Nov 20 - Doubt

Doubt

November 20, 2016

Jude 22

 

 

DOUBT

November 20th, 2016

 

Be merciful to those who doubt.         Jude 22

 

Yesterday, Kathy was supposed to go skydiving.  It was cancelled at the last minute due to cloud cover.  Had it not, she would have stepped out of a plane at 10,000 feet, roughly 3 km up.[1]  Of course we planned for her to land safe and sound.  But of course the waiver that she had to sign was incredibly extensive.  Because there isn’t a 100% certainty that things will go as hoped for.  The thrill of the jump is precisely that, a thrill, because there is chance, however small, that you may go splat. 

 

Now most of us think that the best thing is complete certainty.  But when it comes to our faith, to our belief in God and Jesus, we may also have some doubts.  And this is what this sermon is about.  And I’ll do this to a large part by looking at a group of individuals called the “new atheists.”

 

I don’t know if you’ve ever read any books by Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Daniel Dennett.  The most famous of their books included, The God Delusion (Dawkins), God is not Great (Hitchens), The End of Faith (Harris), and Breaking the Spell (Dennett). 

 

The new atheists claim that science fails to demonstrate that there is a God

 

Especially Dennett claims that belief in God has its roots in the need for ancient man to make sense of the phenomena that he could not explain at that time. But now, science makes God obsolete or redundant because it explains so much that previously was a mystery.

 

Hitchens adds that religion continues to survive because of the general credulity and pervasive gullibility of people that is exploited by religious founders and leaders.

 

The underlying assumption behind their assertion is that miracles simply do not occur because they cannot. Everything needs to have a scientific explanation and scientific proof for it to be real.

 

For one, I question the premise that there is no evidence for God.  I mean science points to what it calls “spontaneous remission,” a term that is used particularly for the partial or complete disappearance of a malignant tumour in the absence of any treatment. 

Scientists who believe in the big bang theory really have no explanation as to its cause. 

The apparent design and order of the universe seems to fly in the face of the second law of thermodynamics, and so on.

Of course none of these things prove the existence of God, just like nothing can disprove it. 

 

If you are a believer and you have doubts from time to time, what would need to happen for your doubts to be dissuaded; for you to have 100% certainty for the rest of your life, that belief in God and Jesus is true?

 

 

What if you had an experience like the apostle Paul did on the road to Damascus?  You were blinded, heard a voice that clearly spoke to you and gave you a mission for your life? 

 

Or what if, like it happened to Ebenezer Scrooge in The Christmas Carol, someone who deceased came back as a spirit and told you what to expect in the afterlife?   Would that do it?

 

Or what if you or someone you love was healed from a terminal illness?  Would that convince you that your faith is real?

 

What if you fell into a comma and no brain activity was recorded and yet you had this very prolonged experience where you visited heaven and hell over and over again, prior to regaining consciousness?  

 

Would you have to see God or Jesus personally?  Would that do it? 

 

The reason I ask, is because none of these events would be considered sufficient reason by the new atheists.  They would explain all of these in naturalistic terms.  Your hormones healed you.  You were hallucinating.  Your brain was playing tricks on you.  Your sense of time was wrong, it all occurred in mere seconds.

 

The reason why I believe in God in part has to do with evidence, including healing from cancer, a more ethical life, a better conscience, complexity, creation, justice, evil in humans, good in humans, joy, consciousness, meaning in life, value, beauty, the willingness of the early Christians to die for stating what they saw, and an accumulation of a host of other large and small facts. 

 

However, the reality is, no matter what the evidence, it can never be conclusive.  So even with it, the best we can do, or any person who believes in God, is a decision based on what the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard called a leap of faith.

 

By this he didn’t mean that we need to choose to believe in something for no good reason, ignoring evidence, and embracing fantasy.  Kierkegaard meant making an informed leap of faith, but, it will still be a leap of faith nevertheless because it means to commit to what we believe in spite of our fears and doubts, and without a 100% guarantee that we are right.

 

I like the picture of a trapeze artist who has to let go and fly through the air without necessarily seeing the person who catches them on the other side. 

 

So what happens when I die?  Will God really be there to catch me on the other side?

 

Now Dawkins claims that there is no proof whatsoever for the existence of God.  He therefore defines religious faith as blind trust, or belief without evidence, or wishful thinking.

 

Despite his definition, he and the other new atheists really don’t give much scientific evidence for the non-existence of God other than the process of evolution, the existence of evil, and the need for a cause or source of God.

 

Some Christians may agree with the new atheists that natural selection somehow proves the non-existence of God.  However, while a creationist myself, I would have absolutely no problems if God had used natural selection as part of his creative work.  That is why I think battling atheists on this level is essentially futile and counterproductive.  

 

It is also why I don’t believe that one has to choose between God and science.  To my mind, that is a false alternative.  Even if scientists could create life in a test tube, if they could make a fruit fly evolve into something else, if they could manipulate the human genome radically, all of that and more would not shake my belief in the existence of God, not even a tiny bit.  Science can never prove the non-existence of God.

 

With regard to the question of evil … atheist Bertrand Russell once said that no one can sit at the bedside of a dying child and believe in God.  He was wrong.  I’ve been there.  Maybe so have you.

 

Have you ever seen someone who was suffering extraordinarily but demonstrated extraordinary confidence in God?  What, do you think, makes this possible?  Is it trust that God’s love is not determined by external circumstances? 

Is it the realization that much of human suffering is due to the actions of humans?

Is it the realization that God may allow for suffering because in order to shape and mold a person, making them gentle, wise and caring?

 

By the way, do you believe that God thinks and feels the same way that we do with about suffering and death?  What I mean, if a being is able to speak a universe into place, is able to stand outside of time and space, views physical life as but a blip in time, and looks at everything with a truly eternal outlook, would that being think like us, who are so bound up with the here and now?  We read these words in Isaiah 55:

 

"My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways," declares YHWH.  “For just as the heavens are higher than the earth, so my ways are higher than your ways and my thoughts higher than your thoughts.” 

Isaiah 55:9

 

Also, while believers are called upon to mitigate suffering, and to carry each other’s burdens, and to help others, and to have compassion, the greatest act of love is demonstrated in preserving and saving that part of us which is eternal, not physical.  Physical pain, suffering, and death are rather inconsequential compared to the loss of one’s soul. 

 

That doesn’t mean that human suffering and death mean nothing to God, they do.  I believe that God experiences suffering every time a sentient being does.  Jesus himself suffered agonizing torture and a very painful death.  Yet, in light of the ability to view the whole of the tapestry of life, he was willing to endure both.

 

So God’s primary concern then is the wellbeing of our eternal souls.  That is why we read in 1 John:

 

 

God is love.  God showed how much he loved us by sending his one and only Son into the world so that we might have eternal life through him.      1 John 4:8-9

 

But let’s move on.  The new atheists assert that the God as portrayed in the Bible is a monster, an ogre who orders the slaughter and death of people. 

 

The commandments in the OT are considered barbaric. And because Jesus endorsed the OT, he did nothing to improve the situation.

 

While it is true that some of the stipulations of the OT do not reflect modern thought and sensibilities and standards, - those modern standards would have been impossible to accept by those who lived at that time However, the new atheists never acknowledge that these commandments were actually redemptive in the society of that time, actually lessening the barbarism that was common, and improving the lot of slaves, women, the treatment of non-Jews and the most vulnerable in society.[2]

 

Nothing is said of the fact that Jesus preached a type of love that does not even harm or attack an enemy.  People like Mahatma Gandhi recognized this, but were repulsed by some professed Jesus-followers who did not live out Jesus’ teaching. 

 

By the way, given Jesus’ teaching, how do you think he would treat atheists?  I would think with a lot of compassion. And that is a reason why non-Christians know that they can pretty well say anything about Jesus, Christianity, Christians, the Bible, and the God as revealed in the Bible, because they do not have to fear that someone will attack them or call a fatwa to have them murdered.  It is because, by and large Jesus’ followers in fact follow his teachings. 

 

Nevertheless, the new atheists claim that all religious people, even the nice ones, are immoral, since they do not speak out against evil religious people, and their morality is based on an ancient and outdated moral code enforced with fear. 

 

[I'm not saying that atheists can't act morally or have moral knowledge. But when I ascribe virtue to an atheist, it's as a theist who sees the atheist as conforming to objective moral values. The atheist, by contrast, has no such basis for morality. And yet all moral judgments require a basis for morality, some standard of right and wrong.                                       Willilam Demsky]

 

However, the new atheists never give a compelling reason why their own morality isn’t fickle and can quickly degenerate into moral relativism where anything goes.  After all, there really isn’t any objective way of determining what right or wrong is.   

 

Nor do the new atheists make a compelling argument why someone should act in a moral or ethical way; why one should keep from hurting other humans, other than the survival of the species or feeling happier as a person.

 

To my mind, this is one of the major flaws in their argument.  Ultimately without God, there is no reason for or ultimate meaning to the human existence.  Nor is there a moral imperative that compels humans to be kind to others, other than perhaps self-preservation. 

 

So what replaces God?  To Hitchens it is unrestricted scientific inquiry and personal enlightenment.  Dennett speaks of curiosity and a selfless attitude.  They obviously felt that this is all they need to create meaning for their own lives.  I happen to think that there has to be something greater than ourselves, greater than our failing brains and bodies, which will give direction to our lives.

 

The truth is that the new atheists and science are unable to answer basic, significant, and important questions.  They cannot discover the meaning of the universe, if there is one, nor the place of humans in it.  They cannot answer the question why there is something rather than nothing?  They cannot discover an ultimate source or foundation of morality.  They cannot explain the nature of consciousness.   They cannot give any reason for existence other than that it is a fluke. 

 

All they can say is that humans should learn and be kind to others without giving any reason why this is important or necessary.  For me, that simply isn’t enough.

 

Finally, Hitchens, Dawkins and Harris hold the view that religions, but particularly the three theistic religions (Christianity, Judaism and Islam), are undeniably harmful and evil.  They lead to things like suicide bombers, the inquisition, or indoctrination of children to religion, which is described as child abuse.  On the other hand, indoctrinating children to atheism is seen as something completely normal and healthy.

 

While there is truth in the statement that religion can in fact create conflict and violence ... all we have to think about is ISIS or Boku Harram today ... the fact that more people were killed by professing atheists over the last 100 years than by religious people is either ignored, or explained away with the argument that these crimes against humanity were not carried out in the name of atheism, but communism or fascism. 

 

The new atheists seem to think that atheists without some kind of external ideology or political or territorial aspirations would be absolutely peaceful and non-combative.  But they fail to give that same caveat to the so called “religious wars,” many of which were fought for exactly those reasons (political and territorial aspirations).

 

Neither do the new atheists go into all the good that has been done in history over time by Christians because of Jesus’ teaching ... the orphanages, schools, universities that were founded.[3] 

 

The founding by Christians of organizations like the Red Cross, the boy scouts, AA, and a host of other charities during a time when there was no social net to help people. 

 

They fail to mention the untold good that Christians have done over time ... and that there is no such history when it comes to atheists.

 

While most people in our society haven’t read any of the books of the new atheists, modern secularism, the unofficial religion in the western world, has embraced the notion that religion is not a solution to any of the problems that ail humanity.  Instead, religion, and particularly Christianity is THE problem, when it comes to the world today. And that view is embraced in an ever increasing measure by the general populace in the Western world.

 

The result is that there are many people who are really no longer open to considering the validity of any religion.   They reject the idea of God and chose atheism, not because the reasons to do so are compelling or earth shattering, but by default, without really giving it much thought. 

 

And what about those of us who do go to church and believe in God? What are the doubts we struggle with?  If God really loves me, why do bad things happen to me?  Why isn’t he answering my prayers?  If the Bible is really God’s Word, why doesn’t it speak to me?  Is what it contains really history?  Is it historical?  Can I trust what it says?  Can I interpret it correctly? Was Jesus really God’s Son?   

 

The one thing that does set Christianity apart from cult-like religions, is that having doubts is OK.  In a cult-like religion there is no room for doubt.  There is no room for dissent.  There is no room for questions.  All there is, is unquestioning subservience and obedience to the specific dogma set out by the cultic organization or the cultic leader. 

 

So to those of you who are having doubts, I would say, don’t panic.  It’s OK.  Everyone has doubts from time to time.  Some doubt is even good because it can motivate us to study and learn and it can get rid of false beliefs. 

 

Doubts can make us more patient and understanding of other doubters.  It can remind us of how much truth matters.  It can make us humble. 

 

But doubt can also go bad and turn into unmitigated cynicism or skepticism. 

 

Whatever the case, one of the questions we should ask ourselves is, “Why am I having doubts?”, and “Where do those doubts come from?”  Or perhaps the question we need to ask ourselves is, “Why has faith in God seem to have lost its appeal? Why doesn’t it seem so real anymore?

 

A lot of people who end up walking away from God do so for personal, not rational, reasons. 

 

  1. Desire for autonomy and no accountability

     

For example, most humans like the idea of autonomy and self-determination.  It includes the idea that our personal choices are no one’s business but our own.  Another idea is that we will make it on our own steam and be the masters of our own destiny. 

 

A third aspect of autonomy is that we don’t like accountability, one of the reasons why some teenagers rebel against their parents, why young adults by and large don’t stay with their parents but strike out on their own, why there can be conflict between couples when it comes to control, and why people are loathed to join anything anymore.

 

I tend to think, that true autonomy really is an illusion.  Any psychologist or sociologist can confirm that we make a lot of choices based on irrational impulses, unconscious desires and connections, habits, paths of least resistance, peer and social pressures and the prevailing cultural winds

 

Nevertheless, for some people the idea of autonomy and a lack of accountability can become the biggest barrier to belief in God.  Some people truly resent God telling them how to live their lives. So autonomy from God may seem like a really good idea when one does not want to feel guilty about one’s lifestyle choices. 

 

If God in fact exists and he is moral, then we really are accountable to him.  To resist accountability to God, in essence is to resist a relationship with God.  By rejecting God’s existence, there is no need to acknowledge mistakes and sins and errors.  We can stop feeling guilty.  But true freedom from guilt really only comes when we confess and try to turn from our wrongdoing because that opens the door to forgiveness and healing and wholeness and eternal life. 

 

That is probably why some atheists don’t want there to be a God.  Nihilism then is attractive because no one will be judged for betrayal, greed, cowardice, murder, or anything else for that matter.

 

  1. Bad experiences with religious people

 

Others walk away from God because those who claim to believe in him are hurtful in one way or another.  Possibly they do not display the kind of compassion that Jesus said was to characterize his followers.  We can and do get hurt by others in church.

 

Another reason why people end up walking away from God is because their view of God is or has become somewhat tilted.  Let me give you a few examples. 

 

  1. Mistaken view of God

     

They may think of God as a bodyguard God who is obligated to protect them from any and all evil. 

Or they may think of God as the vending machine God, the on-demand God who has to respond immediately to their requests. 

Or they may think of God as the anti-science God, as somehow being opposed to the scientific method or scientific discovery. 

Or they may think of God as the boyfriend God, someone to fall in love or to fall out of love with, who will hold their hand and make them feel all fuzzy and warm.

Or they may think of God as the constantly angry God, who is always berating them, and is just waiting to punish them for everything that they may be doing wrong.

Or they may think of God as the indulging grandpa God who doesn’t really care how they live their lives.

 

If our view of the Creator of the universe is reduced to any one of these or other gods, then yes, it will lead to unmet expectations and disappointments.  So what if the God we are considering walking away from is not the God who actually exists?   

 

[Jesus told his disciples that he is one with God the Father so that whoever has seen Jesus has seen God (John 14:7-11), and his own teaching is a direct reflection of God’s will (John 7:16; 12:49).  If Jesus wasn’t a self-deluded fool, then the best way to know about God’s character and will for us is to listen to the record of what Jesus did and taught. 

 

If we want to know what God says, we need to listen to Jesus. If we want to know what God is up to, we need to watch Jesus.  If we want to have a closer relationship with God, we need to follow Jesus.]

 

While there is lots more to doubt, let me address one final issue.  The new atheists would decry believing something just because a relatively ancient book tells us it is so.  In fact they see the Bible or any other religious book as fallible and outdated documents that need to be rejected out of hand.

 

So if we read the Bible, why do we do so?  For Christians, the Bible is foundational to their faith for a number of reasons, none more important than that it tells us about Jesus, his birth, his life, his teaching, his death, and his resurrection.  If that is but legend, then Christians are a pretty deluded bunch of people, as the apostle Paul is at pains to point out.  Then no one should believe in the basic premise that Jesus died for humanity’s sin and was resurrected again. 

 

Keep in mind, before the NT even existed, the debate about the Christian faith centered on an event, not on a book.  Yes, the OT was quoted by the NT writers.  However, in most cases it was because the OT pointed to Jesus. 

 

The early Christians believed that Jesus was the Messiah who died for their sins and rose again, not because of the OT, but because they either were eyewitnesses to the resurrection, or because they were told by eyewitnesses about it (Paul; 1 Cor 15:3).[4]  As a result they were willing to give up everything, including their lives, to share this knowledge with others. 

 

A couple of points about the Bible.

 

I already mentioned that the stipulations in the OT were redemptive in the time that they were penned, even if in our day they seem unusually harsh. 

 

Second, the statement that the Bible is infallible and inerrant in the original manuscripts should be understood for what it really means. 

 

For one, the Bible never speaks of itself as either inerrant or infallible.  However, there is reference in the NT that the OT is Scripture that is God-breathed, that is, God somehow guided the writers through his Spirit. 

 

However, it is clear that this did not mean that God dictated to them what they should write.  Paul’s comments for example about the so-called party of the circumcision, or the Psalmists feeling about the retribution that was to be unleashed upon Israel’s oppressors, clearly reflected their thoughts, but not God’s will.

 

Also, we do not have any of the original manuscripts.  For most of the OT, we have portions that date back hundreds and thousands of years after the documents were first penned.  For the NT, our earliest manuscripts are copies that date to at least 50 - 250 years after they were initially penned [c. AD 150 - 200]. [The first complete NT is about 250 years after the original documents were penned; ca. AD 350). 

 

So to speak about the inerrancy of the original documents is not all that meaningful, because we simply do not have them available to us.

 

Fourth, the documents we do have will need to be interpreted along the lines of what the original author intended them to mean.  So when Jesus tells a parable, we are not to draw all kinds of conclusions from it which Jesus never intended. 

 

This means that if the original author wanted to write history, then that is what we have. If they wanted to write a story, that’s what it is.  If he wanted to write poetry or music, then that is what we have.  If he wanted to write wisdom literature, then that is what it is, and it needs to be understood and interpreted accordingly. 

 

If an author or speaker intentionally used exaggeration or irony, or used an idiom common in his day, then that is how a text needs to be understood. 

 

Finally, we need to understand that the historians of the past were not modern historiographers.  That means, that they were not concerned about the kind of historical accuracy that is demanded by modern historiographers. 

 

In other words, even those who wrote the gospels, the story about Jesus, felt free to place certain events or teachings in a non-chronological form.  For example, Matthew accumulates some of Jesus’ teaching in the Sermon on the Mount, whereas Luke places that teaching in different contexts.  Therefore, we cannot approach an ancient text with modern historical sensibilities

 

So if the Bible itself has become a stumbling block to faith, it likely is because the culture at the time was radically different from our own, the intent of the original author is not taken into consideration, or the expectations of what the text should be like ... a modern science book for example ... are simply wrong. 

 

But that does not mean that we need to throw out the proverbial baby with the bathwater.  Paul wrote about the OT, that the Scriptures or sacred writings are profitable for teaching; for reproof and correction; that they can train a person in how to live right; that they can help equip a person for every good work; and that they are able to bring wisdom that leads to salvation (2 Tim 3:15-17). 

 

If we are biblically illiterate, that means that the Bible can no longer guide our thoughts and our consciences.  It no longer renews our minds, so that instead we are very likely blindly following the cultural norms of the society we live in.

 

IS THERE A STUMBLING BLOCK THAT IS CURRENTLY CHALLENGING MY FAITH IN GOD?

IF SO, WHAT WILL I DO TO WRESTLING WITH IT?

 

One day, maybe tomorrow, maybe next year, maybe fifty years from now, you will let go of the trapeze called life.  You will take your last breath, your hands will go slack, and life will fall away.  The real question is what happens then.  Will there be someone to catch you as you enter eternity, or will you simply stop to exist and the universe will neither know nor care?  Can you commit yourself to God, even if I don’t have absolute certainty?

 

[1] 1.048 km

[2] This does not explain God ordering Joshua to kill man, woman and child.  However, this may simply reflect the scorched earth policy of ancient warfare and it was neither ordered universally nor successful. 

[3] Eg. Cambridge, St. Andrews in the UK or Princeton, Yale, Harvard in the US, the University of Toronto (King’s college - Anglican),

[4] For I delivered to you as of first importance what was told to me … that Messiah died for our sins in accordance with the (OT) Scriptures