MORE THAN A HEARTLESS DICTATOR: HOW COULD A GOOD GOD ALLOW SUFFERING?
Two years ago, television personality and atheist Stephen Fry was interviewed on Irish television and asked what he would say if it turned out that God existed after-all. Fry did not hold back: “How dare you? How dare you create a world to 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”
The problem of suffering isn’t just an academic question for philosophers and theologians, but a deeply painful and personal subject for us all - because you, like me, have tasted the bitter realities of suffering. I belong to a church community filled with experiences of suffering: cuts and bruises, miscarriages and infertility, broken bones and broken hearts, cancers, depressions, self-harms, anxieties. Yet what amazes me is that their pain has not driven them FROM God but TO God.
Now, if you stop and think about it, you and I are insulated from suffering more than ever before today – by our advances in wealth, medicine and technology. And yet curiously we are struggling to cope with our level of suffering more than before too. Why is that? Part of the reason is we live and breathe in the air of a secular society. That worldview says all there is to life is the here and now. Suffering, then, has no purpose, it is inconvenient fact of nature that frustrates your ability to realise your own meaning and happiness in life. Yet our instinctive objections to suffering suggests there is more to life than that. One philosopher observes: “only we human beings spell P-A-I-N the way we do” (Ravi Zacharias) – it’s not just a fact of nature but it’s a moral problem. We don’t talk about the weather that way – Scotland’s rain isn’t a matter of right or wrong, good or evil. However, when we encounter evil in this world, we instinctively recognise that it is wrong. Secularism is unable to help us make sense of this experience. For example Richard Dawkins says: “In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication, some people are going to get hurt, other people are going to get lucky, and you won’t find any rhyme or reason to it, nor any justice. The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference” (Richard Dawkins). And yet, when bad things happen to us, we don’t greet them with “pitiless indifference”.
We feel wronged; we know things shouldn’t be this way; we want justice. You see we instinctively know that we live in a moral universe with moral laws and standards. And there is no moral law apart from a law-give. Put simply by a former sceptic: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of just and unjust? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line” (C.S. Lewis). So this question far from disproving, actually requires a Good God to exist.
We only recognise this question, that suffering is out of place in this world, because a good God exists, who has inscribed on our consciences His good moral standards. The real question is why is the world like this?
There are three quick headings I want to walk you through, to understand the Christian’s answer to this question.
If God is truly good, then how come this world has turned out so very bad?
The Bible records this verdict on the world that God originally created: “God saw everything that he had made, and behold it was very good” (Genesis 1:31) – no evil, pain or death. So where does evil come from? Well just as darkness is not a thing but the absence of light– evil is not something that God created. Rather it is the corruption and distortion of something that God intended for good. We live in a good world that has gone wrong – because of USER ERROR, not MANUFACTURING FAILURE.
People often ask: But couldn’t God have created a world in it where evil could never happen. Well maybe, but you wouldn’t want to live in a world like that! Because that would be a world of robots.
You see, love always requires a choice if it is to be genuine. Love cannot be coerced. Think of it this way: at home I have a 14 month old baby. After all the sleepless nights we currently are enduring, one day I hope that little one will say: “Daddy, I love you”. However, if the child says those words because I have threatened it or forced it – then those words are meaningless. Likewise, love always requires choice, so God gave us freedom: to live for and love Him, or to reject Him and live for ourselves.
Unfortunately the human race chose the latter path. This world is not the way it’s meant to be because we are not as we were made to be.
So this is our dilemma: we are a part of the problem of evil that we demand God fixes. Let me assure you the God of the Bible is a God of justice, who cares about the wrongs and evil that have been done against you. But God also cares about the wrong things that we have done to others. Each of us in our own smaller or bigger ways, contributes to all that is morally wrong with the world. One day we will be held accountable for that and face the consequences. One survivor of the barbarity of the Russian Gulag sums up why solving the problem of pain is so difficult because it implicates all of us: “If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?” (Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn). Think of it another way: Maybe you’ve heard the story of Anne Frank or read her diary from her days hidden in the Secret Annexe in occupied Amsterdam. She reflects in her diary not just on the presence of evil patrolling the streets outside, but also on the selfishness, jealousy and unkindness that she experiences within the Annexe. Evil is not just out there, it’s in here in all of us.
So here’s our dilemma: We demand God stops and sorts out evil and injustice… but if God returns to judge and destroy evil then he must deal with us too, whose hearts are tainted with evil, like a bottle of wine that has been corked?
The good news of Christianity is that God has not remained distant from our pain. He could have left us to die in the dark, all alone. Rather in an act of incredible love He has pursued us and come into this world to rescue us, in His Son, Jesus. Tim Keller puts it well when he says: “Christianity alone among the world religions claims that God became uniquely and fully human in Jesus Christ and therefore knows first-hand despair, rejection, loneliness, poverty, bereavement, torture and imprisonment”.
God loves us so much that He has willingly suffered, and because of His sufferings on the Cross we can be rescued from evil within us and around us. In the death of Jesus, as an innocent victim of evil – He absorbed the punishment for our sins and also in His sufferings exhausted the powers of evil. In so doing He has made it possible for us to be reconciled with God and rescued from evil in this world.
The good news of Christianity records the fact of history that Jesus not only died, but He rose again three days later. His resurrection assures us that there is coming a day when our greatest longings will be satisfied: good will triumph over evil, death will die, tears will cease, pain will be healed.
I love how J.R.R. Tolkien, a Christian and author of the Lord of the Rings saga expresses this. After the quest to destroy the Ring and defeat the powers of evil has been successful, Sam is reunited with his resurrected friend Gandalf and asks: “I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?”
Truly, through the death and resurrection of Jesus everything evil in this world is going to come untrue. It will be like waking up from a bad dream.
Of that day God promises: “I will wipe every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Revelation 21:4).
While there are still many questions about the particulars of our suffering that we don’t yet have answers to; God wants to give us a person not a philosophy to help us. Jesus is the Answerer of the problem of pain.
On the radio last year, the Archbishop Justin Welby was interviewed about a car crash in 1983 involving his family. His daughter Joanna was only 7 months old and she died. He said: “Christian faith doesn’t hide us from the cruelties of life. Jesus himself faced every aspect of the cruelty of life that is possible… It’s just in it he is there in the middle of the mess with us”
Whatever you have been through, whatever may lie ahead of you, please don’t endure the storms of life on your own – come to find refuge in Jesus Christ.
MORE THAN RULES AND RITUALS:
DOES GOD ACCEPT WHO I AM?
Think back to your first day at university – setting out on the new adventure of living away from home, cooking your own meals, meeting new people. I remember the mixed feelings of exhilaration and apprehension at my newfound independence. But I also recall the advice some friends offered: “This is your opportunity to reinvent yourself” –. I couldn’t help feeling offended – why wouldn’t people accept me for who I am already?
Fast forward 13 years: today we are caught in the vortex of changing attitudes and ideas about identity. Identity is considered “fluid” rather than fixed. We have to “invent” our value, rather than inherit it. We’re almost like plastic Lego people – you can customise and change yourself at will.
Let me suggest there are two smaller questions hidden within the title:
- The ME question: Who am I?
- The GOD question: Does HE accept ME as I am?
Our sense of identity is our “inner narrative”, which describes our REAL SELF (who I am) and SELF-WORTH (why I am valuable). But where does it come from?
Here in the western world, we are told to LOOK WITHIN OURSELVES to discover our true self. We grow up hearing: “Be True To Yourself” – “You are the author of your own destiny”. Sociologist Robert Bellah famously called this phenomenon: “expressive individualism”. It insists that we should be authentic to ourselves: following our desires, and resisting the pressure to conform to others’ expectations. This the philosophy of Disney movies. For example, in ‘Frozen’ - princess Elsa’s theme song celebrates her liberation to be her authentic self: “Don't let them in, don't let them see; Be the good girl you always have to be; Conceal, don't feel; don't let them know… Let it go, let it go; Can't hold it back anymore… No right, no wrong, no rules for me, I'm free”.
However, LOOKING INSIDE isn’t the only way to answer the identity question. Interestingly, in non-western societies, an individual’s identity and self-worth is defined OUTSIDE THEMSELVES by their community, especially in meeting their family’s expectations. If you're anything like me that sends a chill down your spin, because it sounds like the ideal recipe for repression and suffocation. But then again, on what basis can we say that the western world’s view of identity is any more valid?
A crucial reason for this difference is down to the West’s Christian heritage. In his mammoth work “The Sources of the Self” philosopher Charles Taylor traces the history and argues that Christianity inspired our respect for individual freedom and choice. Christianity broke with paganism in saying that the individual matters– because every single person has been created by God in His image, with inherent dignity and unique characteristics to cultivate. We have good reasons to be thankful for this heritage! Secular western society may have severed itself from its roots of belief in God, but still enjoys the fruits of that Christian worldview.
Nevertheless, it is endangered today! Having denied any divine foundation, instead we have to self-construct our own identity and value. And psychiatrist Prof Glynn Harrison has warned about the resulting “fragility of the modern of the self”. Two common ways people try to answer the ME QUESTION….
You can seek to construct your identity and value on your performance. I’ve tried this one before – I call it “treadmill life” – you’re constantly pushing yourself to do more and achieve goals. In academic life, it can mean you feel good about yourself when you get the good essay mark back, but feel crushed when the exam doesn’t go as well as planned. It’s exhausting and can result in “performance anxiety” – haunted by the question: am I doing enough? Am I good enough? Someone who knows all about that anxiety is the international rugby player Jonny Wilkinson. In his biography he tells the story of what happened a few hours after his world cup winning kick. He was alone in his hotel room, not celebrating but worrying – he explains: “I’m only as good as my last kick. I’m terrified of failure”. It is unstable and unhealthy to base your identity and value on your performance.
The other tactic is to construct your identity based being respected and approved of by other people. The social media revolution has made it easier to pursue external affirmation to feel good about yourself. If anything like me, you’ll have posted a status update or picture – and checked 10 minutes later to see if people have liked or commented on it. This isn’t all harmless. It can fuel the worst of our insecurities and self-absorbing tendencies. In 2014 the university of Pittsburgh did a study that suggested a link between the most prolific users of social media and a 3x greater likelihood of struggles with anxiety and depression. It can make you feel miserable and isolated – when you see all the fun others are having. Social media is also powerless to deal with the negative sides of our identity – the stuff we want to filter out so people won’t think badly of us. We always try to present ourselves in the best light – the best angle in selfies, the wittiest comments, the most exciting parts of our otherwise dull days. Truth be told, we care a lot about other peoples’ perceptions of us. Before we even think about God - it’s almost as if we struggle to accept ourselves fully – afraid that other people won’t accept us if they saw the REAL us warts and all. Because if we’re honest, there is a gap between our IDEAL SELF and our ACTUAL SELF. For many of us, in-between there’s a gulf filled with guilt, shame and regret that we hide away.
Today I want to share with you that there is SOMETHING MORE than these fragile self-constructed identities. Our identity is not simply to be found WITHIN the self, or constructed BY the self – it is REVEALED TO the self, by God our maker. There is power in Christianity as not only a positive source for identity but as a power to deal with the negative sides of our self. At its heart is what philosopher Charles Taylor calls “its central promise of a divine affirmation of the human”.
That takes us to the second question:
- DOES GOD ACCEPT ME AS I AM?
To help answer the question, let me tell you the story of Jean Valjean in the classic story “Les Miserables”. He’s a man haunted by his past. Released after 20 years imprisonment, everywhere he goes he carries a yellow passport that marks him as an ex-convict. He is not welcome anywhere. In the musical he sings “Who am I?” – can he ever escape the curse of being prisoner 24601??? Well the turning point for Jean Valjean comes one night after an elderly priest gives him a bed to sleep. Under cover of darkness Valjean steals the silverware. But his escape is blocked by the police and he is frogmarched back to the church. But shockingly the priest tells them – the silver was a gift to Valjean and he forgot to take the valuable candlesticks too. This elderly priest becomes a channel for Valjean to have a life transforming encounter with God’s undeserved grace and lovingkindness.
That doesn’t just happen in fiction – but in real life too. The gospel of John records the true story of Jesus meeting a Samaritan woman at a well. She has many skeletons in her closet. Her backstory was she had sought to find her identity in being loved and desired by men. This had spiralled into a string of broken relationships and sexual adulteries – a source of shame and scandal in this traditional culture. She is an outcast, rejected by everyone. However, not by Jesus! He has travelled miles out of his way, crossing all the racial, social and gender barriers to connect with her.
To her surprise, Jesus reveals that He knows everything about her scandalous past. But he sees the real reason beneath it all. Just as she comes daily thirsty for water and draws a bucket full – that satisfies her for a time but then runs out. Likewise her soul is thirsty for love and acceptance. And that’s what Jesus has come to offer: “living water” – meaning a fresh, unceasing fountain that can satisfy her deepest needs and can wash away her shame. She sought her identity in relationships with men, when she needs a restored relationship with God the “fountain of living water”
This encounter with the undeserved grace and lovingkindness of God transforms her life. Overwhelmed, she runs back into town, publicly telling people about Jesus “the man who told me all I ever did” – no more shame or hiding – she has been set free to be her true self – child of God!
He was able to forgive this ashamed and thirsty woman at a well, because He ended His life thirsting and dying on the Cross in her place – bearing her guilt, shame, and the penalty that her sins deserved. He did that for all of us - taking them down to death and the grave. Then Jesus rose again offering us the gift of new life – a true identity and infinite value.
This answers our question: Does God accept me as I am?
Jesus shows us that God sees us as we are – both the good and the bad – and yet chooses to love us. Indeed He loves us too much to leave us as we are. He intends to restore us to be more fully human, not less. He has grand designs for each of our unique individual selves!
For me personally, the question: WHO AM I? Isn’t as important as the question: WHOSE AM I? Let me finish telling you about a German Christian called Dietrich Bonhoeffer. He was arrested for opposing the Nazi regime and helping lead an underground Christian community. He was brutally dehumanised, tortured and had everything else taken away from him. In his final poem written from prison begins: “Who am I?” But he concludes with these words: “Who am I? They mock me, these lonely questions of mine. Whoever I am, Thou knowest, O God, I am thine!”
MORE THAN RULES AND RITUALS:
“IS THE BIBLE RELEVANT IN THE 21st CENTURY?”
This year Google celebrates its the 20th birthday. We love Google, not just because it’s a useful tool that allows us to search for anything and everything that our heart desires. But because connects with something fundamental in human nature: we are curious, inquisitive creatures. And ever since the dawn of time, we have asked: Where have we come from? Why are we here? How do we make the best use of our lives here? What if anything is beyond death? Google isn’t much help with these ultimate questions! If you searched: ‘What is the meaning of life?’ The most Google can do is supply almost 3 million results to consider. But how can we know which is the real answer?
Here’s a way to think about the dilemma that confronts us:
Imagine that you have just regained consciousness in this room. In fact you don’t remember anything before waking up 10 seconds ago; nor do the other people in here with you. All the windows are bricked up and the big door at the back is locked shut – we’re trapped. Since we’re inquisitive creatures it isn’t long before we start asking questions: Who are we? How did we get here? What is life in this room all about? Is there anything beyond this room? But none of us know or remember. Instead we use our resourcefulness to try to figure out the answers.
Some adopt a scientific approach: using their reason and senses to investigate things. They measure conditions within the room, and conclude that this room is most likely all there is, because that’s all they can access.
Others adopt a spiritual approach – they have dreams or visions in states of altered consciousness as they seek to get in touch with the Great Beyond. But they all disagree with one another in describing what it is and its intentions for them in this room. And how we are to know they’re not just guessing or making it up?
But then suddenly you hear a key turn in the lock and a bolt be unlocked – the door opens and someone walks into the room. At that moment, what that person says in answer to our questions takes precedence over all our theories …
That’s the kind of claim that the Bible makes – to be knowledge from beyond the walls of the material universe. It claims to be the Word of the God, who hasn’t left us alone searching for answers – rather He has walked through the door of history and made Himself known to humans: in the written Bible and the person of Jesus.
In my experience, the Bible makes fuller sense of life and reality, than the alternatives. And so let’s take a look at this question: Is the Bible relevant in the 21st century?
Today for many people it’s just an old book collecting dust on a shelf. It’s considered primitive and obsolete - with nothing useful to offer us in the 21st century. In schools and in the media, we hear the narrative that once our society valued the Bible, but it was abandoned by a past generation when it was exposed as irrelevant and unreliable. However, if you’ve not taken the time to check the Bible out for yourself, then it’s possible that you’ve been misinformed about it.
You see, many of the things we enjoy and take for granted in contemporary society are the fruit of the Bible’s influence. That’s why President Theodore Roosevelt once said of the Bible that “no other book of any kind written in English has ever so affected the whole life of a people”. It has influenced our laws… fuelled the development of the sciences… inspired activism for democracy, human rights, social reform and equality. If you care about any of these things, then it’s important to hear what the Bible has to contribute.
Also you might be surprised to hear that the Bible relevantly addresses real life issues like love and friendship, justice and forgiveness, freedom and wholeness, happiness and depression, grief and hope. The shelves of our bookshops are crammed with books on these themes – every year we spend billions making dramas and movies exploring them too. The Bible is full of relevant wisdom to help us live well in all seasons of life, because it claims to be our Makers instruction manual.
If that’s all true, then why do so many people suggest it’s irrelevant. Well if we step back to examine the question further: it rests upon the biased assumption that “The newer is true, what is recent is decent…. And the latest word must be taken as the last word” (Packer). But Professor C.S. Lewis called this “chronological snobbery”. He pointed out our grand-children will look back on us and wonder what on earth we were thinking? Just as we are offended when we read a 1950s Housewife magazine that suggests women should be chained to the kitchen sink. That sobering realisation should compel us beware of our contemporary blindspots! We hear a lot today about #FakeNews or how we live in an echo chamber. That’s why we need to be open to hear other trusted voices outside our culture and era to have our blindspots exposed. And there can be no better way to do that than to check out the Bible: one of the oldest and the world’s best selling book!
Nevertheless, is it possible that you’re here with a closed mind - looking for a reason to dismiss and discredit the Bible? Someone once said: “The Bible is a book that you couldn’t write if you would, and wouldn’t write if you could” (Chafer). Our secular society did not abandon or attack the Bible because it was irrelevant or unreliable, but because it was undesirable.
To be honest with you, that’s not a new reaction! In Luke’s gospel, you can read about the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. One sabbath morning Jesus walked into His hometown synagogue, picked up a scroll from the Bible and read this prophecy given 700 years earlier: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour”. Luke then records how “Jesus rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. And he began to say to them: ‘Today this Scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing’. And all spoke well of him and marvelled at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth”
Jesus began his public ministry saying that if we are going to understand who He is and what He has come to do, then we must consider what the Bible has already said about Him. However, that first day which began so positively, ended very badly: “When they heard these things, all in the synagogue were filled with wrath. And they rose up and drove him out of the town, and brought him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they could throw him down the cliff”. This violent response and attempt to silence the messenger is another example of what can happens when we are confronted by God’s Word.
Let me say that I see something of myself in that crowd – indeed all of us.
Jesus confronts the human race with the fact that we are all a part of the problem of what’s wrong in this world. We live here in God’s good world, enjoying God’s good gifts. But we ignore and often rebel against His good Words. Jesus offends us because He confronts us with the fact that we have sinned against God, we stand condemned by His just law – and we cannot fix it ourselves. Jesus offended these religious people by inferring they were in need of God’s rescue just as much as the poor, the blind, the captives, the oppressed. But they were too proud to hear it! *Fingers in ears: Not listening*
Their attempt to silence and dispose of Jesus that day foreshadowed the last day of His ministry – arrested, suffered miscarriage of justice, and executed on a Cross. Yet that terrible moment was the way rescue would come! Jesus came not only to bring revelation of answers to our deepest questions, but to bring salvation for our deepest problem of sin. The good news of the Bible is that Jesus died in our place, suffering the just punishment for our sins, to bring us back to God.
So while, when you read the Bible, you aren’t always going to like what it says. That’s not a bad thing - my wife doesn’t always agree with me and she’s usually right, so it would be worrying if Almighty God always agreed with me… almost like I was just making Him up in my head! But when you read about Jesus, there is so much to like and love!
Let me finish telling you the story of the French philosopher, Emile Cailliet. He became a convinced atheist after the horrendous experience of fighting in the First World War. Nevertheless, he was still searching for answers about life. He began to compile a book of quotations from all the great works of literature, science and philosophy he could get his hands on. He hoped to produce “The Book That Understands Me”. After years working on this project, one day he sat down to read his book and his heart sank – this book had no power to comfort or guide him, because it was his own creation. However, that same day, his wife came home with a French Bible. For the first time in his life, Emille began to read the gospels. After several hours, he put it down, bowed his head and said: “At last I found the Book That Understands Me”. That night he opened his mind and heart to God, later recording: “To this God I prayed that night, and the God who answered was the same God of whom it was spoken in the Book”.
What about you – are you open-minded enough to read about Jesus – to see for yourself if this is really the Book That Understands You?
MORE THAN BLIND FAITH:
“HASN’T SCIENCE RULED OUT GOD?”
Science has transformed our lives: bringing us electricity, medicine, computers, mathematics, our mobile phones, and so much more. Just think about how much science and technology you have used since you woke up this morning?
In a society like ours, belief in God can be seen as a primitive, pre-scientific way of understanding the world. Like Santa and the Tooth Fairy, you just stop believing in the fantasy of God as you mature and grow up. But the question is: do we really need to rule out belief in God as we grow more scientifically sophisticated?
Certainly, that’s not what many of our great scientists have thought. In the past Copernicus, Galileo, Bacon, Descartes, Pascal, Faraday, Newton, Kelvin – all believed in a God, and their faith was strengthened by their discoveries in the natural world. Today many follow in their footsteps
However, other contemporary scientists are outspoken in their rejection of God. Prof Richard Dawkins says: “God’s existence, or non-existence is a scientific fact about the universe”. However, contrary to Dawkins, God and science need not be enemies. Prof Peter Higgs and Dr Brian Cox are not religious men, but they acknowledge that many of their colleagues are. Higgs writes in the Guardian: “The growth of our understanding of the world through science weakens some of the motivation which makes people believers. But that's not the same thing as saying they're incompatible".
Now you may be thinking: science may not be incompatible with the idea of God… but it certainly hasn’t proved that God is a fact. Well you’re right: the scientific method cannot invent an experiment to conclusively prove or disprove the existence of God. Harvard biologist Stephen Jay Gould: “science simply cannot (by its legitimate methods) adjudicate the issue of God’s possible superintendence of nature. We neither affirm nor deny it; we simply can’t comment on it as scientists”. The tools of science cannot help because “We don’t find God within creation…”– just as you don’t expect to find Steve Jobs, the inventor of the IPhone, hiding inside the one in your pocket! “… but all of it points towards him!” (Michael Ots)
Let me suggest that God and physical causes are not irreconcilable enemies – rather one follows the other. As artists reveal themselves in painting, so God has revealed His power, creativity and intelligence in the natural world. That’s why Professor John Lennox writes: “God is not an alternative to science as an explanation… he is the ground of explanation… God explains why science explains”. It’s no coincidence the first scientists were theists. Their scientific method was driven by these convictions: that we can trust our senses and reason to lead us to truth; that the equations of mathematics can accurately describe the world; that we can examine the universe to discover its order and laws, because it is not random— a rational mind stands behind it, who scripted its laws and breathed life into the equations.
Alternatively, you have to face the possibility that if the human mind is simply the byproduct of blind physical forces and unguided natural selection, then it opens up the question whether our minds can be trusted – what if they are geared more to survival than truth. That’s why Charles Darwin once confessed: “the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy”. But for the Theist, science and reason are wonderful gifts for discovering more about the world and potentials placed within it by God.
Therefore, God and Science are compatible. The real conflict is between two duelling sets of non-scientific, philosophical beliefs. Atheistic-Science (everything came from nothing for no ultimate purpose) and Theistic-Science (everything came from nothing because of someone with an ultimate purpose for you and me). The question is which of these worldviews consistently better accounts for the data?
Let me briefly suggest three lines of scientific evidence that make best sense in a Theistic worldview:
(1) EVIDENCE FROM COSMOLOGY:
Cosmology is interested in questions about the origin and formation of the universe – like: Why does anything exist rather than nothing?
Stephen Hawking recounts in his bestseller “A Brief History of Time” that until the 19th century people believed the universe was eternal. However discoveries like the First Law of Thermodynamics suggested that the universe could not have spontaneously created itself; and the Second Law suggested that it could not have always been there, because it would have already run out of energy available for work. Astronomical observations by Hubble discovered evidence of expansion as stars/galaxies moved away from us. Later the detection of Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation suggested that in the past the universe was smaller and hotter. Extrapolating from these observations, many cosmologists believe the universe space-matter-energy-time universe must have had a beginning.
But then, we must consider: Why did that happen? As a rule of logic “Anything that begins to exist requires an explanation” (William Lane-Craig) –the universe needs a first cause! Therefore, the God Hypothesis is a perfectly rational explanation for the observations of cosmology. The universe exists because it has a Creator: God!
(2) EVIDENCE FROM PHYSICS:
The universe we observe is not random, but configured by natural laws and finely-tuned fundamental constants. For example: if the strong nuclear force, the force that binds protons and neutrons together in an atom, had been stronger or weaker by as little as 5%, hydrogen would not form, meaning both life and chemistry would be impossible.
Astrophysicist Dr Hugh Ross explains how unlikely this fine-tuning is due to chance: “Cover America with coins in a column reaching to the moon, then do the same for a billion other continents of the same size. Paint one coin red and put it somewhere in one of the billion piles. Blindfold a friend and ask her to pick it out. The odds are about 1 in 10^40 that she will”. Those are unbelievable odds against it being chance. Indeed, the mathematician and atheist Sir Fred Hoyle said of these things: “it is almost as if a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics as well as with the chemistry and biology – there are no blind forces worth speaking about in nature”.
To get away from these divine implications, theoretical physicists like Stephen Hawking have postulated that we are just one of an infinite number of parallel universes in a multi-verse. Hawking’s PHD partner, Roger Penrose has criticised this theory for lacking any “observational support whatever”. Nevertheless, Hawking says we shouldn’t be surprised that our universe appears designed for us, because we live in one of the few habitable ones and otherwise wouldn’t be alive to notice it. However, philosopher William Lane-Craig tells this story to expose its inadequacies: “If you were dragged before a trained firing squad, and they fired and missed: it is true that you should not be surprised to observe that you are not dead, but it is equally true that you should be surprised to observe that you are alive. If you were asked, ‘How did you survive?’ it would be inadequate to say, ‘If I didn’t, I wouldn’t be here to answer you.’
Philosopher Richard Swinburne points out it is a potential violation of Occam’s Razor to posit an infinite number of complex universes to try to avoid a single complex First Cause. You see, even if the Multiverse was proven true; it cannot escape the question of First Cause or Complex Design by Multiverse – just postpone it – because you still need a complex Multi-verse Generator!
Instead natural laws and fine tuning make most sense if there is a law-giver and designer: God.
(3) EVIDENCE FROM BIOCHEMISTRY:
DNA carries our genetic code, with the instructions for making all the proteins needed to grow and maintain your body. If you could extract and line up all the DNA in your body it would stretch to the moon and back. So where did all that complex information come from? Professor John Lennox says: “A building does not emerge from the bricks nor the writing from the paper and ink without the injection of both energy and intelligent activity” – likewise nor does the life-giving information in our DNA just arise out of amino-acids by chance over time! Instead, our DNA is shouting out that an intelligence is responsible for life: God.
These 3 lines of scientific evidence made a big impact on the prominent sceptic Anthony Flew. 10 years ago he wrote: “There is a God: how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind”. He concluded after years of arguing against it, that the God Hypothesis makes best sense of the world – although he never made a commitment beyond believing in an abstract, nameless, faceless, unknowable deity. But we can do better than that! Ultimately the Christian faith is not based on deductions from science, but is rooted in events of history.
When the first Russian cosmonaut returned to earth, he told an interviewer that his atheism was confirmed: He had not found God in space. But the Christian intellectual C.S. Lewis responded to this saying this was a category error – the universe isn’t like a house with God living in the attic. Instead, the universe is like a play – and its characters can only know about details about the playwright to the extent he writes them into the play itself. Well the good news is we can know God exists because God has written himself into the story of human history.
John’s gospel is an eyewitness account of those events. He writes: “In the beginning was the Logos [to the Greek: the divine logic and order of the cosmos – which makes reason and science possible]; and the Logos was with was and the Logos was God… the Logos became flesh and lived among us”. God our Creator has made Himself known in the person of Jesus Christ.
The historical accounts record Jesus possessed the power to heal the sick, raise the dead, and perform natural-law defying miracles. These things demonstrated that nature still recognised the voice of its Creator. They also revealed that Jesus has the power to make this broken world and our broken lives into a new creation. John recorded these things down so Christianity could be SOMETHING MORE THAN BLIND FAITH: “these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name” (20:30).
That’s what’s at stake and on offer in Jesus Christ is life – life as it was intended to be - life to the full – life with the one who made and loves us. We’d love to encourage you to find out more about Jesus - the God who has not been ruled out by science – but whose finger prints are all over it!
Q&A ANTICIPATE EVOLUTION QUESTION
The Evolution hypothesis and God hypothesis are not necessarily mutually exclusive – because mechanisms require agency – and self-winding mechanisms even greater intelligent agency!
Nevertheless, there are ever more problems with the evolutionary synthesis. Ongoing research is raising reasonable doubts about “the creative power of the mechanism of unguided natural selection and random mutation” – to account for the first living cell, genetic information, new biological forms, and the narrow limits of change that random processes can achieve.
Underlying this problem is the “institutional prohibition on considering Intelligent Design as a possible explanation”. Listen to Richard Lewontin:“ we are forced by our a priori adherence to material causes to create an apparatus of investigation and a set of concepts that produce material explanations, no matter how counterintuitive, no matter how mystifying to the uninitiated. Moreover, that materialism is absolute, for we cannot allow a Divine Foot in the door”. Perhaps an atheistic-science worldview is not the best fit for the data we are uncovering about human origins.
SOMETHING MORE THAN HERE AND NOW:
“DON’T DEAD MEN STAY DEAD?”
I learned recently about the phenomenon of “Death Cafes”. Their website says: “At a Death Cafe people drink tea, eat cake and discuss death. Our aim is to increase awareness of death to help people make the most of their (finite) lives.” Two have happened here in Glasgow. These gatherings highlight how our mortality has become a taboo subject in our society – but whether we talk about it or not, the inescapable statistic is that 1 out of every 1 of us will die.
While many people prefer to keep this morbid reality out of sight and out of mind; others are on a quest to beat death itself! For example, the Russian inventor Dmitry Itskov has been christened: “The Immortalist”. Interviewed by the BBC, he stated his ambition: “Within the next 30 years I am going to make sure that we can all live forever… the ultimate goal of my plan is to transfer someone’s personality into a completely new body” – a robot body with a computer processor for a brain. If you ever dreamed of being the Terminator, well your opportunity might be coming!
Scientific progress may seem to offer a glimmer of hope – of mental life beyond physical death. However, not everyone is convinced about such projects. For example, professor John Gray says: “the technological pursuit of immorality is not a scientific project. It promises what religion has always promised…”. He argues it’s a childish fantasy, a secular version of the Christian hope of life beyond death, which we need to let go off.
I don’t agree! I’m fascinated by the fact that we are all born into a world of death and decay – history marked by the survival of the fittest. Yet we sense it ought not be like this – and we rebel against our mortality. It doesn’t make sense if we are just the natural products of this world, that we should feel so out of place in it! What if our longings for hope and dreams of life “happily ever after” and yearning never to be parted from those we love – aren’t an illusion but are telling us something more? What if they reveal that we were originally designed to live forever and that death is an unwelcome intruder?
That is the hope that you will find contained in Christianity. Not the wishful thinking of pie in the sky when you die – but a credible hope built upon the historical foundation of the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
But maybe you’re here and you’re thinking: Doesn’t it sound too good to be true? That takes us to our question this afternoon: “DON’T DEAD MEN STAY DEAD?” The claim that Jesus has risen from the dead was as controversial in the 1st century as it is in the 21st century. The fact that dead people stay dead was not a new discovery by modern philosophers or scientists. Listen to Professor N.T. Wright in his mammoth academic work on the resurrection: “Christianity was born into a world where its central claim was known to be false … The fact that dead people do not ordinary rise is itself part of early Christian belief, not an objection to it. The early Christians insisted that what had happened to Jesus was precisely something new; was indeed, the start of a whole … new creation”.
Something had happened to these first Christians, which unprecedentedly turned a tiny sect at the distant edge of the Roman Empire into a global phenomenon within a generation. The question is what happened?
After a lifetime of studying these things, professor Richard Bauckham says when it comes to “exceptional” or “unique” historical events that go beyond the “limits of our common experiences” (for example the Holocaust) – “only the testimony of participant witnesses can give us anything approaching access to the truth of the event”. The good news for historians is that we do have access through eyewitness accounts to the exceptional event of the death and resurrection of Jesus. Have you ever checked them out?
If not, let’s look at one in the gospel of Matthew. I’ve chosen it because it acknowledges a conspiracy theory:
“Some of the guards went into the city and reported to the chief priests everything that had happened. When the chief priests had met with the elders and devised a plan, they gave the soldiers a large sum of money, telling them: ‘You are to say: His disciples came during the night and stole him away while we were asleep. If this report gets to the governor, we will satisfy him and keep you out of trouble.’ So the soldiers took the money and did as they were instructed. And this story has been widely circulated among the Jews to this very day” (v.11-15).
This story exists, because something had happened that need an official alternative explanation. But it’s FAKE NEWS! 3 facts Matthew records …
(1) AN INCOVENENIENT FACT
Matthew tells us that the first eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus were women. Why is that inconvenient? Well the 1st century was a man’s world – in which a woman’s voice and testimony was not admissible evidence in court. This matters, because if Matthew was in any way embellishing or fabricating this story, then surely the first thing he would alter is the gender of the first witnesses
But Matthew didn’t do that – he made this embarrassing admission which instantly gave people a reason to doubt the credibility of his resurrection account. Why? Well because he’s with integrity recording what really happened. Indeed, he even records the names of these women, because they were readily identifiable individuals in the Christian community. He’s encouraging his first readers to cross-examine these witnesses for themselves.
(2) AN UNDENIABLE FACT
Matthew tells us a basic fact that all historians agree upon: the tomb of Jesus was empty on Easter Sunday morning. However, the really important question is: why was it empty? Any explanation has to adequately account for all the pieces of historical evidence. So for a few moments let’s become Sherlock Holmes to consider some possibilities…
(a) MAYBE JESUS DIDN’T REALLY DIE:
Unlikely, because the Roman soldiers at Calvary were expert executioners. Under Roman law, their lives depended on not allowing a prisoner to escape – so they had every reason to ensure Jesus was dead before burial. No, all the signs point to the fact: Jesus really died. And contemporary Roman historians like Tacitus and Lucian also record the fact of his successful execution.
(b) MAYBE JESUS DIED, BUT THE DISCIPLES CONSPIRED TO HIDE THE BODY:
This is the conspiracy theory that did the rounds in the 1st century. However, there’s at least two problems. Firstly, the difficulty of motivation: Matthew’s account admits that all of Jesus’ disciples abandoned Him in His darkest hour when He was arrested. It seems unlikely after his death that they would have a change of heart, summoning the courage to confront the soldiers at the tomb, and seeking to steal the body. Much more probable, like other failed Messianic sects of this time, after the Romans had eliminated the leader, his dejected followers would fade away into obscurity. So they had no motive!
Also there’s the difficulty of martyrdom. Matthew’s account also admits that Jesus’ followers did not understood Jesus’ predictions that He was going to die and rise again 3 days later – it didn’t fit into their intellectual or religious worldview: the Greeks thought that resurrection was both undesirable and impossible; while the Jews had no expectation of the resurrection of all people until the last day. Prof N.T. Wright argues that the unique belief in the resurrection of Jesus could not have spontaneously emerged in this context. Yet these first Christians suffered rejection, persecution and even martyrdom for their confession that they were eyewitnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. Something unexpected and profound had to have happened, which they considered worth reconstructing and sacrificing their lives for!
(c) That leaves us with the possibility: JESUS DIED AND ROSE AGAIN.
Sherlock Holmes would say: “When you have eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth”.
That takes us to the last thing...
(3) A TANGIBLE FACT: The appearances
It wasn’t merely the absence of a dead body in the tomb that convinced the first Christians that Jesus had risen again – instead it was the living presence of the Resurrected One!
Matthew records how Jesus appeared physically and tangibly to these women, and later to the disciples – as well as to other individuals, groups, and crowds over a period of weeks. These appearances not only transformed the lives of Jesus’ followers, but also of those who previously were sceptics (James) and enemies of Jesus (Paul).
On its own an empty tomb with a missing body could be dismissed as a mystery or tragedy… on their own, sightings of a dead loved one could be dismissed as grief induced hallucinations. However, together, these two facts powerfully compel us to consider the historical reality that Jesus rose again from the dead.
Jesus is living, walking, talking proof that death has been beaten, that indestructible life is available. The resurrected body of Jesus is the pattern for the Christian hope – resurrected bodies to enjoy newness and fullness of life in a new creation – where in JRR Tolkein’s words “everything sad will have become untrue”.
The Marys and Matthew have recorded their experiences, because they want you to know this isn’t too good to be true – it’s simply true! And it changes everything. If you place your life in the hands of Jesus, then He can carry you through the valley of the shadow of death, and bring you out safely onto the other side.
Let me finish telling you about Charles Foster. He is a barrister and part-time judge of the Crown Court in London. With his legal mind and with forensic scrutiny he has examined the evidence for and against the resurrection in his exhaustive book “The Jesus Inquest”. He concludes: “the merely historical evidence for the resurrection is very good… the historical resurrection is easily the most probably explanation for all the data that we have. You do have to believe some remarkable things if you don’t believe the resurrection. And I don’t have the faith to believe those things”.
The universal human desire for something more than the here and now, for the hope of life after death, is not wishful thinking – let me encourage you to investigate for yourself Jesus’ claim: “I am the resurrection and the life… whoever believes in me will live, even though they die”