Can Morality Be Grounded Without God?

ssChristians acknowledge that atheists can be moral. In fact, many are fine, upstanding, “good” people. What atheists cannot do is validly ground their morality. Without a source of truth from a divine source – a transcendent source – at best they can make “moral” noises, but what they are expressing is not a genuine assessment of good versus evil, but simply a preference.

In my last post, I argued that a creator God can do what he wishes with his creation – a computer simulation has no right to argue with the programmer, nor does the pot have the right to challenge the potter. A skeptic challenged my claim, saying:

If a computer animation or a pot were to be sentient, it would, indeed, have the right to complain about any mistreatment at the hands of its creator. But, consider this,” he went on. “If your god decides the bible was a big joke (ha-ha) and throws christians into torment, what is your recourse? What consolation do you have? You may not think it much, but if your god does that sort of thing to me, I will at least have the consolation that I did not pronounce it just, that I was simply overpowered by a wicked tyrant. But you, you say he has every right to do whatever he wants with you. It is possible for human judges to overstep and abuse their authority. And they do sometimes use ‘officers of the court’ to facilitate this. That your god might have the power to enforce his whims (of which I, currently, see no evidence) does not negate the fact that, as described, he is unjust. He demands a respect of which he is not truly worthy. I would like to refer to your doctor analogy. The doctor is concerned about what harm the quack may cause his patients. He does not, however, threaten to impose harm himself on those foolish enough to listen to the imposter. With your god, it is quite different. The idols themselves do nothing, good or bad, for their worshippers. They are, after all, mindless stone or wood or what have you. No, the only danger that will come to people will come from what your god does to those who don’t worship him the way he wants them to. All this, of course, is according to the claims of the bible. I do not vouch for the accuracy of the text.”

Perhaps the writer does not realize it, but this response sneaks in moral language which he makes no attempt to ground. Why does a “sentient” being, as opposed to other types of life, have this right? How can he claim that God is a “tyrant” and a “wicked” one at that? I responded by seeking to know the source of the “right” that the skeptic claimed:

And where would that “right” be grounded? If there is no god, then your conclusion that something is unjust is merely a feeling, like being hungry. How could you possibly know what a ‘wicked tyrant’ is if you don’t first have a standard of ‘good’ against which to measure it? Human judges are bound to a higher authority. That’s how you know they have overstepped their bounds. Where is that authority to be found? In your worldview, where can you find limits? Those are simply your feelings, once again. God’s ways are difficult to understand, and each of us risks being mistaken. But your moral indignation is ultimately baseless in a God-less universe. In fact, you are sneaking in a standard, which you wish to attribute to some generalized sense of human decency. But in the end, without transcendent grounding, it remains just an opinion.”

The writer responded:

“But Al, I do have a standard of good against which to measure. It’s based on the fact that causing pleasure is good and causing pain is bad. However, I would like you to consider the fact that for the common christian claim that ‘god is good’ to have any meaning, there must be a standard of good that isn’t based on that god’s whims.”

But of course this doesn’t help. Far from being an objective standard, it is a form of saying: I want what I want and I like what I like. Good is what I say good is. Here was my response:

“I think you need to keep working on that standard. Otherwise, the murderer who causes ‘pleasure’ by killing his grandparents to obtain their wealth would end up being ‘good,’ while the doctor who causes ‘pain’ while administering a cure is ‘bad.’ Your position ends up being circular – good is what I think is good while bad is what I think is bad. God doesn’t have ‘whims.’ He has a nature that we seek to understand, however imperfectly. You just happen to disagree with what you believe to be his nature, as it does not conform to what you think is right or wrong. That, by the way, is how you know there is a standard there. It is pressing against all of us, and we all to varying degrees are rebelling against him. As C.S. Lewis explained, we all know there is a ‘law’ there (morality) and we all violate it.’

In response, the writer said:

“That murderer may give himself pleasure; but he is causing his grandparents much more pain. This is, of course, unless we are talking about pulling the plug on life support when they are withered away and suffering a fate worse than death.  You say God doesn’t have ‘whims.’ He has a nature that we seek to understand, however imperfectly. But if it looks… like a duck, and it quacks… like a duck, and it waddles… like a duck, it’s probably not a cow. This looks like christians making excuses for the whims of their god.”

No, what it looks like is someone who doesn’t see the ramifications of his worldview. The murderer, in my example, could be giving pleasure – in the form of wealth – to a dozen people who might stand to inherit. So, does the pleasure of the many outweigh the pain of the one? What if you drug the person first, so he feels no pain? Does that make it “good.” Contrast that with Christianity. Take the protection of life, a timely topic. Christianity teaches that all people are made in the image of God. Consequently, no one has the right to take the life of another, innocent human being. Whether the innocent life is a fetus, and elderly person who “refuses” to die willingly, or a member of a race that another race wants to enslave or destroy, there is no need to analyze who gains pleasure and who is caused pain. This provides a workable, transcendent standard – it was the code upon which much of our law was once based.

In the end, chasing pleasure won’t make for a just society, or for a happy one. Haven’t we learned that by now?

Posted by Al Serrato

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Does God Demand Worship?

In mssy last post, I tried to make the case that God does not “need” our praise. I acknowledged that He does expect it, because praise naturally flows to a perfect being. But is it fair to say that he actually “demands” it? And will punish us if we refuse?

In raising this challenge, a skeptic quotes from the Ten Commandments. Doesn’t God say that man should not bow down and worship false idols? Does He not describe himself as a “jealous” God? What then are we to make of God’s position? The skeptic concludes his challenge:

“So, whilst you state that god doesn’t demand worship, he DOES threaten dire punishments to those who don’t worship him!
‘You don’t have to worship me, and I’d never ask such a thing of you, but if you don’t I’ll crush you, and your kids, and THEIR kids, just to make sure my message is clear’ seems to be the way god is saying things are.
So, here we have a supposed perfect being, in a supposed revelation in his supposed holy book, saying that he’ll be angry if he isn’t worshipped!
We come back to the question – why would a perfect demand worship?”

These are good questions, and they deserve an answer. But the questions reveal quite a bit about the skeptic and the reasons he cannot make sense of the Biblical model for right relationship with God. It is apparent that the skeptic refuses to, or cannot, recognize that:

1) God is not our equal. As our creator, he has the absolute right to do what he wants with us. We have no more basis to complain than would a computer animation to the computer programmer, or to use a more ancient example, the pot to the potter. This is an unpleasant thought, especially for Americans steeped in the tradition of equality. But equality refers to the relationship between people, not the relationship between God and his creation. A child does not dictate to his parent what fairness is. Nor does the robot tell the supervisor to take his place on the assembly line. If you persist in thinking that a being capable of thinking this universe into existence somehow must answer to you, or justify himself to you, you will never gain the answers that you claim to be seeking;

2) God is not emotional. While He is “personal,” and while he inspired the Biblical writers using emotional imagery, He is not a histrionic drama queen ready to throw tantrums. Selectively quoting Scripture to paint such a picture distorts what the Bible teaches about God’s true nature. Negative emotion, after all, is a characteristic of a limited being that has fears, wants and desires. It is a failing. More precisely, negative emotions like jealousy, lust and greed are perversions of the good. Like evil generally, base emotions are a departure from the standard that God is, and that God sets.  A limitless, timeless Being doesn’t “hope” for a good outcome, or “fear” that he will not “get the girl” or seethe with “envy” against a rival. He has no needs, lacks nothing, and has no rivals. He is all good.

So, why then does God use emotional language? Probably for the same reason that I speak one way to adults in a courtroom setting and quite another way if I’m talking to children at a daycare center. The style and content of the conversation is tailored to the needs and capabilities of the audience. Using emotional language conveys God’s message much more vibrantly than simply setting forth instructions.

3) The Biblical reference to jealousy, l
ike all Biblical texts, must be taken in context. The usual connotation of “jealousy” is quite negative. It conjures up images of a jilted boyfriend stalking his girlfriend as he suspects her of infidelity. But the actual definition is more varied; under “biblical” it includes: “intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry.” As I argued in the previous post, God’s self-assessment is accurate. He has every right to expect worship from His creation, because praise and worship are what perfection merit. Equally, He knows the harm it does us when we worship a lie as opposed to the truth. It is, then, an expression of love for him to desire that we return to right relationship with him.

Consider an analogy. A town doctor spends years earning the trust of his patients. One day he learns that an untrained quack has begun tending to his patients, pretending to be him and doing much harm with his medications and treatments. The doctor loves his patients and wants what is best for them. How, then, should he react? I submit that anger and jealousy – an intolerance of the harmful “rivalry” – would be an appropriate response. So too with God. He loves us enough to warn us against the danger we face when we persist in our rebellion against Him; He loves us enough to be angry when we turn away.

In sum, the skeptic wants to claim equality with God and expect God to view things the same way. He does not want to give God the love and respect to which He is entitled, by His very nature. And he wants God to accept this disrespect as appropriate. But God, by His nature, will also demand the response to which He is entitled. Think of it this way. Why does a judge demand respect? Why does he have a bailiff ready to establish order if a heckler decides to interfere? If a human judge can demand that to which the law entitles him, how much more can the ultimate Judge, the Creator of all that there is, demand respect from his creation? After all, we are subject to His law. What should that respect look like? Well, for the judge it means being addressed with a proper tone of voice, proper language and proper behavior. But what about for the ultimate judge? What does a perfect being deserve?

Simply this: to be recognized accurately for what he is. And when we do that, we see that worship and praise are the appropriate way of responding to Him.

The point of this excursion has been to show that there is a rational way to reconcile God’s goodness and perfection, on the one hand, with the Biblical references to God’s “jealousy,” anger and expectation of worship, on the other. While on the surface these things may seem inconsistent, on deeper reflection a fuller picture of God begins to emerge. For this, we are indebted not just to the Biblical writers but to the pillars of Christian philosophy, giants such as Augustine, Anselm and Aquinas. Somehow, though, I doubt the skeptic will accept their views, or these. By his very nature, the skeptic will continue to do what he does best – believe in nothing.

Posted by Al Serrato


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Does God Need Praise?

 ssChristians claim that God is a perfect Being. Perfect beings lack for nothing so why, then, does God demand our praise? As one challenger put it, “why does this being that doesn’t need anything need praise? A perfect being shouldn’t want for anything, including the worship of its creation.”

The question can be restated in the form of an argument denying that the God of the Bible is perfect. It would go like this:

• A perfect being has no needs and no wants.
• The God of the Bible needs and wants praise and worship.
• Therefore, the God of the Bible is not perfect.

Of course, a non-perfect “God” is a contradiction. Either he doesn’t exist or the real God is not him. Either way, the Christian loses.

The value in restating the question lies in the clarification it brings to the challenger’s assumptions. The syllogism set forth is logical. If in fact the God of the Bible needs and wants praise and worship, he could not rightly be viewed as perfect. The problem with the challenge is not the implied logic; instead, the problem is that the assumption about God – that he has a need or a wish for praise – is false. The God of the Bible has no such need.

To see why, one must first spend a moment considering what “praise” and “worship” entail. To “praise” is to express approval or admiration. It derives from the verb “to prize,” or in other words, to highly value something. To “worship” derives from “worth” and means to revere or to adore. To “revere” means to regard with awe, an overwhelming feeling of fear or admiration produced by that which is grand, sublime or extremely powerful. These concepts all boil down to the same basic thought: praise and worship are a recognition and expression of awe in the presence of something great.

In considering praise and worship, two things are apparent:

1) To be meaningful, praise and worship must be freely given. Like love, praise or worship that is coerced by threat or by promise is of no value. One cannot be forced to admire or to feel awe.

2) Praise flows naturally from recognition of greatness, even if I refuse to convey praise to the person I am admiring. For example, I may dislike the Blue Angels, but contemplating the great skill required to control high performance aircraft travelling inches apart at near supersonic speeds would cause me to feel awe; the performance of the pilots is worthy of praise, whether I like them or not. Similarly, I may dislike overpaid baseball players yet still admire the ability required to hit a curving ball travelling toward the batter at 90 miles per hour.

Recognizing what praise and worship involve, it is apparent that no leader – certainly not a perfect one – would demand it. It simply does not work this way. Review the pages of the Bible, and you will see that God does not demand praise and worship. Where those concepts are discussed, they are the words and exhortations of other people talking about God. But God does expect our worship and praise, for this conforms to the natural order of things.

This point bears emphasis. God knows the way things really are. His self assessment of his infinite perfection is accurate. Such perfection is worthy of praise and awe and reverence. For God to think otherwise would not be humility, but error. Having no limitations, God rightly expects that we view him in the correct way, the only way that conforms to reality. Consequently, whatever attributes a person finds worthy of praise, God possesses these in infinite measure. Getting one’s mind around the immensity of a perfect God – of the utter overwhelming greatness that he possesses – one would necessarily be overcome with awe, fear and reverence. Whether we “like” Him or rebel against Him, our urge to praise and worship Him flow naturally from recognition of His greatness.

Now add to this the fact that God created us from nothing. He offers us the opportunity for union with Him, the chance to partake in His eternal loving relationship. When we contemplate the notion of what living eternally in the presence of perfection will be like, we will naturally, in recognition of the proper order of things, overflow with praise and worship, as well as gratitude and love. This is what the Bible is capturing when it speaks of the need – our need – to give praise and worship to God.

For those looking in from the outside, this will make little sense. They will mock our rituals as primitive or as a form of wishful thinking. For they do not yet understand. They have closed their minds to Godly things. Think of it this way: a person encounters a scuba diver for the first time. Watching him ascend a set number of feet and then stop for a period may seem quaint. The observer might imagine that the diver is saying prayers to the gods or partaking in some other primitive ritual. But the diver knows better. Understanding the workings of nature – that rising too quickly will result in that dangerous condition known as the bends – he periodically stops his ascent to comply with the natural order of things. It may seem like silly ritual to the uninformed, but to one with actual knowledge of the way things really are, it is indispensible.

So too with eternal matters. While our prayers and beliefs and rituals may seem foolish distractions to the secular world, they are in fact a proper recognition of the “worth”ship of God. We bend our knees voluntarily to His sublime excellence, for it is the natural order of things. 

Posted by Al Serrato

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Is All Religion “Bad?”

download“I’m not much on religion. The way I look at it, organized religion is really a bad thing. They’re all pretty much the same – home to a bunch of hypocrites telling you what to do but not doing it themselves. It works for people who can’t think for themselves. It’s not for me, that’s all I know.”

 My colleague didn’t mean to offend. She was being candid about why she moved away from the Christian faith of her childhood. A lot of emotion and feeling were packed into that statement and changing her mind was neither likely at that moment, nor was it my goal. As a believer, I of course wanted to “make the case,” but I could tell from her manner that she was not open to hearing it. Her mind was made up. But perhaps I could give her something to think about.

 “I know what you mean,” I replied. “And much of what you say is true. And, it sounds to me like what is true actually matters to you. You don’t want to follow rules for some deity in the sky that you don’t think is really there. You don’t want to be fooled, or mislead.”

 “Well, I certainly hope so,” she said.

 “That’s important,” I agreed. “That’s why I wanted to make sure we were on the same page on this. While I agree with you that some religions are false, and therefore bad, and that some followers of what I would call true religion are also bad, I can’t agree that there’s no place of religion, that religion generally is just a bad thing.”

 Her expression suggested that she wasn’t interested in a discussion, a kind of “I’ve heard it all before” look.

 I pressed on. “When you think about it, the same thing you just said could also be said about other things. Take food, for example. Some things we might think of as food are actually poisonous, like some types of mushrooms. Other things like, say, sushi, can be toxic if not prepared correctly. And some things, like most fast food, are just plain bad for us. Some people misuse food, either intentionally or not intentionally. Food’s track record, when viewed this way, is pretty dismal; more harm comes from misusing food or consuming the wrong things than we can even begin to imagine.”

I could see she was listening.

“But you wouldn’t take these observations and conclude from them that all food is bad, would you?”

She began to slowly shake her head.

“Of course not,” I went on. “What you would conclude is that you must be discerning. You need to stay away entirely from things that are either poisonous or otherwise harmful, and what you do eat you should eat in moderation and in a balanced way. Your goal in eating, after all, is not just enjoyment of the taste but also nutrition and good health, so that you can fuel your body in a way that is likely to produce in you the best physical health. Right?”

 She nodded.

“Wow,” she said. “I’ve never thought about it that way. I’ll have to think about that for awhile.”

“Please do. I would love to talk to you more about this. I just want you to see that as food and drink are the fuel needed for the body, we are not just bodies. We have a spiritual side to us, one that I think all people realize, even those who have rejected formal religion. Even you, I suspect, recognize that you are not just flesh and blood, right? You have a body and a mind, both of which you are making use of. You are not just a body or a mind, right?”

She nodded, still processing what I was saying.

“Well, that part of you that ‘has’ a mind and a body – your spiritual side or soul – doesn’t it make sense that this needs nourishment as well? That there are things that help make it healthy and things that by contrast can make it sick? Ignoring food indefinitely will lead to illness and death. Why would ignoring food for the soul be any different?”

Her face became more animated. “Why should that be?” she countered. “I’m not sure I agree with you on that.”

“Because,” I began, “all living things are by definition growing and changing. When things no longer grow, they die. If your spirit stopped growing, it would not be alive within you. And all growing things need nourishment of some kind. So why would your soul be any different? It may not need material or natural things to keep in living, but if it is alive, and it is growing or changing, it needs something. Doesn’t it?”

I could see that she wanted to process what I had said so far, so I concluded.

“Pursuing truth actually matters in the world. That’s how we stay alive and healthy, by being able to distinguish good things from bad things. Finding ‘truth’ in religion is no different. Christianity is making certain truth claims both about things that occurred in history – the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – as well as ultimate things – why man is here at all, what his purpose is, and what his ultimate destination is. These are, in fact, among the most interesting and fascinating things to think about. All I’m asking is to give it some thought. Don’t close your mind to these things and conclude that all religion is bad. At least do some investigation before you reach such a broad and final conclusion.”

She was about to respond, then stopped herself.

“Let’s talk later. I need to think about this,” she said. I hope she does.

Posted by Al Serrato


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Why Doesn’t God Need a Creator?

sChristians believe that God is an “infinite” being who has always existed and always will exist. But is this position simply an article of faith, or is there some evidence to support this claim?

Most skeptics today feel pretty comfortable concluding that there really isn’t “evidence.” After all, when we think of “evidence,” we usually think of things like witness statements or documents or fingerprints left at the scene of a crime. Since no one has “evidence” relating to things outside our universe, or to a being who preceded the Big Bang, it’s a safe bet that the Christian won’t come up with any “evidence.” Or is it?

Seeing the unspoken premise in the question highlights what is at play: the challenger assumes that such “evidence” is the only way we can know things. But this is simply not true. While evidence and inferences from evidence are valid ways of determining what is true, they are not the exclusive way. For example, when I know that no circle is also a square, where is the evidence for that? Or that A = C, when told that A = B and B = C? Or that rape is always wrong. These types of knowledge – based on logic and reason and a basic moral sense – are part of the normal functioning of every human mind.

Like a computer, our minds come equipped with certain basic programs, like the ability to acquire language and to understand and to make use of concepts such as fairness and right and wrong. Watch a child develop and you will see these subprograms at work.  We don’t teach children how to learn a language; we simply teach them the language. From a very early age, they have and display an intuitive sense of fairness and can recognize when something is unfair. The mind also has the ability to conceptualize, to make sense of patterns by grouping things into categories. By realizing what a square is, we “know” that a circle can never be one. By knowing that people have a right to the integrity of their bodies, we know that rape – which violates that right – is always wrong. By employing logic, we know that A = C when A and C are both equal to B.

What does this have to do with God’s origins? Just this: it is by conceptualizing what is meant by God that we can determine – that we can know – certain important things about him. When we think of God, we are thinking of that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. He embodies infinite perfection. Such a being must necessarily exist, because necessary existence is an attribute of a perfect being. That he is the source of this universe, and all that is in it, is a product of recognizing that all created things had a preceding cause, sufficient to bring them into existence. There are no known exceptions and no reason to suspect that there are any exceptions. Moving to the very beginning of the space/time universe we occupy, there must be a source adequate to the task of creating it. Two possibilities exist: the creator of the universe was himself created, and therefore had a beginning; or he was infinite, having no beginning. If you choose the former, you haven’t gone far enough in your reasoning. You need to keep moving back in time, because your conception of God is not fully developed. Anselm of Canterbury is credited with first developing this argument. When you follow where reason leads in conceptualizing what God entails, you realize that he must be an infinite being who necessarily exists.

He was not created. He never came into being, and will never cease existing. All that there is, or was, or ever will be is contingent him upon him for existence, while he is complete in and of himself, contingent upon nothing. This is the only rational conclusion that can be drawn from the existence of something from nothing; it is where the “evidence” leads.

The skeptic will usually persist in his challenge: why doesn’t your god need a cause? But again, to ask the question betrays the mistake in reasoning of the questioner. The error is in the premise: all things do not need a creator, only those things in this universe. Something outside of the universe, something that is the source of all things, does not need to be created. In fact, reason leads us in the opposite direction. Since things don’t create themselves, there must be, at the very beginning, a being who always existed, who was never created and never in need of anything. Seen in this light, the question becomes nonsensical, translating into: who created the uncreated being, or who caused the being which needed no cause? It is no different than asking what time it is on the moon. The time of day is a function of where on earth a person is; it is nonsensical when applied off planet.

None of this proves the God of the Bible, who by the way does provide witness testimony of his eternal nature. But the skeptic will never begin to consider the truth claims of Christianity if he remains stuck doubting the very existence of that God.

Posted by Al Serrato


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The Argument for God from Causation

sMany atheists seem content with naturalistic explanations for real world events. They believe that if they’ve determined the cause of an action, then they need look no further. For instance, I recall watching an interview Bill O’Reilly conducted with atheist David Silverman (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2BCipg71LbI), in which O’Reilly argued that nature is complex and needs an explanation that atheists cannot provide. Unfortunately, O’Reilly used as an example the action of  the tides: they come in, they go out, and they never mis-communicate, was the way he put it.

O’Reilly’s statement was criticized as simplistic. Of course we “know” how the tides do this. It’s very simple: the gravitational influence of the moon is the “cause.” It’s not really a mystery, so invoking a diety to explain it sounds silly to modern, secular ears. It’s sounds little different than attributing the tides to Thor on Mt. Olympus, as Silverman suggested.

The problem with O’Reilly’s comment is that he did not take the time to explain it in more detail. He was actually using the argument (for the existence of God) from causation. That argument begins with the universal recognition that for every event, there must be a preceding cause. The tides are caused by the moon, true, but this is still the beginning of the analysis. Moving backward in time, there must be a preceding cause for all things, including the water that is being pulled, the moon that is exerting the force, and everything else in the solar system that is functioning in unison for this purpose. Moving backward along the timeline, there must exist a first event – a First Cause – before which there was nothing. What caused this first event must itself be uncaused; it must be infinite and eternal. Otherwise, it too would require an earlier cause.

The only alternative to this conclusion is that there was no beginning, that this universe is itself infinite. This may have had more appeal in the past, before scientists confirmed the beginning event known as the Big Bang. This universe is simply not infinite in age. But even without scientific evidence, it’s apparent with a little thought that had the universe really been infinite, today would never have arrived. To arrive at today from an infinite past would require the passage of infinite time, but the presence of every “tomorrow” that we experience confirms that an infinity of time has not yet been reached.

So, we live in a universe that had a cause that set it all in motion. This Cause is another label for God. What his attributes are, we cannot know from this argument. But He is there. It’s worth noting that this is not an appeal to ignorance. We are not saying that because we don’t know how something occurred, we need to invoke a deity to explain it. Instead, it is a rational conclusion flowing from stated premises.

A more concrete example might help make the case. Take for instance the internal combustion engine. To paraphrase O’Reilly: the pistons go up, the pistons go down, never a miscommunication. Like the tides, this motion is easily explained. The explosion of fuel causes expansion in the cylinder, driving the piston up, and then the piston travels back to its starting point, before the next explosion moves it up again. Mystery solved. The only problem is that this answers the wrong question. The question posed by atheism is not how “it” works, but whether someone created it and set it in motion, or whether there is instead no creator. Looking at a motor, the question is whether there is cause to believe that a mind created the intricate mechanism in which chemistry and physics combine to produce motion, or whether it just happened. The universe, and all that is it in, is like the engine. Knowing how it works doesn’t change the answer to the real question at play: how was it built? Did a mind design and construct it, or did it just happen?

Concluding that there must be a God is of course merely the first step in the journey. But for many atheists, it is a step they mistakenly refuse to take. Many stubbornly insist that this form of argument is an appeal to ignorance – a resort to a “god of the gaps.” But it is no such thing. We conclude that an Uncaused Cause must exist because reason supports it.

You don’t even need to be running on all cylinders to see where this logic must lead you.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Escaping to Pandora

cThe Oscar-winning blockbuster Avatar thrilled audiences with its 3D special effects. The plot, an allegory about the evils of corporate greed, thrusts a paraplegic space marine – Jake Sully – into a role pivotal to the future of the native population of a lush moon circling a distant star. Inhabiting his hybrid Avatar body on this distant world, Jake is forced to choose between doing his “duty” and protecting aliens to whom he is growing increasingly attached.

What does the film have to do with Christian apologetics? Very little, on the surface. But stories are often the best way to get a point across. With apathy and hostility two common responses to the Christian message, using a popular film to make an apologetics point can be an effective ministry tool. Perhaps a film like Avatar can make a point about a very controversial topic: how it is a “loving” God can allow people to spend eternity in Hell. Making this point involves recognizing that Hell is not a place of torture, but is instead a place of torment brought on by separation from an infinitely perfect – and therefore infinitely desirable – Being.

Life in our current bodies is, in a sense, like living on Jake’s ship. Our bodies, like Jake’s, are quite limited, and not at all suited for life on the world that is our destination. The ship we inhabit is capable of supporting us, and for providing the means of transition to a fuller life. In the movie, that transition involves a rather arduous conversion. Anyone on board can conceivably master the means of escape, the “pod” that serves as the interface between the ship and the lush garden world, but using the pod requires self discipline and training. Not everyone will be willing to undergo the rigors of this process. We are all free to reject the pod training, but if we do that, we have no choice but to stay within the confines of a room in the ship. With nothing much else to do, and no other way to make it to the garden paradise, we remain trapped on the inside, spending eternity thinking about – ourselves.

To get out into the new physical world, by contrast, we need to look outside ourselves. We need to be willing to think of others, and to sacrifice. The struggle is worth the effort: on this other world, there is unlimited opportunity to live forever in a perfected body with others that we know and love. The choice is ours: from inside the ship, we are separated and inward looking; we can never unite with those on the new world.

Contrary to what many today believe, God is not in the business of punishing people to satisfy some sadistic desire. But this current life is not the destination – it is the ship we inhabit. The journey may at times be arduous, but it was never meant to be the final destination. In the end, God does all the work in transforming us into our Avatars. But we must willingly enter the pod, and begin the process of shedding our old, selfish selves and looking outward. If we do, He offers unlimited rewards. If we don’t, well… we end up with what we are asking for – agonizing separation and loneliness.

But for many, despite the rewards, the cost seems too high. They reject the option of loving God, and loving their neighbor, and instead concentrate on loving themselves, never realizing what they are giving up along the way. In the end, those who choose to stay on the ship – to stay walled in and to think only of themselves – cannot complain that God did not force them into the pod, and into heaven. They will have only themselves to blame.

This analogy is a bit strained, admittedly. And not useful to teach doctrine or present the Good News. But a first step, perhaps, in engaging a nonbeliever by talking about something to which he can relate.

 Posted by Al Serrato

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Can We Sin in Heaven?

ssFew people today find apologetics to be a stimulating pasttime. In fact, it’s not uncommon for the efforts of the apologist to be met by a yawn, or a quizzical look. But for those inclined to ponder inponderables, dialogue with another seeker can be quite rewarding. Recently, I considered the following question regarding whether we can sin in heaven:

1. If evil exists because love is a choice, then can there be love in Heaven where there is no evil? By the time we get to Heaven ourproclivity to sin will be removed, but if sin is not an option, can we still use our free will to love God? Can we have freewill in Heaven if we cannot choose whether to love or to sin?

2. Will we have a proverbial tree of good and evil in heaven so that we can still actively choose to love God after our sinful natures have been removed? If we do have an ability to sin in heaven, as Adam andEve had in the utopian garden of Eden before sin entered humanity,then would we swap eternities and be sent from Heaven into Hell?

To begin to respond to the question, it is important to make sure we are using words in the same sense. For instance, “love” can mean many things. Here, I think we are referring to the concept of “willing the good of the other.” Inclining your will toward the good of another is, of course, a choice. No one can force me to direct my will in a particular way. I can be forced to do an act, for example to help someone, but if my will is not inclined toward their good, or if I am simply indifferent, it would not be “love.” So, love does require a choice on our part, and while actions can be compelled, true love cannot. The Bible also speaks of love of God in terms of following His commands. (See John 14 and 1 John 5) So, we might say that freely loving God requires that we direct our will toward obeying His commands.

Let’s take evil and sin next. The question assumes that God allows evil to exist so that love can exist through choice. Drawing from Augustine, Aquinas and other Christian thinkers, it is important to recognize that “evil” is not a thing that exists. If it were, then God, who created all things, would be the creator of evil. But God could not have created evil, for that would make Him the source of evil, and therefore evil Himself. Instead, “evil” is the label we apply to the corruption of the good. It is not a thing, and therefore was never created. It is the extent or degree to which we have used our free will to depart from God’s will, by taking what He has given us (all of which is good) and corrupting it. On a practical level, we see evil, in the form of acts that are taken, as “things” but what we are seeing are acts of free will that constitute evil because they violate God’s law and nature.

With these observations in mind, I would offer the following thoughts about what heaven will entail. I think the question correctly notes that without free will, we can’t really love God. If love is a function of the will – a desire to obey God’s commands – how can the will be functioning if it is being directed? It is no longer an act of will but simply the act of a robot or a machine. If this is the true state of heaven, there may be harmony, but it would be the harmony of robots or computers humming along according to their programming. So, I think we must conclude that to love God we must still have free will in heaven.

The questions continues: “Can we have free will in Heaven if we cannot choose whether to love or to sin?” But this begs the question. Why should I conclude that I cannot choose to sin? If free will is operating, I can choose to defy God’s will – to not follow His commands – and this would be sin. Is this not what the angels – and Lucifer – did? The problem in the analysis is this: becoming free of our desire/inclination to sin does not remove our free will. We remain free but freely choose to worship perfection – God – because He is deserving of such love and worship. Notice two keys differences between now and then: now, we are temporal beings, who cannot see with clarity the harm that each of our choices will make. We have an amazing ability to deceive ourselves into doing what we want to do rather than what we know we should do. These desires are largely based on our corrupt human nature. Then, we will no longer be trapped by time. With the ability to see the future as part of an eternal present, we will have no desire to choose to depart from God’s will, because we will have clarity in seeing the evil that would result. We will also be free of our corrupted human nature, in which a selfish desire for pleasure is one of our strongest instincts. Second, and more importantly, we will see God in a more direct fashion. Perhaps, this world is the training ground for that, preparing us for the immensity of experiencing perfection. Seeing the infinitely perfect God with clarity, I would suspect that I will be in awe, and in love, with Him. He will be all consuming, all encompassing. Whatever Earthly good or pleasure I can imagine, He will be that multiplied by infinity. The magnitude of this is truly staggering, if you think about the implications.

Putting these things together – clarity of vision as to God’s nature and no self-deception by clouding what the future will bring – I think heaven will be a place of eternal presence with God in a state of communal love. I will want to direct my will toward following God and I will do so freely, as He desired. By way of analogy, I may have grown up as a smoker, which indulgence made stronger. Given a choice, I might always opt for a cigarette to take the edge off or to feel better. If my nature is improved, so that I see that smoking is harmful to me, I could eventually learn to give it up. After enough time, the craving for it might completely cease, replaced by a better way to deal with stress. At that point, though my desire for nicotine is gone, I have not lost my freedom, even though I use it to choose a healthy alternative. Finally, even if cigarettes are banned and no longer available, my free will remains. I simply won’t choose cigarettes, regardless of whether or not they are accessible to me, so nothing is lost.

Now, I think these views leave open the problem of why the angels fell initially, an interesting issue I do not address here, but which in a way leads to the second question: can we choose to sin in Heaven and thereby be sent to Hell. I think that the answer to that is probably yes, but given the above analysis no one who is saved – in whom God made a transforming work – would ever choose to do so. The Bible teaches that we live once, die once and face judgment. The Bible seems consistent in its message that this judgment is permanent. There is no suggestion that we can lose salvation once in heaven, as there is no possibility of bridging the divide from hell to heaven by starting to love God. So, it would seem that this swapping of heaven for hell is simply not going to occur. To use my analogy, seeing the ugliness of smoking as a way of life, and having through time and discipline eliminated my addiction, I am not ever going to be tempted to go back.

 A lot to ponder. But given the stakes, certainly worth the effort.

 Posted by Al Serrato


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The Problem with Apathy

sThe biggest obstacle to most apologetics efforts is apathy. It’s not that the skeptic is considering our truth claims and rejecting them, or countering them with evidence that they are false, or that his worldview is true. Instead, most skeptics I’ve dealt with have developed a comfort level regarding what they consider the “unknowability” of ultimate things. They often argue that the fact that people disagree about such things – that they have differing views – is itself evidence that no one can ever know whether God is, what He is about, or most importantly, what He may want of us. And so, they often don’t bother to try to investigate these things for themselves. But if the Christian worldview is correct, such apathy may itself be hazardous to one’s spiritual health.

Recently, I tried to make this case in a conversation with a skeptic. It went something like this: “Let’s say this was 50 years ago, and when I saw you, you were chain smoking cigarettes with your kids always nearby. I know where medical science is headed, so I tell you that you are hurting yourself, and your kids. You respond that no one can really know such things; after all, you can point to doctors who advertise cigarettes and smoke them themselves, and you feel fine when you smoke. I point to other doctors who think that it’s really bad for you. You respond, ‘See, it’s a tie, so stop bothering me. Each believes what they were raised to believe, or what they want to believe.” “Do you see,” I asked, “that the conflict between the doctors should not lead you to conclude that neither is right, or that the answer is not knowable? As a friend, should I keep trying to bring you back to the truth about cigarettes, or should I let you persist in believing something that is, in the end, hurting you and your loved ones?”

My friend’s response was not unexpected. It went like this: “Have you ever noticed how so many things are bad or wrong only at certain points in a cycle? Eat eggs, don’t eat eggs; give your kids soy, soy is bad; babies should sleep on their backs, no their stomachs, no their sides, no their backs etc., etc. When my daughter was born I would put her on her back to sleep and when I left the room my mother would put her on her side and when my mother left the room my grandmother would put her on her stomach. Over time the answer comes full circle. Why go around and around with it? What I am saying is not just throw up your hands and quit; what I am saying is that I do what feels right to me and that is the best I can do. Sometimes I listen to friends (and doctors) and sometimes I don’t. I think the “answer” to many of these things is unknowable.”

Fair enough. Some things are unknowable, and for some things, it doesn’t really matter. But that of course is the point of being thoughtful: deciding which is which. So, I conceded that for some things, the right answer might be “it doesn’t matter.” For example, a child might be equally safe on her side or her back. Eggs or soy might be good for you or bad, depending on your health and how much you eat. But for other things – like smoking – it will never “come back around.” Science will never say that smoking is good. It might say that it won’t necessarily kill you, but not that it will “balance your humours” like they said 200 years ago.

“So,” I concluded, “the trick is, which is this? Are questions of eternal life like laying a child on her side, or like smoking with my kids in the room? I hope you see the answer matters. If you were smoking 10 hours a day with your kids present, you would be harming them. Getting the right answer on that would matter. Getting the right answer on your relationship with God also matters, both to you and to the people you influence.”

I don’t think I persuaded her. As with smoking, not everyone bothers to read the warning label.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Discussing the Afterlife with a Skeptic

aChristian apologists often take for granted that there is an afterlife in which all rational people would want to partake. But such an assumption is often mistaken. In a recent conversation with a skeptic, I was reminded of how differently such questions can be viewed depending on one’s frame of reference.

I had asked whether eternal life was something she desired, because she seemed rather ambivalent to the concept. Since she didn’t know for sure that there was such a place, or condition, she didn’t see much point in thinking about it. So, “desiring” that destination just wasn’t resonating with her, in much the same way as if I had asked whether she would like to visit the first Moon colony someday. I tried to describe the afterlife in rather positive terms – time without limitation, life without pain or deprivation, relationship without conflict – hoping to pique her interest. Unlike a moon colony which may never exist, death and whatever lies beyond is a certainty for every mortal. She then countered with what I considered a puzzling question: “Why is it that you get to decide what eternal life is? Who put you, or Christians generally, in charge? Why can’t my view be right, that everyone ends up in the same place when they die?”

“As I see it,” I eventually responded, “eternal life isn’t something any of us gets to define. That it exists, I have little doubt. But what it entails? For that I need a source of knowledge. It cannot be reached through reason, because reason unaided has no access to it. Jesus is that source of knowledge, as his life, death and resurrection give him both the power and the authenticity to be able to speak about such things. You, by contrast, have only your own intuitive sense to base your views on. “

“Okay, so let’s assume you’re right, how can you be so sure you will achieve this ‘eternal life’?” she countered.

“Actually, it not something that I will ‘acquire’ or ‘achieve. ‘It’s something I already have and that I will participate in, in some form or another, whether I want to or not. That’s both good and bad news. The good news is obvious: this feeling that there is never enough – time, love, satisfaction, pleasure, that constant desire for “more” or for “better” – will eventually be fulfilled. The bad news, at least potentially, is that I may not like where I end up.” Scare tactics, her look betrayed. I pressed on. “Consider it this way: if I embark on a life of crime or drug addiction, I will eventually reap what I sow – nature has consequences built into it. It doesn’t really matter whether I think I can beat the addiction, or beat the odds. Once set in motion, I may have little say in how things end up, and the place I find myself might not be pleasant. The same is true of eternal life, in my view. Why should there be an exception to the “you reap what you sow rule” for what lies beyond? And if Christians are right about what they believe, then you’ll be trying to make up for having ignored your future host for the major part of your life.”  

I could see that this was not persuading her, so I tried one last time. “The ‘I’ part of me is eternal, even though my current body is not. That’s why I say that I ‘have’ a body and not that I ‘am’ a body. Even linguistically, we realize that the ‘I’ part of us is something different – something ephemeral – than the physical part of us.” So, I asked again, “How can you be indifferent about such a question?” I knew what her answer would be: “no one has the answers, and you are fooling yourself if you think someone does.” So, I tried not for the first time to personalize it: “But don’t you think it’s worth an investigation by you? To satisfy yourself that you – I mean you yourself - really can’t know?”

“Take my drugs example,” I said. “Since you’re young and healthy, you might be able to abuse drugs for quite some time without being harmed. You might be indifferent to whether using drugs is a good or bad idea. But how smart a move would it be for you to say that you really don’t care what effect it will have on you in 20 years? Looking down the road to the consequence of our choices is something we all really need to do.”

Her smile told me that she was still not buying it. Perhaps she never will.

Posted by Al Serrato


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What Lies Behind Apathy

th3SK6U3E6The point of Christian apologetics is to “defend” the Faith, and the point of the Faith is to proclaim the good news of salvation to the world. Salvation, naturally enough, means saving, and a person only needs saving when he is in some peril. But ask the secularist today what peril he is in: he may tell you he’s worried about losing his job, or about the prospects of terrorism, or about difficulties he might be having at home. It’s doubtful that he will throw in that he’s concerned about the ultimate destiny of his soul, or that he wishes he could be sure that he will spend eternity in God’s presence in the company of those he has loved here.

Why is that? Why is the modern secularist so confident that his soul does not need salvation? Many secularists will concede that there may indeed be a God, or many gods, but nonetheless they do not seem worried about how He will judge them. Most often, the answer you hear will be a variation of: I’m a good person, after all, and God will judge me accordingly. There are dozens of definitions of “good” but for our purposes, let’s assume that most people mean in this context something along the lines of “morally excellent, virtuous or righteous.” God presumably will tally all the morally excellent, virtuous or righteous deeds they have done in their lives and this will tip the scales in favor of entry into heaven. But this analogy, upon reflection, provides scant reassurance.

After all, a scale is only used if there is something to be placed on the other side. Considering that selfishness is a big part of the human condition, and considering that an all-knowing God not only sees all our imperfections and failings, but sees them in His eternal present – in other words, they never fade forgotten into the past -  then there is real cause to be concerned that our scale will quickly tip against us. Risking one’s eternity on such calculations is not a wise bet, especially when the maker of the scale has provided a better alternative.

Polls tell us that an increasing percentage of Americans are obese. I suspect no one starts out hoping to achieve that result, given all the negative health consequences. Yet the human capacity for self-deception is great. We ignore the evidence of our eyes, and of the scale, as we continue to feel “pretty good” about ourselves, and we blithely ignore the bulging beltline that displays our self-deception. So, too, it seems with eternal things. Banking on our ability to keep the scale tipped in our favor – on the side of “good” outweighing bad – simply fails to consider how a perfect God views our behavior. Like the battle of the bulge, the struggle is incremental. We may do much that is good, but trying to make this case to a perfect God and demand admission to his presence based on having earned it is a decidedly reckless approach.

The good news of course is that the One who made the scale, and who will do the judging, has given us the means to stay in perfect balance. But to do so, we must place our trust in Him.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Dealing with Apathy

untitledWhen trying to make the case for Christianity, it is not uncommon to run headlong into what can be called the “Santa Factor.” That’s the reaction that many non-believers have to Christian truth claims. As I laid out in my last post, many people today view the Christian faith as roughly equivalent to believing in Santa – it might bring some comfort, and it’s great for tradition and ritual, but it’s not really true. It’s just a myth, based largely on “faith,” which translates roughly to “wishful thinking.”

Needless to say, a conversation with such a person won’t get very far, as he or she filters everything through this lens of skepticism. There’s no sure-fire way to overcome this obstacle – at least not that I have found – but breaking down the objection to see what it really entails is a good first move. And when you do this, you quickly see that the “Santa Factor” is really just a variant of the “straw man” fallacy. By caricaturing Christianity to be a montage of strange concepts – eating “flesh and blood,” “virgin birth” and many other paradoxes – it is easy for the skeptic to conclude he is dealing with make-believe, without ever really considering the merits of the case. So, let’s take a closer look at the analogy. Santa, of course, is the supposed source of the gifts found under Christmas trees every Christmas morning. This explanation works for small children – giving them a wonderful period of anticipation and their parents a lever for a bit of behavior modification as kids struggle to remain on the “nice” list – but a moment’s reflection as a child matures would reveal that no one person could possibly build and deliver an endless stream of worldwide gifts. Not to mention keeping straight who gets what. But backing up a bit, discovering that there is no Santa is not cause for concluding that there are no gifts under the tree, or that they appeared on their own.

No, logic dictates that someone put the gifts there, someone with knowledge of the child, access to the home, and knowledge of the child’s wish list. Finding an adequate explanation for the “presents under our tree” – the universe, a planet fine-tuned to support us, the existence of life, consciousness and intelligence, and of beauty and morality – should be the task of the skeptic. Which worldview has a better explanation for all this? Atheistic naturalism may have made sense in Darwin’s day, when the universe was thought to be infinite in duration and DNA was not even suspected as the reason life displays such ordered variation. But today, astrophysicists tell us that the universe arose from nothing 14 billions years ago – it began to exist, meaning something preceded it to set it in motion. By “nothing,” they don’t mean empty space, waiting for something to appear; they mean the complete absence of anything. Biologists seek to make sense of the tremendous body of information that is encoded in DNA. And information, of course, requires an intelligent source. But this is just a fraction of what needs to be explained: for instance, how can the atheist explain the origin of life? If even the simplest form of cellular life contains millions of lines of DNA code, believing that it magically assembled itself from inert matter is, well, just as difficult to swallow as Santa making it down the chimney.

The list of questions continues: where does human intelligence come from? Since we are interested in truth – the secularist doesn’t want to be mislead with Santa stories – how is truth grounded? Why isn’t it relative, like a person’s taste preferences? Why do we have free will? If the universe determines all outcomes, as the secularist believes, then the free will we all intuitively recognize we possess is simply an illusion. Why do we all recognize that moral laws exist? We may disagree with what they are, but no rational person thinks that he should be able to do whatever he wants whenever he wants. In the end, it really does take more blind – uncritical -faith to accept the secular view.

The Christian worldview, by contrast, holds that an infinite, personal and loving God created this universe, and us, for a purpose, and then revealed Himself to us in history. He did this in a way that provided evidence – largely in the form of personal testimony by witnesses who were so sure of what they saw and experienced that they suffered martyrdom rather than deny it. Contrasting the two worldviews in detail is beyond the scope of this post, but the case is well made on the Cold Case Christianity website. Will this overcome the Santa Factor? It should, if the skeptic really gives it a fair hearing. But that of course depends on the skeptic and how open he is to seeing through his little game of make-believe.

Al Serrato


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Dealing with Apathy When Discussing Faith

thKPRHJP45As Christians, we’re told to always be ready to give a reason for the hope that is within us; in other words, to be able to provide an explanation of what we believe and why.  But for many of us, the opportunity to do so seldom, if ever, arises. In fact, by and large, it seems we are faced with apathy and indifference from an increasingly secular culture. Struggling to get past this with someone – to get them to actually think about the Christian message – requires the believer to first deal with the source of the apathy.

One common source, in my experience, is what can be called the Santa Factor. This is the belief that Christians are simply deluding themselves when they believe in a God who will “deliver presents” to them when they die. Talking to such skeptics about the rewards God has in store for those who place their trust in Him has little impact. It seems as real to them as the prospect of Santa leaving presents under their tree. I had this confirmed recently in a conversation with an unbeliever. Seeing her indifference, I told her I felt like I was trying to talk to her about what presents she was hoping for from Santa, while she was just hanging back, secretly laughing at the absurdity of the whole concept. “It’s like I’m trying to list the reasons that there is a North Pole and flying reindeer,” I said, “and you are just politely nodding and wondering why so many people believe this … nonsense.” I asked her whether that was close to what she thought, and her reply was a candid “yes.”

In fact, she thought the analogy to Santa was a perfect one, one that captured her feelings in a very precise way. Once this mindset is made clear, it’s easy to understand why my arguments gain no traction. Despite the soundness of the logic used in building my case for Christianity, or the reference to historical events which form the foundation of our faith, to the unbeliever I might as well be trying to explain how elves could conceivably build toys or how reindeer might possess gravity-neutralizing organs. Since there are many reasons to believe that there is no Santa, and no reasons to believe the contrary, that conversation ends before it begins. I have, as yet, found no sure-fire way to overcome this Santa Factor. I’d be interested to hear from any believers who have.

I do believe there is a necessary first step, however, and that is to show the skeptic that the Santa Factor is actually a variant of the “straw man” fallacy. Setting up a straw man involves defining the other side’s argument in an unfair or misleading way, and then concluding that you have the better argument when you knock down this “straw man.” When skeptics think of Christianity, they often picture a combination of strange images – Father Time with his flowing white beard, angels dancing on the heads of pins, virgin births, cannibalism, and strange “miracles.” A jumble of such images leaves the skeptic feeling comfortable rejecting the whole of Christianity as based on primitive superstitions and beliefs. But this, of course, is not what thinking Christians are talking about when they defend the faith. Christianity is instead based on history, on evidence and on reason. In the end, faith transcends these factors, but faith remains solidly rooted in them.

Christianity makes betters sense of the world than all the other competing worldviews. It provides answers that other worldviews can’t provide. The Santa analogy lends itself to making this point. After all, even when the Santa “straw man” is knocked down, there still remain presents under the tree whose source needs to be explained. In my next post, I’ll offer a suggestion as to where next to take the conversation

Posted by Al Serrato

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Is Hell Really a Lake of Fire?

sDown through the centuries has come the image of Hell as a lake of fire. Some believe the language to be literal, while others think it merely allegorical, but until recently there was not much dispute that Hell, whatever it looked like, was a really horrible place. Modern scholars don’t always agree.

Author Tom Harpur challenged the traditional notions about the nature of hell in a recent book.  He claims, in part: 

Christian apocalyptic literature borrowed heavily from Jewish writings and cannot be understood apart from them; Jewish apocalyptic writings, in turn, owed much to Persian sources.
…The idea of a fiery hell of punishment occurs only once in the earliest Gospel, Mark, once in Luke, and not at all in John’s Gospel or the Johannine Epistles.
…It is unfortunate that the translators of the King James Version used the word “hell” here (and even hell-fire) because that is not what the Greek original plainly says. The word actually used, and repeated, by Mark is “Gehenna.”
…Once you realize this, it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus is using contemporary imagery as a striking way of highlighting the fact that important issues are at stake. Sacrifices must be made by those would be disciples, but they are worth it because the alternative is to endure a haunting sense of loss. In trying to avoid the discipline of discipleship one risks desolation, or being cast on the refuse heap. There is absolutelyno warrant here for the later, terrifying doctrines of the Church about hell.
…One thing stands out in our survey of the roots of the doctrine of hell: there is no overall, consistent paradigm or metaphysical system worked out in the Bible. The ancient Hebrew mind was not given to philosophical or metaphysical abstractions; it thought in concrete images.
…There is no consistent teaching about the fate of the “wicked” or the unrepentant in either the Old or the New Testaments. Nor, considering the figurative language used to describe hell, is there justification for the traditional, popular view of a literal place of eternal, fiery punishment for the “damned.” The Jesus of history never taught such a doctrine, and it desecrates the name of the God he came to reveal to preach and teach that he did. This conclusion will not please those conservative Christians who hate to be disturbed by the facts, but it seems to me inescapable on the basis of evidence.

Responding to such claims of an “expert” is a daunting task. There is some solace in knowing that many highly educated and highly intelligent Christians came before us. But more to the point, and moving away from the “lake,” Harpur seems to be missing the forest for the trees.

Knowing with certainty whether Christian apocalyptic literature “borrowed heavily from” earlier sources would require a level of expertise that most people simply don’t have. But I don’t believe this should cause us real concern regarding the nature of hell. The point of framing an argument the way Harpur does, in my view, is to convince the reader that he should simply accept the “expert” view and realize that he was being mislead all these years. The question, of course, assumes that the early writers were manufacturing a faith system, and looking – intentionally or inadvertently – for ideas to help fill it out. But I have little reason to believe this to be true. People invent things for a reason, usually for personal profit, fame or glory, but the early Christians were persecuted and killed for what they taught. Consequently, it is reasonable to conclude that they said the things they said because they believed they were true, that they really did represent Jesus’ teachings. 

To help see this point, consider for example an author who writes about the sinking of the Titanic. He might be accused of “borrowing heavily” from previous “tragedy literature” by detailing scenes of the ship’s lighting finally going out, or the band continuing to play on in the night. But why assume that he is borrowing anything, and not instead recounting the events as recalled by the survivors? The more reasonable conclusion – about an actual historic event being written about by a serious writer, as were the early Christain writers – is that they were relating what they knew to be true, or at least what someone reliable had taught them. Harpur tries to explain how the early Christian writers fabricated their doctrine, without first providing proof that this occurred.

In the next quote, Harpur says that the idea of a fiery hell occurs only once in Mark, once in Luke and not in John’s Gospel or letters. My answer would be, “so what?” How many times must it appear? What contradictory passages about hell surround it? Simply reading the Gospel accounts makes abundantly clear that hell is a place of torment, often referred to as “fiery,” a place where there will be much gnashing of teeth. There is a divide that cannot be bridged, as in the story of Lazarus and the rich man. The message is consistently foreboding and ominous. For instance, Jesus says it is better to lose and eye or a limb than to be cast whole into hell.

Harpur complains about the use of the word “hell.” Translation of concepts like hell – for which humans have no direct experience – is necessarily difficult. The author believes that Gehenna is actually what Jesus referred to. How does this help make his case? Gehenna was the city garbage dump – located outside the city’s walls –in which refuse was perpetually burned. Am I to draw comfort from this imagery? Being cast into a burning garbage dump is supposed to gently remind me of a “haunting sense of loss?” And the idea that “sacrifices must be made by the disciples” – while not inconsistent with Jesus’ message – is certainly not the core of Jesus’ teaching. Instead, he taught that he came to be “the sacrifice” and that through faith and trust in Him, our path to the Father is reopened.

Harpur concludes that there is “absolutely no warrant here for the later, terrifying doctrines of the Church about hell.” Really? What was the rich man feeling? What would one feel being tossed into Gehenna? If Harpur is trying to say that there is no actual “lake of fire,” that may be so. But being separated from the presence of the perfect God would make such a lake seem mild by comparison.

Harpur claims there is no overall consistent paradigm or teaching as to the fate of the unrepentant. We must be reading different Bibles. While the imagery is varied, the import is always the same – it is a truly horrible place, a place of utter despair that we would be wise to avoid.

To sum up, much of what Harpur writes may be technically true, but he is deliberately missing the point. Imagine that you are taking a trip to a remote area and you read a brochure that tells you not to get injured or sick because the medical care is a throwback to the surgeon’s tent on a Civil War field of battle. I could say, parsing words, that the author may have meant that the medical care is good, but the doctors like to wear uniforms reminiscent of the Union Army and work in tents rather than buildings. But this would be missing the obvious point of the writer, and anyone with a basic understanding of English would get that. To insist otherwise would simply reveal one’s bias to refuse to believe what is right before your eyes.

For centuries, serious Christians have debated the nature of hell. Room for disagreement exists. But to suggest that Jesus never taught it to be a horrible place is simply to refuse to see what is plainly written in the text.

Posted by Al Serrato


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The Miracle of Easter

sFor 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, as a very minimum. 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


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Dealing with Doctrinal Differences


Challenges to Christianity don’t always come from the outside, from atheists committed to removing every vestige of religious faith from society. Challenges can also come from committed Christians, whose beliefs are shaken by philosophical ideas that are, most likely, designed to make people stumble.

From time to time, this question gets raised: “There are numerous Christian denominations, many of which accuse other denominations of doctrinal error. Doesn’t this amount to proof against the existence of God? After all, what kind of God would allow his “inspired” word to be understood so differently by different people?

This question has considerable surface appeal. If you raised your eyebrow and said, “Good question,” you certainly wouldn’t be alone. Of course, there is a trick to such a question, a premise hidden within it, which needs to be teased out and confronted. I think the full argument, the one in which the premise is explicitly stated, would go something like this:

  • If God exists, he would make himself known directly and personally to prevent, and safeguard us from, doctrinal error. 
  • There exists doctrinal error. 
  • Therefore, there is no God.

When you make explicit the premise, you can see that it isn’t necessarily true. Why? Because God may instead value free will higher than He values freedom from doctrinal error. After all, it certainly seems that God values free will quite a bit, since without it there can be no such thing as love. It’s been said that He gave us enough evidence to believe, to make our faith rational, but not so much evidence that we have no choice but to believe. While He has made Himself known to us through general revelation – i.e. His creation – and through the Bible, there is simply no reason to conclude that He seeks to ensure, on a direct and personal level, that we never make mistakes about Him, or about His will. After all, if He did directly and personally ensure no mistaken beliefs, would this not amount to removing our free will not to believe? 

Perhaps God desires that we work at knowing Him. Sometimes we get it wrong, but it’s the process of developing a deepening faith – of inclining our hearts toward him – that matters. That involves reading the Scripture, reflecting on what the authors meant to convey and attempting to reconcile apparent inconsistencies; it requires prayer and discussion. In short, it helps make sense of God’s command that we not just live in his Word, but that we do so in community with other believers.  As Paul wrote to Timothy, “Warn them before God against quarreling about words; it is of no value, and only ruins those who listen. Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a workman who does not need to be ashamed and who correctly 

The Bible was never meant to be a math or science book; we weren’t meant to use it simply to find the “right answers” and be done. We were meant to spend a lifetime studying, meditating upon and discussing it, spreading the good news of salvation as we go.   handles the word of truth.” (2 Timothy 2:15-16) And later, Paul urged his readers to “continue in the things you have learned and become convinced of, knowing from whom you have learned them, and that from childhood you have known the sacred writings which are able to give you the wisdom that leads to salvation through faith which is in Christ Jesus. All Scripture is inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, for training in righteousness; so that the man of God may be adequate, equipped for every good work. (2 Timothy 3:13-17)

That’s why we should take to heart Peter’s admonition (1 Peter 3) that we prepare  ourselves so as to be always “ready to give an explanation to anyone who asks you for a reason for your hope,” but do so with gentleness and reverence, keeping our consciences clear. 

 Who knows, we might even end up with fewer disagreements.

 Posted by Al Serrato

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Looking For God In All Possible Places

060809_ngc6397_02Having good reasons for one’s position makes one’s case persuasive. People are free, of course, to believe what they want and many people engage in wishful thinking as a way of life. Ironically, atheists will often accuse Christians of this type of thinking, when it is the opposite that is true. In fact, understanding what atheism really asserts is the first step to realizing that it is inherently not provable. It simply cannot be done. Of course,people will always have doubts – they may doubt God’s existence, or wonder about the “goodness” of  God’s character, but being certain He’s not there? That’s a pretty big project to take on.

Consider: A true “atheist” holds that there is no God – they “know”- affirmatively – that he does not exist. Now, they may claim that they have reasons to support this position. They might point to the existence of evil to show that the Christian view of God is perhaps mistaken, or they may rely on the claims of Darwinism to show a possible alternative to special creation. They may attack the reliability of the Christian scripture, pointing to what they believe to be contradictions in the resurrection accounts. But none of these arguments supports the claim that nature is all that there is; that God, as we understand that concept, is simply a product of imagination or wishful thinking. So what must they do? Well, to really be certain that nowhere in the universe can God be found, atheists would have to have access to the entire universe. Given the size and scope of the visible universe, this is quite a task. Add to that any aspects that may elude our sensors – dimensions other than the four within which we exist – and the task becomes even more insurmountable.

Here is the odd thing about such a quest. In order to really satisfy oneself that the universe is devoid of God, the searcher must attain complete knowledge of the universe, for any lack of knowledge could relate to the very place that God is present. Moreover, since God preceded and transcends this universe, one would have to have the capability to examine anything that exists beyond the universe. One would have to possess the ability to examine other dimensions or other universes, or be able to show that no such dimensions or universes exist.  In short, then, one must become omniscient – possess total and complete knowledge of all places and all things - for only then could he know with the certainty atheism connotes that we are in fact alone.

Ironically, of course, at this point the searcher would possess the attributes of God. Proving atheism is, in the end, a futile quest, for one would need to be God to prove that He doesn’t exist.

Posted by Al Serrato


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What Atheism Means

Cthomedian Ricky Gervais is fond of expressing his atheism in sound-bite size tweets. Not long ago, he summed up his views this way:

“Atheism isn’t ‘I claim no god exists.’ Atheism is ‘I don’t accept your claim that god exists.’ No claim. Just no acceptance. You’re welcome.”

Trying to dress up the respectability of atheism in a few short sentences is no easy task. With basic critical thinking skills, it’s not too difficult to see the flaw in his thinking, but then again, we’re living in a culture that hasn’t been promoting critical thinking for quite some time.

The place to begin is with definitions of the words being used. The key word here appears to be “claim.” He rests his position on the assertion that he isn’t making a claim – he isn’t saying anything. He’s just refusing to accept what someone else is claiming. Now, that should cause the reader to be skeptical.  The verb “claim” is not difficult to define: in the sense used here, Merriam-Webster defines it as “to say that something is true when some people say it is not true,” and “to assert in the face of possible contradiction.”  So, just on its face, Gervais’ first comment is nonsensical. Of course “atheism” is a claim, the claim that there is no deity. The same online dictionary actually defines it that way – as “a disbelief in the existence of deity” or more broadly, “the doctrine that there is no deity.” Unlike agnosticism, which leaves open the question, atheism is a positive denial that such a being exists.

Contrary to Gervais’ assertion, to hold to a position of atheism is exactly to make the claim that no god exists – that you have moved beyond being unsure, or perhaps not caring, to a position of confidence that the being known as God is not there, that he does not exist. Moreover, not accepting a claim is itself a claim – not accepting means in essence that you believe the contrary is either true or, at the very least, more probable than not. To not accept is no different than refusing to accept, and refusing is without question an act. If I call in sick to work but my supervisor sees me later the same day at the beach, he won’t say he’s not sure that I’m “not sick,” he just hasn’t “accepted” that I am. Intuitively realizing that these are flip sides of the same coin, he will do both – reject my claim while holding, naturally, to the contrary claim. What Gervais may be trying to get at is that it is possible to not care one way or another about a claim, to be utterly indifferent. But of course that wouldn’t describe him, as he seems to go out of his way to convince others that their belief in the existence of God is a mistake.

I am a theist because evidence and reason support the conclusion that there must be a God. That same evidence supports the rejection of the contrary claim – the “a”-theist view that there is no God. There are many reasons to conclude that there must be a God, reasons that a sound-bite denial does not even remotely begin to address. This universe sprang into existence at a particular point in the past – this needs explaining, just like everything else that ever came into being requires an adequate preceding cause.  Also in need of explanation, and an adequate cause, are the many things we find in the universe – the fine-tuning that makes life here possible; the development of life from inert, lifeless matter; the emergence of intelligence, which we can use to identify mathematical equations that describe the universe; the existence of timeless truths that our minds, making use of their inherent intelligence and reason, perceive; the recognition of moral rules that, though we may disagree on the particulars, we all feel pressing down upon us. This of course is just a starting point; other more nuanced arguments also exist, such as the ontological argument that concludes God’s existence from the use of reason.

Gervais’ approach may be clever and may satisfy many who have no interest in doing the hard work of learning, considering, assessing and eventually acceding to the weight of the evidence that God is there. And why is any of that important? Because none of us has a permanent home on Earth and, like it or not, our next destination is one we would be wise to think about in advance.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Why God is Jealous

ssThe Old Testament contains passages in which God is described as “jealous.” For instance, in Exodus 20, God’s Ten Commandments to the Israelites include the admonition not to worship false idols, with God explaining that “I, the Lord your God, am a jealous God.” Similar passages can be found elsewhere in the Bible. On first glance, this may seem a rather odd term to use, and make little sense to us, as we do not view jealousy to be an attractive, or appropriate, character trait. Atheists often use these passages to make the case that a “jealous” God is petty and not worthy of our love or respect, let alone our worship.

But let’s take a closer look at what is at play. When we hear the word “jealousy,” it usually carries the connotation of a feeling of envious resentment, often brought on by another person’s rivalry or success. We are jealous of people whose accomplishments are well-respected, or who have found the means to acquire things that we too wish to possess. In some instances, it suggests a desire to possess exclusively, as in completely controlling a romantic partner. But even here, the underlying dynamic is that the person feeling jealous fears the loss of the loved one, or fears being made to look foolish if their loved one is unfaithful.

How do such feelings apply to God? Our understanding of God is of necessity limited. We cannot fully know him. Our observations of the universe support the belief that he is immensely powerful and intelligent, that he is a personal being, and that he transcends space-time. Reason tells us that such a being must embody perfection – as St. Anselm once formulated, God must be that being a greater than which cannot possibly be conceived. He is the ultimate, the supreme; the creator of all there is, was or ever will be. If this is indeed the case, then reason also tells us that there is nothing –simply nothing – that God wants or needs, for there is nothing that he does not already possess.

But there is another definition of “jealous” that makes a bit more sense in context, and interestingly the dictionary lists it as the “biblical” definition: “intolerant of unfaithfulness or rivalry.” But, the atheist may challenge, why should God be “intolerant?” This too seems to suggest that He is injured or diminished when his creatures turn away from Him to worship idols, when they reject him. But how can a perfect being experience injury, hurt… or even, for that matter, sad feelings?

I would suggest that there is another perspective from which to view these passages. God is “intolerant” of our worship of false idols not because of any pettiness on His part or any need he experiences. Our turning away from him does cause damage, but not to him; the damage caused is to us. When we make idols of things, we substitute the proper worship of God with the worship of lesser things. This causes us to turn away from God, and from the redemptive work He has planned for us. We were meant to spend eternity with God, but in our rebellion we shake our fist at him and demand to have things our way. When we die in that rebellion, when we die with the worship of lesser things consuming our hearts and minds, we end up eternally separated from God.

Idol worship no longer involves figures made of gold.  In its modern manifestation it involves love of career, success, wealth, possessions, power, sex… the list goes on and on.  But the effect is always the same, to turn us away from the one true source of goodness and life. Idol worship points us back toward ourselves, and we grow increasingly selfish and separated from others, who we begin to view as means to our selfish ends, or perhaps as threats to what we have. God is not “intolerant” of this behavior because of some deficit in Him. Instead, this intolerance is reflective of what is necessary for us. Loving us, he wants us to choose wisely, but because love requires free will, he will not coerce our choice.

Satellites like the one pictured above can derive energy from the Sun. But to do so, the satellite must first deploy its solar panels fully and in a particular way, and then orient them so that they are completely facing the Sun’s rays. This is not to accommodate the Sun, or to meet some “need” that the Sun has. Instead, it is to allow the thing in need of the Sun’s energy to be in the proper position, relative to the Sun, to receive what it needs.

So too with people. Only by re-orienting ourselves toward the source of all life – the Son of God – can we hope to attain all the good that is promised to those who place their trust in Him.

Posted by Al Serrato

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Apologetics …. and the Movies

gNot long ago, my teenage son and I settled down to watch the miniseries “The Pacific.” It’s a gripping production of war in the Pacific in World War 2, following the lives of several young Marines. We’re both history buffs, and with the magic of Hollywood, it was not difficult to imagine that we were viewing the actual events.

We talked about what life would be like for those young fighters. But what really got my attention was a scene in which one Marine is holding a Bible and the other, seeing him, asks with a sarcastic smile whether he is a believer. I always tune in to these TV portrayals of apologetics and this one turned out to be a good opportunity to examine a type of challenge that many Christians will face.

The scene unfolds with the questioner asking the other Marine to confirm that God created everything, including the Japanese soldiers that are trying to kill him. The believer’s response – “free will, what we choose to do” – wasn’t bad. But since he’s God, the questioner persists, he knows what we are going to do before we do it. “Predestination” is the believer’s unexplained response. The questioner then springs the apparent trap: “So the whole game is fixed while we’re down here, for what, his entertainment? That makes us chumps or God’s a sadist and either way I got no use for him.”

No answer to this challenge is offered. Instead, a question is asked: “So, what do you believe in?” The questioner answers quickly: “ammunition.” This of course draws a laugh. He ends with the request that the other Marine ask God to sink a few transports so he can get out of there and go home.

Great dialogue, from a theatrical standpoint, but it left the issue hanging unresolved. I was debating whether to weigh in when I saw my son looking over at me with a growing smirk. “Well?” was all he said. When he paused the video, I knew he wanted – needed – an answer.

“Don’t start with an answer,” I told him. “Take a closer look at the challenge. What’s wrong with it?” That helped, I think. His eyes lit up and he said, “He’s offering only two alternatives.”

“That’s right,” I responded. “Presenting two loaded options like that prevents a meaningful discussion. It’s like the question, ‘have you stopped beating your wife?’ Either a yes or no answer constitutes an admission. The presence of evil in the world – the moral evil brought on whenever a state of war exists – does not mean that we are either chumps or that God’s a sadist. Many other options are available for the thinking person.”

I reminded my son that not every challenge is actually asking for a persuasive response. Here, the questioner isn’t really saying he doesn’t “believe” in God. He’s really indicting God, telling the listener that he is angry at a God that would allow great suffering to occur.

I suggested to my son that the questioner may not have been ready for an actual answer. What he needed, perhaps, was someone to listen, to sympathize and to let him know that answers are there, when he’s ready to actually engage the question. Perhaps the best we can do it such a situation to answer with a challenge of our own: “are you really interested in hearing an answer to the challenge you pose, or are you just letting me know what you think of God?”

Posted by Al Serrato

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