Posts Tagged ‘Unbelievable? podcast’

The angel at the empty tomb doesn’t say, “Take my word for it”

April 25, 2017

In my Easter sermon from this year, which I will post on my blog soon, I spend about half the sermon talking about evidence for the resurrection, based on clues from the sermon text, Matthew 28:1-20. The text itself invites us to look at the evidence. Frederick Dale Bruner, the theologian whose commentary on Matthew has proven so valuable for my sermon series in Matthew, certainly thinks so. He writes the following in relation to verse 6 and the angel’s words to the two Marys: “Come and take a look at the place where they put him.”

Among other things, this is the Gospel’s invitation to scientific research. The angel does not say, “Don’t look in here! Take it by faith! Don’t ask any questions!” Instead, the angel invites the women to check out his assertions with their senses. “Come, use your eyes and your mind, and see if what I say is true.” The scientific study of the biblical documents (called the historical-critical method) asks critical questions: “Did this happen? Is this historical? Is this parabolic? How does this fit with other and differing accounts? What is to be made of this in light of that?” These questions are not unbelief; rather, they are one form of obedience to the command to “come and take a loot the place where they put him” to “see if these things are so” (Acts 17:11)….

The Christian does not get a lobotomy when he or she makes the decision to be a disciple. Jesus wants his people to be honest, to think about their faith, and to be able to investigate its problems. The angel’s command to empirical investigation is wonderfully freeing, and rightly heard it can protect the church from anti-intellectualism.

I affirm this, with two caveats: First, no purely “scientific” investigation can begin to answer questions about the resurrection of Jesus Christ, such that it won’t also require faith to believe in it. Ultimately, we only come to this faith by revelation from the Holy Spirit. As Jesus says, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him” (John 6:44).

Even an apologist like William Lane Craig—who has been criticized by some Reformed Christians (or at least one that I’ve heard, James White) for being too rational in his approach to God and the resurrection—believes that saving faith comes only by a revelatory act of the Spirit. By contrast, on his Reasonable Faith podcast, he said that when he was an undergraduate at Wheaton, one of his professors said he was so committed to the reasonableness of Christianity that he would abandon the faith if it proved unreasonable to believe it.

Craig said he was shocked: “If one of my arguments for God or the truth of Christianity proved false, I would assume that a better argument existed—because I already know Christianity is true. And I know that by revelation.”

My second caveat is that the historical-critical method will never prove that all scripture is “breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness.” Inasmuch as it’s “scientific,” this method isn’t, by definition, equipped to offer a judgment on the question. For that we need faith. By all means, the inerrancy or infallibility of the Bible can become more reasonable when we consider Jesus’ own high view of scripture. As a rule of thumb, when deciding whether something is true or not, always go with the opinion of the guy who was raised from the dead!

But in my own experience over the past eight years—having gone from doubting the Bible’s authority to believing in it to the utmost—I will say this: most of the Bible’s “problems,” such as they are, can be resolved once we ask ourselves this question: “What should I expect to be true if God the Holy Spirit guided the author to write what he wrote?”

As an example, consider this debate between skeptic and New Testament scholar Bart Ehrman and Tim McGrew on the Unbelievable? podcast. McGrew was discussing “undesigned coincidences” in the New Testament: when one small part of the New Testament unintentionally corroborates another small part—such that the two parts fit together like interlocking jigsaw puzzle pieces. McGrew was right: undesigned coincidences are a powerful apologetic tool, but only if you’re willing to entertain the idea that the Spirit inspired the different authors of the New Testament.

Are you willing or not? If not, why not?

Over at Scot McKnight’s blog, a trolling progressive Christian whose name I won’t mention often comments on McKnight’s blog posts. In even the most innocuous post that affirms the authority of scripture, you can count on a skeptical comment from this reader. I want to say to him, “Yes, but suppose the evangelicals are right after all, and the Bible is reliable and true when it reports this or that. Why are you against that? What’s at stake for you in believing that the Bible isn’t historically reliable? Why do you prefer to believe that the Bible is, at best, only true in a metaphorical way?”

If I believed I could have a productive conversation I would ask him, but I know from experience I can’t.

Come to think of it, I could ask the same of my progressive Methodist clergy colleagues!

The problem of God’s “hiddenness”

February 28, 2017

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

Gotta love that cover illustration. It looks really hot in there!

In his book Hell: The Logic of Damnation (great title, by the way), Jerry Walls, a United Methodist theologian, makes a case for perdition in the face of modern objections. One of these objections is this: “What about those who’ve never heard the gospel, or who’ve heard only a deficient version of it? Would God send them to hell, even though they had no fair opportunity to hear and respond to God’s message of salvation through Christ?”

It’s a good question, and one which the Bible doesn’t address directly. Walls’s answer, which he acknowledges is speculative, is that God gives everyone a sufficient amount of grace—either in this life or shortly thereafter—to accept or reject the gospel. In other words, in the liminal space between time and eternity, during the moment of a person’s death, God may yet reveal himself to an unsaved person and enable him or her to say “yes” to God’s gift of eternal life.

Yes, you might say, but if someone were facing a choice of salvation or damnation right away—as opposed to in some hypothetical future, where most of us keep the prospect of our own death—who wouldn’t choose salvation?

Maybe no one, in which case, Walls would say, the “choice” wouldn’t be free. The dying person wouldn’t choose God out of a sincere desire and love for God; the person would choose God out of fear alone. Therefore, his or her choice would be coerced.

Walls responds to this objection as follows:

[I]t might be suggested that perhaps God cannot extend grace to persons at the time of death, or after death, without destroying their freedom. After death God’s reality may be so evident that it would be impossible to make a free response to him. In the face of his majesty and power, persons would feel compelled to submit out of fear. Such  reaction would not be out of faith and love so it would not count as genuine acceptance of grace and commitment to his will.

In response to this, I see no reason to assume God’s existence must be more evident after death than it is now. Surely God could reveal himself only to such an extent as would enable a free response. Perhaps God may even continue to use human creatures as messengers on his behalf. The situation after death may be similar to this life in the sense that persons may learn about God from their fellow humans and respond in faith to what they learn.[†]

Whether you agree with the idea of postmortem conversion or not—and let me say that I hope it’s possible (the rich man and his brothers in Jesus’ parable in Luke 16:19-31 apparently already had a sufficient amount of grace in their lifetimes)—Walls’s handling of the “free response” objection helps me make sense of a question that has nagged me over the years: If God wants us to know him, why doesn’t he do more to reveal himself to us? Why does he often seem hidden, even from sincere atheists who, unlike virulent New Atheists like the late Christopher Hitchens, would like for God to exist? (This question was debated in the most recent Unbelievable? episode.)

In “The Idea,” a punk song that I first head in 1983, Adam Ant pointed to the problem: “I could be religious if/ A god would say ‘hello.’/ I could be religious if/ An angel touched my shoulder.”

Whether that’s true or not, it’s worth remembering that God doesn’t want mere belief in his existence—or even the intellectual assent to facts about his Son Jesus and his atoning death. Otherwise, we might say—perish the thought—that Satan himself could be an orthodox Christian! “You believe that there is one God,” writes the apostle, with sarcasm, “Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”

Also, as is clear in John 3 (Nicodemus) and John 6 (the miraculous feeding), among other places in the gospels, plenty of people have a kind of faith in Jesus based on his miracles, but Jesus warns that this faith is insufficient. This gives the lie to the idea that if only people saw miracles today, they would repent and be saved.

Still, what would be the harm in God’s making his reality clearer to more people?

Here’s where Walls helps: Sure, if God made his presence more obvious, more people would seem to choose God and his way of salvation through Christ. But would it really be a choice? Or would it be coerced? If circumstances forced more unbelievers to acknowledge the reality of God and his gospel, their relationship with God might be based on something other than faith, hope, and love.

Remember: Paul says that faith and hope, alongside love, “remain” even after we know “fully, even as we are fully known.” They are permanent features of our relationship with God, both now and in eternity, not something we’re stuck with until we no longer see through the “glass darkly.” Whereas I might wish that I didn’t need faith, God doesn’t. And in his hiddenness, he’s forcing me to put it into practice.

All that to say, even in our finitude and sin, we have enough evidence to suggest that God knew what he was doing when he enacted his rescue plan for humanity.

But what do you think? Is God’s “hiddenness” a problem for you?

1. Jerry L. Walls, Hell: The Logic of Damnation (Notre Dame: University of Notre Dame, 1992), 100.