Archive for the ‘Apologetics’ Category

Book Review, Sort Of

October 7, 2019

The next of my gleanings from a pile of Roman Catholic texts is a typical college reader-style text, a collection of translated primary source materials.  The book is called A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham and is part of a larger series from the late 60’s to early 70’s.  It purports to be a good introduction to the scholastic theologians of the Middle Ages (1100-1400), with the exception of Thomas Aquinas who gets his own volume.

I just finished reading Saint Anselm of Canterbury’s most famous work, Proslogion.  A passable translation can be read for free here.  It is here Anselm formulates his proof for the existence of God as a being than which no greater can be conceived.  This is also referred to as the ontological proof for the existence of God, and it arose out of Anselm’s desire for a single, simple proof of God’s existence that was not in itself reliant on any other argument.  It’s been some years since I read Proslogion, and the simplicity of the argument is sometimes seen as a reason to dismiss it.  While Anselm offers his definition in chapter 2 of this work, he goes on for another score or so of chapters, applying this definition to other aspects of the nature of God and to resolve apparent contradictions in the nature of God (mercy & justice, for example).

Of course Anselm’s argument has been controversial from the beginning, eliciting contention even from his contemporaries, notably Gaunilo of Marmoutiers, but continuing throughout Western philosophical history.  Anselm refutes Gaunilo’s criticism (the next selection in this book), but others have felt it necessary to address Anselm’s basic premise.

Good, short, but very thought provoking!

In the Beginning

September 11, 2019

My denominational polity held it’s triennial national convention this past summer.  I studiously avoid these sorts of affairs, preferring to allow others more inclined and perhaps of a better temperament to go and represent our local congregations.  We had a brief report at one of our monthly pastor meetings from the guy who went on our behalf, and there wasn’t much to report.  At least, I don’t recall him mentioning this – our denomination has once again (first in 1932) affirmed the Genesis account of creation in Chapters 1 & 2 to mean a literal six-day creation process utilizing six 24-hour days.  This was based on Scripture’s use of evening and morning to indicate a single day.

To begin with, I lament the difficulty of even finding the full text of  resolution 5-09A.  The LC-MS web site has a variety of links, but none I’ve been able to find states the full text of the resolution.  This page describes the intent of the resolution, which is helpful. This page gives a sense of everything that happens on a day of convention, which is overwhelming but not what I’d hoped for.    Maybe somebody better informed (or with more time on their hands) can find the specific wording for me?


***** Edit – thanks to Doug for providing this link.  The precise wording was broadcast on Twitter during the convention, and final documentation is still pending from our Synod. *****

There was, of course, debate.

Opponents criticized the resolution for being somewhat vague, centering on the use of the word natural as an adjective for days – six of them to be precise.  If the sun (and moon) wasn’t created until the fourth day, how can we speak of 24-hour days with any certainty or preciseness?  This critique has been voiced by others critical of the LC-MS position.

I find this hostility to the resolution and the theology behind it problematic.  Yes, the sun and moon were created on the fourth day.  Does that mean that God’s use of the word day throughout the six-day creation account is incorrect?  Did He misspeak?  Did He decide it was far too complicated for Moses in 1500 BC to understand anything differently so He just said days?  Would that mean God didn’t take into account our current scientific climate and assertions about the origins of everything that directly contradict Scripture on this particular point?  Was God incapable of maintaining a consistent 24-hour cycle without the sun and moon in place yet?

I find Mike  the Geologist’s certainty to be rather fascinating.  How is  it that you “know better”?  Are you that positive that a six-day creation is “nonsense”?  You presume that current understandings or theories of human origins  are superior/more accurate/more trustworthy than the Biblical account.  Would you then argue that the resurrection is not real because everybody knows better than that now?  Is it not possible that evolutionary explanations for the universe and our planet might be flawed –  unintentionally – and subject to correction down the line?  Is there a place for that sort of humility, or should we immediately jump to mocking those who prefer to take  God’s Word in this respect just as they take God’s Word for their forgiveness and hope of life eternally in Christ?

I understand this is complicated – and awkward – discussion.  And I agree, this is not necessarily the difference between heaven and hell in and of itself.  But if you suspect God wasn’t fully accurate or truthful with us in one regard, it’s not a big leap to think He wasn’t in other regards.  Or in no regards, because He isn’t really there.



September 6, 2019

I like honesty.

I say that fully admitting that I am incapable of it.  That in the entire history of the human race there have only been three people perfectly capable of it and two of them threw that ability away pretty much right out of the starting gate.  None of the rest of us can be perfectly, absolutely honest all of the time.  But we can try, and trying makes all the difference sometimes.

And for me the hallmark of honesty is the willingness, the humility to admit that you might be wrong.  That you might be deceived yourself or trying to deceive others.  If there is that humility there is room for discussion.  Room to really hear other people and really be heard by others.  If there isn’t that humility, there is no discussion and ultimately there can’t be growth.

I like intellectual honesty, grappling with reality as we know it and experience it and trying to make sense of it.  I’m reading Justin Martyr’s First Apology, and I love his willingness to tackle the prejudices and ideas of his day head on with the assumption that truth can be found and honesty will lead to that truth.  He wasn’t afraid to present a demand for honesty to the Roman Emperor himself and all those who claimed or desired to be purveyors of intellectual honesty.  Justin was convinced that Christianity and the Bible could fare well in that sort of encounter.

But we have to recognize that in these confrontations Christianity is a threat to other people.  It threatens what they know or believe, or what they prefer to know or believe.  It threatens these things by insisting that there is an objective truth and reality that can be known and that knowing is life-changing.  Not simply an intellectual assent to a propositional statement but something that penetrates to the very heart and spirit of us to transform us.  To bring life from death.  So it’s a threat.

This morning I met with a young man in an addiction recovery program.  We’ve been meeting for three weeks  or so now, each week, as part of the program’s option to provide clients with a spiritual mentor.  While I don’t like the title, I’m willing to spend time with guys who want to search out the spiritual aspect of their recovery and lives further.  More honestly.

After several weeks of running around in philosophical circles about what can or can’t be known, as he was preparing to get out of my car today he said I think I want Christianity to be untrue, or I want to convince myself it isn’t a reasonable option because it would challenge my identity, and I don’t know what I’ll have to give up if I accept it as true.


A recognition that  the call to follow Christ is a call to self-denial.  A call to transformation.  A call to allow God to use us as He chooses rather than as we prefer.  A call to fully acknowledge the depth of our depravity and brokenness, that we might better praise and exalt the God who delivers us up and out of these things.

The Gospel reading for Sunday is Luke 14:25-35.

Jesus clearly does not understand our influencer social media culture.  Here he is with thousands of people following him and hanging on his every word.  Imagine how rich he could have become with a few well-placed product placements!  But instead, Jesus’ response is to turn around and challenge those people.  Do you really want to follow me?  Because following me is going to cost you everything.  Are you willing to give it all up?  Are you willing – more accurately – to live as though it isn’t yours in the first place? 

I think many Christians think this sacrifice comes when they enter the faith, which for many means as an infant.  I think many Christians presume there won’t be any further sacrifices demanded of them.  That they are entitled to live the rest of their lives more or less like the larger culture.

But Jesus’ words directly contradict this.  Because if we’re going to be honest about who we are as fallen and sinful creatures, we have to embrace a humility, a recognition that we might be wrong on any given matter and therefore open to being guided.  Open to growth and learning.  Conviction is fine – I’m convinced of the truth of the Bible and the real identity of Jesus of Nazareth as the incarnate Son of God who defeated the powers of sin, death, and Satan on my behalf through his death and resurrection.  Being humble and listening doesn’t mean everything is up for grabs.  But it should mean I’m listening.  That I’m willing to engage in the discussion like Justin Martyr or Josh this morning.  And that I’m understanding that this may lead to changes in me personal.  How I like to think of myself.  The things I enjoy.  Even some of my convictions.

It may, in fact, lead not to the general approval of the people around me but to my death.  Don’t think Jesus’ use of the cross is metaphorical or symbolic.  His hearers knew all too well what the cross meant, as did Jesus.  And we are called to that level of humility, if necessary.  To being branded a criminal when we are not, as Justin Martyr insisted.  On being convicted by an unfair double-standard, as Justin pointed out.  To suffering and dying in acceptance not of the truth as stated by our world, but as defined by God, as Justin ultimately was willing to do.

Sometimes I think Christians are more willing to embrace and affirm the idea of martyrdom rather than be open to the possibility of the Holy Spirit changing their opinions about things here and now, in the safety of their own routines and lives.  Then again, theoretical martyrdom is far more romantic and exotic than the unpleasant business of dealing with other people.

I pray for honesty.  For the blinders to be revealed and removed whenever and wherever necessary from my eyes.  I pray that knowing full well it might be highly uncomfortable.  And so when I pray for that kind of honesty and engagement for and from others, it hopefully isn’t under the assumption that I’ll get what I want that way.  But Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ. (Ephesians 4:15)

Borrowing the Words

September 4, 2019

We sat last night in a bar watching a pool tournament.  Neither of us were playing – he because he didn’t qualify, myself because I ended the season near the top of my division and therefore will be playing in an all-stars tournament next week.  We were there to watch, to relax, to cheer on friends and team mates.  He’s a good ol’ boy from Oklahoma and Georgia, with some additional stops  around the world courtesy a decade in the Army.  He talked a lot about that decade last night.

But as things sometimes do, the conversation took a right turn into theology.  He’s in upper management for a major national retail chain and he knows what I do.  But as part of his sharing of his story, we suddenly had the covers pulled of the theology that underpins everything we do and who we are.  I’m not religious, he began, I just believe in being a good person.

Theological conversations with an intoxicated person are always a landmine.  They’re often very fruitful in the moment, but if the person remembers it later, they might be upset about something or other.  The honesty that alcohol can lead some people to is sometimes a difficult thing to handle after the fact.

And if you tell me that if I don’t believe in God then I’m going to hell, then f*** you.  Said more as a general statement than directly to me.  But still.

I’m just going to be a good person and that’s it.  Some people need to be afraid of hell to be a good person.  Others don’t.

It sounds like a compelling argument.  Until you try to start figuring out what terms like good mean.  Clearly, when he was telling me about a younger sister’s abusive boyfriend years ago, he felt what that guy did to her was badEvilWicked.  As opposed to how my buddy attempts to live his life.  GoodUpstanding.

But outside of some transcendent center, some unchanging baseline, those words are pointless.  At best, they can attempt to capture some general level of consensus in the moment about what is appropriate or inappropriate.  At worst, they’re purely subjective labels  without any inherent meaning beyond what I choose to give to them.  So abusing a girlfriend is good to one person, but not to me.  Who is right?  Who gets to decide?  Me?  The abuser?  On what basis?  Majority opinion?  Which majority?

I pointed out to my buddy that when he starts tossing around words like good and evil, he’s borrowing the vocabulary of religion.  He was willing to acknowledge that.  But it’s a pretty important point.  People like the idea of relative morality on the one hand, but not on the other.  Relative morality says that 200 years  ago, slavery was just fine.  Yet there are still people trying to get reparations for the  slavery of their ancestors way back then.  On what basis, though, if not a transcendent definition of good and bad that can be applied in a unilateral fashion across time and geography?

The conversation ended shortly after.   I doubt he’ll remember any of it, and that’s fine.  I learned a little more about him and where he comes from, and maybe the Holy Spirit will use that knowledge at some point in the future in our interactions.  Or maybe he’ll remember the point he conceded last night, and it will nag at him and maybe spawn another conversation down the road.  Time will tell, but I hope  so.




March 11, 2019

Evangelism is getting harder, according to one of today’s oft-noted theologians and pastors, Tim Keller.  The reasons Keller cites for evangelism getting harder than it was just a few generations ago are several.  Some are external to Christians and some are internal.

First he cites that evangelism  is more complicated in a highly diverse population that does not have a general, cultural understanding of the Bible and Christianity.  Without a common baseline understanding, evangelism requires a lot more effort.  To someone conditioned by our culture to not know what sin is, and once you explain it to them, to reject the notion as depressing or relative means the person trying to witness has a lot more ground to cover.

Next he cites a greater difficulty in sharing the faith because our culture no longer has a basically good attitude towards Christians and the Church – even if they themselves are not Christians or church-goers.  Emphasis on the abuses and sins of the Church both historically (slavery, religious wars) as well as currently (pedophile priests and other sexual scandals across the denominational spectrum) mean we can’t assume the person we’re talking to even thinks Church or God  is a good thing as a whole for society.  I’d argue that in addition to these factors, there is the deliberate downplaying or ignoring of valuable roles that the Church has played historically and currently, whether in the development of universities and hospitals or current social justice issues.

Finally there is the relativism that pervades our culture now, so that any time someone wants to share the truth, that truth is seen as relative and subjective – maybe good for the sharer but maybe not good or necessary for the hearer.  This can in turn lead to a lower level of empathy among people which makes it hard for them to see things from another person’s perspective.

In a typical evangelical response, Keller cites Christians as basically the problem despite the overwhelming issues noted above.  Nor does he mention sin and an active – though defeated – Satan as elements that contribute to the difficulty of Christian evangelism.  I think he would agree with all of those things he just doesn’t mention them here.

He thinks Christians need to be more humble and sensitive in their witness, and I’d argue that’s always a good thing.  He also thinks Christians need more courage, and of course this is always good as well.  Finally he argues that Christians ultimately don’t really care enough about others to evangelize.  Here I disagree.  I know plenty of Christians who care a great deal about others but their efforts to evangelize have been stymied by many of the factors noted above.  That doesn’t denote a lack of love on their part, but rather a reality of our age.  I question the evangelical assumption that every Christian needs to be an evangelist, since there are pretty few Scripture passages that can be interpreted that way (and those that can are often argued as not applying to the average Christian).

Rather than blaming a lack of love, perhaps we should blame churches for inadequatey catechizing their members, teaching them not only what their church believes but also why.  Perhaps we should blame churches that presume that just because people are members they believe everything the Bible or the church teaches, when in reality most of their lives are lived out in thoroughly secularized school and work environments that are actively hostile to Christians and at times seek to make evangelism an actual offense that could affect admissions or promotions.

Yes, Lord, change our hearts.  But also grow and strengthen our churches and pastors to better ground and equip their parishioners in the faith.

New Apologetic Tidbit

March 5, 2019

Thanks to Doug for sending me a newsletter with some apologetic tidbits about Lent and Holy Week.  Most of the newsletter was information I was already familiar with encouraging Christians not to doubt the Bible’s data so easily.  Oftentimes ‘scholars’ have attacked the Bible’s credibility on certain details due to an absence of evidence, an argument from silence, which basically says that if there is no additional historical or archaeological corroboration of a detail contained in the Bible, the Biblical detail should be assumed to be incorrect.

However this tactic has proven fallacious over and over again.  Examples include insistence from scholars at one point that Pontius Pilate never existed, until archaeology proved them wrong in 1961.  Or how some scholars didn’t believe the Bible’s mention of Caiaphas as High Priest in Jerusalem during Jesus’ ordeal, until archaeology again proved them wrong (or at least weakened their argument considerably) again in 1990.

But there was one tidbit that was new to me.  The Gospel accounts of Jesus’ crucifixion describe how there was a pervasive darkness from noon till about 3pm (Mark 15:33, Matthew 27:45, Luke 23:44).  It’s obviously an important detail of the event, but are there any historical references outside of Scripture to this?  Turns out there is – the Greek historian Phlegon of Tralles.

Phlegon sounds like an interesting guy, for a historian.  No only did he write a multi-volume history of the Olympiads, he also wrote a book focusing on marvels- paranormal events, as well as a book on people with extraordinarily long lives.  We don’t have copies of most of his writings, but rather references to his writings from historical figures closer to his day.  One such person is the Christian Origen, who references one of Phlegon’s books where Phlegon indicates that there was a massive eclipse during the reign of Tiberius.  Not only was there an eclipse around the 6th hour of the day, there were also reports of earthquakes in various places, something Matthew mentions in his Gospel as well (Matthew 27:51-54).

Objections might be made.  What if Origen was lying?  What if we can’t trust his reference to Phlegon?  Origen was a well-educated man who wrote a great deal.  Apparently Phlegon’s writings were well-enough known that Origen would be familiar with them and would find them reasonable to quote from, and that others would know of them as well.  It wouldn’t make sense for him to simply lie about something that anyone of his day with an education could verify for themselves by referencing Phlegon’s works.

Thanks Doug, and thanks Phlegon and Origen!

Book Review: Pollution and the Death of Man

February 18, 2019

Pollution and the Death of Man: The Christian View of Ecology

by Dr. Francis Schaeffer

I picked up some books at the used book store a looooong time ago.  Lost them, forgot about them, and rediscovered them recently and plucked the top one up.  While I’m a big admirer of Schaeffer’s practical theology and philosophy, I had forgotten how painful he can be to read.  It isn’t that the concepts are too technical or complex, but more that writing is just not his forte.  It’s one thing to think big thoughts, but an entirely different thing to communicate them in understandable terms!

But this book, after an initial rocky start, really is far more accessible than some of Schaeffer’s other writing.  The topic hasn’t gotten any less important in the last 50 years, and while his thoughts on it are something that anyone well-versed in the Bible might piece together on their own, it doesn’t seem to be a topic or a treatment that has attracted much attention.  Some of Schaeffer’s observations in this book are fantastic in that they apply in so many areas beyond ecology, yet they apparently elude so many Christians.

Schaeffer really hits his stride in Chapters 4-6.  He grounds Christian ecology on, logically enough, the creation account in Genesis.  He argues that Christianity is unique among religions and philosophies for providing the baseline argument of why we should treat nature kindly and gently: because God created it. Most other religions and philosophies argue for a certain treatment of nature that is far more anthropocentric – we should take care of nature because it benefits us, specifically, as human beings.  Schaeffer argues powerfully that such an anthropocentric view is dangerous, as is the other extreme – pantheism.

Schaeffer goes on to offer a compelling description of man and his place in creation, separated by a gap not only between himself and his Creator, but between himself and all the rest of creation.  That, endued alone with the imago dei, man is unique in creation but not separated from creation.  He is both unique in the imago dei and not unique in that he also is a creation.  Schaeffer offers an exploration of this and how man should treat nature.  The example that stands out is that man is free to rid his home of ants.  This is a necessity (at least most people would view it as such!) and so many does this.  But when he encounters the ant on the sidewalk, he steps over it.  The ant has a right to his antness in his proper habitat, just as man does.  And man does not have the right to arbitrarily destroy nature when there is no need for doing so.  And if there is a need to do so, man can choose to limit himself (in terms of time and profit, primarily) so that nature is not unnecessarily destroyed more than needs be.

This is really helpful reading.  It prevents us  from erring in the traditional way, but claiming that as God’s highest creation the rest of creation exists only for our own use or pleasure.  No, creation has a right to exist in itself, though man has the right to utilize nature towards his needs and ends, so long as it is done without losing sight of nature as a creation of God, just like mankind itself.  And it prevents us from erring with the pantheists or the materialists.  Pantheists see all things as divine and ultimately degrade humanity in the process.  Materialists do the same thing but because they lack any sense of divinity, rather than suffering from too great a sense of it.

Finally, Schaeffer rightly asserts that Christians should be living out these truths as witness to our culture and the world around us.  That our individual and corporate lives should be governed by decisions of self-limitation in order to preserve and respect the rest of God’s creation.  Powerful thoughts for Christians and their families and congregations!




Book Review – Gospel Reset

January 21, 2019

Gospel Reset: Salvation Made Relevant by Ken Ham.

I received a free copy of this book a few months ago, likely sent to Christian pastors across the country.  I’m familiar with who Ken Ham is but I’ve not read or listened to any of this material.  I’m sure we have some theological differences along denominational lines, but trust that we’ll laugh about that together some day in glory.

The basic premise of this book is that many Christian churches have made a grave mistake.  In an effort to accommodate secular theories of origin, they have moved away from really talking much about Genesis.  And if you don’t know the book of Genesis – at least the first quarter of it – you really don’t understand anything else the Bible says or why it matters and applies to you.  I resonate with Ken’s insistence that if we are going to make sense of the Gospel to people unfamiliar with Christianity and the Bible, we need to do so not be ignoring or skipping over Genesis as unnecessary or embarrassing, we need to start there as the key to understanding everything else in the entire universe.

Most of this book describes the problem of Biblical illiteracy in American culture, offering some ideas about how we’ve reached this point.  Ken also highlights two different sermons – one by Peter to people who understood most of his terminology and assumptions (fellow Jews) in Acts 2, and one by Peter to non-Christians in Acts 17.  The Church needs to understand this distinction today as well.  We can’t make assumptions, use shortcuts, utilize insider lingo, or otherwise just assume that people with no exposure to the Bible or Christianity or Church will understand what we’re saying.  They won’t.

Unfortunately, the book does a typically good job of summarizing a problem most people in the Church are somewhat familiar with, but not so good in offering solutions.  The last pages of the book draw attention to resources his organization, Answers in Genesis, has created to be of help.  I think it would have been better if he had provided a synopsis at least of some of the main issues in Genesis he sees as foundational.  It would be a big help to folks who don’t know how to talk to non-Christians.  I appreciate that he’s trying to sound the alarm.  Tragically, most  Christians just don’t understand how big the shift in our culture is from when they were young until now.  That’s dangerous for the Church in America.  This book might be a good start in summarizing some of these shifts.

I Must Break You

January 16, 2019

I’m pretty sure that I’ve never seen any of the Rocky movies.  Not the full, uncut, uncensored, unadapted-for-television-audiences movies.  I’ve seen bits and pieces and probably watched the original on TV sometime in the early 80’s.  But by the time I was close to getting out of high school there were already on Rocky IV.  I didn’t see it.  But the Cold War meeting of Rocky Balboa and Drago hardly needed to be watched.  We breathed it in the air and ate it in our breakfast cereal.

One line from the movie caught the attention of my best friend.  Drago says to Rocky in the ring “I must break you.”  Powerful words.  No mercy.  No kindness.  Nothing but the imperative to destroy and break Rocky as a fighter, as a man, and of course thematically, as an American.

But tonight, teaching a class on the first chapter of Romans to a group of women in recovery from alcohol and drug addiction, I realized how appropriate this line is on such a grander scale.  I think Satan would be happy to put it in his own mouth as he gloated over the recently fallen creation, over Adam and Eve choking on the forbidden fruit, on the penalty of the Law – Death – being introduced into perfection.  But the phrase is better and ultimately more appropriate in the mouth of God.  Insisting that none of our pretenses, none of our objections, none of our rebuttals can be left to stand in false defense of our sinfulness, of our brokenness, of our abject, filthy rebellion against the one true God and Creator of all things so that we might pretend to justify our rebellious acts, our eating of our own forbidden fruit as though nothing were wrong.

Paul won’t let that be.  God the Holy Spirit says through St. Paul I must break you.  Your objections.  Your false hopes.  Your pathetic excuses.  Your sham righteousness.  I must break you of all those things.  Completely.  Brutally if necessary, as brutal as a thrashing in the ring between two formidable opponents.  But it has to be done.  We must be backed into the corner with no defense, no strength, no illusions of how defeated we are, how completely unable we are to argue our way out of the power and righteousness and Law of God.  Ignorance?  Don’t be ridiculous.  Wisdom?  Don’t waste my time.  Create your own truth?  Go ahead, see how that works out for you in the end.  One by one batting away our feeble attempts to block, our limp jabs and efforts to push God away from us and leave us in peace as basically all right.

We’re not basically all right.  Not by default.  And nothing we do or create or say or believe can make us right.  Only God can.  Only the God who created us can restore us from our fallenness.  Only the Word by which all creation came into being is the Word that can proclaim  forgiven.  Only the presence of the Holy Spirit of God can guard us from the ever-present whispering temptations to shift our reliance back onto ourselves, to claim some of God’s glorious forgiveness and grace as our own, some of his holiness as our own.

We either accept it completely from him or we have nothing at all.  He must break us of our delusions to the contrary.

That moment when people finally realize this, when they cut through the crappy theology in pop-worship focused more on entertainment and self-improvement and feel-good  effects rather on the truth that we are hopeless without God, that moment is amazing.  To watch the struggle, the rejection, and – if fortunate enough and honest enough – that recognition of this truth, that is amazing.  That moment when someone admits that even when they do something nice or kind or good, there’s a stinking little pellet of  self-centeredness at the heart of it is exquisite.

To be able to tell them that only the Bible will tell them this.  Every other philosophy and religion or lack thereof will tell them just the opposite.  That there is hope, and that hope is inside of them.  All they need to do is open themselves to enlightenment.   Submit themselves more rigorously in obedience.  Strive with all their utmost  to attain God’s grace and share  his love, trust the whispered promises of social science and genetic modifications and all other manner of  controlling the production of human life.  Only the Bible, only when God’s Word is preached and taught in fullness and truth do we hear the terrifying, offensive truth.  You can do nothing.  You have nothing.  You are guilty as charged and deserving of the full penalty of the Law.

Only in the Word of God are we fully broken.  And only in the Word of God are we more fully restored.  Forgiven.  Healed.  Perfected.  Only when we have nothing left of our own can we be capable of receiving what God has to offer in his Son, Jesus the Christ.  We must be completely broken down, so that He can restore us to more than we ever knew we were or could be.  Only when we are stripped of confidence can we truly hope.

Brutal and beautiful.

What Are We Really Mad About?

October 24, 2018

Last night I was  able to follow up with the bartender I wrote about a while back, the atheist who asked for prayers for her friend suffering from breast cancer.  She remembered me this time, and what I do for a living – something she likes to broadcast very loudly to whomever happens to be around us, while also laughingly shushing them if they happen to swear when I’m in the area.  I told her last night that if I was able to deal with her, then there wasn’t too much that I was likely to hear from anyone else in the place that would need to be shushed.

Her shot for the night was that she either doesn’t believe in God or is angry at God if there is one, because if there is one, then He let her mom die of cancer, and that’s a pretty lousy God.  She had at least one of her three sheets in the wind at this point, and so it wasn’t appropriate to try and actually have a conversation with her on the topic.  I’d like to think there will be a time when I can do so, but it’s going to take a miracle.

But should the Holy Spirit provide an opportunity for us to talk honestly and privately and without her being overly intoxicated, I might try to steer the conversation in this direction.

She’s obviously hurt and angry at the loss of her mother.  I can’t fault her for that.  It’s hard to have someone you love die.  I don’t think it matters much if it’s cancer or something else.  Death stinks.

If she denies that there’s a God or any other creative, deliberative, willful force behind our existence, then she can pretty much give up the anger.  There’s no point in it and there’s no basis for it.  Anger indicates some feeling that things have been done incorrectly or unfairly.  Her mom didn’t deserve to die from cancer, or didn’t deserve to die at the age she did, or any number of other variables.

But if we’re all just the results of blind chance and randomness, then ideas such as anger or unfairness or incorrectness lose all meaning beyond the meaning we may arbitrarily assign them.  And if we assign them that meaning they really have no meaning at all because our meanings and definitions are prone to shifting and swaying.

If you’re going to be angry, and if you’re going to make some sort of appeal to morality or ethicalness as a basis for being angry, then you need to have a rock-solid baseline on morality and ethics from which to hold such a higher power accountable.  Oh, and by the way, in the process you consign yourself to the same baseline and the same accountability.  That may come in handy later.

So  either you give up your anger and recognize that all of this has no meaning, no purpose beyond what we arbitrarily choose to assign it, or you acknowledge that deep down inside – whether you like Him/Her/It or not – there must be a higher power responsible for all of this who is somehow acting inappropriately.

Either the conversation is over at this point because the other person recognizes that they are not being consistent in their understanding of reality in denying a higher creative power and agrees to try and be more consistent (probably also with a few unrepeatable words about how rude and uncaring I am) or they acknowledge – at least for the sake of argument (and to hold on to their anger and indignation) that there might be a higher power that might have some explaining to do (or to whom, perhaps, we have some explaining to do).

If they’re talking to me, we’re going to talk about the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible.  If they don’t want to talk about that God they’re going to have to talk to someone else and their god.  But you have to determine which god you’re talking about in order to understand how to proceed, and sometimes the simple fact that they’re talking to a Christian theologian will take the conversation down that road.  If they’re willing to acknowledge a higher power but not the God of the Bible, I’ll send them to the local mosque/ward/temple/etc. to talk to somebody there, as there won’t be a point in us continuing our conversation.  But hopefully an important acknowledgement will have already been reached – that either they’re truly an atheist or they’re really not.

If she’ll agree that it’s the God of the Bible that she thinks likely exists and who she is angry at, then we continue the conversation.  It might be helpful at this point for her to reiterate her basic points – God is bad and a jerk because He allowed (or caused) her mother to die of cancer, which presumes that a God should be good, and if they are good (or claim to be good) then one sign of such goodness (all other things being equal, which they never are) is that we wouldn’t have to deal with death.

After she has another chance to express her feelings, we can proceed.

First we have to lay out the ground rules so we know we’re talking about the same God.  Which means we can only judge him based on what He’s told us about things, since as creations we would have no other means of either knowing of or assessing God’s behavior.

So do we have a basis in who God tells us He is and we are for feeling that death is a raw deal?  We sure do.  Does He acknowledge and explain this predicament and how it came to be that a good God would have a creation with death in it?  He sure does.  Where does the blame lay for that?  According to the Bible, with us.  We’re to blame.  Not just some primordial ancestor but me personally as well.  I inherit a mortality, but I also perpetuate and continue it so that my mortality is not simply an unfair imposition but actually what I deserve (there’s a moral component – I knew that would come in handy at some point!).

There is a baseline (which God, by definition, defines).  We’re the ones to blame that things are messed up.  But surely a good God would have known all of this in advance, right?   Everything in Scripture would lead me to think that this was and is the case.  God was/is not shocked by my sinfulness or by the first sinfulness of Adam and Eve.

But surely a good God wouldn’t just leave us in this predicament.  Surely a good God would have a solution.  Does God say that there is a solution?  Actually, yes.

So God has revealed what the problem is and has revealed that He has a solution to that problem – the problem that means that we die.

Does this have pertinence to my bartender friend’s mother, and to her as well?  Yes, actually.  It pertains directly and completely to them.  Our faith and hope are turned towards God rather than away from him.  We can recognize him as the source of hope and joy and life, rather than as being absentee or abusive.  God has not left us alone.  Quite the opposite.  He continues to seek us out to draw us into relationship with him.  But only on his terms.  Because He’s God, and we aren’t.

Ultimately, if we acknowledge that God is there, we don’t have a right to our anger.  He takes that away from us at best, or redirects it towards ourselves at worse.  But we aren’t left with nothing.  Rather, He amazingly gives us hope.  Joy.  Peace.  Forgiveness.  Grace.  Everything we weren’t – in our anger – willing to give him, yet everything we understand to make life worth living and that invariably characterizes to one degree or another the people we are most drawn to and impacted by.

It would be a long conversation.  Feelings are powerful things.  But feelings are also made to be guided and mastered and directed, rather than directing us.  When we simply allow our emotions to drive us, bad things tend to end up happening whether short term, long term, or both.

It’s not a perfect discussion, but a start.  What would you add?  What would you omit?