, and zeal to propagate the gospel of peace as your footgear. In all circumstances hold faith up before you as your shield: it will help you extinguish the fiery darts of the evil one. Take the helmet of salvation and the sword of the spirit, the word of God.” Ephesians 6:13-17. Similarly, in 1 Peter 5:9, we are told to resist the devil, “solid in your faith, realizing that the brotherhood of believers is undergoing the same sufferings throughout the world.” And again, in the Epistle of James, we are told to “resist the devil and he will take flight.” James 4:7.

So, there it is. The lion is stalking in the night, but the true Light can lead the way out of darkness. We need not seek out and attack Satan, but we must resist him. We do this by submitting to God’s will; by arming ourselves with truth; by leading honest and just lives; by not being ashamed of the Gospel but willing to proclaim it with zeal; by encouraging each other to grow stronger in the faith, and finally, and most importantly, by getting into and staying in God’s revealed word.

What’s stopping you from stepping into the light?\

Posted by Al Serrato

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The Contradiction In Demanding Extraordinary Evidence

eeeMy last post discussed some of the problems with demanding “extraordinary” evidence before considering the possibility that an extraordinary event – like the Resurrection of Jesus – actually did occur. Setting artificial standards for evidence, I argued, does little to advance the goal of determining the truth. Skeptics often respond by insisting that nothing short of the miraculous will convince them of the existence of God. After all, they reason, if God did exist, he would expect us to use the mind he gave us to come to our own conclusions, based on evidence and reason, in order to separate fact from fantasy. When pressed, the skeptic will often provide the following examples of “adequate” proof:

  • God appearing to everyone, everywhere at the same time;
  • Finding microscopic writing on every living cell identifying God as the manufacturer;
  • Present day miracles such as amputees regrowing limbs through prayer;
  • Alien life coming to earth and also proclaiming Christ as savior;
  • Finding large etchings on Mars authored by Yahweh.

These examples of “adequate” proof all share the quality of being “extraordinary.” Faced with such evidence, many more – though I would submit not all – would have a conversion experience. Since God performed such extraordinary acts in antiquity, the skeptic wonders whether it is asking too much that he perform these same types of acts for all people at all times in all places.

The first step in assessing this challenge is to consider whether God has an adequate reason for not addressing each of us in a direct and unambiguous way. Why doesn’t God write us an email each day that makes his will known? The answer, I suspect, has to do with the “fall” – as a result of which God removed himself from direct contact with us – and from the fact that he actually does intend us to use our intellect to move towards him. To better know, and experience and understand him requires not a one-sentence tag line – “You should take that job. /s/ God” – but a conscious effort of the will to solve the puzzles of life, of revelation, of awareness of God in our lives. That this is achievable requires little more than perusing a book on the lives of the saints. But at a deeper level, the skeptic who insists on such direct communication is actually betraying the very commitment to rationality that he pretends to have.

The skeptic insists he cannot just believe “on faith” and that he expects that a God who gave us a mind would expect that we use it. Christians agree. In fact, many passages in Scripture reaffirm Jesus’ admonition that we are to love God with all of our minds. In placing trust in the Biblical account of reality, Christians use a rational process known as abduction – reasoning from inferences to a logical conclusion – piecing together dozens of bits of information to see where they lead. This process is an example of how rationality works. By contrast, despite their asserted reliance on rational thinking, skeptics insist 1) that the evidence be “extraordinary” (whatever that means) and 2) that nothing short of a direct contact by God would suffice. Do they not realize that the intellect isn’t necessary if one’s expectations are set to that level? Even the person of below normal intelligence would be able to conclude “God Is” with such evidence and without any use of rational thinking. Reasoning from evidence to a conclusion would simply not be necessary.

The skeptic’s position is like that of a juror who refuses to convict the murderer because there was no confession, or no video of the killing as it took place. But killers always leave some evidence behind, and piecing together the bits and pieces of that trail allows for a thoughtful, rational person to find guilt regardless of the killer’s silence. Now, the skeptic may object that God should not try to hide, the way the killer does. No matter. Use a different example. Many of the greatest discoveries of science – for instance, unlocking the secrets of the atom – required effort to uncover the reality that lies beneath the surface. If scientists waited for an instruction manual to appear written into the canals of Mars, or printed on the cell, we would still be lighting fires to illuminate our caves. In any other pursuit of knowledge and understanding, the thoughtful person understands that the answers will not always be clear and that reasoning to best conclusions is a viable way of attaining knowledge. Why should it be any different when it comes to knowledge of God? What is too easily obtained is often too little valued.

The skeptic sets impossible standards because he is trying to find reasons to reject what is patently obvious to most people who ever lived – created things require a Creator. Christians take this knowledge to a deeper level, placing confidence in their conclusion that this Creator revealed himself in the pages of the Bible. In so doing, Christians rely on reason; it is the skeptic, with his impossibly high demands, that refuses to.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Why Demanding Extraordinary Evidence Makes Little Sense

aseMany skeptics approach “the evidence” for Christianity with a closed mind. Hobbled by a number of presuppositions, they typically end up where they begin: convinced that God simply would not have made himself so difficult to detect. Many will back up their position with a challenge – because Christian claims are so “extraordinary,” they say, only “extraordinary evidence” will be sufficient to persuade them. Upon reflection, however, it should be soon apparent that this is a rather odd – and self-defeating – way to go about the task of acquiring knowledge. Odd because it demonstrates a misunderstanding about the way evidence works. Self-defeating because reviewing evidence is supposed to be done so that one can arrive at “the truth” about what occurred, and when one option – a creator God – is set “off limits” at the beginning, there is only one result that can be reached. This may give the atheist comfort – his views remain unchallenged – but it is difficult to describe this as a meaningful search for the truth.

Consider: “evidence” can mean a variety of things, but as it relates to historical events – which, after all, is the basis of Christian belief – it refers to the existence of certain facts which directly or indirectly tend to prove that the event in question occurred. Whether it’s Jesus life – was he real or fictitious? – his death – did it occur on the cross?- and, most significantly, his bodily resurrection from the dead, the process of discernment requires a consideration of all of the evidence to determine whether one can conclude with confidence that the event did in fact occur. Consequently, in assessing the weight and persuasiveness of the evidence, it may appear that certain pieces of evidence line up as probative or not probative, relevant or irrelevant, weighty or weak. But refusing to consider evidence unless it first meets the standard of “extraordinary” reflects a bias against ever reaching a conclusion. Far from being a rational position, it is the abandonment of reason, for reason does not impose upon itself such artificial restrictions. This demand for “extraordinary” evidence is, upon reflection, also rather ironic. Christianity is in fact based on “extraordinary” evidence. It is “out of the ordinary” and “exceptional” and “not commonplace” that

  • 66 books written over dozens of centuries by a variety of unrelated authors could be assembled into a coherent whole, one that tells an overriding message of man, his problem, and the solution God set in motion. The books of the Old Testament presage and predict Christ, and the books of the New Testament demonstrate the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecies;
  • the concerns and beliefs of a culture separated from us by thousands of years could still resonate as relevant today, and join via a common system of belief cultures from all across the globe and spanning every conceivable age since Christ walked the earth;
  • the early followers could be so convinced of the truth of what occurred that they were willing to face death rather than deny what they would have known to be false, if indeed they were fabricating a story;
  • a variety of predictions – hundreds by some counts – could find fulfillment in one historical person;
  • modern archeology repeatedly confirms so much of what is written in the texts;
  • items of scientific interest relating to astronomy and physics (for examples, check out the work of the scholars over at www.reasons.org) appear to be embedded in books such as Job;
  • the claims of multiple miracles that were witnessed by numerous people;
  • and probably most significantly, a man who preached a radical message of universal brotherhood to a subjugated people who were expecting and hoping for a conquering king could change a world and still be regarded – and embraced – as relevant today.

This is just a partial list. Indeed, entire books and ministries have been devoted to making this case. And while the skeptic can challenge various pieces of evidence, it is difficult to gainsay both the amount and the quality of the evidence upon which Christians base their faith.

This is not to say that Christianity is not about faith – it certainly is. As Paul says in Hebrews, faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the convictions of things not seen. (Hebrews 11:1-2) No one can see heaven or preview what eternity with God will entail. Faith provides the assurance that what Jesus promised is true; we can rest confidently in the knowledge that things not seen will be as he promised. But we don’t have “blind faith” that he once lived, or that he has the authority to carry out what he promised. That knowledge is based on the evidence provided by those early witnesses. These men and women lived in extraordinary times and witnessed extraordinary things; sadly, many suffered extraordinarily for their convictions. But what they left to posterity, the evidence of what they saw and heard and experienced – whether or not it rises to the level of “extraordinary” – was certainly sufficient. And it remains so today.

Posted by Al Serrato


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Why Does God Allow People To Suffer?

wwMy last two posts addressed common challenges skeptics level against Christians for defending God’s inherent power to deal with his creation as he sees fit. If God orders the destruction of a wicked people, the skeptic contends, He must be a hypocrite at best, or some kind of moral monster at worst. But if man ever creates an artificially intelligent robot, I concluded, man too will possess the power to turn off his creations whenever he sees fit.

But, the skeptic complains, robots aren’t human – and they never will be. Humans are so much more than machines. Fragile even under the best of circumstances, each living person is a miracle of flesh and blood, all too subject to pain both physical and emotional. Capable of feeling the boundless love of a mother, they can also experience the agony of loss. As the skeptic might put it, “Surely there is a difference between pulling the cord out of the bottom of a toaster, and pulling the arms off an infant. Likewise there is a difference between turning off a robot and running through with a sword a human being.” Isn’t it different when what’s being turned off is a living, breathing human being?

This challenge may seem significant to us – after all, we are all part of the class that is affected – but what difference does it actually make? What power has God ceded to us – has God abandoned – when he included among our features such things as thoughtfulness and pain, love and hatred, joy and bitterness?

First, it bears noting that feelings and intelligence are gifts, not liabilities. Life is fuller and more meaningful with them than without. The dog has some awareness, but cannot appreciate the subtlety of poetry or the ecstasy of marital love. Pain too serves a function. Without it, we would lack the tool essential to avoiding danger. In short, God gave us more by giving us these things. He made us more like him. So, what then is the objection? The earlier objection was that God was hypocritical or contradictory. But once one recognizes that God, having created us, occupies a level above us, it follows that he has the authority to do that which we cannot do. What does our feeling pain do to change that authority? Speaking for myself, I am perfectly content that he gave me feelings and intelligence because I can experience emotionally and intellectually the fulfillment promised in reuniting with him. But with these gifts, he also attaches a price. If I am entrusted with access to great power, is it not right that I am punished more (rather than less) when I abuse it? To whom more is given more is expected.

I suspect that the real objection is that this is not fair. God, having created us with feelings, must now “respect” them. He must not allow us to suffer any pain. But again, why should this be so? And if “respecting” our feelings means allowing us to have our way, and if our way conflicts with his perfectly holy nature, which “right” should prevail? God’s right to remain true to his character or our “right” to feel “good” all the time, to never suffer, even where that suffering is a natural and predictable byproduct of our conduct. Returning to my analogy, if the artificially intelligent robots are like the robot on Lost in Space (for those of you not old enough to remember, he possessed human emotion), would I be prohibited from turning it off or otherwise destroying it if it were to attack me? Refuse to follow my commands? Could I not turn it off or on as I wish, or use it for parts, if I determined that this was the best course of action? Taken a step further, if the robot used the intelligence I had given it to rebel against me, would the capacity for emotion I had given it prevent me from exercising my power to dispose of my creation as I saw fit?

This may seem harsh, and perhaps that is the ultimate objection. Why can’t God just do what we want him to? Why can’t he let us be gods and play by our own rules. Perhaps – at least from our perspective – God’s actions are sometimes harsh. Having given us so much, he expects something in return and the punishment that he metes out for our rebellion is substantial, all the more so because we are aware of it intellectually and emotionally.

But he has warned us, and he has provided us a means to reunite with him. What else does fairness require? The suffering we experience here need not be eternal and there is a reward that awaits us that will far surpass the pain we endure here. But it must be done on his terms, not ours.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, says the Bible. I think this helps me understand what that means.

Posted by Al Serrato


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Is God A Hypocrite?

asedMy last dealt with the varying translations of the 6th Commandment. Does it prohibit “murder” as the newer texts indicate, or more generally “killing” as is listed in the King James version? I concluded that “murder” is what is meant and that Christians are not hypocrites when they accept some killing as justified, such as in the cases of self-defense, some forms of capital punishment and just war.

The skeptic may then shift his challenge. Whether it prohibits killing or murder, how does the God of the Bible, the God of the Old Testament, justify the destruction of human life, either directly by his own hand or by ordering the ancient Israelites to wipe out certain enemies? Doesn’t that make God a hypocrite, or worse?

No, it doesn’t. There is no hypocrisy or contradiction in this setting because the rule-giver is not subject to the rules he creates. There is an unspoken premise in the challenge. We are all used to the notion that “no one is above the law.” The skeptic assumes that God occupies a position like that of a legislator. The legislator cannot commit crimes and then claim to be above the law because he wrote the law. This is so because the legislator is part of the class to whom the law is addressed and is controlling.

But God occupies a different position, because he stands above his creation. He is not one of many, who just happened to be entrusted with the power to write law. He created the power to make law, at least as far as we are concerned. As the creator of life, he has absolute authority over his creation. Common analogies to help make this point range from the classic pot maker that Paul the Apostle referred to (in Romans 9:21) to the more modern example from the world of robotics.

Imagine that I am able to master the field of artificial intelligence and place it in a series of robots. Like the character Data on Star Trek, or the Cylons of Battlestar Galactica, these creations appear human, have an active intellect and the capacity to learn and adapt. What would prevent me from assigning them to “work the mines”? If I can turn them on – give them power and “life” – by what rationale would I be prohibited from using them as I see fit, or for that matter, turning them off?

They, by contrast, would have no claim on me that I am being “hypocritical” if I order them not to turn off their fellow machines, or if I refuse to do the work I created them to do. Simply put: they are not my equal; they are instead subject to me and my creative power. Because of that power, I retain the authority, and the right, to exercise my will as it concerns them. Consequently, I can also delegate that authority by, for example, ordering Robot 1 to turn off Robots 2 through 10. Nor would this order constitute a contradiction, for the underlying rule is not “no one, including the creator, should ever turn off a robot.” The underlying rule is that “no robot shall ever turn off another robot,” at least without adequate justification. When the creator orders that robots be turned off, he is not contradicting himself.

Now, this may lead the skeptic to accuse God of unfairness, or cruelty. This challenge is more difficult, in that God gave us more capacities than the robots of my analogy. Specifically, he gave us the ability to feel, to love, to experience emotion. But these are not deficits; no rational person would prefer to lose these capacities and opt to be a heartless machine. True, people often misuse these capacities and suffer harm, and pain, as a consequence. And sometimes bad things happen that are beyond our control, and which cause us pain. But the pain need not last forever. In the end, the offer to experience love and fellowship and endless joy in the company of perfection is our to accept – or to reject.

The skeptic who calls God a hypocrite is refusing to acknowledge the actual position of the creator, and instead assuming that the creator is subject to the rules he sets for his creation.

But the skeptic refuses to answer the most basic question: just why should that be so?

Posted by Al Serrato


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Does The Sixth Commandment Prohibit All Killing?

asfThe 6th Commandment has been translated as both “thou shall not kill” (King James Version) and “thou shall not murder,” in newer versions, such as the New American Standard. Skeptics delight in such apparent contradictions, contending that Christians are either hypocritical, for not following the command to not “kill,” or are engaging in “special pleading,” if they insist that “murder” is the correct interpretation. Either way, the skeptic is likely to cry foul.

But is the skeptic’s view correct? Are we forced to concede that the Bible’s command is nonsensical, if it prohibits all killing, or that we are forcing our interpretation on it? According to scholars, the Hebrew term that was originally used – ratsach – can be translated to include a broad range of killing or slaying, encompassing intentional murder, such as predatory “lying in wait” as well as less culpable forms of killing. Looking only at the phrase or sentence which contained the term, one would be left with an undecipherable message as to what the author meant. This is true, of course, of any use of language.

Words have multiple meanings and nuances that allow us to reduce our thoughts to a medium that allows for expression and, more importantly, communication. Unfortunately, it also allows for confusion. The only solution to this confusion is context. A word that does not fit into the broader meaning of the passage is probably poorly chosen. A word that contradicts large portions of the surrounding text is probably mistakenly translated. This is not an example of special pleading, but of sound interpretation. Special pleading, by contrast, is the logical fallacy that occurs when a person seeks to apply an exception to a general rule without justifying the exception. For example, let’s suppose I claim that the deliberate taking of innocent human life is always wrong. However, I wish to make an exception for abortion, but I don’t attempt to justify why such an exception would apply. I don’t bother showing that the fetus is not human, or that it is not innocent. I would be guilty of fallacious reasoning. (This, of course, is what makes debating “pro choice” defenders difficult, as they are refusing to follow principled thinking. But, I digress.)

Now, let’s consider the difference in the verbs “to kill” and “to murder.” “To kill” is a broad term which could encompass the taking of any life form; it has no connotation with regard to the mental state of the killer, what type of life was taken, the reason for the action, or the ability to justify the act. “To murder,” by contrast, is a specific term which conveys the killer’s mental state – historically called “malice,” the taking of human as opposed to other life, the baseness of the reason and the lack of justification. Applying these concepts to the Bible, it would be nonsensical to conclude that the 6th Commandment prohibits “killing” of all kinds. After all, the people of that day killed much of what they used for food. The Author of the Old Testament commanded them to take life in certain settings, including the imposition of capital punishment in a variety of situations. Moreover, using the term to mean “to kill” would render sinful even the accidental taking of life or the taking of life in self-defense, a situation in which the defender is himself the victim of wrongful conduct.

This would essentially eliminate any notion of moral behavior, as a wrongdoer bent on killing multitudes could not justifiably be stopped with deadly force, and would be no more immoral than a person who accidentally killed someone in a moment of inattention. Understanding “ratsach” in this context to mean murder makes sense of the passage and allows it to be harmonized into the whole. It still prohibits a great deal of conduct, but the prohibition applies to the wrongfulness of the conduct. Thus, a person who accidentally takes the life of a friend through an accident no fault of his own is not considered on the same par morally with the person who lays in wait to murder his rival. This form of reasoning cannot properly be considered fallacious. It is not as if “ratsach” only meant “to kill without malice, including accidentally” and when we do not like the meaning, we invoke an unjustified exception. Instead, we are using the meaning that best comports with the overall meaning of the Bible. By contrast, the person insisting that the term be taken to mean “to kill” – ostensibly to avoid a fallacy – is committing the greater fallacy of forcing an irrational interpretation of the passage.

Posted by Al Serrato



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Should Atheism Be Considered A Cult?

sdfStories about religious cults appear pretty regularly in the news. Pastors of mainstream denominations square off with defenders of particular sects, whose adherents resent being tagged with the label “cult,” with all its negative connotations. All the while, atheists look on with bemused satisfaction, thinking themselves above the fray, shaking their heads in condescension at all the bigoted people with their small-minded views about “right thinking” who don’t realize just how irrational they really appear.

But is atheism itself a cult? A small misguided offshoot of the main group we could loosely characterize as “rational thinkers?”

A lot depends on what definition of “cult” is used? Its meaning varies: it can refer to a group bound together by the veneration of a person, ideal or thing; a group having a sacred ideology and a set of rites centering around their sacred symbols; a quasi-religious organization using devious psychological techniques to gain and control adherents.

Now, I suppose one could counter that atheists aren’t sufficiently united to be considered a cohesive group.  And no self-respecting atheist would consider their views to be even “quasi” religious, as they generally have nothing but disdain for people who “need” to invoke deities to make sense of what science, they are convinced, can explain. But the growing voice and influence of atheists is having an impact, and certain “sacred ideals and doctrines” have coalesced. Darwinism and the “separation of church and state” are two of the most prominent emerging belief-systems of this group.

As their zealousness increases, their voice amplified through the influence they exert in academia, this new breed of atheists does what it can to marginalize and belittle traditional believers. Not quite a religious “inquisition,” but similar enough in its efforts to suppress contrary views that others should take notice. In most scientific fields, and certainly in the field of biology, a scientist allowing his religious views to cause him to question the “doctrine” of Darwinism will soon find himself out of work, or otherwise marginalized. Similarly, any effort to bring to the public square a framework for morality based on transcendent principles rooted in the Bible will result in a outcry that the “wall” of separation of church and state has been breached.

Indeed, many atheists are on a “crusade” of sorts, trying through the courts and elsewhere to wipe clean the public square of any reflection of organized religious views. Crosses and commandments can be privately worshiped, but what were the Founders thinking when they didn’t write into the Constitution a prohibition of public displays? No matter that the First Amendment actually protects religious expression, this new breed of atheists will not stop until their vision of cross-less and commandment-less public areas is a reality.

In these respects, the hard-core atheists are coming to resemble the cults they disdain. Their views are peculiar and have been rejected by the vast majority of all who have ever lived, who recognize some very basic notions: that created things need creators; that repositories of information such as is found in DNA require an intelligent source; that rules of morality that we all intuitively have access to require a rule-giver that is transcendent; that life cannot magically arise from non life without some transcendent source preceding that move.

Of course, name calling doesn’t really advance an argument, so I’ll refrain from actually calling atheism a cult. But as I reflect on how the members of this group have closed their minds to these common-sense notions as they have increased the pitch and volume of their demands, I certainly have to wonder.

Posted by Al Serrato

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God Does Not Torture Souls In Hell

sffFor many skeptics, the idea that God could punish his “children” with eternal “torture” is just to much for them to accept. A non-believer with whom I once corresponded put it like this:

“The notion that hell is a place of “just” punishment is meaningless. Parents punish their children so that they will learn not to repeat undesirable behavior. The jail system isn’t even really interested in that. It is vengeance, pure and simple. And that is the problem with “hell” as most christians portray it. The only way it could be reasonable is if it were to improve people’s behavior on release. But if there is no release, it is not even punishment. It is torture. And I submit that a being who would create an eternal torture chamber does not come remotely close to embodying perfection. In fact, I would say he compares unfavorably even to Hitler who, for all his evil, could only condemn his victims to finite torment.”

Analogizing from the temporal to the eternal is difficult, if not impossible, since we have no frame of reference other than the one we occupy. How, then, do we make sense of a place in which there is no way to improve a person’s behavior on release? In which the torment that is felt is unending because there is no release?

Let’s consider for moment the analogy that is being used, that of the modern prison system. In dealing with the worst offenders, prison is meant to separate them from society, but it is also meant to punish. Both purposes are legitimate. But the punishment we speak of is, in essence, the incarceration, the very same act that accomplishes the separation. We do not first separate inmates from society and then inflict additional punishment; there are no medieval tortures that await them, no mistreatment that is deliberately inflicted to further the pain these inmates feel, no chain gangs to make their daily lives unbearable. In a very real sense, the punishment is the product of the incarceration, not an additional purpose.

Many people feel that prisons, for this very reason, do not provide adequate punishment for wrongdoers. Many feel that justice would be better served if more punishment were inflicted. But this criticism does not – indeed, cannot – apply to the eternal. Why? Because forcible separation from God is the worst thing that can befall any soul. There is nothing more to be done, nothing that could increase the pain that such a soul would experience. By the same token, there is nothing to be done that would lessen the pain; no way to make separation from the source of all that is good more bearable.

Consider for a moment of what the pain of separation consists. In a prison setting, being prevented from exercising any real control over the activities of one’s day, and one’s movement, would be bad enough. But being unable to spend time with others, being forcibly torn from one’s family and one’s closest friends – this indeed is torment. Imagine for instance a newlywed knowing that his lovely bride will be 80 before he is released. Or a new mother knowing that her vulnerable child will have to grow up without knowing her. This is anguish, pure and simple.

Move now to a still deeper level. Even for the most hardened of criminals, there are people to whom they are attached, with whom they wish to spend time, even if they are simply fellow inmates. These others have some quality, some attribute, which makes them attractive, makes them desired. That is why solitary confinement is such an extreme form of punishment.

Now, consider the soul facing eternal separation and eternal alone-ness, isolated and embittered, aware of but forcibly separated from the God against whom their rebellion rages? What a human being feels on a limited and temporal basis, such a soul feels magnified a million, a billion …. an infinity of times. And he is not contemplating separation from a limited and flawed human being, but from the source of all life, all goodness, all joy. Can we even find words to describe what infinite emptiness feels like?

No, God does not actively torture people in hell. But he does not change His nature to suit those who shake their fist at Him. The separation that He imposes, just though it is, is a horrible thing indeed. But it is not torture; it is the nature of things.

Posted by Al Serrato


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5 Quick Points on the Abortion Debate


1. The issue of abortion can be a psychologically complex issue, but it doesn’t follow from this that it is a morally complex issue: it’s wrong to take the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.

2. One of the first questions that must be addressed in the abortion debate is this: What is the unborn? If the unborn is a human being, no justification for elective abortion is adequate. If the unborn is not a human being, no justification for elective abortion is necessary.

3. Pro-abortion choice advocates commonly make two mistakes when arguing their position: (1) they assume the unborn is not a human being and/or (2) they disqualify the unborn from being a valuable human being based on an arbitrary quality or characteristic, such as size, level of development, environment, or degree of dependency.

4. A strong case for the pro-life view can be made based on science and philosophy. Science tells us that a distinct, living, and whole human being is brought into existence at conception. A sound philosophical argument helps articulate why the pro-abortion choice position should be rejected on moral grounds:

A. It is morally wrong to intentionally take the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.
B. Elective abortion intentionally takes the life of an innocent human being without proper justification.
C. Therefore, elective abortion is morally wrong.

By “elective abortion” it is meant those abortions not necessary to save the life of the mother.

5. What made political liberalism great was a commitment to protect the most vulnerable members of the human community. The pro-life view is the truly liberal position since it is inclusive and seeks to protect the smallest, weakest, most vulnerable human beings: the unborn. Despite this, the pro-abortion choice position has unfortunately become the official platform of the Democratic Party, contributing to the tragedy of 55 million unborn who have lost their lives since Roe v. Wade in 1973.

Thanks to Scott Klusendorf, Greg Koukl, and Alan Shlemon from whom I have taken most of the information in these points.

Posted by Aaron

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Is Man’s Nature Basically Good?

frI once had a friend who liked to play an interesting game of “what super power would you prefer?” He would ask, for instance, whether it would be better to have the ability to fly or the ability to, say, read people’s minds. Whichever one you picked, he would quickly point out the negatives that might come with that choice, and often the two possibilities he selected were, to say the least, bizarre.

I thought about that game a while ago while watching an episode of the TV show “Fringe.” Unfolding a story of parallel universes in conflict, the show plays out a variety of unusual events. The episode I was watching involved a person who had been experimented upon as a child, and as a result had developed the capacity to read people’s minds. What may have started off as a super power, however, quickly turned into a liability. Since other people’s thoughts would flood into his mind from a distance of 50 or so feet, he had been forced to become essentially a hermit, living in isolation as far away from society as he possibly could. The power had become a curse.

Most people would agree that the ability to read minds would be terrifying. Of course, there are legitimate reasons for this: the white lie we tell when we really don’t think someone looks nice would be unnecessarily hurtful. Things like bargaining for the best deal or playing poker would be impossible. But the real reason is that each of us knows the inner turmoil that lies within us – the conflicting, and often quite base, emotions warring within our minds for dominance, and worse yet, for expression. Jealousy, hatred, greed, envy, the desire for power and dominance – this ugly aspect of our basic nature must be daily suppressed, or channeled into some more appropriate expression. Drugs, alcohol and fatigue become the enemy, as each alone, and worse in combination, can lower the walls of self-restraint that, for most of us most of the time, imprison these demons in the recesses of our minds.

In my last post, I asked the question if man is basically “good,” as secular humanism holds, or basically fallen and broken, as Christianity teaches. This is an important question, because a worldview out of sync with the true nature of things is likely to lead its adherents very far astray. And secular humanism, with its utopian promises, is doing just that, as it leads people away from the true source of life. Seeing clearly man’s inner corruption can help shake off the creeping influence of this godless worldview.

But, some will object, man is capable of great acts of goodness. Does this not show that man is at his core good? Yes, it is true that many people do “good” in the world. But what is really in their heart? How many times are those acts motivated by some other, baser desire? How many times is the act of good an offering of penance, whether knowingly or not, for the guilt that is bubbling constantly to the surface of our thoughts? Why is it that despite advances in psychology that seek to eliminate these pervasive feelings of guilt, guilt remains a universal feature of the human condition? Is it, perhaps, that each of us knows something is expected of us that we refuse to deliver, and how often we fall short of the mark? Is it that we know that despite all our “good” works, there is something else within us that we cannot quite control?

If someone could read minds, he would not find a world full of people experiencing peace and contentment, with the occasional person struggling to force some evil thought to the surface. Quite the contrary: he would find the vast majority of people pursuing their selfish agenda, sometimes doing good but always measuring what they are getting against what they are giving. Even the philanthropist is in part motivated by the pleasure he derives from public praise. The mind-reader would find people quick to take offense and slow to forgive, nursing wounds real and imaginary, though some are more adept at hiding this than others. That’s what makes a saint so unusual, and so worthy of emulation. Yes, selfish concern is the norm, and the process of civilizing a person involves teaching him to think about others first. That process is so difficult precisely because it is so against the grain.

As the old radio drama put it, who knows what evil lurks within the heart of men? And lurk it does, ready to take advantage of any chink in the armor of self control that most of us need to assemble as we take on the challenges of life. The answer is simple: God, of course, knows. Omniscient by nature, he knows our every thought. Our constant acts of rebellion we cannot hide, nor disguise. He sees our corruption with stark clarity, and though we can lie to ourselves, we cannot deceive Him. And nonetheless, He finds a way to continue to love us and to reach out to us. But he does so on His terms. We cannot approach Him and ask Him to embrace the evil that we do. Instead, with humble hearts, we need to acknowledge that justice would require that He separate himself from us. As a perfectly holy being, it would make perfect sense for Him to do so.

That is the danger of the humanistic worldview. When one mistakenly believes that he is basically good, he doesn’t need a Savior. What point is there in prostrating oneself at the foot of the Cross, when standing eye-to-eye with God feels so much better? The Christian worldview, by contrast, makes better sense of what we actually see. Man needs a savior, because at his core is a corruption that he cannot himself remedy. Though we may try to hide it from others, we can’t help knowing this, if we’re ever honest enough for a no-punches-pulled self-assessment.

Posted by Al Serrato

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What Children Show Us About Our Nature

sfeMost non-believers will tell you that man is basically “good.” When he acts against that basic goodness, it’s the result of disease – such as alcoholism, drug addiction or some form of mental illness. These, in turn, stem from a failure of society to reach out and provide the right kind of assistance and services. If only we as a society could do more, spend more, provide more, we could eventually create the kind of utopia that “good” people populate.

Christianity, by contrast, teaches a much different worldview. Long ago, the first man and woman exercised their free will to rebel against God, and in so doing created a rift between man and God that continues to this day. Though man has a certain inherent goodness, because he bears the image of God, he is at present broken, corrupted, fallen – and he manifests that fallen nature in a way that we see quite starkly. Christians have a name of this manifestation – sin. It afflicts, and motivates, all of us, and no one can escape its pull. Not without divine help, anyway.

These contrasting worldviews cannot both be correct. And depending on which view you accept, your response to the good news of the Gospel will be different. “Good” people who simply need more education and more refinement don’t need a Savior; they can do just fine on their own – and with a little help from society. But fallen and corrupted people – even well-intentioned ones – are not going to be able to pull themselves up by their bootstraps. Their nature, constantly at war with the good that is within them, needs to be recast – remade in the image of the God who made them and left them here.

Is there a way to “prove” which view is correct? How can we reliably determine what man is like in his natural state? First, we need to get our minds around what we mean by terms like “good” or “evil.” I would suggest a simple definition: what we recognize as “good” in other people is the product of an intentional effort at selflessness. Whether its sacrificial love, working for charity or simply a random act of kindness – what we experience as “good” is an act directed to the benefit of the other. By contrast, what we see as evil is an act directed at satisfying within oneself a base or selfish end. The quests for power, for recognition, for material wealth, for dominance – all these things drive people to ignore the harm inflicted as they climb on the backs of those who stand in their way.

Now, with this basic concept in mind, what can we see from examining man in his most primitive state? I don’t mean primitive as in caveman, but as in newborn. Spend even a little time with infants and toddlers and you’ll see some very basic features emerge. Each views himself as the center of the universe and expects his parents, and the other kids around him, to treat him accordingly. With each passing month, the willfulness of the child’s behavior becomes increasingly apparent: from every fiber of his being, he is shouting “I want things my way!” Whether it’s food or drink, when and how he wants it; his mother’s attention; or his playmates toys, a developing child’s “me-focus” is readily on display. And if his will is thwarted, there is no resort to reason – a temper tantrum is the predictable result.

Now, some might object that children are innocent and cannot be described as bad or broken, or worse yet, evil. They might point out that children are free from the biases and prejudices that sour many adult relationships. But this objection misses my point. I would not describe children as evil either, because evil implies a level of awareness of the harm one is doing, and a small child does not yet appreciate the consequences of his behavior. But the child’s behavior is reflective of the way his mind operates, and unless a parent applies discipline and training to bend the will to a proper orientation, a spoiled, self-centered adolescent will emerge.

Consider: no parents ever have to train their child to give up his positive and sunny disposition and be more critical of others; they don’t need to punish their children for sharing too much and instead teach them to rip their toys out of the hands of their playmates; they don’t need to insist that a child stop thinking so much about what he can do for his parents – “Can’t I wash the dishes or sweep the deck? I really don’t have anything else to do?” No, for every child, the process of “civilizing” is a process of moving from a me-centered selfishness to an other-centered effort to get along.

Children don’t have the insight yet to seek to change their ways, to live more cooperatively and altruistically. Their parents’ job is to teach them – to help them move from their inherent fallenness to a state which is not quite natural to us, a state in which we are intentional about trying to do good. The non-believer can also do good. But by rejecting God as the source of true goodness, he remains in defiance to God. He refuses to see his need for a Savior to finish the job of making him good. He refuses to bend his will to God. It is no coincidence that the Bible speaks of becoming a “slave” to Christ. For in the end, it is only by bending to Him – by dying to ourselves as we look outward to others in order to better serve Him – that we can eventually find the solution to our problem.

Believing that we are basically good flies in the face of the reality of what we truly are. It stands in the way of our crying out for the Savior who alone as the power to restore us. Observing children in their natural condition can help give us a better picture of ours. This is one of the few lessons that we should allow our children to teach us.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Can Christianity Really Be The Only Way? Part 2

sssMany skeptics believe that all religions are basically the same. If there is an afterlife, they surmise, all that will be required for admission is that you live a “good” life and be “sincere” about your beliefs. My last post offered reasons from the observation of nature that should cause the skeptic some, well, skepticism about this view that all who are “good” and “sincere” will find a place in heaven.

In short, it seems to me that a study of nature actually leads to the contrary conclusion: if nature is our guide to knowledge, then the Author of nature seems to be teaching that getting it right is what matters. Sincerely believing that you can defy gravity won’t count for much if you step off the side of a building, no matter how good a life you’ve lived up til then.

Nature provides many other examples of this lesson. Consider for a moment the way nutrition works. There are a variety of food groups that can provide nourishment, and considerable variety within each food group. Proteins, dairy products, fruits, grains, vegetables – each of these groups has something to add to a person’s total nutrition. When taken in the right balance, the person will experience normal growth to adulthood, plenty of energy and overall good health. But when one or more elements is lacking, a person’s health can be severely impacted. Take for instance the disease known as scurvy, brought on by the absence of citrus fruits in a person’s diet. Many an ancient sailor experienced this lesson the hard way, suffering a variety of physical disabilities that led to a painful death.

Notice that nature does not seem to care how a person was raised. If they learned to eat poorly in their childhood, nature does not take that into consideration in attaching a consequence. Nor is nature concerned with how sincere a person is in believing that his diet is good for him. When medical experts of the ’50’s assured their patients that smoking was good for them, that did not make smoking any less harmful. Those who study nature should realize that with more education and knowledge, we move beyond what we once believed as we try to conform our beliefs, and our behavior, with the way things really are.

To the thoughtful person then, eating should not be about what dishes he grew up on or about what food makes him feel “good.” Most people find chocolate to be quite tasty, and it’s known to lift one’s mood. But if chocolate becomes a staple item in place of, say, vegetables, then one’s health will soon decline. This result will occur regardless of how many experts advise it and regardless of how sincerely the person believes that chocolate can take the place of beans or broccoli. Though considerable variation exists, we cannot eat just anything and if we’re smart, we should concern ourselves with finding that right balance of items that will best sustain good health.

Finding this right balance, of course, can be difficult. There is no shortage of “experts” who will tell you that only they have the answers. Yet try we must, for our health hangs in the balance. It would make little sense for us to throw up our hands in frustration and say that these competing “experts” can’t all be right, so we’ll just keep eating the way we want to, or the way we were raised to, and hope for the best. No, seeking answers and moving closer to “getting it right” are what any thoughtful person should do.

How does this relate to apologetics? When dealing with a skeptic, the believer often encounters apathy. Most skeptics just don’t care what Christianity has to say, because they have uncritically accepted the notion that all belief systems are equal. By analogy, they have rejected the idea that some foods are good and some are bad, and replaced it: most people eat what they grew up eating; who are you to say that chocolate isn’t as good as broccoli or fish?; I don’t believe in citrus fruits; you’re so intolerant when you think you know what a healthy diet is? Sound familiar?

Perhaps a discussion of nature might be persuasive, because skeptics often believe that it is only through the study of nature – through science – that any real knowledge can be obtained. That study should lead to the conclusion that nature is quite a harsh professor. It doesn’t grade on a curve and it doesn’t give partial credit for making a good effort. There is an order to life and to nature, and one must live within that order or suffer some very real, and often very nasty, consequences.

As a Christian, I can take comfort that the Author of nature has provided a rescue plan that makes my choice easy, and my work light. Yes, nature is harsh as a result of man’s rebellion, but I have a rescuer who can and will restore what has been broken. There may be a variety of denominations, and there may be differences in some doctrines, but in the end there is one path to reconnecting with God – it is by placing one’s trust and faith in Jesus and his saving work. Like many who came before me, I can take great comfort in the knowledge that the heavy lifting has been done for me. But where does the naturalist find comfort when studying the workings of nature? And if nature is this harsh in the here and now, why in the world should the skeptic conclude that it will be any different in the hereafter?

No, the wise choice is to discard this foolish notion that all religions are the same and that all paths lead to God. Better answers are out there, but you’ll never find them if you never start looking.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Can Christianity Really Be The Only Way?

asMost skeptics I know feel pretty confident that all religions “say basically the same thing.” If there actually is a God, they’re not particularly worried, because in their view, “being a good person” is really all that matters. As long as you are “sincere” in your beliefs, whether you’re Muslim, Christian, Hindu or a member of your own individual religion, it will turn out fine in the end. Many go so far as to say that they simply “won’t believe” in a God who warns of a narrow path to salvation.

This view has always struck me as particularly odd, coming as it often does from people who subscribe to a view that nature is all there is, and that science is the best way to attain knowledge. It’s odd because neither nature nor science operates in this fashion. Neither cares about the sincerity of one’s views and beliefs, and neither cares about what led someone into the position he or she currently holds about the way things really are. What matters is whether the person is getting it right. After all, stepping off a cliff will result in a nasty fall, regardless of whether the unfortunate soul knows or cares that there is a cliff in front of him and regardless of how sincerely he believes the cliff is not really there.

Consider another example from the natural realm. You awake one morning with a crushing weight on your chest. You’re sweating and short of breath, and pain begins to shoot down your arm. It quickly occurs to you that these are the symptoms of a heart attack, so you dial 911 and soon find yourself in route to a hospital. But a surprise awaits you there. You have a choice of several doors. Behind one is a primitive medicine man, ready to bring you comfort and healing with various incantations and potions. Behind another is an ancient herbalist. Knowing what compounds result in what physical effects, he plans on using a variety of roots and extracts to restore health. Behind a third is a hypnotist, who believes that your symptoms are the product of anxiety, and that clearing away some of the baggage of your past will eliminate both your physical and mental pain. And behind the fourth, is a gruff, unfriendly and disinterested surgeon who tells you that your coronary arteries have collapsed and that without a bypass operation, you will soon be dead.

A frightening prospect one hopes never to face. But imagine for a moment what considerations will be going through your mind: the pain is real and intense and growing stronger with each passing moment. You need help, someone who can save you. Before today, you cared very little about healers or hypnotists or herbalists, nor much for surgeons either. Each, you believe, has something to offer, something he or she can contribute, and each is right in his or her own way. But right now, you don’t care what makes the four similar; what matters is what makes them different. Will each be just as effective in saving you, and if not, which one can best deal with the particular problem you are facing?

Their individual sincerity doesn’t matter. Nor does the confidence that they express that their approach will work. The medicine man may seem more confident than the surgeon, who tells you what the risks are. But confidence and sincerity don’t guarantee that a person’s views correspond to reality. What matters here is basic: which one actually has the solution to your problem. The herbalist and hypnotist might solve some problems, but your particular problem needs a surgeon. Because nature doesn’t care about what you like or don’t like.

Of course none of this proves that Christianity is true, or that Jesus Christ is the “surgeon” that you need. But that is not the point. In the example, the crushing weight could not be ignored. For us, the prospect of death can be ignored, at least for a while. But every thoughtful person knows that it awaits in the end. Here we deal not with possibilities or probabilities, but with dead (excuse the pun) certainty. No matter how hard we try to avoid it, we have a “problem” that we can’t avoid forever.

Christianity explains the source of the problem. Man has rebelled against his Creator and is now paying a price for that rebellion. Eternal separation from God – from the source of all goodness and power and love – is the necessary consequence of that rebellion. But there is a solution, a particular way that God has provided through which we can get right with Him. Through the centuries, this belief has offended many, who view it as exclusive, small-minded and unfair. But having a heart attack is “unfair” and so is dying. Reality can be quite harsh at times.

So next time a naturalist tells you that, if there is a God, he will certainly accept “good” people, ask him where in the world he got that notion. Nature itself stands in testimony to the fact that surviving requires more than wishful thinking – it requires that you actually get things right.

Posted by Al Serato

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Why Our Beliefs Count More Than Our Actions

fffFor many atheists, no amount of argument will ever convince them that a loving God could consign any of His creation to Hell. One such challenger put his objection like this:

“It does not matter how just, kind, and generous they have been with their fellow humans during their lifetime: if they do not accept the gospel of Jesus, they are condemned. No just God would ever judge a man by his beliefs rather than his actions.”

It is difficult, if not impossible, to provide a satisfying answer to this challenge. After all, even for believers, the doctrine of hell is difficult, and goes against our own inclinations – to forgive ourselves, to lessen our own culpability, to judge ourselves as “basically good.” It’s only by resort to Scripture, and a bit of philosophy, that we affirm that a just God must have a place of punishment if there is to be such a thing as free will.

A “just” God does justice, which means to punish or reward appropriately. In the Western tradition, we punish people for the actions they commit, but the extent of punishment is dependent also on the person’s mental state, and a person’s mental state is reflective of his or her beliefs. Premeditated murder is worse than manslaughter, and is punished more severely, and a hate crime is a sentencing enhancement that adds more punishment to the underlying crime. In both examples, a person’s beliefs are at play: the premeditated murderer has reflected on his choices and wants the victim dead; a hate crime reflects a belief that the rights of a member of the protected group are especially unworthy of respect. So, considering a person’s beliefs may well be relevant, especially if those beliefs have motivated the criminal behavior.

But the challenger’s mistake is even more fundamental. He is wrong to assert that people are condemned for not accepting the gospel. Christians believe that people are condemned for their sinful behavior – the “wages of sin is death” – not for what they fail to do. The quoted challenge is like saying that the sick man died of “not going to the doctor.” No, the person died of a specific condition – perhaps cancer or a heart attack – which a doctor might have been able to cure. So too with eternal punishment. No one is condemned for refusing to believe in Jesus. While Jesus can – and does – provide salvation for those who seek it, there is nothing unjust about not providing salvation to those who refuse to seek it. After all, we don’t normally feel obliged to help someone who has not asked for, and does not want, our assistance. So too the Creator has the right to withhold a gift – i.e. eternity spent in His presence – from those who would trample on the gift, and on the gift-giver.

The quoted assertion also demonstrates an unspoken belief that we can impress God with our “kind” or “generous” behavior. This fails to grasp what God is – a perfect being. We cannot impress Him. What we do right we should do. We don’t drag people into court and reward them for not committing crimes. This is expected of them. They can’t commit a murder and then claim that punishment is unfair, because they had been kind and generous in the past. When a person gets his mind around the idea of what perfection entails, trying to impress a perfect Creator with our “basic goodness” no longer seems like such a good option.

So, in the end, we find ourselves in a predicament. We use our free will to rebel against our Creator, but we want Him to accept this rebellion, and us, with “no questions asked.” When God judges us, He finds us wanting in both our actions and our beliefs. But in His goodness, He also provides a solution to our problem, a bridge that gaps the divide that exists between us and Him. There is nothing unfair in any of this.
After all, entry onto that bridge is free, and available to everyone.
But we must first want to cross over.

Posted by Al Serrato

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We Don’t Need Complete Knowledge to Know God

asdIn my last post, I made the comment that as limited beings, we could never fully know the mind of a perfect Creator. I said that because, I think, a proper sense of humility requires that we acknowledge our limitations. If we start off our study of theology with the presupposition that complete knowledge of God is somehow possible, we will in the end be disappointed. Complete knowledge is simply not attainable.

A challenger commented on my statement by saying:

“if this is true, then all modes of worship and ideas about gods must be thrown out as imperfect and more likely error ridden. There is no way to live your life around guesses so better to live as if there’s no god and be the best person that you can be.”

The reasoning employed here is faulty in a number of respects, and as apologists, it is important to be able to recognize, and point out, where the challenger’s thinking is going astray.

Let’s begin with the conclusion: there is, of course, nothing wrong with being the “best person that you can be.” But what does “best” mean? In common usage, “best” is simply the superlative form of “good.” Products are often rated “good,” “better,” and “best.” Measuring “good” requires us to have some notion of the function of the thing in question: a laptop that doesn’t turn on would not be a “good” computer, though it might pass muster as a paper weight. Calling it “good” because it kept papers in place on the desk would sound silly though, as everyone knows what the function of a laptop is. What makes a car “good?” Great gas mileage, power and speed, or freedom from breakdowns? Again, it would depend on the use to which it is designed to be put. Perhaps a balance of all three for the average driver; an optimized blending of characteristics.

When we apply this inquiry to human beings, how does one know whether he is living his “best” life? Should he measure it by worldly success, by wealth, by the number of friends he has? Does “best” change depending on the person? On his stage of life? On his preferences?

It doesn’t take much reflection to see that the challenger is offering no guidance at all. The whole point of the religious enterprise is to get at the mind of the one who designed us and who left us here for some purpose. Understanding what he wants from us is the main way – the only way – for us to determine whether the lives we are living are “good,” let alone “best.”

But the challenger doesn’t believe this is possible for limited beings. He responds with a false dichotomy: either we can know fully the mind of an infinite being, or we should “throw out” as imperfect and “error ridden” all modes of worship; it is better, in his view, to live as if there is no god.

This may be the conclusion the challenger wishes to reach, but logic does not support it. Examples abound all around us. I have a rough idea of how this computer I am using operates. I could provide a general explanation and probably not be too far off the mark. But move into any real detail, and my lack of knowledge would soon become evident. I certainly could not take it apart or rebuild it from scratch. What conclusion should I draw from this? Because I cannot fully know the mind of the computer designer, or the intricacies of the computer hardware, am I better off living as if there were no computer? How about the electricity that powers it? Should I start lighting candles and turning off the power because I lack a detailed understanding of how transformers and circuit breakers work?

Complete knowledge of a subject is never necessary in order for the student to have gained something useful from the acquisition of knowledge. And moving closer and closer to the truth about a subject will often increase our power. Faced with limited knowledge of the workings of a computer, I am better off learning more about it, and thereby increase its usefulness, than I am in pretending that it really doesn’t work, simply because I can’t know fully how it works.

So too with the most important subject of all: the one that involves the study of who left us here, and why? Learning more about Him, and want he wants from us, is not just a “good” move. It’s the very “best” one we can make.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Did God Know What Would Happen In The Garden?

mnSome of the most fascinating science fiction plots involve time travel. Our minds are naturally intrigued, and ultimately confused, by the concept of how and why things play out the way they do, and what, if anything, could be done to change the flow of history. If we could go back in time, could we alter our present by tinkering with the past, or would a new timeline in some parallel universe result? We will never know.

Sometimes, believers too get caught up in inquiries regarding what might have been. Recently, a believer posed this question about God and his plan for mankind:
Wouldn’t God have known what would happen in the Fall?If he knew why did he go through with making us? With making the tree?

Because limited beings can never fully know the mind of a perfect Creator, the only correct answer to this question is probably “We’ll never know… at least not in this life.” However, considering the attributes of God that we do know and recognize, we can try to make some sense of the state of affairs in which humanity finds itself.

As Christians, we believe God to be omnipotent and omniscient. Stated another way, we believe that there is nothing beyond God’s power or beyond his knowledge. All things that are capable of being done, He can do, and all things that are knowable, He knows. There is nothing doable or knowable that is beyond His reach. Consequently, He must have known of the Fall and that the first two humans would “eat of fruit of the tree.” As limited and temporal beings, our minds cannot really grasp what foreknowledge entails. The passage of time, in the sense that we experience it, is a limitation. We move in one direction only; we see only dimly the past and the future is at best an exercise of our imaginations. While God may be in some sense temporal, time – as we experience it – could not limit His potentiality. For God, all things must exist in an eternal present, which His omniscience allows Him to access without limitation.

We recognize that God has given us “free will,” but what exactly this means is not entirely clear. There are certainly things that we cannot will to do, such as reading another person’s thoughts; there are other things that we have no desire to do, such as living in conditions that are hostile to life; and still other things of which we are unaware, so that willing them is not even contemplated. In short, our will is not unfettered. Whatever limited set of choices He gave us, they are meaningful to Him as it relates to love. Love, as we know, must be freely given and received to have any value. So, if we are to share an eternal loving relationship with Him, we must be sufficiently free to make that choice real.

The tree, whether real or figurative, is obviously one of the choices God gave us that mattered to Him. To “love” Him meant – and continues to mean – to recognize that as God, He is entitled to our respect, our obedience, our worship. When we put other things first – when we put ourselves and our desires first – we sin against Him.

So, knowing where our free nature would lead us, why did He nonetheless create us? Why did He create beings who in their nature could not, on their own, fulfill His expectations? Who needed to be saved by Him, but first needed to be prompted by Him to even want salvation?

The answer has eluded the greatest minds, and no doubt always will. I think the most we can say here is that, consistent with his nature, he had perfectly adequate reasons. My suspicion is that those who are saved are where they belong, having freely consented to the work God eventually does in them. Those, by contrast, who are not saved – who spend eternity apart from God, have freely chosen to die in rebellion against him; they too are where they belong.

In other words, I can only trust that a perfect God has effectuated His plan for salvation in a perfectly fair way.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Discussing Eternal Life With a Skeptic

ssI was discussing ultimate things with an atheist friend and the topic of eternal life arose. She seemed quite indifferent to the whole concept, so I tried to hone in with a specific question:
“Do you desire eternal life? Do you feel something inside of you longing for life that is full and robust and filled with relationships, where you have time to do all the things you want, where your physical health remains perfect, with no end? I think the answer must be yes – that all rational people feel this, but I really am not sure how you will answer it.”
She sidestepped: “How about ‘maybe’ or only with certain conditions. Does eternal life have a single meaning? How come you get to decide what the meaning of eternal life is?”

Her response surprised me. I assumed that everyone shared a similar positive view of “eternal” life. Her question about why I get to decide confused me. I responded:
“Okay. I think I get you now. You mean that your desire for eternal life would depend on what that entailed? You’re thinking that you can imagine scenarios where perhaps oblivion would be preferable? I hope I don’t come off as arrogant,” I said. “I don’t ‘get to decide’ what eternal life is. I simply have a frame of reference that I’m seeing the world from, so at first I didn’t see that you were viewing it differently. In my frame of reference, eternal life isn’t something I acquire; its something I already have. That’s both good and bad news. The good news is obvious: this feeling that there is never enough time and that I always desire to have more time will get fulfilled; the bad news is that I may not like my circumstances.

For instance, if I embark on a life of crime or drug addiction, I will eventually reap what I sow – nature has consequences built into it – and the place I find myself might not be pleasant. So too is eternal life, in my view. The ‘I’ part of me is eternal, even though my current body is not. That’s why I say that I ‘have’ a body and not that I ‘am’ a body. Even linguistically, we realize that the ‘I’ part of us is something different – something ephemeral – from the physical part of us.

So therein lies the reason for my question to you. How can you be indifferent about such a question? I know you will say that no one has the answers, but don’t you think its worth an investigation? To satisfy yourself that you really can’t know? Take my drugs example. Since you’re young and healthy, you might be able to abuse drugs for quite some time, but it wouldn’t be a smart move for you to say that you really don’t care what effect it will have on you in 20 years. Looking down the road to the consequence of our choices is something we all need to do.”

Apparently not. At least not in her view. She responded:

“No, I don’t think it’s worth my investigation. I also don’t think I should spend my time investigating UFO’s, zombies, or Big Foot. I hate things that require lots of time and thought where you are virtually guaranteed not to accomplish anything or get a definitive answer.”

“Of course,” I responded, “the obvious difference is that you will never meet a UFO, a zombie or a big foot, but you will face the question of what comes when this life draws to a close. And concluding before examining the evidence that you won’t accomplish anything or get an answer stands in pretty stark contrast to millions and millions of people who have concluded that the opposite is in fact true.”

She wasn’t impressed:
“Well,” she said, “you are assuming people meet God; that’s a pretty big leap too. Who do you know who has met him? And I think most believers do so blindly; I don’t believe most of those people do any scholarly inquiry and draw conclusions based on evidence. They believe what they raised on, like me, or what they want to believe.”

“The fact that people believe what they were raised to believe,” I countered, “does not amount to a real argument. It’s a variant of the genetic fallacy. You’re trying to prove why believers might be wrong – they just were raised that way – without first proving that they are wrong. So, if I told you that I believed the earth was flat, and I was raised that way, you wouldn’t just shrug your shoulders and say I’m entitled to that belief. You would show me evidence that the earth is round and expect me to use reason to conform my view to the evidence. If I told you that you were entitled to that belief but you just believed it because you were raised by some round earthers and you never saw the whole earth so you couldn’t really know, then… you’d start to see how I feel.”

“One last analogy. 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 those 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 its really bad for you. You respond, ‘see, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe. Plus, other things can kill me too, so why should I worry about cigarettes? Or, maybe you say that even if I am right, you’ll be one of the lucky ones who won’t be hurt by it.

Do you see 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?”

Again, she didn’t bite:
“Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad/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. At one time it would have been totally unacceptable to all of society for a mother to work and put a child in daycare 10 hours a day. Now, 10 hours of daycare is the norm. I get that most people think that daycare schedule is fine, but I don’t. I make up my own mind by doing what feels right. Have you ever considered that the answer doesn’t matter? Maybe the search is the whole point and maybe I am done already and you’re just slow.

I don’t think you can prove God like you can prove that the world is round. To prove the world was really round and have everyone believe, we needed real-time pictures from space. Bring me a picture of God and we’ll talk.”

I made one last attempt:

“These are good examples of things that change, but I hope you can see from them that there must be a ‘right’ answer. The right answer might be ‘it doesn’t matter.’ For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. 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. Same thing with child care: it may not irreparably harm your child to put her in daycare 10 hours a day, but your position is more than just a ‘feeling.’ So, the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like I’m smoking with my kids in the room? All questions are not of equal importance.

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.”

But she really didn’t see… at least not yet.

Posted by Al Serrato

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What Do Faith, Hope and Love Have In Common?

fdsTalk to an atheist about faith, and you’re likely to get an eye-roll. To most, faith is roughly synonymous with superstition, a subject not befitting of modern, science-oriented people. In fact, most skeptics will argue that faith is an obstacle to intellectual progress, a departure from reason into irrationality. Since the apologist’s goal is to introduce the skeptic to the Christian faith, we are oftentimes doomed to failure before we begin.

In his first letter to the Corinthians, the Apostle Paul speaks of “faith, hope and love” abiding, and says that the greatest of these is love. This got me thinking recently about what these concepts mean, and why it is that they “abide” or “last forever.” The more I reflected on them, the more I realized that each is a built-in feature of the human mind. We are designed for relationship and we all seek love and acceptance. To be emotionally healthy, we need to love and to be loved. Similarly, we seem to have within us a natural desire for a future that is, in at least some respect, better than the present. We “hope” for this future, while doing what we can to achieve it. Hope is so central to the human experience that when we encounter someone who lacks “hope,” we inevitably see a disturbance in the person’s thinking, and where hope is completely absent, we will see despair and sadly quite often, suicide. Faith too is a natural function. We have faith – trust – in the airplane in which we fly, even though we do not have the ability, nor the means, to examine it. We trust that the medicine the doctor has provided will help, not hurt, us. As limited beings, we cannot possibly know all there is to know. In order to live, we have to place our trust, our faith, in things for which we can never have complete knowledge; our faith finds support in what we do know – the airline’s safety record or the doctor’s qualifications – even though the ultimate thing is beyond the reach of our knowledge.

The modern secularist no doubt shares the Christian’s view that love and hope are two key elements of the human mind. But faith, by contrast, is a concept that they view as unnecessary. They believe that they can, and should, dispense with it, the way one might shake off a primitive superstition. So the first step an apologist must take is to convince the skeptic that not only is faith a natural feature of the mind, but that it is something we all use every day. The question is not faith versus science, but rather what is the object in which we place our faith.

A good beginning is to settle on an accurate definition of faith. I would suggest a definition of “faith” that the above examples demonstrate – as the act of trusting in something that one cannot know with complete certainty. It contains an action part – trusting – and a standard of proof part, for lack of a better term – the degree of certainty one attaches to his or her conclusion. The opposite of faith is not reason; it is disbelief. In other words, to lack faith in something is to believe that the opposite of it is probably true.

Reason, by contrast, is not an act of trusting; it is act of thinking, a process by which one derives conclusions based on evaluating evidence that is received through the senses. It can be inductive or deductive; it can be sound or fallacious. But in the end, it is simply a tool that one has access to through the use of the mind, much like the tool of vision, hearing, or language acquisition. These things are simply available to any human being with a normally functioning mind. The opposite of reason, then, is not faith; it is irrationality.

Far from being opposites, reason and faith coexist in a continuum, in which knowledge moves from things that are definitely known through observable evidence (trust with high certainty) to things that are not definitely known but highly likely to be true (trust with less certainty) to matters that are entirely speculative and can be taken only “on faith” (trust with little or nothing to support it).

The decision to fly in a plane serves to illustrate the point. No one can know with certainty that the plane will safely carry them. Sitting back in the seat as it takes off is the kind of act which can be characterized as trust in action, or faith. If the plane is a commercial jetliner from a reputable company, and one studies the physics of flight, one’s degree of confidence should increase. If, by contrast, the plane is in a state of disrepair with a drunk pilot, faith that it will successfully fly will be diminished. In either case, if one chooses to act, one is placing faith in the object in question. What he should be concerned with is not whether reason is better than faith, but with the reasons that support the faith.

In the end, faith in God, like any other conclusion a person reaches, is always the product of reason based on evidence, because reason is simply the only way anyone can arrive at a conclusion. What distinguishes sound faith from foolish faith is the strength of the evidence that supports the conclusion and the validity of the reasoning process that was used.

Perhaps if the skeptic can see that faith is not the enemy of reason, one can begin the process of trying to show why placing one’s trust in Christ is the best decision a person can make.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Do Christians Have Overactive Imaginations?

asdA recent comment to one of my blog posts included an interesting analogy. The writer compared discussions between theists and atheists to Wile E Coyote cartoons, with the theists getting to play the Roadrunner:
As he explained:

You see, in the cartoon, the central gag is that the laws of physics apply to the coyote, but not to the Roadrunner. The Roadrunner can step off a cliff, stand in midair, taunt the coyote, and then race across to the other side. If the coyote tries it, the laws of physics kick in and he’s met with a long whistling fall and a dramatic splat at the bottom of the canyon.

So it is with theists and atheists. Theists live in their imaginations and have no respect of logic or the laws of the physical laws of the universe. The laws of physics are more like conveniences to them. When it servers their purpose they will quote them, but the minute they contradict what they believe, they happily toss logic and reason out the window. If the atheist raises a logical contradiction, or points out an impossibility according to the laws of physics, the theists shrugs their shoulders and says, “it’s a miracle, God can do anything”. They are not bound by the laws of physics within their own minds and imaginations and they’ve taken that to believe that neither is the rest of the universe.

There’s no arguing with that. You can’t have a logical debate with someone who has no respect for logic. Just when you think you have them pinned down and there’s no logical way out of it, much like the Roadrunner, they toss logic and the laws of physics to the wind and ignore everything you said.

You can’t have a debate if both sides can’t agree to the ground rules. Theists imagine anything is possible simply because they have an imagination that can dream up anything they want. Atheists realize that isn’t the case. But in most cases atheists haven’t realized this fundamental flaw. They keep thinking that if they only try hard enough, if they only go back to the drawing board one more time, that they can design the perfect logical argument which the Roadrunner… I mean, theists… cannot escape.

This is a clever comparison, one that many atheists may believe is true. But does it stand up to scrutiny? The kind of scrutiny that the challenger claims to believe in?

1. Do Christians live in their imaginations? Some may, of course, but Christian positions are not imaginary ones. Christian doctrine is not that Jesus was a cartoon, some Casper the Ghost figure who can move through buildings and has other super powers. In fact, Christians don’t attempt to explain how God altered the observable laws of nature – they just conclude that he did, because dead men don’t return to life. It is not a resort to imagination to conclude that there are things we cannot explain; it is the reflection of a proper sense of humility, especially as we realize the immense power and intelligence of the being who “thought” into existence a universe of this size and complexity.

2. Do Christians lack respect for logic or the physical laws of the universe? “Logic” is simply the method of reasoning that governs correct or reliable inferences. It encompasses certain rules, such as if A= B and B= C, then A= C. The “physical laws of the universe” are descriptions about the way things in nature work. They don’t command rocks to fall or fire to burn; they simply describe patterns that are discerned from repeated observations. For example, a gravitational constant is a mathematical expression of the way gravity operates; similarly, electrical conductivity describes how well certain materials can conduct electricity. In what way do Christian beliefs “disrespect” either? The belief in the resurrection, or in any of Jesus’ miracles, does not run afoul of a proper respect for either logic or the physical world. There is no rule of logic that dictates that supernatural events are impossible. Nor is there a conflict, logical or otherwise, between believing in physical laws and in accepting the possibility that whatever set the laws in motion has the power to alter them, if he so chooses. The way that Christian beliefs can be challenged, along these lines, is if Christians are forced to agree that supernatural events are not possible. This in essence is what the atheist demands. But what proof, logical or otherwise, does he provide for this presupposition?

3. What does it mean for something to be “impossible according to the laws of physics?” It means that as long as those laws are operating, the impossible event cannot occur. But upon what principle does the atheist rest his case that these apparent “laws” are inviolable? A computer programmer can create a simulation in which certain laws operate for the characters in the simulation. The programmer is not bound by those laws; quite the opposite is true, as he is the one that created them. Having exercised that power, altering the laws, whether temporarily or permanently, is not a particularly difficult task. It may seem so to the character in the simulation that is bound by the programming, but that is simply a failure of knowledge or awareness on his part, and not an actual limitation upon the programmer. So too here: if the atheist wishes to start with the presupposition that the laws of nature are some type of mindless, self-generated and eternally existing rules that cannot be violated, then of course he will conclude that any apparent violation of those laws is impossible. But this is not logical thinking; it is the fallacy of circular reasoning.

4. I have no idea what “logical argument” the atheist can muster that will “pin” the Christian. The only way to “pin” a Christian is to begin with the presupposition that informs the atheist worldview – this universe is all there is, was or ever will be. It somehow created itself and despite the fact that we cannot know more than a sliver of what is knowable about a universe that is, for all practical purposes, beyond comprehension, “logic” somehow dictates that the one thing that can be known for sure is that it created itself. Perhaps in this the challenger is correct: the atheist position is utterly lacking in imagination. To believe that a human being with a limited capacity for knowledge can establish with certainty that the universe has no creator is noteworthy mainly for the self-delusion that must underlie it.

On further thought, perhaps the analogy is accurate in one respect: the atheist’s circular argument faces a fate similar to Wile E. Coyote’s, as it, and he – perched as they are in midair – have very little besides empty air to support them.

Posted by Al Serrato

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The Telephone Game and Christian Belief

sfWhen talking to a skeptic, it’s not uncommon to hear the challenge that what we have in the Bible is not particularly reliable. Making reference to the “telephone game,” the unbeliever will often claim that the Bible is probably much different than the original “story” it was meant to document. The analogy resonates with many people, who realize how hard it is to memorize in exact order a string of words that are spoken once. By the time it is repeated to the tenth person, it will bear little resemblance to its original form.

But does this analogy aptly describe the transmission of the Biblical texts? Putting aside for a moment evidence from sources such as the Dead Sea Scrolls which corroborate the accuracy of the Bible, are there other reasons to conclude that the “telephone game” bears no resemblance to the transmission of the early texts?

The first step in assessing this analogy is to consider the unspoken assumptions that are at play. The “telephone game” usually involves a rather meaningless sentence, spoken once, in which word-for-word memorization is the goal. The sentence to be memorized has no particular significance and no importance is associated with it, other than to memorize it word for word. Modern players live in a culture where written and electronic information storage systems have virtually eliminated the necessity of being able to quickly memorize long passages of information.

To be valid, then, the challenge of the telephone game assumes that these same conditions apply to those early times. But the experience of the early Christians bears no more than a superficial resemblance to this type of game. Yes, they were trying to remember things that were said in the past. But that is where the similarity ends.

In today’s culture, we have a certain approach to documenting history, one that highlights detail. We also have the technology to make recording detailed statements and events easy. Given these factors, certain expectations arise. Take for instance a criminal trial. As a juror, you may want to see and hear the actual interview in which the killer confessed, because you want to know exactly what he said, what words he used, whether he paused, how he came across as he was speaking. When the non-believer takes this approach to Biblical texts, he will reject them before he even considers their reliability because they will never meet these expectations. The skeptic rejects the text without ever really assessing it in the context in which it was written.

The writers of the First Century did not have electronic means to record statements, nor did their culture put a premium on recording history the way we do. They did, however, have a rich tradition of passing on stories, of using their minds to memorize long passages, even entire books. Accurately passing their traditions and stories and knowledge from generation to generation was highly valued.

When the first Christians began to document Jesus’ message, they were not playing a game in which He quickly said a string of words and asked them to repeat it. Jesus traveled from town to town spreading his message. His followers no doubt heard him speak on a subject on numerous occasions. What they eventually recorded was not a transcript of a particular speech, as if he were uttering the Gettysburg address once, and only once, at one particular moment in time. He was addressing themes repeatedly, using parables to convey his meaning, and inquiring of them if they understood. Given this context, it is not really hard to understand how someone who heard Jesus tell something they considered important – perhaps having heard it many times – would have committed to memory what was said. The important thing for the writer would not be that he got every word in the exact order it was said; it is likely that Jesus Himself varied what He said from speech to speech. The important thing would be that the meaning was accurately passed on.

Moreover, the central truth claim of Christianity is that Jesus died on a cross, was buried and then rose again on the third day, appearing thereafter to his disciples and many others. Remembering that they witnessed these events would not be difficult even for a person of average mental ability, as the unique and supernatural nature of what they witnessed would be indelibly recorded in their memories.

While the challenge of the”telephone game” has some superficial appeal, it is at most a red herring, a distraction which prevents some people from ever giving the historical truth claims of Christianity a fair hearing. The Christian message is far more robust – and meaningful – than a simple children’s game.

And that simple truth is certainly worth remembering.

Posted by Al Serrato

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