The NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, in an op-ed entitled “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The responses, like the one referenced in his op-ed’s title, can only be described as bizarre to hear coming from someone claiming to be a Christian. But this is what is being held up as Christianity to a watching world in the pages of a major media outlet, so it warrants a response. I encourage you to click the link above to read the whole article for yourself. Then let’s work through some of the more glaring issues and see how this stacks up against actual Christianity.
I have a small book on my bookcase with one of the more unusual titles of any I own: “Jesus, Friend to Terrorists”. Yes, you read that right. The book was addressed to the terrorists, rebels, and revolutionaries around the world who want to change the world, albeit in very misguided and tragic ways. The book applauds their zeal and commitment to a cause, but encourages them to reconsider their brutal methods, consider what will happen if they succeed in overthrowing their oppressors only to become the oppressors the next generation seeks to overthrow, and instead commit themselves to the much better cause of Christ. In the end, it asks them to trade in the hate and envy of political revolutions, and the bloody violence of terrorism, for the love and hope brought by the most amazing revolution known: the divine transformation of a human soul. Last week, I offered some reasons why I think humanism, like so many other ideologies (including those of terrorists), is the wrong tool for solving the world’s problems. This week, I’d like to explain why I am persuaded that Christianity is the right tool for the job.
- “Out There” vs. “In Here” Problems. Last week I noted that some of the goals that humanists aspire to, like ending war and poverty, are admirable. Yet they are only looking for an external problem to fix, like an allergen “out there” in the world, when the problem is more like a disease “in here”, inside each of us. Too often, we want to lay the blame on an array of external factors like how we were raised by our parents, the culture we grew up in, and on and on. The Bible shows us that the problem is an internal one called sin. But the Bible doesn’t simply diagnose the real problem; it points us to Christ, who removes the hatred and selfishness and pride in me and you, which ultimately addresses the symptoms that manifest themselves in society as a whole. Transformation inside is what’s required to fix the problems we see outside.
- Collective vs. Individual Remedies. It’s far more comfortable to talk about “people” or “society” needing to change, but God commands us individually to change, and that can get uncomfortable quickly. But what is needed for a society to change? The individuals that form that society must change. And when numbers of individuals are radically transformed on the inside, their outside actions necessarily follow suit, and whole empires are changed.
- Love. Two things that were noticeably absent in the Humanist Manifestos I read were the love and forgiveness that the Bible emphasizes so much. There seems to be a significant difference between helping the poor because it will supposedly help society flourish and helping them because one genuinely loves the person being helped. But the term “love” has become rather diluted in our culture, so what do I even mean by love? And what shall we base it on? Christian love isn’t a mere feeling of affection, for we are called to love even our enemies [Mt 5:44]. And it’s not “reciprocal altruism”, for we are also called to love those who could never return the favor. Rather, it is the willing of good for another and the giving of oneself to realize that good. While it is thoughtful, love is not only thoughts – it is action. While it can be spontaneous, it is also committed and enduring. And above all, it is unconditional. After all, what condition could an enemy satisfy to warrant such love and still be an enemy? Yet there are many examples over the last 2,000 years of Christians asking God to forgive the very people brutally torturing and killing them. Why should we go to such extremes? Because we were each enemies of God, yet He loved us first [Rom 5:8-10, 1Jn 4:19]. So then Christian love is grounded not in the ever-changing state of our emotions, but in the very nature of God [1Jn 4:8-11]. In fact, while the law is normally seen as cold and unloving, Jesus said that all the Mosaic Law could be summed up in 2 commandments: to love God with all that you are, and to love others as yourself [Mk 12:28-31]. The revolutionary, transformative love of God can change the vilest sinners into saints.
Do you want to see the world changed for the better? Forget humanist panaceas, cultural paradigms, economic schemes, and political solutions. Instead, recognize the problem of sin in yourself first, freely take of the remedy graciously provided by your Creator, and then go live out that love you’ve received, bless others as you’ve been blessed, and share the good news you’ve learned so others can experience the same joy. Do that and see if you don’t “turn the world upside-down” like the Jesus’ apostles [Ac 17:6 ESV].
This last weekend, I spent far more time than planned installing a new hot water heater at my house. But frustrating experiences can often be good teachers, and that project reinforced the importance of having the right tool for the job. Some tools are woefully inadequate for the task at hand, while the more appropriate tool makes quick work of it. The worldview we filter life through is similar in that the wrong worldview makes life less comprehensible and more difficult – or even impossible – to live out consistently; but with the right worldview, everything falls into place. Let’s work through an example of that today.
After finishing the home repairs, I read through the three Humanist Manifestos maintained on the American Humanist Association website. The first was published in 1933, with a second in 1973, and the latest in 2003. Other than the rejection of God, they have some admittedly admirable goals like the elimination of war and poverty, and the security of freedom. Some “freedoms” advocated aren’t so admirable, like unrestricted abortion and euthanasia. After all, killing another innocent human being is murder no matter what euphemism is attached to it. But the general intent seems to be one of sincerely wanting to improve the world they live in. Yet, you can sincerely wear yourself out trying to use a screwdriver on a 16 penny nail and never accomplish anything. Might I suggest, that despite all their sincerity, humanists are trying to use the wrong tool for the job when it comes to building a better world?
Humanism, according to their manifestos, has some views and goals worth comparing to Christianity. Here are just a few:
- All 3 manifestos regard the universe as self-existing, in spite of the evidence pointing more and more over the last century to a beginning of the universe at a finite point in the past. Interestingly, the evidence that humanists are uncomfortable acknowledging points to what the Bible has said all along: “In the beginning, God created….”[Gen 1:1]
- Unguided evolution is supported in all 3 manifestos, even though genetics and information theory has been steadily chipping away at that as a viable option. Science is already confirming what the Bible has said all along: we are fearfully and wonderfully made”[Ps 139:14].
- But the idea that mankind can evolve socially and become better and better was evident in the first Humanist Manifesto of 1933, in spite of the horrors of the “war to end all wars” (World War I) that had destroyed that utopian idea for many already. With two world wars in its rear view mirror, the 1973 Humanist Manifesto II noted in its preface that the previous manifesto had been “far too optimistic”, and recognized “the depths of brutality of which humans are capable”, and that “science has sometimes brought evil as well as good.” Even so, the Manifesto still advocated the same optimism and blind faith in the power of humans to change themselves (to the point of being able to “alter the course of human evolution”). For those who have read the Bible, the preponderance of evidence of human depravity, both historically and in the dark recesses of our own hearts, is no mystery. Humanists may not want to admit that they (and every other human) are sinners, but it certainly does explain the world around us better than the naive optimism of humanism. That we are created in the image of God, but marred by sin explains why we humans seem capable of so much good, and yet still do so much evil.
- Humanists want to “provide the purpose and inspiration that so many seek,” give “personal meaning and significance to human life,” and provide “abundant and meaningful life”.  This is to come about from a selfless commitment to the greater good of “broad-based cooperative efforts”, “participation in the service of humane ideas” and “working to benefit society”, with a goal of “a free and universal society in which people voluntarily and intelligently cooperate for the common good.” But I have to ask, why should a person want to do this? Why, if this life is all I have (as the 3 manifestos clearly state), should I spend it working and sacrificing to improve the lives of others? Not that I disagree with their goal of cooperation and selfless service; rather, I question their foundation for it. Even if society as a whole benefits from my sacrifices, why should I care enough to forfeit any of my limited time on earth to enjoy life? After all, we must find our fulfillment in the “here and now” according to humanism. I don’t think they really have a good answer to that, but the Bible does. We love because He first loved us [1Jn 4:19]; we serve because Christ served those He came to save [Mk 10:45] and because in serving others, we serve Him [Mt 25:35-40]; we are blessed in order to be a blessing to others [2Co 9:11]; we value others because we recognize them as created by God [Ge 1:27, Ac 17:26], loved by God [Jn 3:16, Rm 5:8], and precious in His sight – so how could we not want to give of ourselves to show love to them, even if they be our enemies [Mt5:44]? And we really do get the abundant life humanist seek! [Jn 10:10]
- They want to “conquer poverty”, stating that “world poverty must cease.” Yet Christians, not humanists, have been the most generous force in human history by building hospitals, orphanages, schools, universities; donating food, clothing, services, money, and volunteer time to help those in need; translating languages and teaching native people reading and writing, basic hygiene, and life skills like improved farming; and working to end barbaric practices like slavery and suttee. We do it not out of commitment to an ideal, but out of genuine love for those affected by poverty. In fact, maybe the conspicuous absence of love in humanism is why Christians have traditionally given more to alleviate poverty.
- The manifesto claims that “war is obsolete”. Far from being “obsolete”, war has been made more efficient than ever. Now we have the power to destroy entire countries in an instant with nuclear weapons, or in an agonizing time frame of our choice with biological and chemical weapons. Or we can target down to the individual, remotely, from the other side of the world, as if we were simply playing a video game. Rather than naively saying war is obsolete because humans can learn to not be selfish and to cooperate instead, the Bible shows us that we are all selfish apart from the transforming work of God in our hearts, and as long as there are sinful humans on this planet, some people will hate others or covet what others possess. These are the root causes of any unjust war, and they both really come down to that most ancient of vices: pride. Christianity deals with the ultimate cause of war, and all other acts of aggression, and prevents war by preventing the pride that starts wars.
- Humanists claim to be “committed to treating each person as having inherent worth and dignity”, yet their explicit support for abortion and euthanasia say otherwise. Some people’s lives apparently aren’t worth as much as others. The Bible is consistent in all human life having inherent worth because of our creation in the image of God [Gen 1:27, 9:6].
- Supposedly, in spite of the vast weight of history, “humankind has the potential, intelligence, goodwill, and cooperative skill to implement this commitment in the decades to come.” Sadly, but unsurprisingly, humankind has missed that goal by a mile. Maybe that’s why, 3 decades later, the 2003 Humanist Manifesto III was one-quarter the length of the 1973 version, and with less concrete statements. Humans have potential, but it is only realized in the regeneration wrought by God. Without that, our only potential is for continued decay.
I’ve taken excerpts from 3 manifestos written over a 70 year period. I’m not trying to mix and match to paint them in the worst light. Rather, I hope I’ve shown a few ways that humanism has consistently missed the mark in addressing what ails the world. In the end, the fatal flaw of humanism may be found in their statement in Manifesto II: “As nontheists, we begin with humans not God, nature not deity.” And that, my friends, makes about as much sense as grabbing a saw when you need a screwdriver.
I was reading a book by an atheist author who claims to be a former minister yet seems to know very little about Christianity. While the book was heavy on sarcasm and light on reason, there was one point I’d like to address today. In one section, he proclaims that Christians merely “yearn for… an escape from death.” So what about that? Am I, as a Christian, just a victim of deluded, wishful thinking, only too eager to believe death isn’t really the end of me in spite of the cold, hard reality? Let’s work through that today.
Before the comment about Christians yearning for an escape from death, author David Madison proclaims, “There is no exit from death. Period. It is unbecoming to be so afraid of death, and it’s disgraceful that religions have specialized in marketing ways to get out of it.” Let’s start by refreshing our former minister’s memory of some Scriptures that speak on this matter of death, and see if his charge against “religions” applies to Christianity.
- The author of Hebrews writes that “it is appointed for men to die once and after this comes judgment.” [Heb 9:27] The Christian is under no delusions of either escaping death or death being an escape. Instead, we face it head-on, knowing it is coming.
- Jesus reminded His listeners, “I say to you, My friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that have no more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear the One who, after He has killed, has authority to cast into hell; yes, I tell you, fear Him!” [Lk 12:4-5] We are not to fear death, but rather the wrath of God that justly lies on all of us until we are reconciled to Him.
- Jesus told His disciples that “an hour is coming for everyone who kills you to think that he is offering service to God.” [Jn 16:2] We are to not be surprised when death is a consequence of following Christ.
- The apostle Paul wrote to the Philippians of his earnest hope that “Christ will even now, as always, be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain.” [Phil 1:20-21] Paul was prepared to serve God whether that involved a long hard life or imminent death, and every Christian is to be similarly prepared.
- John tells us of the martyrs he sees in his revelation who “did not love their life even when faced with death.” [Rev 12:11] In fact, almost every book in the New Testament mentions that Christians would experience persecution, with several explicitly stating that it could include death.
Indeed, Tertullian wasn’t exaggerating when he said that the blood of martyrs was the seed of the Church : Christians were massacred for much of the first couple of centuries after Christ, and have continued to be killed in Communist and Muslim countries in particular. And these are the very places and times when Christianity has grown the most. If Christians were afraid of death and seeking an escape from it, choosing a life that often led directly to death – and cruel, torturous deaths at that – sure seems a strange way to go about it!
Historically, Christians have not been afraid of death. And why would we? We know this life, that can end in the blink of an eye, is not our home, and so we can hold on loosely to it. Madison’s comment about fear of death makes absolutely no sense when compared to the vast, consistent testimony of Christians over the last 2 millennia sacrificing their lives as they counted physical death a small price to pay in service to their Lord. That fear of death is antithetical to Christian trust in our risen Savior can be confirmed with even a brief reading of Foxe’s Book of Martyrs, or the testimonies of the many Christians who suffered and were brutally killed in atheist countries like the USSR, Red China, and the Eastern Block countries of Europe after WWII, or watching videos of ISIS beheading or crucifying Christians.
With all this acceptance of death, then, is Christianity some kind of death-obsessed cult like the “Heaven’s Gate” group that all committed suicide back in 1997? Hardly. As Paul pointed out, going home would be good, but there was also still good work to be done here. So we can live joyfully for the Lord while also looking forward to being with the Lord someday. But are we really only seeking immortality when we become Christians? It’s not a matter of wishing for immortality, but rather recognizing the fact of our immortality, as testified to by the God who has proven Himself trustworthy throughout history, and then choosing wisely how we will spend eternity. If we had nothing on which to base this idea of life after death, then Mr. Madison might have a point. But we have the testimony of God, as recorded in His Word, as well as the evidence of the Resurrection of Jesus, the “first fruits” of those who have died. [1Cor 15:20] Death may be a closed door where we can’t see and measure what’s on the other side, but that is no reason for skeptics to assume that it is just an impassable brick wall when we have the testimony of our Creator that it is a doorway each of us can and will pass through. Will you be ready when the door opens for you?
 Although it’s certainly not a book I can recommend (in fact, it’s probably the worst atheist book I’ve read so far), for completeness, it’s “Ten Tough Problems in Christian Thought and Belief: A Minister-Turned-Atheist Shows Why You Should Ditch the Faith”, by David Madison (Valley, WA: Tellectual Press, 2016), p.145.
 Tertullian, Apologeticus pro Christianis, Chapter 50 (as commonly paraphrased).
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Earlier this year, I attended an informational meeting in my area about an upcoming study of liquefaction susceptibility in my state. What’s that, you ask? Well, sandy soils, under certain conditions (mainly earthquakes), can suddenly liquefy, losing all bearing strength. This may go unnoticed when it happens in unpopulated areas, or it may be a puzzling phenomenon when a large “sand boil” suddenly appears in a farmer’s field, but it can be disastrous when it happens underneath a city full of densely populated buildings. After all, large buildings also tend to be heavy buildings, and we often have to rely on the bearing strength of the soil under the building to support it when there’s no good rock underneath. Now, the eastern part of my state has a fault zone capable of producing high-magnitude earthquakes, combined with a very thick “liquefaction-susceptible” layer, which is not a good combination. The 1964 earthquakes in Alaska and Japan are probably the most famous examples of liquefaction, and the picture above from the Niigata, Japan quake is probably the best example of the danger: no matter how well you design the building, and no matter how well you build it, if the support suddenly disappears, gravity will bring it down!
Inadequate foundations aren’t just an issue in structural design, though: people can run into the same problems in their own lives. Everything visible “above ground” can be picture perfect, but the foundation needed to survive a catastrophic event is lacking. We can have success in our jobs, be leaders in our communities or experts in our fields of study, have kids that are school valedictorians academically and all-stars athletically, and own homes that are the very picture of having “arrived”. We can achieve all our life goals and all those society thinks we should achieve – “living the dream” – but what of our foundation? What happens when all our accomplishments are yanked out from under us like the support under those buildings in Japan? If we’re trusting in our own achievements, or our family name, or our connections to the right people, we will be in for a rude awakening. As it turns out, society can actually be quite fickle, and today’s adoring crowd can become tomorrow’s angry mob. And things like cancer and tornadoes don’t check the résumés of those they strike. Nearly anything you try to build your life on can prove to be an inadequate foundation. An accident can turn the athletic superstar into a quadriplegic and disfigure the most beautiful model; a market crash or a coup can bankrupt the wealthiest person; and the most brilliant scientist can find themselves at the mercy of a brain-ravaging disease like Alzheimer’s. What do you do when your nightmare becomes your reality? Will you topple when the solid ground under you suddenly turns to quicksand? Or does your life’s foundation extend to bedrock? Is there even any kind of “bedrock” we can build our lives on, that isn’t susceptible to failure?
Indeed, there is! And the answer is as close as the Bible. Jesus tells us:
“Everyone who comes to Me and hears My words and acts on them, I will show you whom he is like: he is like a man building a house, who dug deep and laid a foundation on the rock; and when a flood occurred, the torrent burst against that house and could not shake it, because it had been well built. But the one who has heard and has not acted accordingly, is like a man who built a house on the ground without any foundation; and the torrent burst against it and immediately it collapsed, and the ruin of that house was great.” [Lk 6:47-49]
Whether it’s storms or earthquake-induced liquefaction, being locked into an unmovable foundation is key. The apostle Paul wrote that “the firm foundation of God stands” [2Tim 2:19], and that this foundation is Jesus Christ [1Cor 3:11]. The author of Hebrews wrote that “Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever” [Heb 13:8]. In this world of shifting sand, something firm and unchanging sounds pretty good, if you ask me. They say the only constant in life is change, but, thankfully, there is one constant that does not shift or give way, and that is Jesus Christ. He is the bedrock that can keep you standing through it all. So what’s your life built on: the Rock of Ages, or the shifting sands of effort and circumstance? Choose wisely, friend.
If you’ve read this blog much this year, you know I’m hoping to take and pass a 16-hour engineering exam later this year. Needless to say, it’s on my mind a lot as I’ve been doing a lot of studying this year. Working through some practice problems the other day, I got the answer right, but for the wrong reason, and it got me thinking. In the actual test, I might not mind if I get an answer right in spite of a mistake in my calculations, or misreading the question. But when preparing for the test, the importance of understanding the why behind the answer is critical. If I get the answer right on the test by accident, then I may still get credit (at least in the multiple-choice morning session of the exam). But if I get the answer right by accident when I’m practicing for the test, and don’t verify my reasoning against a worked-out solution, then I’ll go into the real exam with a false confidence, thinking I know how to solve a problem type that I really don’t. Besides the potential repercussions at the test, there are consequences in my daily work, since the SE exam is, after all, a test of an engineer’s competence in actual structural design. For instance, suppose I find a clever shortcut for masonry shearwall design that will save me time on the exam, but I don’t realize that it only works for the particular scenario in the practice problem, and not for all cases. If I don’t understand why it worked there, then I may not understand why it doesn’t work on the exam, or why it doesn’t the next time I’m trying to meet a deadline and have a real-life shearwall to design. It’s all fun and games until real people’s lives are depending on your work being right. But… what does any of this have to do with the Christian faith? Let’s work through that today.
Don’t be content that you know the right answer; study to understand why it’s the right answer. Did you come to Christ because your parents were Christians and that’s what you grew up with? I’m glad for the end result of salvation, but, honestly, that’s a terrible reason for believing in Jesus. That’s no different than a Hindu in India, a Muslim in Saudi Arabia, or an atheist in China. Did you become a Christian because it makes you feel good? Again, if genuinely saved and that was your entry point, I rejoice at the end result, but believing anything because of how it makes you feel is also a terrible reason to believe it. Did you become a Christian because you’d hit rock-bottom and needed rescue? If that’s what it took for God to get your attention, then I’m thankful you turned to Him before it was too late. As Spurgeon said, “Happy storm that wrecks a man on such a rock as this! O blessed hurricane that drives a man to God and God alone!” However, we all need rescue, whether we’re a homeless drug addict or a billionaire with a dozen mansions, and Christianity isn’t merely a self-help program for the down and out.
What is a good reason to become a Christian? Simply this: because Christianity is true. No amount of cultural acceptance or warm fuzzy feelings or self-improvement can make up for its falsity if it’s not true. But likewise, no amount of opposition can overcome it if it is true. But supposing it’s true, why should you repent of sin and confess Jesus as your Lord and Savior [Ro 10:9-10]? Is it because you need a little “helping hand”, a crutch, a nudge in the right direction? Hardly! That is like the pilot of a plane telling the passengers, as they hurtle earthward in a steep dive, on fire, the plane breaking apart from the speed of the descent, with seconds left to live before the inevitable crater and fireball, that they are experiencing some engine difficulties, and to make sure their seat belts are fastened and that they… “breathe normally”. The situation for them and us is far more dire!
You see, we are sinners. We tend to not like the condemnation that comes with that title, but it’s true, even if you were a “good kid” who’s grown up to be a model adult. Even on your best day, you still can’t say you’re perfect; none of us can. But it gets worse: when the Bible says we have all “fallen short of the glory of God” [Ro 3:23], it’s not just talking about what we’ve actively done against God, but what we haven’t done for Him. For instance, a child can be disobedient to his parents both by doing what they told him not to do, and by not doing what they told him to do. But God is the perfectly just judge who can’t be bribed, who won’t play favorites, and who will enforce a requirement for perfection in order to pass His exam. That’s pretty bad news for all of us. Can you see why a “little help” doesn’t cut it? This is why the Bible repeatedly explains that our good works won’t save us – can’t save us [Ep 2:8-9, Ti 3:5-7, Ro 11:5-6, Ga 2:16, 2Ti 1:9]. Salvation is a one-sided deal that has to come from God if it’s going to succeed.
Is it then just “fire insurance”? A “Get Out of-Hell Free” card in this Monopoly game of life? Hardly! The situation is far better than that simplistic (and frankly, selfish) view can even recognize. You see – incredibly – God actually loves us [Jn 3:16, Ro 5:8], and desires that no one perish [Ezk 33:11, 2Pe 3:9], such that He would send His Son to pay the penalty for our sins. That God would lavish such kindness and love and mercy on me is staggering! How could I reject that? And having accepted the free gift [Ro 6:23], how then could I see His gift as something to take advantage of and move on like nothing happened? No, thankfulness and worship of God are the only legitimate responses. And in fact, He created us to glorify Him, the only one truly and self-sufficiently worthy of glory [Is 43:7, 11, 48:11]. And from that gratitude and love to Him who first loved us, we give our lives in humble service to Him as our Lord [Jn 14:15].
As Christians, we are told to share what we know with a world in dire need of the Good News we have received, but may we never share false information that steers people down the wrong path. There have been far too many cases of people rejecting Christianity in response to a mere caricature of it, and often a poor one at that! As Christians who are “ambassadors for Christ, as though God were making an appeal through us” [2Co 5:20], we need to take that responsibility seriously. As C.H. Spurgeon once said, “Salvation is a theme for which I would fain enlist every holy tongue. I am greedy after witnesses for the glorious gospel of the blessed God. Oh, that Christ crucified were the universal burden of men of God.” May we be faithful to our calling.
 C.H. Spurgeon, “Morning & Evening”, Aug 31.
 Spurgeon, “Lectures to my Students” (Hendrickson: Peabody, MA, 2014), Vol 1, Lecture 5, p.83.
The famous (and vocal) atheist Christopher Hitchens once wrote a book claiming that “religion poisons everything.” Is that true? Let’s work through that today.
For this topic, I’d like to narrow the scope in a couple of ways: 1) by looking at the Christian religion specifically, and 2) looking simply at some observable effects of it that Christians and atheists can perhaps agree on. Poison typically has the effect of harm, destruction, or death, so if Christianity is in that category of religions that “poison everything”, as Hitchens claimed, those effects should be readily apparent. On the other hand, if it instead redeems and heals what is already poisoned, that effect should be apparent as well. As Jesus said, we are known by our fruit [Mt 7:20, Jam 2:18].
Now, we need to start by clarifying what we mean by Christianity. I am referring specifically to the way of life characterized by sincere profession of trust in Jesus, the Son of God, as one’s Lord and Savior, and the subsequent life of living out the precepts and commands of Him and His disciples, as recorded in the Bible. For instance, if a person claims to be Christian, but is out cheating on their spouse [Heb 13:4], cheating on their taxes [Mt 22:17-21], stealing the tips off the tables in restaurants they visit [Dt 24:14-15, Jam 5:4], and running over little old ladies trying to cross the street and driving off laughing maniacally [Ex 20:13, Ro 13:9], hopefully we can all agree that person does not represent Christianity. “Poisonous” may be an apt description of that person, but we shouldn’t conclude that Christianity is poisonous based on that person’s behavior. Of course, none of us Christians represent Christ perfectly, but the point to remember is that the abuse of the term “Christian” does not negate the proper use of it. So what should we look at to judge the effects of Christianity? Let’s look at how the Bible says the Christian should live.
- It shouldn’t be too controversial to say that murder is bad. But Jesus took the basic commands of the Mosaic law such as not murdering, and ratcheted them up quite a bit by saying that the real issue was the angry thoughts that might lead to murder Mt 5:21-22]. Jesus addressed the motivations behind evil actions [Mt15:19-20]. Do you think the number of murders or attempted murders would go down if people didn’t get angry at each other in the first place? I should think so.
- Jesus said the 2 greatest commands were to love God with our whole selves, and to love our neighbor as ourselves [Deut 6:5, Lev 19:18, Ga5:14, Jam 2:8]. He then went on to redefine “neighbor” in His story of the Good Samaritan as not simply those living next to us, or even those of our own tribe or group, but as anyone we extend love towards [Lk 10:25-37]. Would the world be a better place if everyone acted like good neighbors to everyone they met? I imagine so.
- Jesus went a step further though, for the “good Samaritan” in His story hadn’t been directly hurt by the Jew he took care of. But Jesus tells us to love even our enemies, and to bless those who persecute us [Lk 6:27-28]. Would humanity living out that precept, even imperfectly, be poisonous, or be healing? It seems to me that it would be awfully hard to stay enemies with someone if both sides were committed to loving the other. And lest one think this was an isolated teaching, Jesus died forgiving the people crucifying Him [Lk 23:34]; the first Christian martyr, Stephen, mirrored that behavior as he forgave the people stoning him to death [Ac 7:60]; and the apostles Paul [Ro 12:14, 1Th 5:15] and Peter [1Pe 3:8-9] reiterated that precept to their readers years later.
- How did Jesus say the world would recognize we are Christians? Was it by a certain style of clothing, or a certain diet, or maybe certain symbols like crosses and fish…. No, it was to be by our love [Jn 13:35] and our unity [Jn 17:20-23]. Could the world use a little more love and unity? It surely couldn’t hurt.
- How did Paul say husbands are to love their wives? “As Christ loved the church and gave Himself up for her” [Eph 5:25]. Can anyone think for a minute that that kind of unconditional, self-sacrificial love would poison marriages today?
- Peter tells his readers to expect to suffer for Christ, but to make sure their suffering isn’t simply the punishment due for bad behavior like stealing and murder [1Pe 4:15-16]. Paul tells the Ephesians [Eph 4:28] that the one who used to steal not only shouldn’t steal anymore, but should work hard so he has something to share with others in need! That sounds like the makings of model citizens to me.
- Lastly, when Paul listed out the fruit of the Holy Spirit in the Christian’s life – love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control – he finished by pointing out that “against such things there is no law” [Ga 5:22-23]. And that really highlights the oddity of Hitchens’ characterization of religion: things that are poisonous are usually prohibited or restricted, but the ideals of the Christian life are generally acknowledged as virtuous traits. Rather than being prohibited, these traits have historically been not only permitted, but promoted.
That’s just a sampling of the fruit of genuine Christianity, but that seems like good medicine rather than bad poison, if you ask me. Are there some false religions out there that are harmful? Certainly. Have some people claiming to be Christians also done great harm? Sure. But I would challenge anyone to show that a person actually living out the precepts of Christianity is poisoning society. Indeed, I would submit to you that Christ is the only antidote to an already-poisoned society. Don’t throw the cure out with the poison.
We live in a very emotion-driven culture now. Don’t get me wrong – emotions are good, but usually not when they’re in the driver’s seat of our lives. While our emotions may produce great poetry and stirring songs, they make for very short-sighted guidance counselors. Ever done anything really stupid when you were mad? I know I have. It felt like the right thing to do at the time… but later my lapse in judgement was all too obvious. Yet we are bombarded with messages every day discouraging us from slowing down and thinking through our actions, and instead doing what “feels right”.
“Obey your thirst.”
“Just do it.”
“Order in the next 5 minutes!”
Whether it’s advertisers appealing to our lust with bikini-clad models eating burgers, or politicians competing in a popularity contest to see who has the biggest cult of personality, or popular songs glorifying “acting like we’re animals”, it is typically our emotions and baser urges being appealed to. But are we just animals driven by instinct and momentary urges? Aristotle would say “no”. His classic definition of man is that we are “rational animals”, different from mere animals because we are capable of reasoning. Christians can also agree with Aristotle on this, for the Bible tells us that we are “created in the image of God”. In other words, we have the distinct ability as humans to reason, even if we refuse to do it sometimes. So how do we combat this reductionist obsession with mere animality and reclaim our humanity? I’d like to suggest a reacquaintance with logic.
A solid grasp of classical logic is one of the best life skills one can develop because it hones the reasoning that’s needed in every part of your life. That this is a skill sorely lacking in today’s world is highlighted by the first 5 words to Peter Kreeft’s excellent Socratic Logic textbook: “This book is a dinosaur.” If you’ve ever wondered why “common sense” doesn’t seem to be very common these days, that’s because it is quickly going the way of the dinosaur, for logic is the heart of common sense. The 3 Laws of logic (Identity, Non-contradiction, and Excluded Middle), are so basic and self-evident that small children can easily grasp them. Once these are understood, various principles like the Principles of Sufficient Reason and Causality follow and build on them. And yet, these are precisely what relativistic, “post-modern” views denigrate.
But there is something else that logic provides: stability. Emotion is a chaotic and fickle thing, ebbing and flowing, always threatening to rise to such extremes as to overwhelm us. Logic is the always predictable, all-deadening countermeasure that dampens both high and low extremes. Stability is achieved when logic steadies emotion, guiding it in its general course while allowing those variations that make us human. It provides a foundation for clear thinking based on objective truth that doesn’t change. Emotion may tell you to run the guy off the road that cut you off; that “if it feels good, just do it”; that “love” is love even if twisted into something harmful; that gender is just a social construct even if biology says otherwise; but logic reminds us that our actions have consequences and that the truth is what corresponds to reality and cannot be ignored. Logic helps us ride out our emotional roller coaster and remember that life won’t always be as good as it is in our best times, nor as depressing as it may be in our worst times. It helps us to articulate our beliefs coherently (or figure out that our beliefs aren’t coherent in some cases). It helps us to see through the deceptions of others and to be honest ourselves, for the Law of Identity corresponds to truth itself. It helps us to dialogue with others by reminding us that both parties in a debate serve the “common master” of truth, as Peter Kreeft would say. We should not seek to win a debate or quarrel at any cost, but rather seek out the truth of the matter with our opponent: no matter who wins, may we both scour our beliefs of error and draw nearer to truth.
Perhaps you’re wondering why I keep harping on logic on a site about defending the Christian faith. That’s because logic is more compatible with Christian thought than any other worldview. Eastern religions are sometimes justified as using a “both-and logic” instead of an “either-or logic” that Westerners are used to (of necessity because of the Law of Non-contradiction). But this notion that truly contradictory statements can be compatible has one problem: it’s simply not compatible with reality. On the other side, atheists often have to oppose causality to get out of the need for a Creator that comes with the universe having a beginning. Christianity does not have these problems. Indeed, logic and reasoning are part and parcel of the Christian faith. So the more people become familiar with sound reasoning, the more they will find themselves in conflict with any other view besides Christianity.
 See Genesis 1:27, 9:6 in the Bible. See Augustine’s City of God (Book XII, Chapter 23) and Thomas Aquinas’ Summa Theologica (Part I, Question 3, Article 1, Reply to Objection 2), for examples of traditional Christian interpretations of the imago Dei.
 Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic, (South Bend: St. Augustine’s Press, Edition 3.1, 2010), Preface.
 Although there are different formulations of the laws and principles mentioned above, Kreeft summarizes them as follows (Kreeft, ibid, pp. 220-1):
- Law of Identity: x is x. Or, whatever is, is. (Yes, it really is that simple).
- Law of Non-contradiction: x is not non-x (i.e. “The same property cannot both belong and not belong to the same subject at the same time in the same respect” – Aristotle).
- Law of Excluded Middle: Either x or non-x (i.e. there is no 3rd, middle alternative between existence and non-existence, between true and false, or between a statement and its negation).
- Principle of Sufficient Reason: Everything that is has a sufficient reason why it is – both why it exists and why it is what it is.
- Principle of Causality: Everything that acts or changes has a reason or cause why it acts or changes.
Another good (and less intimidating) book than Kreeft’s college level textbook is D.Q. McInerny’s short Being Logical: A Guide to Good Thinking, appropriate for younger grades. Travis Lambert recently wrote a short and nicely illustrated book explaining logical fallacies to very young children in fairy-tale fashion, entitled “The Fallacious Book of Fables”.
Question: would you rather find out the roof over your head was ready to collapse before it actually happened, or after? Afterward doesn’t really help, does it? Now, a question for the Christians out there: would you rather find out where your trust in God is weak before it gets put to the test, or afterward? Maybe for some of you, if you were honest, you might say, “I claim I trust that God is good, and that He is sovereign… but if I ever got cancer, or my child died, or something bad happened on a massive scale (like a tsunami), my trust in God would be destroyed.” Honesty is good; it’s hard to fix a problem if we ignore it or gloss over it. But would your sudden distrust in God, or even a change to disbelief in His very existence, change anything about Him? If He exists and is truly good, and omnipotent, and omniscient, and sovereign, would your changing belief about Him change anything about Him, or just about you? Just you, obviously. Someone can not believe I’m an engineer all they want, and it does nothing to my credentials or occupation. Likewise, God is independent of our changing views of Him. So the issue here isn’t really about God, but rather the frailty of our trust in Him. How do you toughen up a frail faith? Let’s work through that today.
I used to work as an engineer at a company that made steel roof joists – like what you see when you look up in any of the big box stores like Wal-Mart. One of the things we did was destructively test a sampling of our joists to make sure they behaved the way they were supposed to. The picture at the top of this post was one such test. You don’t want to design a roof for 30 pounds per square foot of snow load, and cut things so close that an extra inch of snow one year collapses the building. With that in mind, the Steel Joist Institute required us to have a factor of safety of 1.65: each joist needed to be able to handle an overload of 65% of its design capacity. However, we didn’t want to be right at that minimum where everything had to go perfectly in production to meet it. Everyone involved in designing and building the joist are fallible, after all. So we liked to see tested joists not failing until loaded to twice what they were designed for. And those overload conditions did happen over the years. I remember a case where a roof drain got plugged on one building during a bad storm, and the roof collapsed under the weight of an unplanned rooftop swimming pool. Thankfully, it failed when nobody was in the building. As it turned out, that was several times what the roof was designed for, and even in failure, the joists performed amazingly well.
We began to look for ways to make our joists tougher – that is, able to handle more permanent deformation (i.e. overloading) without breaking. We found that highly-optimized open-web trusses tend to have common failure locations, like the 2nd web from each end that is noted in the picture. Under normal loading, that web has the highest compression load of any of the webs. Why does that matter? Have you ever stood on an empty soda can? If you stand on it carefully and evenly, you can put your full weight on the can without it flattening. But if you wiggle a little (adding some eccentricity to your compressive load), the can immediately crushes without any warning. That sudden buckling is what we wanted to avoid happening in our joists. Instead, we wanted the long, drawn-out failure mode of tensile yielding that gives lots of warning first (like how silly putty or the cheese on pizza stretches a long ways before it finally pulls apart). Getting back to our joists, since that second web will tend to fail first, strengthening that one member on each end can significantly increase the failure load, and the chance for people to evacuate an overloaded building. I personally got to repair a joist that had failed in testing at that web, and then watch the amazing performance as it was retested. Not only did it pass the test, it maxed out the test equipment! Such a small change for such dramatic results. That test convinced me of the value of thinking about how my designs react when taken outside their design envelope.
Now, what on earth does any of this have to do with Christianity or apologetics? The Bible tells us that we are in a spiritual war, whether we realize it or not. Chances are good that at some point in the Christian journey, your trust in God will be severely challenged – overloaded, so to speak. How will you react? Are there weak links in your life that look solid until they’re actually put to the test? I’ve seen too many tragic cases of people claiming to be Christians and leaving the church after exposure to some event or some unforeseen objection “destroyed their faith”. Maybe they grew up insulated from any objections, or worse, were told that asking questions was bad. Their trust in God was just a house of cards waiting to collapse the minute someone brought up some of the objections of atheists like Richard Dawkins or Dan Barker (as answerable as those are). Or maybe they grew up thinking that Christian faith was some kind of charm against bad things happening to them (in spite of the overwhelming testimony of almost every book of the Bible, many of the early church fathers, and the long bloody history of martyrdom of Christians the world over up to the present day). That’s called being set up for failure. But apologetics helps us in the following ways:
- It strengthens those weak links by forcing us to examine ourselves [2 Cor 13:5] and reinforce our areas of distrust with true biblical knowledge, supporting evidence, and sound reasoning rather than just gloss over them. For some, that self-examination may even make them aware that their faith is just a charade and that there is no actual relationship with Jesus as Lord supporting their “Christian” life. That’s an important oversight to correct!
- In seeking to give an answer to those who ask for the reason for the hope that we have [1Pe 3:15], apologetics forces us to look at our beliefs from an outside perspective, anticipate questions, and actively search for answers so that we might be prepared. Knowing why you believe what you believe will strengthen your trust in God even if nobody ever asks you about your beliefs.
- Apologetics reminds us that we don’t have a “blind faith” but rather a very well-grounded faith in God. Even when we don’t know the answer to every question, we are reminded that we can trust God based on the positive answers we do have. That is the very opposite of the “blind faith” skeptics like to assume Christians rely on.
May you be ever-growing in the knowledge of the truth of God, knowing with certainty in whom you have believed, understanding more each day how trustworthy God is, never failing to persevere through the trials that must surely come. Grace to you 🙂