Gentleness and respect. Sharing your faith.

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Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect – 1 Peter 3:15

Some time ago I had a long (spanning 18 months) conversation by Facebook email, with an Atheist who sought me out after we found ourselves contributing to the same debate on Facebook. I include it here for a number of reasons:

  • It demonstrates how a Christian might honour, love, dignify, and respect an atheist when discussing worldview questions.
  • It reflects the kind of objections that atheists have against Christianity, Christians, and religion in general.
  • It outline’s Jim’s worldview fairly concisely.
  • Far from me trying to “convert” Jim, it is plainly obvious that I am refusing to proselytize or impose dogma, but Jim seeks, critiques, and challenge my views.
  • Jim’s repeated question relates to whether I think his views are “reasonable”. Perhaps this began as a baiting tactic, but it may be a genuine concern of someone who has walked away from Christianity.
  • It covers so many topics! Try to count them all. I gave up.

I sought Jim’s permission to publish this conversation just a week or two ago, but had not yet obtained it when I had that other conversation that I blogged about recently. Jim has just got back to me with his consent, so here it is!

It should be manifestly obvious when reading this account, that I have great respect and no small fondness for Jim. I will certainly not entertain any disparaging remarks being made about him, particularly since he doesn’t have the opportunity to defend himself here. Oh, and my friend’s name is not Jim. I have changed his name deliberately (because his identity is not important here).

What I would encourage, is comments about my answers (because I can defend myself). Would you have answered these questions differently? Would you have struggled to answer them?

On editorial matter, I have removed some references to Jim’s family life and corrected a few typo’s (more from me than from him) along the way. At two points he posed a number of questions in one message, and I have split them up in this presentation. Otherwise, this was our conversation:

_____________________________________________________

 Introductions

Hi Kevin.

As a kind of introduction, my back ground is Christian. I was an Anglican until only a few years ago, but I decided that belief in the divinity of Jesus had no more validity than any other faith.

I always wondered if belief in any life after death was just fear of death itself.

How about you?

Hi Jim,

My background is kind of the reverse, in a way.

Until 5 years ago I was a satisfied atheist with no desire to pursue what I saw as “fanciful matters” such as the “god” whos existence I had denied, and all other forms of spiritual pursuit. Since Jesus, Santa Clause and the Tooth Fairy all simultaneously evaporated from my pre-adolescent world-view, I had been disinterested in all three equally.

By a strange turn of events I ended up in a church (happens to be an Anglican one… Lol) with my family. I wasn’t pursuing the religion, but was interested in a community facility for my children. I figured people in a church are probably nice…

I had an unannounced and uninvited experience that I can only describe as “meeting God”, in which I was suddenly convinced not only of God’s existence, but that He was choosing me for a particular purpose. It deeply rocked my entire world-view, forcing me to re-evaluate everything I had previously believed. I cannot over emphasise the profundity of that experience.

So I read a bible for the first time and found that it not only predicted, but also went on to explain what had happened to me. It was then that I became a Christian.

It was some time before the matter of eternal life caught my considered attention. What had happened to me dwarfed any concept I had of self-preservation, so that my fate, both mortally and spiritually were no longer a primary concern. I would affirm, however, that for those who are held back by their fear of death, the promise is of high value (“…free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” – Hebrews 2:15)

Because of my particular experience:

1. I think that it is deeply regrettable that the promise of eternal life is often used in a negative way that invites a fearful response.
2. I do not attempt to convince anyone to become a Christian (nobody could ever have convinced me!)
3. I do understand the world-view of a non-theist and I respect it very much. I existed in that world-view for the majority of my life.

I do find, however, that the very fact that I am a Christian seems to invoke a response in which people throw at me every disappointment, disillusionment and frustration that they have suffered at the hands of the Christian church. I believe that my role includes responding to that phenomenon with understanding and kindness.

… so thats my story.

Therefore I don’t “choose” to believe in the claims of the bible because the bible is presented as authoritative by the church. I believe that the bible is authoritative because it documents my experience accurately despite being written thousands of years ago, and continues to fulfil its promise of being a light, a lamp, a living document, etc.

I am one of a minority who can say, “I do not have an option not to believe”, similarly to Thomas in John 20. In that vital passage (in verse 29) Jesus elevates the estimation of those who have no such profound experience on which to rely (calling them “blessed”), above my experience (“You have seen me”).

I hope that helps to explain why I’m neither seeking to convert you, nor responding to your questions with dogma.

Nature of Conversion

Very interesting story Kevin. I can not imagine anything that would change me to the extent that you mentioned.

I guess we’ll never know.

Most other faiths, to my knowledge, don’t promise a radical transformation of our very nature, though. Christianity explicitly describes the “born again” phenomenon, describing the believer as a “new creature in Christ” who has a departure from the “old self” and takes on a “new nature”. I experienced that.

The story didn’t stop there, of course. I observe that when I meet badly disadvantaged people (which I go out of my way to do), who have trauma and other burdens, my retelling of the Christian story brings them tremendous peace… just as it promises to do. People experience considerable emotional healing merely by being exposed to meditations on whom God has described Himself to be through the biblical accounts.

From the outside, the Christian faith is without empirical support. Viewed from the inside, however, it provides sufficient internal affirmation and evidence to sustain the world view. One could view this as a somewhat unscientific reason to remain a Christian but then, I’m not looking for reasons. To be Christian is life itself for me (“To live is Christ”, as Paul put it). The question is whether I have reason to cease, and I don’t. Indeed, in my case, I don’t even have the option to cease. I continue to [according to my perception] be guided by a living God.

I believe that the teaching provided by most churches is insufficient to reflect and impart the deep mysteries of the faith. Unfortunately more people can identify hurts and frustrations at the hands of churches than those who count their church exeperiences as overwhelmingly positive. This is even true of many who attend church despite their experiences.

I differentiate between church life and faith. Church life has everything to do with people who are living in community. Faith has everything to do with God. When the two conincide it is a wonderful phenomenon, but unfortunately that is rarely the case.

Tell them that God loves them?

OK. So what do you want to discuss?

I assume that you told these disadvantaged people that there was a god that loved them?

What would you have said if asked about the purpose of life.

 

I do tell them that God loves them, but not in so few words. That is a phrase that they all have heard, but is merely dogma after all. Jesus certainly never offered that as a solution.

As an example, a woman whos daughter was murdered had spent two years on the streets (in mourning) before meeting me. When she asked me, “Why do the innocent suffer?” it was quite clear that pithy truisms were going to be inadequate. It was a very confronting question, actually (since I had enjoyed intellectual debates on the subject previously, which were now suddenly revealed to be vain and irrelevant…).

An urgent prayer resulted in me referring to God’s response to the injustice committed by Cain against Abel in Genesis 4:10: The LORD said, “What have you done? Listen! Your brother’s blood cries out to me from the ground”

We discussed what that passage says about God’s heart for injustice, both in specific cases and for the world at large. That lady now says that I answered her question even though, in a technical sense, I did no such thing.

From that I learned that the real question was not “Why…?”, but rather “Where is God in this?” or more intimately, “God, do you even care about this?” And that, I believe, is actually the real question that we need answered when we start asking, “Why..?” This is articulated in the 23rd Psalm, for instance, where the reason given for my ability to “walk through the valley of the shadow of death” and yet “fear no evil” is that “thou art with me.”

A look across biblical history at how many times, and in how many ways, and with what level of import and significance God has expressed His desire and intention to be “with” His people reveals, in my view, a profound underlying message, which “God loves you” doesn’t quite cover.

Interestingly, the homeless, the recovering drug and alcohol addicts, the violent offenders and recidivist criminals that I have met don’t ask directly about the “meaning of life”, as such. I hadn’t thought about that before – I guess that someone in outright survival mode doesn’t necessarily stop to ponder such things (There’s one up for “Maslow’s heirarchy of needs”…).

We talk a lot about the nature of forgiveness. The remarkable thing is that these people (the ones I come in contact with) are already acutely aware that they have a “sin problem”. When I show them that their sin problem is identical to mine, however, it certainly raises eyebrows. When I then show God’s solution: “forgiveness”, it stimulates very animated conversations about that. The extent to which God’s estimation of a human being is determined based on their propensity for contrition and repentance *instead* of on their behaviour is very stimulating. Fortunately, Jesus recorded some particularly articulate parables, such as the Prodigal Son for that purpose, because the most common expectation is that God will by no means forgive them for the things they have done.

The question of “the purpose of life” is one that I haven’t probed before. I like to examine ideas through conversation rather than by proclamation, so if you’re keen to explore it then I’ll come with you.

I suspect that the result of such a journey could be a question: “Purpose, according to whom?”

But what do you think? What is the purpose of life?

The Purpose of Life

The question cannot really be answered without discussing the nature of a monotheistic god, because, depending on the characteristics of this supposed god, will depend on whether there is ultimately a purpose to life.
So what are your God’s characteristics? I assume that you believe that they are omnipresence, omniscience, omnipotence, totally good, eternal, our ultimate creator and provider of purpose. Since I do not believe any entity can possess these qualities, and there is no evidence of this, then I do not believe that such an entity exists. Although I cannot know this, I draw these logical conclusions. I am an atheist simply because there is no supporting evidence.

From my perspective there is no ultimate purpose to life, because it would only be this god that is the provider of purpose. I am a living organism, the product of millions of years of evolution. I am a human being by virtue of that evolution, and it is my nature to want to find purpose in my life.

The purpose I find is that I think that life is an amazing thing that has happened despite the almost totally destructive nature of the Universe. It is in my nature to want to preserve my life and by extension the lives and cultures of others that I identify as also living. I have family so I derive my purpose in life as a human being, to be to love and nurture my family and friends, my society and my planet.

 

I think you’ve found a very worthwhile purpose, which suits your world view and circumstances. I can’t and won’t criticise it – those are very similar conclusions to the ones I drew in a non-theistic world view.

The nature of De-Conversion

My move to Atheism was somewhat quickened by the fact that the rector of the church where I was married agreed to discuss these kinds of issues with me, but then did not. I have repeatedly re-emailed him to see if he was actually going to respond to my questions, but it seems he is ignoring me. So being on my own, I followed what I saw as the reasonable path; reading philosophy, some Christian apologists and the current and past Atheist best sellers, to come to my own conclusions.

But obviously you do not agree with my view. I’m interested in how you managed to go from being an Atheist to a Christian. Coming from a religious background myself, I cannot see how you could have made that leap unless your Atheism was as more of an indifference to religion generally, as opposed to a reasoned, gradual decision.

 

It is very regrettable that you didn’t find someone to engage with you when you raised issues.

The Reasonableness of Atheism

Let me affirm that you followed a very reasonable path, and came to understandable conclusions.

I’m not sure that I would say that I “do not agree” with your view… Given your world view, I agree with your stated purpose as being noble. I do have a different world view to yours, and naturally my “purpose” will be different to yours for that reason.

<<I’m interested in how you managed to go from being an Atheist to a Christian.>>

Unfortunately I can’t secularise that journey for you. I only have language that includes phrases like “act of God”, “divine revelation”, “conversion experience”, “born again”, etc. I cannot put a bridging story in place that will take you from carefully considered athiest to born-again Christian.

I too, was a carefully considered atheist (although certainly not militant, or even evangelistic about it), and I have reported to anyone who has been prepared to hear my story that the first thought I recall after my experience of interacting with God was, “Explain *that*, science boy!” as my whole understanding of “reality” was shattered and rebuilt around this God whos existence I had erstwhile assiduously denied.

The Reasonableness of Christianity

As promised in the bible, the faith will appear to be “foolishness” from the outside (1 Corinthians 2:14). When Paul was preaching, he related that “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom” (1 Corinthians 1:22) – that is, Jews wanted a spiritual confirmation of Paul’s message, and the Greeks were employing the kind of science/logic/reason approach that the athiest Westerners employ now (because nothing has actually changed in 2000 years, and our secular systems of thought substantially came out of that very society…).

All I can say is that my current world view is one that I have found to have substantial amenity among people who don’t have the western, middle-class, stable upbringing that I (and probably you) enjoyed. To offer those people some philosophy, a global outlook, and a reassurance that I love/respect them as human beings would be rejected as a platitudinous waste of their time. However when their innate understanding (or desire) of God is articulated to them authoritatively (ie. with biblical support), affirming their status as someone whom God purposes to forgive, welcome, nurture and befriend, *that* is incredibly valuable to them. They experience substantial emotional healing in that process.

For Carl Sagan it may be “far better to grasp the Universe” as he is convinced that it “really is”… but for many others, Carl Sagan’s universe is hopeless, meaningless, and would affirm all of the destructive emotional scarring that they currently endure. Should we sell them that universe?

… so even if someone *could* disprove God (a strange notion… proving/disproving God is oxymoronic to me), would it be ethically defensible to disabuse these people of the paradigm which is facilitating their hope, and belief in the goodness of life? Should that understanding be replaced by the “truth” of the atheist humanist assertion? I know some people who’s life expectancy would be significantly shortened by that act.

Of course, these are not reasons to become a Christian, nor are they reasons to remain one. The “amenity” I describe is only efficacious because I believe what I am teaching. If I didn’t believe it, I would not be able to encourage the faith required for my hearers to benefit from it.

So in answer to your question, I made no “leap”, and I “managed” nothing. I was reborn a new creature in Christ as a result of God’s soveriegn will and against my “better” judgement. What can I say?

The Nature of God

 So back to God. Who is God and what are his characteristics?

 

I think it is important to note that it takes an entire Bible to attempt to answer that question!

If I asked you, “Who is your Dad, and what are his characteristics?” You would find it impossible to do justice to the question by providing “parameters” or “observations”.

In fact, to answer the question at all, you would need to spend a great deal of time with me, sharing stories and anecdotes. Some from your own perspective, and some as hearsay. Poetry that has been written for him, about him, and by him would be very helpful. You would probably quote him extensively to give clues about how he thinks and what he believes… So you see that this reflects the diverse character of the collection of Biblical texts.

For me, the shortest path into a meaningful reflection on “Who is God and what are his characteristics?” is reading what Jesus did and said. Some of His teachings are so counter-intuitive that it stimulates a lot of thought in trying to understand His world-view.

I believe that in understanding Jesus’ worldview (the full understanding of which can really only finally be achieved by adopting it, and this is the point at which one may be choosing between what is “rational” like “skepticism” and what is “reasonable”, which includes “faith”), the question can be answered. I believe that this is a useful way, in hindsight, to understand John 1:12 “Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God”

Perhaps I have implied a partial answer from all that after all, but it is by no means a definitive one: One characteristic of God is that He intends to reveal Himself to us, and has sought to do so throughout human history; Jesus is the ultimate (and ongoing) revelation of God’s self.

“What’s God?”

Don’t really know where you’re going here Kev. I am assuming you believe that Jesus is God too (the trinitarian God), but you must be able to say what qualities you believe that God has. Please don’t expect me to go look up the Bible verses you are quoting. They are irrelevant unless they explain what God is.

 

My Dad is a human being. He’s 71 years old. He’s got a beard and is the result of about 2 million years of continuing hominid evolution. He lived through the Blitz in London and is a retired Eye Surgeon. So what’s God?

 

I now know a handful of facts about your Dad, but I’m certain that I could describe a human being, conforming to those exact qualities, who would be unrecognisable to you. In fact, you have probably described thousands of very different, very individual people. I wonder if those few are the things that your Dad would choose if he was attempting to describe himself…?

Given your background, you already know many more facts about God than I know about your father. Nothing I can put in a few words will give you any clearer picture than what you already have.

If your desire to know more about God is genuine then I suggest you don’t exclude the Bible as a relevant source of information. It seems incongruous to have sought atheist authors in an attempt to understand their view, but to bypass the Bible when searching for a picture of whom God is.

There are people who will attempt to give you a definition of God, but whatever they give you will be wide open to criticism, misrepresentation and ambiguity. What they will be giving you is no more definitive than your word-picture of your Dad. Now, if I wanted to understand/love/admire/know your Dad in the way that does his life and humanity any justice, I would need much, much more. And so it is with God.

The Bible says this: “In the past God spoke to our forefathers through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son” (Hebrews 1:1). If God requires all of His activities, prophets, etc. as well as the person of Jesus, to explain Himself then I am not going to presume to be able to be more brief.

If you are looking for a definition of God that can be critiqued, it won’t come from me – debating the nature of God is, to me, meaningless and disrespectful (in the same way that debating the nature of your Dad would be disrespectful). On the other hand, if you are looking for God Himself, then I can help… but that help would take the form of guiding your search through the Bible, which I am able to do.

What the Bible says about God

I have read the first four books of the Bible. They don’t portray a deity worthy of worship. I did study the NT at school. If God is the same person as that, how can he be Jesus as well? It makes no sense.

I think I understand what you mean, but I don’t have anything here to respond to. Perhaps with something more definitive I can make helpful advances on the subject:

In the first four books, what did you find (in terms of the deity that was portrayed)? In what way was the deity unworthy?

Can you conceive of what a “deity worthy of worship” would consist of, or how such a being would behave? If so, we can use that definition as a comparative benchmark.

Presumably there are some specific characteristics of the deity you observe in the first four books which appear to contradict the characteristics you observe in Jesus. What are those apparent contradictions?

Specific complaints about the Bible’s description of God

Hi Kevin,

How’s this for starters:

Exodus 22:3 If the sun be risen upon him, [there shall be] blood [shed] for him; [for] he should make full restitution; if he have nothing, then he shall be sold for his theft.

God says that if a thief is caught and cannot return or pay back, he should be sold. Show me how that is just and could also have been said by Jesus who also at the same time is God.

Also:

Exodus 23:18 Thou shalt not offer the blood of my sacrifice with leavened bread; neither shall the fat of my sacrifice remain until the morning.

How can the creator of the Universe – so vast as to make our little world completely irrelevant – firstly, want blood sacrifices and, secondly why would he care that the blood was presented with bread with yeast in it, or that fat is not eaten before the next day?

A god that can do anything, wants blood and that is, to me, completely ridiculous. As a Christian you believe that Jesus is God. So he’s the being that ordered that sacrifice.

Please explain to me how this is true.

Jim,

Yes, many of the laws in Exodus and Leviticus seem quite bloodthirsty by our current standards!

In fact though, the reverse is true. The setting for Exodus is a whole people group who have, until a few weeks earlier, been under the government of Egypt. As spartan, brutal, and probably unjust as it was, there was a judiciary and a government, an army and a beaurocracy.

Now, thousands (the interpretation of exactly how many varies) of people are wandering around in a wilderness behind one charismatic leader. They are being told that they need to settle an area to build a community… but they have no institutions.

The default condition (of people) is to behave in a very feudal manner, with kangaroo-courts and bush justice. In short, lynch mobs! The laws given in Exodus and Leviticus are most helpfully seen as providing *limits* on retribution (rather than meting out punishment). The effect of providing legislation to limit retribution is that the community does not experience escalating violence between families, for example, which would work against public order.

Hopefully that spells out why a just and holy God would create laws that include punishments.

On the specific example of a theif being “sold”, this is not as severe as it sounds. In fact, anyone who cannot pay their debts would have expected to have been sold into slavery, perhaps to “work off” the debt and acheive freedom, but perhaps to remain in bonded labour even for generations. That was a societal expectation and did not necessarily include the brutality that we associate with the term “slavery”. It is more appropriately seen in after the fashion of “peasants” enjoying the benevolence of “gentry” when we hear “slaves” and “masters”.

Hopefully that explains how the specific example can be said to be “just”.

Jesus, in fact, said some very interesting things about (some of) the laws that were given to the Israelites. I suggest that the way in which He said those things can legitimately be taken as a model for reflecting on all of the laws given by Moses.

On the face of it, Jesus appeared to be refuting or criticising some of the laws. On closer observation though, He was actually providing a spiritual commentary on them. Especially in the case of “an eye for an eye” (quoted below), in which He is pointing out that just because Moses gave laws *limiting* our retribution, we should not necessarily seek retribution at all!

It went like this:

Jesus:

“You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’ But I tell you that anyone who is angry with his brother will be subject to judgment. Again, anyone who says to his brother, ‘Raca,’ is answerable to the Sanhedrin. But anyone who says, ‘You fool!’ will be in danger of the fire of hell. – Matt 5:21-22

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Do not commit adultery.’But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart. – Matt 5:27-28

It has been said, ‘Anyone who divorces his wife must give her a certificate of divorce.’But I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for marital unfaithfulness, causes her to become an adulteress, and anyone who marries the divorced woman commits adultery. – Matt 5:31-32

“Again, you have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘Do not break your oath, but keep the oaths you have made to the Lord.’ But I tell you, Do not swear at all: … Simply let your ‘Yes’ be ‘Yes,’ and your ‘No,’ ‘No’; anything beyond this comes from the evil one. – Matt 5:33-36

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. – Matt 5:38-39

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies – Matt 5:43-44

… and you would be familiar with Jesus’ famous “If any one of you is without sin, let him be the first to throw a stone at her.” – John 8:7

Jesus also says, specifically about divorce, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard.” – Matt 19:8, in a very clear indication that Moses’ laws were not all positive statements about the character of God. Divorce laws were made to regulate divorce, not to condone it. Elsewhere, God says, “I hate divorce”.

Overall, Paul says, “What, then, was the purpose of the law? It was added because of transgressions”. He concludes, “So the law was put in charge to lead us to Christ that we might be justified by faith.” – Galatians 3:24.

So the Christian understanding is this: The Law (the laws of Moses) sets an unforgiving standard of behaviour. The purpose of this is to reveal to us that we are unable to achieve it, and therefore we are compromised before a perfect God. Having revealed that to us, God is able to express His desire and ability to pardon us from that guilt because of His benevolence.

Jesus revealed (in the above passages from Matt 5), that the standard of God is actually immeasurably higher and more exacting than what the religious lawyers had imagined. He did this because people had interpreted the laws in such a way that people could believe that they had “attained righteousness” by obeying them. Jesus resets the bar at an impossibly high level to reveal once again that the people are not perfect, whereas God is, and so they still require God’s undeserved benevolence.

The New Testament then lays out how we can understand Jesus’ sacrifice to have precipitated the “outpouring” of the Holy Spirit by which a believer becomes converted to an identity consistent with God’s character (desiring to fulfil the Law) instead of an identity opposed to God’s character (seeking to satisfy God with minimum possible effort in order to focus on worldly aspirations).

In your specific example, if Jesus was confronted with that situation, to the thief He might say, “As you are going with your adversary to the magistrate, try hard to be reconciled to him on the way, or he may drag you off to the judge, and the judge turn you over to the officer, and the officer throw you into prison.” – Luke 12:58

To the victim He might say, “Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. if someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.” – Matt 5:39-42

At the same time, as with the adulterous woman who was to be stoned, Jesus would not call into question the justice of the actual rule, nor of the punishment. He would seek to demonstrate to each party that they have the ability to take responsibility for their actions and responses.

<<How can the creator of the Universe – so vast as to make our little world completely irrelevant – firstly, want blood sacrifices and, secondly why would he care that the blood was presented with bread with yeast in it, or that fat is not eaten before the next day?>–>>
The reason for blood sacrifices is twofold.

Firstly, in the surrounding cultures, there were Pagan understandings. Essentially, that gods were capricious and dangerous, and had to be appeased. There were practices such as sacrificing one’s firstborn child, which gives rise to specific instructions in Moses’ Law forbidding this practice:

When you enter the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not learn to imitate the detestable ways of the nations there. Let no one be found among you who sacrifices his son or daughter in the fire, who practices divination or sorcery, interprets omens, engages in witchcraft, or casts spells, or who is a medium or spiritist or who consults the dead. – Deut 18:9-11.

When animals were sacrificed to the Pagan gods it was as an appeasement, and that was the norm. So when we talk about sacrificing animals, it is not a concept that would have seemed at all offensive or suprising in its day. The point was to differentiate Yahweh from the Pagan gods by revealing that Yahweh wanted sacrifices as an expression of faith and obedience (not appeasement), the activity of which allowed the community to experientially realise the reality of a forgiving God.

You may be familiar with this famous rebuttal:

With what shall I come before the LORD
and bow down before the exalted God?
Shall I come before him with burnt offerings,
with calves a year old?

Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams,
with ten thousand rivers of oil?
Shall I offer my firstborn for my transgression,
the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?

He has showed you, O man, what is good.
And what does the LORD require of you?
To act justly and to love mercy
and to walk humbly with your God.
Micah 6:6-8

The second reason is theological. In brief, it relates to the conundrum of imperfect humans interacting with a perfect God. You see, if one steals, one is a thief. There is no way to become an un-thief. Therefore one is a thief for the rest of one’s life. One’s life has been tainted. Death was the solution, in that it brought an end to the tainted life. God provided a system by which death could be vicariously offered in the animal sacrifices.

I have used a lot of language fairly loosely here that could be twisted to represent unhelpful conclusions, but I’m hoping the main idea is getting through.

So the sacrifice was an act of obedience by the people, which demonstrated their faith in the forgiving God. God, in response to such a profession of faith, granted forgiveness. This paradigm is at the core of the covenant made between God and the people.

Jesus fulfils this paradigm by volunteering to be the perfect sacrifice, on behalf of everyone. Therefore, by faith in *that* sacrifice, we can be assured of God’s forgiveness. Because it is perfect (God’s own son offered for the purpose), it is eternally and infinitely efficacious.

The reason for unleavened bread, and for the requirement to consume all of the fat before morning, came from the Exodus event, which is being revisited in the sacrifice, and in much of Israel’s symbolism even today.

When the exodus occurs:

That same night they are to eat the meat roasted over the fire, along with bitter herbs, and bread made without yeast. Do not eat the meat raw or cooked in water, but roast it over the fire—head, legs and inner parts. Do not leave any of it till morning; if some is left till morning, you must burn it. – Ex 12:8-10

The reason was the hasty exit. No time for baking bread, and no “looking back” in terms of keeping leftovers. They needed to be ready to go.

Since then, leaven in bread came to be symbolic of sin in one’s life. The Passover celebration includes a staged, farcical “hunt” in which the wife hides some leavened bread in the house and the husband runs around to root it out and take it outside the house. This symbolises a cleansing of the household from sin (by God, as represented by the man of the house).

Your question, “How can the creator of the Universe – so vast as to make our little world completely irrelevant…” is a perennial one. The psalmist says:

When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,

what is man that you are mindful of him,
the son of man that you care for him?

You made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.

You made him ruler over the works of your hands;
you put everything under his feet
– Psalm 8:3-6.

The question is rhetorical. We (Jews and Christians, who begin from the understanding that God has spoken truly) are forced to accept simply that God *does* care for humanity (since He repeatedly insists so), despite our evident unworthiness (which He is careful to highlight). That care, since it is clearly “irrational” by our standards, can only be described in hyperboic terms as undeserved divine love.

The most difficult thing that Christians find is not “to believe in God”, nor “to believe in the resurrection” (since, as Christians, these things are more or less given), but “to believe that I am forgiven”, which is a very profound change in our whole self-perception. 

How we should read and understand the Bible

Hi Kevin,

Sorry to say that I think your reasoning is in-correct.

Using the argument that it was the context of the times is logically false. The text reflects cultural contexts and political and social norms of the time. The fact that the text has been reinterpreted continually since they were made canonical proves that it is not the word of God. If God had caused it to be written it should mean the same in all times.

Regarding the Israelites in Egypt, there are no contemporaneous mentions in any texts outside of the OT that support the story of Moses and the Egyptian captivity.

During the Isreali occupation of the Sinai Peninsula in the 1960s, archeologists spent 5 years searching for evidence of the “wandering in the desert” and they found nothing. No evidence of the millions of people that were supposed to have been there for 40 years.

I do not accept that we are meant to study the Bible to gain insight or meaning. An eternal God can not have written such a text that is able to be used to support any view that any Christian advocates.

There is no way to explain why the creator of the laws of physics and all the Universe would say “don’t sacrifice your child, but goats are good and I enjoy the smell of blood”. An eternal God with all knowledge should say “there are no gods but me” not none are above me.

Also, why can a thief not be forgiven after legal restitution? Why should Jesus have to die for that? It is not logical for God to want a blood sacrifice if he is all loving.

And another thing: why would God send himself to be killed to appease himself? Also illogical.

Are you saying that a Christian should be a pacifist because Jesus said “turn the other cheek”? Again, open to interpretation. Should a “Christian nation” rely on God for protection instead of having an armed defense force?

The Bible: I don’t buy it.

Hi Jim,

You say, “If God had caused it to be written it should mean the same in all times.”, but… why? If God has a message for a people, at a time, for a situation, then why should that message become baggage for all people at all times? If you instruct you children to do their homework, does that mean that they need to do their homework when they are 47 years old?

“there are no contemporaneous mentions in any texts outside of the OT that support the story of Moses and the Egyptian captivity.” – This is almost correct. There are actually records of an ejection of foreigners from Egypt at about that time. Nevertheless, there have been numerous biblical events and personalities for which there were no other mentions in historical documents (or even seemingly conflicting ones), causing condemnation of the biblical account… until documents were later discovered revealing references to those people and events; In some cases offering the solution to apparent contradictions, and in other cases confirming the existence of the doubted person.

For Example, Belshazzar, mentioned in Daniel 5.

The Britannica Online Encyclopaedia says, “Belshazzar had been known only from the biblical Book of Daniel (chapters 5, 7–8) and from Xenophon’s Cyropaedia until 1854, when references to him were found in Babylonian cuneiform inscriptions.” at http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/60121/Belshazzar.

There is more here: http://www.biblehistory.net/Belshazzar_Darius_Mede.pdf

What I’m saying is that an “argument of silence” is not a strong argument. You can have it, and you can harbour doubts, but it is not proof of error nor contrivance.

>>”There is no way to explain why the creator of the laws of physics and all the Universe would say “don’t sacrifice your child, but goats are good and I enjoy the smell of blood. An eternal God with all knowledge should say “there are no gods but me” not none are above me.”<<

Ok. I’ll pass that on.
By the way, I also enjoy the smell of a good BBQ, and that’s what we’re talking about here. Many of the sacrifices were used as food in religious celebrations (albeit not all). Also, for some sacrifices the barbecue fuel included incense, representing prayers.

“You shall have no other gods before me” refers to any idols and objects of worship. This is not a recognition of competitors in any objective sense, but only in a subjective sense. It’s just an idiom. Elsewhere, “You were shown these things so that you might know that the LORD is God; besides him there is no other” is repeated many times to clarify the objective situation. (eg. Deut 4:35, Deut 4:39, 1 Kings 8:60 and many others)

“Also, why can a thief not be forgiven after legal restitution?”
Well, if a convicted child molester has served some time for his crimes, will you be “forgiving” enough to avoid “discriminating” against him as a babysitter for your kids? The fact is that going to jail doesn’t rehabilitate very many people. In fact, most emerge more likely to offend than less. Jail is a tool that the society uses to appease the masses and give a sense of law and order. But the truth is that no “justice” is done. The victim gets nothing back. If a child is molested, the fate of the molestor is irrelevant to the child in any “justice” sense (except that, for the time being, at least in prison he can’t harm anyone else). We do not have a system of “justice”, but one of “consequences” and “community safety” which is tempered by “differential punishments”. The purpose it serves is to protect the community, but not to un-thief the thief (despite prison programs being run to attempt that outcome… some by Christian groups. Such programs do have some success, some of the time, but are voluntary and very much supplementary).

“Are you saying that a Christian should be a pacifist” Some do, some don’t. I have a very good (very Christian) friend who is the Royal Australian Navy Defence Attaché in Berlin. He is a Captain in the Navy, on secondment. I have other (very Christian) friends who are pacifists. Either way, there is strong biblical support for the concept of national armed forces but the key is not to “trust in them”, but to “trust in God” who ultimately will decide the outcome. It’s no different from having money and yet not trusting in that wealth but relying on God’s provision.

These questions: “It is not logical for God to want a blood sacrifice if he is all loving. And another thing: why would God send himself to be killed to appease himself?” were addressed in my previous message. The sacrifices, including Jesus’, are often represented as an appeasment of God, but that is not correct. That is a Pagan principle. The sacrifices have to do with affecting sin by faith – they don’t change God in any way. They represent a vicarious transaction by which forgiveness can be understood.

“The Bible: I don’t buy it.”

The Reasonableness of Christianity (again)

Hey, I don’t blame you for not buying it. In fact, I’m not selling it. All I’ve done is answered your questions. I even assured you that no argument from me would change your mind! I still hold that view, but if you have questions then I’m happy to oblige. It saddens me that people (like yourself) who have intelligent questions often are frustrated that Christians cannot satisfactorily answer them. Particularly, in your case, since it was your pastor! At least this way you can come to see that intelligent people *can* engage with the bible, even if not all *do*.

The Reasonableness of Atheism (again)

Hi Kevin. Do you think I’m being un-reasonable to be unable to change my mind?
My basic feelings are as I mentioned. I do not see any evidence for God. So I don’t believe that one exists.

Hi Jim,

Nothing could be more reasonable. I know exactly what you mean. I have been there.

Of course, it should be expected that you will not “see evidence for God” because in your worldview there *is* no God. If you were operating in the Christian worldview, this would more likely be your observation: “For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” – Romans 1:20.

It’s a question of perspective and paradigm, and how you interpret the evidence that is presented to you. Anais Nin said, “We don’t see things as they are, we see them as we are” which nicely describes the phenomenon.

So it is perfectly reasonable to be an atheist. It is also perfectly reasonable to be a Christian.
If your attitudes and opinions are consistent with your worldview then you are being reasonable.

A Calvinist would say that the bible actually describes the issue, saying that we require “faith” to believe, and that faith is a gift from God – it is not something that we just “possess” or can “decide”. In any case, Jesus said, “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him”. It would therefore be unreasonable for me to assume that I (or you) could change your mind.

How to read the Bible

Incidentally, the first few books of the bible are a very tough place to start reading. It’s lots of “ground work” with no visible explanations as to how it ties together, particularly with respect to Jesus. The New Testament is a much more accessible place to begin. Most bibles have footnote references, which you will notice reveal extensive reference back to the Old Testament. Reading the New Testament while following the footnotes into the Old is a fruitful way to see how the documents tie together over thousands of years, and develop the same themes through time, including the expectation of a Messiah.

Reading a gospel account (any one of them), and then the Book of Acts (which is also a storyline format) is probably a much more useful introduction than ploughing through the Old Testament from the start. You want to see how the car drives, not strip down the gearbox…

An Accusation against God

So what we have is a God (god) that instead of providing proof of his existence, demands faith or Hell. Is that what Mark 3:28-30 is all about then?

I don’t mean to sound adversarial but I just cannot see how your arguments have any foundation.

The passage in Mark is not what you’re looking for – that passage is Jesus’ response when He is accused of being an agent of Satan.

What you might be looking for is this:
“Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son” John 3:18

… which more accurately reflects the summary you propose, “instead of providing proof of his existence, demands faith or Hell”.

So if you just take John 3:18, you can make it fit your summary.

On the other hand, a Christian does not see it that way. In Christian theology, people are sinners. Sinners have a problem – they have set themselves against God’s good will as it is revealed in the natural order. Their damnation by God is a reasonable and just outcome, even a “natural consequence” in spiritual terms. It would therefore be appropriate and just for each member of humanity to be erased as a bad job (this is reflected in the Genesis account of Noah’s ark). However God has, for His own reasons, decided to save some (again, as reflected in Noah’s story).

God has frequently, in many ways, at various times, offered evidence of His divine love (but not empirical “proof of His existence”, which would be wierd, considering that “God is Spirit”). Not the least demonstration of which is Christ’s crucifixion. For those who respond in faith, He offers salvation (jump back two verses to John 3:16…).

I hear you, though – “it’s not fair”, you say.

I was talking to a rapist (served 5 years), violent homeless drug addict. We were talking about forgiveness. He had never heard the “Prodigal Son” story so I showed him and explained what it represents in terms of God’s forgiveness for the repentant sinner. His response? “That’s not fair!”. In his case, he was not saying that damnation was unfair. As far as he was concerned, damnation was exactly what he deserved and exactly what he was going to encounter. The thing he found hardest to imagine was that God would be willing to forgive him, a sinner!

To completely challenge his notions of God’s justice, I went on to show that he (the rapist) and I are *exactly* the same as each other. We are both sinners – by nature. We both deserve damnation… equally. Whereas God has indeed saved me, it remains “unfair” in my opinion. I don’t deserve it, I promise you.

God’s salvation is offered, not on the basis that it is our right to have it, but on the basis that He does not desire for anyone to perish, which otherwise would happen. Having been offered, you can take it or leave it.

Here’s an alternative summary (if you’re looking for one): “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” – Rom 6:23.

My argument is that the biblical world view is internally consistent. That is my foundation. Outside of the biblical worldview, my arguments have no “foundation”, which is why it is perfectly reasonable for you to disagree with my view.

Human Nature and Sin

Hi Kevin,
Sorry for not getting back to you. I have been so busy that I just hadn’t had the chance to read through your responses and digest them.

I’ve just re-read them and I’d like to continue our discussion.

You mention the Christian worldview and that we are all sinners by nature.

Can you please explain to me why we are sinners? What is sin? I know that’s a very basic question that I could probably answer myself, but your answer will help me understand your worldview.

It might be most useful to see sin as “the propensity to carnal gratification”, which translates to selfishness – potentially at the expense of others but not necessarily. The antithesis of which is to be “led by the spirit”.

Therefore sin is not equivalent to evil, or anti-goodess. It’s just not God’s way, but our own. Therefore the ultimate sin, in a sense, is “I am my own god” (Eve was tempted by “you will [be] like a god”). The biblical understanding is that this self-centred attitude precipitates all manner of evil (“sins”).

To overcome sin is to achieve escape from the propensity to follow our self interest, surrendering to a propensity to further God’s instead.

Kevin is your definition generally accepted by your church?

Yes.
An alternative question would be “would your church leaders choose the same phrasology to answer this question?” The answer to which would be “no”. The phrasology is mine. This avoids dishing up dogma. The theology is essentially mid-road Evangelical, however.

When you say carnal, I assume you mean worldy or physical, not sexual?

Correct.

The Crisis of Definitions

I think that your definition is in-correct. You are actually describing your view of an aspect of human nature.

The biblical worldview is that the human nature *is* sinful. In that sense, if I am describing an innate, primal human quality then my description is all the more likely to be quite correct. The biblical worldview is that this “natural” propensity was not intended by God, and has been introduced subsequently. Of course, this differs sharply from your own worldview, in which this “aspect of human nature” has evolved as a matter of course.

I can’t reconcile the two views. They remain at odds.

If sin is “not God’s way” what is his way? If humans are sinners are all of us not following his way?

In His own words: “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.” – Isaiah 55:8-9.

Jesus said, “I am the way”, in reference to this exact question. By nature we have the propensity not to follow His way.

The Morality of Sin

All of nature is selfish as a matter of survival so how can this be sinful?

Be careful not to equate “sinful” with “evil”. There is nothing “wrong” with self-preservation per se. Yet it can be considered “sinful”. Equating “sin” and “bad” is an unhelpful paradigm. It is a false equation.

The Sin of Disbelief

Is disbelief a sin?

See my definition. Disbelief would only be possible within a sinful framework.

Is it sinful to believe in God but reject Jesus?

By extension, it is only possible to reject Jesus within a sinful framework. In the biblical worldview, God has demonstrated that Jesus is the Christ through His resurrection. To reject Jesus is therefore to reject God.
James says, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.” (Jas 2:19). Although James is talking about something different (showing our faith through good behaviour rather than just “believing” it), the point remains – “Even the demons” believe in God!

Is your definition consistent with any Christian’s?

It is consistent with mainstream Evangelical theology. The only groups whom I am aware would disagree are the Gnostics and those influenced by them (“Christian Science”, for example), who essentially disbelieve that the temporal existence is even real at all, and teach that disbelief in the temporal is the way to physical healing and eternal life. Other groups may qualify my definition further or want to change the emphasis, but I have no reason to suppose that any mainstream Christian theologian would reject my definition, from conservative through liberal.

To what extent is Sin related to Morality?

The core of it seems to be privation of God’s moral law. Would you agree?

I’m not sure I understand the proposition. Does this mean that the sinner has a reduced capacity to adhere to God’s moral law? If so, then yes, ok… I suppose that’s a fair observation. The gospel promises a spirit by which the believer realises a new capacity to adhere to God’s moral law. This describes part of the “working out” of salvation.

As to whether that is “the core”… well, that’s a question that theologians have argued over throughout history. An alternate view is that “the core” of the whole sin problem is God’s glorification. It depends where you set your apature on the worldview. God’s moral law is, however, inarguably an essential, central, foundational consideration in understanding sin; yes.

Sin and the Human Nature

Ok so if humans are inherently sinful, why is this so?

Well… you’re presumably familiar with Genesis 3, in which Adam chose sin and, as the physical ‘flesh’ progenitor of the human race, chose it for his decendents ‘in the flesh’.

Jesus chose righteousness and, as the spiritual prototype of the children of God, chose it for his followers ‘in the spirit’.

[Romans 5:19] For as through the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, even so through the obedience of the one shall the many be made righteous.

The Imperative to believe

Free to act as we please but not free to reject God. Is it logical? Seems not to me.

Ok… but I can’t fathom why not.

Whenever you send your child on an errand out of your site you give them ‘opportunity’ to go almost anywhere, but ‘permission’ for a very limited range of activities. They are therefore ‘free’ to ‘reject’ you. They can even disbelieve you! But they are still accountable to you for their actions.

Just because we have the opportunity to sin, and indeed a propensity to sin, does not mean we can do so with impunity.

Adam and Eve

Are you saying that you believe that Adam was an actual historical person?
Even if he was; my next question would be, why did God give Adam/humanity to ability to choose or reject him but decide to punish us for ETERNITY if we make a choice the he decided is a sin? As Christopher Hitchens said “why create us sick but then command us to be well”?

It’s like saying I have a choice to not pay taxes but the consequences are gaol if I choose not to. That is not a choice. Similarly it is not free will to offer the choice but add the caveat that if I don’t choose how God wants me to, then I’m damned for all time.

Whether or not Adam is actual/historical is not really the point, as you say. The point of the Adam story, quite simply, is that God did *not* “create us sick”, any more than you create your children “sick” when you ask them to run an errand for you. You have taught them everything they need to know, and you have faith that they will obey you. If they don’t, then who’s fault is that? Are you just a bad parent or do they bear some responsibility?

You say that the taxation simile does not stand. I disagree. There are many who choose to lie about their income/expenses to avoid paying the taxes that they should. That certainly *is* a choice, which has consequences, and it demonstrates the point quite aptly. Don’t those people have a responsibility to obey the law? Have they not chosen to defy the lawmakers?

Within the paradigm that recognises that there is a God with whom we must reckon, the Jewish scholars actually found no reason why “the rest of the world” (those who were not chosen to be “the people of God”) should obey all of the laws of Moses. They could see that God has bound the Jews to those laws, but not everybody else. They identified the commandments given by God to Noah for his descendants as the laws by which humanity should live. They are:

1.Prohibition of Idolatry
2.Prohibition of Murder
3.Prohibition of Theft
4.Prohibition of Sexual immorality
5.Prohibition of Blasphemy
6.Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
7.Establishment of law courts

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Seven_Laws_of_Noah

That’s not a particularly onerous list on the face of it, although some schools of Jewish thought have managed to come up with dozens of sub-categories derived from the seven…

What Jesus does is to step through many of these and show that, even though a person might be outwardly in obedience, if their heart is not right then they still have a problem. For example, “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” – Matt 5:27-28.

Jesus’ teaching is that simple adherence to a set of instructions was never what God actually required (this merely echoes what the prophets preached throughout the OT history). God looks upon the heart. To “be right with God”, in part, is to submit to that spiritual reality; to accept that we (each) are actually fundamentally broken (“sinful”), and to come to God for the solution to the problem. That solution being Christ. This is in keeping with “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.” – Isaiah 66:2.

History shows us that something about the human nature prevents humanity from living in absolute peace, universal fraternity, and loving community. Many attempts have been made. All have failed. Is it fair to label that something as a “problem”?

Do you believe that such a society is actually possible for human beings? Do you believe that *you* could exist in such a society?

Challenge to the God of Justice

The existence of Adam is exactly the point. Without his existence there is no fall. Therefore no need for a saviour.

God is not a father he’s a dictator, policing thought crime. If my child is disobedient I’m not going to punish him for more than is warranted. Tell me how eternal Hell fire is justifiable for a single lifetime of atheism.

Also, what’s your take on grace and forgiveness? If you are “born again” and a serial killer are you saved, while the atheist that comes to his disbelief by rational thinking, doom?

You mentioned a while back that you became religious after an event that made you think “explain that science boy”. Do you think it’s at all
possible that you were just looking into a gap not yet filled by science?

> The existence of Adam is exactly the point. Without his existence there is no fall. Therefore no need for a saviour.

That is a reasonable view. Arguably that is the evangelical view. There are some alternative ones within Christianity.

That humanity has a problem seems self-evident in any case. Humanity does not achieve the standard of behaviour that humanity is pretty universally able to describe as ideal.The Adam story, whatever else it is, is an accepting of responsibility for the problem, and an acknowledgment that it must be overcome.

This is a view sharply at odds with the non-Christian worldview. The pessimistic side of which is that humanity is some kind of infection destined for extinction, and the most optimistic side of which looks to a time when some unnamed technological marvel will overcome the problem. Half way in-between is a hope that we will find infinitely renewable resources so that the more obvious and inconvenient symptoms of our problem will go away and we won’t have to change.

> God is not a father he’s a dictator, policing thought crime.

That’s one spin. Another is that God is offering to do what we are unable to do in our own hearts. Something that is deep down, which we know we need/want done.

> is eternal hellfire justifiable?

I’m not trying to justify anything. I feel no need to excuse or apoogise for God.

I would just point out that, from His point of view, it is obvious that mankind has a problem (as above), He has advertised the solution, and anyone who will not avail themselves of it ought not quibble over the consequences.

Do doctors get this much grief when they say that your cancer will kill you if you don’t get it treated? Do they get accused of putting people to death for “merely” contracting cancer, through no fault of their own, unless they submit to bodily mutilation by surgery, and radiation poisoning through chemotherapy? Evil doctors!

Its just a question of spin. From your worldview you get it spun one way, and from mine it is spun the other way.

> reasonable atheist vs converted criminal.

Jesus resoundingly addressed this. The thief who acknowledged Him on the cross was promised paradise ‘today’. The ‘rich young man’ who was ostensibly God-fearing, but could not part with his wealth, was compared unfavourably to a camel passing through the eye of a needle in his quest to enter the kingdom of heaven.

You are implying that the criminal is less deserving of heaven than the atheist. But on what grounds? Jesus said that calling your brother a fool is equivalent, in spiritual terms, with murder. So the scale on which you are measuring culpability may not be the same one that God uses and in fact, the bible says as much.

In biblical terms, what we do, with all apparent reasonableness in the spirit of the world, may be considered abominable by God in His spirit. Its a mindset which is counterintuitive to the ‘sinful nature’ (our natural thought)… which is, in the biblical worldview, broken.

In other words, if someone comes to Australia and wants to live according to the laws and customs of Iran, they will end up in trouble. If we think we can enter the kingdom of God, living according to the laws and customs of the world… we can expect similar trouble.

The bumper sticker is like ‘Heaven – love it or leave’. Anyone is welcome, but they need to respect the rules. ‘Faith in Christ’ is the rules (John 6:28-29).

> a gap not yet filled by science

Ah, yes. See ‘optimistic’ above. If you wait long enough, science will solve everything… but I don’t subscribe to that. Science is a methodology that presupposes natural cause and effect. If there is supernatural cause and natural effect then we have a gap that won’t be filled by science. Science disqualified itself from filling such a gap in its frame of reference.

By the way, I’ve fielded a lot of questions… I posed one or two of my own in my previous message but you didn’t offer an answer.

The Issue of Human Conflict vis. the Human Nature

Oh Sorry. I’ll go through our thread and get to work.

Regarding the issue of human conflict: I see the modern world as a slow, steady increase in human social growth. Certainly western rule of law seems to be based on fairness and anti-discrimination.

Conflicts occur as disputes between parties over land or resources or xenophobic/tribal tendencies. The more educated and reasonable the society, the more likely that these conflicts are resolved non-violently.

The growing field of Evolutionary Psychology has great insights into our base behaviours and how they relate to our own development as a social primate species.

A three year old could be said to be the most violent age group and they show those base behaviours before they understand the Epicurean “do unto others” understanding of consequences.

We behave the way we do because we have evolved to. Being further advanced than previous societies is not due to religion but the philosophy that Christianity absorbed from the Greeks.

As a guide to morality I don’t see anything in the Bible to rival the Greeks’.

Science can only measure what is measurable. It can not measure anything supernatural because by it’s very nature if would be un-measurable and therefore un-provable. Unlike faith without evidence, I trust in science and the natural world because I have a reasonable expectation that my chair will hold me, the sun will rise and gravity will keep me bound to the Earth. There is nothing reasonable about faith without evidence.

Anyway, can you ask me a question now?

You have a very optimistic view of human development. I must say I don’t share it. It seems obvious that since an individual human who is distressed will tend to behave violently, a threatened human will tend to behave selfishly, and a traumatised human will tend to behave self-destructively, then we should assume (and can easily demonstrate) that groups of humans will behave the same way. When you get a group of humans and reduce their stress, threats and traumas below a certain threshold, then they are able to behave constructively. But the only way we have ever been able to achieve that for any one group (where there is scarcity of resources) is by exploiting another, causing distress, threats and traumas in disproportionate measure.

The Roman Empire relied on military conquest and authoritarian violence to maintain the Pax Romana. The modern Western civilisation relies on economic conquest and environmental violence to sustain our way of life. Nothing has changed. Every luxury and comfort we enjoy in the west is being purchased with someone’s trauma and discomfort elsewhere. It is not an achievement of “progressive non-violence”, but of military and industrial bullying.

When China’s economy dwarfs the entire Western economy (in the next few decades), and boasts a comparable military/industrial complex, do you anticipate that they will suddenly become a liberal democracy? The elephant-in-the-room will be a radically different colour and the West will be forced to understand that there is more than one way to run a society, and there is no “straight line” from stone-age to universal enlightenment.

Evolutionary Psychology is an interesting experiment in confirmation bias. It assumes that “evolution” is some kind of universally applicable paradigm and then interprets human social history within that paradigm. Unfortunately there are plenty of bits that stick out at awkward angles from the bell curve!

Evolutionary psychology would work to support your optimistic view if “reasonableness” and non-violence increased a civilisation’s likelihood of surviving to the age of “reproducing” and/or increased the efficiency of that reproduction (these are the central evolutionary imperatives). In societal terms, that means conquest! In actual fact the societies that prosper in “evolutionary” terms are the ones that develop the superior military capability.

Our (western) civilisation currently has the superior military capability. We are therefore victorious, and take the privilege of “writing history”. The values on which our civilisation are founded appear to us to be inalienably “good”, and competing views are therefore self-evidently “bad”. Evolutionary psychology therefore predicts that our civilisation is part of a progression towards Utopia.

Every major empire has had the same view throughout history. Nothing is new. This too, will pass.

>> As a guide to morality I don’t see anything in the Bible to rival the Greeks’.

I’m not surprised. “The Greeks” (the philosophers you must be referring to) were interested primarily in morality. The Bible is not. It is fashioned, rather, as a revelation of God. Christians are interested in morality, and refer to the Bible as a source of guidance (and have been heavily influenced by Greek philosophy), but the Bible is not designed as a pursuit of morality. Incidentally, the Greek philosophers were, in turn, influenced by other earlier thinkers including, of course, Hebrew wisdom. Nothing exists in a vacuum.

You talk of science in terms that I agree with (“It can not measure anything supernatural because by it’s very nature if would be un-measurable and therefore un-provable.”) and yet you claim that “there is nothing reasonable about faith without evidence”. That seems self-contradictory.

I trust in science for all the same things you do. I trust in faith for those things that are “un-measurable and therefore un-provable”… and you can’t see that as reasonable? I admit that I don’t follow your line of thinking.

The question I was referring to (from me) was this one, which you have partly addressed. I remain interested in the last part of the question, though:

Is Utopia possible without God?

History shows us that something about the human nature prevents humanity from living in absolute peace, universal fraternity, and loving community. Many attempts have been made. All have failed. Is it fair to label that something as a “problem”?

Do you believe that such a society is actually possible for human beings? Do you believe that *you* could exist in such a society?

Hi Kevin,

I’m sure I could live in a semi-utopian society – something like the world of Star Trek. Do I believe it’s possible? Yes I do. But will it happen? With the way things are going now, I have no idea. We’ll probably end up wiping out 70% of the world’s population due to global warming and war.

I have reasonable trust that humanity will continue to grow, but an evolved life-form has a lot of baggage in our DNA and behaviour. We have technically advanced so fast that we are not really ready to be in the world we’ve built for ourselves, hence our propensity to behave savagely when pushed to the brink, or for there to be other bad behaviour. I don’t have faith in science, I trust it because it works.

I agree that Evolutionary Psychology has problems. It certainly is more of a hypothesis than a theory, not least because finding evidence would be hard, but I think it has potential.

Regarding the Roman’s, I’m listening to a really interesting podcast at the moment called The History of Rome by Mike Duncan. You might like it. It illustrates how different but also how similar we are to them.

I think you are saying that you can envisage a utopian society, for which you are ready… but perhaps everyone else is not? Or are you saying we need more science to make it work?

Because the alternative is that you have a model of society in mind which is superior to ours, and can work. I challenge you to set it up! I warn you that many have tried and failed.

The similarities between us and the Romans are deep, and many. Not surprising, since that civilisation was the womb of our own. In the wake of Christianity-by-default, the community is even picking up some of the old religions, which is interesting. The Epicurian tradition was almost cult-like then, and it has returned to a similar prominence, post-Enlightenment (hence the rather mythological epithet ‘enlightenment’, used for ‘reason as the sole measure of worth’).

Harold Camping’s Failed Rapture

Hey Kev. What do you think of Harold Camping’s Rapture that failed on 21st May?

Hey Jim,

I certainly didn’t get excited about the predictions of the Rapture. It is always unfortunate when someone manages to make such a publicly humiliating spectacle of themselves, irrespective of the circumstances.

It is notable that the term “rapture” is not a Biblical one. The concept of a Rapture is one that is not universally accepted, and among those who accept it, there is disagreement as to its relationship to another inference – “The Great Tribulation”.
To me, it is sufficient that Jesus said, “No one knows about that day or hour, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Matt 24:36). He went on, in Matt 25 to tell three parables back-to-back about remaining ready, alert, and faithful.
In whatever manner it happens, the “End” will not accurately have been calculated or predicted and, just as with the coming of the messiah, it will most likely occur in a form which is substantially different to the expectations of those who look “forwards” in time.
In other words, I don’t worry about it. “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own. ” (Matt 6:34).
I only hope that the poor fellow doesn’t lose his faith as a result of the error. After all, we are not called to have faith in a date-and-time event in the future, but in a man whom God rose from the dead in the past.

Invitation to Challenge Atheism

By the way, have you got any questions for me, the atheist?

Questions for you…?
Not necessarily. Certainly not in the intention of undermining your views or anything. Your answer to my question about a “utopian” world was very interesting. It reveals, I think, the profound distinction between the Christian and the Humanist view of the Human Condition.

Christianity compared to Humanism

The Christian conception is that the human being is not-perfect, in contradistiction to God, who is perfect (perhaps substitute “holy” and “unholy”, but the terms are more loaded). This difference represents a chasm, for the Christian, which must be crossed at all costs. And whereas it is impossible for a human being to cross it, God has made a way (“With man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.” – Matt 19:26). In the absence of that way, mankind can amend behaviours but never solve the core issue, which is “sin”, of which we are already aware.

The Humanist view, by contrast, is that humanity is essentially a product of a primal past, retaining vestiges of that influence, but with an interest in overcoming any harmful elements of it. The Humanist hope is that, through better understanding of ourselves and our relationships, our intellectual enquiries will create better and better societies to mitigate any potential harm arising from our primal urges. Notions of “sin” as an overarching “problem” are understood to be anachronistic throwbacks to the Church’s Dark Ages tactics of mass-control (pun not intended).

I get it, and I can empathise with it. I just don’t believe in it, because it fails to account for the present reality as I perceive it.
Cheers,Kev

I think Humanism so more than you described.

I’m certain that it is, and Christianity is so much more than either of us have described too.

Christology

Also if Jesus is also God, how can the Son not know the time that he’s actually going to return. That seems totally illogical.

Does it? Ok. It doesn’t to me. Jesus understood himself both in unity with (“I and the Father are one”), and in distinction from “the Father” (as in the case you are citing) in various situations. He promised his followers the same experience. I have received that experience and so I have no trouble with what he said.

Miracles

I remember being in RE class as a kid thinking “why are there no miracles now”. I don’t see any reason to believe in the supernatural.

I can understand the thought, “why are there no miracles now?”, but it is not based on a solid premise. Many people experience miracles. Just ask around. The greatest one, of course, to which the others all inevitably point, is Salvation. Ask any born-again Christian whether their conversion was a supernatural act of God…

Human Nature (again)

As far as human progress goes, if it’s only to make our lives longer and more fulfilling isn’t that a good enough reason for it? I don’t see human nature as bad, only inherently selfish which makes sense from a survival point of view.

“I don’t see human nature as bad, only inherently selfish” – We’re down to definitions here. I’m saying that this describes “sin”, but I think that term is artificially loaded with a nuance of “bad” which is unfair. “Sin” is a technical term describing exactly what you call “inherently selfish”.

Is Faith a self-preservation response?

If Jesus is the only way to eternal life then why not just believe and be selfish?

Because (perhaps unfortunately from the point of view of the hypothetical question), having believed, one is converted to unselfishness.

The Nature of Salvation

Is it word or deed that saves?

This battle raged during the Reformation. Frankly, the debate ignores the perspective of the 1st Century believers (and the twenty or more Centuries of Hebrew heritage before them, and the fifteen or so centuries after them up to the Reformation), who did not actually see Salvation as an “event”, but a life that was being lived. Salvation is a state of being, not an event. Unfortunately there are still some traces of Reformation-age dogma shaping modern evangelical thought on the subject.
In short, it is the wrong question. Salvation consists in recognising and accepting a different source of “life” – Christ, rather than “the world”. In other words, “Spirit” rather than “flesh”. This is a different (“new”) life, which also is “salvation”.

And what would I be saved from?

Yourself…

The Human Nature (again)

So are you ashamed of your intrinsic human nature?

I don’t think “ashamed” is the appropriate term, no. It merely is what it is. I see it just as you do: “selfish”.

God demonstrates his love in “selflessness”. There could be no clearer contrast.

I desire this godliness. To attain it is to overcome the “intrinsic human nature”. This is, in Biblical language, to “be led by the Spirit”, instead of to “walk according to the flesh”.

The Nature of the Godly Life

So to be Godly you must deny who you are and attempt and fail to be like someone you’ll never be like. Or ever hope to be like. You are wasting your life trying to achieve the impossible.

The Atheist’s Creed (My own label)

I believe in the Principle of Freedom: All people are free to think, believe, and act as they choose, so long as they do not infringe on the equal freedom of others.

 

I believe in civil liberties, civil rights, and especially freedom of speech, freedom of association, freedom to assemble peacefully, freedom to petition grievances, freedom to worship (or not), freedom of the press, freedom of reproductive choice.

I believe in the rule of law, and equal treatment under the law.

I believe in free will, free choice, moral culpability, and personal responsibility.

I believe in truth seeking and truth telling.

I believe in trust and trustworthiness.

I believe in fairness and reciprocity.

I believe in love, marriage, and fidelity.

I believe in family, friendship, and community.

I believe in honor, loyalty, and commitment to family, friends, and community members.

I believe in forgiveness when it is genuinely asked for or offered.

I believe in kindness, generosity, and charity, especially voluntary aid to others in need.

I believe in science as the best method ever devised for understanding how the world works.

I believe in reason and logic and rationality as cognitive tools for answering questions, solving problems, and devising solutions to life’s many problems and quandaries.

I believe in technological growth, cultural advancement, and moral progress..

I believe in the almost illimitable capacity of human creativity and inventiveness for our species to flourish into the far future on this planet and others.

I am an Atheist

 

>> So to be Godly you must deny who you are and attempt and fail to be like someone you’ll never be like.

Half true. Jesus made an audacious promise, that He would send a Spirit by whom we actually can be “like” God (“of God”).

Otherwise, as you say, there is no sense in “deny yourself” at all – that would be to become nothing! Jesus said “deny yourself *and* take up your cross”. This is not a process merely of becoming nothing, but rather, taking something up instead of my “intrinsic human nature”.

>>You are wasting your life try to achieve the impossible.

You are right to say that it is “impossible”. Jesus said so Himself! Of course He went on to say, “What is impossible with men is possible with God”. But I am attempting nothing. I am accepting what has been done. To see it as an “attempt” to “achieve” is, by definition, to fail. There is nothing for me to “achieve”. I am what I am. Unfortunately (perhaps, for your part in the conversation), I don’t have the means nor the inclination to prove it.

In actual fact, although you “believe in” many noble things, you still “believe in” the selfish intrinsic nature of the human condition as well. How can a race of intrinsically selfish individuals ultimately reflect all of those values you have listed simultaneously? It has never happened in the past…

The truth is that we both believe in “impossible” things.

Just as you are “an Atheist”, I am “a Christian”. I can be no other. It is a matter of fact. And just as I cannot change what I am, I don’t place any expectation on you to do so either.

Farewells

Well. Think we will have to agree to disagree. I see no reason to believe in anything supernatural. I’m happy with the real world.
Humans are products of biological evolution. What we make of our lives is totally up to us.

Then we’re both happy.

May God bless you, and your family.

Looks that way. Thanks for your thoughts.

 _____________________________________________________

I sincerely hope that this conversation will provide Christians with additional tools for communicating respectfully with others, and that it will provide Atheists with hope that their honest questions can be answered.

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  1. Gabriel says:

    I often believe that I have been such a dmippaosntient. But, know that when God sees me he sees Jesus. But, here is what I often think about. If God sees Jesus who died for all of our sins, what does Jesus see when he looks down on earth. I try so very hard to be a good person and when I try really hard, I fail. But, when I run to Jesus to say I am sorry, he holds out his arms takes me into a tight hug and tells me it is okay. Go try again but, let me help you. Each day is better than the day before.

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