Sunday, August 29, 2010

The Dying God

View ImageThe aspect of the Moral Law that is most difficult to explain in naturalistic terms is the kind of altruism that makes a person willing to die for a stranger and even an enemy, or to suffer scorn and rejection for the well-being of others. In my previous post, we discussed possible natural explanations, like evolution or culture. Now we will discuss the possibility of a divine Lawgiver.

If there is such a thing as an objective Moral Law, this Lawgiver would have to epitomize it. The imprint of the Law on the human heart would have to match His nature in every way, like Cinderella's glass slipper fit her foot.

A few weeks ago, a non-Christian asked me why Jesus had to die on the cross. He couldn't see why an omnipotent God, who presumably had an unlimited number of options at His disposal, would choose such a barbaric method. There are a number of important reasons, but for the sake of this discussion I will focus on Jesus having to fulfill the Moral Law on our behalf.

Although God is certainly omnipotent, He cannot do that which is logically impossible. That is, He cannot be holy and not holy at the same time. And if He is holy, He cannot be capricious; He has to have integrity. Because God epitomizes moral perfection, there are certain things He cannot do and still be true to His nature. This does not diminish His omnipotence, because, as C. S. Lewis says, "omnipotence means the power to do all that is intrinsically possible." That does not include making 2 + 2 = 5 or being both holy and not holy. If something is logically impossible, then being able to do it is not omnipotence, it is nonsense.

The Bible says that God is holy, and in order to determine whether this is true, we should compare His nature to the Moral Law within us. But we do not look at the nature of God in the Old Testament, where He was the Head and Commander in Chief of a political system (a theocracy) that functioned in an Ancient Near East culture. Like any political system, this theocracy had to take into account practicality and culture. As Jesus explained, the Law of Moses made allowances for human nature and the hardness of unredeemed hearts (Matthew 19:8). Instead, we have to look to Christ, in whom "all the fullness of Deity dwells in bodily form" (Colossians 2:9). Christ is God, and as such He perfectly represents God's nature (John 1:1, Hebrews 1:3).

Jesus came to "fulfill all righteousness" (Matthew 3:15), so a look at His life, as manifested in the Gospels, will give us the Christian standard for righteousness. Jesus condemned religious hypocrisy more than any other type of sin (Matthew 23:27-28, Luke 11:44); and the religious hypocrites--His chief enemies--ultimately crucified Him. He befriended sinners, but transformed them rather than learning their ways (Matthew 11:19). He broke through social barriers by treating women and foreigners with respect (John 4:1-26). He valued marriage (Matthew 19:8) and sexual purity (Matthew 5:28). He taught peaceful resistance (Matthew 26:52) and respect for government authority (Matthew 17:27), but He also had the courage to speak truth to power (Luke 11:45-46). He combined justice (John 12:48) and mercy (Luke 18:13-14).

But most of all, His message was one of altruistic love, including love for our enemies (Luke 6:35). And the greatest act of love is to lay down our lives for our friends (John 15:13), so in order to fulfill all righteousness, Jesus had to do that. But He went beyond that--laying down His life for His enemies. When His enemies slapped, mocked, and scourged Him, pushing a crown of thorns into his head and nailing his hands and feet to a cross, his blood covered every sin that has ever been and will ever be committed.

He died on the Preparation Day of the Passover, when the Passover lambs were being slaughtered. And when He breathed His last, the heavy veil of the temple tore in two from top to bottom, granting sinners free access to the inner sanctuary of God.

Saturday, August 28, 2010

Skin Stories by Becky Fox

Skin Stories from Becky Fox on Vimeo.

A stop motion of approx 1,500 photos by my talented blogging friend, Becky.

Verses on skin:

"All things were made through Him and without Him was not anything made that was made." - John 1:3

"Creation was subject to futility." - Romans 8:20

"My grace is sufficient for you; for my power is made perfect in weakness." - 2 Cor 12:9

"We have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us." - 2 Cor 4:7

"Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day." - 2 Cor 4:16

"Those who wait for the Lord will renew their strength, they will rise up with wings like eagles, they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not grow faint." - Isaiah 40:31

"Freedom for captives." - Isaiah 61:1

"I am making all things new." - Rev 21:5

Tune: The John Slaughter Blues Band

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Moral Law

An atheist told me that in order to seriously consider Christianity, he would have to believe or assume certain things:

1. There is a non-material element of each human being, the soul, which is created at conception and continues to exist after the death of the individual.

2. There exists two places, heaven and hell, that are or will be eternal repositories for souls rejoined with their physical bodies at some point in the future.

3. There exists a single set of immutable rules governing all human activity, morals. 

4. Transgressions against these morals, sins, are punishable by eternal extreme torture in hell. 

5. Mitigation of this punishment and attainment of heaven is only available through belief in and practice of a particular religious doctrine.

In my first post, "A Skeptic's Guide to Faith," I set forth what I consider to be the best conceptual framework for deciding whether Christianity is true. Mathematical or scientific proof is not possible for reasons we have already discussed. This means that we are left with the legal standards of proof: "the preponderance of the evidence" (civil) or "beyond a reasonable doubt" (criminal), or we can see if the Bible is consistent with the evidence. According to Denis Alexander, this is the standard often used by scientists: "Scientists habitually use that little phrase 'consistent with' in the discussion sections of our scientific papers. We don't 'prove things' in biology, but we do gather data that can count for or against a theory." 

I decided to go with the latter standard. If the Bible is the true inspired word of God, it will be consistent with reality, and it will be the best explanation for reality. But if it's just the best explanation for a few aspects of reality, then it fails. The Bible, properly understood, has to be the best explanation for every aspect of reality.  

Next, I discussed what the Bible says about an "immortal soul" and eternal punishment. My approach was to put aside cultural assumptions and study everything the Bible says about the soul and hell. Although we have no way of proving whether or not this is true, we can determine whether the Bible is internally consistent, including whether its teaching about hell is consistent with its teaching that the Moral Law is written on our hearts. That is, is the Bible's teaching about hell moral? I reached the conclusion that, properly understood, it is. In a future blog post, where I will discuss God's solution to the problem of evil, I will also argue that it is necessary.   

In this post, I will address the issue of Moral Law and examine whether evolutionary or cultural factors provide a better explanation than the existence of a divine Lawgiver. Again, the question is which explanation fits best. One might argue that a sense of right and wrong is a by-product of evolution, since animals also exhibit care for members of their group. But what about altruism? Why do humans almost universally agree that it is right to risk one's life in order to save or protect someone else? And why do we feel particularly inclined to protect the vulnerable or disabled? These things are universally considered morally right—not simply wise or expedient. Altruism is by its very nature the unselfish giving of oneself for the benefit of someone else. 

When our oldest daughter Chelsea was about nine and Ingrid was seven, we took the family out to the California coast for a day trip. Rick had the boys elsewhere on the beach and Chelsea, Ingrid, and I waded into the water (but it was too cold for swimsuits, so we just rolled up our pants). Ingrid is disabled and could not walk without support at the time, so I held her hand, and Chelsea was a few feet away. When a large wave suddenly pulled the sand out from under our feet, Ingrid and Chelsea both started to lose their footing. Although I was able to quickly stabilize Ingrid, a man standing nearby grabbed her other hand as Chelsea fell into the water and got soaked.

Well, Chelsea was very indignant on the drive home because she could not see the logic behind this man's actions. "Why did he grab Ingrid's hand and not mine when you had her other hand? She wasn't going to fall anyway." We tried to explain that it was because he could see that Ingrid was disabled and he just reacted instinctively—if he had had time to think about it, he probably would have grabbed Chelsea's hand. (Chelsea only reluctantly gave me permission to use this story because it made her "seem obnoxious," so I want to make sure that everyone knows that she is a very nice girl who isn't the slightest bit obnoxious. This attitude was cold- and wetness-induced. Also, it was years ago.)

This was just a normal human reaction to seeing a vulnerable person in danger, but some will risk everything, including their lives, for other people. And even if we are not capable of that kind of altruism, we admire those who are. Is Darwinian evolution responsible for the instinct to protect a stranger even at the cost of one's own life? How could the "selfish gene" have evolved in such a way? Francis Collins, head of the Human Genome Project says:
One proposal is that repeated altruistic behavior of the individual is recognized as a positive attribute in mate selection. But this hypothesis is in direct conflict with observations in nonhuman primates that often reveal just the opposite--such as the practice of infanticide by a newly dominant male monkey, in order to clear the way for his own future offspring. Another argument is that there are indirect reciprocal benefits from altruism that have provided advantages to the practitioner over evolutionary time; but this explanation cannot account for human motivation to practice small acts of conscience that no one else knows about.
But maybe the Moral Law has nothing to do with evolution; perhaps it's just cultural. People almost universally agree that integrity, justice, and courage are admirable qualities. But why do people choose to act in this way? Is it for social approval? No, it goes far beyond that, because we admire those qualities even more when someone does the right thing in the face of persecution. In the movie A Man for All Seasons, Sir Thomas More had been imprisoned awaiting execution for refusing to swear an oath supporting the divorce and remarriage of King Henry VIII. When his family came to visit in order to convince him to swear the oath, his daughter Meg accused him of playing the hero, and he said:
If we lived in a State where virtue was profitable, common sense would make us good, and greed would make us saintly. And we'd live like animals or angels in the happy land that needs no heroes. But since in fact we see that avarice, anger, envy, pride, sloth, lust and stupidity commonly profit far beyond humility, chastity, fortitude, justice and thought, and have to choose to be human at all . . . why then perhaps we must stand fast a little—even at the risk of being heroes.
The Moral Law calls us to act with courage and integrity even when nobody approves. It means staying on the path of truth and justice when it leads to social rejection and even death. And although we can watch the movie about Sir Thomas More and admire his actions, his peers (those whose approval matters most) stripped him of his title of Lord Chancellor and executed him. 

In the movie To Kill a Mockingbird, attorney Atticus Finch defended an African American man who had been wrongly accused of raping a white woman. His decision to promote justice made him a pariah in his small, racially bigoted southern town and even put his children in danger. He lost the trial due to the lies of the prosecuting witness and the corruption of the jury. When he packed up his briefcase and left the empty courtroom, all the African Americans who sat crowded together up in the balcony stood up as he passed. But the most powerful part of that scene is that he never looked up and saw it. 

The Moral Law at its purest calls for this kind of selfless dedication to doing what is right regardless of consequences. Few are willing to make the sacrifice when following it becomes hard. It doesn't promise popularity, power, or wealth. But as much as we may try to squash it, every human heart bears its imprint. Why is this? C. S. Lewis says:
If there was a controlling power outside the universe, it could not show itself to us as one of the facts inside the universe—no more than the architect of a house could actually be a wall or staircase or fireplace in that house. The only way in which we could expect it to show itself would be inside ourselves as an influence or a command trying to get us to behave in a certain way. And that is just what we do find inside ourselves. Surely this ought to arouse our suspicions?  

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

The Sign of Jonah

In my last post, I discussed what the Bible says about hell, and I would like to continue that subject by addressing one traditional view that holds that Jesus went down to hell and that it is in the center of the earth. This is based in large part on Matthew 12:40, which says, “For just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so will the Son of Man be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth.”

There are two major Scriptural problems with this view. First, Jesus died on the day before the Sabbath, or Friday at the ninth hour, and He rose again on Sunday morning. That is not even close to three days and three nights. Second, nowhere in the Bible does it say that the dead go down to the heart of the earth. The Old Testament says that the dead go down to Sheol, and the New Testament calls it Hades, but the context indicates that the Bible is referring to the grave. 

The Lord’s Prayer says, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done in earth, as it is in heaven,” (KJV) so the earth is not synonymous with the grave. Other than Matthew 12:40, the only times the Bible ever mentions the "heart of the earth" in any translation are Isaiah 19:24 and Isaiah 24:13, and each time it pertains to something happening to the living on the earth. 

However, John 14:30 gives us a hint at what Matthew 12:40 means, where Jesus calls Satan the ruler of this world and says that he had no power over Him. Jesus was able to walk right through hostile crowds and nobody could harm Him until Thursday in the Garden of Gethsemane. Until then, Satan, the ruler of the world, could do nothing to Jesus because He was without sin. It is sin that gives Satan power over us. 

But on Thursday Jesus became sin for us. "For He has made Him to be sin for us, who knew no sin; that we might be made the righteousness of God in Him" (2 Cor 5:21). That is when Judas betrayed Him with a kiss, and the flogging began. Like Jonah was inside a whale, Jesus was at the mercy (or rather lack thereof) of Satan, who gave Him his absolute worst. Satan reigned for three days and three nights, which is the amount of time that the redemption took. The flogging was an important part of it: “He was wounded for our transgressions” (Isaiah 53:5). So when Jesus was in the heart of the earth He was under the power of Satan, the ruler of the earth. 

Whenever Jesus prophesied about His redemption, He always included the rejection, betrayal, being delivered into the hands of men, the suffering, etc., that which led up to His death. He never mentioned His death in isolation. (Matthew 16:21, Matthew 17:22,  Matthew 20:18, Mark 8:31, Mark 9:31, Mark 10:34, Luke 9:22, Luke 18:31, Luke 24:7.) So His full redemption took three days and three nights, but He died and rose again on the third day.

The redemption of Christ was also prophesied through typology in the creation story. The text says that God finished His work of creation on the sixth day and He rested on the seventh day. St. Augustine says about the creation account, "On the seventh day God’s rest is emphasized as something conveying a mystic meaning." Exodus 20:11 ties this rest to the Sabbath: “For in six days the Lord made heaven and earth, the sea and all that is in them, and rested the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and made it holy." 

Holy week is the week when God did His work of re-creating. “Behold, I am making all things new” (Revelation 21:5). On Friday (the sixth day), He declared, “It is finished!” He rested in the grave throughout the Sabbath, and He rose again before dawn on the first day of the week. This symbolizes a new beginning that will culminate in new heavens and a new earth where death and evil will forever be a thing of the past.