Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Do People Need God to be Good?

A sociologist from the University of Lethbridge conducted a nationwide survey of 1,600 Canadians, asking them, "Do people need God to be good?" The study found that Canadians who believe in God are "consistently more likely than atheists to highly value a range of characteristics that includes courtesy, concern for others, forgiveness, and patience. God-believers are also more inclined than those who don't believe in God to place high value on friendship, family life, and being loved."

The author of the study, Dr. Reginald Bibby notes, "There obviously are times when religious beliefs and religious groups do not contribute to the social good. However, if they were to disappear tomorrow, we would have to find functional equivalents in Canadian society that are equally effective in promoting good interpersonal traits...To the extent that Canadians say good-bye to God, we may find that we pay a significant social price."

The primary reason for the values differences, Bibby suggests, are as follows:

"People get their values from groups and people who believe in God are far more likely than atheists to be part of groups that work hard to instill values about being good to other people, and having good relationships. That's not to say that God-believers always translate their values into action. But they at least are inclined to hold the values. Atheists, on the other hand, do not have as many explicit support groups that are committed to intentionally promoting positive interpersonal life."

49 percent of the respondents also said they definitely believe God exists and 33 percent said they think He exists; 11 percent have doubts and don't think there is a higher power; and 7 percent say they definitely do not believe God exists.

The Christian Post ran an article on this study and highlighted a recent debate between Alister McGrath and Christopher Hitchens. The article noted, "Rebutting Hitchens' argument that knowing right from wrong is innate and doesn't come from a higher being, McGrath, who said he is a former atheist, asked how one can have a viable moral system without some sort of transcendent basis of morality. 'There are some forms of religion that are pathological, that damage people. For every one of these atrocities which must cause all of us deep concern, there are 10,000 unreported acts of kindness, generosity, and so forth arising from religious commitment,' McGrath argued."

Thursday, October 25, 2007

What the Hell?

I haven't posted in a few days, as I have taken the time to visit and comment (here and here) on other blogs. While I recently wrote on heaven, one of the blogs got me thinking about the doctrine of hell (see the first link). After wrestling with the concept for a few days, these are my thoughts.

Theologians note that there are more important doctrines to the Christian faith than hell. However, critics hold the idea of hell up as one of the main objections to our faith. One Christian writer said, "Of all the doctrines in Christianity, hell is probably the most difficult to defend and the most burdensome to believe..." Given these issues, it is important to more fully understand what the Bible says about hell. Some of the bigger objections I have come across include:
  1. Hell is contrary to the love of God -- it is hypocrisy and immoral.
  2. Infinite punishment for a finite sin is contrary to justice -- it is cruel.
There are other objections, but I will focus on these two for relative brevity.

We often think of hell as a place of everlasting fire and torture, as this picture portrays (William-Adolphe Bouguereau - Dante And Virgil In Hell, 1850). But is this really what hell is like? Jesus spoke about it often and used images of fire, destruction, torment, and gnashing of teeth.

I do not believe that Hell is a place of eternal physical torture, as if we are being whipped and beaten on a daily basis while God watches in with a vengeful eye. The Bible uses analogy, allegory and figures of speech. It uses fire, gnashing of teeth, etc. as an analogy for what it is like away from God's presence, which is what hell is - separation/banishment from God's presence. As such, there is suffering because one is away from God. I am not downplaying hell, only putting it in perspective. From all accounts, it will be a nasty place. Just not in the way we might expect, like the picture. (For example, God's love may be the fire - if one hates God, then His love will feel like fire and torment. I don't know if I agree with this description, but it is one that has been put forth.)

One blogger I encountered asked a very insightful question relating to hell being separation from God: If God is omnipresent, how is it that we can be separated from His presence? I see a difference between an active and passive presence of God. Those in Hell will not receive the full benefit of His active presence as those in heaven. Further, some theologians believe that there will be degrees of isolation and separation in Hell. If God’s judgment is proportional, Hitler will be judged harsher than a person who might have been a relatively “good” person whose sin is rejection of the Gospel.

It is important to note that hell is not the analogy, only the descriptions used in the Bible. If you have never tasted beef and had to explain its taste to a person who has never even seen a cow, you would say, “Beef is like…” This is exactly what the Bible does. Hell is described as utter darkness, yet with flames. Both are obviously not possible and can be viewed as figurative language.

Hell is contrary to the love of God
Taken at face value, I would not disagree with this statement -- with the caveat that hell was not part of God's initial plan for humanity. He does not want his creation to go there anymore than we want to be there. So in that sense it is contrary. However, given our rebellion, it becomes necessary. God's love gives us freedom -- including the freedom to reject Him.

But if God is so merciful and loving, God should forgive the rebel for rejecting Him, right?. I think that this is a misunderstanding of justice. Mercy cannot contradict justice. By accepting Christ's sacrifice, we have the ability to have our sins forgiven. This is mercy and grace. It is offered to us for free, but it came at a price. By rejecting Christ and never seeking forgiveness for our actions, we are refusing to disassociate with our sins. Sin cannot enter heaven. Our sins are either excluded through Christ, or they stay part of us. Justice says that the price of sin must be paid. We have two options and the ball is in our court.

It is important to keep in mind that if God truly loves us, He will allow us to make our own decisions. As such, God would not pull someone into heaven kicking and screaming. If we are free, rejection of God is possible. Thus, Hell is possible. We have the opportunity to choose our paths. While a person may not want to go to Hell, they chose a path that leads there. God respects us so much and wants a voluntary submission to His will. We will not go to hell against our will, but because of it.

Infinite punishment for a finite sin is contrary to justice
To God, the most heinous thing a person can do, in the words of Dr. J.P. Moreland, is to, “mock and dishonor and refuse to love the person that we owe absolutely everything to, which is our Creator, God Himself.” The Bible says the greatest commandment is to love God with all of your heart, soul, mind and strength and love your neighbor as yourself. The punishment of a lifetime of refusing God will result in an eternity apart from Him (ultimate sanction for the ultimate sin). We have a lifetime to choose Him. If we were to have a second chance after death, what would be the point of this life? Who is to say that one will not reject God after the second opportunity? Is hell okay under these circumstances? Further, such a question assumes that we do not have sufficient opportunities to meet God during our lifetime. If we are to be held to account for our decisions, we must have the opportunity to make the correct one. If God is truly just, such an opportunity will occur.

When we argue against the finality of hell, we are failing to see the horror of what sin really is in God's eye. It is rejection of Him.

An interesting theme behind the critique of hell is that it is not "moral" or "just." In most accounts, the critic is disavowing God, while at the same time calling hell unjust. C.S. Lewis has this to say, "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. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust." In essence, when one denies the existence of God but refers to good and evil, it becomes a self-defeating argument. When we call something bad, we refer to a standard that is beyond ourselves. Where does that standard come from? If the standard is man-made, then it is subjective. How then can we call crimes such as those committed in Darfur and Nazi Germany truly "bad" if humans are the ones defining good and bad. Our ideas of good and bad can change. If there is not a God, what then can we defer to as the arbiter when we say something is evil?

I have yet to read an atheistic argument relating to morality that does not ultimately end in subjectivity, thus doing away with any notion of inherent human rights or inherent evil. I am not saying that God is required for a person to be "good" (there are many non-Christians whose behavior/actions can be considered moral or good). My argument is that a higher authority is required for an action to be considered inherently moral or evil. A humanistic concept of good/evil is only temporal and thus changes.

Lastly, it is very important to note that Christians (at least the ones I know) do not enjoy the thought of people going to hell. We are not "gleeful" as I have seen some say. I are saddened by the thought of hell. This is why Christians try to reach about to non-believers. Those that take joy in preaching hell should be ashamed of themselves.

While hell may play an initial part in someone becoming a Christian, our continued faith is not necessarily reliant on the fear of damnation. At least in my case, I do not stay a Christian out of fear of hell -- I stay out of love for my creator.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

Jesus and Cheese Sandwiches

Every couple of months, a news story is run that highlights what someone believes to be an appearance of either Jesus, Mary or another Christian figure in anything from food, to windows to clouds. For example, a few years ago, someone saw Jesus in this grilled cheese sandwich.

Well...we have another sighting. This time of Pope John Paul II. It appears that Pope JP2 was a big fan of the Fantastic Four, as his image was seen in the form of a giant flame, a la the Human Torch. Makes we wonder if we will see any future divine appearances of Mr. Fantastic, Invisible Woman or the Thing.

Wednesday, October 17, 2007

Imagine There's No Heaven

John Lennon wrote a song released in 1971 called Imagine. It has since become one of the top songs of all time. I never really looked at the words until recently, although I was familiar with the tune since I heard it on the radio as a child. While it has redeeming qualities, such as imagining peace and no greed or hunger, there are a few verses that can be less than uplifting if one is a Christian, including imagining there's no heaven or religion --- but, this is exactly what I did today (imagining no heaven, that is).

Specifically, I asked myself I would still follow the will of God if there was not a "reward" (for lack of a better word) in the end. In other words, if Christians did not go to heaven, would I still be motivated to serve God? Part of the greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all of our heart, soul, strength and mind. Would I love my creator, then, if He did not offer heaven?

"No heaven" is hard for a Christian to imagine (no pun intended). It does get me thinking about my underlying motivations for serving God. Am I doing it to get my "prize," or am I doing it because I love the Lord my God? I hope it is the latter.

I don't know if this makes sense to anyone else, or if I just have too much time on my hands to think about random things.

Imagine - John Lennon
Imagine there's no heaven
It's easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today...

Imagine there's no countries
It isn't hard to do
Nothing to kill or die for
And no religion too
Imagine all the people
Living life in peace...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will be as one

Imagine no possessions
I wonder if you can
No need for greed or hunger
A brotherhood of man
Imagine all the people
Sharing all the world...

You may say I'm a dreamer
But I'm not the only one
I hope someday you'll join us
And the world will live as one

Sunday, October 14, 2007

Are Christians Contributing to Unbelief?

S. Michael Craven at the Center for Christ & Culture has an interesting article in which he asks if Christians are contributing to unbelief. While 89% of Americans claim to believe in God and 11% claim to be atheist or agnostic (numbers that have stayed the same for many years), there has been a lot of popularity of recent books written by prominent atheists such as Dawkins, Hitchens and Harris -- several even landing on the New York Times best-seller list. If we are a country that believes in God, why is there such an interest in books that are so anti-god? Craven looks at one possibility: a backlash against the mingling of religion and politics.

Craven notes the following, "J. David Kuo, who served in the Bush White House for two-and-a-half years as a Special Assistant to the president and eventually as Deputy Director of the Faith-Based Initiative, offers one possible suggestion... According to Kuo, a self-professed conservative Christian, growing interest in questions about God’s existence may be the result of a “backlash against the mingling of religion, politics and public policy,” and this idea that “Jesus was about a particular conservative political agenda.” In essence, he means that the actions of some Christians may be encouraging the spiritual seeker to further doubt the existence of Jehovah God."

He goes on to say, "This growing interest in “questioning the existence of God” seems to parallel the decline in church attendance or more precisely, those leaving the institutional church. According to Reggie McNeal, author of The Present Future: Six Tough Questions for the Church, “They are not leaving because they have lost their faith. They are leaving the church to preserve their faith.” McNeal adds, “They contend that the church no longer contributes to their spiritual development.” This would certainly be the natural consequence of a Christianity that has lost its Christ-centeredness."

He concludes with this, "Regardless of where you are in relation to politics or the kind of church you attend; the question we must each ask ourselves everyday is this: “Is my life and conduct drawing people toward Christ or pushing them away?” I pray for my own sake that it is the former."

It is important to ask ourselves if our actions are a stumbling block to someone accepting Christ. But as important, we should ask if the Church has stayed from its primary mission. Even if the mingling of Christians and political party politics is not the primary cause of folks flocking to atheist best-sellers, I would argue that it certainly plays a role in folks not being willing to accept Christ's message (I have had several conversations with non-Christians who have noted this exact point). If someone wants to deny Christ, God or the Bible, let it be because they have hardened their heart to His word, not because we are sandpaper when we should be salt and light.

Saturday, October 13, 2007

How to Convert an Atheist

No, the link to the video clip below is not a step-by-step of how to convert an atheist, despite the title of this posting (sorry folks). I took my title from the title of the video.

It is interesting to watch (only 3 minutes or so) as it provides an overly simplistic and satirical view of Christians. If you are easily offended, it may not be the best 3 minutes you will spend today. If, however, you are interested in how Christians are viewed by some in the atheist community, then take a look.

1 in 5 Pregnancies Worldwide Ends in Abortion

I don't usually blog on stories like these, but I felt the need. Neither of these numbers are good:
  • One in five pregnancies worldwide and more than half of pregnancies in eastern Europe end in abortion.
  • 70,000 women die every year from unsafe abortions.

Here is a news article on the study behind the numbers. The positive is that the number of abortions dropped from 46 million in 1995 to just under 42 million in 2003. The authors of the study note the need for contraception to reduce the chances of pregnancy and thus reduce the number of unwanted pregnancies.

Evil, Plato and God

I attend a study every other Friday at a friend's house where we discuss, among other things, whether there is a rational basis for belief in God and Christ. The chapter in the book we read for this week covered the question of why there is evil in the world. This is a question that theologians have wrestled with for centuries.

The existence of evil is a prominent criticism of Christianity by non-religious persons. In short, the argument goes something like this: If God created all things, and evil exists, then God created evil. Therefore, God is either one of two things - 1) bad for allowing evil, or 2) not all powerful because He doesn't stop bad things from happening. Neither option is a good and some, in turn, find that they cannot bring themselves to believing in such a dichotomy. While the logic of if-then-this may be logical, as any philosophy professor will tell you, just because something appears logical does not mean it is correct.

So then, why evil? I wish I could say I had a simple silver-bullet answer, but I do not (I have discussed the subject here and here). If anyone claims a simple answer, run away fast. Despite the difficulty, there are many crucial observations that can come from asking this question.

C.S. Lewis once wrote, "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. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust." In essence, when one denies the existence of God based on the existence of evil, it becomes a self-defeating argument. When we call something bad, we refer to a standard that is beyond ourselves. Where does that standard come from? If it is man-made, then it is subjective. Taken to its logical conclusion, crimes such as those committed in Darfur and Nazi Germany could be justified. In fact, the Holocaust was permitted by German law, although no decent person would say that such an atrocity was "good." If there is not a God, what then can we defer to as the arbiter when we say something is evil?

This does beg the question of how God communicates such standards to humans. Some would argue that humans can and do pervert the idea of divine revelation for personal gain -- if God "told" me that murder is evil, then what is to stop me from adding a few of my own pet-peeves to the list simply to control those I don't like? While humans have used the name of a religion for wrong, this is an ancillary criticism and never answers the question of where we draw our concept of right and wrong.

If God does exist, where does He come up with right and wrong? This is an interesting question offered by Plato, called the Euthyphro Dilemma. Simply put, Plato asks if an act is right because God says it's so, or does God say it's so because it's right. Some see Plato's question as a devastating objection to the concept that morality is grounded in God's commands, but it doesn't need to be. I saw one person make the following statement, "What if God had ordained murder and rape as the morally obligatory ways of treating others? If so and rights and values have moral authority merely because God ordains them, then murder and rape would be morally obligatory. You can't protest here and say that since God (who is perfectly morally good) would never ordain anything as immoral as murder and rape, murder and rape couldn't have been morally obligatory. If you say this, you'd be appealing to a moral standard independent of (not ordained by) God. So, either human rights and moral values have an authority independent of God's commands or they derive all of their authority from the fact that God has ordained them and we must accept that human rights and moral values are arbitrary: whatever God says goes - no matter how horrible."

Christian philosopher Thomas Aquinas argued that the dilemma is false (thanks Wikipedia for the following condensation of his argument): "Yes, God commands something because it is good, but the reason it is good is that good is an essential part of God's nature. So goodness is grounded in God's character and merely expressed in moral commands. Therefore whatever a good God commands will always be good." Thus, God's commands are not subject to an outside authority, nor are they arbitrary.

It is important to point out that someone does not have to be religious to do "good" things, like feed the poor (although, most outreach centers I can think of that offer such assistance are part of a larger church ministry). But as Norman Geisler says in his book Unshakable Foundations, "In order for moral evil to be present, a moral agent and a moral law must also exist." Who else can that moral agent be but God?

Friday, October 12, 2007

Common Ground

I subscribe to email updates from Sojourners, a Christian group that advocates for the "biblical call to social justice," as their website states. While organizations like Focus on the Family, Family Research Council and other similar groups advocate on issues like abortion, gay marriage, pornography and the like, Sojourners seeks to implement government policies to help the poor and needy like housing, health care and similar services. Their update today caught my attention, as it included a link to a report by a group called called Third Way, entitled Come Let Us Reason Together, A Fresh Look at Shared Cultural Values Between Progressives and Evangelicals. As the name of the report implies, Third Way attempts to find common ground between the two ends of the Christian faith -- what some might call "liberal" and "conservative."

Many political pundits see Evangelical Christians as a voting block (who usually vote Republican) and fail to see the nuanced political beliefs that make up people that attend Christian churches. As early as 20 years ago, this stereotype could not be as easily made. The report notes, "[In] 1988, Evangelicals were split evenly between the two political parties. In the 1980s, partisan divides among Evangelicals were correlated heavily to region, with Evangelicals in the South still tenuously wedded to the Democratic Party and Evangelicals outside the South more connected to the GOP." They note that while Evangelicals make up one quarter of the population, our influence and visibility has increased dramatically due to recent partisanship. "By 2004, 56% of Evangelicals identified with or leaned Republican, with only 27% identifying with or leaning Democrat; the remaining 17% identified as Independent(Green 2004). Partisanship in 2006 was fairly consistent with this picture, although moderately more favorable to the Democrats: 59% of Evangelicals identified with or leaned Republican, 34% identified with or leaned Democrat, and 7% identified as Independent."

As I noted earlier, things are not as simple as the numbers might portray. Progressive/Liberal Evangelicals do not necessarily fall in line with the more conservative branch of the faith. This simplistic assumption has been a mistake of the Democratic Party, who has largely dismissed the possibility of reaching Evangelical votes. This assumption has been to their detriment. Today, Democratic presidential candidates have taken an about-face and are courting Evangelical voters. They seem to have become more comfortable talking about their faith.

This could be because over half of Evangelicals can be considered what the study calls "Centrists (41%), and Modernists (11%)." They entitle Conservative Evangelicals at Traditionalists (48%). The study makes an interesting observation regarding these groups and church attendance, as well as beliefs in the Bible. "Traditionalists are the most orthodox, attend religious services most frequently, and record the highest rates of biblical literalism. Centrists are more religiously moderate, attend religious services less frequently, and hold less literal views of the Bible. Modernists are less traditionally religious, attend religious services a few times a year, and hold low rates of biblical literalism. Although these subgroup distinctions are based entirely on religious measures, they are highly correlated to political opinion and provide an initial window into the complexities of the relationship between religion and politics among Evangelicals." The report also has an accurate analysis of why Conservatives believe in a limited form of government. It also describes their concerns with religion being taken out of the public square.

The power of the religious right certainly is not fading. As I have noted in other postings, Republicans are fearful that Conservative Evangelicals will break rank to support a 3rd party candidate. But it appears that more moderate Evangelical voices are starting to be heard, such as groups like Sojourners and especially younger Christian's in their 20's and 30's (like myself). Where does this leave us then? How can both sides work together in the public square in the cause of service for Jesus Christ? Third Way makes a few suggestions in areas like gay & lesbian issues, abortion, human embryos, protection of children, and responsible fatherhood. Most importantly, however, is that they want to open up a dialogue between Christians (which is somewhat ironic). Liberals and Conservatives have the same goals, one would hope, but different methods of achieving them. Once we can understand one another, it makes it possible to work together. If we were to simply achieve productive, honest dialogue, it would be ground gained beyond where we are now. Any eventual alliance between the two sides has the potential to produce a powerful force to change our country for the good.

Saturday, October 6, 2007

The Vote for President of a (Christian?) Nation

Was the United States founded as a Christian nation? One of our current presidential candidates, U.S. Sen. John McCain, believes that we were. A recent poll shows that McCain is not alone in his beliefs. 55% of Americans think that the Constitution establishes America as a Christian nation. McCain received some flack for his comments, which he has since clarified, "What I do mean to say is the United States of America was founded on … Judeo-Christian values, which were translated by our founding fathers [and are] basically the rights of human dignity and human rights."

Conservative radio talk show host Michael Medved, an observant Jew, wrote a detailed article this past week on the subject and defended McCain. He concludes, "The framers may not have mentioned Christianity in the Constitution, but they clearly intended that charter of liberty to govern a society of fervent faith, freely encouraged by government for the benefit of all. Their noble and unprecedented experiment never involved a religion-free or faithless state but did indeed presuppose America’s unequivocal identity as a Christian nation."

Christianity Today, a magazine founded by Rev. Billy Graham, ran an editorial in July of 2005 that was critical of the concept (the article is no longer on their website, but can be found here). The editorial begins with strong words, "George W. Bush is not Lord. The Declaration of Independence is not an infallible guide to Christian faith and practice. Nor is the U.S. Constitution, nor the U.N. Universal Declaration on Human Rights. "Original intent" of America's founders is not the hermeneutical key that will guarantee national righteousness. The American flag is not the Cross. The Pledge of Allegiance is not the Creed. "God Bless America" is not the Doxology. Sometimes one needs to state the obvious—especially at times when it's less and less obvious." They go on to say, "The not-so-subtle equation of America's founding with biblical Christianity has been shown time and again to be historically inaccurate. The founding was a unique combination of biblical teaching and Enlightenment rationalism, and most of the founding fathers, as historian Edwin Gaustad, among many others, has noted, were not orthodox Christians, but instead were primarily products of the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment, we should recall, has never been much of a friend of biblical Christianity."

It appears the extent of the influence of Christianity on our founding fathers might be debatable. But it is undeniable that Christian morals at least played a role. With all of this said, should we base our vote for a Presidential candidate on whether or not they are a Christian? It appears important to folks like Dr. James Dobson, who is less than thrilled with the selection of Republican candidates and is threatening to put his support behind a 3rd party candidate (even if it means that his candidate will split the Republican vote and thereby guarantee a Democratic victory). Dobson has even questioned the faith of one candidate, former U.S. Senator Fred Thompson, because of his lack of church attendance.

Just because one is a devout Christian does not mean one will be a good President (Jimmy Carter). On the other hand, a lack of a church attendance does not mean one will be a poor President (Ronald Reagan never attended church during his two terms as Commander-In-Chief). We must also be careful of any candidate who wears their religion on their sleeve for political gain. All else being equal (and assuming I support their policies), I would be inclined to vote for a candidate who shared my faith. But if the qualifications of a non-Christian candidate where better than the Christian's, I would likely lean toward the non-Christian. While I love my Christian brothers and sisters, I would not select a surgeon based on their faith. We must be careful in doing the same when we look at Presidential candidates, no matter how strong an influence the Christian faith had during the formation of our country.

In God We Trust

Next month marks the 146 anniversary of the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury's directive to prepare a motto for our national coins. In his letter to the Director of the U.S. Mint, the Secretary notes, "No nation can be strong except in the strength of God, or safe except in His defense. The trust of our people in God should be declared on our national coins." The Director of the Mint submitted designs two years later and Congress approved a motto for the coins -- In God We Trust -- shortly thereafter (the motto was adopted as our national motto some 90-years later in the 1950s and was also placed on our paper currency at that time).

The change took place during the ravages of the Civil War. A Pennsylvanian pastor was one of many who wrote the Secretary requesting recognition of God on our coins. The pastor states in his letter, "What if our Republic were not shattered beyond reconstruction? Would not the antiquaries of succeeding centuries rightly reason from our past that we were a heathen nation?" He goes on to say, "From my hearth I have felt our national shame in disowning God as not the least of our present national disasters."

Just a little bit of trivia to think about as you carry that pocket full of change. I have a feeling that such statements by an elected or appointed government official would not fly today, to say the least.