RESPONDblog: Why Does God Allow Evil?

destroyed-houses-2663558_1920Why does God allow evil to occur?

There’s no doubt this world is a place where natural disasters tear lives apart, and people abuse other people to horrific degrees. If God’s there…then why does he allow this?

 

In his recent book, “Why does God Allow Evil”, Clay Jones explores these topics…and one of the interesting question he poses is this. Why do we ask, “Why does God allow Evil,” when a more pertinent question might be “Why does God Allow Humans?”

 

Clay summarises his position on God and evil (known as a theodicy – a word combining the Greek words for both God and justice). His argument is based on the Bible’s position and therefore reflects both a Jewish and Christian approach[1]:

 

 

  1. God created human beings with free will. He placed them in a paradise setting, with only one prohibition on them.

 

  1. The human beings were free to disobey. After all, it makes no sense at all to create beings with free will and then prevent them from misusing it.

 

  1. The people became distrustful of God – and they rebelled against God. They did what they were prohibited from doing.

 

  1. Because of this disobedience, God ejected them from paradise and they lost access to the tree of life. “We’ve been going to funerals ever since.”[2] God cursed the ground, and we face both disease and natural evil of many kinds as a result.

 

Someone asks – “So what about forgiveness then? Isn’t Christianity all about forgiving people? Why couldn’t God forgive Adam and Eve? He calls us to do this…why can’t God?”

First – because we aren’t God. God commands us to forgive others in the knowledge that the buck stops with him. He sees to it that justice is done in this Universe. We are called to forgive, because God’s the one who ensures justice is done.

Second – because if God turned a blind eye to Adam and Eve’s rebellion, this would communicate to the whole human race that – “hey, rebellion’s not so bad. It’s ok. Just do it. Fill your boots, everyone.” But rebellion is not okay. It leads to horrific results. Rebellion is destructive – and so there are consequences attached to it. And we’ve been living with them ever since.

  1. We’ve been living with the consequences because humans have reproduced people like themselves. Inclined towards rebellion, alienated from God and ultimately destined to struggle with suffering in this life and ultimately to die.

 

  1. Because of the seriousness of man’s rebellion against God, the seriousness of the consequences, and his love for each of us, God sent his Son Jesus to die for rebellious humans to ensure justice is done in God’s just Universe.

 

  1. So now, human beings who trust God and accept that Jesus died for them, can face a life of change and growth.
  • We can increasingly learn the horror of man’s rebellion against God by experiencing the devastating results we see today.
  • We increasingly learn to overcome evil in this world with good.
  • We become fit to inherit God’s coming kingdom as we do this.
  • And we learn how horrific and stupid our own sin and rebellion really is through experiencing first-hand the consequences. And so, one day, in heaven, we will be able to use our free will rightly as we reign with Christ forever.

 

 

Image courtesy of pixabay.com.

[1] Clay Jones, Why Does God allow Evil, (Eugene, Oregon: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 207-208.

[2] Ibid.

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RESPONDblogs: T2 and the Free Will Dilemma

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I sat in a packed cinema tonight to watch the newly restored 4K/3D release of Terminator 2. I know this movie so well – its over 25 years old now – yet it looks and sounds like it was just made last week. I genuinely appreciated the 3D conversion on the film – combined with the new sound mix – it really brought out details that I’d simply never seen and heard before.

The experience has never been better. And the various messages contained within it have never seemed more relevant!

It struck me tonight that – this story is about free will. Specifically, the struggle to regain the free will that’s been lost. It vividly illustrates how important it is that people are given the option to choose our future, rather than have it cruelly and inevitably determined for us.

 

The Importance of FREEDOM in the Terminator Universe

John Connor is destined to lead the fight against the machines in the year 2029. There appears to be no choice for him in this. The machines will inevitably trigger the nuclear fire that will exterminate the majority of the human race – leaving John to lead the human resistance against them. This is a future that mankind is hurtling toward with no seeming hope of rescue.

But the movie doesn’t dwell so much on this future struggle. Rather, it focusses on the inevitable and impending nuclear holocaust we face in the here and now (actually…in the 1990s. T2 is now a period piece…). The movie asks whether or not this awful fate can be averted? And if so…how?

 

This is a story about the battle of wills – the machines against the humans – and the battle ground is free will vs determinism. The freedom to live one’s life and to make choices…verses the tyranny of a determined existence. I hesitate to call spoiler alert on a 25 year old movie…but spoiler alert if you’ve not seen it yet:

The future machine army is trying to regain their future freedom by sending back Robert Patrick’s T1000 Terminator to kill John Connor in the past (makes perfect sense to me). Using the T1000, they plan to be free of John’s annoying resistance.

Meanwhile, the core family of John, his mother Sarah Connor and Arnie’s ageing T101 fight for the present freedom of humanity. They are fighting to somehow achieve freedom from the inevitable, horrifying nuclear fire that…if it occurs…will act as a prelude to the future man-machine war that John will lead. Yet perhaps freedom from this impending future is possible? And if so – this could mean that the holocaust is averted and the machine uprising is prevented?

 

Everyone is trying to regain their freedom in this film. Does the family succeed? Perhaps – with the awful cost of Arnie’s T101. Man – this scene tugs at one’s heart strings even more in 3D!

 

The Importance of Freedom to the Christian Worldview

James Cameron’s T2  has endured for many reasons. One of them – is the theme of human freedom that runs deeply through it. “There’s no fate,” Sarah Connor carves in a tabletop. There’s no fate but what we make. The future’s not set. At least it shouldn’t be set…

This is all a very Christian perspective on life. We are made with free will, the Bible tells us. We are urged to choose a life of obedience to God and his ways, going all the way back to Adam in the garden. You’re free to eat from any tree…except that one, because the results will be bad for you.[1] But the fact Adam…and we are urged to obey, tacitly assumes we have a choice in the matter. We don’t have to and we’re free to choose. God doesn’t set the future for us. We are not determined – we are free.

 

Whether or not God knows who WILL choose to obey him in the end or not (Molinism) we are free to choose now…and rightly so. We are built to exercise our free wills.

 

That’s why movies like T2 resonate so strongly. That’s why news reports where people have their human rights curtailed – and their freedom denied to them – provoke such outrage in people. Freedom is a core human value

 

The Problem of Human Free Will and the Consequences to Evil

What a shame then that this world contains so many examples where people exercise their freedom to curtail and remove the freedom of others. Nations threaten and intimidate other nations by firing missiles at them. Individuals find themselves being trafficked as a sexual commodity that is bought and sold to the highest bidder. Populations are wiped out in genocide.

 

Why doesn’t God do something about it?

If he’s there…and he cares…wouldn’t he intervene and rescue the suffering people now? Wouldn’t a loving God step in? Not necessarily. God created us with free will. He clearly wants us to exercise it. He wants people to have the freedom to live their lives…whether those people accept him or reject him. He’s not interested in coercing us. Rather, He’s looking for those who freely choose him and his ways.

 

Clay Jones makes the point that, when people ask why God doesn’t intervene in this world, they are not considering the outcome of that sort of intervention. If God somehow supernaturally intervenes every time someone begins to outwork acts of evil…causing others to lose their freedom….life would be very different for all of us. Actually, no one would be free any more.[2]

 

Yet as T2 reminds us…freedom is part of the core of who we are. We demand it – and rightly so.

What does this mean?

 

Imagine you are sitting at home with your partner and children, working on your laptop, and a pornographic image flashes up in your web browser…with a link urging you to explore further. What do you do? Your family are sitting there with you. At that moment – your freedom is curtailed. You might want to explore further – but you cannot. You aren’t free to do so because of the negative impact this would surely have on your partner and your children at that moment.

 

Now – perhaps in this instance, that’s a good thing. You’ve been given an easy way out to avoid the pornography. But if you lived every moment of your life with the gaze of a controlling deity…you would not ever be free in ANYTHING.

 

So it would be if God intervened miraculously every time someone began to cruelly remove someone else’s freedom. Everyone would be forced to acknowledge God whether they wanted to, or not. We would resent being coerced into worshipping him.

But that’s not what God wants. That’s not the way God works. He gives enough evidence for people to find him and engage with him if they wish to. But he doesn’t give himself away too much. One reason is, He wants to protect our free will.

 

That’s not to say there won’t be a final accounting for our use of our free will…because the Bible warns of a final judgement when everything concealed will be revealed…when justice will be seen to be done by every person. We’re accounted to live once…and then there’s the judgement.[3] Judgement Day is real…but it’s not Cameron’s proposed nuclear fire. It happens subsequently. (Aside: 4Ward’s VFX work showing the nuclear fire consuming LA really SHINES in the new T2 release. Chilling…yet you have to watch it.)

 

But in the here and now, in the same way we are free to exercise our wills, God’s also free to exercise his. He is free NOT to intervene…to ensure our freedom in the here and now. Yet whether we like it or not…it seems that our future is bound up with him. There are positive and negative consequences to the free will choices that we make in our lives now.

 

Image courtesy of Phil Cooden, https://flic.kr/p/Xa4KbR.

[1] Genesis 2:16-17.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers, 2017), 109-158.

[3] Hebrews 9:27.

RESPONDblog: Why Does God Hide?

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“If God’s there, doesn’t he want me to follow him?”

I know many people who just do not understand why my life features a God element to it. “Why do you spend so much time in churches, Stuart? I just don’t see the point…I just don’t see any evidence that God’s there.”

 

But sometimes they will go a step further. Not only doesn’t there seem to be any evidence for God…it seems to them that if He is there…God hides himself. And that just doesn’t make any sense. That’s just stupid.

“If God’s there, doesn’t he want me to follow him? To do the right thing? To worship Him?” Why would God hide himself from us? Unless the hiddenness of God is yet another reason to say that…actually God’s not hidden…he’s just not there at all?

 

What is interesting is that in the Bible, we see evidence that God does consciously hide himself. He doesn’t make his appearance too obvious to us.

 

“Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.”[1]

 

In his book, “Why Does God Allow Evil”, Clay Jones makes an important observation about this seemingly counter intuitive truth about the Christian God. He’s not hidden because He’s not there…He’s hidden because He chooses to be.

 

Why?

 

Clay offers three reasons:

 

1 – Because if He was too obvious, then everyone would be compelled to call themselves Christians.

Often the sceptic thinks this is what Christians want. Well – it shouldn’t be – because it’s not what God wants. God honours our free will.

He doesn’t want to compel anyone to follow Jesus. Why? Because God intends each of us to exercise our God given freedom to choose.

Another way of putting this is – “if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakeable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge.”[2] If we are compelled to do the right thing because we are under constant supervision, then what does this mean? It means we aren’t free to do what we want to do. If there’s a fiery sword in the sky that comes down on anyone who breaks the rules – what will happen? We will have a human population that works hard NOT to get cut in half! People will feign loyalty to God as a survival strategy.

This isn’t what God wants. He wants people to choose willingly to follow Him.

 

2 – Because He gives enough evidence for those who want to know Him.

There are various instances in the Gospels where Jesus could have done more miracles to compel the people in a town to follow him. In one particular town, it was the religious people who demanded more of his credentials. Yet he refused. Why? Didn’t Jesus want to build up a crowd of followers…like the other rabble rousers in first century Jerusalem? No.

Jesus didn’t want to compel anyone. Rather, He gave enough to justify the belief of those who willingly chose to follow. But he didn’t give too much, and so force everyone else to feign loyalty….to pretend to follow on the outside, while growing in resentment on the inside.

Have you ever gone to a party unwillingly? Perhaps you didn’t know the host, or you knew them and were too polite…or dishonest…to say no to the invitation! How does that feel? Well – probably along the lines of, “When will this ordeal end?”

God gives enough evidence to nurture obedience and relationship…and nothing more. He doesn’t want anyone to miss out, but in the end he only wants people at the party who actually want to be there.

 

3 – Because if He was too obvious, people would be rendered spectators rather than obedient followers.

If God constantly intervened in the affairs of life, this would disempower us…not empower us.

Imagine you start a new job, and the boss is there to welcome you into your new position. But then – after your induction – he sits across the office and stares at you. Every email you write, every meeting you attend, every visit to the bathroom has to go through him…and he has to be there while you are doing it. What would you do?

I know what I would do – I wouldn’t stay in that job very long. Why? Because I’d start to second guess every email, every meeting…and possibly every toilet break! I’d start to say – tell you what – why don’t you write this email and run this meeting for me? Then you will get what you clearly want. If I’m employed to do something then I need to have the freedom to do it. I am accountable to the management – absolutely. But I can’t be micromanaged every step. If I am…I am disempowered. And that just doesn’t make sense.

God is not like that micromanager. He wishes to empower, not disempower. He’s wise enough to know how much is enough to get us started and moving in the right direction. But he does not smother us on the journey.

 

 

The thing about God as we find him in the Bible – is that he wants to know us. He wants a relationship based on choice and honesty. It’s not his plan to compel anyone in this. Instead, He draws us toward him. And maybe for us today…we’re not fully there yet. But know that – He is there, and He does long for you to be close with Him.

 

“I led them with chords of human kindness, with ties of love. To them I was like one who lifts a little child to the cheek, and I bent down to feed them.”[3]

 

Image courtesy of Pixabay.

[1] Isaiah 45:15.

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil, (Eugene: Harvest House Publishers), 111.

[3] Hosea 11:4.

RESPONDblogs: Have Scientists Just Disproved a Major Biblical Event?

The LADbible reported on a cool scientific discovery that was made recently.

LADbible – Science Has Just Disproved a Major Biblical Event

 

Their report says the scientific discovery shows that a well known event mentioned by the Old Testament – that Richard Dawkins has famously mocked – did not happen. The event is the Israelite invasion of Canaan.

 

The LADbible article:

  1. Reports that Lebanese people share 90 percent of their genetic material today with 5 ancient Canaanite human remains from the city state of Sidon.
  2. Refers to the Bible passage where Israel destroyed all the Canaanite cities and annihilated its people.
  3. Suggests that if the Canaanite peoples were annihilated, they could not have directly contributed genetic material to the region’s present-day population. So, the Bible claim is false.
  4. Suggests if the Canaanite cities were destroyed, there would be archaeological evidence of this mass destruction dated to between the Bronze and Iron Ages. But there isn’t any. Again…the Bible claim is false.

 

So is the article right; does the science disprove the Bible? Or does it reveal Professor Dawkins’ famous rant to be nothing more than empty rhetoric?

 

I’m taking my lead here from Paul Copan, PhD. He’s the Pledger Family Chair of Philosophy and Ethics at Palm Beach Atlantic University.

 

Here’s my response:

1.Reports that Lebanese people share 90 percent of their genetic material today with 5 ancient Canaanite human remains from the city state of Sidon.

Ok. It’s incredibly cool that scientists can parse our generic material this way and detect geographic markers in the code. Amazing stuff…I want to read more.

 

2. Refers to the Bible passage where Israel destroyed all the Canaanite cities and annihilated its people.

I’d like to make 3 points here:

2.1 – The historical Yahweh Canaanite wars were unique for Israel.

The Old Testament records that Israel attacked three Canaanite cities – Hazor, Jericho, and Ai.[1]

Unlike other ancient near eastern nations, Israel was conspicuous for its humane treatment of foreigners. Its neighbours were not normally to be attacked, and foreigners who lived in Israel were respected and had the same rights as the Israelites themselves. They were not known for being a xenophobic people.

The Canaanite attack happened for a specific purpose at a point in time.

Further, scholars believe these three fortified cities were essentially military forts manned largely by soldiers rather than the general Canaanite population.[2]

 

2.2 The ancient historical setting takes some sting out of the language.

For example:

“Joshua…destroyed the Anakites from the hill country…totally destroyed them.”[3]

Yet a couple of chapters later:

“the Anakites were there and their cities were large and fortified…”[4]

But weren’t the Anakites (a Canaanite tribe) destroyed? Not so much!

 

There are loads of examples like this thru the Canaanite period.

For example, elsewhere talking about the conquest of Canaan, it says “you must destroy them totally….Do not intermarry with them.”[5] How do you intermarry with people who you have totally destroyed?

 

Scholar Paul Copan explains that, what’s happening in the Bible text is it is using traditional ancient near eastern language of the time. He calls it hyperbole…a bit like when we say, “Rangers played Celtic at the football today and slaughtered them.” They didn’t literally kill all of them…but they beat them soundly. The Bible’s not misleading or showing Israel up to be inept…it’s just using the language that the other nations used at the time for war. Again, Copan has specific examples of the other nations talking like this.[6]

 

So, if the Canaanite cities were military bases, then why does it say it was “destroyed with the sword every living thing in it – men and women, young and old, cattle, sheep and donkeys.”[7] Copan opines that this was a stock phrase that doesn’t imply non-combatants were there, the language was used to mean take the military installation.[8]

 

 

2.3 The Old Testament texts of Joshua and Judges do not therefore claim that Israel annihilated everyone in Canaan.

When we read the Bible text all the way through, rather than stop at the difficult bits, we find that while a military engagement did occur and Canaanite soldiers and leaders were killed, these people were not totally wiped out by Israel. As Copan says, “The people’s who had apparently been wiped out reappear in the story. Many Canaanite inhabitants simply stuck around.”[9]

 

 

3. Suggests that if the Canaanite peoples were annihilated, they could not have directly contributed genetic material to the region’s present-day population. So, the Bible claim is false.

But who’s saying the Canaanite people were totally annihilated? As we’ve seen, it’s not the Bible. No, it’s Professor Dawkins who says this.

The cool genetic data actually confirms what the Bible has been saying all along, that the Canaanites stuck around and became part of the Israelite nation after they invaded.

If anyone is challenged by the science, it’s actually Professor Dawkins, not the Bible.

 

4. Suggests if the Canaanite cities were destroyed, there would be archaeological evidence of this mass destruction dated to between the Bronze and Iron Ages. But there isn’t any. Again…the Bible claim is false.

Where’s the evidence of mass destruction? Well – there wasn’t any mass destruction. Israel had very specific battles in three fortified cities. Archaeologists are working to identify these areas and they have some clues as to where they were. But the destruction was minimal and contained.

Copan again – “The archaeological language support the biblical text…minimal observable material destruction in Canaan as well as Israel’s gradual infiltration, assimilation and eventual dominance there.”[10]

Besides, there is other archaeological evidence that Israel was in Canaan at this time. So, the invasion’s not really in doubt historically.[11]

 

 

Conclusion

The LADbible are right – the science is disproving something here. But I would suggest it’s not the Bible. The science doesn’t reveal Bible deficiencies, but it does ironically show up Professor Dawkins and his faulty understanding of the Bible. So, can we lay his well-worn, false rhetoric to rest now?

The science affirms the Bible’s claim that the Canaanite people gradually became part of the Israelite nation[12] following Israel’s invasion. God’s not shown to be an “ethnic cleanser” in the Bible.

 

But does it still bug you that Israel invaded Canaan in the first place? Me too. But, again, Copan has some ideas on that that are worth exploring…

”think along the lines of the Sicilian police invading a Mafia stronghold to remove a corrupting network of crime so that citizens can live in peace, rather than fear.”[13]

 

Image is Public Domain.

[1] Joshua 8:18-19, Joshua 9:3, Joshua 11:10-11.

[2] Paul Copan, Is God a Moral Monster: Making Sense of the Old Testament God, (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 2011), 176.

[3] Joshua 11:21-22.

[4] Joshua 14:12-15.

[5] Deuteronomy 7:2-3.

[6] Copan, 172.

[7] Joshua 6:21

[8] Copan, 176.

[9] Copan, 171.

[10] Copan, 185.

[11] The Merneptah Stele: Earliest evidence for Israel in Canaan? Bible Apologetics, https://bibleapologetics.wordpress.com/2011/04/21/the-merneptah-stele-earliest-evidence-for-israel-in-canaan/, accessed 31st July 2017.

[12] Joshua 13:1-7.

[13] Copan, 167.

RESPONDblog: Do the Gospel Writers Speak the Truth?

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The Gospel writers claim to have recorded what Jesus said and did. How do we know they haven’t embellished history beyond the bounds of ancient biography as they did so? Should the Gospels be trusted or rejected as hopelessly un-historic?

 

Professor Simon Greenleaf didn’t think they were un-historic.

He lived in the 19th century, practiced law throughout his life, held the Royal Professorship of Law and Dane Professorship at the Harvard Law School, and played a major part in forming Harvard’s coveted reputation. The London Law Journal of 1874 said of Greenleaf, “It is no mean honour to America that her schools of jurisprudence have produced two of the first writers and best esteemed legal authorities of this century…Judge Story…and…Professor Greenleaf.”[1]

 

Greenleaf believed that the New Testament Gospel writers would be taken as reliable witnesses in a court of law. Their writings should be viewed as historic. Greenleaf proposed five tests that led him to that conclusion:

 

Greenleaf Test #1 – Are the Witnesses Honest?

Do they honestly say what they believe to be true? The Gospels show many instances of the writers’ openness and sincerity. Historians sometimes call this the criterion of embarrassment.

The writers deal with such uncomfortable situations such as:

  • The many failures of Jesus’ disciples.
  • The occasional harshness of Jesus’ teaching.
  • Jesus’ anguish as he faced his own death.

Greenleaf concluded the gospel writers were, “good men, testifying to that which they had carefully observed and considered, and well knew to be true.”[2]

 

Greenleaf Test #2 – Do the Witnesses Have Ability?

Did they have the opportunity to observe the situations they record? How well were they able to evaluate what they had seen and researched from other eyewitnesses? What about their ability to remember things?

Peter (Mark), John and Matthew had many opportunities to observe these events first hand. All three claim to have seen the resurrected Christ.

Luke was a physician and Matthew a tax collector. Both occupations required exactness in evaluation and reporting.

There’s no reason to question their mental abilities.

“the writings…indicate…mental vigour, as well as cultivated intelligence. The Gospels…reveal that elegance of style and lofty imagery which are invariably characteristics of intellectual depth and culture. The ‘ignorant fishermen’ idea is certainly not applicable to the Gospel writers…”[3]

 

Greenleaf Test #3 – Are there Sufficient Numbers of Witnesses and are they Consistent?

Greenleaf reports that the number and authenticity of the witnesses would satisfy any court.

“There is enough of a discrepancy (their own form and style) to show…no previous concert among them…[yet] substantial agreement as to show that they all were independent narrators of the same great transaction.”[4]

 

Greenleaf Test #4 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Conform to Our Experience?

This might be where things get tricky. After all, the Gospels report various miraculous events, culminating in the resurrection of Christ from the dead. Who’s seem a real miracle in their lives?

It turns out, MANY people have experienced what they believe are miracles. Craig Keener has done one of the biggest studies into miracle claims of all sorts in every human culture, and has come to this conclusion on miraculous physical healing:

“Hundreds of millions of people worldwide claim to have experienced or witnessed what they believe are miracles. Eyewitness claims to dramatic recoveries appear in a wide variety of cultures, among Christians often successfully emulating models of healings found in the Gospels and Acts. Granted, such healings do not occur on every occasion and are fairly unpredictable in their occurrence; yet they seem to appear with special frequency in cultures and circles that welcome them.”[5]

 

Greenleaf himself urges an attitude of following the facts to their conclusion, even if the testimony is unusual. On the Gospel reports of Jesus healing miracles, he states:

“In every case of healing, the previous condition of the sufferer was known to all; all saw…restoration…these…were facts, plain and simple…comprehended by persons of common capacity and observation.

If they were separately testified to, by different witnesses…the jury would be bound to believe them”[6]

These witnesses were credible.

 

Greenleaf test #5 – Does the Testimony of the Witnesses Coincide with Contemporaneous Facts and Circumstances?

There are various instances where the Gospel writers clearly speak accurately about the geography, history and social factors at work in their day.

For example:

1 – The Pavement

Jesus trial before Pontius Pilate is reported to have occurred in an area known as “the Pavement.”

“When Pilate heard these words, he brought Jesus outside and sat on the judge’s bench at a place called The Stone Pavement, or in Hebrew Gabbatha.”[7]

If the pavement is fabricated, maybe the whole trial is?

But there’s good evidence to suggest that the pavement is not fabricated, because the archaeological evidence suggests it has most probably been located.[8]

 

2 – The Pool of Bethesda

This is mentioned in John chapter 5 with reference to a healing miracle of Jesus. This pool is apparently not referenced by any other historical document, yet was excavated and identified recently.[9]

 

 

In summary, dishonest witnesses tend to be guarded in what they say, avoiding detail that might reveal them as dishonest. Yet the Gospel witnesses are refreshingly open with details that are cross checked with what else scholars have learned about life in those days.

 

The evidence suggests therefore that the Gospel writers speak the truth.

 

 

Image courtesy of http://www.pexels.com.

[1] Cited in Ross Clifford, Leading Lawyers’ Case for the Resurrection, (Edmonton: Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, & Public Policy, Inc), 43.

[2] Clifford, 45.

[3] Cited in Clifford, 46.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Craig S. Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic), Kindle Edition, 2012, Loc 5814.

[6] Cited in Clifford, 48.

[7] John 19:13, NRSV.

[8] Pavement Stone at Fortress of Antonia, Bible History, http://www.bible-history.com/past/jesus_trial_pavement.html, accessed 26th July 2017.

[9] The Bethesda Pool, Site of One of Jesus’ Miracles, Bible History Daily, http://www.biblicalarchaeology.org/daily/biblical-sites-places/jerusalem/the-bethesda-pool-site-of-one-of-jesus%E2%80%99-miracles/, accessed 26th July 2017.

RESPONDblogs: PART 2 – Isaac Newton – Scientific Revolutionary…and…Theologian?

isaac newton two

In part 1 of this blog, I presented a case based on Isaac Newton’s published writings. I said that he was both:

  1. a brilliant scientific revolutionary and
  2. a passionate, counter-cultural believer in God

He passionately grappled with both Nature and Scripture to understand the God who’s influence he saw there. Even though his conclusions put him at risk from 17th century society’s heresy laws. He studied both of these revelations (nature and scripture) to the glory of God.

Why does this matter today? Well, I would suggest it matters for three reasons.

First, mankind’s greatest scientific mind believed passionately in God.

Newton’s influence can’t be understated in scientific terms. He laid the foundation of optics, he formulated the law of universal gravitation, and he invented calculus. His book Principia, “was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.”[1]

And he embraced the theological implications of science. Faith and reason were not opposites to the brilliant mind of Isaac Newton. We cannot brush his religious faith under the carpet or frame it as simple and empty self-serving political posturing. Why? Because of the evidential passion of his belief in God that overflows in his private theological writings.

Since 2008, the Newton Project at Oxford University have been publishing the 2.2 million words of Newton’s religious works online. “The papers demonstrate that in this field Newton was a thinker of the highest calibre and intellectual daring, though our respect for his courage may well be tempered by the fact that he published almost nothing of it in his lifetime. “[2] We looked at that in more detail in part 1.

Holding both scientific and Christian perspectives on life made sense to Newton.

 

Second, Newton challenges us to follow his example.

He searched the scriptures trying to understand who his Creator was. He worked hard at it, and he held the Bible in high regard; he devoted his life to it. He spent more years writing Theology works than his works on nature.

If the greatest scientific mind can apply his reasoning abilities to God, then, why shouldn’t we? Are we saying we know better than him? Are we saying that belief in God is evidentially less reasonable in the 21st century than it was in the 17th century?

Some might suppose that, if Newton was alive today, he would be part of the ranks of the enlightened atheistic thinkers. After all, science has discovered so much more about how the Universe works now. Yes, it has. And as it has done so, it has stood atop Newton’s shoulders. In modern times, we do understand more about the Universe we live in. But one thing hasn’t changed. In fact, one thing is becoming much more pressing with each scientific discovery that we make. Newton understood that thing at his time, and he would no doubt have seen it more clearly now. What is that thing?

Evidence for God’s work is found in what we DO understand…not what we DON’T understand.

In speaking of the planets and their motion, Newton observed:

“To make this system therefore with all its motions, required a Cause which understood and compared together the quantities of matter in the several bodies of the Sun and Planets and the gravitating powers resulting …to compare and adjust all these things together in so great a variety of bodies argues that cause to be not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in Mechanics and Geometry….[this] system was the effect of choice rather than of chance”[3]

In other words, the fine-tuned mechanics of this system requires the influence of a skilled designer. Chance and natural alone is unable to account for the universe. Newton didn’t find evidence for God in the 17th century gaps of scientific knowledge. He found the evidence in the whole system of this universe. There’s no reason to suggest he would think any differently today.

Someone might complain, “But Stuart, he didn’t even agree with your basic tenants of Christianity! Are you saying he was right to do that?” He disagreed with the Christian belief in the Trinity for sure; God as Father, Son and Spirit. Personally, I’ve wrestled with various Christian doctrines throughout my life. I know what wrestling feels like. I’m not trying to somehow portray Isaac Newton as an evangelical Christian from the 21st century. What I am saying is that his reason led him to embrace and passionately wrestle with a personal belief in God as Creator involved with his creation. Newton was no deist. And he chose to spend his life diligently trying to understand the God who is present and active.

How about us?

 

 

3 – Newton puts a stake through the heart of the notion that science and God are incompatible

John Lennox, Professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says it so well.[4] He describes the supposed antipathy between science and religion as a myth. The real conflict is not between science and religion. It’s between theism and naturalism.

We can see that as we review the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics. There have been winners who are Christians; there have been winners who are atheists. If belief in God is irrational, then what’s a Christian doing winning a Nobel Prize?  Clearly the battle does not involve science.

Actually, it is a battle of opposing world views. It’s a conflict between two beliefs:

  • naturalism (the universe is all there is) and
  • theism (God created the universe with creatures who are both material and spiritual at the same time)

The point is that neither theism or naturalism are statements of science, they are both statements of belief. When Newton makes a case for God, that’s not science speaking, it’s Newton. When the brilliant Richard Hawking, famed modern scientist, makes a case for atheism that’s not science speaking, it’s just Hawking.

The reality is, faith is essential to science. I come to a place of trust in a position, and I reason on the basis of my trust. Faith and reason closely work together. And in Newton, we see that faith in God is the motor that drove science forward.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this; is there evidence for my belief? How trustworthy is my belief? Why do I believe it? Because it’s going to influence my life.

And it’s here we reconnect with Isaac Newton.

“Don’t doubt the Creator, because it is inconceivable that accidents alone could be the controller of this universe.”

Science and belief in God are not enemies; theism and naturalism are.

 

4 – Newton’s big question is – how good is the evidence for my belief?

Here’s a final example, again from Lennox[5].

Stephen Hawking has until recently held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. And he’s an atheist. He believes that the Universe came from nothing. The existence of gravity, naturally will result in the formation of the universe. From nothing.

Do you know who the second holder of that chair was? Isaac Newton.

Here’s the irony. Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity and believed in God. Stephen Hawking, who also occupied Newton’s chair at Cambridge, uses gravity as a reason not to believe in God.

Looking at both these men, it’s clearly not science that is incompatible with belief in God. It’s the belief we bring to our science. So – do we have evidence for our beliefs?

Do we believe with Newton that God created the Universe? Or do we believe with Hawking that nothing created the Universe? We have a belief, whether we like it or not. Once we’ve picked a side, it’s time to look at the evidence. And in that…Isaac Newton helps us. I imagine he would strongly reject Hawking’s “nothing” explanation for the Universe to this day. Why?

Because the original evidence, that Newton patiently observed and pointed towards, hasn’t changed:

“When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way ’tis due to nothing but industry and a patient thought.”[6]

 

 

Isaac Newton is a refreshing revolutionary in matters of science and faith. He challenges us to own up to our convictions, and to seek to evidence them. I think he really has done us a great service today.

 

 

 

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sir Isaac Newton: English Physicist and Mathematician, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-Newton, accessed 22nd July, 2017.

[2] Introduction to the Texts, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/introduction, accessed 20th July 2017.

[3] Stephen D. Snobelen, The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica: A Preliminary Survey, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/theology-of-the-principia.pdf, 7.

[4] John Lennox, Are God and Faith Anti-Science and Anti-Reason? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKzizwPwNWU, accessed 19th July, 2017, summarized.

[5] Lennox, Faith Anti-Reason? summarized.

[6] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 7.

RESPONDblogs: Isaac Newton – Scientific Revolutionary…and… Theologian?

newtonTim Peake is a British hero. He’s one of our most recent astronauts, spending about six months about the International Space Station (ISS) in 2016. Tim’s a passionate scientist, and he longs to inspire children to follow his lead.

When it came time to select a name for his mission, do you know what Tim called it?

“Principia”

Weird name, eh? Why choose that name? “To honour Isaac Newton’s ground-breaking text on physics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Latin for ‘Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy), which described the principle laws of motion and gravity on which all space travel depends.”[1]

Who was Isaac Newton? He lived in the 17th century, he started the scientific revolution, and his brilliance inspired later scientists such as Albert Einstein.

“He was intellectually daring…His achievements were so momentous that the term ‘scientific genius’ was invented to describe him” – Professor Robert IIiffe, Director, The Newton Project.[2]

Here’s the thing. When we look at Newton’s life, we find that he was not only a brilliant thinker and communicator of scientific principles that have changed how we look at the universe. He also believed in God.

Is it helpful to look at the Christian backdrop of Isaac Newton? Does this help make the case for belief in God today?

Some would suggest not. After all, “the Protestant faith of the Bible was a standard part of the upbringing of children at that time and Newton was no exception to this rule…. a certain amount of sincere religious piety…is to be expected…”[3]   There’s no guarantee Newton was a “Christian”. Isn’t it more likely that the brilliant Newton was canny enough to work out how to climb the ladder of academic achievement? In his day, this involved public agreement with Christianity. Maybe he didn’t want to suffer like Galileo did at the hands of the Catholic Pope? Maybe he was a brilliant thinker who played the religion game to get ahead.

Yet there’s a problem here. We can so easily view Newton thru the spectacles of our own atheism. A brilliant thinker, tip-toeing thru the powerful, irrational Western religious minefield of the 17th century. Newton was too smart to be a Christian. Surely Newton’s outward religious statements were simply a survival strategy. Newton was just as godless inside his head as so many are today! Right?

 

No – I suggest the evidence doesn’t leave this option open to us.

If we lay down our comfortable presuppositions and look at that evidence, we find a different picture of Isaac Newton that challenges atheistic worldview assumptions to the core.

 

 

1 – Newton wrote the most significant science book in human history.

I mentioned it in my introduction.

The head of the Royal Society library said of Principia Mathematica, “It’s not just the history and development of science; it’s one of the greatest books ever published…influential in terms of applying mathematics to basic physical problems.”[4]

 

2 – All editions of Principia combine BOTH scientific principles and theology together.

I’ve heard people say that you simply cannot bring God into science. Well, that’s evidentially false. Newton was way ahead of us and doing just that centuries ago.

His ground-breaking Principia opens with the statement:

“Behold the pattern of the heavens, and the balances of the divine structure. Behold Jove’s calculation and the laws That the creator of all things, while he was setting the beginnings of the world, would not violate; Behold the foundations he gave to his works.”[5]

Newton blends the discussion about God and physics together seamlessly.

“No being exists or can exist which is not related to space in some way. God is everywhere, created minds are somewhere, and body is in the space that it occupies…So the quantity of the existence of God is eternal in relation to duration, and infinite in relation to the space in which he is present”[6]

 

He added additional theological principles Principia in his second and third editions.

 

3 – He intended for Principia to help connect the dots between the natural world, and its Designer.

When a young clergyman named Richard Bentley once approached Newton and asked about ways his scientific arguments pointed towards God, Newton responded:

“When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way ’tis due to nothing but industry and a patient thought.”[7]

To someone called Halley, who verbally tore down Christianity in Newton’s presence, he was quick to respond. “Mun, you had better hold your tongue; you have never sufficiently considered the matter.”[8]

He fully intended his work to have application beyond the scientific disciplines, clearly pointing men to the Designer of this universe. And he was quick to challenge atheistic views that were clearly common in the 17th century.

 

4 – Newton wrote theology for longer than he wrote science.

Strange, given his scientific influence. But true.

He might be known for his scientific works, and he dabbled in alchemy too. But a lifetime of Bible study shows he was no reluctant church pew filler, or resentful, closet atheist. From his early thirties, Newton wrestled with complex theological issues writing works that deal with understanding Biblical prophecy, the Christian creeds, the Jewish religion and much more. He was no nominal religious observer. He was active and engaged. If we didn’t know that, it’s because his writings were not published until 2008 by Oxford University![9]

If it’s true that Newton was more than a scientific survivor, but a passionate believer in God, then we would expect to see, “sincere religious piety and Biblicism on the part of a Cambridge scholar like Newton living when he did…more…passionate than common piety…and when we look at the decade before the composition of the Principia this is precisely what we find.”[10]

Newton was a scientist and a passionate, God fearing theologian. But he was an interesting type of theologian. He was a Christian heretic, at odds with the Christian establishment.

Newton was so invested in scripture that he came to very different conclusions about the nature of God. Raised Anglican, he robustly rejected Roman Catholicism, but he also rejected a central part of Anglican Christianity as well; “[he broke] with almost all his contemporaries in condemning the concept of the Holy Trinity as the central doctrinal plank of that antichristian religion that came to dominate the Western world.”[11]

Christianity has traditional held that scripture teaches God is three persons, yet one in essence. One God, three separate coexisting persons. Newton rejected this teaching, and risked life and limb in the process. People were either hanged or imprisoned for rejecting the Trinity at that time.[12] Yet Newton held to his convictions.

Even though his religious writings remained unpublished until very recently, there is some evidence that towards the end of his life he was gearing up to more actively spreading his understanding of true Christianity; some observe this creeping into to the second and third editions of the Principia itself.[13]

Newton passionately believed that Christianity, “was a simple religion, preached to ordinary people, whose central feature was the principle of charity (or the Golden Rule) rather than any abstruse claim about the nature of Jesus Christ or about the precise manner in which he had redeemed humanity by his suffering.”[14]

 

 

 

 

 

What can we conclude from his religious writings and his unorthodox, risky spiritual convictions? It’s wrong to downplay Isaac Newton’s religious convictions as “simply expected and therefore meaningless.” Not at all. He stood apart from his contemporaries and he risked his life given his beliefs in God.

 

So…Newton was a scientific revolutionary and a passionate believer in God and the Bible. So what? So, he challenges how we approach and live our lives today.

How?

More in part2.

 

 

[1] Principia mission, UK Space Agency, https://principia.org.uk/the-mission/, accessed 20th July 2017.

[2] Isaac Newton: The man who discovered gravity, BBC iWonder, http://www.bbc.co.uk/timelines/zwwgcdm, accessed 20th July 2017.

[3]Stephen D. Snobelen, The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica: A Preliminary Survey, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/theology-of-the-principia.pdf, 13.

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/science/2016/dec/05/principia-sir-isaac-newton-first-edition-auction-christies-new-york.

[5] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 9.

[6] Ibid, 18.

[7] Ibid, 7.

[8] Stephen D. Snobelen, Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/heretic.pdf, 31.

[9] Introduction to the Texts, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/introduction, accessed 20th July 2017.

[10] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 13.

[11] Introduction, Newton Project.

[12] Snobelen, heretic, 15.

[13] Snobelen, heretic, 26.

[14] Introduction, Newton Project.