Category Archives: apologetics
In his latest book, N. T. Wright speaks of “broken signposts.” In his view, there are seven main sign posts:
All seven point to God. They are real signposts that really do point us toward God – we do not live in the world of John-Paul Sartre where all is absurd, nor in a Nietzschean world where might makes right. The innate longing for justice that is heard in every child’s cry for fairness, the beauty of the unpolluted natural world, the natural pursuit of meaningful human relationships, the universal longing for spiritual meaning, our unanimous yearning for freedom, and search for truth, and the necessity of owning one’s personal power in order to flourish are all indications that there is a Higher Power behind it all. We would not yearn for love or beauty, or truth or meaning, if there were no beauty, truth, meaning, or love somewhere in the universe. If those things were nonexistent, we would have no hunger for them. The presence of thirst is itself proof that water exists, whether or not it is at hand.
An ultimate Being who fully just, essentially beautiful, who lives in loving relationship, who gives spiritual meaning and purpose, in whom we find freedom, and discover truth and the real meaning of power, is in fact the Triune God of the Bible. Throughout scripture, God is revealed as a God of justice, beauty, relationship, spirituality, freedom, truth and power. Discovering those things, points us towards God.
And yet, all seven are, as Tom Wright points out, broken. Each can go wrong. Justice can, and too often is, perverted, denied to this or that group. The beauty of nature may be destroyed by greed, and the beauty of art or music can deviate into debauchery. Relationships, as we all sadly know, can become toxic or violent. Spirituality is morphed into self-worship; sacrifices are offered to consumerism, nationalism, or militarism. The freedom of one is built on the enslavement of another, and freedom degenerates into doing whatever I want to do even if it harms you. Truth, whether it be scientific, medical, or political has in many circles already been replaced with lies and propaganda. And, as Lord Acton famously remarked, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Abuses of power are routine.
The signposts designed to point us to God can instead, if misapplied, lead us in the opposite direction. The rebellious nature has the ability to reduce beauty to ashes.
So-called “natural evil” presents a dilemma for theodicy. It is not difficult to see that we humans cause much of the evil in the world with our wars, racism, exploitive greed, and selfish choices. But what about tsunamis, floods, and earthquakes?
There once was a magnificent factory designed to produce all that the village needed safely and efficiently, without polluting anything or overworking anyone. The architect was brilliant. She employed the finest minds in engineering who employed the latest concepts in sustainable design. Empathetic industrial psychologists carefully considered working conditions, and the finest contractors in the land built the factory. It was a work of art.
The villagers were thrilled. Every adult had meaningful, enjoyable employment. The town prospered. The finest of schools were built. Every child had the latest computer technology. The teachers were the highest paid in the land. Music halls, theaters, art galleries, and sports facilities were built – all the envy of the land. There was no homelessness. People of all ethnicities lived together in safe affordable housing. The best of medical care was provided to all, free of charge – the factory paid all the bills. Firefighters and paramedics, like doctors and nurses, were paid wages triple that of anywhere else. There was simply no need of a police force. There was no jail, no prison, no criminal court. No one owned a gun. Anyone who showed the initial signs of emerging mental illness or addiction was swiftly provided with state-of-the-art treatment. Houses of worship were filled each week.
The towns people voted to give the newly open job of factory general manager to a golden boy. He had all the credentials. He was handsome, rich, and had an enviable resumé. He always had a stunningly beautiful woman on his arm. And, he knew how to tell everyone exactly what they wanted to hear.
At first things seemed fine, but after some time had gone by, little deteriorations were noted. The factory’s products became increasingly shoddy, working conditions grew dangerous, accidents occurred. Someone noticed sludge being pumped into the river. Clouds of foul-smelling dust covered the town. People started to get sick. The company stopped paying for medical care. Orders dropped off. Workers were laid off. Unemployment and poverty grew. Hungry and desperate people started to rob and steal. A police force was established and a jail built. Criminal courts emerged. Attorneys moved to town. Politicians made deals behind closed doors. They grew richer as the town grew poorer. The manager played people off one another. Prejudice, racism, scapegoating, gaslighting grew. Reporters warned of corruption. They were renounced as “enemies of the people,” threatened, run out of town, and replaced with propaganda masters. Truth came to be defined as whatever the factory manager said it was. Many of the artists and musicians moved elsewhere. Teachers, physicians, and nurses took jobs in other towns and were replaced by gamblers, grifters, and mobsters. Addiction, suicide, crime, and murder rose as education levels and church attendance fell.
Of course, there was still beauty to be found in the stars above, the hills outside of town, in the eyes of babies and lovers. There was still some music, some art, and some (mostly elderly) devout souls. The oppressed hungered or justice; the young yearned for authentic relationships, and the wretched longed to breathe free.
What had gone wrong? There was nothing wrong with the original design. It was all the fault of the manager and those he hired.
So it is with our world, designed by a loving God and created in perfection. But humans gave their power to a manager, an angel of light, the god of this world, the prince of darkness, and under his malevolent oversight, things are amiss. Hurricanes, tornados, pandemics, parasites, and toxins exist because satan in managing the factory we call earth. Most of the other bad stuff we humans cause ourselves, albeit with satanic influence.
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There is much talk these days of toxic masculinity, toxic relationships, and toxic workplaces, all of which exist, and all of which create problems and pain. As is the case with any organization, churches can be toxic workplaces where people are manipulated, abused, or disrespected.
Behind and under much of the toxicity are toxic ideas, beliefs, or dogma. White supremacy is a toxic philosophy. Jingoism is a toxic ideology that leads to xenophobia.
I was not raised with a church background.
When I was 17, or thereabouts, I cried out in desperation into the unknown, only hoping that there was an Intelligence in the universe that would hear me. God flooded me with light and love. Jesus became my Lord and King.
For a couple of years, it was kind of just Jesus and me. I happily read books (including the Bible), took every religiously oriented class I could find in college, joyfully engaged in mentoring inner-city kids, and went through my days in running conversation with God.
I got married at a very young age and by the time I was 20, had a son. That’s when I started going to church, and from there, I was introduced to home Bible studies, prayer meetings, and a gamut of large charismatic meetings. (Those were the days of the Jesus Movement.) Much of that was glorious – enthusiasm, heart-pumping songs of joy and praise, prayers for healing, inspiring messages, a huge ecumenical community of faith. I loved it.
But danger crouched at the door. Imperceptibly, toxic theology crept in. It was toxic because it produced poison Kool-Aid. I drank heartedly.
My Kool-Aid was a mixed drink, consisting of:
- Wooden literalism.I was taught a flat Bible, by which I mean every verse was seen as dictated directly by God, without mistakes or errors of any kind, and carrying equal weight with every other verse. One could then overlook the Sermon on the Mount by quoting something out of 1 Kings. (It turns out, there is nothing at all wrong with the Bible – only with the way we were interpreting it.)
- Young Earth Creationism. Wooden literalism led us to throw science out the window and promote nonsense. We became like those who insisted, based on scripture, that the earth was flat. Educated people laughed.
- Patriarchy.The Bible was interpreted to keep men, especially white men, squarely in control, bosses of their families, churches, businesses, and countries.
- Racism. Not the blatant overt racism of the KKK, but a subtler ignoring of voices of color.
- Nationalism. One of my primary Bible teachers made of point of telling us that Native Americans were savage pagans. Their genocide and stolen land was God’s judgment. They were like the Amalekites of old. America was the new Israel. God took the land from the pagans and gave it to “his people” – white, “Christian,” Europeans.
- Christendom.Church and state wed; the church serves as chaplain to empires that do what empires always do – brutalize and dominate. The cross and basin were replaced by the flag and a gun.
- Militarism. Somewhere along the line, everything Jesus taught about turning the other cheek and loving your enemies was tossed out the proverbial window and replaced with the glories of war and the virtues of killing. Christian military generals were given standing ovations as worship bands played war anthems.
- Zionism. Based on faulty eschatology, I came to support ultra-right-wing militaristic Israeli governments that most Israelis did not support, and reject and condemn Palestinians, many of whom are Christian.
- Pretribulation rapture. We true believers would soon be snatched away. The earth was destined to burn. Unbelievers were destined to torture and death and hell. No need to save the planet. Environmentalism was a waste of time and energy. The only thing that mattered was “getting people saved.” We were escapist.
- Eschatology. The apocalyptic portions of scripture (much of Daniel, some of Ezekiel, some of Isaiah, Zechariah, the Olivet Discourse, and Revelation) were interpreted to reinforce militarism, divine judgment, eternal torture, national exceptionalism, anti-environmentalism, and escapism. Apocalyptic portions of the Bible were used to feed conspiracy theories. The world was going to end in 1980, 1988, and 2000. Donald Trump incarnates Cyrus the Great.
- Infernalism. An overly literalistic interpretation of the Bible led me to believe that the God who is Perfect Love planned to eternally torture the majority of humankind in everlasting fire. I was mostly fine with that.
- Prosperity. Other portions of scripture were twisted to promote opulence, income disparity, and hedonism.
- Homophobia. The Bible was regularly used to bludgeon and condemn the LGBTQ community.
- A Truncated Pro-lifeview became associated only with anti-abortion. One could be “pro-life,” yet support capital punishment, war, anti-immigration policies, and police brutality.
- Theocracy. The task at hand for American Christians became political power that could then be used to impose a particular understanding of ethics and morality on the general public. “Christian” became identified with ultra-conservative Republican. Christians could wholeheartedly support the most immoral and dishonest president in the history of the United States.
Having drunk deeply of the Kool-Aid, I woke up one day and found myself a racist, homophobic, nationalist, flag-waving, violence-promoting, misogynist ordained pastor-teacher.
Then, I took along, hard look at Jesus. With God’s help, I came back to my first love, to the Prince of peace who embodies perfect, self-sacrificial, cruciform, loving service to the marginalized.
Though the Mountains Be Shaken
Collectively, we humans have thousands of fears – fear of loss, harm, abandonment, failure, darkness, monsters under the bed. Sometimes, I feel like I’ve had them all. Fears are the water in which we swim. Fear has ushered many a tyrant into power.
Although one cannot legitimately extrapolate from personal experience to universal applications, for me, the fear of death undergirds all other fears. To be more specific, it is a fear of nonexistence. Fears of abandonment, rejection, failure, and loss of control are the offspring of existential meaninglessness.
Lesser fears cluster in tight groups under the fear of nonexistence. Those clusters spin in circles. Worry leads to self-blame, which leads to shame, which leads to anxiety, which produces more worry. Round and round I go, spiraling downward into depression.
Existential angst, the terror of annihilation and nonexistence, has power by virtue of the fact that, if true, annihilation renders life meaningless. The thought is not original. Franz Kafka, Jean-Paul Sartre, and Friedrich Nietzsche all went there. Death as the end of all seems to be the default philosophy of the intelligentsia. Bravely facing the darkness and busying oneself with useful projects gives them purpose and meaning. That has never worked for me. I find no joy in either stoicism or hedonism. As far back as I can remember there has been an ache within me – a yearning to experientially know Truth.
Truth corresponds to an external reality. We’ve all heard the parable of the four blind persons approaching the elephant – each reaching their own opinion of reality – the elephant it likened to a rope, a huge snake, a tree trunk, and a leathery wall because one blind person handled the tail, another the trunk, a third a leg, and the last the animal’s side. Each has their own “reality” because none bothered to collaborate with the others or invite outsiders to expand their knowledge. Regardless, an elephant is an elephant.
Truth is not my opinion, nor my perspective. Truth is not superimposed dogma. Although I never have the complete picture, there is nevertheless an external reality that exists regardless of what I believe.
Whatever my personal beliefs about God, God exists. I need not try to prove that to anyone. The evidence is overwhelming when I consider the beauty of the intricate mathematical equations that describe the universe, when I consider the logical improbability of quarks flying from a hot big bang producing rational beings without a prime mover, or when I know in my gut that love is more than psychobiology.
Since God is, it is not surprising that God has made Godself knowable. Galileo argued (in his 1615 letter to the Grand Duchess Christina) that God has written two books – the Book of Nature and the Book of Scripture, which do not, because they cannot, contradict one another, having come from the same Mind, the Ground of Being. There are contradictions between interpretations of the Bible and the natural sciences, but none between the Bible and science.
It is not surprising that a Prime Mover capable of imaging a universe of quantum theory and soul-stirring symphonies is not fully discoverable. I would not want it otherwise. There is joyous energy is the discovery. Both books are amaranthine ceaseless mines of wonder. It is not only about the destination. There is joy and purpose in the journey.
The Apostle Paul was neither the despicable misogynist, the ivory-tower intellectual, nor the religious fanatic imagined by some. He was a man. He had all the same emotions and problems common to humanity. At one point in his life, he was so deeply depressed he despaired of life itself.
We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters,about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death. But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. (2 Corinthians 1:8-9, NIV)
By “Asia,” Paul is referring to modern Turkey. Two things seem to have collided in his life to produce despair – persecution and hardship in Asia Minor, and news that the community of faith he founded in Corinth had disintegrated into bickering and division. It would seem that Paul felt that his life was useless, that he might die having accomplished nothing. Purposelessness. Meaninglessness. Worthlessness. Existential angst.
What lifted Paul from the “slough of despond” (to borrow John Bunyan’s phrase) to a life – not a life of grim Nietzscheandefiance, not a life of narcissistic indulgence, nor of coercive political power – but to a life of interior freedom, true joy, and eternal purpose, was learning to rely on “the God who raises the dead.”
All of Christianity stands or falls on the resurrection of Christ. Either Jesus was raised from the dead or he was not. The evidence is again overwhelming:
- A cruel Roman crucifixion
- A certain death
- A sealed and guarded tomb
- Terrified disciples
- A huge entry stone lifted out to reveal an already empty tomb
- Grave clothes wound as if still around a body
- A turban neatly folded
- Bodily appearances to hundreds of people in many different places and under many different circumstances
- Thousands attesting to the reality of the resurrection
- None of them recanting in the face of torture and death
- A faith that exploded across the Neareast, Africa, Asia, and Europe
- Millions of radically changed lives over the next 2 millennia
God raises the dead. God conquers the essential fear. Death, where is your sting? Annihilation, nonexistence is an illusion. Life has purpose. Life continues forever. All of the lesser fears that cluster in bundles under the fear of nonexistence dissipate in light of the God who raises the dead.
In the new covenant, there is but one negative commandment and but one positive commandment:
- Do not be afraid
- Love one another
“To me this is like the days of Noah,
when I swore that the waters of Noah would never again cover the earth.
So now I have sworn not to be angry with you,
never to rebuke you again.
Though the mountains be shaken
and the hills be removed,
yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken
nor my covenant of peace be removed,”
says the Lord, who has compassion on you.
(Isaiah 54:9-10 NIV)