Posts Tagged ‘NUCU’

Prayer and evangelism: Colossians 4:3-4

January 27, 2010

Today I was studying Colossians 4 at the CU small groups leaders’ bible study and was struck by what Paul asks the Christians in Colossae to pray for him:

“And pray for us too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should.”

First, Paul asks for prayer that he might be able to share the gospel, whether or not he is released from prison. It wouldn’t be wrong for the Colossian church to pray for his release – and verse 18 might hint at that too – but for Paul, proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ takes precedence over his legal rights.

Second, there’s a real stress both on the sovereignty of God in calling people to faith (“pray that God may open a door for our message…”) and on the need for Paul to communicate this accessibly and meaningfully (“pray that I may proclaim it clearly…”). Sometimes Christians who (correctly) stress that nobody can properly respond to the gospel without the enabling of the Holy Spirit – and indeed that our hearts and minds are “blind” to the truth of the gospel until God acts on us (2Cor 4:4-6), emphasising the need for what Reformed theologians call “prevenient grace” – sometimes these Christians can downplay the need for the gospel to be presented in culturally appropriate and accessible ways. If people need God to work to “unblind” them to the gospel, it doesn’t matter much if most people don’t understand our gospel presentation, because they’re just not ready to hear it yet. God hasn’t opened their eyes, and when he does, the Christian jargon, seventeenth-century language, and exclusive terminology we use just won’t be a hurdle. But Paul doesn’t draw this conclusion from the sovereignty of God in evangelism. Here he puts both God’s initiative and the need for clarity and communication side-by-side.

I think here we have a justification for thinking carefully about how to explain the “mystery of Christ” to the culture we find ourselves in today. How can we communicate it clearly and faithfully? Perhaps blurting out “Two Ways To Live” isn’t appropriate for every (or almost any!) situation. But lest we skip too quickly to debating methods and approaches – notice that Paul asks for prayer for this skill. It’s something we’d do well to pray for, too. I know I don’t find it easy – because I’m used to talking about the gospel to Christians where we share common terminology and attitudes and understandings (to a large degree!) and much less used to talking about the gospel with people who don’t know what “grace”, “redemption”, “reconciliation”, or even “God” means in a Christian context.

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Lunchbar: What would Jesus say about the recession?

October 30, 2009

Lunchbar today at Nottingham was on the topic of the current economic situation. For many of us, as our speaker observed, this is not just an academic question but one in which we have a personal stake. Most students are finding it harder to afford things, many of them have parents or relatives who are in difficult circumstances, some students have had to leave university as their parents cannot afford to support them. In addition, it is harder for graduates to find jobs when they leave university. So it’s a big issue.

It’s also hard to guess what God would actually say about the recession in particular, so we have to be careful. But there are some things that the Bible does say about God that might help us see what might be going on. God is completely in control of the economic situation, and has a purpose in it. Isaiah 45:7 reads:

I form the light and create darkness,
       I bring prosperity and create disaster;
       I, the LORD, do all these things.

So the recession isn’t somehow beyond God’s control – but what might God be trying to bring out of it? Without wanting to claim to have the definitive answer to that question, we can perhaps suggest three things that the recession can teach us.

First, the recession opens our eyes to the situation that many people in the world live in all the time. In the West, recessions tend to come and go, and we perhaps have got used to the idea that things tend to improve over the long run, allowing for the occasional blip. But in many parts of the world this just isn’t the case, and there is massive poverty. Compare Britain with Zimbabwe – the British unemployment rate is about 7%; in Zimbabwe it is more like 94%. The average Zimbabwean earns just $0.30 a month, several thousand times less than the average Briton. So perhaps the recession can show us a little bit of what it is like to be poor – as the majority of the people in the world are.

Second, the economic crisis shows us something of what sin is. We see it quite easily in those who are responsible for the economic crisis – those in banking and finance whose greed has led to the current crisis. We rightly feel aggrieved at this, and can see how wrong a lot of the exploitation that has gone on in the financial world is.

 

But as we recognise the sinfulness of the greed and exploitation that has gone on in the financial sector, so we too should take the opportunity afforded us by the recession to recognise that the same disease afflicts us too. Isn’t the reason that we haven’t done exactly what the bankers have done more to do with the fact that we haven’t had the power and opportunity to exploit, rather than us being morally superior? If we’re honest, we can see the potential within ourselves for exploiting others for financial gain, given the chance. So the recession also shows our own sinfulness to us and helps us to realise that we need God to create a clean heart in us and cleanse us from our corruption.

Finally, the recession can teach us that money is not everything, and is a fickle friend. The recession has shown that even those who are wealthy can easily lose their wealth; that money is an insecure source of security. People talk a lot of the comparitive risks of every investment, but even the relatively safe investments can become devalued; and in any case are no insurance against the inevitability of death. If money is not a good source of our ultimate security, then what is? Ultimately, the Christian gospel claims, it can only be found in Christ and in his Kingdom. So the recession could function to turn us to God by showing up the transience and insecurity of what we have been trusting in.

Lunchbar: Aren’t all Christians hypocrites?

October 25, 2009

Last Friday’s lunchbar was on the title “Aren’t all Christians hypocrites?”

Sadly it’s not unusual to hear the sentiment expressed, that the behaviour of Jesus’ followers makes it impossible to believe in him. They talk the talk, but don’t walk the walk. We all know times when Christians have publicly fallen into the kind of sin they claim to disapprove of.

Our speaker made several points in response to this objection. Crucially, it is important to recognise up front that Christians historically, and all Christians from time to time, fail to live up to the standards they profess to believe in. The Bible says that looking at someone lustfully is mental adultery; that Christians shouldn’t get drunk; that they should turn the other cheek rather than return insult for insult… and even the most casual of friendships with Christians will show you that Christians often fail to live up to these standards. We don’t want to deny that.

But, a lot of the discussion depends on our definition of hypocrisy. If we define hypocrisy as pretending to be perfect when we’re not – well, no Christian should claim to be perfect this side of heaven. Perhaps we can define it as failing to live up to the standards we espouse. On this definition though, everyone who has ever lived and who ever will live is a hypocrite – we all fail to live up to our own standards of right and wrong – let alone God’s standards. In this sense, Christians are as much hypocrites as anyone else. No Christian should deny that he or she is a sinner and in need of God’s forgiveness.

But Christianity offers a solution to the problem posed by our hypocrisy: Jesus Christ. Those who admit their failure and accept his forgiveness and rule over their lives are counted as being right with God, and will be made perfect when he returns to bring all things into submission to God. Not only this, but Jesus Christ himself was no hypocrite. He challenged a hostile crowd to convict him of sin and they were unable to (John 8:46). If someone wants to know what Christianity is about, far better for them to look at Jesus Christ than at his followers’ imperfect and faltering attempts to imitate him. While Christians are called to become like Christ, they can only offer a poor and caricatured image this side of the resurrection. However, we can show Christ to others; commend him and show his hypocrisy-free life in the four gospels. While Christians fail to live up to the standards of morality taught by the Bible, Jesus kept them perfectly on our behalf. It is not enough to reject Christianity on the grounds of the failure of Jesus’ followers to live up to his standards – we must look at Jesus, and at the solution he offers for our hypocrisy: forgiveness, restoration to a right standing before God, guidance and help to become more like him in this life, and the promise of being raised from the dead perfected when Christ returns.

Lunchbar: Has Science Disproved God?

October 16, 2009

Lunchbar today was addressing the question “Has Science Disproved God?”. There were a lot of people at the event, which is great, and some really good questions asked after the talk.

In his talk, the speaker began with the observation that for science to disprove God, there would have to be something within science that was incompatible with belief in God. Some atheists might indeed want to argue for this – for example, this is exactly what Professor Richard Dawkins (Zoology, Oxford) argues in his book The God Delusion. But, in a 1996 survey of several hundred American scientists, researchers discovered that almost 40% believed in the kind of God to whom one could pray and expect to receive an answer, about 15% were agnostic, and 45% expressed disbelief in such a God. Clearly at least four in ten scientists find nothing incompatible between science and belief in God, which significantly undermines Dawkins’ claim.

In addition, Professor Alister McGrath (Theology, Oxford) reportedly asked many of his atheist scientific colleagues why they were atheists, and discovered that their reasons weren’t always or even most frequently related to science. So, again, there does not seem to be anything inherent about science that is incompatible with belief in God.

So why do many people find that science does make it harder to believe in God? There are two main areas:

Questions about Origins – many Christians interpret the Bible’s statements about origins, and in particular, the opening chapters of Genesis, in a way that is incompatible with science. But not all Christians would interpret the Bible this way – and in fact there is nothing “less Christian” about some of the ways of interpreting Genesis which are compatible with the picture of the origins of the world offered us by contemporary science. The Bible’s explanation of origins is not in conflict, but in fact viewed from a different angle – the theological angle rather than the scientific one.

Miracles – many people claim that Science makes it impossible to believe in the kind of miracles found in the Bible, and indeed, integral to orthodox Christian belief. But, if we define a miracle, as most people do, as an act that is inexplicable on natural grounds (i.e. a supernatural act), then to reject the possibility of miracles is already to prejudge the matter of God’s existence. If there is a God, then there is no problem with the idea that he might perform supernatural acts. There is only a problem with belief in miracles if we have already decided that there is no God – so the matter cannot be used to adjudicate the existence of God without our argument becoming being fatally circular.

So neither of these two difficulties presented to Christian belief by science are sufficient to reject belief in God.

Looking at it from another angle, has science done away with the need for God? How satisfying is an entirely and purely scientific understanding of life, the universe and everything? There are four points that can be made to show that a purely scientific understanding of the world as offered by an atheist is deeply unsatisfying:

  1. Naturalistic understandings of origins require just as much faith to believe in as theistic understandings of origins. “God created the universe” and “The universe happened by chance” are both statements of faith, and both unscientific in the sense that neither can be proved by scientific method, but actually belong to the realm of metaphysics.
  2. There are some things in life that science on its own just can’t make sense of. An example of this is altruism – a lot has been written by biologists, psychologists and philosophers to explain the origins of altruism in naturalistic terms, but no satisfying explanation has been offered.
  3. Science is just not a good tool to answer many of the questions we really care about. What can science say about things like love, beauty, meaning… Can science answer the questions, Who am I? What am I here for? Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there so much suffering? and, Why does it bother me that there is so much suffering?
  4. Finally, science cannot help us as we confront the inevitable reality of death. Science, particularly medical and pharamaceutical science, can help us postpone the inevitable, but it cannot stop it happening. Science just can’t tell us what (if anything) happens to us after we die – and yet this is something of huge significance to all of us, no matter how much our culture dislikes asking these kinds of questions. This is one reason to take seriously the claims Christians make about Jesus Christ – has he really defeated death, and is there something beyond the grave?

So it seems that science just cannot answer every questionalthough it is a very good tool for discovering a lot of things, on its own science cannot offer a truly satisying or complete answer to everything. This is not to denigrate science, but to make clear that the optimism of the Enlightenment to think that science could eventually tell us everything we wanted to know is severely misplaced.

So science is not incompatible with belief in God, nor has it made belief in God superfluous.

Lunchbar: Why is there evil in the world?

October 3, 2009

Lunchbar yesterday at Nottingham was on the question of “why is there evil in the world?”

To begin with, our speaker made the observation that this was not only a question which was frequently asked by people now, but also a question which is asked in the Bible itself:

“How long, LORD, must I call for help,
   but you do not listen?
Or cry out to you, ‘Violence!’
   but you do not save?
Why do you make me look at injustice?
   Why do you tolerate wrongdoing?”
(Habbakuk 1:2-3a)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
   Why are you so far from saving me,
   so far from the words of my groaning?”

(Psalm 22:1)

It is not a question which is wrong to ask – but we must then be prepared to hear the answer God gives to us. Sometimes the question can be phrased or asked in such a way as to prejudge the answer; more as a means of asserting that God can’t possibly exist, given the existence of evil, than as a means of finding out why God does what He does.

The first point to be made to this kind of way of asking the question is that the existence of evil doesn’t disprove the existence of God. Rather than spending a lot of time on this point, our speaker asked us to look at things from the opposite perspective: if there is no God, then we must take a naturalistic view of the world, within which moral outrage doesn’t make sense. Without saying that atheists are incapable of morality, it is fair to say that in a God-less universe it is hard to find a firm basis for the kind of moral standards we implicitly believe exist when we express outrage at injustice or violence. We sense that there is something absolutely wrong with some of the things that happen that is more fundamental than the fact that we dislike or disapprove of them. “Murder is wrong” is a statement that cannot be reduced down to “I dislike murder”. While not watertight as an argument, perhaps this sense that morality is more than our preferences is a clue or a nudge in the direction of God existing. So the existence of evil is not necessarily an argument about whether God exists or not, but about whether he is just.

The next point to be made is that God will bring judgement upon evil. God hates evil. He will not let it remain forever. There will be justice. As Luke records Paul saying:

“[God] has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed.”
(Acts 17:31a)

The Christian can know that God will be vindicated and seen to be just because all evil will be judged and dealt with. Everyone who does evil will have their day in the divine courtroom.

So why is justice not done now? Why does God appear to defer his judgement while evil appears to have free reign? A large part of the answer to that question is given by the New Testament’s claim that

“The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance”
(2Peter 3:9)

The problem with evil for us is that none of us are perfect. We might say we want God to act to eradicate all evil in the world right now, but then who among us would survive? We might not all be as bad as we could be, but we are all radically evil and imperfect; we wrong ourselves, and others, and God. So part of the reason why God appears to defer his justice for some future day is to allow us time to repent and be saved. But God will not wait forever – as we have seen, the biblical writers’ answer to the charge that God is not just relies upon the fact that he will judge the world in righteousness at some point in the future. So the existence of evil in the world can and should be a stimulus to take the judgement of God seriously, and to recognise our need to repent. As Luke records:

“Now there were some present at that time who told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mixed with their sacrifices. 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 13:1-5) 

Lunchbar: Christianity – just a crutch for the weak?

September 26, 2009

Lunchbar has started again at Nottingham University – every Friday at 1pm in the Students’ Union (Portland) Building. Yesterday’s topic was “Christianity – just a crutch for the weak?”

It is often alleged that religion in general, and Christianity in particular, are good insofar as they provide comfort and meaning to “weak” people, but that “normal” or “strong” people can get by just fine without any help from religion. It’s a similar claim to that made by Marx; that religion was the “opiate of the masses” used to stop them complaining about conditions in this life, because they would be rewarded in heaven. It can take a subtler and less aggressive tone: “That’s great if it helps you, but I don’t think I need it”, but it is perhaps a confused and arrogant attitude, as our speaker suggested.

Viewing Christianity as a crutch for the weak is potentially confusing because we don’t necessarily see accepting help or a solution from someone else as weakness in other areas of life. We also don’t see the admission of weakness as a weakness itself. For example, we don’t see somebody as weak if they need help to understand Quantum Physics, or fix their television set. We don’t see it as weak to see a doctor when we are sick. In short, we don’t see it as weakness to accept an external solution to a genuine need.

Christianity claims that Jesus Christ offers a solution to genuine needs. Two important ones are our need for love, purpose and meaning in life, and our need for a solution to the problem of death.

Humanity as a whole recognises a need or desire for answers to the big questions of life; and most people are even more aware of the need for meaning on the personal scale. What is the point of life? What should I do with mine? Is it all worth it? Christianity claims to provide real, true and fulfilling answers to these kinds of questions.

The second need is that with which we are presented by the problem of death. Everybody dies. Most of us have a sneaking suspicion that this is not right; that there is something wrong about death. There is. The Bible speaks about death as an enemy, as something evil, and as something deeply ambiguous even where it is not to be feared. Horror is a legitimate emotion when considering the grave. And yet, Christianity claims that Jesus Christ has overcome death; that it will be destroyed; and that with Christ we can be raised immortal. Christians do not hope merely for an ethereal existence after death, floating around playing harps all day, but a real, embodied, corporeal existence. As was helpfully pointed out during the questions, this is one of the things the resurrection demonstrates: it does not simply vindicate Jesus’ claims to be who he says he is (although it does), nor simply that he has solved the problem of death (although it does), but also what kind of solution Jesus has provided. As Jesus was raised, bodily, immortal and glorified; so too the Christian will be. Jesus offers a genuine, complete, and wonderful solution to the problem of death – something we all need.

The existence of needs does not, as was pointed out, necessarily mean that a solution to those needs actually exists. But it does mean that serious offers of solutions to those needs are worth investigating – and the Christian claims stand up to this kind of investigation. They also show that Christians are not being “weak” in accepting the solutions offered by Christ to these needs. They genuinely accept genuine solutions to genuine needs. It is, perhaps,merely a different kind of weakness to refuse an external solution to these kind of needs and to seek only the kind of solutions which we can provide for ourselves.

How does God feel about you?

June 13, 2009

Today Rico Tice came to Beeston Free Church to talk to us (and other East Mids church people!) about the “Passion For Life” mission initiative and posed a great question to us to illustrate the gospel:

“Write down one word which sums up how God feels about you this week”

What do you think people might have written? Rico didn’t get us to read them out, but instead told us what we should have written in response to it. If we really believe the gospel, we would know that the word that sums up how God feels about us is delighted – because he delights in his Son, Jesus Christ, and because we are united to him we relate to God on the basis of Jesus’ merits and righteousness, not on the basis of our good works.

This is great news – in the gospel we have the promise of Christ’s own righteousness given to us, so that God genuinely delights in us. If you know Christ as your saviour, God is not disappointed or angry with the idolatrous and  half-hearted life you’ve lived this week: he looks at you and sees Christ’s merits. This is bold stuff to say; and easily forgotten, but it is what it means to be saved by grace alone.

Really great stuff to be reminded of as we try and get the church behind the mission, and share this amazing, life-giving message with those around us.

*****************

As an update to this, I found myself at the NUCU Grill-a-Christian event last night after the Ropewalk quiz was “rained off” (not sure how that works, either!) and somebody (I think a non-Christian student) asked the question: “If God can forgive all our sins, why don’t you just do whatever you want and enjoy yourself, then ask for forgiveness?”. I have to say that I think this is exactly the question you ask when you have begun to understand the gospel – forgiveness really is free and salvation really is by grace alone, through faith alone. This kind of question should be met, at least initially, with commendation for having understood what the gospel’s offer of grace really means.

Of course, it is more than that – and I’m glad that the Christians who were being “grilled” pointed out both the moral perversity of such an approach, and that, in the words of one of them, “I can’t think of a single sin from which I would gain a lasting benefit.” Obedience and Christlikeness are essential to the Christian life, and so there is more to Christianity than what I’ve posted above. But there is more than, not less than that. I think if we preach the biblical gospel, the “but that means you can do anything you want and then be forgiven” objection is one we will hear a lot.

Lunchbar: How Can You Be Sure God Exists?

May 15, 2009

The topic of Lunchbar today was the question “How can you be sure that God exists?” – quite a big issue, as the speaker pointed out!

Our speaker began by questioning the position that is held by atheism: that God definitely doesn’t exist. The problem with such a position is that it is very, very hard to prove a negative statement. To know that something does not exist means that we have to know every piece of knowledge in the universe; when in fact most of us would not even claim to know a hundredth of a percent of all the available knowledge there is. The claim “God does not exist” is a problematic one; and the strong version of Atheism is epistemologically very hard to maintain.

What about the opposite claim – that God does exist? It is easier to prove a positive than a negative – so what is the positive evidence for God’s existence? Christians do think that there is evidence for God, even if they do not think that they can prove him to a mathematical or logical standard of proof. Some evidence the speaker mentioned included:

  • The explanatory power of the hypothesis “there is a God” with respect to our suspicion that there is a meaning to life. Almost all of us implicitly or explicitly believe that there is a meaning and a purpose to life; as shown by the way we live it. But where does this meaning come from?
  • We are also aware of a “religious instinct” or desire to worship something greater than ourselves. Augustine taught that God “has made us for [himself] and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in [him]”. C.S. Lewis employed the analogy of a need corresponding to something that can fulfil that need: We are hungry because there is such a thing as food; we are thirsty because there is such a thing as water; might we not be religious because there is such a thing as God? There is a “God-shaped” hole in our lives which suggests that there is a God who can fill it.
  • Morality – We instinctively feel that there are objective standards of morality; as shown by our appeal “that’s not fair” when we feel we have suffered an injustice. This gives the lie to the common idea that morality is entirely a matter of personal preference. But, if there is no God, then what is the basis for morality? Evolution? – But “the survival of the fittest” is an ethic which produced the Holocaust and Eugenics. Social consensus? But the “tyrrany of the majority” easily becomes oppressive. Economic utility? But multi-national corporations have repeatedly shown themselves able to exploit the planet and other people in the pursuit of profit. There remains the possibility that there is a “transcendent Other” (i.e. God) who is the source of morality in that he is the personal embodiment of goodness, righteousness, justice and truth.
  • There is the need to explain the transformation of lives by the gospel – as witnessed to by the atheist Matthew Parris of The Times. Christianity changes lives for the better; and Christians claim to experience God in their lives. This, too, is at least a clue that there is a God.
  • Finally there is the historical evidence for the resurrection of Jesus Christ, which vindicates his claims and his teaching (Romans 1:3). This claim can be tested historically from the gospels, whose evidence is trustworthy and (based on) eyewitness testimony.

 

I agree with our speaker that all of these things might be clues that there is a God – but I would be very reticent myself about claiming that any of these give any grounds for certainty that there is a God. I don’t think we are capable of knowing God in a meaningful way without him revealing himself to us – which he has done in Jesus Christ. Maybe I’m just in Christological mode at the moment, but it seems to me that the main point to make in answer to the lunchbar title is that we can be sure about the existence of God because of the deity of Christ. It was really great that the speaker made this point, and placed it as the crescendo to his argument – but I’m a little uneasy about the way in which the self-revelation of Jesus is portrayed as something which we find out about primarily through the historical method.

One of my friends from CU calls this approach “Case for Christ evangelism” – the approach to evangelism that promotes historical investigation of Jesus from the gospels – “take a Gospel of Mark, read it, and decide for yourself if it is historically true”.

What do you think? Is this a convincing and/or faithful way of sharing the gospel? Is the way to see God’s self-revelation in Jesus Christ through dispassionate historical investigation?

Lunchbar: How can a good God send people to hell?

May 9, 2009

Lunchbar this week was on the topic “How can a good God send people to hell?“. It’s a big question for a lot of people – as we saw from the good discussion that followed in the question time. Lots of people – and lots of non-Christians in particular – are asking this question. In fact, I’ve been asked this or a similar question twice this week by two different people in general conversation when they found out that I was a Christian.

The speaker started off by explaining that a good God is also a just God. Deep down we all suspect that God must be fair, which is in fact one of the presuppositions behind the question about how God can send people to hell. The question is whether God is just: does the punishment fit the crime?

God is love – as the Bible tells us – but that doesn’t mean that God loves everything. God does not love evil – and so there is no contradiction (in fact, it may even be necessary) for a God of love to punish evil. Hell is a place where evil is punished – and because of God’s love he will not overlook or ignore evil. A few examples were given of how most of us agree that evil should be appropriately punished – for example, few people would say that sending a criminal to prison is unjust (and those who do, often say prison is unjust because they would suggest a harsher punishment!)

So the question is whether the punishment fits the crime. Is hell an appropriate punishment for sin? Often we think of sin as being trivial – something “naughty but nice”, or as only being committed against other people rather than God; or that there is a hierarchy of really bad and not-so-bad sins (the ones we commit being towards the less serious end of the scale!) and we ignore sin as rebellion against God; as treason. If we think hell is harsh it is because we do not think sin is really that big a deal. But it is!

Hell is not arbitrary or unjust, and it does not make God unloving. The most loving person who ever walked the earth was Jesus of Nazareth; and yet it is he who speaks the most often and the most graphically about hell in the Bible. Yet he did not just talk about it, but offered himself as the way of escape from hell. Jesus offers more than religious teaching – he offers himself as the way of salvation from hell: as God’s rescuer. He offers himself, and experiences the full punishment for sin, in order that we may not. The one offers himself as a sacrifice for many – and for Christians there is no need to fear going to hell, because Jesus has completely rescued them from it. So the question then becomes, why do people who have heard about Jesus Christ refuse to be rescued by him?

 

This all provoked some good questions – one of the things that was raised is whether it was indeed just for Jesus to take the punishment on our behalf – is that fair? I think one of the things that could have been said in response to this is to emphasise that Jesus was not a “third party” in all of this – a victim with no choice in the matter – but that he willingly became incarnate and went to the cross. Maybe Christians need to explain about the Trinity in answering this question – otherwise it becomes possible to misunderstand substitutionary atonement as unjust or arbitrary.

All in all though, a really good, faithful and thought-provoking Lunchbar!

Lunchbar: Don’t all religions lead to God?

May 2, 2009

Lunchbar yesterday was on the question of “Don’t all religions lead to God?” – certainly a topical question raised by the discussion I went to on Wednesday. I thought the speaker dealt with the topic well – making several points that I think bring a lot of clarity to this discussion:

The Elephant is not silent

If you’ve read or heard anything about whether all religions lead to God or not, chances are you’ve heard the parable of the blind men and the elephant. The moral of the story is that all religions have a bit of the truth, and none of them can pretend to have the whole truth. Religious teachers are like blind men describing the bit of the elephant they are in contact with, but none of them realise the whole truth about God. The problem with this parable is that it is told from the point of view of someone who can see, and realises that the elephant is an elephant and not a wall, rope or tree. The moral relies on the assumption that it is we who are in the position of true knowledge and can see that which the adherents of any one religion cannot see – that they are really all describing the same God, despite their protestations to the contrary. But how are we in this position? How can we have our eyes opened to see what the elephant is? To be in this position of knowledge, we actually need God to reveal himself – while he has done decisively and definitively in Jesus Christ.

The Mountain can’t be climbed

Another common parable is that where the various religions are like many paths all going to the summit of the same mountain. Again, the problem is – how can we know this? To someone on any of the paths, they are in no position of vantage to see whether any of the other paths are going the same way that they are going; it is only visible to someone in a helicopter hovering over the mountain and looking at the different people walking along different paths. These kinds of parables are often thought to typify a humble approach to religious truth by saying that we are all really going towards the same God. But are we really being humble to claim that we have such a position of wisdom and knowledge that none of the adherents of various religions have?

Much more damagingly, this parable implies that it isn’t really that hard to get to know God – it’s just a mountain we can climb up by our own efforts, oin whatever way we like. But this isn’t the case. We often treat the idea of knowing God like it’s paying a visit to our grandparents – we can just turn up whenever and they aren’t going to turn us away. In fact, it is more like going to visit the Queen: we can’t just rock up at Buckingham Palace whenever we feel like it, but it can only happen on her terms, at the time and place she has appointed. In the same way, we can only approach God on his terms.

The trouble is that none of us are good enough for God to accept us – he is holy and we are not. Even if we consider ourselves to be very good – we don’t really realise how we stand before God. Our good deeds don’t outweigh the bad – it’s as if a husband were to say to his wife on their first anniversary “Honey, I’ve been such a good husband; I’ve been faithful to you 364 days this year.” Does that make up for the one day he was unfaithful? No! And with us and God, it’s more like we’ve been faithful one day a year and unfaithful the other 364. We can’t be accepted by God by ourselves; the mountain can’t be climbed. Which is why we need God’s rescue provided in Jesus Christ.

Tolerance

One of the questions which was asked by the audience was whether a Christian society would be a tolerant one. The speaker’s answer highlighted an important point about the nature of tolerance. There are essentially two types of tolerance – the classical kind where we defend the right of people to hold beliefs with which we disagree, and the pluralist kind where we feel unable to disagree with any beliefs, and hold them all to be equally valid. The second definition of tolerance is ultimately self-defeating, as we must hold all beliefs to be equally valid, except the belief that all beliefs are not equally valid. Hoever, a view of tolerance compatible with Christianity is the classical view, and commends coexistence with other religions without condoning those other faiths’ beliefs or practises. It is in this way that a Christian society is tolerant.