Few people have influenced my life more than the woman who brought me into this world, raised me in it, and taught me so much about it. That person is, of course, my mother. Carolyn Tubbs was born in 1947 and passed away in 2005, the same year I was ordained into pastoral ministry.
When I think of my mother, I am reminded of the quote attributed to Francis of Assisi: “Preach the Gospel always, and if necessary, use words.” My mother endured a great deal in her life, but maintained her devout faith in Jesus Christ throughout all of it. She was a great example of Christ-like love and compassion.
The world is a lesser place without Carolyn Tubbs. I miss her dearly. I am, however, comforted to know that she is with her Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ — and that I will see her again.
Happy Mother’s Day, Mom!
Several days ago, in conjunction with “Interview an Atheist at Church Day,” I began a conversation with Andrew Torres, a gentleman I’ve had the privilege to get to know recently. The series of blog posts covering our dialog began with my questions to Andrew and his responses. Then, Andrew posed some questions to me. I broke my answers into two parts. This is the second of those two parts. His questions are in bold.
AT: Do you accept the scientific consensus of the Big Bang? If not, do you think that it is a mistake for Christian apologists such as William Lane Craig and Frank Turek to use the Big Bang as one of their central premises when they make the kalam cosmologial argument for the existence of God?
BT: I accept the central premise of Big Bang cosmology, namely that the universe, as we know it, began to exist and expand approximately 14 billion years ago (with the qualifier that the age of the universe is based on modern dating methodologies which themselves depend on certain presuppositions and assumptions that do not take into account supernatural intervention). Like many Christian apologists (including the two you mentioned: William Lane Craig and Frank Turek), I believe the Big Bang theory constitutes one of the greatest pieces of evidence for the existence of a supernatural Creator. Denying this requires that one either deny the Law of Causality (which, as you know, says “For every effect, there is a cause”) or argue that the cosmos has always existed in at least some form (via a multiverse or a never-ending chain of expansion and retraction, etc.). Philosophy and mathematics don’t allow for the first option, and science doesn’t readily support the second one.
AT: If you do accept the Big Bang model, how do you reconcile the fact that the Big Bang depicts the origin of the universe in a way that directly contradicts the account set forth in Genesis 1? (For example, Genesis 1 tells us that the earth, dry land, water, and plants were all created before the stars, whereas Big Bang cosmology tells us that the stars came first, planets second, water third, and plants much, much later.)
BT: First, let’s not gloss over what the Big Bang model affirms. It constitutes very strong evidence for monotheism, whether we’re talking about Christianity, Judaism, Islam, or Deism. That the universe had a beginning makes it an effect, which means it must have a cause. And not just any cause will do. Since we’re talking about Nature, then any cause of Nature would, by definition, be superior to Nature – or supernatural. And this supernatural cause must be capable of creating space, time, matter, and energy. Given that kind of scope and power, it’s quite reasonable to describe such a supernatural cause as “God.”
As for the Bible and Christianity (and the book of Genesis specifically), the Big Bang theory does indeed affirm Genesis 1:1. Let’s not ignore that. The statement “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” is supported by Big Bang cosmology.
I don’t want to dodge your question, but I do believe it presumes that one can’t accept part of Big Bang cosmology while rejecting other parts of it. What’s more, your question skips over some very crucial territory. Whether God exists is a question that’s of far greater importance and significance than how we interpret Genesis. On this point, I join with William Lane Craig and others who essentially say we can argue about the rest of Genesis 1-11 later. Let’s stop and look at Genesis 1:1 and then science, mathematics, and philosophy. Let’s determine whether we have sufficient evidence for God’s existence – for the merits of Genesis 1:1 – before we delve any deeper into the rest of Genesis.
AT: Do you believe that your God set forth an entirely different set of laws and rules that apply only to the ancient Hebrews and no longer apply today, including ethical rules such as the passages regulating the owning and beating of slaves in Exodus 21? Do you defend this as being a set of rules directed only to the ancient Hebrews in their culture and their time, and if so, isn’t that ethical relativism?
BT: Let me first say that God’s nature never changes. Thus, the divine principles embedded in the Scriptures, whether we’re talking about the Mosaic Law or Paul’s epistles, are still applicable today. But one cannot simply read a verse out of the Bible, particularly as it relates to the Old Testament laws, and just bring it over to the 21st century without some study and attention to context.
While I deplore postmodernist relativism, I will concede that the communication of God’s standards as well as the application of objective moral standards is often, by necessity, varied. This is due to the differences in culture, language, population size, location, etc. as well as the degree of knowledge or awareness certain people have of God’s existence or revelation to begin with.
Some critics of Christianity will scoff at the above statement as mental gymnastics, but it’s really common sense. Many of the Old Testament laws dealt with ancient agrarian farming, nomadic lifestyles, and ancient clothing customs. We can’t simply bring those commands over to today. We need to study them, discern the principles involved, and then apply those principles to our current situation.
I should also point out that the Mosaic Law was applicable to the Hebrew people of that day. The Gentile nations were never under the Mosaic Law. And, of course, we know that, even for the Hebrew people, Jesus fulfilled the Law.
As for some of the specifics of the Mosaic Law (like the one you mentioned about slavery), I would recommend you (and others likewise interested) check out Paul Copan’s Is God a Moral Monster? and Robert Hutchinson’s The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible. These books dig into some of the more controversial and head-scratching provisions of the Old Testament, and explain them for modern readers.
AT: Do you think morality consists of acting on God’s commands, consistent with God’s nature? If so, what basis is there for a Christian to criticize someone like Andrea Yates, who (apparently) sincerely believed that God told her to drown her children?
BT: Let me first say that, even if Andrea Yates sincerely believed she heard from God, she is still accountable to civil authority. I don’t believe that someone’s claim that “God spoke to me” exempts them from legal accountability. We’d have a completely chaotic and unruly society if we allowed people to get off the hook with those kinds of claims.
To answer your question, I believe that morality consists of acting according to God’s moral standards. The closer we are to God’s holiness, the more “moral” we are. This doesn’t mean simply listening to the “voices” in our head, so to speak. When it comes to hearing God’s commands, we’re told that Satan can disguise himself as an “angel of light” (II Corinthians 11:14). We’re also warned that the human heart is “deceitful above all things” (Jeremiah 17:9). We also know that many people who claim the name of Christ or who claim to speak for God are strangers to Him (Matthew 7:21-23). For all these reasons, it’s important we heed Paul’s advice (as Andrea Yates did not), and that is to “Test all things and hold fast to what is good” (I Thessalonians 5:21).
AT: What author, blogger, and/or speakers do you recommend as the best and most articulate advocates for Christianity? What should open-minded atheists read and listen to in order to be exposed to the best discussions that Christianity has to offer?
BT: I know it sounds trite, but I would start with the Bible itself. Anyone who is open-minded and wants to explore Christianity should read the Gospel of John and the book of Romans to start with. And then dig further into the Bible from there.
When it comes to studying Christianity beyond the Bible, I think it’s important to divide it into two areas: spiritual and intellectual. When it comes to the former, I think the best Christian leaders on the scene today are Billy Graham (though he is nearing the end) and Rick Warren. Graham is of course among the greatest Christian evangelists of all time. And Warren is a fine Christian man, a great pastor, and the author of the terrific bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, which is a pretty solid overview of the Christian faith that is accessible to just about anyone. I also like Charles Swindoll, John MacArthur (though I don’t fully line up with his Calvinist beliefs), Norman Geisler, Mike Minter, and David R. Stokes.
On the intellectual side of things (which seems to be the focus of our discussion), the best are probably Ravi Zacharias and William Lane Craig. Going back a few years, I also respect C.S. Lewis for his contributions to the subject. Other excellent apologists include (but are not limited to) Timothy Keller, Amy Orr-Ewing, Paul Copan, Winfried Corduan, Gary Habermas (the world’s leading expert on the Resurrection), Mike Licona, Frank Turek, and Josh McDowell. For someone brand new to the subject, Lee Strobel’s The Case for Christ and The Case for Faith are good.
Frankly, the best Christian writings, outside of the Bible, are from past centuries. The two greatest Christian apologists in history would have to be, in my view, Renee Descartes and Thomas Aquinas. Next to the Bible, I would recommend folks read those guys.
This series will likely continue as Andrew and I continue our discussions.
Atheist Andrew Torres asks probing questions about my Christian faith. This is a follow-up to my post a couple days ago in which I struck up a conversation with Andrew, in connection with “Interview an Atheist Day.” If you haven’t read that post, you can do so by clicking on “My Interview with an Atheist.”
Andrew asks very thoughtful questions, and out of respect, I have decided to make my answers as thoughtful as I can. For this reason, I’ve broken this part of our interview into two parts. Andrew’s questions are in bold.
AT: Relatively recently, we’ve learned that Mother Theresa experienced a 50-year “crisis of faith” in which she confessed that she felt “no presence of God in her life whatsoever.” Do you ever struggle with your beliefs or your faith?
BT: I have. I think every honest Christian will tell you that he or she, at some point or at different points in their life, struggled in believing God was there or that God was listening to them. The two most serious struggles in my life came in my 20s and then in my mid-30s.
The first was more emotional. I was very angry at God and at life in general, particularly over the issue of suffering. I had a mom who suffered from numerous health challenges, including multiple sclerosis. And I have an autistic sister. I also grew up surrounded by pain, difficulty, and heartache. We took care of my ailing paternal grandfather for many years. My father’s business failed in the 1980s. I was bullied in school. All kinds of things. And my thinking wasn’t just self-oriented. I would look around the world and see all the poverty, war, pain, confusion, suffering, and scratch my head. It was like someone was asleep at the switch. All of that came to a head in my 20s where I would look up at the sky and ask: “Really? Is this what Christianity has to offer?” I talk about how I emerged through that in my booklet Why Does God Allow Suffering? Forgive the shameless plug, but it’s tough to give my testimony in just a few short words here.
My second crisis of faith, was more intellectual, came after I answered what I believed to be God’s call into pastoral ministry. I was taking distance learning seminary classes at Liberty University. A lot of folks have strong feelings about Jerry Falwell’s school, but it doesn’t shy away from pushing its students into asking the tough questions and confronting the hard issues of the Christian faith. Through my studies at Liberty, I saw some things in the Bible that I hadn’t seen before – things that caused me to doubt and question many of my preconceptions and what I had been taught growing up. That led me to start reading and listening to critics of evangelical Christianity, including John Shelby Spong, Bart Ehrman, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Christopher Hitchens. This second crisis was pretty serious, especially since there was still a shadow of doubt from my first crisis remaining. I reached a point where I was willing to completely walk away from Christianity.
Obviously, I made it through that period as well. Today, I’m very solid in my Christian faith. While I sometimes doubt what God might do, I have no doubt that He’s there and that He loves me, that He hears me, that He is ultimately in control, and that I will spend eternity in His presence.
As for Mother Teresa, it’s impossible for me to look into her heart or to know the specific dynamics of her relationship with God. Part of the challenge there might be the Catholic theology and culture that served as the context for her faith. My in-laws are Catholic and my wife grew up Catholic, so I mean no disrespect to my Catholic friends when I write that. But the fact is that many Catholics look to their works and to the institution of the Church for the security of their faith and the assurance of their relationship with God. The Bible teaches that Christianity is a relationship, not a religion. And that we are held by God’s grace, not by our works. This isn’t to suggest that she didn’t have a relationship with God. Nor is it to meant to criticize her. The world is a lesser place without her. We need more people like Mother Teresa. I just know that some people, as in the Mary and Martha story from the New Testament, are so busy working for the Lord that they don’t take time to wait on Him and listen to Him.
AT: Continuing my previous question, is there a fact or argument that you wrestle with the most in terms of your Christianity? For some, it is the problem of gratuitous suffering; for others, it is trying to make sense out of Biblical atrocities, such as the slaughter of the Amalekites in 1 Samuel 15. For still others, it is struggling with the seeming unfairness of the doctrine of Hell. Do you wrestle with any of these issues? Does one or more of them cause you more pause than the others?
BT: I think Paul Copan does a great job addressing the Old Testament passages depicting the Israelites slaughtering villages and cities. This is probably the toughest part of the Bible for me, but I think Copan’s work Is God a Moral Monster? handles that subject, and others, quite well.
As for Hell, it only becomes an “unfair” doctrine if one or more of the following erroneous beliefs are true:
- That God chooses ahead of time those who go there (as those Christians in the Reformed or Calvinist camp essentially believe)
- That those unable to understand and/or receive God’s revelation (babies, young children, mentally disabled, etc.) are bound for Hell
- That all people suffer and are punished equally in Hell
I reject all three of the above beliefs. The Bible teaches that we are accountable to God for how we respond to His revelation (Romans 1-2), that the gift of salvation is available to anyone who accepts Christ (John 3:16), and that God desires all human beings to come to repentance (II Peter 3:9). We decide our own eternal fate.
When one studies the Bible, you’ll also find that God grants mercy to those unable to understand or grasp His revelation, which would include babies and young children – and by implication, those with lifelong mental illness (Deuteronomy 1:39, II Samuel 12:21-23).
What’s more, I don’t believe, as many Christians erroneously claim, that all sins are the same – and that God punishes everyone equally in Hell. The Bible teaches the exact opposite of that. Some sins are worse than others (Proverbs 6:16-19) and that those who go into eternity without having professed Christ will be judged according to their works (Proverbs 24:12, Matthew 11:21-24, Luke 12:42-48, Romans 2:5-7) and not simply on whether or not they accepted Christ. It’s sin that sends us to hell, and Christ who offers an escape.
The bottom line is that I don’t wrestle with what’s in the Bible so much, not once I take the time to study and understand it. What I wrestle most with are the actions and attitudes of other professing Christians. I can relate fully with what Gandhi said: “I like your Christ, but not your Christians.” Of course, this is not a new problem. God’s people have fallen short of God’s standards, and often acted against God’s commands, for all of history. In fact, many of the so-called “problem passages” of the Bible (the ones critics of Christianity point to in order to discredit Christianity) are failings of God’s people as opposed to failings of God.
To be Continued…
Yesterday was “Interview an Atheist at Church Day.” In connection with that event, a gentleman who lives in the Olney, Maryland community contacted me with an opportunity to open a dialog with him about atheism and Christianity. This has given me an opportunity to get to know Andrew Torres and to engage him on matters that are very important to our society. I thought I would bring that conversation online for the readers of this blog.
Today, I will focus on my questions to Andrew. In my next post, I will provide answers to questions that Andrew has asked of me.
“Please tell us a little about yourself.”
Hi, my name is Andrew; I’m 39, happily married, with one child, and I live in the same community as Pastor Brian’s church (Olney Baptist Church). I contacted Brian in connection with “Interview an Atheist at Church Day,” which promotes dialogue and understanding between believers and nonbelievers. I hope to continue that spirit here on Pastor Brian’s blog.
“Thank you, Andrew, for allowing me to ask you a few questions and give my blog readers a better understanding of atheism. Let me start by asking whether you consider yourself an atheist or agnostic.”
I consider myself an atheist, for two reasons. The first is definitional: the word ‘agnostic’ comes from the Greek ‘gnosis’ (meaning knowledge) and refers to what you know. The word ‘atheist,’ on the other hand, refers to belief. I do not believe in a god or gods, and so the most accurate term is ‘atheist.’ The second reason I identify as an atheist is an effort to communicate honestly. As you know, a lot of people use the word ‘agnostic’ colloquially to mean ‘I don’t know’ or ‘I’m confused.’ That’s not an accurate portrayal of my beliefs.
“Do you have a faith background?”
I do. I grew up as a Lutheran and was confirmed in the church. As a teenager, I spent some time in evangelical Christianity, particularly with the “Young Life” parachurch organization in high school.
“If so, what led you to make a change in your worldview and philosophy?”
Respectfully, I disagree with the premise of this question — at least as I understand what the word “worldview” means. My understanding is that a worldview is what epistemically undergirds how we answer questions of knowledge and belief. It’s my belief that you and I share essential elements of a worldview, such as the belief that our human senses are reasonably reliable and that human reason enables us to reach real conclusions about the observable universe. If we didn’t have those elements in common, we wouldn’t be able to communicate with one another.
I also don’t believe that I changed my “philosophy” when I became an atheist. I consider myself to have essentially the same views as I did when I was a Christian; it’s just that I changed my belief with respect to a particular proposition — that is, whether God (or any god) exists. I don’t have a predisposition that Christianity (or any other religion) is false or that supernatural things don’t exist; I just don’t think there are good reasons for believing in the particular claims that I was taught growing up.
My parents remain Christians to this day, and we have a great relationship. I had good experiences in my Church and in Young Life. I just found myself unconvinced that the things they were saying were true.
“If there is no Creator, how do you explain the origin of the cosmos?”
I accept the scientific consensus of the Big Bang model of cosmology; that is, that the universe began in its current form from an expansion event approximately 14 billion years ago. Like my 10-year-old son, the next question is probably “What caused the Big Bang?” The honest answer is: ”I don’t know,” although that’s something that theoretical physicists are working on (see below). One of the things I love about being an atheist and a parent is that I can answer my son’s questions as honestly as possible, and I’m not afraid to say “I don’t know; let’s go see if we can figure it out.”
“If there is no Supreme Being, are moral beliefs and impulses merely the product of evolution and culture?”
No, any more than mathematics are the product of evolution and culture. Both are the product of human reason, and both provide an objective, a priori way to evaluate reality. The idea that atheists are moral relativists while Christians are moral objectivists is a very recent one — and is sort of strange, particularly in light of the fact that it was the Christian theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer who powerfully articulated a theory of situational ethics. So many atheists are, quite consistently, moral objectivists, while many Christians are ethical relativists.
“And is there any way for us to authoritatively and objectively conclude that someone like Hitler is evil and someone like Mother Teresa is good?”
Sure. But again, respectfully, I think you have this question absolutely backwards. Essentially you’re asking whether moral realism is true; I happen to think it is. But one of the things about which virtually all philosophers agree — and, in fact, have agreed for nearly 2,500 years — is that divine command theory absolutely cannot provide an ontological grounding for moral realism; Plato showed that in the Euthyphro in 399 B.C.E. So the question then becomes: how do we ascertain objectively true moral statements? Personally, I think Immanuel Kant gave us a pretty good answer in his Prolegomena to Any Future Metaphysics, and it doesn’t require a God for us to get there.
“For those individuals who may want to dive into this subject more….Which author, blogger, or speaker on the scene today serves as the best and most articulate spokesperson for atheism?”
I’m more of an advocate for science and skepticism than atheism; I think if you’re thinking logically and critically about the world, eventually you’ll get there. In terms of science, I would enthusiastically recommend Neil Shubin’s Your Inner Fish, particularly to someone who has doubts or is confused about evolution. For cosmology, I enjoyed Lawrence Krauss’s A Universe From Nothing. In terms of Biblical scholarship, I would strongly recommend Bart Ehrman’s Misquoting Jesus and Jesus, Interrupted. Finally, in terms of general skepticism, I would recommend Carl Sagan’s classic The Demon Haunted World. Those are a good place to start, and none are really about atheism; rather, they’re about how we think about our world.
“Thank you for doing this. I’m sure we will continue this conversation.”
My pleasure! Thanks in advance for your responses as well, and I look forward to our dialogue.
My heart goes out to the people of Boston. At a time like this, the victims and their families need prayer, support, compassion, and encouragement. The Christian community needs to respond with love and grace as we work to treat and heal the physical and emotional wounds suffered by the innocent victims of this evil terrorist attack.
It is tempting for many, at times like this, to doubt the existence or goodness of God. Many ask questions “Why does God allow pain and suffering?” And sadly, too many Christians don’t know the answer, even though the Bible provides such answers. While it’s certainly understandable for tragedies like this to emotionally test our faith, the truth is that tragedies like this actually affirm God’s existence. How? By reminding us, quite dramatically, that there is definitely evil in this world – not a relativistic “We don’t care for that” kind of “evil,” but clear, objective evil. We know, deep down, that an objective moral code was transgressed by the evil terrorist(s) responsible for this terrible event. And we are outraged by it.
Some will perhaps try to redefine our outrage as merely a culturally conditioned or biologically developed (via evolution) response, but these efforts constitute nothing more than sophistry. The most plausible explanation for our instinctive outrage is what’s provided by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the church in Rome – a letter he wrote two thousand years ago. Paul said that written laws, including the Mosaic Law, aren’t necessary for us to know (fundamentally speaking) right from wrong, because God’s moral laws have been “written in [our] hearts” (Romans 2:15). The presence of objective moral awareness in our hearts points to an objective Moral Law-Giver.
This isn’t to say of course that all human beings agree on right from wrong. We find differences of opinion throughout the world when it comes to morality. Culture, family, experiences, etc. all come together to shape and influence our moral worldview. But events like terrorist attacks, the harming of children, and so forth have a way of cutting deep into our hearts and stirring our basic sense of moral awareness. That fundamental moral awareness (though it’s been adjusted, influenced, and – in some cases – even seared) affirms the existence of God.
Tragedies like the Boston Marathon terrorist attack break my heart, while at the same time, strengthening my faith in God. I know God is real, when I see evil in the world, because without God, we wouldn’t even be talking in terms of good or evil.
Of course, it’s not my desire to intellectualize this. Rather, I want the strengthening of our faith in God to move us to greater action to overcome evil in this world. And, in many ways, we see this happening. For even though my heart breaks in light of this terrible terrorist attack, my heart is encouraged by the response to it.
When evil rears its ugly head in a tragedy like today’s, it breaks our hearts, and in so doing, reminds us that there is also good in this world too. For if there was no objective good then our hearts would not be broken. Yet the compassion being shown the people of Boston from all over the country (and the world) and the humanitarianism, sacrifice, and heroism of the emergency, medical, and law enforcement personnel in Boston (as well as that of average, ordinary citizens) reminds us that there IS indeed good in this world.
May we, as the Apostle Paul wrote 2000 years ago, “overcome evil with good.” (Romans 12:21)
The tragic suicide of Matthew Warren, the 27-year old son of Christian leaders Rick and Kay Warren, has called to the mind of many people in the faith community a centuries-long debate over the eternal fate of those who take their own life. As I address this question, I want to say first of all that my prayers are with the Warren family, and I encourage all my readers to pray for them as well.
Many professing Christians believe that suicide is essentially an unpardonable sin, consigning a person to eternal punishment without the opportunity for forgiveness. Others aren’t sure, but concede that it raises serious questions as to how genuine or authentic the person’s faith in Christ was to begin with. After all, if one has truly given his life to Christ, why end it? And if someone is so full of hurt and despair that he or she feels suicide is the only way out, where is (or was) the Holy Spirit? And if the son of the preacher who wrote the mega-bestseller The Purpose-Driven Life, where does that leave the rest of us? It raises all kinds of doubts and questions that many Christians don’t want to face, but it’s important that we do so — with honesty and compassion. To get answers, let’s turn to the Scriptures.
What Does the Bible Say About Suicide and Sin?
Seven people in the Bible committed suicide. The two most famous suicides are perhaps Judas, who killed himself after betraying Jesus, and Samson, who asked God to restore his strength one last time, so he could literally “bring down the house.” These stories illustrate that people take their lives for different reasons — something that has been the case since the dawn of human history. And the standard for determining whether suicide is sinful or permissible is the righteousness and will of God.
In the case of Samson, we have a wayward Israelite judge, who had allowed himself to be compromised and thus humiliated and imprisoned by Israel’s enemies. Samson’s prayer and subsequent suicide was apparently pleasing to God, who seemingly viewed Samson’s act as a sincere and redemptive act of contrition. Samson’s suicide was on the same moral level as a soldier who gives his life to strike a blow to his nation’s enemies and perhaps save the lives of his fellow comrades-in-arms.
In most cases, however, suicide is not a sacrificial act of service to a higher cause, it is rather a desperate attempt to escape depression, misery, or suffering.
Why People Commit Suicide
Suicide is seen as an escape. Yet in saying that, it’s important that we make some distinctions in understanding from what many suicide victims are trying to escape. In some cases, a person goes through such heartache and disappointment that they give up on life and choose to end it. In other cases, a person is undergoing intense, physical pain, and they see suicide as a way to bring the pain to an end. And in other cases (as apparently with Matthew Warren), a person is dealing with severe depression and/or mental illness. Of these three situations, the latter is the hardest to treat and prevent.
In the case of heartache and disappointment, counseling and intervention can help turn a person around and give them hope and renewal. In the case of excruciating physical pain, there is usually (though not always) medicine or some form of medical treatment that can help diminish the pain and alleviate suffering. I’m not saying that these preceding causes are simple or easy, only that our society is better equipped to deal with them that the next one, which is (in my view) the biggest challenge.
Mental illness and chronic depression stalk millions of people, and it is exceedingly difficult for those in the spiritual or medical or psychological communities to cope. When it comes to these things, you’re dealing with brain dysfunction and chemical imbalance and deficiency. These are medical issues. Reading the Bible and praying will certainly help, but those things won’t fix the problem. And even modern medicine is limited in what it can do, because we don’t fully understand the human brain yet.
Some of my Christian readers may protest by quoting Bible verses, such as “With God, all things are possible.” And I agree! But let’s understand what it is we’re asking of God in such situations. Asking God to cure someone of chemical depression or the mental illness that besets that person with suicide thoughts is similar to asking Him to cure someone of autism, multiple sclerosis, or some other brain or nervous system disorder. Can God do it? Of course. Will He? We must acknowledge that, in most cases, He does not.
And this calls into question whether, in some cases, we’re dealing with a “sin” at all! I don’t mean to get relativistic here. I reject postmodernism and believe in absolute truth, because I believe in the Truth. Right is right. Wrong is wrong, and sin is sin. But sin is very much tied to awareness and intent. When you’re dealing with mental illness, these things aren’t so clear-cut. For example, when a person suffering from dementia experiences personality change and becomes hostile, are we dealing with sin or mental illness? I think the latter is the case. And likewise, when a person is driven to suicide by mental illness, I think we’re dealing more with a tragedy than with sin.
In the case of Matthew Warren, you have a young man who, as far as we know, accepted Christ as his Savior and who was known as a kind-hearted, gracious person to those who knew him. I’m sure he prayed. I’m sure he read his Bible. And, yes, I’m sure he read his father’s The Purpose-Driven Life. I have no doubt that he believed his value and his purpose come from God, and that he was sincerely as committed to the Lord as he could be. And yet he committed suicide. Does this negate all the things his father wrote in The Purpose-Driven Life? Of course not. What it shows is that Matthew Warren was a human being, susceptible to weaknesses and limitations like the rest of us. And in Matthew’s case, his weaknesses apparently included depression and mental illness. And just as someone with Alzheimer’s or dementia (other forms of mental illness) can be led to do things they otherwise wouldn’t do, the same can happen to someone like Matthew.
This is not to excuse or set aside the very real selfishness present in other suicides. When a person takes his or her life simply out of discouragement or disenchantment, it’s because they’ve given up. And it’s a clear act of selfishness. No matter how bad life gets, you’re still created by God. You draw your life and your purpose from Him. And if you’ve given your life to God and are a Christian, there’s no valid excuse for then taking your life back away from Him and ending it. When your time is up, God will call you home. Let God decide when it is you should leave this earth.
Nevertheless, I believe all Christians need to approach this issue with grace, mercy, humility, and compassion. When it comes to something like suicide, we don’t have all the answers. Let’s not pretend that we do.
Will Suicide Send Someone to Hell?
If suicide is a sin, is it an unforgivable sin that will condemn the person to hell? The Christian community is divided on this question, because of a difference in interpretation over how sins are forgiven.
The Roman Catholic Church teaches that “Christ conferred the power to forgive sins only upon the apostles and their successors” (Spirago, Francis and Clarke, Richard. The Catechism Explained: An Exhaustive Explanation of the Catholic Religion, TAN Publishing, 1994). The Anglican and Eastern Orthodox communities generally agree with the Catholic Church on this position, though they differ with the Vatican in other areas.
What does all this have to do with suicide? Well, the Catholic position holds that, since only the Church forgives sins, a person must do all that he can to insure that he enters eternity with his sins forgiven. This is why “last rites” are given. So, if a person commits suicide, then presumably he or she has not had “last rites” administered, and he or she enters eternity with unconfessed sins (including and especially the final act of taking one’s own life).
The evangelical Christian community rejects the Catholic/Anglican/Orthodox view of apostolic authority and the role of the institutional “Church” in dispensing God’s grace. The evangelical view of how sins are forgiven is much more in line with Scripture than the Catholic position. Evangelicals don’t point to the Church. They point to Christ alone as the Redeemer of mankind.
According to the evangelical view, sin can and will send a person to hell, whether we’re talking about suicide or stealing. But a person’s sins are forgiven the moment he or she confesses Jesus as Savior (see John 3:16; Romans 10:9-13; Ephesians 2:8-9). The sins include past, present, and future transgressions. Therefore, if a person has accepted Jesus, all of his or her sins are forgiven, including (if such were the case) suicide. (Of course, if we’re dealing with a suicide driven by noble sacrifice or mental illness, I don’t think we’re dealing with sin anyway. But even if you disagree with me on that, the point remains: Jesus forgives all our sins at the point of salvation).
Say No to the Thief and Yes to Jesus
This of course does not mean that God wishes or desires one to commit suicide. On the contrary, Jesus wants all God’s followers to have an “abundant” and “joyous” life – a life that can rest in the knowledge that, no matter how hard life might get, one is never outside of the love of God.
The Gospel of John records Jesus as saying that “the thief comes to steal and kill and destroy, but I have come that they might have life, and that they might have it more abundantly” (John 10:10). In other words, the “thief” (and Jesus was calling Satan by that name) is responsible for the death and suffering of this world. It is God’s desire that we all enjoy a spiritually and emotionally fulfilling life.
The greatest tragedy of a suicide isn’t that the person wanted to escape pain and suffering. It’s that the person has been cheated out of an opportunity to see God work in his or her life — and bring the joy and abundance that Jesus says he wants to give.
What is a “biblical marriage”? What does a biblical marriage look like? In the Bible, there are many kinds of marriages. In fact, there are many kinds of romantic and sexual relationships in the Bible. How can evangelical Christians today pick and choose among the prostitutes, concubines, polygamists, bigamists, etc. to hold up one particular type of marriage and say that it’s the truly biblical one? Is there such a thing as a biblical marriage?
There’s a popular graphic making its way around the Internet. It passes itself off as a biblical marriage chart. I’ve provided a copy of it in this post. (I’m unaware of any copyright restriction as I’m unaware of who originally produced it). I must admit that this is, on the surface, a very clever attack on the credibility of those who uphold traditional, “biblical” marriage. But in the same way a brilliantly executed touchdown is called back on a penalty, the graphic succeeds as an attack on the supporters of traditional, biblical marriage only because it breaks the rules – in this case, the rules of logic. Gay marriage proponents have some strong arguments in their arsenal, but this isn’t one of them, although it does succeed in accomplishing something else (more on that later).
The fallacious reasoning in the biblical marriage chart graphic is perhaps not clear at first, but when one considers the premise behind the image, it becomes more obvious. Essentially, the creators of the graphic are arguing that there is no commendable, uniform standard of marriage in the Bible. And the leading premise behind that argument, as provided in the graphic, is that the strange and controversial marriages depicted are all recorded in the Bible. And, so goes the reasoning, a marriage recorded in the Bible is – ipso facto – a “biblical marriage.” This is fallacious at best and intentionally misleading at worst.
Do the writers of a history text endorse all the characters and events recorded in their text? Does a newspaper reporter agree with all the people she quotes in an article? Does a TV anchor approve of all the events she reports on? Does a novelist agree with all the motives and actions of his characters, including both the heroes and villains? The answer to all those questions is “Of course not.” The same is true with God. Just because the Bible records something happening doesn’t mean that God endorsed it. It’s true that God is all-powerful, but it’s also true that certain things happen in life and in history that God does not personally approve of. In II Peter 3:9, we’re told that God is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance.” Yet we know that not everyone will repent and many will perish. Jesus said the greatest commandment is that we “love the Lord” with “all our heart, soul, mind, and strength,” and yet we know there are billions of people who do not love the Lord. The Son of God also said that we should love one another, and yet many people do not love one another. In fact, the world is full of hate, bigotry, suffering, and pain. All of the marriages depicted in the graphic were tolerated by God (in that God didn’t move to directly stop them from happening), but the arrangements were not all approved by God.
Skeptics and critics of the Bible will, at this stage, point to the Mosaic Law and say that some of the marriages presented in the graphic aren’t just recorded in Scripture, but are actually provided for in the Torah. And they are right. The law of Moses does indeed provide for some strange laws and customs that have left more than a few Christians, let alone non-Christians, scratching their heads. But if one takes some time to study the Old Testament, he or she can get a better appreciation for what is going on. I’ll address this particular objection in future posts. I don’t want this article to get too long. For now, let me recommend two books that address some of the strange and controversial laws in the Old Testament: The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible by Robert J. Hutchinson and Is God a Moral Monster? by Paul Copan. I highly recommend both.
If one wants to truly understand God’s standard for something, the person must go to when God announced or introduced the thing in question. In the case of marriage, marriage is instituted in the Garden of Eden. That is the first marriage and it reflects God’s ultimate, ideal standard. It’s a standard affirmed by Jesus personally in the Gospels. That is the standard for marriage.
One thing, though, that evangelicals do need to concede in connection with the myriad of marriages portrayed in the Bible is that God loved all those involved in those marriages – and He worked through many of the people in those marriages. It’s in this respect that the biblical marriage chart makes a much-needed point in the current discussions our nation and many Christians are having about same-sex marriage. I submit that many evangelicals need to soften their hearts and exercise a great deal more love and compassion when thinking about and interacting with gays and lesbians. As the biblical marriage chart reminds us, God dealt with many types of marriage in the Bible. When one reads and studies the Scriptures, one sees that God heard the prayers of and worked through bigamists, polygamists, prostitutes, concubines, adulterers, deceivers, murderers, and more. He never endorses these sins, but He doesn’t let the sins stop Him from loving the people involved. God is continually manifesting His love, grace, compassion, and power. Evangelical, Bible-believing Christians can’t look at the polygamists, bigamists, prostitutes, and concubines in the Bible, recognize that God worked through them, and then somehow think that gays and lesbians are too “unclean” or whatever for God’s time and attention. If God can love and work through a polygamist, He can – and will – do the same with a homosexual. Christians must not single out homosexuality as some kind of unpardonable sin. Gays and lesbians are people loved by God as much as any heterosexual. By making that statement, I’m not endorsing same-sex marriage. I’m only saying we need to keep the issue in perspective.
When it comes to our need for appreciating God in the Big Picture sense and seeing people in the proper perspective, I’m very sympathetic to the use of the “biblical marriage” chart posted above. It’s erroneous to say that all the marriages depicted in the graphic are God-approved, but the graphic should give us pause and teach us some humility and perspective. Rather than pointing fingers at gays and lesbians, Bible-believing Christians need to recognize that heterosexual followers of God have done plenty on their own to mess up marriage. We are all sinners and we are all in need of a Savior.
There’s been a lot of talk around the Internet lately over remarks made at a recent Starbucks shareholders meeting, in which the CEO of Starbucks defended his company’s support of gay marriage against the objections of a shareholder with ties to an anti-gay marriage organization. Most of the articles concerning this exchange have made it sound as if Howard Schultz, CEO of Starbucks, told Christians and those who uphold traditional marriage to take their business elsewhere. Well…with respect to my Christian friends, many of whom are now calling for additional boycotts of the coffee giant, that’s not exactly how things happened.
Schultz’s controversial remarks were said at the recent Starbucks annual shareholders meeting on March 20. Schultz was publicly challenged by Tom Strobhar, a Starbucks shareholder and the head of a conservative group that opposes same-sex marriage. Strobhar pointed out that the boycott of Starbucks, launched by the National Organization of Marriage (NOM), has cut into Starbucks’ bottom line. NOM is calling for people to boycott Starbucks because the coffee giant has thrown its full support behind gay marriage, including last fall’s referendum in Washington state that legalized same-sex marriage. Strobhar said that, as a result of the boycott, Starbucks’ “sales and our earnings – shall we say politely – were a little disappointing.”
Having been criticized publicly myself, I know the feeling of being put on the spot in front of lot of people. It’s understandable that Schultz was a little defensive in answering Strobhar. In his answer, Schultz pointed out that, despite Starbucks’ decline in earnings over the very “narrow” window to which Strobhar was referring, the company still provided a 38 percent shareholder return over the last year. He then went on to say that Starbucks’ position on gay marriage isn’t about the “bottom line,” but rather about the company’s desire to “embrace diversity.” The crowd applauded.
Schultz then followed up with the comment that has roiled quite a few people. According to reports, the Starbucks CEO said: “If you feel, respectfully, that you can get a higher return than the 38% you got last year, it’s a free country. You can sell your shares of Starbucks and buy shares in another company. Thank you very much.” The audience apparently loved it, and applauded even more.
Now, for the record, I disagree with Mr. Schultz and his political views. I don’t think it’s appropriate for the government to redefine marriage. What’s more, no one has shown me how we can logically redefine marriage to include same-sex couples and not also include marital unions between multiple partners. If we’re saying that consenting adults who love each other deserve “marriage equality” in the name of “diversity,” then that same argument can be used to justify polygamy. Do we really want to open that Pandora’s Box? For these reasons, I disagree with Starbucks’ decision to support same-sex marriage.
As a Christian, I also think companies like Starbucks, the government, and the American people in general should be sensitive to the feelings and convictions of millions of Christians who take their faith seriously and who believe in traditional marriage as laid out in the Bible. So, I would take great offense if Howard Schultz had called opponents of gay marriage “bigots” or “homophobes” and told them to take their business elsewhere. But…he didn’t. (Others on the side of gay marriage have done this, to be sure, but not Howard Schultz – at least not to my knowledge).
Perhaps one of my readers can point to another interview or speech in which Schultz personally attacked Christians or conscientious opponents of redefining marriage, but he did NOT do so at the recent Starbucks shareholders meeting. And I think it’s unfortunate that many Christians are implying that he did.
If you’re a Christian reading this, let me humbly remind you that we’re supposed to be the “good guys.” We’re supposed to speak the truth in love (see Ephesians 4). Even if the other side doesn’t play fair, that doesn’t give us the right to twist facts, lie about, or falsely malign other people. Schultz didn’t tell Christians to take their business elsewhere. He said that if shareholders weren’t satisfied with a 38 percent return, then they can sell their shares.
When Chick-Fil-A was slandered and boycotted last year by gay rights groups (and a few public officials) because of its CEO’s stance against gay marriage, many of us (rightly) cried foul. We didn’t feel it was right for a Christian-owned company to be punished for holding to biblical values, and we didn’t appreciate Dan Cathy’s comments being twisted and distorted into something they weren’t. Well, let’s not do to the “other side” what we get upset about when such things happen to us. Remember the whole Golden Rule thing?
If you choose not to shop at Starbucks because of their company’s political views (and their liberal position on various issues goes back well beyond the current gay marriage debate), that’s your choice. As Mr. Schultz says, it’s a “free country.” That’s fine. By all means, I have no problem with people (Christians or non-Christians) choosing where to shop, eat, etc. based on how various companies invest their profits or how those companies engage in the political process. Choosing to take your business elsewhere is your right and that’s your call. But let’s not twist facts and become guilty of slander.
Christians should always speak the truth in love. That’s sadly not what’s happening with many Christians right now when it comes to Starbucks and Howard Schultz.
The Easter Bunny and (by extension) the Easter egg hunt tradition stem from pagan origins. In light of this, many people each Easter season ask the following question: Should Christians participate in Easter Egg Hunts? After all, doesn’t the Bible say that light should have no fellowship with darkness? And if Easter bunnies and eggs are inspired by pagan rituals and false religions, shouldn’t Christians stay away from such things? It’s a sensitive issue and one where sincere people of faith often disagree. I hope that this article will shed some light on this important debate – one that deserves our attention, but which has unfortunately caused more division in churches than should be the case.
That the modern day Easter Bunny symbol is inspired by pagan origins is beyond dispute. The very name of the holiday “Easter,” in fact, comes from the Teutonic goddess Eastre or Eostre, who was celebrated by the Saxons of Northern Europe as the goddess of fertility and whose symbol was – you guessed it – the rabbit! How then did such a pagan symbol come to be associated with a religious holiday? Well, the answer lies with apparently with second century Christian missionaries who spread into northern Europe, encountering worshipers of this false goddess. Apparently, in the spirit of the Apostle Paul’s evangelistic strategy of becoming “all things to all men” (see I Corinthians 9), these missionaries used some of the Saxons’ pagan traditions to teach about the resurrection of Jesus Christ. This reportedly began the blending of the two celebrations. The amalgamation was sealed with the First Council of Nicaea in A.D. 325, when it declared Easter as the day to celebrate the resurrection of Christ and fixed the date of Easter as the first Sunday after the full moon (the Paschal Full Moon) following the March equinox. In light of these pagan origins, should churches hold Easter egg hunts and should Christians participate in them?
Let’s first agree that, from a biblical perspective, it’s clearly wrong for anyone to worship false gods or goddesses — or to encourage the worshiping of false deities. Let’s also agree that anyone who participates in an Easter egg hunt (a tradition that began sometime in the 1500s, we believe) with the intent of worshiping nature or Eastre/Eostre or any other false deity is indeed guilty of idolatry. This is, however, not what happens in most Easter Egg Hunts in the United States today – and certainly not in those egg hunts sponsored by churches. No false deity is worshiped. In fact, in the case of church-sponsored Easter Egg Hunts, the kids who participate are taught that Easter is about Jesus Christ and His resurrection. Christ is exalted.
Some might suggest that associating pagan imagery with Christ diminishes and disrespects the work of Christ. To this argument, we can offer three responses:
- First, what happens at most Easter Egg Hunts today bears no resemblance to the actual, ancient rituals the Saxons took part in while worshiping the goddess Eastre/Eostre.
- Second, the fact is that pagan names, traditions, etc. are woven throughout our culture and society, even into our calendar. The month of March, for example, is named after the Roman god Mars. Are we worshiping Mars when we speak of the month of “March”? Of course not.
- And finally, much like the second century missionaries who apparently used pagan imagery to teach about the resurrection, the Apostle Paul used false religions to point people to the Truth, namely Christ. At his famous Mars Hill sermon (see Acts 17), Paul tells the people of Athens that he perceives they are a “religious people” in light of their many idols, and then he famously points to one with an inscription to “THE UNKNOWN GOD,” and says he wants to tell them about that One! Note that the Athenians were making graven images to false gods, but Paul uses their idolatry as a frame of reference to help him connect with them, so he might more effectively share the Good News of Jesus Christ.
Paul had no fear of using false religions as a teaching point, because he knew there was nothing of reality or substance to these false gods. This dismissal of pagan idolatry as empty is a consistent theme in Paul’s writings. In I Corinthians 8, he urged the Corinthian Christians to ease off battles they were having over whether it was proper for Christians to eat meat that had been sacrificed to idols. In that passage, Paul says that there’s nothing inherently sinful with a Christian eating meat that’s been offered to an idol because the “idol is nothing.” In other words, the whole religion and belief system surrounding the idols to which the meats were being offered was, in reality, meaningless. There was nothing inherently wrong or harmful then with eating meat offered to false idols. Christians are at liberty then, Paul teaches, to eat meat offered to idols, but they must be careful not to cause their brothers or sisters in Christ to stumble into sin. While the issue of eating meat offered to first century idols is different from churches holding Easter egg hunts today, many of their respective aspects are the same. Thus, the principles of Paul’s teachings in I Corinthians 8 are very much applicable.
The bottom line in all this is that God looks at the heart. If a Christian participates in an Easter Egg Hunt with the intention of worshiping or honoring pagan goddesses, an obvious sin has occurred. If a church sponsors an Easter Egg Hunt without using it as a tool to spread the Good News of Jesus Christ, an opportunity has been missed. There is, however, nothing sinful with a child collecting plastic eggs to get candy or a church using an egg hunt as an outreach tool for evangelism. God looks at the heart. We should do the same.
Debunking The Famous West Wing Bible Lesson: President Bartlet Builds a Straw Man and then Destroys it in Popular West Wing Bible Rant
In one of the most dramatic and enjoyable scenes of the hit television series The West Wing, President Josiah Bartlet (played brilliantly by famous actor Martin Sheen) humiliates a conservative radio talk show host over her anti-gay ideology. The talk show host character, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, is a thinly-disguised Hollywood caricature of Dr. Laura Schlessinger. In The West Wing scene, Jacobs is present at a White House event, but refuses to show the proper respect to President Bartlet, whom she despises due to his liberal ideology. Bartlett uses the opportunity to teach her a West Wing Bible lesson. Here is a clip of that scene…
Let’s agree that this is great television drama. Aaron Sorkin, the creator of The West Wing, is an exceptional screenwriter. And Sorkin and his team do an outstanding job with this scene (one that was inspired by an “Open Letter to Dr. Laura (Schlessinger)” that made the rounds on the Internet in the early 2000s). The scene is reminiscent, in fact, of the well-scripted courtroom decimation of Matthew Harrison Brady (a caricature of William Jennings Bryan) in the famous movie Inherit the Wind, based on the Scopes “Monkey” Trial of 1925 in Dayton, Tennessee. Like the Inherit the Wind courtroom scene, the West Wing confrontation between Bartlett and Jacobs isn’t just an example of great drama; it’s also indicative of Hollywood’s unofficial motto: Never let the facts get in the way of good drama. Sorkin and the West Wing team weave in enough facts to make the Bartlet-Jacobs confrontation seem authentic. This makes the scene so much more powerful and its lesson that much more convincing. It’s textbook propaganda – and it’s done beautifully.
Let’s agree that the character, Dr. Jenna Jacobs, as portrayed in The West Wing, is indeed an ignorant and arrogant charlatan who deserved to be put her in her place by Barlet. According to the fictional universe created by The West Wing, Jacobs was trading on her doctorate in literature to pass herself off as an expert in matters she had no business dispensing public advice on. What’s more, her inability to correct Bartlett’s flawed biblical exegesis (more on this in a moment) shows that she is pretty ignorant of the Bible, a book she claims to respect and follow. And her refusal to stand in the presence of the President is a perfect example of how some Christians show open disrespect and disdain toward public officials (as well as common everyday citizens) with whom they disagree. As a Christian and as a pastor, I have no problem seeing someone like Dr. Jacobs taught a lesson in education, civility, and decorum. Unfortunately, The West Wing overreaches. And, as such, an important lesson on tolerance and civility is marred by its own lack thereof.
Anyone knowledgeable about the Bible will spot not only several flaws in Bartlett’s argument, but will also notice huge, whopping lies in what The West Wing attributes to the Bible. Rather than simply taking a stand against hate, The West Wing creators display some hate of their own and slander both Judaism and Christianity in doing so. In his excellent book The Politically Incorrect Guide to the Bible, Robert Hutchinson writes: “For the Deep Thinkers in Hollywood, this little exchange [in The West Wing] represents a fatal, unanswerable blow to the Bible and all it represents.” Unfortunately for these “Deep Thinkers,” there’s the truth. For as Hutchinson points out, the scene “deliberately misrepresents what the Bible actually says regarding these laws.” Here are a few of the misrepresentations from The West Wing‘s Bible lesson:
- Bartlet claims that the Old Testament requires the burning of his mother, since she wears garments made from different threads, and the public stoning of his brother for planting different crops side-by-side. Neither of these horrific penalties are associated with the passages Bartlett alludes to in his anti-Bible rant. As Hutchinson points out, while “the Torah indeed forbids the mixing of the fibers or seeds, there is no specific penalty stated for the failure to do so….they made that part up out of whole cloth to make the biblical laws seems more harsh than they actually are” (emphasis his).
- The West Wing Bible lesson makes absolutely no attempt to differentiate between biblical laws that are still applicable today and those which are not. For one thing, the Mosaic Law was never applicable to the Gentiles. It only applied to the Hebrew people who Moses led out of Egypt to settle in the Promised Land. For another, a large number of the laws were, as Hutchinson writes, “ceremonial and cultic regulations for the Ark of the Covenant or the Temple (both of which no longer exist) or practical regulations related to life in a nomadic desert setting.” Bartlett groups them all together in an intellectually clumsy, but emotionally effective, manner intended to smear Judaism and Christianity.
- As for homosexuality, Leviticus 18:22 hardly represents the only passage in Scripture which points to God’s standards for marriage and sex. We see God’s standard for marriage and sex as laid out by Jehovah in Genesis 1-2 and affirmed by Jesus in his teachings on marriage in the New Testament. There are also Paul’s teachings on sexuality to confront. None of this is to sanction hatred or bigotry toward gays and lesbians, but it does prove that the Christian who opposes the redefinition of marriage isn’t basing his or her views exclusively on Leviticus.
The West Wing exchange between Bartlett and Jacobs does (appropriately) take to task people of faith who hold to knee-jerk opinions based on sloppy biblical study. It shows the importance of people doing their homework. People should know what they believe and why they believe it – and they should be prepared when their convictions come under attack. And Christians should always show love, kindness, courtesy, and respect – even to those with whom they disagree. It would be nice if Hollywood would extend similar courtesy and respect to Christians, but I haven’t seen any pigs fly today, so I won’t hold my breath.