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Believing in God for all the wrong reasons?


I’d never heard of Anthony Magnabosco before, but I saw this on Twitter and am thrilled to interact with a question that opens up possibilities for discussion rather than shutting them down. Here’s what I would say:

The first thing you have to understand about this question from the Christian worldview is that everybody knows that God exists.

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse. For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened.  -Romans 1:19-21

Does that mean that I think atheists are lying when they claim not to believe God? Not at all. I just have a healthy respect for people’s ability to convince themselves of things they know to be false. I think we all agree, actually, that people believe what they want to believe – not what they should believe based on what they know.

So in fact, every single person on earth has good reason to believe in God because we all see creation, and we all bear the image of God. What’s more, there is no good reason not to believe in God.

Are there also poor reasons for believing in God? Yes, there are. However I think we get a clearer picture if instead of talking about good and bad reasons for believing, we talk about good and bad belief. There is a kind of belief in God that is not saving faith, but only a deception to the person who holds it. That’s because (and this may surprise you) what saves a person is not believing in God, but believing God.

“Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness.” … That is why it depends on faith, in order that the promise may rest on grace and be guaranteed to all his offspring—not only to the adherent of the law but also to the one who shares the faith of Abraham.  -Romans 4:3, 16

Believing in God as a kind of intellectual exercise is of no value whatsoever. What people need, what I would desire for any person, is to know God personally. This kind of knowledge doesn’t come from rational exercise, but from God revealing himself directly to the human heart.

Simon Peter replied, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” And Jesus answered him, “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.”  -Matthew 16:16-17

“My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”  -John 10:27

You have received the Spirit of adoption as sons, by whom we cry, “Abba! Father!” The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God.  -Romans 8:15-16

The work of the Holy Spirit in the heart of the child of God imparts a certainty that is inexplicable. It’s not an audible voice (that would probably engender more doubt than certainty), or any describable sensation, but simply the assurance that God has spoken and his words are true. We shouldn’t be surprised at this. How would you describe sight to a blind person, or music to a deaf person? If you can’t do something that simple, would you expect me to explain to you how the Holy Spirit imparts knowledge of God directly to a human soul?

The result of this is that the reasons Christians give for their belief in God are all over the map. Some of them are really bad. But that’s ok. God’s salvation does not come by good epistemology. It comes by hearing his call and obeying his voice. It transcends human reason, and a person thus saved will never be able to be dissuaded of his faith, no  matter how unable he is to defend it rationally.

Don’t take that to mean that Christianity is not rationally defensible. It’s the only worldview that is rationally defensible. Biblical Christianity offers the only coherent and consistent explanation for the world we live in. The proof of this is a task that the church has never shied away from, but knowledge of God is not limited to those who can win philosophical debates.

So to answer the question, if a person believes in God because he knows God, I would desire for him to also be able to offer a clear and winsome defense of his faith in obedience to 1 Peter 3:15. Obviously I would not want him to stop believing in God, which he couldn’t do anyway. On the other hand, if a person believes in God without knowing him, it’s all one to me if he continues in that or switches to something else. Lost is lost. Rather, my desire for him and for all is that God would “grant him repentance leading to a knowledge of the truth.” (2 Timothy 2:25)

“If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.”  -John 8:31-32

Some Answers for the Cosmic Skeptic

Alex O’Connor, aka the Cosmic Skeptic, has a few questions for God in this video. I don’t think he believes there are any answers to these questions, but I thought I would supply some anyway…

Why would God make the vast majority of the universe completely uninhabitable? And to that extent, why would he bother making the rest of the universe at all if humankind and the earth are the sole focus of his creation?

Are you assuming that the only reason to make something is because it’s useful? Can you not think of one reason why God might have been moved to create a night sky full of stars? Consider the fact the human beings are inherently artistic. That makes sense if we have been made by an artistic Creator with an eye for beauty. It’s harder to explain in terms of mindless Evolution bent solely on survival…

Why would God, after having created the universe, wait 9 billion years to create the Earth? Why would God then wait a further 4 billion years before humans were able to be created?

Why not? Is he in a hurry to get somewhere? Remember God does not experience time the same way we do.

Or if you don’t subscribe to the idea that the universe is older than 6,000 years, why would God create all animals with the same fundamental building blocks, as if they were all related through a common ancestor, despite the fact that this is often detrimental to certain species? Why would he not create each individual species from an individual starting point?

When you take off the Darwin-colored glasses, it doesn’t look like all animals are related through a common ancestor at all. In fact each one seems to have been specifically designed to fit in its own ecological niche.

And furthermore, why would God give animals so many vestigial traits, in other words, features which no longer serve the purpose that they were originally intended for?

If these features were intended for a purpose, who is one intending that they serve that purpose?

For example, why are 80% of a dolphin’s olfactory receptor genes inactive? Why do men have nipples? Why do humans experience goosebumps if you can’t explain these things through Evolution?

I couldn’t help but notice you didn’t mention the appendix. How long were we beat over the head about that “vestigial organ” before it was discovered that it wasn’t quite as vestigial as was previously asserted. You didn’t talk about Junk DNA either, which I guess is due to the fact that, turns out, it’s not junk. So now we’re left with…goosebumps. Honestly this issue is a huge point in favor of special creation, not against it. If every living thing really was the result of a string of random mutations, not guided but totally random, there should be tons of vestigial stuff. There should be more vestigial features than functional features. So what is focusing all these supposedly random mutations to produce such well thought-out features with nary a trace of anything extraneous?

If God is omniscient then he know the future, and he knew from the start that one day he would be wiping out the majority of the human species, save Noah and his family. So why would God not just begin with Noah and his family?

What are you assuming that God’s purpose in creation is? If you don’t know what his purpose is, how can you possibly hope to understand anything that he does at all? A full explanation would require a book (Jonathan Edwards’ is a good one), but the briefest possible answer to your question is that the just destruction of the stubbornly rebellious alongside the forgiveness and rescue of the undeserving serves to demonstrate the full range of God’s glorious attributes. This may not make immediate sense, but neither does quantum mechanics. We all admit that, in principle at least, it does make sense because all of our stories glory in the comeupance of the wicked right alongside the reward of the heroes.

Why has God only ever appeared to such a small, selective group of people? And why hasn’t he appeared again since, especially given the dwindling of faith across the globe that we’re currently experiencing?

Are we on the same globe? It is my distinct pleasure to let you know that God’s Church continues to grow. Don’t imagine that God is up in heaven racking his brains trying to figure out how to get everybody to believe in him. He doesn’t need to appear visibly to every single person for each of them to know that he exists and that they are responsible to him. He is accomplishing his own purpose in his own way; Christ’s sheep hear his voice in the proclamation of the gospel, and they come to him.

Why would God prioritize his own ego in his commandments, detailing precisely how he should be worshiped, above the commandments not to murder or steal?

It has nothing to do with ego. Don’t imagine that God needs or wants worship as if he was not already completely perfect and happy in and of himself. There is nothing we can give to God to add to him in any way. We are the ones who need him, and he delights to give himself to us. What you need to realize is that everything good comes from God, and outside of him there is no good. So while you might think it’s more important to love your neighbor than to love God, you can’t really love your neighbor unless you love God. The requirement to worship God which seems like extraneous religiosity to you, is actually the foundation of any meaningful, heartfelt obedience to the other commandments.

Why would God not include a commandment for parents to respect their children to go alongside the commandment for children to respect their parents?

Alex, I take it that you don’t have children then? 😉
The number one atheist misunderstanding of the Law is that they forget the context and try to treat it like we would a modern Western legal code. With modern laws, we apply the letter of the law at the expense of its actual intent (tax loopholes for instance). The Mosaic Law on the other hand, goes more by principle than by the strict letter. So the commandment for children to honor their parents teaches us, not just to respect our parents, but also by extension, all authorities that God has put in place, as well as God himself. The principle of caring for those weaker than us, which would include children, is well established by other laws, especially those detailing God’s particular concern for the poor, widows and foreigners.

Why would God allow Satan to exist? If he can eliminate the devil, then he doesn’t want to, in which case he has malicious intent. If he can’t eliminate the devil then he’s impotent. So which is it?

Be careful not to forget that each one of us is under the same sentence of condemnation that he is. Is it malicious intent on God’s part that he hasn’t eliminated that notorious sinner Rick Conrad? The same issue comes back here that we had with question 6. What actually is God’s purpose in everything he’s doing in this creation? Mistakenly assuming we know the answer to that will lead to all sorts of objections that miss the point. Speaking broadly to the question of evil, as to why God would have a purpose for that being a part of the universe, notice that a great many of the best things that we know of would not exist in a world that had never known evil. Imagine never knowing about such things as courage, mercy, perseverance, patience, self-sacrifice, victory, unconditional love… If it is God’s judgement that allowing evil for a certain space of time is a cost worth paying in order that all these incredible virtues could be known and celebrated for all time, I believe it must be so.

Why would God harden the heart of the Pharaoh of the book of Exodus, to then punish the Pharaoh with plagues for having a hardened heart?

The Biblical teaching is that absolutely everything that happens in the universe does so according to God’s will, and yet at the same time, each of us is responsible for his own actions. The Bible teaches both side by side and does not try to reconcile the apparent contradiction for our puny minds. So at the same time that Exodus says God is hardening Pharaoh’s heart in order to accomplish his purposes, it says that Pharaoh is freely hardening his own heart. If this idea seems too incredible to you (that God’s dealings would be beyond human ken), at least give the Bible credit for teaching it with remarkable consistency. (See Gen 50:20, 1 Sam 2:25, Acts 4:27-28, Phil 2:12-13, Is 10:5-19, Mt 18:7…)

Why would God create a son to send to earth, destined to be mercilessly tortured and brutally crucified in order to forgive the sin of man, when he could have just forgiven the sin of man?

The Son was not created; he’s God. This is as basic as Christian theology gets, and if you don’t even know that, how seriously can we take your criticisms of our faith?

If by “just forgive,” you mean ignore our sins, no, he can’t do that. A holy and just judge cannot simply pass over evil acts as if they didn’t matter. But because of his love, God the Son voluntarily took on human flesh, so he could carry our sins for us and bear God’s wrath against them on the cross. By Jesus’ self-sacrifice, we see that God is both perfectly merciful and perfectly just. Without it, he could only be one or the other.

Now I have a question for Alex.

Throughout the entire video we hear you say this one word over and over again: “Why.” It’s a question looking for a reason, a purpose. But according to your worldview, there is no such thing as reason or purpose. If atheism is true, the question “why” should not even make sense because it presupposes concepts that simply do not exist. And yet when you say, “why,” we all know what you mean. How can that be?

Six Arguments Against Eternal Life Examined

This is a response to part of Yuriy Stasyuk’s blog post about the atheist view of death in which he details “six reasons eternal life would inevitably become hell.” It’s a thoughtful post, and I would encourage everyone to take the time to read it before you read my response here.

1. It would get boring.

“How would you feel a trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion-trillion years down the road, repeating the same exact thing over and over again until you know it so well there could not possibly be anything new or exciting about it? That is the curse of eternal life.”

No it will not. First of all, we will not continue to have such a weak appetite for good and beautiful things that we will become so easily tired of them. Rather our senses will not only be better, truer and more sensitive than they are now, but they will continue to heighten throughout all eternity, making each pleasure deeper and grander as eternity passes by. More importantly, this fails to take into account the reason that eternal life is desirable, and that is because it is spent with God. God, the source of all life and everything good that has ever existed is eternally and infinitely interesting, delightful, surprising, joyful, loving, beautiful, glorious, fascinating, pleasant to be with… Far from reliving the same stale moments, we will spend eternity plumbing the infinite depths of the personality of God.

2. Hell is unfair (his #3)

“No one is wicked enough to deserve eternal punishment, and no one is righteous enough to deserve eternal bliss.”

Eternal conscious torment in hell is one of those staggering doctrines taught by our Lord  that should bring us to awe that our God should be so unfathomably holy and so inconceivably righteous that he would decree such a thing. We know that God is wiser and holier and more hateful of evil and more loving of good and kinder and more patient and more just and more merciful than we can even imagine. On the judgment day when every injustice throughout all history is brought into account, God will issue the verdicts and everyone will see and know that his judgments are fair. In the light of his glory, all arguments about the injustice of hell will be silenced and no one will answer him a word. Of course we can’t really understand how that could be fair right now – how could we? We with our sinful human minds are less fit to judge the rightness of hell than a golden retriever is to decide cases at the Supreme Court.

3. We can’t enjoy heaven knowing people are in hell  (his #2)

“How could anyone live with joy knowing their loved ones are being tortured and suffer the worst agony imaginable?”

It feels that way now because our experience of love with fellow humans seems closer and more real than our experience of love with God. In truth, for Christians, our greatest, truest and dearest love is God himself. In the light of heaven, this will be wonderfully clear and sweet to us, and the sad fate of those who have rejected and spurned our God, our one true love, will not be able to make us more unhappy than we are happy to drink the sweet delight of his indescribable love each and every new day. Rather, we will be joyfully passionate about the glory of God, including the glory of his righteous judgments against sinners (knowing that we did nothing to deserve anything better, but that Jesus mercifully bought us by his blood and renewed us in his image).

4. It makes this life meaningless

“It doesn’t matter how much good you do, because the infinite reward you get so vastly outweighs the good that it drowns out your nobility and sacrifice. No sacrifice or struggle can have any meaning, for it is infinitely swamped by an infinite reward. No great act of heroism, courage, or nobility can have any meaning for it is engulfed by the infinite chasm of eternity.”

No, it makes this life more meaningful, because this is the incredibly brief period of time in which the Story is happening. The happy ending of a story is only interesting after having read the story – and the happily-ever-after of the story of God’s creation does not obliterate the frightening, monumental, glorious events that brought us there. Rather it brings them to a happy conclusion in which the glories of what God did in, with and through his people will be remembered and celebrated for all the endless eons.

5. Eternity is the end of curiosity

“‘Eternity is the end of curiosity.’ In an eternal life there is nothing left to ponder, wonder, investigate, or explore for there are no more distant lands or mysterious horizons.

In every single narrative of heaven it is said that we finally receive ‘all of the answers.’ Consider the intellectual who has devoted his life studying and seeking answers, and now compare her to a lazy man who has comfortably coasted through life without ever struggling to achieve anything. In the eternal Paradise, both instantly get ‘all of the answers.’”

It is nowhere written that when we get to heaven, we will suddenly “know all the answers.” I am sure that as soon as we reach the perspective granted by heaven, there are a great many things that we will see which we did not see before. But as for knowing all the answers, there is only one who does, and we will never share that attribute of his. Rather we will continue to grow in knowledge and to ask ever new, ever deeper questions forever. If that seems incredible, of course it is! We well know that the human mind has no real way to grasp any infinite concept.

6. There won’t be enough for us to do

“Even if we imagine that there will be some things to do in an eternal after, how long until those things become mindless, repetitive, routines? If you have an eternity of time, eventually everything that can be done, will be done. Eventually the last enemy will be vanquished, and what then? Eventually every last goal will have been achieved, and what then? Eventually every possible song will have been written, sung, remixed, and resung, so what then? Eventually every possible invention will have been invented, so what then?”

Really? The real answer to this objection is in part 1, but as was suggested we will continue to occupy ourselves with creative endeavors in our eternal life. It may seem sound to say that given an infinite amount of time, all of the infinite number of possible (good) songs will be written, and then what? But, it’s obvious to see that the moment of “then what?” never actually comes. You only run out of songs to write after you’ve used the infinite amount of time it takes to write them all. In order to actually reach the moment where all these songs are written, you would have had to get there in a finite amount of time, and of course it’s impossible to write an infinite number of songs in a finite amount of time.

No, we will not have enough time in all of eternity to think, speak, sing, and celebrate all of the infinite glory of God. The joy of growing in knowledge and appreciation and love will be ours for every day of all of eternity.

Another terrorist attack – what can we do?

“You will hear of wars and rumors of wars. See that you are not alarmed, for this must take place, but the end is not yet…And this gospel of the kingdom will be proclaimed throughout the whole world as a testimony to all nations, and then the end will come…Immediately after the tribulation of those days the sun will be darkened, and the moon will not give its light, and the stars will fall from heaven, and the powers of the heavens will be shaken. Then will appear in heaven the sign of the Son of Man, and then all the tribes of the earth will mourn, and they will see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.”

Matthew 24:6, 14, 29-30

Once again we wake up to find the world hurting. Afraid. Angry. Frustrated. Despairing. Questioning. Mourning.

What can be done in a world where people want to show up to Bastille Day fireworks, not to celebrate liberté but to drive a truck into the crowd, indiscriminately killing men, women and children. There are many who will be quick to tell us what the solution is, and some of the things they suggest may be good ideas. I am sure however the final answer is not going to be found with human effort. Real peace is not going to happen until Jesus is king over the whole world, and that will not happen, we read in Matthew, until the gospel is preached throughout the world to all people groups (εθνος). Those who walk in darkness are going to continue to walk in darkness until the light of God shines in their hearts. And for that to happen, they need to hear that peace with God is found in Jesus, who laid down his own life for his enemies, to make them God’s children. The Joshua Project (joshuaproject.net) estimates that right now there are over 6,600 unreached people groups representing some 3.1 billion people who have never heard this good news.

So what I am saying, that we need to send more missionaries, give more to missions, do more to support those carrying the gospel to the remote places of the earth? Yes I think we should do all of those things. But may I suggest that the best thing each of us can do is to talk to the unreached person who lives next door? Who knows but that the person you invite to church this Sunday could be God’s chosen instrument to go to the Dangarik in Pakistan and introduce them to Jesus? Or perhaps to lead a translation of the New Testament into the Tedaga language? Or to show God’s grace to refugees in Europe?

The gospel is the only hope for this world, so let us tell all people everywhere that Jesus is Lord and Savior.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit.” -John 12:24

Too much context?

Is it ever possible, when we look at verses of the Bible, to overemphasize the context?

I stumbled on this question recently when I posted this on facebook:

1 Cor 2.9 fb post

Much to my surprise, a friend of ours very kindly took the time to tell me that I was completely misusing 1 Corinthians 2:9 – that it wasn’t about heaven at all. Well, it’s true that in context, heaven is not the main idea in view, but does that mean I misused the verse? Maybe so. But on the other hand, I found myself asking: Is it possible to improperly limit a verse’s range of meaning by the context?

Let me say up front that I have no formal training in exegesis, no knowledge of Biblical languages worth speaking of and no particular qualifications for speaking on this issue. So this post is just an ordinary Christian thinking out loud about exegesis and scripture use.

I also want to emphasize that between ignoring context and giving too much weight to context (if there is such a thing), by far the worse error is the first one. For instance, to quote James 2:24 by itself, “You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone,” and set it in opposition to Ephesians 2:8-9 or Romans 3:28 is absolutely wrong. James 2:24 needs to be understood in light of James 2:14-23, where James explains that the “faith alone” he’s talking about is an empty talk faith which is dead and therefore is actually no faith at all.

So ignoring the context is the root of many heresies, but what about my question? Is there a place for giving a verse meaning outside of its context?

Well, first of all, New Testament authors do use Old Testament verses outside their original context. For instance, Matthew relates how when Herod sought to destroy Jesus as child, Joseph took him to Egypt and later returned. Then he writes, “This was to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet, ‘Out of Egypt I called my son,'” (2:15). The prophet he’s quoting is Hosea who writes, “When Israel was a child, I loved him, and out of Egypt I called my son,” (11:1). I can’t see anything in Hosea to indicate that this is a Messianic prophecy or any kind of prophecy at all, but Matthew has no problem using it that way. Apparently the words, “Out of Egypt I called my son,” can have more meaning than the meaning they carry in the context of Hosea 11.

Another verse worth looking at is Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” This verse is applied and misapplied to a wide variety of situations, but if we look at the context of verses 11-13, we can see that the only thing Paul has in view is his ability to be content whether he has much or little. If we limit the meaning of verse 13 to no more than what Paul uses it for in Philippians 4, then it does not speak to any subject other than contentment. But how can we make the words “all things” mean “be content”? Wouldn’t it be better to say that Philippians 4:13 is exactly as broad as it sounds, and that what Paul is saying is that since he is capable of doing anything by Christ’s strength, then his ludicrous claim to be able to be content in any circumstance is actually true. And surely no one would deny that there is nothing at all that is too difficult for us if God strengthens us to do it. When people misapply this verse, it’s not a failure to see that it speaks to nothing other than contentment. Rather they presume on Christ’s strength, forgetting that it is only available to us to accomplish his will, not for us to use however we want.

So what about 1 Corinthians 2:9? Here’s the passage:

6 Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.  7 But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory.  8 None of the rulers of this age understood this, for if they had, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.  9 But, as it is written, “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him”—  10 these things God has revealed to us through the Spirit. For the Spirit searches everything, even the depths of God.  11 For who knows a person’s thoughts except the spirit of that person, which is in him? So also no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God.  12 Now we have received not the spirit of the world, but the Spirit who is from God, that we might understand the things freely given us by God.  13 And we impart this in words not taught by human wisdom but taught by the Spirit, interpreting spiritual truths to those who are spiritual.  14 The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.  15 The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one.   16 “For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

So verse 9 by itself may sound like it’s talking about how awesome heaven will be, but we see the passage is about the superiority of God’s revelation over human wisdom. The things that no eye has seen and so forth, are said in verse 10 to have been revealed to us already. The things spoken of are not the glories of paradise, but the truths of the gospel. That is unquestionably what is meant by verse 9 in context. But is that the same thing as to say that the words of verse 9 cannot be referred to as a description of anything other than the truths of the gospel in view in verse 10? I don’t think anybody would say that everything described by this phrase has been revealed already: “What no eye has seen, nor ear heard, nor the heart of man imagined, what God has prepared for those who love him.” Isn’t it clear that the things that are said to be revealed in verse 10 are merely a portion of those things described in verse 9? Just like in Philippians 4:13, Paul takes a statement that can have a broad range of application and employs it in one specific context. But looking beyond Paul’s specific concerns in 1 Corinthians 2, is it really inappropriate to see that the language of 1 Corinthians 2:9 can be used as both a true and edifying description of the future home of all the saints? Would we be wrong to hear echoes of Matthew 25:34 and  John 14:2-3 in the phrase “what God has prepared for those who love him”? (my ESV Study Bible lists the first one as a cross reference). I would have a hard time being quick to say that it is certainly wrong to think of heaven in conjunction with 1 Corinthians 2:9.

I think it’s a small paradox of language that somehow the meaning of specific words in a passage is dependent on their context, and yet the context is made up of the meanings of specific words. It feels a little chicken-and-eggish to me, and although we do it every day with great accuracy, I’m not entirely sure how. It seems to me that individual verses do have meaning of their own that can stand independently from the passage in which they’re found. I would be happy, however, to be completely refuted which would be better than to be found to be “wise in my own sight.”

“I thank you Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that you have hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to little children.” -Matthew 11:25