Tag Archives: atheism

Mission Impossible?

endless-debate-norman-rockwellI was talking with an atheist friend the other day, and he made 3 interesting statements in the course of our conversation: 1) that he considered himself open-minded, 2) that there was nothing that a religious relative of his would ever be able to say that would convince him Christianity were true, and 3) that the two of us would probably never agree on either religion or politics, so there wasn’t much point to discussing them. Setting aside the oddity of saying one is “open-minded”and yet there is nothing an opponent can say to change one’s mind, let’s look at the 3rd statement.

Is dialogue between opposing sides pointless? Or worse, a Mission Impossible scenario with little chance of success and almost guaranteed failure? Can people of opposing views never come to agreement, except to “agree to disagree”? I would certainly hope not. What a disappointing world that would be if we were all condemned to continue in our set ways, with no hope of ever being able to exchange wrong beliefs for true beliefs. We all have wrong beliefs about different things at different times in our lives. But the act of learning often involves correcting those wrong beliefs and replacing them with truth. So it seems to me that if human learning is possible, then it is possible to change our beliefs. And if that comes about by another person sharing new knowledge with us that convinces us of its truthfulness, and it’s simultaneous incompatibility with our current beliefs, then we have the potential to genuinely benefit from our dialogue with an opposing view.  As Thomas Aquinas said, “there is no greater act of charity one can do to his neighbor than to lead him to the truth.”[1] Philosophy professor Peter Kreeft instructs future debaters reading his logic textbook that, “the aim of both parties must be simply to seek and find the truth,” and “The essence of the Socratic method is this logical cross-examination of an idea, following the argument wherever its inner logic takes it. Thus the impersonal laws of logic become a ‘common master’ rather than either person mastering the other, and the argument is not ‘me vs. you’ but ‘us vs. ignorance’; not ‘we are not together because we differ about what is true’ but ‘let us try to find the truth together.'”[2] This does require humility, on the part of both sides, as it requires both to be willing to admit that we might have been wrong before, which most people (myself included) don’t like doing. The alternative, though, is possibly continuing in error, which isn’t very satisfying either, if we’re honest. But when the discussion is about the very existence of God, the cost of error is potentially much greater than simple dissatisfaction. If eternity hangs in the balance, then there can be no topic with more serious consequences or more far-reaching implications. If there is even room for debate, then it behooves one to not simply dismiss the question as a pointless topic.

So is it pointless to discuss these matters? It can seem that way, particularly when tempers flare. Yet with humility and honesty on both sides, sensitive discussions can be exceptionally fruitful. “But,” you might ask, “what about when that attitude is absent on one side?”  While that makes it more difficult, I don’t see it as an insurmountable obstacle. And I say that having been that ungracious, defensive, “difficult person” in the past. I’ve also been the person getting steamrolled and losing the debate in spectacular fashion. But even then, it was never pointless. We tend to learn more from our failures than our successes, and those failures motivate me to be diligent to show myself a workman not needing to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth [2 Tim 2:15], always speaking graciously [Col 4:6], and better prepared the next time to give a reasonable and respectful answer for the hope I have [1 Pet 3:15].

Let me close by saying that talking about a “point” to a discussion entails a goal or purpose. If the goal is to “win” the argument, then there will be a combative or aggressive stance from the beginning that may sow the seeds of its own defeat, so that even winning that particular battle may lose the war. But if the object is pursuing truth together, as Kreeft suggests, then there can be no losers. And if that pursuit of truth leads to The Truth [John 14:6], whether immediately, in the course of discussion, or years later from a seed planted in loving debate, then  “winner” doesn’t even begin to describe the outcome for the one rescued out of the fog of unbelief. And that outcome makes even Mission Impossible odds worth taking on. After all, our God deals in making the impossible happen.[Matt 19:25-26]


[1] As quoted in Socratic Logic, by Peter Kreeft, (South Bend: Ignatius Press, 2010), p.346.
[2] ibid., p.350.

Hypocrisy vs Ontology

The Pharissee & the Publican - James Tissot 1894
The Pharisee & the Publican – James Tissot 1894

This past Sunday, one of the kids in my Sunday school class mentioned that a girl in his class at school was an atheist, and that she didn’t believe in God because of the hypocrisy of Christians. Is that a good reason to believe God doesn’t exist? While it is sad to hear such life-altering views becoming entrenched in one so young, what’s worse is that she is basing her worldview on faulty reasoning. A little dose of logic could keep her from even going down that dead-end road! But since she and others have gone down this road, let’s dig into this objection.

First, let’s suppose, for the sake of argument, that her charge of hypocrisy is not simply true of some Christians, or even most Christians, but that all of us Christians were complete hypocrites. The question we have to answer is, would that have any impact on whether God exists or not? No, it wouldn’t, for the behavior of Christians is an ethical issue, while God’s existence is an ontological issue. Hypocrisy – saying one thing while doing something contradictory – is essentially “lying lived out”, hence a question of ethics. Ontology, on the other hand, studies the nature of being or existence itself, rather than behavior, so these really are unrelated categories.  What can we say about the question of existence? First and foremost, existence is objective. Something either exists or it doesn’t. If God doesn’t exist, then my saying that He does won’t change that fact. Likewise, if He does exist, the atheist saying He doesn’t won’t change that fact. For existence, like truth, is independent of our subjective observations. And ethical or unethical behavior on the part of either side won’t settle the ontological question. For instance, if Adolf Hitler looked at a lush green field of grass one day, and commented that the grass was green, we should recognize that  he would be speaking the truth in this case, regardless of how repellent the rest of his life may be to us. We should be able to separate the truth of that specific statement from his otherwise reprehensible behavior. Likewise, even if atheists find Christian behavior completely abhorrent, they are still stuck with the task of refuting the truth claim of God’s existence as a separate issue.

What does the hypocrisy of some Christians actually demonstrate? If becoming a Christian meant that God instantly transformed us into perfect people, then observed hypocrisy could prove that real Christians don’t actually exist, for then you would have a necessary condition unfulfilled. But even that still wouldn’t show that God doesn’t exist. However, that isn’t what the Bible says. In fact, the Bible explains that none of us are “righteous“[1], that we have all fallen short of the perfection that is God’s standard of judgement[2], that we are all in desperate need of intervention to fix a problem we can’t solve on our own[3], that accepting Christ as our Lord makes us “new creations”[4], that we are to be like Christ[5], but that this is only possible through Him and not of our own hard work[6], that this is a process that will continue as long as we live[7], and that some will claim to be followers of Christ who really aren’t.[8] So what does Christian hypocrisy prove? That all of us that are works in progress, and that some us have a lot farther to go than others; that despite being spiritually a new creation, we are still very much human; and that some are Christians “in name only”, and the skeptic must be careful to distinguish genuine from counterfeit when assessing the words and deeds of suspected Christians.

Now, lest I be misunderstood here, let me be clear that I am not excusing hypocrisy. God specifically tells Christians to not be hypocritical, repeatedly.[9] And when we are, we are not being Christlike, we are not being obedient, we are not being the good ambassadors He has called us to be. My case today is a modest one: simply that ungodly behavior does not negate the evidence for God. If you’ve been burned by the hypocrisy of Christians in the past, I can only say that we are but smudged reflections of our perfect Lord, hopefully pointing you to the One who never disappoints.


[1] Romans 3:10
[2] Romans 3:23
[3] Romans 5:6
[4] 2 Corinthians 5:17, Romans 12:2
[5] 1 Peter 1:15-16
[6] Ephesians 2:8-9, Titus 3:5, 2 Timothy 1:9
[7] Romans 7:14-25.
[8] Matthew 7:21-23
[9] Romans 12:9, 1 Peter 2:1, James 3:17, most of Matthew 23, and on and on….

Portraits of Christians – Robert Boyle

The_Shannon_Portrait_of_the_Hon_Robert_Boyle-smallDid you enjoy chemistry or hate it in school? Personally I liked it in high school, although I didn’t learn how fun it could be until college.  But then I had a college prof who did things like demonstrate the usefulness of balancing chemical equations by having the class calculate what the optimum ratio of oxygen to methane was to make a desktop cannon shoot a rubber stopper the farthest. Let me tell you, seeing the professor accidentally shoot out one of the lecture hall windows really reinforced in my mind the power of chemistry! But even if you didn’t have cool profs that helped students learn to love that rigorous science, we all still owe many of our modern conveniences to that field of study. And for that, we can thank Robert Boyle, the “Father of Modern Chemistry”. But his contributions weren’t just to chemistry. In fact, if you’ve ever gone scuba diving, used an air pump or a compressor to air up a tire, or used a refrigerator, air conditioner, or heat pump (all compressor-driven), you’ve taken advantage of Boyle’s Law – that the pressure exerted by a gas is inversely proportional to it’s volume.

So who was this Robert Boyle? He lived from 1627 to 1691. In 1663, he was elected a Founder Fellow of the Royal Society in England, one of the first societies dedicated to the advancement of scientific knowledge. He was well-read in a variety of areas of science that would later become their own specialties, as well as literature and philosophy. He was a scientist’s scientist: notorious in his devotion to experimental verification and the scientific method, and “addicted to natural philosophy” as science was then called. And yet, he was also a devout Anglican who wrote multiple apologetics books defending the faith of Christianity. What’s that? Yes, the “Father of Chemistry” also wrote treatises like “Considerations on the Reconcileableness of Reason and Religion”, “The Christian Virtuoso”, “Treatises on the High Veneration Man’s Intellect Owes God”, and “Some Considerations Touching the Style of Holy Scriptures”. He was especially opposed to atheism, and his final will had instructions for the endowment of a series of lectures to be delivered each year in defense of the Christian faith. The Boyle Lectures proceeded from 1692 until the 1930’s and were recently revived in 2004. He believed that all humans are of one race descended from Adam & Eve (as the Bible teaches). He heavily funded missionary work and translation work, personally financing the  Irish translation of the entire Bible. As a director of the East India Company, he used his position to sponsor (at his own personal cost) Bible translations into Malayan and Arabic to help the natives of any lands the trading company visited find the truth of God. This is a good reminder of how God calls us to be about His business whatever our business happens to be. We cannot compartmentalize our faith and separate it from our “business life” as some today would have us believe. He undertook to learn not only the more common classical languages of Greek and Hebrew for reading the New and Old Testaments in their original languages, but also Syriac (Aramaic) and even Chaldean (to read passages in the book of Daniel).

He distinguished himself as a layman with his appetite for theology, and was recommended to enter the ministry. And yet, he turned it down. Why? “He knew that the irreligious fortified themselves against all that was said by the clergy with this—that it was their trade, and that they were paid for it. He hoped, therefore, that he might have the more influence, the less he shared in the patrimony of the church.” [1] There’s a lesson here for Christians today. Skeptics still use this same objection today (although I can’t help but notice that it doesn’t stop them from buying cars from salesmen paid to sell them, but I digress). If you are a Christian, you have an opportunity to go places your pastor will never get to go, to talk to people that would tune out your pastor, to be an “ambassador for Christ”[] with no “profit motive” to question. We all have some amazing opportunities to partake in the work of God’s kingdom. Would that we seized the chance to minister to others in our own vocations like Boyle did!

Robert Boyle took great pains to make the case that not only do you not have to check your brain at the door to be a Christian, but also that being a Christian actually makes you a better philosopher and scientist. Atheists have attempted in the last century to latch onto science as their own domain, one foreign to Christians. Yet, the study of God’s creation really only makes sense when you recognize the Author of it (or, even more basically, that it does have an author). In fact, atheist scientists must stand on the shoulders of Christian giants of science to make their observations. See you next time as we look at another portrait of one of these giants!


[1] Henry Rogers, introductory essay (p. xvi) to “Sacred Classics: or, The Cabinet Library of Divinity”, Vol. 28, edited by Cattermole & Stebbing, London, 1835.

The Burden of Proof

Overworked-800pxThe burden of proof is something that gets tossed back and forth in debates like a hot potato. When do you bear the burden of backing up your view? This is something I’ve wanted to look at here for a few months, but then I found that Dr. Paul Copan had already written up an excellent article on the subject, published back in 2013, that really addresses anything I might have said, except better. The full article (about 4 typed pages) is available here or here, and I really encourage everyone to check it out. Here are excerpts from the first 3 of Copan’s 7 points.

In conversations with atheists, they may challenge us: “You’re claiming that God exists. Therefore, the burden of proof rests on you, not me. So … where’s your evidence?” Atheist Michael Scriven insists “we need not have a proof that God does not exist in order to justify atheism. Atheism is obligatory in the absence of any evidence for God’s existence.” Or perhaps someone has told you that belief in God is just like belief in Santa Claus or the tooth fairy. Where do we begin to respond to such assertions?

First, define your terms — especially atheism. Understand the terms you are using. You can clear up a lot of confusion here and keep the conversation with a professing atheist on track. Ask your friend, “How do you define atheism?” According to the Encyclopedia of Philosophy, the historic definition of “atheist” is one who “maintains that there is no God, that is, that the sentence God exists expresses a false proposition.” The late atheist-turned-deist philosopher Antony Flew, defined atheism as “rejection of belief in God” — not merely the absence of belief in God. Likewise, Julian Baggini, in his book Atheism: A Very Short Introduction, asserts that atheism is “extremely simple to define.” It is “the belief that there is no God or gods.”

Second, the atheist also bears the burden of proof in making the claim, “God does not exist.” Keep in mind: The atheist is actually making a claim to knowledge just as the theist is. So rather than shrugging off any burden of proof, the atheist should understand that both claims needs justification, not just the theist’s. If you make a claim to know something, you should be able to justify that claim when challenged. The atheist — if he or she is a true atheist — says that God does not exist. But we can ask, “Why think this? What positive arguments are there for this claim?” To date, there just has not been any argument coming close to showing how this is so. Some might say, “Arguments for God’s existence do not work.” But that is not enough. You need to show why God does not exist (more on this below). In my experience, the “atheist” more often than not turns out to be an agnostic.

Note: that has been my experience as well.

Third, look out for the “atheist’s” slide into agnosticism, from claiming disbelief to mere unbelief. True agnostics affirm they do not know whether God exists or not. By contrast, atheism is a strong claim and is actually a fairly difficult position to defend. As noted, many professing atheists are not true atheists — that is, one who disbelieves or rejects belief in God. Rather, they are more like “agnostics” — unbelievers. What they mean by “there is no God” is more like “I lack belief in God.” In April 2001, I was speaking at an open forum at Worcester Polytechnic Institute (WPI) in Massachusetts. A student told me during the Q&A, “The reason I am an atheist is because the arguments for God’s existence do not work.” I replied, “Then you should be an agnostic, not an atheist. It is logically possible that God could exist even if the available arguments for God do not work. So, you should be an agnostic, in that case. You have to do more than say the arguments for God do not work to be an atheist. You have to show why God cannot exist. You see, the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” The person who claims to be an atheist but simply lacks belief in God is blurring the historic distinction between agnostic and atheist. We should gently press him on this question: “What makes your position different from an agnostic’s?”

I hate to stop there, especially without getting to Dr. Copan’s dissection of atheists’ favorite parody of God – the Flying Spaghetti Monster – but you’ll just have to read the rest of Dr. Copan’s article for yourself. Till next time, keep thinking!


 

Below are the links for Dr. Copan’s full article.
http://enrichmentjournal.ag.org/201303/201303_026_Athiests.cfm
http://www.paulcopan.com/articles/

Foundational Assumptions

Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake
Liquefaction in 1964 Niigata Earthquake

There’s a saying about what happens when you assume, but the fact is that we all have to make assumptions at some point. You can’t build a structure without some baseline support like footings or piers; and you can’t build a theory, a philosophy, a worldview without some basic assumptions. In engineering, a common assumption is that a few test borings on a job site will inform you of the soil conditions across the site enough to complete your foundation design safely. We assume uniformity unless the test borings indicate otherwise. Some of the areas of my state are notorious for holes and caverns called karst formations. A geotechnical engineer colleague told a group of us of one case of a test boring showing solid rock about 10′ from a proposed footing location, only to pour the concrete footing and not fill up the hole. The reason: the concrete dumped in the hole had broken through the roof of a previously unknown small cavern…. Site uniformity is sometimes a very inappropriate assumption. Hopefully, like good structural foundations, your foundational assumptions for your beliefs are well-grounded. For instance, whether you believe that objective truth exists will determine a great deal of what you can reasonably believe. I say “reasonably” because one can, of course, believe whatever one wants, but if you want to hold reasonable views that are not self-contradictory or absurd in their actual application, then you need to have good foundational assumptions.

On what do you build your worldview? Relativism is the view that truth is relative to each culture, time, or even to each person in some forms. It is a lot like soil sensitive to a process called liquefaction. It seems to support weight alright when things are good, but when an earthquake hits, it turns to quicksand and provides absolutely no support. Scientism, the idea that science, or more specifically, the scientific method, is the only way of knowing truth, is a lot like those problematic karst formations. The scientific method, and science in general, is rock-solid in its area of applicability. Where it’s dangerous is when used outside of those areas. Science is great at describing stuff in the natural world, at telling us what is. My whole career as an engineer is predicated on science’s correct descriptions of the way the natural world works. Where it falters is when it’s asked to prescribe, to tell us what ought to be. We can do social experiments to see if people are selfish or mean or hateful, but science can’t tell us why they ought not be that way. In the areas it was designed to be used, science is trustworthy, but outside of those areas, it’s like building on Swiss cheese. Atheism and secular humanism often go together, as one denies God while the other elevates man to God’s position of ultimate authority. Yet this has turned out to be like building in a swamp full of peat and other “compressible material”: the higher one tries to build, the more weight one puts on the foundation, and the more it sinks. As the last century’s experiments in Communism – which were solidly and proudly atheistic – proved, man without God makes for a foundation of morality that sinks to frighteningly awful depths. Is there anything solid we can build a philosophy of life on?

There’s a saying that to build high, you have to dig deep. In other words, a house may be able to sit on a simple slab-on-grade, but a skyscraper will often have foundations going several stories underground. And when you dig down and hit something solid like Manhattan bedrock, you have the makings for some of the tallest buildings in the world. When building your framework of beliefs, some ideas will be necessarily self-limiting. They simply can’t hold up under examination. On the other hand, the Christian worldview is able to encompass all of reality because it is uniquely authored by the Creator of all reality. That is why Jesus was able to compare those who heeded His words to those building on rock:

“Therefore everyone who hears these words of Mine and acts on them, may be compared to a wise man who built his house on the rock.  And the rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and yet it did not fall, for it had been founded on the rock. Everyone who hears these words of Mine and does not act on them, will be like a foolish man who built his house on the sand. The rain fell, and the floods came, and the winds blew and slammed against that house; and it fell—and great was its fall.”
– Matthew 7:24-27, NASB.

Build smart. Build your life on the only solid rock – Jesus Christ.

Deconstructing Dawkins, Part 2

Jesus and Samaritan Woman at the Well-Guercino 1641Today’s look at Richard Dawkin’s book, “The God Delusion”, looks at a statement not by Dawkins himself, but one by Gore Vidal that he chose as an introduction to  Chapter 2’s section on monotheism. Dawkins certainly appears to agree with this statement, so let’s tear into it and see whether it has any merit.

“The great unmentionable evil at the center of our culture is monotheism. From a barbaric Bronze Age text known as the Old Testament, three anti-human religions have evolved – Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. These are sky-god religions. They are, literally, patriarchal – God is the Omnipotent Father – hence the loathing of women for 2,000 years in those countries afflicted by the sky-god and his earthly male delegates.” — Gore Vidal [1]

This is so contrary to history as to be laughable. But when bestseller books say things like this, we have to take the time to set the record straight. I can’t speak for Islam, but the Bible clearly is not “anti-human”. On the contrary, the very first chapter of the first book of the Bible tells us that “God made man in His own image”, “in His likeness”, that He “made them male and female”, and “blessed them”. [2] Later in Genesis, God explains how seriously He takes the killing of humans and why: “Whoever sheds man’s blood, by man his blood shall be shed, for in the image of God He made man.”[3] Capital punishment is grounded in the idea that the killing of a fellow human is the destruction of a fellow image-bearer of God. In both of these chapters, we also see God’s command to “be fruitful and multiply.” Rather than being “anti-human”, God tells the human race to flourish and grow, and that He will require the life of those who are truly “anti-human” (i.e. those who murder their fellow humans).

As for the “sky-god” comment, it’s amusing that Vidal charges monotheistic religions with worshiping “sky-gods”, but doesn’t say anything about the polytheistic religions that really did worship gods of the sky, like Uranus, Zeus, Jupiter, and others in the Greek and Roman pantheons. He specifically targets the 3 religions that all claim that there is not a “god of the sky”, but rather one, and only one, Creator of everything.

Now we come to the claim that Christianity is misogynistic, or hateful of women (“loathing” in Vidal’s words). First, Genesis records that it was “not good for man to be alone”, and so God made woman to be a complementary companion and helper.[4]  This establishes from the beginning that women are valued, not loathed, both by God and Christians. Many women were lauded in the Old Testament (Deborah, the judge, particularly comes to mind) . The first witnesses of Jesus’ resurrection were women. Jesus broke with tradition of the time and talked to women one-on-one on multiple occasions, and even discussed theological questions with them, also a radical departure from cultural norms. Some of the early Christian converts commended by Paul were women (Lydia of Thyatira; the “leading women of Thessalonica”; the “prominent Greek women” of Berea; Priscilla, who was specifically included with her husband Aquila as a “coworker in the ministry”; Euodia and Syntyche, “fellow workers” who “shared my {Paul’s} struggle in the cause of the gospel”; Phoebe, a respected member and possible deaconess in the church at Cenchrea whom Paul commended at length;  Tryphena, Tryphosa, and his “dear friend”Persis, 4 women who “worked very hard in the Lord”; Mary, who “worked very hard for you {the Roman Christians}; and Timothy’s grandmother Lois and mother Eunice, apparently responsible for his coming to faith in Christ).[5] Women made up many of the early Christian church, and some of their earliest martyrs (i.e. Blandina in 177 and Perpetua in 203 AD)[6], and it appears that some churches were known as meeting in the houses of certain women, as Paul sent greetings to “Nympha and the church that meets in her house”.[7] One has to wonder why women would be drawn to Christianity if it were such a “woman-loathing”system. And why would Paul feel the need to thank and commend so many women in his letters to the churches if he “loathed” women?

But we don’t have to stop there. Most of the women’s rights in the world have come about specifically from countries with Christian backgrounds. Odd coincidence…. Paul taught from the beginning that “there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”[8] With that one statement, he eliminated any basis for Christians to ever support racism, slavery, or sexism. Moreover, he told the Ephesians that “husbands ought also to love their own wives as their own bodies”. In fact, Christian husbands are directly commanded to “love your wives, just as Christ also loved the church and gave Himself up for her”.[9] That is an unconditional, self-sacrificial love that stands in sharp contrast with Greek and Roman cultures of the time where the wife was little more than a slave with little to no rights. It also exhibits the value accorded to wives in Christianity. In fact, although Vidal (and Dawkins) disdain Christianity as a patriarchal system, it was the influence of Christianity in the Roman empire that gained women much of their rights there.[10]

A Christian “loathing” women is acting contrary to what the Bible teaches. In fact, we’re supposed to love even our enemies, so how on earth could a Christian ever justify “loathing women”? He couldn’t. Do we acknowledge that men and women are different and complementary? Absolutely. However, it’s not hateful to recognize differences. We are different biologically, physically, and emotionally. But in God’s amazing plan, we are designed to complement each other, to work together like 2 gears meshing, to do more together than either could accomplish alone. And in recognizing God’s design for us, and the intrinsic value of each other, men and women can both have reason to celebrate.


[1] quoted by Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, 2008, p58.
[2] Genesis 1:26-30, NASB.
[3] Genesis 9:6, NASB.
[4] Genesis 2:18-24, NASB.
[5] Lydia – Acts 16:113-15,40; Thessalonian women – Acts 17:4; Berean women – Acts 17:12; Priscilla – Acts 18:26, 1 Corinthians 16:19, Romans 16:3, 2 Timothy 4:19; Euodia & Syntyche – Phillipians 4:2; Phoebe, Mary, Tryphena, Tryphosa, and Persis – Romans 16:1,6,12; Lois & Eunice – 2 Timothy 1:5.
[6] Blandina – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Blandina, accessed 2015/08/22. Perpetua –  http://www.britannica.com/biography/Perpetua-Christian-martyr, accessed 2015/08/22.
[7] Colossians 4:15, NASB.
[8] Galatians 3:28, NASB.
[9] Ephesians 5:25-28, NASB.
[10]  Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, 2001, Chapter 4.

Walking Away?

Out the doorA friend loaned me a book by Dan Barker, co-leader of the Freedom from Religion Foundation. My friend said this book was instrumental in his rejecting Christianity and becoming an atheist. Mr. Barker had been a preacher and Christian musician at one time before he “deconverted”. Does Dan Barker have the “inside scoop” to warrant walking away from Christ? Let’s look at that.

Frank Turek[1] and J. Warner Wallace[2] have rightly pointed out that the martyrdom of modern day believers doesn’t count as evidence for the truth of Christianity because anyone can sincerely hold wrong beliefs, even unto death (i.e. Muslim suicide bombers). But, they add, it doesn’t make sense for the early disciples of Christ to suffer prolonged, intense persecution and grueling deaths for something they knew to be a lie. While we were not eyewitnesses of Jesus’ resurrection, they were eyewitnesses to the events they being killed for speaking about. Like modern cases of martyrdom, do modern testimonies of life-changing experiences similarly lack evidential weight and speak more of trust than truth? Yet, providing one’s personal testimony has been a part of Christian missionary endeavors from the very beginning[3], and personal experience often resonates with an audience more than technical statements of belief.  Then should  “deconversion” testimonies from Christianity to atheism be given equal weight to conversion testimonies? Is it simply a matter of people changing their mind from one set of beliefs to another? I don’t think so, and here’s why. No offense to Mr. Barker, but the “Christian” deconverting may have been living a lie, not truly a Christian. Maybe this sounds like an excuse to you, but Jesus Himself said there would be many that would say on Judgement Day that they had done all sorts of wonderful things for Him, and yet He will still reply, “I never knew you; depart from Me.”[4] Sobering words for all of us who call ourselves Christians. Likewise, the apostle John speaks of men like Mr. Barker when he says that “their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”[5]

But what of the atheist who becomes a Christian and is then persecuted for it, like many were in Communist countries? Men like Haralan Popov and Richard Wurmbrand come to mind, among many others who didn’t live to tell their tales. This may not be of the same weight as the original apostles’ transformation, but it is surely difficult to explain unless there was a genuine transformation in the former atheist. A change of mind seems inadequate to explain a person enduring 13-14 years of torture, like the cases above, when a simple change back to what they originally believed would not only stop the torture, but set them free from prison, and result in rewards upon release. This is the same boat the apostle Paul found himself in centuries earlier, as he wrote to the Corinthians, listing out all the punishments he had endured for his belief in Jesus, a belief he had originally persecuted others for zealously.[6]  What could cause this kind of change? We’ve all been fooled at least once in our lives, but why this refusal to change back? Simple stubbornness? Shame? Pride? How meaningful are those emotions when faced with imminent (and cruel) death? We are sometimes overly concerned with punishments being “cruel and unusual” in our Western culture, but that wasn’t an issue in Paul’s day, nor in modern Communist countries. They weren’t worried about whether a lethal injection would sting. After all, the Roman punishment of crucifixion is where we get the word “excruciating”. If simply changing your mind – not to something you’ve always rejected, but back to what you had previously wholeheartedly accepted – would spare you an agonizing death, why proceed? There is something inherently, intrinsically different about a genuine Christian that will not let him “deconvert”. Paul writes to the Colossians of “Christ in you, the hope of glory”[7].  Jesus told the disciples that the Holy Spirit would dwell in them.[8] Becoming a Christian is not simply a change in what you think, though that is certainly part of it. It is actually an indwelling of the Spirit of God, our Creator, with His creation in a personal relationship. If Christianity were just another religion of rules to try to bribe your way into eternal reward, I wouldn’t blame anyone for leaving. But if Christianity is true – if we are “the temple of the living God”[9] as Paul described – then that is a total game-changer, and there is no going back from that.

In the end, the person deconverting from Christianity and the person converting to Christianity are both leaving a lie, but only one is gaining the truth. The person leaving a Christian masquerade for atheism is only exchanging one lie for another, while the person entering into a genuine relationship with Jesus Christ is gaining the ultimate truth from the source of all truth.


[1] Frank Turek, I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, (Crossway, Wheaton, IL, 2004), p. 294.
[2] J. Warner Wallace, Cold Case Christianity, (David C Cook, Colorado Springs, 2013), p. 115-116.
[3] Acts 4:19-20, Acts 22:1-21, Acts 26:4-29, NASB.
[4] Matthew 7:22-23, NASB.
[5] 1 John 2:19, NIV.
[6] 2 Corinthians: 11:22-33, NASB.
[7] Colossians 1:27, NASB.
[8] John 14:16-20, NASB.
[9] 2 Corinthians 6:16, NASB.

“Hard Evidence”

Lab Experiment“I don’t think there’s anything he could say that would convince me – I need hard evidence,” said an atheist friend when I invited him to come with me to  a presentation on the reliability of the Bible. That got me thinking about evidence and our desire for more of it. After all, “seeing is believing,” right?

This November marks the 100th anniversary of Albert Einstein publishing his theory of general relativity. Only 10 years earlier, in 1905, Einstein had published not one, but four, paradigm-shifting papers, including his special theory of relativity and his proposal of mass-energy equivalence, from which we get the famous equation E=mc². Since then, his theories have been repeatedly confirmed. Special and general relativity did not simply provide a competing theory compared to classical Newtonian physics; they encompassed Newtonian physics. In relatively weak gravitational fields, special relativity reduced to Newtonian formulas at speeds much slower than the speed of light (our typical earthbound experience). General relativity expanded on that to provide an explanatory framework that could account for objects travelling at all speeds and through any gravitational field. It explained what Newtonian physics could and couldn’t explain. That’s powerful.

How did Einstein develop this powerful theory? Can you tour the lab where he huddled over a workbench full of special scientific equipment, or see the telescope he tirelessly spent long nights peering through, looking for evidence of gravitational lensing, or examine his lab journals of dutifully recorded experimental results? Not really. Einstein worked as a simple patent clerk in his “miracle year” of 1905, and was still doing “thought experiments” when he developed general relativity. He was short on evidence, but long on problems to think through. He proposed 3 scenarios unexplained by Newtonian physics that relativity would need to correctly explain for it to be true: 1) the slight changes in Mercury’s orbit around the sun already observed by others, 2) the deflection of light by the sun that Newtonian physics predicted, but not accurately, and 3) the color change (redshift) of light passing through a gravitational field that was completely unverifiable at that time.[1] While he could compare his theory’s predictions to  Mercury’s orbital changes measured by others, he had no way to confirm the other 2 tests. In fact, the evidence to support his theory only trickled in over many years, the most conclusive confirmations  of it after his death in 1955. Sir Arthur Eddington confirmed the deflection of light by the sun’s gravity in 1919 when he measured the slight curvature of starlight bending in the gravitational field of the sun during a solar eclipse. But it was decades before sufficiently precise measurements could confirm gravity’s miniscule color-shifting effect on light here on earth. In the years since, though, several other effects have verified Einstein’s unproven theory.

In fact, Einstein’s general theory of relativity touches most of our everyday lives  in one very real, but surprising way. Our cars, planes, cellphones, and even wristwatches now have the ability to tell us where we are because a of wonderful cold-war invention called GPS. But engineers designing the GPS satellites originally didn’t think they would need to account for gravitational redshift in the signal timing. This change in color of visible light is actually an effect of time dilation; time actually runs faster in a weaker gravitational field. And so the clock on a GPS satellite will run 38 microseconds faster, per day, than the same clock on earth, which is enough to produce invalid location results. This would also handicap our cell phones that use this precise timing to handle transferring calls to new cell towers seamlessly.

So did the lack of hard evidence in any way detract from the truthfulness of his theory? No, that’s because we don’t create truth, we only discover it. If something is true, it’s true whether we know it or not, and whether we understand it yet or not. The GPS clocks ran faster whether the original engineers admitted it or not, and whether you and I fully understand it or not. Can Christianity be true without measurable, scientific evidence? Absolutely.[2] But there’s a deeper question here. Is experimental observation the only way we come to know truth? No. In fact, the “thought experiments” Einstein relied on were simply exercises in sound reasoning that scientists, mathematicians, and philosophers have used for millennia. As Einstein understood, there are many times where it is impossible to obtain “hard evidence” for something. It may be a unique, non-repeatable event, or it may be something infeasible to test at the present time, but that doesn’t have to stop us from investigating. Albert Einstein didn’t limit himself to experimental evidence, but rather used his mind to go where science couldn’t yet, and he changed the world. Don’t let your desire for a certain type of evidence keep you from investigating the truth of Christianity and changing your world.


[1] Albert Einstein, Relativity: The Special and the General Theory (New York: Barnes & Noble, 2004), p. 87-88.
[2] Not that there isn’t a wealth of evidence for the truth of the Bible, but that’s a subject for another day.

 

Laughing at the Cliff’s Edge

Cliff Danger Sign“I can’t tell you why somebody would walk past those signs and not pay any attention to them.”[1]

That was part of a response from a Park Service spokesman after a recent death in Point Reyes National Park in California. The cliff at Arch Rock had developed a large crack along the top along a popular trail, and multiple warning signs were posted telling people to stay away from that area. Yet dozens of people were seen continuing past the signs that day, until the cliff finally gave way, and 2 hikers fell 70′ amidst a shower of boulders and debris. One died while the other survived with critical injuries, amazingly enough. Why indeed do people not take warnings seriously? Why do they think that a warning might apply to everyone but them? It seems so obvious in hindsight, but maybe that attitude is more prevalent in our daily lives than we’re comfortable admitting. Maybe that cavalier attitude manifests itself in our overall worldview and philosophically filters what we take seriously  and what we consider inconsequential. Consider the following small example.

The Monday after Easter, my atheist colleague at work brought me the comic from his daily desk calendar for the past Friday (Good Friday). As he dropped it on my desk, he said, “you can throw it away if you want, but I thought it was funny.” What was the comic? A picture of Jesus with the caption, “A real miracle would’ve been turning water into less expensive gasoline.” OK, haha.  I get it, and I realize it’s just a comic. It doesn’t really offend me, but it does sadden me a little. It seems like it exemplifies that same philosophical filter that helps us ignore the physical and spiritual warning signs in our lives.

That comic (and the many, many others like it) didn’t put forth any serious reasons for doubting the existence of Jesus or the New Testament’s claims about His life and His deity. It didn’t show the historicity of the gospel narrative to be false. It didn’t show the biblical narrative to lack explanatory depth or consistency. It simply assumed all of those objections to be the case and then mocked the opposing view. Of course, it wasn’t written to build a case against Christianity. It was, after all, just a joke, and a one-liner at that. But, unfortunately, many people stop at the jokes and never investigate to see if they’re on target or not. And when people assume that just because someone has made a joke about God, that He is a joke unworthy of serious consideration, that is itself the cruelest joke, with dire and very permanent consequences. The comic made light of an actual miracle by saying that a “real miracle” would’ve been doing something 2,000 years ago that only a modern gasoline-dependent society could appreciate, and that is technically simpler than turning water into fine wine.[2] In so doing, it asks us to laugh off the actual miracle instead of asking the question the eyewitnesses of Jesus’ miracles were forced to seriously consider, over and over again: namely, “What manner of man is this?” The “gospel” literally means “good news”, and to laugh off the gospel accounts in the Bible misses two signs: 1) the warning sign telling us that God not only exists, but will also hold us accountable and judge us by His perfect standard; and 2) the sign pointing us to safety, to the only way to satisfy that unyielding justice. That sign points to Jesus, and it is not just good news, but the greatest of news.

Certainly, there is a time and place for laughter[3], but when we joke about something serious, and we let our jokes keep us from seeing the danger we’re in, we really are laughing at the cliff’s edge.


[1] http://www.foxnews.com/us/2015/03/23/1-dead-after-cliff-collapses-at-calif-hiking-trail/ accessed April 12, 2015.
[2] Turning water into wine would be the greater miracle than turning it into gasoline, as basic gasoline is primarily 3 elements (hydrogen, carbon, & oxygen) while basic wine has those (in the alcohol alone) plus nitrogen and at least 11 other elements in the form of minerals. And this wasn’t just barely wine, but was “good wine”. See John 2:1-11 for the actual story.
[3] Ecclesiastes 3:2, NASB.

“All roads lead to Rome”?

5-road-roundaboutMany atheists will say that all religions are the same, that “religion” as some broad homogenous category “poisons everything”. Religion is not true, contradicts reason and science, is detrimental to us,  and should therefore be abandoned, they say. Relativism, a current philosophical fad which claims that nobody is objectively “right” (except the relativist, apparently), also claims that all religions are the same, but instead that they’re all equally good. Sincere belief in any of the different world religions (or even your own made-up religion), will get you into heaven/paradise/nirvana/etc.

Are all religions the same? Do “all paths lead to Rome” (or heaven, in this case)? Both the atheist and relativist claims seem to break down under closer examination. The atheist claim that religion poisons everything ignores all of the tremendous benefits to humankind done in the name of Christianity (i.e. hospitals, insane asylums, and orphanages were all distinctly Christian inventions to care for “the least of these” who were very disposable in Roman and Greek culture[1]). Simultaneously, they magnify things Christians (or those claiming to be Christians) have done in opposition to Christ’s teaching, or group together actions of other religions with Christianity to get a negative “lump sum”. By that logic, we could lump Rolls-Royces and the old Yugos together and say all cars are worthless junk. Clearly, that would be a hasty generalization. Meanwhile, the relativist claim is self-refuting. Mutually exclusive worldviews can’t all be true. Jesus Christ stated in no uncertain terms, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; nobody comes to the Father, but through Me.”[2] Yet Islam claims Jesus was only a prophet – honorable, but nothing more.[3] B’ahai claims He was a “manifestation of God, but not, in essence, God”. Judaism views Him as a blaspheming rabbi who claimed wrongly to be God and was justly killed for it. Other religions are happy to claim Jesus as only a prophet, teacher, or sage. Likewise, while religions will generally agree that things like murder and stealing are wrong, they disagree significantly on key issues like the nature of God (or if there even is a “God” or gods, e.g. Buddhism, Hinduism) and the nature of an afterlife (i.e. individual entrance to heaven, or absorption into the Brahman and subsequent annihilation of individuality).  These simply cannot all be true.

I want to give one example that I think simultaneously addresses both the atheistic view of all religion being equally bad and the relativist view of them all being equally good.  The difference between Christianity and Islam can be best exemplified by their views on death: The faithful Christian says “I don’t seek death, but my death would be a worthwhile sacrifice if more people came to accept God’s free gift of  eternal life through Jesus Christ”, while the faithful Muslim seems to say “My death would be a worthwhile sacrifice if it condemned more unbelievers to death while guaranteeing my life in Paradise.” Big difference there. One seeks the benefit of others at the potential cost of one’s own life, while the other seeks one’s own benefit at the cost of others’ lives. Some may say that’s an oversimplification, but I think it corresponds well with the reality being observed in many parts of the world right now. For instance, Jesus said, “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends”, and the apostle Paul said that such was his love for the Jews that he would be willing to be accursed – to forfeit his own salvation – if that could guarantee the salvation of his kinsmen. Compare that self-sacrificial spirit to Islam’s “blessings of the shahid” (martyrs), where dying in battle for the cause of Allah guarantees your entrance to Paradise, 72 virgins, riches and honor, and the ability to intercede for 70 of your relatives.[4] This is not hyperbole, but a guarantee of salvation for someone and their whole family at the expense of others.

In the end, all religions are not equally good or equally bad. Rather, one is true, and we must exercise discerning judgement so as not to be deceived. As the apostle John tells us, “test the spirits to see whether they are from God.”[5] The first step is recognizing the implications of one of the 3 fundamental laws of logic, the Law of noncontradiction, and not falling for the copout that all religion is the same.


[1] Alvin J. Schmidt, Under the Influence: How Christianity Transformed Civilization, (Zondervan, 2001), pp. 151-169.
[2] John 14:6, NASB.
[3] See Surahs 5:72-75, 5:116-117 in the Qur’an, among others.
[4] Compare Romans 9:3 for the Christian with the following Muslim hadiths, here, here, herehere, and here.
[5] 1 John 4:1, NASB.