What Does Easter Offer to a Global Pandemic?

Tragedy touches a little family unit.[1]

Martha and Mary nurse their brother as best they can. But – the sickness worsens. They keep him home, in bed, safe. They sit, sleepy and anxious through his fever filled nights. Lazarus passes away as the sun rises one beautiful morning.

Martha dutifully makes the burial arrangements…pushing her grief and heartbreak to the side. But a sadness settles over them both, threatening to engulf them. Mary spends her days quietly now, sitting alone.

Friends visit offering condolences, but no help. One particular group of friends are returning home when they see a familiar face approaching on the road. His entourage walks with him. “Quick – someone needs to run back to Mary and Martha. Tell them Jesus is on his way.” The group walks past, and they nod politely. Yet at a safe distance, they shake their heads. “What a tragedy. He’s too late. If only he had come a few days ago, Lazarus might not have died.”

At the sound of his name, Martha puts her cooking utensils down, and slips on her sandals. “Mary – I’m going out. I hear Jesus is in the area. Do you want to come?” Silence. Martha leaves, her pace slow at first but the frustration and the questions building in her mind cause her walk to become a run. “Why couldn’t he have been here days ago? We sent word to him that Lazarus was ill. Don’t we matter to him? Is his public ministry that important?” Before long she is staring Jesus in the face, venting the frustration that had been building for days. Yet it wasn’t just frustration. Because at the sight of her friend, anything seemed possible.

“If only you had been here when we were nursing Lazarus. We buried him days ago now. What can you do Jesus? Can you help Mary and I? Mary just seems to have shut down…she’s not talking to me…”

Jesus speaks. “Your brother will rise again.” Martha stops – and her face grimaces in confusion.

 

Mary has joined Martha now. The grief and the heartbreak on her face, and in her voice, touches Jesus deeply. “Mary…Martha…show me where you laid him,” he asks.

As they approach the tomb, the waves of grief swell and finally, Mary and Martha began to weep openly. Through their tears they see the face of their friend Jesus. He too is weeping.

 

 

Is there Hope and Life in the Midst of Death?

Easter is about the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth, and the subsequent reports of his resurrection from the dead. Yet this year, 2020, Easter is also about a global pandemic which is claiming the lives of thousands of people every day. Does Easter bring any words of hope in the midst of death?

I think it does. And we see the hope of Easter playing out in this very timely story of Mary and Martha’s tragedy. The untimely death of a loved one. An event happening countless times each day today around the world.

Incredibly – there is hope – and life – in the midst of death.

 

 

What is the Hope?

In this incident we see three things:

First – Jesus enters into his friends grief.

If you want to know where God is in the midst of a global pandemic, then the answer is – he is in the room with every family who are wailing at the loss of the family member they could not comfort, hug or even say goodbye to.

“God, if you’re real, why didn’t you save my mum, dad, brother, sister, friend?” We give voice to Martha’s frustrated words. “If you’re there, God, then why didn’t you do something?”

God shares in this grief and this pain. Jesus weeps.

 

Second – Jesus doesn’t explain or excuse their suffering.

In Mary and Martha’s case, he does not patronise his grieving friends by attempting to give trite or easy answers. He doesn’t say things to avoid coming close to their grief. Quite the opposite. He speaks little and shares deeply in its reality.

Ultimately – no answer is going to satisfy us when we are railing against the death of those we love so dearly. It just isn’t. But maybe it’s not actually intellectual ideas we are actually looking for. Perhaps, rather, it’s an answer to the question, “Do we go on? Will I see them again? Will everything be alright?”

 

Third – Jesus himself is their hope in their tragedy.

Before Mary had arrived to join Martha with Jesus, Martha had been wrestling with the idea that one day Lazarus would rise again from the dead. And Jesus spoke to her in very simple terms. He said:

“I am the resurrection and the life.”

It’s not fancy sounding arguments that win the day. Its ultimately not even soothing words of comfort. It’s Jesus himself. Here with us. This little family could find their hope and their future in him. Why? Because he embodies life – he is the creator and sustainer of all life. What a miracle it is that people exist, living, feeling, thinking, wilful people like us. We’re not just biological machines, we are so much more. Jesus’ creative purpose is seen in and through each of us.

But on that particular day – Jesus wasn’t just the life, he was actually giving life to the brother they had lost. And so as Jesus speaks the words to the empty tomb, “Lazarus, come out,” these aren’t the words of a madman or the raw guilt of a friend who missed the funeral. These are the words of the one who gives life to every breathing thing on this planet, who creates and sustains each human being. And as Lazarus tentatively emerges from the tomb, and his sisters unwrap and embrace their brother again…we see nothing more amazing than Jesus doing what Jesus does. He gives and sustains lives.

 

Time passes, and it is the Jewish Passover. But this day, it is Jesus who is breathing his last. Scourged to within an inch of his life, nailed and crucified by Roman soldiers to finish the job. His body removed from the cross and laid in a borrowed tomb. And yet it’s here we see the truth that the earlier Lazarus incident had only hinted at.

Jesus had said, “I am the resurrection and the life.” Now he shows it again.

His tomb is empty. Jesus is alive, and we do go on. For everyone who chooses to go with him, we will be alright.

 

 

Poem By Sue McGee

The tragedy struck on Friday

So many were traumatised

The cross, he warned, was coming.

But they couldn’t believe their eyes.

 

The Lord full of compassion

Who fed their hungry hearts

Who healed their sick and raised their dead

Was now being torn apart.

 

Tortured and mocked before them

Then nailed to a wooden cross

He carried the burden of all sins

But for them… all was lost.

 

How could it ever be “normal” again?

Where do they even begin?

After heartbreaking trauma on such a huge scale…

Could Hope find a way back in?

 

But God…in His infinite Mercy

Amidst their doubts and pain

Provided the ultimate miracle

On the third day He rose again!

 

Up from the grave of suffering

Out of the tomb of despair

Jesus appeared and Hope was restored

He defeated death then and there!

 

Now here we are in 2020

Covid-19 banging down our door

A thief, a destroyer, a menacing threat

Can we return to “normal” once more???

 

The whole world going through the same trauma,

Our eyes all see the same pain.

Together we unite our hearts and cry out,

God show Your Mercy again!!!

 

Let us fix our eyes on Jesus

He walks through this trauma too

He promises never to leave us

He is intimately with me and you!

 

Listen to His still small voice whisper

Let Him love you through uncertainty

His friendship is an anchor

He knows your every need.

 

In Him we will find our “New Normal”

Trust Him to show us the Way

He lives and He is Victorious

Thank You Jesus for Easter Day!

 

[1] Adapted from John 11.

Responding to Extreme, Religious Covid-19 Reactions

I hope you are well, and this difficult period is allowing you some opportunities to rest. But if you are actually one of the workers during this partial lockdown period – thank you for your service! Stay well.

 

I’ve noticed over the past few days an increase in the volume of some quite extreme Christian groups. These groups seem to say things ranging from:

1 – true Christians will keep meeting in their churches despite the Covid-19 lockdown.

to

2 – this virus is a punishment from God

to

3 – true Christians will be immune to this virus

 

True Christians Will Keep Going To Church Despite Covid-19

An example of the first one is a quote I saw from Matthew Schmitz who said, “Unless religious leaders reopen the churches, they will appear to value earthly above eternal life.”[1] In his article, Matthew seems to rail against the way Christian churches have stopped holding public services. He views this response as basically stating that, “church is a non-essential service. We are capable of taking prudent measures to keep our supermarkets open, but not our sanctuaries.”[2] His opinion is that by doing so, the church views church as a non-essential service.

This reaction seems very strange to me. My own home church in Gloucester, and other churches I interact with in the UK and US, have adapted to the Coronavirus situation by conducting services online. They are working hard to grapple with the technology required to make this happen. If anything – I am seeing church leaders working much much harder to keep the heart of their church community moving forward, even if it is only virtual for now. I saw one hilarious tweet last week – “And just like that, we’ve all become tele-evangelists.” Well – yes, but rather in a positive and community affirming way.

I also know that churches are stepping up their services to folks in their local communities during this lockdown period. Churches in Gloucester (Kingfisher church included) are seeking to help the vulnerable by delivering food parcels to doorsteps. And, to provide increasing online support groups to the vulnerable – and I include everyone in that group. For myself, my Christian Apologetics group has moved online, and it is busier than ever.

So – I don’t share Matthew Schmitz’s opinion. Churches who value their members health – and also feel it important to set a Godly example by respecting the authority of national government – are right to move from in person to remote services. This shows the adaptability of Christian communities, a respect for authority, and consideration for believers and non-believers in our society. This does not devalue the Christian gospel. Rather, it applies the timeless principles to a new cultural moment.

 

The Virus is Punishment from God

I’ve also encountered Pastors who are calling this crisis out as an example of the wrath of God. Except doing so requires them to appeal to very time-specific events reported in the Old Testament that relate to periods of history unconnected to today. I’ve yet to hear any of them justify why any of those events have anything whatsoever to do with Covid-19.

So – my advice is – if you notice the book of Ezekiel talks about pestilence and what God thought about it, don’t assume that this has anything to say to events today.

 

True Christians Will Be Immune from the Virus

Margaret Court has reportedly claimed that “the blood of Jesus will protect the faithful in her church from the virus.”[3] The problem with this idea is it is completely foreign to historic Christianity. John Dickson observes this is actually root in the health and prosperity gospel. On the cross Jesus did not just take our sins upon himself, he also took our ailments too, so we don’t have to be physically unwell. This is a modern phenomenon and is not found either in the Bible or in church history.

The Bible

Ancient Israel was given specific promises in Deuteronomy about their wellbeing in the land if they hold to God’s promises. But there’s no evidence these specific promises would apply to other nations later in history, and the new covenant. In the New Testament, we are taught that everyone shares in human weakness and frailty. The Apostle Paul says in Romans 8:23, “And we believers also groan, even though we have the Holy Spirit within us as a foretaste of future glory, for we long for our bodies to be released from sin and suffering.” There is no evidence that Christians would be immune from this. So the Bible contradicts the health and prosperity gospel.

Church History

History contradicts it too. There have been many pandemics since the birth of Christianity, and these tend to show the church’s willingness to put itself in harm’s way to serve the needs of the suffering. For example, in 250AD, Cyprian, the bishop of Carthage, led the church through a 10 year empire wide pandemic. Yet he gave no hint that Christians would be immune from the disease in his writings. Like the pastors of today, moving to online services, he wrote hundreds of sermons down so that his suffering people could read and be encouraged in their suffering. In his work Mortality, he warned the Christians against expecting special protection in this fallen world:

“we should have no fear, no dread at the storms and whirlwinds of the world, since the Lord predicted that these things … It disturbs some that the power of this Disease attacks our people equally with the heathens, as if the Christian believed for this purpose, that he might have the enjoyment of the world and this life free from the contact of ills; and not as one who undergoes all adverse things here and is reserved for future joy…So long as we are here in the world, we are associated with the human race in fleshly equality, but are separated in spirit. Therefore until this corruptible shall put on incorruption, and this mortal receive immortality, and the Spirit lead us to God the Father, whatsoever are the disadvantages of the flesh are common to us with the human race.”[4]

Cyprian flatly contradicts the claims of the modern prosperity gospel. Christians are no more immune to this disease than anyone else. And – he encouraged those at his time who were discouraged that they were not immune. What Christians do have are two things:

First – the promise of eternal glory after death.

Second – a gratitude of spirit that motivates them to serve and support the suffering people in this world, whatever the physical outcome for themselves in the here and now.

It seems to me that the churches I am engaged with today are a lot closer to Cyprian’s ideas, then the modern prosperity gospel ideas that sadly pervades Christianity today. And – I’m happy and encouraged that is so.

 

[1] Matthew Schmitz, Church As a Non-Essential Service, First Things, Published 27th March 2020, accessed 30th March, 2020, https://www.firstthings.com/web-exclusives/2020/03/church-as-a-non-essential-service.

[2] Ibid.

[3] John Dickson, Pandemic Equality Single, Undeceptions Podcast.

[4] Cyprian of Carthage, Treatise 7, Mortality, New Advent, accessed 30th March, 2020, http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/050707.htm.

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?

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.

Surviving Philosophy Class

So – it’s the first day of your new Philosophy 101 class. Now, this is not a subject you know too much about, so you are a bit nervous. But – at the same time – you want to learn as much as you can from this class. So – you select a seat on the front row, and you sit down.

The professor greets the class and he says, “Here are five common Philosophical statements that you’ll hear regularly in our culture.” He starts writing…

 

  1. There is no God.
  2. You do not have free will.
  3. You do not know that you exist.
  4. You do not know that other people exist.
  5. You will not escape the death of your body.

 

He turns to face the class. “Sound familiar?”

You review the list and, for sure, numbers 1, 2 and 5 ring a bell for you! But what about 3 and 4? Actually – he’s made an interesting point. How DO I know that I exist…not to mention the other students in the room…and the professor himself?

The professor speaks again. I’m going to show you in a couple of minutes now how we are going to address each of these common philosophical statements in this class. And – by the way – I think all five of these statements are WRONG. Here’s why:”

 

1. We can argue that GOD EXISTS.

The Kalam Cosmological argument points to the universe and says this:

  1. Whatever begins to exist has a cause.
  2. The universe began to exist.
  3. Therefore, the universe has a cause.

 

2. You DO have Free Will

Studies on human consciousness and how we engage in the world as conscious beings give us overwhelming evidence that we do possess free will. And – frankly – we live each day of our lives assuming that fact. Besides – there is no good reason to suppose that you and I do not possess free will.

 

3. You DO Know that You Exist

Descartes in the 16th century said, “I think, therefore I am.” By this he meant that, because I am thinking, I can know that I exist. If I ponder my existence and attempt to convince myself that I do NOT exist, I am therefore engaging in conscious thought what proves that I do in fact exist.

 

4. You CAN Trust Your Senses and Know that Other People Exist

Think about the people that matter most to you. Now, it seems to me we have a choice of three actions we can take here:

  1. Truth neither our reason nor our senses and dismiss everything. But this seems pointless.
  2. Trust our reason but not our senses. But why would we do that? It seems wholly inconsistent.
  3. Trust our reason and our senses and believe in the external world, and therefore the people who live there.

Philosopher Thomas Reid concluded, our reasoning faculties as, “all fitted by Nature to produce belief in the human mind, some of them in the highest degree, which we call certainty, others in various degrees according to circumstances.”[1]

5. You Have A Soul

People all have a strong intuition that they are disembodiable. In other words, we sense that we could still exist even if our bodies did not. Now we may dismiss that intuition with our reason…but the intuition remains all the same. Well – this is the idea that we HAVE bodies, but we are not “one and the same” with out bodies.

There is evidence that this is how the world works. Consider your parents or grandparents. Their bodies have grown old, but they have the sense that they as persons have not. The professor scratches his head. “I can’t believe I’m 51,” he exclaims, “but you’re as old as you feel…right?

Also, your body is divisible, but you aren’t. Imagine you are involved in an accident and you lose one of your fingers. Are you any less a person as a result? Sure, your capacity for achieving intricate actions with your hands may be impaired, so your actions and your approaches to life might be affected. But have you lost a bit of yourself by losing a finger? How about a leg? No – you are still you. You just need to adjust to living life in a slightly different way.

What about your brain? Sure, brain states have physical properties. But you also have mental states that do not have physical properties. Areas of the brain fire when exposed to stimuli. But you can’t scan the brain and find evidence of the red unicorn you were just thinking about. This suggests two different things. Your brain states are caused by the firing of neurons in the brain. And this is linked in a mysterious way to mental states, experiences in your soul. Hey – there are many things in life that we know to exist, but cannot see. Is the soul that much different from those?

Conclusion

The professor puts down the pen and eyes the class. “Right,” he says. “Any questions?”

Adapted from Philosophy 101 You are Wrong About Everything, https://thedailyapologist.com/philosophy-101-you-are-wrong-about-everything/

[1] Cuneo, Terence, and René van Woudenberg. The Cambridge Companion to Thomas Reid. Cambridge University Press, 2006, p. 150.

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?” This week, I gave some financial support to a family whose young daughter is currently fighting cancer. I want them to experience a happy ending to this horrendous roller coaster of cancer. But I have no control over their outcome.

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.

 

Why Doesn’t God Save People From Natural Disasters?

If God exists, then why do people die in natural disasters?

It is always a heart breaking tragedy when people die as a result of tornadoes, earthquakes and the resulting tsunamis. But – I’m not convinced we can blame God for the death of these people, or claim God doesn’t exist. There may be good reasons for all this.

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters

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 harms way. You can’t blame God for the San Andreas fault line. Plate tectonics are just how nature operates. But if we choose to get too close – its 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 Save People from Natural Disasters

But if God loves people (as Christians claim) then why doesn’t he miraculously rescue people from natural disasters? And prolong their lives?

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 natural disasters 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 from natural disasters?

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 bullet and oncoming car…what might happen?[1]

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 its 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 lunch time, 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 drivers 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 drivers 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] 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.

Reflections on Judy

There’s a moment in this movie that just pierced the heart of it for me. The heart of who we all really are.

Judy Garland (real name Frances Gumm) is sitting in a British GP’s surgery. It’s 1968, the angry concert promoter is sick of her unreliable behaviour, and has (in his wisdom) sent her to the doctor for vitamin injections. A last ditch effort to save his future concert dates and his bank balance, not Judy’s health problems.

Injections won’t help.

Hers is a story of control and manipulation, of being at the mercy of the brutal Hollywood system. We’ve already been treated to sobering scenes of her as a younger woman making “The Wizard of Oz”. (Do I ever want to watch that movie again?) Judy has lived a life mixed through with privilege, public adoration and emotional abuse. It has led her to this point. She sits now in this doctor’s surgery. Stripped bare. Not physically. But in every other way. She’s 47 years old, but still the child that is unable to stand up against the dominating and controlling voices that have moulded her.

A middle aged doctor is staring into her gaunt face. He’s expressing professional concern about her low weight, her tracheotomy scars (“I tried to kill myself,” she admits). But he does not add to the verbal abuse she has endured. Rather, his is a voice of concern and wistfulness.

He looks off into the distance at one point. “I had a real thing for Dorothy Gale when I was growing up. She was so earnest. So concerned about doing the right thing. What touched me most was how kind she was to her dog.”

A precious childhood memory plays on his face, while a resigned, exhausted world weariness is ground into hers. The actress who had once been Dorothy.

Judy wasn’t a difficult person because she was born that way. She was nurtured and made that way. It left her permanently yearning, with the need to belong.

Reflecting on Judy, I’m struck by how fragile human beings are. I don’t mean our physical make up. I mean how delicate the thing is. The thing that is us. The Bible states that “God created human beings … reflecting [His] nature,”[1] and so this makes us valuable. Whatever anyone else says about us, God looks at us and sees someone He crafted. Our unique personality somehow reflects the attributes of God Himself. Whatever happens, we are precious to Him.

And yet – we can allow other people to crush that unique personality we’ve been gifted with. Perhaps it’s our need for affirmation and our compelling drive to please other people that crushes us. Maybe we’ve just allowed other people to blot out who we are, and gotten used to living as if they matter more than us. This is a road to frustration and loss in life. For Judy, it meant medicated pain, the relational chaos that comes from never truly belonging, and ultimately a life cut tragically short. Yet that pain is not what God has intended. His intention was for us to flourish as unique people.

As we reflect on these things, maybe we look with empathy at Judy and her life. Perhaps some of us look with recognition. “That’s me,” we say to ourselves. There will be no quick fixes for us. But perhaps the important question facing us is – will we decide to take a step in the right direction today? Consider accepting the statement I pointed to above? That God’s original intention was to make us good. Even if people and life has stripped it from us, they have no right to do so. Ask Him to give you back the goodness that belongs to you, and the life he has for us to live.

[1] Genesis 1:26 – 28, The Message translation.