Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the third talk.
Good morning. We are pleased to have you with us this morning for the last in our three week series ‘If I could ask God one question.’ If you missed either of our first two in the series ‘God, why don’t you make it more obvious’ and ‘God why did you create a world of misery’ then do listen on-line via our web site or download the City Church App (IPhone) (Android).
This morning we look at the question that more people wanted to hear an answer to than any other; ‘God, if you’re a loving God, why do you send people to hell?’ Almost a quarter of the 500 people who voted asked for an answer to this question. And no wonder. Hell is an emotive topic. We naturally find ourselves asking ‘what possible reason could a God of love have for punishing people in hell for all eternity?’ British Philosopher Bertrand Russell took issue with the person of Jesus at precisely this point when he wrote ‘There is one very serious defect to my mind in Christ’s moral character, and that is that He believed in hell. I do not myself feel that any person who is really profoundly humane can believe in everlasting punishment.’ And I guess, if we are honest, hell is in some sense an idea that we would all wish away.
So is it really possible to ever get to a point where we could believe in and even love a God who sends people to hell? It’s my job this morning to demonstrate that we can trust God even if we cannot fully understand this matter. We may not find every answer to every question we could ask but I trust we can find enough reassurance to trust God with what we can’t know. So I want to start with the fact that
1. We long for a God of Justice
I’m sure we all know the song Imagine by John Lennon. Rolling Stone ranked it number three in their list of “The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time“. So iconic is it that its played every year just before the New Year’s Times Square Ball drops in New York City. It is an anthem for our times; I won’t try to sing it but I think we know the words;
Imagine there’s no heaven
It’s easy if you try
No hell below us
Above us only sky
Imagine all the people
Living for today…
Maybe it seems obvious to you that the universe is a much better place without hell and you can see why. Yet, I’m not sure if when we really stop to think about it that we really believe John Lennon. I find an awful lot of evidence to suggest that we do not want to believe we live in a world where people do evil things and get away with it. Just on Friday I read the following on the BBC website ‘lawyers are now representing at least 20 men and one woman, including the 12 residents of children’s homes, who say they were abused by former MP Lord Janner.’ With Jimmy Saville no charges have ever been brought, many of those who perpetrated crimes against humanity from Nazi Germany to Rwanda, Bosnia to IS in Northern Iraq. We ask ourselves will justice be done and ever be seen to be done?
In his autobiographical book about death, Nothing to Be Frightened Of, Julian Barnes, effectively, says ‘no chance.’ As an atheist he writes: “It is difficult for us to contemplate, fixedly, the possibility, let alone the certainty, that life is a matter of cosmic hazard, its fundamental purpose mere self-perpetuation, that it unfolds in emptiness, that our planet will one day drift in frozen silence, and that the human species will completely disappear and not be missed, because there is nobody and nothing out there to miss us. That is what growing up means. And it is frightening prospect for a race that has for so long relied on its own invented gods for consolation.” If you look for justice, and if you ask for justice, then ultimately you are naïve and immature. ‘Grow up’ says Julian Barnes.
Breaking Bad is one of the greatest TV series of the last 10 years winning 16 Emmy awards. The creator and producer Vince Gilligan said in an interview in the New York Times back in 2011
‘I hate the idea of Idi Amin living in Saudi Arabia for the last 25 years of his life. That galls me to no end. I feel some sort of need for biblical atonement, or justice, or something. I like to believe there is some comeuppance, that karma kicks in at some point, even if it takes years or decades to happen. My girlfriend says this great thing that’s become my philosophy as well. “I want to believe there’s a heaven. But I can’t not believe there’s a hell.” ‘ There is in each one of us a cry for justice. Whether that arises from the cast iron penalty Aston Villa should have had yesterday against Leicester to justice for Stephen Lawrence.
And so we say it would be evil of God not to judge. What kind of God just stands by and allows wicked people to get away with it? If God does exist we do hope that he is a God of justice.
And there are so many places in the Bible where God’s people cry out for justice. We read in Psalm 82:2-4, 8.
“How long will you defend the unjust
and show partiality to the wicked?
Defend the weak and the fatherless;
uphold the cause of the poor and the oppressed.
Rescue the weak and the needy;
deliver them from the hand of the wicked.
Rise up, O God, judge the earth,
for all the nations are your inheritance.’
So here is my first point, it is the fact that God is a God of justice that means he must judge and that is the loving thing for God to do. God’s is a God of love but a God of love has also to be a God of justice demonstrate that love. He defends the cause of the innocent and he will put right every wrong. In our passage (2 Thess.1:1-10) and v.6. we read these words, ‘God is just: he will pay back trouble to those who trouble you and give relief to you who are troubled and us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with his powerful angels.’
For God to be good he must judge –and that is why judgement is always presented in the Bible as a good thing – because it shows that justice matters
It is because God is good, just and loving that there is a hell.
(I am indebted to a talk by Robin Whaley given at the Cambridge Inter-Collegiate Christian Union for many of the good ideas that feature in this first point).
We might well accept that justice should catch up finally with Adolf Hitler or Joseph Stalin or mass murderers
2. But isn’t hell too extreme?
The thought that hell might be a place where ordinary people like you and me are punished and not just tyrants and dictators seems completely over the top.
Let me say two things in response to that fair concern
a) There are degrees of punishment
Because God is just not everyone will receive the same punishment
We read in Matthew 11:20-24
Then Jesus began to denounce the towns in which most of his miracles had been performed, because they did not repent. 21 “Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable for Tyre and Sidon on the day of judgment than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be lifted to the heavens? No, you will go down to Hades. For if the miracles that were performed in you had been performed in Sodom, it would have remained to this day. 24 But I tell you that it will be more bearable for Sodom on the day of judgment than for you.”
b) God’s punishment fits the crime – it is proportionate
One thing we do have to grasp is what hell is the punishment for.
We might well think that the most serious sin is hurting another person, especially an innocent child or destroying the environment. And indeed God will hold us to account for all wrong actions.
But the sin that the Bible says condemns us is refusing to love the one person to whom we owe everything – that is God. Michael Ots has said ‘Sin is serious because it is ultimately not against people but against God himself.’ And sometimes it is not what we do but who we do it against that makes all the difference.
So, if I betray the confidence of a friend by telling others of her secrets then that is wrong but it’s unlikely to be a crime but if I betray my country by telling another country its secrets then that is treason -a very serious crime. A number of years ago during a press conference at the Prime Minister’s Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, journalist Muntadhar al-Zaidi threw his shoes at the United States President George W. Bush. “This is a farewell kiss from the Iraqi people, you dog!” yelled al-Zaidi in Arabic as he threw his shoes. President Bush ducked twice, avoiding being hit. I’m sure people throw shoes all the time in arguments but to throw your shoe at the leader of the free world as you call him a dog is quite a different thing. That is not an attack on an individual but an attack on everything he stands for as President.
The sin that sends to hell is to snub not a president but the God who made us and sustains us. It is to dishonour him and insult him.
We read again in 2 Thess. 1:8-9, ‘He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. And in one sense the punishment fits the crime because hell is to exist without God for ever.
They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord.’
So, yes, hell is a punishment from God and the Bible says it is proportionate. I know that might be very difficult to understand and to accept. The natural response is to reject out-of-hand such unpallitable truths. But listen to the advice of Francis Chan, from his book Erasing Hell ‘Don’t believe something just because you want to, and don’t embrace an idea just because you’ve always believed it. Believe what is biblical. Test all your assumptions against the words God gave us in the Bible.’ And so therefore let me say a few things that I hope might help us further as we wrestle with this difficult idea.
3. Does God send people to hell?
In some sense I want to take issue with the question ‘if you are a God of love why do you send people to hell’ by asking are we right to say that it is God who sends people to hell?
It is true that hell is a punishment from God but it is also the natural consequence of rejecting God. Hell is separation from God and all the good things he’s made – so if in our lives we are making it clear that we want nothing to do with him and want him out of our lives – then hell is getting everything we’ve wanted all our lives and getting it forever.
CS Lewis writes in the Great Divorce, “There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.” All that are in Hell, choose it. Without that self-choice there could be no Hell. No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it. Those who seek find. Those who knock it is opened.” In some sense hell is a place for people who would rather live without God but then find that when we die we don’t end and our self-absorbed, self-centred life, our life without God goes on and on forever.
4. God takes no delight in hell
God is just, hell is real but please remember that God does not desire that any should perish in this way. It’s a common enough view to think of hell as some kind of medieval torture chamber in which God takes some kind of sadistic pleasure in punishing people but really that could not be further from the truth. That simply isn’t the Bible’s view.
Throughout the Bible we meet a God who is patient with people wanting people to turn to him. We read in Ezekiel 33:11 ‘Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’
I really don’t think it is too much to say that God hates hell and he hates people going there. And that is why he delays his judgement.
2 Peter 3:9 says ‘The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.’ If you are someone who is thinking right now I’m really not sure where I might spend eternity, then let me say this – there is still time for you. The one who talked more about hell than any other is Jesus Christ himself. And yet the wonderful news of the gospel is that. ..
5. Christ came to save people from hell
When Jesus came into our world he didn’t come just to us against hell – he came to rescue us from hell itself. That is the difference between what we might call religion in general and Christianity in particular.
The world over religion is like a leaflet printed by life-guards to warn you of danger. Christianity is like the life-guard who runs into the surf to rescue you. Jesus said that his whole purpose in coming into our world was to seek and save the lost and he saw his death as the very means by which he would do so.
We read in Mark’s gospel Mark 15:33-34,
‘At noon, darkness came over the whole land until three in the afternoon. And at three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).‘ And then in v.37-38, ‘With a loud cry, Jesus breathed his last. The curtain of the temple was torn in two from top to bottom.’
The cloud of darkness represented God’s judgement, the cry of Jesus on the cross was his experience of God-forsakenness and the curtain torn in two the moment Jesus died is the visible sign that Jesus death makes it possible for us to be reconciled to God.
Whatever I do not understand about hell I do understand this – the one who spoke of hell more than any other, was willing to go through hell on the cross that you and I might not have to.
The choice we have is whether we want to pay for our sin ourselves or turn to Jesus and accept that he has suffered hell for us that we might not have to.
This morning we’ve asked God a question and we’ve considered something of the answer that the Bible gives. It might not be the answer we were hoping for, but what we learn is that God is a God who isn’t always easy to understand, and whose ways are far beyond us; a God whose thoughts are much higher than our thoughts. Do you have a problem with hell? Good. Can I urge you not to let those problems push you away from God. For it is true that Jesus had a problem with hell. He preached about hell, he warned about hell with tears in his eyes, he suffered and died to keep you out of hell.
Let me say two things as we close.
a) When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to be wrong.
Antony Flew many years before he ever became a believer in God wrote in his book God and Philosophy ‘If there is a chance at all that we are in danger of some unending misery, then knowledge which might show us how this is to be avoided must become overwhelmingly important.
b) When it comes to hell, we can’t afford to delay
Scientist and mathematician Blaise Pascal said ‘Between heaven and hell is only this life, which is the most fragile thing in the world.’
Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the second talk and for the audio click here.
Good morning and welcome to City Church. A special welcome if you’re visiting us this morning.
As part of our short series ‘If I could ask God one question . . .‘ we’re looking this morning at the second of the three questions we voted we would most like to ask God from our survey over Christmas time. Twenty-one percent of the 500+ votes cast were for this one; ‘God, why did you create a world with so much misery?‘
‘How are atheists produced? asked George Bernard Shaw” ‘ln probably nine cases out of ten, what happens is something like this. A beloved wife or husband or child or sweethearts is gnawed to death by cancer, stultified by epilepsy, stuck dumb and helpless by apoplexy or strangled by croup or diphtheria; and the looker-on, after praying vainly to God to refrain from such horrible and wanton cruelty, indignantly repudiates faith in the divine monster, and becomes not merely indifferent and sceptical, but fiercely and actively hostile to religion.‘
There is a certain logic to Bernard Shaw’s point isn’t there.
A) The problem of pain
Our world is a world full of pain and suffering so if God exists he must be to blame. There are, finally, so the argument goes, only three possibilities; either God is not good in which case he is not worthy of our worship, or he’s not sovereign in which case he’s not really God at all or he doesn’t exist.
Well what can Christians say in response. I don’t want to suggest that in the short time we have that I can possibly do justice to this question. Not least because for so many of us suffering has a very personal dimension. Maybe you are someone here this morning for whom this is a very difficult question because you are right now experiencing it.
But I do want to offer some pointers that will help us.
And I want to start with the question as put – is God responsible for creating our broken world? In our evening series ‘In the beginning – Genesis 1-3‘ that ran through the autumn up to Christmas we gave quite a bit of time to thinking about the world that God had made and what went wrong. We saw that the Bible is quick to point out that when God created the world he created it good. At the end of the creation account in Genesis 1v.31 we read ‘God saw all that he had made and it was good.’ So, the Bible insists that the problem of pain does not lie at the hands of a faulty designer.
Rather, what we see in chapters 2 and 3 of Genesis is that in making human beings God made them good and to be in relationship with Him but he also made them with the freedom to choose good or evil. And pain, suffering and misery only entered our world after the first human beings choose rather than to obey God to decided to do his own thing without reference to God. It is from that first rebellion that suffering entered our world.
So, as Philosopher Peter Kreeft puts it, ‘the source of evil is not God’s power but mankind’s freedom.’ Death itself enters our world and human beings begin to function in selfish and cruel ways. The whole created order itself is fragmented. This is what our world looks like when humanity turns from its creator and to selfish ruin.
But, as many have suggested, that doesn’t quite let God off the hook. If people only got hurt because they did something sinful or just plain stupid that would be one thing but it’s the fact that suffering seems so random and out of proportion that troubles us.
Here is how theologian John Stott puts it in his book the Cross of Christ ‘the fact of suffering undoubtedly constitutes the single greatest challenge to the Christian faith, and has been in every generation. Its distribution and degree appear to be entirely random and therefore unfair. Sensitive spirits ask if it can possibly be reconciled with God’s justice and love.’
It’s not just that the innocent and vulnerable suffer but so often they suffer the most? Isn’t God just vindictive and cruel to allow it? I want to highlight three responses the Christian can make in just a moment but before I do let me say that the problem of suffering isn’t just a problem for believers.
B) The problem for atheism
On the surface atheist seems a better option. Maybe it’s easier to believe that it’s not a God that causes random suffering but a random universe that results in random suffering. But I want to suggest that the problem for atheism is that we find it almost impossible to live with the atheists conclusion to the suffering question. Human beings seem unable to settle for the answer that ‘stuff happens’ and we yearn for a higher answer. Doesn’t the fact that after the recent terrorist attacks in Paris that the phrase that trended in the social media was #Pray for Paris suggest so?
After the Boston Marathon bombings Eleanor Barkhorn wrote a piece for The Atlantic entitled Why People Prayed for Boston on Twitter and Facebook, and Then Stopped. In the article she comments on the “Pray for Boston” messages. Here’s what she then wrote ‘It was jarring . . It was . . .strange to see so many non-religious friends talking about prayer. The majority of my Facebook friends who wrote about praying aren’t especially observant. . .what I saw on Twitter and Facebook . . wasn’t just faithful people reminding other faithful people to . . .pray. It was also the non-religious invoking prayer.’(HT: Tim Keller, Walking With God Through Pain and Suffering)
In the same article she also tells of her own journey to faith as a secular New Yorker after the attack on the Twin Towers in 9/11. She describes how ‘an involuntary urge to call on God’s name’ grew into a full-blown Christian faith.
The problem for atheism is that we seem unable to accept that suffering is a brute fact. We can’t or won’t just get over ourselves. We insist of seeking meaning in suffering. As Tim Keller notes in ‘Walking with God’ ‘the secular view of life simply does not work for most people in the face of suffering.’
What’s more, as CS Lewis himself came to discover, the argument used by atheists against the existence of God in the face of suffering, actually, quite inadvertently, serves to bolster the argument for God. You see here’s the problem of pain for the atheist:why do we feel not just pain but moral outrage in the face of innocent suffering?
Evolution might explain the pain but it can’t account for outrage. Moral outrage is more than saying it hurts – it’s saying it’s wrong.
Stephen Fry’s answer to Gay Bryne’s question ‘What will Stephen Fry say to God?’ on the programme The Meaning of Life is full of such outrage. Here’s what Stephen Fry had to say:
‘I’d say, “Bone cancer in children? What’s that about? How dare you? How dare you create a world to which there is such misery that is not our fault. It’s not right, it’s utterly, utterly evil. Why should I respect a capricious, mean-minded, stupid God who creates a world that is so full of injustice and pain?” That’s what I would say.’
There is moral outrage. He talks not just about pain but the moral categories of evil and injustice. Fry seems to suggest that God has failed to do the right thing. He is guilty of breaking a moral standard. But where does an atheist get the idea of an absolute moral standard from in the first place and by what standard are we judging how anyone ought to behave?
Fellow atheists Richard Dawkins is been honest enough to admit in River out of Eden:
‘The universe we observe has … no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind, pitiless indifference. … DNA neither knows nor cares. DNA just is. And we dance to its music.’
The simple fact is that there is no place for moral outrage in an amoral universe. To even use the language of good or evil, or right or wrong is to assume things that can’t exist without God. As Keller notes in making the argument Stephen Fry makes ‘in a sense, you are relying on God to make an argument against God.’ CS Lewis came to conclude that our awareness of moral evil was in reality an argument for the existence of God, not against it. For surely, if I believe in evil I must believe in God.
But can we find any hope and reassurance in the face of suffering that God does indeed know what he is doing?
What I’d like to do in the remainder of the time we have is suggest three answers to the problem of pain from the Bible. I don’t claim any of them are answers that fully resolve all of our questions but I do think that they are comfort and reassurance
1) God’s purpose in our pain.
Could we possibly ever come to accept that God himself might be at work in our suffering?
The Bible affirms just this point to suggest that God uses suffering to help us find not just temporary happiness but ultimate meaning. In Romans 5:3-4 the Apostle Paul expresses it this way: ‘We also glory in our sufferings, because we know that suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope.’
That is not to in any way suggest that this process is easy or automatic. There is a whole book of the Bible, called Job, in which we find a believer in God struggling to come to terms with his suffering. And he doesn’t hold back from God. Here he is speaking to God early in the book (Job 3:11-16, NIV).
“Why did I not perish at birth, and die as I came from the womb?
Why were there knees to receive me and breasts that I might be nursed?
For now I would be lying down in peace; I would be asleep and at rest
with kings and counsellors of the earth, who built for themselves places now lying in ruins,
with rulers who had gold, who filled their houses with silver.
Or why was I not hidden in the ground like a stillborn child, like an infant who never saw the light of day?”
Job’s sense of sadness in his suffering is revealed in 6:2;
“If only my anguish could be weighed and all my misery be placed on the scales! It would surely outweigh the sand of the seas.”
Job’s pain is raw and real. He does not take it passively, yet by the end of the book he is a man who has found his suffering has changed him and changed him for the better. He comes to a point where he is ready to trust God but not because God has given him an intellectual answer. Job 42:5 ‘My ears had heard of you but now my eyes have seen you.’ Could it be that God allows us to suffer because there are lessons we learn about ourselves and God that we could ever have learned in other ways. By the end Job realised that more important than the ‘why’ question was the ‘who’ question.
One of the things that I’ve seen in my time as a church pastor is that the bad news or tragic circumstances that might at first push us away from God seem to have the habit of bringing us back to him. What makes suffering a particular challenge in our western culture is that as secular people we often have no higher goal than our own comfort and sense of happiness. And that leaves little or no room to learn through adversity and struggle and pain in our world-view.
Let me ask you this question ‘could God have a purpose in our pain?’ I have seen it happen too many times.
Fiona was a member of our congregation for a number of years and she suffered from a degenerative disease of her nervous system – not too dissimilar from Stephen Hawking. It was a horrible disease – the result was that little by little her body was failing her. She was interviewed at the front of the church shortly before she died – by which time she could not move any of her limbs and had little control over her head. She was going deaf, her eye-sight was failing her and she could only speak very slowly and deliberately yet she could still say ‘I would rather be in this wheelchair and know Jesus than be able-bodied and not.’For her eternal happiness – a relationship with God – trumped everything. Even a life that most people would pity.
If you’ve come this morning to church and your first thought is that God’s job is to simply make you happy – well first, you’ll be disappointed because that isn’t how life works, and secondly, you’ll never make sense of the deeper work that God wants to do in your life.What if God’s purpose is not to make me happy in this world – in a simply superficial sense – what if his goal is more to make you happy in the next? What if suffering could be redemptive?
The book of Job teaches us that God knows what he’s doing and we can trust him.
The great news this morning is that God has more to say
2) God experiences our pain
John Stott was honest enough to say ‘I could never myself believe in God, if it were not for the cross . . .In the real world of pain, how could one worship a God who was immune to it?’The comfort and consolation for any of us experiencing suffering is that if the gospel of Jesus Christ is true then we can say ‘God knows exactly what I’m going through.’
Tim Keller comments ‘we do not know the reason God allows evil and suffering to continue, or why it is so random, but now at least we know what the reason is not. It cannot be that he does not love us. It cannot be that he doesn’t care. He is so committed to our ultimate happiness that he was willing to plunge into the greatest depths of suffering himself. He understands us, he has been there, and he assures us that he has a plan to eventually wipe away every tear. Someone might say, “But that’s only half an answer to the question ‘Why?’ Yes, but it is the half we need.’
In a room of this size there will be some who have experienced suffering at the hands of another. Things that have been said or done that should not have happened to anyone – acts of hate or spite, criminal offenses for which no charge has ever been brought. And you struggle to ever think that God could have allowed these things to happen to you. I don’t have an answer but I would like to ask you to consider the fact that it was the ultimate act of evil that resulted in the ultimate good. the very worst thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the death of Jesus – the supreme example of innocent suffering – ended up resulting in the very best thing that has ever happened in the history of the world – the salvation of sinners.
Yet, it wasn’t obvious was it. Maybe like you wonder what was going on in the minds of the disciples at the time. But was it not something like this ‘Lord, this is the best man that has ever lived. How can you allow this to happen? How can you abandon him? What possible reason could you allow this innocent man to suffer?’ It would be some time before they would really understand.
As Peter Kreeft comments ‘I don’t know why God allows evil things to happen, but I am glad that he did allow one evil thing to happen – He allowed Jesus to die on the cross.’
3) God will bring an end to pain
Pain is hard and suffering is real but for all of those who trust in Jesus Christ there is still a great hope for the future.
Paul writes in Romans 8:18 (NIV) ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’
One of the problems of pain is that evil people seem to get away with hurting others and we ask How can God do nothing? And God’s answer is that people aren’t getting away with it. For there is a judgement day to come and on that day God will right every wrong. At last, justice will be done and be seen to be done – fully and perfectly. And God will bring about a new world. We read of the future in our reading from Revelation 21:1-5 (NIV);
“Then I saw “a new heaven and a new earth,” for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. 2 I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. 3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, “Look! God’s dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. 4 ‘He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death’or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.”
It will be a new world in which there will be no more suffering, misery or death. It is of course the world we all want.
Horatio Spafford is the author of the hymn ‘when peace like a river’ and we’ll be singing it together in a few minutes. An American lawyer Spafford decided that he, his wife and four daughters should enjoy a holiday in England. Delayed by business he sent his wife and four children on ahead. The ship they were on the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship midway across the Atlantic. All four of Spafford’s children drowned, only his wife survived. The pain of such a loss must have been unbelievable. Later Spafford set sail to join his wife in England and the ship’s captain showed him the very place where his daughters lives were lost. It was on this journey, in the depths of his grief that he penned the hymn;
When peace like a river, attends all my way,
When sorrows like sea-billows roll
Whatever my path, you have taught me to say,
‘It is well, it is well with my soul.’
The tune to which we sing it is called Ville du Havre – the name of the ship on which his daughters lives were lost.
Is misery the inevitable consequence of suffering? No. Our three reasons for confidence offer us hope and reassurance that God is working through our suffering, that he knows our suffering personally and that he will bring in an end to our suffering.
Gerald Sittser wrote a book entitled A Grace Disguised in which he describes the horrendous fall-out of losing his wife, two daughters and mother-in-law in a car crash caused by a drunk driver coming the other way.
Yet his conclusion is a testimony to God’s grace even in his suffering;
‘I am still not over it; I have still not recovered. I still wish my life were different and were alive. The accident remains a horrible, tragic, and evil event to me. But I have changed and grown. . . What I once considered mutually exclusive – sorrow and joy, pain and pleasure, death and life – have become part of a greater whole. My soul has been stretched. My soul has grown because it has been awakened to the goodness and love of God. Though I have endured pain. I believe that the outcome is going to be wonderful.’
As we read in Revelation 21:6 (NIV) ‘He who was seated on the throne said, ‘I am making everything new!’
Over Christmas 2015 at City Church Birmingham we invited those who visited our Carol services to take part in a poll to identify the three most important questions that we would like to ask God. On January 3rd, 10th and 17th each question is answered in turn. Here are my notes that provide a reasonably accurate transcript from the first talk (you can also listen to the talk here).
If you were here over the Christmas period then you’ll know that we’re giving these first three Sunday mornings of January to discovering how the Bible helps us answer three really important questions about God. They are the three most popular questions as voted for by you from the over 500 votes cast over Christmas. And the question we are starting with this morning wasn’t the most popular question voted for in our poll but 21% of people did vote for it. And it is a really important question for our times – it’s this; ‘God, if you’re there, why don’t you make yourself more obvious?’
Now that’s a question important for all of us whether we would call ourselves Christians or are taking a look at Christianity because there are plenty of people who think God isn’t playing straight with us. When I play hide and seek with my youngest son the one thing I know is that he wants to be found – for him that’s actually the best bit – he’s not going to stay hidden for long. Well if God is there why doesn’t he do more? Maybe like many others out there you wonder why God if he were there wouldn’t choose to make himself clearer. Why doesn’t he make it blindingly obvious? Surely there is no good reason why God would hide and remain hidden from us. Well in one short talk this morning I hope you won’t ask too much of me. The best I can do is sketch some kind of response.
So, I want to start this morning by suggesting
A. God has made himself clearer than we might think
Now if you’re challenge to Christianity goes something like ‘if what you’re saying is true, then you ought to be able to prove it’ then I’m in trouble. Because the truth is that I can’t prove God’s existence as if it could be solved through a mathematical formula or a scientific experiment. The truth is that there is very little that can be proved in that way.
The reality is that none of the things that really matter to us can be proved mathematically or scientifically and yet I’m sure as I can be that they are true.
Let me give you three examples:
‘My wife loves me’
‘Mozart was a genius’
‘Murder is wrong’
I believe that each of those statements are true and what’s more I don’t think that there is anyone who can tell me otherwise. But I can’t prove them. Most of the things I believe about the world cannot be proven scientifically.
But what I can do for each of those claims is look at all the evidence and ask what makes best sense of evidence – what offers the best explanation.
I want to sketch what I think should be the beginning of the answer this morning by looking at four pieces of evidence that God isn’t hiding from us but rather has made himself clearer than we might think
1) God reveals himself through creation
We read in Psalm 19:1-2 (NIV),
The heavens declare the glory of the God; the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech; night after night they reveal knowledge.
Through-out human history and indeed for the majority of people in our world today the very universe is a declaration of God’s existence. And yet in the western world over the past 200 years we have rejected this evidence because we have increasingly argued that science tells us all we need to know without God.But I would argue that modern science rather than make it harder to believe in God is giving us more and more reason to believe that he is there.
Professor Anthony Flew of Reading University was an outspoken atheist and critic of religious belief. But later in life he had a quite dramatic conversion from atheism to theism. He came to believe in God and he wrote a book about it. He gave it this title: There is a God – how the world’s most notorious atheist changed his mind…
In it he writes ‘I now believe that the universe was brought into existence by an infinite Intelligence….why do I believe this, given that I expounded and defended atheism for more than a half century?’ ‘The short answer is this: this is the world picture, as I see it, that has emerged from modern science.’
Flew argues that science, far from disproving God, makes it pretty much impossible to explain our universe as we know it as an accident. The mathematics are truly staggering. Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the expansion rate of the universe was different by one part in a hundred thousand million million one second after the big bang the universe would have either collapsed back on itself or never developed galaxies. If the gravitational force were different by 1 part in 10 (40) our sun would not exist.
Flew, looks to modern science and finds overwhelming reason to believe in a god. For him as a philosopher it was simply no longer credible to believe that this universe of law and order, of complexity and apparent design could have originated from nothing.
And to those who remain sceptical Flew put the following challenge: ‘What should have to occur or to have occurred to constitute for us a reason to at least consider the existence of a superior Mind?’
Arnos Penzias is an American physicist, radio astronomer and Nobel laureate in physics who co-discovered the cosmic microwave background radiation, which served to establish the Big Bang theory of the origins of the universe.
Rather strikingly he stated in the New York Times, ‘The best data we have . . are exactly what I would have predicted, had I nothing to go on but the five books of Moses, the Psalms and the Bible as a whole.’
2) God reveals himself through conscience
It’s not just the universe out there through which God is speaking, it is also what is going on in our very minds that reveals God to us. Quite simply the things that matter most to us as human beings – truth, beauty, love, right and wrong, depend on God. If there were no god the most basic truths of reality that cover the most important aspects of life would lose their foundation for meaning.
Will Provine, a Professor of the history of Science at Cornell University in the US in a debate not many years before his death: ‘Let me summarize my views on what modern evolutionary biology tells us loud and clear . . .There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind. There is no life after death. When I die, I am absolutely certain that I am going to be dead. That’s the end for me.’
And the result of such thinking becomes clear in his conclusion:
‘There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans either.’
In a similar vein Biologist Stephen Jay Gould when asked the question ‘What is the meaning of life?’ for Life Magazine concluded ‘we are here because one odd group of fishes had a peculiar fin anatomy that could transform into legs for terrestrial creatures; because the earth never froze entirely during an ice age; because a small and tenuous species, arising in Africa a quarter of a million years ago, has managed, so far, to survive by hook and by crook. We may yearn for a ‘higher’ answer — but none exists.‘
But I’m not sure any of us can live that way. In fact I’m sure that we all insist on living as if the world had meaning.
If you revisit the trials of the Nazis at Nuremberg 23 of the most important political and military leaders of the Third Reich what is striking is how many of them refused to recognize their crimes or to apologize in any way at all. They went to their deaths unrepentant. Now if there is no God, no right or wrong, or higher answer, then who’s to say.
Tim Keller in Reason for God writes ‘the Nazi’s who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it. We do not only have moral feelings, but we also have an ineradicable belief that moral standards exist, outside of us, by which our internal moral feelings are evaluated.’
And the Bible says that our conscience – our moral compass- has been put there by God. God’s standards revealed in the Bible are also written on our human hearts. In Romans 2:15 (NIV) we read ‘the requirements of the law are written on their hearts, their consciences also bearing witness, and their thoughts sometimes accusing them and at other times even defending them.’
God isn’t a nice idea he is a necessary being if all the things that matter most to us (love, truth, right, wrong, . . . ) are to survive. And so the very fact that we refuse to tolerate living in a world without meaning is God’s way of speaking to us.
3) God reveals himself through Christ
Our reading this morning was taken from the very beginning of a letter called Hebrews in our Bible and we read of how God has spoken through-out history to his people but THE way in which he has spoken to the world is through his Son. In Hebrews 1:1-4 (NIV) we read
‘In the past God spoke to our ancestors through the prophets at many times and in various ways, but in these last days he has spoken to us by his Son, whom he appointed heir of all things, and through whom also he made the universe. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being, sustaining all things by his powerful word. After he had provided purification for sins, he sat down at the right hand of the Majesty in heaven.’
The most remarkable claim of the Bible is that God is far from hidden away in the sky. But has actually entered our world in the person of Jesus Christ. I know of one Christian who when asked ‘Have you ever seen God?’ liked to reply ‘I would have seen God if I had lived at the right time. Have you seen Queen Victoria?’
At the heart of my confidence that God is there is the person of Jesus. We read ‘the Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being.’ Only Christianity claims that God has spoken by turning up personally in our world. And the great news is that we can investigate that for ourselves. We can read one of the gospels – discover what happened in the life of Jesus.
For as we read we learn all about the character of God – what he makes of us – what he wants from us.
Romans: 5:6-8 (NIV) ‘ You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. 7 Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. 8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.’
4) God reveals himself through the church
God is at work in the world today building his church. The church remains imperfect in so many ways but the testimony of many who have found God to be real is that one of the things that helped them to arrive is getting to know other Christians. Seeing a little bit more at first hand the difference God makes to individual lives and to the lives of a community. We read in a letter written by the apostle Paul to the Ephesians (3:10-12, NIV)
‘His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms, according to his eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus.’
If you’re trying to discover whether God is there can I invite you to keep coming. Decide for yourself whether there is anything in the life of the church here at City that suggests God is at work amongst us – in our relationships and community. Next Sunday we’ll be looking at our second question ‘Why did you create a world with so much misery?’ and then as we do once a month here at City we’ll be staying on for a church bring and share lunch. We’d love you to stay for that.
So those are four reasons why I think it’s fair to say God is far from hidden away.
1. The extraordinary odds against our universe even existing is evidence of a creator God. Our universe could simply have not happened by accident.
2. Our own consciences testify that atheism cannot be true. We simply refuse to live as if morality is false.
3. In Jesus Christ God has entered our world. His death for our sin is God’s great statement that he is a God who is for us not against us and his resurrection from the dead as an evident in history
4. The church is a living testimony to the difference knowing God makes and I encourage you to take a closer look.
When the evidence is taken all together I want to suggest that it’s not just a possibility but it is in fact the only explanation that makes sense of all the evidence.
I don’t know what your favourite tv viewing was over the Christmas time – mine had to be All Aboard! The Sleigh Ride. It featured a traditional reindeer sleigh fixed with a camera and featured two Sami women – the Sami people live in the artic circle – pulled by reindeer across the snows of the north in temperatures of minus 20 degrees.
And one fact in the programme grabbed my attention – between the months of November and February the Sami people do not see the sun in the sky. There is some daylight but no sight of the sun itself it is too low on the horizon.
They know the Sun is there – they feel its effect but they do not see it. And it reminded me of something Oxford Professor CS Lewis who became a Christian having been an atheist at the age of 30 once wrote:
‘I believe in Christianity as I believe that the sun has risen: not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.’
Ass we draw towards our close I want also to say
B. God is willing to make himself clear to you
Here’s a question : ‘If God is there, would you want to know?’ Maybe there could be some truth in the suggestion that it’s not so much that God has hidden from us as much as we are not sure whether we want to find God. I wonder whether I could respectfully ask whether there is just a possibility that the problem could be on our side at least in part. I have friends who have been honest enough to say to me that they would rather not find out if God is there. They’d prefer not to think about it.
Thomas Nagel, studied philosophy at Oxford and complete his PhD at Harvard. He is a Professor of Philosophy and Law at New York University. Which is just a way of saying he is a very bright individual. In a book he wrote in 2001 entitled The Last Word he said the following:
I am talking about something much deeper–namely, the fear of religion itself. I speak from experience, being strongly subject to this fear myself: I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. I want atheism to be true and am made uneasy by the fact that some of the most intelligent and well-informed people I know are religious believers. It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God and, naturally, hope that I’m right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that.
Is there anything in me that doesn’t want God to be there? Nagel doesn’t want at the heart of the universe to discover a God – how about you? God could have written words in the sky, God could speak to you in a vision or a dream, God could show you he’s real through a bizarre series of inexplicable events but God has chosen to make himself known through Jesus at a moment in history for a very good reason . . . so that he could die for you! Surely that is the God who is worth knowing and know this please as we finish. Jesus never refused anyone. God does not discriminate – he says to each of us if we draw near to him he will draw near to us.
Having just taken my 10 year old to see the new Star Wars film today here is a helpful article on thinking clearly and biblically about the Star Wars phenomena.
Trevin Wax has written a thoughtful post on the witness of the church as community to the gospel and its power to help overcome barriers to belief. It’s not a easy read and the key conclusion I’ve quoted in full below but do check out the article here to understand his argument more fully.
The classical approach of apologetics is to present rational proofs for God’s existence, and then from this point to argue for the uniqueness of Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Classical apologetics is beneficial in the effort to show that Christianity is true, but if Taylor is right, then one is already likely to accept or reject reasons for belief before they ever hear them because the greater story [their scientific materialist worldview] is already conditioning them to accept or reject “proofs” of God’s existence and the truth of Christianity.
Perhaps this is why one of the best ways to engage an unbeliever is simply to invite them to church. Lesslie Newbigin spoke of the people of God as a “community apologetic.” It’s not that the church replaces other, rational strategies and arguments for belief in God. It’s that the church becomes the atmosphere, the teller of a better story, a story whose truth begins to work on the heart of a non-religious person, conditioning them for the moment when the classical apologetics “proofs” are then used by the Holy Spirit to confirm the belief He has already initiated in them.
Christians today should make use of the various tools we have at our disposal in order to persuade people to follow Jesus. But let’s not leave out the world where God’s good news comes alive – the people of God who corporately witness to a kingdom that has no end. It may be that the best apologetic for a secular age is a people who are in this world but not of it, who counter the rugged rationalist with the true story of new world which began on a Sunday morning outside Jerusalem.
A helpful guide to offering quick responses to the claims atheists make
(HT: Paul Rees)
Former editor of the Sunday Telegraph, Dominic Lawson, recently reviewed a book by Harvard Professor, Niall Ferguson entitled Civilisation: The West and the Rest. In his review Lawson includes a remarkable quote from a member of the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences (which describes itself as ‘the highest academic research organization in the fields of philosophy and social sciences as well as a national center for comprehensive studies in the People’s Republic of China‘). Here is what the Chinese have discovered:
One of the things we were asked to look into was what accounted for the success, in fact, the pre-eminence of the West all over the world. We studied everything we could from the historical, political, economic, and cultural perspective. At first, we thought it was because you had more powerful guns than we had. Then we thought it was because you had the best political system. Next we focused on your economic system. But in the past twenty years, we have realised that the heart of your culture is your religion: Christianity. That is why the West is so powerful.
The Christian moral foundation of social and cultural life was what made possible the emergence of capitalism and then the successful transition to democratic politics. We don’t have any doubt about this.
Now the Chinese are not alone in reaching this conclusion. Bruce Sheiman in his book An Atheist Defends Religion writes about the impact of Jesus on our world. Christianity he says introduced:
A commitment to human dignity, personal liberty, and individual equality did not previously appear in ANY other culture.
What you and I take for granted, living as we do in the UK, has its origins in Christianity and the Christian worldview.
Matthew Parris writing in the Times talked of his own return to Africa after 45 years away and concluded;
travelling in Malawi refreshed another belief, too: one I’ve been trying to banish all my life, but an observation I’ve been unable to avoid since my African childhood. It confounds my ideological beliefs, stubbornly refuses to fit my world view, and has embarrassed my growing belief that there is no God.
Now a confirmed atheist, I’ve become convinced of the enormous contribution that Christian evangelism makes in Africa: sharply distinct from the work of secular NGOs, government projects and international aid efforts. These alone will not do. Education and training alone will not do. In Africa Christianity changes people’s hearts. It brings a spiritual transformation. The rebirth is real. The change is good.
Christianity has made a massive difference to our world.
Two articles in the past week, both on the Telegraph website, highlight the growing embarrassment that so many atheists find with the posturing of Richard Dawkins.
Brendon O’Neill confesses that ‘things are now so bad that I tend to keep my atheism to myself’ in his article How atheists became the most colossally smug and annoying people on the planet.
Matthew Norman writes in his piece Come in Agent Dawkins, your job is done, ‘as one who became a devout atheist at the age of nine’ but also asks ‘is there any stronger argument against the existence of a benign deity today than the existence of Richard Dawkins?’
It seems to me there are many lessons for Christians to learn from these articles. Let’s fill our apologetic with love and compassion as well as contending for truth. Let’s also watch out for the pride and posturing in our words that do nothing to commend our cause.
Fascinating article in this week’s Spectator from Jonathan Sacks,the chief Rabbi on the failure of atheism to find an answer to the question ‘why be good?’
I have not yet found a secular ethic capable of sustaining in the long run a society of strong communities and families on the one hand, altruism, virtue, self-restraint, honour, obligation and trust on the other. A century after a civilisation loses its soul it loses its freedom also. That should concern all of us, believers and non-believers alike.
Two quite superb articles in American Spectator.
The first is on Margaret Thatcher’s Christian faith and its impact on her leadership.
The second is entitled ‘what the new atheists ignore‘ and is a reflection by a non-believer on the massiveimpact for good Christianity has had in our communities, contra the absence of any evidence that atheism has had any social impact to the good.
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