One of the most common challenges to the Christian worldview is the problem of evil. In its common syllogistic form, the challenge can be reduced to this:
- God created all things
- Evil is a thing
- Therefore God created evil.
This challenge is not new. In the 4th century, St. Augustine tackled it, as did St. Thomas Aquinas centuries later. What we call evil, they explained, is in fact a deprivation of the good and is therefore not really a “thing” at all. Like the hole in a donut, it describes what is not there, what is missing.
But this does not always satisfy the challenger. Often, they may counter: an all powerful, all loving God would not have allowed deprivations any more than he would have created evil. God still remains at fault, in their view, because he is the originator of the system that results in this “non-thing” -evil – which we rightly view as bad.
This response has superficial appeal. It seems to accept the difference between a deprivation and a thing, and confronts the believer with the same challenge: a good God would never have allowed such deprivations in the first place. But this challenge actually misses the point of the distinction that Augustine and Aquinas drew; through sloppy thinking, it continues to view evil as a thing, even though it pretends not to as it adopts the “deprivation” terminology.
Consider: what we see as evil, whether a thought or an act, can only be gauged if we first hold in our minds what the good would be. For example, using a knife to cut someone is evil when done by the assailant but not by the surgeon. Setting off an explosion is evil when used to harm others but not when used to carve out a tunnel. The knife and the cutting; the bomb and the blast – these may be “things’ in a manner of speaking, but any measure of evil in their use depends not on what they are, but on the extent to which their use deviated from God’s perfect will.
We know this intuitively. And because some of us are better at knowing God’s will than others, we may mistakenly call something evil when in truth it is not. For example, a law prohibiting abortions would be viewed as “evil” by those who believe that a woman has the right to choose; they would view the act of stopping a woman from aborting her unborn child to be a departure from the “good” of free choice. This of course would be wrong. It would not be evil at all, but instead good, because such a law would comport with, and not defy, God’s will.
Those who reject Augustine’s approach will insist that each of these examples – stopping the woman by force of law, setting off the explosive, cutting into a person – are things regardless of what label we choose to attach to them. They will insist that a good God would not have created the potential for such actions to occur, would not have allowed for evil to arise. But this misunderstands the point: what constitutes evil is not the action or the thing, but the use to which it is put. God, as the infinite expression and definition of good, is by necessity the ultimate standard of what is good. Consequently, what we describe as evil is in reality a rough gauge of the extent to which the thought or act in question deviates from God’s nature or will, or at least what we understand that nature or will to be.
So, why does God allow evil? Because when he gave us free will, he meant for us to have, well, free will. The opposite of free will would be directed will. Whatever actions we took would be controlled, the way a robot’s or computer’s would be. In such a world, there would be no abortions, no stabbings, no hidden minefields. But such a world would not know freedom. God allows evil, even though he never created it, because if He does not allow us to depart from His perfect will – if he does not allow us to “do evil” – then free will would be an illusion.
Why he felt creating such free will beings was important, or worth doing, is of course a different question. Many have concluded – perhaps without fully considering the issue – that God made a poor choice. But whatever his reasons, one thing is clear: a world in which evil was prevented might be preferable to some, but it would be a world stripped too of free will.
And that would be a very different world indeed.
Posted by Al Serratoevil, God's will, good, St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas
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Many skeptics maintain unquestioned faith that science will solve the world’s problems. Seeing the evidence of chaos throughout the world, often the product of religiously-inspired violence, they conclude that religion is somehow the problem. Authors like Christopher Hitchens capitalize on such assumptions, writing best-selling books that explain how “God is not great” or how religion has “poisoned” everything. By contrast, science has provided “progress,” the sense that things are definitely getting better from a technological sense, as we continue to harness more and more power to make our lives increasingly prosperous and comfortable.
While this faith in science is certainly understandable, it does not survive close scrutiny. This is so because the problems that ail us, the questions we need answered, are questions that science simply cannot answer. After all, science is not philosophy. It does not provide meaning, however much it advances knowledge or power. Modern Americans, of all people, should recognize this limitation. We live in a culture that is deteriorating in many ways. Pleasure seems to be the principal pursuit of a large segment of the population, and despite intense efforts to find nirvana, and despite access to the best “toys” ever made, people seem to be increasingly stressed… and distressed. We seem to be experiencing a huge increase in depression and destructive behavior patterns; addictions to drugs and alcohol, gluttony leading to obesity, gambling, and pornography, to name a few. These pursuits may lessen the emotional pain for a while, but they leave the afflicted even more broken in their wake. What people lack, in increasing numbers, is a sense of belonging; some purpose or meaning to which they can devote their lives and that can make sense of the world.
Science cannot address what is lacking any more than a mechanic can tell me why I no longer enjoy driving my car. He can take measurements and tell me things about functionality and performance. He can modify the car with the latest gadgets to make it run faster, smoother, louder – to make it anything I want it to be. But these measurements and modifications, however important, cannot provide meaning. Because in the end, what I like, what I feel about certain things, persons, places, events – these are a reflection of me, and what is inside me, and not of the things around me.
Human life is exceedingly complex. From mitochondria powering the cells, to the mind that emerges from the gray matter in our skulls, the human body is a marvelously complex product of advanced engineering. But until we understand the purpose for which we are created, until we understand what we are meant to do with these wondrous “machines” that we inhabit, we are like cars driving straight off a cliff. Everything is functioning perfectly, but without a driver behind the wheel, it soon comes to a crashing, and painful, end.
Philosophy is needed to answer these most pressing questions. And a philosophy that has stood the test of time and that provides a robust explanation for life is a good place to start. In the pages of the Bible, the questions that matter most are addressed by the source of all that is. When its lessons are followed, life tends to flourish, not in the sense of a great wealth or fame – not in the sense of the “prosperity gospel” – but in the sense of a lasting joy. Joy in the knowledge of who you are and what you were created for; joy in the sense of homecoming when our days wind down, as they inevitably will. Joy in the prospect of reuniting with our true “soul-mate,” the one we have been seeking, the one for whom we were created and who is even now beckoning us home.
Posted by Al Serrato
faith, meaning of life, Purpose
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Christians and skeptics often talk past each other. It’s almost as if they are speaking different languages or, at the very least, speaking from a very different frame of reference. Recently, I observed this first-hand as I corresponded with an atheist about the role of science in developing useful knowledge.
He agreed with me that science does not have an “explanation” for everything and that for some things, it may never have. “On the other hand,” he said, “‘God did it’ has never impressed me as much of an explanation. I would prefer simply to admit ‘I don’t know.’” What he meant, I think, was that resorting to a supreme being who set things in motion, and whose laws guide the workings of the universe, is not helpful. No, more precisely, that resorting to such explanations is actually a step backward, a movement away from the acquisition of the knowledge that science promises.
In this, the skeptic is mistaken. Science can answer many questions, but all of these questions fall into the category of “how” things work, and not “why” or “for what ultimate purpose.” Things work a certain way, and the workings that we witness can be observed, studied and eventually understood. This yields great predictive power regarding future events, and allows for those events to be shaped through the use of modern technology. But science does not answer the question, “Who set all this into motion” and “What does that Creator want from us?”
Take for example the study of the Big Bang. Science and Christianity agree: the universe was created from nothing a very long time ago. Genesis (“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the Earth) and the Gospel of John (“In the beginning was the Word…”) both assert what astronomy and physics have, relatively recently, discovered. The Bible doesn’t attempt to speak to the question of how God went about performing this amazing feat, and science does not tell us for what purpose the universe was created.
This is an important distinction, and one that seems to be increasingly lost on the many secularists who, seeing a conflict between science and faith, try to force all manifestations of religion from the public square. Perhaps an example from a much less esoteric source will help to illuminate the distinction I am attempting to draw. When police respond to the scene of a possible murder, they collect the evidence for a very specific purpose: to determine the “source” behind the killing, the answer to the question “for what purpose?” The coroner who does the examination can shed light on this determination, though the use of scientific knowledge, but their role is largely to determine how the person died. For example, if the investigators found the victim lying on the floor with a bullet wound to the head and a pistol lying nearby, science would tell us that the victim died as the result of exsanguination and damage to vital tissue caused by the entry of the bullet. But determining the manner of death would not answer the question the police are called upon to determine: was it an accident, suicide or murder? For that, other considerations must come into play, including other types of evidence left behind during the commission of the act. This may include further physical evidence, but it might also include a writing – perhaps a suicide note or other writings reflecting what the victim was planning to do. However informative and accurate the scientific evidence might be regarding the cause of death, it will never answer the most important questions: who did it, and why? For that, different questions must be asked. More to point, if these questions are not asked – if the mere asking of such questions is deemed inappropriate – the most important aspect of the inquiry will never be accomplished.
Similarly, as it applies to accounts of the creation events, science has come a long way in explaining the mechanisms by which the universe began to unfold and life to appear and flourish. But it has not the means to determine why any of this has occurred. Other disciplines, such as theology and philosophy, are better suited to weigh in on those types of questions. However fascinating the answers to the “how” questions might be, they pale in comparison to the importance of the “for what purpose” questions, especially if one considers how long “eternity” will be.
The two realms – science and theology – need not be in conflict. The conflict arises when the secularist insists on seeing the world as an endless series of “how” questions rather the seeing the one “why” that matters more.
Posted by Al Serratofaith, science, secularism
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In a recent post, I addressed the issue of whether Christ’s death constituted a sacrifice. For many skeptics, Christ’s death, resurrection and atonement for our sins constitute a major stumbling block. In response to that post, one challenger commented that he could not understand
“why the death of Jesus was that big a deal. He had 6 hours of agony. A terrible way to go, but how many people have similar experiences? And the atheist supposedly bound for hell will experience this kind of agony continually.”
To understand why this challenge lacks substance, one must take a moment to unpack the assumptions embedded within it. The challenger assumes that the process of physical death – more specifically, the manner, length and painfulness of that process – is what “caused” salvation. Noting, correctly, that many human beings have experienced far greater suffering, the skeptic concludes that this sacrifice is not, as he put it, a “big deal.” His conclusion flows from his premise, lending the challenge an appearance of legitimacy, but his premise is in need of more careful examination. Perhaps he has not taken the time to consider actual Christian beliefs, or perhaps he is simply engaging in the straw man fallacy, in which a person intentionally misstates his opponent’s position in order to more easily “defeat” it. Either way, to a careful thinker, the challenge falls flat.
This conclusion should not really come as a surprise. Countless intellectuals have considered the claims of Christianity and have embraced them as true. Many, such as the writer CS Lewis, became believers after many years of committed atheism. That none of these thinkers would find merit in this rather obvious challenge speaks to the fact that he is simply missing the point. None of these believers – nor for that matter the very first followers of Christ – concluded that Jesus won some kind of perverted contest for the “greatest suffering before being murdered,” somehow entitling him to the prize of being “the Savior.”
No, something much different is at play, something that challenges the limits of our philosophy, and of our intellects, to fully grasp. Jesus took the form of man and, during his life on Earth, he emptied himself of key aspects of his divinity. In that form, he experienced temptation – the kind of temptation that demonstrates the existence of free will; the kind of free will that makes expressions of love real and not the product of coercion or control. He did not need to suffer death at all, certainly not death on a cross. He had the means to escape the trap that was being laid for him. But, as he said, no one took his life; he lay it down for his people. By so doing, he stood before the Father to accept that wrath that justice demanded, for the intentional rebellion in which man was engaged. He had no price to pay for himself; his slate was clean before the Father. And because he too was God, he could absorb that wrath not just for one other man, or for a group of men, but for all who ever lived, or would live – infinite power absorbing for all time the infinite wrath of a perfect being.
The challenger to my post concluded:
“No—I disagree that God has balanced perfect justice and perfect mercy. Justice is getting what you deserve. Mercy is getting LESS than what you deserve. Take your pick. And you imagine that God has an infinite wrath? Wow—the dude needs some therapy!”
But this actually proves my point. The challenger is correct: in human terms, it appears contradictory for one to be perfectly just while being perfectly merciful; indeed, how can God give those in rebellion what they deserve while also giving them what they don’t deserve? (Ironically, this challenge actually speaks to the divine origin of these early Christian beliefs: who could have – who would have – come up with a system like this if it weren’t true, when adhering to it only promised persecution?) To answer this challenge, one must move from abstract considerations to more specific, factual ones.
- What do humans “deserve?” They deserve punishment for their rebellion;
- What is a just punishment for rebellion? Separation from God;
- How long should that separation endure? For the life of the beings in question (i.e. an eternity in that place of separation, i.e. hell);
- How can humans beings be given something less than they deserve? By having someone else pay the price for their rebellion;
- Who can pay that price? Only a man who himself does not owe the same price.
Yes, Christ pays the price. We don’t deserve what he does for us; it is an act of mercy. Justice is satisfied because punishment has been meted out – directly to those who refuse Christ’s gift and remain in their rebellion; indirectly – through Jesus – for those who accept his gift. Jesus has the power and the willingness to absorb God’s just wrath, and having lived as a man, he also has the standing before God to enter the transaction. We need only accept his gift, at which point he will begin the process of refining us – perfecting us – so that we can rejoin with Him and with the Father.
This solution to man’s predicament, available freely for all, elegantly gives us the means to attain what we do not deserve – mercy – while not sacrificing God’s perfect justice.
Posted by Al Serrato
eternal separation, god's wrath, justice, mercy
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Most atheists feel confident that they have “reason” on their side. As a result, many are surprised when a Christian apologist takes an evidentialist, or reason-based, approach to matters of “faith.” Not long ago, the issue arose in a conversation I was having with a skeptic. I had been laying out the basic philosophical arguments for the existence of a supreme, uncaused being.
Accepting the logic of these arguments, she shifted her challenge, saying: “You want me to use reason to get me to agree that God exists, but then stop using it as soon as I get to that point.” In other words, despite hearing rational arguments about the existence of God in general, she could not fathom that a belief in God in particular – the God of the Bible, for instance – could be based on anything other than wishful thinking. Faith, after all, was simply not rational.
My response went something like this: “Hopefully by now, you see that I am not asking you to abandon reason. The types of argument may vary, and the level of certainty about particular conclusions might also differ, but for everything that historic Christianity affirms, there are good reasons to believe what we believe.” She shook her head in, well, disbelief.
“As it applies to Christianity,” I persisted, “some of what we know about God can be inferred from observations. This is referred to as ‘general revelation.’ Consider what we see of the universe: it is spatially and temporally immense, beyond our ability to understand and grasp; it is well-ordered and predictable, with set laws such as logic and math, physics and chemistry, all operating flawlessly, consistently and seamlessly. It contains examples of breath-taking beauty, such as the inherent beauty of music and nature, and heart-pounding emotion, such as the joy of first love or the miracle of birth. But it is also quite deadly, or at the very least quite inhospitable to humans. Despite its immense size, it appears that we can live only in a sliver of air on a remote planet, and even there, most of the planet is exceedingly dangerous to us. You see, my ability to reason can lead me to some generalities: God must be immensely powerful and intelligent; he must be artistic and love order. He must be capable of great love. But is he … harsh? Uncaring? Why is this creation so dangerous? And, most importantly, what comes next? Reason cannot lead us to any answers here. We see a glimpse of God, but not the full picture.”
She wasn’t sure where I was going, and in a way, neither was I. The next step, to a rational reliance on the words of the Bible, is a big step; in fact, for many, it has been, and remains, too big a step for them to take.
I resumed. “To move to a personal relationship with God – in the specific, not general sense – requires more; it cannot be based completely and exclusively on reason. It does in fact depend also on faith, but it is a faith that stems from, and finds support in, reason.”
“You want it both ways,” she countered. “You want to call it reason when it is simply wishful thinking.”
I knew what she meant, and I acknowledged that I was struggling with putting these thoughts into words. “No, there is a difference that you’re not seeing. Believing in unicorns is a function of faith; there is no evidence for them, and no good reason to believe they exist. But if you had actual evidence – from trusted sources – that such animals existed, your “faith” in them might eventually become reasonable. The problem isn’t that believing in exotic animals is irrational; the problem is that believing in such animals when there is no evidence – no reason – to support that belief is irrational.”
I shifted gears a bit, wanting to get on to the point while there was time.
“Now, put yourself for a moment in the position of the creator-God. You want to give people true free will, so that they are not mere automatons, and you want them to choose a relationship with you without forcing them to do so. Your problem is twofold: if you make your presence too intrusive, they will believe because they have no real choice, but if you reveal nothing of yourself, they will have no basis to know you. So, what you do is reveal enough of yourself so that they will see your presence. Then you choose a messenger who will convey your intentions. It must be fined tuned this way so that those who respond do so freely and not under coercion. Those who do respond freely will eventually be made perfect; he will work on them to free them from their fallen nature and to remove some of what separates them from him. Those who reject him get what they are seeking – separation from him.”
“Christianity affirms that God chose a particular people to convey this message. He used prophets to speak for him, then sent his son. Much of what I trust in about God comes from the words of that son, Jesus. If Jesus is a reliable source (i.e. that he has a basis to know what he claims to know and that he is honest), then I am justified in trusting what he says. If so, then he is a good source of information about God. If he says that God has offered us salvation and prepared a place for us to spend eternity, I can trust that information if I can trust Jesus. I acknowledge that my confidence that there is a heaven is pure faith – I believe it because Jesus says it. But my trust in Jesus is not based on faith. That would be mere wishful thinking. I believe that Jesus rose from the dead not because the Bible says it, but because the evidence of it is very strong, and the evidence against it is not. I don’t believe Jesus rose from the dead because I have faith, or because the Bible said it; I have faith that what Jesus said was true, and that the Bible is trustworthy, because I first had proof that Jesus did what he claimed he would do. He fulfilled the prophecies of centuries before, died for us and then rose from the dead.”
“But,” she began, again shaking her head ….
Enough for one day, I concluded. The next step would be to show why what we know about Jesus is reliable. But I had places to go, and she needed more time to think about what we had covered so far.
Posted by Al Serrato
knowledge of God, reason, Salvation
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“There are no atheists in foxholes.” Or so the saying goes. Today, that probably has more to do with the scarcity of foxholes than it does with the scarcity of atheists. Indeed, the growing ranks of atheists include some who would like the military to allow them to designate “humanist” on their dog tags and official records. Just as a Catholic would wish to be specifically labeled and not bunched with other “Christians,” they argue, so too the “humanist” wants his “positive philosophy” to properly reflect what he believes.
Considering the times, I suspect that the humanists will soon have their way. And perhaps this isn’t all bad; perhaps it will provide a springboard for the believer to engage those who have allowed the pluralism of a free society to lead them to some strikingly false conclusions about the true nature of things.
Consider: we spend our lives growing, mentally and spiritually as well as physically. As the years progress, we gain knowledge, of things and places and people, and we build relationships. For some, but not all, wisdom also increases. This growth is valuable to us, and we seek – intuitively and innately – to make it last. Built into our natures is a desire for life generally, and for relationships specifically, to continue. Even when relationships fail, we don’t decide to live like hermits; we continue to seek to be heard and understood. We seek a place where we can belong. This hunger is fueled in part by the desire – the need – to make sense of the world and our place in it. Despite the hustle and bustle of the daily grind, in quiet moments we each at some point have to ask: why am I here? What, or who, put me here? What is expected of me? What is my ultimate end? What meaning, if any, is there to all of this? These are important questions that we can push aside for awhile but not forever.
Atheism posits that we are accidents of evolution, with no transcendent or lasting purpose. The universe just happens to exist and we just happen to be the unintended byproduct of a string of events which were set in motion randomly untold billions of years ago. We pass our brief moments in the sun, and in the end, we simply return to dust. The quality of the lives we lived, and our desire to continue thinking and growing and… being…count for nothing. There is no ultimate arbiter of right and wrong, neither punishment for evil deeds nor rewards for the good that was done.
It’s hard to view this worldview as anything but futile and barren. And yet it seems to be taking hold in the modern mind. Why bother to punch anything at all into dog tags? Why should the humanist claim have any persuasive force, when it cannot explain any of what we find around us? When it runs so wildly counter to the intuition that we all have that this cannot be all that there is?
Because man is fallen – indeed, because he is in active rebellion against God – it is in fact predictable that man’s denial will persist. But there is a better way, one that is consonant with truth, which can answer the questions that bubble up from deep within us. A way that can ultimately satisfy our curiosity, and our desire, and set us back on the path toward home.
Scroll through the pages of this website to find out more about the truth claims of this time-tested worldview, which even now, despite all the challenges of the past two thousand years, remains alive and vibrant in every corner of the globe.
Posted by Al Serrato
atheism, Christian worldview, rebellion, Salvation, secularism
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The blood-curdling scream signaled that she had not yet given up. Hours of pushing, and the baby had still not descended. The OB was weighing her options, while dad wiped mom’s forehead and encouraged her on. She screamed again, pushing and puffing and praying that this agony might soon draw to a close. The pain was so… intense, so utterly mind-numbing that she wondered, for the thousandth time, why she had wanted to have another child…
This is a scene that plays out day after day in hospitals all over the world – women experiencing extreme pain as they do their part to bring new life to – and into – the world. But what does this have to do with Christian apologetics?
Recently, I corresponded with a skeptic who posed some interesting questions about the Christian faith. She began by arguing that if indeed Christ rose from the dead, this would have been no sacrifice on his part, but a bargain, as he traded a normal body for a perfect one.
This, I responded, misses the point of what Jesus did: because his body was human, he experienced the pain and suffering that the crucifixion brought with it, in the way that any flesh and blood human would. There are many things that may result in eventual gain that are exceedingly painful. You wouldn’t tell a mother who is about to deliver that her “sacrifice” and pain are any less real because she will be getting a healthy child “in return.” The mother’s suffering doesn’t “cause” the child to be born; it simply accompanies it, a feature as it were of the nature of things. But willingly enduring pain or suffering, in the service of others, is worthy of recognition and praise. What she endures still constitutes a sacrifice for her, even if she too gains in the process.
So too for Christ: though something better was in store, it nonetheless was a sacrifice for him to go through the steps necessary to complete his “substitutionary atonement.” And it wasn’t the pain that brought salvation; like the child birth referred to above, pain isn’t the point of the process; it is simply, and sadly, a byproduct of it.
Christianity does not teach that Christ’s suffering “caused” our salvation, as if he needed to satisfy the whims of some sadist. The mistake implicit in the challenge is the assumption that God is some kind of monster, who measured the pain Jesus suffered until it reached some point where he was finally satisfied. No, it was not Jesus’ experience of agony that God was measuring. It was, instead, Jesus’ perfect life, while a man, that put him in a position to accept in our stead what we in fact deserved. Many people have suffered similar, or even worse, deaths, but they could not take on for others what they themselves deserved based on their own conduct. Since sin is something that we all do, and since sin results in separation from God, then a sinless man would be the only kind of man who could take, on our behalf, the consequences that we merited. This is why Jesus made a point of saying that no one took his life; he did what he did voluntarily, which is the only way it would, or could, have been accepted.
Had he been a sinner himself, this “sacrifice” would have been of no avail, as he would have had his own debt to pay. Had he been simply another man, chosen at random to be the scapegoat for God’s wrath, a colossal act of unfairness would have resulted. But God took the punishment upon himself. Since God the Father and God the Son are “consubstantial” – of the same essence – God’s infinite wrath is absorbed and balance by an infinite and all powerful being.
Skeptics often claim that perfect justice and perfect mercy cannot coexist; one or the other must give way. But hasn’t God done just that? Has he not balanced perfect justice and perfect mercy through his perfect love – satisfied for eternity within the persons of the Godhead? Those who accept God’s gift receive forgiveness through Christ, while those who die in rebellion receive the just consequence of their choice.
In dying for our sins, Jesus did more than “sacrifice.” He demonstrated the sublime elegance that can solve even apparently insoluble problems, and open for us a path back to the Father.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's love, sacrifice, Salvation, substitutionary atonement
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For many people, an obstacle to faith in Jesus is the seemingly gory nature of the core tenets of Christian history. Jesus suffered a horribly violent end, yet Christians revere the cross that was the instrument of that torturous death. And they celebrate His victory over death by partaking of His “body” – honoring His last injunction to “take and eat” and “take and drink” of His body and blood.
One challenger asked why Christians venerate the cross. If a friend were gunned down, he asked, would it make sense for those left behind to wear miniature guns as pendants around their necks? Or to worship the gun used to kill him?
This is an interesting challenge. Framed that way, it does seem a bit odd to incorporate into our holy images the means by which Jesus was put to death. But we are not worshiping the cross. We are worshiping God, in the person of his Son, through whose perfect life we find our hope for the future. More specifically, we are remembering, as He asked us to, what He was willing to do for us.
So, to answer the specific question, Christians would not venerate the gun that was used to murder a friend. But here is the difference. Jesus’ death on the cross is the most amazing gift that anyone has ever given. Consider: despite the accuracy of the label “murder” as applied to what occurred to Him that day 2000 years ago, Jesus told us that no one takes his life.
In John 10: 17-18, Jesus said:
“For this reason the Father loves Me, because I lay down My life so that I may take it again. No one has taken it away from Me, but I lay it down on My own initiative. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again. This commandment I received from My Father.”
Jesus lay down his life voluntarily so as to fulfill the Scriptures. He paid the price for our sins to make right the broken relationship with God that sin had introduced into the world. Through His perfect life, he restored the damage that the first humans had caused, and which all of us born since then have inherited. He literally gave – and is continuing to give – eternal life through Him, by balancing the scales of justice and mercy. Death did not defeat Him, nor did the cross. Through His perfect life and the sacrifice of the cross, He defeated death for us, atoning for our sins before a perfect God and providing a means to be re-united with God.
However barbaric it seems today, the cross remains the symbol for the immense love of God, as well as for the victory of Jesus over sin and death. So, while no one should revel in the gory details, the cross remains today, and for all time, a powerful symbol of that love.
Posted by Al Serratosacrificial love, Salvation, the cross
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For Christians all across the globe – men, women and children of all races, nationalities and cultures – today concludes Holy Week, a week during which we remember the Passion, Death and Resurrection of our Savior. Adorning the buildings where Christians will gather, and often adorning their persons, the symbol of the cross is everywhere present. The reality behind the cross is quite jarring – it conjures up the vision of a man, beaten and bloody, going to a certain, and gruesome, death, in a manner diabolically calculated to maximize pain and suffering while also depriving the victim of any semblance of human dignity.
Why do we continue to “celebrate” this event? Why do we sanctify– make holy – this holiday?
Indeed, as the Bible makes clear, the cross is a “stumbling block” and “foolishness” for those who do not believe, but for those who are called, it is the “power” and “wisdom” of God. Why this is so requires us to understand the idea of atonement, the “balancing of the books” that Jesus accomplished through his death and resurrection.
Why does Jesus’ death on the cross matter to God, or to us? Doesn’t everyone die, and if so, what makes Christ’s death any different? To answer these questions, we must first see our lives from God’s perspective. As a perfect being, He endowed us with free will, which we used to rebel against Him. This created a rift in the relationship, a chasm between God and man. So, why did He make us that way? Why couldn’t He just accept us as we are?
Good questions, and ones we will never fully understand here. But we can glimpse the answer when we consider it from the perspective of love. What makes a loving relationship meaningful is the volitional aspect of it; if love is coerced or bought, it is not love, but something else, something less satisfying, less pleasing. A master has a relationship with a servant, but what the servant feels for the master is obligation, not love. The tyrant can command his subjects to kneel before him, but he cannot compel them to love him. Payment or punishment, or any other tool of coercion, can accomplish a result, but it cannot change the mind, nor the heart. It is only when love is freely given, and when love can be lost, that we truly value it. What we want, in the end, is relationship, and that requires free will, not intelligent robots who perform according to preset programming but are incapable of feeling. And so too with God.
Jesus’ act of love on the cross – in freely laying down his life – makes no sense until we consider from what this act saved us. Christians believe that God stands ready to punish us for our transgressions against His law. Punishment for transgressing the law is of course a requirement of justice. But God, as an eternal and perfect being, demands perfect justice. What does perfect justice entail? At minimum, it demands that all transgressions be appropriately punished. What, then, is the appropriate punishment for violating the law of a perfect and eternal being? Separation from Him, at the very least. Why? For the same reason that law-abiding people don’t share their homes and lives with outlaws. Even without moving toward active punishment, the very first thing one would expect from justice is that it does not countenance injustice to be committed in one’s presence. But this “minimal” punishment of separation is also the bad news. Because He is eternal, our separation from Him is also eternal. Permanent separation from an infinitely perfect being – while knowing that He is there and being unable to share eternal bliss with Him and with others – is a form of torment that makes any earthly torture seem mild by comparison. It is the nature of the result – and not any sadistic purpose on God’s part – that makes Hell such a horrible place.
We can’t make sense of this “bad news” without first getting out of our mind the common notion that God will be impressed with our good deeds. We think somehow that we are good enough and that God will see that and reward this goodness. Christians believe that He won’t. That indeed is bad news.
So, how does Jesus getting nailed to a cross saves us? I suppose the precise answer is “it doesn’t.” What saves us is Jesus taking in our place the punishment we deserve. Christians believe that Jesus is fully God and fully man. As a fully human being, He accomplishes something that no other human being has done: complete perfection. He is the only man who lived without transgressing God’s law. Therefore, He is the only man whom God, in His justice, cannot punish. If God punishes Him anyway, he would be guilty of the cosmic “child abuse” of which skeptics like Christopher Hitchens and other new atheists accuse Him. It is for this reason that Jesus tells His disciples that no man takes His life. He willingly gives it up.
Why? Because as an eternal being, Jesus is the only kind of being who can absorb the eternal and infinite punishment God can rightly impose upon us. God the Father pours out His wrath on Jesus and Jesus accepts this wrath, even though He did not deserve it, so that we don’t have to. The cross is simply the mechanism by which this transaction was completed. The resurrection then proves that Jesus was indeed the God-Man who possessed the power to “balance the books.”
In so doing, perfect justice has been fulfilled. Because Jesus offers this gift to us even though we do not deserve it, perfect mercy is also satisfied. He does not force us to accept this gift, and many do not. Nonetheless, perfect justice and perfect mercy are balanced. The debt owed a perfect God is paid and we are “saved” from the punishment we otherwise deserve – punishment that is the necessary and natural byproduct of separation from a perfect being. Once we accept the gift, we open ourselves up to a process which God will complete in us, making us ready to reunite with Him. This solution is the kind of perfect elegance we should expect from such a being.
This answer, of course, leaves much to be said. After all, thousands of pages have been written about Christian beliefs over the past two thousand years. And there is no doubt that others have tackled this subject in a more meaningful and intelligent manner. My hope is that, perhaps, it can serve as the start of a conversation.
But for today anyway, it is enough that we reflect, and give thanks, that on this day so many centuries ago, this perfect plan found perfect execution in the loving sacrifice of our Lord.
Posted by Al Serrato
atonement, Easter, resurrection, Salvation
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My last post staked out the position that Christianity is based in truth. While not testable the same way hypotheses in chemistry or physics can be tested, the Christian worldview is nonetheless grounded in certain facts of history. Several readers posted challenges to this claim.
The first was that I was asserting but not proving this point. This is a fair comment. However, it would be nearly impossible within the confines of an 800 word essay to lay out the case for Christianity. Others much more knowledgeable have done so, establishing that the life, death and resurrection of Jesus are indeed historical events. While much of what we know is based on the testimony of “believer’s” – those who personally witnessed these events and underwent changed beliefs and lives – their credibility was greatly enhanced by their willingness to face torture or death rather than deny the truth of what they had experienced. Moreover, there are other “non believers” who also corroborate Jesus’ life and crucifixion, as well as the transformative effect his life had on human history. But the case is much broader still, for it also encompasses the prophesies written before the time of Jesus that were fulfilled by him, lending additional support to his claim of divinity. Interested readers should consider: “The Historical Jesus” or “The Case for the Resurrection of Jesus,” both by Gary Habermas; “Cold Case Christianity” by J. Warner Wallace, or “Reasonable Faith,” by William Lane Craig, as starting points.
The second challenged my assertion that science is not the only means for arriving at knowledge. The contention, a common one today, was that science is the best way to arrive at knowledge, including knowledge of past events. But to make sense of this assertion, one must first determine what it is that is in question. Past events are not repeatable experiments that can be recreated in the lab. Probability assessments become meaningless in many such settings. I have seen murder cases in which the probability that the defendant would have killed the victim was infinitesimally small – until they actually did the act. They could have countless character witnesses testify as to how out of character such behavior might be. But these probability assessments would be irrelevant if, for example, the defendant confessed or there was other powerful evidence which established guilt. Highly improbable events – like astronauts landing on the moon – do occasionally occur. Some events, like the assassination of President Lincoln – can only occur once, if they occur at all. A rational approach to determining truth as to such an historical event is to test the evidence, not consider probabilities in the abstract. Indeed, concluding that a particular person did not commit the crime, or that a particular event did not occur, because it was “improbable,” despite the actual evidence that it did occur, would reflect a bias which is interfering with the determination of truth.
Additionally, it is a mistake to assume that science can address all questions. Science is indeed a powerful tool. Much of what we take for granted – the many modern conveniences that enhance our lives – are the product of science. But science cannot prove that the scientific method is preferable, nor can it establish the validity of reason in reaching conclusions. It is not possible to use reason to support reason without begging the question. Moreover, a moment’s reflection reveals the many limitations of scientific knowledge. For example, “science” assisted Nazi Germany in developing one of the most efficient states ever organized on the planet, but it had nothing to say about the ends to which that knowledge was put. Survival of the fittest is a scientific theory that explains why some species survive. But science cannot “know” that applying it to members of the human family is always wrong. This type of knowledge – moral knowledge – comes from a different source.
Science may tell me why the colors of the rainbow appear the way they do, but it cannot help me to know that rainbows are pleasing to the eye. Indeed, science can measure many types of features with microscopic precision, but it cannot tell me what is beautiful or what is hideous. Finally, science can tell me about the ink and parchment used by an author, but it cannot tell me whether the ideas conveyed are valid or invalid, cogent or rambling.
Contrary to the implication of skeptics, Christians do not reject science. Indeed some of the greatest scientific minds were wholly devoted to Jesus Christ. But Christianity does not assume that science can provide all knowledge, including knowledge of God and his interaction with his creation. As it relates to such things, and especially to the historical underpinnings of Christianity and its fundamental philosophies, other forms of knowledge are at play.
Posted by Al Serratolimits of science, probability
Posted in Writings | 2 Comments »
My last post dealt with the belief, common among skeptics, that Christianity is simply a form of superstition. Modern “science-minded” people reject superstitions, and so religious belief holds no interest for them. Historic Christian doctrine is in fact much different, however; while some who claim to be Christian may indeed be superstitious, the faith itself is built not upon fanciful thinking but upon a bedrock of truth.
This distinction, and the importance of pursuing truth, can be seen in the following analogy: imagine a person who is suffering from a medical disorder. One day he is fine and the next the disease begins the process of eventually killing him. Initially, he does not know he is afflicted.He “feels” fine. He continues to go about his business, concerned with the problems of everyday life and not suspecting that anything may be different, let alone dreadfully wrong. Eventually, symptoms begin to appear, but they are not particularly troubling to him. After friends insist that he have them checked out, he agrees to see a doctor.This is a big step for him, for he does not “believe” in doctors.He thinks that doctors are often wrong and that they rely too much on pills and not enough on just “living right.” He knows that others really believe in doctors, but he is “sincere” in his belief that doctors do more harm than good, especially when one doesn’t “feel” that anything is wrong. After running a battery of tests, however, the doctor identifies the illness and tells the patient what is wrong.
In addition to understanding the affliction, the doctor also has the means to provide the solution. The patient resists, however, insisting that he feels fine and that he doesn’t need any help. He views the surgery and medicines the doctor offers as “butchery” and “potions.” He sincerely believes that the doctor is practicing voodoo.Ultimately, the patient dies, blissfully unaware of his true condition, content in his belief that he was fine, and proud of his refusal to resort to talismanic remedies to fix something he did not believe was wrong.
As this analogy demonstrates, how the patient feels about his situation is not particularly relevant. Nor is the sincerity of his belief. He may feel fine, physically and emotionally, but the issue would be his actual condition, i.e. the truth about his disease. Christianity needs to be assessed on these terms. Either the Biblical claims are true – we are in a world of trouble and only Jesus can save us – or they’re not. If they are true, how we feel about them is of little consequence. And ignoring and rejecting them will, in the end, not succeed.
Now some may object that doctors practice science, and so the analogy is misplaced. The patient was wrong not to rely on science. But science is simply one way of testing and developing knowledge.It is not the only way. Science cannot tell us whether we possess souls and whether these souls are in need of salvation.And science cannot tell us whether improbable past events actually occurred.The only way we can make that assessment is by considering the evidence upon which Christianity is based and becoming familiar with the philosophy that supports its claims.
But we must do so with an open and inquiring mind… for the consequences of ignoring our spiritual illness can be as devastating as the disease was for the unsuspecting patient.
Posted by Al Serrato
faith, skepticism, superstition
Posted in Writings | 1 Comment »
My last post touched on the issue of bias and how bias may relate to the credibility of believers who try to “defend the faith.” I argued that most Christians, if they think about what really tugs at them, will realize that they actually have a bias away from faith – with its rules and restrictions – and not toward it. That was certainly my experience. Many skeptics attempt to stake out a “neutral” position, applauding themselves for their lack of bias and their objectivity. They think their approach is more “scientific.” If God wanted to contact me, they conclude, He would do a better job of making that clear. But despite the enlightened tone of this approach, keeping a perpetually “open mind” has some negatives worth considering.
The principal one has to do with the nature of relationship. God, we believe, is personal in nature. Indeed, the Trinity consists of three distinct persons who share a divine nature, characterized by a mutual and eternal love. Understanding just how this works is beyond us; it is one of the mysteries of Christianity that is rooted in faith. But suffice it to say that, having made us in His image, it is fair to conclude that we were ultimately destined for relationship with Him. Our best destiny, then, is to partake in this relationship in a fuller way when our days on Earth wind to a close.
What characterizes friendship? Different things in different cultures, no doubt. But has any culture ever developed a concept of relationship that involves “indifference?” Has any culture produced relationships in which one recognizes intellectually that their neighbor “might be there,” while expressing an utter lack of any interest as to who they are, what they are about or what matters to them? Is there any reason why that should be different for God?
After all, is it not obvious that we were made for relationship? Doesn’t loneliness, like an illness, drain the life and vitality out of people? Isn’t solitary confinement so devastating precisely because it deprives the prisoner of contact with other human beings? Vibrant and robust relationship is, without question, one of our fundamental needs as well as the source of our greatest joy. This is especially true of that one special relationship that most people seek – that “soul mate” with whom they wish to grow old.
On the horizontal plane (that is to say, one human being to another), it is wise to approach this task with an open mind. However, after consideration, some conclusions are drawn as a person grows closer to some people and away from others. Ultimately, when a person finds the one he wants to spend his life with, he is called to make a commitment. His mind must move from open to – not quite closed – but not asking the same basic questions anymore either. This allows the relationship to become deeper and stronger. Moving to the vertical plane, there are not multiple possible partners who could be acceptable; instead, there is one God who is calling us to relationship with Him. He has left the seeds of that desire in us and so it’s natural that we seek Him, but because He wants our choice to be free, He leaves it to us to make the decision to accept or reject His gift.
When a person maintains a perpetually open mind as it relates to God, he loses out on this opportunity for relationship, in the same way that someone who refuses to become attached to another person will, in the end, remain alone. But “aloneness” from God is not simply the loneliness that marks the last days of the widower, or the plight of the prisoner in solitary. Separated from the source of all perfection, with the prospect of an eternity of isolation, it is “hell” indeed.
Posted by Al Serratoeternity, open mind, relationship with God
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Superstition is as old as man. An incomplete picture of why things work the way they do fuels the imagination to conjure up hidden forces at work behind the scenes. Pull back the curtain and perhaps one will find an “all powerful” being at work pulling the strings. Accessing – and eventually perhaps cajoling or influencing that being – can easily become the basis for a religious belief system.
Does Christianity fall into this same category? Some unbelievers, observing the behavior of professional athletes, might believe that superstition is at play. Praying and acknowledging one’s deity, they assume, is a way of seeking to influence the outcome of the contest. For some, it seems like a cheap – and silly – trick.
But this is not what Christian players are doing when they acknowledge God, nor is it what a mature devotion to Christianity would include.
Some non-believers who consider this behavior will ask themselves a very basic question: will becoming a Christian “improve” my life? Is it a ticket to greater wealth and prosperity, better relationships, a future filled with every type of goodness and blessing? For many, this seems too good to be true, but they pursue it hoping for the best; for others, it appears to be a shell game or cheap con, and they reject it without ever considering what it really entails.
The nutshell answer is: probably yes. In most cases for most people, developing a relationship with God in which you accept His gift and then living a life that reflects His will, as best you can achieve it, will improve your life in some important and significant ways. But having a “better” life is a by-product of belief, and not the main point of devoting one’s life to Jesus.
If prosperity or other rewards become the main point, Christianity begins to be marketed as a product, a method of achieving some desirable end. A person identifies a need in his or her life and Christianity fills that need, the way any product might do. But this is not the message of Christianity. The Bible is not a “how to” manual on achieving financial or worldly success. It does not promise riches in the here and now, nor an end to all hardship… nor a victory in every football contest. Quite the opposite, in fact, as the early fathers of the church, and their followers, could have attested. (Except of course for the football part.)
In short, Christianity tells the story of man’s broken relationship with his Creator. It claims to speak truth about the nature of God and of this broken relationship and what is needed to fix it. The Old Testament provides the backdrop as God prepares a people to serve as the vehicle for redemption. Jesus comes – not to make my life profitable or more fulfilling in some modern sense or to help me nail down a spot in the Super Bowl- but to fulfill the ancient prophecies, to give His life as ransom for us, and to thereby restore our relationship with the Father.
Christianity should be assessed on its merits – are its claims true? – not on what it can achieve for you. The Apostle Paul said as much, when he said that we are to be pitied as fools if Christ did not rise from the dead. Everything rests on that truth claim. Once we see that Christ did rise, and we place our trust in Him, He will do a work in us and will eventually welcome us into His Kingdom. But Paul himself remained physically afflicted, and there is no reason to believe that by following Christ, our problems will disappear.
We will, however, look at them differently, and by living Biblical values, we will probably have a better life than we might otherwise have had – and certainly a more fulfilling one.
Posted by Al Serratoapologetics, belief in God, superstitution
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To the skeptic, most Christians – certainly most who appear willing to “defend” their faith – may seem a bit one-dimensional, perhaps in some cases fanatical. They seem so convinced of their views, regardless of how bizarre some of these views seem to the unbeliever. Many conclude, then, that the believer is simply biased in favor of what he wants to believe. He has accepted a “bill of goods” without having struggled over where best to place his trust.
But this is not an accurate description of the faith journey of many believers. Indeed, most go through a period of doubt in which they struggle with what they were taught in childhood. That was certainly my experience. Having been raised in the Catholic Church, I was taught doctrines and rituals which were both mysterious and comforting. Until I began law school, though, these beliefs went largely unchallenged, leaving me unprepared to defend what I thought was “the truth.” Encountering highly intelligent people who were not afraid to point out why they viewed my faith as foolish, I began to believe that all religions were pretty much the same – they could provide comfort, but they weren’t really true. Truth, after all, was a relative concept, dependent on one’s point of view and cultural narrative. And science had pretty much shown that there isn’t a need for God. While faith might make a good crutch when bad things happen, it probably did more harm than good in the long run, because it was at odds with reason. These conclusions just happened to coincide with an increasing desire to put the restrictions of Christianity behind me and to put aside whatever feelings of guilt would arise from time to time.
As I look back on it now, I realize that despite my upbringing, I did not actually have a bias to believe in Christianity. My bias, as I was discovering, was to take the path of least resistance. As a practicing Christian, I needed to conform my behavior to something outside myself, depriving me of a certain amount of freedom. Removing the restrictions of religion would allow me to remain “moral” but would also allow me to define morality any way I chose. After all, with no law-giver, there was no reason to comply with rules that I did not make for myself.
Since I knew many believers, I would raise these issues with them, hoping that they could respond to my challenges. Most, unfortunately, would talk about faith as a feeling or remind me that the Church’s teachings were infallible. They would suggest that my skepticism was not pleasing to God and raise the specter of eternal punishment. In short, they were telling me that I was wrong, but not why I was wrong. I would just have to take it “on faith.” They were wrong: I wasn’t persuaded by discussions of how faith would make me “feel” (I already felt good in church) or with threats of hell for failing to follow someone else’s rituals. I also wasn’t satisfied with “infallible teachings.” If in fact the world was broken down into “faith” and “reason” – as my law school friends maintained – then I knew I would side with reason.
I thought this conclusion would satisfy me, but in the end it did not. Two things continued to nag at me. The first was this concept of truth. As a criminal investigator and then a prosecutor, I had chosen a field in which truth actually mattered. After all, it just wasn’t okay to get a conviction if I had the wrong guy. I became increasingly fascinated with and drawn to the concept of objective truth. From my legal training, I also had developed a strong interest in reason. Concepts such as “the reasonable person” standard and proof beyond a “reasonable doubt” showed that the thinkers who laid the foundation for the orderly society we developed put a great amount of stock in the mind’s ability to reason to a just result. I didn’t know how this applied to religion, and I still suspected that no one religion had the corner on truth, but I made a commitment to myself that I would follow truth where it led. In other words, I realized that I had some strong motivations to ignore the truth, especially when it seemed inconvenient, and I made a promise to myself that I would seek the truth and submit to it, to the best of my ability.
The second problem nagging at me was with the notion that only simpletons adhered to religion. As I learned more about history, I realized that some of the greatest and most powerful thinkers in history grappled with the same questions that troubled me, and that they concluded that there is in fact a God and that he is the God described in the Bible. These included not just philosophers, but also the scientists who essentially developed what we recognize today as Western science. The more I learned, the more I realized that treating religious belief as an “opiate for the masses” just wouldn’t fly. There was something there, and I wanted to find out what it was.
In sum, then, my journey began with faith and that faith ran into a brick wall that I thought was “reason.” It ended with the realization that the dichotomy between faith and reason was in fact false. The two are in fact compatible. Christianity was never based on wishful thinking, nor is it dependent solely on “faith.” Instead, it was based on specific truth claims about events which occurred in history, and which were verifiable. This evidence supports a conclusion that Jesus rose from the dead, providing a rational basis to place one’s faith in his message of salvation.
Sadly, the non believer accuses those who have taken this journey of having a closed mind. Quite the contrary is true: while my mind is open – to receiving and evaluating new evidence – given what I have seen so far, I am not ambivalent. Can the skeptic say the same?
It is also worth noting that remaining perpetually “on the fence” – unwilling to reach a firm conclusion – brings with it risks as well. In my next post, I will attempt to lay out just what those are.
Posted by Al Serrato
Posted in Writings | 5 Comments »
The fool has said in his heart, “There is no God.” If this passage from Psalms is correct, then many people today are fools, for they insist that God does not exist. But the ranks of non-believers include many scientifically minded and highly intelligent people, not the sort we would normally consider as foolish. So, what makes such a person a “fool,” and not merely someone with whom we disagree?
Well, let’s begin with a look at the definition of “fool,” which includes “a person who has been tricked or deceived into appearing or acting silly or stupid.” Now, sometimes we trick ourselves, and thereby make fools of ourselves. And other times we are misled. But either way, most would agree that someone who holds contradictory views has deceived himself. Imagine a person proudly proclaiming that the prime rib he is about to eat is an important part of his vegetarian diet. Or the person who says that the only medicine that can save him is the one with no ingredients.
But sometimes contradictions aren’t as obvious. Why, then, is it a contradiction to insist there is no God? It doesn’t appear to be contradictory – at first glance anyway. For the answer to that question, we are indebted to St. Anselm of Canterbury, who lived and pondered these questions some ten centuries ago. I can’t do justice to Anselm’s argument in this brief piece, but perhaps some concepts borrowed from Anselm may help make the point.
The first requires consideration of just what the mind does. Anyone who has seen a baby develop realizes that the human mind comes preprogrammed with an “operating system” of sorts. This allows us to acquire language, to reason, to recognize concepts such as fairness and truth and beauty, and other intangible things, and to make use of imagination. This ability for abstract thought lends itself to “got it” moments, when a problem that has been puzzling us all of a sudden makes sense. We all use these systems intuitively; of course there is no other way, since we could never use reason, for instance, to prove the validity or usefulness of reason.
One aspect of this ability for abstract thought is the ability to conceptualize. Food, for instance, can encompass a million different things, but to qualify it must be edible and serve to nourish, and not poison, us. We can call an ash tray “food”, but the underlying thing is not a matter of what we call it, but of what it consists.
So, with this observation in view, consider for a moment not what a definition of God might be, but what the conception of God is. What is it that we are struggling to grasp when we use that term? Anselm’s definition was simply this – God is that being a greater than which cannot be conceived. Whatever attributes God would have – omnipotence, omnipresence, perfect goodness, etc. – if you can conceive of a being with all those attributes plus an additional one, then the latter would be God. So, imagine two beings then – each with exhaustive, infinite powers. One of the two has the attribute of necessary existence, while the other may or may not exist. Clearly, the former – the one with necessary existence – would be the greater. Consequently, to fully conceive of God, we must be conceiving of a Being who can’t not exist, whose existence must always have been and will always continue to be. Anything else simply cannot fit the conception of God.
So, what does that prove? Maybe this conception of God is imaginary. Not so, Anselm would contend. And here’s why: the mind is not capable of conceptualizing something that does not correspond to something real. Now, this premise is a bit harder to get one’s mind around. The normal response to this part of the argument is that we create imaginary things all the time, from unicorns to tooth fairies to Jedi Knights. But each of these things, while imaginary, is the combining of things that are real: a horse and a horn; a person with wings and unusual powers; a warrior with special abilities and unusual weapons. And, moreover, neither a unicorn nor a tooth fairy nor a Jedi Knight would possess the attribute of necessary existence. If a unicorn did exist, it would have to consist of a horse with a single horn in its head; but its existence could have occurred briefly in the distant past, or could arise in the distant future or could not occur at all. We can fully conceptualize such a creature without the need that the creature itself actually exist, because the conceptualization does not require necessary existence.
This concept of “necessary” existence is not easily grasped at first. Many skeptics will contend that “existence” is not an attribute at all. Imaginary things don’t actually exist, they will say, so they consist of nothing. This line of argument can quickly devolve into an argument over definitions, with the skeptic insisting that it is nonsensical to consider a thing which does not exist. This assumption allows them to defeat Anselm’s argument – they write “necessary existence” out of the set of characteristics of God – but a moment’s reflection should reveal that this comes at too high a price. I can conceive in my mind of many past historical figures whose attributes I can describe in detail but who do not presently exist, for they have passed away. More importantly, every scientific discovery or invention must first begin in the mind of a person who sees the attributes of the thing before it actually takes form. The automobile, for instance, did not create itself; it first appeared in the mind of an inventor who could see what it would consist of if it did exist, and then set about adding “existence” to its attributes.
Letting our minds approach the concept of what “God” must be, the only way to conceptualize Him is as a necessarily existent being. If we are not seeing Him that way – if we are insisting that there may be a God, but then again maybe not, then we are not yet thinking about God, but about something else, something less than God.
This foray into philosophy can be difficult. Fortunately, there are many other proofs for God’s existence, ones much easier with which to grapple, but this one stands out for its elegance. For if it has merit, then God has embedded within us the means to find Him in the one place we have exclusive and special access to: our very minds.
If Anselm is right, then the fool who denies God is saying something like “I believe that the Being who must necessarily exist does not exist.” A rather foolish thing to say, when you see it clearly.
The Bible says that God has written his law on our heart. Perhaps if we probe a bit deeper still, we can also begin to see in its depths the first faint scratching of His signature.
Posted by Al Serratoimaginary beings, necessary existence, ontologica, St. Anselm
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We live in an age of “consent.” The prevailing Western ethic approaches moral issues not on the basis of what God has ordained, but on whether the behavior in question is agreeable to the adults who are involved. The golden rule has become “just as long as it doesn’t hurt anyone,” without anyone really bothering to define what “hurt” or “anyone” actually means. It’s a “feel good” philosophy that says, in essence, “I won’t judge you if you don’t judge me.”
Unspoken in all this is that an assumption that we are autonomous beings – independent actors with unfettered control over our own destiny. Children may still need to mind their parents – although even with children their set of “rights” is now much greater and ever expanding – but when that magic age of “adulthood” is reached, we’re pretty much the one “in charge.” But why should this be so? People don’t create themselves, so from where does this authority derive?
If asked how they came to be, many people today would probably point to their parents, and if pushed on the issue, might make reference to some fuzzy notion of evolving from the “primordial soup.” But we are not “created” by our parents; we are simply begotten. They form part of a chain of life that goes back to the beginning, but they have no real choice in how we are assembled. DNA, of course, is the source code of our existence. Having received a package of “instructions” from each parent, we are assembled over the course of nine months as millions of lines of detailed instructions are implemented, covering everything from the size of our feet to the operating software of our brains.
Human beings are quite familiar with creating things. If I desire to build my dream home, I will set to work with an architect who will incorporate into his set of instructions every detail that I would like to see built into the home. Workers will take that set of instructions and begin the task of fabrication, taking care to lay out the wiring, plumbing and other working parts so that the home is not simply a shell but a functional whole. The dream car I park in the garage is similarly obtained: I set forth a list of specifications that I want the car to possess – size, styling, color and interior features to name a few.
Now, whenever we create, we do so for a purpose. The purpose may be functional, which may include simply for recreation, or it may be aesthetic. But we don’t “create” without some purpose in mind. From this, the following syllogism flows:
- Created things have some purpose
- The purpose of a created thing is defined by the creator.
- Human beings are created things
- Human beings have a purpose defined by their creator.
This conclusion, however, is in direct conflict with the prevailing “wisdom” of our age. Each of us, as a recent Supreme Court decision said, is apparently free to define our “own concept of existence, of meaning, of the universe, and of the mystery of life.” This is a marked departure from our past, and certainly from the Christian worldview. If my syllogism is at all valid, the ashtray would be free to define itself as food, and the car to view itself as an airplane. The intended purpose of the thing, and the will of the one who created it, would mean nothing.
So, what is the purpose of the thing we call “human life?” Christianity provides an answer: it is not to accumulate wealth or material possessions, or to attain worldly power or fame, although some or all of those things may come. It is to glorify God by living in conformity with His will and to spend eternity in relationship with Him, with all the joy that connecting with perfection entails. We have tremendous freedom within that role to make many choices, and to live a life that is full and robust and satisfying.
But defining our own ultimate purpose is not one of those choices. We were made for a purpose, and redefining things to suit our own views is not only counterproductive – in the end it may prove deadly, at least in an eternal sense.
Posted by Al Serratoeternal life, evolution, God's will, man's purpose
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Free will” occupies a central position in Christian theology. Without it, there would be no basis upon which a fair God could hold us accountable for our acts of rebellion against Him. But some Christians also hold a view that we are “predestined” before our births for either salvation or damnation. God is omniscient, after all, so how can it be that He does not already know everything we will do in the future, thus making our “free will” an illusion?
How should this apparent contradiction be approached and, more importantly, can it be reconciled? These are important questions to ask, but a proper sense of humility should lead us to an awareness that a definitive answer is probably beyond our present capability. The problem, in my view, is that our capacity to think is limited by our nature as temporal beings. Expecting us to make sense of how a timeless Being could view our life spans would be roughly like asking a fish to contemplate what running, skipping and jumping on land would be like. The frame of reference is the problem.
Here’s what I mean. When I think of salvation, I am thinking in a temporal or chronological fashion. I wonder what a person will do that may affect his ultimate destiny. Will a believer have a change of heart and die an atheist? Will an atheist repent in time and accept Christ? There is always an element of uncertainty and of surprise. God, of course, does not think this way. For Him, there is no past or future to wonder about, only an eternal present. There can be no surprise for Him, no uncertainty as to what the future might hold. He has full access to all parts of our lives at any “time” since He is not trapped by time, as we are.
An example from the world of computer simulations may help make the point. Years ago, I played a “first person shooter” game set in World War II. I quickly realized that my player was working through a series of predetermined challenges. For instance, as he approached a certain guard post, there was a sniper in a set location that would rise up and shoot him. This challenge was the same every time the simulation was run, so with some foreknowledge, the second time through I could take appropriate cover or react in time to keep my player “alive.” Eventually, I could “game” the system to the point that my player could reach the destination successfully. So, my player had “free will” (me, in essence) and a set of choices he was “free” to make. But this freedom was not unlimited. He could not change the simulation, nor could he leave it. He could alter the outcome somewhat based on what he did or did not do earlier in the simulation, but the possible decision trees were not unlimited. Ultimately, he either reached the final destination point or he did not. His environment was controlled to a large degree but “freedom of choice” was not taken away.
If the programmer ran a thousand players through this simulation, the results would no doubt be variable. Some players would do well, perhaps by previous experience or by talent, while others would fail quickly. The majority would probably fall somewhere in the middle. After they played, if the programmer were to view each step of the way for each of the players, he would see – in his present – what actions each player took given the limited choices available to him. By viewing these results, the programmer would see what choices were made, and as he ran through them, he could see how the player’s “free will” was exercised. But at this point, the outcome would be predetermined. Even if he sees a player doing well early in the simulation, the programmer would know what the ultimate conclusion was. This “foreknowledge” would in no way undermine the free will exercised by the player. Now God has no limitations like those of the programmer. He does not have to rewind the clock, because all times are present to Him. Consequently, he can confer free will and see the outcome even though none of the behavior ever surprises Him.
Just as in the simulation, it seems that God has not given us complete freedom of will. First, our power is limited. Thus, we can “will” something – such as success on a test – but be unable to accomplish what we will. Second, we are motivated by our innate nature, so that something that we have a natural inclination toward will probably impact the “freedom” of the choice. For example, if I love chocolate, then my choice to have chocolate for dessert is free, but I am not completely indifferent in making that choice. Third, we are not fully free to live the kind of life we might want to. We may desire “holiness” but our free will can never really get us there, due to our fallen nature. Fourth, our free will is exercised often in response to challenges that have been put in our path and for which we have limited possible alternative.
These considerations would seem to indicate that free will is not truly present. But what it really says is that we are not “free” to earn our way to heaven; we have neither the power nor the inclination to do what is necessary to get there. The good news of Christianity, however, is that we do not need to; all we need do is place our trust in Jesus Christ and allow him to do the “work” of salvation for us. And that choice we have been empowered to make, despite the corruption inherent in our current nature.
Even recognizing the limitations of our will, we nonetheless know intuitively that we do have a choice to make whether to bend our knee, and our will, to Him. As C.S. Lewis put it, we feel the law pressing down upon us and know we should follow it, and at the same time are aware that we do not, in fact, follow it. The Apostle Paul makes this point in the first chapters of Romans. Why would he talk about a law written on our heart leaving us without excuse if our actions and behavior were all pre-programmed? Why would Paul talk about those who want to get rich falling into temptation leading to destruction (1 Tim. 6) if they had no choice in the matter? Finally, when Jesus is asked by the rich man (Mark 10) what is needed for salvation, why did He not respond “there is nothing you can do, it’s already been predetermined”? This would have been a perfect time for Jesus to express that salvation was predestined. The many times Jesus said “go and sin no more” would also be meaningless if a person had no choice as to his future behavior.
Foreknowledge and predestination are, consequently, not the same thing. As in the case of the computer simulation, there is no conflict between God giving us free will and “foreknowing” how we will have used it. He possesses full knowledge and has in fact predestined some of what we will experience, without having removed the essence of free will from us – the essence being, of course, our freedom to rejoice in or reject Him.
In the final analysis, God’s knowledge of our choices does not prevent them from being our choices. We should use that freedom wisely.
Posted by Al Serratofree will, God's will, predetermination, Salvation
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Winston Churchill was a master orator. He embodied the tenacity of a people whose once far-flung empire could boast that the sun never set upon it, but who were at that moment on the verge of defeat. In the face of the Nazi onslaught, Churchill’s tone captured the spirit of an embattled but unbroken populace:
“We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.”
When resisting the spread of tyranny, this “never say die” attitude is both encouraging and necessary for survival. But misapplied – by for instance human beings mired in rebellion against their Creator – it is another matter entirely.
Human beings possess free will. What begins as a desire to control oneself and one’s immediate environment routinely evolves into a desire for more and more power. It is this self-will that is at the crux of the human condition. Most of the misery in the world is a product of people stubbornly pursuing their own satisfaction, seeing the world through the lens of selfishness and carnal desire, refusing to empathize with their fellow human beings, seeking first their own advantage. This urge to dominate has marred the history of every race and culture on the planet.
Christianity recognizes this condition as part of the natural order of a fallen world: we are born with “original sin,” the desire to thwart God’s will, the desire to accomplish our own will. This, we believe, is a natural part of every human being, a function of the life we inherited from our original parents. But pursuing this path to power, sadly, is the “wide road” against which Jesus warned; the “narrow path,” the path leading to salvation, is the path upon which reconciliation with God can occur, through the redemptive work of our Lord and Savior.
While we are not free to save ourselves – we lack that power – we are free to reject that gift that God has offered, and to continue to fight Him – on the beaches, the landing grounds, the fields … the classroom, the workplace, the bedroom. We can continue to insist that our ways be done, and not His.
Or we can follow a different path – the path of surrendering our will to Him. Recognizing that a perfect Being rightly deserves our respect, our obedience and our love, we can bend our will to Him, replacing the rebellion that wells up within us with a song of praise. Is it not fitting and right that we give worship and devotion to the One who breathed life into us, whose thoughts continue to sustain us, and who offers us the potential for everlasting joy in His presence?
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” (Luke 16) But, as Jesus also taught, “if you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8)
It is never too late to chart a new path, a path in pursuit of Truth. It is never too late to replace selfishness and anger with love, empathy, understanding, and compassion. It is never too late to approach this all-powerful God, with fear and trembling, but also with confidence that He patiently and with open arms awaits our return.
At the dawn of this new year, there is no time like the present to prepare your surrender.
Posted by Al SerratoGod's will, original sin, rebellion
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President Obama will have an open seat tonight during the State of the Union address to represent those victims who have lost their lives to gun violence. Roughly 11,000 homicides were committed with guns in the U.S. during 2014. Everyone agrees these lives are tragic loses due to senseless acts of violence.
That same year, over 1,000,000 unborn human beings lost their lives through abortion. If we have one open seat to represent every 11,000 lives lost, we would need 90 open seats at the State of the Union to represent the lives of the unborn killed during 2014 alone. We would need 5,182 open seats to represent the 57,000,000 human beings who have been killed since Roe v. Wade in 1973. Unfortunately there are only 446 seats in the House chambers where the State of the Union is given.
A White House official said the president told supporters the open seat was for “the victims of gun violence who no longer have a voice—because they need the rest of us to speak for them” and the open seat should serve to “remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
What is sad and shameful is that the president condemns gun violence while supporting abortion violence. For it is just as true that open seats are needed for “the victims of abortion violence who no longer have a voice—because they need the rest of us to speak for them” and that these open seats should serve to “remind every single one of our representatives that it’s their responsibility to do something about this.”
The unborn need a voice. They need us to speak for them. True, our representatives do have a responsibility to do something. But these open seats for victims of abortion violence should not just remind every single one of our representatives. They should also remind you and me, because it is just as much our responsibility to do something about abortion.
So what can we do? We can graciously share the gospel, study more about abortion, pray, speak out on the issue, teach others, engage in conversation, vote, adopt, volunteer time at pregnancy centers, help pregnant women in need, start a student pro-life club on campus, offer healing and mercy to post-abortive women and men, and donate money to pro-life organizations.
We can all do something. Just do something.
Posted by Aaron BrakeAbortion, Obama, pro-abortion, pro-choice, pro-life
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God gave us free will so that we can freely choose Him, for freedom of choice is essential to love. But, the skeptic counters, many people do not believe God is real. Why doesn’t God reveal himself more clearly? This question has considerable surface appeal, as it plays on our intuitive sense of fairness. Despite the vast number of people who believe that the evidence for God’s existence, and for Christ’s deity, is more than sufficient to ground a solid faith, there are always others who say they might believe “if only….” And if God really does want all to be saved, why doesn’t He provide them with that extra level of proof?
Before attempting an answer, it’s worth taking a closer look at what the skeptic is really saying: “I’m not interested in what your evidence shows. It’s not enough to satisfy me. I want my personal standard to be met. Satan knew of God’s existence and still rejected Him. Why can’t I get that level of proof?”
This is an odd challenge, because it ignores the objective nature of “evidence” and instead focuses on the subjective nature of a person’s response to it. It moves from considering what conclusions the evidence might support to considering what more could be added to make the conclusion even stronger. In the criminal courts, it is not uncommon to present a compelling case which, after days of deliberations, results in a “hang” and the need for a retrial. Eleven jurors might be completely convinced as to the truth of the charge, but one juror can insist that he needs more evidence. Now, perhaps that one has found something that no one else could see, despite days of discussion; more likely, the lone juror is unwilling to convict – to follow where the truth leads – for other reasons. If he follows the skeptics’ lead here, that juror might say: “I’ve heard of cases in which there is a confession to the crime and still the jury did not convict, so I am justified in voting not guilty here until I get the kind of evidence that I want.”
Like the skeptic in the present challenge, this juror is making a statement, and not an argument. The fact that greater evidence could be produced in support of a claim is a given; it is true for all possible claims at all possible times, because perfect proof is not possible. But this assertion is not an argument that the evidence that was produced is insufficient. In fact, it does not address the weight and convincing force of the evidence at all.
Returning to the original challenge, what is it that would convince the skeptic? The answer: total knowledge of God, the same kind of knowledge Satan may have had. That means the skeptic wants full knowledge of that Being which embodies the ultimate perfections, that Being from whom derives all things good and worthy of praise and apart from whom there is only deprivation and evil for time without end. Full knowledge of that Being would also entail full knowledge of the consequences of accepting or rejecting His offer of life with Him. Satan was some type of spiritual creature; we know little about him, other than that he used his will to oppose God. But we are all human beings, and as such, we have intimate knowledge of man and his nature. Could we really face that level of knowledge? Would it not be apparent to all that the choice to accept God would be coerced and no longer free? Free will would become a mere fiction.
God set the level of evidence of Him in a way that is fitting to our nature. He does not reveal more because what He has revealed is sufficient, which explains perhaps why the vast majority of all who have ever lived have sought in some way for the God they know is there. We are without excuse, the Bible says, for the knowledge of God is written on our very hearts. We may blur that knowledge with the frantic pace of our lives, or silence it with our insistence on having things our way. But what we have been given is enough to ground our faith, if we only use our minds and our ability to reason to assess what has been revealed to us. But for those who choose not to believe, there is freedom to pursue that course, a course marked by self-will and the quest for control.
Yes, the evidence could always be better. But imperfect human beings rely on imperfect knowledge all the time. The evidence we do have is worth considering, and it may well change the course of your life… if only you give it the chance.
Posted by Al Serratoevidence, proof of God's existence, quantum of proof
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