Hope Still Flickers in Fearful Times

C S Lewis gave a talk entitled, “Learning in War-Time.” He was speaking to a group of undergraduates at Oxford University as they each faced the terrifying prospect of being called up to military service, and to fight in the war. He spoke words of encouragement and hope to those young lives. But his talk also speaks wisdom that applies to us today as everyone is facing the COVID-19 virus.

 

Here’s my own version of Lewis’s talk for us today:

This COVID-19 virus forces each of us to remember death. Is that grim? Well, this reminder would have been a great encouragement to the Christians of the past who always taught that we should be aware of our own mortality during our lives. They would have approved.

But this awareness brings a dawning realisation along with it. All our precious personal plans, hopes and dreams were always facing a final frustrating end. We just forgot about it. Yet we’ve been living in a universe all along that we must finally and personally come to terms with. If we used to think that human culture was unstoppable, then this crisis shows us how wrong we all were! If we thought we were building heaven on earth, a permanent place for us to experience ultimate satisfaction in our lives, we have finally had our illusions completely shattered. Culture is in tatters and in crisis now. But – these shattered illusions have come not a moment too soon! This shattering is good for us. We each need to reflect on our mortality. Urgently.

Yet for those of us who are beginning to realise that life is actually all about learning and humbly offering our lives to God, then there’s an important truth here. We are the ones who are pointing to the ultimate reality that faces all of us. There is true beauty to be  experienced in heaven after the end of our earthly lives. It’s not too late for everyone else to get on board with viewing life this way too, because doing so may just mean we lose this broken human culture, but finally gain God’s wonderful and everlasting joy in its place. And that – is a very worthwhile exchange.

 

That’s my feeble attempt to apply C S Lewis’s wisdom to each of us today.  You can read the original in – C.S. Lewis, “Learning in War-Time,” The Weight of Glory and Other Addresses, (San Francisco:Harper Collins, 1980), 62 – 63.

 

Finally, here are Jesus’ words on the matter:

Peace I leave with you; my peace I give you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled and do not be afraid. (John 14:27, NIV)

Why Might God Allow People to Suffer?

Over the last 10 years, I have spent time in Africa amongst rural peoples in Malawi and Mozambique. These folks do not have the comforts that we enjoy. Their lives are much more challenging as a result. The practicalities of gathering food and freshwater, and keeping people sufficiently fed is often a battle. Also, unfortunately, sickness is common. People are struck down by Malaria, and Aids remains a serious problem.

The reason I visited my friends in Africa was to encourage them in their Christian faith. These folks would often ask me tricky questions about many things. But – here’s one question I never got while in Africa:

“Why does God allow suffering?”

Isn’t that odd? The folks living in those regions probably suffered a lot more than I have in my entire life. I might wonder why I am going through a hard time. Yet they do not seem to think about this question to the same degree. What might that be about?

I wonder if it speaks to something that the Bible says. For example:

“Do not love the world or anything in the world. If anyone loves the world, love for the Father is not in him.” (1 John 2:15, NIV)

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth … no one can serve two masters. Either you will hate the one and love the other, or you will be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve both God and money.” (Matthew 6:19 + 24, NIV)

“And he himself has promised us this: eternal life.” (1 John 2:25, TLB)

1 – Don’t Get Too Comfortable

God’s message here seems to be this. Don’t get too comfortable. He’s warning us specifically not to get too attached to the world because our true home is where we will eventually live. Our true and lasting home is with God after death. It seems to me that the difficult daily lives of my African friends has firmly impressed this truth on them. They are aware that life here is short and hard. There’s not a lot to love about daily life, yet life is full of hints towards everything God has for them to look forward to. Therefore the suffering that is experienced here and now – is something to endure for a short time only. And it is part of the plan God is working out in their lives. So, asking why God allows suffering is actually pretty irrelevant. They expect this world to be hard. Suffering is as predictable as the sun rising tomorrow. There’s not much to love about the world. But the future is worth holding on for.

 

2 – Many People Have Made Themselves Comfortable

By contrast, we in the more developed countries have the opposite view on life. We have lots to love about our lives because they are full of lovely things. So – we’ve made ourselves comfortable. But we have a problem – our problem is that we’re not here to stay. We’ve forgotten that one day we’ve got to leave this world, we’ve got to give our seat to someone else. One day will die. Oh, we might admit that if we are pressed, but even so we’re hanging on to our seat and gripping tightly to it. We’re dearly hoping that we DON’T die for a long time. Also, while hanging on, our lives have become about maintaining our comfort level. So – when something comes along to challenge our comfort levels, it disturbs us greatly. What a contrast there is between us, and my African friends.

 

3 – Maybe We Need To Change Our Perspective on Life

There are many people who claim not to be interested in God, and who are sceptical about Christianity’s claims and God’s existence. Why would I have any expectation for life after death if I don’t think there’s a God, and it’s just all nature, matter and nothing else? Well – I would ask you to consider one thing that we can both agree on. One day, we will die. There’s nothing we can do about that. Sure, we can try to delay it by eating healthily and exercising. We can put it out of our minds by focussing on our careers, and doing really good and important work. Even buying things to make ourselves feel good. But in the end – none of those things changes the fact that – we will die whether we believe there’s a God or not.

From the perspective of the skeptic, I totally get why this question IS important. “If God is there and he’s good and powerful, why would he allow evil and suffering?” This is the cry of someone who is comfortable in the world!

If this life is all I’ve got. How dare I have my one and only life messed up! Well – can I suggest this complaint is less an argument against God’s existence, and it is more a consequence of our mistaken comfort in our lives. We don’t like the idea of our comfort being disturbed, but it MUST be disturbed to cause us to move. However much me try to hang on – we have another destination that we are heading to after we die. Perhaps we have to change our perspective, and live in the expectation that this new destination awaits us?

 

4 – Maybe God Has Purpose in Suffering

But if there is a God – who created us and is good and wise – wouldn’t he have a much higher perspective than we do? Think about this for a minute. How much do we actually know about the universe? Not a lot. So, why do we think that we might understand whether or not there are higher purposes at play in our suffering? If there is a God, wouldn’t he be able to permit suffering to happen for a greater good? Even if we don’t understand what these purposes are yet? After all, as parents, we do this with our kids all the time. We say something like, “you can play on the Xbox after you have finished your homework. You will thank me later.” Suffering – for a purpose. After all, if God exists then he made us, we didn’t make him. He’s our parent.

Maybe an important purpose in suffering is to disturb our comfortable lives, to get us to view life more like those in Africa do. I’m here for a while, I’m not here to stay. But – I’ve always got my eye on my ultimate destination.

Finally – wouldn’t it be reasonable to presume that when God says in the Bible that you will live forever, and then he sends the man Jesus to die and then be raised from the dead to demonstrate that fact, isn’t it at least possible that there actually is life beyond the grave? Isn’t it worth considering that as a possibility?

Can We Blame God for a COVID-19 Pandemic?

If God exists, then why do people die from disease? There have been many pandemics in human history. The worst in recorded history may have been the Black Death in the 1300s. One estimate claims it killed around 60% of the population of Europe.

It is always a heartbreaking tragedy when people die as a result of disease. Covid-19 is at the top of our minds right now. But there are also other natural disasters going on, like tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis.

Here’s my point – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of people in these situations. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for COVID-19

I heard the biochemist Michael Behe talk about Corona Viruses this week. No one knows why viruses exist, but we do know that they are an important part of nature, and have a positive role to play. They keep bacteria at bay, and they break bacteria up into its constituent parts.

He then used a metaphor. He likened viruses and the cells that makeup life to water. Water is vital for our survival, we need to drink it, and our bodies are composed of it. There are large oceans on our planet that are necessary for life. Water is all good. But – if one day we find ourselves on a sailing boat in the middle of the ocean in a storm, it would be natural to ask why storms have to happen. We’re in danger! But if the laws of nature exist, and oceans are a necessary good, then from time to time storms will arise. It’s just a consequence of these good things.[1]

In the same way, viruses do a lot of good in nature. They coexist with organisms, and given their large number, the way they interact with life there will sometimes be a storm in the “virosphere.” The virus does something unintended like a storm in the ocean. So in the middle of an epidemic…it’s bad…but it’s simply part of how nature is built. It’s an unpleasant side effect of something that’s good.

But – things WILL calm down. We just need to hang on. Behe advises this is a good way of thinking about the Covid-19 crisis right now. Hang on in the storm – stay sensible, follow guidelines and wash your hands. This will pass. The sun will come out again.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters Either

First – if God’s responsible for setting up the universe, the matter, energy and physical laws that comprise it, then there are going to be some parts of nature that are essential for our survival, yet also lethal if we get too close. For example, the cosmos if full of suns. Cosmologists estimate that important materials were cooked in suns during the early eras on our universe. Suns are where the essential elements of matter were prepared. Also, clearly, the energy given off by our particular sun is vital to our survival on this planet today. But what would happen if we got too close? Crispy! Not good for us.

Second – if we choose to walk around or live close to areas of natural risk, then we make a personal, conscious choice. I have many friends who live out in California in the US. They live close to the San Andreas fault. If there’s an earthquake, then they have chosen to live there and put themselves in harm’s way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics is just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – it’s possibly not going to be good for us.

Thirdclimate change is probably going to be the cause of many human deaths as time passes. That’s a tragic thought. But it seems that here, we are reaping the results of our own societal choices. You cannot blame God for that either. If he gave us a climate, we broke it. Not him.

Fourth – for one reason or another, one day you and I will die. We cannot stop it.

 

Why God Usually Does Not Always Save People from Disease and Natural Disaster

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from disease and natural disaster?

Well – I think sometimes he does choose to rescue people. I’ll give you a personal experience that may point to this at the end of this blog. But – I’ll be honest. I think God rescuing people from these situations is unusual, it’s not the normal flow of events. It’s a miracle. It’s abnormal.

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us?

Well – the Bible tells us that the core problem of the human condition is that we have chosen to reject God’s sovereign role in our lives. God’s created us to relate to him as God. And we have chosen to make ourselves God instead. We worship people and ourselves instead of God. Think of that as cosmic rebellion.

If God was always to rescue people from every potentially harmful event in life, what would this do? If a divine hand prevented every avalanche, every disease and oncoming car…what might happen?[2]

First – it would take away the consequences of our rebellion towards God. We would be deceived about the consequences of our separation from God…which is not a good thing. It’s not good to live as if I am my own God. If the real God were to encase us in cotton wool – and prevent us from experiencing the consequences of our choices – then we would never experience the reality of these consequences. If we want to live apart from God then – fine. But, there’s a risk for us in doing so.

Second – it would FORCE people who DO NOT want to worship God, to worship God!! Cos there is a big hand in the sky. People who don’t want to bow the knee, suddenly find themselves thinking they better bow the knee to God. They have to…because of the sky hand…so resentfully, they do. No – that’s not how God works. He wants us to come to him willingly, not under coercion.

Third – as I understand the God of the Bible, I don’t think he wants us to stay comfortable with the idea that it’s okay to live separated from him by our rebellion against him. He doesn’t want us to think humans can live successfully in separation from him. So – the risk of natural disaster may be a possible event that encourages us to come to God to get right with him. Why? So that when we DO eventually die, we will spend forever with him afterwards as he intended. There’s a hint toward this in the New Testament. Check out Luke 13 for some hints there.

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

Here’s a final thought. Earlier I said that – sometimes, for his own reasons – God DOES rescue people from natural disasters. So – what’s my evidence for saying this?

It was 21st October, 1971. I was 3 years old. My mother intended to take my baby sister and I to Clarkston shops in Glasgow. My dad had taken the train into work that day, leaving our brand new car at home so we could use it for our shopping trip.

Around lunchtime, my mum got us ready and bundled us into the car, strapping us in for the short journey from East Kilbride to Clarkston. She climbed into the driver’s seat, and put the key into the ignition and turned it. Nothing. She tried again. Nothing happened. What was going on? My Dad had used the car yesterday! It was – a new car!! They had never had troubles with it before. She pumped the gas pedal, she waited a while and tried again. The car was dead. Frustrated – she realised she wasn’t going to the shops that day. She bundled us OUT of the car again and went back into the house.

A few hours later on the radio, news of a devastating gas explosion in Clarkston broke on the radio. Twenty-two people were declared dead at the scene. It was later described as the worst peacetime explosion in Scotland’s history. And – with a deep sense of shock – my mother realised that if we had managed to get to the shops that day, we would have been in the middle of it.

My Dad came home from work, and my Mum told him the shocking news. They both felt great relief that we had not managed to go shopping that day, and we were safe. And then – a thought occurred to them. What about the car?

My dad took the car keys from my Mum, walked down the drive and opened the car door. He sat in the driver’s seat and turned the ignition. The engine burst into life on the first attempt.

 

I think – sometimes, and for his own reasons, God decides to save some people from the effects of natural disasters. I think on 21st October, 1971, that may have been what happened to me, Annie and my mum.

[1] Intelligent Design the Future Podcast, Michael Behe on COVID-19 and ‘Why Are There Viruses, Anyway?’, Monday 16th March, 2020.

[2] Peter van Inwagen, The Magnitude, Duration, and Distribution of Evil: A Theodicy, in Philosophy of Religion A Reader and Guide, General Editor: William Lane Craig, (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2002), 370 – 393.

Why Does God Let a Child Die?

When my wife miscarried our first child, we did not know why it happened. When I sat with my parents as my sister died of cancer, I saw in their eyes the same question, “Why?” We are rightfully concerned about our children and our families in light of Covid-19. But the loss of little ones at ANY time is a crushing experience.

The singer songwriter Gary Barlow put the devastating experience of the still birth of his daughter Poppy like this:

A head full of madness
And no where safe
When tears aren’t big enough,
And love turns into hate[1]

I don’t know why God allows particular children to die. I would not presume to give you an answer to that question. And in the rawness of this loss, there are no answers to give, only love and support. If that is where you are at right now – please know that my thoughts and prayers are with you, and my hope is that you have people around you that can grieve with you.

But as I’ve lived in the aftermath of my own loss, as the years have passed for me, I have come to make some important general observations that could help those who are further down the road with loss. I do not think the death of children somehow represents evidence that there is no God. Actually – quite the reverse is true. I think these losses speak of God’s good character.

What do I mean?

Well – I’m guessing that you, like me, value your free will? Ultimately, you don’t want to be forced into going along with anything, right? You make up your own mind, and you have a will that you intend to use. Also – presumably you, like me, put a lot of respect onto the observations of science. You notice how scientific methods have allowed us to work out how the physical laws work in our universe?

Here’s the thing. When children tragically die, it is usually the result of some form of natural event. Perhaps it is neglect. Maybe the result of natural law. For example, the law of gravity means that our planet orbits the sun. But it also means that if a child falls far enough, they will die. Disease is something we often cannot predict, but its relentlessly natural. It’s a destructive process that wreaks havoc on the child’s young body, and doctors can often observe the process unfolding. Natural law in motion.

Children do die in our world. Often it is preventable. But not always.

How are we going to change that? Well – let me ask the question another way. If children are not going to die for these reasons, then how long should they be indestructible for? Because that’s what we would be asking for. Right? If children must not die – they must necessarily be indestructible. Natural law is still law. Falling would still be a possibility, neglect and disease a risk. If children were not to die as a result, then none of these things would harm them. Perhaps because their bodies are impregnable, or because God miraculously intervenes every time to rescue them. So – the question is – how long should children stay indestructible? To what age?

It’s an absurd question, right? Here are some more significant problems with a world filled with indestructible children:[2]

1 – People would fail to learn that irresponsible actions towards children result in tragic consequences. We would not learn to act responsible towards children if they could not be harmed. The vulnerability of the young must be a constant reminder of our need to care for them properly.

2 – We would have unmistakable evidence that God absolutely does exist. Because kids would be supernaturally saved. And what would that do? It would be an onslaught on our own, personal free will. We would not be free to choose whether or not to believe in God because his reality would be staring us in the face. Yet that’s not how God wants it to be. He wants things so that we can choose whether or not to believe, and so that we are not coerced in any way.

3 – Tragedy like the death of a child teaches and moulds us as people. And while it can make some people very bitter indeed, if we respond to it in the right way, it can form courage and compassion for others within us. It can make us people who patiently support other people who are suffering the pain of loss.

 

You know, I love my children and my grandchildren deeply. I will do everything in my power to fight for their health, their safety, and I want to enable them to grow and flourish in their lives. But none of these kids can be my ultimate source of happiness. Because I do not know what the future holds. There must be a firmer place to locate my security and my happiness. And this is God’s call to me, I think. To find it primarily in relationship with him.

Barlow goes on in his song to say:

Fly high and let me go
That sky will save your soul
When you pass by then you’ll know
That this gonna take a bit of getting used to
But I know what’s right for you
Let me go[3]

In a sense, I agree with him. The time must come when we must let that lost little one go. But it’s not the sky that’ll save your soul. Rather, it’s the God who might not be answering your “why?” question, but offers security and happiness in the midst of this loss.

And what of the children that I, and my friends and family have lost? What of them? Well, Christians observe evidence from the Bible that suggests that young ones go straight to the wonder and safety of God’s presence if they die before they have had a chance to really live.[4] Whether they die inside or outside the womb…these little ones are safe in God’s hands. That’s the Christian’s hope for the child that has been lost. A firm hand under us as we grieve.

[1] Let Me Go (Gary Barlow Song), accessed 27th November, 2019, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Let_Me_Go_(Gary_Barlow_song).

[2] Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? Compelling Answers to Life’s Toughest Questions, (Harvest House Publishers, 2017).

[3] Barlow.

[4] For example, 2 Samuel 12:22.

Might COVID-19 Disprove God’s Existence?

Hey there – I hope you are feeling well and you are not suffering the effects of the Corona virus. And – if you have done, I’m hoping and praying you have recovered quickly. I’ve not knowingly contracted the virus at this stage. I’m not worried about myself, I am more concerned about my elderly parents and parents in law who have other health conditions. I will do all I can to help them and support them at this time of uncertainty. And – I hope you can do the same for the vulnerable in your life.

But – you know – every day is a time of uncertainty. Today is really no different in that sense. That there’s a pandemic in progress doesn’t change that fact. If we think we can control what happens in our lives – we are sadly mistaken. The unexpected is always around the corner for us.

What the pandemic might do, however, is cause some people to pose the question, “where is God in the midst of a pandemic?” Do viruses disprove God’s existence? My response to that question is – no they don’t. Rather, viruses serve as evidence of a Designer of nature. Covid-19 points to the existence of God.

In what way?

First, viruses point to the exquisite complexity and beauty in nature. If you want an interesting look at how Covid-19 attacks human cells, have a look here. All life is composed of cells. Viruses are different from cells because a virus cannot reproduce by themselves. It must enter and transform a healthy cell to reproduce.

That means a virus depends on the incredible and beautiful complexity of the cell for its existence. All of the incredible molecular machines that process information, build new proteins and assemble them – all this staggering cellular complexity is required for the existence of a virus.

Fazale Rana is a biochemist who says, “the cell’s complexity, elegance, and sophistication coupled with the inadequacy of evolutionary scenarios to account for life’s origin compelled me to conclude that life must stem from a Creator.”[1] I would agree with him. The complexity of the cellular machinery, and the viruses that interact with them, point to a Creator of this highly complex and finely balanced biological system

 

Second – viruses are thought to have important roles in nature. Bacteria are complex, single celled organisms. Scientists are still learning many things about viruses. For example, we have bacteria living inside of our guts, and bacteria is actually critical to the existence of life. They harvest inorganic compounds, and make other compounds that serve other biological life.[2] Bacteria can reproduce very quickly indeed. Yet, some types of bacteria are harmful to life. If there was nothing keeping bacteria in check, then the world could simply be inhabited by bacteria and nothing else. How incredible then that there is delicately balanced system involving bacteria, and a system to keep that bacteria in check. What does that? The virus! An important role of the virus, is to stop bacteria from dominating life in destructive way. So, we have viruses to thank for breaking up bacteria and stopping us being overrun by them.

Also, when a virus infects a bacterial cell, it breaks that cell up producing raw materials that can be usefully consumed by other life forms. So – again – the virus is serving nature in a positive way by creating food for life to consume.

 

Third – Christianity predicts the breakdown of nature. A tiny fraction of known viruses are dangerous to humans. Covid-19 is one of those. There are vast numbers of different viruses in nature and only a tiny fraction of them can harm us. Of course – if my loved ones are at risk of even just one of those viruses…it’s a big deal. But how does Christianity predict something like this?

Well, the beginning of the Bible recounts humanity’s rebellion against their Creator, and this rebellion resulted in their expulsion from the Garden of Eden, and God’s subsequent cursing of the ground. You and I were not involved in that rebellion directly. But – we have inherited the consequences of it, and we live our lives in the light of rebellion against God. There are consequences to all this. Nature is broken, and this has happened as a consequence of our rebellion against God.[3]

So, what? Why a diversion into theology? Well, there are a tiny number of viruses that threaten humanity. Of course there are. This fact is consistent with the idea that nature has become broken as a result of humanity’s Fall. It’s not a nice and comfortable truth, but it is there all the same.

 

Four – Christianity suggests that God may allow human suffering to draw us to think about eternal things. We are built to live for ever. That’s what the Bible says. Even when our current bodies die, our spirits will survive and we will receive new bodies beyond the grave. And – we will live there forever. Yet, few people actually live their lives considering their eternal destiny. We are so wrapped up in the issues and problems of our current lives here and now. Yet – if we have an eternal future beyond the grave, perhaps we would be wise to consider that future and how to orient ourselves towards it? Why? Because while this life is momentary, that future life will last forever. So why might God use suffering? As a way to wake us up to our destiny. As Sean McDowell says, “God may allow us to suffer so we move beyond our momentary pleasures and focus on what lasts forever.”[4]

Don’t get me wrong – I want to do all I can to protect the vulnerable and to help them. But – I do that in the knowledge that their ultimate destination – and mine – is actually beyond the grave. And so it is good to remind ourselves of that. When life is good and going along without any problems – its easy to forget this fact. Suffering isn’t caused BY God, but I wonder whether he permits it to waken us up to the eternal future awaiting us all.

 

 

Conclusion

This pandemic is not a good situation, and my prayer is that you and your loved ones come safely through it with minimal disruption and suffering. Yet – at the same time, I think this difficult time right now points to the amazing design of nature, the seriousness of the consequences of mankind’s rebellion against God, and our future destination in eternity. And for all of those things, I am thankful for Covid-19. As C S Lewis once said, ““Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”[5]

[1] https://www.reasons.org/explore/blogs/the-cells-design

[2] https://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2018/august-web-only/why-zika-and-other-viruses-dont-disprove-gods-goodness.html

[3] Genesis 3:14-24.

[4] https://seanmcdowell.org/blog/why-does-god-allow-the-coronavirus-4-christian-insights

[5] C S Lewis, The Problem of Pain.

What Makes Christianity Unique?

Did you know that it’s estimated that 4200 distinct world religions exist, and they all teach something different? Yet amongst all the world religions, Christianity is unique. Here are five important reasons why I think that.

 

First – Christianity is based on evidence that is open to scrutiny. For example, the New Testament says this:

Christ died for our sins, just as the Scriptures said. He was buried, and he was raised from the dead on the third day, just as the Scriptures said. He was seen by Peter and then by the Twelve. After that, he was seen by more than 500 of his followers at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died.[1]

This evidence is of the historic variety. If Jesus’ resurrection can be shown to be historically false, if we can find a better explanation for the claims of the New Testament, then Christianity can be dismissed. Does it surprise you that Christianity could be so quickly disproven? With Christianity, if the historical basis can be dismissed, then the claims of Christianity can also be dismissed. So far – 2000 years in – no one has made a convincing attempt at doing this…the historical basis is simply very strong by ancient standards.

Notice that this is not the case with Islam, for example. There is nothing to the claims of Islam of a testable, historical nature. We must just embrace it as a worldview and hope for the best. We won’t know whether we backed the right horse until the other side of the grave. As Welch describes the life of a Muslim, “throughout life people are tested by their Maker, as the Qu’ran says in 21. 35/36: ‘And We try you with evil and good as a test; then unto Us you will be returned.’”[2] Islam is a long term experiment requiring all your eggs in its metaphorical basket and giving no option for a simple historical evidential test like Christianity does. It’s a similar story with Buddhism. Craig Hazen puts it this way, “you had better get yourself a Zen Master and you are going to be working at that thing for a long time until you ultimately experience enlightenment. You might want to put that on the back burner until you push Christianity out of the way.”[3] Christianity is an evidential belief system, so if you are shopping for a religion, it makes sense to start there first.

Secondly, Christianity is the only religion where God gives salvation to us as a free gift. Christians refer to this as grace. What is grace? Well, grace is sometimes described as “God’s Riches at Christ’s Expense”. In other words, God generously gives us the richness of his love based not on anything we have done but based solely on what Jesus has done in his atoning death on the cross. Christianity offers a free gift of salvation and it’s the only religion to do this.

Islam doesn’t come close to this. Canon Andrew White, who has recently returned to the UK from leading the church in Iraq, is an expert on working with Muslims. He says this. “The trouble is a lack of forgiveness in Islam. I have looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any. If you find it, tell me.”[4] Further, some eastern religions place demands on us around meditation and walking over hot coals. Why put yourself through that first? Does it not make sense to check out something that is free first? Anyway, as Hazen suggests about salvation, “given that we are limited beings, it would make sense that God would have to give it to us.”[5] Christianity has a ring of truth about it.

Third, Christianity is a completely holistic life. In other words, Christian belief always holds in whichever sphere of life the Christian is currently in. We think the same way whether we are at Church, or our work or at home. We “get to live a non-compartmentalised life.”[6] Chan Buddhism, on the other hand, is about “cleansing of the mind from concepts and information by meditation and spontaneous action which can lead to natural illumination (tun-wu). This is sometimes provoked by riddles (koans) or questions such as, “What is the sound of one hand clapping?”[7] The Buddhist may deny logic in his religious life, but in his financial dealings or even simply in caring for his family, logic is essential. Abandon logic in the real world, and the Buddhist risks going bankrupt or putting their family at risk. Yet a Christian can remain the same, whatever they are doing.

Fourth, Christianity just fits and makes sense of the world. The Buddhist claims that “Suffering exists, but there is no-one who suffers”[8]. But how can that be? Hinduism is just as confusing. Joseph Campbell recounts a visit to Indian teacher Sri Krishna Menon where he asks, “Since in Hindu thinking everything in the Universe is a manifestation of divinity itself, how should we say no to …brutality, to stupidity, to vulgarity, to thoughtlessness? And he answered, ‘For you and for me – the way is to say yes.’”[9] In other words, it is not for us to use judgement, the Hindu way is to accept everything however moral or immoral, reasonable or unreasonable, fair or unfair. This cuts across everything within us that cries out for reason and justice.

On the other hand, Christianity looks our broken world full in the face. Our world is full of suffering because mankind has rebelled against the God who created us, and so our world is, “groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.”[10] We look at the Universe around us, and study the exquisite complexity of nature. From our limbs to our organs to the cells of which they are composed, life looks designed. There’s a good reason for that. The God we see in the Bible claims responsibility for that job.

Fifth, Christianity has the person of Jesus right at the very centre. Strangely, other religions want Jesus in their boat too. There is something about this guy! The Qur’an mentions him in a way that puts him beyond even Mohammad when it says, “When God said, ‘Jesus I will take thee to Me and will raise thee to Me’”[11]. Further, Hazen reports that, “Hindus have him as an avatar incarnation of Vishnu, Buddhists call him the enlightened one.”[12] So it would be reasonable to ask if all the other religions mention Jesus respectfully in one form or another, does it not make sense to start with Christianity that has Jesus at the very centre of everything it believes?

 

 

Conclusion

Study the different world religions, and you will find that Christianity is unique in these five important ways. BUT – you don’t need to do all that hard studying. Instead, try and dismiss the compelling historical evidence of Jesus death and resurrection. Decide whether you want to reject God’s free offer of love and forgiveness in favour of a works-based religion instead. Consider the benefits of a life that is holistic and that fits with the world as it is observed today. And finally, consider the person of Jesus who is at the centre of the Christian message.

Makes sense – right?

 

 

[1] 1 Corinthians 15:4-6 NLT.

[2] John R. Hinnells, The New Penguin Handbook of Living Religions Second Edition, (Penguin Books, 1997), 176.

[3] Craig J. Hazen, PH.D., Christianity and the Challenge of World Religions, CD, (Biola University, 2015), disc 2.

[4] The Vicar of Baghdad: ‘I’ve looked through the Quran trying to find forgiveness…there isn’t any’, The Spectator, accessed November 24th, 2015, http://new.spectator.co.uk/2015/11/isis-bombs-have-exiled-the-vicar-of-baghdad-to-surrey-but-hes-itching-to-go-back-to-the-middle-east/.

[5] Hazen, disc 2.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Spurgeon’s College, Exploring Other Faiths, (Spurgeon’s College, 2003), 9.4.

[8] Spurgeon’s, 8.5.

[9] Joseph Campbell with Bill Moyers, The Power of Myth, (Anchor Books, 1988), 83.

[10] Romans 8:22 NLT.

[11] Arthur J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted, (Oxford University Press, 1991), 53.

[12] Hazen, disc 2.

Why Empathy Can’t Ground Morality

 Showing empathy to another person is a highly moral thing to do. But can empathy ground morality itself? Is the following meme right?

I think the point being made here is that human morality is actually best grounded on the ability of people to empathise with others, to put oneself in their shoes and to sense where they are coming from. So, differentiating right from wrong simply requires empathy. And – by the way – religion is irrelevant. (of course)

Here’s a more rigorous version of this kind of argument proposed by Michael Stolte:

  1. We can come to know the warmth or coldness of an agent’s motives by empathy.
  2. Moral goodness or virtue consists in being a warm-hearted person, a badness or vice in being cold-hearted toward others.
  3. So, we can come to know the virtue or vice of others by empathy.[1]

I’m totally a fan of empathy. We need more of it in the world today! There would be less conflict if we took time to understand the other’s position. I myself have made it a priority to practice empathy wherever and whenever I can. I’ve not been as good as I could have – I need to improve. But – I want to.

Here’s the problem, tho. To suggest that human morality can be defined as our ability to sense where the other person is warm or cold hearted? Or to choose our moral actions solely on the basis of the other person’s cold or warm heartedness? It just doesn’t make sense.

 

#1 – Behaving Morally is not about being Warm Hearted

I can very easily seem to be doing the right thing, when inside I am not. Look, to be honest I can leave the house and speak to people very warmly all evening, all the while knowing that before I left I had an argument with my wife and I said some pretty unkind things that will need to be apologized for. Warm heartedness is good for building relationships with people, but it says nothing about my own virtuous state.

Personal morality is about showing virtue.

Surely a virtuous person is someone who shows courage. When they face undeserved accusation or persecution, they seek to courageously find a solution to the problem. They don’t just run away or hit back randomly. They exercise courage…and add to that patience and wisdom too. These are measures of virtue.

What about honesty? You don’t need to be particularly warm hearted to be honest. If you are the Finance Director of your company, honesty will pay dividends and may ensure the survival of the company, while empathy may help whilst chatting with your colleagues over lunch. Honesty is a truly virtuous character trait.

So – warm heartedness is great, but it doesn’t get you to becoming a moral, virtuous person.

 

#2 – Being Too Empathic Could Lead to Immoral Decisions

I think there are scenarios where relying too much on empathy could lead us to make immoral choices. What do I mean?

Here’s a terrible and extreme example. Imagine there is another 9-11 style terror attack. You, as a commander in the US Air Force, suddenly find yourself with two F19’s tailing a full Boeing 777 which is heading towards Manhattan. On board, the terrorists have stated their intention to recreate the horrific events of that previous tragedy. Also on board are over 460 passengers and crew members. Looking at the manifest – you have families on board. What do you do?

Well, if the moral action is dictated solely by empathy, you are going to be in a pickle. You will feel for all the thousands of people and fire crews working in Manhattan. But you will also feel for all the innocent people on board the plane! So, on empathy alone, are you going to make the tough and tragic call to shoot down the plane? You’ll probably be left stumbling over the right thing to do. And surely waiting too long, will result in bad consequences that could have been avoided. Surely an immoral choice?

You might say, well we need to consider the number of people involved here in this situation. There are fewer people on the plane…so fewer lives would be lost and many more would be saved. In this case, you are making a moral argument for the action based on practical factors, a sort of utilitarian approach. Well – that is fine, but you may have had to detach yourself from your empathy to make that clear headed decision? At the very least, empathy has failed in allowing you to choose right from wrong. So you’ve had to switch to something else – utility.

 

#3 Morality Isn’t About How Anyone Feels

What I mean is that, while people’s feelings are important, morality is about something different. One way of defining morality is like this. Acting morally is about being disposed to actively praise or blame someone based on a baseline expectation that everyone shares the same disposition you do.[2]

So, as a shop keeper, when you see the young kid come in, pick up a 6 pack of beer, and walk out of the shop, you are justified in actively responding to this situation. You run after him. You expect that everyone knows you should NOT steal. It is immoral. Sure, it’s also illegal. But first, its morally wrong. And knowing that everyone is on board with that perspective, you don’t just wave at him as he leaves. You chase him to get the beers back. Even if no human beings existed to steal beers from your shop…stealing would still be morally wrong.

Now – if you are a moral relativist you will have some issues with me there. (!) But my main point here is that empathy played no part at all in the situation I described. An overly empathic shop keeper might have let the kid get away with it. But he would not be doing that kid any good – he would be harming him morally. That kid needs to know there are consequences, right? If he doesn’t learn consequences, he might sear the moral capacity within him so badly that he grows up to think he can do whatever he likes.

Morality isn’t about how people feel. Rather, it’s about knowing that everyone knows there’s just some things that you don’t do, and others that you can do.

 

#4 There Is a Grounding for Objective Morality – God

To determine what is objectively right from wrong – you need an absolute standard to measure against. We do this all the time in many walks of life, and also in moral issues. When someone steals my beer, they are doing something that’s objectively wrong. And so – I will rightly challenge them. When something is objectively wrong or objectively right, it means that the moral status of that action is independent of people. Even if there are no people, the moral law stands.

So – if there are no people to ground this moral law on, where is it grounded from? It’s not religion, because religions are a human expression. Religions involve humans, if there are no humans then no religion. So how do we ground this moral law?

The Moral Law sure has power over us in life. People are always taking moral stands on one thing or another, whether it’s racism, the rights of the unborn child or poverty. Where does this powerful law that affects everyone – come from? It can’t come from people? Surely the only one capable of grounding such a thing is the creator of the universe?

[1] M. Slote, Moral Sentimentalism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 2010), quoted in Antii Kauppinen, “Empathy as the Moral Sense,” Philosophia (2017) 45:867-879.

[2] Antii Kauppinen, Empathy as the Moral Sense, Philosophia (2017) 45:867-879.

Challenging the “Dark Ages”

Science populariser Neil deGrasse Tyson, like Carl Sagan before him, makes much of the claim that Christianity held back science in the Middle Ages, marking it a dark time for enlightened and critical thinking.

“Ancient Greece – inferred the Earth’s shadow during Lunar Eclipses. But it was lost to the Dark Ages.”[1]

“Those afraid of the universe as it really is, those who pretend non-existent knowledge and envision a Cosmos centred on human beings will prefer the fleeting comforts of superstition.”[2]

The problem with all this is – these claims are evidentially false. The notion that Christianity held back science, causing a time of darkness for humanity, does not square with the evidence from history. The Dark Ages is simply a recent myth, suggested in the last hundred years or so.

Going all the way back to the first few centuries, the early Christians happily accepted elements of the Greek natural philosophy and built upon it. They realised all truth was God’s truth, and so natural observations were seen as a “handmaiden” to observations about God.

Tertullian (155 – 220) harmonised natural philosophy with Christian theology and promoted the science of medicine.

Boethius (477 – 524) identified the laws of nature in poetry, which are foundational to science.

Augustine of Hippo (354 – 430) said that “knowledge of nature acquires value in so far as it serves a higher purpose.”[3] In his commentary on Genesis, he applied Greek thinking about cosmology and nature in his understanding of the meaning of the Bible text. His influence on later medieval scholars was massive, and Augustine transmitted a “rich source of cosmological, physical and biblical knowledge,”[4] about the earth, its shape, its relation to the cosmos and so much more.

Development of the Academy

Critical to the development of science were the first universities. They started with Bologna in 1088 and by 1450, over fifty universities existed. The Catholic church resourced and supported the formation of the academy, giving those who worked there special privileges. The church didn’t oppose learning, it cherished it. “If the medieval church had intended to … suppress science, it made a mistake … supporting the university … [where] science found a home.”[5] The universities were self-governing and set their own syllabus. Greek and Arabic science texts were translated into Latin and taught. The church supported the development of the sciences financially, giving “more financial and social support to the study of astronomy [and the other scientific fields] for six centuries … more than any other medieval institution.”[6]

Medieval Flat Earthers?

But what about Columbus? Didn’t he prove to the narrow minded church that the earth was round and not flat? No – the spherical shape of the earth was argued by the Greeks long before the church, and the first Christian scholars carried this argumentation forward. It was not seriously challenged by anyone, taught consistently, and part of common literature from the 13th century. Medieval Christianity did not teach a flat earth. The issue for Columbus wasn’t battling narrow minded Christian theologians. And it’s a myth that the crew feared falling off the edge of the earth. Rather, they were concerned about how large the earth was, and the size of the ocean in comparison to the land.

Conclusion

The assumption that Christianity held back the development of science during the supposed Dark Ages is – a modern mis-retelling of history. Probably propagated to mischaracterise modern Christian believers as anti-intellectual. The truth is the opposite.

 

 

 

[1] https://twitter.com/neiltyson/status/692939759593865216.

[2] Carl Sagan, Cosmos, (New York: Random House, 1980), 332, quoted in Michael Newton Keas, “Unbelievable 7 Myths About the History and Future of Science and Religion,” (Wilmington: ISI Booke, 2019), 27.

[3] Gary B. Fengren, editor, Science & Religion A Historical Introduction, second edition, (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 41.

[4] Fengren, 42.

[5] Keas, 37.

[6] Keas, 38.

Are Atheists More Intelligent?

Showing your Christian convictions online leads to some people assuming you are probably irrational and so unable to think critically and logically. Now, as someone with an undergraduate degree in Computer Science, and two post graduate degrees in other fields (and a career in the development and application of embedded software) I’ve always scratched my head at this state of affairs. Why would anyone I don’t know, automatically assume that I am not an analytical or critical thinker? That I’m stupid? This feels like … bias. And maybe even raw prejudice. But is it generally true? Are atheists just generally smarter people?

One helpful person on Twitter assured me that the majority of Christians today are “poor and ignorant” souls. Well, a very recent study was done by Zuckerman and Miron, and their conclusion may bear out this Twitter opinion. The study says that “our findings support the view that intelligent people are less religious because they are more rational.”[1] Atheists are more rational that believers.

This is a fascinating conclusion. I think it struggles to account for a broad range of contemporary evidence suggesting atheists are generally no smarter than believers.

Let me explain.

First – because recent history is full of influential critical, scientific thinkers who were professing Christians.

Did you know that in the twentieth century, over 65% of Nobel Prize winners in science believed in God? That’s between 1901 and 2000. The majority were Christians, receiving awards for advancements in physics and medicine. Surely these fields require analytical, critical and logical thinking, and these individuals were at the very top of this game?[2]

Throw the net further afield, and the most recent study that explored the relationship between scientists and religious faith shows that over 51% of currently active professional scientists in the last 10 years have a religious belief.[3]

Clearly this data makes a compelling case that it is not a disadvantage to have a religious belief when it comes to an analytical job like a field of science. Actually – as an aside – I would argue that ALL people have a faith position. Everyone. We just disagree on the identity of the real God.

In summary then, I feel the assumption that atheists are smarter than Christians is not borne out in the field of science. In fact, the data might suggest the opposite conclusion, as more religious believers are Nobel Laureates.

Second – because there is evidence that the conclusions of the Zuckerman study were driven by skewed data and (ironically) incorrect correlations between data and their conclusion.

The problems with this recent study are discussed in the video, “Are Atheists More Intelligent”[4] and they make a rational, analytical and critical case. They argue that there is evidence that:

  1. The higher our IQ, the more likely we are to have a blind spot on our personal biases.
  2. The Zuckerman study defines religiosity in a confusing way, focussing on extreme viewpoints rather than the mainstream and conflating different viewpoints. On mainstream religiosity the data does not suggest Christians are disadvantaged regarding intelligence.
  3. The study does not quantify how much more intelligent atheists are compared to religious believers.
  4. Believers outnumber atheists in this study by 9 to 1. The equations they use does not work on this sort of skew in the data, so it generates misleading results that suggests atheists IQ was significantly higher. Yet this is not seen in the data they used. This renders the study results meaningless.
  5. Their measure of intelligence was completely non-standard, and ignored the gold standard measurements – Wechslier Adult Scale of Intelligence (WAIS) and Stanford Binet Test. They didn’t properly correlate religiosity to these gold standards.
  6. When they included university GPA scores, the difference in intelligence between atheists and believers was virtually non-existent and too small to have any practical significance. Did they choose not to include this measure because it adversely affected their misleading conclusions to the study? I wonder.

The folks analysing this study suggest that what is happening here is that Zuckerman et al are actually shoe-horning their own anti-Christian biases into this data.

Third – because there is mounting evidence that Christians in post Christian cultures are smart people.

Inspiring Philosophy also cite another recent study which makes an interesting observation about Christians in post-Christian cultures. In countries like England (where I happen to live), the link between analytical thinking and religiosity reverses. Here, it’s the atheists who tend towards less analytical thought. Why? Because for most people, there is a desire to conform to the mainstream, which may be atheism. The deeper thinkers are the ones who choose a different view on religiosity.

“In cultures where institutional religion is waning and where acceptance of atheism arises from tendencies to conform, it is possible that cognitive reflection may predict the rejection of atheism, a matter for future investigation.”[5]

This seems to suggest that people with low analytic intelligence tend to confirm to the majority view, whatever that is. This study suggests that to be a Christian believer in post-Christian England clearly takes work and the application of intelligence.

Conclusion

Atheists aren’t smarter than Christians. Contrary to the bullying and intimidation that happens online, and the prejudice that is sometimes shown against Christian believers, there is no convincing reason to suggest that higher levels of analytical thinking lead to atheism. So Christians should not feel any need to feel intimidated by those who are simply going along with the crowd, and repeating old atheistic ideas. When you take a good look at them, these ideas really do not hold up to scrutiny.

 

[1] Zuckerman, Miron, et al, The Negative Intelligence-Religiosity Relation: New and Confirming Evidence,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, October 2019, 10, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[2] John Lennox, How Many Nobel Prize Winners Believed in God, 23rd January 2019, accessed 26th January 2020, https://www.johnlennox.org/resources/145/how-many-nobel-prize-winners.

[3] Scientists and Belief, Pew Research Center Religion & Public Life, November 5th, 2009, accessed 26th January, 2020, https://www.pewforum.org/2009/11/05/scientists-and-belief/.

[4] “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

[5] Gervais, Will M. et al, Analytical Atheism: A Cross-Culturally Weak and Fickle Phenomenon?, 2017, 272, quoted in “Are Atheists More Intelligent?,” Inspiring Philosophy, 17th January 2020, accessed 26th January 2020, https://m.youtube.com/watch?v=v8WUr58HiCM.

Evolution and the Origin of Information Problem

My smartphone pings and the screen lights up. What do you do when you notice a message? Well, if I know the language it’s written in, I can’t help but read the message so I can understand what it is saying to me. What do I assume about this message? “Someone wrote it for a reason.” What thought NEVER crosses my mind? “This message arrived out of the ether without someone having written it first.” I’ve never ever considered that as a possibility. Even automated messages from my phone carrier company Vodaphone…were originally conceived by a person, even if they were sent automatically.

The message was from my wife. “What time are you home tonight for tea?”

It seems to me we make consistent assumptions about the personal source of messages, and this holds in virtually every area of life … except maybe one. Biology.

I was having a conversation with someone recently about the Darwinian theory of evolution and I brought up the problem of the origin of the information that is embedded in life’s biological structures. “Where does this information come from? Doesn’t this matter?” These questions seemed to be no barrier to believing that life occurred in a naturalistic evolutionary way for my friend. The origin of the information did not seem an issue, biological change and adaption of different species was the important thing to him. He seemed happy to accept that life developed naturally, simple single celled organisms all the way up to complex animals with skeletal structures and body plans.

One of my big problems with naturalistic evolutionary models is the origin of information problem. We know so much more than Darwin did in the 1860s. We’ve discovered that life carries a staggering amount of digital information around within it. Instructions like DNA, managing the production of proteins, systems to correct the errors that occur in the copying of the genetic code through natural means, and the hardwired instructions for building a particular animal body plan. This is a problem for evolutionary theory.

I’m not alone in being sceptical about naturalistic evolution as an explanation for the presence of life on this planet. Stephen Meyer puts it like this:

“Whenever we find functional information – whether embedded in a radio signal, carved in a stone monument, etched on a magnetic disc, or produced by an origin-of-life scientist attempting to engineer a self-replicating molecule – and we trace that information back to its ultimate source, invariably we come to a mind, not merely a material process. For this reason, the discovery of digital information in even the simplest living cells indicates the prior activity of a designing intelligence at work in the origin of the first life.”[1]

It seems to me that the issue is not whether genetic mutations and natural selection both occur. They certainly do. There is much natural evidence of both of these phenomena, although mutations tend to have a negative influence on particular beings (one dreads a cancer diagnosis in a family member). No – the question is, can random mutation and natural selection account for the rich volumes of digital information that scientists read and interpret in the various genome projects underway today?

Information theorist Henry Quastler observed this – “The creation of information is habitually associated with conscious activity.”[2] Information can’t find it origin in naturalistic processes. This is simply a category error. There are multiple categories of explanation available to us when explaining anything. Something may happen as a result of natural causes – or an agent may cause the event to occur. When it comes to explaining the origin of information, the rational way to go here – is to assume the originating influence of a conscious agent.

Lennox is fond of explaining it this way. To explain the car engine, we might discuss the physics of internal combustion, or we might talk about Henry Ford. Both are rational explanations and both are necessary for accounting for an engine. In terms of life origins, we can therefore expand out the analogy to say this. God no more competes with science as an explanation of life than Henry Ford competes with science as an explanation of the car engine. God’s an Agent-Creator explanation of the universe, not a scientific explanation.[3]

Evolutionary theory has great influence on how people think about and understand the world and its history. There are many different forms of this theory, and not all struggle with the problem I am pointing to in this blog – the origin of information. But naturalistic evolutionary theories – the ones that want to render God unnecessary in nature – certainly do. It’s a headscratcher for sure.

[1] Stephen Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72

[2] Quastler, “The Emergence of Biological Organization,” 16, quoted in Meyer, Darwin’s Doubt: The Explosive Origin of Animal Life and the Case for Intelligent Design, (London:Harper Collins, 2013), 72.

[3] John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything, (The Good Book Company, 2019), 384.