Posts Tagged ‘John Lennox’

“God does not help us face theoretical situations but real ones”

October 20, 2015


Ever since those Egyptian Christians gave their lives on a beach in Libya in February at the hands of ISIS, for all the world to see, I’ve had questions in the back of my mind: What if I were facing the death penalty because I was a Christian? Would I have the courage to continue to profess my faith knowing that I would be beheaded? Or even if I did continue to profess faith, would I be falling apart on the inside? How would I handle it?

In a way, of course, I’ll find out—we all will. Although it’s unlikely we’ll face violent martyrdom at the hands of enemies, we will still face what the apostle Paul refers to as the “last enemy,” death. When that time comes, will we face it with courage and hope?

Questions such as these even cropped up in the comments section of a post a couple of weeks ago.

against_the_flowIn his most recent book, Against the Flow, which examines the Book of Daniel in light of contemporary concerns, John Lennox also deals with these questions in relation to the courage of Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego. Lennox observes that while God delivered them, he didn’t deliver them from the fiery furnace; God delivered them through it.

This makes all the difference: In other words, God still let the three friends experience the worst suffering—that which came from the dreadful anticipation of their fiery end. Unless I’m badly mistaken—and I wouldn’t want to know for sure—the intense but brief suffering of burning alive could hardly add more than a fraction of the suffering that they had already endured.

Lennox writes:

There is an important matter of principle here. God is a great deliverer—but he will not deliver us from having to make our own decisions. This is not because he is impotent but because he wants us to be strong. The development of our character depends crucially on the fact that we make responsible decisions before God for ourselves. For God to “decide” for us would be to de-humanize us and essentially turn us into amoral robots.

When children are very small, parents often have to decide for them in order to teach them. But it is sad when we see a situation where parents have to decide for grown-up children, since that is often a sign that something has gone wrong in the development of their character.

So there is a sense in which God, precisely because he loves us, will not save us either from the need to make such decisions or from the decisions themselves. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego had to make up their own minds as to whether they were going to put God first. That does not mean they had no guidance. Their guidance was all the accumulated experience of God’s trustworthiness up to that fateful moment. They therefore had decided to trust him once more, no matter what it cost. Then God convincingly vindicated them.[1]

Again, my question: Would I have the courage to make the right decision?

But Lennox adds a helpful and comforting insight. On one of his visits to Russia after the Berlin Wall fell, he met with a Christian who spent years in a Siberian labor camp

for the crime of teaching children from the Bible. He described to me that he had seen things that no man should ever have to see. I listened, thinking how little I really knew about life, and wondering how I would have fared under his circumstances. As if he had read my thoughts, he suddenly said: “You couldn’t cope with that, could you?” Embarrassed, I stumbled out something lie: “No, I am sure you are right.” He then grinned and said: “Nor could I! I was a man who fainted at the sight of his own blood, let alone that of others. But what I discovered in the camp was this: God does not help us to face theoretical situations but real ones. Like you I couldn’t imagine how one could cope in the Gulag. But once there I found that God met me, exactly as Jesus had promised his disciples when he was preparing them for victimization and persecution.”[2]

Lennox goes on to quote Matthew 10:17-20, including Jesus’ words, “When they deliver you over, do not be anxious how you are to speak or what you are to say, for what you are to say will be given to you in that hour.”

We can be confident, then, that the Lord will give us a sufficient amount of grace to handle whatever comes our way, whenever it comes our way—and not necessarily a moment before!

1. John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 147.

2. Ibid., 151.

Sermon 10-11-15: “Search Me, O Lord”

October 19, 2015

Fight Songs

One important message of this psalm is that God knows us infinitely better than we know ourselves: every aspect of our past, present, and future; all our secret thoughts and hidden motives. Whether this idea is deeply comforting or deeply frightening to you will determine how we respond this psalm. God’s intimate knowledge of us, after all, is a potential problem: God knows the sin and evil that lives within us. A God who is committed to justice can’t ignore that. When David says, “Oh that you would slay the wicked, O God,” where does that leave us? Listen to this sermon and find out.

Sermon Text: Psalm 139:1-24

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

In the whole history of bad ideas, I just read last week about one of the worst: It’s an app for our phones that is a little like Yelp. Yelp lets you review restaurants and other businesses. So before you try a new restaurant, let’s see what Yelp says about it. And that’s wonderful—the more information the better. But this new app, called “Peeple” will let you review—gulp—your fellow human beings. You get to assign other people a rating from one star to five stars and anyone in the world can read it. And anyone in the world can rate you—as a person. I know!


No good is going to come from this Peeple app—despite what the two women who created it are saying. As someone tweeted: “so #peeple is what happens when two popular mean girls from your high school grow up & decide to make a slam book for the entire world?”

Do any of us want to be scrutinized like that—to be judged like that? We work so hard on social media, after all—to put our best foot forward, to avoid being negatively judged. We’re very selective about the parts of ourselves that we show online. If you don’t believe me, have you ever watched a teenager take a selfie? Or have you ever taken a selfie with a teenager. It takes forever! Because they’re constantly taking and deleting. “No, that’s not good enough.” Taking and deleting, taking and deleting. “Finally, this one is perfect. This is the one I’ll post on Instagram!”

So we live in this age of the selfie. We live in an age that’s obsessed with taking pictures of ourselves—obsessed with superficial images. More than ever, we want people to see us, to notice us, to value us; we want people to like us on Facebook; to swipe right instead of swiping left on Tinder; to tap-tap on our pictures on Instagram.

We desperately want people to know us—or at least to know this very carefully curated image we put forward—we want them to know us without really knowing us. Because we’re desperately afraid that if people knew the real us—the real person underneath the image, the real person underneath the carefully selected selfie, the real person underneath yet another “humble-bragging” post about how wonderful our life is, our spouse is, our family is, our job is—well… if they knew that real person, we’re afraid they wouldn’t love us! Read the rest of this entry »

We’re only free when life isn’t our absolute value

October 6, 2015

against_the_flowIn his commentary on the Book of Daniel, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism, John Lennox describes Nebuchadnezzar’s anger, in Daniel 3, over Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego’s unwillingness to bow down and worship the king’s statue:

Nebuchadnezzar had never in his life before encountered such studied defiance. As it began to dawn upon him that there was a very real sense in which he was powerless against these men, his anger knew no bounds. Of course he could kill them, but that was not the point. What he could not do was to force them to bow. Up to now he had thought that human beings would do anything to save their lives. His whole scheme of getting his nobles to bow depended on the assumption that, for each person, life was of absolute value. To his utter amazement he discovered that this was not always the case. Even in his own very administration there were men, men of proven ability and high office, who regarded their lives as of relative value compared with the absolute value of God. Nebuchadnezzar’s reaction was a a fury of impotent frustration.[1]

The most powerful man in the world was powerless over these three men (even before their miraculous rescue), not because he couldn’t kill them, but because he couldn’t use that prospect alone to bend them to his will. I like that! Their lives were only of relative value compared to the absolute value of God.

Following Jesus is about learning to relativize our lives. “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell” (Matthew 10:28). “For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it” (Matthew 16:25).

But here’s what bothers me: While we’ll likely never face the kind of life-or-death choice that these three friends faced, we will face daily, hourly, moment-by-moment choices that either prove or disprove our belief in the absolute value we place on God. If we are failing to prove it in the small decisions of our lives, how confident are we that we, like the three friends, would prove it when it comes the ultimate decision—to live or die?

1. John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 144-5.

The date of the book of Daniel

September 21, 2015

against_the_flowOne of the many things that one is taught in mainline Protestant seminary—without any pushback from students in my experience, no doubt because many are too afraid to speak up—is that the historical dating of nearly every book in the Bible is later than the tradition dates them: the four gospels, for example, must have been later than A.D. 70 because Jesus couldn’t have actually predicted with such accuracy the fall of Jerusalem and destruction of the Temple.

And herein lies the problem: the reason Bible scholars doubt the traditional dates is not because historical evidence points in that direction; it’s because they share the naturalistic Enlightenment assumption that our universe is a closed system in which God, even among scholars who believe he exists, can’t or doesn’t reveal the future to biblical writers. So if the assumed biblical author says something that he wouldn’t know based on this naturalistic presupposition, then he must have written after the events described. This is especially true when it comes to the book of Daniel, which by tradition was written during Daniel’s time, in the sixth century B.C.

Yet because the book predicts with startling accuracy the rise of Alexander the Great and one of his successors, Antiochus IV Epiphanes, modern scholars say that the book must have been written in the second century B.C. Consult any commentary from a mainline Protestant publishing house, including the UMC’s Abingdon, and you’ll see this date recorded matter-of-factly.

In his new commentary on Daniel, Against the Flow, Oxford University mathematician and Christian apologist John Lennox rejects this later date. By all means, Daniel does predict Antiochus IV Epiphanes. How surprising is this? On the one hand, he says, even in modernity we marvel at the prescience of books such as Orwell’s 1984, Huxley’s Brave New World, and Toffler’s Future Shock, without wondering if they were divinely inspired. On the other hand, do we believe in divine revelation and inspiration of scripture or don’t we?

Some scholars argue that there was absolutely no way the author of the book of Daniel could have known such twists and turns of historical detail unless he had lived under the events he records. Therefore the book must have been written—or completed—no earlier than the second century BC. The detail given in the text is just not the kind of information that he could have guessed, however brilliant he was. And, as these scholars deny revelation, there was no other possible source of information. They do not believe that any source of knowledge exists that could accurately supply details of the course of world events in advance…[1]

But of course, this modern objection to the traditional dating of Daniel—that divine revelation doesn’t happen—is ironic because this is precisely the issue that Daniel addresses head on in Chapter 2, in relation to Nebuchadnezzar’s dream: The sorcerers in the king’s court, you’ll recall, believe it’s impossible to interpret a dream whose contents haven’t been revealed to them by the dreamer himself; they need the king to describe the dream first.

But Nebuchadnezzar tests them: if they have the supernatural power they claim to have, they should be able to know his dream without his telling them about it.

Daniel, by contrast, does have supernatural power: God reveals to him the king’s dream, which he proceeds to interpret.

Another good reason to believe in the earlier date of Daniel, however, doesn’t depend on faith in God: We know from the recent historical discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls that the Essenes at Qumran regarded Daniel as canonical scripture. This community dates to 100 B.C. It’s inconceivable that these scrupulously pious Jews would have so regarded Daniel had it been written only about 50 years earlier!

1. John Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch, 2015), 89-90.

“That it has pleased God to make us just as we are”

September 11, 2015


John Lennox, a mathematician at Oxford, is a winsome apologist for the Christian faith. I’m reading his latest book, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism. In one chapter, he writes about the inherent risks of standing up for one’s faith, being a witness the way Daniel was, and shares an anecdote of his doing so at the highest levels of his profession. Being a witness for Christ, he says, can hinder one’s career.

But not always, and not, at least in Chapter 1, for Daniel and his three friends. Because of the boldness, sensitivity, and tact with which they witnessed to their faith in God, they prospered more than any of their fellow students at the university.

Lennox writes:

It would be a mistake, however (possibly a painful one), to think that this story somehow guarantees that if we honour God in our witness he will make us into intellectual and administrative geniuses like Daniel and his friends. It is perfectly true that God gave them their ability. That is what God did for four particular people at that time. It is no guarantee that he will do the same for us in our time. He had a very special role for them to fulfil, and he also has one for us. Just as God equipped them for their role, so he will equip us for ours; but those roles may be very different. In Christian terms: as it pleased him, God has set us in the great body of Christ, that organic unity that is the church. Each of us has a different function. All those functions are equally necessary and valuable, although not all are so obvious (see 1 Corinthians 12:1-26). We must learn to be content with the significance that God gives us…; and contentment comes when we understand that it has pleased God to make us just as we are.[1]

Contentment comes when we understand that it has pleased God to make us just as we are.

While I am 100 percent convinced that this is true, it is the struggle of my life to live as if I believe it. Am I the only one?

In the meantime, I’ll sing the following song until its words sink in. Merle seems very content, indeed.

1. John C. Lennox, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism (Oxford: Monarch Books, 2015), 81-2.

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?

Sermon 07-12-15: “Running to Win”

July 27, 2015

1 Corinthians sermon series graphic

There’s an annual 10K road race in Atlanta each year on the fourth of July, the Peachtree Road Race. Most of the 60,000 runners run with one goal: not to win the race but to win the T-shirt. In other words, they’re running to finish. While running to finish is OK for the Peachtree, this kind of attitude won’t suffice for running the race of Christian faith, as Paul’s words in today’s scripture make clear.

Sermon Text: 1 Corinthians 9:19-27


[To listen on the go, right-click here to download an MP3.]


I know that some of you ran the Peachtree Road Race this year. Raise your hand if you ran the Peachtree. Did you win? Top ten? Top 50? Top thousand? Top ten thousand?

Did you finish at all? That’s good!

I’ve run it several times myself. Once, when my son Townshend was around four or five years old, I ran the Peachtree. And when I came home, he asked me, in complete sincerity, “Daddy, did you win?” Because it’s a race. And he rightly assumed that if you’re running a race, you should be running to win. The point of most races is to win—or at least it should be.

That particular year, not only didn’t I win, I finished in about 50 minutes—five zero—which would be about 21 minutes slower, for example, than this year’s winner!

So of course I had to explain to Townshend that the vast majority of people who run the Peachtree are not running to win the race. They’re running to finish. They’re running to win the T-shirt. And that’s fine… when it comes to running the Peachtree.

Now I know for many of us amateurs, it takes a lot of training just to finish the Peachtree. But suppose we were running to win the Peachtree. How different would our training look? We’d be up in the morning every day, for one thing. No sleeping in. In fact, we’d probably change our sleeping routine and other habits. We’d probably get ourselves a running coach. We’d probably consult with our doctor. We might invest in better shoes and training equipment. We might do some strength training. We would definitely want to run in other races leading up to the Peachtree. We would definitely watch what we ate and drank—take care of our diets, perhaps consult with a nutritionist.

Doing all these things still wouldn’t guarantee a victory—much less a top ten, top 50, top thousand, or even top ten thousand finish—but at least we could say were running to win.

Not many of us would commit the time, the energy, the money to do that… and that’s perfectly O.K. For the Peachtree.

But suppose we compare living the Christian life to running a race, as Paul does in today’s scripture. When it comes to running the “race” of our Christian life, running just to finish is not O.K. Running just to win the T-shirt is not fine. Read the rest of this entry »

We need an “intellectual conversion” concerning the truthfulness of scripture

July 11, 2015

wright_resurrectionJust yesterday, I was telling a friend about what I describe as my “re-conversion” experience—an evangelical re-conversion—that took place some time between my commissioning as a “probationary elder” in the United Methodist Church in 2007—when I was a theological liberal—and my ordination three years later.

I say “evangelical” because I became convicted once again about the complete truthfulness of the Bible. Over time, I came to believe in the infallibility of scripture. Today, I don’t even mind identifying as an inerrantist, since I don’t believe that God’s Word, when rightly interpreted in its context, contains errors.

One thing is for sure: this re-conversion began around the time I started this blog in 2009.

One of several formative events in my re-conversion was reading, in 2009, N.T. Wright’s dense academic work, The Resurrection of the Son of God, which loudly affirms, on historical, linguistic, and theological grounds, the bodily resurrection of Jesus. One question I asked myself at the time was this: If the Bible can be fully trusted in this most important matter, then why shouldn’t it be trusted in other matters?


Given my personal history, I was convicted by the following words from Christian apologist and Oxford mathematician John Lennox on last week’s Unbelievable? podcast. He was giving a lecture about his new book, Against the Flow: The Inspiration of Daniel in an Age of Relativism. I especially resonate with his words about being “intellectually converted” concerning scripture’s truthfulness—because this happened to me! These are not “nice little stories” detached from the “real stuff of life.”

We’re playing religion, ladies and gentlemen, if we think that five minutes looking at scripture is going to get us through life when we’re spending hours and hours developing a professional career. I know there are times of pressure at different times in life, but I do believe we have to wake up and be serious. You cannot influence the world if you’re not inwardly convinced of the truth of these things. And the only offensive weapon we’ve got is the Word of God that we don’t know it; we can’t use it.

And I think we really need, some of us, to be—and I mean this seriously—intellectually converted. Because we have scripture and it’s over here. Nice little stories: Daniel in the Lion’s Den. That’s not the real stuff of life.

And so many Christians… have marginalized scripture and marginalized a daily relationship with God. I mean, can we be utterly blunt? Many people in this audience are probably involved in one kind of Christian work or another. And I start talking to them, and things aren’t too good, and I discover that husbands are not praying and reading with their wives—haven’t done it for years. And if there’s no reality of God in our family life, how can we expect to be attractive to the world? We can’t!

John Lennox is my hero!

April 30, 2015


I promise this will be my last Unbelievable?-related post for a while. In this episode, Oxford mathematics professor and apologist John Lennox debates atheist Lawrence Krauss, a physics professor at Arizona State University.

William Lane Craig debated Krauss in a series of three debates in Australia a couple of years ago. During at least one of those debates, Krauss resorted to juvenile tactics such as using a buzzer to interrupt Craig’s presentation. Frankly, I worried how the ever-congenial Lennox would fare, stylistically, in the face of Krauss’s aggressive antics.

Among other things, Krauss isn’t good at letting his debate opponents finish their sentences.

The verdict? John Lennox is my hero (and not just because he looks like my dad)! Sanguine, firm, and unfazed, Lennox adroitly handles every challenge and objection, while sounding as if he wants to give Krauss a bear hug! How does he do it?

I want to have that kind of poise when I argue! He inspires me.

(Tom Harkins, I think you’ll like this one!)

A YouTube video of the audio is embedded below.