Monthly Archives: March 2015

“Why Hasn’t Jesus Returned?” And Other Objections to Christian Belief

Today I want to address another set of objections to Christian belief: “If Jesus really was raised from the dead, why didn’t he appear to everyone? Why didn’t he remain visibly present in the world instead of ascending to heaven (Acts 1:9-11)? Why didn’t the kingdom come in its fullness (Mark 9:1)? Why hasn’t he returned yet? Why do we have to “believe” instead of seeing?”

It seems to me that these questions arise from a sense of tension between the idea that Jesus’ resurrection is of universal significance and importance and two facts: (1) that it can be known today only indirectly, that is, by believing the written word of apostles and (2) that its impact on the world is much less obvious and universal than one would expect from such a dramatic divine act.

Of course these questions do not have to be taken as objections. They could be serious enquiries from people of faith seeking further understanding of the significance of what they believe. But the questioner could be implying that there are no answers and that the lack of answers disproves the fact-claim of the resurrection or at least that we must doubt the fact until we find satisfactory answers. Let’s deal with the challenger first and then we will address the serious enquirer.

We need to take the form of these objections seriously. They don’t make direct fact-denying assertions. They don’t ask “How?” or “Whether?” They ask “why?” When we ask why we are asking for the purpose or end for which someone has done something. If I ask you “Why did you do that?” I could be simply expressing my curiosity, or I could be making an accusation of wrongdoing.  If I see you digging in your back yard or climbing a ladder toward your roof or writing a letter, the question of why or to what end immediately arises in my mind. If you suddenly shove me to the ground, unless the reason for your aggression becomes immediately obvious, you won’t be surprised when I ask you why you did it. The act provokes the question because we assume that people don’t do things without an end in mind.

But suppose I never discover why you were climbing a ladder or why you pushed me to the ground. I do not conclude from my lack of knowledge of the purpose for your action that you didn’t do it. Indeed acts are always done for purposes, but we can know that an act was done without knowing why the actor did it. My knowledge of a fact rests on the evidence of my having experienced it or on believing the report of someone else who experienced it. Hence knowing the purpose of an act and knowing the fact of the act can be separated. With this distinction in mind, let’s return to the objections to faith with which I began.

As the New Testament recounts and reflects on the course of events after the resurrection of Jesus, it addresses the most pressing and essential questions. Why did Jesus die, and why did God raise him from the dead (See Acts 2:22-36)? Much of the theology of the New Testament is concerned to answer these questions. Of course these answers do not fully satisfy and leave us longing for deeper understanding. But the New Testament rarely addresses questions like those in our first paragraph. (2 Peter 3:3-13 is the most direct instance.) Such questions could be multiplied endlessly, for we can always speculate about why events didn’t happen in a different way or didn’t produce different results.

Many questions about Jesus won’t be answered fully until the end of history, because the event of Jesus’ death and resurrection concerns the whole human situation and all of human history. But our inability to find satisfactory answers to all of our why questions about the resurrection does not defeat belief in the resurrection itself any more than my ignorance of why you climbed a ladder yesterday defeats the fact of your climb. As long we keep our focus on the testimony of Paul, Peter, James, and the rest of those to whom Jesus appeared alive after his death, we need not let our many unanswered questions rob us of assurance of the fact of the resurrection.

Despite our inability to answer definitively the “why” questions in the first paragraph, I do not believe we are forced to remain completely silent in response to them. Some speculation, even if it is finally unconvincing, may increase our confidence that there are answers to these questions, even if we don’t know them. For nearly all human beings who have ever lived, God has been mysterious and hidden, unknown by clear sight or unambiguous demonstration.  But God has always been somewhat knowable by faith and reason through creation and conscience. We know that we are not our own creators and lawgivers (See Rom 1:18-32). Divine hiddenness creates an opportunity for faith, free decision, moral courage, and virtue—and their opposites.

In Jesus Christ, God becomes a factor inside human history in a new way, as a human character in the story. Critical questions about why Jesus didn’t show himself to everyone and didn’t end history fail to understand that Jesus Christ didn’t enter history to end it.  He came, rather, to save it, redeem it, and redirect it to its divinely appointed end. Even as God becomes in Christ a new factor in history, God remains hidden under the sign of the cross and in the foolishness of preaching (1 Cor 1:21). He does so for the same reason that God has always remained hidden, for the sake of faith, freedom, and virtue.

It would be strange to argue that God’s work of salvation and redemption contradicts or undoes God’s work in creation and providence. Apparently, God wants to accomplish his purpose for creation through its history and through human action. After all, creation is saved and perfected by the work of Jesus Christ whose action is both divine and human. And consistent with the mysterious ways of the Creator, Jesus’ divine action as Lord of All is hidden in his humanity and the humanity of his people.

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Those Arrogant, Obnoxious Christians!

Today we will address a common objection to Christianity. It goes something like this: “So, you think your religion (Christianity) is the true religion, that Jesus Christ is the only way to God? Other religions are false and lead nowhere? Don’t you think that is a bit arrogant? Aren’t those who practice other faiths as sincere in their belief and as faithful in their religious practice as you are?” As we will see in our analysis and response, this complaint, even in this brief form, contains more than one kind of objection. And it is often combined with a long list of associated objections, such as the following: “how likely is it that you just happened to be born where and when the true religion was dominant? Wouldn’t God want everyone to have access to him?” All of these objections and others like them seem to originate from the intuition that religious truth should be universally available and easily accessible. Perhaps we will address this intuition in future posts, but in this post I want to focus on the question of arrogance.

First let’s subject the arrogance objection to a little analysis. Clearly, its power is contained in associating a moral fault with a truth claim, so that asserting truth becomes an arrogant act. No one wants to think of themselves as arrogant or to be thought arrogant by others. Arrogance is an attitude of personal superiority to others. Arrogant people see their real or imaginary characteristics as indicative of their special importance. And for a person to think she or he possesses greater worth or dignity or value than others violates our sense (in the modern western world) that all people are of equal worth. It seems as ugly as it is false.

As I noted above, the arrogance objection explicitly attempts to associate the attitude of arrogance (a moral fault) with the act of claiming that Christianity is true. It implies that an attitude of personal arrogance cannot be dissociated from the truth claim. But here it makes an obvious error. In our analysis of arrogance above we saw that arrogance is a personal attitude that draws an unwarranted moral conclusion from a person’s real or imaginary characteristic or possession. Suppose I really am very rich or brilliant or accomplished in my field. Being rich or brilliant or accomplished in a field does not necessitate personal arrogance. In themselves the statements of fact that describe someone as rich or brilliant or accomplished are either true or false; they cannot be humble or arrogant. Likewise, the statement “Christianity is true” or “Jesus Christ is the only way to God” is true or false. By itself it is not arrogant or humble. Sentences can’t lie or brag or show distain. Only people can be arrogant or humble.

Let’s look at the “arrogance objection” from another angle. Arrogance, as I argued above, characterizes the mood of a false judgment about one’s superior worth based on one’s real or imagined qualities. But when believers express the judgment that Jesus Christ is the revelation of the true God or the only way to God, they are not expressing a judgment about their superiority over others. They are not even making this judgment in reliance on their own (superior) insights into God, other religions, or human nature. Their judgment is not based on a direct comparison of Christianity with other religions, which would require viewing the question from a neutral position and possessing godlike powers of discernment.

Believers’ affirmation that Jesus Christ is the only way to God is a statement of faith derived from their faith in the apostolic testimony to Jesus’ resurrection and glorification. If God raised Jesus from the dead, Jesus is Lord and Messiah (Acts 2:36). Paul and the original apostles declare that God raised Jesus from the dead. Either they are correct or they are incorrect. Either they are lying or they are telling the truth. Contemporary Christians believe the apostles are correct when they declare “Jesus is Lord of all” (Acts 10:36). My assertion that “Jesus is Lord and Savior” is not my personal assessment attesting to my own superior judgment in matters of religion. It is my confession of faith. And when I confess Jesus’ Lordship, I also confess my trust in the apostolic word of testimony. In their act of confessing that Jesus Christ is Lord of all believers are not vaunting their own personal superiority over others but humbly expressing their reliance on the word of the apostles and their determination to live as disciples of the Lord.

Is Jesus Lord of all? Did God raise Jesus from the dead? These questions call for “yes” or “no” answers. Arrogance has nothing to do with it.

Christianity Lite? Or Is Christian Faith An Investment Strategy or Decisive Act?

In this thirty-second essay in the series “Is Christianity True?” I want to deal with a common objection to Christian belief. It goes something like this: Let us grant that the arguments made so far in this series show that it is not irrational to believe in Jesus’ resurrection and all that follows from it. Let’s even grant that the series has made a good case for Christian faith. Still, the evidence is not so overwhelming that it makes nonbelief irrational; there may be plausible alternative ways to account for the same set of facts even if we can’t think of one. In other words, the objective evidence for the truth of Christianity does not amount to proof and, therefore, cannot reasonably be translated into subjective certainty. But the decision to become a Christian is so radical, so comprehensive, so demanding, and so life changing that no one can do this without subjective certainty. But such subjective certainty goes beyond where the evidence can take you. And common sense tells us we should proportion the level of belief to the strength of evidence.

What can we say to this objection, which I will label the “proportionality objection”? Consider how the proportionality objection treats the judgment about Christianity’s truth and the decision about becoming a Christian. It assumes that the type of judgments made in mathematics and logic are ideal and ought to be the standard against which every judgment is measured. These sciences possess such clarity in their terms and lucidity in their operations that they can claim certainty for their conclusions and complete confidence for actions based on them. Other rational endeavors fall short. The type of evidence used in history, metaphysics, and theology does not possess the clarity and lucidity of mathematics and hence cannot lead to the level of certainty attained in mathematics. Perhaps so. But does it follow that to be rational we must proportion belief to evidence and hence hold back from the radical, comprehensive, demanding, and life changing decision to become a Christian? I do not believe so.

In investing in stocks, it makes sense to diversify. If you have $100,000 to invest, you would be wise not invest all of it in stock from one company. In this case it makes sense to proportion your belief and action to the evidence. But in other areas it is impossible to divide your loyalty and action. Some things are either/or, yes/no, or on/off. You do them or you don’t. You do one or the other, but not both. You can’t marry someone 98%. You can’t dive into the pool 75%. You can’t be a little bit pregnant. Some actions require 100% decisiveness even if the evidence provides us with only 98% confidence. When it comes to action we must take risks. Becoming a Christian is an action like getting married or diving off a diving board. You can’t be 50% Christian. Hence contrary to the proportionality objection voiced above, proportioning one’s Christian commitment to the evidence would not be a rational action. It would be an irrational one, since it attempts to do the impossible. It is not reasonable to apply rules taken from one area (mathematics or investing) and apply them thoughtlessly to a different area.

On a practical level, when you try to proportion belief in Christianity to the strength of the evidence supporting it, you don’t become somewhat Christian or a little bit Christian; you simply don’t become a Christian at all. The proportionality objection applied to Christianity in effect advises that since you cannot be 100% certain that Christianity is true, you must treat it as 100% false. And it does this because it fails to understand the difference between belief and action. A person may believe strongly or weakly or not at all that there are nonhuman intelligent beings living somewhere in our universe. As long as such an idea is proposed as a mere belief, something one might discuss as a curiosity or an interesting problem, it makes sense for us to place ourselves on a quantitative scale from 0 to 100% belief. But as soon as there is a call to action, we find ourselves faced with an either/or decision.  Christianity issues a call to action, and it does not allow for proportionality in our response. It’s all or nothing. And we don’t get not to decide.

Sometimes Just BEING is Enough

As I took my Saturday morning hike this morning, found myself surrounded by green hills adorned with white, violet, yellow and red wildflowers. The gentle breeze caressed my cheeks and the birds serenaded me as I walked among the ancient Oak trees along my path.  And I thought, “Sometimes just being alive is enough.” When I stop striving and planning and worrying, I find that I still exist, and all the best things still exist. I wonder what it is about us that makes us forget this? I am sure I will forget it again, but for a few minutes this morning I remembered. I remembered that we already have everything we need for happiness. Just being given life in God’s world is a precious gift, much better than anything we could earn from our striving!

Just Being