Tribulation Saint

Historic Christianity in the Twenty First Century

WHAT IS GOD LIKE? – I

 

173

Paul in Athens

 

But if God exists, what is He like?  What can we know about Him?

On this point it is important to emphasize that we must go by what the Bible says on the subject.  God must reveal Himself to us.  While we may be able to infer a few things about Him from the physical creation and have a vague sense of Him in our individual consciences, for the most part He must tell us what He is like.  We have no other means of knowing about Him.

The Bible, of course, has a great deal to say about God, and we cannot possibly summarize it all here.  However the apostle Paul did give a brief summary in a speech he delivered before an assembly of Greek philosophers in Athens recorded for us in Acts 17:22-31.  The Greeks at that time were pagans and had a polytheistic religion.  They worshiped idols in temples.  The irony of it all, of course, is that the idol had been made by human beings.  People were bowing down and worshiping lifeless images that they themselves had made.

Paul began by pointing out that God is the Creator – He “made the world and everything in it’ (v. 24; NKJV).  Because of that He is “Lord of heaven and earth.”  Since He has made it all, and it would not have existed if He had not created it, it all rightfully belongs to Him.  Moreover our continued existence depends upon Him: “He gives to all life, breath, and all things” (v. 25), and “in Him we live and move and have our being” (v. 28).  Once created we do not exist independently of Him.  Life itself is a gift from God, something He can take from us whenever He pleases.

In other words, Paul’s audience had gotten it all backwards.  God is not dependent upon us; we are dependent on Him.  He exists independently of us, not the other way around.  And that being the case, strictly speaking, God does not need anything from us.  “Nor is He worshiped with men’s hands, as though He needed anything” (v. 25).

What all of this means is that we owe Him our love and devotion, our worship and our obedience. God is the Creator of the entire human race, “in the hope that they might grope for Him, and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  God wants us to “grope for Him.”  The picture here is that of being in the dark, not being able to see, and groping with one’s hands to find the object being sought.  And this is a picture of our relationship with God.  We cannot see Him physically; His presence is not obvious.  But we must search for Him, and keep searching until we find Him.  He will not reward us for our apathy and indifference.  We must make the effort to seek Him by praying and meditating on His Word, and then we will “find Him” – we will receive salvation and the presence of the Holy Spirit in our hearts comforting and guiding us.

The irony is that “He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we move and have our being” (vv. 27,28).  We are surrounded by God, our very existence depends on Him. Yet most of us do not know Him.  The tragedy of it all!

God, then, calls us to have a relationship with Him; but in order for that to happen we must make a conscious effort to seek Him.  He loves us; He wants us to love Him.  But we must never forget that it is not a relationship between equals.  He is infinitely greater than ourselves.  We owe everything that we have to Him.  We should bow down and worship Him in love, humility, and devotion.

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THE BIBLE: A BOOK LIKE NO OTHER BOOK

 

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Codex Vaticanus

The extraordinary claim that the Bible makes for itself is that it is nothing less than the inspired Word of God himself.   “All Scripture is given by inspiration of God . . .” (II Tim. 3:16; NKJV).   “. . .for prophecy never came by the will of man, but holy men of God spoke as they were moved by the Holy Spirit” (II Pet. 1:21).  God spoke to Moses directly.  Others saw visions or dreamed dreams.  The Holy Spirit descended on others and they spoke as they were led by the Spirit.  The words that they spoke and wrote down were words in human languages, but the thoughts, concepts and ideas came directly from God himself.  The prophets themselves did not always understand the things that God was revealing to them.  They had to study their own inspired to try to understand what God had revealed through them (I Pet. 1:10-12).

But how do we know that the Bible’s claim for itself is true?  How do we know that the Bible really is God’s Word?  What about other sacred books – the Hindu Vedas?  The Koran?   The Book of Mormon?  Are all of them “inspired”?  Or are all of them, including the Bible, merely human productions?  Why would the Bible be divinely inspired and not the others?

First of all, the Bible is different from the others, and in ways that make it unlikely to have had a purely human origin.  It was composed over a very long period of time (at least a thousand years), by a large number of different authors writing in three different languages (Hebrew, Aramaic and Greek).  And yet in spite of all of the diversity on their backgrounds there is a remarkable unity of thought in the book as a whole.  There is only one God, the Creator of heaven and earth.  He is absolutely just and holy.  Mankind is fallen and sinful, but God is merciful and compassionate.  Sin must be atoned for.  And in the fullness of time God sent His Son into the world to die for our sins and make salvation available to the entire human race.

And then there is the phenomenon of fulfilled prophecy.  Events were predicted before they happened and they subsequently came to pass.   The New Testament writers in particular could cite a large number of Old Testament prophecies regarding the coming Messiah, and note that they were fulfilled in Christ.  The prophecies are remarkable enough that they could not have been fulfilled by accident.

But what is even more remarkable is the nature of the message itself.  On the one hand it presents a high standard of moral conduct.  Men are exhorted to love God and each other.  Pride, lust, greed, envy, jealousy and anger are all condemned.  In the end all human beings fall short of God’s standards.

Most books of human origin, however, glorify man.  They either excuse, rationalize or even condone behavior that is compulsive, anti-social and self-destructive.  And in most books of human origin there is at least one human hero who distinguishes himself above all others.  In the Bible, however, there are no human heroes – all men fall short of God’s standards.  The Bible views human life from God’s perspective, and this suggests that He is the true Author of it.  No human being could write a book of this apart from divine inspiration.

And then there is the manifest wisdom contained in the Bible. Philosophers and psychologists have propounded theory after theory, only to have them discredited over time.  But countless multitudes of ordinary people have found the Bible “a lamp to my feet and a light to my path” (Psalm 119:105).  It provides guidance and gives solace to those who follow its directions.

But in the end it often comes down to a matter of personal conviction.  When the message grips your soul, makes you feel your awful guilt before a holy God and then gives you the hope of eternal salvation in Jesus Christ you almost have no choice but to believe.  It has to be God’s Word – nothing else could bring such conviction.

The Bible is God’s Word, then, and we owe it to Him to study it, meditate upon it, and apply it to our lives.  It is the key to understanding life, and our lives must conform to its principles fi we are to find any lasting happiness or fulfillment.  Our ultimate loyalty must be to God himself, and all human teachings, laws and doctrines must be evaluated in the light of His Word.

Too often today young people who were raised in Christian homes are merely reacting to their upbringing.  But what is often missing is a direct relationship with God himself.  But it is not a matter of “your pastor said this” or “your parents taught you that.”  Rather it is a matter of what God himself has said, and in order to know that we must each individually dig into His Word and seek to understand what it says.  Our parents, pastors and teachers are all fallible human beings.  God’s Word is the final authority.  By that we stand or fall.  May God give us the grace to search, understand and obey!

THE GAP THEORY REVISITED

 

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Sedimentary rock formation, Tioga Co., PA

 

Review:

Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory

Weston Fields

Master Books, 2005

245 pp., pb

 

In 1976 Weston Fields published his book Unformed and Unfilled: A Critique of the Gap Theory.  It is largely a rebuttal of an earlier work by Arthur C. Custance entitled Without Form and Void, which defended what is known as “the Gap Theory.”  Fields’ book was republished in 2005.

The Gap Theory is an attempt to reconcile the biblical account of creation with the findings of modern geology.  It had become apparent to geologists at the end of the 18th Century that the earth was very old, has passed through several successive geological ages, and that there had been forms of plant and animal life, such as dinosaurs, that had since become extinct.  The question then became how to reconcile the geological evidence with the biblical account of creation, which seemed to indicate that the whole process only took six days a few thousand  years ago.  One possible solution was proposed by the distinguished Scottish theologian Thomas Chalmers, who suggested what became known as “the Gap Theory.”

The Gap Theory posited the existence of an unspecified length of time between the original creation of the universe and the six days of creation mentioned in Genesis Chapter 1.  It assumes that some sort of disaster destroyed the original creation and that what is described in Genesis 1 is a recreation of the earth.  This, then, would allow for the long geological ages postulated by modern science.  The Gap Theory then became popularized in a footnote in the Scofield Reference Bible, as well as in Halley’s Bible Handbook.  A later version appeared in Unger’s Bible Handbook.

Dr. Fields, however, will have none of this.  In his view Ex. 20:11 and Neh.9:6 state that the entire universe was created ex nihilo in just six days, and that the grammatical structure of Gen. 1:1-3 will not permit a gap between verse 1 (“In the beginning . . .” –  NASB) and verse 3 (“Then God said”).  According to him the Hebrew “vav” (“and”) at the beginning of verse 2 links the three clauses of that verse (“the earth was formless and void,” “and darkness was over the face of the deep,” “and the Spirit of God was moving over the surface of the waters”) with verse 1.  Verse 2, then, would describe the condition of the world at the beginning of the process of creation of the entire universe, thus not allowing for a gap between the two.

Dr. Fields’ argument becomes quite involved and arcane at points; and sometimes, in the opinion of this reviewer, a bit too strained, with both sides (Dr. Fields and Dr. Custance) reading more into the text than is actually there.  E.J. Young, for example, whom Dr. Fields sometimes cites in his footnotes, connects the three clauses of verse 2 with the main verb in verse 3 (“Then God said. . .”).  Verse 2, then, describes the condition of the world at the beginning of the six day process described in the remainder of chapter 1.

What neither Dr. Fields nor Dr. Custance may have known at the time is that there is compelling evidence that points to a geological catastrophe that wiped out the dinosaurs and brought on the Ice Age.  A comet or asteroid is believed to have stuck the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, spreading a thick cloud of debris.  Gen. 1:2, then, could very well describe the scene immediately after the comet struck.  The sky was darkened; most life had been wipe out.  God then began the creative process anew.

This is not to say that there are no problems with the Gap Theory.  If Gen 1:14-18 were taken in a strictly literal fashion, the sun and moon simply did not exist until the fourth day of creation.  (In my scenario, as the debris in the sky gradually settled, light appeared first, on the first day, and then the sun and moon became visible later, on the fourth day.)

Likewise Paul’s statements that death came through sin (Rom. 5:12-17; 8:19-21; I Cor. 15:21,22) would pose a problem, since under the Gap Theory whole species became extinct before man had sinned.  But the Bible is concerned primarily with what has happened since the creation of man, not with what may have happened before.

Dr. Fields is right in not wanting to let secular science dictate our interpretation of Scripture.  Unbelieving scientists are quick to jump to conclusions that eliminate God from their worldview.  But it is God’s written revelation that gives us the interpretation of the mute facts of nature.  Science has often erred, and a new discovery will often overturn a previously held conclusion.  But we cannot simply ignore or dismiss the physical evidence.  While fossils do not prove the Theory of Evolution, they do suggest that the world is very old, and the evidenced cannot be ignored.

God is the author of both nature and Scripture; and if each is interpreted properly they do not contradict each other.  The two basic questions are, what can science actually prove?  And what does the Bible actually teach?  On the latter question it is not the aim of the Bible to give detailed scientific explanations of natural phenomena, or a detailed history of the cosmos.  It’s focus, rather, is on man, on his fall and redemption; and thus we must be careful not to make the Bible say more than it actually does.  On this point we think that both Drs. Custance and Fields may have been prone to take things a little too far.

THE NATURE OF TRUE VIRTUE

 

 

It is striking that even among professed Bible-believing Christians there is a poor understanding of what the Christian life is all about.  One tendency is to think that because salvation is a free gift it does not matter how we live (“God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life”).  Another tendency is to think that Christian ethics consists mainly of avoiding certain sinful practices (smoking, drinking, dancing, card-playing, etc.).  And even in Reformed circles there is a tendency to a form of dead orthodoxy.

What the Bible actually says about the subject, however, is quite different, and the apostle Paul gives us a snapshot of what that is in Colossians 3:12-15.  He begins by describing the favored positions that Christians enjoy in Christ: “Therefore, as the elect of God, holy and beloved, put on tender mercies . . .” (v. 12; NKJV).  Here he uses three adjectives to describe the Colossian believers: “elect,” “holy,” and “beloved.”  “Elect” points to fact that believers become Christians because they are first chosen by God.  The second adjective, “holy,” points to the fact that they were set apart from the rest of humanity and enjoyed a special relationship with God.  The third adjective, “beloved,” points to the fact that they had become the special objects of God’s love.  Together the three adjectives underscore God’s grace in our salvation.  We were poor, underserving sinners whom He rescued in His grace and mercy.

But this has definite implications for the way we should live.  And so Paul tells the Colossian believers to “put on” certain virtues, in much the same way that someone night put on a coat or jacket.  It involves a conscious decision to live a certain way.

He begins by listing several virtues: “tender mercies, kindness, humility, meekness, longsuffering” (v. 12).  These all involve the way we feel and act toward others.  The “tender mercies” (or “bowels of mercies,” as the old King James Version has it) refers to a tender compassion that we ought to feel toward others.  “Meekness” might better be translated “gentleness.”  “Longsuffering” literally means “slow to anger.”

Paul then goes on to describe how these virtues work out in actual practice.  He says “bearing with one another, and forgiving one another, if anyone has a complaint against another . . .” (v. 13).  The implication here, of course, is that as Christians we are still less than perfect, and that from time to time conflict will arise even in the best of churches.  How, then, are we to deal with such conflict?  First of all, by “bearing with one another.”  We must make allowances for differences of personality and background.  Some things are not worth making an issue over.  And so if someone else’s action or behavior does not amount to actual sin, we should try to overlook it even if it rubs us the wrong way.

But some situations may require us to go to the other brother and confront him about the problem; and if he repents we should forgive him and restore fellowship.  Christians should not hold grudges against each other.

But, one may ask, why should we do this?  What is wrong with defending our rights?  Paul goes on to explain why: “even as Christ forgave you, so you also must do” (. 13).  Look at what Christ has done for us.  Here was the sinless Son of God who came into this sin-cursed world, and offered up His life on the cross in order to save us.  We were hell-deserving sinners, completely unworthy of the least of God’s favors.  And yet in spite of our guilt we are now forgiven.  “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me”!  But if Christ was willing to do that for us, should now we be willing to do the same for others?  Should we not imitate Christ’s example?  And if we were hell-deserving sinners saved by grace we are really no different from the brother who sinned against us.  If Christ forgave us our sins then we should forgive others.

Paul then adds, “But above all these things put on love, which is the bond of perfection” (v. 14).  Love, according to Scripture, is the preeminent virtue.  It is not enough merely to be kind, humble or patient.  These are largely passive virtues.  All of this must arise from a heart filled with love, an active concern for others, a positive desire to do good to them.  The commentators disagree over exactly what Paul meant by “the bond of perfection,” with some arguing that love is what underlies all Christian virtue, while others take it to mean that love is what binds Christians together.  In other case love is the preeminent Christian virtue, the virtue from which all other virtues arise.

And then Paul says, “And let the peace of God rule in your hearts, to which you were called in one body . . .” (v. 15).  In the Bible peace is more than just the absence of conflict.  It the sense of well-being that comes when everything is in order.  And so to this we are “called in one body.”  Every genuine believer is a member of the universal church, the mystical body of Christ.  And that universal church is to be marked by peace – a harmonious unity of the entire body.  That is the peace that we should let rule in our hearts.

And then Paul adds, “and be thankful” (v. 15).  If it is true that God is our sovereign Lord and Creator; if He has saved us by His grace alone, and guides us and protects us through His providence, then we owe everything to Him.  And that, in turn, should be reflected in a spirit of genuine gratitude in our hearts.  We can claim nothing for ourselves; we owe everything to Him.  That should draw out our hearts in praise and adoration to Him.

These, then, are the basic qualities of character that a Christian ought to “put on.”  It is significant that many of them, “kindness,” “meekness,” “longsuffering,” “love” and “peace” are listed among the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:22,23).  They are the marks of a work of God’s grace in the heart.

It will be noted that Christian ethics largely concerns how we treat others.  “Love does no harm to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfillment of the law,” Paul says elsewhere (Rom. 13:10).  It will also be seen that God is concerned not just with the outward action but with the inward motive.  God looks on the heart, and what He sees are the thoughts and feelings that drive our outward actions.  True Christian virtue stems from a heart that has been renewed by the Holy Spirt, and arises from a genuine desire to please God and help our neighbor.  Anything short of that misses the whole point of biblical morality.

This, then, is what the Christian life should look like.  May God grant each one of us the grace to live a life that is pleasing to Him!

BUT WHAT ABOUT EVOLUTION?

 

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So far we have argued that the appearance of design in nature points back to an intelligent Designer.  But many scientists will retort that the appearance of design is just that – only an appearance.  They go on to argue that plant and animal life, at least, came about through a blind, impersonal natural process.  The Theory of Evolution, it would seem, has destroyed the argument from design.

But has it really?  Can science really prove that humans evolved from apes?  The answer is, no.

Science, true science, is based on observation and experiment.  Observations are made, a hypothesis is formulated.  Experiments are then conducted under controlled conditions to see if the hypothesis is true.

But evolution, at least not macroevolution, has ever been observed.  No one has ever observed a higher form of life evolving from an lower form of life, and it has never been reduplicated in a laboratory.  Evolution is a scientific “fact” that has never actually been observed.

Part of the difficulty here, of course, is that evolution is alleged to have been a slow, gradual process that has taken place over hundreds of millions of years.  But there were obviously no human observers around hundreds of millions of years ago.  How, then, do we know that evolution actually took place?  We do not.  The theory is largely based on circumstantial evidence – the fossil record, vestigial organs, etc.

But based on what we can actually observe in nature now, evolution does not take place.  All living things occur in identifiable species.  The species reproduce according to clearly defined laws of heredity.  The heredity is determined by DNA in genes and chromosomes.  Granted, mutations and genetic drift do appear, but the mutations almost always result in physical anomalies which are eliminated by the process of natural selection, which does occur.  Genetically it is virtually impossible for a lower form of life to evolve into a higher one, since that would involve simultaneous beneficial mutations in complex organ systems, and the creation of all new genetic material.  It is hard to see how this could happen even in a few isolated cases, let alone account for the appearance of all of the millions of different species in existence.

Moreover the fossil record itself does not really support the idea that all of life has evolved through a slow, gradual process from a single primordial molecule.  What we find instead is that almost all of the animal phyla appeared almost simultaneously during the Cambrian period.  There were several major extinction events and huge gaps in the fossil record.

How, then, can scientists be so adamant that evolution is a scientific fact?  The answer is that they are interpreting the evidence on the basis of an a priori philosophical assumption.  Prof. Jerry Coyne, in his book Why Evolution Is True, put it this way: “The message of evolution, and all of science, is one of naturalistic materialism” (p. 224).  Naturalism, he tells us, is “is the view that the only way to understand our universe is through the scientific method.”  And materialism, he says, is “the idea that the only reality is the physical matter of the universe, and that everything else, including thoughts, will, and emotions, comes from physical laws acting on that matter” (ibid.).  In other words, according to him science is implicitly atheistic.  And based on the assumption of naturalistic materialism evolution would be virtually the only possible explanation of the origin of the species.  But whether or not physical matter is the only reality and the scientific method is the way of studying that matter is the whole question under discussion.  What Dr. Coyne is doing, in effect, is presenting us with a circular argument: he is assuming his conclusion in his premise.  While naturalistic materialism may seem scientifically possible, is raises serious philosophical questions.  Can all of reality and human life really be explained in terms of atoms and molecules?

The bottom line is that Darwinists did not use the scientific method to prove that evolution is even possible, let alone that it actually happened.  It is “science” only in the broad philosophical sense of naturalistic materialism, and it can be argued that naturalistic materialism gives us an inadequate explanation of reality.

Prof. Coyne tells us in his book that

“For the process of evolution – natural selection, the mechanism

that drove the first naked, replicating molecule into the diversity

of millions of fossil and living forms – is a mechanism of

staggering simplicity and beauty.  And only those who understand

it can experience the awe that comes from realizing how such a

straightforward process could yield features so diverse as the flower

of the orchid, the wing of a bat, and the tail of a peacock.”  (p. xvi)

What this statement amounts to is that Prof. Coyne is confronted with nothing less than the evidence of design, and yet he refuses to acknowledge the Designer.  A blind, purposeless natural process cannot produce such a vast array of forms of life.  What we are dealing with here in the Theory of Evolution are not the hard facts of natural science, but mankind’s stubborn refusal to acknowledge God as the Creator.

 

DOES GOD EXIST?

 

4.2.7

Albert Bierstadt: Yosemite Valley

 

How do we know that God exists?  There are certainly skeptics who will loudly proclaim that there is no evidence for the existence of God.  Can you see Him?  Can you hear Him?  How, then, do we know that He exists?  Faith, they say, is nothing more than belief in something for which there is no evidence.

I reply that the proof for the existence of God is literally as plain as the nose on your face.  Look at yourself in the mirror in the morning and ask yourself this simple question: why is your face symmetrical?  Why should it be?  How did it come to be that way?

The fact of the matter is that when we look at the reality surrounding us, what we see is order, structure and complexity.  In fact, the more that science discovers, the more amazing reality appears to be.  Consider the heavens above.  “The heavens declare the glory of God; / And the firmament shows His handiwork” (Psalm 19:1; NKJV).  The sheer immensity of it all, with distant galaxies millions of light years away.  The planets running their regular courses around the sun.  Or look at the complexity of a single biological cell, or an entire organism, with all of its systems working together to sustain a viable living being.  Look at the amazing confluence of factors that makes life sustainable on earth – the right temperature, moisture and oxygen.  Consider the amazing process of gestation that transforms a single fertilized egg into a fully developed human being.   Even now we can scarcely comprehend it all, and yet it all existed since the beginning of time.

And then there is man himself – how different from the animals, a thinking, rational, self-conscious being, full of intellect and emotion, able to communicate with language and music.  “What is man that You are mindful of him, / And the son of man that You visit him? / For You have made him a little lower than the angels, / And You have crowned him with glory and honor” (Psalm 8:4,5).

What we all know from ordinary common experience is that order does not spontaneously arise out of chaos, and life does not arise from non-life.  All of this points back to a First Cause, an intelligent Designer, a Supreme Being who has both the intelligence and power to create the universe as we know it.  “He has made the earth by His power, / He has established the world by His wisdom, / And He has stretched out the heavens at His discretion” (Jer. 10:12).

But there is more to reality than just the physical universe.  There is also the intangible element of human psychology, and in particular our moral sense of right and wrong.  We make decisions; we interact with each other, and unfortunately we are capable of harming each other.  But our decisions involve values, and we have a sense of what we value for ourselves.  But if we do not wish to be harmed by others, can we justify harming them?  Something inside of us tells us that this is not right.  But why?  Animals do not think like this.

What we have is a conscience, and it enables us to make moral judgments.  The apostle Paul, writing of the pagan Gentiles of his day, said that they “show the work of the law written in their hearts, their conscience also bearing witness, and between themselves, their thoughts accusing or else excusing them” (Rom. 2:15).  We hurl accusations against each other, and are quick to defend ourselves when accused.  Why?  Because we think that there is something shameful about the alleged act itself.  But why?  It can only mean one of two things: either we are just plain delusional, or we live in a moral universe.  But if we live in a moral universe, what is the ultimate source of moral law?  Human government?  The human governments that promoted chattel slavery or the Holocaust?  Our conscience tells us that there has to be a higher law, a law that transcends human government.  But what can that be?  The answer is the Supreme Being who created us, the Lawgiver and Judge of the universe.  “He has shown you, o man, what is good; / And what does the Lord require of you / But to do justly, / To love mercy, / And to walk humbly with your God?” (Mic. 6:8).

What it comes down to is this: either God exists or He does not exist.  And if He does not exist we live in an impersonal, irrational and amoral universe.  Life has no particular meaning or purpose.  But the universe gives us every appearance of being highly structured.  If it were not so science would not be possible at all.  And the very fiber of our being tells us that life must have meaning and purpose, and that there is a real difference between right and wrong.  God, then, must exist.4.2.7

WHY RELIGION?

 

 

4.2.7

Van Gogh, Man Reading the Bible

In the opening chapter of his book god is not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything, the late and controversial New Atheist author Christopher Hitchens made the remarkable assertion that “people of faith are in their different ways planning your and my destruction, and the destruction of all the hard-won human attainments that I have touched upon.”  He then concluded, “Religion poisons everything” (emphasis his).

To most people this sounds ridiculous.  Jesus taught His followers to love others, while the atheists Stalin and Mao slaughtered millions.  It is hard to see how the world’s problems can be remedied by getting rid of the divine Lawgiver and Judge.

But leaving Christopher Hitchens aside, who really needs religion? Why even bother with it?  Let’s face it: in our modern materialistic society few people pay much attention to religion.  To them it is some silly thing that a few people need, mostly older “church ladies.”  The rest of us can get along perfectly well without ever darkening the doors of a church building.  Or so we think.

The fact of the matter is that there are good reasons why religion exists.  As human beings we must all ultimately face the great existential questions of life: Who are we?  How did we get here?  Does life have any meaning and purpose?  What makes the difference between right and wrong?  And then there is the awful reality of death.  Why do we die?  What happens to us after we die?  Do we simply cease to exist, or does some afterlife await us?

The modern materialist never bothers with these questions – his life is filled with the Internet and TV.  He has more urgent and pressing matters to occupy his attention: What’s for dinner tonight?  What’s going on this weekend?  Who’s going to win tonight’s game?  And then he is totally unprepared for death when it finally comes.  But the ultimate questions will not go away; they are lurking there for us, and we cannot ignore them forever.

And then there are some people who try to come up with other solutions to life’s big questions.  Scientists and philosophers try to come up with alternative explanations of reality.  Psychologists try to come up with non-religious solutions to life’s perplexing problems.  Ordinary people turn to sex, sports, politics, money, or alcohol and drugs to fill the void and ease the pain.  But it is all in vain.  The questions are still unanswered (or the proposed answers are unconvincing); the problems still remain.

God is the missing piece of the puzzle.  What makes us different from animals, the reason we are capable of rational thought and moral judgment is because we were created as human beings in God’s image.  Life has meaning and purpose because we were created by God for a specific reason and we have a divinely appointed destiny to fulfill.  Justice and morality are figments of our imagination: they exist by virtue of divine decree.  And there is the possibility of life after death.

In the end atheism has nothing to offer but a meaningless, purposeless existence in an amoral universe followed by the cold silence of the grave.  There has to be more to life than that.

We were created by an intelligent Supreme Being and live in a universe fashioned and ordered by Him.  Our very lives depend ultimately on Him.  We can understand life only in terms of the creative purpose of Him who made us.  “And He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . . so that they should seek the Lord, in the hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us; for in Him we live and move and have our being . . .” (Acts 17:26-28; NKJV).  Ultimately we are accountable to our Creator for what we think and do.

That is why we have religion.

“For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be

quieted till it may find repose in thee.”

St. Augustine, Confessions, I.1

WHAT IS MAN?

 

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One of the greatest riddles in modern thought involves the most intimate of all questions: what is man?  One would think that if we knew anything at all we would what we are – we would know ourselves.  And yet in modern secular thought we are largely a mystery to ourselves.

The problem is that the question of man’s identity is closely tied to the question of man’s origins.  Most modern thinkers believe that we are the product of evolution, a blind, purposeless natural process.  To them there is no such thing as “Intelligent Design.”  But this has created a dilemma for the modern thinker.  On the one hand it has led some to try to explain human behavior in terms of pure biology – we are physical organisms, and our thought processes are purely the result of brain chemistry.  But certain other thinkers, most notably Existentialist philosophers, try to argue that we exist as autonomous individuals, and are thus free to define ourselves as we please.  We exist first and acquire and “essence” or identity as we go through life and interact with other human beings.

But both of these viewpoints represent a radical departure from traditional Western thought.  The ancient Greeks sensed that there was something special about man, that we were rational beings and not mere animals.  We are self-conscious.  We have a sense of right and wrong.  We communicate with each other through language.  And we are conscious of our own mortality.  The purpose of education, moreover, was to help us reach our full potential.  But that, in turn, implied that there was a kind of ideal humanity that we should all strive to become – a sound mind in a sound body.

But human behavior itself is problematical.  We have a sense of what is right, but often we do what is wrong.  There are character traits that we admire and others that we detest.  But why?  Animals do not think that way.  Clearly we are not mere beasts and animals.  But how did we become so different?

The biblical answer is that we were created by God to be special, but then fell from our original state of innocence and became corrupt.  “Then God said, ‘Let Us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness; let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over cattle, over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.’  So God created man in His own image; in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them” (Gen. 1:26,27; NKJV).

There are several significant things about this passage.  First of all the existence of man is the result of a prior conscious decision on God’s part.  God first conceived of the idea of “man” (‘adam) and then brought him into actual existence.  In other words, contrary to Existentialist thought, man’s “essence,” his defining characteristics, preceded his existence.  And this, in turn, means that man must conform to a divinely ordained purpose.

Secondly, what makes mankind so special is that we were created in the “image” and “likeness” of God.  There is some way in which we bear a resemblance to God himself.  Exactly what this is is not defined in the text, but the text does go on to say that man is to exercise control over the earthly creation (“let them have dominion over the fish of the sea,” etc.).  This suggests that man functions as God’s vice-regent here on earth.

This is both humbling and uplifting at the same time.  David could look at the starry heavens and exclaim “What is man that You are mindful of him, / And the son of man that You visit him?” (Ps. 8:3,4)  On the one hand man is just a mere speck in the vast expanse of the universe.  But then David goes on to reflect on the special position that man occupies in the creation: “For You have made him a little lower than the angels, / And You have crowned him with glory and honor” (v. 5 – the word translated “angels” could also be translated “God” – NASV or “heavenly beings” – ESV).  David then goes on to say “You have made him to have dominion over the works of Your hands; / You have put all things under his feet . . .” (v. 6) – the animals of land, sky and sea.   Certainly mankind occupies a special place in God’s creation!

But man sinned and fell – he rebelled against God and gave himself to all sorts of passions and vices.

“The Lord looks down from heaven upon the children of men,

To see if there are any who understand, who seek God.

They have all turned aside,

They have together become corrupt;

There is none who does good,

No, not one.”

(Ps. 14:2,3)

What this means is that the human race, as it exists today, is a twisted perversion of what God originally created.  We fall far short of the ideal humanity.  What is involved in salvation, then, is the restoration of the original ideal – of God’s image in man.  “. . . since you have put off the old man with his deeds, and have put on the new man who is renewed in knowledge according to the image of Him who created him . . .” (Col. 3:9,10).

What all of this means in practical terms is that we have purpose and meaning in life – we were created for a specific purpose and were designed to fulfill a specific role.  And thus there is a specific goal and ambition that we should have in life: to become the kind of human beings that our Creator intended when He made us.

This explains the paradox of the human condition: we sense that we are more than just animals, but that we are not what we should be.  Our inward sense of things is correct, and is confirmed by the revelation that God has given us in His Word.

Man, then, owes his special dignity to the fact that he was created by God in His image.  But that means that we can find happiness and fulfillment in life only by submitting to His will, but becoming the human beings that He intended us to be.

THE FOLLY OF SECULARISM

 

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Grant Wood, American Gothic

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The world has changed.  The world has changed dramatically, in fact, just during the course of my own lifetime.  The world in the 1950’s and 1960’s looked a lot different than it does today.

Back then most children grew up in stable, two-parent families, raised by their own biological parents.  They knew who their fathers were.  Dad was the breadwinner; mom stayed home and took care of the kids.  People had a sense of right and wrong.  They assumed the existence of a Supreme Being and believed that there were such things as moral absolutes.  People were expected to be polite and courteous, and to look presentable in public.  Profanity was confined to the barnyard.  And there were certain things that one simply did not do – such as cheat on one’s spouse, for example.  People would talk about such things as character, honor, integrity and duty.

Yet today we scarcely hear of such things.  It is assumed that self-interest is what drives human behavior.  Hardly anyone thinks any longer in terms of the common good.  People are out to “game the system,” and their concept of right and wrong is based on what they can get away with.  What happened to change things so dramatically?

In a word, the answer is secularism.  We have pushed God out of our lives, act as though He didn’t exist, and are suffering the consequences.  Young people today come from broken homes, are educated in a thoroughly secularized public school system, and are face with a business culture that is focused exclusively on the corporate bottom line.  Consumerism is the reigning mentality of the day.  But what is conspicuously absent today is religion.  Most churches today are made up primarily of senior citizens, and the majority of millennials are classified as “nones.”

Secularism amounts to practical atheism.  It is not that the existence of God is openly denied, but rather that He is simply ignored.  And the practical consequences of secularism are virtually the same as those of outright atheism.  It becomes virtually impossible to answer the great existential questions of life.  Why do we exist?  For particular reason or purpose.  What makes the difference between right and wrong?  It is all a matter of personal opinion.  What happens to us after we die?  Who knows?

There have been philosophers who have wrestled with the questions, but without coming up with any satisfactory answers.  (Just ask philosopher B what he thinks of philosopher A.)  But for the common, ordinary man who has never read Nietzsche or Sartre, life is a fruitless attempt to find meaning and fulfillment in the fleeting pleasures of life.  One can see the results in the expressions on their faces: the anger and hostility, the bitterness and despair.

What it all comes down to is man’s rebellion against God.  God is our Creator.  He has given us life and health, strength and vitality, and has placed us on a habitable earth.  And yet we have pushed Him out of our thoughts and lives.  But we can never find meaning and purpose in life, we can never find lasing happiness and fulfillment, until we return to our Creator and submit to His will.  We gain by giving; we win by surrendering.  We can reach our full potential only by being what God wants us to be.  “For thou hast created us for thyself, and our heart cannot be quieted till it may find repose in thee.”  (Augustine, “Confessions, I.i).

THE ALT RIGHT AND IDENTITY POLITICS

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This past Saturday we witnessed the horrible spectacle of a riot in Charlottesville, VA between white nationalists and counter-protesters.  The riot was precipitated by a rally planned by a variety of white supremacists and Neo-Nazis to protest the pending removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee from a park in Charlottesville.  Counter-protesters showed up and the ensuing confrontation turned violent.  At least one was killed when someone drove his car into a crowd of protesters.

Ironically on the very same day the Wall Street Journal published an article in its Saturday Review section entitled “The Liberal Crack-Up” by Mark Lilla, who considers himself to be a liberal.  In the article, which is adapted from his forthcoming book The Once and Future Liberal: After Identity Politics, Mr. Lilla bemoans the fact that the liberal agenda of fifty years ago has been replaced by the identity politics of today.  Liberal used to think of justice for all, of advancing the common good.  Today the left is splintered into a variety of special interest groups, each trying to advance its own agenda, sometimes at the expense of the rest: African-Americans, Feminists, the LGBT community.  It is no longer about the common good; it is now identity politics.

This had the effect of alienating the Democratic Party from much of its traditional base – white, working class Americans who in the last election turned out to vote for Trump.  The elitism of the party leaders could be seen in Hillary Clinton’s infamous remark during the campaign that “you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables.  The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic – you name it.”  But many of these people traditionally voted Democratic in past elections.  Now they are considered “deplorables.”

It was only a matter of time before there would be a reaction on the right.  The right wing now has its own version of identity politics: white nationalism – the Alt Right, Neo-Nazis, the Ku Klux Klan, and hence the riot in Charlottesville.

The Alt Right would like to see itself as fighting to preserve the cultural heritage of Americans of European descent.  But is it really?  Western Civilization was built on a Judeo-Christian foundation.  American democracy in particular is based on the premise that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.”  But the Alt Right offers us a secularized version of American culture – one that is not based on a system of shared values and moral absolutes.  Instead it appeals to a sense of racial superiority.  It is no longer God, but “blood and earth.”  It is no longer justice for all, but us against them.

But each of us as human beings, left or right, black or white, male or female, gay or straight, must ask the same basic questions about ultimate reality: does God exits?  What is the meaning and purpose of life?  What makes the difference between right and wrong?

Long ago the apostle Paul challenged the philosophers of Athens with these very questions.  In his celebrated address on Mars’ Hill (Areopagus) recorded for us in Acts 17, Paul pointed out that God is the Creator and that “He has made from one blood every nation of men to dwell on all the face of the earth . . .” (v. 26: NKJV).  Here he points us to the essential unity of the human race – we all descended from a common pair of ancestors.  Evolutionists may question or deny this; but the fact remains that when you scratch beneath the surface we are all remarkably alike.  We laugh and cry.  We hope and fear.  We struggle to survive.  And we all share a common human nature that is prone to vice.  It all points to a common ancestry.

But why did God create us in the first place?  This points to the meaning and purpose of life.  According to Paul it was “that they should seek the Lord, in hope that they might grope for Him and find Him, though He is not far from each one of us” (v. 27).  We are here on this planet for a reason and purpose, that is “to glorify God and to enjoy him forever,” in the famous words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism.

Paul concluded his remarks on Mars’ Hill with a sober reminder that God “now commands all men everywhere to repent, because He has appointed a day on which He will judge the world in righteousness . . .” (vv. 30,31).  This points to the existence of a universal moral law.  The entire human race is ultimately accountable to a Supreme Being, and His will and purposed are final.  As His creatures we are obligated to conform to His will.

As human beings we all feel a need for self-esteem, for a sense of meaning and purpose in life, for a sense of self-worth.  God intended us to find that in Him.  But in our Post-Modern, secularized society, when we have excluded God from our thinking, there is a psychological void that we will try to fill with something else.  That is what drives identity politics.  It provides us with a sense of belonging to some larger group or movement.  The Alt Right is a false conservatism.  It does not seek to return America to its Judeo-Christian roots.  Rather it lays the foundation for the arrival of a demagogue and dictator.  Will it be another Hitler?  Or the Antichrist himself?