Archive for the ‘apologetics’ Category

Recently Rob Bell was quoted as saying some rather provocative things about the church, homosexuality, gay marriage, and the irrelevancy of the Bible. As has been the case for the last few years, whenever Bell speaks there is a minor firestorm that erupts. One of the unfortunate aspects of the firestorm is at some important truths often get lost in the conflagration.

In this case, Bell was making the case that it is inevitable that the church at large will come to accept gay marriage. Bell said, “I think culture is already there and the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense, when you have in front of you flesh-and-blood people who are your brothers and sisters, and aunts and uncles, and co-workers and neighbors, and they love each other and just want to go through life,”

Without getting into whether or not it is inevitable that the church at large will adopt gay marriage as acceptable and without dealing with the crux of the issues regarding homosexuality, I want to focus on Bell’s statement about the Bible. In many ways it was what most set people off. I can understand that. Here is Bell, a former darling of the evangelical camp, all be it a more progressive strain of it. He was hailed as a preacher and Bible teacher for a new generation. Now here he is pointing out the irrelevance of the very scriptures he made his teaching reputation. The sense of betrayal that Christians feel when one of our own turns on the things we hold dear and believed he taught only adds to the blaze.

But let’s try to set all that aside for a moment as look at what Bell is saying from the perspective of the secular world we are trying to influence for Christ. When Bell says, “the church will continue to be even more irrelevant when it quotes letters from 2,000 years ago as their best defense” he has a point that we need to hear. If you are a follower of Christ I would hope that all you need is the truth of those letters in the Bible written 2,000 years ago. They are the eternal truth of the Word of God and they have authority in our lives, something every denomination and church from liberal to conservative has in their creeds in some fashion. But if you look at it from the perspective of the person who does not believe the Bible to be the Word of God and to have authority in our lives then yes, quoting 2,000 year old letters carries no weight, it has no influence. People are just not there. It is comparable to a Muslim quoting the Quran to a Christian. The Christian would consider it irrelevant because they do not consider the Quran to have any weight or authority. That is where many people are today and have been since antiquity.

It needs to be noted that the Apostle Paul understood this. In Acts 17 Paul is in Athens, the center of philosophical learning, debate and even academic snobbery. After spending a few days getting a handle on the culture of Athens Paul begins to speak and debate the leading thinkers of the culture. He wants them to understand the Gospel and embrace Jesus as Lord. When he speaks he starts not by quoting the Bible, in this case some things written by Moses and other prophets between 400 and 2,000 years earlier. Rather he begins by quoting a Greek philosopher named Epimenides who lived more than 600 years before Paul. What Paul does is appeal to an authority that his audience would respect and then uses what they already agree to as a bridge to get to the truth of who Jesus is. Simply quoting the Bible to his audience would have gotten Paul nowhere fast. He was not denying the Gospel. He was being wise in how he presented it in order to best communicate with his hearers.

Bells says that if we are quoting the Bible as our best defense we are going to be increasingly irrelevant. He is partly right. Ultimately the Bible is our best case for the truth of God. It is living and active and sharper than any two-edged sword and will cut between bone and marrow, to quote Hebrews 4:12. But it is not our only tool and it is not always the first one we should use. For Christians to truly impact the world and people in it we need to understand what they hold as authoritative. What carries weight with them? What truths are to be found in their thinking that lead to the truth of Christ found in the Bible? Those truths are there. Paul says in Romans 1 that the knowledge of God is present within every human being but we suppress that knowledge to follow gods of our own making. That residual knowledge makes itself known in various ways, in little truths and in the yearnings in the hearts of men and women. We need to be students of the culture like Paul was in order to show people exactly why the Word of God is their best hope for finding truth and living life as it was meant to be.

Unfortunately, the reaction to Bell’s statement is typically to shout our Bible verses louder and with more anger in our attempt to prove to people that the Bible is relevant to the subject at hand. We do not need to make the Bible relevant. It is always relevant. Certainly getting angry over it doesn’t serve us or Jesus well. What we need to do is show the culture that much of what they already believe is contained within the Bible, just as Paul did in Athens. I may disagree with Rob Bell on many, many things. But we need to hear what he is saying from the perspective of a disbelieving culture so that we can better communicate the truth of God to people immersed in it.

WIthin his statement we can see what drives Bell. It is the people standing in front of him. I think he has an incredibly compassionate heart. As his famous books says, Love Wins. Bell is right that Evangelical Christians could take a few lessons in love, especially loving your neighbor who is a complete and total enemy of the things of God. Where Bell goes astray is thinking that you can have a loving God without also having a holy God, a just God, a God who gets angry over evil and injustice. We Christians are big on speaking the truth to people. But we are called by the truth of Scripture to “speak the truth in love.” Incidentally, that also applies to how we speak to and about Rob Bell.

As a kid I was enthralled with science, any branch of science, astronomy, biology, chemistry, paleontology, physics, anatomy, it didn’t matter. Until the fifth grade I lived in a house that backed up to a huge woods that included a spring fed pond where my best friend Bobby Kramer and I used to catch salamanders, crayfish, and lots of really cool bugs. Of course we would also put fire crackers in the model warships we built but that is another story. One of my favorite parts of that woods was a dried stream bed with a several foot high wall from an old waterfall. We would regularly dig into that rock wall and pull out some of the most amazing fossils that we would eventually match to their period in history. Dissecting frogs and snakes was a normal Saturday afternoon, as was mixing compounds from the chemistry set, making slides for a microscope, or charts of the various constellations according to the season. A highlight of a junior high biology class was when, along with two other students, I was given the opportunity to dissect a fetal pig when the rest of the class got frogs. I grew up with the birth and expansion of the space program and once could name every astronaut, their capsule name and mission highlights. My bucket list still includes a walk on the moon. I still love science as evidenced by the fact that one of the books currently on my night stand is a biography of Albert Einstein. It is as much about physics as it is about his life.

As a Christian I find myself puzzled and saddened by the ongoing conflict between so many people of faith and people of science. There seems to be this commonly held idea that you cannot be a Christian and a good scientist. The two are seen as being polar opposites that can never be reconciled. Yet anyone with a bit of historical perspective and willingness to get beyond sound-bite thinking will find that in fact the opposite is true. Christianity and science are both historically and philosophically allies in the search for truth. In fact, the modern scientific method owes part of its existence to the philosophical world-view of Christianity.

All Truth is God’s Truth

Both science and Christianity are on a quest for truth. As a follower of Christ I have no fear of science. If science determines something to be “true” then I know that God is well aware of that truth and in fact is the reason such truth even exists. Some of the greatest scientists in history were also people of deep Christian faith. Their faith in a God of laws and order gave them a theological foundation from which to explore the cosmos. There was a conviction that the God of truth, who ordered the world, did so with a set of laws that made it possible to study and learn using the scientific method. Isaac Newton, who is considered by many to be one of, if not the greatest scientist in history, functioned as a scientist because of his faith.

“Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause; he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing … all things according to his good will and pleasure.” (Charles E. Hummel, Christian History, Christianity Today Online April 1 1991)

The case has been made that the rise of science in Western Civilization is in large part due to the influence of Christianity. Because the world was seen as being created by God with order and laws, it was not only possible to study and learn, it was actually a duty to study and learn about the cosmos. Although other religions and their cultures may have been more advanced in some areas of technology, they were not cultures and religions that promoted science as such. Buddhism, and Hinduism are great examples. Historically they have viewed time and the cosmos in a circular fashion. What is now will come to an end and the cycle of time repeats. Scientific progress is not highly valued because it will all come around again. In addition, the material world is seen as something to escape. It is the world of suffering and pain, not the world of wonder created by God. The gods of such theologies are also capricious and unpredictable so any conclusion reached in the study of the cosmos are unreliable. In the Judeo-Christian tradition the cosmos was pronounced by God to be “very good”. Time is more linear and we are heading towards a desirable future that is a new creation of heaven and earth. Far from wanting to escape this reality, the Christian is one who is called by God to improve it. That includes being good stewards of creation. Being a good stewards requires understanding how the cosmos functions in order to care for it in a way that glorifies God.

When Scientific and Theological “Truth” Conflict

There are times when the understanding of science and our understanding of the Bible are in clear contradiction. Most often cited is the case of Galileo and the Church disagreeing over the Earth revolving or being fixed and stationary. This is often cited as an example the narrow-mindedness of the Church and Christians. Science is hailed as being objective, rational, concerned with truth. But here is the problem, prior to Galileo and Copernicus, the common notion among scientists was that the Earth was fixed. The Church at the time looked at some verses in the Bible and decided that indeed the earth was fixed. After all, it said things like, “God has fixed the earth on its foundation” or spoke of the sun rising and setting. So for centuries, science that the Church agreed, the Earth is fixed and the sun moves. No one bothers to point out that for centuries science was also wrong. They only point out that the Church was wrong. The fact is, science was simply quicker to correct its error. Eventually the Church came to realize that the Bible was not wrong, because it never taught that the Earth was fixed. It was our understanding of the Bible that was wrong and needed to be changed. All of that is to simply say that when science and the Bible seem to be in conflict, we need to be patient and reexamine our preconceived ideas. It is possible that the explanation science gives for the information is wrong. It is possible that our understanding of the Bible is wrong and needs to be adjusted. It is possible, as with Galileo, that both science and our understanding of the Bible are wrong.

Eventually much of Newtonian physics was superseded by the theories of Einstein. Quantum physics replaced Newtonian physics. The speed of light being constant and the fastest possible speed became foundational truths. For the last hundred years they have ruled the scientific world. Yet recently some scientists in Europe have indicated that they may have found something that travels faster than the speed of light. As a result the Physics world is a buzz with debate. Could science be going through another mega-shift in its understanding of truth? It remains to be seen. But one thing is certain, whatever they discover about the truth, it will still be God’s truth.

Scientific Method vs. Naturalism

The scientific method is simply that. It is a method of exploring and discovering truth. It is neutral. A person of faith can and should use good scientific method to explore and discover the wonders of God’s created cosmos. Naturalism is a philosophy. It is a mind-set that excludes the possibility of any spiritual component in the cosmos. In naturalism the material world is all that exists or at least all that can be studied and understood. Many scientists are also committed to naturalism. God has no place in their world. Naturalists will often accuse people of faith of being narrow-minded and unwilling to see the truth. I find that rather odd since the Naturalist is the one who is thinking more narrowly. They exclude the possibility that God has anything to do with all this. The scientist who operates out of faith seems to have the more open mind, believing that there may be more explanations for things than simple material cause and effect.

The bottom line is that if you are a person of faith, you must not see science as the enemy. You need not fear whatever currently appears as a contradiction between the Bible and science. Taking the long view of history and realizing that eventually God’s truth prevails should give confidence to your faith and motivation to your exploration of the cosmos as a scientist.

He is perhaps to most well-known atheist of the past two decades. He became infamous for his attacks on religion and religious figures seeing all religion as dangerous and destructive. It didn’t matter to him if you were an Islamic suicide bomber or Mother Theresa, who he accused of being an ambitious self promoter who was willing to take money from anyone in order to keep the poor even more poor. His books have been huge best sellers if for no other reason than the provocative nature of the titles. Who would not react to a book titled, God is Not Great?

In June of last year Hitchens found out that he had cancer. It eventually took his life this week. Along the way folks prayed for him, including his younger brother Peter who wrote a wonderful book titled Rage Against God: How Atheism Led Me to Faith, that was the antithesis of Christopher’s life. (By the way, I highly recommend that you read Peter’s book no matter what your religious convictions. It is a fascinating study in how two people can take a similar path and yet in the end diverge to vastly different destinies.) In addition to people praying for Christopher there where some whose actions would only seem to confirm his view of religion. It wasn’t unusual to hear or read comments that made it clear that people were convinced Hitchens would get his just punishment in the end. The sad thing was that some of those commentators seemed pleased by that knowledge. Now I have no problem with believing in a doctrine of Hell and that there is a just punishment to come. What I do have a problem with is people who don’t grieve the possibility of someone ending up there. Jesus himself wept over the people of Jerusalem because they did not understand the fate that awaited them in this life or the next. Should His followers respond any differently?

In thinking about the life and death of Christopher Hitchens it occurred to me that there are a few important lessons for Christians in particular and religious people in general.

Lesson Number One: Not All Criticisms of Religion are Groundless.

Hitchens had a point when he spoke of the danger of religion. Lets not be blind to the fact that people have used religion as an excuse for all sorts of heinous crimes. Granted the case can be made that it is people who have distorted the rue message of a faith but such hairsplitting is hardly convincing to a radical atheist and hardly comforting to the person who was tortured or killed in the name of religion. One common response is to list all the good things religion has done, founding hospital, funding orphanages, fighting slavery and so on. Getting into a back and forth listing of virtues and sins hardly changes anyones mind. The Christian response should really be one of honest acknowledgement of the truth and repentance over it. From there it would behoove followers of Christ to do everything they can to live according to the teachings of Jesus and call others to that radical life of self-sacrifice, loving your enemies, and loving God with all your heart, mind, soul, and strength. We can’t change the past but we can learn from it and shape the future.

Lesson Two: Religious People, especially Christian, Need to Sharpen Their Intellectual Game

Far too many people who claim to follow Christ are flat-out lazy when it comes to understanding what they believe and why. There is no place for lazy or sloppy thinking in the Christian world. Paul urges Timothy to be a diligent student of the Bible. Peter urges us to always be prepared with an answer for the reason of our hope. Particularly in the church in the west there is no excuse for a follower of Jesus not being able to explain and defend what they believe. The resources and training available are so abundant as to be almost obscene. Yet in spite of that, the average Mormon or Jehovah’s Witness causes the average evangelical Christian to quake in their theological boots. But if we are to in any way engage people and their ideas and have any impact in directing them to Christ, then we must be better students of the faith and know our Bibles far better than we do currently. I am convinced that much of the anger shown to Hitchens over the years comes from religious people who are insecure in what they believe and threatened by someone who believes differently but is not insecure. Anger is a secondary emotion. There is normally a previous emotion that triggers the anger. In religious debates that primary emotion is usually fear or frustration over not being secure in ones own beliefs.

Lesson Number Three: Love, Not Hate is Still Our Greatest Witness

There appears to be little if anything that people could say to Hitchens to get him to even consider the possibility that God exists. However, the love that people showed in praying for him and that I am sure his brother showed him, seemed to at least soften some of the harshness Hitchens so famously exhibited. Jesus made it clear that people would know that we are His followers by the love we have for one another. He also made it clear that we are to love others. Showing Christ’s love to people has a way of breaking down the intellectual arguments that they construct in order to protect their position. There simply is no intellectual defense against sacrificial love. Of course loving people in a sacrificial way is not easy. It requires work, commitment, endurance, and sacrifice. In that way it is exactly like the cross.

Lesson Number Four: We Are More Alike Than We Are Different.

Christopher Hitchens is not much different from me or you. We all go through life trying to understand the world and our place in it.  We all have questions of an ultimate nature, why am I here, is there a God, what happens when we die, am I loved? We all face loneliness, pain, heartache and loss. We all want love, acceptance, safety, and joy. We all end up facing the reality of our own death. Hitchens answered many of the ultimate questions in ways far different from me. But as a fellow traveler and “seeker” of answers, we share a great deal in common.  You do too. That realization in itself should cause followers of Jesus to have a far more benevolent attitude towards people like Hitchens.

If you want to get a wonderful little update on his life and death this NPR article is a great place to start.

If you want to read a fantastic assessment of modern atheism I recommend Why God Won’t Go Away: Is the New Atheism Running on Empty?  It is written by Alistair McGrath. I had the incredible privilege of taking a summer class at Wycliffe Hall, Oxford University a few years ago in which McGrath was a featured professor. He is brilliant thinker and writer who has often engaged well known atheists in debate with a winsome and engaging style.