new life fellowship

serving jesus christ the king

In Defence

Examine your disbelief

I’ve just finished Wilful Blindness by Margaret Heffernan—a superb book dealing with many of the factors which cause us to fail to see what we should see. It might be biases, an overloaded mind, emotional involvement, fear of change, money, the blind hope that a problem will just go away if we don’t look at it, failure to think outside the box—whatever the reason, there are many ways to miss the things we should otherwise see.

One of the most illuminating chapters was the final one entitled “See Better”. In it Heffernan seeks to outline steps we can take to counteract this tendency. Earlier she had told of Alice Stewart, a doctor who discovered a link between childhood cancer and x-raying pregnant women. Due to the medical establishment’s blind faith in this new diagnostic method they refused to accept her findings for 25 years, causing needless death and heartache to many. In the final chapter Heffernan identifies part of the strength of Dr. Stewart’s case:

‘When Alice Stewart conducted her survey on childhood cancers, she worked with a statistician named George Kneale… What is most interesting is how Kneale himself thought about his job. “It’s my job to prove Dr. Stewart’s theories are wrong. I am, in effect, trying to disprove her. Hence the strength of our long association.”’

Heffernan continues, ‘In his seeking for
disconfirmation, Stewart knew that Kneale protected her from potential blindness in her own thinking… Kneale and Stewart understood between them that the risk of losing their theory was outweighed by the danger of being wrong.”

We need to seek disconfirmation of what we believe if we want to guard ourselves from blindness.

I was struck by this recently as I surveyed my father-in-law’s bookshelves. He had recently passed away and had a strong faith in Jesus Christ. Yet his bookshelves displayed the most interesting range of books. About a third were to do with his faith; a third novels; but the remaining third were across a wide variety of topics—from history to politics to biography to science to mathematics. In this section were a host of books hostile to aspects of Christianity—from just about everything Richard Dawkins had written, to Christopher Hitchens, Stephen J. Gould, Stephen Hawking, the Gnostic Gospels, the Lost Gospel of Judas, and many others.

Here was a man who actively sought disconfirmation—not because he didn’t want Christianity to be true, but because he wanted to be sure it was. His faith was not a blind faith, but an informed faith.

I suspect that there are many who naively believe—both in Christianity and in scepticism. You need to seek disconfirmation. I find many Christians don’t actually know what they believe. And I find many sceptics equally guilty. Ironically sceptics can be just as guilty of blind faith. Will you take time to examine your belief or disbelief, rather than persisting in wilful blindness? For one there lies the risk of a wasted life, and for the other lies the danger of a lost eternity.

Intelligent life out there?

A friend of mine was telling me about an item on the radio recently about life on Mars. Apparently scientists studying Mars are excited about the arrival of ‘Curiosity’, the rover for NASA's Mars Science Laboratory mission, on Mars this summer.

It will search clays and sediments in the Gale Crater for indications of past environments that could have supported microbial life. The question they are wondering about is: Could a record of fossil be trapped in ancient lake mud on Mars?

As part of the interview the scientist spoke of how vast the universe is. He illustrated it by saying that if you took all the grains of sand on all the beaches in the world, and let each one represent 100 stars, then you would have an approximation of the number of stars in the known universe. His argument was that given there are so many stars, and some of them may have other planets, it’s quite conceivable that there is evidence of life on other planets.

Of course, if you want to go down the route of statistical probability, the question then becomes how likely is it that, having run all those permutations, life will happen to be on the planet just next door to us? What are the odds of having lifeforms on adjacent planets in the one solar system, never mind in the one galaxy?

But biblically speaking, what is an appropriate response? If all we are doing is seeking to expand the horizons of our knowledge then this is a useful, if somewhat expensive, adventure. I’m all for pushing the boundaries of knowledge. However there often seems to be an unspoken motivation behind these queries and hypotheses about intelligent life, or even any sort of life out there—if only we could prove life exists elsewhere, then we could move slightly further away from there being a God who creates. Ideally and ultimately it seems that some would like to find intelligent life which has created us, or which at the very least, has evolved separately without any story of a creator. That way we could put one more nail in the coffin of a divine creator.

And so, in the absence of any signs of intelligent life, we find ourselves scratching in mud for fossils of bacteria or the such like.

In the pursuit of knowledge—fine; but in the pursuit of godless-ness—it is faulty logic at best and wilful blindness at worst. Why scratch around in the mud of another space rock looking for tiny clues of extra-terrestrial life when there exists on our own rock an abundance of historical, personal, and societal evidence for an intelligent being who exists outside the confines of this planet?

Rather than abstract philosophical arguments about the existence of God I would recommend that you make Easter the starting point for examining the historical evidence for Jesus and his resurrection.

Looking to the stars

This time two weeks ago, few people had heard of Professor Parke Kunkle. He’s an astronomy professor in the US who has sparked off panicked scenes all across the world. It began two weeks ago as Mr Kunkle appeared on NBC, talking about his work. Over the course of the interview, he alluded to a phenomenon known “precession”, which, in non-astronomer’s terms, means the earth wobbles as it rotates.

This change in the rotation of the Earth is too small to notice, but over time it can cause some dramatic changes. And one of these changes has sparked a panic. The stars have moved. At least from our perspective here on Earth, the stars are no longer where they should be. And as a result, there is frenzied speculation that for centuries, the entire horoscope system has been wrong.

Some astrologers have hit back, saying that this doesn’t really change how horoscopes are calculated here in the Western World, but they haven’t managed to calm the storm. A lot of people are very worried. Calls and emails have been flooding in as stressed out clients look for reassurance. Add in the widely held belief that there are in fact 13 Zodiac signs, rather than 12, and the entire “science” looks very unreliable indeed.

Spare a thought for the 26 year-old Canadian who has sported a prominent Aries tattoo for several years. If Professor Kunkle is right, she’s no longer even an Aries. Her story may be fairly extreme, but it’s far from unique. On a smaller scale, millions of people must now face the possibility that they’ve been looking at the wrong section of the chart for a very long time.

Hopefully, this will destroy people’s faith in horoscopes. They’re dangerous—people look to them for guidance about serious, life changing decisions, and apply the vague, meaningless statements to their lives. A humourous example is Raymond Domenech, the former French football manager who exiled talented Scorpios from his side, and professes a distrust of Leos. His wacky methodology turned a team of world-beaters into a worldwide laughing stock.

We need a better guide than his; something that offers more than vague, inconsequential drivel. We need a guide that tells us our problem and how we can deal with it; something that isn’t undermined by the rotation of the Earth and that doesn’t change.

If you’ve been in the habit of reading your stars, why not start reading the word of the one who made the stars. The Bible is God’s unchanging, but ever relevant guide to daily living and to the future. There you will find hope, peace, and most of all a forgiving relationship that will never end.


So many interpretations?

One of the objections I hear from time to time about the Bible runs something like, “There are so many different interpretations, its hard to know which to believe”, or “That’s just your interpretation”. Sometimes it comes from genuine uncertainty, and sometimes it seems more like a throwaway defensive answer.

Yet in both cases there is generally a common denominator—the idea of the Bible being a vast fog of mixed up interpretations has kept them from actually reading the Bible.

This is sad, because for the most part the Bible is clear and interpretation isn’t an issue. Granted there are some passages which are complex—we would expect that when a complex God speaks into a complex world; there are some passages that require a knowledge of the culture and customs of the day; but vast chunks of it are startlingly clear.

They require no interpretation; they speak for themselves. They are as capable of being understood by a child, a housewife, a working man, as a trained clergy. They just say what they say—much like a stop sign or a direction sign at the roadside. We don’t dismiss a sign warning of a dangerous bend, saying, “I don’t know what that’s about, there are just so many possible interpretations.”

For example, these are fairly clear:

“For everyone has sinned; we all fall short of God’s glorious standard.” – Romans 3:23

“The wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life” – Romans 6:23

Jesus said, ”I am the way, the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except by me” – John 14:6

“God saved you by his grace when you believed. And you can’t take credit for this; it is a gift from God. Salvation is not a reward for the good things we have done, so none of us can boast about it.” - Ephesians 2:8-9

I don’t know what has caused this—whether it is preachers and clergy wanting to impress with how they alone are able to understand and interpret the scriptures, or a fear that the ‘untrained eye’ might make a complete mess of understanding something. Whatever the cause, the upshot is that the ordinary person feels incompetent to look at the Bible. This is a tragedy for it has removed God’s word, its powerful life-giving message, its wonderful promises, its unambiguous warnings, and its crystal clear hope, from people, leaving them dependent on others who often talk around scripture, rather than letting scripture talk for itself.

The truth is that the things we need to grasp for eternal life are sufficiently plain, not a matter of interpretation. Other issues may need deeper thought, but the main things are the plain things. If we read the plain things and believed them, they alone would radically transform our lives.

God, the universe and Stephen Hawking

Since I’m out of commission at the moment here’s a piece by a friend of mine, Prof. David McKay:

“Stephen Hawking has done it—he’s proved there is no need for a God to explain the existence of the universe. Forget Richard Dawkins and the rest of the amateurs. Here is one of the greatest living physicists stating definitively that ‘It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch paper and set the Universe going’. In his latest book The Grand Design, he considers the great questions ‘Why is there something rather than nothing? Why do we exist?’ His response is that a vast number of universes spontaneously created themselves out of nothing and, with so many universes on offer, one happened to have exactly the conditions necessary for the evolution of human beings.

Hawking’s explanation is ‘M-theory’. Don’t ask what ‘M’ stands for—even proponents of the theory don’t know. I would try to explain M-theory to you, but the spectacle of the blind leading the blind is not edifying, and ditches are a constant hazard. The bottom line for Hawking is this: ‘According to M-theory, ours is not the only universe. Instead, M-theory predicts that a great many universes were created out of nothing. Their creation does not require the intervention of some supernatural being or god. Rather, these multiple universes arise naturally from physical law’.

Don’t be fooled, M-theory may sound impressive and complex, but is as full of holes as a block of Swiss cheese. It’s worth noting that other world-class physicists have raised serious doubts about M-theory, and Frank Close, Professor of Theoretical Physics at the University of Oxford, has stated, ‘I don’t see that M-theory adds one iota to the God-debate, either pro or con’.

Irony of ironies, M-theory itself is not and, it is admitted, may never be open to testing. The multitude of universes of which it speaks cannot be observed, but we ‘know’ they must be there. Haven’t Christians been lambasted for speaking of God in such terms? In fact M-theory doesn’t qualify as science, even on the definition of Hawking. A hypothesis that cannot be tested is not science.

Dawkins and Hawking’s disciples say, ‘Religion is a matter of faith, science is a matter of fact’. Yet a theory that asks you to accept multitudes of undetectable universes springing into existence spontaneously sounds very like a demand for a blind leap of faith, and a bigger leap than belief in a personal Creator. Also, scientific laws describe what happens, they don’t make anything happen, not even the spontaneous creation of universes.

The fact is that such theories are simply ways of avoiding what is staring every human in the face: the universe is a testimony to the existence of a Creator. The apostle Paul wrote: ‘what may be known about God is plain to them. For 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’ (Romans 1:19-20). Physicists, cosmologists and others are seizing on M-theory and similar proposals because otherwise the evidence for fine tuning and design in the universe could suggest the hand of a Creator. Much better to opt for the unprovable and untestable than to submit your mind to divine revelation and lay aside your rebellion. M-theory – more nonsense on stilts.”

Why do men hate going to church?

Some churches have a dearth of men—their pews are populated by women and children, giving the impression that Christianity is only for such. In some churches the men are present in body, but not in mind—you can tell by the vacant look in their eye. They are there perhaps because they have to be, or perhaps in order to protect some vague notion they have of their cultural identity.

In other churches men are present in equal measure to women and children, with their heads switched on, and anticipation in their faces.

So what makes the difference?

I could answer it in one word—Jesus—but I need to unpack what I mean.

Men like heroes, manly men who do great deeds. Too often Jesus is portrayed as a slightly effeminate hippy with long hair and deep soulful eyes—all languid and limp. I don’t know where this comes from, for it certainly doesn’t come from the Bible. As a middle-eastern man he would likely have been short and stocky, with swarthy skin. Long hair was forbidden, and “he had no beauty to attract us to him” (Isaiah 53:2). He was gentle and kind, but his bravery, courage and passion are often left out. The Jesus of popular culture is a victim accidentally crushed by the vicissitudes of a cruel world. Who wants to follow such a figure?

Such a figure rightly gathers the pitying focus of soft and tender souls. But do men want to sit around and pour out pity? Is this what following Jesus is?

This is not the Jesus of the Bible. The Jesus of the Bible out-manned every man that has ever lived. His death was not accidental, but a deliberate act of self-sacrifice in order to provide rescue for everyone (man, woman and child) who would put their trust in him.

Not only so, but he rose triumphant out of the grave, like the warrior king that he is, having defeated death itself. The Bible tells us that this great King calls men and women to follow him into the new Kingdom that he has made theirs through his life, death and resurrection. He is not looking for your pity but for your allegiance.

That’s the sort of man that is worth finding out about and following.

Why is it that men hate going to church? Because too often they don’t meet the Jesus of the Bible. They are presented with an object of pity, and pity will not motivate men to follow—but the real Jesus does.


Anonymous Calliope

Dear Calliope,

Thank you for your letter in response to a previous column, although since you gave no address, this is the about the only option left for response. In response to my claim that God is a master artist you raise what you imagine to be numerous “design faults, never corrected” such as earthquakes, tsunamis etc. I can only assume that you haven’t read much of this column before because I have written often on these sorts of issues, as well as others you mention.

You write, “If I were God I wouldn’t have the neck to ‘proclaim my handiwork’ when it is so lethally shoddy”. It is as a result of mankind’s ‘handiwork’ that it has become lethal. I don’t just mean that in the sense that we have damaged the planet physically, although we have, but the issue goes deeper.

The Bible teaches that the world was created perfect—without any such design faults. Man however decided that he would rather cast aside the authority of his Creator, and in doing so found out that he cannot both have his cake and eat it. He cannot throw off God’s rule and still enjoy all the benefits of God’s rule. As a result of mankind’s rebellion God subjected his creation to decay and struggle in order to help us see the painful reality that life without God is fragile and futile. They are not design faults; they are consequences of rebellion.

In short, the brokenness of the world is our fault, and is there to show us that we need God more than we realise. Even it we are the ones to blame, God himself has stepped into the brokenness in the person of Jesus Christ to provide the solution, but that solution isn’t simply the waving of a magic wand to take away the earthquakes etc. The solution starts much closer to home in the recesses of your heart and mine. We need to resubmit to the authority of God (by the way, the God of the Old Testament and the New Testament is exactly the same, and there is no contradiction between him and Jesus, for they are one), and seek forgiveness for our own rebellion against his kind rule. Only when that is done can we look forward to seeing this broken masterpiece restored to its original form—with everything corrected.

Yours sincerely

Mark

PS – I know this doesn’t answer everything, but if you really want to discuss, then drop me a line, with an address.

Holistic & Psychic Health

The Holistic & Psychic Health Fair is in Letterkenny this weekend. Now I have nothing against alternative forms of medicine – provided they are alternatives, in other words, provided they work.

And I’m all for people getting in touch with spiritual issues. As long as they go about it the right way – see John 14:6.

But I do hate to see people falling for all sorts of nonsense. GK Chesterton once said, “When people stop believing in God, they don’t believe in nothing, they believe in anything”.

I heard an interview a while ago with some exhibitors from a previous fair. One of them was a bonereader and did a reading on air. Someone in the studio chose an object from the bonereader’s bag, and the dialogue went something like this:

Bonereader: “This tells me that you have set or that you need to set some boundaries in your life. Perhaps in the area of emotions, or telling people you can’t come into this part of my life, it’s private. Would that be the case?”

Other person: “Yes that’s right”

Then the bonereader really warmed to the theme, discoursing on the benefits of setting boundaries in life. Another object signified “Completeness” – something in her life would draw to a close, something in relation to her setting these boundaries.

Now I have nothing personal against this lady, just the whole new age mishmash of nonsense that she represents – fortune telling, bone-reading, palm reading, crystal healing, etc. She happens to provide a good example. As I listened I wondered, “Do people really believe this stuff?”

It always starts off so vague. Who of us doesn’t need to set boundaries in their life? And of course there are always things drawing to a close in our lives—especially if you’re going to start drawing a few lines in places there weren’t lines previously. Apparently she charges €35 for this advice.

The serious side is that so many people take the advice of such new age gurus and put it into practice unquestioningly. At best it’s common sense that you don’t need to pay for, at worst it is the guesswork of a stranger who knows very little about your life.

On the other hand there are pastors in this town preaching something sane and sensible from God’s word every week, and you can come along and hear it for free. What’s more, God’s word is entirely relevant to everyone’s life, and is written by one who knows us individually and perfectly. Why not come along?

I can’t believe because of … Religious Hypocrisy

With the publication of the report into child abuse in Ireland in May and its horrific findings, many will no doubt add this to the list of reasons why they can’t believe in God. This is a perfectly understandable reaction, and one which the guilty will have to answer to God for. Jesus warned in Luke 17:2 that it would be better for such a person, “to be thrown into the sea with a millstone tied around his neck than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin”.

It is not simply this report alone which gives people reason to doubt Christianity—it is one in a long line of offences attributed to those who claim Christianity as their religion. Add to that list the Crusades, slavery, racism amongst the ‘Christian’ southern United States etc.

Several answers could be given. One is that disbelief in God fares no better—it has spawned the atrocities of Communism with its long list of human rights abuses all over the world, and the awfulness of Nazi Germany to name but two. Violence done in the name of Christianity is terrible, and must be addressed, but societies which have abandoned religion have been just as oppressive as those steeped in it. A deeper answer than disbelief in God is needed.

A second strand to the answer is to recognise that there is a difference between real Christianity and what is often claimed as Christianity. Genuine Christianity results in deep change, and has been at the forefront of the righting of ills such as slavery and racism. God will be the judge of the hearts of those who claimed Christianity and carried out evil in its name—and there will be many to whom he says “'I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!'” (Matthew 7:23). It would be a tragedy to reject Christianity because of frauds and yet to find yourself judged alongside them.

A third strand to the answer is to realise that the solution to these moral ills is not the abandonment of Christianity, but the embrace of it. The answer is to call the perpetrators to be more Christian, not less. The Bible condemns such behaviour in far stronger terms than any human has. This is what Martin Luther King realised as challenged those claiming Christianity whilst engaging in racism. He took the Bible and called them to live out what they believed—to be more Christian, not less.

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or mark@milfordrpc.org. You can read more or listen online at www.milfordrpc.org

I can’t believe because of… suffering

Flight AF447 went missing on Sunday off the coast of Brazil. As I write this reports of wreckage are coming in, and the 228 passengers and crew, including 3 Irish doctors, are believed to be dead.

Inevitably questions arise at a time like this about God and suffering. Understandably so—for if God is powerful enough to do something about it, why doesn’t he? Once again this column isn’t big enough for an in-depth answer, and I am aware that many who ask this question do so out of deep personal hurt. This is not merely an intellectual itch, but a cry from the heart.

I would say that it is partly because of suffering that I do believe. I find in the Bible the only credible explanation and solution to the problem. This broken world that we find ourselves in, with its prevailing sense of “This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be”, is this way because we are the way we are.

The problem isn’t with God, it’s with us. That doesn’t mean that there is always a direct correlation between a person’s suffering and their lack of uprightness. But it does mean that in a world where people choose to live for themselves rather than for God, we can’t expect the harmony that is promised when we live with God at the centre.

And because the problem isn’t at the level of disappearing planes or earthquakes, but is at the level of the human heart, that’s where the solution is concentrated. The Christian God isn’t uncaring or indifferent to our suffering. Instead he takes it so seriously that he is willing to get involved, not simply to track planes, or to empathise and comfort—although he can and does—but to provide the solution.

At the cross God gets involved to provide the solution at the cost of great personal suffering so that we could, not simply have comfort for broken lives, but ultimately have restoration to a life free from brokenness, hurt and pain—Heaven.

As Timothy Keller puts it, “Jesus came on a rescue mission for creation. He had to pay for our sins so that someday he can end evil and suffering without ending us.”

We may not know the reason for suffering—but we know what the reason isn’t. It isn’t because God doesn’t care. To forsake God because of suffering is to forsake our only hope, comfort and the ultimate answer.


I can’t believe the Bible because of … Miracles

From time to time I hear people give various reasons for not believing the Bible. Since I hold that the Bible is key for a right understanding of life I thought I’d try to answer some of these. If you have a particular reason, why not drop me an email, and we’ll try to cover it in the column.

This week’s objection runs like this: “We’re more scientifically advanced now and not so gullible as to believe in miracles.” Is it just the case that primitive people in Bible times were more easily fooled?

However, the New Testament era is much closer to us than the prehistoric era is to it. The people in those days knew that virgins didn’t have babies, people didn’t walk on water, calm storms with a word, nor raise the dead. They disbelieved and doubted as much as we would.

The whole point of a miracle is that it is outside of the regular flow of normal life. It is something that can’t be accounted for by the laws of nature. It is an interruption by a force greater than the universe. They are meant to shock us, to make us stop and realise that something or someone bigger than ‘mother nature’ is in control.

It is worth noting that miracles weren’t an everyday occurrence in the Bible—they are grouped at key moments when God wanted to make a point.

People don’t walk on water as a rule, or raise the dead, but if they are an all-powerful God what’s to stop them? If you are, as Jesus was, seeking to demonstrate your credentials as God, some extraordinary evidence is needed. He wouldn’t be much of a God if he couldn’t do miracles. To disbelieve the Bible because of miracles is like saying, “If there is a God who does God-like things, then I couldn’t believe in him.”

It’s a strange way to argue—it excludes the answer before the question is asked.

However this is not a call to be gullible. The Bible nowhere argues for naïve acceptance, rather that we use our God-given critical faculties to assess what we read. We are expected to be surprised and questioning, but not dismissing. In the reporting of the miracles, and the reactions they provoke we see evidence for the truth of the Bible, not reason to doubt.



Beauty Queens and World Peace

I’m reading a book at the moment called “A Quest for More” by Paul Tripp. I’ve only the first chapter read and already it has got me thinking. Tripp starts off the book with the classic scenario from beauty pageants the world over.

The beautiful girls parade across the stage, and then each is brought forward to the microphone to utter some deep cherished hopes for her reign as Miss Wherever. Usually it is something along these lines, “I want to work for world peace, and to solve world hunger, and to promote equality”.

We snigger and roll our eyes—noble goals, but so grandiose and out of reach.

Yet Tripp goes on, not to mock, put to point out that there is “woven inside each of us a desire for something more—a craving to be part of something bigger, greater, and more profound than our relatively meaningless day-to-day existence.”

Maybe that’s why we strive to do things that others haven’t—climb mountains or row oceans—or to invest ourselves in causes—political, social, sporting or whatever—to give us a sense of being part of something bigger and more significant.

That buzz you get from being there when your school won a final. Or from being part of a team refurbishing an orphanage. Or from voting in some historic event. Or from even watching the inauguration of the first African-American President of the USA. That sense of I was there, I was involved, I did that.


Tripp says, “We aren’t constructed to live only for ourselves. We were placed on earth to be part of something bigger than the narrow borders of our own survival and our own little definition of happiness.”

This resonates with me. We were made for something much bigger than mere existence. We were made for something great. Not necessarily to be great—for that would be arrogance—but to be involved in something that matters. We all want to matter.

Perhaps the beauty contestant isn’t so far off the mark after all. In that often mocked moment she has got something right—the desire to live for something big.

But where can that be found? There is nothing big enough or grand enough in this world to satisfy that desire. Ask the rich and famous. Tripp tells of one such man he came across who had everything, but complained “I have it all, why can’t I be happy?” Tripp writes, “he had constructed his own kingdom, indulged his every dream, met his every need… but he discovered it was an empty kingdom, and he was an empty king”.

The tragedy was not that he attempted too much, but that he had settled for too little.

It’s only when we look Godwards that we find something big enough and grand enough to live for. Something worth living and dying for.

Perhaps in these days when we are seeing the emptiness of possessions, and the futility of pursuing material goods, we need to rethink what it is that we are living for. And ask the question: Is it big enough?

Mark Loughridge is the minister of Milford Reformed Presbyterian Church. He can be contacted on 074 9123961 or mark@milfordrpc.org. You can read more or listen online at www.milfordrpc.org

Look Who's Irrational Now

There’s an idea out there that anyone who believes the Bible is some sort of backwoods, superstitious, irrational thicko who seems to have missed the fact that we have progressed from the Middle Ages into the 21st century.

The prevailing opinion amongst many is that we are to be more sophisticated and rational now. Indeed, those who have cast aside the shackles of religion are seen as the forebears of a brave new breed of mankind, whilst those who cling to their beliefs in a man who died on a cross and rose again are seen as those who would relegate the race to the dim recesses of ignorance.

With that in mind I was intrigued by an article I came across online in the Wall Street Journal. It makes the case that biblical evangelical Christianity promotes a greater degree of scepticism about superstition, the paranormal and the occult. Let me quote some of the article:

‘What Americans Really Believe,’ a comprehensive new study released by Baylor University, shows that traditional Christian religion greatly decreases belief in everything from the efficacy of palm readers to the usefulness of astrology.”

The survey was carried out by the Gallup Organization and asked American adults a series of questions. The answers were added up to create an index of belief in occult and the paranormal. While 31% of people who never worship expressed strong belief in these things, only 8% of people who attend a house of worship more than once a week did.

“The reality is that the New Atheist campaign, by discouraging religion, won't create a new group of intelligent, sceptical, enlightened beings. Far from it: It might actually encourage new levels of mass superstition. And that's not a conclusion to take on faith—it's what the empirical data tell us.”

The survey showed that instead of Christians being more gullible, it is those who are casting aside the truths contained in the Bible that are.

Interestingly, this increase in superstitious belief was also found where churchgoers attend churches which are less attached to the authority and truthfulness of the Bible.

But the stand out point for me is that in this age when we have had more education to a greater level than before, matched also by a great departure from adherence to the Bible, we are seeing not a greater level of rationality, but a far greater degree of gullibility.

The great cry of the secularists is that we need to move on; I ask what is it that you wish us to move on to? A quagmire of senseless and pitiful superstition, where your starsign is meant to govern how you live, where people hug rocks to find harmony with mother earth, where people try to contact the dead, and where the power of positive thinking/speaking is seen to be ‘The Secret’ of living?

Look who’s irrational now?

Years ago GK Chesterton is reputed to have said: “When a man stops believing in God he doesn’t then believe in nothing, he believes anything.” This survey would seem to bear this out. But I would also say to Christians reading this: Be rigorous in investigating what you believe—don’t you fall for superstitious nonsense or unsubstantiated stories either.

Of Butterflies and Caterpillars

Did you know Letterkenny has a Butterfly Garden? It is the brainwave of the folks at An Taisce, and was officially opened last Thursday, beside the tourist office. It’s a place where suitable plants are grown to provide a habitat for butterflies to flourish in and around a growing town.

I’m a designer at heart. I studied architecture at university, and still dabble in various forms of design. One of the things that strikes me as I look at this world is how fantastically designed it is. And butterflies are an incredible example.

When you think ‘butterflies’, don’t just think ‘bright flappy things’—think of the two stages before that: the caterpillar and the pupa. There aren’t many other animals that go through such a complete change during their lifetime. Yet all the information for that transformation is built in right from the start in the little eggs just a millimetre long and a fraction of that wide. Inside is the information for all three utterly different stages.

The caterpillar has cutting jaws, perfect for chewing leaves. Its intestine and digestive glands are matched to this diet. The butterfly, on the other hand, has jaws no longer suited for chewing. Instead, it has a long probscis which enables it to drink flower nectar.

The caterpillar has eight stumpy feet. The soft soles of these feet adhere as firmly to the smoothest surfaces as their circular bristles cling to rough surfaces. On the other hand, the butterfly’s finely jointed long legs are capable of landing safely and clinging to blossoms which blow back and forth in the breeze.

When it reaches the end of its caterpillar stage it sheds its skin for the last time. But what now appears—the pupa—has almost no resemblance to a caterpillar. This motionless pupa has neither head nor legs.

Under this seemingly lifeless shell something quite unbelievable is happening. The old caterpillar organs, with the exception of the nervous system, begin to dissolve into smaller groups of cells, even to disintegrate into single cells. From this ‘cellular soup’, new and, in part, quite different organs begin to develop.

When you consider this rebuilding process, what strikes me is that everything is happening with the utmost precision according to an extremely cleverly programmed plan. Without it the jumble of cells would not develop into the beautiful butterfly.

New and functioning organs are constructed, which then collaborate and complement each other in a purposeful and error-free way to form a new and radically different organism—the butterfly.

Consider the colourful wings—their patterns are transmitted unchanged from generation to generation. That means that the position and colour of each of the countless individual wing scales is encoded in that tiny egg cell—alongside all of the other incredibly complex and intricate information.

This degree of miniaturization of information storage can hardly be imagined. To appreciate the technical difficulties, consider that the exactly symmetrical patterns on the wings developed while the wings were totally crumpled up in the cramped conditions of the pupal case. Yet when the wings unfold for the first time, you see the distinctive pattern unique to that species.

Stunning—why did God make it that way? There’s no great reason why he couldn’t have just made caterpillar and butterflies separately. But I think he did it for two reasons: one—to bring delight to many people, especially children. And two—to give us a picture of life, death and new and beautiful life after resurrection. Butterflies should make us ask about the life to come. For it is only with Jesus that we can emerge from the caterpillar phase into the glories of the new heavens and new earth.

On being judgmental

I caught the tail-end of Highland Radio’s interview with Pastor Trevor Russell and Gareth Hayes of Letterkenny Christian Fellowship about their beliefs. I thought they did a good job of explaining and defending their faith, and supporting their answers from the Bible.

Having touched on a number of hot potatoes, the interviewer kept coming back to the claim that their Christianity made them judgmental.

It’s a claim often thrown at Christians—and sometimes justly. Christians can be guilty of looking down their noses at others—which is often what is meant by ‘judgmental’—and that is indefensibly wrong.

But that is different from what these guys were doing in expressing their standards of right and wrong. We all have standards of what we think is right and wrong—in that sense we are all judgmental.

However there is difference between having standards, and looking down your nose at those who don’t hold to the same standard. One does not necessarily follow the other. And in some cases a person feels ‘judged’ simply because another holds or expresses a different standard. We need to stop being such moral crybabies and have the courage of convictions, and enter into robust discussion as to the basis of our convictions.

The issue is not “Is Christianity judgmental”—for we all are—but “On what basis do we make our value judgments?”

This was clear in the interview. The interviewer clearly disapproved strongly of Christian beliefs which led to strong opinions about right and wrong. Let me say that again: He had a strong opinion/judgment about those who had strong opinions/judgments.

Do you see the irony? His own belief system made him equally judgmental to those who didn’t agree with him.

Christians hold to a defined standard of right and wrong set down by God. It is not arbitrary; it is fixed and universal because God is unchanging and universal. As creator he has the right to rule. But if you don’t have God, where do you get your standard of right and wrong from? It’s simply left to the prevailing climate of opinion which changes from place to place. Without a fixed standard it becomes an arbitrary matter of opinion, and why should one opinion be better than another?

The genuine Christian has a reason for what he believes and how he lives. He is seeking to be consistent with what he believes.

He knows that he is a sinner who can’t earn acceptance with God—so he has no reason to be proud of how he lives or to look down on others. He lives the way he lives because someone has paid for his sin, and because he takes sin seriously he wants to avoid it out of love for the one who paid for his sin. He knows the mess sin makes for others and the judgment that awaits them and so he wants to lovingly warn them that standards are not a matter of opinion, but that there is a God who judges.

And therein perhaps lies the crux of the issue—we don’t like the idea of a God who judges. And we don’t like being reminded of his fixed standards. Yet our only hope lies in a God who judges. If he turns a blind eye to sin then Heaven will be Hell. But instead he offers to judge Jesus in our place. Our only hope is to come to terms with the God who judges, and to ask that Jesus be judged and not us.

Women bishops and other assorted arguments

The Church of England’s general synod has voted to allow woman bishops, despite the wishes of those of a conservative bent.

Part of the argument is that we live in a more enlightened age than biblical times, the world has moved on, and churches need to catch up with the times we live in—as opposed to living in the times someone else lived in.

This issue aside, the argument pops up often. It’s often heard on many topics whenever someone seeks to hold to a biblical viewpoint—whether it is on radio or TV talkshows, or in conversation. The topics range over many areas—marriage, sex, morals, homosexuality etc. And the argument runs vaguely along the lines of “The Bible was written a long time ago, things have moved on since then, we know more than we did then, attitudes have changed and really it’s time the Bible was updated.”

There seems to be a certain validity to the argument. After all, much of the Bible was written 2000 year ago, some up to as much as 3500 years ago. Times have changed, we do know more.

But there is a fly in the ointment, a flaw that highlights a degree of misunderstanding at best, and woeful man-centredness at worst.

The Bible doesn’t claim to be a book like any other book. If it was in the same vein as Hippocrates’
‘On Regimen in Acute Diseases’, we would expect it to be outdated and in need of revising. But the Bible claims to be a revelation from God—and since God is a timeless being He is more than capable of delivering a set of instructions that are relevant for all peoples in all times and in all places.

There is a certain irony that we, who are bound by time sit like little judges over God who is outside of time and declare that time has moved on, that he needs to move with the times. We bob along in the river of time, and yet have the temerity from our limited perspective to call out for change to the one who can see with a single glance the whole river of time spread out before him.

Therein lies the man-centredness of it all—and there is a pinch of arrogance to it. We assume that the knowledge we have now is right. But doubtless there will be opinions of ours which our great-grandchildren will howl with laughter at, as we do to the attitudes of those who have gone before us. Who is to say that our generation has it right?

Given science and society’s penchant for change, do we build our lives and our society on the shifting sands of current opinion, or in the unchanging and ever relevant word of God?

Cyclones & Earthquakes

“How could God let this happen?”
“This gives me further reason to doubt the existence of God.”

Christians may have problems answering questions about why things happen, but such events pose a bigger problem for the person who doesn’t believe in God, for they can’t even ask the questions. If there is no God, then there is no meaning to life. And it doesn’t ultimately matter if we are killed by a falling tree, or cancer, or mugged, or drowned.

If there is no God, then there is no point in asking questions. There simply would be no reason why anything happens. And there would be no standard of what is right or wrong, or fairness. But something in us cries out against such a belief.

CS Lewis wrote: “My argument against God was that the universe seemed so cruel and unjust. But how had I got this idea of ‘just’ and ‘unjust’? A man does not call a line crooked unless he has some idea of a straight line. What was I comparing this universe with when I called it unjust? Thus in the very act of trying to prove that God did not exist—in other words, that the whole of reality was senseless—I found I was forced to assume that one part of reality—namely my idea of justice—was full of sense.”

It turns out that evil and suffering only make sense in a world where there is a God. In fact, if anything, they are evidence for God, not against.

Argument of course isn’t much help to those in the midst of suffering. But neither is cutting off the lifeline that is God. It is only with God that we have any hope of finding a resolution to tragedy.

Tim Keller writes in his book “The Reason for God”:

“If we again ask the question: ‘Why does God allow evil and suffering to continue?’ and we look at the cross of Jesus, we still do not know what the answer is. However, we now know what the answer isn’t. It can’t be that he doesn’t love us. It can’t be that he is indifferent or detached from our condition. God takes our misery and suffering so seriously that he was willing to take it on himself.”

It is in going to Christ that we find comfort, but we find more than that. We find hope. Christ is no longer on the cross; he has risen. And the doctrine of the resurrection instils a powerful hope.

Keller writes:

“Just after the climax of the trilogy The Lord of the Rings, Sam Gamgee discovers that his friend Gandalf was not dead, but alive. He cries ‘I thought you were dead! But then I thought I was dead myself! Is everything sad going to come untrue?’ The answer of Christianity to that question is—yes. Everything sad is going to become untrue and it will somehow be greater for having once been broken and lost. This is the ultimate defeat of evil and suffering. It will not only be ended but so radically vanquished that what has happened will only serve to make our future life and joy infinitely greater.”

This brighter future is found only in Jesus.

Looking for God in the wrong places

At the moment I’m really enjoying reading The Reason for God, by Tim Keller. It’s not often that a book arguing for Christianity makes it onto the New York Times bestseller list, where Keller’s book has been for the last couple of months.

Keller has 20 years experience as a pastor among business elites in New York. He is well used to answering tough questions, yet his answers are gentle and winsome, choosing dialogue over argument. The Reason for God displays a breadth of knowledge of religion, history and philosophy, but Keller pulls it all together is a way that is clear and understandable.

I was reading this section last night and thought it worth quoting:

‘When a Russian cosmonaut returned from space and reported that he had not found God, C.S. Lewis responded that this was like Hamlet going into the attic of his castle looking for Shakespeare. If there is a God, he wouldn’t be another object in the universe that could be put in a lab and analysed with empirical methods. He would relate to us as a playwright relates to the characters in his play. We (characters) might be able to know quite a lot about the playwright, but only to the degree that author chooses to put information about himself in the play.

‘Lewis gives us another metaphor for knowing the truth about God when he writes that he believes in God “as I believe the sun has risen, not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else.”

‘Imagine trying to look directly at the sun in order to learn about it. You can't do it. It will burn out your retinas, ruining your capacity to take it in. A far better way to learn about the existence, power, and quality of the sun is to look at the world it shows you, to recognize how it sustains everything you see and enables you to see it.

‘Here, then, we have a way forward. We should not try to “look into the sun”, as it were, demanding irrefutable proofs for God. Instead we should “look at what the sun shows us.” Which account of the world has the most “explanatory power” to make sense of what we see in the world and in ourselves? We have a sense that the world is not the way it ought to be. We have a sense that we are very flawed and yet very great. We have a longing for love and beauty that nothing in this world can fulfil. We have a deep need to know meaning and purpose. Which worldview best accounts for these things?

‘Christians do not claim that their faith gives them omniscience or absolute knowledge of reality. Only God has that. But they believe the Christian account of things – creation, fall, redemption, and restoration – makes the most sense of the world. I ask you to put on Christianity like a pair of spectacles and look at the world with it. See what power it has to explain what we know and see.’

Mountain Climbing

Someone said to me the other day about the different religions, “We’re all just taking different paths up the same mountain.” It sounds profound, it sounds magnanimous – but is it the case?

What if the mountain is too high for any man to ascend? What if it is too steep? If that’s the case what’s the use of religion? A moment’s reflection will show that the mountain must indeed to be too high – if we are seeking to be acceptable to God, and God is perfect, how then can we who aren’t perfect be acceptable to a perfect God? The mountain is just too steep.

But what if God isn’t at the top of the mountain? What if God came down the mountain so we wouldn’t have to climb? Well that would change everything, wouldn’t it? No point climbing if there is a much easier route. No point in climbing, because the further we climb, the further from God we get!

That’s exactly what the Bible teaches.

Real Christianity isn’t about trying to climb the mountain to God; real Christianity is about God coming down to us. That’s what Jesus was doing on the cross – paying for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to. We need to turn from our own efforts and turn to Jesus, and put our trust in him to make us acceptable.

Poetry isn’t my particular thing, but I came across this poem that sums it all up:

O long and dark the stairs I trod

With trembling feet to find my God,
Gaining a foothold bit by bit,
Then slipping back and losing it.
 
Never progressing; striving still

With weakened grasp and faltering will,
Bleeding to climb to God, while He
Seemed not to notice me.
 
Then came a certain time when I

Loosened my hold and fell thereby;
Down to the lowest step my fall,
As if I had not climbed at all.
 
And as I lay despairing there,

Listen.... a footfall on the stair,
On that same stair where I afraid,
Fumbled and fell and lay dismayed.
 
And lo, when hope had ceased to be,

My God came down the stairs to me.

Religions may be about climbing mountains to find God, but Christianity is about God climbing down to find us.

Woodpecker Proof

A postcard adorned with all sorts of birds arrived the other day from friends on holidays in Australia. It put me in mind of something I came across about woodpeckers some time ago. They really are amazing creatures.

The woodpecker spends its days spiralling up tree trunks looking for insects. To do this its feet need to be a different shape from all other birds, its legs need to be different, and it needs special stiff tail-feathers to prop it in tight against the tree.

The woodpecker pecks at a rate of 16 times a second, that’s twice as fast as a submachine gun, so its head is travelling twice as fast as a bullet. The rate at which its head comes to a halt as it hits the tree is 1000 times the force of gravity (1000g). Just to put that in perspective – an astronaut is subject to 4 times the force of gravity (4g) during take off; and 6g-9g is enough to destroy a person! The woodpecker survives because it has an especially reinforced skull and beak.

Joining the beak to the skull is a shock-absorbing system that is vastly superior to anything we humans have ever invented. To keep this high speed kango-hammer under control is a finely tuned inbuilt gyroscope to make sure that it doesn’t hit the tree at an angle and rip its beak off.

And then once it has the holes bored in the tree it has a hugely long tongue to remove the insects.

The woodpecker looks like it was designed to do what it does do. What it does do it does very well. It’s just one example from nature that shows how evolution can’t work. Why can’t it work? The woodpecker can’t evolve step by step because all these component parts need to be there for the woodpecker to function at all. If any one of these factors was not present then the woodpecker would be a complete disaster: there’d be lots of beakless, brain-damaged, starving woodpeckers about.

In the Bible Job says, “But ask the animals and they will teach you. Or ask the birds of the air and they will tell you. Speak to the earth and it will tell you. Or let the fish of the sea tell you. Every one of these knows that the hand of the Lord has done this.” - Job 12:7-9

All of nature shouts at us of the presence of a designer; to believe that it all just happened by chance requires a blind faith – faith that goes against all the evidence. Personally I find it much easier to have faith in creation than in evolution.

"God needs to update the Bible"

At least that’s what a caller to Shaun Doherty’s show said recently. He then went on say that he expected God to apologise for the mistakes that were in it and revise it for today’s needs.

Setting aside the claim that there are mistakes in the Bible – which is often claimed and never substantiated – I’d like to know what needs updated.

Perhaps the caller thinks that God’s word needs to be brought up to date with respect to women. It is often seen as misogynistic. Yet the Bible gives women a far higher status than they have in most of the world today. And in marriage it demands the ultimate level of love from husbands – that they love their wife as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for it. What woman doesn’t want to be loved in such a self-sacrificial way?

Perhaps the caller thinks that God’s word needs updated with regard to human sexuality. After all, one man and one woman for life is seriously outdated, is it not? But it’s not as if people in Bible times didn’t know about casual sex, homosexuality and adultery, yet God saw his rules as appropriate for such a society. Interestingly the facts and figures show that a one-man one-woman marriage is the best option for stable societies and the bringing up of children.

Perhaps the caller thinks that since we know so much more scientifically now, we should update God’s word. But what science would he have it updated it to? Scientists are constantly changing their theories, and finding that so-called ‘universal truths’ aren’t universal. Also the Bible has yet to be shown to hold one single unscientific statement.

Perhaps the caller thinks that the Bible needs to be updated to take into consideration our information age and all its temptations. Yet what lies at the heart of society’s problems? It’s the heart of people – and our self-centred pleasure-seeking lunging after status, sex, wealth, excitement and success. Exactly the same problems the Bible has been dealing with for millennia. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

God’s word is in need of no update – it’s eternally relevant.

I suspect the caller, like many who make similar statements, is looking for a convenient excuse so that they can disregard God’s word and don’t have to pay attention to God’s demands on them. It’s not that God’s word has been tried and found wanting, instead people have been tried by God’s word and found wanting, and they don’t like it.


Skyhooks

(With a hat-tip to Doug Wilson whose article this one owes a lot to.)
Christianity has come under sustained attack recently from a string of books. Richard Dawkins contributed The God Delusion, Sam Harris Letters to a Christian Nation, and Christopher Hitchens God is not Great.

A central theme running through the books is a moral indignation. They point the finger at religion in general, and God in particular, and say indignantly, “Religion causes all sorts of evil; religion poisons everything.”

Although I don’t share their opinion, I’m slightly confused as to why Dawkins and Co. should mind things being ‘poisoned’. According to their view, all we are is a pile of goo that has evolved, and the world belongs to those who survive by whatever means. Allegedly it the ‘survival of the fittest’. If that’s the case (and I don’t think it is) what problem is there in poisoning everything, if it allows your perspective to survive?

There is a deep inconsistency in their position. To say that something is wrong you need to have a standard of right and wrong – which is precisely what Dawkins and Co. don’t have. Once you deny the existence of an absolute God who sets standards, you can’t start claiming that there are absolute standards. Where do they come from? Dawkins and Co. have only their idea of what is right and wrong; why should their idea of right and wrong be right? It’s just their opinion.

Yet they persist in branding religion as ‘immoral’. Where do their categories of moral and immoral come from? They have to borrow the idea from God himself.

For them, it’s like suspending an argument from an invisible skyhook. To deny God they have to acknowledge God’s categories. It’s the intellectual equivalent of standing on top of the Eiffel Tower and looking out over Paris and proclaiming that the Eiffel Tower doesn’t exist because you can’t see it. To make your denial you had to use the Tower itself!

Such is the folly of atheism – and that’s why as a pastor these books don’t shake my faith, nor do they need to shake any Christian. And that’s why they can’t give confidence to anyone who wants to deny God. The case against God is yet to be made.