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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For many people, an obstacle to faith in Jesus is the seemingly gory nature of the core tenets of Christian history. Jesus suffered a horribly violent end, yet Christians revere the cross that was the instrument of that torturous death. And they celebrate His victory over death by partaking of His “body” – honoring His last injunction to “take and eat” and “take and drink” of His body and blood.
One challenger asked why Christians venerate the cross. If a friend were gunned down, he asked, would it make sense for those left behind to wear miniature guns as pendants around their necks? Or to worship the gun used to kill him?
This is an interesting challenge. Framed that way, it does seem a bit odd to incorporate into our holy images the means by which Jesus was put to death. But we are not worshiping the cross. We are worshiping God, in the person of his Son, through whose perfect life we find our hope for the future. More specifically, we are remembering, as He asked us to, what He was willing to do for us.
So, to answer the specific question, Christians would not venerate the gun that was used to murder a friend. But here is the difference. Jesus’ death on the cross is the most amazing gift that anyone has ever given. Consider: despite the accuracy of the label “murder” as applied to what occurred to Him that day 2000 years ago, Jesus told us that no one takes his life.
In John 10: 17-18, Jesus said:
“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”
Jesus lay down his life voluntarily so as to fulfill the Scriptures. He paid the price for our sins to make right the broken relationship with God that sin had introduced into the world. Through His perfect life, he restored the damage that the first humans had caused, and which all of us born since then have inherited. He literally gave – and is continuing to give – eternal life through Him, by balancing the scales of justice and mercy. Death did not defeat Him, nor did the cross. Through His perfect life and the sacrifice of the cross, He defeated death for us, atoning for our sins before a perfect God and providing a means to be re-united with God.
However barbaric it seems today, the cross remains the symbol for the immense love of God, as well as for the victory of Jesus over sin and death. So, while no one should revel in the gory details, the cross remains today, and for all time, a powerful symbol of that love.
Posted by Al Serratosacrificial love, Salvation, the cross
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For Christians all across the globe – men, women and children of all races, nationalities and cultures – today concludes Holy Week, a week during which we remember the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior. Adorning the buildings where Christians will gather, and often adorning their persons, the symbol of the cross is everywhere present. The reality behind the cross is quite jarring – it conjures up the vision of a man, beaten and bloody, going to a certain, and gruesome, death, in a manner diabolically calculated to maximize pain and suffering while also depriving the victim of any semblance of human dignity.
Why do we continue to “celebrate” this event? Why do we sanctify– make holy – this holiday?
Indeed, as the Bible makes clear, the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” for those who do not believe, but for those who are called, it is the “power” and “wisdom” of God. Why this is so requires us to understand the idea of atonement, the “balancing of the books” that Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.
Why does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to God, or to us? Doesn’t everyone die, and if so, what makes Christ’s death any different? To answer these questions, we must first see our lives from God’s perspective. As a perfect being, He endowed us with free will, which we used to rebel against Him. This created a rift in the relationship, a chasm between God and man. So, why did He make us that way? Why couldn’t He just accept us as we are?
Good questions, and ones we will never fully understand here. But we can glimpse the answer when we consider it from the perspective of love. What makes a loving relationship meaningful is the volitional aspect of it; if love is coerced or bought, it is not love, but something else, something less satisfying, less pleasing. A master has a relationship with a servant, but what the servant feels for the master is obligation, not love. The tyrant can command his subjects to kneel before him, but he cannot compel them to love him. Payment or punishment, or any other tool of coercion, can accomplish a result, but it cannot change the mind, nor the heart. It is only when love is freely given, and when love can be lost, that we truly value it. What we want, in the end, is relationship, and that requires free will, not intelligent robots who perform according to preset programming but are incapable of feeling. And so too with God.
Jesus’ act of love on the cross – in freely laying down his life – makes no sense until we consider from what this act saved us. Christians believe that God stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against His law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as an eternal and perfect being, demands perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? Separation from Him, at the very least. Why? For the same reason that law-abiding people don’t share their homes and lives with outlaws. Even without moving toward active punishment, the very first thing one would expect from justice is that it does not countenance injustice to be committed in one’s presence. But this “minimal” punishment of separation is also the bad news. Because He is eternal, our separation from Him is also eternal. Permanent separation from an infinitely perfect being – while knowing that He is there and being unable to share eternal bliss with Him and with others – is a form of torment that makes any earthly torture seem mild by comparison. It is the nature of the result – and not any sadistic purpose on God’s part – that makes Hell such a horrible place.
We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward this goodness. Christians believe that He won’t. That indeed is bad news.
So, how does Jesus getting nailed to a cross saves us? I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, He accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, He is the only man whom God, in His justice, cannot punish. If God punishes Him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and other new atheists accuse Him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells His disciples that no man takes His life. He willingly gives it up.
Why? Because as an eternal being, Jesus is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though He did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”
In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve – punishment that is the necessary and natural byproduct of separation from a perfect being. Once we accept the gift, we open ourselves up to a process which God will complete in us, making us ready to reunite with Him. This solution is the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from such a being.
This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more meaningful and intelligent manner. My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.
But for today anyway, it is enough that we reflect, and give thanks, that on this day so many centuries ago, this perfect plan found perfect execution in the loving sacrifice of our Lord.
Posted by Al Serrato
atonement, Easter, resurrection, Salvation
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My last post staked out the position that Christianity is based in truth. While not testable the same way hypotheses in chemistry or physics can be tested, the Christian worldview is nonetheless grounded in certain facts of history. Several readers posted challenges to this claim.
The first was that I was asserting but not proving this point. This is a fair comment. However, it would be nearly impossible within the confines of an 800 word essay to lay out the case for Christianity. Others much more knowledgeable have done so, establishing that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are indeed historical events. While much of what we know is based on the testimony of “believer’s” – those who personally witnessed these events and underwent changed beliefs and lives – their credibility was greatly enhanced by their willingness to face torture or death rather than deny the truth of what they had experienced. Moreover, there are other “non believers” who also corroborate Jesus’ life and crucifixion, as well as the transformative effect his life had on human history. But the case is much broader still, for it also encompasses the prophesies written before the time of Jesus that were fulfilled by him, lending additional support to his claim of divinity. Interested readers should consider: “The Historical Jesus” or “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,” both by Gary Habermas; “Cold Case Christianity” by J. Warner Wallace, or “Reasonable Faith,” by William Lane Craig, as starting points.
The second challenged my assertion that science is not the only means for arriving at knowledge. The contention, a common one today, was that science is the best way to arrive at knowledge, including knowledge of past events. But to make sense of this assertion, one must first determine what it is that is in question. Past events are not repeatable experiments that can be recreated in the lab. Probability assessments become meaningless in many such settings. I have seen murder cases in which the probability that the defendant would have killed the victim was infinitesimally small – until they actually did the act. They could have countless character witnesses testify as to how out of character such behavior might be. But these probability assessments would be irrelevant if, for example, the defendant confessed or there was other powerful evidence which established guilt. Highly improbable events – like astronauts landing on the moon – do occasionally occur. Some events, like the assassination of President Lincoln – can only occur once, if they occur at all. A rational approach to determining truth as to such an historical event is to test the evidence, not consider probabilities in the abstract. Indeed, concluding that a particular person did not commit the crime, or that a particular event did not occur, because it was “improbable,” despite the actual evidence that it did occur, would reflect a bias which is interfering with the determination of truth.
Additionally, it is a mistake to assume that science can address all questions. Science is indeed a powerful tool. Much of what we take for granted – the many modern conveniences that enhance our lives – are the product of science. But science cannot prove that the scientific method is preferable, nor can it establish the validity of reason in reaching conclusions. It is not possible to use reason to support reason without begging the question. Moreover, a moment’s reflection reveals the many limitations of scientific knowledge. For example, “science” assisted Nazi Germany in developing one of the most efficient states ever organized on the planet, but it had nothing to say about the ends to which that knowledge was put. Survival of the fittest is a scientific theory that explains why some species survive. But science cannot “know” that applying it to members of the human family is always wrong. This type of knowledge – moral knowledge – comes from a different source.
Science may tell me why the colors of the rainbow appear the way they do, but it cannot help me to know that rainbows are pleasing to the eye. Indeed, science can measure many types of features with microscopic precision, but it cannot tell me what is beautiful or what is hideous. Finally, science can tell me about the ink and parchment used by an author, but it cannot tell me whether the ideas conveyed are valid or invalid, cogent or rambling.
Contrary to the implication of skeptics, Christians do not reject science. Indeed some of the greatest scientific minds were wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. But Christianity does not assume that science can provide all knowledge, including knowledge of God and his interaction with his creation. As it relates to such things, and especially to the historical underpinnings of Christianity and its fundamental philosophies, other forms of knowledge are at play.
Posted by Al Serratolimits of science, probability
Posted in Writings | 2 Comments »
My last post dealt with the belief, common among skeptics, that Christianity is simply a form of superstition. Modern “science-minded” people reject superstitions, and so religious belief holds no interest for them. Historic Christian doctrine is in fact much different, however; while some who claim to be Christian may indeed be superstitious, the faith itself is built not upon fanciful thinking but upon a bedrock of truth.
This distinction, and the importance of pursuing truth, can be seen in the following analogy: imagine a person who is suffering from a medical disorder. One day he is fine and the next the disease begins the process of eventually killing him. Initially, he does not know he is afflicted.He “feels” fine. He continues to go about his business, concerned with the problems of everyday life and not suspecting that anything may be different, let alone dreadfully wrong. Eventually, symptoms begin to appear, but they are not particularly troubling to him. After friends insist that he have them checked out, he agrees to see a doctor.This is a big step for him, for he does not “believe” in doctors.He thinks that doctors are often wrong and that they rely too much on pills and not enough on just “living right.” He knows that others really believe in doctors, but he is “sincere” in his belief that doctors do more harm than good, especially when one doesn’t “feel” that anything is wrong. After running a battery of tests, however, the doctor identifies the illness and tells the patient what is wrong.
In addition to understanding the affliction, the doctor also has the means to provide the solution. The patient resists, however, insisting that he feels fine and that he doesn’t need any help. He views the surgery and medicines the doctor offers as “butchery” and “potions.” He sincerely believes that the doctor is practicing voodoo.Ultimately, the patient dies, blissfully unaware of his true condition, content in his belief that he was fine, and proud of his refusal to resort to talismanic remedies to fix something he did not believe was wrong.
As this analogy demonstrates, how the patient feels about his situation is not particularly relevant. Nor is the sincerity of his belief. He may feel fine, physically and emotionally, but the issue would be his actual condition, i.e. the truth about his disease. Christianity needs to be assessed on these terms. Either the Biblical claims are true – we are in a world of trouble and only Jesus can save us – or they’re not. If they are true, how we feel about them is of little consequence. And ignoring and rejecting them will, in the end, not succeed.
Now some may object that doctors practice science, and so the analogy is misplaced. The patient was wrong not to rely on science. But science is simply one way of testing and developing knowledge.It is not the only way. Science cannot tell us whether we possess souls and whether these souls are in need of salvation.And science cannot tell us whether improbable past events actually occurred.The only way we can make that assessment is by considering the evidence upon which Christianity is based and becoming familiar with the philosophy that supports its claims.
But we must do so with an open and inquiring mind… for the consequences of ignoring our spiritual illness can be as devastating as the disease was for the unsuspecting patient.
Posted by Al Serrato
faith, skepticism, superstition
Posted in Writings | 1 Comment »
My last post touched on the issue of bias and how bias may relate to the credibility of believers who try to “defend the faith.” I argued that most Christians, if they think about what really tugs at them, will realize that they actually have a bias away from faith – with its rules and restrictions – and not toward it. That was certainly my experience. Many skeptics attempt to stake out a “neutral” position, applauding themselves for their lack of bias and their objectivity. They think their approach is more “scientific.” If God wanted to contact me, they conclude, He would do a better job of making that clear. But despite the enlightened tone of this approach, keeping a perpetually “open mind” has some negatives worth considering.
The principal one has to do with the nature of relationship. God, we believe, is personal in nature. Indeed, the Trinity consists of three distinct persons who share a divine nature, characterized by a mutual and eternal love. Understanding just how this works is beyond us; it is one of the mysteries of Christianity that is rooted in faith. But suffice it to say that, having made us in His image, it is fair to conclude that we were ultimately destined for relationship with Him. Our best destiny, then, is to partake in this relationship in a fuller way when our days on Earth wind to a close.
What characterizes friendship? Different things in different cultures, no doubt. But has any culture ever developed a concept of relationship that involves “indifference?” Has any culture produced relationships in which one recognizes intellectually that their neighbor “might be there,” while expressing an utter lack of any interest as to who they are, what they are about or what matters to them? Is there any reason why that should be different for God?
After all, is it not obvious that we were made for relationship? Doesn’t loneliness, like an illness, drain the life and vitality out of people? Isn’t solitary confinement so devastating precisely because it deprives the prisoner of contact with other human beings? Vibrant and robust relationship is, without question, one of our fundamental needs as well as the source of our greatest joy. This is especially true of that one special relationship that most people seek – that “soul mate” with whom they wish to grow old.
On the horizontal plane (that is to say, one human being to another), it is wise to approach this task with an open mind. However, after consideration, some conclusions are drawn as a person grows closer to some people and away from others. Ultimately, when a person finds the one he wants to spend his life with, he is called to make a commitment. His mind must move from open to – not quite closed – but not asking the same basic questions anymore either. This allows the relationship to become deeper and stronger. Moving to the vertical plane, there are not multiple possible partners who could be acceptable; instead, there is one God who is calling us to relationship with Him. He has left the seeds of that desire in us and so it’s natural that we seek Him, but because He wants our choice to be free, He leaves it to us to make the decision to accept or reject His gift.
When a person maintains a perpetually open mind as it relates to God, he loses out on this opportunity for relationship, in the same way that someone who refuses to become attached to another person will, in the end, remain alone. But “aloneness” from God is not simply the loneliness that marks the last days of the widower, or the plight of the prisoner in solitary. Separated from the source of all perfection, with the prospect of an eternity of isolation, it is “hell” indeed.
Posted by Al Serratoeternity, open mind, relationship with God
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Superstition is as old as man. An incomplete picture of why things work the way they do fuels the imagination to conjure up hidden forces at work behind the scenes. Pull back the curtain and perhaps one will find an “all powerful” being at work pulling the strings. Accessing – and eventually perhaps cajoling or influencing that being – can easily become the basis for a religious belief system.
Does Christianity fall into this same category? Some unbelievers, observing the behavior of professional athletes, might believe that superstition is at play. Praying and acknowledging one’s deity, they assume, is a way of seeking to influence the outcome of the contest. For some, it seems like a cheap – and silly – trick.
But this is not what Christian players are doing when they acknowledge God, nor is it what a mature devotion to Christianity would include.
Some non-believers who consider this behavior will ask themselves a very basic question: will becoming a Christian “improve” my life? Is it a ticket to greater wealth and prosperity, better relationships, a future filled with every type of goodness and blessing? For many, this seems too good to be true, but they pursue it hoping for the best; for others, it appears to be a shell game or cheap con, and they reject it without ever considering what it really entails.
The nutshell answer is: probably yes. In most cases for most people, developing a relationship with God in which you accept His gift and then living a life that reflects His will, as best you can achieve it, will improve your life in some important and significant ways. But having a “better” life is a by-product of belief, and not the main point of devoting one’s life to Jesus.
If prosperity or other rewards become the main point, Christianity begins to be marketed as a product, a method of achieving some desirable end. A person identifies a need in his or her life and Christianity fills that need, the way any product might do. But this is not the message of Christianity. The Bible is not a “how to” manual on achieving financial or worldly success. It does not promise riches in the here and now, nor an end to all hardship… nor a victory in every football contest. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the early fathers of the church, and their followers, could have attested. (Except of course for the football part.)
In short, Christianity tells the story of man’s broken relationship with his Creator. It claims to speak truth about the nature of God and of this broken relationship and what is needed to fix it. The Old Testament provides the backdrop as God prepares a people to serve as the vehicle for redemption. Jesus comes – not to make my life profitable or more fulfilling in some modern sense or to help me nail down a spot in the Super Bowl- but to fulfill the ancient prophecies, to give His life as ransom for us, and to thereby restore our relationship with the Father.
Christianity should be assessed on its merits – are its claims true? – not on what it can achieve for you. The Apostle Paul said as much, when he said that we are to be pitied as fools if Christ did not rise from the dead. Everything rests on that truth claim. Once we see that Christ did rise, and we place our trust in Him, He will do a work in us and will eventually welcome us into His Kingdom. But Paul himself remained physically afflicted, and there is no reason to believe that by following Christ, our problems will disappear.
We will, however, look at them differently, and by living Biblical values, we will probably have a better life than we might otherwise have had – and certainly a more fulfilling one.
Posted by Al Serratoapologetics, belief in God, superstitution
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To the skeptic, most Christians – certainly most who appear willing to “defend” their faith – may seem a bit one-dimensional, perhaps in some cases fanatical. They seem so convinced of their views, regardless of how bizarre some of these views seem to the unbeliever. Many conclude, then, that the believer is simply biased in favor of what he wants to believe. He has accepted a “bill of goods” without having struggled over where best to place his trust.
But this is not an accurate description of the faith journey of many believers. Indeed, most go through a period of doubt in which they struggle with what they were taught in childhood. That was certainly my experience. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I was taught doctrines and rituals which were both mysterious and comforting. Until I began law school, though, these beliefs went largely unchallenged, leaving me unprepared to defend what I thought was “the truth.” Encountering highly intelligent people who were not afraid to point out why they viewed my faith as foolish, I began to believe that all religions were pretty much the same – they could provide comfort, but they weren’t really true. Truth, after all, was a relative concept, dependent on one’s point of view and cultural narrative. And science had pretty much shown that there isn’t a need for God. While faith might make a good crutch when bad things happen, it probably did more harm than good in the long run, because it was at odds with reason. These conclusions just happened to coincide with an increasing desire to put the restrictions of Christianity behind me and to put aside whatever feelings of guilt would arise from time to time.
As I look back on it now, I realize that despite my upbringing, I did not actually have a bias to believe in Christianity. My bias, as I was discovering, was to take the path of least resistance. As a practicing Christian, I needed to conform my behavior to something outside myself, depriving me of a certain amount of freedom. Removing the restrictions of religion would allow me to remain “moral” but would also allow me to define morality any way I chose. After all, with no law-giver, there was no reason to comply with rules that I did not make for myself.
Since I knew many believers, I would raise these issues with them, hoping that they could respond to my challenges. Most, unfortunately, would talk about faith as a feeling or remind me that the Church’s teachings were infallible. They would suggest that my skepticism was not pleasing to God and raise the specter of eternal punishment. In short, they were telling me that I was wrong, but not why I was wrong. I would just have to take it “on faith.” They were wrong: I wasn’t persuaded by discussions of how faith would make me “feel” (I already felt good in church) or with threats of hell for failing to follow someone else’s rituals. I also wasn’t satisfied with “infallible teachings.” If in fact the world was broken down into “faith” and “reason” – as my law school friends maintained – then I knew I would side with reason.
I thought this conclusion would satisfy me, but in the end it did not. Two things continued to nag at me. The first was this concept of truth. As a criminal investigator and then a prosecutor, I had chosen a field in which truth actually mattered. After all, it just wasn’t okay to get a conviction if I had the wrong guy. I became increasingly fascinated with and drawn to the concept of objective truth. From my legal training, I also had developed a strong interest in reason. Concepts such as “the reasonable person” standard and proof beyond a “reasonable doubt” showed that the thinkers who laid the foundation for the orderly society we developed put a great amount of stock in the mind’s ability to reason to a just result. I didn’t know how this applied to religion, and I still suspected that no one religion had the corner on truth, but I made a commitment to myself that I would follow truth where it led. In other words, I realized that I had some strong motivations to ignore the truth, especially when it seemed inconvenient, and I made a promise to myself that I would seek the truth and submit to it, to the best of my ability.
The second problem nagging at me was with the notion that only simpletons adhered to religion. As I learned more about history, I realized that some of the greatest and most powerful thinkers in history grappled with the same questions that troubled me, and that they concluded that there is in fact a God and that he is the God described in the Bible. These included not just philosophers, but also the scientists who essentially developed what we recognize today as Western science. The more I learned, the more I realized that treating religious belief as an “opiate for the masses” just wouldn’t fly. There was something there, and I wanted to find out what it was.
In sum, then, my journey began with faith and that faith ran into a brick wall that I thought was “reason.” It ended with the realization that the dichotomy between faith and reason was in fact false. The two are in fact compatible. Christianity was never based on wishful thinking, nor is it dependent solely on “faith.” Instead, it was based on specific truth claims about events which occurred in history, and which were verifiable. This evidence supports a conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, providing a rational basis to place one’s faith in his message of salvation.
Sadly, the non believer accuses those who have taken this journey of having a closed mind. Quite the contrary is true: while my mind is open – to receiving and evaluating new evidence – given what I have seen so far, I am not ambivalent. Can the skeptic say the same?
It is also worth noting that remaining perpetually “on the fence” – unwilling to reach a firm conclusion – brings with it risks as well. In my next post, I will attempt to lay out just what those are.
Posted by Al Serrato
Posted in Writings | 5 Comments »