Wednesday, April 16, 2014

The Crucial Lesson Taught on Holy Wednesday

Today is Wednesday of Holy Week, the week of Jesus' Last Supper and crucifixion. Many scholars have worked through the Gospel narratives to provide a chronology of the events they record during this week. Most know that on Palm Sunday, Jesus entered Jerusalem as the crowds exclaimed "Hosanna to the Son of David!" proclaiming His messiahship. On Monday, He curses the fig tree and He then cleansed the Temple of the moneychangers, both actions showing how those called by God must be faithful and pure in their responsibility.

Tuesday was very busy, and the Gospels record several different exchanges of Jesus. First, he faced off against those responsible for the spiritual welfare of the Jewish people, the Sadducees and the Pharisees. Jesus then takes some of His disciples up to the Mount of Olives and gives them a two-chapter overview of what they can expect at His second coming and cautions them to be ready. Of course, Thursday is the Last Supper and it kicks off a chain of events leading to Jesus' capture, Friday crucifixion, and His glorious Resurrection on Sunday morning.

What's interesting in all this is that today—Wednesday—The Gospels are pretty much silent on the actions of Jesus. The only thing we know about Jesus' day is that Mary anointed His feet at Bethany (Mark 14:3-9, John 12:1-8). There's nothing recorded about Jesus coming again to Jerusalem or even giving a sermon on this day. It seems a bit strange that, with all the action building toward the climax of Friday, none of the Gospel writes would tell us all that Jesus did this day, as they've done so far.

If you put yourself in the place of the disciples, you might have found yourself a bit confused by Jesus' lack of action on Wednesday. Here, they've achieved a lot of momentum in their ministry. I mean, Jesus has finally allowed Himself to be recognized as Messiah and the crowds were with Him. He faced off against the prevailing power structure and had beat them at their own game. Passover had caused Jerusalem's population to swell, but after tomorrow the Sabbath would take a lot of opportunity to reach even more people away.

Certainly, Jesus shouldn't waste this day and do nothing important, right? Ministry moments are fleeting! But Jesus knew what was ahead for Him. He had greater things planned than the conquering of Jerusalem. His plan was to conquer sin itself. The quiet He cultivated before His final events provides us with two good lessons.

First, quiet times are important in ministry. For most people, ministry isn't one's primary vocation, but a labor of love done in addition to the job that provides the paycheck. Even here, when there's so much to do, it's important to pause and refocus your attention and devotion o what Jesus would have us do. Mary's anointing was a pure act of devotion. It also showed her sensitivity to the things of God. Mark tells us that more than one disciple felt indignant about the costly perfume being "wasted", but Jesus corrected them. Mary had insight that they lacked. We, too, must cultivate our own worship and devotion to God first, lest our business miss the point of ministry.

Secondly, sometimes when God seems silent, bigger things than you realize may be coming! Don't imagine that God's silence means nothing is happening. Many times in apologetic ministry, we think all we are doing is posting things no one is reading or arguing with others who never change their minds. However, you can never know this side of heaven how God is using the faithfulness you show in those areas to His greater glory. Jesus said of Mary, "She has done what she could… And truly, I say to you, wherever the gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what she has done will be told in memory of her."

So, minister, remember to pause and reflect on this week. Think about what Jesus has done for us and remember to take time out for Him. Don't lose faith because He seems still or your ministry seems to not be moving forward. God can do great things with the quiet times.

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Is a Changed Life a Valid Proof for God?

In arguing for God's existence, apologists will offer various points of evidence, such as the existence of something rather than nothing, the design of the universe, the existence of real moral values and duties, and so on. One point that philosophers such as William Lane Craig and others has offered seems strikingly different from these more objective facts: the fact that people who become Christians experience a changed life. Is such a subjective point valid when arguing for God's existence? I believe it is, but I want toreview a few reasons why.

One of the promises of Christianity is the believer will become "a new creation" (II Cor 5:17) and will be "born again" (John 3:16). The concept the Scripture is communicationg is that people will experience real change in who they are and in their very nature. This is why people who share Christ with others will use their testimony as a point of evidence to the reality of Jesus.

Is The Experience Real?

Just because a change happening to an individual is subjective (that is we must rely on the testimony of the indivisual to tell us what they are experiencing), it does not diminish the reality of that experience. Scientists study the effects of mood-altering drugs on patients, which are similarly subjective, but they can with various degrees of certainty claim that it is the drug that is causing the patient's mood to be changed, and not other conditions.

The strength of the argument then lies in finding whether the changes are a real result of something happening outside the individual, or is it merely the belief of the individual himself that is causing the change. Dr. J.P. Moreland states the problem in this way, "It is possible to argue that all such experiences are merely psychological or perhaps the result of sociological factors like peer pressure. One could hold that some sort of placebo effect is going on."1

If such a placebo effect is occurring, then it is not God changing people's lives, but it is the people believing their lives are changed that are responsible for the said change. If this is true, then we don't prove God at all.

So, how can we determine whether a placebo effect is happening? Or how can we tell if some other factor is causing such a change? Moreland lays out three main points as to why we can claim the Christian experience as valid:

  1. The claim of personal religious experience of God doesn't deny psychological factors, it merely claims that they are not enough in themselves to explain a transformed life. This means that people will of course be subject to both social and psychological influences. However, these influences do not by themselves have adequate power to explain religious transformation. In fact, religious experiences exhibit properties that are unique to themselves.
  2. Attempts to reduce religious transformation to psychological factors must assume there are some common factors that would cause the similar experiences. However, as we see more diversity in the causes of people's lives being changed, that explanation becomes less likely to be true. In other words, as the sample size grows, and the backgrounds and other variables are eliminated as a common cause, the more difficult it is to ascribe such a change to a psychological cause.
  3. Finally, religious transformation in Christianity is tied to objective events (the resurrection) and an objective interpretive grid (the Bible) which render transformation probable. This point is perhaps the most important. These experiences are not based on only the belief of the subject, but they are linked directly to an event that is historically verifiable. The Bible also predicts that this type of experience would happen to the believer (as shown in the second paragraph above).2
Now, I am not arguing that we should accept all claims of religious experience as actual. We must approach these as we would any other truth claims: in a discerning manner using the points I've outlined above.

How We Should Approach Subjective Truth Claims

Josh McDowell demonstrates how he approaches subjective claims. "There are two questions or tests I apply to a subjective experience. First what is the objective reality for the subjective experience, and second, how many other people have had the same subjective experience from being related to the objective reality?"

McDowell then goes on to use an example of a man who claims a fried egg over his ear gave him joy and peace, and shows how this flunks his test. However, when judging claims of changed lives from believing in the objective reality of Jesus Christ and His resurrection he says "the evidence is overwhelming... that truly millions from all backgrounds, nationalities and professions have seen their lives elevated to new levels of peace and joy by turning their lives over to Christ."3

Because there exists a vast number of people from all cultures over nearly two thousand years who made similar claims of transformation bolster our position that their experiences come from outside of themselves. And by understanding these three points, we can make a viable claim that God is really working in the lives of those who believe in Him and therefore He exists.

References

1. Moreland, J.P.Scaling the Secular City.
Grand Rapids, Mich: Baker Books, 1987 233

2. Ibid. 233-234. 3.McDowell, Josh. Evidence That Demands A Verdict.
San Bernardino, Ca: Here's Life Pub., 1989l 327-328

Monday, April 14, 2014

Challenging the New Atheists

In the November 2006 issue of Wired magazine, Gary Wolf coined the term "New Atheist". In his article, "The Church of the New Believer" he defined the New Atheist as someone who will "not let us off the hook simply because we are not doctrinaire believers. They condemn not just belief in God but respect for belief in God."1, In other words, there is a movement today where atheists are engaged in an ideological war with people of faith, and they feel they are on the side of virtue.

Three primary proponents of this "war against faith" (Wolf's term) are highlighted in the article - zoologist and evolutionary theorist Richard Dawkins, End of Faith author Sam Harris, and philosophy professor Daniel Dennett. Although each seems to take a different tact in their approach to unseating the entrenched religious viewpoints of the masses, they all seem to argue that they advance their cause as a moral obligation.

Eroding the Moral Argument

The fact that Dawkins, Dennett and Harris all appeal to a moral framework in their belief system fascinates me, for by its nature, atheism has no objective standard by which to claim moral values. The article restates Dawkins position that bad ideas foisted on children are moral wrongs. But talking about things like moral rights and wrongs bring the question of good and evil into play and that requires a moral framework from which to judge things as being either "good" or "evil".2  One must have a basis to compare one's actions or ideas to classify them as falling into one category or the other .

This is one area where an atheistic worldview fails. Moral frameworks require a moral lawgiver who transcends humanity. In other words, moral laws require an all-good God who can tell us what's good and what isn't. Without God, then man is the ultimate arbitrator of what's good and what's not, which simply means that it's my opinion against yours. In fact, if evolution is true, if we really are here only due to a random series of natural processes, then saying we "shouldn't" do this or that is tantamount to saying a comet shouldn't have struck the earth and killed all the dinosaurs. So the primary premise of the New Atheists really rests on an assumption of God's existence while they try to deny that very existence! Every time they claim a moral reason for advancing their cause, they are trying to smuggle in a condition that could only exist if God does.

Self-Refuting Assumptions

The contradictory nature of Dawkins and company doesn't stop with morality, though. Dawkins admits in the article that the main point of contention is a clash of worldviews - those who hold to naturalism versus supernaturalism. Naturalism is the belief that the only things that can be believed are those things that can be measured by science. We see this in the article as it says how some scientists who hold to a supernatural world view have "implicitly accepted science as the arbiter of what is real. This leaves the atheist with the upper hand… There's barely a field of modern research - cosmology, biology, archaeology, anthropology, psychology - in which competing religious explanations have survived unscathed."

First of all, the second statement is really question-begging. Only if one assumes that we must nullify supernatural explanations for natural ones does one arrive at these "corrosive arguments". But, beyond that, the concept of scientific naturalism collapses upon itself. You see, one must first start with the assumption that the only things we can really know are those things that can be verified scientifically. But that particular premise - that we can only know something if it is scientific -cannot itself be discovered by any type of science. It is a statement of fact that cannot be justified by its own criteria. Imagine if I said to you "Only statements in Latin are true facts." Since that statement is in English, it doesn't meet its own criteria - it refutes its very premise and must therefore be false. The same is true for the scientific naturalist.

Dennett believes that "neutral, scientifically informed education about every religion in the world should be mandatory in school." But again, science cannot test for God any more than it can test for love. They start with an assumption that supernaturalism cannot be true and then build a set of rules that by definition exclude supernatural causes from being considered evidence. However, the rules that they build do not themselves stem from scientific discovery, so they must be false.

Having Faith in Non-Faith

The fact that Dawkins, Harris, and Dennett hold to these rules is one example of how these "freethinkers" really are nothing of the sort, merely adherents to another form of faith. The article points to research by anthropologists that we humans are naturally wired for faith and atheism, when examined carefully, is simply one type of belief system with its dogmas and orthodoxy. The language throughout the article cannot escape this. We see Harris talking about a kind of "religion of reason" with a Sabbath and prayer. Dennett says that no rational creature would be able to do without unexamined, sacred things. Dawkins invokes morality in his position. But to build a religion on non-religion is also contradictory. And by the end of the article, the author begins to note this himself.

Wolf writes that "Dawkins' tense rhetoric of moral choice, Harris' vision of the apocalypse, their contempt for liberals, the invocation of slavery - this is not the language of intellectual debate but of prophecy." He then goes on to conclude that, while he is an agnostic, he couldn't be one of the New Atheists. "The irony of the New Atheism, this prophetic attack on prophecy, this extremism in opposition to extremism - is too much for me." Wolf claims that his desire to not be dogmatic about his nonbelief is reasonable. "It simply reflects our deepest democratic values. Or, you might say, our bedrock faith: the faith that no matter how confident we are in our beliefs, there's always a chance we could be wrong."

My question to Wolf would be from where do the values of democracy come? This is certainly not the way evolution works, claiming survival of the fittest and let all the others go extinct. Indeed, as the New Atheists become more and more vocal in their opposition to faith in general and Christian faith in particular, they cannot help but draw upon the tenets of faith in order to make their points. And that, as rational beings should see, is telling evidence that they are wrong.

Recently, I've contributed to a book that focuses on the New Atheism movement and the problems inherent there. Entitled True Reason: Confronting the Irrationality of the New Atheists, it holds contributions from prominent apologists including William Lane Craig, Sean McDowell, and Tim McGrew on why the New Atheism fails. Now, you may receive your copy as free thank you gift for supporting our efforts at Come Reason. Just click here for details.

References

1. "Church of the Non-Believers"  Wired Magazine, November 2006.  See http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.11/atheism.html for the full article.

2. There is, of course a third option, that the thing in question is neither good nor bad but morally neutral. Given the purposes of our discussion, though, the categories above will suffice to make my point.

Sunday, April 13, 2014

Contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice


William Paley on how intellectuals can be biased against evidence:
Contempt prior to examination is an intellectual vice from which the greatest faculties of mind are not free. I know not indeed whether men of the greatest faculties of mind are not the subject to it. Such men feel themselves seated upon an eminence. Looking down from their height upon the follies of mankind, they behold contending tenets wasting their idle strength upon one another, with the common disdain of the absurdity of them all. This habit of thought, however comfortable to the mind which entertains it, or however natural to great parts, is extremely dangerous; and more apt, than almost any other disposition, to produce hasty and contemptuous, and, by consequence, erroneous judgments both of persons and opinions.
Paley, William. The Works of William Paley: With a Life of the Author, Volume 4
(London: G. and J. Robinson, etc. 1825.) 395.

Saturday, April 12, 2014

Modern Heresies: Christian Science

What is Christian Science? How does it relate to historic Christianity? In this video, Lenny reviews a bit of the history and beliefs of Mary Baker Eddy and the Church of Christ, Scientist. Drawing parallels to the ancient heresy of Gnosticism, Lenny show why Christian Science is really a wolf in sheep's clothing.