Apathy. That often smug assurance that “it” just doesn’t matter. That vague sense of superiority that comes from a “whatever” worldview. Nothing really matters. No one can ever know for sure. So why bother?
Every believer who has tried to make the case for Christianity has encountered this response. It’s not that the skeptic is considering our truth claims and rejecting them, or countering them with evidence that they are false, or that his worldview is true. Instead, most skeptics I’ve dealt with have developed a comfort level regarding the “unknowability” of ultimate things. They often argue that the fact that people disagree about such things – that they have differing views – is itself evidence that no one can ever know whether God is, what He is about, or most importantly, what He may want of us. And so, they often don’t bother to try to investigate these things for themselves.
But if the Christian worldview is correct, such apathy may itself be hazardous to one’s spiritual health. Not long ago, I tried to make this case in a conversation with a skeptic. It went something like this:
“Let’s say this was 50 years ago, and when I saw you, you were chain smoking cigarettes with your kids always nearby. I know where medical science is headed, so I tell you that you are hurting yourself, and your kids. You respond that no one can really know such things; after all, you can point to doctors who advertise cigarettes and smoke them themselves, and you feel fine when you smoke. I point to other doctors who think that it’s really bad for you. You respond, ‘See, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe, or what they want to believe.”
“Do you see,” I asked, “that the conflict between the doctors should not lead you to conclude that neither is right, or that the answer is not knowable? As a friend, should I keep trying to bring you back to the truth about cigarettes, or should I let you persist in believing something that is, in the end, hurting you and your loved ones?”
My friend’s response was not unexpected. It went like this: “Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad/wrong only at certain points in a cycle? Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs; give your kids soy, soy is bad; babies should sleep on their backs, no their stomachs, no their sides, no their backs etc., etc. When my daughter was born I would put her on her back to sleep and when I left the room my mother would put her on her side and when my mother left the room my grandmother would put her on her stomach. Over time the answer comes full circle. Why go around and around with it? What I am saying is not just throw up your hands and quit; what I am saying is that I do what feels right to me and that is the best I can do. Sometimes I listen to friends (and doctors) and sometimes I don’t. I think the “answer” to many of these things is unknowable.”
Fair enough. Some things are unknowable, and for some things, it doesn’t really matter. But that of course is the point of being thoughtful: deciding which is which. So, I conceded that for some things, the right answer might be “it doesn’t matter.” For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. Eggs or soy might be good for you or bad, depending on your health and how much you eat. But for other things – like smoking – it will never “come back around.” Science will never say that smoking is good. It might say that it won’t necessarily kill you, but not that it will “balance your humours” like they said 200 years ago.
“So,” I concluded, “the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like smoking with my kids in the room? I hope you see the answer matters. If you were smoking 10 hours a day with your kids present, you would be harming them. Getting the right answer on that would matter. Getting the right answer on your relationship with God also matters, both to you and to the people you influence.”
I don’t think I persuaded her. As with smoking, not everyone bothers to read the warning label.
Posted by Al Serratoapathy
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How often do apologists for the faith encounter that objection? Yes, there are hypocrites in the church, at least in the sense that none of us can actually and fully live up to what the Christian faith commands. But more significantly, hypocrisy isn’t about simply failing to live up to the rules; it’s about being duplicitous about it. It’s about celebrating the things we shouldn’t do, about not properly regretting the sins that we commit. This prevalence of hypocrisy – and the recognition that it is wrong – are actually more consistent with the existence of God than with atheism.
Hypocrisy is not a modern phenomenon. Jesus himself condemned it repeatedly in addressing the religious leaders of his day. They sought power and influence by using their elevated status to suppress and burden people. I would venture to say that every culture in the world, and throughout all periods of time, has recognized, and reviled, hypocrites. The root of the word provides some explanation: the Greek word from which it derives meant a “stage actor,” a person who is not what he appears to be. In modern usage, it carries of course a very negative connotation: “a person who pretends to have virtues, moral or religious beliefs, principles, etc., that he or she does not actually possess, especially a person whose actions belie stated beliefs” or “a person who feigns some desirable or publicly approved attitude, especially one whose private life, opinions, or statements belie his or her public statements.”
So, hypocrisy is not simply failing to live up to a set of expectations; that is inherent in human nature. No, hypocrisy involves something more calculated: a desire to exploit this feigned persona in order to accomplish some other purpose. It is, at its core, deception.
If secular humanism is true, and man is simply an accidental product of evolution, then it stands to reason that those traits which provide the most survival potential would be favored. The basis of hypocrisy is not difficult to understand. Like any form of deception, it confers an advantage on the one who employs it. By promoting virtue, but secretly not bound by it, the hypocrite can – at least in the short run – profit by his behavior. Virtue, of course, involves self-discipline and often self-denial. It is the process of saying no to what I want at present because I recognize that simply wanting it is not a sufficient reason, that competing interests are at stake that must be considered. But why must they be considered? If man is the measure of all things, and I am a man, why can I not decide that what is in my immediate best interest is what I should pursue? Over time, shouldn’t it be the case that we would simply recognize that we all act in our own self interest? There is, therefore, nothing to revile about hypocrisy, just as we don’t condemn the lion for devouring its prey. It is simply in the “nature” of things.
But virtue persists, as does the recognition that it is a better way – a more noble way – in which to live. Virtue manifests itself in acts of self-sacrifice, altruism and concern for others. While these things tend to benefit a society, they confer little, if any, immediate reward to the one who does them. This, of course, is what makes such conduct virtuous, and worthy of our admiration and respect. They are difficult to do.
Over time, then, the survival advantage hypocrisy provides should make hypocrisy a staple in society. And since it confers an advantage, it would be valued… and accepted as something that everyone does. But that is not how we view it. Deep down, we know that such behavior is wrong, and worthy of condemnation. It is wrong because it is inconsistent with truth and honesty, and the way things “ought” to be. And if we are impacted by a hypocrite, we feel it viscerally. It makes us angry.
To borrow from CS Lewis, when we consider hypocrisy, it is hard not to see that it appears to be a law of behavior. It is not a descriptive law, as in the law of gravity, which describes how a rock will fall if released from a height. It is instead a moral law – a law that says we should not act that way, that acting that way is “wrong” on a very basic level.
But natural selection cannot explain moral laws. It may explain the evolution of preferences and opinions, perhaps, but not laws that all cultures and all people seem to intuitively recognize. But if there is a God, by contrast, it begins to make sense. Having left his law written into the fabric of our minds, we should expect to have some sense of right and wrong. Because this eternal God grounds truth in a transcendental and unchanging way, it makes sense too that this love of virtue is itself timeless and without boundary.
So, the next time you encounter the challenge, it might be worth reminding the skeptic where the hypocrisy challenge actually leads.
Posted by Al Serrato
atheism, CS Lewis, hypocrisy
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Of the many issues facing teens today, there can be little doubt that drug and alcohol abuse have risen to the top. Ours is an increasingly permissive society, in which children have more freedom, more free time and more spending money, than just about any previous generation. Expectations have also risen, and so too has the stress that accompanies often unrealistic expectations. So it comes as no surprise to most parents that the temptation for teens to “self-medicate” with alcohol and drugs has also increased. Add peer-pressure to the mix, and it often seems inevitable that kids today will succumb.
No young person starts down this road contemplating how, somewhere in their futures, they will deal with the wreckage that results – the broken relationships, broken promises and, far too often, broken lives. They assume somehow that they will just “handle it.” But in close to three decades as a prosecutor, I have seen on thousands of occasions the fallout – material, physical and spiritual – of poor choices on the lives of teens and young adults. These young people did not lack education. Schools have made valiant efforts to educate kids as to the effect of drugs and alcohol, and their inherent dangers. But despite knowing of these consequences, both legal and medical, far too many young people – Christians included – persist in their self destructive behavior. Lasting change – life-changing improvement – occurs when a person’s internal worldview can be redirected. It is not enough to teach a child to say “no” to a variety of temptations; instead, people must have a positive worldview – a combination of good things in life – that they affirm. It is for this reason that twelve-step, or other faith-based programs, find considerable success, because the force driving the change is a new and better view of the world. The old negative patterns –i.e. trying to say no to impulses which eventually overwhelm them – are replaced by positive ones – saying yes to God and increasing one’s commitment to living a better way.
Christianity has provided this better worldview for two thousand years. It provides a cohesive way to view the world, and our place in it. It provides the means to not only make sense of this bewildering set of choices we call “life” but to form a relationship with the one who made us and left us here. Today’s secular culture rejects this claim as primitive or steeped in superstition; it throws up road blocks to religion in the public square, seeking to replace traditional faith with “neutral” and “enlightened’ science. Sadly, it appears that many self-described Christians have also adopted a worldly view, often times due to a lack of Biblical literacy.
When I have discussed the problem of drugs and alcohol with other parents, the response I usually get is that I am naïve to think that we can “stop” kids from experimenting. Try too hard, they say, and the kids will just rebel in college – and essentially go off the “deep end.” Fear tactics – which they assume is all Christianity can provide – simply “don’t work.” But the message of Christianity is not fear-based. Yes, there is a Hell to which those who reject God will eventually be relegated. But fear of this is not the core of the Christian message. Far from it. Instead, Christianity finds its grounding in a personal relationship with a Being who, despite being incomprehensibly awe-inspiring, wants us to approach him the way a child approaches his “daddy.” (Romans 8:15) He offers us restoration from the brokenness of our earthly lives, a brokenness brought on by our rebellion to his will. We learn to see past the “hollow and deceptive” philosophy of a world un-tethered from its Creator and set our minds on things above (Colossians 3) In short, we can find new life, as the old ways pass from us and we are transformed by the renewal of our minds. (Romans 12)
Presenting a positive and workable worldview to our young people is the paramount responsibility of every parent. Yes, temptation will remain, and kids – even committed Christian children – will continue to succumb to temptation. But perhaps by sensitizing teens to what temptation entails at a spiritual level, they would not be so glib about ignoring the risks which already have been so thoroughly presented to them. By “spiritual”, I do not mean, as if often the case today, the feeling of “closeness” to God that is uninformed by traditional religion. I am instead referring to the spiritual realm, or in other words the reality that exists beyond that which our senses can perceive. The apostle Paul summarized this quite forcefully in his letter to the Ephesians, where in Chapter 6 he warns them that our battle is not against human forces but against powers of darkness and “spiritual forces of wickedness.” Elsewhere, the Bible warns us to “stay sober and alert” and says that the devil is “prowling like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” (1 Peter 5:8) In the Epistle of James, we are told to “resist the devil and he will take flight.” (James 4:7) In the Gospels, Jesus has a personal encounter with Satan, deals with lesser demons and talks often of the consequences of sin as death and Hell. In short, the Christian worldview sees temptation – including that from drugs and alcohol – in a much different way than the secular world. The short-term pleasure these substances promise can be balanced by an awareness that they are in fact a tool used by a personal enemy, Satan, who has us in his sights and will use what limited power he has to ensnare us.
Waging spiritual war on drugs may sound trite. Indeed, many people today are ready to throw in the towel and admit defeat. But if the Bible is true, then a spiritual war involving much more than simply drugs and alcohol is raging all around us. These substances may not be the adversary’s greatest weapons, but they’ve caused quite a bit of carnage, especially to the unsuspecting. It’s time to see them in their proper light.
Posted by Al Serratodrug abuse, spiritual warfare, temptation
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Many people today accuse God of unfairness. Since God can foresee the future, they ask, why didn’t He simply never create all those he knows to be destined to spend eternity in Hell? One skeptic I know put the question like this:
God supposedly knows everything that will happen before you are ever born, so if all your choices are set beforehand, how can they possibly matter? Furthermore, if God knows you will “choose” Hell before he creates you, why does he simply not create you? Personally, I would much prefer nonexistence to eternal torment. Is God deliberately creating people knowing they will end up in Hell? Then I would call him evil. Is he compelled to create people regardless of what he sees in their future? Then he doesn’t have free will, which would certainly be an interesting interpretation, but one I doubt many people share. Is there some other explanation? If so, I can’t think of it.
This challenge has a bit of intuitive appeal. It seems to put God in a box, as it were, trapped between being “evil” for choosing to create rebellious creatures or lacking free will, by being unable to do otherwise. Let’s take a closer look at the two horns of this apparent dilemma.
To the Christian, “evil” is the label we give to words, thoughts or actions that deviate from God’s perfect will. If we were created robots, there would be no evil in the world; we would operate exactly in accordance with God’s desires. But in creating man, God did something quite different. He gave us “free will,” the capacity to rebel against him in our thoughts, words and actions. And rebel we did. God “foresaw” this development, but only in a manner of speaking – a manner focused upon the way we think. This is because God is not bound by time. For him, there is no future to “foresee.” There is only an eternal present. All times – whether past, present or future – are accessible to him in this eternal present. Thus, at the moment of creation, God was aware that man would rebel, that he was rebelling, and that he had rebelled. He was aware of the acts and the consequences, the motivations and the ultimate end, of everyone. Consistent with his nature for perfect fairness, he created a means by which man – though in rebellion and deserving punishment – could nonetheless find reunification with him. But in implementing this scheme, he did not force this choice upon us. He gives us the means to salvation, but remains content in allowing us to choose which path we will follow.
Those who use their free will to turn toward him – more precisely, to accept his free gift of salvation – will find a welcoming father, ready to do the work needed to restore us. Those who use their free will to turn away from God – to reject his gift – will find that this choice too is honored. Expecting God not to create those in this latter category would have two significant effects: it would show that God’s provision of free will is really a fiction, since only those who choose to do his will are actually created, and two, it would mean that Hell is a place of evil. But Hell is a place – or perhaps more precisely a condition – which was created by God to serve a purpose. Since God does not create evil – i.e. he does not act against his own nature – then Hell cannot be a place of evil. Like a human prison, it may be inhabited by those bent on doing evil, but the place itself – and the confinement it effectuates – is actually a good, just as separating hardened criminals from society is a net positive for both the evil-doer and the society that is victimized.
Some will be tempted to argue that God should have forced this choice upon us anyway. Isn’t it better to be forced to love God then to spend eternity in Hell? Only, I suppose, if one believes it is better to be a robot than a thinking, self-aware and self-directed being. There is no middle ground. Either free will is something real – with consequences attendant to the choices we make – or it’s a fiction. One cannot have it both ways.
To recap: God is not trapped in an either/or dilemma. God is not “evil” for having created, because in the end he treats his creation fairly, giving each what he or she deserves. Since he values free will enough to have given it to us, he apparently intends to make that gift real by allowing some to reject him. Likewise, God is not lacking in free will, because he is not “compelled” to create against his will. Since Hell is not a place for eternal torture, but an appropriate destination for all rebellious human beings, God does not violate his own nature – does not engage in “evil” – when he separates himself from some of his creation.
What this challenge brings into focus is not some internal inconsistency in our conception of God. No, what it highlights is just how different our thinking is as compared to God’s. For like the skeptic, many would view the decision to create nothing all – neither good nor bad people – to be a better – a more noble – alternative. Yet God sees things quite a bit differently, it seems.
In the end, that he views things differently should not really surprise us. Our judgment as to right and wrong, good and evil, has been corrupted by our rebellion. Since we all share this fallen nature, we should realize that we are not in the best position to render judgment as to the way eternal things “ought to be.” We wouldn’t ask a group of incarcerated rapists for guidance on issues of sexual mores; nor would we consult death row inmates for advice on how best to treat one another. Perhaps, in the same way, God has little need to consult with us to determine what ultimate “fairness” demands.
No, the Creator of the universe may occupy a slightly better position to judge matters eternal. We might be wise to heed him, rather than try to ensnare him in a “logical” trap.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal punishment, God's goodness, hell, Salvation
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I attended an awards assembly recently with my teenage son. He had written an essay on the value of military service, so the speeches and theme this night had to do with the traditions of service. And though this assembly was conducted at a Christian school, none of the comments made addressed the question of why people are willing to sacrifice in service to another. As I sat listening, a comment I had heard many years ago occurred to me: we are living on the fumes of past generations. Especially in the United States, many of us are living out the finest traditions of service, but few seem to remember what the generations that came before us – especially that first group of Patriots that set this great experiment in ordered liberty into motion – knew. Not only do our freedoms derive from the God that created us, but the idea of “service” makes the most sense within the context of a Christian worldview. Their vision of the benefits of service lingers with us, but many seem to be forgetting the reason – the value – behind service.
Consider: many people draw satisfaction and a sense of purpose from serving others. They may never wonder why this is so, but simply recognize the satisfaction it allows them feel. Others seek out and enjoy – whether secretly or not – the recognition that service to others may entail. However worthy their efforts, they are being done not exclusively for the benefit of the other, but also for the benefit of the doer. This may seem an unfair criticism, especially when one considers that a growing number of people seem to have no interest in serving others, regardless of motivation. But this comment is an observation, not a judgment. It is simply the case that in serving others, we usually obtain some level of reward, whether purely psychological or not.
If, then, these efforts are but an approximation of something else – some purer sense of service that we approximate but never quite reach – just what is that something else? In the Christian tradition, it is referred to by the label agape love: the love of the other for the sake of love. It is a love freely given, a love that seeks no reward. In its highest forms, it manifests in acts of great self-sacrifice, such as when a person lays down his life for the safety of – for the sake of – the other.
And where do we learn of the value of such love. Where does such love find its grounding? Certainly not in the world of Darwinian evolution, a world characterized by random selection and the “survival of the fittest.” No, it is from Jesus’ own lips that we hear these stirring, yet challenging and troubling, words:
“This is my commandment, That ye love one another, as I have loved you. Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.(John 15:12-13)
Consider also the Christian command to love one’s enemies:
“You have heard that it was said,‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.(Matt. 5:43-45)
Finally, what example does Jesus give during his last hours on Earth? He could not have made the point clearer, as he washed the feet of his disciples, an act of profound humility and love. (John 13)
The apostle John said that all things that have ever come into being have come through the Logos, the son of God. (John 1) So perhaps it is to be expected that we, the image-bearers of God, would have within us the seed of such great love. Perhaps there will always be something tugging at us, that God-shaped whole in our heart that draws us out of ourselves and toward others in acts of loving service. That draws us ultimately back to the One who created us.
But to an increasingly secular world that has forgotten its roots, the debt owed to Christianity for improving our world is worth noting. From the hospitals and other institutions that bear the names of Christian saints to the great universities that were founded to train up new generations to bring the message of Christianity to a fallen world; from the many people of faith who have fallen in the service of this great country to those faithful still among us serving unnoticed wherever there is need – we owe indeed a great debt of gratitude for a faith that inspired such selfless love.
Vigilance is said to be the price of freedom. But that vigilance cannot be directed solely outside the gates. We must look inward and return our hearts and our minds to faith in the One who emptied himself to become one of us and who took on our sins to restore us to right relationship with God.
And showed us the true meaning and value of service in the process.
Posted by Al Serratoagape love, sacrifice, service
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“Remember, a Jedi can feel the Force flowing through him.” Obi-Wan’s admonition to Luke Skywalker sums up what some skeptics probably think about Christianity. If it were real, they would be able to “feel it” in some tangible way, and perhaps also be able to manipulate its power. A skeptic I spoke with recently framed it this way:
“I don’t ‘feel’ God in my heart the way most theists claim to, I don’t see any external justification for his existence, and I simply see no good reason to believe. So why is it my fault that I don’t believe? God supposedly created me just the way I am, after all. So, I’m not ‘rejecting God’ since he never made himself known to me in any real way. So why is non-belief a crime at all? What is the effect of non-belief that is so horrible?”
These thoughts express, I suspect, what Americans are thinking in larger and larger numbers. Raised in a culture led in many arenas by a secular – and in many instances anti-religious – elite, they feel increasingly confident that their view that nature is “all there is” comports with the way things actually are.
So, what is wrong with “non-belief?”
I suppose the first and quickest answer is that the thought itself is a bit incoherent. Consider what is being said. “Belief” is that state of mind in which one concludes that a fact is true. I believe that the car is red. I believe that John’s explanation regarding the accident is false. There is, of course, an issue of certainty. My belief regarding the car’s color may be mistaken, due to poor lighting; or my belief that John is lying may be wrong. But it makes little sense to say that, as to the car’s color, I have no belief. Or that I am hearing John’s explanation but believe nothing about it. Claiming to have “no belief” may seem high-minded and impartial, but it simply mistakes the way the human mind works. Whether we will it or not, our minds naturally move toward forming and reassessing beliefs. Indeed, at a basic level, we need to do so to stay alive. We must be constantly assessing our environment, our surroundings, to make prudent choices as to what to do next. Believing something about those choices and surroundings is indispensable.
As it relates to the question of ultimate things, one must acknowledge that complete certainty is not possible. So it’s fair for someone to say “I believe there probably isn’t a God, that the evidence I perceive of his existence is less compelling than the evidence which supports a conclusion that he does not exist.” But this begs the question: what is it that you are relying on in forming this belief?
And this takes me to the second point, the one raised at the outset. If one approaches this assessment with the unspoken premise that God would cause himself to be “felt” in the manner suggested in Star Wars, then believing he is not there gains traction, since few, if any, people have such mystical experiences. Most committed believers I know never have such “feelings.” They conclude from the testimony of their senses, and the working of the reason of their minds, that a staggeringly complex and exquisitely organized creation requires a Creator. Though there are numerous logical proofs that support the belief in the existence of the immensely powerful and intelligent being behind all this, the common sense notion that something cannot be created by nothing has been more than sufficient for most people who ever walked this Earth.
As it relates to Jesus, and his divinity, the case is an historical one. The body of evidence relating to Jesus, safeguarded and passed down through the centuries, establishes that he lived, that he was crucified and that he rose from the dead, leaving behind an empty tomb and galvanizing a following that changed the course of history. In so doing, he fulfilled numerous prophecies that predated his birth. The resurrection and the miracles he performed provide a solid foundation upon which one’s belief can rest. Numerous authors have detailed the evidence, but the PleaseConvinceMe website (here and here, for example) is as good a starting point as any for beginning to examine the logical proofs as well as the historical evidence.
So, is “non-belief” a crime? No more so that not believing in the power of medicine is the cause of someone’s death. A person with a fatal disease is not “punished” for refusing to get medical help; it is the disease, and not the lack of belief, that is causing the problem. So too with matters eternal. Christianity teaches that God’s law is written on our hearts, so that we are all “without excuse.” Our own consciences will testify against us in the end. Christians do not believe God punishes us for “not believing.” He punishes us for rebellion – for the things we said and did which manifested this rebellion – by separating himself from us. Mercifully, he also provides the means for re-uniting with him, through the work of Jesus.
Feelings are a wonderful part of human life. But in this galaxy, and in this time, they’re not particularly reliable in reaching sound conclusions or making wise decisions.
Posted by Al Serrato
Belief, existence of God, feelings, star wars
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Is there a way to use the Bible to get someone interested in knowing more about the Bible? I’ve thought about this question for many years. As I learned more about the Word, and spoke more with people who called themselves Christian but knew little or nothing about what the Bible teaches, I wondered about the best approach to take. Here, in a nutshell, is one possible approach to make the case for studying the Bible from the Bible.
Most people who call themselves Christian will acknowledge that the Bible is the inspired word of God. What this means to them varies. Usually they will insist that the Bible is not literal, leaving them free to add meaning as they choose, and to ignore passages that are difficult. But why do such people seem to have no interest in ever learning Scripture? After all, even if the Bible is not literal, it must mean something. Why think of it as “inspired” if its wisdom is largely ignored? There are many possible answers to this question, but the most likely seems to be that they don’t see the need to do the hard work of learning not just what the Bible says, but also its history and context.
So, I sometimes begin by asking such a person whom Jesus might have been referring to in Matthew 7:21-22, where He warned about false prophets and added that not all who “prophesied,” “cast out demons” and “performed miracles” in His name will enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Instead, it is “he who does the will of My Father.” In John 8:12, Jesus calls himself the light of the world; “he who follows Me will not walk in darkness, but will have the Light of life.” And then in verses 31-32: “If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” Finally in 1 John 2:3-6: “By this we know that we have come to know Him, if we keep His commandments. The one who says, “I have come to know Him,” and does not keep His commandments, is a liar, and the truth is not in him; but whoever keeps His word, in him the love of God has truly been perfected. By this we know that we are in Him: the one who says he abides in Him ought himself to walk in the same manner as He walked.”
It seems pretty obvious that the Bible teaches – including the words of Jesus Himself – that there are those who know of Him, who may even invoke His name, who He will not recognize, because they have not in truth followed Him. But if invoking His name, or calling oneself a believer, is not enough, what then must one do to follow Him? Scripture provides the answer: we must love God not just with our heart and soul and strength, but also with our mind. (Mark 12:30) We must study and know the Word of God. How else can we be “salt and light” to a fallen world (Matt. 5:13) or represent Christ as His ambassadors (2 Corinth. 5:17)?
The Bible tells us that we should “not be conformed to this world” but instead be “transformed” by the renewal of our minds, that by testing we can discern what is the will of God, “what is good and acceptable and perfect” (Rom. 12:2). We must “abhor what is evil and hold fast to what is good” (Rom. 12:9). God intends the Scripture to be this source of the knowledge of good, as it is “inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work.” (2 Tim. 3:16-17).
In studying the Word, we are to “be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth” (2 Tim. 2:15). Writing to the Thessalonians, the Apostle Paul thanked God that when they received the word of God which they heard from him, they “accepted it not as the word of men, but for what it really is, the word of God, which also performs its work in you who believe.” (1 Thess. 2:13). And to Timothy, Paul urges him “retain the standard of sound words which you have heard from me” and to “guard, through the Holy Spirit who dwells in us, the treasure which has been entrusted to you.” (2 Tim 5:13-14).
In short, as the Apostle Peter wrote, we are to always be ready to make a defense to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, doing so with gentleness and reverence. (1 Peter 3:15) It takes knowledge, and thoughtfulness, to do this. Studying and knowing the Bible is, necessarily, the first step.
Changing someone’s view of the importance of Scripture is easier said than done. This approach may be a start, but there are no doubt many other, and better, ones. If you’ve had some success in this endeavor, please take a moment to write me at Al@pleaseconvinceme.com with the approach you took.
Posted by Al Serrato
bible study, word of God
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The Hunger Games is great fiction. It takes the viewer or reader on an adventurous ride to a post-apocalyptic future, frighteningly reminiscent of ancient Rome’s barbaric approach to “public entertainment.” As the story unfolds, the protagonist – a 16-year-old girl whose hunting skills give her a better chance at survival than her much younger sister – volunteers to enter “the arena” in her place. In this fictitious futuristic world, denizens of “the Capitol” force a yearly ritual upon the subjugated peoples of the “twelve districts.” One boy and one girl from each district are selected at random to fight to the death in an arena of horrors, as some symbolic punishment for the rebellion that the Capitol had suppressed decades earlier.
The trilogy of books – and now, it seems, the movie – resonate with the audience because they tell a story as old as man. It is the story of the struggle against injustice and unfairness, the desire to see virtue prevail, the sense that it is just and right for the “good” to win and for evil to be thwarted. The reader can’t help but be attracted to young Katniss. Her selfless offer to face near-certain death in order to spare her sister makes her instantly appealing, and intriguing. But her resistance to the evil that is being perpetrated upon her, and her cleverness in dealing with the injustice she faces, seals her attraction. She is … good, and we know it. The people who created and run “the games,” by contrast, are evil. They inflict pain and suffering … because they can, or for the pleasure of seeing it unfold. They have lost their humanity and have become empty shells of human beings, going through the motions of life but not having even a mere fraction of what makes Katniss so fully alive.
I would venture to say that this story, though conjured up wholly in the mind of the author, is as relevant today, in this culture, as it would be in any human culture at any time. The struggle against the arrogance of power; the recognition of the value of honesty, fidelity, altruism, selfless love, sacrifice – the intuitive attraction we feel when we encounter virtue – these things seem to be built into the very nature of what it means to be human. Yes, many, perhaps most, human beings depart from this ideal. They become coarsened as a result of what life throws at them. For some, perhaps too many, they revel in the evil into which they allow themselves to descend. But we recognize them, and their acts, for what they are – perversions of the good. And we keep coming back to the standard, to a recognition of the permanence and rightness of the values that Katniss embodies. And we hope, however vainly, that those who have fallen astray will repent and seek redemption.
But why should this be so? Where does the grounding for such eternal truths exist? If atheism is true, as so many people seem to hold today, then we should have no particular reason to recognize good as good, or to embrace the struggle of the lonely fighter with the just cause against the forces of evil arrayed against her. “Good” is simply a point of view, an opinion of like or dislike, enjoyment or displeasure. In fact, from an evolutionary standpoint, does it not make more sense to simply view morality as whatever the prevailing view of the culture is? “Good” becomes what the majority – what the collective or the State – define it to be. In Katniss’ world, for instance, sacrificing 23 people a year for the sake of the “greater good” of the society would seem a relatively small price to pay.
We should not be deceived. Though those who derive benefit from barbarity may not complain – as is true of the ruling classes of all tyrannies – we nonetheless suffer no confusion as to what truly is the good. The virtues of selflessness and willingness to sacrifice for the other; the value of friendship for the sake of the other, and not so as to exploit another; the recognition that evil must be resisted and fought – these things that resonate with us as we watch Katniss, make no sense in a culture whose morality is situational, or based on the randomness that evolution presupposes.
Christianity, by contrast, provides a much better explanation for what we feel, what we know to be true. We intuitively recognize the existence of good because it is objectively there. We may rebel against it, and we may fool ourselves some or even most of the time about how well we are responding to it. But throughout history, and from culture to culture, that basic core sense of “the good” remains – with variations perhaps but largely intact. And we find ourselves naturally attracted to it – drawn to it even against our will – because the Author of all goodness has left that homing beacon within us. He, of course, sets the standard of good, and our view of true good is at best a dim reflection of what it really is. We may even disagree as to particular applications, but in recognizing that good and evil are real, that they occupy distinct and actual places in the universe, we take that first small step back home.
Posted by Al Serratogood versus evil, Hunger Games, redemption, sacrificial love
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In a recent post, I argued that God, despite His immense power, does not
force us to accept Him. In the end, He respects our freedom by allowing us the choice of whether to let Him in or to say no to Him.
A reader took issue with this claim, saying:
For me, this represents the fundamental flaw in Christian logic and ultimate judgment – that we can ‘decide’ to believe, or not believe. That we are ‘free’ to believe, or not believe. This is crucial because in the end, we’re judged on our heartfelt belief . . . as if it were our conscious decision. If you really had a choice in what you truly believed, you could decide to believe that Islam is the one true faith. Of course, you’d have to become familiar with the basic premises and claims of Islam. You’d have to learn that not believing would result in eternal punishment. And then, Tuesday morning at 9am, you’d simply turn-on your belief… THIS CONCEPT IS ABSURD! There is no free-will when it comes to heartfelt beliefs! …But it is irrational to punish or reward someone for their most heartfelt beliefs. That’s because, in the end, they cannot control what they truly believe.
Now this challenge is interesting from a number of perspectives. First, if the writer really “believed” what he was saying, he would not bother to write. Consider the claim he is making: he thinks Christianity has it wrong in its doctrine regarding free will. He thinks instead that “heartfelt beliefs” are not things that you have any choice in, because no one can control what they truly believe. But by this reasoning, I may simply be one of those who have a heartfelt belief that free will actually exists, even though it really does not. So, why try to convince me that I’m wrong? Why try to get me to see that my view on free will is actually false? The argument self-destructs; to convince me to change my view of free will, the challenger must also agree that beliefs, heartfelt or otherwise, are things that can be changed.
Secondly, the idea that it is irrational to punish or reward someone for their heartfelt beliefs cannot survive scrutiny. Consider legislation outlawing “hate crimes.” Are these not a reflection by society that certain views – when they cause a person to act antisocially – are worthy of condemnation? Was this not the point of the Nuremberg War Trials – that Nazi ideology and the evil it spawned were volitional, however “heartfelt,” and therefore worthy of punishment?
In fairness to the writer, part of what he is saying is no doubt accurate: it is nonsensical to claim to “believe” something which one holds to be not true. I cannot “believe” in Santa Claus while at the same time concluding from the evidence that he does not exist. By contrast, however, “belief” in something isn’t a mystical experience that is separate from the mind. We don’t close our eyes and “feel the force,” as if belief in God required access to a power source that we could tap into or manipulate. God gave us minds and the capacity for reason so that we would use them, not sit idly by waiting to be overwhelmed by a fairytale “conversion experience.”
A moment’s reflection will show that there are indeed times in which we “decide” to believe. Take for example the issue of commitment to a relationship: a person can decide that true love means staying committed to their spouse, even if the relationship is shaky. Acting on that belief, they can work on restoring the relationship. By contrast, a person can also choose to believe that divorce is a better option in the event that they are unhappy. There is “evidence” to support either position, so action must be based on “belief” despite not having perfect knowledge of the future.
Or take for example the choice that a soldier makes. He “believes” in his country and wants to serve it, even though he does not have full knowledge of each of the principles upon which it once stood, now stands, or will stand in the future. What he does know, however, supports his commitment of will to defend it against all enemies. He may have moments of doubt, but a properly grounded belief will see him through those doubts.
In each example, there may be moments in which belief falters, and that is usually due to temptation – to jettison the old for something new, to run from danger. But consider what this temptation is: often, it is simply the desire to think first and foremost of oneself and not of others. The deeper we dig, what we find time and again is man in his natural condition. This issue of free will – this question that we are examining – is the question of man’s rebellion against God. Man chooses to throw off the shackles of the creature and exercise instead – or at least try to – the prerogatives of God. What better way to do this than to ignore – no, to reject – God’s very existence? Despite the overwhelming evidence built into nature of incredible intelligence, sublime artistry and immense power, the modern atheist insists that this vast complexity can be explained by human minds as the product of random chance and time. The hubris of such as position, when viewed from the perspective of God, must indeed be laughable.
In the end, a person is free to reject the evidence of Christ’s life, death and resurrection. Perhaps some do for what the challenger calls “heartfelt” reasons. But most, I suspect, never take the time to assess the evidence, to consider its plausibility, to weigh and balance what has come to us from antiquity. Doing so might require them to make changes in the way they view the world… and their place in it.
The atheist who rejects belief in God is not the object of unfair treatment; he is not unfairly prevented from having faith by some“heartfelt belief” that he can’t seem to shake, as if he wants to believe and is being punished for lacking the ability. It is not as if his mind, though seeking God, is being “overcome” against his will by his “heartfelt” but erroneous beliefs.
No, he is freely choosing how he will view the world. He is directing his will away, rather than toward, his creator. He is choosing to reject God because he remains in rebellion against God. But God remains, as does the evidence, for anyone who wants to give the question a closer look.
Posted by Al SerratoBelief, evidence for God, proof of God
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written by Aaron Brake
Receiving your news and information from late night television, comedy shows, or internet political commentary can often leave you misinformed, especially when hosts address topics in which they have no expertise. Such is the case in this video where Cenk Uygur of The Young Turks offers his thoughts on the Bible and abortion and attempts to make the case that God is pro-abortion:
How should Christian pro-life advocates respond? Cenk needs to be corrected on several points.
First, Cenk begins by writing off the scientific evidence that a genetically distinct, living, and whole human being comes into existence at conception. The question of “when life begins” has been settled for decades thanks to the science of embryology. To quote just a few experts in the field,
Human life begins at fertilization, the process during which a male gamete or sperm (spermatozoo developmentn) unites with a female gamete or oocyte (ovum) to form a single cell called a zygote. This highly specialized, totipotent cell marked the beginning of each of us as a unique individual. (and) A zygote is the beginning of a new human being (i.e., an embryo).”
“Although life is a continuous process, fertilization… is a critical landmark because, under ordinary circumstances, a new genetically distinct human organism is formed when the chromosomes of the male and female pronuclei blend in the oocyte.”
“The development of a human being begins with fertilization, a process by which two highly specialized cells, the spermatozoon from the male and the oocyte from the female, unite to give rise to a new organism, the zygote.”
You can read 40 similar quotes from medical experts in this article who reach the same conclusion.
Despite the evidence, Cenk says the view that life begins at conception is based solely on religion. Why? Because this allows him to dismiss the view as “religious” which further justifies his refusal and inability to interact with the evidence. Not only is this wrong, but it is intellectually lazy. Secular pro-life advocates use the same evidence and argumentation in making a case for the pro-life view, and their analysis certainly cannot be labeled “religious.”
Second, moving from science to the biblical text, there is no indication in this passage that the woman is pregnant. This test of faithfulness is a general test applied when a husband suspects his wife has been unfaithful, with no mention of pregnancy being made. In fact the passage specifically says that the husband has a mere suspicion with no evidence or witnesses, seemingly ruling out a visible, noticeable pregnancy:
If a man lies with her sexually, and it is hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she is undetected though she has defiled herself, and there is no witness against her, since she was not taken in the act (v. 13).
Again, there are no witnesses to testify against this woman, the act of adultery was hidden from the eyes of her husband, and she has remained undetected. Pregnancy from adultery would not go unnoticed or undetected, and so pregnancy resulting from this act seems to be precluded in this scenario.
One could respond to this by saying that perhaps the passage is referring to future pregnancies of the unfaithful woman that will ultimately result in miscarriage. This brings us to our next point.
Third, Cenk Uygur quotes from a very specific Bible translation. Why? Because this is the only translation that uses the word “miscarry” when interpreting this passage. In other words, this translation fits his narrative. He quotes from the 2011 NIV translation which uses the word “miscarry” twice in Numbers 5 verses 21 and 27:
Here the priest is to put the woman under this curse—“may the LORD cause you to become a curse among your people when he makes your womb miscarry and your abdomen swell. (v. 21)
If she has made herself impure and been unfaithful to her husband, this will be the result: When she is made to drink the water that brings a curse and causes bitter suffering, it will enter her, her abdomen will swell and her womb will miscarry, and she will become a curse. (v. 27)
Interestingly, not even the 1984 NIV translation translates the verse this way. This seems to be a change made specifically in the 2011 edition. Every other reliable translation I examined including the NASB, KJV, NKJV, HCSB, RSV and ESV, all translate the verse similar to this:
Then’ (let the priest make the woman take the oath of the curse, and say to the woman) ‘the LORD make you a curse and an oath among your people, when the LORD makes your thigh fall away and your body swell. (v. 21 ESV)
And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. (v. 27 ESV)
The more literal interpretation for the phrase in question is “your thigh fall away.” So is the translation “your womb miscarry” an accurate interpretation for “your thigh fall away”? This brings us to our next point.
Fourth, looking at the context of the passage, a strong case can be made that miscarriage is not in view but rather barrenness or the inability to have children (sterility). Notice there is a contrast being made in this passage between barrenness and fertility in verses 27 and 28:
And when he has made her drink the water, then, if she has defiled herself and has broken faith with her husband, the water that brings the curse shall enter into her and cause bitter pain, and her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away, and the woman shall become a curse among her people. But if the woman has not defiled herself and is clean, then she shall be free and shall conceive children.
To reiterate, if the woman is guilty of wrongdoing, “her womb shall swell, and her thigh shall fall away” but if she is innocent “she shall be free and shall conceive children.” The opposing consequences based on guilt or innocence make sense if what is being contrasted is sterility with fertility, or the inability and ability to have children. The case becomes stronger when we consider that throughout the Old Testament barrenness is considered a curse (e.g. Gen. 20:17-18; 30:1, 22-23) and children are considered a blessing (Gen. 17:6; 33:5; Ps. 113:9; 127:3-5). The “curse” then that the water brings is the curse of barrenness or sterility which is hermeneutically consistent with the rest of the Old Testament. Roy Gane agrees in his commentary on the book of Numbers. Referring to this passage, he states,
The former, in which “thigh” apparently connotes reproductive organs (cf. Gen. 24:2, 9), can be taken to imply sterility and may refer to a prolapsed uterus. H.C. Brichto suggests that abdominal swelling indicates a state “known to the layman as ‘false pregnancy.’ This condition…is featured by distended belly, cessation of the menses and incapacity to conceive.”
While scholars have not agreed on the gynecological implications of the Hebrew terminology, they sound painful and clearly cause sterility (contrast 5:28). So the conditional imprecation, to which a suspected woman must assent by saying ’amen, ’amen (5:22), specifies outcomes that any Israelite woman dreads: social stigma, physical suffering, and inability to bear children.
In summary, Cenk has failed to make his case that God is pro-abortion based on the biblical data. First, there is no indication that the woman in this scenario is pregnant. Second, Cenk must rely on a questionable interpretation of the text in order for his view to hold water. Third, a strong contextual case can be made that sterility or barrenness is being spoken of, not necessarily miscarriage.
Finally, we can ask the question, “So what?” Let us suppose Cenk is correct in his interpretation and that the judgment from God on the adulterous woman is miscarriage. What follows from that?
Does it follow that abortion on demand is morally permissible? No. As Francis Beckwith points out, attempting to argue for abortion on demand due to hard cases or special circumstances “is like trying to argue for the elimination of traffic laws from the fact that one might have to violate some of them in rare circumstances, such as when one’s spouse or child needs to be rushed to the hospital.”
Does it follow that elective abortion is permissible in special circumstances such as adultery? No. The fact that God in His judgment takes life doesn’t give human beings the prerogative to do likewise. This is seen throughout both the Old and New Testaments. As Clinton Wilcox states, “Peter pronounced a curse on Ananias and Sapphira because they lied to the Holy Spirit, and God struck them dead. It doesn’t follow that we are justified in killing someone for lying. God is the giver of life, and only he is uniquely qualified to take it.”
Does it even follow that God is pro-abortion? No. Again Clinton Wilcox points out that “an abortion really isn’t in view here…children were a blessing to Jewish women. A barren woman was seen as cursed. This curse was not meant to abort a child. Rather, it was meant to show guilt. A woman who had not committed adultery would gladly redeem herself by drinking the water. A woman who had committed adultery would not agree to drinking the water, and therefore guilt could be determined.”
 Keith L. Moore, The Developing Human: Clinically Oriented Embryology, 7th ed., pp. 16, 2.
 Ronan O’Rahilly and Fabiola Miller, Human Embryology and Teratology, 3rd ed., p. 8.
 Jan Langman, Medical Embryology. 3rd ed., p. 3.
 Roy Gane, The NIV Application Commentary: Leviticus and Numbers, 523-524.
 Beckwith, Defending Life, 105.
 Clinton Wilcox, Does the Bible Justify Abortion?, found at http://christianapologeticsalliance.com/2012/10/30/does-the-bible-justify-abortion/
 Ibid.Abortion, Bible, Cenk Uyger, elective abortions, God, pro-abortion, pro-choice, pro-life, The Young Turks
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My last post addressed the question whether free will could truly be said to exist if one believes, as Christianity teaches, that man is born with original sin. I argued that man remains free, despite this fallen nature, because he acts in accordance with his desires. Unlike a robot or lower animal, operating on programming or instinct, man has the capacity to weigh and balance, to imagine, and to foresee, at least in part, the consequences of his choices. Man therefore has the capacity to transcend his programming – his nature – and to become something different, something better. And so, more is expected of him.
Christianity also teaches that we cannot transform ourselves, at least not in a manner sufficient to satisfy a perfect God. We must allow Him into our lives – no, we must make Him master of our lives – so that He can do that work within us. But this is a slow process and the question I left open in the last post is why this must be so. Why can’t we simply decide to “love God” and throw off on our own the shackles of sinfulness?
I submit that the answer to that question also lies within our nature. We are imperfect, limited beings seeking to approach a perfect, holy God. We need simply look around us to see why this must be a slow, progressive process, and not one that can be accomplished quickly. Consider for a moment the way we learn. We do not possess instincts like the lower animals. We cannot, without first being taught and engaging in much practice, jump onto a narrow ledge and remain perfectly balanced, the way a cat does. We cannot “download” into our minds a program from a computer and have instantaneous and complete knowledge of a subject. Instead, the progress toward any goal is a slow and laborious one.
Amazing progress is of course possible. Think for a moment about being thrust into the cockpit of a modern airliner on final approach. You would see a jumble of displays and readouts, light and dials and gauges, all perfectly arranged and providing a steady stream of information. You might even recognize a few, and their significance, if you took the time to focus on a particular instrument. But even with the pilot standing nearby ready to explain, you would be unable to make sense of the whole. She, of course, sees everything with clarity, effortlessly scanning the readouts and able to respond with the precision needed to bring thousands of tons of metal floating softly back to earth.
Or think of a surgeon conducting open-heart surgery. You’ve seen pictures, no doubt, of the body’s interior, but peering in over his shoulder, you would see a mass of flesh, and tissue and blood. The idea that you could precisely introduce an instrument into the mix and leave the patient the better for it is laughable. Yet the surgeon can do precisely that. His experience allows him to see with clarity what looks to you like chaos.
What we can derive from this is that we are slow and progressive in our ability to learn. It takes considerable time, and repetition and effort, to achieve the mastery that the pilot or the surgeon demonstrates. They take years to reach their respective goals, and they can no more will themselves to be masters of their craft on day one than we can step off a building and float safely to earth.
Applying this observation to God is of course different. God is a not a plane or a body; he is not something for us to master or manipulate. What is He? The Bible says he is “love,” and most religions, if they do not exactly agree, would at least agree that He is ultimate goodness. And where do we first begin to develop a facility for love? We do that within the context of relationships. We move from infancy to adulthood, and as we do so, we move from “takers” of love and affection to mature adults with the capacity to give. In its highest form – agape love – we express the capacity to love without condition and without expectation for return. We express love for the sake of love. This too is a lengthy process. Like the surgeon or the pilot, we do not simply decide to love others and live out that decision perfectly. The road is marked by many obstacles and many ups and downs.
Marriage has been rightly seen as the best vehicle for fully developing this capacity because it involves focusing our “love” wholly upon the other. It’s no wonder then that the standard wedding vow contains the promises that sound so strange to our modern ears – to love, honor and respect someone in sickness… in bad times…when things are at their worse? Really? Why would anyone choose to persist in loving someone who can give nothing of the original “bargain” back? And then children are brought into the equation, and for the first time we understand what love also entails – a sense of devotion and vulnerability that we could never quite understand if we haven’t experienced it ourselves.
This is all fine and good, the skeptic might respond. But God could have shortcut this whole process, couldn’t He? He could have made us instantly ready for all these things, so He remains at fault for the current mess we are in.
I hope the above examples lead you to the same conclusion as they lead me. Flying a plane is difficult, as is surgery. Loving a spouse or a difficult child also takes time, effort and practice. But God is not a mere person or a skill to master. He is ultimate perfection. Gaze up into the night sky or into the recesses of the living cell, and marvel for a moment at the extreme intelligence and power that He encompasses. We are closer to the ant, or the amoeba, than we are to Him. Multiply the difficulty of mastering a skill, or fully loving another person, not by a million or a billion or a gazillion – but by infinity. That is the task that awaits any human being with the audacity to think that he can relate to God as an equal.
Of course God must do the work. There can be no other way. And the process of relating to perfection – of someday interacting with ultimate and perfect goodness – is a slow and progressive one. But despite His immense power, He does not force our hand. In the end, He respects our freedom by allowing us the choice of whether to let Him in to start the process.
Posted by Al Serrato
God's love, infinite perfection, Salvation
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Evil is not a created thing, but is instead the measure of the extent to which a particular thought or act deviates from “the good.” That was the point of a recent. Drawing on the work of Augustine and other early Christian thinkers, I concluded that God allows for evil – for human beings to think and act in a way that is contrary to his perfect will – because that is the only way “free will” could exist. He could make us robots or mere things, but he could not make us “free” without the capacity for “evil” to also exist.
The problem with short essays is that the work of giants such as Augustine or Aquinas cannot be encapsulated in 750 words. These posts are meant simply to convey a basic principle, or to generate interest in the ideas and some discussion. Sometimes the discussion that emerges reflects the misunderstanding that can result from a superficial treatment of a topic. One challenger commented:
“If people inevitably commit evil (as Christians believe), then we don’t have free will. A god who allowed a tendency to evil to be inherited doesn’t sound good to me.”
Making sense of this challenge requires first that we consider what is meant by “evil.” In my post, I used the term quite broadly, meaning any deviation from God’s will. Consequently, evil could mean something serious, like genocide, or it could mean something minor, like demeaning someone, or anything in between. While all acts of rebellion may be contrary to God’s will, it is self-evident that some acts of rebellion against God (eg. rape, murder, genocide) are more serious and more despicable than others. Consequently, while it is true that all people “inevitably commit evil,” it is not as if all people feel a compulsion to commit heinous acts of violence or depredation. The common element in all “evil” however is the exercise of the will directed at achieving one’s own ends whenever those ends do not coincide with God’s perfect will. Sometimes those ends might be laudable, and sometimes not. But the common feature is the desire for “control” – of one’s self, of others, of one’s environment. In the final analysis, it is the desire to throw off the yoke of God and to be one’s own master – the very essence of rebellion.
Does this feature of the human species negate free will, as the challenger asserts? Hardly. Because when we act in our own interest, and we pursue our own base ends, we nonetheless act in a volitional manner. We do what is pleasing to us, what we find to be desirable. The opposite of that would be to act on compulsion, or by instinct. Unlike the lesser animals, whose behavior appears largely programmed, human beings have the capacity to reflect upon their behavior. While they might experience temptations or urges, they retain the capacity to act in accordance with their will and not simply due to some biological imperative. To say, then, that our ability to choose to act in accordance with our pleasure is evidence of a lack of free will is incoherent. It is not as if we are forced, for example, to eat things that are disagreeable to us, or to do things we would rather not do. What we choose to do is most often simply an expression of our innermost desires.
Which leads then to the next question: why do we possess such desires? This is a much trickier question. Why does the lion devour its prey? Why does it look upon the jungle as a place to hunt, to exercise dominion, to kill? It is built into its nature, yes, but as a result of that nature, it derives pleasure or satisfaction from its actions. It operates according to its programming. But we are not lions. We have the capacity for thought, for reflection, for self-assessment, for insight. We can see the long term consequences of our actions. We can develop empathy for others. While we may derive pleasure from doing wrong, we also possess the capacity to see the law that urges us to do right. The lion can be tamed, given enough time and effort. But it must be done from outside. Its instinct must be overcome. Man, by contrast, has the capacity to transcend his programming – his nature – and to become something different, something better.
The question is how he does this. The secular humanist believes man is basically good and that with enough education and enlightenment, he can correct himself. Man – the center of all things – remains the center in this worldview. Christianity, by contrast, teaches that man’s fallen nature is like quick-sand. The temptations that we experience, while not instincts or compulsion, are nonetheless powerful and difficult to master. We can struggle to escape but in the end our efforts are not sufficient. We cannot tame ourselves – our natures – nor can we pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.
The good news of Christianity, of course, is that we need not. God does the work of redemption, including the initial overture in which he beckons us home. We need simply say yes. He can then perfect us, make us ready to stand in the presence of perfection. (More on this in my next post.)
Yes, God is responsible for allowing man to have this fallen nature – this tendency toward evil – and for giving man the free will to act on that desire. But he did not saddle us with instinct that takes away the volitional nature of our acts. Instead, he bestowed upon us his very image – the imago dei. He provided us the capacity that he gave to no other animal, for self awareness and self control. Most importantly he gave us the capacity for choice – to say yes to him, and to let him complete a work in us.
And that makes him very good indeed.
Posted by Al Serrato
free will, god's benevolence, rebellion against God
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This last December I began working on a document which responded to Hillary Clinton on the issue of abortion. It was given to the Rubio and Cruz campaigns hoping they would be able to use the information in debate during the general election. Unfortunately that will not be the case.
But, we didn’t want the information to go to waste so I’ve posted the link here from the Life Training Institute website. You can also find it at the bottom of the “Resource” page on the site.
My hope is that it will be a useful resource for those of you who are interested. Thanks so much to Scott Klusendorf for including me on this project. Also thanks to Daniel Rodger for proofreading and suggestions.Abortion, apologetics, Hillary Clinton, pro-choice, pro-life
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One of the most common challenges to the Christian worldview is the problem of evil. In its common syllogistic form, the challenge can be reduced to this:
- God created all things
- Evil is a thing
- Therefore God created evil.
This challenge is not new. In the 4th century, St. Augustine tackled it, as did St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later. What we call evil, they explained, is in fact a deprivation of the good and is therefore not really a “thing” at all. Like the hole in a donut, it describes what is not there, what is missing.
But this does not always satisfy the challenger. Often, they may counter: an all powerful, all loving God would not have allowed deprivations any more than he would have created evil. God still remains at fault, in their view, because he is the originator of the system that results in this “non-thing” -evil – which we rightly view as bad.
This response has superficial appeal. It seems to accept the difference between a deprivation and a thing, and confronts the believer with the same challenge: a good God would never have allowed such deprivations in the first place. But this challenge actually misses the point of the distinction that Augustine and Aquinas drew; through sloppy thinking, it continues to view evil as a thing, even though it pretends not to as it adopts the “deprivation” terminology.
Consider: what we see as evil, whether a thought or an act, can only be gauged if we first hold in our minds what the good would be. For example, using a knife to cut someone is evil when done by the assailant but not by the surgeon. Setting off an explosion is evil when used to harm others but not when used to carve out a tunnel. The knife and the cutting; the bomb and the blast – these may be “things’ in a manner of speaking, but any measure of evil in their use depends not on what they are, but on the extent to which their use deviated from God’s perfect will.
We know this intuitively. And because some of us are better at knowing God’s will than others, we may mistakenly call something evil when in truth it is not. For example, a law prohibiting abortions would be viewed as “evil” by those who believe that a woman has the right to choose; they would view the act of stopping a woman from aborting her unborn child to be a departure from the “good” of free choice. This of course would be wrong. It would not be evil at all, but instead good, because such a law would comport with, and not defy, God’s will.
Those who reject Augustine’s approach will insist that each of these examples – stopping the woman by force of law, setting off the explosive, cutting into a person – are things regardless of what label we choose to attach to them. They will insist that a good God would not have created the potential for such actions to occur, would not have allowed for evil to arise. But this misunderstands the point: what constitutes evil is not the action or the thing, but the use to which it is put. God, as the infinite expression and definition of good, is by necessity the ultimate standard of what is good. Consequently, what we describe as evil is in reality a rough gauge of the extent to which the thought or act in question deviates from God’s nature or will, or at least what we understand that nature or will to be.
So, why does God allow evil? Because when he gave us free will, he meant for us to have, well, free will. The opposite of free will would be directed will. Whatever actions we took would be controlled, the way a robot’s or computer’s would be. In such a world, there would be no abortions, no stabbings, no hidden minefields. But such a world would not know freedom. God allows evil, even though he never created it, because if He does not allow us to depart from His perfect will – if he does not allow us to “do evil” – then free will would be an illusion.
Why he felt creating such free will beings was important, or worth doing, is of course a different question. Many have concluded – perhaps without fully considering the issue – that God made a poor choice. But whatever his reasons, one thing is clear: a world in which evil was prevented might be preferable to some, but it would be a world stripped too of free will.
And that would be a very different world indeed.
Posted by Al Serratoevil, God's will, good, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas
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Many skeptics maintain unquestioned faith that science will solve the world’s problems. Seeing the evidence of chaos throughout the world, often the product of religiously-inspired violence, they conclude that religion is somehow the problem. Authors like Christopher Hitchens capitalize on such assumptions, writing best-selling books that explain how “God is not great” or how religion has “poisoned” everything. By contrast, science has provided “progress,” the sense that things are definitely getting better from a technological sense, as we continue to harness more and more power to make our lives increasingly prosperous and comfortable.
While this faith in science is certainly understandable, it does not survive close scrutiny. This is so because the problems that ail us, the questions we need answered, are questions that science simply cannot answer. After all, science is not philosophy. It does not provide meaning, however much it advances knowledge or power. Modern Americans, of all people, should recognize this limitation. We live in a culture that is deteriorating in many ways. Pleasure seems to be the principal pursuit of a large segment of the population, and despite intense efforts to find nirvana, and despite access to the best “toys” ever made, people seem to be increasingly stressed… and distressed. We seem to be experiencing a huge increase in depression and destructive behavior patterns; addictions to drugs and alcohol, gluttony leading to obesity, gambling, and pornography, to name a few. These pursuits may lessen the emotional pain for a while, but they leave the afflicted even more broken in their wake. What people lack, in increasing numbers, is a sense of belonging; some purpose or meaning to which they can devote their lives and that can make sense of the world.
Science cannot address what is lacking any more than a mechanic can tell me why I no longer enjoy driving my car. He can take measurements and tell me things about functionality and performance. He can modify the car with the latest gadgets to make it run faster, smoother, louder – to make it anything I want it to be. But these measurements and modifications, however important, cannot provide meaning. Because in the end, what I like, what I feel about certain things, persons, places, events – these are a reflection of me, and what is inside me, and not of the things around me.
Human life is exceedingly complex. From mitochondria powering the cells, to the mind that emerges from the gray matter in our skulls, the human body is a marvelously complex product of advanced engineering. But until we understand the purpose for which we are created, until we understand what we are meant to do with these wondrous “machines” that we inhabit, we are like cars driving straight off a cliff. Everything is functioning perfectly, but without a driver behind the wheel, it soon comes to a crashing, and painful, end.
Philosophy is needed to answer these most pressing questions. And a philosophy that has stood the test of time and that provides a robust explanation for life is a good place to start. In the pages of the Bible, the questions that matter most are addressed by the source of all that is. When its lessons are followed, life tends to flourish, not in the sense of a great wealth or fame – not in the sense of the “prosperity gospel” – but in the sense of a lasting joy. Joy in the knowledge of who you are and what you were created for; joy in the sense of homecoming when our days wind down, as they inevitably will. Joy in the prospect of reuniting with our true “soul-mate,” the one we have been seeking, the one for whom we were created and who is even now beckoning us home.
Posted by Al Serrato
faith, meaning of life, Purpose
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Christians and skeptics often talk past each other. It’s almost as if they are speaking different languages or, at the very least, speaking from a very different frame of reference. Recently, I observed this first-hand as I corresponded with an atheist about the role of science in developing useful knowledge.
He agreed with me that science does not have an “explanation” for everything and that for some things, it may never have. “On the other hand,” he said, “‘God did it’ has never impressed me as much of an explanation. I would prefer simply to admit ‘I don’t know.’” What he meant, I think, was that resorting to a supreme being who set things in motion, and whose laws guide the workings of the universe, is not helpful. No, more precisely, that resorting to such explanations is actually a step backward, a movement away from the acquisition of the knowledge that science promises.
In this, the skeptic is mistaken. Science can answer many questions, but all of these questions fall into the category of “how” things work, and not “why” or “for what ultimate purpose.” Things work a certain way, and the workings that we witness can be observed, studied and eventually understood. This yields great predictive power regarding future events, and allows for those events to be shaped through the use of modern technology. But science does not answer the question, “Who set all this into motion” and “What does that Creator want from us?”
Take for example the study of the Big Bang. Science and Christianity agree: the universe was created from nothing a very long time ago. Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth) and the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”) both assert what astronomy and physics have, relatively recently, discovered. The Bible doesn’t attempt to speak to the question of how God went about performing this amazing feat, and science does not tell us for what purpose the universe was created.
This is an important distinction, and one that seems to be increasingly lost on the many secularists who, seeing a conflict between science and faith, try to force all manifestations of religion from the public square. Perhaps an example from a much less esoteric source will help to illuminate the distinction I am attempting to draw. When police respond to the scene of a possible murder, they collect the evidence for a very specific purpose: to determine the “source” behind the killing, the answer to the question “for what purpose?” The coroner who does the examination can shed light on this determination, though the use of scientific knowledge, but their role is largely to determine how the person died. For example, if the investigators found the victim lying on the floor with a bullet wound to the head and a pistol lying nearby, science would tell us that the victim died as the result of exsanguination and damage to vital tissue caused by the entry of the bullet. But determining the manner of death would not answer the question the police are called upon to determine: was it an accident, suicide or murder? For that, other considerations must come into play, including other types of evidence left behind during the commission of the act. This may include further physical evidence, but it might also include a writing – perhaps a suicide note or other writings reflecting what the victim was planning to do. However informative and accurate the scientific evidence might be regarding the cause of death, it will never answer the most important questions: who did it, and why? For that, different questions must be asked. More to point, if these questions are not asked – if the mere asking of such questions is deemed inappropriate – the most important aspect of the inquiry will never be accomplished.
Similarly, as it applies to accounts of the creation events, science has come a long way in explaining the mechanisms by which the universe began to unfold and life to appear and flourish. But it has not the means to determine why any of this has occurred. Other disciplines, such as theology and philosophy, are better suited to weigh in on those types of questions. However fascinating the answers to the “how” questions might be, they pale in comparison to the importance of the “for what purpose” questions, especially if one considers how long “eternity” will be.
The two realms – science and theology – need not be in conflict. The conflict arises when the secularist insists on seeing the world as an endless series of “how” questions rather the seeing the one “why” that matters more.
Posted by Al Serratofaith, science, secularism
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In a recent post, I addressed the issue of whether Christ’s death constituted a sacrifice. For many skeptics, Christ’s death, resurrection and atonement for our sins constitute a major stumbling block. In response to that post, one challenger commented that he could not understand
“why the death of Jesus was that big a deal. He had 6 hours of agony. A terrible way to go, but how many people have similar experiences? And the atheist supposedly bound for hell will experience this kind of agony continually.”
To understand why this challenge lacks substance, one must take a moment to unpack the assumptions embedded within it. The challenger assumes that the process of physical death – more specifically, the manner, length and painfulness of that process – is what “caused” salvation. Noting, correctly, that many human beings have experienced far greater suffering, the skeptic concludes that this sacrifice is not, as he put it, a “big deal.” His conclusion flows from his premise, lending the challenge an appearance of legitimacy, but his premise is in need of more careful examination. Perhaps he has not taken the time to consider actual Christian beliefs, or perhaps he is simply engaging in the straw man fallacy, in which a person intentionally misstates his opponent’s position in order to more easily “defeat” it. Either way, to a careful thinker, the challenge falls flat.
This conclusion should not really come as a surprise. Countless intellectuals have considered the claims of Christianity and have embraced them as true. Many, such as the writer CS Lewis, became believers after many years of committed atheism. That none of these thinkers would find merit in this rather obvious challenge speaks to the fact that he is simply missing the point. None of these believers – nor for that matter the very first followers of Christ – concluded that Jesus won some kind of perverted contest for the “greatest suffering before being murdered,” somehow entitling him to the prize of being “the Savior.”
No, something much different is at play, something that challenges the limits of our philosophy, and of our intellects, to fully grasp. Jesus took the form of man and, during his life on Earth, he emptied himself of key aspects of his divinity. In that form, he experienced temptation – the kind of temptation that demonstrates the existence of free will; the kind of free will that makes expressions of love real and not the product of coercion or control. He did not need to suffer death at all, certainly not death on a cross. He had the means to escape the trap that was being laid for him. But, as he said, no one took his life; he lay it down for his people. By so doing, he stood before the Father to accept that wrath that justice demanded, for the intentional rebellion in which man was engaged. He had no price to pay for himself; his slate was clean before the Father. And because he too was God, he could absorb that wrath not just for one other man, or for a group of men, but for all who ever lived, or would live – infinite power absorbing for all time the infinite wrath of a perfect being.
The challenger to my post concluded:
“No—I disagree that God has balanced perfect justice and perfect mercy. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is getting LESS than what you deserve. Take your pick. And you imagine that God has an infinite wrath? Wow—the dude needs some therapy!”
But this actually proves my point. The challenger is correct: in human terms, it appears contradictory for one to be perfectly just while being perfectly merciful; indeed, how can God give those in rebellion what they deserve while also giving them what they don’t deserve? (Ironically, this challenge actually speaks to the divine origin of these early Christian beliefs: who could have – who would have – come up with a system like this if it weren’t true, when adhering to it only promised persecution?) To answer this challenge, one must move from abstract considerations to more specific, factual ones.
- What do humans “deserve?” They deserve punishment for their rebellion;
- What is a just punishment for rebellion? Separation from God;
- How long should that separation endure? For the life of the beings in question (i.e. an eternity in that place of separation, i.e. hell);
- How can humans beings be given something less than they deserve? By having someone else pay the price for their rebellion;
- Who can pay that price? Only a man who himself does not owe the same price.
Yes, Christ pays the price. We don’t deserve what he does for us; it is an act of mercy. Justice is satisfied because punishment has been meted out – directly to those who refuse Christ’s gift and remain in their rebellion; indirectly – through Jesus – for those who accept his gift. Jesus has the power and the willingness to absorb God’s just wrath, and having lived as a man, he also has the standing before God to enter the transaction. We need only accept his gift, at which point he will begin the process of refining us – perfecting us – so that we can rejoin with Him and with the Father.
This solution to man’s predicament, available freely for all, elegantly gives us the means to attain what we do not deserve – mercy – while not sacrificing God’s perfect justice.
Posted by Al Serrato
eternal separation, god's wrath, justice, mercy
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Most atheists feel confident that they have “reason” on their side. As a result, many are surprised when a Christian apologist takes an evidentialist, or reason-based, approach to matters of “faith.” Not long ago, the issue arose in a conversation I was having with a skeptic. I had been laying out the basic philosophical arguments for the existence of a supreme, uncaused being.
Accepting the logic of these arguments, she shifted her challenge, saying: “You want me to use reason to get me to agree that God exists, but then stop using it as soon as I get to that point.” In other words, despite hearing rational arguments about the existence of God in general, she could not fathom that a belief in God in particular – the God of the Bible, for instance – could be based on anything other than wishful thinking. Faith, after all, was simply not rational.
My response went something like this: “Hopefully by now, you see that I am not asking you to abandon reason. The types of argument may vary, and the level of certainty about particular conclusions might also differ, but for everything that historic Christianity affirms, there are good reasons to believe what we believe.” She shook her head in, well, disbelief.
“As it applies to Christianity,” I persisted, “some of what we know about God can be inferred from observations. This is referred to as ‘general revelation.’ Consider what we see of the universe: it is spatially and temporally immense, beyond our ability to understand and grasp; it is well-ordered and predictable, with set laws such as logic and math, physics and chemistry, all operating flawlessly, consistently and seamlessly. It contains examples of breath-taking beauty, such as the inherent beauty of music and nature, and heart-pounding emotion, such as the joy of first love or the miracle of birth. But it is also quite deadly, or at the very least quite inhospitable to humans. Despite its immense size, it appears that we can live only in a sliver of air on a remote planet, and even there, most of the planet is exceedingly dangerous to us. You see, my ability to reason can lead me to some generalities: God must be immensely powerful and intelligent; he must be artistic and love order. He must be capable of great love. But is he … harsh? Uncaring? Why is this creation so dangerous? And, most importantly, what comes next? Reason cannot lead us to any answers here. We see a glimpse of God, but not the full picture.”
She wasn’t sure where I was going, and in a way, neither was I. The next step, to a rational reliance on the words of the Bible, is a big step; in fact, for many, it has been, and remains, too big a step for them to take.
I resumed. “To move to a personal relationship with God – in the specific, not general sense – requires more; it cannot be based completely and exclusively on reason. It does in fact depend also on faith, but it is a faith that stems from, and finds support in, reason.”
“You want it both ways,” she countered. “You want to call it reason when it is simply wishful thinking.”
I knew what she meant, and I acknowledged that I was struggling with putting these thoughts into words. “No, there is a difference that you’re not seeing. Believing in unicorns is a function of faith; there is no evidence for them, and no good reason to believe they exist. But if you had actual evidence – from trusted sources – that such animals existed, your “faith” in them might eventually become reasonable. The problem isn’t that believing in exotic animals is irrational; the problem is that believing in such animals when there is no evidence – no reason – to support that belief is irrational.”
I shifted gears a bit, wanting to get on to the point while there was time.
“Now, put yourself for a moment in the position of the creator-God. You want to give people true free will, so that they are not mere automatons, and you want them to choose a relationship with you without forcing them to do so. Your problem is twofold: if you make your presence too intrusive, they will believe because they have no real choice, but if you reveal nothing of yourself, they will have no basis to know you. So, what you do is reveal enough of yourself so that they will see your presence. Then you choose a messenger who will convey your intentions. It must be fined tuned this way so that those who respond do so freely and not under coercion. Those who do respond freely will eventually be made perfect; he will work on them to free them from their fallen nature and to remove some of what separates them from him. Those who reject him get what they are seeking – separation from him.”
“Christianity affirms that God chose a particular people to convey this message. He used prophets to speak for him, then sent his son. Much of what I trust in about God comes from the words of that son, Jesus. If Jesus is a reliable source (i.e. that he has a basis to know what he claims to know and that he is honest), then I am justified in trusting what he says. If so, then he is a good source of information about God. If he says that God has offered us salvation and prepared a place for us to spend eternity, I can trust that information if I can trust Jesus. I acknowledge that my confidence that there is a heaven is pure faith – I believe it because Jesus says it. But my trust in Jesus is not based on faith. That would be mere wishful thinking. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead not because the Bible says it, but because the evidence of it is very strong, and the evidence against it is not. I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead because I have faith, or because the Bible said it; I have faith that what Jesus said was true, and that the Bible is trustworthy, because I first had proof that Jesus did what he claimed he would do. He fulfilled the prophecies of centuries before, died for us and then rose from the dead.”
“But,” she began, again shaking her head ….
Enough for one day, I concluded. The next step would be to show why what we know about Jesus is reliable. But I had places to go, and she needed more time to think about what we had covered so far.
Posted by Al Serrato
knowledge of God, reason, Salvation
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“There are no atheists in foxholes.” Or so the saying goes. Today, that probably has more to do with the scarcity of foxholes than it does with the scarcity of atheists. Indeed, the growing ranks of atheists include some who would like the military to allow them to designate “humanist” on their dog tags and official records. Just as a Catholic would wish to be specifically labeled and not bunched with other “Christians,” they argue, so too the “humanist” wants his “positive philosophy” to properly reflect what he believes.
Considering the times, I suspect that the humanists will soon have their way. And perhaps this isn’t all bad; perhaps it will provide a springboard for the believer to engage those who have allowed the pluralism of a free society to lead them to some strikingly false conclusions about the true nature of things.
Consider: we spend our lives growing, mentally and spiritually as well as physically. As the years progress, we gain knowledge, of things and places and people, and we build relationships. For some, but not all, wisdom also increases. This growth is valuable to us, and we seek – intuitively and innately – to make it last. Built into our natures is a desire for life generally, and for relationships specifically, to continue. Even when relationships fail, we don’t decide to live like hermits; we continue to seek to be heard and understood. We seek a place where we can belong. This hunger is fueled in part by the desire – the need – to make sense of the world and our place in it. Despite the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, in quiet moments we each at some point have to ask: why am I here? What, or who, put me here? What is expected of me? What is my ultimate end? What meaning, if any, is there to all of this? These are important questions that we can push aside for awhile but not forever.
Atheism posits that we are accidents of evolution, with no transcendent or lasting purpose. The universe just happens to exist and we just happen to be the unintended byproduct of a string of events which were set in motion randomly untold billions of years ago. We pass our brief moments in the sun, and in the end, we simply return to dust. The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and… being…count for nothing. There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, neither punishment for evil deeds nor rewards for the good that was done.
It’s hard to view this worldview as anything but futile and barren. And yet it seems to be taking hold in the modern mind. Why bother to punch anything at all into dog tags? Why should the humanist claim have any persuasive force, when it cannot explain any of what we find around us? When it runs so wildly counter to the intuition that we all have that this cannot be all that there is?
Because man is fallen – indeed, because he is in active rebellion against God – it is in fact predictable that man’s denial will persist. But there is a better way, one that is consonant with truth, which can answer the questions that bubble up from deep within us. A way that can ultimately satisfy our curiosity, and our desire, and set us back on the path toward home.
Scroll through the pages of this website to find out more about the truth claims of this time-tested worldview, which even now, despite all the challenges of the past two thousand years, remains alive and vibrant in every corner of the globe.
Posted by Al Serrato
atheism, Christian worldview, rebellion, Salvation, secularism
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The blood-curdling scream signaled that she had not yet given up. Hours of pushing, and the baby had still not descended. The OB was weighing her options, while dad wiped mom’s forehead and encouraged her on. She screamed again, pushing and puffing and praying that this agony might soon draw to a close. The pain was so… intense, so utterly mind-numbing that she wondered, for the thousandth time, why she had wanted to have another child…
This is a scene that plays out day after day in hospitals all over the world – women experiencing extreme pain as they do their part to bring new life to – and into – the world. But what does this have to do with Christian apologetics?
Recently, I corresponded with a skeptic who posed some interesting questions about the Christian faith. She began by arguing that if indeed Christ rose from the dead, this would have been no sacrifice on his part, but a bargain, as he traded a normal body for a perfect one.
This, I responded, misses the point of what Jesus did: because his body was human, he experienced the pain and suffering that the crucifixion brought with it, in the way that any flesh and blood human would. There are many things that may result in eventual gain that are exceedingly painful. You wouldn’t tell a mother who is about to deliver that her “sacrifice” and pain are any less real because she will be getting a healthy child “in return.” The mother’s suffering doesn’t “cause” the child to be born; it simply accompanies it, a feature as it were of the nature of things. But willingly enduring pain or suffering, in the service of others, is worthy of recognition and praise. What she endures still constitutes a sacrifice for her, even if she too gains in the process.
So too for Christ: though something better was in store, it nonetheless was a sacrifice for him to go through the steps necessary to complete his “substitutionary atonement.” And it wasn’t the pain that brought salvation; like the child birth referred to above, pain isn’t the point of the process; it is simply, and sadly, a byproduct of it.
Christianity does not teach that Christ’s suffering “caused” our salvation, as if he needed to satisfy the whims of some sadist. The mistake implicit in the challenge is the assumption that God is some kind of monster, who measured the pain Jesus suffered until it reached some point where he was finally satisfied. No, it was not Jesus’ experience of agony that God was measuring. It was, instead, Jesus’ perfect life, while a man, that put him in a position to accept in our stead what we in fact deserved. Many people have suffered similar, or even worse, deaths, but they could not take on for others what they themselves deserved based on their own conduct. Since sin is something that we all do, and since sin results in separation from God, then a sinless man would be the only kind of man who could take, on our behalf, the consequences that we merited. This is why Jesus made a point of saying that no one took his life; he did what he did voluntarily, which is the only way it would, or could, have been accepted.
Had he been a sinner himself, this “sacrifice” would have been of no avail, as he would have had his own debt to pay. Had he been simply another man, chosen at random to be the scapegoat for God’s wrath, a colossal act of unfairness would have resulted. But God took the punishment upon himself. Since God the Father and God the Son are “consubstantial” – of the same essence – God’s infinite wrath is absorbed and balance by an infinite and all powerful being.
Skeptics often claim that perfect justice and perfect mercy cannot coexist; one or the other must give way. But hasn’t God done just that? Has he not balanced perfect justice and perfect mercy through his perfect love – satisfied for eternity within the persons of the Godhead? Those who accept God’s gift receive forgiveness through Christ, while those who die in rebellion receive the just consequence of their choice.
In dying for our sins, Jesus did more than “sacrifice.” He demonstrated the sublime elegance that can solve even apparently insoluble problems, and open for us a path back to the Father.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's love, sacrifice, Salvation, substitutionary atonement
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