Apr 29 2012

The Family Plan

Hollywood movies often carry this disclaimer as the credits roll by: “All characters appearing in this work are fictitious. Any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” The same disclaimer applies to the three families I have profiled below. In this fictional world, all the parents are Christians, all the marriages are intact, and all are members of the same congregation. And yet, how could they be so different?

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Mar 7 2012

Of Magick and Miracles

When atheists are looking to blame Christianity for all that is wrong in the world, they are inclined to run through the usual litany of crimes against humanity, including the Crusades and the house arrest of Galileo.[1]

My first reaction is to say that this has nothing to do with New Testament Christianity. My second reaction is to point out that much of what we think we know about these events comes to us from people who have an axe to grind against the medieval Catholic Church, Christianity, religion, or all the above. Real historians have done their best to set the record straight, which the New Atheists blithely ignore as they regale the unfaithful with sordid tales of Christians acting unchristianly.

The same rap sheet usually includes the witch-hunts of the late 1500s and early 1600s. According to some estimates, around 110,000 people were tried for witchcraft, and as many as 60,000 may have been executed.[2] Critics blame these horrors on what they take to be the inherent evils of religion. In the Enlightenment, the medieval church was faulted for its irrational belief in witchcraft. Today, in the cultural morass we call Postmodernism, the medieval church is faulted for using witchcraft as an excuse to pick on lonely elderly women, or practitioners of pre-Christian pagan beliefs, or both. The first angers the feminists, and the second has become a cause célèbre of New Age Wiccans.

Again, I would reply that the witch hunters were hardly following the teaching of Christ and His apostles. Nor were they following legal precedent from the so-called Dark Ages. In 785, Charlemagne enacted martial law on the newly conquered pagans of Saxony. Article 6 of that law blamed belief in witchcraft on the deceits of the devil, and imposed the death penalty on anyone who burned a witch.[3] Misguided vigilantes posed more of a threat to life and property than a few pagan “witches.” So much for the Dark Ages.

Charlemagne and his contemporaries wrote magic off as a pagan fantasy. In this respect, they were closer to the Christian worldview. From a Biblical standpoint, nature works in a regular way until God intervenes. There is no room for magic and witchcraft because God reigns supremely over both the natural and the supernatural. The great witch hunts of later centuries undermined this view by giving witchcraft a newfound credibility.[4]

The whole point of magic – or maybe that should be magick – is that there are hidden forces within nature that can be manipulated for good or evil. Don’t get this confused with magic used as a plot element in Lewis’ Narnia series or Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. And don’t get this confused with the stage magic used by entertainers who pull rabbits out of their hats. To claim that magick is something more – that it is metaphysically real – is to deny the Biblical worldview.

This is why the Bible takes a no-holds-barred approach to magick, sorcery and divination. Under the Old Law, sorceresses were put to death (Exodus 22:18). This may sound harsh, but sorcery represented a clear and present danger to God’s chosen nation. If the Israelites could be conned into thinking that a pagan sorceress had real gifts of sorcery, then perhaps they could be conned into accepting her prophetic guidance as well, which could lead the people into soul- and life-threatening situations.

This helps us understand a potentially difficult passage in 1 Samuel 28. On the eve of his final battle, Saul consults the medium of En Dor. He asks her to conduct a séance with the dearly departed Samuel and, indeed, the spirit of the prophet appears in their presence. But is Samuel’s appearance a genuine piece of sorcery, or the work of God? The woman’s reaction gives it away: she cries out in a loud voice (vs. 12). She is shocked because she has never been able to summon the spirits of the dead. Her mediumship is a fraud, and she knows it. This is the work of God.

The same skepticism holds throughout the New Testament, and especially in Acts. Luke repeatedly draws a distinction between the real power of the apostles and the fraudulent claims of people like Simon and Elymas (8:9-25; 13:4-12). The apostles’ miracles are not tricks; they are not demonic; they are not self-serving. Their power is from God, just as the Gospel they are preaching is from God.

Mystics and charlatans were not the only ones with a magic problem. Christians in Ephesus still clung to their magical scrolls (19:18-19). Their worldview was confused and incomplete.

It has to make us wonder: How much stock do we put in black cats and four-leaf clovers? Maybe it’s not witches or magick for us. Maybe it’s something else, like astrology or evolution. But clearly there are consequences for not building a thoroughly Christian worldview.

[A version of this article appeared in Think, March 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Bertrand Russell, Why I am Not a Christian. London: Routledge, 2004[1957], pp. 22,123,161; Richard Dawkins, The Devil’s Chaplain. New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2003, pp. 148,159; Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion. London: Bantam, 2006, pp. 1,37,41,166,308,312. Daniel C. Dennett, Breaking the Spell. New York: Penguin, 2006, 30,43,408; ad nauseum.
[2] Edward Peters, “Witchcraft,” Encyclopedia of the Scientific Revolution. New York: Garland, 2000, p. 1069. Peters’ figures are at the high end of estimates.
[3] See Arend Quak, editor, Speculum Saxonum. Rodopi: Amsterdam, 1999, 34 fn. 21. Article 6 reads as follows: “If anyone, deceived by the devil, believes, in the way pagans do, that some man or woman is a witch (strigam) and eats people and if for this reason he burns her and gives her flesh to be eaten, or eats it himself, he is to suffer the capital punishment.”
[4] Karen Jolly, Witchcraft and Magic in Europe. London: Athlone, 2002, pp. 23-26.

Feb 7 2012

Whatever happened to faith?

Faith has a bad reputation, and it is our fault. By “our” I mean those of us who confess that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God. In a terrible twist of irony, people of faith have turned faith into a dirty five-letter word. Not all of us have done this, of course, but enough of us to attract the attention of the wider world.

“Faith,” according to Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, is a “firm belief in something for which there is no proof.” At least this travesty appears several notches down from the primary definition. The same cannot be said for Webster’s New World Dictionary, which gives the following definition top billing: “unquestioning belief, specif. in God, a religion, etc.” Keep in mind that most dictionaries list the most common meaning first. This is why we don’t want preachers using their dictionaries to define important Bible words.

Needless to say, you will not find similar entries in dictionaries from a century ago, although the rot was already spreading into the pew from seminaries and the writings of prominent theologians and philosophers of religion. Astute skeptics certainly took notice. Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, put these words into the mouth of Pudd’nhead Wilson: “There are those who scoff at the schoolboy, calling him frivolous and shallow. Yet it was the schoolboy who said ‘Faith is believing what you know ain’t so.’ ”[1] Clemens’ wry observation turns into a battering ram for Sam Harris in a book appropriately titled The End of Faith: “every religion preaches the truth of propositions for which no evidence is even conceivable. This put the ‘leap’ in Kierkegaard’s leap of faith.”[2]

Ah, and now we get to the heart of the matter. It is easy to find simplistic or unfair characterizations of Søren Kierkegaard’s writings. His “leap of faith” is often portrayed as a momentous force of will to believe in God and the central claims of Christianity. This makes the Christian faith look bad in every possible way. How can anyone just decide to believe anything? And how could anyone hold such profound, life-changing beliefs in the absence of evidence or, even worse, in the face of overwhelming evidence to the contrary?

It doesn’t help that Kierkegaard is notoriously hard to read, even in the best English translations. It doesn’t help that he never used this precise phrase, “leap of faith,” or its Danish equivalent. And it doesn’t help that he wrote some of his most important works (mostly in the 1840s) under a pseudonym, which leaves us wondering whether they represent Kierkegaard’s “official” view.

Despite all that, philosopher Jamie Ferreira tries her level best to offer a sympathetic reading of Kierkegaard’s leap.[3] [By the way, no one should use “Kierkegaard” and “basically” in the same sentence as I am about to do, but here goes anyway…] Basically, Kierkegaard envisioned a huge gulf between the historical claims for Christianity on the one side and the actual experience of Christianity on the other. The categories of knowledge and faith are so far apart, he thought, that we could never bridge the gap by piling fact upon fact. Evidence can lead us up to the edge of the abyss, but it can never take us all the way. Kierkegaard’s approving quote of Gotthold Ephraim Lessing (1729-81) gives us a strong sense of where he was going with all of this:

“If God held the truth enclosed in his right hand, and in his left hand the one and only ever-striving drive for truth, even with the corollary of erring forever and ever, and if he were to say to me: Choose!—I would humbly fall down to him at his left hand and say: Father, give! Pure truth is indeed only for you alone!”[4]

And so, standing on the precipice, it is possible to find oneself “infinitely interested” in God. All of sudden, as Ferreira puts it, one can “dare to be radically changed,… to take a real risk, to put oneself out over seventy thousand fathoms.”[5] In this very moment we leave behind the objectively uncertain proofs of Christianity and embrace the subjectively passionate striving after God. This is more a leap to faith than a leap of faith.

But so what? Whether we take the cruder version of the leap or the more nuanced version, Kierkegaard is working with a number of faulty assumptions.

For a start, while Kierkegaard makes room for reason and evidence, he doesn’t make room enough. He is overly impressed, it seems, by attacks on the proof of Christianity coming from people like Hume, and attacks on the historical Jesus coming from people like Strauss.[6] But if we think that reason and evidence are on our side (they are), and if we think that Biblical faith is richer than Kierkegaard imagined (it is), then there is no need to separate the certain from the uncertain, the subjective from the objective, and make a leap from one to the other.

And in what sense is faith an instantaneous transition? This is where we need to distinguish between the subjective and the objective. From God’s objective standpoint, either we are born again or we are not (John 3:3-6). Either our sins were buried in baptism, or they were not (Romans 6:1-11). At no moment prior to this point are we somewhat saved or mostly forgiven. This is conversion to the faith of Christianity; the transformation that follows within that faith is something else again (Romans 12:2). The subjective experience of faith varies from individual to individual. Belief, which is the beginning of faith (Romans 10:14-17), might come suddenly, as it did to the Emmaus-bound disciples (Luke 24:31). Or it might come reluctantly and with a demand for more evidence, as it did for Thomas (John 20:24-29).

Speaking of evidence, some of our arguments will be inductive and issue in conclusions that fall short of certainty, but are nonetheless highly probable. Other arguments will be deductive and issue in conclusions that are certain (because the conclusion must be true if all the premises are true). For instance, design arguments tend to be inductive and probabilistic; cosmological arguments tend to be deductive. Christians have no problem with strong inductive arguments. When Paul appealed to the many eyewitnesses of the resurrection, he was effectively making an inductive argument (1 Corinthians 15:1-4; Acts 26:26). Not  only was it a strong argument, it was the only argument that adequately explained the facts at hand.

Kierkegaard was offering a false dichotomy: either Christians can build their faith entirely on deductive reasoning, and risk losing everything in the face of seemingly convincing counter-arguments, or they can ignore the arguments and make a leap to faith. In reality, deductive arguments for the existence of God have proven remarkably resilient, and inductive arguments have grown stronger as the amount of evidence accumulates in their favor (in areas like genetics, microbiology, archaeology, etc.). Even if the evidence for Christianity only ever rises to the level of “highly likely,” I can still have a reasonable, evidence-based faith.[7]

However, Kierkegaard was right in this one respect: we cannot build a scaffold to God out of facts and figures. As James reminds us: “even the demons believe–and shudder!” (2:19). Clearly, there is something more to Biblical faith than intellectual assent to the right number of propositions.

Faith in its fullest sense is not a risky leap, but a confident walk (1 John 1:7). It is not a confidence in what we see now, but in what we know we will see later (Romans 8:24-25; 2 Corinthians 5:6-8; Hebrews 11:1). It is a confidence that is grounded, not on wishful thinking, but on the historical reality of the resurrected Savior. Atheists are welcome to attack the straw man of dictionary faith, but it has nothing to do with Biblical faith.

[A version of this article appeared as “Leap of faith?” in Think, February 2012, p. 8.]

[1] Mark Twain, Following the Equator. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Co., 1897, p. 132.

[2] Sam Harris, The End of Faith. New York: W.W. Norton, 2004, p. 23.

[3] M. Jamie Ferreira, “Faith and the Kierkegaardian leap,” in The Cambridge Companion to Kierkegaard. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1998, pp. 207-234.

[4] Soren Kierkegaard, Concluding Unscientific Postscript. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2009, 90fn56.

[5] Ferreira, pp. 220-221.

[6] George Pattison, “D.F. Strauss: Kierkegaard and radical demythologization,” in Jon Stewart, editor, Kierkegaard and His German Contemporaries: Theology. Aldershot, UK: Ashgate Publishing, 2007, pp. 233-257.

[7] William Lane Craig, Reasonable Faith, Third Edition. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2008, pp. 55-56.

Jan 9 2012

Blind Hopes

Whether they like it or not, evolutionists find themselves having to dabble in theology and philosophy. Typically they’re not very good at one, or the other, or both, but they don’t have a lot of choice. They know that religious belief predominates, and they know that the inference to design in nature is profoundly intuitive. It certainly was for David:

I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well. – Psalm 139:14

To overturn three-plus millennia of what almost everyone knows very well is a tall order, and so hyper-Darwinists like Richard Dawkins know where they must begin:

Biology is the study of complicated things that give the appearance of having been designed for a purpose.[1]

They also know where the entire enterprise must end. Materialistic science leads to the soul destroying conclusion that there is no morality and no meaning. It’s a hard sell.

One brutally honest approach is to put the unadulterated wares on sale knowing that the local fast food chains will have better luck selling tofu burgers at their drive-through windows. This was Richard Dawkins in a more honest moment back in 1995:

The universe we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.[2]

Another approach, and the preferred mission model of the New Atheists, is to gussy up the product with a sprinkling of religion, or something that looks a lot like religion. It’s not always possible to tell whether this approach is unintentional, with religion sneaking in the back door, or just plain cynical, with atheists charging out of the portcullis to raid the enemy’s stores.[3] This is Dawkins in his latest outing, The Magic of Reality (2011).

What might be new for Dawkins is old hat for E.O. Wilson. “The evolutionary epic,” Wilson wrote back in 1978, “is probably the best myth we will ever have.”[4] Like many atheists, Wilson takes his myth-building cues from Prometheus – the old titan who stole fire from the gods and gave it back to man.

The true Promethean spirit of science . . . constructs the mythology of scientific materialism, guided by the corrective devices of the scientific method, addressed with precise and deliberately affective appeal to the deepest needs of human nature, and kept strong by the blind hopes that the journey on which we are now embarked will be farther and better than the one just completed.[5]

In the ancient Greek tragedy, Prometheus Bound, the rebellious titan not only stole fire from the gods, but “caused mortals to cease foreseeing their doom.” That seems a worthy enough goal, at least at first glance. After all, who wants to go through life knowing that Zeus is about to blast the whole of humanity into Hades? Except that Prometheus adds deception to his crimes: “I caused blind hopes to dwell within their breasts.”

The greater context of the “blind hopes” line is what makes militant atheists both less like and more like Prometheus than they usually admit. They’re less like Prometheus  because at least the titan saved humanity from the wrath of Zeus. Last time I checked, atheists have saved exactly zero souls from eternal punishment. (They haven’t done much for the living, either.[6]) And they’re more like Prometheus in that they need to offer a piece of deception along with their gift of all that counts as knowledge. If materialistic science is the only game in town, then “hope” is an answer to a question that nobody is allowed to ask. What can they pretend to offer in its place?

Unfortunately, evolution – the central creation story of materialistic science – is the perfect engine of despair. Not only is it depressingly “red in tooth and claw,”[7] it is entirely backward facing. Evolution cannot look forward to the next day, the next ice age, or the next asteroid impact. Evolution is blind. “It has no vision,” as an earlier Dawkins reminds us, “no foresight, no sight at all.”[8]

But not to worry: materialistic science will win the day. It will tell us everything we need to know.

And therein lays the deception. Materialism has shown itself to be entirely incapable of explaining the mind, the universe, life, and pretty much everything else important to the human experience. It can do even less for “the deepest needs of human nature.” Even if we lump the best of science and technology into this picture we will have no more than Prometheus’ gift of fire. It will give us something useful, perhaps, but not hopeful. It will allow us to plan and scheme based on what we see right in front of us, on what the devilish Uncle Wormwood would call “real life,”[9] on what crops we are growing and barns we are building,[10] but all such hopes are blind. What humanity needs so deeply is a future good, and nothing here and now will ever satisfy that need.[11]

[A version of this article appeared in Think, January 2012, p. 11.]

[1] Richard Dawkins, The Blind Watchmaker. New York: W.W. Norton, 1996, p. 1.

[2] Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life. New York: BasicBooks, 1995, p. 133.

[3] Mary Midgley, Evolution as a Religion. London: Routledge, 2002, p. 131.

[4] Edward O. Wilson, On Human Nature. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1978, p. 201.

[5] Wilson, On Human Nature, p. 209.

[6] See, e.g., Richard Weikart, From Darwin to Hitler: Evolutionary Ethics, Eugenics, and Racism in Germany. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

[7] Alfred Tennyson, In Memoriam, lvi.

[8] Dawkins, Blind Watchmaker, p. 5.

[9] C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters. New York: Macmillan, 1961, p. 8.

[10] Luke 12:16-21.

[11] Romans 8:24; 1 Corinthians 15:19.

Nov 14 2011

Selling Heaven

Thomas Nelson – the world’s biggest publisher of religious books — now belongs to the secular publishing house, HarperCollins.[1] If you look at the spine of your Bible, you will likely see the Nelson name.

One of Nelson’s titles, Heaven is for Real, is on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list. On amazon.com, Real is the top seller in their “Christian Theology” section.

In fact, as of writing, 9 out of 20 books are about heaven.[2] One is a straight ahead attempt at saying what heaven is like. Two (from Rob Bell) suggest that everybody is going to heaven. The six remaining titles represent three allegedly true stories (in various formats) of people who went to heaven and came back again.

In some respects, these stories resemble the Near Death Experiences that people used to talk about in the heyday of the New Age movement. But these go beyond the typical NDE story: it’s not just a case of seeing the light, or Jesus opening His arms, but of spending time in heaven.

Trust Me, I Was There?

Heaven is for Real (2010)

  • This is meant to be the true-life story of a 4 year old boy who went into surgery for an appendectomy and then, after surgery, had all sorts of amazing tales to tell about heaven.
  • His accounts are compelling, so we are led to believe, because they reveal all sorts of information about heaven that a 4 year old couldn’t possibly know unless he had actually been there.

The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (2010)

  • This is a story of a 6 year old boy who went into a coma following a car accident.
  • When he woke up two months later, he told his parents that the angels had taken him to the gates of heaven, and he talked to Jesus.
  • He related events at the accident scene and in the hospital while he was in a coma – events, allegedly, that he could know nothing about unless he saw them in heaven.

90 Minutes in Heaven (2004)

  • A Baptist preacher was in a serious car accident, declared dead at the scene, and allegedly spent 90 minutes in heaven.
  • Another Baptist preacher was passing by, stopped to pray, and the guy miraculously came back to life.

Quick Response

1.    Is it possible to die, experience something of the afterlife, and return to tell the tale?

  • Absolutely. This is exactly what happened during the New Testament times. We know that Paradise is the next step for those who are found righteous in God’s sight (Luke 23:43). In addition, John the Apostle paints a highly symbolic picture of the spiritual world that awaits us. In one scene, we are shown the souls of martyred saints under the altar (Rev. 6:9-11). They are clearly conscious, so we know that souls can experience the afterlife (i.e., they are not soul sleeping).
  • Second, Jesus brought Lazarus (John 11) and the son of the widow of Nain (Luke 7) back to life, and the resurrection of Christ is the ultimate example of life after death (1 Cor. 15). So we know that it is possible to be dead, and live again. And yet, nothing is said about their experiences in Paradise. The message of Jesus’ miracles and His resurrection are much more important than sensationalist stories of afterlife experiences.
  • Paul in 2 Cor. 12:2 talks about a man who “was caught up into Paradise and heard inexpressible words” (vs. 4). In the context of this passage, Paul is talking about the significance of prophetic visions (vs. 1). Again, it is significant that neither this man nor Paul dwelt on their experiences. In fact, the man heard things he was not permitted to speak about (vs. 4).
  • The bottom line: Yes, we find people dying and coming back to life in Scripture. We can infer that they experienced the afterlife but, in contrast to the above books, their stories of the afterlife are notably absent.

2.    That was back in the days of miracles. What about today?

  • Even if the stories in these bestselling books were true, what more can they tell us that we do not already know? We know already that there is a heaven to gain and a hell to lose. Jesus told His disciples in John 14:2 that He was going to prepare many mansions. That promise is backed up by His life, teaching, works, and resurrection. Why do we need the testimony of a preacher or a young boy, when we already have the testimony of Christ and His apostles?
  • If these stories are trying to tell us something new, then they are vulnerable to the warning issued in Gal. 1:8 – “Even if we, or an angel from heaven, preach any other gospel to you than what we have preached to you, let him be accursed.” In fact, there are claims in these books that are simply unbiblical, which brings the accounts into question.

3.   There is no independent corroboration for the claims in these books.

4.   Here is something else that we already know: “it is appointed for men to die once, and after this the judgment” (Heb. 9:27). This is the sobering truth that we need to hang our hats on.

Update: Interesting little post from Hunter Baker at Touchstone/Mere Comments.

[1] http://www.christianpost.com/news/harper-collins-buys-thomas-nelson-corners-religious-book-market-60057/

[2] As of Nov. 1, 2011: Heaven is for Real (1 Kindle, 2 Paperback, 3 Hardcover) – NYT Nonfiction list: #2, 39 weeks on list; The Boy Who Came Back from Heaven (6 Kindle); Love Wins (8 Hardcover), Love Wins Companion (10 Paperback); Heaven (14 Hardcover); 90 Minutes in Heaven (13 Paperback, 17 Kindle).