A Case for Miracles – What if Natural Laws Help Reveal the Miraculous?

In part 1, I looked at the skeptical position against miracle claims. This often says:

 

1 – Miracles violate the laws of nature, and our experience tells us these natural laws are fixed. Dead people stay dead.

2 – No testimony can establish a miracle happened unless the falsehood of that testimony would be more miraculous than the miracle claim.

3 – Only primitive people entertain the idea that miracles could ever occur.

I talked about how the skeptic erects a knowledge barrier against the idea of particular events because they don’t like the implications of them. But there are two more problems with the skeptical rejection of miracles.

2 – It is Mistaken to Think that Miracles Violate the Laws of Nature

Why is it mistaken? After all, we know people don’t come back from the dead after a few days like the Bible claims of Jesus.[1] What’s more, people can’t turn water into wine as Jesus is reported to have done. We’ve never seen anything like that before in a lab, never mind at a wedding. Surely that’s enough for us to say – miracles like these are impossible?

I can see three problems here:

2.1 Natural Laws are DESCRIPTIVE not PRESCRIPTIVE

The law of gravity, for example, is an approximate description of a natural phenomenon. It describes what we usually perceive, all things being equal. Apples fall from trees, and what goes up usually comes down again. But natural law does not demand or prescribe what MUST happen. Law is not a straight-jacket to nature. It is simply a description of our current understanding of nature. Humans did not create nature, we simply work to understand it and express our tentative understanding using laws. For example, if a rocket is designed to produce enough kinetic energy, it can break the gravitational pull of the earth and send its passengers into orbit around the planet.

If natural law prescribed what must always occur, then rockets can’t break gravitational pull, and certain types of miracle would also be impossible because they both would violate natural laws. But that’s NOT what natural law is. Natural law is not a straight-jacket. It is simply a description of what people usually observe.

But unlike the rocket, a miracle (like turning water into wine) is an unusual or unique event which does not occur by natural but by supernatural means. This does not violate natural law. God created matter in the universe and established the chemical properties of both water and wine. Were he to switch the chemical composition from one to the other on one occasion, then this would extend our understanding of what is possible when a divine agent is involved.

It seems to me there are at least two ways God could intervene in nature:

  1. God could simply use natural law to achieve his purposes in the world. But it would be the timing of the natural event that would make it miraculous, not the conditions of the event.
  2. God could reach into the natural world and redirect events so that something out of the ordinary happened. This would not break natural law, because law is descriptive of what usually occurs. In this situation, something different happens which we describe as miraculous because it is surprising and out of the ordinary.

C S Lewis said it this way. Imagine on two consecutive nights I place two British 5 pound notes in my bedside drawer. The laws of arithmetic tell me that by the second night, my drawer contains a total of 20 pounds. Now, if I wake up the next day and open the drawer and only find 5 pounds there, I do not conclude that the laws of arithmetic have been broken. Rather, I know that someone has come along and pinched my money. It would be ludicrous to suggest the laws of arithmetic prevent the existence or activity of thieves![2] In other words, agents act and laws exist. One does not contradict the other. Rather, the existence of the law of arithmetic reveals the activity of the thief. Miracles work like that when it comes to God.

2.2 It’s a mistake to judge the likelihood of a miracle by considering normal experience

A skeptic may claim that they have never seen a miracle.[3] But that’s irrelevant to whether or not other people have witnessed miracles, or whether miracles occur. The point is that miracles are unusual events, so their existence is out of the ordinary. It is pointless to judge miracle claims by our own personal experience.

People do not usually come back from the dead by way of normal natural causes. Yet Christians do not claim that Jesus somehow spontaneously came back from the dead by natural means. Rather, God chose to raise Jesus from the dead. And this was a unique event in history. And if God exists, he would be able to suspend the laws he himself created without contradicting them.

All of this is can be true whether or not our own personal experiences involve miracles or not.

2.3 We argue in a circle when we deny miracles based on what usually occurs

The skeptic says because natural laws are uniform and predictable, miracles cannot and do not occur. But they have a problem. Our experience of nature is only uniform and predictable if we already know that all reports of miracles are actually false.

The skeptic is saying:

“Miracles never occur, so miracles are impossible.”

They are therefore presupposing what they are attempting to prove, and circular arguments like these are logically fallacious. But its worse than that. There are many contemporary, well evidenced and credible miracle claims reported by both believers in God and skeptics alike. It is simply mistaken to suppose that no miracles have occurred, because this claim flies in the face of the documentary evidence.

3 – Primitive People Did Not First Believe the Miracle of Jesus’ Resurrection

It’s true that primitive people have attributed natural phenomena to the work of their gods. But Ancient Judaism was quite different, it was a sophisticated, humane and learned culture. Children were taught the Torah from a young age, and many could read and write. The Apostles were not primitives. Sure, they were ignorant of the modern scientific methods and discoveries we have today. But it’s wrong to accuse them of ignorance for that reason because that knowledge wasn’t available to them. They knew very well that dead people stay dead. To notice an event as miraculous, you have to have a solid appreciation for how the world works. And this is exactly what helped them realise Jesus had been raised from the dead.

They also understood the risks facing them for challenging the authorities and preaching the risen Christ in Jerusalem. And yet the risk was clearly worth it for them, and Christianity has been the result.

 

Conclusion

In this brief blog series, I’ve responded to the common claim is that miracles can’t happen, and we cannot know whether they can happen. What we’ve seen is that this amounts to nothing much more than a bare prejudice against the idea that God exists and he intervenes within the natural universe he created. Miracles don’t violate the laws of nature, they would extend them. We don’t need extraordinary evidence of miracles, just sufficient evidence. And while primitives may have attributed natural phenomena to the gods, the Bible’s view of miracles is a highly sophisticated one.

When you consider the many cumulative logical arguments for God existence (e.g. cosmological, moral, fine tuning, biological information, etc), the possibility that God exists becomes strong, and so the idea he would intervene in nature through miraculous means becomes highly likely.

 

 

[1] I know medical Doctors who HAVE witnessed this on a smaller scale, people returning to life a few hours later. And there are many documented examples of this sort of thing in Craig Keener’s book.

[2] C S Lewis, Miracles A Preliminary Study, (New York: Macmillan Publishing, 1947).

[3] For a vast archive of contemporary miracle claims, see Craig Keener, Miracles The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts, (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2011).

Why Start a New Christian Apologetics Podcast?

During the Coronavirus lockdown, I’ve launched a new 10 episode, weekly podcast. Please check me out!

 

Spotify

Apple Podcasts

 

What’s been the inspiration of my podcast?

Well – I used to do a sales job. I would travel around Europe with a colleague, and we would visit corporate customers in the hope that they would buy our (excellent) software products. I enjoy travel, and I enjoy talking to people. It was – in so many ways – a perfect job.

But there was a lot of downtime in that job. Airports to wait in, restaurants to eat in, hotels to use. When we weren’t towing our employer’s party line…there was lots of time to talk about other things. Usually, the subject of Christianity came up. Why? Because I’m a Christian and I like discussing the reasons why that makes sense.

The podcast – RESPOND – is inspired by those sorts of conversations that happened on my sales trips. Its all about a discussion for why Christianity makes sense! You can find it on Spotify and Apple podcasts…

 

Someone might ask – “Why do we need another podcast dedicated to the subject of Christian Apologetics?” Well – why do we need a new podcast about anything? If a topic is worth talking about – then it seems to me its worth sharing opinions on.

 

BUT – I think there are four particular reasons why this blog is important, and why another Apologetics podcast is useful. Here they are:

 

FIRST – Because the Bible Commands It

Now – I don’t mean that they predicted blogging or podcasting in the first century. Of course not. But what I DO mean…is that they encouraged Christians to put forward the claims of Christianity clearly, and be willing to discuss these claims with the unconvinced. Where does it say that?

Here are three examples:

“…I felt compelled to write and urge you to contend for the faith that was once for all entrusted to God’s holy people.” (Jude 3)

In the first century, they might have contended in the Synagogue, or the marketplace. Today we might contend in the comments section underneath the blog or the podcast. Is it really that different…?

“Walk in wisdom toward outsiders, making the best use of the time. Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.” (Colossians 4:5-6)

How we talk about these matters…matters! Robust conversation and the challenging of bad ideas is important, but its got to be done in a respectful way. And when the other person replies with rude comments? Hey – it teaches you a sense of humour.

“In your hearts honour Christ the Lord as holy, always being prepared to make a defence to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and respect.” (1 Peter 3:15)

There’s a sense that – Christianity always demands a defence, like in a court of law. People seem hardwired to attack the claims Christianity makes. And so – a response is required. This is what this blog, and the podcast is all about. But – again – notice that the heart behind this response is respectful. I’m sure I won’t always achieve that, and I may need to apologise if I get it wrong, but respect is my aim.

 

Here’s the bigger point tho. If Christians aren’t making a case for the truth of Christianity, they are disobeying the teaching of the Bible! So – it’s important that these blogs and podcasts exist. They make the case, and they help other Christians to make the case themselves. Which sounds like a win-win to me.

 

 

The second reason for another apologetics podcast? Because culture demands it

It seems to me that Western culture is steeped in three toxic ideologies.

Relativism, the idea that there is no absolute truth. The cry of the relativist is, “Who are you to enforce your morality on me?”

Pluralism, the idea there’s no exclusive truth. “So, how can Jesus be the only way?”

Naturalism, the idea that there’s no supernatural truth. “Hasn’t science proven that miracles are impossible?”

 

Christianity challenges culture on all three of these points. And frankly – our culture needs to be challenged this way. Christian apologetics is one route to doing so.

 

Third – the Christian Church needs it

The church is only a generation away from extinction. So, how do we help the next generation from drifting away? Well – an important way of doing that is through Christian apologetics. Showing the truth of Christianity in a clear and compelling way.

 

Fourth – the Results Confirm It

Many people have become Christians as a result of these sorts of discussions about the rational grounding to the Christian faith. One of the most famous Christians of the 20th century, C S Lewis, was a formidable intellect, earning multiple highest honours degrees from Oxford University. He lost his childhood Christian faith, but it was Christian apologetics which led him back to Christianity. Discussing these matters with his Christian friends, one of whom was J. R. R. Tolkien.

 

 

So – do we need another Christian apologetics podcast? Yep – we do. Give it a listen please, and give me some feedback. I’d love to hear what you have to say.

 

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.

Are the Jesus Stories Originally from Egyptian Mythology?

Zeitgeist is a German word referring to both time (zeit) and spirit (geist). The spirit of the times are the popular and influential ideas that are going around. When the Zeitgeist movie was released online in 2007, it gives voice to renewed scepticism about religion in general and Christianity in particular.

It states that the Jesus story we find written in the New Testament is essentially a re-hash of earlier myths about dying and rising Gods. The Jesus of faith wasn’t a real person, rather he was an idea cooked up by people in the past. Here’s a taste of what it says:

 

“Horus … He is the Sun God of Egypt of around 3000 BC. He is the sun anthropomorphized… Horus was born on December 25th of the virgin Isis-Meri. His birth was accompanied by a star in the east … three kings followed [this] to locate and adorn the new-born saviour. At the age of 12, he was a prodigal child teacher, and at the age of 30 he was baptized by a figure known as Anup and thus began his ministry…he was crucified … buried … and resurrected.”[1]

If this story sounds like the Jesus story, Zeitgeist says you are wrong. It is actually the story of the Egyptian Sun God Horus, who’s story was supposedly repurposed by the Christian church and attributed to the later Jesus of Nazareth.

This idea has a big problem.

Actually – this IS the Jesus story which has been mistakenly applied BACKWARDS onto the character of Egyptian mythology – Horus. This would be a bit like claiming the events from Charles Dicken’s life did not happen. Rather, they were actual events from the life of Ebenezer Scrooge (the character from the book A Christmas Carol) that were passed off as events from Dicken’s life. That’s a pretty absurd claim! Right?

If you think Zeitgeist summarises the Christian story, it’s because it does. But, it does NOT properly recount the Egyptian myth, and it anachronistically and incorrectly imposes historical reports about Jesus onto a mythological Egyptian character called Horus.

 

Chris Forbes is Professor of Ancient History at Macquarie University in Sydney. He’s an expert in ancient myths. And – he has a number of interesting things to say about the mistaken claims of the Zeitgeist movie. You can find a useful interview with Chris here.

 

First – Horus is not an Egyptian sun God. He was the God of the sky. The sun God was Raa. So Zeitgeist’s play on words (sun God vs son of God) is just pointless and irrelevant.

Second – The mother of Horus was Isis, but there’s no evidence in the Egyptian sources that she was a virgin.

Third – Egyptians would not date Horus’s birth as December 25th, because they used a completely different calendar. December is a Latin month, and so a foreign idea to ancient Egypt.

Fourth – Horus wasn’t crucified and raised from the dead. He wasn’t killed at all. Rather, in this particular myth, it was Osiris who was killed by his brother Set, who dismembered him and hid the pieces around ancient Egypt so they could not be reconstituted again. Isis gathers the pieces, binds them together again with bandages, and so Osiris becomes the first Egyptian mummy that all the rest relate to.

Fifth – the Horus, Isis and Osiris events are not recorded in historical time. Rather, Egyptian mythology is understood to have happened in a kind of dream time, or mythology. By contrast, the New Testament and the reports of Jesus are clearly presented as a historical account.

Sixth – no serious historian doubts that Jesus of Nazareth existed and was crucified by the Romans in the first century. There is debate around whether the Bible’s description of him is correct. But – that he lived is beyond serious consideration. Horus, on the other hand, is a well understood myth.

Seventh – the sources used by the writers of the Zeitgeist movie are not qualified to make their assertions. For example, Gerald Massey is an English Poet and amateur Egyptologist. He’s not a professional historian. And this hurts the credibility of the film and its claims. When you actually check proper references and compare them with the claims that Zeitgeist makes, you can see that actually it is just talking nonsense.

[1] Zeitgeist: The Movie, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OrHeg77LF4Y.

Is Easter a Pagan Festival, Stolen By the Church?

Is Easter a pagan festival that was repurposed by the early Christian church? After all – lots of pagan mythological gods were killed and then raised from the dead. Or so various sceptical people claim every year…at Easter!

Maybe Easter is rooted in the Sumerian goddess Ishtar, hung on a stake … subsequently, resurrected?[1] John Dickson observes … quite rightly that “Ishtar” kinda sounds like “Easter.” Right?

Actually – not really.

The word for “Easter” in languages other than English and German sounds very different. Dickson points out the reason for this is that the original word has a Hebrew root. The original word was “Pesach”, which means “Passover.”[2]

What is Passover about? It’s the central Jewish festival, remembering the event in ancient Egypt, where God’s judgement came on the Egyptian oppressors, but it passed over the Jewish nation. It is reported by the New Testament gospels that Jesus was crucified at Passover in 30 AD. And – there’s an amazing parallel going on as this happens in the first century.

At Passover, the Jewish people sacrifice a spotless Lamb to remember the blood that the Jews put on the doorposts in Egypt so that God’s judgement would pass over their houses. In the crucifixion, we have Jesus giving his life so that God’s judgement would pass over those who trust in Christ. This is the real parallel that is going on here. Do you see the parallel?

For much of Christian history, Easter has been referred to as “Pesach,” or Passover. It has only been since Christianity arrived at Germany and English lands that the word “Easter” has been adopted as a reference to spring in the northern hemisphere.

So – does the word “Easter” betray the Pagan roots of the Christian celebration? No. Not at all.

[1] Heather McDougall, The Pagan Roots of Easter, The Guardian, 3rd April, 2010, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/belief/2010/apr/03/easter-pagan-symbolism.

[2] John Dickson, Easter Myths, Undeceptions Podcast, 5th April, 2020.

Does Human Suffering Suggest Randomness Not Order?

Two brave British nurses have died as a result of treating Covid-19 patients in British hospitals. Areema Nasreen and Aimee O’Rourke are both heroes. But this is a tragedy and my heart goes out to their families who are now facing appalling personal loss, probably without even having had a chance to say goodbye to their own loved ones. I struggle to wrap my mind around just how awful this situation is for them.

It made me wonder. Can we take tragedies like this – and the many more happening around the world right now – as evidence that the world is really just grounded on randomness rather than order and love? Maybe there is no point…no purpose…no grand plan. Just merciless, pitiless, nature and randomness?

Now – clearly I am not one of the people providing these families love and support at this time of grief. Others are doing this important work – I am at a distance. So, from my distant perspective, and having experienced my own appalling personal losses myself, I can say that the Christian message has a lot to say in response to this question about randomness rather than order.

It seems to me that the very question, “is the world random rather than ordered,“ presupposes something important. The fact that we would even ask this question hints toward a sense within us that we are much more than just physical beings.

Think of it like this.

If I am ONLY a physical being … a clump of cells which exist for a while, then what is the problem with that clump of cells going away and ceasing to exist? But we don’t approach the suffering of people in this way. Not at all. Our hearts go out to these suffering people. We intuitively know that these people are MORE than just the sum of their physical parts. In one sense, these families have lost a physical body that interacts with them, because a person in their family has died. But they have lost more than just a physical body. If we think about it, this loss experienced by these families is much much deeper than that.

So – here’ the question. If we also believe these brave and wonderful nurses are MORE than simply physical clumps of cells, then I would ask why we would believe that?

As Amy Orr-Ewing has asked recently, “Why does suffering hurt so much? Because there’s a metaphysical nature to your being…there’s a spiritual aspect to each person.”[1] Suffering is appalling and our hearts go out to individuals who suffer – even if we do not personally know them. Why? Because life is so precious and sacred to us, whether we are a religious person or not.

Christianity doesn’t want us to be religious. Rather, teaches that our currently reality has ultimately been broken and is not as it is supposed to be. Therefore, as a result, everyone dies. Whether by disease, accident or the passage of time…we all die one day. But what we find in the person of Jesus is both light and hope for a future life beyond suffering and beyond the grave.

“The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world…The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth…No one has ever seen God, but the one and only Son, who is himself God and[b] is in closest relationship with the Father, has made him known.” (John 1:9, 14, 18, NIV)

The world is not based on randomness. It is broken. But – there is order, and love and a hope for the future.

[1] She Persuades, Undeceptions Podcast, 29th March 2020.

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 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.

Why Wouldn’t God Eradicate the Covid-19 Virus?

Why doesn’t God eradicate the Covid-19 virus that is causing so much distress for people, and disruption for businesses and healthcare around the world? Must we conclude that – because no end is in sight for this crisis – that if he is there, God does not care about us?

 

This question reminds me of a memory Elie Wiesel recounts from his time in a Nazi camp during the second world war. As he stood in a crowd watching the authorities execute a young child, people were rightly horrified by the scene. The child was so emaciated that he took a long time to die as he hung there. The suffering was terrible as he died. Suddenly, the horrified silence was broken as someone shouted from the crowd, “Where is God!”

We aren’t facing such a stark horror ourselves. But – I imagine many people might be asking this question to themselves, if not anyone else. If there is a God, then where is he right now? If he exists, doesn’t he want to help us? When he reflected on the incident with the child at the end of a rope, Weisel concluded this. God was there. He was suffering at the end of a rope along with the child.

So – does that make God powerless and weak? No. Christians believe in a God who is not distant, but intimately involved in the lives of those who allow him access to them. He’s even generally supporting the lives of those who want nothing to do with him. So where is God during times of suffering? He’s in the midst of the suffering. All of it.

Christianity is built upon the life of the man Jesus who himself endured suffering. Think of the worst kind of humiliation that could happen to someone. Well – in his culture, this is what Jesus faced by being nailed to a cross. Jesus wasn’t just executed. He was publicly humiliated in the worst possible way in front of the authorities, and the people he grew up with and lived life with.

Yet – the point of his suffering is profound. Jesus accepted a period of defeat and humiliation so that the powers of evil in the world would themselves be defeated. His suffering ultimately leads to God’s offer of victory to us. He died on a cross on Easter Friday, but he rose from the dead on Easter Sunday. And he holds out the offer of life to each person who believes in him.

The Bible puts it this way:

Christ also suffered. He died once for the sins of all us guilty sinners although he himself was innocent of any sin at any time, that he might bring us safely home to God. But though his body died, his spirit lived on (1 Peter 3:18, The Living Bible)

 

But now God has shown us a different way to heaven[f]—not by “being good enough” and trying to keep his laws, but by a new way (though not new, really, for the Scriptures told about it long ago). Now God says he will accept and acquit us—declare us “not guilty”—if we trust Jesus Christ to take away our sins. And we all can be saved in this same way, by coming to Christ, no matter who we are or what we have been like. Yes, all have sinned; all fall short of God’s glorious ideal; yet now God declares us “not guilty” of offending him if we trust in Jesus Christ, who in his kindness freely takes away our sins. (Romans 3:22-23, The Living Bible)

 

So – what can we do during our time of uncertainty and suffering right now?

 

First – know that there is a God who cares and knows what suffering is like.

History shows that when the black plague swept the world, many people ran from it. But it was the Christians who ran TOWARD those who were suffering. Even though this placed them at personal risk. Why? Because Christians know a God who is with us in our sufferings, and asks his followers to be like him. To help and support those who are in a bad place.

Perhaps we would love to have supportive people in our lives today – but we just don’t see it. All we see are folks panic buying supplies and emptying shelves so that we cannot feed and protect our families, acting thoughtlessly and in a self centered way. That’s not what God’s like. Its not what we see in the life of Christ, and its not what he calls Christians to. My hope and prayer is that you can know encouragement from a Christ like Christian church community. This is one of the things the church is here for.

 

Second – consider the claims that Jesus made and the offer he holds out to all people.

You may not consider yourself a follower of Jesus. But, at this time of possible self-isolation and down time, why not pick up a modern copy of the Bible. I would recommend starting with Mark’s Gospel in the New Testament. I’ve been reading it myself recently, and it’s fast paced and easy. Its only 16 chapters long. Reflect on the person that you find in those pages – look and consider who this Jesus is. He’s still alive, and even though you can’t physically see him, he’s involved in the world in more ways than we might realise. All God calls us to, is the decision to give our lives to follow this living person Jesus. And when we do that, we find God starting to transform our hearts from the inside out.

 

Third – persevere in and through this time of suffering.

It will not last forever. As is often said, “this too shall pass.” There is more for us to experience and do in our lives. But persevering through suffering is a very Jesus thing to do. He persevered because he knew what great things were waiting for him and for us on the other side of his suffering.

Perhaps God’s permitting this global crisis because he wants us to wake up to these realities. He’s forcing us to think about eternal things, things that are facing us at the end of our lives. When we invite Christ to be in and part of our lives NOW, this fresh perspective opens up for us too. It might be tough right now, but we have wonderful things to look forward to not just in our natural lives, but in the reality to come when with Christ’s help, we return safely home to God.

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.