In his book A short history of nearly everything Bill Bryson writes ‘It seems impossible that you could get something from nothing, but the fact that once there was nothing and now there is a universe is evident proof that you can.’
Yet we must all answer the question first asked by Leibniz ‘why is there something rather than nothing?’ or to put it in more scientific language ‘why is the universe here?’. There are only three options open to us;
1) The universe has always existed
2) Someone or something caused the universe – that which some people call ‘god’
3) The universe came to be literally from nothing (without a cause)
Now what I find striking and very revealing is that most atheists opt, like Bryson, for option 3.
It’s striking because in doing so it’s hard not to accuse them of thinking irrationally. After all there is nothing in science and nothing in our known experience to suggest that something comes from nothing. It’s striking because atheists enjoy nothing more than mocking Christians for believing in something without evidence or proof, namely god and yet do exactly the same when it comes to the origins of the universe.
After all what could be more improbable than believing that the universe simply came out of nowhere. Is it not in fact the most counter-intuitive and illogical option of the three available to us. It is to go against everything that we know and everything that science teaches. When something happens we ALWAYS look for a cause. We seek a reasonable explanation. We ask where does it come from. We never shrug our shoulders and say things just happen. If we did we’d give up scientific endeavour.
Atheism’s article of faith
Belief in the god of the Bible is dismissed as being as fanciful as belief in pink unicorns or the flying spaghetti monster. But Atheists don’t enjoy being reminded that their whole worldview rests on believing an extremely unlikely idea – a self-creating universe – and believing it as an article of faith.
It’s why I not only ask atheists ‘why does this universe exist?’ but most importantly ‘what reason do you have for holding the answer that you do?’
So when an atheist such as Quentin Smith concludes ‘the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing, and for nothing’ he is not speaking from reason but against reason for there is no reason at all to believe that things come into being from absolutely nothing. An atheist who believes in an uncaused universe is not being reasonable at all. In reality they are doing what the theist is accused of doing all the time – playing the faith card! They are saying ‘I believe because I believe and I may not have a reason to believe it but it’s what I want to believe and that is enough for me.’ Maybe they think that one day we will find reason to believe it but we all know that at present there is none and by any other name that is religion. Belief not based on what you know to be true but what you want to be true.
What is the conclusion?
Atheists are as much people of faith, belief, maybe even superstition, as the rest of humanity. We believe things because we choose to believe them and we believe things not because they are scientifically based, logical or likely but we believe because the one thing we know is that we don’t want to believe the alternative.
We are all of us believers and believers in something that we cannot prove. Welcome to the club my atheist friend.
Why is it that so many Christians can really know the gospel and delight in the gospel, celebrate the gospel and still fall into sexual sin? Why is it that something like pornography continues to have a power and hold on the Christian life. So much so that one recent study suggested that half of Christian men and a quarter of Christian women struggle with internet pornography.
It seems to me that at least part of the answer is that we don’t look to the gospel to meet our needs as human beings and too easily look to something else. We believe the gospel but we don’t look to the gospel to address our needs for human identity, value, and significance.
Tim Chester in his book Captured by a better vision describes how if we don’t seek our answers in the gospel we will look elsewhere. I call that the gospel according to porn. I want to explore some of the themes and ideas from the book under six headings:
The good news of porn becomes attractive when…
1. Porn says ‘in my world you’re significant’
The fantasy-world of pornography is attractive to people because at least in that world they are not only noticed but they rule! Porn provides a fantasy world in which you’re potent, adored, the centre of attention. Women ‘offer’ themselves to you. That is a very attractive thought to self-centred fallen humanity.
Is that really good news?
Any gospel that put’s you at the centre and through which everyone else exists only to serve you is not good news at all. It’s not only fake reality but a very damaging one! The gospel is the daily lesson of learning not to see yourself as the only one that matters.
God’s gospel also says ‘in my world you’re significant’ but in a true way.
We’re significant because we matter to God. He loves and adores us but not because we are lovely but simply because he has chosen to love us. So we receive God’s love in an undeserved way because of Jesus. The result – God is in his proper place and I am in mine.
2. Porn says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’
Porn promises the relationship we seek and the intimacy we crave. In the world of porn I don’t face rejection and I never need feel lonely.
As Tim Chester comments; Porn offers a safe alternative to intimacy
‘It seemed like a safe way to be sexually active without getting involved in a real relationship.’
‘Fearing rejection, we retreat into the fantasy world of porn in which women adore us and offer themselves to us without risk.’
God’s gospel is one in which he says ‘in my world you’ll never be lonely’. Continue reading »
Yesterday I posted on the danger of Christian ministry that is fueled by the need to secure a relationship with God rather than being fueled by enjoyment of a secure relationship with God.
The doctrine of justification is a life-changing one – when we grasp it and live by it. It transforms our relationship with God, it revolutionises our service of God and it inspires total dedication to God!
Five signs that your ministry is the working out of a secure relationship with Christ
1) You are happy to minister out of your relationship with God so that it doesn’t really matter whether anyone sees what you’re doing and applauds you for it.
2) You take as much delight or joy in the ministry of others as your own.
3) You are ready to be a risk-taker, happy to be seen to fail, because it’s not your reputation that is at stake.
4) You able to make sacrifices in your life for ministry because your life here and now seems a little less important to you.
5) You are ready to take on ministry not because it is the easiest, or most convenient or even best suited to you but because through it you can make a significant contribution at the time the church most needs it.
Five signs that your ministry is working for a secure relationship with Christ
6) You find that you are crushed if you are overlooked when an ‘important’ ministry opportunity arises.
7) You become bitter or resentful if in your ministry area responsibility is taken away from you and given to someone else.
8) You are concerned to promote or raise the profile of your ministry area out of all reasonable proportion and at the expense of others.
9) You are not concerned to raise up new, younger, leaders and to pray that they will do a better job than you and develop the ministry area further. You must be at the centre and ‘in charge’.
10) All of church life, as you live it, is really an PR exercise. Conversations over coffee, prayer meetings, e-mails to the pastor all serve the purpose of promoting you and your ministry.
As a Christian do you find it hard to see how the gospel inspires and motivates your life as a Christian?
We see how the gospel affects our justification (our legal standing before God) but we struggle to see how it shapes our sanctification (how we live for God).
But it really matters. Asking what motivates or drives your Christian life is like asking what fuel to put into a car engine. Petrol engines are designed to run on petrol, put the wrong fuel in the engine and try to drive on regardless you will very soon find yourself in serious problems.
Maybe one key insight from Martin Luther will help us.
The default position even of the Christian, left to ourselves, is to find our confidence and joy in the Christian life from our performance in the Christian life. It could come from how strong we feel our faith is, how bold we have been in speaking for Christ, whether we have yielded to temptation or not or a whole host of other performance indicators. When we do that we are saying to ourselves my faith is the thing that justifies me rather than God’s grace.
We subtly swap ‘my faith’ for ‘God’s grace’ and find ourselves looking in the mirror of our own performance. When we do that it’s like putting diesel in a petrol engine.
But here is Luther’s insight. Our faith is not our fuel. Faith is simply the means (the instrument) by which we grasp hold of our justification. Our faith is not the grounds of our justification.
Martin Luther said
It is, of course, true that I and you do not hold and believe the saving truth so firmly as St. Peter does. Yet we have one and the same treasure. Two persons may hold glasses of wine in their hands: the hand of the one trembles, the hand of the other does not. Two persons may hold a purse full of money: one with a weak hand, the other with a strong hand. Whether the hand is strong or weak, please God, it neither increases nor decreases the contents of the purse…
To bring the analogy into the 21st century imagine two passengers on board a plane. One is totally assured, completely confident that this plane is going to get off the ground, the other a nervous wreck who can’t see how it’s possible to keep 163 tonnes in the sky. Which one of them is going to make it to their destination? Does the strength of their faith in the plane change anything? No. What matters is the strength of the plane and that weak or strong that each of them is on the plane.
What matters then is not the strength of our faith but that our faith exists at all!
How does that change things?
It teaches me that each day I need to place my trust not in my performance for Jesus but Jesus’ performace for me. Like filling up at the petrol station I need to pay very careful attention to which fuel I put into my Christian life.
If I fill up on ‘God’s gospel’ I drive off into the day assured of God’s love, confident in his grace and with a renewed joy I determine to serve him in the strength he provides.
If I fill up on ‘my faith’ I drive off into the day trying hard to please God, trusting in my own abilities and with a fear that I may not live up to God’s exacting standards.
It makes all the difference in the world.
No wonder Luther also said:
‘Most necessary is [the gospel] that we know it well, teach it to others, & beat it into their heads continually’.
The doctrine of justification is a life-changing one – when we grasp it and live by it. It transforms our relationship with God, it revolutionises our service of God and it inspires total dedication to God!
Remember that will you the next time you fill up the engine.
Fury, wrath, fire, torment, judgment, eternal agony, endless anguish.
Is that how we should think of Hell? A place of conscious eternal torment. Is that really the response of a God of love to those who do not worship him in this life? Is that what Jesus taught? Bell is not so sure.
I have a hard time believing in hell not least because most of my family and friends don’t follow Jesus. There is a part of me that so much wants Bell to be right on Hell.
What does the Bible mean by hell?
Bell argues, perhaps rightly, that the Old Testament picture of what happens after death isn’t very clear. ‘Sheol, death, and the grave in the consciousness of the Hebrew writers are all a but vague and ‘unworldly’.
In the New Testament the word ‘hell’ is used almost exclusively by Jesus. He takes the word Gehenna which was literally the city dump outside of Jerusalem. The place where rubbish was thrown and a fire continuously burned. The other word used occasionally in the New Testament being ‘Hades’ the greek equivalent of ‘Sheol’ which we find for example in Revelation 1,6, and 20. But actually there isn’t much in the Bible.
‘And that’s it’ says Bell.
So is the concept of hell outdated?
Bell says a resounding ‘No’. At least in that sense Bell is clearly not a universalist.
‘Do I believe in a literal hell? Of course.’
There is too much evil in the world. Think Rwanda. Think rape and murder.
‘I’ve seen what happens when people abandon all that is good and right and kind and humane.’
So Jesus teaches ‘hell’ and Rob Bell believes in ‘hell’. What then are the big theological ideas in Bell’s understanding of Hell.
The two big ideas in Bell’s Hell.
1. Hell is what we do to ourselves
Hell is less the place that God in his judgement consigns those who reject him and more a place that we send ourselves. It is a self-imposed exile from God and all that is good.
‘God gives us what we want, and if that’s hell, we can have it. We have that kind of freedom, that kind of choice. We are that free.’
Hell in Bell’s language is ‘a volatile mixture of images, pictures, and metaphors that describe the very real experiences and consequences of rejecting our God-given goodness and humanity.’
So far is Bell ready to take this idea that in the story of the rich man and Lazarus from Luke 16 that when Abraham says ‘between us and you a great chasm has been fixed, so that those who want to go from here to you cannot, not can anyone cross over from there to you’ Bell argues ‘the chasm is the rich man’s heart!’
So hell is what I do to myself. It is a subjective experience rather than an objective place of punishment. It is where I experience the torment of my own sin and that means it looks different for all sorts of people.
‘There are all kinds of hells’ says Bell.
‘There are individual hells, and communal, society-wide hells, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously.’
‘There is hell now, and there is hell later, and Jesus teaches us to take both seriously’
2. Hell might not be forever
Secondly Bell wants to show that there is still hope for people in hell.
Failure we see again and again, isn’t final, judgment has a point, and consequences are for correction.
So he takes us through a most unlikely interpretation of Jesus teaching on Sodom and Gomorrah along with some selected words from the prophets of Israel that promise an end to the judgemtn on hte nation and concludes
‘I list them to simply show how dominant a theme restoration is in the Hebrew Sciptures’.
So what should we conclude about Bell’s hell?
One of the things that make this book a difficult one to weigh up is that Bell is very selective in his use of the Bible. To assess Bell’s book we need to spend as much time considering what he leaves out as we do what he puts it. The sin of omission is as important as the sin of commission.
When a doctrine of hell is formulated without any mention of crucial bible texts that speak directly on the subject we have to be concerned and that is what we find here.
God has given us the whole Bible for a reason, that we might know his mind. We need all of scripture to know God’s will.
A number of years ago Jim Packer said in words that seem so apt to describe our concerns about Bell’s book ‘part of the biblical gospel is now preached as if it were the whole of that gospel; and a half-truth masquerading as the whole truth becomes a complete untruth.’
And that is what we find with Bell on hell.
So where in Bell’s chapter do we find , for example, the book of Romans?
Where in his book is there mention of Romans 2:5-11?
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. 9 There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; 10 but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. 11 For God does not show favoritism.
Where in the book does he mention 2 Thess 1:8-9?
8 He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. 9 They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.
Where does he deal with the most sobering text on hell in the New Testament, Revelation 14:9-12
9 A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. 11 And the smoke of their torment rises for ever and ever. There is no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and his image, or for anyone who receives the mark of his name.” 12 This calls for patient endurance on the part of the saints who obey God’s commandments and remain faithful to Jesus.
These texts are conspicuous by their absence and yet they change everything.
Hell is a place of punishment. It is the final expression of the holy and righteous anger of God against all godlessness and wickedness (Romans 1:18).
Hell is forever. Not because I like that fact but because the texts that Bell omits teach that fact.
Hell is the place of conscious eternal torment. There is no rest day or night. (Rev. 14:10-11).
In this chapter Bell sets the tone for the remained of the book and builds the platform on which his hopeful-universalism will be built.
Bell wants us to think of hell as where I put myself rather than where God sends me. He wants me to think that if I change (repent) in hell then because it is a self-imposed exile there may be a way back. If the chasm that separates heaven and hell is not the one fixed by God (objective) for all eternity but exists in my heart (subjective) then hell can reform me and maybe all will be free.
The problem for us all is that Bell’s view of hell falls so far short of what the Bible teaches.
Peter Hitchens is a journalist and author. He is also the brother of new atheist Christopher Hitchens. But whilst Christopher continues to attack God at any and every opportunity, Peter has experienced a remarkable conversion to Christianity.
He describes how atheism led him to faith and to the discovery that what as a boy he had rejected, marked by the burning of his bible, was in fact right all along. He joins a number of prominent atheists who have abandoned their atheism in recent years in favour of belief in God, including AN Wilson, Julie Birchill and Fay Weldon.
What was it about new atheism that particularly grated? Not least, he says, that it is ‘self-satisfied, arrogant, intolerant, completely resistant to any kind of outside argument and contemptuous of it.’
Hitchens has now written on the subject in a book entitled The rage against God.
Who decides whether moms return to work and how should dads do their work differently?
In my experience as a pastor it’s the women who worry about whether or not they should return to work after kids come along. It’s women who feel guilty (whether they do or don’t) and it’s women who talk about it, a lot. And the men? Well I can’t remember having one conversation with a Dad about his views on the matter!
What does this say about the dads? If men are to lead in the home and manage their households well and if men and to love and service and cherish their wives then they can’t abdicate responsibility and delegate it to their wives.
Husbands, whether or not your wife goes back to work is not your decision alone but it is your responsibility alone. Are you playing your part and praying your part?
Four questions then to the dads
1) Husbands are you leaving your wives to make the decision?
2) Husbands are you supporting your wives once the decision has been made. Are you affirming it as a JOINT decision? Are you anticipating and dealing with the guilt your wife is no doubt feeling?
3) Husbands might you be the one responsible for your wife going back to work because you want her money to support a lifestyle you want? Or are you ready to sacrifice, financially to protect her place in the home.
4) Husbands do you know you wife? Do you understand her desires and capacities? Are you speaking the gospel into this situation to ensure that gospel thinking is driving the decision?
How men should do their work
The question of how to ensure that the family thrives isn’t just about the wife’s work but how the husband does his work too. Wouldn’t it be a tragedy for mum to give up work to be available for her children but for Dad to be no-where to be seen. For wives to sacrifice their working lives but husbands not even to change their working patterns when raising the same children.
So 10 reflections for the Dads on the way you work when kids come along.
1. Are you an absentee father? Children need their fathers as much as their mothers. A wife at home is not an excuse for a life at work.
2. Agree a time (if at all possible) when you’ll be home that day. It gives something for your spouse to work towards. Don’t think ‘just another half hour at work’ without also thinking what impact might it have on my wife.
3. Do you get home from work to see your children, play with them, ask them about their day and most importantly read the Bible and pray with them? You need to take the lead in spiritual matters.
4. How do you sacrifice in your work for the sake of your wife and children? Do you think they notice?
5. Are you quick to share responsibilities in the home when you return? Do you look for ways to help out? Do you ensure your wife gets at least a short break from the kids?
6. Are you pro-active in asking your wife how her day has been? Do you take a genuine interest?
7. Do you take a genuine interest in how the children are?
8. What about the weekend. Is your job Monday to Friday but your wife’s job Monday to Sunday? Do you give your wife a break by taking the children out for a morning, day, etc. on a Saturday?
9. Do you lead in the marriage in spiritual matters by praying with and for your wife in her new role?
10. If your wife works for money might you consider dropping a day a week at work to care for your children?
How frustrating must it be to the atheist to see yet another atheist state fail in its attempt to secularise society. No matter how many generations of children are raised to believe the materialist mantra that there is nothing worth believing in except that which can be seen and measured and understood by science God doesn’t seem to play fair. He just won’t go away.
According to a recent article in The Economist there are now more Christians in China than there are members of the Communist Party. 73 million atheists makes up the ruling party there are somewhere between 70 and 130 million Christians!
Even an official Chinese study suggests that 1 in 3 Chinese people are religious.
Maybe it’s the personal struggle to accept that your life is of no significance or maybe the sociological darkness of deliberate oppression and outright hostility to faith of atheism or could it be the philosophical barrenness of embracing a hostile universe as home that creates the perfect environment for God to work? I’m not sure. But spare a thought for atheism. It just doesn’t seem to work.
The Apostle Paul writes:
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?
‘Jesus didn’t come to tell us how to get to heaven’ or ‘what happens when you switch off before the end of the story Jesus is telling.’
We don’t spend enough time thinking about heaven so any book that devotes 40 pages to the subject is a good thing, or at least should be. Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a book that wants to take a fresh look at the Church’s understanding of heaven and hell. The promotional video that kicked off a huge debate did so by raising a variety of questions that Bell sets out to answer in the book.
Bell’s claim is that the church has got heaven and hell wrong and that it is time to set straight the story Jesus came to tell and to reclaim it.
There are a growing number of us who have become acutely aware that Jesus’s story has been hijacked by a number of other stories, stories Jesus isn’t interested in telling, because they have nothing to do with what he came to do. The plot has been lost, and it’s time to reclaim it.
I’ve decided to start my review with the chapter on Heaven. Why? Well it’s the longest in the book, easily the best chapter in the book.and also the least controversial. There are still serious problems with even this chapter 3 of which are highlighted below.
How should we think about heaven?
Bell starts by questioning the evangelical understanding that he inherited as heaven as somewhere else; as somewhere other-worldly, disconnected and unrelated to our present lives. In the chapter he challenges two big assumptions evangelicals carry around with them.
Heaven as somewhere else.
Heaven as something else. Something unreal. ‘harps and clouds and streets of gold, everybody dressed in white robes.’ Heaven as a never-ending church service!
Bell turns to Jesus and his encounter with a rich young man in Matthew 19 . The man asks Jesus a great question ‘Teacher, what good thing must I do to get eternal life?’
Bell is curious as to why Jesus doesn’t simply tell this man the ‘gospel’. Why doesn’t he call on him to repent and believe in Jesus but rather say ‘if you want to enter life, obey the commandments’
He suggests that maybe Jesus bottled it and ‘blew a perfectly good ‘evangelistic’ opportunity? (p.29)
But here is Bell’s surprising conclusion:
When the man asks about getting ‘eternal life,’ he isn’t’ asking about how to get to heaven when he dies. This wasn’t a concern for the man or Jesus. This is why Jesus doesn’t tell people how to ‘go to heaven.’ It wasn’t what Jesus came to do. (p,30)
Jesus, Bell suggests, is not interested in heaven as much as he is concerned to teach about ‘this age’ and ‘the age to come’ Continue reading »
A remarkable testimony of the power of the gospel to deal not just with our past but to prepare us for our future.
And a true testimony to how God’s grace is sufficient even in unimaginable trials.
Zac Smith went to be with the Lord in May 2010.
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