Finding Jesus: Introduction

Note: My new book, Finding Jesus, is now available on Amazon.  You can find it by clicking the link  here. I will also have copies available at First Baptist the next few Sundays.  Here’s the introduction to the book:

Lieutenant Dan Taylor: “Have you found Jesus yet, Gump?” 

Forrest Gump: “I didn’t know I was supposed to be looking for Him, sir.” 

 

Why should you read this book?  I believe that Jesus of Nazareth is different from other great men and women of history.  Studying the lives of figures like Winston Churchill, Martin Luther King, or Mother Theresa can be inspiring.  But when people strive to know Jesus, it changes their lives for the better.  The very act of seeking Him improves the seeker; I can’t think of anyone else, alive or dead, like that.  If you are already a follower of Jesus, I hope this book can help you know Him more fully.  What I think the Church needs today more than anything else is to dig beneath all the petty social issues and political struggles we find ourselves consumed with and simply get to know Jesus as He truly is: Who was He?  Why did He come?  Why did He do the things He did?  What does it mean to follow Him today?  I am hoping this book will enable you to see aspects of His character you’ve never considered before.  If you choose, this book can be read as a year-long daily devotional guide.  Within the twelve chapters are three hundred sixty-five readings, each containing a Scripture reference and a paragraph or two of commentary.  The readings are undated, so you can start any time of year.  You can also read this a chapter at a time, like any other book; it’s completely up to you.    As you read, pray for God to help you know Jesus better than you ever have before.  Keep a journal of any new insights you gain.  And consider passing the book along to a friend who needs to know Jesus, too…or even reading it along with them.

I wrote this book with non-Christians in mind, as well.  In the movie Forrest Gump, Lieutenant Dan, having lost both legs in combat, has no use for a God who seems either unaware of his problems, or impotent to help.  He especially resents the pat answers and manipulative language of religion, with its promises that He can “walk with Jesus in the Kingdom of Heaven.”  (Of course, Lieutenant Dan later makes peace with God…and he does walk again.)  Perhaps you’ve experienced the same frustration with religion.  Maybe your experience with Christians can be summed up by words like “Hateful,” “Self-righteous,” “Overly political,” “Homophobic,” “Anti-Science.”  The goal of this book isn’t to make you any of those things.  In fact, if you get to know Jesus, you’ll find that He wasn’t any of those things, either.  Could it be that the impressions you have of Jesus are based on false assumptions?  Wouldn’t you like to know what He was really like?

Or perhaps looking for Jesus has never really occurred to you.  You’re not particularly religious, and you can’t think of any good reason to change that.  Somehow this book has landed in your hands (Maybe one of your pushy religious friends gave it to you).  Do me a favor: Read the first chapter, and see why I believe Jesus is the most important and influential person in human history, whether you believe the Church’s claims about Him or not.  Then consider the fact that this man– a man so influential history is literally divided into everything that happened before Him, and everything that has happened since–this man didn’t claim to know truth, He said He WAS Truth.  He didn’t come to teach us new facts about God; He said He WAS God.  Either this was the most successful con artist ever…or the key to life as we know it.  Shouldn’t you make an informed decision about such a person, just in case?  Wouldn’t that be the most responsible thing to do?

One thing to note: I believe we can’t truly know Jesus without studying the Bible; In other words, I assume that the Jesus of Scripture is the Jesus of history.  There have been many books written about Jesus over the years, all claiming to reveal the “true” story.  But I believe the true story of Jesus was completed 2000 years ago.  This book is simply my attempt to guide you through that story.  Please don’t skip the Scriptures I reference; take time to read them carefully.

So come along on a journey with me.  No matter who you are, I pray you’ll find Him.  I’m confident you will.  After all, He said it Himself:  Everyone who seeks, finds (Matthew 7:8).

Tough Questions: Why Should We Believe the Bible?

Last week, we said the question, “Can We Trust the Bible?” is really two questions: The first is, “Is the Bible authentic?”  In other words, do we have the words of the original authors, or something cobbled together for political reasons?  That’s what we talked about last week.  The second question, which we will discuss today, is: “Is the Bible true?”  The late Chuck Colson once told the story of a British army officer sending a telegram to London from Dunkirk, where the Allied forces were trapped between the English Channel and the German army.  They needed to be evacuated, or they would be decimated, World War II would be over and Nazism would reign supreme over Europe.  The message the officer sent was only three words: “But if not.”  It’s a quote from the King James Version of Daniel 3:18.  The context is that Shadrach, Meshach and Abednego were ordered to bow before an idol, on threat of certain death.  They told the King of Babylon that their God was able to save them from his hand, But if not, be it known unto thee, O king, that we will not serve thy gods, nor worship the golden image which thou hast set up.  In other words, even if we have to die, we will not bow.  The officer took it for granted that British citizens in 1940 had heard those words often enough, they would get the message: “Even if you don’t rescue us, we will not surrender.”  Those inspiring words galvanized ordinary Brits to cross the English channel in sailboats, tugboats and fishing boats, braving the strafing of enemy fighters, to accomplish the most amazing evacuation in history and—in a very real sense—save Western civilization.

It goes without saying that most Western people would not recognize those words today, seventy years later.  But even more so, most of us don’t recognize their authority.  It’s common now when Christians discuss our beliefs with others, to hear them respond, “I can’t believe you still base your life on that book.”  It certainly changes the way we interact with unbelievers; people my age and older were taught to lead people through the Roman Road of salvation, or other methods of showing people what the Bible says about how to be saved and have eternal life.  Today, many of our neighbors would wonder why we’re quoting to them passages out of a book they don’t accept as true.  It shakes our faith as well; could they be right?  Are we basing our lives on a book whose teachings are out of date?  Let’s consider three questions: Should we take the Bible literally?  Isn’t the Bible outdated?  And how should we respond to people who reject the Bible’s authority?

Should we take the Bible literally?  One pastor says when people ask him, “Do you take the Bible literally?” He says no.  He can see them relax, as if they’re thinking, “Good, so you’re not one of THOSE nutjobs.”  He then says, “But I believe every word in it is true.”  What does he mean?  The Bible is not meant to be taken strictly literally.  First of all, there are figures of speech: When Jesus tells us we must eat His flesh and drink His blood in John 6, He is not advocating cannibalism or telling us to become vampires.  There is hyperbole: When Mark 1 says all the land of Judea was being baptized by John the Baptist in the Jordan, it doesn’t mean literally every Jew in Southern Israel was baptized.  It’s meant to show how popular John’s ministry had become.  And there are different ways of reading different genres in the Bible.  For instance, when Revelation 5 describes Christ as a lamb who looked like He had been slain, we’re not supposed to believe that Jesus morphed into a baby sheep with blood oozing from its neck.  Because Revelation is written in an apocalyptic style, we know that images are supposed to convey a larger meaning.  Whereas, when we read in Matthew 8 that Jesus stilled a storm, we know that Matthew wants us to believe that actually happened, since he is writing a historical account.

Here’s another example: Skeptics will sometimes point out that Deuteronomy teaches that a rebellious child should be stoned to death.  They’ll say, “You don’t obey that command.  So why do you pick and choose the stuff you want to believe now?”  For many, this is a convincing argument that the Bible can be disregarded.  But the answer is simple: Deuteronomy is part of the Law of Moses.  Both Jesus and Paul said clearly that we are no longer under that Law.  In a couple weeks, we’ll delve more closely into what the Law of Moses was and why we no longer follow it.  But for now, just know that the Bible has an internal logic.  You can’t just read every part of it the same.  2 Timothy 2:15 tells us we should be people who rightly handle the Word of truth.  In other words, we have to do the hard work of asking, “What did this mean to the people who first read it,” and “How does God want me to apply this truth to my life today?”

If you’re a Christian, please don’t let that last sentence discourage you into thinking, “I guess I’d better just leave Bible study to the professionals.”  Hogwash.  My Grandpa was a dairy farmer with a  high school education.  Aside from a brief stint in the Navy, he never lived anywhere but the little unincorporated community where his family had been for generations.  Yet he knew the Bible as well as anyone I’ve ever known, and it transformed him into a person I long to emulate.  If you can read, you can read the Bible.  Even if you’re illiterate, someone can read it to you.  Just make sure you read it in these four ways:

In confidence: There are so many concepts in Scripture that are difficult to understand.  But the most important ideas in it are simple enough that a child can grasp them.  Every time you read the Word, your understanding grows.  But you will never come to the point where you have wrapped your mind around it all.  Someone has said the Bible is like a pool which, at one end, is deep enough for elephants to swim, and at the other end, is shallow enough for children to wade.

In context: In Philippians 4:13, Paul writes, I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  If you saw that quote ripped out of context, you might think it’s a promise that God gives us power to do whatever we want.  Is that what Scripture teaches?  Should I be able to ace my math test without studying because Christ gives me strength?  No.  Read Philippians 4, and you find that Paul is talking about contentment, specifically his ability to be happy and joyful even though he is locked in prison.  Don’t settle for short quotes from devotional books.  Read the Word in its context.

In community: The Bible was meant to be read alongside other believers.  If the way you interpret the text is different from your entire Life Group, that should make you reconsider your interpretation.  If it’s different from scholars and theologians throughout the history of the church, you’d better really reconsider.  As we discuss the Bible with other believers, we will often disagree.  That’s actually a healthy thing.  It’s how we grow.  But only if we follow this last step…

In humility: Once I was listening to a famous preacher’s radio show.  His co-host was gushing over him, “Dr. Preacherman, one of the things I admire about you is that as I listen to tapes of your sermons from thirty years ago, you’re still saying the exact same things now that you said then.”  And he responded, “Well, Chuck, that’s what happens when you do your homework before you preach.”  My thought was, “So you haven’t learned anything new about the Bible in thirty years?”  Don’t get me wrong: The foundational truths of the faith, the things that the Bible is clear about, are non-negotiable.  Every believer, much less every preacher, should stay consistent on those.  But I believe we understand Scripture best when we listen to other believers’ perspectives, checking to see if perhaps they have understood a particular passage or teaching better than we have.  And we must always be willing to admit there are some parts of the Bible we just don’t understand fully yet.

Isn’t the Bible outdated?  Tim Keller pastored a church in Manhattan for years.  He would often meet people who had visited his church and were surprised at how seriously he took the Bible.  He said when he first planted the church, in the 1980s, they rejected the Bible because they thought it was unscientific or historically unreliable.  We’ve already considered those questions earlier in this series.  In more recent years, their objections changed.  Now, they didn’t like the teachings of Scripture.  “The Bible is culturally regressive.  It is pro-slavery, anti-woman, and homophobic.  If we don’t leave these old concepts behind, we’ll never advance as a society.”  To their way of thinking, the Bible has some good lessons, but we need to pick those out and reject the stuff that our modern understanding had exposed as outdated.  Keller responded to these statements with two arguments.

First, a lot of these ideas are based on a misunderstanding of Scripture.  For instance, the Bible is not pro-slavery.  Slavery in the New Testament world was very different than slavery in this country.  It wasn’t racially based, it wasn’t for life, and slaves could buy their way to freedom.  Slaves in the First Century lived pretty much like most free people.  So for Paul to tell slaves to submit to their masters was like a pastor today telling his church members, “If you work for someone else, be the best employee they have.  Make their job as your supervisor easier.”  The same thing is true of gender roles.  Ephesians 5 says that a man is the head of his wife as Christ is the head of the Church.  That doesn’t mean that the man is the King of his house, and his wife must do his bidding (although admittedly, some Christian men act like that’s what it means).  Paul says Christ died for His Church, and so men must lay down their lives for their wives.  In other words, biblical headship is not a privileged position, it’s a responsibility.  A Christian man will give an accounting to his God if his wife is not flourishing, if his kids aren’t well-cared for.  He will consistently put his wife ahead of himself.  In order to lead his family well, he will respect her skills and wisdom enough to defer to her on decisions where she knows best.  Marriage won’t be a competition, but a partnership that is founded on love; that starts when a husband chooses to identify with Jesus in His marriage.

Second, he says that just because you disagree with something God says, it doesn’t make it untrue.  He would point out that every generation has a kind of cultural arrogance.  We look back at people in the past and think, “How could they have thought that way?”  We pretend that the way we think is “progressive, enlightened,” and the way others thought is primitive.  We act as though we have perfect clarity, and no blind spots at all.  But our great grandchildren will look back on us and ask the same questions.  That’s a humbling thought, no?  He points out that if you took a person who lived a thousand years ago and taught them the Scriptures, they would be in full agreement with the idea of God’s Judgement of all sinners.  But the idea of forgiving one’s enemies would be hard for them to accept.  If you take an average modern person, they would respond to those two concepts exactly opposite: Love and forgiveness would sound enlightened, while judgement would be offensive.     Who is right?  Actually, we both are.  Whoever you are, whatever time period you live in, some part of the Bible will always punch you in the mouth.  As Keller says, if you aren’t willing to let someone disagree with you, then you don’t have a real relationship. That’s true in marriage or friendship.  How much more true is it with an eternal, all-knowing God?  So if the Bible says things you find hard to accept, that doesn’t mean it’s untrue; it means God knows more than you do.  I don’t know about you, but I’m glad He does!

How should we respond to people who reject the Bible’s authority?  Peter wrote in 1 Peter 3:15, 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, keeping a clear conscience, so that those who speak maliciously against your good behavior in Christ may be ashamed of their slander.  The word “answer” is apologia, from which we get our word, “apologetics.”  It means “defending the faith.”  When we meet someone who rejects the Bible’s authority, we often feel we need to defend our faith.  That is a worthy motive, but notice that Peter says we should do it “with gentleness and respect.”  Paul wrote something similar to Timothy in 2 Timothy 2:24-25, And the Lord’s servant must not be quarrelsome but kind to everyone, able to teach, patiently enduring evil, correcting his opponents with gentleness. God may perhaps grant them repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.  There’s that word, “gentleness,” again.  When we meet people who think differently than we do, it tends to make us angry.  When we get angry, we want to argue with them.  We project motives and thought patterns onto them that may not be true: “He doesn’t want to believe the Bible, because he wants to be able to follow his own sinful desires.”  We use straw-man arguments: “So you think you’re smarter than God?  How arrogant is that?”  Speaking to them with gentleness and respect means considering their feelings.  It means listening to them, finding out the specific reasons why they don’t believe in the Bible, and answering them in a congenial way.

Note also that according to Paul’s words to Timothy, our motive, our hope, is that their lives would be changed, and they would become believers.  I have never met anyone who was argued into belief in Christ.  But I have met many people who once thought faith in Jesus was foolishness, and now can’t imagine living without Him.  It didn’t happen because some Christian got angry and insulted them.  It didn’t even happen because they met a Christian who was smarter and more articulate than they were. It happened because they met Jesus-followers who responded to their ridicule and slander with gentleness and respect.  We all have countless neighbors who are asking the question: Why should we believe the Bible?  Let’s live in such a way that we are the answer.

Tough Questions: Can We Trust the Bible?

When I was a senior in high school, an adult I highly respected said something devastating to me: “Someday, you’re going to realize how the Bible was put together, and that it can’t possibly be the Word of God.  You’re going to realize how deceived you’ve been.”  I wasn’t a new Christian at that time.  But I had recently made a decision that Jesus wasn’t just the Savior of my soul, He was Lord of my life.  I didn’t just want to go to Heaven when I died; I wanted to live for Him.  In my youthful idealism, I scoffed at her words and thought, “We’ll see about that.”  Over the three-plus decades since then, I have heard and seen lots of arguments that reinforce what she said.  Was she right after all?  This is no minor question.  As evangelical believers, we say that the Bible is our source for knowing what is true and what isn’t.  When contemporary culture changes its views on a matter, we stay with what the Bible says, even if it makes us unpopular.  If a gifted preacher says something that doesn’t square with Scripture, we reject his teachings.  Ultimately, what we know about God, morality, and truth is not determined by what we hear on the news, or what our church tells us, or even what sounds right in our own eyes; it is determined by this book.  But what if we’re wrong?  What if we’re staking our belief system on a book that is not worthy of our trust?

This is really two questions: One, should we really base our lives on words written thousands of years ago, a book that depicts miraculous events unlike anything we’ve seen, especially since we know there are many other supposedly holy books that have been written in human history?  We’ll explore that question next week in our Tough Question: Why Should we Believe the Bible?  The second question, and the one we’ll consider today, is this: How do we know the Bible we have today is authentic?  That’s what my adult friend was really questioning all those years ago.  She had heard that the Bible was corrupted over the years by different people adding their own perspectives, so we don’t even know what the original authors actually wrote down.  It’s sort of like the telephone game.  Remember that when we were kids?  My most memorable instance of the telephone game came when I was a young adult in college, and we played the game as part of a training session at my job.  One of my co-workers was an Indian student named Haroon.  Our boss whispered something innocuous in the ear of the person at the front of the line, like, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  By the time it reached the end of the line, that simple statement had morphed into, “Haroon goes ‘va-room’ in the bedroom.”  We died laughing, and Haroon turned purple.  But it stands to reason that the same thing happened to the words of the Bible.  As I got older, I was surprised to learn that we don’t have an actual copy of any of the original manuscripts of Scripture.  I just assumed that, somewhere in a museum was the first Bible.  But it wasn’t so.  The books of the Bible were hand-copied for centuries, until the invention of the printing press 1500 years after Jesus.  Surely mistakes were made, right?

And besides that, there was another reason to doubt the trustworthiness of the Bible.  These books weren’t the only ones written about Jesus and Christian doctrine in the early days of the church.  By some estimates, as many as 3000 books existed.  Who decided on the 27 we consider Scripture today?  Why wasn’t the Gospel of Thomas included?  Or the Epistle of Barnabas, or the Apocalypse of Peter, for instance?  A common belief is that the bishops of the Church, some four hundred years after Jesus, chose books that fit a narrative they wanted to promote, and banned the rest.  In the blockbuster best-selling novel, The Davinci Code, a character explains that Jesus’s followers saw Him as a prophet, but otherwise a mere man.  But the Roman emperor Constantine had Him declared divine so that his power would be unchallengeable.  He published the biblical books that emphasized Jesus’ divine nature and banned the ones that showed Him as more human.  Yes, that was a work of fiction, but it parroted a common conspiracy theory.

So let’s look at both of those reasons to doubt the Bible’s trustworthiness.

Do our current Bibles contain the words of the original authors?  The analogy of the telephone game would seem to make that unlikely.  But that actually isn’t a good analogy at all.  In the telephone game, a person in the line hears a whispered message—only once!—and has to pass it along with another whisper.  But the books of the Bible were hand-copied, not whispered.  Scribes in the ancient world took their work very seriously.  Not only that, but there were multiple streams, not just one line of transmission.  To make the analogy more accurate, imagine there had been sixteen different lines of people passing along the message, “Haroon goes grocery shopping on Fridays.”  The first person would write the message down and give it to the next person in line.  He would then write it on another piece of paper, and pass that along to the third guy.  If one person in the line wasn’t sure what the message said, he could ask the person to re-send, or even check it against the other lines.  Mistakes are much harder to make in that scenario.  That is more like how the Bible was transmitted.

Is it still possible that mistakes were made?  Absolutely…and they were!  That’s why there’s an entire field of study known as textual criticism.  So imagine a translator is working through a manuscript of Luke 11:2 that has just been found.  It says, Our Father in Heaven, hallowed be your name. Your kingdom come, your will be done on earth as it is in Heaven.  He notices that the other Greek manuscripts he has read slightly differently.  They say, Father, hallowed be your name, your Kingdom come.  So which is the right one?  His textual critical training tells him that the more accurate manuscript is likely to be older, and shorter.  So he looks at his new manuscript, which is newer and longer, and assumes that the scribe must have mixed up Luke 11:2 with Matthew 6:9-10, which is the start of the Lord’s Prayer.  But just in case, in his translation he puts a little footnote so that the reader is aware that some manuscripts read a little differently.  You can probably see it in your English translation. There are dozens of those…the work of textual critics who devote their lives to making sure the Bibles we have are completely accurate.  If you decide to carefully read all of those footnotes, what you will find is that not a single major doctrine of our faith is in question.  They are all minor quibbles about wording.

I said a little earlier that the telephone game would work better if you had sixteen different lines of transmission, not one, so they could be checked against one another.  So how many different manuscripts of the Bible do we have?  Just to limit things, let’s consider the New Testament.  We currently possess over 5800 Greek New Testament manuscripts.  There are also another 20,000 ancient copies in other languages such as Latin or Syrian.  And there are over a million quotations from the New Testament in the writings of early Church leaders.  That’s a lot of streams of transmission, and plenty of opportunity for scholars to be certain of what the original message said.  By comparison, other ancient documents that we study in our history classes have between 100 and 200 ancient manuscripts, yet virtually no one questions their authenticity. In other words, we can be absolutely certain the words of our modern Bibles are the words of their original authors.

So let’s look at the other issue.  How were these books chosen to be in the Bible? As I mentioned, conspiracy theorists point to political decisions made by church councils in the Fourth Century.  But for the real answer, we have to go much further back.  The first and second generation of Christians had a very different form of worship from us.  They would gather together in homes on Sunday, the first day of the week, probably in the evening when everyone was off work.  They would share a meal, sing some songs, and someone would read a text from the Old Testament—the only Bible they had—and teach about what the Scripture said or share some prophetic thoughts from the Holy Spirit.  If there happened to be an apostle in the area, they would set everything else aside and let him speak instead.  An apostle, by the way, was someone who had known Jesus personally and been commissioned by Him to be His representative.  Some of these apostles starting writing letters to churches when they couldn’t be there in person.  A trusted friend would bring the letter to the church, and it would be read aloud to the entire congregation on the next Sunday.  We know that the people believed these were more than letters—they were the inspired words of God through those apostles. See 2 Peter 3:16, And count the patience of our Lord as salvation, just as our beloved brother Paul also wrote to you according to the wisdom given him, 16 as he does in all his letters when he speaks in them of these matters. There are some things in them that are hard to understand, which the ignorant and unstable twist to their own destruction, as they do the other Scriptures.  I used to laugh at that passage, imaging blue-collar Peter struggling to understand the educated, erudite Paul.  Then I noticed: Peter was calling Paul’s letters Scripture!

People in those churches would copy the letters and share them with other churches.  That’s how the Scriptures first were circulated.  Over time, churches would gather all the letters and Gospels into a single volume or scroll.  It is absolutely true that lots of other people were writing letters to churches and stories about Jesus in those days.  Some of them were even written in the name of an apostle.  Church leaders would compare notes to see if what they had was true or not.  As best we can tell from reading their letters to one another, they used four criteria to determine what was true Scripture and what wasn’t:

One: Scripture comes from an apostle.  Luke and Mark weren’t apostles, but the early church believed they got their sources from eyewitnesses.  Mark was said to have interviewed Peter for his Gospel.

Two: Scripture is confirmed by God’s power.  Reading the letter or Gospel should produce life change in the reader if it is truly the word of God.

Three: Scripture is true.  In one of the stories of Jesus written in those times, Jesus as a boy acts like a spoiled wizard.  He makes clay birds, then brings them to life. He strikes another little boy dead for bumping into him, and when the parents complain, he turns them blind.  The early church rejected these stories, because they weren’t consistent with what the Bible said about Jesus.

Four: Scripture is accepted by God’s people.  Several years ago, books were written claiming that the Gospel of Thomas should be considered Scripture.  But the Gospel of Thomas was rejected by the people two thousand years ago, because it taught an ancient heresy known as Gnosticism.

It is true that Constantine convened several Church councils in the fourth century AD, and at those councils, bishops discussed what would be considered official church doctrine. This occurred because there were heretical movements cropping up, and Constantine wanted to keep this from disturbing the peace of his kingdom.  And yes, at one of these conferences, the Council of Carthage in 397, a vote was taken to officially decide on the canon of Scripture.  But the true decision was made in most churches centuries before that.

Christians and others sometimes ask me about certain books that Catholics have in their Bibles, that we and other Protestants don’t.  These 14 books are commonly known as the Apocrypha.  Here’s the story: The last of the books of our current Old Testament were completed four hundred years before the birth of Christ. But when the Old Testament was translated into Greek—a translation known as the Septuagint—the rabbis included fourteen extra books that had not been in the Hebrew Bible.  Centuries later, when Martin Luther and other leaders of the Reformation were finally translating the Bible into the languages people actually spoke—such as German, English, French, etc—they put these fourteen books into a special section in between the two testaments, or left them out entirely.  Here’s the important point: The Reformers didn’t consider these books heresy.  They said they were fine to read, but didn’t rise to the level of Scripture.  These books do not contain anything that disagrees with Christian doctrine.

I think back on that day when my adult friend told me that someday I would discover the truth about the Bible.  She was right, but not in the way she thought. The more I have learned about how God’s Word came to us, the more amazed I am at His incredible love for us.  It took the work of thousands of scribes, the courage of martyrs, and most of all, the wisdom of a God who wants us to know Him, to bring us this book we hold in our hands. And the more I study it, the more I grow into the person God made me to be…and the more convinced I am that this is the true Word of God.

What About People Who Don’t Know Jesus?

I can remember as a very small child wondering about people who never even hear the name of Jesus.  It didn’t seem fair that some little boy on the other side of the world who didn’t have the good fortune to be born in a Christian home would go to Hell, while I went to Heaven.  Much later, when I was working at UH one summer as an orientation guide, one of my co-workers was venting to us about one of her Christian friends.  She explained that she herself had been raised a Christian, but was starting to have doubts about what she really believed.  It all came to a head when she was talking to this Christian friend about who goes to Heaven.  Somehow, they started talking about Ghandi, and whether he was in Heaven now.  The friend said no, because he was a Hindu and never accepted Christ as his Savior.  My co-worker was furious about this.  “If you’re telling me that Christianity teaches that one of the greatest, most courageous people who ever lived isn’t in Heaven because he was of the wrong religion, then that’s not a religion I want to be a part of anymore.”  I must confess to you that I sat there mute, not knowing what to say or how to answer her.  I was awfully glad when someone changed the subject.

So what would’ve been the right answer?  This is one of the most important questions of all.  It’s something we all want to know.  Missiologists estimate that as much as 1/3 of humanity hasn’t even heard the name of Jesus.  At least 4 billion people don’t identify themselves as Christians.  On a national level, the percentage of Americans who identify themselves as Christians has decreased by 11 percent in this past generation.  The fastest growing religious group in America today are those who claim no religious affiliation.  But for most of us, this is a more personal issue than all of that.  I want you to think about the people who mean the most to you.  Look at their pictures in your wallet, purse or phone, or envision them in your mind.  There’s probably at least one of those people who you are concerned about today.  You know they are headed in the wrong direction.  Ultimately, you’re not sure what would happen to them if their life ended today.  It’s okay to admit it…the billions of lost people bother you, but you are most concerned with that one person; that son, that granddaughter, that sister, that dad, that friend.  What happens to people who don’t believe in Jesus?  For that matter, what about people who have done some outwardly religious stuff, but their present life is headed in the wrong direction?  What does the Bible say?  Would a loving God really send people to Hell?

Some people try to solve this problem by saying that Hell is a ridiculous, obsolete concept.  Who still believes in a Day of Judgment and a literal Hell?  Well, Jesus did, for one.  He spoke about it 15 times in the Gospels.  The most common image He used to describe it was Gehenna, a real place in Jesus’ time.  It was a valley just outside Jerusalem where the garbage, including the bodies of dead animals and human criminals, were burned in a fire that never went out.  That, Jesus said, was what Hell was like.  Scholars debate whether the images of fire are intended to be literal or figurative (I lean on the figurative side), but the point is clear: Hell is real, and it is a terrible place, far from God and anything good.

I have to admit to you, this bothers me.  A part of me would love to agree with those who say there’s no Hell, that God lets all of His children into Heaven.  But the idea of Hell and God’s judgment didn’t seem to bother the Jews in the time the Bible was being written.  I think that’s because of the oppression that was so common in their daily lives.  They knew that a God who truly loved them would not let the awful evils of this world go unpunished.  Maybe doubting God’s judgment is a peculiar luxury of the prosperous.  For instance, I doubt that Christians whose churches are being bombed in other countries have much trouble believing in the reality of Hell.  I doubt that the men and women who have been sexually violated by clergymen in their childhood feel squeamish about the idea of God’s judgment.  When we get right down to it, we feel the same way:  Do you believe the 9-11 terrorists went to a place of paradise when they died?  What would that say about God if they did?  There’s a great line in a British mystery novel of a several years ago.  A woman is mocking religion and says, “I don’t go in for all this emphasis on sin, suffering and judgment. If I had a god I’d like Him to be intelligent, cheerful and amusing.”  Her friend, who is Jewish, replies, “I doubt whether you’d find him much of a comfort when they herded you into the gas chambers. You might prefer a god of vengeance.”

Others solve this problem by saying, “Obviously, the bad people go to Hell, but good people go to Heaven.”  Or they rely on the dominant view of this age: “All religions lead to the same place, as long as you’re true to your beliefs and tolerant to others.”  Again, these would be attractive solutions, but Jesus clearly didn’t believe that way.  In John 3, we read about Jesus encountering a man named Nicodemus.  This man was a religious leader among the Jews, which meant he was exceptionally devoted to His religion (which was, let’s remember, the same religion Jesus was raised in and practiced).  Everything we read about Him indicates he was also a sincerely good man.  He tried to defend Jesus when the other religious leaders were determined to kill him (Jn. 7).  Later, after the crucifixion, he personally helped prepare the body of our Lord for His burial (Jn. 19).  Both of these actions showed incredible courage, integrity and compassion.  But Jesus told this good, devout man, “Unless you’re born again, you can’t see the Kingdom of God.”  It’s not about goodness or religious devotion at all.  If it were, then Ghandi would definitely get in ahead of me.  But the person we are cannot stand in the presence of God.  Our sin keeps us out.  Jesus would later say in John 14:6, I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.  In Acts 4:12, Peter, standing before the same Sanhedrin that conspired to kill Jesus, said, there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.  I haven’t even started on Paul’s writings in Romans and Ephesians.  If people can get to Heaven by being good or by being devoted to their religion, Jesus and those who followed Him certainly didn’t seem to know it.

So what did Jesus believe about the fate of unbelievers?  Luke 13:1-5 sheds some light on the question.  There were some present at that very time who told him about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices. And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.”  Some people come to Jesus, asking His opinion about a current event.  The Roman governor of Judea, Pontius Pilate—known for his cruel anti-Semitism—had ordered some Galileans executed while they were sacrificing at the temple.  This would have been big news, and perhaps they just wanted to know what the young Rabbi had to say about it.  But notice the words “at that time.”  Luke wants us to know that this event was brought up right after Jesus foretold the return of the Son of Man and the Day of Judgment (see Luke 12).  I think these people were saying, “Well, I guess those people were getting some of that Judgment you were talking about, right?  After all, God wouldn’t have let that happen to them if they hadn’t been pretty bad sinners.”  In essence, they were getting some of the heat off of themselves by speculating on the state of some recently deceased people.  But Jesus will have none of it.  His response is, “Don’t worry about the state of those poor Galileans.  Don’t worry about the 18 people who were crushed by that tower that fell the other day, either.  It’s not your job to decide who the bigger sinner is.  You better focus on getting yourself right with God.  God will handle the rest.”

Obviously, the ultimate point of this is that we had all better make sure we’re right with God before we face our own death.  As we’ve already said, that’s not a matter of being really, really good, or really, really religious.  It’s a free gift Jesus bought for us all at the cross.  His death takes the heat for our sins, if we’ll accept it.  But what Jesus says here also goes back to our question for the day: How do we know about whether or not someone else is truly saved?  Jesus’ answer is consistent with the rest of what Scripture says—and doesn’t say.  Three points:

  1. It’s not our job to decide anyone else’s eternal fate. I cannot tell you how many times I have had conversations with another Christian where we discussed some version of the question, “So, do you think so-and-so is saved?” Sometimes it would be a certain celebrity, or an acquaintance, or someone we read about in the news.  Sometimes it was a denominational question: “That church believes some stuff we don’t.  Can they really be saved?”  But now I truly believe each of those conversations was a waste of time.  It’s not our job to determine those things, and the one whose job it is doesn’t need our help.  I don’t know any Scripture where we find Jesus, the apostles or the prophets asking such questions.

Nor do we find, anywhere in Scripture that I know of, a concrete list of criteria that we can use to determine whether someone is going to Heaven or not.  We see characteristics that should be in our lives if we’re following Jesus, and beliefs that we should hold onto, but these are always presented as things we  should aspire to in our own lives, not tools we use to judge others.  Just to make our point, let’s play that little parlor game I spoke of earlier: is he saved or not?  What would you say about a president who was personally courageous, who knew Scripture and quoted it often, but never made any public commitment to Christ and was never a member of any church?  Saved or not?  What about a famous clergyman who held many beliefs which would get him run out of a typical Baptist Sunday school class?  Saved or not saved?  What about a man who was a political and religious leader, who wrote religious literature that has been read by millions, but who secretly got the wife of a colleague pregnant, then had the man killed to cover up his crime?  Saved or not saved?  Well, I don’t know if Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther, and King David are in Heaven or not, but I wouldn’t bet against them.  It is not our job to determine anyone’s eternal fate.

Some of our more fiery brethren might say, “But we’re called to preach judgment on the lost! That’s the only way to get people saved…scare ‘em out of Hell.”  I don’t see anyone in Scripture doing that, either.  When judgment is preached, by the prophets, Jesus or the apostles, it’s almost always directed toward the religious people, not the unreligious.  Jesus had the harshest words for the self-righteous Pharisees and the affluent fat-cat Sadducees, because they should’ve known better.  But we have no record of Jesus ever accusing a Roman centurion of being a fascist pawn of an idolatrous, sexually immoral nation…and He had plenty of opportunity to do so.  In the same way, Paul was not afraid to confront hypocrites and false teachers within the Church.  But when he had a chance to speak to the pagan philosophers at Athens, he didn’t say, “All you idol-worshipping boy-lovers are gonna burn in Hell if you don’t repent!”  Instead, he reasoned with them calmly and persuasively, trying his best to prove that Christ was the risen Lord.  That doesn’t mean that we can’t speak about sin, judgment, and Hell when we talk to unbelievers.  But the example of Jesus and Paul shows us that we’re supposed to use the method that’s most likely to produce life change.

  1. We can trust God with the souls of others. I have done a lot of studying the Scripture on this issue, and one thing that I find consistently astonishing is that there is so little information about whether this person or that person went to Heaven or not. For example, what about the great men and women of the Old Testament?  They lived long before Jesus, so they certainly couldn’t accept Him as Lord. Are they shut out of Heaven?  Hebrews 11 and 12 name several of these heroes and clearly indicates they are in Heaven, but what about the rest?  And how did God get them in without them ever knowing Jesus personally?  I’ve never heard a satisfactory answer to that question.  The Old Testament almost never mentions the intermediate state. There’s plenty of information about the Day of the Lord, and other passages that are foretelling the New Earth, but when it comes to what happened to those people when they died, it’s as if God says, “Don’t worry about it.  I’ve got it covered.”

We face a similar dilemma when we think about small children who die.  Pastors will point to the fact that Jesus said you have to be like a little child to enter Heaven, but did He mean 12, 8, 5 or 5 months?  We don’t know.  I’ve heard many people say there’s an “age of accountability” before which God doesn’t judge us.  But try finding that in the Bible (hint: it’s not there).  So here’s what we’re left with: We know God loves little children.  We also know God is fair.  With what we know of God, we know He wouldn’t shut out of Heaven little children who never really had a chance to know Him.  We know He’ll do the right thing, and so Christians who’ve lost children, either in the womb or in their childhood, look forward to seeing them someday, and rightly so.  Now consider this:  God’s love and fairness are true for all people, not just children.  That doesn’t mean everyone goes to Heaven.  But it does mean we can trust Him to do the right thing.  Ezekiel 18:32 says, For I have no pleasure in the death of anyone, declares the Lord God; so turn, and live.  Peter 3:9 says, He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.  He backed up His words at the cross.  At the cross, God said, “I won’t force you to accept my love, but if you choose to go to Hell, it will be over my dead body.”  Don’t you think a God who loves every person that much will do the fair thing?

  1. Our job is to bring as many people to Jesus as possible. In spite of what we’ve said up to now, God’s attitude is not, “Don’t worry about the eternal fate of anyone else. Just make sure you’re getting in.”  True, Jesus didn’t tell us how to determine whether or not someone else was going to Heaven.  But He did leave us with a mission: Go into the all the world and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and teaching them to obey everything I commanded you.  I like the answer Jim Denison gave when someone asked him about people who never hear the Gospel: “The Bible doesn’t equip us to solve that problem with our theology, but we are called to solve it with our witness.”  He then points out an astonishing fact—and I haven’t checked his math, but I’m going to trust him on this.  He says that if every Christian in the world brought just one person to Christ per year, and that person led another person to Christ per year, and the process continued, the entire world would be saved in 34 years.    

Here’s what it comes down to.  Think back to those loved ones in your life who are headed in the wrong direction.  What if there was someone in their life who earned your loved one’s respect by living an authentically, courageously Christian life, who showed intentional love to them, prayed for them, and shared their testimony of faith in Christ.  If that person could convince your loved one to turn their life around and start following Jesus, how grateful would you be?  Is there any amount of money you could give this person to express your gratitude?

Everyone of us knows someone, a friend, neighbor or co-worker, who’s headed in the wrong direction.  Most of us know several “someones.”  Each of those people is somebody’s loved one…somebody’s mom, little boy, granddaughter, brother, spouse.  Someone, somewhere is hoping and praying that God will send a special person to help him or her turn their life around.  You might say, “Well, how do I know if they’re saved or not?”  You might say, “I can’t save anybody.  I’m just an ordinary person.”  It doesn’t matter.  If we make sure everyone we know knows that we love Jesus and knows we love them, through both words and an authentic, compassionate lifestyle, God will take care of the rest.  And as we are used by God to turn people’s lives around, can you imagine the gratitude on the part of their Heavenly Father, who loves them more than life itself, who actually CAN repay us for what we’ve done for His special child?  That is why we are here.

Tough Questions: Why Do Bad Things Happen to Good People?

A couple of years ago, the actor Stephen Fry appeared on an interview show in England.  He was asked the same question all celebrities get asked on this particular show: If there is a God, and you were standing before Him, what would you say to Him?  Fry’s answer took the host by surprise. “I’d say, bone cancer in children? What’s that about?  How dare you? How dare you create a world in which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil.  Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain? That’s what I would say.”  We could easily dismiss that as the inflammatory words of an atheist, which Fry is, except that many of us have similar questions, even if we don’t use such disrespectful language.  I can remember in 2012, when elementary school children were gunned down in Newtown, Connecticut just before Christmas, a devout friend said to me, “I’m having trouble reconciling this with what I believe about God.  He could have stopped that, right?  He could have sent a cop to that school to intercept that guy.  Why didn’t He?”  That’s the question that has bedeviled theologians, philosophers, people of faith and people who want to believe since the beginning of time.  Some call it the problem of pain.  The logic says that if God is all good and all powerful, then He should be able to create a good world.  But since there is so much evil in this world, it must mean God isn’t good, He’s not powerful, or He’s simply not there.

Some people deal with the problem of pain on a much more personal level.  I know people, including some in our church, who have been hit with a series of devastating blows in a short period of time.  You lose your job.  Just when you’ve recovered from that shock, you get sick and have to be hospitalized.  Of course, there’s no insurance, so how will you dig out of that hole?  Then as soon as you get home, your mom dies.  At the funeral, your brother tells you that his wife is leaving him and taking the kids with her.  Meanwhile, you look across the street at your irreligious neighbor, and he seems to be doing just fine, living a blissful, happy existence.  Why?  There’s a quote in Bruce Almighty, which tackles some weighty material for a Jim Carrey film: “God is a mean kid sitting on an anthill with a magnifying glass, and I’m the ant.  He could fix my problems in five minutes, but He’d rather burn off my feelers and watch me squirm.”

That question even comes up in the Bible.  Psalm 44:23-24 is just one of many places, Awake, Lord! Why do you sleep?  Rouse yourself! Do not reject us forever. Why do you hide your face and forget our misery and oppression?  Many godly people have wrestled with this problem for their entire lives.  My favorite author, Philip Yancey, has written several books about this topic alone.  The one I appreciate the most, and would recommend to anyone who wants more than a 30 minute sermon on the topic, is Where Is God When It Hurts?  I know I won’t be able to answer all your questions today.  But I do want to show what the Scripture says.  Specifically, I want to show how God in His Word contradicts three commonly held beliefs about suffering and faith.  And then I want to talk about what God intends to do about the pain in the world.

False idea #1: Evil is God’s fault.  If a family is killed in a car accident, did God push that car across the median?  If I find out next week that I have cancer, did God put the tumors into my body?  That’s what many people believe, including many religious folks.  They will often say in times of tragedy, “It’s God’s will,” words that don’t really bring much comfort to those who are suffering.  What does the Bible say?  It says God became a man named Jesus, who walked among us.  When He saw our suffering, did He shrug it off as the irrelevant struggles of pitiful creatures, the way you and I care nothing for the deaths of mosquitoes?  Did He walk around apologizing for messing things up so badly in creation?  Neither.  John 11 tells the story of Jesus going to the village of Bethany, where one of His closest friends, Lazarus, has just died.  Vv. 33-35 record what happened when Jesus got to the tomb and met Lazarus’s sister and other mourners: When Jesus saw her crying, and the Jews who had come with her crying, He was angry in His spirit and deeply moved.  “Where have you put him?” He asked.  “Lord,” they told Him, “come and see.”  Jesus wept.

Verse 35 is well known as the shortest verse in the Bible, but few people consider how remarkable it is that Jesus wept over the tomb of a friend. Many versions of the Bible have the word “troubled” in v. 33 instead of the word “angry,” but Greek scholars tell us that the word used is a very strong word indicating rage.  Why was Jesus angry?  Because this isn’t the world He created.  Genesis 1 says the world God made was very good.  Genesis 3 says that when human sin entered the world, death and all other evil came with it. Based on the way Jesus acted that day and throughout His life, the Bible is telling us that God is not oblivious to human pain.  He doesn’t cause evil to occur.  He hates it even more than we do.

False idea #2: I am qualified to judge what it is reasonable for God to allow.  Still, the Bible records times when God intervened and stopped evil from winning.  We call those events miracles.  It makes sense; if God is strong enough to create a world, He can also do miracles whenever He chooses.  So maybe God doesn’t cause evil, but He certainly allows it.  Every time He chooses not to do a miracle, He is allowing evil to win.  I don’t understand this.  I’ve prayed for loved ones to be healed, and they died anyway.  I’ve prayed for couples to reconcile, and they divorced nonetheless.  I prayed for Hurricane Harvey to miss us completely, but that sure didn’t work out.  The Bible’s answer to my confusion is, “If you knew what I know, you’d answer those prayers in exactly the way I did.”  The story of Joseph is a classic example.  He was sold into slavery by his own brothers at 17, then accused by his owner’s wife of a crime he didn’t commit, then forgotten in prison for years.  I’m sure he wondered why God didn’t answer His prayers for rescue, for justice.  Then he is called upon to interpret the dream of Pharaoh, Egypt’s King, and realizes this is a message from God foretelling a world-wide famine.  Impressed, Pharaoh releases Joseph from prison and puts him in charge of preparing the nation for this crisis.  Seven years later, when the famine hits, Egypt has plenty of food because of Joseph’s wise management. Then one day, his own brothers come to him, begging to buy grain.  He recognizes them, but they don’t recognize him.  Ultimately, he forgives them, and the entire family moves to Egypt, where they live happily ever after.  But years later, when their father dies, the brothers all assume Joseph will have them killed for selling him into slavery all those years ago.  Genesis 50:20 shows us his response: You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.  Joseph is not saying God caused the brothers to do evil.  He’s saying God allowed them to commit this evil act.  He refused to intervene because He had a bigger plan.  If Joseph had lived a long, happy life at home in Canaan with his brothers, he and they would have all starved to death in the famine.  As it was, God allowed this evil so that Joseph could be in position to advise Pharaoh and save millions of people, including his own family, from starvation.

Tim Keller tells the story of a friend of his who was a drug dealer in his youth.  Then he was shot in the face during a deal gone wrong.  He lost most of his sight, and his recovery involved many painful surgeries.  In the aftermath, he gave his life to Jesus.  Today, he looks back on the person he was then, with his selfishness and cruelty to others, and how God has changed him.  Now he has numerous friends, peace and joy.  He doesn’t see how that all could have happened without the shooting.  “It was a terrible price to pay,” he said, “But it was worth it.”  Any parent knows that sometimes parenting involves allowing pain into your child’s life.  You have to take them to the doctor for shots; sometimes, the doctor even asks you to hold them still so he can attack them with that evil needle.  At night, you allow them to cry themselves to sleep.  You wean them from the bottle so that they can learn to eat real food.  As they get older, you don’t bail them out when they get into trouble at school; you let them suffer the consequences of their misbehavior.  When they are swamped with homework, you help, but you don’t do the work for them.  They don’t understand.  If you loved me, they say, why wouldn’t you want to spare me pain?  Your response as a parent is, “I hate seeing you suffer.  But I know this pain is for your good.  I know the purpose for it, and I can’t explain it to you now.  Someday, you’ll understand.”

False idea #3: The Bible teaches that good people are exempt from suffering.  This one comes from within the Church.  And it comes, I believe, because people misuse the Bible.  For example, people like to quote Jeremiah 29:11, For I know the plans I have for you, says the Lord, plans to prosper you and not to harm you, to give you a future and a hope.  They say, “See, God wants to give us prosperity, not suffering.  We just have to claim all that prosperity God wants to give us.”  But they don’t read the entire chapter.  This is a letter written from Jeremiah to thousands of Jews who are in exile in Babylon.  Jeremiah is writing with bad news: they won’t get to come home to Israel. They will be in exile for 70 years.  But God hasn’t forgotten them.  He will bring them home after the 70 years are over.  That’s why He says He knows the plans He has for them.  He’s not talking there to 21st century Americans; He’s talking to Israelites 600 years before the birth of Christ.  Or they will use Isaiah 53:5, which says He was bruised for our transgressions and crushed for our iniquities.  The punishment that brought us peace was upon Him, and by His wounds we are healed, and say, “Jesus died so you would never have to be sick.”  But every other place in Scripture that talks about Jesus’ death talks about the spiritual forgiveness we receive.  So it’s obvious the healing Isaiah was referring to meant the healing of our souls, not our bodies.

Think about it: The apostles of Jesus suffered intensely.  Paul accepted Christ as his Savior, and then became impoverished, rejected by his own family, imprisoned many times, beaten many times, nearly stoned to death, shipwrecked, falsely accused, hunted constantly, and ultimately betrayed by his own people and beheaded.  Was this because he wasn’t a good enough person, or because he didn’t have enough faith?  I don’t want to discourage you.  Following Jesus brings joy that far outweighs the pain, as Paul himself said many times, especially in Philippians.  But it certainly doesn’t exempt us from suffering, no matter how faithful we are.  In fact, sometimes faithfully following Jesus involves putting our lives at greater risk, experiencing more short-term pain than if we had a more half-hearted commitment.

So what is God’s answer to the Problem of Pain?  In the short term, God’s answer is you and me.  We are His Church, the Body of Christ.  That means we are supposed to collectively do what He did when He was here.  What did He do?  He went where the hurting people were, and helped them.  He relieved suffering.  He fed the hungry.  He stood up for the oppressed.  And He said an astonishing thing in John 14:12, Very truly I tell you, whoever believes in me will do the works I have been doing, and they will do even greater things than these, because I am going to the Father.  None of us can do what Jesus did.  But collectively, as we all use our spiritual gifts and resources, we can do more good in a day than Jesus could.  That’s why, if people think God doesn’t care, it’s because the Church isn’t doing its job.  That’s why, when we hear statements like the one Stephen Fry made, instead of being offended, we should feel convicted. We should say, “That’s on us.  If we were being the Church, no one would think that way.”

But we aren’t the ultimate answer.  Jesus came and healed, but that was only a temporary solution, meant to show people that God loved them and had power to save.  All those people Jesus healed later died anyway.  In spite of His thousands of miracles, there is still hunger, disease, poverty and oppression. The ultimate answer came on two days at the end of His life. One was Good Friday.  On that day, Jesus was crucified.  People often see that as evidence of the evil of this world; how could such a good man be executed in such a cruel way? But Jesus Himself saw it differently: I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me…and I lay down my life for the sheep… No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. (John 10:14-15, 18).  And Hebrews 12:2 says Jesus for the joy set before Him endured the cross.  For the joy!  Just like God allowed evil to be done in Joseph’s life so He could turn it into good, Jesus took all the evil that had ever been done and turned it on Himself, so that He could turn it into the ultimate good.  Because He took personal responsibility for every evil deed in history, even though He was guilty of none of them, He opened a door for us to reconcile with God and live with Him forever.

The other day that shows God’s ultimate answer to the problem of pain is Resurrection Sunday.    When Jesus walked out of that tomb three days after dying, He wasn’t just saying, “I beat death!”  He wasn’t saying, “Now you can leave this cursed Earth and live with me forever!”  No, He was saying, “I have totally reversed the curse.”  The story of humanity begins with a perfect world, and a perfect relationship with God that was destroyed by sin.  But with the cross and the empty tomb, Jesus showed that someday, when He returns after everyone has had a chance to hear the Good News and repent, He will make all things new.  The story ends with a perfect Earth and a perfect relationship with God that can never again be sullied or ruined, because it has been fully redeemed.

The Lord of the Rings trilogy by JRR Tolkien is about two little creatures called hobbits, Frodo and Sam, and the others who help them take the one ring, a symbol of all the evil in the world, to be destroyed in the fires of Mount Doom where it was forged.  At the end of the story, after so many twists and turns, so many moments when it seemed as if evil would win, the ring is destroyed.  Mount Doom is shattered, and the armies of evil are wiped out.  Sam wakes up and sees his friend Gandalf the wizard and says the following:

“Gandalf! I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself. Is everything sad going to come untrue? What’s happened to the world?” “A great Shadow has departed,” said Gandalf, and then he laughed and the sound was like music, or like water in a parched land; and as he listened the thought came to Sam that he had not heard laughter, the pure sound of merriment, for days upon days without count.”

Tolkien would often say that his writings were not allegorical.  Unlike his good friend CS Lewis, Tolkien didn’t like allegory.  But he was also a devout Christian, and he knew that someday indeed, The King will return, evil will be destroyed, and everything sad will come untrue.  And we will laugh like we’ve never laughed before.

 

Our England mission trip

Our team of six FBC members returned this week from the United Kingdom after an incredible mission trip.  This was a combined effort between Tryon-Evergreen Baptist Association (our local partners) and the Northern Baptist Association in England.  The NBA’s director, Paul Revil, planned a series of evangelistic events that he called Northern Lights Weekend.  Three TEBA churches sent teams.  Our group of six was actually split; two of us went with another TEBA church group.  I am here to report on what my group of four experienced.

The Setting

Although this was my first time in the UK, in many ways this trip was like going home.  We Americans owe much of our faith heritage to the English; preachers like George Whitfield and John Wesley helped forge the Gospel-centered character of our nation.  Baptists first emerged out of the English Separatist movement in the 1500s.  And we still lean on the writings of great English authors like CS Lewis and NT Wright for much of our devotional strength.  But the religious landscape of England has changed drastically in the past 50 years.  One recent survey reported that only 11% of UK citizens attend church at least once a month.  It’s popular to call Great Britain a post-Christian culture; the evidence of Christianity’s past influence is still there, including the majestic cathedrals, but for the average UK citizen, God is not a subject of interest.

We were headed for Durham County in the Northern part of the nation.  We were told, “This is the part of England that tourists don’t visit.”  This area was long known for coal mines and iron factories.  Those businesses have been gone for decades now, and they have left behind beautiful green rolling hills, dotted with sheep, and cozy villages.  My team was assigned to work with two churches, both in the village of Consett.  Rowley Baptist is a church with a great history.  It was founded in the 1600s, when Baptist converts were often persecuted for rejecting the state church.  The Baptists of Rowley met in different farmhouses on the outskirts of town to avoid arrest.  Eventually, they built a little stone church building right next to one of those farmhouses.  It’s still there, and it’s beautiful, but its location–once necessary for protection–make it difficult to reach people in town.  The church just called its first pastor in over 40 years (yes, you read that right), Paul Harris.  Blackhill Baptist Church is in the center of Consett.  Though not as old as Rowley, Blackhill’s history puts churches like ours to shame.

 

The People

For such a geographically small country, England is remarkable for its many distinct accents.  People in Northeastern England are known to speak a dialect called “Geordie.”  We were told that Geordie is nearly impossible for Americans to understand (Carrie and I even watched Youtube videos of Geordie speakers to prepare ourselves), but we had no problem understanding our friends in Consett.  Some, especially those who grew up closer to Newcastle, had a strong Geordie accent.  But most had an accent I would describe as closer to a soft Scottish brogue.  Still, when we traveled to London later that week, the change in accents was extreme!

More importantly, the people we met were incredibly friendly, gracious and hospitable.  We stayed in guesthouse, and the first morning, we were served the legendary “Full English Breakfast.”  Everywhere we went, people kept us well-fed.  The weather there was beautiful–sunny with highs in the sixties–and they thanked us for bringing our wonderful Texas weather with us (it’s usually cold and rainy this time of year).  Eventually we stopped trying to convince them that weather like that is even rarer in Texas, especially this time of year.  We made so many friendships in a short time with these sweet people.  They were kind, generous, witty and entirely unpretentious.  I already miss them tremendously.

Our Week

We arrived a day later than expected because of a flight delay in Houston, so we had to quit the ground running.  We arrived in Durham on Thursday morning (September 20).  Durham is a key point in the history of Christianity: Men like St Cuthbert and The Venerable Bede are buried in the city’s cathedral, which is over 1000 years old.  We held a commissioning service in that cathedral, and had a brief moment to tour that historic building.  Then Adam, the church secretary at Rowley, drove us to our guest house (Church secretary is a very different position for British Baptists; it’s more of a church administrator.  Adam is a young man, in his late twenties, and has a lot on his shoulders, but certainly seems up to the task).  Friday morning, we began by leading an assembly in a local primary school.  English schools are open to religious presentations in their schools, as long as there is no attempt to convert anyone.  So I found myself with the immense privilege of speaking to around fifty young Brits between five and twelve years old.  I spoke about how Jesus changed the way we think of children.  Even the Lord’s disciples tried to chase away parents who brought their little ones to see Him.  But Jesus rebuked them, saying we must all come to God like little children, or not at all.  I briefly told a series of stories, including David and Goliath, young Samuel’s call in the tabernacle, the little boy who donated his lunch to Jesus to feed the 5000, and the daughter of the synagogue ruler who Jesus raised from the dead, to show that God values each child infinitely…including each one of them.

Friday afternoon, we headed to Blackhill for “messy church.”  This is a term among British Baptists for a church service that is entirely child-focused, with games, crafts, and food…a “messy” church service.  There were around fifty kids and their parents there, most of whom have no other connection to the church other than this monthly event.  Saturday morning, we attended a charity coffee/tea time at the Consett Methodist church, with helped us meet several more locals.  It was great to see how Christians from different churches and denominations support one another.   both churches were holding family fun day events, so our team split in two.  Carrie and Kim Hutchins went to the event at Blackhill, while Robert and I went with our friends at Rowley.  Their fun day was at an Anglican community center.  Pastor Paul has started holding many Sunday morning services at the center; his philosophy is “If the people won’t come to you, go where the people are.”  But this was the first of this kind of event in Rowley’s history.  They had rented a bounce house along with lots of indoor games and face-painters.  Robert and I manned the “barbecue” (in England, barbecuing is what we would call grilling).  As we handed out sausages and burgers, I had several kids tell me they remembered me from the school assembly.  One boy asked, “Are you really an American, or are you just putting that accent on?”

Sunday, we split our team once again. Carrie and Kim attended Rowley’s service in the community center, while Robert and I were honored to lead at Blackhill.  Robert sang “His Grace Always Amazes Me,” and I preached on the Prodigal Son and his older brother.  The Spirit was very evidently present in that service.  Also present were a young couple named Dave and Kat.  Dave is preaching this next Sunday in view of a call as Blackhill’s next pastor.  They are a very impressive couple, and I am excited for their future there.  That evening, both congregations met for a communion service at the old, historic Rowley church.  Again, Robert and I had the supreme privilege of leading, alongside deacons from both churches.  Afterward, we shared hot roast beef sandwiches and shared regretful goodbyes.

Bright and early the next morning, we boarded a train for London, where we spent our last couple days sightseeing.  London is a stark contrast to the lovely, slow-paced countryside of Durham county.  One of the largest cities in the world, everything moves at a rapid pace.  You see people from all over the world there (we observed that the accents in most businesses and restaurants was more likely to sound distinctly non-English).  The mass transit system there is an absolute marvel; you can hop on their underground railway (known as The Tube) and be anywhere in the city in a matter of minutes.  But even in this intimidating city, we met friendly people; at one point, Carrie, Connie and I were shocked to find out that the Tube station we thought would take us back to our hotel was closed due to flooding (our perfect weather didn’t hold out forever).  We didn’t know where else to go, but a young Londoner (who, as we later found out, was an immigrant from Poland), helped us find the nearest open Tube station and practically held our hands for us until we were back on the train.

Ways to Pray  

The most significant things that happened were interpersonal encounters.  It started before we even left the states: At Bush Intercontinental, we met a young man (the same age as my daughter) who was headed for a year of study in England.  When our flight was cancelled, we helped him figure out where to go.  The next morning, Carrie and I were pleasantly surprised to find that we were seated next to this same young man on our flight.  We had wonderful conversations with him all the way until our connection, then met up again when we landed in London, helping him find transportation to his school.  Carrie and Kim had some incredibly deep, spiritually meaningful conversations with people at the messy church and family fun day events.  Of course I can’t share any details, but please pray for the people who we encountered.  God knows their names.  Pray that God would continue to make himself known to each one, and bring them home to His family soon.

Pray for Rowley Baptist.  Pastor Paul has a wonderful heart, and Adam is a terrific lay leader.  The Rowley members are wonderful, faithful believers, and I hope you’ll join me in praying that God would show them how to reach their community for Him.  Pray also for Blackhill, especially that God would bring them together with Dave and Kat if that’s His will. Pray that their ministry there would be long and fruitful.  Blackhill’s congregation is a little larger and in a better location than Rowley’s, but they still face a lot of obstacles, including a culture that shows no interest in spiritual matters.  Pray that God would bring a new Gospel awakening to Northern England.

So now we’re back.  We’ve learned lots of new words and sayings (including some words that mean something very different in England than they do here!).  We’ve seen Westminster Abbey and Buckingham Palace, eaten sticky toffee pudding and fish and chips.  Best of all, though, we’ve made some wonderful friends, and we’ve seen the way God is moving in the lives of these friends across the pond.  I hope to see them again someday soon.

Tough Questions: Does Science Make the Bible Irrelevant?

In 2006, in his bestselling book The God Delusion, Richard Dawkins asserted that in today’s world, you cannot be an intelligent, educated person, especially a person who takes science seriously, and have religious faith.  The God Delusion was part of a string of books by “The New Atheists” like Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens, during that same post-9-11 decade.  Those books were all best-sellers and stirred up lots of conversation.  Statistically speaking, atheism hasn’t actually grown all that much in the decade since (the most recent Pew Research study put their number at 3% of the US population).  But the voices that publicly ridicule faith have grown precipitously louder.  Just read the comments on any online story that has to do with church, faith, or spirituality and you’ll see what I mean.  It’s no wonder that many Americans, especially younger ones, draw the conclusion that the smartest people are all unbelievers, and that people who believe in the Bible and accept Christian doctrines are just not all that bright.  One of the reasons often cited by young people who leave the church (even if they don’t completely reject belief in God) is that Christianity seems to be anti-science. Don’t misunderstand: We shouldn’t obsess about what people think of us.  But we should be very concerned that increasingly, intelligent people feel like they have to choose between what they learn through science and what they are taught in Scripture.  Is that true?

Dr. Francis Collins is one of the most eminent geneticists in the world, and was in charge of the project that ultimately mapped the human genome.  He was raised in a highly educated, irreligious home.  As a young scientist, he was struck by the fact that he had never really researched the evidence for faith in God.  He considered himself an atheist and didn’t expect to find anything pointing to God’s existence, but he thought that a scientist shouldn’t simply make up his mind without at least doing a little homework. A conversation with a Methodist minister led him to read Mere Christianity by CS Lewis.  That book (which has changed so many minds) posed a question Collins couldn’t answer.  He knew evolutionary science and was convinced it explained the existence of all life, but where did morality come from?  Why do we as humans all instinctively know there is such a thing as right and wrong?  Why don’t we simply follow the law of the jungle, in which the strongest do whatever they want, as all other animals do?  This question led Collins to belief in the existence of a Supreme Being, and then to Christian faith.  His book The Language of God shows very elegantly how he sees God’s handiwork in his genetic research.  That’s a great book if you want to see how science and faith can coexist in the same brain.  I would also recommend the books of Tim Keller.  He was for many years the pastor of a church he planted in Manhattan, where he preached to highly educated, mostly skeptical people.  His best books for working through intellectual issues with faith are The Reason for God and Making Sense of God. Let’s touch on three specific questions regarding how to live as both people of science and people of faith.

Aren’t science and faith in conflict?  This is very commonly believed, even by many Christians.  And we can all point to times when people of science and people of faith have indeed been in very public conflict.  But it shouldn’t be that way.  Modern science came out of a Christian environment, because Christians, unlike Platonists, believed that matter was essentially good and should be studied.  Most of the pioneers of science, men like Kepler, Galileo, Copernicus, Pascal, Priestley, Pasteur, and Newton were devout Christians who studied science because learning about God’s creation brought them closer to Him.  A few years ago, a Rice University study found that 36% of scientists believe in God.  18% attend church weekly, and 19% pray regularly.  Those numbers are much lower than in the general public, of course, but they certainly prove that it’s possible to be rigorously scientific while still holding faith in God.   So where did this idea come from?  Notre Dame sociologist Christian Smith, in his book The Secular Revolution, asserts that, toward the end of the 19th Century, many major universities were under the control of Christian denominations.  Some university officials, wanting to gain control, promoted the idea that religious faith was opposed to scientific research.  This was during a time when some Christian leaders—who identified themselves as fundamentalists—felt threatened by recent advances in science and spoke out against them.  Even though these fundamentalists didn’t represent all Christians, and certainly didn’t represent those in leadership of major universities, the theory stuck, and has persisted.  The media plays a role in this too.  The 24 hour news cycle must be fed, and nothing drives up ratings better than conflict.  So instead of a story about a scientist like Francis Collins who is a devout believer, it’s simply good business to run a story about a small town science teacher who is fired for teaching evolution, a preacher who predicts the end of the world on a certain date, or about a religious group who opposes stem-cell research.  But let’s be honest: we Christians bear some blame, too. I sometimes see my Christian friends commenting on science-related stories when they don’t know what they’re talking about.  We haven’t done research or read any studies; we just don’t like what some scientist is saying, so we criticize him.  Or we post stories that claim to validate the Bible, but aren’t true.  For instance, I have seen Christian friends post several times that NASA has discovered a mysterious “extra 24 hours” in the history of the earth.  They can’t explain it, according to the story, but it corroborates the story in Joshua about God making the sun stand still in the sky.  I believe the story in the Bible, but the internet tale about NASA scientists is absolutely not true.  When we post such things, we leave the rest of the world thinking, “Those people don’t care about science.”

So let’s just say it out loud: Thank God for science.  I for one am glad that when I get sick, I can go to my local doctor and get antibiotics to fight my infection, instead of visiting a witch doctor who will kill a chicken and shove stinkweed up my nose to repel the evil spirit of sickness.  I’m thankful that when a solar eclipse occurs, none of us assume the world is ending, and that when hurricanes bear down upon us, we know ahead of time and can prepare.  These and so many other wonderful things we take for granted in our modern world are the result of brilliant men and women doing scientific research.  But science also has its limits.   Science can’t tell us why the world exists.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  What was there before all of this came to be?  How did inanimate matter become living tissue?  What is the purpose of life?  Science and faith are not at war. They each answer key questions that the other cannot.

But hasn’t science disproved the Bible?  As Christians, the Bible is our ultimate authority in telling us who God is and how we can know Him. In other words, the Bible is key to us understanding who we are, why we’re here, and how we should live.  And to many unbelievers, that’s a conversation stopper.  They wonder how we can base our lives on the words in a book so ancient, primitive, and blatantly unscientific.  For instance, they say, “Everyone knows that life on this planet developed over hundreds of millions of years, but the Bible teaches that all life was formed in six days.  That alone is reason enough to set the Bible aside as anything more than a book of myths and fables.”

There are certainly plenty of Christians who believe that Genesis 1 must be taken literally, that God created the world in six 24 hour days, and that any scientific findings to the contrary must simply be ignored as being based on false presuppositions.  They point to the discoveries of Creation Science and Intelligent Design theory to bolster their convictions.  I am not going to debate the merits of these beliefs here.  I just want to show that these people are not “anti-science.”  They have examined evidence and come to a different conclusion from most secular people.

There are also Christians (Francis Collins is an example) who point out that some portions of the Bible are poetic in form.  For example, in Judges 4, we read the straightforward account of Israel, commanded by Deborah and Barak, defeating the army of Canaan, commanded by Sisera.  Then in Judges 5, we read the same story in poetic form, as a song written by Deborah about the event. Here’s a line from the poem in v. 20: From Heaven the stars fought; from their courses they fought against Sisera.  No one believes that celestial bodies literally fought against the Canaanite army.  This is Deborah’s picturesque way of saying, “We didn’t win this battle by our own strength.  We had the supernatural power of Heaven on our side.”  These Christians would submit that Genesis 1 is also a poem, not a narrative.  It’s more like Judges 5 than Judges 4.  So God didn’t write it to literally tell us how many days it took Him to create the world, or when it happened.  It’s meant to tell us that He made the world and it was very good, and that there is a natural rhythm to life, including work and rest.  They might say Genesis 1 is meant to be a work of theological truth, not a biology textbook.  Some of these Christians believe that God used the process of natural selection to get us where we are today; some call this idea Theistic Evolution.  Others believe in a variation of this idea.  They believe God intervened at times in the process of natural selection.  For instance, they would say that God created human beings separate from the way the rest of life evolved.    By the way, those different perspectives within the church aren’t new; they’ve existed for years.

My point is that if you believe the Bible, you don’t have to be afraid of science, or vice-versa.  Follow the truth wherever it leads.  All truth is ultimately God’s truth.

Can an enlightened person believe in miracles?  I sometimes hear, “I can’t believe you actually pay attention to a book of fairy tales, like a man being swallowed by a whale and surviving, or a baby being born of a virgin.”  This isn’t a modern phenomenon, by the way.  Our nation’s third President, Thomas Jefferson, put together a Bible stripped of all miracles or any reference to Jesus’ divinity.  That was a Bible for an enlightened person, in his view.  But this reasoning is circular.  It says, “If science can’t prove it, it doesn’t exist.  Since no scientist has ever proven a child was born of a virgin, the story of Jesus being born that way must be an old legend, believed in by much more primitive people.”  This kind of thinking assumes that science is the only way anything can be known. I like the way the philosopher Alvin Plantinga puts it: It’s like a drunk looking for his keys who insists on only looking under a streetlight because the light is better there.  Since he can’t see anything out there in the darkness, he just keeps walking circles under that streetlight, saying to himself, “If those keys exist, sooner or later, I’ll find them here.”  We’ve already demonstrated there are things that cannot be known through science.

On the other hand, if there really is a God who created all things—as almost all people on Earth have historically believed—then would it really be difficult for Him to put a fetus in the womb of a virgin?  If miracles are rare, as the Bible asserts, is it really surprising that we have little scientific evidence to substantiate them?  To put it more plainly, if God only performed one virgin birth in all of human history, and it happened two thousand years ago, should we be surprised that no scientist has witnessed one?

2 Corinthians 4:4-6 says the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel of the glory of Christ, who is the image of God. For what we proclaim is not ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, with ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake.  For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.  For those of us who are Christians, we need to understand that we’re not smarter than or superior to unbelievers.  We didn’t find Jesus on our own.  God turned on a light in our hearts, so that what would seem to be ridiculous superstition to us when we lived under the dominion of the “god of this age” has become the truth that changed our lives forever.  That’s a miracle, just like God saying “Let there be light,” and it was.  Be patient with your unbelieving friends.  Respect their questions and doubts.  But also realize that you cannot argue them into salvation.  When you get to know them well, you will often find that it wasn’t their intellectual objections that caused them not to believe.  Many, like Francis Collins, were raised in homes where belief in God was simply never taught.  Others grew up in a toxic church environment (like my favorite Christian author, Philip Yancey), or a dysfunctional family that caused them to doubt the faith of their parents.  Others experienced a traumatic event that made them doubt the existence of a loving God.  For many, the only contact they have with Christian faith is what they see on the news, or the occasional angry conversation on Facebook, Twitter or Reddit.  Instead of trying to prove their atheism wrong, which only makes them defensive, just be intentional about loving them.  Look for opportunities to treat them the way Jesus has treated you.  They will be won by your faithful friendship, not your arguments and certainly not by arrogance and self-righteousness.  If you have a relative who is not a believer, pray that God would introduce them to someone who would show them what the Gospel really looks like in the life of a person who has been changed by God’s grace.

If you’re not a religious person, you might find this Scripture offensive.  Does the Bible really teach that unbelievers are blind?  Yes.  But rather than be offended, consider the following:  Have you ever subjected your own convictions and doubts to the same scrutiny that you hold up against the Christian faith?  Your own beliefs are, in fact, a form of faith.  How do you know your faith in your own beliefs is valid?  What if you did what Francis Collins did all those years ago?  Why not investigate the possibility that the Gospel is true?  You don’t need to decide what you believe about Genesis 1 or whether Jonah really was swallowed by a whale or whether you agree with me on any particular social or political issues.  Just figure out who Jesus was, really.  Jeremiah 29:13 says If you seek me you will find me when you seek me with all your heart.   What an amazing promise!  Why not put that promise to the test?  If you need some guidance on how to investigate these things, I would love to help, and to answer any questions you have.

I know it’s much more comfortable to think that what you’ve always believed is still true.  I know it’s easier not to believe in a God who you will ultimately be accountable to for everything you say, do or think.  But here’s the good news.  Here’s why 2 Corinthians 4 talks about belief being like a light turned on in our souls: The story of the Bible is NOT that God wrote down a list of rules, and whoever is really good at following those rules, and gives money to a church, goes to Heaven and everyone else goes to Hell. The story of the Bible is that when humanity was lost and without hope, God became a man who lived among us long enough to live the life we should have lived, and then died the death we all deserved to die, so that we could experience true living, including a never-ending, always challenging, exhilarating, joyful, purposeful relationship with Him.  It says the Universe was created by and will ultimately be ruled by someone who loves you and has a beautiful purpose for your life.  In other words, the message of the Bible is that God would rather die for you than live without you.  Not only that, this God has a plan for the full redemption of the entire Universe; not an escape to a mystical fantasy world, but a renewed World, where things are finally set right, and things function as we all wish they would.  If there is even a possibility that is true, isn’t it worth your time to find out?

Tough Questions: How do we know Jesus is who He said He was?

Last time, we looked at how it’s possible that, out of all the world’s many religions, there is only one that is true.  As we saw, Jesus certainly thought so.  To paraphrase CS Lewis, the claims of Jesus leave us with only three alternatives: Either He was a con man who duped innocent people into giving their lives to Him, or He was a lunatic who thought He was God incarnate, or He was Lord and God, just as He said.  How do we know which path to choose?

Why should we believe in Jesus?  After all, Mohammed, Buddha, Confucius, Joseph Smith, and many others have claimed to have a special link to the divine, have claimed to know exclusive truth.  Why should we believe that an obscure, uneducated, blue-collar Jewish guy who lived 2000 years ago and was executed as an enemy of the state is the only one who is right?  Easter is the answer.  One main thing that separates Jesus from all those others is the resurrection.  Think about it: Christianity is the only religion that is based on an historical claim.  For example, you don’t have to believe that Buddha ever really existed in order to practice Buddhism.  You can still follow the Noble Eightfold Path.  Muslims believe the events in the Koran actually happened, but even if they didn’t, you would still have the teachings of Mohammed, the Five Pillars of the faith.  If a Jew didn’t believe that the plagues of Egypt and the parting of the Red Sea occurred, they could still follow the Law of Moses, still believe in Yahweh as the One True God.  Christianity alone says, “It’s not about following Christ’s teachings.  It’s about knowing Him.”  Jesus didn’t say, “My philosophy of life is the way to God.”  He said, I am the way, the truth and the life.  He didn’t invite people to a new religion, or say, “follow my teachings,” He said, “Follow me.”  If the resurrection never happened, if Jesus is dead and in the ground, then He can be rejected out of hand.

Tim Keller pastored for years in Manhattan, and often irreligious people would come to him who had been attending the church for a while.  These were highly educated, sophisticated people, so they would say, “I’d love to be a Christian, but I just can’t believe the biblical account of creation.  That doesn’t square with science.”  Or, “I like some parts of Christianity, but I can’t go along with its teachings on sexuality.  It’s just too primitive.”  Keller would refuse to argue or defend Christianity on those points.  Instead, He would say, “What really matters is, did Jesus rise from the dead?  If you look at the evidence and believe the resurrection never happened, then why worry what the Bible says about anything else?  It can all be rejected as foolishness.  But if you believe He rose from the dead, then you have to believe the answers to those other questions are there, and that you’ll find them eventually as you follow Him.”

The Bible confirms this, by the way. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15:14 writes, if Christ has not been raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in vain.  In v. 17, he doubles down: if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile and you are still in your sins. Why does everything hinge on the resurrection?  Because Jesus said He was more than a man.  He claimed to be the One sent from Heaven to save us, God in human flesh come to atone for our sins.  That’s very good news, but if it’s true, then He couldn’t have stayed dead.  If He stayed dead, then His predictions about rising are lies.  If He stayed dead, all His beautiful rhetoric was for nothing.  If, on the other hand, He did rise, then He is everything He said He was…He is indeed the way, the truth and the life.  That means the most important question in the history of the world is, “Did Jesus rise from the dead?”  I believe the answer to that question is yes.  I have staked my life and eternity upon it.  I realize, of course, there are all sorts of fantastic stories from antiquity that virtually no one believes today: Hercules slaying the Hydra is one example.  What evidence do I have that the fantastic story of Jesus rising from the dead really happened?

The eyewitnesses.  The Twelve disciples, Mary Magdalene and several female followers, James the brother of Jesus, and at least five hundred other people claimed they saw Jesus risen from the dead. One argument against the historicity of the resurrection is that it is much more likely to be a legend than a factual event.  Sometimes stories about beloved heroes get told so many times, eventually people start believing them, even though there’s no evidence they actually happened.  This is why we have the legend that young George Washington chopped down his father’s cherry tree or that Babe Ruth pointed to left field before he hit a home run in the World Series.  So according to this theory, the legend of Jesus rising from the grave grew up among Christians and was inserted into the biblical accounts by church leaders. But there are problems with the legend theory of the resurrection.  First of all, most New Testament scholars will tell you that the Gospels of Matthew, Mark and Luke were written while there were still people alive who remembered Jesus.  And Paul wrote 1 Corinthians, in which he says he personally knows of 500 people who saw the risen Jesus, in AD 55, about 25 years after Easter Sunday.  How many people here can remember the OJ Simpson murder trial, which took place around 25 years ago?  Imagine if someone today wrote a book claiming that OJ was declared not guilty because, in the midst of the trial, Nicole Brown Simpson walked into the courtroom and revealed that she was not, in fact, dead.  Such a book would be laughed out of existence.  Too many people remember those events to allow it.  In the case of Jesus’ resurrection, there wasn’t time for a legend to develop, because if Paul and the other writers had been writing down folk tales, people would have called them on it.  To recall an earlier example, there were people who witnessed the World Series game in which Babe Ruth supposedly pointed to left field before hitting a home run.  All said it was not true.  The pitcher who faced Ruth on that occasion, in fact, said that if Ruth had done something so flamboyant, the next pitch would have hit him in the ear.  Early Christian writers were able to claim that Christ was risen without anyone of their time saying, “No He’s not!  His body is still in the cave in Jerusalem.”

For me, the most convincing eyewitness was not an apostle, it was Mary Magdalene.  All four Gospels agree she was the first person to see the risen Christ.  Now think about it.  In that culture, women were not seen as equal to men.  A woman’s testimony was inadmissible in a trial, unless it was corroborated by a man. So if the church had been making up a story about Jesus being risen, why would they make a woman the first eyewitness?  The answer is that they didn’t.

The change in the apostles.  In addition, you have to look at what happened to the apostles themselves after Easter.  They were uneducated, fearful men, by their own accounts in the Gospels.  Yet they became the kind of men who changed history.  Something obviously happened to them.  And then look at Jesus’ brothers, James and Jude.  According to the Gospels, they didn’t believe in Jesus when He was alive.  In fact, they made fun of Him.  Again, why would the early church make up details like that if they weren’t true?  But after He died, they became leaders of His movement.  James became the head of the Jerusalem church and was martyred for his faith.  They both wrote books of the NT and called themselves the servants of the Lord Jesus Christ.  I have a brother, and I love him, but I wouldn’t call myself his servant if he paid me to do so.   I certainly wouldn’t tell people my brother was divine, especially if doing so put my life in jeopardy.  Why would they believe in Him when He was dead, if they hadn’t believed while He was still alive?  Keep in mind, there was no incentive at that point to declare Jesus the Son of God; for James, it meant leaving a secure life for an insecure one.  It ended in martyrdom for him, yet he never denied that it was true.

These faithful Jews began worshipping together on Sunday, when their tradition had always been to worship on the Jewish Sabbath, a Saturday.  Why did they make this change, unless something extremely important had happened on a Sunday?   Then look at what happened to their little movement.  120 people become more than 3000 within a few months.  Then within a generation, they were known in the Middle East as “These men who have turned the world upside down.”  Within three centuries, it was the official religion of the Roman Empire.  How on earth did a religion that was completely opposite traditional Roman religion (one God instead of many, with sexual ethics that were a stark contrast to Roman sexuality), that started with slaves and other disenfranchised people and emphasized qualities like humility and compassion, qualities the Romans tended to hate, spread so fast and win over so many?  Something must have happened after the death of Jesus that changed everything for His followers and His brothers.  It had to have been something transformative, and a resurrection would certainly fit the bill.  I’m certainly not the only one who thinks so.  Luke Johnson, a New Testament scholar from Emory University, muses, “Some sort of powerful, transformative experience is required to generate the sort of movement earliest Christianity was.”  N. T. Wright, an eminent British scholar, writes, “As a historian, I cannot explain the rise of early Christianity unless Jesus rose again, leaving an empty tomb behind him.”

The testimony of martyrs.  The legend theory of how the resurrection story came about doesn’t hold water. So instead, many skeptics believe the early apostles cooked up the idea of Jesus’ resurrection.  We can call this the conspiracy theory.  But it’s highly unlikely as well.  Here’s why: Let’s say you, me and a few hundred others decided to start a new religion.  We could sneak into a cemetery where a good friend was buried, we could dig up his body in the middle of the night, and we could start telling everyone he rose from the dead.  We could make up stories about how he had told everyone he was the Son of God, and predicted that he would rise from the grave.  We would have to be really good salesmen, because there are a lot of religions already in this world, and what we are saying is going to be pretty hard to believe.  Do you think we could pull it off?  People are going to treat us like freaks.  Can you stick with the story if your family disowns you, and you lose your job, and folks start making fun of you?  And then the police will come and arrest us for robbing a grave.  They’ll ask each one of us to tell what really happened to the body.  They’ll say, “Tell us the truth, and we won’t prosecute you.  But when one of your friends tells us the truth first, you’re going to jail for a long time…”  We all know that it wouldn’t be an hour before the first person in our group blurted out the truth: “Okay, we made it up.  Don’t send me to jail!”  See, the conspiracy theory sounds great, until you realize that almost all of the people who claimed to see the risen Jesus died a martyr’s death. They didn’t just go to jail, they died.  Their fellow Jews or the Romans said, “Renounce Christ or die!” and they died, confessing the resurrection with their dying breaths.  And we know that’s the case, because if even one of them had given in, had revealed that it was all a conspiracy, then the authorities would have published that story, would have displayed the body of Jesus, and there would be no Christianity today.

Now you may say, “Big deal.  People are always dying for their faith.  Look at suicide bombers, for instance.”  But there is a difference.  A suicide bomber believes that when he blows himself up, he is guaranteed a trip to heaven.  He believes this because he has been told this by his religious leaders and other people he trusts.  It does make one wonder why the young person doesn’t ask his leader, “If you believe in this so strongly, why don’t you blow yourself up?”  But at any rate, this devout person is willing to die for what he believes to be true.  But these first Christians knew the truth.  No one had told them Jesus was risen.  They either saw it happen, or they had made up the story themselves.  And while many people will die for what they believe to be true, no one dies for what he knows is a lie.

Theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg put it this way, “The evidence for Jesus’ resurrection is so strong that nobody would question it except for two things: First, it is a very unusual event. And second, if you believe it happened, you have to change the way you live.”  Do you believe that Jesus rose again?  If so, then He is everything He said He was.  If not, which category do you fall into?  If you disbelieve because it is hard for you to accept that a man could rise from the dead, I can understand that.  But consider the evidence.  What else accounts for the hundreds of eyewitnesses, the explosive growth of the early church, and for the martyrdom of most of the apostles?  If it is that second reason that bothers you, that you would have to change the way you live if Christ is truly Lord, then I appreciate your honesty.  But I urge you to consider the possibility that Jesus becoming Lord of your life would be the best thing that ever happened to you. What if He really is what you’ve always needed?

Frederica Matthews-Greene was raised in a Catholic home, but when she was a young teenager, she became convinced that the Gospel story was preposterous, something no sane, educated person could ever believe in.  She toyed with atheism, she studied other religions.  She was most intrigued with Hinduism because it was so different from what she was brought up with, but the one religion she was not interested in was Christianity.  She married a man who was a confirmed atheist, but on their honeymoon, as they were hitchhiking through Europe, he told her he had been reading the Gospels as part of a class assignment.  He said, “There’s something about Jesus. I’ve never encountered anyone like this before. I know that he’s speaking the truth. I’m an atheist. But if Jesus says there’s a God, there must be a God.”  That was very scary news for Frederica; the last thing in the world she wanted was for her husband to become a Christian.  Later in the same trip, while they were touring a church in Dublin, she suddenly found herself kneeling before a statue of Jesus.  A voice inside of her said, “I am your life. You thought that your life was your history, your name, your personality. You thought that your life was the fact that your heart beats. But that is not your life. I am your life. I am the foundation of everything else in your life.”  Frederica started reading the Bible at that point, and found that she disagreed with much of what she was reading. Yet she couldn’t stop reading the life and teachings of this man, Jesus.  Months later, a friend asked the two of them, “Have you asked Jesus to be your Lord?”  Their response was classic: “We’re not Southern Baptists.”  He said, “Actually, Jesus wants to be Lord for everyone.”  They objected, “But we’re in grad school.”  He replied, “No, even for you.”  There in that friend’s apartment, Frederica and her husband prayed and invited Jesus to take control of their lives.  Today, she is a highly-regarded Christian writer and he is a minister.

So what do you believe about Jesus?  Give Him a chance, and He’ll change your life forever.

For more, see William Lane Craig’s excellent article on evidence for the resurrection of Jesus: https://www.reasonablefaith.org/writings/popular-writings/jesus-of-nazareth/the-resurrection-of-jesus/

Tough Questions: Can There Be Only One True Religion?

Several years ago in their Easter Sunday edition, Parade Magazine asked six religious leaders from a variety of backgrounds to answer the question, “What is the biggest problem in the religious world today?”  The only Christian in the group was a Baptist, and he said the biggest problem was violence in the name of religion.  The other five all said the biggest problem was exclusivity.  They all said it in their own way, but they were agreeing that the biggest problem in religion today is that people believe that their religion is the only true one.  That seems to be a pretty common way to think these days.  In fact, several years ago, US News and World Report asked American Christians how many agreed with the statement, “The religion I practice is the only true religion.”  Only 19% agreed.  The rising sentiment seems to be that those five religious leaders were right.  If all the different religions would just stop arguing and admit that all religions lead to the same place, we wouldn’t have terrorism and hatred.

I certainly understand where this sentiment comes from.  First of all, there is a long, terrible tradition of religiously-inspired violence.  In the interest of being intellectually honest, let’s just talk about some of the terrible things done in the name of Christianity.  We can point to the bloody Crusades against Muslims over possession of the Holy Land, in which soldiers were told by the Pope that they would be forgiven of sins if they fought; numerous religious-inspired wars in Europe in the Middle Ages; the terrible things some Christian leaders—including Martin Luther, one of my heroes—have written and said about Jews, which led to terrible discrimination and violence against the Jewish people; terrible bloodshed between Protestants and Catholics in Ireland, the list goes on and on.  We may protest at those examples, since in most them the real issue was nationalism, ethnic strife, or the ambitions of a particular political leader, and religion was simply tacked on as a way to stir more people up.  We also legitimately  say, “Those people weren’t following Christ’s teachings, so you can’t blame Him for their atrocities.”  All true, yet history still shows that religious people did violence in the name of their religious beliefs.  And that’s not even counting any of the examples from Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, etc.  As Pascal famously wrote, “Men never do evil so cheerfully and completely as when they do it from religious conviction.”

Second, for most of history, people tended to live near and interact solely with people who looked and thought basically the way they themselves did on important questions, including religion.  I’m not yet fifty, but growing up, I didn’t know a single person from a faith other than Christianity.  Things changed quickly when I moved away from home; in college, I met people who were from Muslim, Hindu, and Jewish backgrounds.  When I was in seminary, Carrie worked for a man who was a devout Jew, and he was a wonderful, gracious boss, who lived with admirable integrity.  I have a cousin who married a Palestinian Muslim and converted, and they have a wonderful marriage, with three high-achieving, all-American kids.  I’m sure many other Christians have had similar experiences.  The world has become much smaller in the past fifty years.  Whereas once we could confidently speak of people of other faiths as if they were ignorant or even evil, once we get to know people with these other beliefs, we realize they aren’t so different from us.  From there, many of us take another step into thinking, “I know Amir is a Muslim, but he’s such a great guy.  I really don’t see how God could reject him just because he follows a different religion than I do.”  And so we begin to craft a view that says, essentially, “All religions lead to the same place.  As long as you are sincere in your faith and don’t harm others, God accepts you.”

There’s an old parable that talks about this.  Five blind men walk up to an elephant one day.  The first blind man feels its tail and says, “Whatever this thing is, it’s like a broom.”  Another one touches it’s side and says, “No, it’s like a wall.”  Another one feels its ear and says, “No, it’s like a fan.”  Another feels its trunk and says, “No, it’s like a hose.”  The final one feels its tusk and says, “You’re all wrong.  It’s like a spear.”  The point of the parable is that all religions are worshipping essentially the same God, but they’re so blinded by their pride that they can’t see this.  If they would just work together and learn from each other, they would together discover who God really is.

This parable is seen as being very humble and tolerant, and it certainly seems that way when you first hear it.  Two problems: First, it is anything but humble…it’s arrogant.  The person telling the parable is asserting that, whereas all the foolish religious people in the world are blind and limited, only he can see God as he really is.  Only he can see the elephant.  So the teller of the parable is guilty of the same prideful narrow-mindedness that he accuses religion of.

Second, this idea is incredibly disrespectful of all religion.  It’s anything but tolerant.  It’s basically saying, “Muslims, stop teaching that there is only one God.  That’s incredibly offensive to Hindus.  And Hindus, stop worshipping at your shrines.  Don’t you know how offensive that is to Muslims?  And Christians, stop saying that Jesus was God in human flesh.  Jews don’t believe that.  Stop saying He died for our sins.  Muslims don’t believe that.  In fact, all of you, stop insisting that there is a personal God who punishes evil and saves our souls, because Buddhists don’t believe that.  Can’t you just agree on a few ethical standards that you have in common?”  You’re telling people that they need to change the very most basic tenets of their faith. As a Christian, if you take away Christ’s divinity and His death for our sins, then it isn’t Christianity anymore.

If someone were to ask me that Parade Magazine question, “What is the biggest problem in religion today?” I would say it’s the desire to customize God.  Everyone, it seems, wants to make God in his or her own image, instead of the other way around.  That includes many Christians I know, as well as people who are “spiritual but not religious.”  It includes liberals and conservatives.  Everyone, it seems, thinks they get to define God in their own terms.  Let me explain the problem with that.  Imagine a young man approached a young woman and said, “I love you.  I want to marry you, have kids with you, and grow old with you.  I just need you to be blonde and about three inches shorter.  Also, your voice sort of grates on my nerves, so work on speaking in a lower register.  Then, drop about twenty pounds, take some cooking classes, go a little easier on the eyeliner, and get rid of those nutjobs you call parents.  Then you’ll be just fine.”  Only a fool (a short-lived fool) would ever treat a woman that way. Yet that’s exactly what we do to God when we want to customize what we believe about Him.  That’s what happens when, for instance, we say, “I love the sermon on the Mount, and how Jesus was so forgiving and accepting, but I don’t like what the Bible says about sexuality, or the existence of Hell.”  Or on the other end of the political spectrum, some say, “I am glad that God tells us right from wrong. It’s good to have standards that never change.  But I don’t like the parts of the Bible that talk about how we should love our enemies and put the needs of the poor ahead of our own needs.”  That would include people who say, “I believe in a God who is accepting of all religious faiths.” God says, “Take me as I am or don’t take me at all.”

So if it’s possible that there is only one true God, who is He?  The Bible claims that Jesus is God.  Colossians 1:15-20 says of Jesus, He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.  What did Jesus say about Himself?  In John 14:5-10, He said two things that make it very clear.  First is in v. 6, No one comes to the Father except through me.  Then in v. 9, He says Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.  Philip wanted to see God, and Jesus said, “You’re looking at Him.”  This is hardly the only place Jesus made these kinds of claims.  In John 11, just before raising Lazarus from the dead, He said, I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  The morning He was crucified, He predicted His own second coming.  Standing before Caiaphas, the man who would stage-manage His crucifixion, He said, In the future you will see the Son of Man sitting at the right hand of the Mighty One and coming on the clouds of heaven (Mark 14:62).  Essentially, He was saying, “This isn’t the last you’ll see of me…I’ll be the one you meet face to face on your Judgment.”  Those who knew Him were so convinced of His deity, they began to say, Salvation is found in no one else, for there is no other name under Heaven given to men by which we may be saved (Acts 4:12).

Of course, none of these sayings prove that Christianity is the one true religion.  We’ll talk about that next week. But they are proof that Jesus thought it was.  To paraphrase CS Lewis, Jesus was one of three things: Either He was a liar, a cult leader of the worst sort, to be counted along with Jim Jones and David Koresh; or He was a lunatic on the order of a man who claims to be from Mars; or He was exactly what He said He was.  More recently, the Catholic scholar Gary Wills has put it this way: “Either Jesus was God or He was a standing blasphemy against God.”  The one thing He could not have been is simply a good man, a wise and courageous teacher.  Good people don’t say the kinds of things about themselves that He did…unless it was true.  So yes, we as Christians believe in absolute, exclusive truth.  There are points of agreement with most other major religions, and as Americans, we celebrate their right to practice their faith.  But we believe Jesus is the only way to salvation.  To believe anything else is to call Him a liar or a lunatic.

Is that really fair?  After all, it’s easy for me to say that Christianity is the only way.  But think about the person who is born in Saudi Arabia, and is taught that Islam is the way, or someone who grows up in India and is taught that Hinduism is the one true faith, or someone who lives all their life in the most Orthodox Jewish part of Jerusalem and hears that the Jews are God’s only chosen people.  If there is only one way, why wouldn’t God spread it equally all around the world?  The biblical answer is that’s exactly what He’s doing.  Jesus, just before ascending into Heaven, told His followers to make more disciples, to take His message to the ends of the earth.  Notice all other world religions are still based in the places they began. But Christianity is mobile.  It started in the Middle East, then spread throughout Europe, then took root in America.  Now, it’s growing fastest in places like China, Africa and South America.  Other religions spread through migration or military conquest, but Christianity spreads through missionary work and evangelism.  It certainly seems the Gospel isn’t restricted to a particular cultural context, as other religions are.  I believe that’s because the Gospel of Jesus is the truth.

Even if you’re an unbeliever, that should give you comfort.  If you think the problem in the world is too much religion, think about this: One of the central doctrines of Christianity is that everyone is equally sinful and in need of a Savior.  So a true Christian would not look upon a person of another faith with arrogance or superiority.  He would expect to find people of all religious backgrounds—and no religion at all—who are kind, courageous, generous and wonderful.  He would never restrict any person’s right to believe what they want to believe, because Jesus never forced anyone to follow Him…He spread His message through persuasion and love.  So if you want a peaceful world, what we need is not less Jesus, it’s more.

Tough Questions: How Do We Know God is Real?

Today, we begin a new series, addressing tough questions.  My hope is that through this series, our faith in God will increase, and we’ll be less afraid to confront the really tough questions that come up in life.  I hope also that we’ll feel more confident in talking to people who have questions and doubts about Christianity or the Bible. These questions came from people in my mid-week Bible study, our College/Career group, and from my Facebook friends.  I asked each of the three groups to give me difficult biblical or theological questions that they would like answers to.   I’ve divided them up into three categories: Answering objections to Christianity, which we’ll start today and continue through the Fall.  Answering tough questions from Scripture, in which we’ll talk about specific Bible passages that are confusing.  We’ll get to those over the Winter.  And Applying Scripture to tough questions in life, where we’ll talk about the stuff that believers tend to wonder about, like “what will Heaven be like?”  “Does prayer change anything?”  “What should we think about issues like abortion, sexuality, suicide?”  We’ll deal with those in the Spring.

Here are my disclaimers: We’re all human, so our understanding of some things is going to be limited.  I cannot promise you that I can answer all your questions beyond a shadow of a doubt.  In fact, I know I can’t do that.  Where Scripture speaks clearly, I will share without reservation.  But there are plenty of questions and issues where the Bible doesn’t give us a clear direction, and I will let you know when I am just taking an educated guess.  Also, I am a preacher, not a philosopher or scientist.  I am not the best person on earth to be covering these issues.  So I will often refer to books that I have found helpful.  I suggest you read them to see the arguments presented far better than I am able.  The three best I  have found on the question of God’s existence are: The Reason for God, by Tim Keller, Reasonable Faith, by William Lane Craig, and The Case for Faith, by Lee Strobel.  I believe dealing with these tough issues grows our faith.  So be in prayer for all of these studies.  And feel free to ask me any follow-up questions you have.

I want to start with an illustration I stole from Christian philosopher William Lane Craig.  Imagine I went to see a friend at his workplace.  When I pulled up to the building, I saw his car in the parking lot.  When I went into his office, his secretary told me he was in.  I also saw notes in his handwriting sitting on her desk.  I could see a light on in his office, and hear sounds that indicated he was inside (the creaking of a chair, drawers being opened and closed).  Because I showed up that day with the assumption that he would be there, all of these signs merely confirmed my assumption.  On the other hand, what if a skeptical person came into that office, someone who doubted whether my friend had actually showed up to work that day?  They would interpret the evidence very differently.  They might see the car in the parking lot and say, “There are lots of those kinds of cars on the road today.”  They might think my friend’s secretary was mistaken, that she simply assumed he had come in, when he really hadn’t.  Or maybe she was even lying to cover for him.  The notes on the desk could be easily forged, or left over from the previous day.  And as for the sounds in his office, those could be coming from another nearby office.  Do I know God is real?  Yes.  I am in a personal relationship with Him now that has changed my life forever.  Even if I weren’t, there are evidences in the world today that show us He exists.  But these clues may not be convincing to you.  It depends on your assumptions.  If you want God to be real, then you will see evidence for Him everywhere.  If, on the other hand, you are convinced that there is no God, if the existence of God would mean changing your way of thinking or living, and you don’t want that to be true, then no amount of evidence will convince you.  My question for you is, do you want to believe?  If the answer is yes, then I think God has given us more than enough evidence to know that He is real.  If the answer is no, let me just ask you to open your mind to the possibility.  As Pascal famously said, if you bet that God is real and He’s not, you’ve lost nothing.  If you bet that He’s not real and He is, then you’ve lost everything.

So what are these evidences for God’s existence?  There are many arguments for the existence of God.  I will mention three of them here.  I will also talk about one big objection we have to deal with.

The first argument for God’s existence is the existence of anything. In other words, how does anything exist, if no one was there to create it?  This is called the cosmological argument for God. It goes like this: Everything that exists was caused by something else.  Since the Universe exists, it must have been caused by something that has always existed.  It’s quite often thought that Darwin’s theory of evolution destroys the possibility that God created the world.  It does no such thing.  Even if you believe that all life on earth evolved over millions of years starting with one tiny amoeba, that doesn’t explain where galaxies full of stars and planets came from.  Why is there something instead of nothing?  Some skeptics attempt to explain that by saying the universe has always existed. But science itself argues against that.  It’s accepted science that the universe is expanding, as if there were a point long ago when a great explosion took place, and everything in existence is still pushing out from the center.  We know this as the Big Bang.  Why would the universe be expanding if it has always existed?  So if there was a point in time when the universe (and everything in it) began, then something had to have made that happen.  The only explanation is that there was something that exists without being created, an “un-caused Cause” in the words of the philosophers, that made everything.

Second, there’s the teleological argument, or the argument from complexity: Here’s one way to understand this argument: Imagine you are walking through the woods and you find a small figure of a man made of wood.  He has eyes, a nose and mouth, arms, legs, a cigar in his mouth and a hat on his head.  You look closer and realize it doesn’t just look like a man, it looks like a specific man: Clint Eastwood.  There are two possible explanations for this object.  You might think, “Amazing.  A tree has produced a growth that looks exactly like The Man with No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, then dropped it here on the forest floor.”  Or you could think, “Another person is in these woods.  Whoever he or she is must be excellent at carving, and must be a fan of Spaghetti Westerns.”  Either one is possible, but the second option is much, much more likely.  The life on our planet is so complex, the systems that sustain that life so intricately perfect, it is far more likely that some intelligent being designed it, than that it all happened by accident.

Third is the moral argument. Where have we come up with the idea that some things are right and others are wrong?  In the animal Kingdom, the law of the jungle rules.  Imagine a scene in the African Savannah.  Hundreds of animals are grazing in the fields.  Suddenly, a lioness attacks and kills a smaller, weaker animal, and begins to eat it.  Do any of the other animals stand up and say, “Wait a minute.  That hyena had rights?”  Do they band together to punish the lioness for using her strength inappropriately?  No, they go on about their business as if nothing had happened.  Now, imagine a busy street in downtown Houston.  A man attacks a woman on a sidewalk and begins dragging her toward a waiting car.  What happens?  People scream.  They pull out cell phones and call the police.  Some even physically intervene to save the woman’s life.  If he’s caught, the eyewitnesses are eager to testify against him, because we all know that this kind of behavior has to be punished.  Where did we get the idea that someone who is stronger can’t do whatever he wants to someone who is weaker?  If we are only more highly evolved mammals, why would we value concepts like courage, self-sacrifice, and love?  Why do we think that society is supposed to protect and provide for those who are disadvantaged, when the law of the jungle would say these people deserve to die in order to avoid being a drain on humanity?  These characteristics don’t come from some evolutionary desire to protect ourselves and strengthen our species.  They come from somewhere else.  This sense of right and wrong is a clue that we are made in the image of God.

All of these arguments prove that it’s much more likely that a god exists than that one doesn’t.  But some say that if a personal, loving God existed (like the God of the Bible), He would prove Himself to us.  They say, “Why does God have to play this game of hide and seek with us?  If I were God and wanted people to know me, I would appear to them personally.  I would go out of my way to convince them.  Why doesn’t God go on national TV and address the entire world?”  The short answer from Scripture is that we cannot see God and live.  Our own sin has separated us from Him and ruptured the intimate relationship He wants to have with us.  Only once we are fully redeemed will we be able to see Him face to face.

“Okay,” you may say, “But the Bible talks about God appearing to people in various ways.  Why doesn’t He still do that?”  How do you or I know He doesn’t?  The Bible says that God has appeared visibly or audibly to a small number of people at key moments in His plan, but it was never for the purpose of convincing people who were skeptical.  Look at the life of Jesus.  He had plenty of opportunities to work miracles when it would’ve persuaded skeptics.  The Pharisees demanded a confirming sign.  Herod, on the day of Christ’s death, wanted to see a miracle, but even though it might have saved His life, Jesus refused.  Even after the resurrection, Jesus didn’t appear to anyone who didn’t already know Him.  Why did He not go before the Sanhedrin in His resurrected form and say, “Do you see now what a mistake you made?”   God’s goal is not to make us believe in His existence.  He wants for us to know Him, to love Him, and to experience a true relationship with Him.  Coming audibly or visibly won’t make that happen, so God doesn’t do it.  Besides, aren’t all important relationships based on faith?  A child trusts that his parents have his best interests in mind.  I trust that my wife Carrie really does love me, and isn’t secretly scouting for someone taller, richer and better looking (although there are plenty of candidates).  I see plenty of evidence that she loves me.  If I were to say, “I need for you to prove that you love me,” it wouldn’t be the basis of a very good relationship, would it?

Romans 1:19-20 says this of unbelievers, For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them.  For His invisible attributes, namely, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made.  So they are without excuse.  In other words, just looking at the world around us, we can see proof of God’s existence, power, and righteousness, if we want to see it.  But God went much further than giving us evidence of His existence.  He has gone to great lengths to let us know that He loves us.  He did speak to us—not on TV, but in three better, more compelling ways.  First, and most importantly, He sent us Jesus.  More than any other single thing, the life and teachings of Jesus—and His atoning death and resurrection from the dead–convince me that there is a God. He also gave us His Word, the Bible, the most amazing book ever written.  When I study the Bible, I am convinced that it is not a human document.  Later in this series, we’ll talk about both these things; how we know Jesus is who He says He is, and why we can trust the Bible as more than a human book.  Finally, He reveals to us the transforming power of faith in Him.  I have seen too many people radically changed by Christ for it all to be a fairy tale.  And I have seen transformation in myself that is not explainable in any other way. 

That brings me to my final point. I said at the beginning that I would tell you how to know for sure that God is real.  The answer is to seek Him.  It is one thing to look at this as an intellectual exercise, to study the evidence for and against the existence of God.  That’s a fine pursuit, and if that’s what you’re doing, I wish you well.  But Jeremiah 29:13 says You will seek me and find me when you seek me with all your heart.  Proverbs 8:17 says Those who seek me, find me.  Think back to that analogy from William Lane Craig about going to visit a friend at his office.  You can see it as an intellectual exercise. You can sit out in the lobby or the parking lot playing amateur Sherlock Holmes, piecing together the evidence and trying to guess whether he’s really in the office or not.  Or you can do the most logical thing: You can walk into his office and see for yourself.  I don’t need evidences of God’s existence.  I know Him personally.  And you can too.  If you are not sure whether God is there, or if you are a believer who is caught in doubts, the best advice I can give you is to seek Him.  Since He is an invisible, all-righteous deity, it’s not as simple as opening a door, but it’s also not complicated.  My suggestion: Start reading the gospel of Matthew and keep on going until you finish the New Testament.  Pray every day and say something like this, “Lord, I want to know you and experience a relationship with you.  Show me how to seek you. Teach me who you are and how you want me to live.”  Hang out with some people who really seem to know Jesus—not just religious people, but men and women who walk with Christ.  See the activity of God in their lives.  He has promised us that when seeking Him becomes the highest goal of our hearts, we will find Him.  And we won’t need evidence anymore.