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.

 

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.

Can We Blame God for a COVID-19 Pandemic?

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

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

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

 

We Can’t Blame God for COVID-19

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

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

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

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

 

We Can’t Blame God for Natural Disasters Either

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

So why doesn’t God want to rescue us?

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

A Time God DID Save ME From a Natural Disaster

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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.

Are the Gospels Trumpian – Getting Some Details Right, But the Story All Wrong?

At Christmas time, the Christian churches return to the gospel accounts of Christ’s birth and re-read the events as they are described. In a recent conversation between Peter J Williams and sceptical theologian Bart Ehrman, there was an exchange of views about the reliability of these Gospel accounts. This was a discussion around the question, “How reasonable is it to accept the Gospels as history?” [1]

It’s important to recognise that the Gospels present themselves as historical accounts. Many scholars think they present as a first century literature form of biography, which was sometimes written in a particular form about important public figures. Jesus certainly qualifies as one of those.

It’s also important to realise that I am talking about using reason as we examine the Gospels, not some form of blind acceptance. There are good reasons to believe that, even though the Gospel writers sometimes give a different perspective on some events, that they were qualified to record these historical events.

First, they wrote them very quickly after the events occurred. The average person on the street might assume they were written hundreds of years after the fact … like legends. Yet the evidence points to a few decades after the fact. In historical terms, writing an account a few decades later is incredibly early, and few historical events we assume to be reliable have such excellent documentary support.

An important line of evidence towards the accuracy of the Gospels that Peter J Williams presented is the consistent correctness of the minor details. For example, geographic details about first century Palestine, names of people and places and the distances between these locations. So…

  • the writers clearly know the area
  • this suggests they must have been there
  • they get the small details correct in their account

Given these points, why should we believe that the bigger details around Jesus and his life were fabricated?

In response, Ehrman reminded Williams about President Trump’s inauguration ceremony in Washington DC. If you remember, there was some controversy surrounding Trump’s claims on the number of attendees at this ceremony. He claimed a high number of people attended, while photographic evidence at the time points to a much much smaller representation. So what? Well, Ehrman says that Trump got the details right. There was a ceremony, and people attended and he was there. But just because these things are true does not automatically result in accurate reporting. Not at all. He clearly misrepresented the important issue of how many people attended! He is not a reliable witness.

You could apply this argument to the Gospels. Just because they got the small details right doesn’t mean they are reliable witnesses. Or can you? The reason people were sceptical of President Trump is that he is prone to exaggerate when he talks. Documented evidence of his exaggerations is easily available to us. So, this put his claims around his inauguration under sceptical scrutiny.

Yet no such precedent exists for the New Testament Gospels. K. Albert Little points out that there are no first century accounts that contradict the Gospel narratives. If they were manufactured, it would not have been difficult for the historians at the time (Josephus, Tacitus, etc) to set the record straight. Wouldn’t we expect to find this contrary evidence if the Gospel accounts were fabricated? Yet no such first century evidence exists. [2]

In the case of President Trump, we have experience of his exaggerations and we have photographic evidence of the event in question and this raises scepticism at President Trumps claims. Yet no such data exists on the Gospels. We cannot reasonably doubt the Gospels in the way we can doubt President Trump.

Albert Little goes further and points out that In 1 Corinthians, the Apostle Paul points to hundreds of people who could verify the stories about Christ’s life, death and resurrection. If you don’t believe me, Paul is saying, speak to them! If Trump had made this claim, he would have been found to be a bad witness. He could not do so. Yet Paul could easily do so because his account was solid and reliable.

Getting the small details right lends credence to the Gospel claims, and given that there are no contemporary voices disagreeing with their claims and no outside sources giving alternative version of events, we have no alternative data to cause us to doubt their claims. Remember that the likes of Josephus and Tacitus were writing towards the back end of the first century and they could have set the record straight if it needed to be done. And the early second century Church Fathers quote the Gospels liberally, showing that they were in heavy circulation well before then. There are good reasons to accept the Gospels as history.

[1] Peter J Williams & Bart Ehrman, The story of Jesus: Are the Gospels historically reliable?, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZuZPPGvF_2I.

[2] K Albert Little, Did the Gospel Writers Get Facts Right But Their Stories Wrong?, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/albertlittle/the-gospels-are-reliable-and-ehrman-is-wrong/

Machines, Personhood and Sarah Connor

Contains mild spoilers.

The latest Terminator movie has stumbled at the box office. I feel that’s unfortunate because this was a genuinely fresh and interesting take on a well established story. What interested me was the philosophical article I read about it in the Hollywood Reporter.

The Hollywood Reporter suggests that, perhaps people just don’t see AI as the enemy any more? Rather, we see machines in more positive terms, convinced by the idea of a future personhood owned by machines. Yet Dark Fate tries to observe the psychological difference between man and machine. “Humans are uniquely alive compared to artificially intelligent beings because we are fated to death and decay in ways machines are not.”[1] There is a character called Grace who is part human and part machine, yet she is psychologically on the human side of the conflict. In comparison, the antagonist is a highly dangerous Rev-9 model Terminator which mimics humanity simply to make it a more efficient killing machine. This is a familiar story beat. Schwarzenegger’s Terminator in this movie has tried to emulate humanity for more positive and life giving reasons. Yet both of these machine Terminators are simply machines, unable to achieve personhood. Arnie’s Terminator “appreciates humanity and strives toward personhood, but can’t fully achieve it.”[2] So in this movie we see the full spread – human, part human and machine. The inhumanity and non-personhood is always located on the machine side. Perhaps people don’t resonate with this idea so much anymore? Perhaps “the generation raised on Wall-E is entering adulthood just as regarding robots as people becomes the onscreen norm.”[3]

If you think about it, Western society is increasingly of the opinion that people are simply biological mechanisms. There’s no soul, no spirit, just physical. We live, we break down and we die. And death is that cessation of functionality that no one in Western society likes thinking or talking about. Given that understanding of humanity, it makes sense that robots would be seen closer to us than ever before. Why do we have to portray conscious robots as the enemy, when it makes more sense to imagine that they would be our friends?

It’s a fascinating observation and – the Reporter might have a great point. But because society gathers around the idea of future, conscious AI, does not make that idea either credible or likely. Fictional stories are important, we learn a lot about ourselves and our personal development through myth and fairy-tale. Fictional stories can also lead to breakthrus in science. But sometimes the fictional idea is just going to remain a fictional idea. I think conscious, thinking and creative AI is one of those fun yet solid fictions. It doesn’t detract from my enjoyment of Terminator Dark Fate, but I’m increasingly convinced that genuinely conscious, thinking machines are impossible.

Why?

 

1 – We project our capacity for conscious thinking onto today’s AI.

It’s a way we use language and it would be misleading to someone who knows nothing about computers. AI is a cool gadget that makes my life better (self-driving car). Yet our AI of today is purely functional, following an algorithm and incapable of thinking about whether or not it wants to. It is a mechanism designed to emulate a human (hello Siri).

 

2 – We are always going to be superior to AI.

Machines may be faster and stronger than us, but we have ontological superiority. We are the ones designing and thinking here. When machines do cool things, they don’t get the praise. We do. The designers. We may not even have a metaphysical property that allows us to create thinking, creative  machines that can reproduce themselves.

 

3 – We are conscious, but we do not understand what that means.

A genuinely thinking machine would have to be conscious. But no one is doing the work to understand consciousness from a third person perspective. Part of the problem is that consciousness is something we have. It is deeply subjective and requires someone to be conscious. It is not something we can dissect from a third person perspective. Rather, it is something we experience. Thinking always requires a thinker.

We need to understand consciousness to replicate it. But – I’m not sure we’re built to understand consciousness. Just to experience it and use it to understand other things.

 

4 – Humans are of a Different Order than Machines.

Yes, we have a physical make up and the closer we look at it, the intricacy of biological mechanism is seen. But – we are of a different order to machines. Likening machines to humans is, in a real sense, comparing apples and oranges.

Whoever we are, we have the ability to navigate our way through life, following our own thoughts and ideas and intentions. We create opportunities and respond to events that occur from our own rational, creative and conscious selves. We have general intelligence. We live in our environment and we cope within it, we adjust. We establish a social network, we conduct our lives appropriately.

Machines are different order from us. They lack this general rationality. We give them rules to follow and they don’t think about it, they just do it. We are simply of a different order from them. We can build them to mimic human characteristics, but they are not thinking as they do so. They are simply following the instructions we programmed them with.

 

Final Thoughts

Yes, we are going to get better at making machines mimic human behaviour. But – I don’t think we will ever see a genuinely conscious machine. Terminator Dark Fate understands the ontological differences between us. And I think there is an important reason for doing that. Realising that we are more than biological machines is important for the future of humanity. It is a life giving perspective. As Arnie once said – “Come with me if you want to live.”

[1] Clara Wardlow, One Reason ‘Terminator Dark Fate’ Didn’t Connect With Sci-Fi Audiences, Hollywood Reporter, accessed 20th November 2019, https://www.hollywoodreporter.com/heat-vision/why-terminator-dark-fate-didnt-connect-audiences-1252112.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

 

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.

Joker and the Cost of Nihilism

The reports were correct. For a comic book movie, Joker is unusually violent. Very violent, in fact. Yes I’ve seen it. No, I didn’t walk out. But I had to shut my eyes a few times.

(No spoilers below)

Director Todd Phillips portrays violence in the actions of his characters, but also in their uncaring, selfish and brutal attitudes towards each other. Violence is nothing new in cinema. But violence with no mitigating circumstances? Or apparent consequences? Personal pain turning into raw and unchained nihilism? It’s a tough watch. I’m grateful that Phillips clearly telegraphs the oncoming violence in his movie so that the audience has time to look away if they want to.

There is concern about the effect this film will have on culture. The tragic Aurora cinema shooting of 2012 was mistakenly linked to perceived glorification of violence in the earlier Dark Knight movies.[1] Well, Joker is a well-made and gritty homage to the Scorsese and Friedkin pictures of the 1970s. It feels like The French Connection in places. The cult status of the Joker character has caused people to worry that Aurora could happen again, a “wider cultural conversation is bound to crop up … [about] the influence these movies have on the national mood.”[2] Could the new Joker movie inspire copycat behaviour in certain types of people in its audience?

Well – I can’t speak for anyone else. I didn’t think Joker glorified or promoted acts of violence (physical + non-physical), even though certain scenes in the movie graphically show it. Rather – I think the filmmaker assumes you bring your moral sensibilities to the movie, and he spends a couple of hours facing you with a growing “sense of rage [that] pulses through Joker and makes it a compelling viewing experience.”[3] Yet it left me with a sense of utter tragedy and loss. This is the result of someone choosing to empower themselves through acts of violence. Joaquin Phoenix has said, “I don’t think it’s the responsibility of the filmmaker to teach the audience morality or the difference between right or wrong.”[4] I’m no filmmaker, but I’m an inherently moral human being. And – I think Phoenix is right about what he says.

Here’s another way to put it. The movie WORKS because we are essentially moral creatures. If we weren’t, then nihilism would be the norm. What is nihilism? It’s an idea that says that nothing is real or matters, particularly religious and moral principles.[5] Life is meaningless. So, who cares if I eliminate people that get in my way? Those acts are of no ultimate importance. Under nihilism. But this is simply wrong. Murder does matter, whatever the reason. It is because we are moral beings, that acts of unbridled violence are deeply unsettling to us. And – rightly so. Nihilism is a broken and dangerous idea.

Ideas have a big impact on people. So does nihilism. One consistent and possible outcome of nihilism is portrayed in Joker. And look at the results:

  • mental breakdown.
  • loss of relationships.
  • casual destruction of the family unit.
  • loss of life.
  • misery.
  • terror.
  • social unrest.

Will Joker impact society? No doubt. But I think it would have done its job well if it underlines the cost of any nihilist tendencies within us. Look at it. They are just not worth this cost!

There is a better way to live. One that won’t leave you always running from a caped vigilante…

[1] Untangling the Controversy Over the New Joker Movie, The Atlantic, accessed 6th October 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2019/10/joker-movie-controversy/599326/

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Nihilism, Internet Encyclopaedia of Philosophy, accessed 6th October, 2019, https://www.iep.utm.edu/nihilism/.

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.

Ad Astra and a Privileged Planet Earth

What do you get if you mix “2001: A Space Odyssey” with “Apocalypse Now,” and add a dash or two of “Event Horizon?” If you get the chance – see “Ad Astra” in an IMAX cinema. It looks and sounds beautiful. I thought the IMAX cinema format really let James Gray’s work shine.

In many ways, the film’s narrative is understated, mundane even. Yet all the while, Gray’s visual and audio spectacle pulls vigorously against a slower plot. This gives the film a slightly odd unbalanced feel. But – it’s not an unpleasant one. It elevates the experience, and – I think it works with the overall theme of the movie. Brad Pitt gives voice to this theme during the third act of the story, when he describes the choices and actions of another character. He says something like, “He had it all looking him in the face, but he missed the significance of it all.”

If you have picked up that “Ad Astra” is a father – son story, then you have heard right. It is. But there’s a bigger issue that is also raised here. I don’t think it spoils the movie to reveal this. Apologies if you’ve seen the film and you disagree with me. I’ll describe the issue this way:

What if the earth (our beautiful marble) and our human race is actually the only source of conscious life in the whole universe? What if we are alone in this vast expanse? What if we’ve got each other, and that’s it? The title of this movie is Latin for the phrase, “To the Stars.” Ad Astra. Well, once you’ve been to the stars and comprehended their beauty, what if you need to come home again to find someone to describe your experiences to? What if there is no extra-terrestrial life waiting out there for us to contact?

And someone groans at the thought. “How can this universe be so vast, and yet there NOT be life on many other planets? Are you saying we are somehow privileged, living here on this unremarkable spot in our galaxy? That doesn’t seem likely.” Really? Why don’t you think that’s likely?

Look at it this way. Imagine you have to bake a cake for your mother’s birthday. But, before you start, there’s a rule you must follow. You are not allowed to buy any ingredients at the store. None. Instead, you must grow everything from scratch that will eventually be used to make the cake! What might that mean? Well – as my wife will tell you, my presence in the kitchen is usually a sign that I’m hungry, not that I’m making anything. I’m no cook. But I do know that to make a cake, you need at the very least milk, eggs, flour, sugar and jam. Probably chocolate too. If you cannot buy your ingredients…how are you going to come upon them?

Well – milk comes from cows. So – you are going to have to set aside a substantial area of farm land to raise a heard of cows. You will need enough farm land to raise and nurture them. And you will also need to grow enough crops to feed them. You are doing all of this work so that they will eventually produce milk for you. How about the eggs? Well – you are going to need to raise chickens for eggs. Right? And flour? You get where I’m going now. You need to plant a field of wheat which you will eventually harvest so that you can process the resulting grain to produce the flour. You’re also going to have to grow sugar cane, fruit trees… and you need space to process and refine them all. The list of preparatory steps goes on….and must all be done before anything starts on the cake.

You will bake your cake in a small kitchen. But the production of the raw materials FOR your cake will take an extremely vast area of farmland dedicated to livestock, wheat and fruit production. And these raw materials won’t appear quickly. It’s going to take time to grow them to the appropriate stage of development, so that you can take more time in converting them into the raw materials for your cake. Little kitchen…massive farm land to produce your ingredients.

What has this to do with Ad Astra?

Well – this movie works hard to show us an artistic impression of the glorious and beautiful universe we inhabit. What if its that big and beautiful…just for us? As I’m watching the story unfold, I’m suddenly left feeling very alone. Like I’m watching our characters pick their way thru lonely farmland that exists to service a busy kitchen. What if our vast universe is actually that size and this composition, just so that life can be constructed and deposited on a particular planet which is specially prepared for it? What if the age of our universe is right for the production of life on the earth during this specific time period? That there are just enough stars that have cooked the elements…raw materials that human and animal bodies are composed of? Our universe is big and old…because it grew and prepared all the stuff that our world, and we are composed of. Like the farmland outside a small kitchen.

It’s a thought. And it doesn’t take away from the visual splendour of our universe, particularly as its depicted in Ad Astra. You could argue, it makes our universe all the more sweet. Because as we view it, we do so from the only place that is made specially for our protection and safety now. Home, planet earth. Surely, a privileged planet? James Gray does a masterful job of positing this idea, I think. Yet he does so thru the lens of an intensely personal story. One that I think may stay with you once your memory of this visual and audio feast has faded.