Ravi Zacharias | 1946 -2020

“The death of a beloved is an amputation.” 

       – C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed

Contemplating a world without Ravi Zacharias brings on a terrible sadness. As someone whose craft is words of eternal meaning, in a shadowy moment like this, language seems too blunt a tool to bare my heart.

The Apostle Paul once wrote of a church devoid of spiritual fathers. When I first came to Christ through a sea of big questions, it was Ravi’s voice, via print and podcast, that helped me make sense of my doubts through God’s story. Blending a rare wisdom with deep wells of compassion, Ravi, you became as a spiritual father to me. 

Disenchantment might be the defining characteristic of my generation. So many once mighty heroes we looked up to have fallen prey to sin or hidden suffering. Against this tide, though, you have been a tremendous encouragement. What blew me away when I met you in Oxford was that the private man behind the public persona was, if anything, more like Jesus. There is a sparkle to your eye and a gentle joy in your demeanor that I cannot help but think is the treasure of God’s presence on display.

You taught me to see people. Not questions. Not opponents. Not atheists. Only people. Prodigal sons and daughters whose distance from their Heavenly Father breaks His heart. And you taught me to beckon that they heed His loving voice and come home. Serving 6 years on your team was one of the greatest honours of my life. I only wish we had many more. 

Once you lay on a bed of suicide as a young man, and the words of Jesus opened your eyes, “Because I live, you also shall live” (John 14:19). Now, having lived on this earth full of years, you were laid to rest for one final time. Only where you are there is no further need of red letters narrated by eyewitnesses. You have become one yourself, a celebrated member of the cloud of many witnesses, and the voice of many waters has no doubt opened your eyes anew for all eternity. What you once glimpsed dimly through the mind’s eye you now behold face to face. It makes my tears break into a knowing smile as I can almost hear you repeat the refrain, “Amazing! Just amazing!” 

Say G’day to our beloved Nabeel for me.

#ThankYouRavi

A Christian Response to Eco-anxiety

When I started my Master’s degree in Conservation biology at Victoria University of Wellington, I had nothing but hope.  When I finished it I felt weighed down by the many in my community who seemed to be politely reversing my efforts.  In time I began experiencing an ongoing sense of debilitating grief at our environmental crisis.        

The sensation described above is termed ‘Eco-anxiety’.  Eco-anxiety is defined as “a chronic fear of environmental doom.”[2]  This type of anxiety can lead to insomnia, exhaustion, and depression.[3]  In extreme cases it has been cited as the reason for substance abuse and suicide.  Indeed, on a recent visit to British Columbia, a student approached me after my talk on ‘Going Green’ and told me he wasn’t sure he wanted to live anymore because of the oppressive eco-anxiety that had become a daily part of his human experience.  This student’s story sounded like so many others I have heard on university campuses across the globe.  A recent study revealed that, of the 26 countries surveyed, half of the population on average considered climate change as a “major threat to their nation” with some countries labeling it as the top threat.[4]

The Bible teaches us that God commanded humanity to multiply and fill the earth (Genesis 1:28).  Similarly, Isaiah 45:18 says, “God did not create the Earth empty, He formed it to be inhabited!”  Yet God also clearly charged us with the care and stewardship of the earth.  Thus, how should Christians respond to our ecological crisis, and the eco-anxiety it often causes?  We will have to make an analysis of the eco-crisis phenomenon, which I like to picture as a mixed bag of lollies containing bad things, good things, and that one rolling around at the bottom, cemented to the wrapper, that you might be better off not even identifying.

THE CONS

On one hand, discussions about ecological crises often sift down into catastrophising rhetoric and misinformation.  Climate scientists are pulling their hair out as false facts continue pervading the media sphere.[5]   These falsities do anything but help their cause and research.  Eco-anxiety is a valid phenomenon that affects people all over the globe, and while putting words to our feelings is important, catastrophising language is never helpful.  A study in Great Britain shows that this rhetoric is having a particularly damaging effect on children.[6]  One adage to remember: Facts first, feelings second.  Many ideas are floating around the sea of media, some of these ideas are fact-based and some are plastic nets of emotionalism ready to entangle any passer-by.  For instance, I recently read that koalas are now functionally extinct due to the fires in Australia caused by climate change.[7]  Claiming that koalas are functionally extinct is simply false.  The International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List labels the koala as vulnerable, three levels less threatened than extinct in the wild.  Many species are presently on the verge of extinction, and almost all of them due to two immediately ameliorable factors: habitat loss and pollution.  Furthermore, apocalyptic statements such as “The world is going to end in 12 years”[9] are not only inaccurate but they cause a lot of anxiety. We have yet to see any credible scientific research showing that humanity is on the verge of extinction due to environmental destruction.[10]

THE PROS

On the other side of the eco-crisis coin we find many beneficial points.  For one thing, societies are bravely looking into the haggard face of environmental damage.  People are finding creative ways to cut down on waste and reuse materials.  For example, Mexican company Biofase has created single-use cutlery from avocado seeds.  Volunteers have removed a reported 5.3 million kilograms of rubbish from beaches in Mumbai.  People all over the planet are taking action.  It is good that we are grieved!  

God himself is grieved at abuse and corruption of the natural world, often correlated with human wickedness.  For instance, in Joel 1 we read a call to repentance: “All the trees of the field are dried up and gladness dries up from the children of man…Even the beasts of the field pant for You because the water has dried up.”  We also see this connection between humanity and nature in the positive vein.  Psalm 104:30 reads, “When you send forth your Spirit…you renew the face of the ground.”  Biblically speaking, rebellion and wickedness led to a corruption of the natural world (Genesis 3:17) and repentance or ‘turning back’ to God leads to a restoration that also affects the natural sphere (Romans 8:19-23).

While it is good to be grieved at the destruction of our natural world, it is never good to be anxious.  The Scriptures are replete with passages exhorting us to stand firm and not succumb to fear.  Eco-anxiety may be a term coined in 2017, but anxiety is nothing new.  The wrapper is different but it’s the same bitter lolly.  In my childhood we were afraid of school shootings.  In my mother’s childhood it was fear that an atomic bomb would fall out of the sky at any moment.  In my grandmother’s childhood it was fear of want due to the Great Depression.  There will always be troubles in this world that need fixing.  But we are not meant to operate out of a spirit of fear.  2 Timothy 1:7 reminds us: “God gave us a spirit not of fear but of power and love and self-control.”  Christians are equipped with a top-of-the-line spiritual panoply.  The peace of God protects our minds and our hearts in Christ Jesus and allows us to transcend our limited understanding (Philippians 4:7).  We have access to Jesus Himself, on whom we cast our anxieties, because He cares for us (1 Peter 5:7).  These facts do not provide us with the means of ignoring a crisis.  We are not burying our head in the sand.  On the contrary, it allows us to march with confidence into any storm.  When we cast our fear on Jesus we are dressing ourselves in His perfect love.  Thus we are equipped to face any problem with confidence and faith instead of debilitating fear and timidity.

Our concerns about ecological destruction are valid.  Perhaps some of the fear we feel around a broken landscape stems from anxiety about our own impermanence and brokenness.  Even if the natural world was perfect, it could never be a source of our ultimate security.  Only the person of Jesus offers us that foundation.  Therefore, let us face our ecological crisis head-on, knowing how deeply loved we are by the Creator of all.  His heart is surely grieved by the destruction of our natural world, and it grieves us also because we share His heart.  Praise God that we can face this crisis without the anxiety that catastrophises, and without the ignorance that perpetuates the problem.  We can march into our generation’s hardships with truth, love, and confidence in Christ.

?

[1] Larger animals such as deer, elk, and coyotes; or if you happen to be in Africa perhaps an elephant or ostrich

[2] The American Psychological Association first defined this term in 2017

[3] Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change

[4] Fagan, M., Huang, C. A look at how people around the world view climate change

[5] Shellenberger, M. Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong

[6] Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. 

[7] As suggested by activist Bill McKibben

[8] International Union for the Conservation of Nature

[9] As stated by representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez

[10] Shellenberger

 

Works Cited

Burke, S. E. L., Sanson, A. V., & Van, H. J. (May 01, 2018). The Psychological Effects of Climate Change on Children. Current Psychiatry Reports, 20, 5, 1-8.

Cummings, W. (22 January 2019) ‘The world is going to end in 12 years if we don’t address climate change,’ Ocasio-Cortez says.  USA Today.  Retrieved from: https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/politics/onpolitics/2019/01/22/ocasio-cortez-climate-change-alarm/2642481002/

Doherty, T. J., & Clayton, S. (May 01, 2011). The Psychological Impacts of Global Climate Change. American Psychologist, 66, 4, 265-276.

Fagan, M., Huang, C.  (18 April 2019) A look at how people around the world view climate change. Fact Tank. 2018 Pew Research Center.  Retrieved from: https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2019/04/18/a-look-at-how-people-around-the-world-view-climate-change/

McKibben, B. “A thousand koalas were killed in Australia’s bushfires, and 80% of their habitat is gone. One expert says they are ‘functionally extinct.’ And yet big banks lend big money to big oil–more every year” 23 November 2019. Tweet.

Shellenberger, M. (25 November 2019) Why Apocalyptic Claims about Climate Change are Wrong.  Forbes Magazine. Retrieved from: https://www.forbes.com/sites/michaelshellenberger/2019/11/25/why-everything-they-say-about-climate-change-is-wrong/#5d9bfa4312d6

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 2

Imagine arriving in a foreign city without knowing anyone, speaking the language, or even having a map. You would be lost, forced to ask for help by waving your hands and wander around hoping to gain a sense of direction. The same is true of this life. To be able to navigate life one needs a guide or map which explains where you are, why you are here and where you need to get to. This is a worldview, the set of answers to the big questions of life like ‘why we are here’, ‘what is real’, ‘what happens after death’. Everyone, whether or not they have given much thought to the topic, has a worldview through which they see the world and form their opinions. In addition, it is not possible to jettison one’s framework of beliefs in order to become objective. Rather, the goal is to make sure that the assumed worldview corresponds with reality since the closer a worldview is to reality, the more it enhances one’s ability to find the truth.

In my first article, I introduced seven questions that help us to identify and define a worldview. By defining the Christian worldview in this article using these questions, my hope is that before progressing further, we will understand what we believe. Before we can make a defense of Christianity, we must first know it. Using these seven questions, let’s have a deeper look at the Christian faith.

1. What is prime reality?

God, the only being that exists by the necessity of its own nature, is prime reality. He is an infinite, personal (triune), transcendent yet immanent, omniscient being who is sovereign over all and perfectly good. God is infinite and beyond all measure in His qualities and attributes. He is the only self-existent being (Exodus 3:14, Psalm 90:2). God is also a personal being capable of both self-reflection and self-determination, able both to think and know Himself and take action. 

The key to understanding the personal nature of God is the fact that He is tri-personal, one being who exists in three persons. This means that each member of the Trinity stands in an eternal relationship with the other members. Furthermore, because human beings are personal like God, we are also able to have a relationship with Him (as first demonstrated by Adam and Eve in the garden). As a personal being, God is also capable of choice; He chose to create the universe and to send Christ to this earth to die for our sins. 

God as the Creator of the cosmos is both beyond and set apart from it. This is known as the transcendence of God. Yet at the same time, He is present and causally active at all places within it. These are the attributes of immanence and omnipresence. It is possible for God to be immanent and omnipresent in the universe because He is Spirit. This is not possible for us because we are physical beings, confined to finite points in time and space.

In addition to being omnipresent, God is also omniscient. He knows everything, the beginning from the end (Revelation 22:13), and is wise above all things (Job 38:1-18, Psalm 139). Because God is the creator of the universe, He is fully sovereign over all that happens within His creation. Nothing exists outside of His interest or beyond His control and authority. Finally, God is not an evil creator who made His creation to torture for His own pleasure. He is good, and His goodness is expressed through his holiness and love. He is holy since there is no evil in Him and loving because He seeks the good of His people.

2. What is the nature of external reality?

God created the universe from nothing (Genesis 1) to operate as a finite open system with uniformity of cause and effect. The universe is finite since it has a beginning and is made up of a limited number of atoms, and open in that it is possible for God to reach in and change things. A closed system cannot be externally changed or re-ordered. The universe is not an illusion but is real and operates in a structured orderly way (Isaiah 45:18-19). This regular operation makes it possible to discover laws that describe how many things work and which allow us to predict what will generally happen. Every time you put a mug on your desk you do not expect it to float up to the ceiling! Finally, because the universe is an open system it is not determined. Both God and people (to a lesser extent of course) can interact with and re-order it. 

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

Humans are beings created in the image of God (Genesis 1) and inherit from Him personality, self-transcendence, intelligence, morality, gregariousness, and creativity. Humans are personal because God is personal, and thus we are able to know ourselves (self-consciousness) and are able to make decisions without coercion (also known as self-determination). In a limited way, we can transcend the world around us. We are aware of our own existence and are able to shape our environment to a degree that other animals in the world cannot. The difference between our transcendence and God’s is that God is transcendent to the ultimate degree. In addition, we are able to reason and possess knowledge, distinguish between good and evil, form social connections and networks, and act in creative and novel ways. God also created the capacity in humans to know both Himself and the world around them.

Humans were created good but when they rejected God, fell into corruption. They became limited in freedom and ability and were alienated from themselves, each other, and God. However, through Christ, God made a free offer of redemption. Because people were created with self-determination, they were able to reject God at the beginning by choosing to live separately from Him. The offer of redemption Christ makes to each human today is also something we can either receive or reject. See Romans chapters 1-6 for more.

4. What happens to a person at death?

Death is either the way to eternal life with God (John 3:15-16) or eternal separation from Him (Matthew 25:31-46). Heaven is the fulfillment of the desire of those who wish to be with God, while hell is God respecting the decision of those who do not wish to be with Him. God will not force those who reject Him to spend the rest of eternity with Him.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

As we saw previously, God created man with the ability to transcend their surroundings and with the ability to reason. Because man possesses the capacity for self-determination, it is possible for him to gain real knowledge. Man is not a biological machine that is pre-programmed to arrive at a given conclusion. In addition, it is possible to gain an actual understanding of how things work using the five senses (sight, touch, taste, sound, smell) because the external world is real and follows laws.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Right and wrong are absolute and transcendent values, based on the character of God. We are made in God’s image and have no choice but to live under moral categories of good and bad, right and wrong (Romans 1-2). Any time we get angry at injustice or praise kindness, we show that by our actions we affirm their existence (see the moral argument for God’s existence here). Moreover, we just know some things are “right” and others are “wrong”. One challenge to the existence of objective moral standards could be that what we think we “know” to be right is just what our culture believes—what was considered moral a century ago may no longer be. For example, slavery was legal until as recently as 1833 in the United Kingdom, yet today purchasing and owning slaves is not only illegal but also universally condemned. This cultural shift, however, does not show that there is no right and wrong, but that cultural perception of right and wrong changes.

However, because morality is grounded in the being of God who is eternal, morality is absolute. God has revealed the moral law not only through the conscience but also through His revealed word.

7. What is the meaning of history?

History is a linear, meaningful sequence of events that leads to the fulfillment of God’s purposes for humanity and through which He has revealed Himself. God does so most obviously by acting directly on our world. For example, He stepped into history in the person of Jesus Christ by taking on human nature, and by performing miracles when he judged the Egyptians and parted the Red Sea (see Exodus 14). God does not only act through direct interventions however but also on a larger scale. He chooses from the almost infinite collection of possible events the set that will bring about his purposes. Right from when Adam and Eve fell, God set a chain of events in motion that would culminate in the birth of Jesus Christ. From the call of Abraham to the exile of the nation of Israel and even the Roman domination of Palestine, everything was preparing the way for Christ. From this, we can also see the past has meaning because it is a record of how God works to accomplish his purposes. God reminded the Israelites never to forget what he had done for them so that they would never turn away. By remembering what God has done, we affirm what he has done and are filled with confidence about what He will do.

There is much more that can be said here, but this article should serve as a brief overview. By answering these questions according to the Christian worldview, I hope to have shown that Christian beliefs not only fit together as a logical and coherent system but also correspond with how the world actually is. If a belief system is internally consistent and empirically accurate, there are strong reasons to believe that it is actually true. 

In my next article, I will be taking a look at a Non-Christian worldview which I hope will give you a chance to gain a deeper understanding of these seven questions as well as practice at identifying worldviews that are not true.

coronavirus_world_map

Coronavirus, Show-Stopper or Conversation Starter?

It turns out plenty of things get cancelled in a pandemic. Fortunately, my flights home were not among them. Anyway, flights are a small issue in the big picture. Much graver is the cancellation that brings our term on earth to a halt: death. Mortality will be in many people’s thoughts and feelings due to COVID-19. While death is universal, the way different people think of it is worldviews apart.

God’s revelation in the Bible does not address every curious question, but it accurately covers what is important for us about death, and how death is related to other matters. Death is an enemy and a consequence of sin: ‘sin … gives birth to death.’ (James 1:15) This is a truly integrated worldview, because it connects morality with death—and thus affirms the importance and reality of morality. Christ defeated death (Hebrews 2:14), rising so that we might rise, too. Knowing that Christ came to solve our sin problem (and our related death problem) is the ultimate reassurance that God cares about us: ‘[God] who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things?’ (Romans 8:32). Christ’s resurrection is his major confirmation of his authority and deity. So many aspects of the Christian hope—goodness (morality), God’s love, Christ’s identity, and salvation—are linked to a Christian understanding of what death is and means.

As always, doctrine has applications. To briefly cover one application: a Christian view of death, and a Christian hope, grounds an attitude of holding ambitions loosely and putting treasure in heaven. The daily life of faith and obedience can content us—in fact, it is hugely important in God’s sight. When fear distracts us, God lovingly reminds us that he is in control. C. S. Lewis put it well: ‘All schemes of happiness that are centered in this world were always doomed to a final frustration… If we had foolish un-Christian hopes about human culture, they are now shattered.’ On the other hand, there is great value in the simple daily walk of a life ‘humbly offered to God.’

This is from Lewis’ sermon “Learning in War-Time”. In it, he talks about the fear of death and sense of crisis arising from the onset of World War II. He emphasised that the crisis did not change the fundamental realities of death (or of resurrection either). If this wisdom holds for Lewis’ World War II environment, then it holds for other widely-experienced crises, especially a comparatively smaller one like COVID-19. But how is this wisdom, or its Christian foundation, to come out in our speech? (Within the restrictions of whatever alert level is current, of course).

When it comes to speaking about crises, Jesus’ example in Luke 13 sheds some light on the subject. In verses 1 to 5, Jesus spoke of some bone-chilling recent events (“Pilate’s Gruesome Executions in Galilee”, “Tower of Siloam Disaster”). It is worth noting that Jesus had already earned a reputation for compassion. That gave him the mana to make a point about the events without seeming to do so gleefully or sensationally.

The point Jesus made was, ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ (just like the victims of Pilate etc.) (Luke 13:5). He did not make this point out of the blue, but led up to it:

  1. First was a grounding in the here-and-now: people were presenting him with a recent event. Jesus often based his teaching in concrete experiences to make them memorable.
  2. Jesus identified the issue that this event raised: Were these victims ‘worse sinners than all [their neighbours] because they suffered this way?’
  3. Jesus addressed the issue with the truth and a call to action: ‘Unless you repent, you will perish, too.’ That is to say, the victims are not necessarily extra bad sinners, and we should remember our own vulnerability and state in front of God.

The audience’s attention to the victims in Galilee and Siloam made them more ready to think about the issue in (2). It brought up their current way of understanding the issue. More than that, it put their understanding to the test. Here were disasters—raw, recent, and vivid. Would it be satisfactory to trot out a current view—say, that God must have singled out these people as extra bad, and one should pat oneself on the back for being safe? Or would that fall flat? The time was ripe for Jesus to present the wisdom that ‘you will perish, too.’ It was—and is—a truth that is more comfortable to ignore. And yet, if the topic of death is raised, so can the other parts of the Christian story mentioned above: goodness, God’s love, Christ, resurrection, and salvation. Apologetics comes in along with that. Once we are talking about the Christian hope, we can ‘give a reason’ for it (1 Peter 3:15) when that is helpful.

What does it look like to have a conversation involving the coronavirus, death, and the gospel? It depends on who is having the conversation. God provides us with a range of friendships and opportunities with people at various points on their journeys. However, Jesus’ comments on the Galilee and Siloam disasters can illustrate some general principles, illustrated in the below stages.

1. Be Grounded in the Here and Now

It is fascinating and comforting to swap stories about a massive shared experience like a lock down. You have opinions that you itch to share, and feelings which require comfort. Give others the kindness of being a good listener. My conversations about the virus in Thailand recently covered points like, ‘My son’s school closed!,’ ‘In my home area they’re still more worried about malaria,’ ‘I wonder if my Mum in China will get the virus?’ In New Zealand, there will also be other angles; for example, ‘masks feel like a sinister sign that the public square has turned into a hospital’.

2. Identify Relevant Issues

This article has focused on mortality. The sense of crisis will make people more open to talk about it, or even bring it up themselves. (That is merely a general observation—still try to speak with sensitivity, as always). Here are three possible routes from the topic of COVID-19 to the topic of mortality:

  1. The elderly are vulnerable, and that is relevant to everyone, whether it means us or our parents/grandparents. What is the hope of an elderly believer?
  2. No age group is invincible, and ‘Death as an equaliser’ is another classic theme. Kiwis might take to it, since equality in general is a Kiwi value!
  3. Coping mechanisms, or what you do to help you get through, are the stuff of many conversations (‘I like to do x’ … ‘you should reward yourself with some x’). Cultivate Christ-based ways to cope with things, and then they can come up in conversation.

3. Address the Issues

Hope, for the elderly and for all, is based on God’s promises. The foundation that helps a Christian to cope with life relates to the above-mentioned attitudes like placing a high value on simple daily faith and obedience and recognising God’s control. Those, in turn, are founded on the incarnate Son of God’s victory over sin and death.

Remember that everyone’s current understandings of the issue of mortality could come up in stage two ‘Identify relevant issues’. Worldviews surface … and so do the unsatisfactory points of a worldview that does not fit God’s world. Consider Biblical truth on mortality (or whatever the issue is), and that will give clues for Addressing the Issue (stage 3).

There are many shapes and sizes of crises in the headlines or in our lives, whether in Galilee, Siloam, the UK, or NZ. The God who is able to ultimately heal this world is also able to bring truth to our lives. This truth is meaningful both here and now and also forever. We can learn from Jesus’ example of engaging with a current crisis and pointing to deeper things.

Luke Williamson is studying a Master in Linguistics at Payap University in Chiang Mai. When in his hometown of Hamilton, he helped run Thinking Matters events there (Mining for Truth). He combines his passion for apologetics with elements from his background including linguistics, literature, children’s ministry and evangelism.

Man with Face Mask

COVID-19 and the Problem of Evil

As Covid-19 spreads around the planet, religious people everywhere will be asking themselves the same question. If the universe is supervised by a loving God, why are such horrible things allowed to happen? After all, if God is all-powerful, He could stop a pandemic; and if He is all-good, He would surely want to. Our unease is only intensified as places of worship worldwide are shut down. The religious suddenly find themselves unable to seek God in the way they believe He has commanded them to—and at precisely the time they need Him the most.

The Problem of Evil and Higher Order Goods

Theologians and philosophers offer different solutions to this age-old puzzle. The most plausible solution has been refined over the centuries but remains essentially the same: God allows human suffering because it brings about, “higher order goods.” To give one representative example: Only if someone eventually loses his possessions in a fire does someone else have an opportunity to feel compassion and make personal sacrifices to provide for him. Suffering, in other words, provides us with opportunities to manifest various virtues and these virtues are more valuable than the uninterrupted ease, security and comfort that would prevail in a world without suffering. With this idea in mind, consider three higher order goods which the Covid-19 pandemic has made widely available.

COVID-19 and Higher Order Goods

Opportunities to Manifest Virtue

Anyone who has been reading the news lately will be aware that the pandemic has brought out the best and the worst in humanity. There are stories of people offering to do grocery runs for those most at risk, and stories of people price gouging others on toilet paper and hand sanitiser [1]. As intimately interconnected creatures with both moral awareness and free will, we are continually faced with choices that have moral consequences for others—choices to make the lives of others better or worse. And every choice we make not only affects others but helps to shape our own moral character [2].

It is a great good in itself that we should have this power of “moral self-determination”—even if we fail to exercise it for the good. To appreciate this point, it is helpful to consider the distinction between innocence and virtue. Innocence is a mere ignorance of evil; virtue requires that one has faced a significant choice between good and evil and freely chosen the good. And while innocence is good, virtue is better. Plausibly, then, a world filled with suffering in which everyone has opportunities to manifest virtue is better than a world without suffering in which no one has such opportunities. And this holds even if some of us fail to manifest virtue and instead manifest vice [3].

I think it is clear that the Covid-19 pandemic has made available many more opportunities for us to shape our moral character. The next time you browse the news, look for stories of compassion, self-sacrifice, heroism, forbearance, generosity, patience and faith—as well as stories of selfishness, indifference, cowardice, impatience and greed. This is the human soul under increased pressure to exercise its God-given faculty of moral self-determination. God does not allow us to live out our lives in a sort of moral slumber. Nor does God force us to be who He wants us to be [4]. Rather, God pays a deep respect to our personhood by continuously offering us the choice. And natural evils—earthquakes, accidents, pandemics, and so on—are the medium in which this faculty operates.

A Sharpened Awareness of Our Interconnectedness

While the precise details are still unclear, it seems probable that somewhere in Wuhan late last year a single individual contracted a novel coronavirus that would later be dubbed Covid-19. Today, the virus is spreading almost everywhere in the world and, before this is over, each country may be counting its dead in the thousands and the global economy will be on its knees.

It is interesting to reflect that this worldwide catastrophe may have begun with a few microscopic droplets of human spittle passed from patient one to patients two and three; and then from patients two and three to patients four to nine—and so on until the virus had achieved global reach. In this way, the pandemic has reminded us of our profound interconnectedness as a species; of our shared biology and vulnerability; our shared desire for self-preservation and wellbeing, and that which threatens it for all of us.

This, too, produces a higher order good: The good of having it forcefully pressed home that our wellbeing as individuals ultimately depends on the wellbeing of our fellow human beings. The threat posed by Covid-19 is therefore similar to the threat posed by the destruction of our common habitat. It is logical: Anything that threatens the ability of the human species to flourish threatens the ability of the human individual to flourish. For this reason, global threats are morally corrective: They help to correct the unfortunate human tendency to division, exclusion and conflict along national, cultural and individual lines—uniting us as a species in our fight against a common enemy and inspiring us to work towards a common good.

A Call to Spirituality

An innate habit of asking Big Questions about the meaning of life sets human beings apart as a species—it is what makes us special. But for many of us this habit remains undeveloped. Perhaps we despair of finding answers and so try to distract ourselves with superficialities—with celebrity gossip, material goods, and social media. This is what Soren Kierkegaard believed. “The philistine,” he said, “tranquillises himself with the trivial.” But in tranquillising himself, the philistine also pays a heavy price—he ignores the sacred mystery of the universe [5].

The question arises: Does suffering and death force human beings to think more deeply about the meaning of life? Reason and experience suggest that the answer is yes. Pleasure and comfort are good and our world, of course, contains generous amounts of both. But a life that offered nothing else would make many of us complacent, hedonistic, idle and shallow. The Covid-19 pandemic has shocked and frightened the world. For many, that shock and fear will force them to raise their consciousness to a higher plane—to confront questions about the ultimate meaning and purpose of their existence and so to exercise their most unique and most human faculty.

Conclusion

We must remember, finally, that God is the consummation and source of all knowledge, beauty, rationality and love lying at the heart of Ultimate Reality. An eternal love relationship with God is therefore the greatest conceivable good available to us—the highest of all the higher order goods. An event which turns our mind to God is an event that may bring about our eternal wellbeing. And in this light it is no more difficult to understand why God would allow temporary suffering than it is to understand why a parent would allow a doctor to stab their child with a needle—knowing that, after the pain and tears have subsided, the child will enjoy lifelong immunity to a dangerous pathogen.

Postscript

In closing, I need to emphasize this strongly. My heart breaks every time I read the news these days and I pray this pandemic will soon be over. Nothing I have written is meant to downplay the terrible burden of death and suffering the pandemic has placed upon the world. Nor am I suggesting that the pandemic is in some way “good.” Nor am I suggesting that God caused the pandemic. Theologians sometimes speak of God’s “perfect will” and His “permissive will”—the things He directly causes and the things He permits by sustaining in existence the processes that cause them. The pandemic surely belongs to the latter. But what I am suggesting is that the pandemic does not prove the nonexistence or indifference of God. My concern has been to show that God may have good reason for allowing widespread, but temporary, human suffering.

Ben Mines was born in Wellington, graduated from college in Auckland, and then spent almost two decades living in South Korea. Until the age of 35, he was what Andrew Klavan called a “practicing atheist”: He did not know if there was a God but lived his life on the assumption that there was not. However, in 2015 he began to study the philosophical arguments for the existence of God and the historical argument for the Resurrection of Jesus. Ultimately, he was persuaded by both. The existence of God is a subject of the profoundest imaginable importance. He is therefore committed to discussing it with others. In 2017, he finished his book “Through a Glass, Darkly” which sets out the rational grounds for Christian theism; later that same year, he began to write for Thinking Matters.


  1.  Other stories include as-yet-uninfected millionaires trying to buy ventilators for themselves; a 7 year old boy using his savings to buy coronavirus care packages for seniors; students ignoring health officials and partying in the streets; and four people offering themselves as a test subjects for a vaccine—without any animal trials. There are, of course, many, many more.
  2. These changes are accumulative and lasting. As Oxford professor of philosophy Richard Swinburne notes, humans are so made that when we choose to do good, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do good again at the next opportunity; and when we choose to do evil, it becomes slightly easier to choose to do evil again at the next opportunity. In this way, over time, we are able to freely change the desires that influence us and form either a good or a bad character. Emerson put the point more pithily when he said, “Sew a thought, reap an action; sew an action, reap a habit; sew a habit, reap a character; sew a character, reap an eternal destiny.”
  3. It is tempting to think that God could give us moral freedom of choice and prevent wrongdoing. But it makes no difference to my moral character whether I A) give my coat to a shivering foreigner or B) invite him into my house for hot soup if these are my only possible choices. Without the possibility of wrongdoing—ignoring the foreigner, or robbing him, or whatever—my choice is morally insignificant.
  4. In a like case, it is good that parents should give one child the significant responsibility of looking after his or her younger siblings even if this entails a risk. A world in which children are taught responsibility by their parents—even though this sometimes results in harm—is better than a world in which parents never give their children responsibility and, as a result, the risk of harm is removed.
  5.  Kierkegaard’s fine phrase is quoted and discussed by Ernst Becker in The Denial of Death.

Seven Questions that Define Your World, Part 1

 

My dear reader, I have a confession to make…

I am addicted to consuming information. There, I said it. Podcasts. Audiobooks. The weekly newspaper. YouTube. RSS Feeds. I just can’t stop. Something about me wants to try to get it all! But that’s not the end of it. I have hundreds of hours of podcasts just waiting for me. The list never seems to get smaller. As soon as I have caught up on one podcast, I add two more. And what’s worse, I would have many more hours to listen to, but I’m already listening at high speed.

Okay, I get that what I do might be a bit strange. It’s not really normal to consume vast quantities of information. You are more likely to find someone binge-watching the latest show on Netflix than ‘binge-learning’! However, for someone like me, today is the best time to be alive. There are more opportunities to learn than ever before. You can learn almost anything however and whenever you want, and therein lies the danger. As the volume of consumable information has grown, the amount of effort we must expend to sort the true from the false, and the helpful from the unhelpful, has also increased. If we exclude nothing and consume everything, then we risk polluting ourselves and we destroy the chance to think creatively. If on the other hand we exclude too much, then we miss out on learning. All truth is God’s truth, no matter where it comes from.

In addition, it is important to be aware that not everything we consume, we consume willingly or consciously. What does society define as ‘the good life’? Do we all have to live in the perfect house, have our next exciting trip planned, and be physically fit or is it actually all about living an environmentally sustainable life? Not only that, but we are the most entertained people that have ever existed. When we entertain ourselves with the latest movie or video, we often switch off the thinking part of our brain. Without even a thought, we open ourselves up to ideas and beliefs which are untrue and contradict our beliefs. My goal for this first article is to provide a set of tools, which we can use to discover truth and uncover the unspoken assumptions in the world around us. In further articles, I hope to use these questions to explore trends and perspectives that are relevant to us today.

To live in this world as Christians, we must be able to identify and understand the ideas we encounter daily. The ideas that are embedded in so much of what we consume are usually part of a worldview, a perspective on how to answer the big questions of life. Similar to a map which helps the navigator chart a course through an otherwise stormy sea, a worldview helps one to navigate life and make sense of what is happening. If we do not identify the assumptions and ideas which underpin so many of the messages we receive in our media-saturated culture, we risk being taken captive by them. The Apostle Paul explicitly warned us against this in his letter to the Colossians:

 See to it that no one takes you captive through hollow and deceptive philosophy, which depends on human tradition and the elemental spiritual forces of this world rather than on Christ. Col 2:8.

We can only defend ourselves against worldly wisdom and deceptive philosophy, if we can detect it. James W. Sire in his excellent book The Universe Next Door outlined seven such questions which are especially well suited to this purpose. In this article, I aim to introduce these probing questions with short examples to illustrate, I will go into more detail in my next articles.

1. What is prime reality – What is really real?

Is there an aspect of reality, the beginning point for all existence, that does not depend on anything else for its existence? If you follow the chain of causation backwards, will you at some point find something that just exists and has no cause? Does only the universe exist? Is our entire experience of reality just an illusion? Consider the Matrix. In this movie, the main character Neo transcends reality and can control the world around him when he realizes that it does not exist. This teaches the idea that all of reality is an illusion. In contrast, Christianity affirms that God has created a real and discoverable world which exists separately from our perception of it.

2. What is the nature of external reality?

This question is related to the first, but tries to draw in ideas related to our perception by questioning if anything is real outside of ourselves. Is the world around us created or independent (un-created or self-created), chaotic or orderly, physically real or just made up out of spirit? Is our own subjective experience of reality the only important thing or is there an actual real world out there? The movie Inception suggests that reality can be subjective, a world you create for yourself and which only exists in your dreams can be just as good as the real one. Christianity argues that God is the source of all reality. Everything comes from him and because he is the creator, he can define what is real or not

3. What is a human being? What does it mean to be human?

In essence, this question is about identity. Possible answers might be: a complex biological machine, a god, an illusion, a person in the image of God, a blank slate. For example, the idea that an individual is a blank slate is related to the philosophical debate of being and becoming eloquently explained in the movie Batman Begins. Bruce Wayne (as Batman) explains to his friend, “It’s not what I am underneath but what I do that defines me”. Bruce is defining himself by being the Batman, a hero who defeats evil and saves the helpless. This expresses the culturally relevant idea that we create our own meaning and that each person must decide this for themselves. On the other hand, Christianity holds that each person is created by God in his image with the purpose to love and serve God and man. We do not choose our purpose, it is given to us.

4. What happens to a person at death?

When we die, are we annihilated or reincarnated? Does the person who dies transcend reality or just go to be on the “other side”? This is an important question because it has a large role to play in answering what the purpose of life is. Logically, if we all end up in the same place (non-existence), it does not matter how we live. Without lasting consequences, our choices in life are meaningless because everyone dies no matter if they were a good or bad person. Greta Thunberg and extinction rebellion accept that life ends in death, but reject the logical conclusion of this fact. They argue that because all we have is this life, no measure is too great if it stops our extinction. If Christianity is true however and there is life after death, then how we live now may have lasting consequences beyond death. Maybe saving the environment is not the only thing to be worried about.

5. Why is it possible to know anything at all?

Are we able to know things because we are made in the image of God and endowed with rationality? Or rather, are our rational faculties the result of the long and gradual process of evolution? Though obscure, this question is critical.  Before we can start making conclusions from what we know, we must first answer why it is possible to know anything at all. One contemporary school of thought argues that your destiny in life and worldview are primarily determined by how you were brought up. A logical consequence of this view is that objective reality is impossible to grasp, you can only see it through the lense with which you were raised. This stands in contradiction to Christianity, which holds that knowing Christ is to know the truth and to be set free from the corruption of this world.

6. How do we know what is right and wrong?

Every worldview has a perspective on whether right and wrong is grounded in reality or illusion. No one can deny the existence of right and wrong; the mere fact of living forces us to make moral choices every day. How you live shows what you think is good or bad, right or wrong. But how do we distinguish right from wrong? Right and wrong could simply be determined by human choice or by whatever produces cultural or physical survival. In the Star Wars movies, there is no good or bad, only balance. The light and dark sides of the Force must remain in balance, it is bad for either side to gain dominance. Christianity, however, teaches that we are created in the image of a good God with a conscience that helps us to tell right from wrong.

7. What is the meaning of history?

Christianity would argue that history is a linear series of meaningful events that shows God’s redemptive work of reconciling man to himself. This is the purpose or meaning of history. However, others might argue that history is a meaningless collection of events or an eternal cycle of rebirths, where in each life you are living out the karmic consequences of the previous. A modified version of the last option is expressed in the movie Groundhog day. Phil Connors is not able to escape the same day until he becomes a better person. The meaning of history according to this film is to escape the endless cycle by improving yourself.

These seven questions are by no means exhaustive, but, when applied, provide insights into the many different worldviews we encounter and open up further avenues of inquiry. Further, it is not possible to stand neutral on any of these questions. If we refuse to pick a worldview, then we have unknowingly already assumed a worldview. Moreover, living in the world forces us to act, and how we act shows what our worldview actually is. We cannot escape answering these questions, the only decision we have is whether or not we will try to answer them. To not do so means that we are living with blinders on. Life is important. Living it in an ignorant manner is surely more dangerous and risky than not.

So when you find yourself surrounded by a cacophony of news and entertainment, don’t forget to ask a few questions of what you are learning. No message stands on its own, it is always connected to a series of deeper beliefs which we need to expose if we are to sort the truth from the lies. As Paul said:

But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good; 1 Thess 5:21

May this be true of us in our daily lives.

Know Doubt

Why don’t we hear more about doubt? Could it be that we don’t talk about our doubts because some well-meaning people we looked up to told us that doubt was the opposite of faith and should be avoided? Maybe we believe that if we have enough faith, we will no longer struggle with doubt.

I don’t see evidence for that in the Bible. Doubt seems to be a common occurrence, even among those closest to Jesus.

John the Baptist is the prophet who boldly proclaimed upon seeing Jesus “Look! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world!  He is the one I was talking about when I said, ‘A man is coming after me who is far greater than I am, for he existed long before me’”[i]. However, in the seventh chapter of Luke, while John the Baptist was in prison, he began to doubt. He sent two of his disciples to ask Jesus if he was really the Messiah they had been waiting for. How does Jesus respond? Does he condemn him for doubting? He certainly could have.

No! Instead of condemning John, Jesus reminds him of the evidence: “Go back to John and tell him what you have seen and heard—the blind see, the lame walk, those with leprosy are cured, the deaf hear, the dead are raised to life, and the Good News is being preached to the poor.[ii]” Jesus offers two lines of evidence. Firstly, that these demonstrations of power are proof that Jesus speaks with God’s authority, and secondly that they are consistent with what Isaiah the prophet said about the future Messiah. After John’s disciples left, he speaks of John to those around him, “I tell you, of all who have ever lived, none is greater than John.”[iii] Jesus affirms that John is even now a great man.

Doubting Thomas is another well-known instance of doubt in Jesus’s inner circle. Have you considered how Jesus responded when Thomas said he would not believe that Jesus was alive unless certain conditions were met? “A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” 27 Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” [iv] Jesus shows us that the response to doubt is to examine the evidence and determine for yourself what it means. Thomas responds with one of the powerful statements recorded about  Jesus’s identity. 28 Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!” [v] Doubt is not a sign of weak faith. Doubt is part of the normal experience of being human.

As humans we experience two kinds of doubt: emotional doubt and intellectual doubt. We pride ourselves on being Enlightenment driven “rational thinkers” and believe that the majority of our doubt is intellectual, but the scientific literature paints a far different story. The reality is that about 80% of our doubts are emotionally driven.

Emotional doubt occurs when we experience painful feelings of loss, or confusion. Maybe we don’t feel close to God, or we don’t feel loved by Him. Maybe we feel like our prayers are unheard because they aren’t answered in the timing and the manner that we want. As people well aware of some of the arguments for our faith, we can often respond to someone who is experiencing emotional doubt with intellectual arguments. As Mary Jo Sharp shared with us two years ago, we would be better off asking “Do you need answers right now, or do you just need a hug?”. When we don’t feel comfortable expressing our inner emotions, it can present as an intellectual argument. Are we willing to take the time to discover what’s really going on beneath the surface?

I remember having many vigorous debates with an atheist friend of mine around the Problem of Evil and Suffering. It felt like we never got anywhere because we both returned to the same arguments and at times, we both grew frustrated. Then one evening, an infrequent attendee of our meetings asked him why he had left the Christian faith.

He shared how his grandfather had suffered with a terrible cancer before he finally died. He admitted that he couldn’t believe in a God who allowed that kind of suffering.  All of my arguments had missed the mark because I hadn’t taken the time to learn his story and find the root cause of his pain.

When you doubt, don’t be afraid to explore the doubt more deeply, and to be honest with yourself about the kind of doubt you are experiencing. Find trustworthy people to talk to. Ask thoughtful questions. Engage with the evidence and see where it leads. A warning: if you only seek support for what you are feeling, you will find it and it might lead you away from faith if you don’t hear both sides. However, I am confident that if we genuinely seek answers, if we listen humbly to those who have gone before, God will lead us to a stronger, more vibrant life of trust in Him and His goodness.

If I hadn’t doubted the existence of God or my reason for believing, I wouldn’t have discovered the vast world of historical, philosophical and scientific evidence for the Christian worldview. My faith would have remained superficial, if it survived at all. Instead, I have faith that withstands the staunchest skeptical arguments because I made many of the same questions and then looked for answers. This enables me to also walk alongside others who are working through their own doubt. This doesn’t mean I no longer struggle with these questions. Sometimes they come back in new forms. But I have learned that although I have doubts about my faith, I have greater doubts about all of the alternatives.

Sean McDowell in his recent trip to New Zealand with his father Josh told a story that when he began to experience doubt, he was concerned about his father’s reaction. When he finally told his father, Josh responded with “Great! Now you can discover for yourself what you believe and why you believe it”. (I’m paraphrasing). Josh demonstrated a great way to engage with the doubts of his children. If we follow his example, perhaps the next generation will grow up with a robust faith that can last a lifetime.

Bruce Fraser is a Software Architect, lay Pastor, husband, father. He spent several years learning apologetics from good friends Mike Licona, Nabeel Qureshi, David Wood and Mary Jo Sharp, while living in the U. S. There he learned much about the arguments and demeanour that best communicate the Great News of Jesus to those hostile to Christianity, presenting the truth of Jesus in a way that is gentle and respects their intellect.


[i] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Jn 1:29–30). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[ii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:22). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iii] Tyndale House Publishers. (2015). Holy Bible: New Living Translation (Lk 7:28). Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House Publishers.

[iv] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:26–27). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

[v] The New International Version. (2011). (Jn 20:28). Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan.

Money

A Spiritual View of Wealth and Poverty

A recent fluff piece in my local paper carried the headline: Newest Millionaires Say 16 Million Dollar Win Has Changed Their Lives. No one, I think, will find this very astonishing. But reading the article that followed I realised something important. I realised that I no longer envy winners of lotteries. On the contrary, they fill me with a sort of spiritual unease.

Analysing that unease, I find myself thinking of Leo Tolstoy. In 1901, the first Nobel Prize for Literature went to the French poet Sully Prudhomme. History seems to have forgotten Prudhomme and the “lofty idealism” which the Nobel committee declared itself to be recognising in awarding him the prize. Tolstoy was also nominated for the award but was passed over because of his radical religious and political views. That did not sit well with everyone. Following the decision, Tolstoy received a letter from a group of Swedish artists and critics who were scandalised that he had not won. But critical opinion had no discernible influence on the committee. The very next year, 1902, Tolstoy was passed over again.

Tolstoy’s feelings about all this are well-known: He was relieved not to have received the award because of the hundred thousand dollars that came with it. “It has saved me the predicament of managing so much money,” he wrote of the second snub. “Such money, in my opinion, only brings evil.” [1] In fact, the prospect of winning troubled Tolstoy so much that upon his third nomination—and aware that this time he was favoured to win—he wrote a letter to his friend Arvid Jarnefelt, a Finnish writer, entreating him to do everything in his power to ensure that he did not win.

Why did Tolstoy think money might bring evil? I think he was afraid that by gaining money he would risk losing something of immeasurably greater value than money—aware, as I think he no doubt was, of the complicated relationship between material and spiritual goods.

Few people today will immediately appreciate the point. There is a widespread assumption that material goods are always good and the lack of them is always bad. Surveying the distribution of wealth in our world, for instance, we observe what appears to be a notorious injustice. There are good people who are poor and bad people who are rich. And what is more: The bad people are often rich because they are bad—having gained wealth through greed, dishonesty and exploitation. For theists this seems to pose a riddle. If an all-powerful and all-good God superintends the universe, why does he permit this obvious injustice?

Aquinas, who considers the question, cautions us to identify and avoid the operating assumption. Neither poverty nor wealth are good or bad in themselves. Everything depends on the associated circumstances. God, suggests Aquinas, can punish with poverty and reward with wealth as is commonly supposed. But Aquinas suggests that God can also punish us with wealth and reward us with poverty. And the idea, while counterintuitive, is easily reasoned out.

Consider two parallel cases,

A. John is greedy by nature and succeeds in amassing enormous wealth. Thereafter, all his energy goes into guarding and increasing that wealth. Perhaps he also finds himself surrounded by flatterers and gold-diggers. He accordingly becomes suspicious of everyone and trusts no one and does not have any true friends. Plausibly, too, all manner of hedonistic indulgences tempt him—drugs and alcohol, promiscuous sex and prostitutes, extravagant but vacuous parties. It does not occur to him to give to the poor, or else it does occur to him and by consistently ignoring the deliverances of his conscience he grows morally callous. His wealth, moreover, blinds him to spiritual truths—to the good of humility, virtue, compassion, chastity, prayer. He develops an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. He does not have occasion to reflect on his finitude and mortality but it remains a fundamental truth about him that he is finite and mortal. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment.

B. David is greedy by nature but fails to amass any wealth; he lives, in fact, a life of poverty. Flatterers and gold-diggers see right away that they have nothing to gain from him and so have nothing to do with him. Anyone who does continue to associate with him perceives some intrinsic good in him and the association brings this good to his attention and provides him with an opportunity to cultivate it. If there is pleasure in his life it is of a simple sort and obtained through having a grateful, frugal heart—a tasty walnut, a visit to the sea, a beautiful bird on his lawn. His plight, moreover, primes him to develop compassion for his fellow human beings and fosters in him a spirit of stoicism, forbearance and patience. He does not develop an exaggerated notion of his own importance and agency. On the contrary, he is acutely conscious of his finitude and mortality. At some point his suffering may even goad him into wondering at the ultimate purpose of his existence—which in turn may lead him to God. He dies and, like everyone else, stands empty-handed before God to face judgment. 

There may be a third scenario in which poverty is either man’s downfall because it leads him into a life of crime. And there may be a forth in which wealth is either man’s salvation because he eventually discovers the good of philanthropic generosity. But recall: Aquinas is not arguing that wealth and poverty are good or bad ipso facto. That is precisely the point he is arguing against. Everything depends on the associated circumstances.

Why, if that is so, did Tolstoy abhor the prospect of sudden wealth? I think it is because when we think carefully about poverty and wealth it is clear that wealth entails a more serious moral and spiritual risk than poverty. If we are wealthy we have a moral obligation to be generous. “If you have two coats in your wardrobe,” Saint Ambrose of Milan admonished his Christian reader, “one belongs to you and one belongs to the man with no coat.” [2] But human nature is corruptible and there is every chance that we will ignore the plight of the poor and grow morally callous as a result. We will also need to resist the indulgences and distractions which wealth brings in order to obtain spiritual goods. And again, there is every chance that we will fail. The point was made by Jesus himself. “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle,” he said, “than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.” [3]

And there can be no doubt that Tolstoy had already reached the top of Maslow’s Hierarchy [4] and discovered a truth about spiritual goods that the modern world seems to have forgotten. God does not enjoin us to seek them because he is a puritanical miser who begrudges us worldly pleasure. He enjoins us to seek spiritual goods out of generosity: Because they are intrinsically and infinitely better than worldly goods. And God, being perfectly good, wants to give us the very best things he has to give. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy,” Jesus said. “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” [5]

Ben Mines is a Christian Apologist and author based in Auckland, New Zealand.

—————————————————————————

[1] Quoted here on the website for the Intercultural Institute of Languages.

[2] Quoted in The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path by Robert E. Barron.

[3] See Matthew 19:24.

[4] See here. Abraham Maslow, the American psychologist, organized human needs into a now-famous hierarchy where basic bodily needs sit at the bottom, social and intellectual needs sit in the middle, and spiritual needs—self-actualization, transcendence—sit at the top. Each need is built on the one below but true human fulfillment is realized only when one reaches the top of the hierarchy where spiritual goods are obtained. Interestingly, near the end of his life, Tolstoy went far beyond refusing literary prizes. He sought to renounce his own wealth, both inherited and earned, as well as the copyrights to his own works.

[5] See John 10:10

Five Practical Reasons for Apologetics


Do we really need five reasons to do apologetics? Isn’t it enough that God commands it? 1 Peter 3:15:

“but sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence.”

Discussion over! We don’t need five reasons! God says it so that settles it, right?

Yes, God’s command is all that we need, but just saying we have to defend our faith (otherwise known as apologetics) is not helpful at all. What does it mean to defend the Christian faith? What does that look like today? As we begin the new year, I would like to give five reasons why apologetics is critically important for every Christian, no matter who or where you are. My hope is that by showing you how apologetics is useful, you will be encouraged to prepare yourself to defend your faith, the gospel of salvation in Christ.

To Share the Gospel

The first practical reason to do apologetics is to help with sharing the gospel. The apostle Paul in his first letter to the believers in Corinth wrote:

“For though I am free from all, I have made myself a servant to all, that I might win more of them. To the Jews I became as a Jew, in order to win Jews. To those under the law I became as one under the law (though not being myself under the law) that I might win those under the law. To those outside the law I became as one outside the law (not being outside the law of God but under the law of Christ) that I might win those outside the law. To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all people, that by all means I might save some” (1 Co 9:19-22).

Paul is explaining that for him, to win people to Christ, he had to approach them on their own terms when sharing the gospel. He knew that if he did not present the gospel message in terms that the unbeliever could understand, his message would not reach them. Paul was speaking into a culture that did not understand the Christian message, but rather sought to stomp it out. Our societies are not much different, general knowledge of what christians believe is declining and the volume of objections against the christian faith is increasing. If it is necessary for missionaries to learn the language and culture of the foreign country in which they are serving, is it not also important for us to learn the language and culture in our own country?

For us to be able to share the gospel today, we must be able to communicate it in a way that other people can understand.

To Answer Objections

However, it is not enough to explain our faith in a culturally relevant way. We must also be ready to answer the objections they have, to make a defense for what we believe. Many christians are afraid to share the gospel with unbelievers. What would happen if they said that Christianity is just a fairy tale? What if they argued that God was just invented by people who wanted power? These also used to be my fears. Nonetheless, when I realized that there are good answers to these objections, my confidence grew, and I felt able to share the gospel. God uses us as ambassadors for him, to clear away false teachings and arguments that people use to reject God. Ravi Zacharias defines the process of answering objections in this way:

“Pre-evangelism is sort of – the Australians like to put it something like this: Bush clearing, clearing the obstacles so the listener can take a direct look at the cross of Jesus Christ. In a pluralistic society – a secularized society – in an almost hostile environment now towards things sacred, it is important how we do this and where we do this.”

To Defend the Public Image of Christianity

Clearing away the objections people have against our faith is also good for the reputation of Christianity in society. The public image of Christianity has been tarnished over the last few years through scandals in the church and is often perceived to be more against things than for them. When people think of christians, they may be more likely to associate us with hard-nosed opposition to homosexuality and abortion (the latter implying we are anti-feminist and as such against women) than with love and service for the needy. Not only that, but news, media and entertainment pillory christians on a regular basis. They communicate, contrary to reality, that christians are narrow-minded and hateful because we follow the Bible and have conservative/orthodox beliefs.

Knowing what we believe and why it is true therefore, helps us to counter false representations of the faith. The truth of Christianity is not shown to be false because christians are sinful. Christians are imperfect but that is not the point – the point is that Jesus is perfect. We must not get the two mixed up. Further, when we defend our faith to those outside the church, we must communicate the truth with love and respect.

Without love and respect, we will do more harm than good.

People will not remember anything from what you have said if they do not feel respected. Apologetics, however, is not merely an outward facing venture, it also has applications for the body of Christ.

To Combat Apostasy

Answering objections against our faith also helps to keep ourselves and others from leaving the faith. Studies by the Barna research group have shown that many young people are leaving the church.

“Based on interviews with 22,000 adults and over 2,000 teenagers in 25 separate surveys, Barna unquestionably quantified the seriousness of the situation: six out of ten 20-somethings who were involved in a church during their teen years are already gone [given up Christianity]. Despite strong levels of spiritual activity during the teen years, most 20-somethings disengage from active participation in the Christian faith during their young adult years—and often beyond that” (Ham, Beemer, 2009).

Some of the reasons why they leave are as follows:

  • Shallowness. One-third call church boring, about one-fourth say faith is irrelevant and Bible teaching is unclear. One-fifth say God is absent from their church experience.
  • Anti-science. Up to one-third say the church is out of step on scientific developments and debate.
  • Doubters. The church is not a safe place to express doubts say over one-third of young people, and one-fourth have serious doubts they’d like to discuss.

The tragedy in all of this, is that there are good answers to these doubts. If only those who left the church had known about the answers for their questions, some might have stayed.

Knowing why what we believe is true and being open to discussing it creates a safe environment in our churches and youth groups where doubts can be raised, and doubters answered. However, there is also another use for apologetics within the church.

To Fight False Teaching

We are not only called to care for those who may want to walk away, but also to combat those who spread false teaching. The Apostle Peter, speaking of the challenges of false teaching warned:

“But false prophets also arose among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Master who bought them, bringing upon themselves swift destruction.” (2 Peter 2:1)

False teaching requires an answer, but to be able to answer it, one must first know what one believes, why it is true, and how to defend it. This brings the tools and methods of apologetics together with what are more traditionally known as Theology and Doctrine.

Summary

In closing, I would like to return to the passage quoted at the beginning of this article:

“But sanctify Christ as Lord in your hearts, always being ready to make a defence to everyone who asks you to give an account for the hope that is in you, yet with gentleness and reverence” (1 Peter 3:15).

To defend our faith is our privilege and joy, an opportunity to talk about the hope that we have in Christ. People have questions and doubts which hold them back, so if we want to share Jesus with them, we must also show them respect by doing our best to answer their questions.

The more I have learnt about what I believe and how to defend it, the more I have discovered that sharing my faith is one of the most exciting things I can do. As we begin a new year, I hope and pray that you too would discover the joy of sharing the good news of Christ with your friends and family.

David Billing is a Data Analyst. He was born in New Zealand and now works in Europe. Reading, current-events, playing computer games, anything sci-fi related, listening to music, and cracking dry jokes (especially puns) are among some of his favorite things to do.


Ham, K., & Beemer, B. (2009). Already Gone: Why your kids will quit church and what you can do to stop it. Green Forest, AR: New Leaf Publishing Group.

Destroying and Annoying: Why would God create mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria?

“Ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish of the sea inform you. Which of these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this? In his hand is the life of every creature and the breath of all mankind.” (Job 12:7-10)

As a Christian biologist I’m often asked: “Why would God make creatures that only destroy and annoy?” I myself have struggled with this question, especially just after being nipped by a particularly mouthy horsefly. I once asked this question to a Christian medical doctor and her response was simply, “I guess God gave Satan his own paintbrush.” Her response grieved me even more than my question had. Surely the Prince of Darkness was not co-Creator of our world, but the Prince of Peace. Yet the death and suffering we observe due to a myriad of seemingly evil micro-critters bids us seek an answer. This article will explore the trifecta of organisms most well-known for their destruction and annoyance of the human race; namely, mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria.

MOSQUITOS

Mosquitos are positively ubiquitous. They live 8,000 feet high in the Himalayan mountains, and deep below sea level in the California desert. As recently as 1870, the idea that a mosquito could kill was considered preposterous. Today we understand that a million people die each year from malaria alone. Dengue fever (which I have personally enjoyed, along with malaria), Zika virus, Chikunguya, and others have resulted in countless lives lost. If God chose to make mosquitos, why on earth? Our answer lies in the mosquito’s natural history.

Females perch daintily on the surface of the water and lay eggs in two long rows. The eggs bow upwards at the ends, giving it the appearance of a tiny canoe made of pearls. When the eggs hatch, mosquito larvae serve to clean the water of their aqueous habitat because they eat detritus (waste material). Larvae also feed on fallen bug carcasses, thus cleaning the surface of the water. While larvae benefit aqueous ecosystems, most of our qualms with mosquitos have to do with this stage: the successful production of offspring.

Interestingly, most mosquitos will never bother you. There are more than 3,000 species of mosquitos, but only 200 bite humans. It’s important to realize that, as a rule of thumb, only the females bite, and only when they are reproducing. It is estimated that only one in a million mosquitos at a given time will bite. Females need protein to make eggs, and without a blood meal they will be unable to reproduce. Male mosquitos are usually purely nectarivorous. Females also stick to nectar when they are not trying to produce eggs. This drinking of nectar is very important ecologically, as mosquitos are major plant pollinators. In fact, some plants are only pollinated by mosquitos! Also, mosquitos are basically little buzzing candies. Birds, frogs and fish enjoy eating those sugar-packed insects.

Mosquitos have benefited science in many ways, the most major being the design of their proboscis. This has inspired scientists to design less-painful hypodermic needles. Work is also being done on insertion guides for placing electrodes into the brain, and a study of mosquito saliva to determine its special properties.

VIRUSES

Everywhere we find life, we find viruses, and in staggering abundance. 1 mL of ocean water contains about 100 million virus particles. Estimates indicate there are 1031 viruses on Earth. If we could weigh all the viruses on Earth, they would equal the weight of 75 million blue whales. At the offset, this sounds like a major concern. Indeed, viruses like influenza, herpes and measles kill 10 people every hour globally . Yet virologist AJ Roberts writes: “The vast majority of viruses on planet Earth are not associated with disease or suffering. In fact, they are critical for sustaining balance in Earth’s ecological webs.”

But just how do viruses provide this delicate balance of Earth’s ecology? At every level, it would seem. Bacteriophage, for instance, help keep our bodies’ microbiomes in balance so that we don’t become overrun by bacteria.

Also, the next time you enjoy a gentle rainstorm, thank a virus. We would not have the same precipitation cycle without them!

Aerosoled viruses hang out in the upper atmosphere and help create nucleation (clustering) to initiate precipitation. Viruses are also essential for our ocean ecology. Viruses split open 40-50 percent of the bacteria in Earth’s oceans on a daily basis, releasing gobs of organic molecules into the food chain for other organisms to survive on.

The vast majority of virus activity has a symbiotic effect . These viruses help plants, insects, and many other organisms to survive under otherwise impossible environmental conditions. Certain viruses even protect plants from the infection of detrimental viruses.

Viruses have enabled us to make leaps and bounds in science. At least 15 Nobel Prizes have been awarded for research based on virus-dependent work. Viruses were used to discover the triplet base codon nature of the genetic code, RNA splicing, and tumor suppressor genes. The virus used in the polio vaccine helped lessen global cases from over 350,000/yr in 1988 to less than 500/yr in 2013. Today viruses are used to fight cancers, genetic illnesses, and chronic infectious diseases.

As AJ Roberts said: “Although a few viruses are remarkably bad, we dare not put all viruses in that category. In fact, life as we know it would not be possible…without the vast array of viruses that fill the planet.”

BACTERIA

Similar to the viruses and mozzies, we are often only aware of the detrimental ramifications of bacteria. ‘Bad’ bacteria are extremely bad, especially when they are resistant to antibiotics. According to the CDC, at least 2 million people in the U.S. are infected with antibiotic-resistant bacteria every year, leading to the death of at least 23,000 people.

Yet, on the whole, bacteria are key organisms in biogeochemical and metabolic processes. They play an essential role in the earth’s biodiversity, both on terra firma and in aqueous environs.

We have found extensive populations in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and everywhere in between. Bacteria appear wherever other organisms are, and they are sometimes found where there is no other evidence of life. Bacteria are essential for human existence. In fact, there are 10 times more microbial cells than human cells inside a human being. So in a sense, you are more bacteria than you are human! But don’t think about that too much or it might make your stomach hurt. And speaking of your stomach, the highest numbers of microbial species in a human are found in your gut. Helpful strains of E.coli and Streptococcus aid in digestion, stave off harmful pathogens, and help develop the immune system. The disruption of gut bacteria has been linked to many disease conditions. We are dependent on the services of commensal bacteria for not just digestion, but for many aspects of our health.

CONCLUSION

We have much to learn about mosquitos, viruses, and bacteria. The hand of God crafted each of these creatures with a lovely purpose. We can solidly say of this trifecta, as God said, “It is good”. Yet we can also see the destruction they cause and say, “It is fallen”. This sinful, broken world is not as it should be. But if we look close enough, we still see God’s fingerprints on the gently buzzing mosquito, the wandering virus, and the fastidious little bacterium.

WORKS CITED

Burnie, D., & Wilson, D. E. (2005). Animal: The definitive visual guide to the world’s
wildlife. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (U.S.). (2000). Centers for Disease
Control and Prevention. Atlanta, GA: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Corno, G., Modenutti, B. E., Callieri, C., Balseiro, E. G., Bertoni, R., & Caravatia, E. (July
01, 2009). Bacterial diversity and morphology in deep ultraoligotrophic Andean lakes: The role of UVR on vertical distribution. Limnology and Oceanography, 54, 4, 1098-1112

Fazale, R., Roberts, A., & Zweering, J. (2018). Building Bridges: Presentations on RTB’s
Testable Creation Model.

Guarner, F., & Malagelada, J.-R. (February 01, 2003). Gut flora in health and
disease. The Lancet, 361, 9356, 512-519.

Relman, D. A. (June 01, 2012). Learning about who we are. Nature, 486, 7402, 194-
195.

Spielman, A., & D’Antonio, M. (2004). Mosquito: The story of man’s deadliest foe. New
York: Hyperion.

Thien, L.B. (1969), MOSQUITO POLLINATION OF HABENARIA OBTUSATA
(ORCHIDACEAE). American Journal of Botany, 56: 232-237.

Turnbaugh, P. J., Ley, R. E., Hamady, M., Fraser-Liggett, C. M., Knight, R., & Gordon, J. I.
(October 01, 2007). The Human Microbiome Project. Nature, 449, 7164, 804-810.

Tyler, A. D., Smith, M. I., & Silverberg, M. S. (January 01, 2014). Analyzing the human
microbiome: a “how to” guide for physicians. The American Journal of Gastroenterology, 109, 7, 983-93.

World Health Organization. (2016). World Health Organization publications:
Catalogue. Geneva: The Organization.

Xiao-Feng, Z., Jiangbo, G., Xiuchun, Z., Tea, M. (October 20, 2015). Random Plant Viral
Variants Attain Temporal Advantages During Systemic Infections and in Turn Resist other Variants of the Same Virus. Scientific Reports, 5.

Zimmer, C. (2015). A planet of viruses. Chicago : The University of Chicago Press

Zobell, C. (1942). Bacteria of the Marine World. The Scientific Monthly, 55(4), 320-
330. Retrieved from www.jstor.org/stable/17937

rzim_academy_logo

Review: The RZIM Academy Core Module

The RZIM Academy Core Module, developed by Ravi Zacharias International Ministries, is equipping people from more than 135 countries to confidently engage with the tougher questions directed at the Christian faith. Nearly 12,000 students have taken this course, which is entirely online and uses a learning structure designed by Oxford University. Students are encouraged to interact with each other through a moderated online discussion forum. Here they are challenged to respectfully engage with those outside and inside the Christian faith. In this review I have given an overview of what this course will equip you with, and what I have personally learnt through completing the course myself.

Course Overview

The Academy Core Module comprises of 2-3 lectures every week, a weekly quiz, forum posts and assignments. Each week new subjects are released to the online learning platform. The lecturers are world class theologians and apologists, (Ravi Zacharias, Amy Orr-Ewing, Vince Vitale, John Lennox, and Alister McGrath to name a few) who teach on many topics. These include: The problem of evil, the resurrection, morality, worldview, other religions, and the new atheists.

Ravi Zacharias explains the need for bridging a questioner’s head to their heart. To do this one must first understand the questioner behind their question. One must understand their worldview. This means a large percentage of the module is dedicated to teaching the Christian worldview. It teaches that the Christian worldview, rationally provides answers to humanity’s four major questions: Where do we come from? (Origin), What does life really mean? (Meaning), How do I differentiate between good and evil? (Morality), and What happens when we die? (Destiny). Students also learn how to understand and compare the Christian worldview with differing worldviews.

If the solid course content isn’t enough to challenge you to equip yourself with this resource, here are two more great incentives for taking this course. These are, once finished you will be invited into RZIM Connect, a global online home for the RZIM family. Here you can join the Core Module alumni group which gives you continual access to all of the learning material. And for the avid student, the RZIM Academy also offers topic specific courses upon completion of the Core Module. At the time of writing these, they were: Why Suffering, Islam, Bible, Science, Engaging the Modern World, and What Does it Mean to be Human?

What I’ve Learnt Personally

As a mother of two young children, I found the course time manageable and extremely rewarding.  We learnt early on that the most important part of apologetics is the apologist themselves. The first section of 1 Peter 3:15, a verse used widely in apologetics, tells us to, “set apart your heart as holy unto the Lord”. This taught me that you can have all the answers but if Jesus is not placed first in your heart, your defense for Him will be shallow and meaningless. Our ultimate goal is to point people to the person of Christ. We need to be ready to defend Christ and share our hope and faith in Him; however, who we are in Christ is our strongest witness to the world. As Ravi Zacharias has said, “I have little doubt that the single greatest obstacle to the impact of the gospel has not been it’s inability to provide answers, but the failure on our part to live it out”.

Final Word

The RZIM Academy Core Module will provide you with plenty of answers. It also may challenge you to step outside your comfort zone, to rise up and be a powerful witness for the Kingdom of God. Most importantly, I believe it will deepen and strengthen your faith in Christ as it has done for me. I highly recommend taking some time out of the sometimes constant busyness of life to focus on equipping yourself to engage with a culture that is drawing further and further from our wonderful saviour Jesus.

This course has monthly intakes. Click here for more details, course start dates, or to sign up.

Alnwick_Lanfranco_Bridgeman

Thoughts on the Christmas Child: Myth or Miracle?

‘What Child is This?’ is a favourite Christmas hymn. It is based on the poem The Manger Throne by William C. Dix and sung to the tune of Greensleeves. The combination of religious lyrics and a 16th Century folk tune result in a powerful song evoking a sense of expectancy and awe over the scene of a baby born in a stable in the Middle East more than two millennia ago. The wonder, the questioning that must have dwelt in the hearts of those who were part of and involved in the birth story of Jesus is expressed well in the words of this song. This was an extraordinary event at the end of a line of extraordinary events that involved angelic visitations, a miraculous conception, prophecy, and a moving star from the east that guided three gift bearing visitors from far off lands.