Tuesday, February 27, 2007

Who made God?

This is one of the great questions kids like to ask. It is also a favourite of Richard Dawkins, this question being the main argument he raises against God in the God-delusion.

Usually it is a response to Christian arguments for the existence of God i.e. everything that exists has a cause except the uncaused first cause; for you cannot have an endless regression of causes.

If so, then God must have a cause. What can be said in response?

1. Because anything exists, something must be uncaused. I would argue that the existence of anything at all presupposes the existence of an uncaused cause. Otherwise we are left with an endless regression of causes. Certainly both options are philosophically ridiculous and outside our experience. However, when combined with all the other evidences I have outlined above for the existence of God, the idea of a first uncaused cause is the better of the two options.

2. We cannot know the cause of God. Having suggested that an uncaused cause is a better explanation for our existence than an endless regression of cause, the truth is that we simply do not know the origins of God. I believe that the best explanation for the universe is some sovereign omnipotent being. However, if God had an origin then the creator of ‘god’ becomes God and we fall into the endless regression of causes again. That being the case God ceases to be God and God is in fact the creator of the god we know! So we are left with God as God. The combination of evidences for the existence of an all powerful, all knowledgeable and everywhere present God is the best explanation for existence, history and experience.

3. Jesus shows us who God is. The best way to know God is not through the creation however, it is found by working outward from the miracle of Jesus. Jesus was beyond any human who has lived or ever will live. He rose from the dead, did innumerable miracles and taught an ethic and belief that transcends all other philosophies and creeds. He was a Jew and as such promoted the God of Judaism as the true God. The search for God is not then found in philosophical thought and answering such questions but in searching the Scriptures, understanding his/her character and will and then living it. It is better to leave such philosophical wonderings to mystery and walk in faith with God.

I conclude that the best option of available options is that God is the uncreated creator of all that exists. I accept that this is beyond our reason but conclude it is the only way of making sense of creation and history.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Why would a loving God send people to hell?

One of the aspects of Christianity that puzzles some people is the thought that God sends some people to hell. While this seems distasteful and incongruous with a God of love, in fact it makes good sense when one considers the whole picture.

Before looking at some of the data it is important to state one thing from the start. That is this: the nature of hell is not clearly defined in Scripture. The most common image used for hell is of a lake of fire (Matt 25:45; Rev 21). Some believe that this should be taken literally and see hell as eternal ongoing punishment in a lake of fire. However, some reading the same data argue that hell is not in fact actually eternal suffering, but is being destroyed in a lake of fire for all time i.e. annihilation. That is, those who live forever with God are made immortal, those who reject God are destroyed (conditional immortality). Still others believe that the passages in question which refer to fire are to be taken symbolically. They would hold that all people are given immortality at their conception. Then, if they do not enter saving relationship with God, they will enter hell not necessarily a literal lake of fire but a place of eternal separation from God and all that is good. That being the case, hell is eternal existence in a place devoid of relationship, creation and light; some would say eternal solitary confinement in darkness and nothingness! Whichever is true, hell is a horrific concept. At its heart is separation from God and who wants that?

Now to some of the broader issues that call into question hell as unjust and unloving:

1. Hell is God’s yes to humanities no: Hell is only for those who have rejected God and his offer of salvation. That is, people who have said no to God’s offer of eternal relationship with him in his unblemished world to come. That being the case, hell is God's yes to humanities no to his offer of salvation. Some will respond 'what about those who haven't heard the message'. I have dealt with this objection earlier arguing that all will be judged on whether they responded to God in faith as he is revealed to them through creation and as revealed (cf. Rom 1:20; Abraham in Rom 4; Melchizedek in Heb 7; Heb 11).

2. Hell is essential for the destruction of evil: Justice and logic tells us that if a God exists who is pure, just, loving and good that for his justice to be demonstrated and his love to be complete, that at some point he must extinguish evil from the universe. Whether this is achieved by annihilating it or by confining it to a place for all eternity; the world to come will be free of evil and this is goo. Such confining or annihilation is a loving act to remove evil from the universe; setting free those who long for and pursue goodness and love.

3. Hell is God’s grace and love to lovers of good: Hell is God’s way of removing the tension and pain of living in a fallen world. For those who long to be with God, to enjoy freedom without evil and suffering, to experience life without pain and death, hell is the negative side of God’s yes to them. Heaven is the positive side, a world without suffering, pain, torment, grief and death! Hell then is the setting free of the universe from all that is not good including death, pain and more. I say it is then an act of love. In fact God's holding back from moving in this way is also an act of grace to give all created humanity a fair chance at responding. This cannot go on indefinitely; he will move before evil will triumph and this is right and good.

4. When one considers the extent and nature of evil, hell is totally justified: If Satan exists as the bible describes, he deserves eternal suffering! Jesus said unambiguously that hell is designed for him (see Mt 25:41). After all Satan has sought to destroy all that is good and which God has established and deserves such eternal torment. Similarly Hitler in WW2, Stahlin in communist Russia, Pol Pot, Idi Amin and other meglomaniacal despots of history deserve nothing short of hell for the horrendous way they treated people. The tragedy is that all evil will be deal with in the same way and so many who are far less given over to evil will also suffer; however, God is consistent, he will destroy evil. Especially so when the whole Bible testifies that for God all sin is disgusting and an afront. As such, it must be dealt with because of God's nature, love, justice and purity.

5. Hell is easily avoidable: Those who baulk at hell need not do so for hell is not inevitable but can easily be avoided by accepting Jesus as Lord and saviour. All we need to do is accept God's offer of release from evil, from sin, from eternal destruction in whatever form. God offers us eternal friendship, joy, unblemished and unparalleled bliss by simply accepting his offer of salvation in Christ. That being the case, hell becomes a non-issue if we accept his offer.

I conclude that hell is a reasonable, just and loving concept. It is loving in that it is God’s yes to
humanities no and it sees the removal of evil from the cosmos, something that all reasonable people long for. It is just in that eternal destruction in whatever form is reasonable for Satan and utterly wicked humans. However, the nature of hell is not completely clear. While I consider that eternal separation from God would seem the most likely interpretation, other views of literal eternal burning and annihilation options are possible on the evidence given. The best response is to say yes to God and avoid hell, whatever form it takes.

Friday, February 9, 2007

Why is there so much suffering when God is supposedly so good?

A question that is very much related to the question of evil (see earlier blog) is... why is there suffering when God is supposedly so good?

As I suggested earlier in terms of the existence of God, suffering is a result of God allowing humanity freedom. That is, evil is horrendous but serves the function of enabling humanity to choose between good and evil. However, it exists not because God authored it, but because humanity since its inception, have consistently chosen it.

An examination of life of earth I think shows that a good degree of suffering on earth is caused byhuman error. I am sure most agree that it is unfair to blame God for a wars and other human induced problems. These happen because humans choose, in their freedom, to do the wrong thing.

By what do we do with so-called 'natural disasters' or 'acts of God'. These things appear to have nothing to do with human agency. I have to admit that for me this is one of the hardest questions to answer (another is as Dawkins points out in 'The God Delusion' is 'how did God come into existence [more on that in later blogs]).

My answer may not satisfy you but this is how I see it from my reflection on the Biblical witness. When humanity fell into sin firstly at the Fall (Gen 3), it was not merely that humanity was marred with sin and fallenness, but that all creation fell. That is, the Fall was a cataclysmic event that saw the whole of the created order ruptured and its original intent, goodness and beneficience marred. As Paul says in Rom 8:20-21, all creation is in bondage to suffering, death and decay. This extends to the whole created order whether it be the earth, the tectonic plates, volcanoe, the weather systems, the effect of sunspots on the earth, the sea etc.

As such, suffering is not a mere result of human failure in a direct sense, but a result of the cosmic fall of creation. Indeed, where there are 'natural disasters' there is often a complex interplay of direct human and indirect human 'natural factors'. So for example, an earthquake occurs and houses that are poorly built (direct human failure) fall and more lives are lost than should happen. I would say that earthquakes, droughts, eruptions, tsumamis and more are a result of human failure in the cosmic indirect sense in that the whole created order that we experience in this universe is marred. In addition, the effect of such events is often exacerbated by the problem of human sin in a more direct sense.

Paul tells us in Rom 8:22 that this creation will be set free from its bondage to decay, death, suffering and fallenness at the point of the culmination of human history at the return of Christ. Then, all things will be put in order including the restoration of creation. It is unclear how this will work; whether it will be restoration of the existing created order or a completely new order.

There are other things we can say about suffering. God is not distant from our suffering. Creation itself and the granting of freedom to humanity from robotic or coerced obedience led to God experiencing the grief and pain of seeing his beautiful world and beloved people reject him. He experienced the pain of seeing humanity inflict pain upon each other with the exertion of power and dominance. And he chose to participate in suffering to redeem his creation. Indeed, it is suffering saved us. It is through pain and the ignomony of our greatest enemy death that evil was defeated on the cross.

When Jesus as God made flesh died on the cross, he experienced the full brunt of evil and torture and death itself without falling into its snare. He could have fought back with the glorious power he had at his fingertips; rather, he chose not to use to fight evil. Instead, he allowed himself to be destroyed. In so doing and as a result of his flawless life, he was able to overcome death and make a way for us all to be saved. All we have to do is put our lives in his hands and his death becomes our judgement and we are saved, through his suffering.

So God has experienced suffering. He knows what it is like to be human. He knows pain, he knows grief, he knows the feeling of being rejected, whipped, beaten, nailed, punched and killed. He is not a distant God who is not connected to our reality.

Suffering also tells us we are alive. Sometimes it is easy to believe life is an illusion and then we pinch ourselves. Pain and suffering remind us that life is for real.

Suffering reveals good where suffering does not exist. Unless suffering existed, we would not know the concept of no suffering. It is the absence of suffering we yearn for because suffering exists.

Ironically and disturbingly, God uses suffering to make us better people. It is well known that it is in times of pain and suffering that we grow the most. In fact some would argue that suffering is essential for growth in a fallen world. It is a recurring theme in the NT that suffering leads to character development (Rom 5:3-5; James 1:2-4). In a fallen world, one of God’s main ways of developing us, is through suffering.

Christianity also points to a force of evil that seeks to enhance suffering, Satan. God is not the author of suffering. However, he has allowed evil to exist as his antithesis, humanity in its freedom chooses to rebel and sin, and so suffering has invaded and infected God's world. Suffering ultimately however, is engineered by the power of evil, the personal anti-God and his minions who seek to inflict pain and torment on us all.

Thankfully, Christianity is in the end, all about hope. We are assured that suffering will ultimately be destroyed and we will live forever in a pain-free zone (Matt 25:36; Rev 21:1-4). The hope of the Christian message is that God will bring this age to a conclusion and destroy all evil and suffering. At that point, suffering will cease to exist and those who have said yes to God will live forever with him in a place of bliss and joy.

For me, this is one of the most attractive aspects of Christianity. As I peruse my own frailties and the problem of evil which pervades our planet manifested most strongly in murder, war, violence, rape and oppression, I hold fast to the promise of the end of suffering, when every tear will be wiped away, every injustice dealt to and all things made right. The cross and the resurrection which points to God's victory over suffering and death, promises us this and I yearn for the day of Jesus' return. The resurrected Jesus is the first-fruits of the harvest of this victory which will come to complete consummation at his return.

So suffering exists and will continue to exist as long as humans are allowed the freedom to accept or reject God. God will end this when he is ready. In the meantime, I believe that this suffering has a redemptive and educative purpose and should not be written off as valueless. It tells us we are alive, it points to goodness, it has been defeated in the cross and resurrection. Ultimately, where God is accepted, at Christ's return, suffering will be removed from the experience of all in the world to come. Roll on that day I say!

Monday, February 5, 2007

Aren’t Christians responsible for so much war and suffering

Another of the great objections to people becoming Christians is the commonly stated view that Christians have been at the heart of great violence, war and suffering.

I really wish at this point I could simply say, 'it is not true! You are misreading history!' Rather, I admit this is the case and I apologise on behalf of such misguided so-called ‘Christians’.

One of the greatest tragedies of human history is the great truth that some ‘Christians’ have thought it best to fight wars and be violent. So we read of the Crusades, the Inquisition, Colonialism, WW1, Northern Ireland, Indonesia today and so on; situations where ‘Christians’ were at the heart of wars. I am sorry to all who read this for this tragedy. It is wrong and should not have happened.

Jesus repudiated all such violence. My reading of the essential teaching of Jesus is that he advocated non-violence and love of enemies. I would argue that Christians who are involved in war, violence and the use of the gun and sword have abrogated the essence of the teaching of Jesus in Mt 5. Some argue that Paul in Rom 13:1-4 supports the use of war. However, this is not the only way of interpreting this text. Rather, I would argue that he states that government hold the power to deal with wrongdoers. There is no indication of inter-nation or civil violence in this text. Indeed, in the previous verses Rom 12:19-21 he explicitly states Christians are not to take revenge but leave it to God. And even if Paul had supported Christians at war, a sound interpreter always goes first to the teaching of Jesus. Listen to what he says in Mt 5:38-47:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, Do not resist an evil person. If someone strikes you on the right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if someone wants to sue you and take your tunic, let him have your cloak as well. If someone forces you to go one mile, go with him two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?

To me, despite the difficulties that this view presents, Jesus' calls Christians not to take up arms and violence despite the existence of evil; rather, to love others, pray for them, broker for peace with non-violent means, be agents of reconciliation and resist evil in all ways except using evil means. Hence, while it is true that 'Christians' have been involved in a great many wars, this does not invalidate Christianity or Christ as Lord, Son of God and Messiah; it merely states that these 'Christians' have been doing the wrong thing. These 'Christians' will face God in judgement and it is not for me to judge them. However, I find it disgraceful and shameful that supposed 'Christians' take up arms or endorse the taking up of arms!

Other Christians hold different views such as the view of just war. This holds that if war is to occur it must be just. While I believe the notion of pacifism lies closer to the heart of Jesus teaching than war in any sense, I would accept that if war is ever to occur it must be just. Hence it must be the final resort, it must be self-defence, it must be minimalistic, utilitarian in that it benefits the most people possible and it must be followed up by restoration and so on.

Any use of violence to extend the Christian faith against other cultures, religions and creeds is abhorrent. Crusade wars are completely unchristian and woe to any 'Christian' who engages in them.

So I do not accept the view that Christianity is invalidated and to be rejected because of Christian involvement in war. I would argue that the failure of ‘Christians’ in this regard does not invalidate the faith but the ‘Christians’ involved. We must not make the mistake of arguing that a bad Christian or group of Christians invalidates all Christians. After all if we find a newsreader has been taking drugs this does not invalidate all newsreaders or the news itself. The newsreader in question is the problem. Neither does a rugby player who tramples his opponent, gouges his eye and smashes the ref over invalidate rugby; it is the rugby player who is at fault and will be banned.

So I do not seek to defend the charge that Christians have been guilty of being involved in war. I am are sorry for this and believe Christians should be peacemakers rather than soldiers. They should be the medics, chaplains who care for both sides of a conflict. They are to practice forgiveness and reconciliation, however difficult. They are to be at the head of efforts for peace, working at every level of society from the political world to the school playground and family to model and encourage a different way, a way of forgiveness and reconciliation.

A couple more thoughts. While I cannot deny the role of 'Christians' in violence and war; we must be careful to read history with balance and see the many Christians who have modeled non-violence, reconciliation, peace and forgiveness. History is littered with many such people and without them, perhaps the world would have completely destroyed itself. Finally, when considering Christianity have a look at the first 300 years. It was not until the faith was caught up in the politics of the Roman Empire that the 'Christian' way took on violent means. This calls into question how Christian it really was. This is not for me to judge; but I believe the fusion of faith and politics is a dangerous mix for it leads to such things! In that 300 years Christians with a few exceptions lived out faith in line with Jesus' teachings and the result was a sensational spread of the faith through love, mercy and grace. It is time for Christians to recapture this heart and renounce violence and war as a means to an end and stand firm for forgiveness, non-retaliation, reconciliation, love and peace.