Category Archives: apologetics

We who are blind can be told Truth

Many in our society are skeptical when someone or some group makes a claim to know Truth. And rightly so. Even scientific observation is never fully objective. Science again and again needs to adjust its conclusions (is salt or cream or eggs bad for us—or good?!) because researchers’ blind spots and biases can skewer their results.

Some persons go much farther and deny even the possibility of us knowing Truth. They say that each of us can only know our own “lived experience” but never be sure of objective or universal values.

An old poem by John Godfrey Saxe seems to have anticipated our postmodern skepticism. It describes the

…six men of Indostan

To learning much inclined,

Who went to see the Elephant

(Though all of them were blind).

empty tombDepending on which part of the elephant they touch, they conclude the elephant is like a wall, a spear, a rope, or other things. So they

Disputed loud and long,

Each in his own opinion

Exceeding stiff and strong,

Though each was partly in the right

And all were in the wrong.

Yes, our experience and knowledge is limited, like those blind men. We can never take in the whole picture.

So it seems inescapable that Truth is forever beyond our reach. Except for one thing. In the poem, who saw the incident? How can the story be told unless there’s someone who saw it happen—saw the elephant and each blind man touching a part of it?

Indeed, in the first version of the story, told by Buddha, the raja or king looks on empty tombas one man thinks the elephant is like a wall, one like a rope, and so on. That’s how we have the story: the king saw what went on. His understanding was not limited like the blind men.

Is it possible that some King sees all of reality and life, sees this group grabbing onto this aspect of life and that group latching onto that? And can tell the full story of what’s happening? Such a One would be able to fit the various parts of understanding into a complete whole, would know how life fits together. Such a One could—and does—give us Truth.

Why would Jesus talk about hell?

Jesus talked about hell more than all the other Bible authors combined. Hell is mentioned explicitly 23 times in the New Testament and in 16 of those times, Jesus is the one who utters the words.

He pronounces “eternal fire and punishment” as the final destiny of persons who see the hungry in helland give them nothing to eat or see the sick and don’t care for them (Matt. 25:41-46). He warns that those who give into sin are in danger of “hell, where their worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:42-48). Normally when all the flesh is consumed, any maggots die; but the decomposition in hell never ends—their worm does not die. Normally something on fire gets burned up and the fire goes out; but in hell the burning never ends.

Why would Jesus—the Lord of Love, the Author of Grace—talk about a fate that horrible?

Our minds tend to go toward worst case answers:
●  Jesus was not as compassionate and wise as us.
●  He allowed the brutality and barbarism of his day to rub off on him.
●  Or maybe he himself never spoke threats of hell but over-zealous followers put them in his mouth.

But there are also best case answers available:
●  If we choose evil we cannot enter the heavenly City.

Out of respect for human dignity, Jesus does not force his values on us—does not force us to behave as residents of heaven behave, to love God with all our being and love our neighbor as we love ourselves. So if we reject the values of heaven, we must go to the “other place.”

C.S. Lewis wrote: “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done,’ and those to whom God says, in the end, ‘Thy will be done.’ All that are in Hell choose it” (The Great Divorce). Henri Nouwen wrote: “God is love and only love. In God there is no hatred, desire for revenge, or pleasure in seeing us punished. God wants to forgive, heal, restore, show us endless mercy, and see us come home. But just as the father of the prodigal son let his son make his own decision, God gives us the freedom to refuse God’s love, even at the risk of destroying ourselves. Hell is not God’s choice. It is ours” (Bread for the Journey).

●  Misery is the out-working of a choice against God and for self.

The agony of hell-fire may be a metaphor for something infinitely worse than fire. We see that self-centeredness brings misery in the long run. The more self-absorbed and self-focused a person is, the more they tend to grumble, complain, and blame others. Relationships break down. Even physical well-being lessens. If we see that amount of misery in this short life, imagine these souls in a billion years. As we start out, we are distinct from our grumbling mood. We may even criticize it in ourselves and wish we could stop it. “But there may come a day when you can do that no longer. Then there will be no you left to criticise the mood, nor even to enjoy it, but just the grumble itself going on forever like a machine” (C. S. Lewis, The Great Divorce).

Jesus’ images of horror and agony may simply be a description of a chosen path of sinful selfishness going on forever, on a trajectory toward abject misery. Jesus, more perceptive and wiser than any other prophet or teacher, was more aware of this danger than any other. And so he in compassion warned us of it more than any other.

Trusting the Bible—with eyes wide open

I grew up with total trust in the Bible. I soaked up its stories as a boy. God was at work in the world and the biblical heroes and heroines got to join in! And I heeded its teachings. rural My parents modeled this: I remember my father greeting with a “holy kiss” the other ordained men in our district churches and my mother always wearing a “prayer covering.” Both behaviors were done because they read Scripture passages teaching those things.

As I grew older, I realized that this was a naïve, simplistic view of Scripture:

  • Many commands in the Bible are written to specific situations and might not apply to us who live in a different situation. For example, the intent or spirit behind the holy kiss is “show warm affection to fellow believers.” In our culture, that is best achieved by a holy hug or firm handshake.
  • Second, I realized that the historical accounts in the Bible don’t always match our standards of historiography but seem to be in error. Many examples could be given, but here are two: Exodus 9:6 says “all the livestock of the Egyptians died”; but “all” seems clearly wrong when we compare it with vv20-21 and 11:5. 1 Chron. 22:14 says that David, to prepare to build the temple, amassed 3,400 metric tons of gold. Even commentators who are theologically conservative call that “glorious hyperbole.”
  • Third, I began to admit that many Bible texts fall short of the ultimate ethic God has in mind. For instance, some passages instruct slave-masters how to treat slaves rather than telling them to liberate their slaves.

After years of working through this, I still have a full attitude of trust in the Bible. After my initial naiveté as a child and then a stage of questioning, I now have a “second naiveté.” I again have total trust in the Bible—but now with my eyes wide open.

Yes, the Bible’s historical accounts contain “glorious hyperbole,” non-chronological narration, imprecise quotation, etc. But we need not label those as errors any more than we need to say a movie like Selma is untrue when it “adjusts” some dialogue or chronology. We expect the film writers to do that to make the film memorable and accessible; we still call it historically accurate. Also the Bible can still be seen as historically accurate when its writers “adjust” facts to give its passages more impact. It misled none of the original readers; it was what they expected.

Yes, there are biblical passages that are sub-par, texts seeming to affirm slavery, women being silent, etc. But those texts are not God giving instructions for all time. They are God instructing the people of that time, God accommodating to what those people could receive and do—something every good parent does. What if God, to partner with humans without violating their wills, truly had no other possible choice? (The experience of us seeing sub-Gospel instances in the Bible could be analogous to us seeing a friend set out an ashtray in their home and invite a chain-smoking neighbor to use it. Perhaps that ashtray is not our friend encouraging smoking but is part of a commitment to relate to this neighbor who would stay away if he or she couldn’t smoke. This would be confirmed if we later saw our friend nudge and encourage that neighbor away from smoking.) When we see Scripture as the story of God slowly moving humanity toward an ultimate ethic, then those sub-gospel instances of accommodation are no longer important. Scripture’s trajectory is what is important! Reading the Bible can be a series of discoveries that fill us with joy as we see beautiful glimpses of God giving people nudges toward the ethic of the Age to Come!

I have high trust in the Bible. With eyes open to its difficulties and complexities (to many of them, at least!), I still say that all its words are inspired by the Spirit of God who only speaks truth.

Are Allah and God the same?

Do Muslims and Christians worship the same God?

It seems simple. Muslims view Allah as the Creator, the One who called Abraham, who gave the Ten Commandments at Sinai. And there is only one God. So of course Muslims and Christians speak of the same God.

Ask Larycia Hawkins if it’s simple! On Dec 10 she posted on Facebook that she, as a Christian, was going to wear a headscarf (the hijab) during Advent as an expression of compassion and solidarity with Muslims. She invited other women to do the same out of a shared humanity and shared theology: “we worship the same God.”

Wheaton College, where she teaches, immediately suspended her.

There are strong reasons to say that Muslims and Christians do not speak of the same God:
● Christians hold to a Triune God and worship Jesus as God, while Muslims categorically disagree that Jesus is God, rejecting the Trinity.
● If God is not different from Allah, then it was the one true God who spoke to Muhammad, and the Quran contains new revelations from God.

Yet there are also strong reasons to say that Christians and Muslims do speak of the same Creator God:
● Christian Bibles in Muslim areas of the world use Allah as a translation for God. When Christians there read Scripture with Muslims, God is Allah.
● It is easier for Christians to reach out to Muslims when the common ground is emphasized. In Acts 17:23 Paul referred to the Athenians’ altar to an unknown god and said, “What you worship as unknown, I now proclaim to you.” Paul was seeking common ground with the Athenians rather than focusing on differences. As differences between Islam and Christianity are sharpened, the barrier to conversion grows. Most of those with experience in mission work to Muslims are calling on Wheaton to not discipline Hawkins (as long as she holds Jesus as “the way, the truth, and the life”). Robert Priest, a mission and anthropology professor at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School, wrote that if Hawkins is dismissed, “Muslims will learn the idea that faith in Jesus requires a repudiation of Allah” and “this will pose an enormous barrier to consideration of the truth and goodness of the gospel.”

So it’s not helpful for Wheaton or any of us to try to pin down whether Muslims and Christians worship the same God.

A better question: Do our Muslim neighbors have the fullest available understanding of God? The answer: We learn the tender Fatherhood of God and see the gracious mercy of God most fully in Christ!

Update: On Saturday, February 6, Wheaton provost Stanton Jones announced that he had revoked  the termination process. In an email to the Wheaton faculty, Jones wrote that he had “asked Dr. Hawkins for her forgiveness for the ways I contributed to the fracture of our relationship, and to the fracture of Dr. Hawkins’ relationship with the College” and that he had “apologized for my lack of wisdom and collegiality as I initially approached Dr. Hawkins, and for imposing an administrative leave more precipitously than was necessary.”

Nonetheless, in a joint press release, Wheaton and Hawkins, after complimenting each other and stating they “wish the best for each other in their ongoing work,” announced that they will part ways.

All of us believe in a virgin birth

Many skeptics point to the virgin birth of Jesus as an example of a Christian belief that is implausible and absurd.

Vince Vitale, a tutor at Oxford, has a response to this. One day it struck him that most atheists already do believe in a virgin birth:

● The atheist Princeton professor Peter Singer, in a debate with a Christian, was challenged to answer the question “Why are we here?” He responded:

We can assume that somehow in the primeval soup we got collections of molecules that became self-replicating; and I don’t think we need any miraculous or mysterious [explanation].

But molecules emerging out of some ancient ocean with ability to reproduce themselves—that leaves lots of room for mystery. In fact, that scenario sounds quite similar to a virgin birth.

● Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking attempted to propose an atheistic explanation for the universe:

[T]he universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.

But “nothing” normally does not bring something into being. This is far outside the realm of the ordinary. Is it a less miraculous birth than the Christmas story?

The fact is that we live in a miraculous world. Believers and skeptics alike are aware of this. It is therefore, as Vitale points out, not a matter of whether we believe in a virgin birth, but which virgin birth we choose to accept!

We can believe in the birth of an atheistic universe that is indifferent to us—a universe where “there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, … nothing but blind pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins). Or we can believe in the virgin birth of a God who loves us so deeply that he “became flesh and made his dwelling among us” (John 1:14). Emmanuel, God with us.

The One who sees the whole picture

Many of us sense there is a reality beyond what we can see and touch and measure. We who are people of faith search to know and interact with this spiritual reality.

As we do so, we are often like the blind men who examined the elephant. In the original version of this famous story, an Indian raja or king looks on as one thinks the elephant is like a wall, one like a rope, and so on, depending on where they touch the animal. The story’s moral is quite apt: all of us who are seekers need humility – our experience and our knowledge is so limited. We, as the Apostle says, “see through a glass darkly.”

But nonetheless, just as there indeed was a real elephant and a king who saw the whole picture, so there is a spiritual world and a God who sees all. And I believe that we receive revelation from this realm through the Holy Scriptures.

I do not say this only because I’m a Christian and grew up with such belief. I see clear confirmation that Jesus and the Bible indeed put us in contact with a source of Truth far beyond our limited human reasoning.

Clearly a mark of contact with the King who sees all would be wisdom and clear-sighted understanding of how we should live and instruction that consistently moves us in the way of joy and peace. That is exactly what I see in the teachings of Scripture.

The next three Sundays at Trissels – in the morning sermons and in the evening sessions of our Winter Bible School – we will celebrate the wholeness and health that flows out of God’s Word to those who obey it. We will marvel at the many instances of wisdom seen in the Bible and feast on how our faith helps us fulfill the most-basic hopes and longings of humankind, and makes our world a better place.

Come and hear how our faith helps us:

  • give dignity and respect to every human being we meet;
  • be good neighbors–ones who replace selfishness with caring;
  • inspire bad neighbors to become good; and
  • experience life that is satisfying and personally fulfilling!

‘Get your own dirt…and laws’

   A scientist says to God, “Lord, we don’t need you anymore. Science has figured out a way to create life out of nothing. In other words, we can now do what you did in the beginning.”
   “Oh, is that so? Tell me more,” replies God.
   “Well,” says the scientist, “we can take dirt and form it and breathe life into it.”
   “Well, that’s interesting. Show Me.”
   So the scientist bends down to the earth and starts to mold the soil.
   “Oh, no, no,” interrupts God. “Get your own dirt.”

Many think that evolution explains the existence of life, that we don’t need God anymore. This is not clear, for two reasons.

When Darwin came up with his theory, he saw single-celled organisms as no more complex than a “broom or a chandelier.” It was easy for him to picture a process of evolution: a slight change happens in an organism that makes it better (and so it thrives and has lots of children, passing on the improvement), and all these changes over time adding up to major changes and even new creatures. However, we now know that even “simple” organisms are full of systems where all the components must be present for any of them to do any good. (Think of a mousetrap: we can’t start with the wood base and have it work a little. And then add the spring and have it catch more mice. And then attach the metal wire to the spring and catch even more. No, all the components must be present for the trap to work; if one part is absent, the trap doesn’t catch half the mice, it catches zero.)

Even if we give evolution the benefit of the doubt and assume that someday science will demonstrate plausible mechanisms that help all those pieces come together at once to form the biological systems, we would still need God. We would have to account for the presence of those mechanisms and the laws behind them that brought about all the life-forms. Could a set of laws of nature so rich, so strikingly adapted to support life, just “happen”? Generally when things are programmed so that good happens we expect to find intelligence behind it.

That story could end with God saying, “Get your own dirt. And, by the way, get your own universe with its own physical properties and laws too!”