Archive for October, 2010

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One way?

October 31, 2010

I wasn’t sure what to write for this blog post. I’ve been told that my posts are too long. My wife won’t even read them. Bless her heart.

On Sunday we discussed the issue of intolerance and exclusivity. Many people in our culture struggle with exclusive truth claims. Objections are often stated like this,

‘How dare you say your religion is the true one’!

or,

‘How can you believe that Christianity is the one true religion’? That is arrogant and intolerant’!

Perhaps, you might think that religion is a great source of division in our world because of the exclusive truth claims made by its adherents.

This Sunday we tackled religious exclusivity head on. We admitted that Christianity makes exclusive claims about the person of God and how we are brought into relationship with Him.

The Apostle Paul writes, “for there is one mediator between God and man, the man Jesus Christ, who gave himself as a ransom for all…” (1st Timothy 2:5).

Jesus himself says, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No gets to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

The Apostle Peter proclaimed, “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven by which we may be saved” (Acts 4:12).

That is exclusive. I am not trying to canonize C.S Lewis and I don’t agree with him on everything, but I figured I would quote him one more time.

“If you are a Christian you do not have to believe that all the other religions are simply wrong all through. If you are an atheist you do have to believe that the main point in all the religions of the whole world is simply one huge mistake….When I was an atheist I had to try and persuade myself that most of the human race have always been wrong about the question that matters to them most; when I became a Christian I was able to take a more liberal view. But, of course, being Christian does mean thinking that where Christianity differs from other religions, Christianity is right and they are wrong. As in arithmetic- there is only one right answer to a sum, and all other answers are wrong; but some of the wrong answers are much nearer to being right than others.” 1

Despite the weak grasp on World Religions (eg. not all religions believe in God. There are strands of Buddhism that are atheistic) the above quote is a good word.

The second point of the message was that everyone has exclusive beliefs. I gave some examples during the sermon and I don’t want to beat this point to death but truth by it’s definition is exclusive. If it is true that I am married that excludes the possibility of me being a bachelor at the same time. I believe this is called the law of non-contradiction. It is a formal principle of logic dating back at least as far as Aristotle.

If it is true that Jesus is the son of God it can’t be true that Jesus is not the son of God. That is the law of non-contradiction. This implies that when anyone makes a truth claim about reality they are excluding all other contradictory statements. On Sunday I pointed out that this includes the person who says, ‘There is not such thing as religious truth’. That is a truth statement that excludes all those who think there is such a thing as religious truth.

All truth claims are exclusive statements about reality.Sometimes we are incredible inconsistent when it comes to thinking through the implications of our statements. Here are some more examples,

‘God is unknowable’. Really? With that statement you are claiming knowledge about God.

‘Doctrine is divisive’. That is itself a doctrine that would cause a lot of division in certain circles.

‘Truth is unknowable’. Then how would we know that’.

Lastly, in the message I said that Jesus Christ is the answer to religious intolerance. Meditation and internalization of his work on the cross should lead to humble, radically inclusive behavior.

We are saved not on the basis of what we have done but on the basis of what Christ has done for us. This is the opposite of religion. Here is what Tim Keller writes,

“Religion, generally speaking, tends to create a slippery slop in the heart. Each religion informs its followers that they have the truth, and this naturally leads them to feel superior to those with differing beliefs. Also, a religion tells its followers that they are saved and connected to God by devotedly performing that truth. This moves them to separate from those who are less devoted and pure in life. Therefore, it is easy for one religious group to stereo-type and caricature other ones. One this situation exists it can easily spiral down in the marginalization of others or even to active oppression, abuse, or violence against them” 2

Christianity doesn’t tell us that we are saved by performing the truth. That can lead to arrogance and pride which are the breeding grounds for intolerance. Christianity tells us we are saved by what Jesus has done. Jesus did for us something that we couldn’t do for ourselves.

The end result is we are humbled. We are humbled because Jesus had to die for our sins and we affirmed and valued because Jesus was willing to die for our sins. Religion is based on what we do. Christianity is based on what Christ has done. Religion leads to pride because we think we are good enough, or despair because we realize we will never be.

Christianity leads to humble confidence and kills off pride and arrogance, removing the breeding grounds for intolerance. May that be true of us.

St. Augustine once said, ‘never judge a philosophy by its abuses’. Many point out that Church history is littered with oppression and violence. True. There is no denying it. Sometimes the carnage caused by the church is exaggerated, especially when compared to the casualties wrought by atheism in the last century in places like Communist Russia but that is besides the point.

People bearing the name of Christ have committed atrocious deeds. We have been seduced by power and politics and forsaken the way of the suffering saviour, the crucified God who responded to hate with love and evil with goodness. We owe our world and our Lord an apology. We’ve forgotten our story. We’ve gotten of track. We’ve dishonored the name of Christ.

‘Don’t judge a philosophy by its abuses’. Jesus is still the answer for a radically inclusive community in the midst of all the exclusive truth claims.

May we not just quote his words but reflect his character. Amen.

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Brimstone for the broadminded: Part 2

October 25, 2010

How can a loving God allow hell to exist?

A question worth asking is, ‘How do we know God is love’? History, philosophy and experience can be inconclusive. The answer is, ‘we know God is love through the scriptures and the person of Jesus Christ, and both talk about hell. If the Bible and Jesus are wrong about hell they could be wrong about God being love and the entire argument would fall apart. It’s like sawing off the branch you’re sitting on.

Secondly, it is interesting that the question the apostle Paul, and to a lesser degree the other apostles, really wrestled with was not, ‘How can a loving God send people to hell’? but rather, ‘How can a holy God let anyone into heaven’? It’s interesting how things have changed. It’s almost as if roles have been reversed. Instead of thinking much of God we think much of ourselves. Instead of God judging us we are judging God. Instead of to hell with us it is to hell with hell.

What about those who never hear the Gospel?

There are four main views held by Evangelicals. The first view is that God sees to it in his love and sovereignty that all individuals who seek him will in fact receive the Gospel. The second view is all people have an evangelistic encounter with Christ at the moment of death. The third view is that God will judge the unevangelized on the basis of how they would have responded had they heard the Gospel. The fourth view is held by ‘Calvinists’ (named after the 16th century Protestant reformer John Calvin) who claim that those who never heard the Gospel where not apart of God’s elect who are predestined to salvation through Christ.

Evangelicals ascribe to all 4 of these positions. This debate is not between those who believe the Bible and those who don’t. However, I believe that some positions are a more accurate reflection of the Biblical material.

This blog exists not primarily to tell you what to think but to help you come to your own conclusions on these debated issues that often have a huge emotional burden attached to them.

My thoughts

Position # 2: Post-death evangelism

I have trouble with the second position. This view is based on the universal intention of God’s saving act in Christ (John 3:16, 1st Timothy 2:3,4). It also seeks support in a very convoluted, difficult passage from 1st Peter (1st Peter 3:18-20) by contending that this scripture allows for the opportunity of post-death evangelism by Christ. The 1st Peter text is so highly debated I’m not sure it can be used to support any one position with any certainty.

The chief scriptural objection to this position that leaps to mind is Hebrews 9:27 which reads, ‘It is appointed a man once to die and then judgement’. Proponents of this view would respond by saying that this text forbids the possibility of re-incarnation but not an evangelistic encounter with Christ after death but before the final judgment. This opportunity is given to those who never heard the Gospel while they were living. Another criticism is that this teaching undercuts the churches urgency to witness to people who have never heard the Gospel. I’m not comfortable with this view.

Position # 4: God elects some to salvation

There has been an upsurge of Calvinism amongst young evangelicals over the last decade or so. Calvinists believe that God elects some people to salvation through Christ but passes over others. Many would contend that this seems unfair. The biblical response would be fairness is getting what you deserve and you and I do not want to get what we deserve from God. We deserve wrath and judgement. Grace is getting what we don’t deserve. There are some great strengths to this theological position. I have some Calvinist leanings.

However, for many it is difficult to reconcile God’s universal saving will expressed in scriptures like John 3:16, 2nd Peter 3:9, and 1st Timothy 2:3,4 with the belief that God elects some for salvation and either passes over others, or actively condemns them to hell. Also, many people claim that Calvinism undermines missions in the church as well. If God will elect some to salvation then why do evangelism? If they are elect they will be saved regardless of what we do?

Calvinists are clever and they have ready made responses like, ‘all doesn’t mean all (1st Tim 2:3,4) and God predestines people to salvation but he also predestines the means by which they will come to salvation; that means being human missionaries. They would also point out that Paul was a Calvinist (Romans 9) before Calvin was even born and he engaged in an incredible amount of missions work. Clearly, Calvinism and a zeal for missions are not mutually exclusive. The Apostle Paul’s life refutes that statement.

But it’s probably worth questioning the validity of associating yourself with any name other than the name of Christ.

Some of you may have been predestined before the foundation of the world to be a Calvinist. You’re welcome at Calvary. Some of you have no idea who Calvin was and are wishing you never started reading this blog. You’re welcome at Calvary too!

Positions # 1 and 3

While I won’t recommend the second position listed above I have no real problem with positions 1 and 3. Position one is that God sees to it in his love and sovereignty that all individuals who seek him will in fact receive the Gospel. Position 3 claims that God will judge people on how they would have responded if they had heard the Gospel. Both positions seem to line up with our human understanding of fairness for whatever that’s worth.

Position one seems to claim quite a bit of scriptural support and it is the position I ascribed to in my sermon this past weekend. The scriptural support can be found in Hebrews 11:6, 1st Chronicles 28:9, 2nd Chronicles 15:2, Psalm 9:10, 146:17, Proverbs 8:17, Jeremiah 29:13, Acts 8:30-31 and Acts 10:22-39. Scriptural support for this idea is not meager. For a responsible defense of position 3, often called the Middle knowledge position see William Lane Craig, “The Only Wise God: The compatibility of Divine Foreknowledge and Human Freedom”.

Another approach

Let me offer another approach to this issue that moves from the known to the unknown. We know that God is most fully revealed in Jesus Christ (Hebrews 1:1-3). We know that Christ is the only way that we can be saved. “Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name given to men by which we must be saved” (Acts 4:12). Or, “ No one who denies the Son has the Father whoever acknowledges the Son has the Father also” (1st John 2:23). Lastly, “I am the way, the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6).

However, we also know that people were included in the saving work of Christ who didn’t consciously know Christ as saviour. For example, all the Old Testament saints who make up the majority of the great faith chapter in Hebrews 11. The list includes Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and David. I would include Hagar, Ruth, Sarah and Esther as well. The Old Testament believers were not saved by their good works (Isaiah 64:6) but through repentance and faith in the promises of God that a Messiah and Savour would come (Genesis 15:6, Romans 4:9).

So we know that Christ is the only one who can save us. In addition we know that some were saved by Christ, in regard to the Old Testament believers, who didn’t consciously know Christ. This list of people would also include some people outside of Israel’s historical stream as well. For example, the priest Melchizedek in Genesis 14:18 (see also Hebrews 7).

This line of thinking has led some theologians to embrace a position called ‘inclusivism’. These theologians believe that Christ is the only way we can be saved. In addition to that exclusive belief they add the inclusive belief that it’s not strictly necessary to know Christ to be saved by him.

They use big words like Jesus is ‘ontologically’ necessary for salvation but not ‘epistemologically’ necessary for salvation. Basically, we need Jesus’ atoning work on the cross to be saved by him (ontologically necessary) but we don’t need to necessarily consciously embrace his work on the cross to be saved by it (epistemologically unnecessary).

These theologians are not universalists. They don’t believe that everyone will be saved. They believe in the reality of hell and that people are going but they also believe there will be quite a few surprises in heaven.

Proponents of this position would include theologians like John Sanders, Clark Pinnock and pastor/author Gregory Boyd. This view point was also held by late, popular Christian writer C.S Lewis and is expressed in his Narnia book called ,‘The Last Battle’. He also expresses this opinion in his famous work ‘Mere Christinaity’. He writes,

“Is it not frightfully unfair that this new life should be confined to people who have heard of Christ and been able to believe in Him? But the truth is God has not told us what his arrangements about the other people are. We do know that no man can be saved except through Christ; we do not know that only those who know Him can be saved by through Him. But in the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is remain out yourself” (‘Mere Christianity’, Pg. 64).

There is some emotional appeal to this idea but there are some serious problems with this position. It does not appear that the Apostles, or New Testament authors, viewed other religions as secret vehicles of salvation for their adherents, who may, or may not, have the saving work of Christ on the cross credited to them without their knowledge. This position seems incredible foreign to the entire missionary impulse of the New Testament.

Also, this position seems to misunderstand salvation history. It is true that Old Testament believers, and perhaps people from other cultures like Melchizedek, were saved without conscious knowledge of Christ’s work but through repentance and faith in the promises of God that a messiah would come.

However, when Jesus came the apostle Paul said things like this to the people he was evangelizing,

“Therefore since we are God’s offspring, we should not think that the divine being is like gold or silver or stone- an image made by man’s design and skill. In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man (Jesus) he has appointed” (Acts 17:29-31).

God now commands all people everywhere to repent and trust in Christ. In addition Romans 10:9 to 11 and 13 to 15 says,

“That if you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dad, you will be saved….Everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved. How, then, can they call on the one they haven’t believed in? And how can the believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them? And how can they preach unless they are sent?”

These verses seems to require explicit knowledge of Christ’s saving work to be reconciled to God. Therefore, a more biblically faithful way of dealing with the issue of the unevangelized would by the first position I outlined. God sees to it, in his love and sovereignty, that all individuals who honestly seek him will in fact receive the Gospel. Their salvation will depend on their response to it.

Most people when asking this question want a 30 second answer. I always have one prepared. Here is how it goes:

I am certain that God is fully revealed in Jesus Christ. The God who is revealed in Jesus is good and just. So whatever God does is right. No one will be able to say to God, ‘this isn’t fair’? God is the standard by which we judge all fairness. He is perfectly fair and just. I can trust He will do what’s right. Meanwhile I will obey him by carrying out the Great commission and the Great commandment. I will leave the rest to his hands.

“If we drop hell because it is unbearable to us, that presupposes the principle that we can change whatever doctrines we find unbearable or unacceptable; in other words, that doctrine is negotiable. Christianity then becomes a human ideology, not a divine revelation; a set of humanly chosen ideas or ideals….” -Peter Kreeft

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Brimstone for the broadminded: Part 1

October 24, 2010

Wish fulfillment?

Belief in God, or heaven, is often mocked by the atheist as a classic case of wish fulfillment. There is no God, or heaven, so why do so many people believe in these ideas? The answer is simple. People long for consolation, hope and meaning so they create a God to provide them with these things. God is a projection of our longings and wishes. But God doesn’t exist outside of the minds of believers.

This argument originated in the thinking of the 19th century, radical German philosopher Ludwig Freuerbach. Author Christopher Hitchens once quipped that atheist Friedrich Neitzshe claimed that, ‘God is dead’, while Sigmund Freud wrote that, ‘God is dad’. Freud based that statement on Freuerbach’s basic argument. However, in Freud’s thinking God is a projection of our longings for a father figure.

This argument is deeply flawed. Simply stated, ‘just because we desire something does that mean it doesn’t exist’? Our experience teaches us that the exact opposite is true. We desire drink, there is such a thing as water (or beer). We have sexual desires and there is such a thing as sex. C.S Lewis astutely pointed out years ago that,

‘If within our heart we find a desire for something which nothing in this world can satisfy the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world’.

Secondly, this argument is a double edged sword that cuts both ways. In fact, it implies that every worldview is a product of wish fulfillment and therefore false. The atheist desires that there would be no God because she wants to have autonomy and not be accountable to a higher power. Therefore, her belief that there is no God is a projection of her desires.

Here is what Atheist philosopher Thomas Hagel wrote,

“I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I’m right about my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.”- The last word page 130.

That sounds like wish fulfillment to me. But why do I start here when I am supposed to be blogging about hell?

When it comes to the issue of hell the spotlight is turned back on the skeptic. If the Christian’s belief in heaven is a product of wish fulfillment then it is equally possible that the skeptic’s disbelief in hell is the result of wish fulfillment; the skeptic wishes that hell doesn’t exist because its non existence brings comfort.

Here is another reason I bring this up, the believer doesn’t wish there to be a hell either. In fact, I think I can truthfully state based on scripture that, in some sense, God doesn’t want there to be a hell either. I base the above comment on three facts.

Firstly, it seems safe to assume that God did not originally create hell as a part of the world that he declared to be good. Without sin hell seems like an unnecessary blight on God’s otherwise harmonious, beautiful creation described by Genesis 1.

Secondly, 1st Timothy 2:4 and 2nd Peter 3:9 claim that God doesn’t desire that any should perish.

Thirdly, the cost that God was willing to pay on the cross to remove the reality of hell from our eternal destiny’s if we receive his free gift of salvation. Taking these three lines of thought together leads me to conclude that God doesn’t desire hell to be overly populated.

What follows in this blog are some thoughts about common questions and issues that arise when dealing with the topic of hell. This blog is meant to supplement Sunday’s sermon not replace it. The big question, ‘What about those who never hear the Gospel’? will be addressed in part 2.

The absence of hell in the Old Testament

Hell is basically absent from the Old Testament. The King James Version translated the Hebrew word ‘sheoul’ as hell but that is a mistranslation. The word ‘sheoul’ actually means the grave.

In Daniel 12 there is the concept of resurrection with the righteous flourishing and the unrighteous punished. “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake: some to everlasting life, others to everlasting shame and contempt”. But that is about it.

The teaching in Daniel and the eventual teaching of the New Testament indicate that when a person dies their soul goes to be with the Lord if they belong to him or into Hades, or hell. But this is only a temporary resting place until there is a general resurrection where the soul is re-united with a resurrection body (1st Corinthians 15). As Daniel says some spend eternity with God in heaven and some spend eternity apart from God in hell.

There is in the Bible what is called progressive revelation. God is progressively revealing his will and his ways to his people. The ocean of truth is wide and deep and to try and fit it into one channel is impossible. What God reveals to the Jewish people in the Old Testament is true but it’s not all the truth. It is the truth that they needed to know at that time, in that culture, as God progressively revealed himself to his people.

That is why there is a more developed doctrine of hell in the New Testament. The seeds of this doctrine are found in the Old Testament but in the New Testament the mature doctrine is revealed.

Conditional immortality: Does God just snuff unbelievers out of existence after death?

There are some theologians who teach Conditional immortality. Conditional immortality is the belief that those who reject God are annihilated. The dead are judged, punished in accordance with their sin and then snuffed out of existence.

These theologians would argue that God alone possesses immortality. Immortality can be given to humans conditioned upon their response to God’s loving invitation offered to us in Christ. Those who reject God and his gift are annihilated. Evangelical proponents of this position like John Stott would maintain that the immortality of the soul is a Greek philosophical idea that crept into Christian theology and caused us to interpret verses on hell to mean conscious, eternal separation from God.

These theologians would contend that the separation from God is eternal but the person is not conscious. They may be punished for an amount of time that corresponds to the weightiness of their sin and then they are snuffed out of existence. The wage for sin is death and the body and soul die. In fact, they no longer exist. They are annihilated. The use of the word ‘Eternal’ indicates the permanent result of the judgment not the endless duration of it.

To be fair to this position there are verses in the New Testament that talk about the unbeliever being destroyed. Even the imagery of fire can convey the idea of disintegration and destruction. Jesus says in Matthew 10:28, that both body and soul can be destroyed in hell (see also 2nd Peter 2:6, Jude 1:7, Ps. 37:2, 9,10, Mal 4:1-3, Rev 20:14,15)

It is not like this position rejects Biblical authority per se. However, the position has not caught on because it doesn’t seem feasible in light of the texts that indicate eternal bliss for the believer along side eternal loss for the unbeliever. For example, Matthew 25:46 where Jesus states, “ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life’. Out of respect for the Bible and the teachings of Jesus few conservative theologians have gone that route. Also, see Daniel 12:1,2.

Some claim Hell is needed for justice. But does the punishment fit the crime?

All sins against God are finite. Why should they warrant infinite punishment? This seems to be beyond the demands of justice and impugns the character of a loving, gracious God.

A partial response to that objection would lie in unpacking what we mean by eternity. Does eternity mean an endless succession of moments? If it does than the objection holds some weight. However, most have understood eternity to be an experience of timelessness, which is very difficult for us to imagine but it would conceivably take the sting out of the objection.

Here is another approach,

The time it takes to commit a crime has no bearing on the length of the sentence. I may commit a robbery in 3 hours and spend 5 years in prison while another person may commit a murder in 10 seconds and spend 25 years in jail. The time is took to commit a crime has no bearing on the length of punishment. It is the severity of the crime that counts.

Our sin is against an eternal God, which is a eternal sin that necessitates eternal separation from him. If the crime seems light to us that is only a further indication of our radical depravity. We don’t clearly see the heinous nature of sin and the infinite beauty, glory and goodness of the God we are sinning against.

Let’s take another stab at it,

This objection assumes that what is taking place is a person sins once and pays for that eternally. Perhaps, a more accurate understanding is the person stays locked in a position of rebellion and obstinacy. Their character has become fixed in a sinful disposition. The more we think, or act a certain way the more difficult it becomes to think or act in any other way. Hell solidifies the trajectory that are life has already been on. This type of thinking caused C.S Lewis to remark that, ‘Hell is locked on the inside’.

Philosopher Peter Kreeft is smarter than me. He writes,

“Hell’s punishment fits sin’s crime because sin is divorce from God. The punishment fits the crime because the punishment is the crime. Saying no to God means no God. The point is really very simple. Those who object to hell’s over-severity do not see sin for what it really is. They probably look at sin externally, sociologically, legalistically, as ‘behaving badly’. They fail to see the real horror of sin and the real greatness and goodness and joy of the God who is refused in every sin”1.

Stay tuned for part 2.

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If God is Good?

October 17, 2010

I have thoughts but no conclusions. I haven’t solved the issue of God, suffering and evil but I hope this is helpful for you.

At the core of our planet is molten iron, churning and bubbling. It is this molten core that is responsible for continental drift and the earthquakes that result when a drifting continent snags on another landmass, pressure builds up, until the earthquake jolts it free and it continues it’s slow, slow journey. Earthquakes cause incredible damage. We saw that in Haiti. They are the result of this molten core. Why didn’t God create this planet without a molten core?

This molten, iron-core at the center of our planet also produces and sustains a magnetic field. The force of that field deflects much of the cosmic radiation coming from our sun protecting our earth from lethal doses of these harmful rays. No molten core, no destructive earthquakes and some would live who have died. No molten core, no magnetic field and none of us would have ever lived1.

Curious isn’t it? No free will, no evil and no love. No nerve endings to feel pain and no ability to feel pleasure. No molten iron core no earthquakes and no life as we know it.

It makes you think twice about glibly suggesting to God how he should run this world.

Here is a Q and A section that outlines some common questions and responses in regard to evil and suffering:

Why would God create a world filled with injustice and unspeakable horrors that jar us to the core of who we are as people?

Response: God didn’t create that kind of world. Genesis 1 and 2 describe creation as being very good and completely absent from human disease (physical and moral), sin, decay and death. We made this world through our sinful rebellion. Most of the evil in this world can be traced back to the hands of humanity not the hands of God.

But God still lets this happen. Why would God allow this type of world to exist?

Response: Without the ability to choose evil the ability to choose good is emptied of all meaning. We would not be human beings capable of virtue or love we would be robots or computer programs whose behavior is determined by a superior intelligence.


Why doesn’t God judge all evil now?

Response: 2nd Peter 3 says God is patient and he doesn’t want anyone to perish eternally. Therefore, he is giving people a chance to lay down their arms (repent of their sins) willingly before he invades our world in force and the opportunity to repent is lost.

How could a good God allow pain to exist?

Response: Have you ever been to a good dentist or doctor. There is a type of hurt and pain that is temporary and is meant to heal in the end. C.S Lewis said “pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world”. When we are most comfortable, we are most content and less likely to pursue true, eternal happiness and contentment (the kind that starts now) in God. Pain can push us into this pursuit although it is a gamble because it can also push us away from God if we let it.

Can’t God create a world where we freely choose good over evil so that suffering wouldn’t exist?

That wouldn’t be genuine free will. We would be robots programmed to do good and not human beings. God can’t force us to freely choose. That is a contradiction in terms like a round triangle or a married bachelor and nothing that implies contradiction falls under the omnipotence of God. Nonsense is still nonsense even when we talk it about God. So the answer is no, God could not create a world where we are programmed to choose good IF his desire is genuine, loving relationship with his creation.

Why would God create evil and suffering?

He didn’t but we do. Everything that God created is good (1st Tim 4) and we use these good things for evil purposes. For example, if I take a branch and smash Zach in the head for no reason that is an evil action. But God didn’t create that action I did. The branch is good, my hand is good, my ability to freely choose that action is good but I have used all these good things for an evil purpose. That’s not God’s fault it is mine.

God could intercede in that moment to prevent Zach’s head from being smashed. But what about the next time I decide to do something like that? If God keeps interceding eventually we are living in a world where there is no free will and no meaningful choice or action left to us.

Can evil prove the existence of God?

Some Christians thinkers have claimed that evil is just an absence of good like death is an absence of life and sickness is an absence of health. C.S Lewis and St. Augustine before him said that evil can’t exist on its own. It is a parasite. In order for someone to be evil they have to exist, have a will, and have a mind. But existence, a will and a mind are all good things. The evil results from using these good things for evil purposes. Therefore, evil cannot exist without the good. That is why paradoxically evil can prove the existence of a good God.

Here is another form of this argument proposed by Ravi Zacharias:

1. There is evil in the world.
2. If there is evil, there must be good.
3.If there is good and evil, there must be a moral law on which to judge between good and evil.
4. If there is a moral law, there must be a moral law giver.
5. The Moral law giver is God

Another way that evil can prove the existence of God is outlined by Dr. William Lane Craig in syllogistic form: His argument is as follows:

1. If God does not exist, than objective moral values do not exist.
2. Evil exists.
3. Therefore, objective moral values exist.
4. Therefore, God exists

Great quotes on this issue:

“If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue’? and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself….So, if we embrace the Christian teaching that Jesus is God and that he went to the cross, then we have deep consolation and strength to face the brutal realities of life on earth” -Tim Keller, ‘The Reason for God’.

“For whatever reason God chose to make man as he is-limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death- God had the honesty and the courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliations, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile”. – Dorothy Sayers as Quoted in, ‘If God is good’, by Randy Alcorn.

Lastly, John Stott in his wonderful book, ‘The Cross of Christ’ tells a story about billions of people seated on a great plain before God’s throne. Most shrank back, while some crowded to the front, raising angry voices.

‘How can God judge us? How can he know about suffering’? snapped one woman, ripping a sleeve to reveal a tattooed number from a Nazi concentration camp. ‘We endured terror….beatings…torture…death’.

Other sufferers expressed their complaints to God for the evil and suffering he has permitted. What did God know of weeping, hunger, and hatred? God lives a sheltered life in heaven. Someone from Hiroshima, people born deformed, others murdered, each sent forth a leader. They concluded that before God could judge them, he should be sentenced to live on earth as a man to endure the suffering that they had endured. Then they pronounced a sentence:

Let him be born a Jew. Let the legitimacy of his birth be doubted. let his close friends betray him. Let him face false charges. Let a prejudiced jury try him and a cowardly judge convict him. Let him be tortured. Let him be utterly alone. Then, bloody and forsaken, let him die. The room grew silent after the sentence against God had been pronounced. No one moved for suddenly all knew that God had already served his sentence. – John Stott

Another objection

Other skeptic’s can respond with arguments that run like this, ‘If God is all-powerful, and all good, pointless evil wouldn’t exist. Pointless evil does exist so an all-powerful, all good God probably doesn’t exist’. However, the skeptic has smuggled into this argument a false assumption or premise.

When tragedy strikes we all find ourselves looking for meaning or asking the question, ‘what was the point of that suffering’? Now, what the skeptic has done in the above argument is assume that if he or she can’t see a point to the suffering then there must be no point to the suffering; it must be pointless. That is a false assumption. If God exists and God is big enough to blame for the suffering of the world he is big enough to have a reason to allow it that we can’t comprehend from our limited perspective.

Let me quote Theologian Tim Keller,

“Just because you can’t see our imagine a good reason why God might allow something to happen doesn’t mean there can’t be one. Again we see lurking within supposedly hard-nosed skepticism an enormous faith in one’s own cognitive faculties. If our minds can’t plumb the depths of the universe for good answers to suffering, well, then, there can’t be any! This is blind faith of a high order”.3

Natural disasters

The free will defense talked about briefly in Sundays sermon helps relieve some of the intellectual pressure when considering an All powerful, All good God, permitting evil. Perhaps, 4/5th of the evil in this world is the result of men and women misusing their free will and sinning against God and others.

But what about natural evils? Romans 8 indicates that the entire creation has been subjected to bondage. In some way sin has radically corrupted the natural order. Our sin has affected all of creation. As a result the world is groaning in the travails of child-birth longing to be set free.

How have Christian thinkers approach the problem of natural disasters? I will outline several approaches:

Firstly, some would say that we shouldn’t look for God in the disaster we should look for God in the hands of the rescuers and the out pouring of compassion that ensues in the wake of a traumatic event. Perhaps God allows natural disasters to happen in order to bring people together and arouse empathy, compassion and selfless action in the broader global community. This certainly does happen after a Tsunami. I don’t find that answer very satisfactory.

Secondly, some Christians would contend that natural disasters are the result of sin and God’s judgement. When someone asks the question, ‘Where was God when New Orleans was being ravaged by hurricane Katrina’? The answer is, ‘God was waylaying New Orleans through hurricane Katrina’. This position is logically consistent but difficult for many sensitive souls.

The hurricane is understood as God’s judgment on unbelievers and his gracious calling home of believers. There is some Biblical precedent for this statement. Some natural disasters in the Old Testament are understood by the prophets to be God’s judgement on sinful people. However, I think it would be dangerous to conclude as a result that all natural disasters are God’s judgement. I’m no prophet.

There is a story from the Gospels that is instructive here,

“Now there were some present who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate mixed with their sacrifices. Jesus answered, ‘Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans’ because the suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you to will likewise perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower of Siloam fell on them- do you think they were more guilty than all others living in Jerusalem? I tell you no! But unless you repent you too will likewise perish” (Luke 13:1-6)

Jesus seems to indicate that tragic events remind us of our mortality. They awaken us to our frailty. As a result we can be forced to consider eternal things and, hopefully, we repent of our sins and trust in Christ as saviour. We could meet God anyday and we need to be prepared for that encounter. Natural disasters remind us of this fact and they occur not because certain people are more guilty than other people.

Thirdly, some Christians think that natural evils are the result of an abuse of free will. But in this case it is fallen angels in rebellion against God. Some Christians understand natural evil to be the result of demonic activity. I’m not sure how helpful this position is because the scripture continually affirms that Satan and Demons are under the ultimate authority of God. Therefore, the ultimate cause of these natural disasters would land at God’s feet.

Many skeptics would scoff at the idea that God, or spiritual beings, cause natural disasters. We know earthquakes are the result of plate tectonics. However, there are different layers of explanation for most events. For example, you walk into my kitchen and see a pot filled with boiling water. You could give a scientific explanation of that event which includes the boiling point of water and the exact temperature that is needed to boil the water. Your description would be scientifically correct. But there is also another explanation for the boiling water, ‘Chris’ wanted to have a cup of tea. There are different layers of explanation for most events.

Fourthly, some Christians would put the blame on human foolishness, sin, pride and greed. For example, due to the greed and the negligence of governments many people inhabit buildings that aren’t structurally sound which is why an earthquake in the developing world is always more devastating than an earthquake in the west (for an instructive case study compare Haiti’s earthquake with the earthquake in San Francisco in 1989. The earthquakes were of comparable sizes yet the devastation in Haiti and loss of human life was far more extreme).

Also, our pollution of the earth and our raping of the natural world has in some cases led to huge natural disasters (floods, mudslides). In other instances we have chosen to live in areas where natural disasters are far more likely to occur. However, this only covers some of the natural disasters that plague our planet.

I don’t find the above answers completely satisfying but I choose to believe that God is good. Here is the curious thing. You would think that people who endure natural disasters would have their faith weakened as a result. Surveys have shown that is simply not the case.

In 2005 the Washington Post conducted a major survey of Hurricane Katrina survivors who ended up as refugees in Houston. Asked about their faith in God, “Remarkably, %81 said the ordeal had strengthened their belief, while only %4 said it weakened it”.4 It seems most people would rather have God and the problem of evil and disasters than no God and the problem of evil.

Suffering is a problem for theists and atheists.

If there is no God we are the product of mindless matter, brought into life by nature to be put to death by her. We have won a cosmic lottery but our luck is running out fast. The earth is doomed when the sun inevitable dies as all stars do. We have come from nothing and are going to nothing. We are the product of suffering in a struggle for survival. Suffering will continue and then we die and fade into oblivion. The universe doesn’t even blink.

Forgive me if I don’t jump on the atheist bandwagon. Where is the consolation for suffering in this world view? Evil and suffering is a thorn in the Christian world view but at least Christianity provides consolation, hope, and ultimate meaning for the sufferer through the cross of Christ, His resurrection and the promise of a new world. Not to mention providing an objective moral standard rooted in the nature of God by which we can call evil, evil and good, good.

I repeat: I would rather have God and the problem of evil than no God and the problem of evil.

If you made it to the end congratulations. I barely did. This blog post exists to stir up questions and new thoughts not to silence all objections and doubts. I hope you enjoyed reading.

Resources:

C.S Lewis, ‘The Problem of Pain’

Peter Kreeft. ‘Making sense out of Suffering’

Gregory Boyd, ‘Is God to blame’?

John Piper & Justin Taylor, “Suffering and the Sovereignty of God”

D.A Carson, “How long O Lord”?

Randy Alcorn, ‘If God is Good’?

William Lane Craig, ‘Hard Questions, Real Answers’

Alvin Plantinga, ‘God, Freedom and Evil’

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From particles to people: Christianity and Evolution

October 8, 2010

Genesis 1 And Theistic Evolution

There is a position held by some evangelical Christians that states that God guided some sort of evolutionary process. This position is often called theistic evolution, or evolution creationism. It concedes that evolution is currently the best scientific theory we have for the complexity of biological life on planet earth but it refuses to check God out of the equation.

These theologians believe there is room for evolution based on a non-literal reading of Genesis 1 and 2. The Genesis narrative moves from lesser to greater complexity just as the theory of evolution supposes. It says in Genesis 2 that God made man out of the dust of the earth and then breathed the breath of life into him. Or in other words God made mankind out of pre-existing stuff as the theory of evolution suggests.

In this camp, prominent Christians like C.S Lewis, Alister McGrath and Bruce Walke, believe that at a certain point in history God breathed a spiritual awareness into hominids (pre-human creatures) creating Homo-sapien sapiens (in other words you and me). Evangelical supporters of this view would hold that the fall of mankind into sin described in Genesis 3 is historical but not every aspect of the narrative should be read in a rigid literal fashion. To do so would be a misreading of the text.

Evolution is not, “a philosophy trying to explain everything without God” that is atheism. Certainly some aggressive advocates of evolution might slip into this kind of rhetoric and present evolution as a theory explaining everything from origins, to morality to rationality, in an atheistic fashion but that is an abuse of the theory .

Evolution by itself doesn’t equal atheism. Lets get this straight. It is a biological mechanism. God creates and sustains biological mechanisms but they do not replace Him.

Therefore, a belief in God and a belief in evolution are not mutually exclusive options. That is an error in logic; a false either/or proposition. A Christian may not believe in evolution based on their reading of Genesis 1, or the scientific problems with the theory, but let’s not muddy the water with poor logic.

What I am arguing is not that you should believe in some sort of theistic evolution. I do not land there. What I am advocating is the possibility of being a Christian, who firmly believes the Bible is the word of God and still embraces some form of theistic evolution.

A deeper look at evolution

When the theory of evolution first became popular through Darwin’s, “The Origin of Species”, some theologians and pastors did not react negatively. Humanity’s proposed kinship with ‘Chimpanzees’ didn’t offend the sensibilities of every Christian in the 19th century.

Darwin’s theory was first opposed not on theological grounds but on scientific grounds, such as the lack of transitional forms in the fossil record . Some theologians in the Church of England did not react negatively to the theory because they felt that science and theology address different matters.

The same can be said of some conservative American theologians. For example, the American theologian Benjamin Warfield expressed his support for the concept of biological evolution as the process through which God created.

Curiously, the theory was widely accepted in the early beginnings of the North American fundamentalist moment. This movement derives its name from a short series of theological papers entitled ‘The Fundamentals’ that first hit the theological scene between 1912-1917. The theologian James Orr wrote one of these papers in which he argued that evolution is just the new name for creation .

Imagine that, a fundamentalist who doesn’t oppose evolution!

The point of this brief historical survey is to simply show that Christians haven’t always been opposed to the theory of evolution. Some Christians have and some Christians haven’t.

Darwin himself, whose religious beliefs changed throughout his life, wrote this at the end of his ‘The Origin of Species’,

“There is a grandeur in this view of life, with its several powers, having been originally breathed by the creator into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed laws of gravity, from so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being evolved” .

A Christian doesn’t have to agree with Darwin but it is significant that he didn’t regard evolution as being incompatible with belief in God . Many Christians felt the same way when the theory was first proposed and many today continue to hold to theistic evolution.

Before you jump on board the evolution bandwagon, it is wise to first become clear on what we are talking about when we use the word evolution.

More Thoughts On Evolution

The term evolution is thrown around too loosely. It is important to clarify what is actually being meant by the word. There is distinction, which existed within Darwin’s, The Origin of the Species, between two types of evolution: micro and macro (or what is also called “specific” and “general” evolution).

Microevolution

Microevolution refers to change within animal groups, which is brought about through genetic mutation, geographical isolation and natural selection. Macroevolution refers to the process by which a simple amino acid birthed out of a pre biotic soup and a bit of electricity produced everything that exists today, albeit with a huge amount of time to accomplish the feat (others would contend the first life started on the back of a crystal or was sent from space…seriously).

Microevolution seems to be a well-proven scientific fact. A living example would be Hawaiian fruit flies. There are over 220 species that can be traced to a single ancestral fruit fly. Also, consider animal breeding. We have been able to breed a vast number of dogs of all different shapes and sizes, creating new breeds of dogs. Some other popular examples are guppies in Trinidad and fish found in Lake Victoria, Africa.

However, here is the important point: the flies are still flies, the dogs are still dogs and the fish are still fish. They may look and act different even to the point of being unable to interbreed, but they are still flies, dogs and fish. No Christian thinker I know would deny that Microevolution has taken place.

Macroevolution

Macroevolution takes the fact of microevolution and extrapolates from it the concept that if you had a long enough period of time then random mutation and natural selection could get us from non-living matter to a single cell to a killer whale. The problem with macroevolution is the apparent lack of scientific evidence to support the idea . Macroevolution has never been seen to occur. This is why many Christians point out that to believe it is really a faith commitment, not a scientific conclusion. Here are some reasons why.
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1. Lack Of Fossil Evidence

The fossil record doesn’t seem to support Macroevolution. The two things that are consistently reported in the fossil record are Statis and sudden appearance (e.g the Cambrian fossil explosion). Statis refers to the fact that once an animal appears in the fossil record it remains basically the same throughout the various epochs of time. The Cambrian explosion refers to a vast number of animals that suddenly appeared in the fossil record approximately 530 million years ago.

The apparent lack of transitional species in the fossil record and the sudden appearance of many animals with seemingly no evolutionary history has always been a thorn in the flesh of orthodox Darwinism. Consider for a moment how many transitional species there would have to be between a single bacteria cell and a shark. You would need a huge amount of intermediates. Is there any evidence for this?

Not a lot.

The Micro Biologist Michael Denton claims that what appear to be transitional species in the fossil record actually shed little light on evolutionary history. Darwinism is a biological theory and around 99% of a creature’s biological make-up is in their soft tissues not in their skeletal frame (soft autonomy doesn’t fossilize as well as bones). Therefore, the fossil record cannot establish ancestral relationships with any degree of certainty.

Here is what Henry Gee, the chief science writer for Nature, claims in regard to the fossil record, “To take a line of fossils and claim that they represent a lineage is not a scientific hypothesis that can be tested, but an assertion that carries the same validity as a bedtime story – amusing, perhaps even instructive, not scientific”.

2. Microscopic Problems with the theory

In addition there are problems with macroevolution on the microscopic level. Macroevolution has difficulty accounting for the irreducible complexity of many organisms. An irreducible complex organism is an interlocking system of parts in which taking away one of the working parts causes it to no longer function properly, and instead of being a benefit to the organism it is a hindrance that natural selection should eliminate not preserve. An irreducibly complex organism could not come about through slight variations over time, as Darwinian evolution would require.

Darwin himself wrote that, “If it could be demonstrated that any complex organ existed which could not possibly have been formed by numerous, successive, slight modifications, my theory would absolutely break down.”

There are many such examples of irreducibly complex organisms that simply cannot come about by gradual, successive or even slight modifications at the microscopic level. Some notable examples would be blood clotting and bacterial flagellum, a natural motor that propels bacteria cells.

3. Genetic mutations driving Macroevolution?

Macroevolution proceeds through random mutations that are beneficial to the organism. The problem is most observable mutations are harmful, not helpful. In the rare case where mutation is beneficial, such as when a bacteria strain develops resistance to antibiotics, the bacteria stays bacteria. It doesn’t mutate into a new form, as macroevolution would require.

Many evolutionists point to commonality in the genetic code as evidence for Macroevolution. For example, DNA similarities between chimpanzee’s and humans, which is somewhere between 85 to 95 percent, is often toted by Scientists as evidence for a common ancestor and macroevolution. However, it could also be evidence of a common creator who used the same material and basic body plans for different creatures. When you presuppose the existence of a creator, this is a reasonable position to hold.

4. The Improbability Of It All Working Out

Lastly, Macroevolution seems immensely improbable. Dr. William Lane Craig suggests that if macroevolution occurred the whole process would be so miraculously improbable that it would be evidence for the existence of God superintending the process of biological development.

I find evolutionary readings of Genesis 1 and 2 to be problematic. However, many of my brothers and sisters in Christ do not. All Christians believe that the truine God, fully revealed in Jesus created all things out of nothing. You are free to decide how he accomplished that feat, whether in six literal days or over a period of hundreds of millions of years.

Here are some resources for further study:

Young Earth Creationism

“Refuting Evolution” by Jonathan Sarfati

“The Greatest Hoax on Earth”, Jonathan Sarfati

Proponents of Intelligent Design

“Darwin on Trial”, Phillip Johnson

“Dismantling evolution”, Ralph Muncaster

Theistic Evolutionists

“Coming to Peace with Science”, Darrel R. Falk

“The Language of God”, Francis Collins

“Dawkin’s God”, Alister McGrath