Tuesday, November 26, 2013

New blog and website

Alright. Last post here. Make sure you go over to my new website and follow the blog there if you haven't already. It's simple. Go to becauseitstrue.com and click on the blog tab. Then click on the RSS feed and subscribe. I am posting blogs but I have also started doing videos. So, all of the old stuff is there along with plenty of new stuff already and much more to come. Thanks for all of your support!

Tuesday, November 19, 2013

I am moving!

For the few who follow me here, I am happy to announce that I am moving to becauseitstrue.com. I will post all future blogs there. In addition, I am going to start posting videos, audio clips, and hopefully some dates for upcoming speaking engagements. I hope you will follow me there! Thanks.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Alice in Wonderland and The Problem of Evil

This year, Netflix added a bunch of Disney movies to the catalog. That has made it easy for me to introduce my son to many of the classic animated films from my childhood. We have had a lot of fun watching The Aristocats, The Rescuers, The Emperor's New Groove, and many others. Last week we watched Alice in Wonderland. I have probably seen the movie a dozen or more times in my life, but this time something new occurred to me. It came to me during the scene where Alice takes a bite from a mushroom and suddenly grows taller than all of the trees in the forest. Mind you, that was the result of only a tiny bite. What would have happened if she had eaten the whole mushroom? Presumably she would have become hundreds, if not thousands of feet tall. That is when the thought hit me. If a land like Wonderland existed in reality--a land where simply eating a naturally occurring food could increase a person's size, presumably indefinitely--we should expect that someone would  take the notion to conquer the land simply by becoming unstoppably huge. After all, what match would even the greatest army in the land be for someone who could crush each and everyone of them in a single footprint, or weild a redwood tree as a weapon? I know that someone reading this will probably get unnecessarily technical and say, "well, a person couldn't breathe above a certain altitude." Fair enough, but that assumes that the atmosphere of such a hypothetical world is exactly like our own. But lest this post degenerate into a debate over the makeup of hypothetical worlds (even though that is tempting for an uber-nerd like myself) it should suffice to say that the specifics are irrelevant to my broader point. You get the idea. So lets move on.

From there, I couldn't help but think of one of the most commonly raised objections to Christianity; the problem of evil. More specifically, the problem of seemingly gratuitous evil. Skeptics seem fairly satisfied with the coherence of the idea that God could exist, give his creatures moral freedom, and that moral freedom accounts for some evil in the world. At the same time however, a lot of skeptics maintain that if God exists, we should not expect to see such apparently gratuitous evil in the world. But I would argue that they have got it exactly backwards. Just like the situation in Wonderland, we should expect that people would push the boundaries afforded by their environment. If such a world existed where human being were given moral freedom, we should expect that someone would take the notion to do everything that moral freedom allows. For the purpose of this discussion, I am not entertaining the often raised objection that God could simply have created morally free creatures and made it so that none of them would have chosen to do evil. I am not convinced that it is even logically possible (and therefore not a question of God's omnipotence) for God to actualize a world in which morally free creatures are guaranteed to never do evil. And theorizing about all of the ways that he could have curtailed that freedom just seems unhelpful. Anyway, putting all of that aside, I maintain that it would be very strange indeed if a world with moral freedom existed and no one had even attempted something like murder. Interestingly enough, that is precisely what happens with the very first children in the Bible. Unlike in Wonderland, they didn't even make it one generation without pushing the boundaries and uncovering a horrific reality. They opened Pandora's box as it were. If murder is do-able, why should we be surprised that genocide is attempted? The same goes for all acts of moral evil--why should we be surprised that someone, somewhere will see how far they can take it? That is exactly what we should expect in the real world.*

I hate to end a post on such a disparaging note. So, let me say a couple of things in closing. One of the reasons that I am convinced Christianity is true is that it best explains reality. The problem of evil is a good example of this. Christianity doesn't sugarcoat the problem, deny it, or say that it doesn't matter. The Bible acknowledges that the heart of man is terribly wicked. Additionally, it does not paint God as aloof. It is only in Christianity that we find God offering a solution that stands up to the severity of problem. God took on flesh and endured all of the seemingly gratuitous evil that the world could muster--mocked, profaned, rejected, abandoned, tortured, and murdered. And it isn't that Christians are masochistic and that God is bloodthirsty. It was the judgement of the evil that Jesus carried to the cross that is of utmost importance. All of the physical agony pales in comparison to what he endured spiritually. Even so, the physical suffering of God in the person of Jesus--the part that we can actually relate to since we are well acquainted with pain and suffering--demonstrates beyond any question that he is not cold and distant. Even though we still agonize in our longing to know "why?", the cross definitively answers the question "does he even care?" And aren't those the two questions that we all want answered? If a child asks his parents "why?" and doesn't receive an answer, he will eventually want to know, "do you even care?" A believable answer to the latter question doesn't take away the pain associated with not knowing why, but it assures the child's heart that there must be a reason. Of course, the next thing the child wants to know, "are you going to do something about it?" The resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that God is not impotent to solve the problem--he has done something about it. The resurrection is more than simply a man coming back from the dead; it is the inbreaking of the new creation--the firstfruits of a universe free from evil, defect, sorrow--paradise restored.

*I am not trying to suggest that we should cease to be shocked by horrendous acts of evil. As these are gross violations of the way things ought to be, they ought to disturb us greatly.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Ask Mr. Wisdom: Q & A #2

Send questions to questionsforwisdom@gmail.com 

[I have heard Christians say] that “If Jesus rose from the dead, then he was God”, but if that is the argument being made, why are the other people mentioned in the Bible who rose from the dead not God?

That is an excellent question. The answer is in the context. However even before that, it is necessary to pin down out exactly what the claim is. It isn't that Jesus rose from the dead and that makes him God. Rather, the claim is that the resurrection of Jesus demonstrates that he is God. That is an important distinction because it frames the resurrection as the ultimate piece of evidence that validates his divinity claims.

Note: for the purposes of this particular question, I am not addressing the issue of the Bible's historical reliability. That is, I am not addressing the question, "how do we know Jesus actually said that?" For this question, I am only addressing the claim, "if Jesus rose from the dead, then he was God," which is offered from a Christian perspective, and I will simply work within the Christian worldview to demonstrate that it is not contradictory or fallacious.

So, what is the context of Jesus' resurrection? He was a miracle worker who claimed authority, divinity, and autonomous power. He claimed the authority to forgive sins (Mark 2); when he spoke, he spoke with authority; instead of saying, "this is what the Lord says," he said simply, "I tell you" (Matt 7:29); He claimed to be the prophesied messiah (Luke 4); He took the divine name, "I am" on multiple occasions, all of which caused the Pharisees to rend their garments and take up stones to kill him for blasphemy--they knew exactly what he was claiming. There are other examples, but I am trying not to make this post unbearably long.

So, most relevant to your question: Jesus claimed authority to "lay his life down and take it up again" (John 10:18). He also made the bold claim that after his death, he would resurrect after 3 days (John 2:9). And consider what he told the Pharisees when they asked him for a sign to prove his authority. He said, "For as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of a huge fish, so the Son of Man will be three days and three nights in the heart of the earth." Jesus was convinced that he would be the source of his own resurrection and he even predicted the time (after 3 days) that it would happen. There can be no doubt that he was claiming divinity and pointing to the resurrection as the ultimate evidence to verify it.

What about the other biblical accounts of resurrection? None of the people who were resurrected in the Bible (other than Jesus) made any claims to be divine. Neither were their resurrections prophesied. Furthermore, these resurrections always involved some prophet/apostle who did not claim to possess autonomous power, but only to be a conduit for the power of God. Elijah and the widow's son (1 Kings 17); Elisha and the son of the Shunamite woman (2 Kings 4); the dead man who touched Elisha's bones (2 Kings 13); Peter and Tabitha (Acts 9); and Paul and Eutychus (Acts 20).

In short, the context makes it clear that if Jesus did not rise from the dead, the whole Christian faith is a sham. Paul says as much in 1 Cor 15. That is a pretty hefty and unnecessary burden of proof to take on if the whole thing were just made up. On the other hand, the statement, "if Jesus rose from the dead, then he was God" is true; not because resurrection makes Jesus God, but because it validates his claim to be God.

Is there a dependable, UNBIASED list out there for someone searching for a church... I checked out a local Methodist church and it was verrrrry liberal. I learned that the word Methodist is painting with a very wide brush. Then there is Presbyterian, but there is FPUSA which looks like it allows a certain degree or liberalism, yet you need to go to the church to see exactly where they are. Is there a "gay marriage", "abortion", "tithing", "premarital sex", etc.... (All the biggies) sort of list so that someone could weed out what they aren't interested in?

Yes and no. Yes, there are some churches that are "confessional." That is, they hold firmly to a specific confession of faith. You would be able to ascertain what they believe about the majority of important issues before you even walk through the doors. Roman Catholic, Lutheran, and Presbyterian are among the most well-known churches in America that fall into that category. They tend to hold to some well-known confession and/or ascribe to a catechism (authoritative answers to a variety of doctrinal questions). However, you have rightly observed that even among confessional churches, there are often different groups. The Presbyterians have a more conservative branch (PCA) and a more liberal branch (PCUSA). The Lutherans have a conservative branch (WELS), a middle of the road branch (LCMS), and a more liberal branch (ELCA). Even so, within these particular distinctions, there is not much variation between individual congregations on what they believe about particular "hot button" issues. You can just do a quick search on the internet and get an idea what these groups believe (I quickly tested it with the PCA and PCUSA and found plenty of info) and the congregations in your area will almost certainly hold to these beliefs.

On the other hand, while Assemblies of God, Episcopal/Anglican, Baptists (other than Reformed Baptists) and Methodists have basic statements of beliefs, they tend to allow for some amount of individual church autonomy. So, one may be very liberal and another very conservative. And I am not just talking about what the pastors believe. Even if the pastor would candidly give conservative answers to the tough questions, his congregation might be largely unaware of his positions. These denominations will all basically affirm the main points of traditional Christianity reflected in the Nicene Creed and Apostles Creed; although some (like Baptists and AofG) will not usually appeal to the creeds. In any event, it will not always be possible to know ahead of time what they might believe about certain "hot button" issues.

With all of that said, I wouldn't say that a confessional church is objectively better than a non-confessional congregation or vice-versa. You may find that you enjoy the consistency and clear doctrinal teaching of a confessional church, but you might not agree with them across the board. As a layperson, that may not be an issue. However, if you were going to teach, preach, or represent that denomination in any way, it would be very important. On the other hand, you might find it frustrating to search for a non-confessional church that suits all of your particular theological leanings, but you might like the freedom that they allow in non-essential issues.

All of that lengthy exposition to basically say... it just depends on what you are looking for. Confessional churches will require less time, research, and awkwardness in order to find out what they believe on these issues. With non-confessional churches you will just have to figure it out on a case by case basis.

A question I have had for a while is the issue of Christian getting tattoos. I realize many things have changed since the Old Testament, but would the idea of a Christian getting a tattoo (even a Christian one) fall into the New Testament category of not blending in with the world?

The New Covenant follower of Christ is not bound to the letter of the Old Covenant Law, and as such, the apparent prohibition against tattoos is not applicable. I say "apparent," because I do not think that Moses could have conceived of the modern process of tattooing. What seems to be in mind in the Leviticus 19:28 is the process of mutilating the body as a sign of mourning--a pagan practice--not decorating it by adding pigment in particular patterns. For example, it seems clear that piercings were acceptable for women. Speaking of the redemption of Israel, (and by extension, of all true Israel), God says, "I put a ring on your nose and earrings in your ears and a beautiful crown on your head." I think that is more comparable to the modern practice of tattooing than what was forbidden in the Law. Furthermore, I specifically say that we are not bound to the "letter" of the Law because we are still obligated to observe the principle of the Law--since they were given to reveal God's holiness and our desperate need for a Savior. You are right to point out that we should not be actively seeking the approval of the world. However, if a person is getting tattoos purely for the sake of popularity or gaining the approval of the world, the real problem is not in the his skin, but in his heart. The good news is that by Grace, the blood of Jesus purifies hearts and justifies them to God. And so, a person who has gotten tattoos, even for totally wrong reasons, has nothing to be ashamed of before God if they are in Christ.  

Even so, I will leave you with one additional thought. As someone who has 3 tattoos, I can say that I still do not think getting tattoos is the wisest decision. Consider my friends who, like me, wanted to get tattoos when we were younger and/or playing in the band, but unlike me, they never got a tattoo. I think they made the wiser decision. To a certain extent, getting the tattoos puts me "in a box." That is ironic, because everyone who gets tattoos thinks they are breaking out of the box (there is some deep spiritual gold to be mined in that). But, people will inevitably think certain things about me when they see me at the pool with my son or wearing a pair of shorts (which I cannot do at work). Does that mean that I regret getting them? No, not necessarily. They mean a lot to me (I have a Lion, Paschal lamb and a lamp post that says "Every New Day"). I didn't get them to impress people. Most people never see them. And one day, I may even get the last one that I originally planned on getting (to complete the theme I was going for), but have not been able to afford. But if you don't have any, I would suggest that it is a much wiser decision to stay tattoo-less (apologies to my friends who tattoo people for a living). The question is not whether or not it is acceptable for a Christian to get a tattoo. The real question should be: "is it wise for me to get one?" Hope those thoughts help out.


Thursday, October 17, 2013

Servant Apologetics: Inner Circle Dwellers and Selfish Body Builders

In That Hideous Strength, the third installment of C. S. Lewis' grossly underappreciated space trilogy, Lewis addresses a subtle, yet pervasive human problem. He offers a version of the "grass is always greener" dilemma. Lewis says that human beings perpetually long to enter the "inner circle." Discontent with his current station, man inevitably longs to become part of some elite group. However, as soon as enters the inner circle that he has idolized, he realizes that there is yet another, more elite circle. Even powerful leaders of countries long to be in the inner circle constituted by those who have left great legacies. Until they can get into that elite group, they will feel unfulfilled. If they reach that level, they will long for something yet more exclusive.  The cycle is never ending. 

When I first began studying apologetics, the "inner circle" temptation was extremely strong. I saw an opportunity to reach a level of knowledge that very few Christians possess. That would put me in an elite group. I would be somebody special. I have a suspicion that my experience is not unusual, especially for young people getting into apologetics. There is a bent towards elitism, even amongst many who have been involved in the field for a long time. It is the 800 pound gorilla in the room. Today, there is a great gulf that exists between the average church and the apologetics community. That is due in part to the rise of anti-intellectualism in Western Christianity since the second great awakening. It is also largely due to an elitist/separatist mentality propagated by many apologists. It is not unlike the marriage where the husband is convinced that his arguments are logially sound and that his wife just needs to get with the program. Of course, she is equally convinced that he is heartless, cold, and unloving. The result is a strained relationship.

With the background painted, I would like to suggest that it is time for a trip to the motivational chiropractor. Those of us who love apologetics need to have our posture adjusted. It is time to for us to adopt the posture of a servant. For far too long we have carried ourselves in the corporate church world as superiors. Pontificating about the shallow and anti-intellectual shortcomings of the masses, we became separatists, (at least in our hearts) seeking to impress one another--creating smaller, yet more elite inner circles. We have been like the body builder who only works out to attract flaberghasted looks and win awards from body building organizations, but goes through life ignoring the needs of others that he could meet with his superhuman strength.

Instead of seeing the lack of zeal for apologetics in our churches, youth groups, and colleges as an obstacle, we need to start viewing it as an opportunity. We cannot approach our pastors/youth leaders/missionaries/campus ministers and say "You need less emotional back-patting and more apologetics!" or "this church is all fluff and no stuff!" While these statements may be true, that is exactly what they expect from us, and a lot of the reason we are stuck in a viscous cycle of resentment. Instead, we need to approach pastors, youth leaders, missionaries, and campus ministers by saying "God has given me a passion for apologetics and I want to make use my unique skills to serve in any way that I can." To be fair, some of you have tried that and found that you never got any feedback. But you cannot simply give up there. If the bodybuilder just approaches the church and says, "I can lift big things, let me know if you need me," he may not get a lot of calls. People will assume he is probably busy being huge and doesn't have the time. Or, they might just be intimidated by his massiveness. Whatever the case, we need to take it a step further. That means seeking out and even creating opportunities to serve. Maybe that means finding out what sermon series your church is doing over the next month or two and thinking of a way you could serve that  incorporates your love of apologetics. When you approach a pastor/Sunday school teacher/campus pastor and say "hey I heard you were planning X, could I help out by doing Y?" you will probably (no guarantees) be amazed how much more receptive they are. Rather than expecting others to change what they are doing to accomodate us, we need to get involved in what they are doing and offer our unique gifts. We need to adopt the posture of a servant rather than a superior.

For years evangelical pastors have been screaming for "revival!" "What the church, the country, the world needs is another great awakening," they say. I agree. I just want to suggest that the spark may come from somewhere that they (and we) have not been looking. By and large, people today are not searching for a "cooler" Jesus that they can hang out with. They are not interested in being patronized. They don't want more things to believe. They want reasons to believe what they have been told. I don't buy the claim that "Religion is just wishful thinking for people who won't face the facts." The truth is that people of faith are often the most skeptical of faith claims. The sinful nature desperately wants to convince us that there is no God, no objective morality; that I am my own master and can play by my own rules. People (including Christians) are searching for reasons to reject belief in God, the Bible, and Jesus, and the atheists are committed to offering compelling reasons. What is more, they are dedicated to packaging those reasons in an engaging format. All the while, the Church seems to be asleep at the wheel. If you are invovled in apologetics already, you are probably nodding your head as you read this. But the question remains: what is going to reverse the momentum? I will leave you with a few thoughts that I hope will help tie everything together.

The pastor cries "we just need revival!" and the apologist rolls his eyes. The apologist cries "we just need apologetics!" and the pastor scoffs; but their sentiments are not mutually exclusive. I believe that our churches need the support of apologists in order to spark a revival. And not only to reach the world, but also to heal and sustain the body (that is hemorraging members at an alarming rate). However, there is currently a stigma attached to apologetics/apologists in the vast majority of Christian churches. We are viewed as elitists, snobs, opponents of "true" faith. Whether intentionally or unintentionally, we have adopted the posture of "inner circle dwellers." The way to change the relationship is to change our posture.* We need to be servant apologists.

*I am not suggesting that one side bears all of the blame for the rift in the relationship. However, I am convinced that we have to be proactive in addressing the problem, rather than assuming the other side should act first.