Questions

Questions are so important in life! They are one of the primary ways that we as people learn. Questions are especially important when it comes to matters of God, Jesus, the Bible, and prayer, because the answers to these things can completely change a person's life. Below is a (growing) list of commonly asked questions, by churched and unchurched people alike. The responses to each of these questions are only meant to offer an initial reply, but where possible further resources will be recommended (such as video clips, video sermons, short articles, and even whole books) for those who want to pursue these topics further.

 

Before diving into these questions however, an introductory word is in order. Theologian Lesslie Newbigin reminds us that the Bible does not ever answer "our questions exactly in the form in which we put them. The Bible always requires of us a shift in standpoint, for which time and patience are needed." This insight entails a few things.

 

First, it means that sometimes the way we ask questions reveals a particular line of thinking – and sometimes that line of thinking goes in the wrong direction. So, often, it is not really possible to answer a question in the terms in which it was asked. Second, it is possible we are simply asking the wrong question! Third, time and patience are needed because askingquestions is far easier and quicker than attempting to answer them.

 

Asking a critical question, such as 'Why does God allow so much suffering in the world?' is akin to attempting to tear something down, in this case the Christian conviction that God is good. It is quick and easy to ask such a question. But attempting to answer such a question is like building something, and construction is much more time-consuming than deconstruction. A builder once said it took him three years to build a house, but with a digger he could tear a house down in under three days.

 

Questions are very important. But time and patience are required to satisfactorily address them. With this in mind, let's proceed!

 

GENERAL

ISN'T FAITH INHERENTLY IRRATIONAL?

The following answer is taken from Greg Boyd's post, "Isn't Faith Inherently Irrational?" at reknew.org.

 

Many people seem to assume that faith is giving credence to things that don't make much sense and for which there is little or no evidence.  Take the doctrine of the Incarnation, for example.  This is the traditional Christian teaching that Jesus is "fully God and fully human."  Now, to many people, this belief doesn't make much sense.  How can a single person be both God and human?  What's worse, many people assume that there's no compelling evidence to support this nonsensical belief.  It's a "religious" belief, so how could there be evidence for it?  They assume that Christianity asks us to simply have faith in this bizarre teaching because the Bible or the Church tells us to!  And this, people rightly judge, is irrational.

 

The Need to Think Critically

I would hope we could all agree that believing something that makes no sense and for which there is little or no evidence is indeed irrational.  So is believing something just because some religious book or church told you to.  This way of deciding beliefs leaves the content of what you believe completely up to chance (or fate, or providence – depending on what you happen to believe).

 

You see, unless you’re willing to think critically about what you believe – grounding your faith in reason and evidence – then what you end up believing will be decided by things like where you happen to be born, what "holy book" you happen to be raised under, what religious institution you happen to have been taught to adhere to, what impressive, charismatic personality you happen to encounter, etc… Unless you're willing to critically scrutinize your beliefs, you'll end up believing whatever circumstances and chance destine you to believe.  Without the use of reason, whether you end up believing "the truth" or end up drinking a poisonous drink in some mindless cult is just a matter of luck!

 

So, I hope we can all agree that it's irrational – and dangerous – to decide what to believe in this haphazard way.  Of course, no one can deny that factors like where we're born, how we're raised, what events happen to us and what people we happen to encounter all influence what we end up believing.  We're obviously not "pure brains" that think in a rationalistic vacuum. Yet, unless we're willing to resign ourselves to complete fatalism, we must accept that using our reason can and should make a difference in what we believe.  And it's this usage, amidst the various chance circumstances of our life, that decides the extent to which our faith is rational or irrational.

 

So, we have to use our brains in deciding what we believe.  But does this rule out having faith?  My answer is, not at all.

 

Faith and Covenental Trust

Though the view that faith is inherently irrational is quite widespread today, it's not even close to the view of faith espoused in the Bible.  The authors of the Bible continually encourage people to use their minds and often appeal to evidence to back up their truth claims.  In fact, as widespread as the notion is today, the idea that faith is inherently irrational is a fairly recent novelty.  It arose during what’s called "the Enlightenment period" (17th and 18th centuries).  Under the impact of science, a worldview arose that viewed faith and reason, and thus religion and science, as mutually exclusive.

 

This post-Enlightenment view of faith is very different from the biblical view, as I said above.  The biblical concept of faith is related to the concept of covenant.  Biblically speaking, you have faith when you trust someone to fulfill their covenantal promises toward you.  Now, trusting someone always requires that you go beyond evidence.  But it doesn't mean that you have to trust someone in the absence of evidence, and certainly doesn't mean that you have to trust them in contradiction to evidence.

 

For example, I trust my (adorable) wife Shelley to honour her marriage vows to me.  This is the biblical concept of faith.  My faith in Shelley takes me beyond all available evidence, for no one could prove that Shelley will honour her marriage vows.  But this doesn't mean that I'm trusting her without evidence, — as though she were a total stranger.  And it certainly doesn't mean I'm trusting her against all available evidence.  Both before our marriage and throughout our (wonderful) twenty-seven years of marriage, Shelley has given me a wealth of evidence that she is trustworthy.  It's very rational for me to trust her with my life.  (Truth be told, I'd be an idiot not to trust her.)

 

While many today divorce "religious faith" from the kind of "faith" we have toward spouses and friends, from a biblical perspective they are one and the same.  To "have faith" is to simply trust God to be the loving and just God he promises to be. To have faith in the Bible is to trust the people who wrote it and the God who inspired it to truthfully communicate what its meant to communicate.  This faith — like the faith I have toward my wife — always takes you beyond the evidence, but no more so than (say) the faith you have toward your spouse, a friend, or a book written by someone whose authority you trust.

 

Someone might at this point complain that, while they have evidence that warrants trusting their spouse, a friend, or the author of a certain book, there is no evidence that warrants believing in the Incarnation, or any of the other things Christians typically believe in.  To this I would simply respond by asking the reader to study a little more.  You may not yet know evidence that (at least to the thinking of many) warrants embracing the Christian faith – just as I didn't know the things that would eventually warrant trusting my (incredible) wife in a marriage covenant.  But, I assure you, the evidence is there.  (See Further Resources and Recommended Reading below).

 

Everybody Has Faith!

There's one more thing that should be said about faith.  Many people today seem to think that either a person has faith or they don't.  Either you're a "believer" or you're not.  I think this is a very muddled way of thinking.  The truth is, everybody has faith.  We trust things we can't prove all the time.

 

Several months ago I had an interesting conversation with a bright young man I'll call Dwayne.  Dwayne proudly identified himself as a person who "refuses to lean on the crutches of faith" and who is "completely committed to believing only what can be proven by reason and the five senses."  Dwayne confidently assured me he had no faith whatsoever.

So I asked Dwayne when was the last time he'd flown on a plane.  When he told me he'd flown just several weeks earlier, I asked him if he'd first "proven by reason and the five senses" that the plane was safe.  Had he given all the pilots a sobriety test, checked every mechanical aspect of the plane to ensure the mechanics had done a good job, double-checked all the baggage as well as the passengers to make sure no weapons or bombs had gotten by the screeners, etc.?  Of course, Dwayne had done none of these things, which allowed me to humbly point out that, as a matter of fact, Dwayne had exercised faith.  He had gone beyond what "reason and the five senses" could prove and had placed his trust in the airline he was flying (along with the pilots, the mechanics, the baggage screeners, and so on).

 

This wasn't meant to be a slam on Dwayne, for flight statistics being what they are, it's very reasonable to trust airlines to provide us with safe flights.  But it was meant to suggest that people like Dwayne who claim to have no faith are unintentionally kidding themselves.  We all live by faith.  We have to act on the basis of things we cannot prove.

 

Things are no different when we consider so-called "religious" claims (as though these claims were essentially different from other sorts of truth claims – which they really are not).  Whatever you believe, you are exercising faith.

 

Consider the resurrection, for example.  Many people will assume that a person either chooses to have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, as the Gospel authors claim, or that they will choose "not to have faith."  But this isn't the most accurate way of posing the dilemma.  A more accurate way is to say that either a person will have faith that Jesus rose from the dead, as the Gospel authors claim, or they will have faith that he did not rise from the dead.  You see, the second conclusion is just as much an article of faith as is the first.  No one can prove with certainty that the Gospel records are reporting accurate history, but neither can anyone prove with certainty that the Gospel records are legendary or fabrications.  So whatever you conclude, you're going to base your life -- and perhaps your life to come, if the Bible knows what it's talking about — on something you cannot strictly prove. That is faith.

 

Of course, to say that you can't prove a certain belief is not to say that you can't have evidence and other compelling reasons for your belief.  And this brings us back full circle on this question we're wrestling with.  Whether you believe Jesus rose from the dead or that he didn't rise from the dead, you're letting your faith be determined by sheer chance except to the degree that you think critically about what you believe and why you believe it.

So, is faith inherently irrational?  The answer is, not if you think about it.

Further Resources

Is (Christian) Faith Delusional? by Ravi Zacharias
 

See Prof. William Lane Craig speak on "Reasons to Believe We Have a Reasonable Faith":
 

Recommended Reading

Letters From a Skeptic by Greg Boyd
Lord or Legend? by Greg Boyd & Paul Eddy
Reasonable Faith by William Lane Craig
Intellectuals Don't Need God and Other Modern Myths by Alister McGrath
Proper Confidence: Faith, Doubt and Certainty in Christian Discipleship by Lesslie Newbigin
The Gospel in a Pluralist Society by Lesslie Newbigin

SCIENCE AND CHRISTIAN FAITH

 

Hasn't science disproved Christianity?  Are science and Christian faith compatible?

 

There is, amongst some, the perception that science and Christian faith are at odds with each other.  However, the truth of the matter is precisely the opposite.

 

To take the second question first – absolutely, yes, science and Christian faith are compatible.  In fact, it was the worldview generated by Christian faith that led to the rise of modern science!  It's no accident that modern science developed in Christian Europe, and not the great civilizations of Egypt, China, India, Greece, Rome, or the Islamic empire.  Paul Davies (physicist) avers, "in Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature."  Based on the Bible, Christians believe in (i) the orderliness of creation, and (ii) the intelligibility of creation. This means, if we conduct and repeat the same experiments under the same conditions, we shall get the same results.  This differs from other views of creation, such as pantheism (Greek & Roman), or the illusory nature of the material world (Hinduism).

 

Alister McGrath (who has PhDs in Biochemistry and Theology) explains, "There is a fundamental line of continuity between the creator, the regularity of the creation, and the human perception and expression of this regularity in the form of 'laws of nature'." Theologian Colin Gunton remarks that virtually everyone now admits that "the biblical view of creation is among the determining factors in the development of natural science."

 

Historically, Christian faith provided the intellectual underpinning, and justification, for the rise of the modern scientific enterprise.

 

Furthermore, many of the pioneer scientists became scientists because of their Christian faith.  Johann Kepler argued that, since geometry had its origins in the mind of God, it was only to be expected that the created order would conform to its patterns. Michael Faraday believed that the truth of the first chapter of Genesis was what gave him reason to be a scientist.  Robert Boyle, who developed the idea of atoms, entitled one of his books The Wisdom of God Manifested in the Works of Creation.  Isaac Newton wrote more about theology than mathematics or physics.  Contemporary scientist Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, explains: "for me the experience of sequencing the human genome, and uncovering this most remarkable of all texts, was both a stunning scientific achievement and an occasion of worship."

 

For many leading scientists, their Christian faith led them to study science!

 

Now, returning to the first question: "Hasn't science disproved Christian faith?", the simple answer is 'no'.  Many leading scientists, such as Francis Collins (geneticist), John Polkinghorne (physicist), and Russell Stannard (physicist), have studied the evidence in comprehensive detail and have come to the opposite conclusion.

 

But what about claims such as: "people used to think that in the beginning God created the heavens and the earth, but now we know from science that the world came from the Big Bang"?  Or, in other words, "hasn't science disproved Christianity?"

 

The problem with this claim is it involves sleight of hand.  There is no logical contradiction between the profession that God made the heavens and the earth – an explanation of agency, and the Big Bang – an explanation of process.  In short, Christian faith and science address some similar matters (such as ultimate origins) from differing but complementary perspectives.  Let me explain.

 

Consider, for example, a medical doctor prescribing medication to a patient who has an infection.  The medication works, and the patient is cured.  How do you explain how the patient got better?  Two possible answers present themselves.

 

(i) The medicine was effective in fighting the infection and this caused the patient’s health to improve.  (ii) The doctor made the right diagnosis and the right prescription.

 

These two explanations are two different types of explanations, and they are logically compatible.  The first explanation makes plain the scientific process involved, and the second explanation makes plain the action of the agent (in this case the doctor).

 

It would be illogical to be forced to choose between these two explanations, because they are different types of explanation, and thus are not in competition with each other.  So more broadly, science addresses the issue of process, and Christian faith addresses the issue of agency.

 

So no, science has not disproved Christianity.

 

Further Resources

For a great interview by an Oxford University Professor on Science and Christian Faith, check it out here.
 

For an assortment of excellent resources on Science and Christian Faith, check out this website.
 

Recommended Reading

For further reading, check out:
Belief in God in an Age of Science by John Polkinghorne 
Exploring Science and Belief by Michael Poole
Reason, Science and Faith by Roger Forster
Scientists Who Believe by E. Barrett & D. Fisher (editors)
Surprised by Meaning: Science, Faith, and How We Make Sense of Things by Alister McGrath

 

 

WHY IS THERE EVIL IN THE WORLD?

 

The world is a crazy and messed up place, and things happen all the time that we can't fully explain.   First of all, it must be said that no short answer can adequately address this question.  So, I'll address it as best I can while keeping it brief, and then I'll recommend some further resources.

 

I believe that only the Christian faith can offer a satisfying answer to this question.

 

Traditionally, evil has been divided into two kinds: moral evil and 'natural' evil.  With that in mind, here's my answer, in brief:

 

Christians believe God created a good world and appointed human beings as the stewards or lords of the planet.  God is good, and can only create that which is good.  So, God is not responsible for evil.

 

God created human beings to love Him and to love each other.  Since love must be freely chosen, God gave humans the power of free choice.  With this free choice comes the potential for evil.  Humans can love or withhold love, do good or evil.  So, God created a good world with the possibility of evil.  The history books show that humans have actualised the possibility of acting in non-loving ways.

 

Why did God do this – create us humans with free will?  C. S. Lewis explains: "Because free will, though it makes evil possible, is also the only thing that makes possible any love or goodness or joy worth having.  A world of automata – of creatures that worked like machines – would hardly be worth creating." (Mere Christianity)

 

As God gave free will to human beings, He did the same for angelic beings.  The Bible tells us that a very powerful angel, Lucifer, chose to rebel against God and took many of the angels with him.  It was this fallen angel, commonly known as the devil, who tempted the first human beings to eat the forbidden fruit from the tree of knowledge and rebel against God.  When they did, they obeyed Satan rather than God, and so came under his lordship and power.

 

Authority over the earth, which has been entrusted to human beings, came under the devil's control.  So when we ask why there is evil, and why bad things happen to good people, we are also asking another question – "Who is really in charge here?"  The New Testament says Satan is the 'god' of this present age (2 Cor. 4:4), and therefore the whole world lies in the power of the evil one (1 John 5:19).  The New Testament says it is this evil power that is behind death and disease and sin.

 

So bad things happen because people, alienated from God, make bad choices.  And the world itself, though created good, is under an evil power and so needs to be liberated (Rom. 8:19-22).  Jesus instructs his disciples to pray for God's will to be done on earth as it is in heaven.  This clearly means that God's will is not currently being done on earth.  There is undoubtedly mystery here.

 

We live in a fallen world where much happens that is against God's will.  But because God so loves the world, He did something about it.  He sent His Son Jesus into this enemy-occupied world.  C. S. Lewis explains, "Christianity is the story of how the rightful king landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us all to take part in a great campaign of sabotage."

 

This mighty clash between Jesus and the devil culminated in the events of the first Easter.  There, Jesus took upon Himself the worst evil that the devil, and human beings, could devise.  John Polkinghorne explains:

 

"In the cross of Christ we see a lonely figure, nailed to the tree, exposed to the most tortured and lingering death that Roman judicial ingenuity could devise, deserted by his friends and taunted by his enemies, experiencing also the depths of alienation from the God who had been the centre of his life, the One he knew as his dear Father, so that he cries, 'My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?' (Mk. 15:34; Mt. 27:46).  Christians believe that in this bleak scene we see, not just a good man caught and destroyed by the system, but the one true God who, in the taut stretching of Christ's arms on the cross, embraces and accepts the bitterness of the world that is the divine creation. The Christian God is not a compassionate spectator, looking down in sympathy on the sufferings of the world; the Christian God is truly the 'fellow sufferer who understands,' for in Christ God has known human suffering and death from the inside.  The Christian God is the Crucified God."

 

On the cross Jesus dealt, at the same time, with the power of evil and with human sin.  That is why the cross is the centre of history.

 

Jesus took all the pain and evil that was thrown at Him, and took it to the grave.  There, He destroyed death itself, once and for all, when He rose from the dead on Easter Sunday.  Since that day He has been advancing His kingdom of love through His followers – Christians.

 

God's holy love in the lives of Jesus-followers enables them to dis-empower the selfish tendencies inherent in us all that are the root of sin.  In traditional language, this is where the importance of confession, repentance, forgiveness, grace, and sanctification all come in.

 

The answer to the problem of evil is not a theoretical answer alone, it is also a practical answer.  Every person is called by Jesus to follow Him in the way of love, bringing Life to others everywhere we go.  This includes feeding the hungry, setting injustices to right, healing the sick, delivering people from evil oppression, and most especially, sharing the good news of how people can be reconciled with God through Jesus.

 

Further Resources

A short video clip of Ravi Zacharias, a famous speaker and author 

An excellent sermon on this topic by Pastor and theologian Greg Boyd

 

Short Reading

A short reflection on evil by one of the world's leading Bible scholars:
 

Recommended Reading

Is God To Blame? by Greg Boyd

Further Reading

Other good books on the topic of suffering and evil are: 
A Grief Observed by C. S. Lewis
Fear No Evil by David Watson
God At War: The Bible and Spiritual Conflict by Gregory Boyd
Satan and the Problem of Evil by Gregory Boyd
Theology and the Problem of Evil by Kenneth Surin

WHO AM I? HOW DO I GO ABOUT UNDERSTANDING MY IDENTITY?

 

Knowing God is the antidote to our identity crisis, Mark Smith writes.

''Bruce Jenner: an all-American identity crisis.''

This is the title given to Michael Wolf's April GQ magazine piece on Bruce Jenner's metamorphosis.

He traces Jenner's journey from Olympic hero to reality TV's transgender triallist, unearthing Jenner's battle to find himself.

Who am I?

How do I see myself?

How do other people see me?

What is my identity?

These are all important questions and by no means limited to Olympic greats or TV celebrities.

When our perception of our self is connected to something we do, it can easily unravel.

Sports Psychology writer Emma Vickers suggests ''that a sports star will die twice, the first time at retirement, but if you aren't an athlete, then who are you?''

Lane Nichols, in his report ''Life after rugby full of blindside tackles'', comments: ''About one in three former players said they had suffered depression, anxiety and stress.''

A similar figure experienced ''problems due to a loss of identity/public profile''.

When self-image or identity is connected to your performance or the place in the team, then injury, non-selection or retirement can cause something of an identity crisis.

This issue is not just for the sporting elite, however.

Empty nesters, particularly mothers, whose grown children have moved out, can often face an identity crisis.

''Empty nest syndrome'' is largely caused by a sense of self, based on our identity as a parent.

The answer to ''Who am I?'' departs as the children leave home.

Our reputation at work is another.

Retirement looms and so does a sense of unease.

The ''Who am I?'' question may be deflected by material wealth, but when it beckons, our identity becomes vulnerable and disproportionate anxiety ensues.

For yet others, it may be connected to physical appearance.

When signs of ageing show, there is a sense of trauma and fear, so we turn to the surgeon's scalpel or various treatments to delay the inevitable.

All this is related to how we see ourselves; our self-image - who we are?

Whether male or female, husband or wife, our ethnicity, sporting achievements, academic success, perceived attractiveness; who or what gives us an identity?

In Christian theology, ''who we are'' isn't rooted intrinsically within us, in what we have done, or how we appear.

Nor is it connected to our performance on the sports field, in the business world or how we strut on the catwalk.

It begins not with who we are, but whose we are.

The Bible says we are made by God, ''imago dei''.

Within each one of us is the unique imprint God placed upon humanity, identifying us as a special creation.

''Then God said, 'Let us make human beings in our image and likeness'.'' (Genesis 1:26).

So who we are is not determined by performance or popular applause.

It is deeper than skin colour or ethnic heritage.

It is more complex than our individual DNA.

It goes beyond our gender at birth or seek to identify with thereafter.

It is not connected to our dress size, athletic ability or street address.

It is intrinsic in every human being, hardwired by God himself.

To paraphrase 16th-century theologian John Calvin, ''We can never arrive at an accurate self knowledge without looking into the face of God. We can't understand who we are without some knowledge of who He is.''

When we shut God out of the picture, we are left groping in the seemingly illusive quest to find our identity.

It is like trying to do a thousand-piece jigsaw puzzle in the dark!

No matter how hard we try, the pieces don't quite fit.

God sent his Son into this damaged world, to heal the brokenness, give clarity amid the confusion, restore the distorted images and give us a new identity.

The search to find ourselves is not found by looking deeper within.

This commonly leads to confusion and being lost in a maze of introspection.

We need to look outside ourselves to the One who gives everything true meaning, perspective and significance.

As we come to know Him, our significance and who we are pales by comparison. Knowing God our maker, I believe, is the antidote to our identity crisis.

Mark Smith, pastor at Grace Bible Church, Dunedin. (Originally published in the Otago Daily Times on Friday 3 July 2015.)

 

Recommended Reading

Victory Over the Darkness: Realising the Power of Your Identity in Christ by Neil Anderson
Who Am I in Christ? By Neil Anderson
Becoming Who You Are by Dutch Sheets
Who Am I? by Jerry Bridges

 

Videos

A teaching on "In Christ Our Permanent Residence" by Dr Greg Boyd
A selection of teachings on "Identity in Christ" by Dr Greg Boyd –
A message on our identity by Phil Pringle
A short video by Yonggi Cho on Identity in Christ
A short video by Bill Johnson on Identity in Christ 
A long message by Rick Warren on Identity in Christ 

 
 
 
 
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