Sunday, April 13, 2014

Now on ChristianPost

Just a quick note to say that I'll not be updating this blog any longer now that I've been blogging on Christianpost for quite some time. For further posts and updates, please visit the Confident Christian blog on Christianpost.

Sunday, February 23, 2014

Why It Matters What You Believe

Pentecostal Pastor Jamie Coots, one of the co-stars on the Snake Salvation” TV show, died Saturday, February 15th after receiving a bite from one of his snakes during a church service earlier that night. The Middlesboro, Ky., police reported that Coots refused medical treatment for his snake bite and was found dead in his home at about 10 p.m.
National Geographic's “

Why would Coots do such a thing? The answer, it appears, is that he embraced parts of the controversial and much-debated ending in the book of Mark: “These signs will accompany those who have believed: in My name they will cast out demons, they will speak with new tongues; they will pick up serpents, and if they drink any deadly poison, it will not hurt them; they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mark 16:17–18).

This very unfortunate episode underscores an important truth for everyone: it matters greatly what you believe. Why? Simply put, because in most cases consequences exist for being wrong.

An Unfashionable Position

Like wearing white after Labor Day, it’s very unfashionable these days to make the claim that a particular belief is not true. The philosophical pluralists who insist that every belief is on the same evidential playing field and postmodernists who assert there is no objective truth will loudly protest any challenge to the “true for you but not for me” position. Then there are the apatheists, which say they “don’t know and don’t care because it doesn’t matter”.

However, let’s first remember that the pluralist’s and postmodernist’s opinions are self-defeating. The pluralist must face the reality that, while they say all beliefs are equal and true, they deny the belief of the Christian who says all beliefs are not equal (i.e. the pluralist says the Christian’s belief is ‘wrong’). In the same vein, the postmodernist must confront the fact that their claim of there being no objective truth is an objective truth.    

Next, let’s also not forget that the apatheist doesn’t approach his/her life in total with their philosophy. Give an apatheist the wrong medicine or the wrong financial advice and you can be assured they’ll let you know about it.  

All of these positions assume their stance in order to not offend people, which on the surface seems like an admirable thing to do. But it is flawed thinking and fails to make this important distinction: all people are equally valuable, but not all ideas are. Avoiding those bad ideas / beliefs is smart because we steer clear of undesired outcomes.

Deep down we know and practice this. For example, if I’m shopping at a particular store thinking I’m getting the best possible price, but you show me a different store that saves me even more money, I won’t be offended but will be very grateful because you’ve corrected me and helped me avoid the consequence of losing money.  

But when it comes to matters of worldview and religion, we act and think differently as if there’s nothing to lose. Skeptics say this is because, unlike the financial example above, these are areas that cannot be as easily verified empirically and so they must be regarded as being uncertain.

But as Mr. Coots and his family discovered, that’s not always true.

The Longer Ending in Mark

Pastor Coots relied on a much debated section of Scripture to protect him from his practices of handling snakes during church services. But should he? A scholarly examination of the passage as well as a historical review of other individuals who put their trust in those verses would have served him well.

Christians naturally get very touchy when someone makes the claim that a particular section of the Bible isn’t legitimate. Fortunately, the science of Biblical criticism (a terribly sounding phrase I know…) helps provide confidence in making such determinations. When it comes to the longer ending of Mark 16 (vv. 9-20), the majority of Bible scholars agree that it is spurious and very likely was added by a redactor after Mark was written.

What evidence supports this claim? First, the verses are missing in the two earliest codices B and Aleph (Vaticanus and Sinaiticus), in codex K (codex Bobbiensis, the best exemplar of the earliest African Old Latin text), the Sinaitic Syriac, and other very early manuscripts. Further, early church fathers, such as Clement of Alexandria and Origen seem not to have known them.

Also, according to Eusebius, the famous church historian who was born about the year A.D. 260 and died around the year 340, “the most accurate copies” and “almost all the copies” of Mark’s Gospel ended with the words of 16:8, “… for they were afraid.” Jerome also writes that almost all the Greek copies he knew of lacked the verses.[1]

From an internal evidence perspective, about 1/3 of the significant Greek words in verses 9–20 of chapter 16 are “non-Marcan,” that is, they do not appear elsewhere in Mark or they are used differently from Mark’s usage prior to verse 9.[2]

For these and other reasons, nearly every Bible other than the King James Version heavily documents the skepticism toward the longer ending of Mark. There is no question that later Greek manuscripts contain the verses, but when the manuscript evidence is properly evaluated instead of just counted, the balance swings heavily toward the omission of the disputed verses.

To put a more practical perspective on it, these verses are not something on which someone like Jamie Coots should have bet his life.

Examining Things Carefully

Let’s not forget that being wrong about a belief can have tragic outcomes not just in this life but also in the next. For example, my family has become friends with another family whose college-age daughter is beginning to practice Wicca. She is very intelligent, bound for medical school, and is quite open about her new beliefs.

I hope we are given an opportunity to have a deeper conversation with her about it where we can ask important open-ended questions like, what evidence do you have that the Wiccan beliefs are true and, why do you believe that the goddess Gaia actually exists?

The Apostle Paul tells us, “examine everything carefully” (1 Thess. 5:21) for a reason. Whether it’s a misguided pastor who puts his trust in spurious Bible verses (while at the same time putting God to the test – Matt. 4:7), or a smart college girl following a false religion, they both eventually learn an unfortunate truth: consequences exist for being incorrect.

To be sure, being mistaken about something in this life is one thing, but where eternity is concerned, that is simply far too long a time to be wrong.

[1] Hendriksen, W., & Kistemaker, S. J. (1953-2001). Vol. 10: Exposition of the Gospel According to Mark. New Testament Commentary (683). Grand Rapids: Baker Book House.
[2] Grassmick, J. D. (1985). Mark. In J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck (Eds.), The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures (J. F. Walvoord & R. B. Zuck, Ed.) (Mk 16:9–20). Wheaton, IL: Victor Books.

Sunday, February 09, 2014

The Best Christians Are Thinking Christians, Not Doubting Christians

The title of Dr. Paul de Vries’ recent article – “The Best Christians are Doubting Christians” Part 1 and Part 2) – initially struck me like lemon juice in the eye. Judging by the comments the article generated, I wasn’t alone in my first impression of the writing.

Having read the article a couple of times now, I understand what Dr. de Vries is trying to say and fully appreciate the message he’s attempting to convey. While I don’t want to come across as some pedantic, uptight guy who’s ready to make mountains out of molehills, there are times when terms do indeed matter. The point I’d like to make is this:

Doubt is not something valued in the Bible.

Now, I don’t want to put words in Dr. de Vries mouth, but what I think he was trying to say is that the best Christians are thinking Christians vs. doubting Christians. On that point I couldn’t agree more and would argue that such a thing is what we’re commanded to be in Scripture.

Doubt in the Bible

Sometimes exploring the Hebrew/Greek behind our English translations of God’s Word provides a rich window into a deeper meaning of the term than our own language can provide. However, not in this case:

Distazō to have doubts concerning something, doubt, waver to be uncertain about taking a particular course of action, hesitate in doubt.[1]

The word ‘doubt’, when found in the Bible, means exactly what you’d expect.

While Dr. de Vries says in his article, “I know of no Biblical passage where we are even warned against doubt”, I would instead argue that ‘doubt’ is never used favorably in its context within Scripture (especially Rom. 14:23, which explicitly links doubt and sin together):

“Immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and took hold of him, and said to him, “You of little faith, why did you doubt?”” (Matthew 14:31).

“And Jesus answered and said to them, “Truly I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what was done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and cast into the sea,’ it will happen” (Matthew 21:21; Mark 11:23).

“When they saw Him, they worshiped Him; but some were doubtful” (Matthew 28:17).

“And He said to them, “Why are you troubled, and why do doubts arise in your hearts?” (Luke 24:38).

“But he who doubts is condemned if he eats, because his eating is not from faith; and whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23).

“But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).

“And have mercy on some, who are doubting” (Jude 22).

Dr. de Vries may try to label such verses as exhibitions of “unbelief” vs. doubt, but there’s no getting around the term used, with the above verses in their context conveying a sense of uncertainty, a wavering, and the like in a negative sense.

In other words, doubt isn’t a good thing.

Thinking vs. Doubting

Now as I mentioned upfront, I believe that the idea Dr. de Vries is aiming at is that thinking about spiritual matters is a very important thing, and in that regard, he is spot on. But there is a difference in careful and mindful scrutiny of truth claims and doubt.

In his book, “Hard Questions, Real Answers”, Dr. William Lane Craig makes this distinction between doubt and thoughtful examination of belief:

“When I was an undergraduate at Wheaton College, an attitude was prevalent among the students that doubt was actually a virtue and that a Christian who did not doubt his faith was somehow intellectually deficient or naïve. But such an attitude is unbiblical and confused. It is unbiblical to think of doubt as a virtue; to the contrary, doubt is always portrayed in the Scriptures as something detrimental to spiritual life. Doubt never builds up; it always destroys. How could the students I knew at Wheaton College have got things so totally reversed? It is probably because they had confused thinking about their faith with doubting their faith. We need to keep the distinction clear.”[2]

I agree.

As an example, it’s one thing to think long and hard about why God allows evil to exist, but another thing entirely to doubt His goodness. While wrestling intellectually with theological matters such as theodicy sharpens our logical acumen and builds us up as we uncover answers, doubting God’s omnibenevolence rots our faith.

Moreover, as Christians we need to steer clear of the postmodern concept of truth, which says no one can really no anything for certain (except, of course, that you can’t know anything for certain…) Dr. de Vries quotes Paul who says we now see in a glass dimly (1 Cor. 13:12) and thus reaches the conclusion, “Consequently, we must doubt.” But even he admits this doesn’t mean we doubt all things. I’ll add nor should we doubt things when it comes to God’s truth.

I’m sure you’d agree the spirit that sows doubts with questions like “Has God said…?” is not something we ought to embrace.

On the contrary, Paul tells the Thessalonians that he brought the gospel to them with “full conviction” (1 Thess. 1:5), which literally means a “state of complete certainty”.[3] In other words, there was no doubt in Paul’s spirit as he delivered the gospel message.

Thinking Faith

When it comes to matters of the mind, although atheists and hardened agnostics make the exclusive claim that they alone are the ones who think logically and rationally, they couldn’t be more wrong. The best Christians I know are powerful in the areas of logic and epistemology.

Further, skeptics overlook two important facts when it comes to faith and thinking. First, “faith” is never defined in the Bible as being blind, but rather a trust and confidence in something that has been evidentially proven to be trustworthy.[4]

Second, the Bible commands its readers to pursue responsible thinking and discards any notion of easy believe-ism or childish beliefs. As the Apostle Paul says, “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (1 Corinthians 14:20).

One of the top Christian thinkers and apologists of the 20th century – Francis Schaeffer – put it like this, “It is unbiblical for anyone to say, ‘just believe.’”[5]

So, without a doubt (pun intended), while a doubting Christian isn’t the best Christian in my opinion, a thinking Christian is the best Christian, and I would argue, is the type of believer the Scripture commands us to be.

[1] Arndt, W., Danker, F. W., & Bauer, W. (2000). A Greek-English lexicon of the New Testament and other early Christian literature (3rd ed., online). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 
[2] William Lane Craig, Hard Questions, Real Answers (Wheaton, Il: Crossway, 2003), pg. 33-4. Emphasis in the original.
[3] Danker and Bauer.
[4] “Pistis” is the Greek term used in the New Testament for faith, and it means having trust in that which has been shown to be reliable and that which provides a sense of confidence. See “pistis” in Danker and Bauer. Also see Hebrews 11:1.  
[5] Francis Schaeffer, “The God Who is There” in Trilogy (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 1990), 189.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

The Worst Friday Night Ever

January has not been a good month.

A few weeks ago, on a Friday night, I traveled about an
hour away to attend the visitation for my friend’s granddaughter who died of a brain tumor. She was only nine.

The next day, I traveled in the opposite direction to visit a wonderful couple I know. The husband (early fifties) was in the final stages of liver cancer. He died the following week and I spoke at his funeral. They had only been married a few years.

About a week later, I got the word that a magnificent woman (early 40’s) in our church had succumbed to lung cancer. She is a well-known Bible teacher, conference speaker, writer, and has worked tirelessly to help struggling couples rebuild their marriages. She left behind a loving pastor husband and four teenage children. If ever there was a case of putting to rest the false teaching that you only have to exhibit strong faith for God to heal you, this was it.

These losses devastated each family and were particularly difficult on me for two reasons. First, my family had been praying for a long time that God would graciously heal each of them, but in a matter of weeks all were gone.

Second, it opened some old personal wounds for me. Many years ago I watched my wife die very young of cancer leaving me alone to raise our baby daughter, so I knew full well what each husband, wife, and parent was feeling.

What Would It Take?

When I debate atheists and skeptics on the topic of Christianity, I always ask them the question: what would it take for you to believe in Christ? Because of that, they will sometimes (quite fairly, I might add) ask me this in return: what would it take for you to disbelieve?

The short answer is the same one Paul gives in 1 Corinthians 15. If Jesus wasn’t raised from the dead, our faith is worthless (1 Cor. 15:14). Ergo, if the Nazarene carpenter’s body is ever unearthed, I would be forced to discard my Christian faith and pursue something else.

But I would be lying to you if I didn’t admit that months like January distress me and cause me difficulty. They don’t cause me to doubt God’s existence, but rather the struggle is an existential one of reconciling God’s goodness with the seemingly random, meaningless tragedies that visit people. Watching wonderful people die young while Hugh Hefner dances with playboy bunnies into his eighties is rather puzzling and brings to mind David’s lament: “I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles; their bodies are healthy and strong. They are free from the burdens common to man; they are not plagued by human ills. . . .This is what the wicked are like— always carefree” (Psalm 73:3-5, 12).

Of course, this is the age-old wrestling match of theodicy and something endlessly debated by theologians as well as both Christian and secular philosophers such as Plantinga, Hume, Mill, and many others. On this topic, I’ve both written and delivered theological papers[1] and presentations[2] for the intellectual problem of evil/God and know how to present convincing arguments very well in defense of Christianity’s position on the subject.

So, to me, the intellectual problem of evil isn’t that difficult to overcome. In fact, Peter Van Inwagen says, "It used to be widely held that evil was incompatible with the existence of God: that no possible world contained both God and evil. So far as I am able tell, this thesis is no longer defended."[3]

But let’s be honest: the emotional problem of evil is a tough one to endure, especially when it personally touches you on the shoulder. Emotionally we struggle to connect the dots with a Creator who claims to be a loving Father of mercy (2 Cor. 1:3) and apparent heartless episodes of suffering and grief that befall those He claims to care about (1 Pet. 5:7).

In such situations, we look Heavenward and either loudly or under or breath (depending on how brazen we feel at the moment) utter a complaint similar to Habakkuk’s: “How long, O LORD, will I call for help, and You will not hear? I cry out to You, ‘Violence!’ yet You do not save” (Hab. 1:2).

When I feel overcome by watching evil takes its toll on good people and find myself nodding in agreement with Habakkuk, I solidify the ground under my shifting feet by remembering what had to be the worst Friday night ever.

The Night of Weeping

When you have a terrible tragedy occur in your life, the first night is oftentimes the worst. You sit somewhat dazed and are enveloped in a grip of raw sensitivity and loneliness no matter how many people are around you.

We aren’t told much about what happened on the Friday night after Jesus’ crucifixion. The Bible provides a few details about His burial in Joseph of Arimathea’s tomb, the women who saw watched over the event, but nothing more.

What happened later that night? What do you think was going through the disciple’s heads?

By all accounts, another good person had fallen victim to the evil in the world. The corrupt religious leadership and Roman authorities had won, and Jesus had lost, and lost big time. A man who had done nothing but good to those around Him was experiencing the glass-half-empty attitude of ‘no good deed goes unpunished’.


“Where was God?”

I’d say it’s a safe bet that the same things we say today when tragedy strikes were said back then, but the pain, grief, and confusion was likely magnified many times over. They’d seen Jesus do incredible things, teach like no one ever had, and deliver unrivaled love and kindness.

And that’s how God treats Him?

That’s just not how our mind operates and not what we anticipate from God. We want and expect something much different.

The whole thing reminds of a brief exchange in a movie starring a man that has shockingly been overlooked many times for an Academy award – Arnold Schwarzenegger.

In “End of Days”, Arnold plays a cop whose wife and child were murdered by the mob. He finds himself trying to protect a woman being pursued by the devil who wants to sire the Antichrist with her. In a one-on-one exchange with Arnold, the devil shows him a vision and tells him he can give him his family back. When Arnold brings up God, the devil says:

“You're on His side? He's the one who took away your family. Let me tell you something about Him. He is the biggest underachiever of all time. He just had a good publicist, that's all. Something good happens: ‘It's His will‘. Something bad happens: ‘He moves in mysterious ways’. You take that...that overblown press kit they call the Bible. You look for the answer in there, what do they tell you? ‘$^&#@ happens.’ Please. He treated you like garbage.”

“Like garbage” describes how the Romans treated non-Romans condemned to death, and with the beatings, scourging, mocking, injustice, and crucifixion, few would argue that such a phrase seems to describe how Jesus was treated at the time.

That being the case, there’s little doubt about it – that night had to be the worst Friday night ever for those He left behind. They didn’t know what we know today, didn’t understand Jesus’ many statements to them about His resurrection, and didn’t have the end of the story.

The Morning of Joy

A few days later, a couple of Jesus’ followers were still stinging from what happened, on their way to Emmaus and “were talking with each other about all these things which had taken place” (Luke 24:14). “These things” included a report about Jesus’ body being missing and angels that said He’d risen from the dead.

The part about Jesus being humiliated and murdered – they believed that. But the report of coming back from the dead?  Nope. That’s why Luke tells us that when a Stranger approached them and asked what they were talking about, they stood there looking skythrōpos, which in the Greek literally means ‘dark and gloomy’.

Their Friday night was still going on.

But then the Stranger became their Tutor in the Scriptures, explained to them God’s Plan for all the tragedy they’d seen, and showed them all the good that had been redeemed from the darkness. The fact was, evil hadn’t won at all and now they understood why God allowed things to happen the way they did.

Before, the disciples didn’t know God’s plan and I’m sure they were every bit as bruised and in anguish over how God seemed to be absent that Friday evening. Sometimes God shows us His plan in three days and other times we have to wait much longer to know why He’s allowed things to occur.

Make no mistake, losing those three wonderful people in January to sickness and disease still hurts and leaves me a little bewildered. In a very real way, it’s still Friday night because we have no answers and don’t see any goodness at all in what happened.


It sounds very cliché to say, but in the end, it does come down to trust and faith in a God whose ways are not our ways. As Habakkuk says later in his book, “the righteous shall live by faith” (Hab. 2:4).

When horrible things happen and we just can’t put the puzzle pieces together, I think about what Thomas Aquinas said where learning about and trusting God are concerned even when things don’t make sense at the time:

“He who would become educated should begin by trusting his teacher.  He will never master his science unless he presumes in the beginning that the doctrine being presented is true even if, for the moment, he cannot tell why.”

[3] Peter Van Inwagen, "The Problem of Evil, the Problem of Air, and the Problem of Silence,Philosophical Perspectives, vol. 5: Philosophy of Religion,ed. James E. Tomberlin (Atascadero, CA: Ridgeview Publishing, 1991),pg. 135.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Your New Years Spiritual Exam

For decades, he’s sported the quintessential Christian man persona.
Leading his family in home Bible studies, evangelizing unbelievers, ensuring books by authors like Tozer are constantly on his nightstand and faithful church service have characterized his life.

But just recently, it’s come to light that during all this time he’s participated in gross, hidden and consistent sinful behavior and life-destroying addictions. He now wants nothing to do with Christianity.

During this same period, she taught teen Bible studies at church, constantly listened to Christian music, and encouraged other women to follow Christ. Yet, she also has led a double life hidden from her husband and family and is now living with another man. Amazingly, she told us recently that she thinks she is doing a good thing for the man she is now living with and believes she is positively influencing him in a spiritual way.  

These two friends of my family give me much pause and force me to think long and hard about true saving faith. Yes, the Apostle Paul makes no bones about the fact that in this life we will always struggle with sin (Rom. 7:14-25), but yet Scripture also makes it clear that there are those who enter the Christian faith and depart (Matt. 13:1-23) and others who believe they are true believers but are not (Matt. 7:15-23).

The Bible tells all of us to conduct a spiritual exam of ourselves to ensure we’re truly born again. Paul says, "Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith; examine yourselves! Or do you not recognize this about yourselves, that Jesus Christ is in you—unless indeed you fail the test?" (2 Cor. 13:5). Like Paul, Peter says: “Therefore, brethren, be all the more diligent to make certain about His calling and choosing you” (2 Pet. 1:10).

How does one “make certain” they are really saved and what kind of “test” is Paul talking about? Put another way, how do you clearly differentiate between a Christian who struggles with sin and someone who is no true Christian at all, especially when the person in question is you?

The Most Important Question in Christianity?

During the Great Awakening, Jonathan Edwards was challenged as to the authenticity of the faith being proclaimed among the New England converts. In response to his critics, Edwards wrote his Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, which may be the most thorough work ever done on the subject of what constitutes true saving faith.

Edwards begins his book with what well may be the most important question ever asked: “There is no question whatsoever, that is of greater importance to mankind, and what is more concerns every individual person to be well resolved in, than this: What are the distinguishing qualifications of those that are in favor with God, and entitled to his eternal rewards?[1]

In typical Edwards’ style, the brilliant theologian leaves no stone unturned in addressing the question. His answer, in summary, is this: the principle evidence of life is motion (we live, move, breathe, etc.), and transferring that law to the spiritual realm, Edwards says that, “Holy practice [or motion] is the proper evidence of saving faith.”[2]

Such a simple statement, yet one that causes much turmoil when put forward in the Church today.

“You’re Teaching Works Salvation!”

The first time I taught through a series on how to perform a spiritual self exam to ensure one is really saved, a guy in the class strongly objected to my claim that the primary way to separate the wheat from the tares is to utilize Edward’s uncomplicated principle. “You’re teaching works salvation!” he charged.

When I asked him how a person could know that they were a true Christian, he cited Romans 10:9-10 and said all someone needs to do is confess Jesus as Lord and that was it. “So you’re saying that you can live any way you choose – commit continuous sin such as adultery – and that no change in life is required?” At that question, he sputtered like a car trying to start, primarily I think because his wife was sitting right beside him and may not have liked the way he really wanted to answer.

However, the idea that holy motion toward the things of God indicates saving faith is not works salvation at all. Rather it highlights an important distinction: there is a difference in the efficient cause of salvation and the evidences of that salvation.

Neither Edwards nor I believe works saves anyone; Scripture makes it clear that such is not the case (e.g. Eph. 2:8-9). We are saved solely by the sacrifice of Christ and His atoning death for us.

But the Bible is equally plain that easy believeism – one that omits repentance and holy fruit that emerges from a tree that has had life restored to it – is out of step with Heaven’s economy.

With All Due Respect to Luther

Martin Luther may have viewed the book of James with skepticism, but I don’t think there’s any clearer discourse on the subject of false vs. saving faith in the New Testament. In the second chapter of James, the apostle asks a question that sums up his position on the matter: “What use is it, my brethren, if someone says he has faith but he has no works? Can that faith save him?” (James 2:14).

It’s fairly obvious what answer the apostle expects.

In vv. 14-16, James (like Edwards) makes his case for “holy practice” being the chief evidence of saving faith and concludes his remarks in the same way I’ve summarized Edward’s position: “For just as the body without the spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead” (James 2:26).

This truth is everywhere is Scripture. Whether it’s John the Baptist and Jesus teaching on the differences in the fruit of good vs. bad trees (Matt. 3:10, 7:16, 12:33; Luke 6:44, 13:7; John 15:2, 6), Christ’s parables of the ten virgins (Matt. 25:1-13), the sower (Matt. 13:3-9, 18-23), and the wheat/tares (Matt. 13:24-30, 36-43), Paul’s talk of those who deny God by their deeds (Titus 1:16), or the writer of Hebrews’ illustration of ground that brings forth a good crop vs. thorns (Heb. 6:7-8), the Bible’s statement of a new creation in God producing good works that signifies real salvation is hard to miss.

Bookending the Salvation Experience

In his penetrating book The Atonement, the English Congregationalist leader R. W. Dale rightly bookends the saving faith experience when he says, “Evangelical preachers have never hesitated to maintain the absolute necessity of repentance as an antecedent of faith; they should not hesitate to maintain the absolute necessity of good works as a consequent of faith.”[3]

While there is no way to improve on Dale’s statement, we are left with the question: what type of good works are we talking about? After all, the people discussed at the outset of this article exhibited many different Christian ‘works’. The Pharisees appeared to be the role models of Judaism and yet Jesus asked them, “How will you escape the sentence of Hell?” (Matt. 23:33).

Let us understand that simple belief in God is not enough because, as James says, “the demons also believe and shudder” (James 2:19).

We get glimpses of the answer in Jesus’ stinging rebuke against the Pharisees where He tells them how they “are like whitewashed tombs which on the outside appear beautiful, but inside they are full of dead men’s bones and all uncleanness” and that they have “neglected the weightier provisions of the law: justice and mercy and faithfulness” (Matthew 23:27, 23).

The fact is, one day the tare grows up and showcases what it really is. While some may appear Christian on the outside, sooner or later, they become living and breathing examples of what Peter bluntly describes: “The dog returns to its own vomit, and the sow, after washing herself, returns to wallow in the mire.” (2 Pet. 2:22). Their “affections” (as Edwards terms it) have not been changed nor are permanent with respect to God.

It’s my hope and prayer that after you self-administer the test of Scripture where saving faith is concerned, you don’t find yourself in the situation Peter describes, but rather pass the test with flying colors. If, by some chance, you don’t, then please seek God in prayer, repent of your past, call on the name of Christ, be born again, and walk in the power of the Spirit from this day forward.

[1] Jonathan Edwards, A Treatise Concerning Religious Affections, Kindle Edition, pg. 1, my emphasis.
[2] Edwards, pg. 298.
[3] R. W. Dale, The Atonement, Kindle Edition, Loc. 1770. 

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Do's and Don'ts for Atheists at Christmas

It goes without saying that Christmas is one of the top two celebrations for Christians each year. However, it’s also common knowledge that Christmas has unfortunately become a time for nasty exchanges between those who don’t believe in God and those who do.

For Christians, there’s little doubt we could be doing better in engaging people during the holidays and putting forward a more collective loving spirit. There’s really no need to have a conniption when stores choose to say “Happy Holidays” vs. “Merry Christmas”. Further, wrapping our arms around and helping those who have fallen on hard times at Christmas, regardless of whether they’re Christians or not, says a lot more than a stack of apologetics books ever could.    

But what about those who reject the idea that God exists? For my unbelieving friends, I’d like to offer some respectful do’s and don’ts for the Christmas season that will hopefully provide more peace between the two sides of belief and unbelief.

Let’s get the negative’s out of the way first.

Don’t Ride the Hatetheist Train

Most atheists I know and have spoken to have absolutely no desire to thrust themselves into the midst of other people’s celebration of Christmas. For them, the in-your-face ugliness exhibited by groups such as David Silverman’s American Atheists during the Christmas and Easter seasons is (rightly) seen as embarrassing.

To those who think differently, let me just say that erecting snarky and demeaning billboards, threatening lawsuits at schools that wish to sing ‘Silent Night’, and working overtime to shut down drives that provide Christmas gift boxes to poverty-stricken children aren’t going to win converts to naturalism. Moreover, no one believes that the motivation behind such things is your love for the First Amendment.

So, while atheism deserves a voice in the public square, hatetheism is something we can all do without. Don’t get on that train.

Don’t Say Jesus is a Myth

While the controversial figure Bruno Bauer put forward a series of widely-disputed works nearly 200 years ago arguing that Jesus was a fabrication, today the myth that Jesus is only a myth has received the equivalent of the death penalty in historical and scholarly circles. Although various internet atheist haunts and projects like the Zeitgeist movie try in vain to resurrect the claim, as Princeton professor Bruce Metzger wrote decades ago, “Today no competent scholar denies the historicity of Jesus.”[1]

A recent example of this surfaced during the series of three debates held in Australia between atheist Lawrence Krauss and Christian apologist William Lane Craig. Krauss began arguing in the first debate (Brisbane) that Jesus never lived and was only a manufactured copy of pagan god myths such as Osiris, while Craig presented the historically validated information concerning Jesus’ life. By the time the third debate in Melbourne rolled around, Krauss conceded that Jesus was a historical figure.[2]

Even where Jesus’ miracles are concerned, it should be understood that while the source/cause of the events can be questioned, the fact that something out of the ordinary took place is not historically in doubt. For example, historian James Dunn says, “What is interesting in this testimony [extra-biblical writings that reference Jesus’ miracles], hardly partisan on behalf of Christian claims, is that the accounts of Jesus’ healing and exorcistic success are nowhere disputed, only the reasons for that success.”[3] 

So if you’re an atheist, please don’t say that Jesus never existed unless you want to present yourself as uninformed on the matter.[4]

Don’t Lecture Christians on the Origin of Christmas

To try and dissolve the spirit behind today’s Christmas celebrations, some atheists attempt to lecture Christians on the origins of the holiday. They talk about the fact that, before Christmas sprung into being as we know it, the early Roman culture already celebrated various holidays on and around December 25 (Saturnalia and Juvenalia), a period sometimes referred to as the winter solstice. They go on to explain that Christianity originally celebrated only the resurrection of Christ, but when Rome instituted Christianity as the state religion in the fourth century, the Roman church converted the pagan celebrations into a Christian holiday in order to commemorate Jesus’ birth.

Which means Christmas as a holiday has only been around for a little over 1,700 years…

If you’re an atheist, please don’t commit the genetic logical fallacy, which is where a current end result is suggested as being based solely on something’s origin rather than its current meaning or context, with the motivation typically being to transfer the negative esteem from the earlier context. Instead, just understand that Christmas, as celebrated today by Christians, is what it is.

Or, put another way, when Charlie Brown screams out in the famous Peanuts cartoon, “Isn’t there anyone who can tell me what Christmas is all about?” the answer that Linus supplies is spot on.

Now on to some suggested “Do’s” for atheists at Christmas.

Do Use Christmas as a Vehicle to Do Good to Others

You don’t have to believe in Christ to use the Christmas season as a reminder that there are people hurting in the world that need help. If you’re an atheist reading this, you might say, “What? I thought you Christians say I have to believe in God in order to have any kind ethics or morals and do good to others.”

If you’ve been told this by any Christian in the past, let me apologize to you. The moral argument for God should never be understood to mean that non-Christians can’t exhibit good moral behavior. Rather, it means that, without God, there is no way to ground objective moral values and duties. Everything becomes emotive, cultural, and subjective without God.

So by all means, use the Christmas season as a time to find others who need help in some way and jump in and make a difference in their lives. But in the process, honestly ask yourself why you’re doing it (i.e. what’s wrong with not helping people?) and see where that exercise takes you.

Do Engage Christians on Why You’re an Atheist

While throwing up insulting billboards about Christianity isn’t a great way to exhibit the ‘tolerance’ we hear so much about in our politically-correct culture, having respectful dialogs with Christians on why you’re an atheist and asking them why they truly believe in Jesus is a great activity in which to engage.  

When I’ve had someone intelligently and calmly exchange their atheistic views with me in our marketplace of ideas, I always walk away the better for it because I’ve learned how and why someone holds the beliefs that they do. Wouldn’t you say that having a better understanding of people is a good thing?

Do Examine Your Atheistic Worldview

Participating in the prior point will likely result in this final “do”, which is to use Christmas as a time to honestly examine your atheistic worldview. All of us – and I mean all of us – need to periodically reflect on why we believe what we do and ensure that our belief rests on a bedrock of truth vs. unsupported statements and propositions.  

In my library, I have books and binders full of the writings of top atheists. Why? I use them to (1) better understand why atheists reject God and, (2) challenge the bad arguments for believing in God that I sometimes assimilate and hold.

If you’re an atheist, let me ask you, do you do the same? When was the last time you read a work by a Christian apologist such as William Lane Craig, Ravi Zacharias, or Norman Geisler that worked through the philosophical and evidential arguments for Christianity? Have you ever contemplated things like, because our world exists, something must have always existed, and when you point to the universe as that eternal ‘something’ you exhibit a lot of ‘faith’ in the process?  

Also ask yourself: is the reason you’re an atheist really based on supposed evidence, reason, and such, or is it more emotive in nature and grounded upon personal things that have happened to you in the past? For example, a recent CNN article about Ted Turner described how he once dreamed of being a missionary, but watching his young sister Mary Jean suffer and die from a disease dramatically altered his early belief in God.

So there you have it – my do’s and don’ts for atheists this Christmas. If you’re an atheist, kindly consider these suggestions and see what following the recommendations brings you. Hopefully, they will provide a richer experience during this time than you’ve had in the past.

Finally, I must add that I also hope and pray that you more carefully consider the One whose birthday we Christians celebrate and think about why He came in the first place, which was to bring us all (including you!) a life that is abundant in forgiveness, grace, freedom, and love.

[1] Bruce Metzger, The New Testament: Its Background, Growth, and Content (New York: Abingdon, 1965), pg. 78.
[3] James Dunn, Jesus Remembered (Eerdmans, 2003): 671.
[4] For a visual presentation that covers an overview of the historical Jesus, see:

Sunday, December 08, 2013

A 30 Second Argument for God

You’d likely agree with me that the co-discoverer of Calculus was a smart guy.

Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz (1646-1716) was a German mathematician, logician, and philosopher. Leibniz is well known for his mathematical discoveries, but he’s also recognized as the person who popularized what many say is the single most important question ever asked: Why do we have something rather than nothing at all?

In his short work, Principles of Nature and Grace Based on Reason, Leibniz presents and answers the question in the following way:

“Now I must move up to the metaphysical level, by making use of a great though not very widely used principle, which says that nothing comes about without a sufficient reason; i.e. that for any true proposition P, it is possible for someone who understands things well enough to give a sufficient reason why it the case that P rather than not-P. Given that principle, the first question we can fairly ask is: Why is there something rather than nothing? After all, nothing is simpler and easier than something. Also, given that things have to exist, we must be able to give a reason why they have to exist as they are and not otherwise. Now, this sufficient reason for the existence can’t be found in the series of contingent things…it must be something that exists necessarily, carrying the reason for its existence within itself; only that can give us a sufficient reason at which we can stop. And that ultimate reason for things is what we call ‘God’.”[1]

Leibniz believed that God was the best explanation for why everything exists. From his writings, many philosophers and theologians have created their own way of stating his conclusion. For example, William Lane Craig presents his case in the following way: 

  1. Everything that exists has an explanation of its existence, either in the necessity of its own nature or in an external cause.If the universe has an explanation of its existence, that explanation is God.
  2. The universe exists.
  3. The universe has an explanation of its own existence [and that explanation is not found in the necessity of its own nature].
  4. Therefore, the explanation of the universe’s existence is God.[2]

My way of stating the position is a little more personal / informal, and is something I call my ’30 second argument for God’: 

  1.  I exist.
  2. If I exist, something must have always existed because you don’t get something from nothing.
  3. There are only two choices for an eternal ‘something’: (a) The universe; (b) God.
  4. The universe is not eternal.
  5. Therefore, God exists.

Let me quickly walk you through the individual points and demonstrate why I think this argument is reasonable and sound.

Yes, You Exist

A student in a philosophy class once asked his professor, “How can I know that I really exist?” The professor looked down the glasses that were on his nose at the student and responded, “And who may I say is asking?”

It’s simply self-defeating to contend you don’t exist because you have to exist to ask the question. As the mathematician Descartes (also a believer in God) famously said, “I think, therefore I am.”

Nothing is Really Nothing

No matter how hard atheistic scientists such as Lawrence Krauss try to argue in books like A Universe From Nothing that you can get something from nothing, you really can’t. Krauss redefines ‘nothing’ to be physical systems such as the quantum vacuum, so his widely panned book both fails to answer Leibniz’s question and embarrasses the physicist in the process.

‘Nothing’, as Aristotle said, “is what rocks dream about”. As an example, if you ask me what I had for breakfast today and I say ‘nothing’, you likely won’t ask me how my ‘nothing’ tasted.

The reason everything is here – including you and me – is because something has always been here. In the end, the believer in God and the atheist are really just arguing over what that ‘something’ is.

Only Two Choices

Some atheists have surprised me by saying we have more than two options available where an eternal ‘something’ is concerned. However, the vast majority of thinking atheists acknowledge that if the universe isn’t eternal, then God is the only other possibility.

Make no mistake about it – God is not ‘snuck in’ as one of the choices via some theological bias, but rather a creator is something absolutely essential if the universe has an explanation for its existence (i.e. it is not eternal). The universe comprises all of space-time reality and if it has a cause, it, as Craig says, “proves the existence of a necessary, uncaused, timeless, spaceless, immaterial, personal Creator of the universe. This is not some ill-conceived entity like the Flying Spaghetti Monster but an ultramundane being with many of the traditional properties of God.”[3] 

It truly is a question of either matter before mind or mind before matter.

Ruling the Universe Out

If, as skeptics say, they go where the evidence leads, then they should be led to the conclusion that the universe is not eternal.

Empirical evidence such as the second law of thermodynamics, the fact that the universe is expanding, the echo from the big bang discovered in 1965, the temperature ripples found by the COBE project in 1992, Einstein’s theory of relativity, and more all point to a non-eternal universe.

Attempts at positing a supposed multi-verse (an ensemble of universes) have failed to deliver any real evidence that such a thing exists. Moreover, research done by eminent scientists point in the opposite direction. Dr. Alexander Vilenkin concluded his “State of the Universe” paper, which was presented at the 70th birthday celebration of Stephen Hawking that took place in January 2012, by saying “all the evidence we have says that the universe had a beginning.”[4] 

Further, Vilenkin’s proof developed with Arvind Borde and Alan Guth, shows that any universe which has, on average, been expanding throughout its history cannot be infinite in the past but must have a past space-time boundary. This includes any supposed multi-verse. Since our universe and any multi-verse have a beginning, they have a cause and are not eternal. 

The Fish You Can’t Drown

As Leibniz concluded, God is the best explanation for why everything exists. All the effort that Krauss and other atheists put into trying to deny God is, in the end, an exercise in what philosophy calls “drowning the fish”. You can pile all the ocean’s waters on the animal (in this case, God) in an attempt to drown it, but in the end, the fish is still there affirming its presence.

Note that this argument for God doesn’t go so far as to try and prove the God of the Bible, but rather seeks to establish the reasonableness of an eternal mind that exists beyond this physical universe. However, the fact that logically ascertaining the attributes of this creator from its effects produces a list that matches up quite well with the God described in Scripture certainly lends support for the idea of the Christian God.

Nearly 300 years after Leibniz reached his conclusion that God is the best explanation for why everything exists, today’s scientific discoveries and rational thinking are proving him right. But then, good science, good philosophy, and good religion should always eventually arrive at the same conclusions.

[1] G. W. Leibniz, Principles of Nature and Grace Based on Reason, 1714.
[2] William Lane Craig, On Guard (Colorado Springs: David Cook, 2010), pp. 53-65.
[3] Craig, pg. 60.