A recent blogger posted the following challenge: Questions about Christianity, do you have answers? I am not sure I have all the right answers, but I feel compelled to respond, nevertheless. Good questions are maybe more important than answers. This blogger asks some good ones, so I will attempt some answers.
Question 1: The Christian religion portends God knows past, present, and future, and only a select group of people will go to heaven. The rest, whom he gave their own ability to think for themselves are condemned to hell for eternity. If God allows people to be born he ultimately already knows [sic] will reject Christianity and are destined for hell [sic] would this not preclude God’s love and benevolence?
I don’t like the word, religion. Growing up Catholic, I never felt good about religion. I didn’t feel comfortable in church, and I recoiled from dogmatism. I became a believer in college after reckless alcohol and drug use, becoming a seeker and exploring philosophy, literature, poetry and world religions. I still don’t feel comfortable with religion.
Religion is what people do and how people appear on the outside. Reality is on the inside. God sees the reality of people’s hearts; we don’t.
Religion, I believe, is too much of a man made construct. Not that there is no truth in religion; it’s just that religion is an effort at boxing in metaphysical reality that more or less defies the effort. The box (religion) often isn’t as flexible and resilient as it needs to be.
I think that God knowing past, present and future (from our perspective) flows out of who/what God must be. This gets into cosmological and other “arguments”. Simply, if the universe had a beginning, it had a cause. They cause of the universe could not possibly be the universe. The cause had to be something other than the universe.
The universe that came into being at the point of singularity (the so-called Big Bang) includes all of space/time and matter as we know it. Thus, the cause must be something other than space/time and matter. This basically means a cause that exists “outside” of space/time matter.
At this point, we don’t have the right words or perspective to flesh it out much further. Our perspective is subject to space/time and matter, so we naturally struggle describing something beyond it. The best conception we have is that God knows the past, present and future.
From our perspective, God did set the universe in motion “knowing” how it would play out. It sounds like you grew up in the Reformed tradition. I don’t understand that either. I don’t think God resigns some people to heaven and some people to hell, but what do I know?
I do think that will to choose is a necessity of love. If a man says he loves a woman but rapes her when she rebuffs his advances, no one would think that he loved her. Just the opposite. Love requires two freely willing entities. (Or it isn’t love.)
Did God know that some people would (or might) reject Him and go their own way? Yeah, I think we have to say He did. If He created a universe in which real love is possible, though, it has to be a universe in which there is real choice.
As for hell, I think it is a construct. It’s an attempt to define a particular reality that isn’t good. (Not all Christians believe in eternal flames.) It is the reality of not choosing or choosing not to love and embrace God. If God is love, rejecting or failing to choose God leaves a person without love (at a minimum).
I have come to conceive it kind of like gravity and other laws of physics. It’s just the way it is. I don’t know what hell really is. Some people say that people who reject or fail to choose God just cease to exist, and they have strong arguments from Scripture for that view. I really don’t know, and I am not willing to claim that I do.
CS Lewis, in the book, The Great Divorce, explores the idea of hell being an extension of our existence on earth (as is heaven) in which people are forever moving away from each other and fading into a shadowy existence. We choose the direction we go; and though we are free to choose otherwise, at some point, the inertia of our movement carries us along in the direction we have chosen. It’s not so much a single choice, but an untold number of small ones that can become reflexive over time.
CS Lewis also paints a picture in the last book of the Chronicles of Narnia that gets at the idea that we don’t know what is in the heart of a person, but God does. For want of time and space, the whole world is lined up in front of the Lion (the Christ figure) and most walk past Him. As each person approaches, they are either drawn or repelled.
At that point, they have no more choice left. People have made their choices (the sum of all the choices they made during life). The surprising thing is that some of the people who are drawn and some of the people who are repelled are not what you would expect.
One last thought: the conversation between Jesus and the thief on the cross suggests that a person can make the choice at the very last minute. Despite all the choices or failing to choose during life, if a person turns to God, even at the last minute, God will accept them. This makes sense if God is, indeed, love as Scripture says.
There is so much more to explore here, but time and energy suggest that I more on.
People believe what makes sense to them which is largely influenced by how they are raised and the ideas, concepts and experiences they are exposed to. When asked how they feel about hell, Christian’s explain it’s not God’s decision, it’s not God sending you to hell, it’s your choice so it’s you that sends yourself to hell.
I think you are “right”, but not completely. All of those things, without intention and agency on our part, influence and can even determine who we are, how we think and what we become, but I don’t believe that are “doomed” to be nothing more than the sum of those influences. I don’t believe we can do nothing but dance to our own DNA, as Richard Dawkins put it.
Dawkins makes a big deal about how our religious upbringing determines what we believe. If that were true, Dawkins would be an Anglican Christian. It’s obviously hogwash.
Hell seems to be a big issue with you. I suspect there may be some unique reasons why. As I have indicated above, I don’t purport to know exactly what hell is (or whether it is really a “place”). About all I can feel confident about is that hell is the reality of failing to choose or rejecting the love of God.
If God is love, then not choosing or rejecting God can’t be a good. Kind of like jumping off a cliff. The result isn’t going to be good. We disbelieve in gravity, but gravity exists whether we believe it or acknowledge it.
I think this allows Christians to rationalize the hell doctrine. It seems reasonable a loving, holy, omnipotent and omniscient being would have the power to allow you to be in heaven regardless of your ability to accept a belief.
It occurs to me that the Cause that made the universe can do what He wants to do. We don’t determine who God is or what He must do. The revelation that God is actually loving and has good will toward us is actually pretty incredible when you think about the possibilities.
As for God creating a heaven in which people were forced to acknowledge Him, I think that is antithetical to love. We read about close encounters with God in various places, like in Isaiah. He falls flat on his face in fear. Similar reacts are recorded elsewhere. I feel that if the God who made a 14 billion year old universe with the mind-boggling complexity of our universe suddenly “showed” Himself, we would react in the same way.
We could not possibly deny Him if He did that, and our ability to choose Him freely would be destroyed. It seems to me that the nature of God’s purpose, as revealed in Scripture, to create us in His image with the ability to freely choose Him and to reciprocate His love would not work in a universe in which no one could deny Him.
James says that belief on its own isn’t what God is looking for. Even the demons believe, and they bristle at God. God isn’t looking for people merely to acknowledge and bow down to Him. He certainly could accomplish that very easily. He is looking for people who bear His image to reflect His love back to Him freely and without coercion.
I feel like we get it wrong when we moralize hell. I think it is more like a law of physics, ultimately. It’s just the natural and necessary consequence of failing to choose or rejecting God. I also believe that God, being love, gives people every opportunity. Some people may actually “choose” God who don’t have the right words for it. We don’t know peoples’ hearts; only God knows.
Question 2: God put his first two creations, Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, where he also put Lucifer, the most devious deceptive trickster of all time whom he already knew would succeed in tempting and convincing to disobey him, creating original sin and damning all human descendants to hell for eternity, doesn’t this seem like a set up? Didn’t he already knew what was going to happen?
I am not sure how much, if any, of the account of Adam and Eve we can take as true in a historical or scientific sense, but I think it probably is true that God knew that Adam and Eve would “fail” the “test”. It wasn’t unexpected. It might have even been part of the plan of allowing the crowning creation of His to become what God hoped and purposed from the beginning. It allowed us true choice, which is admittedly a dangerous thing.
Question 3: I hear Christians say either all of the bible is true, or none of it.
This is what rigid fundamentalists and atheists believe. They are two sides to one coin. It’s a false dichotomy. There are other alternatives and no reason why it should be black or white. I like NT Wright, who can be heard in short interviews on issues like this in the Ask NT Wright Anything podcast. He would not say that we have a perfect Bible with every word in it perfectly and literally true, but we have the Bible God wanted us to have.
One problem I have with religion is that religion seems to be an attempt at boxing God in. Religion is almost an effort to gain control over God and reality. It’s a human endeavor, and so I am skeptical of it. God can’t be boxed in like that. This doesn’t mean that all religion or everything about religion is false. I think it just means that we have to continually ask questions, like you have, and be willing to see things in a new light. “Religion” often doesn’t allow that freedom.
There are all sorts of verses that seem incongruent with the idea of the Christian God being a loving god: In the old testament God murders the entire world save Noah and his family because he’s angry and jealous some are worshiping false idols.
I still wrestle with much of the Old Testament, but I am not convinced we should toss the whole thing out. Jesus showed his followers after he rose from the dead how the Scriptures talked about and anticipated him. Jesus also gave us clues about what we should be getting out of the OT: Love God and love your neighbor.
I found when I read the Bible for the first time in the context of the great works of other religions, that it was different. It was kind of like a mirror that reflected my heart back to me. It was uncomfortable, but compelling at the same time. When I read what it says in Hebrews, that the word of God is living and active, able to discern the thoughts and intents of the heart, I recognized somewhat eerily that something like that seemed to be going on. I wasn’t a believe then, and it wouldn’t be for many months before I took that step.
But getting back to what you are saying, I am not sure that God is angry or jealous as we suppose. Some OT scholars believe that people wrote down their interactions with God as they perceived them, which may not be an accurate picture of God’s character. We see God’s character in the person of Jesus, who was God in the flesh, God who emptied Himself of all of His power and glory to become one of us. In Jesus, we see a more accurate demonstration of God’s character reduced to the human level.
I did a thought experiment in this article on Change of Perspective: From the God of Moses to Jesus. I don’t claim this is true or the right way to look at things, but I am not sure it is wrong either.
I don’t think we can through the OT out. Jesus doesn’t dismiss it, but I am not sure we can take it face value either. Ancient history is not written with the conventions of modern history. They clearly took license in their descriptions, making much use of hyperbole, and there are many genres of writing reflected in the OT.
I think we need to wrestle with the OT because Jesus accepted it. Frankly, Jesus changes everything, and if he didn’t rise from the dead, I wouldn’t believe. That’s a whole other subject: the resurrection. If it didn’t really happen, all bets are off.
God commands Abraham to murder his son.
That really isn’t the point of the story; in fact, the point is the opposite. God provided the alternative sacrifice: the goat caught in the bushes, and it foreshadows God provided the ultimate alternative sacrifice of Himself for our sake.
When I studied ancient religions, I learned that animal (and human) sacrifice was the norm. People did it almost universally to appease capricious gods and earn favor. This was the world the Abraham knew so he naturally would have thought he needed to make a sacrifice to God. That God presented him with an alternate sacrifice might have been a paradigm shift, foreshadowing the ultimate paradigm shift: that God doesn’t ask us to provide Him the sacrifice; rather God asks us to accept His sacrifice.
How else does a God show us He loves us? If God were to “appear” to us without filter, we would likely crumble to the ground in abject fear because of the nature of God and the nature of us, the created. Our perspective is limited to say the least. Imagine a sentient atom trying to grasp and make sense of us?
God kills first born sons during passover.
Did God cause the killing of the Egyptian firstborn? I don’t know. Let’s assume He did, though. A God who created the universe and us has the power, authority and prerogative to take life, just as He gives life. I am not sure what is hard to accept (intellectually) about that. It doesn’t sit well with us emotionally, but that doesn’t change the reality of it.
I think the issue that people have is the claim that God is loving. People don’t believe it based on our perspective of things, so they don’t believe in God. The two things don’t necessarily go together, though. If God isn’t loving, that doesn’t mean He doesn’t exist! (Thinking those two things necessarily go together is nothing but wishful thinking.) (Most ancient religions didn’t believe that gods were loving; thus, the need, they thought, of offering animal and even human sacrifices to satiate the gods.)
Again, if it wasn’t for Jesus demonstrating God’s love, dying sacrificially for us and rising from the dead, I might not believe that God is loving. Being convinced of those things, I still don’t know why God took the firstborn of the Egyptians like that, other than I believe God is loving; and God is fair and just.
If this life is all there is, none of it would make sense. But fundamental to the message that Jesus gave us is that this life is not all there is. In fact, all through the Scripture we read how fragmentary and shadowy this life is. Like a flower: here today; gone tomorrow. Like a mist in the eons of space/time. Human existence, itself, is nothing but a mist in the billions of years the universe has existed.
Jesus promised that there is so much more, that death isn’t the end, and he delivered on that promise by rising himself from the dead. (Again, if that didn’t happen, we are sunk.) In fact, Jesus said death is really the beginning. This life is really just the shadowy life before the death that opens up into life as God intended it to be. If God took the lives of those innocent babies, I trust that God did right by them. And, if it wasn’t God who took their lives, I believe he did right by them. I believe this because of who God shows Himself to be in Jesus.
Even in the new testament, it talks about masters being good to your slaves.
In a world in which people are free to pursue their own ends, the strong will overcome the weak, and slavery will exist. Slavery of some sort was the norm over most of history and even continues in parts of the world today. That doesn’t make it morally right, and the instruction for slaves to obey masters doesn’t mean an endorsement of slavery.
If we take what Jesus said seriously, we would know that God doesn’t endorse slavery: the greatest among you will be servants of all; the first shall be last, and the last shall be first; love your neighbor as yourself: to the extent you do it to the least of these (the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned, the stranger, etc.), you have done it to me.
Again, if this life was all that there is to reality, none of this would make sense, but Jesus stands for the proposition that this is not all there is. Jesus said that, unless a grain of seed falls to the ground and dies, it remains just a seed (just a possibility). He was talking about this life. This life is the beginning of something much greater that we can’t even imagine.
There are many stories that further highlight these incongruencies but, if you take them at face value many will tell you you’re taking them out of context, that you have to be qualified to truthfully and accurately interpret the bible. Would God not want any common person to be able to pick up his holy book and be able to read, understand, and believe.
One of the convincing factors for CS Lewis in determining that Christianity was the most accurate view of God compared to other religions is that it is accessible to anyone, literally anyone. The fundamental principal is this: we don’t earn our way to God by being good enough or smart enough to figure it out. God offers Himself to all of us by grace as a free gift. We simply need to accept Him.
No one even needs to read or understand what is in the Bible to grasp this. A person with Down Syndrome can grasp it. In fact, it’s the smart people, strong people, wealthy people, etc., who think they are better and smarter than other people who have the hardest time with it. It’s the people who have leg up on others who have a hard time letting go of their advantage in this life to embrace the message that it means nothing in the scheme of eternity.
I believe our ability to question and reconsider our opinions and beliefs when presented with new information is what makes us open minded.
Yes, I believe you are right. If there was no God, if philosophical naturalism was true, we wouldn’t have that freedom to form our own opinions and beliefs. We would truly be dancing only to our own DNA.
Our opinions and beliefs in of themselves (no matter how moral or justified) doesn’t.
Yes, again I agree. We are finite and have a limited perspective. We don’t know all there is to know. Like the sentient atom compared to a human being, what could it know of the human that was not revealed to it by the human? And even then, how would the sentient atom understand? Therefore, we should be humble and not hold too tightly to what we believe to be true. That doesn’t mean abandoning what we think is true and believing in nothing. That wouldn’t make any sense either. We do our best with the knowledge and understanding we have.
Instead it makes us locked in our thinking and unable to consider new ideas, beliefs and our ever changing, ever evolving knowledge about Earth and the universe.
I think that is a human tendency. I just read a book by Sy Garte about his journey from lifelong atheism to Christianity, which was sparked by science. (He is a molecular biologist). The book is a good one: The Works of His Hands: A Scientist’s Journey from Atheism to Faith. He grew up in an atheistic, communist household. He says his family was religious as any family. They didn’t believe in God, but they had their dogmas, their saints, their doctrines and their heresies.
Some scientists have said had there is no knowledge or understanding of reality that cannot and isn’t know through science. This is a philosophical dogma too. It assumes there is no reality beyond nature. How can we know that is true? I think it is demonstrably not true. That was the conclusion of Sy Garte when he began studying science in earnest in college. It rattled his philosophical naturalism, and he let go of the atheism he had always assumed (slowly). He became an agnostic for many years.
I do think we should be ever evaluating and reevaluating our understandings and conclusions in light of new knowledge. Science is the study of the natural world and is limited by its design to understanding natural things, however, the natural world is God’s creation. What science reveals of it is true, even if it might not fit into some current interpretations of Scripture, for instance If my interpretation of Scripture doesn’t line up with science, maybe I need to reevaluate how I interpret Scripture. (Scripture isn’t a science textbook for starters; that isn’t it’s purpose.)
The pursuit of knowledge is led by researchers, scientists, astronomers, inventors, philosophers, theologians and others endeavoring to further the advancement of humankind. People of all faiths and beliefs are made wiser with consideration of new ideas and discoveries.
I am not sure I could add anything to that statement, so I won’t. I appreciate the to exercise my mind a little bit. That is what most of my writing is anyway. Not that mind is the only thing that should be exercised.