Posts

Thoughts on Christmas and one tough question

 

I love this time of year. We decorate our homes with tinsel, nativity scenes and snow globes. And of course, the tree!

Christmas is a time when most families come together to share gifts, stories, laughter and love. For others it is a bittersweet time, or even a painfully lonely time. Despite the rampant commercialism, encroaching secularism and yes – the stress – Christmas day still points to and commemorates one of the most important days on the Christian calendar, the birth of our Saviour Jesus Christ.

As Christians it is a time we can unashamedly share the Good News of Jesus and have reason to invite people to Church. Despite the prevalence of gifts and delicious food and all those jolly men in red suits, the foundation of the Christmas celebration in western culture is still Jesus’s birth and because of this our conversations can more easily turn to God and the true meaning of Christmas. The conversations can be light and friendly or, because our current culture questions everything, we can find ourselves faced with some tough questions about our faith. One of the most asked questions and possibly the hardest to answer is:

“But if God is so loving, how could He send people to hell?”

I’ll be honest, the first time someone asked me this question, I fell silent. It was a question I personally struggled to find an answer for. The biblical concepts of an all-loving God and the terrifying descriptions of Hell were too incongruent. With a primary focus on our Loving God in current sermons and writings, I began to wonder if Hell did actually exist and if God really would send people there.

Yet, although Hell has largely disappeared from current Christian conversations, it has not disappeared from the Bible. There are many verses in the Scriptures that forewarn of it. Jesus warned of Hell more than He discussed heaven.1 Despite its awfulness, biblical authority won and I could not deny Hell’s exists.

To find some clarity on this tough doctrine we can look at three attributes of God. First, God is Holy – perfectly pure in a way we can barely imagine from our earthly perspective so marred by sin. Sin can be described as a corruption of good that affects both the natural realm and our internal selves – damaging our character and spirit by turning our focus inward, rather than outward in worship to God. It is as impossible for sin to exist in God’s Holy presence, as it is impossible that a tissue can survive a burning flame. God hates sin and all it does to humanity.2 Rebecca Manly Pippert put it well in her book Hope has its reasons,

Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it…Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference. God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer…which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.’3

Second, God is Just. There will be a time when He will set things right and complete justice will prevail. He is also just, in that He will never force us into a relationship with Him. If we spend our lives denying God, refuting Him and refusing Him, it would not be just for Him to force us to then live eternally in constant fellowship with Him.4

Third, God is Love. His love for humanity is all encompassing, and incredibly patient. Although we sometimes wish He’d quickly rid the world of evil, His love for us means He is waiting for as many people as possible to turn to Him.5 I’m personally grateful He waited for me! The evil in the world is a result of our having free will. We have the choice to love God and follow His ways and we have the choice to deny Him and follow our own ways. It follows then, that when we die, our choice to be in relationship with Him, or not, would also be honored. It would not be a loving or just act for God to force us to be with Him for all eternity. There has to be a hell, a place of complete separation from God, for those who don’t choose Heaven.6

In his allegory, The Great Divorce, C. S. Lewis wrote:

There are only two kinds of people – those who say, “Thy will be done” to God or those to whom God in the end says, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell choose it. Without that self-choice it wouldn’t be Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.’

God does not send us to Hell, we choose to go there and that is the greatest tragedy. God didn’t just reach out for us, He came down as one of us. Down into our messy reality to save us from our sins and give us a way up and out. Love came down in the form of a baby boy who would one day make the ultimate sacrifice to change the world and bring hope and the offer of life beyond all we could imagine. He still offers us the hope that there will one day be no more suffering, sickness, death and destruction and that one-day every tear will be wiped away.7 So in our response to the first question, we could also sincerely ask,

“Why would you not choose Heaven?”

References:


  1. There are many verses where Jesus explains about, warns against and describes Hell, for example, the sobering Matthew 25:31- 46. In Luke 16: 19-31 Jesus tells the parable of Lazarus and the Rich Man. It is interesting to me that the Rich Man does not ask to be let out of Hell, he seems resigned, but he does want his family warned.

  2. R. C. Sproul makes this insightful observation from Isaiah 6: “The Bible says that God is holy, holy, holy. Not that He is merely holy, or even holy, holy. He is holy, holy, holy. The Bible never says that God is love, love, love, or mercy, mercy, mercy, or wrath, wrath, wrath, or justice, justice, justice. It does say that He is holy, holy, holy, the whole earth is full of His glory.”R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God (Wheaton, Illinois: Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., 1985).

  3. Rebecca Manley Pippert, Hope Has It’s Reasons (Harper, 1990)

  4. Jo Vitale – apologist with Ravi Zacharias Ministries, quoted from Just Asking, during a podcast titled: How Can a Good God Send People to Hell?

  5. 2 Peter 3:9

  6. In his book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, (Penguin Random House, 2009), Timothy Keller goes into more depth on this topic in Chapter 5 – How can a loving God send people to Hell?

  7. Revelation 21:3-4 “And behold I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

New Apologetic Articles from the Christ on Campus Initiative

The Christ on Campus Initiative is a newly set up ministry of the Gospel Coalition for the goal of addressing the needs of university students with the truth and relevance of Christianity. One of the central purposes behind the establishment of Thinking Matters here is to see Christianity more rigorously defended in the marketplace of ideas and especially on the campuses of our universities, arguably a potential fountainhead of dialogue and inquiry.

With this purpose in mind, it is important that campus ministries have available the right resources and apologetic tools for meaningful engagement. And this week, in conjunction with the Henry center, two more articles were added to the CIC page that would be quite helpful to anyone wanting to be aware of some of the apologetic issues involved in student ministry. Each of the articles is over twenty pages in length (in pdf format) but are certainly worth the time invested. 

“Do Christians Have a Worldview?” by Graham Cole.

This article discusses the frames of reference that shape our lives. Professor Cole examines what it is that makes up a worldview, the tests of explanatory power and existential livability. He looks at the touchstone of propositions that form the heart of Christianity and its central subplots (creation, fall, rescue, restoration), how these address reality and the human condition and then finally why Christianity claims to be more than merely a way to look at the world.

“Jesus of Nazareth: How Historians Can Know Him and Why It Matters” by Craig L. Blomberg.

Distinguished professor of the New Testament at Denver Seminary in Colorado, Blomberg surveys the historical evidence for Jesus and examines the reliability of the Christian documents. Comparing the “Christ of faith” with the actual data we have available, he weighs the non-Christian sources, the synoptic gospels, John’s gospel and the gnostic material. Blomberg argues that the Christian portraits do stand up to scrutiny and in fact enable the message of the New Testment to be seriously considered.

“I Believe in Nature: An Exploration of Naturalism and the Biblical Worldview” by Kirsten Birkett

Birkett, from Oak Hill Theological College in London, discusses the worldview of naturalism and the Biblical response to it. In four parts, she first maps out the some of the significant figures in the history of the development of science and then in part two tackles the question of what is science: its methods and limits. The third segment explains the Bible and the Natural World; how Christianity can properly account for an intelligible and orderly universe and indeed encourages the flourishing of science. In the final part, Kirsten looks at Naturalism – the problems of power, morality and the inability of the worldview to explain the broad complex reality of human life.

“A Christian Perspective on Islam” by Chawkat Moucarry

Moucarry has served as the Director of Inter-Faith Relations for World Vision International since 2006, and in this massive 40 page article offers an insightful appraisal of the relevant issues invovled in the dialogue between Christianity and Islam. He responds to some of the central criticisms of the Bible from the Muslim perspective and sets out positive evidence for the trustworthiness of the Christian documents. He then addresses some of the central doctrines of both faiths (God, Jesus Christ, Sin and Forgiveness, Muhammed, and the kingdom of God) and defends the uniqueness and credibility of the Christian positions.

 

 

Apologetic events in Tauranga and Auckland this week

Tauranga

Tonight the Tauranga Thinking Matters study group will be kicking off its series on Relativism. Dr Matthew Flannagan will be speaking. Matthew currently teaches part time at the Bible College of New Zealand. He holds a Masters degree in Philosophy from the University of Waikato and a PhD in Theology from the University of Otago. He has debated notable New Zealand skeptics including Bill Cooke.

Relativism remains an attractive position in our society today. Moreover, it is often suggested that relativism promotes tolerance and safeguards us from dogmatism and authoritarianism. But even if we recognise that there are a wide range of moral viewpoints – that something may be wrong for me but seem perfectly acceptable to someone else, or another society – is this all we can say on the matter? For any moral belief you have, should the mere fact that you believe it alone justify its truthfulness? Matt will consider the implications of this view, it’s ultimate incoherence and how a Christian can formulate a response.

If you’re in the region, it is free to attend. And there will be time for questions and answers.

When: 7-9pm
Where: Bethlehem Community Church Center – 183 Moffat Rd, Bethlehem

Download the brochure or for more information and for the rest of the Tauranga events this month (including a lecture by Mark Mullins on religious pluralism) check out the Tauranga website.

Auckland

Tonight, Dr Steve Kumar is continuing a week-long apologetics training course at the Baptist Tabernacle. The sessions have been organised for those interested in university campus ministry but anyone is welcome. The subjects will be broadly accessible for those wanting to deepen their appreciation of the intellectual credibility of Christianity and in widening their resources for the articulation and defense of their faith. There is no cost to attend.

Steve has been involved in apologetic ministry in New Zealand for almost thirty years and is a regular speaker at universities, conferences and churches throughout Australasia, Europe and the US. He has debated several notable skeptics and philosophy HoDs and is the author of several books including Christianity for Skeptics, Think Why You Believe, and Answering the Counterfeit.

The Baptist Tabernacle is on 429 Queen Street in the CBD (at the very top of Queen Street) with parking available at the church.

Timetable:

Tuesday. Examining atheistic worldviews: normativity and meaning under a secularist outlook.

7.30- 9.30. On Level 3.

Wednesday. The evidence for God and assessing common objections to the Christian worldview

7.30-9.30. On Level 1 Room 4

Thursday: Understanding the basic beliefs of the major world religions in comparison to Christianity.

7.30-9.30 Lounge

Friday: Christianity and the cults: the ambit of orthodoxy

7.30-9.30 Library

We welcome any news of apologetic events around New Zealand, email us and we’ll be happy to post the details.

Should Europe embrace the New Atheism? John Lennox v Christopher Hitchens

On the 9th of August, Dr John Lennox debated one of the leading advocates of the New Atheism movement: Christopher Hitchens. Simon Wenham, events manager at the Zacharias Trust, has a good summary of his impressions of the debate (HT: Wet Lenses):

The event was held in Usher Hall, one of Edinburgh’s largest indoor venues and the organisers estimated that there were around 1,400 people attending the debate. The motion to be discussed was: “The New Europe Should Prefer the New Atheism” and the debate was between Christopher Hitchens (Social commentator and author of God is Not Great: How Religion Poisons Everything) and John Lennox (Professor of Mathematics at Oxford University and author of God’s Undertaker: Has Science Buried God?). An initial show of hands was taken at the start of the debate, so that they were able to see what standpoint members of the audience already held in order to compare what change there had been as a result of the debate. This vote showed that the audience was quite evenly split (with perhaps a very slight advantage to those opposing the motion) and that there was a good proportion (perhaps 20%) of people who were undecided.

The format of the debate was 15 minutes for opening statements (with Hitchens going first) followed by 5 minutes each for rebuttals. There was then 30 minutes of questions from the floor followed by a 5 minute concluding remark from each of the speakers (With Lennox going first this time). The debate was moderated expertly by James Naughtie, a well-known radio 4 presenter.

The final result was that Lennox won the debate (the motion was not passed) with a small, but discernible shift, in favour of his viewpoint from the previously undecided camp. To his credit, Hitchens conceded that there were more in favour of John, even though the moderator was initially unsure.

Opening Statements

Hitchens reminded the audience that Edinburgh was one the centres of the enlightenment and he warned that the secularism was under attack in the New Europe from a number of sources. These were:

1. The threat of Islam. He focused upon the demanding of special rights for Islam backed up by violence and used the example of the reaction to the Danish cartoons as showing that freedom of speech was being eroded through fear.
2. The revival of Russian imperialism, founded upon the Christian orthodox faith. He spoke of the conflict in Georgia, as well as the recent flexing of muscles against Poland (for agreeing to the missile defence shield) and the Ukraine (for being more pro-western).
3. The non-scientific ideas being propagated in some schools by Christian fundamentalist teaching.
4. The capitulation of the European churches to Islam (e.g. the pope retracting his comments about Mohammed after there was a backlash, the archbishop of Canterbury suggested sharia law should be recognised in Britain and Prince Charles saying he should be defender of the
“faiths” rather than of the “faith”). He concluded by saying secularism is at the core of our constitution and that he hoped that the fact back started here.

Lennox responded by saying that he agreed with much of what Hitchens had said. He continued that:

1. He too was appalled by extremists, but said that saying “religion poisons everything” is the same as saying “science poisons everything” – it is nonsensical. You can’t blame science for giving you pollution or napalm and therefore you have to distinguish use from abuse.
2. That Jesus spoke of rendering unto Caesar what was Caesar’s and that you have to distinguish between the abuses of Christendom and the teachings of Christ.
3. That Christianity provided the educational establishments and the freedoms upon which new Europe is based, yet the atheist’s want to get rid of it (they are forgetting their history and they can’t have it both ways).
4. That atheists say the world would be better without religion, but the world would have been better without the communist regimes (and that Marxism is underpinned by atheism).
5. That science cannot explain everything (e.g. why are we here?) and that the discipline itself was only possible through the belief in a creator/law giving. He said that atheists have “faith” in the rational intelligibility of the universe, but their worldview gives no basis for believing this. He said it was a false dichotomy to speak of science or faith.
6. That if you do not believe in absolute morality and you think that we evolved from mindless processes then you cannot trust your own rationality (as rationality does not come from irrationality).
7. Likewise you have no grounds for saying something is right or wrong as you are merely “dancing” to your DNA (quoting Dawkins). DNA serves evolutionary pressures not the truth (quoting atheist John Gray). Therefore concepts of good and evil, right or wrong evaporate, as do any notions of justice. If you believe in a creator then you have grounds for saying people have innate morality as they are made in God’s image.

So John concluded by opposing the motion and pointing out that the atheists couldn’t even use the word “should” anyhow (as they are unable to establish the grounds upon which to make a moral statement).

Rebuttals

Hitchens took John’s comment about the basis for morality in good humour. He said he understood the problem with getting an “ought” from an “is” and therefore said that he was changing the motion to the new Europe “must” adopt the new atheism (rather than “should”). His rebuttals were:

1. He didn’t need 5 minutes to rebut the resurrection (but then did not attempt to do so)
2. That Jesus said he came to bring the sword (not peace)
3. That European universities owed a lot to Islam initially (not Christianity)
4. That you used to have to be in a holy order to even study at Oxford
5. That historically many scientists have also held some very wacky superstitious beliefs
6. That religion is totalitarian and that this round-the-clock supervision included condemning you for thought-crimes and continuing to supervise even after you are dead.
7. There is no evidence to believe there is truth in Christianity
8. That Stalin’s regime was a religious one founded upon the previous quasi-religious reign of the tsars
9. That North Korea (thought to be secular) is actually a highly religious regime based upon leader worship
10. That there has been no atheistic regime based upon the teachings of Hume, Spinoza, Jefferson, Bertrand-Russell and others and if there were it wouldn’t be a violent one.

Lennox then responded to Hitchens’ rebuttals as such:
1. Jesus was not referring to a physical sword in that passage and his views on violence were demonstrated by the fact that he even resisted violence at his own arrest.
2. That the idea of a law-giver is not a wacky belief, but it is a serious intelligent theists (Whitehead’s thesis)
3. That the debate was not about certain beliefs about science, but it is about whole worldviews. This is why Francis Collins and Jim Watson (both of whom headed up the human genome project) have differing views. There are scientists on both sides of this debate and therefore it is not about God or science – it is about worldviews.
4. Your view of justice depends on which side of the fence you are on (i.e. the oppressed crave justice). He used the example of marriage to respond to Hitchens’ portrayal of a divine supervisor regulating your behaviour. He said that your wife is someone who watches over you and who regulates your behaviour, yet marriage is not seen as bad thing for that reason, because it is someone who loves you, etc.

Question and Answer Session

The question and answer session was quite mixed with various people (from both sides) making statements which were not questions (e.g. an elderly scot tried to evangelise to Hitchens in a long-winded manner and another person accused Lennox of consigning her to hell because of her beliefs – John responded to this by saying that we are all given a freedom to choose and that God does not want to consign anyone to hell).

One person highlighted the fact that Hitchens had commended secularism rather than new atheism to the audience. He asked how he could he say that the new atheism would not lead to the ramification of old atheism (e.g. the regimes of Stalin, etc). Hitchens responded to this by saying fascism was another name for the Catholic far right.

Someone asked about miracles and John responded by affirming the existence of a creator who had shown himself historically and that he was quite capable of feeding events into the laws of nature. He pointed out that although atheists like to attack the likelihood of the resurrection, he pointed out that some atheists prefer to propagate the “multiverse” theory, where there are supposedly many different parallel universes in which, for example, you and I don’t exist in some or where one of us has a green moustache in another. John pointed out that if you are willing to believe that, then you are willing to believe anything.

Another person asked about whether “Intelligent design” was associated with a “lunatic” fringe. John replied “not necessarily”, which prompted some gasps amongst the audience, but he went on to explain that the words “intelligent design” and “creationism” had been hijacked by some and caricatured by others, when in fact, the idea that there is a creator and that there is intelligence behind the design is a very credible scientific thesis (i.e. it is not one to be dismissed out of hand).

Another person asked whether in fact Christianity had been shaped by society (the prevailing zeitgeist) rather than the other way around (mentioning than Lucretius and Epicurus had not been influenced by Christianity). John responded by pointing out that Greece was not a wonderful utopian society when these ideas were being disseminated and it was Christianity that revolutionised Europe.

A number of people touched upon historical violence in the name of Christianity, which John rebuffed by pointing out that these instances were people disobeying the explicit teachings of Christ. Another person asserted that people were just products of their own religious upbringing and that religions contradicted one another so most of them must be wrong. John denied that people blindly followed their upbringing and he agreed that do of course religions contradict one another and that they couldn’t all be right.

Concluding Remarks

John started by pointing out the difference between the “soft” atheists (Dawkins, Hitchens, etc) and the “hard” atheists (Sartre, Camus, etc). Whereas the soft atheists cling to the things that they cherish in society (morality, justice), the hard atheists were under no illusion as to where their views ultimately led (to the destruction of all values, morality and hope).

1. He challenged the new atheists to justify how they were able to say humans were more significant than just slime, when their views give no basis for this (e.g. Peter Singer saying a human baby has no more value than a piglet).
2. He also reiterated the importance on being able to debate these issues in the public sphere, but that he wasn’t sure that the atheists shared this notion of freedom of expression (given Sam Harris saying that there are some circumstances where you maybe justified in killing someone because of their beliefs).
3. He questioned whether the new atheists should be allowed to decide for everyone what was right and he pointed out that atheism nurtures a need for meaning (and therefore religion).
4. He said the atheists lose their pretension of intellectual credibility when they lump all religion in together.
5. He then pointed out that Christianity played a major role in the creation of the new Europe in the first place (e.g. in helping to overthrow the old atheism in communist East Germany) and he finished by quoting the recently deceased literary nobel prize winner Solzhenitsyn: “if I were called upon to identify briefly the principal trait of the entire twentieth century, here too, I would be unable to find anything more precise and pithy than to repeat once again: Men have forgotten God”.
6. John said he wished they hadn’t forgotten God and finished by saying Christianity helped pull the wall down in Europe, do we really want to build another one?

Christopher Hitchens responded by asking how we know all this and where John was getting all of his information from.
1. He said he didn’t need to call upon an invisible means of support from a totalitarian God who provides divine assurance.
2. He criticised the idea of “vicarious redemption” and said that you shouldn’t want someone else paying your debts for you (as he said it cancels your responsibility).
3. He said that this offer is then backed up by a threat of hell.
4. He asked how we even know about hell when all the religions contradict each other and therefore by definition that most religious thinkers throughout history must have been wrong (assuming that one religion is right). He says this causes moral chaos (as people can’t agree).
5. Finally he concluded with a challenge to name a moral action done by a religious person that couldn’t be done by a non-religious person and then said to think of an evil action done in the name of religion. [He meant to finish by saying that would not be done by a non-religious person, but he didn’t say this, which meant his final point wasn’t quite as he had intended).

General comments about the debate

Debating style:

The debate was an interesting clash of styles, with Hitchens favouring less points, but made very forcefully with humour and quips to strengthen his argument. He did make a couple of isolated “low blows” by interrupting one of Lennox’s points during the rebuttal (by dismissing it as a weak point), as well as saying “he didn’t need 5 minutes to dispel the resurrection” without then attempting to do so.

Lennox by contrast had a huge number of points and quotes (many from atheists) and therefore if you transcribed the debate he would have been the overwhelming victor. However, because of Hitchens’ strong oratory skills, he was able to reduce the gap, in spite of Lennox’s great charisma.

Format:

It seemed that Hitchens going first turned out to be fortuitous because his opening statement focused upon politics and religion and it included much that Lennox could agree with. Lennox was then able to attack the ideas underpinning new atheism, which left Hitchens with only the rebuttal and concluding remarks to reply in kind. However, the format did at least allow Hicthens to have the last say, when it would have been nice to have been able to respond to some of his final comments, particularly those concerning the cross.

Atmosphere:

The other interesting thing to note was the palpable level of aggression and derision from atheists in the audience towards Christianity (e.g. people were vigorously nodding and muttering in agreement with Hitchens’ points, irrespective of whether it was a stronger or weaker point that was made). I found the level of this to be quite surprising and it seemed to me that this refusal to concede any ground to the opposition greatly weakened their case, as this dismissive attitude (possibly based on a perceived intellectual superiority) suggested that they weren’t prepared to engage with the evidence at hand. This also highlighted how important it is for Christian to be different to this (as John was) by being fair with the evidence at hand, in order to properly engage with those who disagree with us (rather than being immediately dismissive). Likewise, it also demonstrated the important challenge of attempting to communicate the gospel effectively and positively to those who – for whatever reason – already have very negative picture of what the Christianfaith is all about.

____

For those interested, the DVD of the debate can be pre-ordered from the Fixed-Point Foundation website.

Science and Theology: Upcoming Auckland Events

How do we understand the relationship between theology and science? This question has had a troubled history, with proponents on both sides offering rival interpretations that have produced an uneasy, often bitter relationship between the two disciplines. Should we understand each as concerned with distinct realms of reality? And even if we do believe they describe the same reality, should we take them as impossible to harmonize; each having different language games and different mental attitudes that permit no overlap? Is it science that generates the picture of reality that theology then picks up and applies or is it perhaps theology that provides the worldview for the presuppositions of science (for a discussion of how science requires the assumption of certain basic judgements to get off the ground, see Bnonn’s post)?

Anyone concerned with these questions and who in fact do believe that there is scope for integration, mutual reinforcement and conflict between science and theology, there are two upcoming events in Auckland in September and October that may be of interest. For Christians, often it is the account of Genesis that provides the flashpoint for this debate, and these two events will focus on the issues thrown up particularly by the creation narrative in the Bible.

“An astrophysicist looks at Genesis” A L’abri Seminar with Dr Frank Stootman.

Saturday, September 6, 1.15pm.

Dr Stootman is associate Professor of astrophysics, computing and mathematics at the University of Western Sydney and the Head of the Australia L’abri (an international apologetics organisation originally founded by Francis Schaeffer). He will be comparing the Genesis account with the prevailing scientific view and examing whether Adam and Eve are historical or mythological figures, among other issues.

The seminar is at 76 Esplanade Rd Mt Eden but places are limited to 40 so registration is absolutely essential. A donation of $20 is suggested ($10 for students). Contact Peter Bowden 09 6304887 or email psbowden@vodafone.co.nz

“Resolving the Creation versus Evolution Controversy”

The first session is on Saturday September 27 and the second is on October 4, both at 9.30am – 12.30pm

The speaker will be Dr Graeme Finlay, Senior Lecturer in cancer biology and scientific pathology. He will be examining the positions of special creationism and intelligent design, different religious/metaphysical perspectives and their relationship with science and how we should reconcile the Biblical doctrine of creation with the claims of science.

The event will be held on the Auckland Uni Campus, Room 336, Level 3, Building No. 810, 1 – 11 Short Street. Places are limited to 35.

For further information and enrollment, you can go to the Auckland University website.

Yet Another Update

Things have been happening in the New Zealand apologetics community. A couple of weeks ago Jason and I met with the editor of Christian News, and also with some members of the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society. We spent a lot of time talking about the state of apologetics in New Zealand, and the various groups and individuals around the country. We specifically focused on our concerns over the feeble and fragmented nature of, and lack of communication within, the New Zealand apologetics community.

To cut a long story fairly short, we all agreed that, if we could draw as many people as possible under a single banner, it would go a long way toward empowering the apologetics community. The Thinking Matters ministry presents itself as an obvious locus for connecting people in this way. Subsequently, Christian News and the Manawatu Christian Apologetics Society will be joining us under the Thinking Matters banner. They will, like Thinking Matters Tauranga, remain autonomous in their functioning; but we’ll share the same name and resources. This means that Thinking Matters will subsume and expand on the role of the New Zealand Christian Apologetics Society.

What this means for you

Three main things need to be said:

1. The Thinking Matters website is going to change a lot

Since Christian News is being conglomerated into the Thinking Matters domain (thinkingmatters.org.nz), but remaining separate in terms of operation, we’re having to be fairly creative from a technical perspective. Christian News will still be accessible from http://christiannews.co.nz, but will change its primary address to http://news.thinkingmatters.org.nz. News will be aggregated on the main Thinking Matters site, here. This means that a lot of cosmetic changes must take place as well. Fortunately, both sites run WordPress, so we’ll be adopting a new, commercial WordPress theme so as to ensure that we have a consistent image, and also to reduce the amount of work required of myself and other Thinking Matters contributors in developing and maintaining the various sites.

2. The Engage New Zealand forums will be shut down

We made this decision because we don’t feel that the forums contribute positively to the purpose of Thinking Matters. While we do want discussion to take place, it seems much more sensible to have it take place here on the main site, in the comment streams of the various articles which are posted. This is a more dynamic and accessible way of having discussions than the monolithic forum structure allows. We want to ensure that this discussion contrasts with and complements Thinking Matters News, so we’ll be rebranding the blog to take on the “Engage” moniker, thus specifically encouraging the view that articles are springboards for discussion.

3. The Thinking Matters Journal will be delayed

The journal is still a strong part of our purpose for Thinking Matters, and our first issue is in fact ready to go. However, to accommodate the changes we’re making to the website, we felt it better to delay publication until things are properly re-organized. The journal will be published at journal.thinkingmatters.org.nz as soon as everything has settled down.

The upshot

The upshot of all this is that we’re going to be under construction for a while. Please bear with us as we go through this transition. We’re confident that it will be for the best.

"God is Not Dead Yet": Natural Theology and New Atheism

This months issue of Christianity Today ran a cover article by Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, entitled “God is Not Dead Yet” (an online version is available on their website), assessing the recent trends within natural theology (the attempt to acquire knowledge about God using only commonly available cognitive resources). Craig addresses the current myths about the perceived intellectual inferiority of belief in God and that contrary to the shrill clamour of the New Atheists, there is a revolution of thought quietly occurring in the academy:

Back in the 1940s and ’50s, many philosophers believed that talk about God, since it is not verifiable by the five senses, is meaningless—actual nonsense. This verificationism finally collapsed, in part because philosophers realized that verificationism itself could not be verified! The collapse of verificationism was the most important philosophical event of the 20th century. Its downfall meant that philosophers were free once again to tackle traditional problems of philosophy that verificationism had suppressed. Accompanying this resurgence of interest in traditional philosophical questions came something altogether unanticipated: a renaissance of Christian philosophy.

Since it was published, Craig’s article has provoked a fair amount of discussion. Among those in disagreement was Nathan Schneider, a freelance writer and blogger. Writing in Religion Dispatches, an online magazine devoted to religious commentary, Schneider was critical of Craig’s assessment of the health of natural theology and particularly New Atheism:

Whispering to his coreligionists in Christianity Today, to his subculture, Craig does not do justice to what the revolution is up against. His bygone atheism is a straw man. A quick look at the religion section in any major chain bookstore shows a whole crop of habitable sequels to the New Atheists’ opening salvos. There are atheism readers, atheist spiritualities, and all the chicken soup an atheist soul could need. Rather than lacking “intellectual muscle,” as Craig puts it, the online community formed around Edge.org shows that some of today’s most dynamic scientific minds all but assume atheism.

Today, on the blog for the Evangelical Philosophical Society, Craig responds:

…Mr. Schneider misunderstands me when he says that my “bygone atheism” is a straw man. What I characterized as “bygone” was not atheism, but the past generation dominated by the sort of scientism and verificationism that still lingers in the so-called New Atheism. The fact that such popularistic drivel continues to pour forth from the presses and to fill our bookstores at the mall does nothing to refute my claim that the New Atheism is in general predicated upon epistemological assumptions that are no longer viable.

You can read the rest of the reply, including Craig’s appraisal of Schneider’s interaction with some of the arguments of natural theology, on the Society’s website here.

Colbert, Ehrman and the textual transmission of the New Testament

An old interview but worth dusting off, if only to see how not to do apologetics. Stephen Colbert, on his show The Colbert Report, engages the agnostic Biblical scholar, Bart Ehrman. Colbert replicates the fundamentalist timbre, retreading the familiar rhetoric and arguments that many Christians can often fall back on too easily. This is Colbert, of course, at his inimitable best – imitating a subculture for deliberate comedic effect. Ehrman however, is not trying to be funny, he actually wants us to take him seriously.

The book he is promoting in the clip went on to become a New York Times bestseller. Misquoting Jesus narrates Ehrman’s own intellectual recourse from Christianity, after encountering problems in the Gospels during his PhD program. In the wake of the Jesus Seminar and the Dan Brown frenzy, Ehrman’s conclusions have captured the attention of the media and popular consciousness. It’s no wonder; questions about the trustworthiness of the Gospels assail at the heart of the Christian faith. If the New Testament documents are inaccurate and an unreliable guide of the life, death and resurrection of Jesus – our Christian footing is infirm, our hope misplaced.

Colbert aside, there have been compelling scholarly responses to Ehrman. While the Biblical self-witness must not be robbed of its place and power in determining its own authority, Christians can confidently argue for the historical reliability of the New Testament documents. Many critics have shown that Ehrman handles the data in a way that exaggerates the significance of the discrepancies in the textual streams. At the Greer-Heard Forum with Dan Wallace in April this year, Ehrman tellingly admitted that no essential belief of the New Testament was compromised by the textual variants. Yet a more controversial side of Ehrman seems to persist and, along with the Jesus Seminar, portray a skewed, idiosyncratic representation of the scholarly world. Such a segment stands in contrast to what has been called the third quest for the historical Jesus. A movement that is substantially more optimistic about reconciling the Jesus of history with the Jesus of the New Testament.

For those interested in a primer on Textual Criticism Paul D. Wegner’s A Student’s Guide to Textual Criticism of the Bibe is a good start. To keep up with the contemporary discussion from the evangelical perspective, the Evangelical Textual Criticism Blog has a fine grouping of contributing scholars.

Some actual reviews of Ehrman’s book (I recommend reading their full appraisals):

Dan Wallace: “He still sees things without sufficient nuancing, he overstates his case, and he is entrenched in the security that his own views are right. Bart Ehrman is one of the most brilliant and creative textual critics I’ve ever known, and yet his biases are so strong that, at times, he cannot even acknowledge them.”

Craig Bloomberg: “What most distinguishes the work are the spins Ehrman puts on some of the data at numerous junctures and his propensity for focusing on the most drastic of all the changes in the history of the text, leaving the uninitiated likely to think there are numerous additional examples of various phenomena he discusses when there are not.”

Ben Witherington: “Time and time again in the book, highly charged statements are put forth that the untrained person simply cannot sift through. And that approach resembles more an alarmist mentality than what a mature, master teacher is able to offer. Regarding the evidence, suffice it to say that significant textual variants that alter core doctrines of the NT have not yet been produced.”

Thomas Howe: “A 92% average stability of the text does not seem to support the idea that the text has been “radically altered.” There is no question that the manuscripts differ from each other … but there is a big difference between saying that the variants make a difference in the theological conclusions we draw from these particular texts, and to claim that the multitude of variants call into question the validity of our theology.”

Coffeehouse apologetics

Paul Copan’s new book When God Goes to Starbucks has been been announced; with a release date set for August 1. Copan is a philosophy professor at Palm Beach Atlantic University and also the President of the Evangelical Philosophical Society. He’s a penetrating writer (many of his published articles are available at his site) and the book looks to be an accessible and thoughtful response to the common intellectual snares put forward against the Christian worldview. Copan has particular expertise in dealing with ethical issues and from a glance at the chapter headings, his book seems to mirror that leaning with some attention to the relativistic morass that has engulfed our society. Coffee-imbibers or not, anyone who is wrestling with the deep moral quandaries bound up with Christianity should find When God Goes to Starbucks a good resource.

Part I: Slogans Related to Truth and Reality

1. Why Not Just Look Out for Yourself?
2. Do What You Want—Just as Long as You Don’t Hurt Anyone
3. Is It Okay to Lie to Nazis?

Part II: Slogans Related to Worldviews

4. Why Is God So Arrogant and Egotistical?
5. Miracles Are Unscientific
6. Only Gullible People Believe in Miracles
7. Don’t People from All Religions Experience God?
8. Does the Bible Condemn Loving, Committed Homosexual Relationships?
9. Aren’t People Born Gay?
10. What’s Wrong with Gay Marriage?

Part III: Slogans Related to Christianity

11. How Can the Psalmists Say Such Vindictive, Hateful Things?
12. Aren’t the Bible’s “Holy Wars” Just Like Islamic Jihad? Part One
13. Aren’t the Bible’s “Holy Wars” Just Like Islamic Jihad? Part Two
14. Aren’t the Bible’s “Holy Wars” Just Like Islamic Jihad? Part Three
15. Was Jesus Mistaken about an Early Second Coming? Part One
16. Was Jesus Mistaken about an Early Second Coming? Part Two
17. Why Are Christians So Divided? Why So Many Denominations?

(source – Parchment and Pen)

William Lane Craig in Tauranga

Last Wednesday, July 18, Thinking Matters Tauranga hosted Dr William Lane Craig at Bethlehem Community Church’s new meeting facility. Craig presented two lectures; the first on the importance of apologetics, and the second on whether belief in God is reasonable. For a mid-week, mid-afternoon event, the first lecture garnered more people than were expected; about 100. This was encouraging to see, especially as there were not a few teenagers and young adults in the crowd. The second lecture filled the meeting facility to capacity, with a little over 200 people (if I recall correctly). It was essentially a re-presentation of the same five arguments which Bill used in his debate in Auckland, so I won’t go into detail describing it, as Jason has already blogged the Auckland events.

In any case, the first lecture was by far the better one for me. Bill talked about whether or not apologetics is necessary for evangelism, arguing that although it is not strictly required, it is very frequently a means used by God to bring about conversions. He strongly criticized those Christians who say that apologetics is not needed, or even is not biblical, pointing out that although God doesn’t strictly need apologetics to convert people’s hearts, practicing it certainly is biblical, and it is one of the primary means that God does use. He further argued that evangelism is not conducted in a vacuum, and that apologetics is necessary to maintain Christianity’s place as an intellectually respectable position in the modern world—particularly in universities, where society’s movers and shakers are largely created.

Having talked about the importance of apologetics for affirming Christianity to non-Christians, he then went on to talk about its importance for affirming Christianity to Christians. This is something particularly close to my heart, as most of my own writing is directed toward believers—and not necessarily with the primary aim of equipping them to defeat non-Christians in argumentation. It is extremely important, to my mind, that Christians have rational, defensible, articulate reasons for their belief. It is tragic to hear about people who come to Christianity on an enormous emotional high, and then crash some time later because they have no more solid foundation for their faith than that emotion.

In this vein, Bill told an anecdote of an evangelist he had met while studying for the final oral exams of his theology degree. She had a natural talent for bringing people to God, not through argumentation, but by her charisma and the earnestness of her belief. She was highly successful, and it disheartened him, since he was forced to wonder if all his hard work with intellectual study was necessary. Was he barking up the wrong tree? His conclusion, provided by a friend at the time, was that no—it was extremely necessary. All those people converted by this woman would be coming to people like Bill a few years down the line, because emotion doesn’t provide reasons to believe.

This lecture meshes very well with the first issue of our journal, which will be published soon. It was very encouraging to hear one of the leading Christian apologists in the world saying the same things that we are, and it made for a truly noteworthy and appropriate launch for Thinking Matters in Tauranga. My particular thanks to Rodney Lake for his excellent work getting the Tauranga group up and running, and for organizing the event.

Craig v Cooke: The God delusion debate

The Auckland debate between Christian philosopher, William Lane Craig, and atheist historian, Bill Cooke is now up on YouTube (HT: MandM). Commentary has also been available from some of those that attended the debate: Ian Wishart, Dale Campbell, and organiser Matthew Flannagan have offered their reflections on the proceedings (I particularly recommend Matt’s excellent summary). The consensus of their thoughts (and even of those without theistic sympathies) accords with the reaction of most that I talked to on the night: Craig clearly emerged as the better. He offered and defended a more rigorous case for his negation of the moot – that belief in God is not a delusion but a reasonable conclusion from the evidence. Cooke is no stranger to debates and as vice-president of the NZ association of Rationalists and Humanists I expected more from him. On the night, however, he seemed sorely absent. Cooke disparaged the format and theme of the debate, displaying throughout an unwillingness to confront the substance of Craig’s arguments and strangely even refused to respond to some of Craig’s comments during the Q and A session.

Craig marshaled five solid arguments for his position that I thought enabled a good starting point for discussion. Cooke, in his opening address, on the other hand, presented social and political commentary on the consequences of dogmatic religious belief. This was an unnecessary derailment. Of course we should always try to understand and follow the social implications of what we believe, but this is not how we settle questions of truth. Whether dogma inhibits intellectual progress, moral understanding, or religious dialogue is completely beside the point; we need to first test our beliefs against reality. The only other significant argument Cooke raised was a similarly irrelevant discussion of the origin and evolution of monothestic belief. When Craig rightly pointed this out as an instance of the genetic fallacy and dismissed Cooke’s pragmatic notion of truth, the atheist historian retreated chiefly to moral posturing for the remainder of the debate.

However, articulations of moral outrage make for a poor substitute of actual arguments. Cooke’s indignation towards Christian doctrines seemed even more hollow when he equivocated on the objectivity of morality. He decried the anthropocentricity and arrogance of religious belief and affirmed that the true spirit of humanity rests in each of us crafting our own purpose. But Cooke never presented any real metaethical foundation for this view, apart from a discussion of evolution in his rendering of the concept of “reciprocal altruism”. This was simply question-begging. Why should our instincts be followed? And why should we trust natural processes to tell us what is moral or rational? According to the evolutionary framework, our knowledge is directed to what is most conducive to our survival, not necessarily to representing things as the way they are or morally ought to be.

This was further borne out in the Q and A session, when Cooke was asked how it was that morals actually bound him. His response was in the vein of postmodern pragmatist, Richard Rorty, suggesting that we determine our morality on the basis of the reactions we get from others. Craig incisively pointed out, in response, that this is a definition of prudence, not morality. If Cooke is right; that we invent our purpose and own set of principles – what then if we believe that we won’t get caught? What would stop us from changing our principles to suit us? For if we can bind ourselves, then we can free ourselves from those same restraints, because the capacity to create moral principles rests within the same self that crafted them.

In contrast to Cooke’s groundless “cosmic humility” theory of morality, the theistic worldview gives an adequate foundation for objective morality because it is rooted in God’s character and his essential and necessary nature. Christianity provides actual justification for addressing the goals that Cooke is quite right to raise – poverty, hunger and other social inequalities in the world can be tackled because, in Christianity, each human has intrinsic worth. Each bears the image of God, invested with dignity and value as we each reflect the intrinsic value and worth of God.

Overall, Craig was more persuasive; at least one of them showed up to actually debate. Nothing summed up the night more, I think, than Cooke’s complaint about Craig’s “rational edifices” and how the Christian philosopher had anchored his arguments to the “shifting sands of science”. It would have been more satisfying if Cooke had actually provided more of a challenge to Craig but it was still a great evening. It was really exciting to see such a great number students (during the middle of exams, no less) and many others interested in these important issues.