reason4thehope

Thinking about life, faith and the world.

Archive for the category “Reasons2Believe”

Signs and Wondering

Sign“An evil and adulterous generation seeks after a sign; and a sign will not be given it…” – Matthew 16:4 (NASB)

Why doesn’t God erase all doubt?

If God exists, it should be easy for Him to prove it. One spectacular, globally visible, supernatural display, and He’s got the world at his feet. It would be easy, but it would be thievery, and God is no thief. He’s not going to steal back something fundamental that He placed in each of us: our will.

There would be something coercive in the kind of sign that unbelievers seek. We would no longer freely give God our belief and devotion. He would drag them out of us – unshakable, cold and loveless.

I’ve been over this ground before, here and here. But I think it’s worth revisiting, because the more I think about it, the more compelling it gets.

The will is a kind of spiritual junction. With it we yield to the Holy Spirit and connect to God, or resist and disconnect from Him. The last act of the believer’s will may be surrendering it. But when unbelievers choose to resist instead, they stroll right past the supernatural thing that is under all of our noses: the will to make that choice.

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Unbelief’s Creed

Image from the Book of Kells, a 1200 year old ...

Wikipedia

“…while I ache for faith to hold me, I need to feel the scars and see the proof.” – “Two Hands,” Jars of Clay

If you want to shut down a conversation with an atheist, it doesn’t take much time or thought. Just wait for the challenge to prove that God exists, and bring the clever retort: “Prove that He doesn’t.” That’ll show ’em! But before walking away, the atheist will rightly point out that you’re demanding proof of a negative, which is notoriously hard to do.

If you have authentic faith in Jesus Christ, I hope that as a rule you’re not trying to drive atheists away. You can play fair in the intellectual sandbox and still give them something to chew on. Atheism carries some implied claims that I wouldn’t want to try defending. Here are three examples:

Humans are infinitely knowledgeable.  From our flyspeck in this vast, mysterious, complex universe, we know enough to be certain that what’s physical and scientifically observable is all there is. This is similar to any categorical claim that excludes all competing claims; it implies that we know all that’s necessary to answer the question at hand. Sometimes that claim is defensible. But when you claim categorically there is no God, the question goes to the nature and origin of the entire universe. Science has an undeniable track record of explaining the unexplainable, and no one will make fun of you for believing only what can be proved by observation. But putting all of your trust in science means:

Past performance guarantees future results. If you were considering an investment, and the sales pitch included that statement, I hope you would run the other way. And yet atheism invites you to invest for eternity in the premise that because science has answered past questions, it will always answer future ones, no God required. But for all its past success, science does not answer the same questions over and over; therefore it can’t guarantee future success. And an exclusive trust in science also leads to this:

We have no free will. After all, how could we, in a purely physical universe governed by law-bound cause and effect? In such a universe, the very thought process guiding my fingers at this moment is just particles inside my skull, the ongoing ricochets of the Big Bang. I won’t belabor the point, which I’ve covered before, but I will add that one very bright atheist and I – independent of each other – traveled the same logical road to the same choice. Either abandon the notion of free will, or accept that something beyond the physical is at work. He and I made opposite choices. I dare say his requires more faith.

Certainly by human reckoning, Christianity has its share of logical fallacies. The Bible is true because it says so? God is three yet one? Sometimes we buy into the illogical because our experience convinces us that it’s true. The external experience of science gives tangible cause to trust its explanatory power, even though it’s illogical to take that experience as a guarantee for tomorrow’s mysteries. The internal experience of the Holy Spirit, which illuminates the truth of the Bible, can’t be laid on the table in the same way that science can, and so logically it holds no greater promise of answers. That’s where we come to faith, “the conviction of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1).

Christians trip themselves up when they try to force faith to become sight. They might justify the quest for worldly proof as responding to those will accept no less. But if they’re honest, maybe these “believers” are revealing their own doubts. From such vain struggles come junk science, trumped-up testimonies, and children who die for want of a doctor because misguided parents tried to blackmail God into putting on a show. If we try to meet a standard of proof the world demands, we forget the definition of faith, and we will fail.

But for some who don’t believe, there are logical hurdles to clear before the real conversation can even start, and there’s no harm in trying to address them. The argument may not be strictly Biblical, and I don’t expect my words here to bring atheists to their knees. That’s the work of the Holy Spirit, opening up the Word of God and convicting hearts of sin. But to the unbeliever the Bible is irrelevant, because it isn’t the Word of God, because there is no God. On the other hand, if I were an atheist faced with defending the claims above, I might be walking back my atheist declaration toward something more agnostic. And maybe then the door to belief would open a crack.

Step Away From the Tree

English: Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil עב...

(Photo credit: Wikipedia)

“Did God really say, ‘You must not eat from any tree in the garden’?” – Genesis 3:1 NIV

Anyone who has followed this blog from the start knows that I think about my faith and ask hard questions. Especially over the past few years, my seeking has deepened and strengthened my faith. So why, in John 16:23, did Jesus say, “in that day you will no longer ask me anything”?

Note that He didn’t say, “Stop asking questions.” He knows that we don’t see Him now, face to glorified face. We’re walking by faith; questions and doubts are inevitable, and faith’s foundation gets firmer in seeking and finding answers.

So, are questions ever wrong? I think it depends on their motivation. What are you seeking? In the Garden of Eden, God forbade Adam and Eve to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. And Satan tempted them to disobey by promising they could be like God. While the tree bestowed a particular kind of knowledge, Adam and Eve’s inability to resist could stand for all of humanity’s envious questing for equality with our Creator. In every age since, humans have come to the forbidden trees in their own gardens and coveted the fruit they think will make God superfluous.

If you’re not seeking to dethrone God, you may be asking questions as an expression of conditional belief. This misses the point of faith. An authentic believer should be past the point of saying, “God, if you want me to believe, answer this question.”

There is no sin in asking. But if we demand that God answer every question – in effect, demand that He make us like him in all knowledge, right now, or that He prove his existence beyond any need for faith – we lose sight of the goal. That is simply oneness with God. Just seek Him. And one day, we will know all the answers, not because He spoon fed them to our demanding mouths, but because we have become like Him in His timing.

I suspect that for many atheists, the barrier to belief is accepting that not everything is knowable in this life. Without a mathematical, peer-reviewed proof for God, they’re not going to accept His existence. But as I’ve suggested before, the atheist’s stand entails some decidedly counterintuitive ideas, whether the atheist realizes it or not.

Nonbelievers like to point out that as science advances, the realm of the unexplained shrinks, leaving less and less need to invoke God to solve the world’s mysteries. I am more willing than many believers are to accept the findings of mainstream science, and I cringe a little at some of the pseudoscience Christians try to substitute. But atheists fall into their own logical fallacy, which becomes its own kind of faith: Because science has continually pushed back the boundaries of the unknown, it will always do so. That could be true, but it’s not a repeatable experiment, like demonstrating gravity. At the margins of human understanding, the questions are always new.

I will keep asking questions until “that day” Jesus spoke about, and I’m happy to watch scientists discover ever more about the glory written across creation. But believers know the Author, and His story isn’t finished. We have “that day” and eternity beyond it to hear the rest.

What’s Love Got to Do With It?

“…how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ…” – Ephesians 3:18 NIV

God loves us, so God forgives us, right? It would be easy to let such a feel-good statement slide by unchallenged. It would also be wrong.

A couple of years ago, as my in-laws downsized from house-scale to apartment-scale belongings, my father-in-law gave me a spare copy of a venerable devotional, Oswald Chambers’ My Utmost for His Highest. These snippets of Chambers’ talks and lectures, given nearly a century ago, will take you deeper, faster into the essence of Christian faith than just about anything I’ve read short of the Bible itself. In the Nov. 21 entry, Chambers warned:

“Never build your preaching of forgiveness on the fact that God is our Father and He will forgive us because he loves us. It is untrue to Jesus Christ’s revelation of God; it makes the Cross unnecessary, and the Redemption ‘much ado about nothing.'”

In other words, the journey from God’s love to God’s forgiveness isn’t nonstop. If it were, everyone would go to heaven, because God does love everyone. Such thinking misses an entire dimension of that love, not to mention His character – holy, pure and incapable of disregarding sin. The real road to forgiveness leads through justice and repentance.

Sin is every human’s heritage of rebellion against God. It demands justice at a greater cost than anyone but God can pay. It’s an understatement, then, to say that God loved us enough to forgive us. The godhead – Father, Son and Spirit in perfect unity – loved us enough to see that the unfathomably high price of justice for our sin was paid at the cross. Nothing less would do.

The apostle Paul set it out plainly: “God presented Christ as a sacrifice of atonement, through the shedding of his blood…he did it to demonstrate his righteousness at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.” (Romans 3:25-26 NIV)

Did you catch that? “Just” – the holy God – “and the one who justifies” – the loving God. Both qualities reached their highest expression at the cross.

Grasping this helps me to wrap my brain around one concept – Hell – that can be an impossible hurdle to belief in the God of the Bible. I suspect that many who do believe, choose to edit Hell out of their personal creeds. We ask, is sin really that bad? That might be a fair question if sin were the only issue. It is much more than that.

Consider again how high the price, how big the love that it took to make the path to a right relationship with God. To reject God’s invitation is to reject everything behind it: His judgment on sin as reckoned by the price He put on it, and His love that’s big enough to provide justice that spares the guilty. This was the love Jesus spoke of in the Bible verse we’ve seen and heard countless times: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16 NIV)

But listen to what Jesus said of believers and unbelievers in almost the next breath: “Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.” (John 3:18) Not condemned for sin alone; sin is the common denominator of believers and unbelievers. Condemned for unbelief in the only Name  that can erase the stain of sin.

If God loves us so much, why doesn’t He simply sweep us away in a divine flood of that love? God’s love is overwhelming, but He doesn’t overwhelm us with it against our will. He leaves us the space to choose to repent and receive salvation.

When Heaven Folds Its Hands

For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. – 2 Corinthians 4:17 (NIV)

The next time a major tragedy strikes, take two aspirin and delve into the discussion threads below the online news stories. You’ll discover plenty of compassionate people, but also many whose comments shake your faith in humanity. You’ll almost certainly see the following line of argument played out.

It starts when someone weighs in with prayers for the victims or thanks to God that it wasn’t worse. Close behind are the Atheists on Patrol, who seem to camp out on these threads, scanning for any expression of faith to challenge. Believers respond to them, some with patience and gentleness, others with caustic glee for the day when the atheists learn they were wrong.

The skeptics raise many serious objections, but the one that has always made me pause and squirm amounts to this: God fails as cosmic lifeguard. It’s the question as old as humanity. How could a good God allow so much disappointment, suffering and tragedy, in our lives and in the world? Where was He in the loss of that job, that relationship, perhaps my very health? Why did he allow that earthquake, that famine? Or as CNN asked, drawing more than 10,000 responses, where was God in Aurora?

I started out to write an entirely different post, but God pulled me aside and into some very deep waters. Let me try to retrace the steps.

Believers offer many answers to the question of suffering. God is testing us. He’s refining us. It’s His discipline. It’s setting the table for God to show His power, directly or through His people. He’s teaching us something. He’s preparing us for a greater tomorrow that we can’t foresee. At different times, in different places, all of these explanations can apply. Taken together, they don’t nearly add up to a complete answer.

Dig a little deeper, and the reasoning may be that we live in a fallen world; evil and suffering are the unavoidable consequences of this. Also true, but still there are holes.

Why is the world fallen? Basically, through the exercise of free will, which humanity has misused to rebel and sin against God. And yet, while suffering may be a consequence of human rebellion, it’s not necessarily punishment.

Free will is, after all, a gift from God. To me, it’s among the strongest clues that God even exists. What I didn’t grasp until recently is how profoundly precious that gift is. Its value is measured, in part, in human suffering.

If we say that some suffering is simply the result of people exerting free will, suffering becomes mere collateral damage. That would be true if God had no power to prevent it – and He would look like a reckless God for giving us this dangerous toy we call free will. But God does have the power. Why does He so often refrain from using it?

Perhaps it comes down to this: Every time God intervenes in human events, He encroaches on free will. Satan thought God intervened a bit too much, and challenged God to His face as he sought permission to ruin Job’s life. “Have you not put a hedge around him and his household and everything he has?” Satan asked. “…But now stretch out your hand and strike everything he has, and he will surely curse you to your face.” (Job 1:9-10, NIV)

Satan underestimated Job’s faith, but he put his finger on something pivotal. Under the same blessing and cursing as Job received, how would we be affected?  With a strict diet of force-fed blessings, would God steal our freedom to choose or reject Him? If He let it all be taken away, would our faith remain? The life of cradle-to-grave safety and prosperity under God would be a life of comfort without liberty. The life exposed to free will and its consequences, however dire, is one in which we can freely give Him trust and love that have real worth.

Job trusted God to know how much protection was enough. So do I. But imagine if God’s hand shielded everyone, all the time, from every misfortune. To do so, he would have to change our choices and bend the laws of nature and probability, displaying His power so clearly that with any remaining will, we could do nothing other than bow to Him. We would become a race of robots God never intended us to be.

God loves us too much to do that. He loved us enough to sacrifice the perfection of His original creation – even the angels of heaven had free will, and so Satan exists. All this, so we would have freedom to choose the full, deep, satisfying relationship God desires with us.

Perhaps then unexplained suffering is not the collateral damage of free will, but rather the cost God willingly assigns to it and shares with us. Human suffering hurts us and it hurts Him, but the gift is worth the price. It may be among God’s greatest gifts short of redemption itself, which cost the death of His son Jesus on the cross, His blameless body and spirit bearing heaven’s full wrath against sin.

So where do we go with this? Three things come to mind.

First, don’t stop caring. Mercy and compassion are woven through the Bible from beginning to end. God loves us whether He is sparing us pain or allowing it,  and we are to let His love flow through us to a world full of hurt, whatever the cause.

Second, you may be able to make peace with God about the suffering you have endured or witnessed. God might have clearer, more specific reasons for the pain He allowed into your life. But even if you can’t see any reason, you can kn0w that the suffering had meaning.

Third, you may be able to make peace with God on the most basic level. Suffering may have left you too angry at God to bow to Him, or too skeptical to believe He exists at all. The very will you assert to push Him away is a precious gift from Him, bound up with the hurt you have seen. You can use this will to receive His greatest gift – redemption through Jesus Christ.

Then you can begin to surrender your will to His, in large chunks or in small pieces, because you want to. All of our suffering will be eternally forgotten in the glory that is waiting for us. It will have been worth the cost.

Grace, Backward and Forward

It’s easy to think of grace as something that fell to earth at the cross – a new concept for the new covenant, not available to anyone who lived before Christ. But there’s plenty in the Old Testament that makes no sense apart from grace. If we have an unchanging God, then grace – his offer of redemption toward us who deserve only condemnation – is as eternal as any other part of His character.

The book of Leviticus records the system of animal sacrifice in the temple, a practice commanded by God that continued even past the death of Jesus. And yet multiple times, in the Old Testament and the New, God said through the Bible’s authors that the people’s sacrifices did not please Him, that they could not take away sin:

  • “‘The multitude of your sacrifices–what are they to me?’ says the LORD. ‘I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats.'” – Isaiah 1:11
  • “Day after day every priest stands and performs his religious duties; again and again he offers the same sacrifices, which can never take away sins.” – Hebrews 10:11

What? If all this is so, then before the cross, where was the true covering for sin?

The ancient Hebrews lived under the law, but grace was just behind the veil. By His grace God declared the temple sacrifices acceptable and sufficient – if the hearts of those making the offerings were right. Their obedience had to be sincere, their repentance authentic. That is all grace demands for us to enter into it. It’s all we can bring. The blood sacrifices in the temple and the Passover feast were acts of obedience that pointed forward in anticipation to God’s ultimate manifestation of grace.

A word about blood, because some might conclude that God and His followers have a ghoulish obsession with gore: Blood is bound up with life itself. In the body, it sustains life. Out of the body, it equates with death. Paul tells us in Romans 6:23 that the wages of sin is death; therefore the spilling of blood to the point of death equates to the “payment” of those wages.

Unlike the temple sacrifices, the blood of Jesus didn’t have to be declared acceptable payment, like paper money substituting for silver or gold. By Jesus’ sacrifice God extended grace in a new and perfect way – the sinless One’s truly powerful blood, in place of the sinner’s blood. Since the cross, the exchange is now His blood for ours – no longer the blood of ordinary animals standing in for the blood of the Lamb of God.

We look backward now to the cross through communion, a kind of streamlined Passover meal. But we no longer need a substitute; the bread and wine are only tokens, symbols. The real, truly powerful sacrifice has been made, the completed expression of God’s grace.

What’s unchanged is what grace asks of us: sincere obedience, true repentance. Psalm 51:17 says, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.” If we invoke the name of Jesus with hearts that aren’t right in this way, it’s no better than the sacrifices offered in vain by rebellious Israel. Jesus warned in Matthew 7:21, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.” Because in the long run, what we do will reveal what’s in our hearts.

(All verses are from the New International Version of the Bible.)

Currency Conversion

“Show me your faith without deeds, and I will show you my faith by my deeds.” – James 2:18

Take a look sometime at a $20 bill. How do you know it’s the real thing? There have always been special features to help authenticate currency and frustrate counterfeiters, but in the most recent redesign, the government took these measures to a new level. To name a few: color-shifting ink, a watermark that’s part of the paper itself, a security thread that glows green under ultraviolet light.

That piece of paper holds ways for us to be sure it’s authentic. It also can teach us something about real Christian faith. What is saving faith, after all?

In Ephesians 2:8, Paul tells us, “it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God…” And yet James throws down a challenge to those who would claim that faith is all head and heart, no hands. Is salvation by simple belief? Is it by works?

Yes.

The first thing that authenticates a bill is what’s printed on it. The right words, adornments, seals and pictures must be present. If it’s all there, except that Harry Potter’s mug is in Andrew Jackson’s place, there’s a problem. If Old Hickory is present, but the note is issued by Gringotts Wizarding Bank, still no good.

The right stuff printed on the bill is like the faith we profess. Some things aren’t negotiable: the trinity, the divinity of Christ, His redemptive death on the cross and conquest of death by His resurrection. If we’ve gotten these things wrong, nothing else is going to help us. But if we’re just mouthing all the right words, is that enough?

Here’s where it gets tricky. If we undertake good works as a way of adding to the work of Christ, to make it all add up to salvation, we’ve missed the point of the cross. But if good works, right living and the fruit of the Spirit are absent from our lives, then merely professing the right beliefs is like printing all the correct markings of a $20 bill – on Kleenex. When it’s held up to the light, the fake will be exposed.

Skywriting Creation

The heavens are telling the glory of God; the wonder of His works displays the firmament.

I sang those words in my high school choir, the opening lines of a number from Franz Joseph Haydn’s Creation oratorio. At the time I was at best dimly aware that this was based on Scripture (Psalm 19:1); I certainly did not grasp how profound this statement was. Today, I think I may have an inkling.

In my second post, I hinted at some thoughts on science and Scripture. These ideas have a long history in Biblical scholarship, but in some circles they are still explosive. It may be helpful to cast them in a different way.

As I’ve said before, I greatly respect science and scientists, though I have no aptitude in the field. People using the brains God gave them to observe the universe God created are going to find cool stuff. If you’re a Bible-believing Christian and science challenges your ideas of what a Christian is supposed to believe, by all means question it, but don’t fear it. Fear nothing and no one but God.

Now, about that creation story. You can venture outside the scientific mainstream, you can train your mind in a particular way, and you can erase any doubt that the only proper way to read the first chapter of Genesis is literally. And you may be right. I mean that. God is God, and if that’s how He created the universe, and humans have misread the evidence of the heavens and the Earth, who am I to second guess Him? The last thing I intend is to undermine the Bible’s authority or trustworthiness.

But if you’re willing to consider another way to respect both the Bible’s authority and the intelligence God gave humanity, turn to…the Book of Revelation. I think most Biblical scholars would agree that very large portions of Revelation are allegorical. The last book in the Bible is packed with symbols, though where the symbols end and the literal parts begin could keep an army of theologians busy for a very long time. Why did God have John write it that way? Why not spell it out plainly?

Let me suggest a possible reason among many that may apply. Imagine trying to explain the world of the 21st Century – or a future time even we can’t imagine – to a man of the First Century, and in turn having him explain it to a wider First Century audience. Imagine the heads exploding from Rome to Jerusalem.

Now, rewind to Genesis. Imagine trying to explain astrophysics, biochemistry and plate tectonics to people living thousands of years earlier than the apostle John. Heads exploding.

Perhaps the earlier parts of Genesis – to what point I couldn’t say – and most of Revelation form allegorical bookends to the story God unfolds in the Bible. Maybe some of us are asking the Bible to be something it couldn’t be for its authors or their first readers – a science book, written by and to people with no concept of modern science.

So what about the Bible’s truth and authority? For me, it still stands. The Bible tells us what we need to know about creation: God is its author. Exactly how he wielded the pen wasn’t critical knowledge for the Bible’s writers. That knowledge is more discoverable and more interesting to us, but what we believe about it won’t save or condemn us.

To put it another way, the story of creation is written across the pages of Genesis in a way that the ancients could read and understand. But the Bible itself tells us the story is also written across the heavens, which “proclaim the glory of God.” It is written in our DNA. Perhaps, as scientists continue to insist, it is written in canyon walls and on primordial beaches. And generations such as ours are able to discover and read these accounts in a way that Moses and his contemporaries could not.

“All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness.” 2 Timothy 3:16 plainly declares the Bible’s authority. But nowhere do I read the word “literal.” Perhaps something like this could be a paraphrase for our time, with a couple of thousand years of hindsight: The Bible, properly understood as to context and literary form, will never misrepresent God, His character or His work, nor will it ever teach anyone to do evil.

The debate over creation has become a wedge between sincere people of faith on one hand, and skeptics on the other who might be more receptive – if they didn’t suspect they were being asked to stop thinking. Again, I don’t know which story of creation is true. But I believe the Bible, largely through the creation debate, has been reduced from the sword of the Spirit to a blunt instrument in the culture wars, part of the all-or-nothing, us-or-them battle between Christian conservatives and all varieties of liberals. To give an inch on the literal reading of the Bible, to some, is treason against “our” side.

Now, if the Bible isn’t true unless it’s all literal, I see the problem. By this logic, if parts of it aren’t literal, then parts of it aren’t true. The whole book, and therefore our faith, are thrown open to question. But is this a straitjacket that American evangelicals have put on the Bible and Christianity? If you take the literal reading to the limit, you’ll be facing some much harder questions than how the Biblical creation story could be true.

The truth is, no rational person takes it that far. For example, if Jesus were literally every object or substance He said he was at various points in the Gospels, he would have been a very curious entity. If Solomon’s regrets written in Ecclesiastes were all doctrinal statements, we would have our work cut out to reconcile them with the rest of the Bible. We allow Jesus and Solomon literary leeway. Perhaps we should grant the same to the Spirit who spoke through the Bible’s authors. Not that He needs our permission.

In my research for this post I found an interesting word: bibliolater. The implication is clear. At some point in our thinking, the Bible can cross the line from a vital guide – “useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness” – to an object of worship. This is first of all wrongheaded, but it also sucks the life out of the Bible.

When we make an idol of something or someone, we actually distance ourselves, because getting too close will always shatter whatever we have set up our idol to be. So it is with the Bible. Not that it contains any defects, but it will engage us, challenge us and surprise us – as long as we allow it to live and breathe and speak to us.

Where There’s a Will

“Free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.”—C.S. Lewis

Unquestioning belief is one crisis away from unbelief. It’s easy to leave your faith unexamined in tranquil times, but there’s a price to pay when things get bumpy. The truth will still be the truth, but life’s biggest struggles can trigger a crisis of belief if you’ve never wrestled honestly with why you believe.

The past couple of years have compelled me to shine the light of reason on my faith as never before. I’ve confronted hard questions that I had preferred to ignore. I believe many Christians dodge those questions, perhaps fearing as I did that they’ll find no reasonable answers, and their faith will be threatened.

No question is more basic than this one: Without conclusive, fit-for-a-jury evidence, how can I believe there is any god, capital G or small? I have plenty of circumstantial evidence, more than enough to sustain my own faith, but I can’t present an airtight, forensic case to persuade a skeptic.

Instead, I tested the no-God concept. This was not an attack on science; indeed, some believers would do well to listen more to scientists and attack them less. There is a way through the seeming contradictions between science and scripture, but that’s a topic for another day. Now to the issue at hand.

Unbelief ironically trades the perceived shackles of religion for a rigidity that would do a Pharisee proud. This assertion may provoke a shrug—”Well, if that’s the way it is, so be it.” But accepting it means buying into a package of implications that are counterintuitive to say the least. Here’s how:

Suppose there is no higher intelligence, no transcendent will over all that exists, just the forces of physics—laws and constants blindly but consistently dictating every occurrence, from the subatomic level to the cosmic. There is no such thing as a soul. Where does that leave us? Logically to me, we are part of an inconceivably intricate web of cause and effect, spanning time and space back to the Big Bang. And because there are only law-bound physical forces, the universe could be in no other state than it is now. Even our thoughts reflect the activity of molecules and atoms and subatomic particles inside our brains, inevitable effects springing from blind natural sequences. Everything, from yesterday’s weather, to the winner of the next election, to our cat’s thyroid condition, was baked in at the inception of the universe.

What does that mean for free will? It’s an illusion; we have none. To assert that the physical universe is all, yet still claim free will, what would you have to believe? That some assemblage of matter hived itself off from the universal web of causation, and learned to express the marriage of intelligence and intent that constitutes free will. This structure still obeyed the laws of physics that formed it, but it became an original point of causation in the universe, distinct from the first cause—the Big Bang. In a universe that harbored no will or intent at its formation, free will came into being.

It gets better. The process that produced free will replicated itself—with spectacular success. It’s done it billions of times. Every human that is born at some point makes that same leap from merely a complex, organic system to a vessel carrying a will inside it.

I believe none of this. I do not believe in determinism, the branch of philosophy that excludes free will. The existence of our will may be dauntingly mysterious, but it is self-evident. Nor do I believe that our will is the product of some purely physical process.

I do believe that our universe is orderly in the sense that for the most part, the physical laws operate predictably and consistently—as they were created to do. I believe that we can leverage the physical laws and properties of matter with our will to accomplish tasks and to create, but our will cannot bend those laws. It’s not our place.

The intelligent design view of creation often draws on the watchmaker illustration. If you find a watch on the ground, you reasonably conclude that this intricate, elegant machine had a maker. This evokes the wonderful, organic machines that abound in nature, leading to the conclusion that there must be a Creator. It’s a compelling analogy, and on some level it illuminates a truth that I believe.  By itself, however, it’s not an invincible argument in the face of modern science.

But if we dwell on the analogy, we miss a deeper question right there in the literal scenario. That watch on your wrist, the real one—how did its maker come by the will to make it?

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