Monday, May 24, 2010

Why is the God of the Bible Superior?

I've had a few conversations on Atheist Central about evidence for the existence of a Creator, and that will be the subject of my next post, but the question inevitably then becomes why they should accept that he is the God of the Bible. Why is the God of the Bible "superior to any of the other gods in the pantheon of past religions?" as somebody asked.

That is, of course, a valid question, and to address it I will first briefly discuss some other religions and and why I would not accept them as true. Then I will give a few reasons why Christianity does the best job of explaining what we see and experience, and why it is the best fit from the standpoint of rationality and morality. Of course this is going to be very cursory because the subject matter is so broad, but I would be happy to discuss it further in the comments.

Deism: Deists believe that an intelligence designed the universe, but they do not believe in a personal God who intervenes in his creation. The supreme being of deism simply created the universe and left it alone.

The chief problem of deism is that it leaves so many unanswered questions, like why a creative intelligence would have no revealed purpose. In spite of the problem of evil, this universe is pretty impressive. Would a supremely high intelligence create and then simply not care? I suppose that's possible, but then he would be nothing like us, his most intelligent creatures (as far as we know), because we have an innate sense that our actions should be purposeful and life should have meaning. And most talented creators put much of themselves into their creations, so we would expect that the intelligence behind this universe would reveal himself in his creation, and particularly in his intelligent creatures.

Primitive polytheistic religions: These are probably the easiest to dismiss because most modern cultures have outgrown them. If a religion is true, even the most highly developed intellect would be stretched in trying to understand it. It has to be "higher" than our ways, but not "different" in that it violates the rules of logic or our sense of morality. Since civilization has outgrown these religions, that indicates that they are manmade.

Judaism: Judging from the comments on Atheist Central and Dwindling in Unbelief, I don't expect that Judaism appeals much to most atheists. They often use the Old Testament as ammunition against Christianity, particularly by claiming that it violates a modern sense of morality.

This is a valid argument, because the Old Testament laws were often strange and problematic, and they seemed based on primitive cultures. I recognize, of course, that this is a potential problem for Christianity as well as for Judaism, so the question is how each religion addresses it.

Jews differ in terms of how literally they interpret the Jewish law, with Orthodox Jews taking it the most literally while Reform Jews consider the Jewish law to merely provide guidelines. But what is the point of the Jewish law if it can be watered down however we want? This is moral relativism, and it also conflicts with the nature of YHWH, who had very strict rules and clearly established his holiness in the Old Testament.

Christianity does not allow for watering down of any of its teachings, but the New Testament instructs us on how to interpret the Old Testament. This is a more rational and systematic approach than simply glossing over difficulties.

Luke 24:27 says, "Then beginning with Moses and with all the prophets, [Jesus] explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures." The entire Old Testament is full of symbolism or prophesies of Christ, starting with the very first chapter of Genesis. Colossians 2:16 says that the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament "are a mere shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ." Jesus said, "Do not think I came to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I did not come to abolish but to fulfill." So even though none of the Old Testament authors understood it at the time, because it was a hidden mystery (Colossians 1:26), they all wrote of God coming in the flesh, and he was the fulfillment of the Law and the Prophets. 

Islam: The Qur'an was dictated by Mohammed, who claimed to have received it as a direct revelation from the angel Gabriel. Mohammed is considered the greatest of a number of prophets, including Moses and Jesus. 

There are several ways in which Islam has less of a ring of truth than Christianity. First, it seems unlikely that God would entrust his entire revealed word to one person. The Bible, on the other hand, consists of writings by at least forty authors. (This criticism extends to Mormonism as well, which I will not discuss further.) Second, Mohammed was supposedly the greatest and most virtuous of all the prophets, and close to perfection. Still, he married a nine-year-old girl, which may or may not have been a problem in that culture, but now we know how psychologically damaging that would be to a child.

Compare that to Jesus, who challenged all social convention with a transcendent and timeless morality. In spite of his culture, Jesus treated women with respect (John 4) and children with the love and acceptance they need (Matthew 19:13-15). He had the courage to stand up to hypocritical scribes and Pharisees (Matthew 23). He ate and drank with prostitutes and notorious sinners, but instead of conforming to their behavior he transformed their lives (Matthew 11:19). He was sexually self-controlled without being uptight (Luke 7:37-48).  He was, as Mahatma Gandhi said, "a beautiful example of the perfect Man."

Another problem with Islam is that the Qur'an makes specific scientific allegations that are known to be false while also claiming a high level of infallibility. For example, it tells a story of how a Muslim discovered that the sun sets in a pool of murky water. It also says that the earth is held in place by mountains, and that Allah holds up the sky so that it doesn't fall on us. These are explanations, not poetry, and they clearly indicate that the sky is a hard dome and the earth is flat.

Chapter 1 of Genesis, on the other hand, contains semi-poetical language, and the first few chapters of Genesis are full of deep symbolism of free will, sin, Christ and the church, redemption, and eternal life--and much of the same symbolism continues in Revelation. The message is primarily theological, and any cosmological or biological truths would be secondary. Unlike Mohammed, Jesus never teaches anything about science. All his teaching pertains to the kingdom of God. Nothing in the Bible has been falsified by science because the controversial passages are so highly symbolic.

Buddhism and Taoism: These are more philosophies than religions, in the sense that they do not teach anything about God or gods. So if someone suspects that the universe was created, Buddhism and Taoism do not give further information.

Hinduism: Hinduism is amorphous, in that it encompasses polytheism, monotheism, atheism, and pantheism. I think it would appeal more to someone who is looking for self-fulfillment than someone who is searching for objective truth.

Hindus also either believe that the universe is eternal or that there is an endless cycle of universes. The idea that the universe is eternal is inconsistent with modern science, and the notion that any other universe than ours has existed is not supported by evidence.

New Age spirituality: This is a make-it-yourself religion that retains the spiritual mysticism that deism rejects. Again, there is no objective truth to be found in this type of spirituality.

All of these religions are either a) too rigid and therefore dated, or b) too amorphous and therefore whatever we want to make them. Judaism and Islam are too rigid and they can also seem harsh and legalistic. The others are too soft and let us shape our deity into whatever we want him to be. The god of these religions never offends and never makes difficult claims, nor does he seem to care much.

Why is Christianity more consistent with the evidence?

The moral standard: Jesus said, "'You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.' This is the great and foremost commandment. The second is like it, 'You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' On these two commandments depend the whole Law and the Prophets" (Matthew 22:37-40). 

So on the one hand, Jesus set a very high moral standard, but on the other hand, it is not rigid or harsh. In other words, we are not to live according to the strict rules of the Old Testament, but by the wisdom that comes from faith in Christ, and that always has as its chief goal the glory of God and the good of others. And the New Testament elaborates on what that means in practical terms. Galatians 5:22 says: "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law." These qualities are indisputably good by any standard.

Furthermore, Christian theology also recognizes that we do not naturally have the power to love like this, so we need to be born of the Spirit of God who will do the good work through us. This is the nature of faith. Galatians 5:6 says, "The only thing that counts is faith expressing itself through love." In other words, salvation is by faith, but love is the evidence of faith. If we belong to Christ, we will resemble him, because his Spirit will work in and through us.

The combination of complexity and simplicity: The message of salvation is very simple: We are to come to Christ as broken sinners and he heals us by the power of the Holy Spirit. The more humble and needy we are, the better qualified we are to receive this gift of eternal life. Pride is the only barrier.

However, Christian theology is also extremely complex and nuanced. It never oversimplifies what is not simple, and God is not simple, nor is human nature. The Bible is inherently logical, but the logic is not evident on a superficial level. It contains many subtleties and paradoxes that make more and more sense over time, like an infinitely complex puzzle that we will never solve in this life, but which has a very definite order and logic. It mirrors the natural world in this respect, which would indicate that the Christian God is the creator of the world.

A holy God of love: The God of the Bible is holy and he "dwells in unapproachable light" (1 Timothy 6:16), but he loves us so much that he uses the imagery of marriage to describe the fulfillment of his plan of redemption. This begins with Adam and Eve foreshadowing Christ and the church (Ephesians 5:32), it is further symbolized in the Song of Solomon, and it reaches its fulfillment in Revelation (Revelation 21:9-11).

The idea that a god should be loving comes from Christianity. No other religion talks about a personal God whose nature is love, and certainly not a holy God who is so humble that he assumed the role of a servant and washed his disciples' feet.

Freedom: Muslim extremists have come under fire for threatening violence against anyone who draws Mohammed. In defense of Islam, they prohibit drawing any of their prophets, including Moses and Jesus. However, this kind of legalism is antithetical to Christianity, which calls us to freedom, even with the associated consequences. No other church was rebuked more severely by Paul than the one in Galatia, which had fallen from grace into legalism.

2 Corinthians 3:17 says, "Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty." Where Christianity is practiced the way it should be (i.e., where the Holy Spirit is leading) there will be no coercion, manipulation, or brainwashing. Free will is central to our humanity, and in salvation that humanity is perfected, so we become more and more free the more we become like Christ. But freedom in Christianity doesn't mean lawlessness--it means being governed by an internal law that comes from the presence of the Holy Spirit. Galatians 5:13 says: "For you were called to freedom, brethren; only do not turn your freedom into an opportunity for the flesh, but through love serve one another."

This premium on freedom is consistent with what we see, and it indicates that the Christian God is our creator. We have free will and recognize its importance, but it is also the source of much of the evil and suffering in the world.

The problem of evil: After Anthony Flew became a deist, Christianity was the religion he considered most seriously, but he rejected it because of the problem of evil. The problem of evil is the major reason why deists believe in an intelligence that created and left us to fend for ourselves. If he exists, they reason, he couldn't possibly care.

But the God of Christianity does care; the entire Bible is about the problem of evil. In the opening chapters of Genesis we see its cause: free will and sin. In the Gospel accounts we see its cure: the cross. And in Revelation 21:3-4 we see the final outcome: "Behold, the tabernacle of God is among men, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be any mourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away."

Christianity is the only religion that takes the problem of evil so seriously that God himself became one of us and died the most profane death possible so that he could solve it. He satisfied the requirements of the Law on our behalf and paid the penalty for the sins of the world, and in that sacrifice he bridged the gap between a holy God and fallen humanity. This means that we can all receive his Holy Spirit, who will make us like him while preserving our individuality and our freedom.

God has freely chosen to give us abundant life that not even physical death can sever, and some day he will create "new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells" (2 Peter 3:13), where he will fulfill the deepest human longings. Nobody who does any harm can have a place in that new creation (Isaiah 11:9, 65:25), because otherwise the problem of evil would persist. But God has, through the cross, solved the problem forever, and the suffering of this life will become just a faint memory.

Friday, May 14, 2010

Can We Lose Our Salvation?

A number of commenters on Atheist Central used to be Christians and de-converted to become atheists. So the question often comes up whether they were real Christians. Can a real Christian lose his or her salvation? And what is a real Christian?

The Bible uses the word "elect" to describe real Christians, but although this involves being chosen and redeemed, it doesn't necessarily imply determinism. So I will sidestep the perennial debate between Calvinists and Arminians and simply say that God who sees to the end of time and throughout all eternity knows exactly who they are. He has always known who they are, even before he created the world. So of course the elect cannot lose their salvation. That would be a logical impossibility, because if they do they would not be among the elect. 1 John 2:19 says: "They went out from us, but they were not really of us; for if they had been of us, they would have remained with us." Anyone who leaves the faith permanently is by definition not one of the elect.

However, those of us who are living out our lives in space-time still have to "overcome," according to Revelation 2:7. Matthew 24:12-13 says: "Because lawlessness is increased, most people's love will grow cold. But the one who endures to the end, he will be saved." So most people will not finish the race, and the evidence of that is simply love that has gone cold. No de-conversion is necessary. This makes sense, because Matthew 25 tells us that Jesus will judge us based on our acts of love or their absence.

Does this mean that those who "shipwreck" their faith were never truly converted? Although that is the modern conventional wisdom, I don't think it's biblical, and this is why: In 1 Corinthians 9:27, Paul says: "I discipline my body and make it my slave, so that, after I have preached to others, I myself will not be disqualified." So Paul himself was not completely sure that he would finish the race. If he had not finished, it is true that he would not have been one of the elect, but would his conversion have been real?  Well, how many of us saw a flashing light, heard an audible voice, and were struck blind only to have the "scales" physically removed from our eyes upon conversion? And if that's too subjective, he had independent confirmation. Ananias heard an audible voice telling him that Paul was God's chosen instrument. So it is possible to have a real conversion and fall away.

However, although Paul considered apostasy a possibility, he had complete faith in God that he would bring him "safely to his heavenly kingdom" (2 Timothy 4:18). He expressed the same faith in God's work in the lives of the Philippians, saying, "For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Jesus Christ" (Philippians 1:6). But if we read the context, we see that the Philippian church was thriving and bearing much fruit, so Paul's confidence was well-founded.

The Galatians were a different matter, because they had allowed a spirit of legalism to take root, and it is the most deadly and soul-destroying. We know that they were originally true converts because Paul says: "Did you receive the Spirit by the works of the law, or by hearing with faith? Are you so foolish? Having begun by the Spirit, are you now being perfected by the flesh?" (Galatians 3:2-3). They had begun in the Spirit. And yet in verse 4 Paul expresses fear that it would all be in vain. Galatians 1:6 says, "I am amazed that you are so quickly deserting Him who called you by the grace of Christ, for a different gospel; which is really not another." They were on their way to apostasy, and it is no wonder because legalism cannot produce the fruit of the Spirit, and therefore love would be absent. Paul uses strong words like "foolish" and "accursed" in this letter because their danger was so great. Compare that to the affection with which he addresses the Philippians.

The parable of Luke 13:6-9 illustrates this issue of Christians who do not bear fruit: "A man had a fig tree which had been planted in his vineyard; and he came looking for fruit on it and did not find any. And he said to the vineyard-keeper, 'Behold, for three years I have come looking for fruit on this fig tree without finding any. Cut it down! Why does it even use up the ground? And he answered and said to him, 'Let it alone, sir, for this year too, until I dig around it and put in fertilizer; and if it bears fruit next year, fine; but if not, cut it down."

We have an immediate hint that there is something amiss: What is a fig tree doing in a vineyard? Fig leaves represent dead works in the beginning of Genesis, where Adam and Eve cover themselves with fig leaves after the fall. And Jesus curses a fig tree when he sees only leaves and no fruit. So we suspect that this fig tree in the parable represents a Christian who will not ultimately prove to be one of the elect. But in the parable, Jesus, the "vineyard-keeper," doesn't give up. He does whatever possible to encourage growth. However, in spite of all his efforts, apostasy may be the end result. That is represented by the words, "cut it down." It is no longer part of the vineyard, or the living church of Christ.

So what does this mean for us? If you are an ex-Christian atheist, your conversion may have been every bit as real as it seemed to you at the time. And you may have abandoned your faith because of intellectual questions that were never answered. There is no reason to conclude otherwise. However, as the parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin illustrate, Christ is always seeking to bring you back.

And as Christians, we have to distinguish between complacency and faith. Philippians 2:12-13 says, "Work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who is at work in you both to will and to act according to His good pleasure." "Fear and trembling" means "no complacency." It's very easy to conclude that there are a lot of false Christians out there, but we couldn't possibly be one of them. If we believe that many will be told "I never knew you" on the day of judgment, it logically follows that we could be among them. We need to ask ourselves honestly whether Paul would use the same words with us as he did with the Galatians.

However, if we feel convicted, that is always a sign that God is at work within us, bringing us to repentance. It means we are not hardened. And true repentance always leads to surrender and trust in Christ, letting him do the good work within us. We can't possibly fix ourselves by deciding to behave better next time. What is in us will always come out, and Jesus deals with what is in us.

This reminds me of our youngest son's solution to the problem of strawberry seeds that were not growing (in the interest of full disclosure, I think we had been forgetting to water). He simply attached some nice ripe strawberries to a couple of chopsticks, stuck them in the planter, and voila! we were "growing" strawberries. However, those strawberries were not receiving nourishment and therefore wouldn't last very long.

We cannot produce good fruit without staying close to Christ. We are only called to abide in him like a branch on a vine, and he will by his Spirit produce within us the fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, goodness, kindness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control (Galatians 5:22).

And he alone is able to keep us from stumbling and make us stand in the presence of his glory blameless with great joy (Jude 1:24).

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Have We Outgrown Christianity?

Dr. Arend Hintze and I had a conversation on Atheist Central a few months ago about whether or not theology is logical, and we decided to continue it on our blogs. Although this is a fascinating subject to me, it occurred to me that a blog post titled, "Is theology logical?" would probably bore most people to tears, so I decided to take it in a more relevant direction (hopefully you don't mind, Arend). Have we outgrown Christianity, and what role does logic play in making that determination?

The issue of whether we take the Bible "literally" often comes up, but this is a misleading question because nobody takes the Bible completely literally. For example, when we read John 6:61, where Jesus says, "I am the living bread that came down out of heaven," none of us (I think) pictures a winged loaf of bread soaring down from the sky. We all know that it is symbolic, and a literal interpretation would be incorrect. The correct way to interpret it would be to look at it in the context of the whole Bible, and if we do so we will understand the deeper meaning, that Christ is our spiritual sustenance. In the Old Testament, he was the manna the Israelites ate in the desert, and in the New Testament, he is the bread of Holy Communion. But Deuteronomy 8:3 and Matthew 4:4 tell us that bread is just symbolic: "Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God." We live physically by food, but spiritually by the word of God.

The correct interpretation of that verse was not literal; it was symbolic. And we interpreted it in light of the Old Testament as well as the New Testament--in the context of the whole Bible. We didn't just take it at face value.

So the question really should be whether or not we take the Bible seriously. Is it the inspired word of God? That is, do we think it's objectively true or do we dismiss what we don't like or understand?

That is fundamentally a logical question, because if we don't think it's true, why do we believe it? There is absolutely no reason to believe something false, and the Bible makes significant statements of fact. It says that Jesus was the Son of God and that he rose from the dead. Furthermore, it claims that he is the Way and the Truth and the Life--not just a Nice Idea.

A while back I read an interview of Christopher Hitchens where the interviewer claimed to be a Christian. But she didn't really believe that Jesus was the Son of God or that he had risen from the dead, so Hitchens had to break the news to her that she was not a Christian. And I relate more to his logical thinking than to her mishmash of vaguely Christian ideas. As C.S. Lewis said, "Christianity, if false, is of no importance, and if true, of infinite importance. The only thing it cannot be is moderately important."

So for Christians to pick and choose what to believe in the Bible is not logical because it implies that it doesn't contain objective truth. And if it isn't objectively true, we might as well reject the whole thing.

Is the alternative to take everything literally? No, because not everything is intended to be literal, and some things may be both symbolic and literal, with an emphasis on the symbolic. The New Testament is a fulfillment and interpretation of the Old, which foreshadows, typifies, and prophesies Christ. If we read the whole Bible we will understand the context and interpretation of many difficult parts. There is an objectively correct way to interpret everything and we can find it if we read the Bible, letting the Holy Spirit instruct us.

The question often comes up whether something in the Old Testament actually happened, and although I generally assume that it did, logically that is not the important thing (nor can we prove or disprove it). When Jesus said in his parable, "A certain man had two sons . . ." we don't immediately start asking, "Is this really certain? Who is this man? Are you sure he didn't have three sons? Why no daughters?" Some will even say that if something didn't happen exactly the way it's portrayed in the Old Testament, God lied. But that is a false dichotomy, because a literal interpretation might be incorrect, like the "living bread out of heaven" example. The Bible is exactly the way God wants it, but we have to read it correctly, without logical fallacies. Logic has been defined as "a tool for distinguishing between the true and the false," so of course we have to use good logic while studying the word of God. And when we do, it makes a lot more sense.

If a particular interpretation of the Bible is self-evidently inconsistent with reality, we have two options aside from rejecting the Bible: We can pretend that the problem doesn't exist or we can take that as a clue that our interpretation might be wrong. To me the latter option is a greater expression of faith than the former, because it says that the Bible can withstand our most rigorous and honest scrutiny and will only bring us into a deeper and more consistent understanding of it. The former attitude is to shrink back from what such scrutiny might reveal. How can we insult God by doing that? Hebrews 10:38 says: "But My righteous one shall live by faith; and if he shrinks back My soul has no pleasure in Him."

The word of God has to be fundamentally logical if it is true, and it has to make more--not less--sense the more we grow up intellectually. This is why nobody seriously considers the primitive polytheistic religions when they are searching for truth. Holding to a childish faith after we reach adulthood is like trying to squeeze into the clothes we wore as children. We will look ridiculous and it will garner us no favors with God. 1 Corinthians 14:20 says: "Brethren, do not be children in your thinking; yet in evil be infants, but in your thinking be mature." And mature thinking will, with the help of God, bring us ever closer to the true meaning of his word.