Posts Tagged ‘Christian apologetics’

Why isn’t God’s presence more obvious?

October 6, 2017

In light of this week’s tragedy in Las Vegas, I’m preaching a one-shot sermon this Sunday called “Where Is God in the Midst of Tragedies.” My text is Luke 13:1-9. In my view, this scripture is Jesus’ most important word on evil and suffering. At the very least, it speaks directly to modern objections to God’s existence based on the “moral problem” of evil. I preached what I’m sure was a theologically and biblically inadequate sermon on this text back in 2010. I’m almost afraid to re-read it now!

Still, in preparation for Sunday’s sermon, I’m currently reading Clay Jones’s Why Does God Allow Evil. Among other things, he expands on ideas he debated on an outstanding Unbelievable? podcast in 2015. I admire the forcefulness and clarity with which he approaches a subject that most of us only approach with great caution. Perhaps he’s fearless because, as he says in the book’s introduction, when we understand who we are as sinful human beings, the so-called “problem of evil” vanishes. After all, no one asks, “Why do bad things happen to bad people?”

I don’t disagree with him.

In fact, I’ve been blogging for a while about how ill-equipped most contemporary Methodists are in dealing with questions of human or natural evil. Remember this official UMC article on the recent hurricanes? Most Methodist thinkers say something inadequate like, “We don’t know why there’s evil, but God is with us!”

Regardless, one nagging apologetic concern I have struggled with more recently is the apparent “hiddenness” of God. Why does God not make his presence more obvious to people whom he otherwise wants to save?

Dr. Jones tackles this question nicely:

If God wants us to be significantly free (know the kind of freedom we now possess), then God can’t make His presence too apparent; He can’t make His presence too “saturated.” His presence in the world is not smothering, like an overbearing parent. He is not an ever-present “helicopter God” (philosophers call this epistemic distance or divine hiddenness). This is so because if God’s existence were at every moment absolutely unmistakable, then many people would abstain from desires that they might otherwise indulge. As C.S. Lewis put it, “there must perhaps always be just enough lack of demonstrative certainty to make free choice possible: for what could we do but accept if the faith were like the multiplication table?” In other words, if Christianity were unmistakably true, then people would have less free will and they would be compelled to feign loyalty. For example, I’ve asked guys, “If you were getting up to speak at a podium, and there were cameras on you, and an audience watching you, and if there were a pornographic magazine on the podium, would you open it or even look down at the cover?” Of course the answer is always no. Why? Because they know that everyone is watching them! Similarly, God could make His presence and His power so evident that everyone would always do the right thing—whether they wanted to or not. But that would interfere with our acting freely.[†]

What would be wrong if the truth of God and his gospel were as obvious to us as the multiplication table? After all, we would know that God exists. We would know that the doctrines of Christianity are true. We would, in a sense, “believe in” Jesus.

But this wouldn’t be true faith. As I said in my recent sermon, “Dead Faith Can’t Save Us,” genuine faith is not merely knowing facts about God; it’s not agreeing to a set of propositions. It’s also entrusting ourselves to God—out of love for him and gratitude to him. It’s being loyal to him. Without this “epistemic distance,” as Jones says, we would “feign loyalty.” True faith may never take root and grow.

So without God’s “hiddenness,” the vast majority of people would believe in God, but they wouldn’t have faith in God. There’s a big difference!

Clay Jones, Why Does God Allow Evil? (Eugene, OR: Harvest House, 2017), 112.

Ask Dr. Olson a question? You bet I will!

June 2, 2016

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, you probably know how much I admire Roger Olson, a historical theologian at Baylor (not to mention an Arminian Baptist), and his blog. He has a new post this week, “Ask a Theologian a Question,” in which he’s fielding questions from readers.

My question was of a nagging apologetic concern that I’ve had. Dr. Olson was gracious enough to answer. The key, I believe, is that God doesn’t merely want us to know that he exists. Mere knowledge hardly produces love, or self-sacrifice, or worship. Doesn’t it seem likely that many convinced atheists wouldn’t submit to the kind of loving, trusting relationship that God wants us to have with him, even if they had more tangible proof? Both the late writer Christopher Hitchens and English actor Stephen Fry, among others, have said they wouldn’t want the Christian God to exist, and if he did, they wouldn’t bow down to them.

Besides, as James says, even demons know that God exists—and shudder. As I imply in my question, I agree with Olson: Believing that God exists is our natural state of affairs. Evidence from history, not to mention scripture, bears this out.

(Click on graphic to expand.)


DeGrasse Tyson tries his hand at theology (again)

December 29, 2015


A friend linked to this video on Facebook. Here’s what I wrote in the comments section. Thoughts? I could have written much more, but I thought this was a good start. What would you add or subtract from this response? 

A couple of thoughts. First, who cares what Neil deGrasse Tyson thinks about God? He knows as much about theology as I know about astrophysics. He ought to know enough about science, however, to say that the question is beyond the scope of science—by definition. It’s metaphysical, and science is strictly limited to the physical.

On the question of benevolence, however, does he really think there are no signs of it in our world? The very fact that he’s here enjoying life ought to count in favor of benevolence. Or even that we have this wonderfully life-sustaining world, which works out quite well for most people most of the time. And often, when it doesn’t, it’s not because the universe lacks “benevolence.” It’s because human being are foolish.

This is all an interpretation, of course, but the “problem of good” seems like a bigger problem for an atheist than the “problem of evil” is for a believer.

Moreover, even using the word “benevolence” implies that there is such thing as “good” (bene- at the root). Where does the judgment “good” come from? After all, even natural disasters that don’t work out well for human beings often work out quite well for non-humans and the rest of the planet: a forest fire that destroys lives and property will also replenish the ecosystem of a forest; a tsunami that wipes out thousands of humans will be wonderful for marine life. Who’s to say that’s not “good”? (I’m not saying it is good, but from a strictly “scientific” point of view, why should deGrasse Tyson think otherwise?)

Even more importantly, neither deGrasse Tyson nor myself is in a position to say that our world could be better than it is, at least from a strictly physical point of view. The exact same physical forces that produce a sunny and mild spring day also produce (occasionally) tsunamis, hurricanes, and earthquakes. Maybe it’s not possible to have one without the other. Who knows?

Besides, if the universe were any “better” (from deGrasse Tyson’s point of view), he likely wouldn’t exist. And neither would I. All of us are where we are because we got the universe that we got.

Who am I to complain about that? 😉

Not that you asked for any of this when you posted this! Sorry!

Is apologetics a four-letter word?

August 19, 2015

When did I become such a “fundamentalist”? 😉

I was hanging out on a relatively conservative, evangelical-friendly Facebook page for United Methodists. Someone asked us what additional classes should seminaries offer that they’re not currently offering—or at least requiring. I said that we should be required to take a course in apologetics. To which a fellow clergy said the following:

Apologetics is a fundamentally flawed discourse, that too easily reduces the faith to the lowest common denominator under the guise of defending it. The faith doesn’t need defending, it needs proclamation.

Another pastor agreed, saying that intellectual objections are merely a smokescreen for an inward, “heart”-related problem. Presumably, once we deal with the underlying spiritual or emotional problem, the intellectual problems take care of themselves. Besides, he said, no one comes to faith through logic or reason.

While I agree that no one comes to faith through logic or reason alone—apart from the revelatory work of the Holy Spirit—Christianity is a rational religion. How could reason and logic not play an important role in evangelism? Otherwise, why bother with language at all? We may as well speak in tongues to unbelievers. (Actually, the apostle Paul has something to say about that very problem in 1 Corinthians 14!)

Besides, the concern is not merely with unbelievers, as I said in this comment thread: What about the intellectual doubts of the already converted? After all, nearly every day we pastors have to be able to reconcile our world of suffering and pain with our proclamation that God is good—that God really does love us. If we pastors haven’t worked that question out, intellectually, we’re doomed! And having read testimonies from pastors who lose their faith, I know that theodicy is Reason No. 1.

It won’t do to say, as mainline Protestant seminary often teaches us to say, “It’s all a mystery.”

I continued:

Or what about the intellectual doubts of young Christians going off to college and being exposed for the first time to ideas that directly contradict what they’ve learned in church? That happens all the time. Are we not supposed to equip young Christians to handle these questions?

Because they constantly hear things such as: Jesus never existed; the resurrection motif was borrowed from other myths and legends; the resurrection was a legendary development that happened over decades; Paul “invented” Christianity by distorting or ignoring the teachings of the historical Jesus; Jesus didn’t say or do most of the things attributed to him in the gospels; we have no contemporaneous accounts of the historical Jesus; science is irreconcilable with Christian faith; evolution disproves Christianity; Stephen Hawking has shown how “quantum gravity” accounts for creation out of nothing; the existence of evil proves God doesn’t exist.

I could go on, obviously.

Are we not supposed to furnish answers to these questions—or just let these intellectual doubts fester? The moment we attempt to answer them, however, we are doing apologetics. So we may as well learn to do it properly.

My concern, therefore, is not merely evangelism. It’s also bolstering the faith of Christians, all of whom experience intellectual doubts from time to time. In other words, it’s not only a “heart” problem.

I could point to Paul’s preaching in Acts 17 as an example of apologetics. But also: his words at the beginning of 1 Corinthians 15 are incomprehensible if he’s not appealing to evidence for the resurrection: the resurrection is a real historical event, Paul says, and here’s how we can know. In our own way, we ought to be equipped to do the same. Not to prove it scientifically, but to show the reasonableness of it.

Fortunately, in our own day, we are blessed with serious scholars who are doing this good work: Alvin Plantinga, Peter Kreeft, Alister McGrath, John Lennox, William Lane Craig, N.T. Wright, et al.

Obviously, thinkers like C.S. Lewis and Chesterton did the same in their day.

No less a late-modern theologian than Wolfhart Pannenberg believed that the work of theology was inseparable from apologetics.

Have I made case? Why would fellow clergy have a problem with apologetics? What am I missing?

“Why isn’t God a better engineer?”

December 5, 2012

I’ve noticed that astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson has become one of pop culture’s go-to guys for science, and it’s easy to see why: He’s charming and friendly, and he obviously knows his stuff, science-wise. I’ve seen him at least a couple times on The Colbert Report, but he’s on TV elsewhere.

The John Templeton Foundation recently asked him (and other notables) to answer this question: “Does the universe have a purpose?” To his credit, he admits up front that answering the question requires “access to knowledge not based on empirical foundations.” We might imagine, therefore, that any argument from “empirical foundations” alone would leave a lot to be desired, as does his answer.

He argues that no universe that looks like ours could be the product of design. If God exists, wouldn’t he at least be the world’s greatest engineer? No engineer would design this universe. It’s far too inefficient and wasteful.

Christian apologist William Lane Craig has handled this objection in debates before. I like this short answer from his blog, in response to a reader named Mike, a software engineer and agnostic:

So these arguments alone give us good grounds to think that a Creator and Designer of the universe exists. Now against this conclusion you oppose two considerations. First, “The universe is wasteful. It’s HUGE and most of it is empty space devoid of life.” Ah, but Mike, recall that it’s one of the insights of the fine-tuning argument that the universe must in fact be very large, since the heavy elements like carbon of which our bodies are made are synthesized in the interior of stars and then distributed throughout the cosmos by supernovae explosions. But it takes billions of years for the stars to go through such a process, and all the time the universe is expanding. So the size of the universe is a function of its age, and that is a pre-condition of our very existence. So all that empty space is not at all a waste! Besides, how do you know it is devoid of life? Maybe there are intelligent beings who exist elsewhere in the cosmos who are also God’s creatures. Why be closed to that idea?

Second, you object that “Even on earth the process of life was very wasteful. The majority of species have gone extinct.” But is it true that life was wasteful? The primeval forests were the basis for the oil and coal deposits that make modern civilization possible. (Try to think of human culture ever evolving very far in the absence of fossil fuels!) The extinct creatures that existed during those times were part of the eco-system that made the planet flourish. And don’t you think that God, if He exists, delighted in the dinosaurs and other marvelous creatures now extinct? I think He did!

That brings us to the real crux of the problem, in my opinion. The implicit assumption seems to be that God wouldn’t create such extravagant waste. God is like a super-efficient engineer who wouldn’t engage in such waste.

Mike, I love you engineers because you respond so well to my approach to apologetics! But you’ve got to be really careful about creating God in your own image and projecting your values onto Him. As I said to Quentin Smith, who originally raised the efficiency objection, God may be more like an artist than like an engineer, someone who delights in the extravagance of His creation, in far-flung, undiscovered galaxies, in flowers that bloom unseen on a remote mountain hillside, in beautiful shells lying in the ocean’s unexplored depths. I see no reason at all to think that God should be like the engineer rather than the artist. Efficiency, as I said, is a value only to someone with limited resources or limited time, or both. But God has unlimited time and resources, so why shouldn’t He be extravagant? Granted that your engineer would marshal his time and resources carefully; but suppose God isn’t (just) an engineer?

God and the “God particle”

July 10, 2012

I knew that some people—both believers and atheists—would make some extraordinary claims in the wake of last week’s possible discovery of an elusive subatomic particle called the Higgs boson. As for what it is, read the linked Times article. I’m no physicist. I’ve read that it’s the “glue” that holds everything else together. Suffice it to say that physicists predicted that such a thing existed and have been looking for it for a while.

The main reason I imagined that it would pose an apologetic challenge is because of its unfortunate nickname, “the God particle.” The physicist who first called it that in a book he wrote on the subject wanted to call it a profanity beginning with “god” but his publisher objected.

For the apologetic challenge, the gist of the argument on the atheist side is that somehow the existence of this particle means that the universe no longer needs a God to create or sustain it. (Haven’t they been arguing that all along? How does the Higgs boson either add or detract from their arguments?)

Regardless, I’ll point you to my go-to guy for apologetics, Dr. Glenn Peoples. His article is excellent, as always, but I especially like this paragraph.

As you’re reading this, you might be forgiven for asking what any of this has to do with an argument that God’s existence isn’t necessary. You’d be right to ask that question, because in reality there is no connection at all. How does this even speak to the question of why there is, right now, something rather than nothing? What does this tell us about the origin of the universe from nothing? The answer is just that – nothing! Discovering a particle that exists within the physical universe obviously can’t tell us why physical matter exists at all. The particle that gives mass to some matter, leaving other matter without mass, has nothing at all to tell us why there is matter or why the universe came into being.

If you’ve been reading my blog for a while, I hope this now seems obvious.

Personal incredulity is not an argument

April 26, 2012

A Facebook friend helpfully pointed me to a webpage that reminds us of eleven mistakes of logic that we often make when arguing. As I’m currently preaching a sermon series on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus, I’m trying my best to avoid them. One fallacy, which I had never heard of before, is “personal incredulity.” Here’s the description:

I’m struck by the fact that he uses evolution as an example. I get his point, but I also note that this same mistake is often made by skeptics and atheists concerning God, theology, and resurrection.

Recently, my friend Mike was watching an online debate between Christian apologist William Lane Craig and the late Christopher Hitchens. I assume this debate was part of Hitchens’s God is Not Great book tour several years ago. (Click here to read about a debate I witnessed live between Hitchens and my Christian ethics prof, Timothy Jackson.)

Mike was impressed with Craig, and why wouldn’t he be? Craig knows all the arguments backwards and forwards, and is well-prepared to take on any comer. (Last year, Craig challenged Dawkins to debate him in England, but Dawkins turned him down. Smart man!) But my friend noticed that Hitchens had zero interest in engaging any of Craig’s arguments. And since Craig is such an earnest fellow, I can’t imagine that he fared well playing Hitchens’s game of scornful derision masked as witty repartee.

My point is, the fallacy of personal incredulity is a primary tactic of our celebrity atheists. Dawkins himself deflects criticism that he knows nothing about Christian theology by talking about fairies and flying spaghetti monsters. Why bother learning anything about theology? he would say. It’s such obvious nonsense.

And so it is with evidence for the resurrection. The attitude of many skeptics is, “It doesn’t matter what you tell me, I’m not going to believe that God raised Jesus from the dead. That’s beyond the realm of possibility.” Whatever else happened, we know in advance that that didn’t happen.

One thing I hope to get across in this “Reason to Believe” series is this: If the resurrection of Jesus did happen, then the evidence we have is the precisely the evidence that we should expect. 

“House” and miracles

February 14, 2012

Dr. Chase misunderstands God's involvement in the world.

One of my favorite TV shows, House M.D., is on life support, ratings-wise, and last night’s episode shows why. They’re running out of ideas. How many times, after all, have they recycled last night’s storyline: a patient has a religious experience, and a doctor (usually House himself, but this time Chase) tries his best to explain it away using science.

Well… the story isn’t new, but it’s still a good one. I appreciate the way last night’s episode put in sharp relief the faulty premise of scientism: if science can explain why something happens, then that squeezes God out of the equation. If science then not-God.

For example, in last night’s episode, Dr. Chase falls in love with a patient who is a nun-in-training—technically a postulant. She’s struggling with doubts about her vocation, which provides a convenient opening for Chase. After all, if she decides not to become a nun, then Chase can pursue a relationship with her.

So Chase goes to work on her. But he’s too late. She’s now convinced that God encountered her during a life-saving medical procedure. Upon learning this, Chase is prepared to convince her that her divine encounter was nothing more than a symptom of her disease. Nevertheless, seeing her newfound conviction—she’s praying the rosary as he approaches her hospital room—he doesn’t have the heart to go through with it.

In fact, he may even have second thoughts about his own convictions. The show, as always, leaves the question ambiguous.

But do you see problem with Chase’s point of view? He believes that if there were a “natural” explanation for her religious experience, then there could not also be a supernatural explanation. But why?

Couldn’t God have graciously used this woman’s medical condition and resulting hospital experience to convince her to pursue her calling? God gave her a sign, in other words, using perfectly natural and explainable processes.

My firm belief is that God does this all the time. To be a theist and believe otherwise is to be a Deist—to believe that God has a hands-off policy when it comes to Creation; that God winds up the universe, governed by well-ordered physical laws, and lets it run its course.

Needless to say, I hope, Christians are not Deists. We believe in a hands-on God who is always and everywhere at work in our world. And he can be this way without resorting to what we usually call the “miraculous.”

But that’s our problem. From my perspective, miracles happen all the time.

Blog replay: Christopher Hitchens debates Tim Jackson

December 17, 2011

Christopher Hitchens died this week. I disliked his ideas and nearly everything he stood for. (I’m not meaning to disrespect the dead; he would want people like me to dislike him and say so.) In one important way, however, I owe him a debt of gratitude. He influenced me to start this blog and to formulate my own responses to the often shallow arguments put forth by him and his fellow New Atheist writers. He shook me out of my complacency about defending the Christian faith.

Not that I think I do the work of apologetics very well, but most of my fellow clergy (none of my blog readers, I promise!) don’t do it at all. They don’t seem to care about the ideas of people like Hitchens. For whatever reason, I do. Passionately. I think his ideas matter to many people—people who will never darken the door of a church. So I care about them, too.

Don’t get me wrong: No one comes to faith because of ideas alone. No one reasons their way into becoming a Christian. No argument by itself will cause someone to be a Christian. It’s a much deeper, more emotional decision (made possible by the Holy Spirit, of course). But arguments and reason do play an important role.

Regardless, I saw him in Atlanta in 2007 on his book tour for god is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything. As part of this tour, Hitchens had been going from city to city, staging debates about God and religion with whichever local believer his publicist could find to debate him. Often, these debate opponents were overmatched (Al Sharpton in New York? Really?) or unprepared for Hitchens’s aggressively derisive debating style—often confused for wit by his tour’s enthusiastic fans. “Oh, you thought this was going to be a fair fight?” Hitchens seemed to say. “It’s personal, and I’m going straight for the jugular.”

Sadly, Hitchens often took advantage of Christians’ well-meaning impulse to be nice, which they sometimes mistake for the virtue of kindness. Niceness is not a virtue, especially when debating someone like Hitchens. Sometimes, as the song says, you’ve got to be cruel to be kind.

Dr. Tim Jackson, kind—even nice—but he knows the difference.

Fortunately, Timothy Jackson, my Christian ethics professor at Emory’s Candler School of Theology, understood this distinction when he debated Hitchens at the Margaret Mitchell House in Atlanta. This time, Hitchens seemed unprepared. Not that there was much give-and-take. Hitchens rarely responded to what Jackson said. He was mostly reciting a script. Still, even he conceded a few weeks later on a blog that Jackson was, “by far” his best opponent. I’m sure he was!

This audio recording is from the second of two debates that day. I attended the first. I assume the second is similar, although Dr. Jackson told me in an email that both of them were a bit grumpier the second time around.

UPDATE: Now it’s on YouTube!

Responding to another post doubting bodily resurrection

April 23, 2011

After my post early in the week responding to this Huffington Post blogger, one of you brought my attention to yet another interesting post on resurrection at that site. This one is a little better, I guess, but it deserves a response. Since my Easter sermon is (finally) finished, I think I have a little time now. I’ll quote the interesting parts and then respond.

Many sermons in churches declare clearly that Jesus physically rose from the dead, in the sense that his same body was reanimated. The Bible, however, is much less clear on the details of the resurrection. Mark, the oldest Gospel, ends with the mystery of an empty tomb with no appearances by Jesus.

He’s right about the Bible’s being ambiguous about Jesus’ resurrected body. In resurrection, Jesus’ body isn’t a resuscitated corpse. A physical body in the sense that we understand it couldn’t disappear and reappear at will, nor could it walk through locked doors. The resurrected Lord was at least physical, in the sense that he could be touched, and he ate and drank. But he was more than physical as we understand it. N.T. Wright calls it transphysical, which works for me. If we don’t understand it, well, that’s O.K. There is much mystery here. But we know from Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 that whatever Jesus is in resurrection, we will (at some point on the other side of death or at the end of history as we know it) be like him. Read the rest of this entry »