Tuesday, April 15, 2014

God should have been Able to Do Better: Discussion with an Atheist

I certainly can respect your thinking that if God is omnipotent and all-loving, He should have been able to do a better job. However, please bear with me as I try to point out the weaknesses of this position:

  • Your conclusion requires that you understand enough about the cosmos so you can claim that such a God should have been able to do a better job. However, we might be overstepping the limits of our wisdom in such an assessment. It reminds me of evolutionists who claim that the eye and other organs were poorly designed if designed by this God. Such a claim depends upon thinking that we know better, but do we?
  • There is actually a multitude of evidence in favor of God’s beneficence. We hunger, and God has provided food. We thirst, and He has provided water. We tire, and He has provided sleep. We are lonely, and He has provided friends and family….  In fact, if we observe this alleged problem of God’s failures from a broader perspective, we find that the vast majority of people vote with their legs (relatively few commit suicide) that this life is worth living.
  • The charge that such a God “should have been able to do a better job” is logically incoherent. Without an absolute system of values or moral laws, we have no basis to talk objectively about better or worse, good or bad, just and unjust. Perhaps “better” is a matter of dying earlier or of sacrificing ourselves to wild beasts? Without God, we are left in a morally relativistic world, where values and laws are arbitrary and humanly created, where objective judgments are not possible since objective laws/truths are non-existent. Only if God exists can we begin to talk coherently about values.

I also want to answer you on a more personal level. You wrote:

·       I don't believe in God. If I believed that some God made me the way I am and the world the way it is, then, yes, I would blame Him for not making me sufficiently knowledgeable of His existence and of the "wages of sin" and sufficiently able to love and obey Him that I did, in fact, love and obey Him.

I don’t know how to make my response inoffensive. Sometimes the truth is highly offensive, especially if we live in darkness and denial, as the Bible claims. Jesus stated that He was so hated because He shed the light about humanity into our darkness and self-righteousness:

  • The world cannot hate you, but it hates me because I testify that its works are evil. (John 7:7)

For years I had self-righteously regarded myself as a “truth seeker,” but I wasn’t. I was merely seeking for those beliefs that would enable me to feel better about myself. Of course, these were always self-promoting beliefs and very contrary to the revelations of the Bible. Although I didn’t realize it at the time, I was suppressing the very truths I had claimed to be seeking:

  • The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness,  since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it 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 people are without excuse. For although they knew God, they neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him, but their thinking became futile and their foolish hearts were darkened. (Rom. 1:18-21)

Our problem is that we already know God but have effectively suppressed that knowledge of God. Consequently, God is not at fault for our lack of knowledge, but we!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Dialogues with “Christian” Universalists

Universalism can look very appealing. Here is what the Christian Universalist Association (CUA) writes about it:

·       Are you looking for a faith that boldly proclaims God’s unfailing love for all people? A faith that accepts Jesus as Savior and holds him up as someone who shows us the heart of the Creator, as someone everyone can follow with joy and integrity — and yet a faith that does not use fear of eternal hell as a stick to force you into the fold? Are you searching for a faith based on the premise that in the end there will be no one left behind — a faith that through this blessed hope can truly break down barriers and bring people together in a spirit of joy and “good tidings to all”?

This form of universalism is appealing in a number of ways:

  1.  It allows you to retain some semblance of your Christian faith
  2. It also coincides with today’s secularism that denies any eternal punishment, removes all distinctions among peoples, eliminates any fear of judgment, provides a popular but simplistic faith, and is all-inclusive.

However, not everything that is appealing is true. Here is a slightly edited dialogue (of my own words) that I recently had with universalists at the CUA Facebook group. I hope it illustrates some of the problems with universalism.

Daniel, you can't have "Mercy enduring forever" and eternal torment too. One cancels out the other right? Which would you prefer to win or last forever? Is your god, eternally angry, hateful, judgmental vindictive? Or does your heaven have NO eternal forgiveness, grace of unconditional love?

Even biblically, there is so much we don't know about hell and eternal judgment. Is it a matter of annihilation (and not eternal anger)? If annihilation is the eternal consequence (or one of them), then it isn’t a matter of God being eternally angry, but rather a matter of people refusing to come to the light and be eternally healed. Is it something self-chosen due to our hate of the light (God) John 3:17-20? In this case, how could we call God “vindictive” for allowing the lover of darkness to choose his destiny?

Unless, you can precisely define the nature of hell, we cannot begin to suggest that the existence of hell contradicts the nature of God as presented in the Bible.

Consequently, I do not see contradiction where you see it. I am willing to live with a certain degree of tension and uncertainty about the nature of hell because I am convinced that God will reconcile it all lovingly and justly in the end.

I am also left to wonder where your evidence and confidence about universalism arises, now that you have rejected the biblical revelation. Do you have a more trustworthy revelation?

Daniel, the evidence for the existence of a loving God is everywhere, not just in the Bible. Just google "proof of God," and then start reading. Close your eyes and try to imagine yourself not existing. Unimaginable. Try to imagine a God who by His nature is the very definition of love, and at the same time hateful and vindictive towards those who want to believe in Him, but can't. Unimaginable! We all know in our hearts that God is love, because God has planted those feelings there. Trust your gut. Trust your heart. God will fill in all the details when you are ready to know more. For some, that won't come until after death. But that's OK. Whether we believe it or not, God loves us and is always with us. So, just go out there and live your life to the fullest and follow your heart.

Along with you, I certainly believe that God is love. However, I don't think that this contradicts the fact that God is also righteous (judging), just and holy. Meanwhile, based upon what you regard as imaginable and unimaginable, you impugn the biblical God as “hateful and vindictive towards those who want to believe in Him, but can't.”

What if instead, they refuse to believe (Rom. 1:18-32; 3:10-16) because they hate God and refuse to come to Him and be saved (John 3:19-21). Unless you can prove that humanity is as innocent as the CUAs make us out to be, then you cannot make the case that the biblical God is “hateful.”

It seems that a lot of our differences arise from the way the CUA seems to imagine humanity, God and hell. While your imagination conjures up a relatively innocent humanity, and an unjustified hell and a God who is less that righteous, just and holy, the Bible presents an entirely different portrait.

Daniel, instead of viewing [God’s here-and-now judgments] as vindictive, we view them as remedial and restorative in purpose.

I too would have trouble with the vindictive part. However, to the prophet Ezekiel, God reveals:

  •  "Say to them, ‘As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?’" (Ezek. 33:11)

Perhaps then hell is a matter of annihilation for those who refuse to be connected to Life and find restoration or perhaps hell is self-chosen. Since they detest the presence of the Light as they have in this life, perhaps for them, darkness will remain preferable to the Light in the next life.

Oh no! Who refuses to be connected to Life, who detests the presence of the Light? They are the ones whose souls have been warped, wounded, and wasted, deprived of love and compassion, and poisoned from the well of warfare, hatred, and greed. None of us can boast of our goodness, we fall so short of the mark. Our destiny is not in our hands, but in the hands of a forgiving and compassionate creator. We are all, in the words of Kalen's book, DESTINED FOR SALVATION.

What if humanity is far worse than our relative innocence you imagine? What if we have truly become evil to the core, as so many verses suggest:

  • As it is written: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” “Their throats are open graves; their tongues practice deceit.” “The poison of vipers is on their lips.”  “Their mouths are full of cursing and bitterness.” “Their feet are swift to shed blood; ruin and misery mark their ways.” (Rom. 3:10-16)

If this portrait corresponds to the real nature of humanity, wouldn’t you have to revise your assessment of our innocence and God’s “hatefulness” by judging?

Daniel my brother, you can't have both judgment and mercy enduring forever. You cannot hate and love at the same time. One cancels out the other. In Christ, mercy triumphs over Justice. That's in your bible too!

You insist that judgment is incompatible with love and cite “mercy triumphs over judgment” in support. However, you seem to believe that this teaching eliminates any need for judgment. However, when we take a look at this passage in context, we have to reject this possibility:

  •  Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the law that gives freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. Mercy triumphs over judgment. (James 2:12-13)

Instead, James insisted that judgment is still on the table for those who aren’t merciful. What then is mercy? According to Jesus, mercy is predicated on repentance:

  •  Jesus answered, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans because they suffered this way? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish. Or those eighteen who died when the tower in Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than all the others living in Jerusalem? I tell you, no! But unless you repent, you too will all perish.” (Luke 13:2-5)

Daniel, you can find passages of scripture that support annihilationism. Those same passages, however, are subject to more than one interpretation. The word in the Bible that is translated "destroyed" simply means "lost." That which is lost can also be found. That which is dead can be made alive again. That is what the Gospel of Christ is all about. The Bible clearly teaches that in Christ "all shall be made alive." Yes, the wages of sin is death and the destruction of the soul, but the gift of God is life. All we like sheep have gone astray and become "lost." Jesus will not lose any of those sheep permanently. He will seek them out and eventually bring all of them back into the fold.

I certainly agree that the doctrine of eternal judgment is a difficult one. It is for this reason (among others) that I am reluctant to associate it with a God of Hate but rather of justice.

You are right that “in Christ, all shall be made alive.” However, we have no basis to apply this to those outside of Christ. Instead, Scripture offers little hope for those outside:

  •  Just as people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment,  so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many; and he will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for him. (Heb. 9:27-28)

I might not like this exclusivistic message, but I am bound to submit to it, even before my understanding catches up to this revelation.

Daniel, do you really believe that that the Gospel is about justice? It is exactly the opposite. It is the height of arrogance to believe that you are "justly" going to heaven, while the mass of "unjust" humanity is going to spend eternity in Hell.

You are right! Entering heaven is not a matter of justice but of mercy, and mercy can be discriminate.

What kind of justice is it that prepares a "place" of eternal suffering for temporal misdeeds? This even goes way beyond the "eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth" scale-balancing justice of the Hebrew Bible. We might even be able to live with a scale-balancing justice like the "12-months-in-Gehenna" pictured by the rabbinical scholars of Jesus' day, but a never-ending conscious torment?

Before we can conclude that hell is either unjust, we first have to determine the exact nature of hell. However, we are told that hell will be different for different people. It is also possible that those in hell might eventually be annihilated. It is also possible that hell is self-chosen, and that some would prefer darkness to the presence of God – something they detest.

Therefore, before you can disparage the justice of eternal punishment, you need a better idea of what it will consist.

Daniel, you are completely missing the point. The purpose of God's judgments is rehabilitation and restoration and repentance.

Is it always such? Can you support this contention? Perhaps punishment is a just payment for our sins.

Daniel, unbelief is by definition ignorance of the truth. If one is not ignorant of the truth, then by one would obviously be believing the truth. Jesus refers to our sin as a kind of blindness. On the cross He asked the Father to forgive his tormentors because "they know not what they do."

I think that you will find that Jesus regards such ignorance as culpable:

  •  "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)

Also see the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus (Luke 16) where the problem of unbelief is not about a lack of evidence.

Daniel, yes, we are culpable or held accountable for our sins, regardless of whether they are committed in ignorance or not, because our sinful attitudes and behaviors are harmful to ourselves and others. So God does chastise and correct us. That is not the same as banishment to Hell for all eternity.

If God didn’t rescue them from their willful ignorance and rebellion in this life, why should we expect that He’ll do so in the next? In fact, we are taught to not expect this. Peter argued that if He condemned the rebellious angels to hell, we should expect that he will do the same with us:

  • For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell, putting them in chains of darkness[b] to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless… if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:4-9)

If you were all-powerful and able to change peoples’ hearts and minds through the influence of your indwelling spirit, would you not be completely able to bring your wayward son to repentance, after you feel he has suffered enough to learn his lesson?

I think that this is your strongest point. However, it just doesn’t seem that our Lord does this. Instead, we see many who become hardened in their unbelief and vitriol. Jesus said, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing." (Mat. 23:37)

Jesus declared that He had done what He either could or would. Why doesn't God become more coercive with all unwilling people? I don't know. However, I trust that He has his reasons. I am willing to live with a certain degree of uncertainty in this area, while taking Him at His word.

Meanwhile, you insist that Her will not condemn anyone or allow anyone to go to hell, because this doesn't correspond with your philosophy. However, it does seem to correspond with Scripture.

I believe all the words of Jesus. Of course, He grieved over the lost condition of the nation of Israel. Remember this also. That which is lost can also be found. Jesus didn't come to condemn the world but that the world might be saved through Him. He is more than able to accomplish all that He set out to do.

Indeed, He can "accomplish all that He set out to do." But did He ordain to accomplish the salvation of the entire world? So many verses indicate that although He had paid the price for the sins of the world, many will not avail themselves of it:

  • “Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it... Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and in your name drive out demons and in your name perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’" (Mat. 7:13-23)

While it is true that Jesus acknowledged that He didn’t come to judge the world, this still leaves open the possibility that the non-believer will judge himself and flee from the light – the presence of God – which he has always hated and into the darkness of lies and denial.

Universalist Carton Pearson started this thread by writing:

  • What happens after this life we can only speculate about and trust that in the ultimate reality, intrinsic good will prevail in us, for us, through us and as us.

It is noteworthy that Pearson confesses agnosticism about his universalistic heaven. It points to the possibility that agnosticism is endemic to universalism. Why? Can the universalist really believe in the mercy of God if he denies the inevitable judgment of God without it? It would seem that mercy of the cross is predicated on our understanding that we need the cross, and that without it, we face judgment.

It also makes me wonder if the Spirit will validate such a faith in those who have rejected the fullness of the biblical revelation. Instead, this agnosticism would seem to prove that the Spirit will not endorse a faith based on picking-and-choosing those verses we find appealing. Instead, we when submit to God, we submit to the totality of His Word (Mat. 4:4). By doing this, we honor Him and He honors us:

  •  “Because he loves me,” says the Lord, “I will rescue him; I will protect him, for he acknowledges my name [who I am]. He will call on me, and I will answer him; I will be with him in trouble, I will deliver him and honor him. With long life I will satisfy him and show him my salvation.” (Psalm 91:14-16)

Does the universalist know God or has he re-created him in a form that he finds appealing? In this way, has he thus rejected God?

Friday, April 11, 2014

Why we shouldn’t Reject a Judgmental and Punitive God

Many people reject the Bible because they find the idea of a judgmental, punitive, and holy God highly distasteful. Here are many of their arguments and possible responses:

“Most people are good and don’t deserve punishment!”

The Prophet Jeremiah thought this way, but God would not allow his mis-assessments to go unchallenged. He therefore presented Jeremiah with several teachable moments:

  • "Go up and down the streets of Jerusalem, look around and consider, search through her squares. If you can find but one person who deals honestly and seeks the truth, I will forgive this city” (Jeremiah 5:1-2).

Jeremiah was convinced that God’s assessment of Israel was way off. He was convinced that there were many righteous people in Jerusalem:

  •  I thought, "These are only the poor; they are foolish, for they do not know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God. So I will go to the leaders and speak to them; surely they know the way of the Lord, the requirements of their God" (Jeremiah 5:4-5).

However, God provided Jeremiah with some compelling object lessons. Jeremiah found that not only were the elites corrupt to the core, but even his own family had been plotting against him. As a result of these lessons, Jeremiah swung to the opposite extreme and prayed God’s judgment against them all. It’s interesting how our problems with God change as our perception of man changes.

We tend to think that our own kind are good and worthy people. However, God even corrected the Prophet Samuel because his opinions were merely based upon superficial observation and our human prejudices. Perhaps we think too much of our own judgments to properly esteem God’s.

Meanwhile, the Bible’s assessment of humanity is consistently negative (Rom. 1:18-32; 3:10-18). Jesus put it this way:

  • “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light [truth] because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed.” (John 3:19-20)

If this is so, perhaps there is justice in God’s judgments, even in His harsh judgments of the Canaanite nations.

“God will not judge the people he has created. Therefore, we shouldn’t.”

For one thing we tend to think that there is something illegitimate about judging and punishment. Often, we think of Jesus’ words, “Judge not that ye not be judged” (Mat. 7:1). However, if we read further, we find that this this isn’t an absolute prohibition against judging but rather judging hypocritically, when we do the same kinds of things without confessing them. In fact, there are many biblical commands to judge (James 5:19-20; Gal. 6:1; Mat. 18:15-19) and critiques of churches that have failed to judge (Rev. 2:14, 20).

Not only must we judge, but God also has judged and will judge. Peter argued that if God judged in the past, He will also judge in the future:

  •  For if God did not spare angels when they sinned, but sent them to hell,[a] putting them in chains of darkness to be held for judgment; if he did not spare the ancient world when he brought the flood on its ungodly people, but protected Noah, a preacher of righteousness, and seven others; if he condemned the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah by burning them to ashes, and made them an example of what is going to happen to the ungodly; and if he rescued Lot, a righteous man, who was distressed by the depraved conduct of the lawless… if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. (2 Peter 2:4-9)

Perhaps our problems with God reflect our narrow perspective. Just to illustrate, if we were to ask a cow about God’s judgment of the Canaanites, the cow would undoubtedly wholeheartedly agree with their destruction. This would also pertain to the young children the Canaanites sacrificed to their gods. Perhaps, we are just too anthropocentric.

“If we are compassionate people, we will love and not judge.”

However, if we love, we will discipline. We will demand that our 3-year-old holds our hand when crossing the street. If she violates this rule, we wisely punish. Besides, the Bible repeatedly teaches that if God loves us, He will discipline us for our own good (Heb. 12:5-11).

Besides, if we love the church and society, we will try to restrain evil. A teacher who does not discipline her class is a teacher who does not love.

“We don’t really warrant punishment because sin is not real. It’s just something humanity invented to maintain order.”

This is a view that is popular in the secular West, where life has been relatively comfortable and safe. Few of us have had a family member or members who had been brutally murdered. We marvel that these families cannot move on until justice is done. Instead, we myopically tend to regard them as vengeful.

However, in our heart, we know that there are some things that violate objective moral law. We know that it is wrong to torture babies and sex-traffic girls. However, the Western university has co-opted our thinking to believe that morals are human inventions, just relative to culture and human impulses.

However, the Bible is unequivocal that moral law is universal and immutable and that punishment for violating them is just. We find that even the New Testament saints justly demanded justice and punishment:

  • They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer. (Rev. 6:10-11)

In a world where there are no absolute moral laws or truths, there will necessarily be a diminished appreciation of justice and punishment. If no one is breaking an absolute moral law, then no one truly deserves punishment. Justice and righteousness become no more than pragmatic tools to maintain the kind of society that suites the majority or the powerful.

Interestingly, if morality is simply something that we humans made up and is therefore relative to our culture, then we have no objective basis to take issue with any form of injustice. We might not like it, but injustice doesn’t violate any law or objective truth if none exists.

How then can we claim that God is barbaric because He had ordered the Canaanite destruction? If God didn’t violate any law, then it can’t be wrong.

“Even if a higher moral law does exist, we still don’t deserve punishment because we are ignorant of it.”

If people really don’t know moral truth, then it would seem that ignorance is a perfect excuse. Even the Bible affirms that ignorance is an excuse:

  • Jesus said, “If you were blind, you would not be guilty of sin; but now that you claim you can see, your guilt remains.” (John 9:41; 15:22, 24)

However, the Bible is even more affirmative that we aren’t ignorant, and that we are wired for God’s truths (Rom. 1:18-32; 2:14-15). Therefore, we can’t plead ignorance, and our guilt remains.

“We are merely sophisticated bio-chemical machines and therefore lack freewill. Because we are totally governed by bio-chemical reactions and lack freewill, we could not have done otherwise. Consequently, we are not deserving of punishment.”

One atheist friend admitted that he denies freewill because his guilt was simply too difficult to endure without this denial. Of course, he also acknowledged that we do not have a right to punish anyone. According to him, we still need to have police, but they are no more than a necessary evil.

Surely, if the Canaanites could not have acted otherwise, then God is unjust for punishing them. However, the Bible uniformly holds us accountable for our sins. Nowhere do we find a verse suggesting that we are not responsible (James 1:13-15; Rom. 2:2). Consequently, God has every right to judge us when we sin.

If I doubt my very evident perceptions/intuitions that I make freewill choices and that I bear guilt for them, I must also doubt everything that I think and feel. (We can easily distinguish between our freewill actions and those, like breathing, that overrule freewill choices.) However, if I do this, then I can no longer live coherently and sanely. Consequently, those who deny freewill cannot live in a consistent manner. The denial of freewill is contradicted by almost every word that pours forth from our mouths.

“If God is omnipotent, he certainly could have changed us or made us more obedient so that we wouldn’t be deserving of judgment.”

This statement reflects a misunderstanding of omnipotence. While God can do anything He wants to do, it doesn’t mean He can do it in any manner. He is constrained by several factors. He cannot sin, violate His nature, His plan, or perhaps even logic. While the Bible asserts that the Canaanites got what they fully deserved, and that God had been fully just, we do not know if any further divine forbearance would have violated other divine considerations.

“A loving and omnipotent God could have made a better world, one where severe punishment would have been unnecessary.”

To make such magisterial judgments about the universe requires supreme wisdom. Job had made such a judgment about God’s justice. However, God eventually showed him that he lacked the wisdom to even begin to make such judgments. Job reacted appropriately and repented in dust and ashes (Job 40, 42).

We cannot answer every question comprehensively. Does this mean that we should abandon the biblical revelation? Certainly not! Science cannot answer any one question comprehensively. It cannot even comprehensively define the basics like, “What is light? Matter? Time? Space? Do we then reject science? No! Instead, we value the limited wisdom that science has given us. I would suggest that we approach the character of God in the same manner.