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.
In discussing faith and science Higgs went on to say I don’t happen to be one [a believer] myself, but maybe that’s just more a matter of my family background than that there’s any fundamental difficulty about reconciling the two.
(HT: David Robertson)
Peter Saunders of the Christian Medical Fellowship is one of 8 signatories to a letter published in today’s Telegraph newspaper. In a blog post Peter highlights just how the disabled are discriminated against even before they are born.
Skimming through a friends copy of John Lennox’s Gunning for God: Why the new atheists are missing the taget I came across this striking quote from Professor Andrew Sims former President of the Royal College of Psychiatrists taken from an article in The Times (£) newspaper:
The advantageous effect of religious belief and spirituality on mental and physical health is one of the best-kept secrets in psychiatry and medicine generally. If the findings of the huge volume of research on this topic had gone in the opposite direction and it had been found that religion damages your mental health, it would have been front-page news in every newspaper in the land.
In the majority of studies, religious involvement is correlated with well-being, happiness and life satisfaction; hope and optimism;purpose and meaning in life; higher self-esteem; better adaptation to bereavement; greater social support and less loneliness; lower rates of depression and faster recovery from depression; lower rates of suicide and fewer positive attitudes towards suicide; less anxiety; less psychosis and fewer psychotic tendencies; lower rates of alcohol and drug use and abuse; less delinquency and criminal activity; greater marital stability and satisfaction… We concluded that for the vast majority of people the apparent benefits of devout belief and practice probably outweigh the risks.
Just when I thought it was impossible to be shocked any more…
(HT: Christine Happ)
After Richard Dawkins guest-edited the Christmas edition of the New Statesman Mehdi Hasan replied with a good summary of exactly why he is wrong on the issue of the relationship between God and science
So Richard Dawkins is guest editing the Christmas edition of the New Statesman – a smart move on their part which is guaranteed to boost the sales.
Like all fundamentalists Richard Dawkins can be infuriating. His resistance to reason and his refusal to engage with the world of ideas has driven many an atheist mad let alone the Christian. Again like many fundamentalists his rhetoric is often full of vitriol and demonstrates a sometimes scary intolerance for any who disagree with him – no matter how reasonable. But I for one am still glad he’s in the world. Why?
1. Is there anyone who does more to keep religion in the public eye than Dawkins? The secularist agenda is to marginalise people of faith by keeping God-talk out of the public sphere. Dawkins functions as a secret agent subverting the secularist agenda by insisting on discussing matters of faith. When others go on and on about X-factor he just can’t stop talking about God! He’s done more for the church, in the public sphere, than any religious figure since the time of CS Lewis.
2. It follows from the first point that Dawkins is responsible, both directly and indirectly, for opening up many a conversation as matters of God, faith & science continue to be discussed in the media. Just this last week Brian Cox distanced himself from Dawkins views on Radio 5 Live.
3. Dawkins does a great deal to reassure Christians that their faith is reasonable and credible. His refusal to debate Christian apologist William Lane Craig in Oxford a couple of months ago, even at a time that he was promoting his own new book through a show at the Royal Albert Hall, was a massive own goal. His unwillingness to defend his own ideas has been exposed by a number of atheist Philosophers.
4. Dawkins provides some great quotes to highlight the bankruptcy of atheism. His own (albeit qualified) support for infanticide, his admission that he has no idea how life began on the planet, his own recognition that for the atheist there is no good and evil all demonstrate how unliveable atheism is and how dark its conclusion are.
5.Dawkins compels Christians to think and to think deeply about their faith. As we take seriously the call to provide a reasoned defence for what we believe gets us back to our Bible and to good books.
6. Dawkins reminds us of the danger of fundamentalism in all of its forms. He is a warning to us all of how ugly it can be and how by contrast Christians need to think, speak and behave differently.
Francis Schaeffer was right when he said ‘the greatest apologetic of all is love’.
So happy Christmas Richard Dawkins and keep up the good work!
A while back I posted a short film clip in which Richard Dawkins not only admitted that we have ‘no idea’ how life began on planet earth but went on to suggest that human life may owe its origin to aliens; a theory known as panspermia. Of course, he had no scientific evidence for this, but in the absence of good science why not invoke the ‘aliens did it’ argument!
I knew Dawkins wasn’t the first to propose such a speculation. Sir Fred Hoyle argued along a similar line when he recognised the statistically absurdity of arguing that life simply evolved by chance.
Crick himself once said;
‘An honest man, armed with all the knowledge available to us now, could only state that in some sense, the origin of life appears at the moment to be almost a miracle, so many are the conditions which would have had to have been satisfied to get it going.’
Any problems that exist with theories of the evolution of life pale into insignificance when it comes to the problems with explaining the origin of life from a naturalist worldview as this recent article in Scientific American acknowledges.
The words of the Apostle Paul in Romans 1 come to mind:
Since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Jeremy Paxman has a reputation of being a bit of a Bulldog. Yet last night on Newsnight the Bulldog failed to bark, let alone attack, preferring a tickle on the tummy from Richard Dawkins.
Dawkins once famously said
In a universe of blind physical forces and genetic replication some people are going to get hurt other people are going to get lucky and you won’t find any rhyme or reason in it nor any justice. The universe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is at bottom no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but blind pitiless existence. DNA neither knows nor cares DNA just is and we dance to its music.
As we know, atheism does hold a pretty bleak outlook on life but now the nihilist who believes in only ‘blind pitiless indifference’ has given his atheism a make-over. His new book The Magic of Reality conveniently hides from view his belief that nothing can really be considered morally evil preferring to find solace in the wonders of science; science in some sense reveals a magical reality according to Dawkins. It might be a book for children but it skilfully disguises the darker realities that this universe is indifferent to human notions of truth, beauty and goodness preferring to blind us with science.
And so last night was a perfect opportunity for Paxman to put Dawkins’ arguments to the test and in doing so expose the manifest contradictions in his portrayal of atheism. But instead we were exposed to a pretty sycophantic interview in which Dawkins and Paxman laughted together after giving the straw-man they had invented a bit of a kicking. Paxman’s question to Dawkins ‘Do you really care that there are a lot of stupid people around?’ summed up the level of discussion. To watch it tune in at around 43 minutes.
By simply accepting Dawkins’ flawed premise that religion and science are opposed to each other Paxman missed a great opportunity for a grown up conversation. A conversation that would have been considerably more profitable to the thinking mind if held in conjunction with another author who has a new book out and who has debated Dawkins on a number of occasions.
Professor John Lennox of Oxford University also has a book already out in the US and coming out in the UK next week called Seven Days That Divide the World in which he discusses the relationship between the Bible and science. Alvin Plantinga, describes it as being ‘as good as it gets in the religion/science area.’
There might be good reasons as to why John Lennox could not have attended, or might even have preferred not to attend, but there cannot be any good reasons for Paxman going along with Dawkins’ pretence that religion is nothing more than a misguided myth.
We are, by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures – NASA Astronomer
When I consider your heavens,
the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars,
which you have set in place,
what is mankind that you are mindful of them,
human beings that you care for them? (Psalm 8:3-4)
“We are, by astronomical standards, a pampered, cosseted, cherished group of creatures.. .. If the Universe had not been made with the most exacting precision we could never have come into existence. It is my view that these circumstances indicate the universe was created for man to live in.” John O’Keefe (astronomer at NASA)
“Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying (one might say ‘supernatural’) plan.” Arno Penzias (Nobel prize in physics)
“It seems to me that when confronted with the marvels of life and the universe, one must ask why and not just how. The only possible answers are religious. . . . I find a need for God in the universe and in my own life.” Arthur L. Schawlow (Professor of Physics at Stanford University, 1981 Nobel Prize in physics)
5 You have made them a little lower than the angels
and crowned them with glory and honour.
6 You made them rulers over the works of your hands;
you put everything under their feet:
7 all flocks and herds,
and the animals of the wild,
8 the birds in the sky,
and the fish in the sea,
all that swim the paths of the seas.
9 LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth! (Psalm 8:5-9)
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