Answers for the Skeptic

October 26, 2017

While reading a biography, I came across the following views of a young skeptic.

You ask me my religious views: you know, I think, that I beleive [sic] in no religion. There is absolutely no proof for any of them, and from a philosophical standpoint Christianity is not even the best. All religions, that is, all mythologies to give them their proper name are merely man’s own invention—Christ as much as Loki. Primitive man found himself surrounded by all sorts of terrible things he didn’t understand—thunder, pestilence, snakes etc.: what more natural than to suppose that these were animated by evil spirits trying to torture him. These he kept off by cringing to them, singing songs and making sacrifices etc. Gradually from being mere nature-spirits these supposed being[ s] were elevated into more elaborate ideas, such as the old gods: and when man became more refined he pretended that these spirits were good as well as powerful.*

What do you think? Is this a likely candidate to come to belief in God? Will this skeptic ever be convinced of the death, burial, and resurrection? If you are thinking to yourself that this is a hopeless case, let me reveal the young skeptic’s identity — C.S. Lewis.

Lewis loved intellectual argument, not the belligerent kind of harsh words, but the logical type. He eventually saw the weaknesses of the case for skepticism and came to see the case for Christianity. It was not a quick process in his life. From self-proclaimed atheist at age 15, he did not come to believe in Jesus Christ until age 32. First, he had moved from naturalism to idealism, and then from idealism to theism, and from theism to confessing Jesus Christ.

We shouldn’t be afraid of the skeptic’s questions. Good answers exist, and we don’t have to have all the answers when confronted. It is perfectly acceptable to ask for time to think about something. We also can’t expect a skeptic to move from naturalism to belief in Jesus Christ in one bounding leap. (It may be possible but not always likely.) It will be more like moving the football down the field one play at a time. We can also overload people with information. It is better to answer things in their time and simply make progress.

Lewis in the above quote assumes the evolution of religions. This makes religions simply a human phenomenon. Anthropologists had proposed an evolutionary progression. The first stage was mana, a word found in Melanesia in the South Pacific, which means a general awareness of a spiritual force. Next came animism, then polytheism, followed by henotheism (worship of one god, although there may be more), and finally monotheism. The evolutionary model, however, cannot be shown to have actually happened. Further ethnographic studies have led some to propose an original monotheism that led to de-evolution. This would fit with the picture in the early chapters of Genesis.

Let’s share the good news with everyone. You never know who will be a truth seeker. Let’s remember that there are answers for the skeptic.

*The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings, p. 56

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It’s A Small World

September 23, 2016

Have you ever met a perfect stranger and after a bit of conversation find out that you have a mutual acquaintance? Or, maybe in the conversation you find out that someone you know knows someone they know.

Social psychologist Stanley Milgram did a study on such coincidental meetings. He selected a group of people at random. He gave each of them a document to be sent to another person chosen at random from across the country. The instructions were that they were to mail the document to someone they knew that had the greatest chance of knowing the target individual. That person was to follow the same instructions until the document reached the randomly selected target individual. How many such mailings do you think it would take to reach the target? It only took from 2 to 10, with 5 being the most common number.

John Allen Paulos in his book, Innumeracy, suggests that there is a 1 in 100 chance when we meet a stranger that we will have a common acquaintance. But there is a 99 in 100 chance that we will be linked to one another by a chain of only two intermediates.

It’s a small world. We are linked to one another more closely that we may realize. We need to remember the teaching of Jesus:

For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matthew 5:46–48, ESV)

May we show kindness to all we meet. May we demonstrate the love of the Father in all aspects of our life.

Who knows what may come of a chance encounter? We may find connections that we never dreamed of. But more importantly, we may be that person’s connection to hearing about Jesus.

Let us not be afraid to share our faith. After all, it’s a small world.


Come and See!

August 21, 2015

John the Baptist came to bear witness about the Light. He claimed to be the voice crying in the wilderness: make straight the way of the Lord. After baptizing Jesus, John testified that he saw the Spirit descend like a dove from heaven and remain on Jesus. This was to indicate that Jesus was the one coming after John.

John didn’t fail to prepare people for the coming of Jesus. He even pointed his own disciples to Jesus. John upon seeing Jesus said: “Look, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29, ESV). The next day, John repeats the words “Look, the Lamb of God” to two of his disciples, and they follow Jesus and spend time with him.

One of these is Andrew. He immediately finds his brother Simon and tells him: “We have found the Messiah!” One of the great spiritual accomplishments of Andrew’s life is summed up in simple words about his sharing with Simon: “He brought him to Jesus.”

Jesus also finds Philip and commands him: “Follow me.” Philip goes out immediately and finds Nathanael. Philip announces: “We have found him of whom Moses in the Law and also the prophets wrote, Jesus of Nazareth, the son of Joseph” (John 1:45 ESV). Now this encounter with Nathanael is instructive for us. Nathanael objects: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46 ESV)

I don’t think Nathanael means that Nazareth was a bad place. Nazareth was a village of about two thousand in population. I suspect it is similar to when we describe a place as being a Podunk. We mean it is small and insignificant. But I love Philip’s response to Nathanael: “Come and see!”

Grand thoughts are found in this section of the Gospel of John. Jesus is the lamb that takes away the sins of the world. The saying prefigures Jesus’ atoning death. Andrew calls Jesus the Messiah, which means he is a king in David’s line. But I suspect that none of them understand the kingdom very well. Jesus alludes to Jacob’s ladder in his statement to Nathanael: “Truly, truly, I say to you, you will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man.” (John 1:51 ESV) Jesus will bridge heaven and earth, but I doubt whether any of these early disciples grasped all of this.

They know they have good news, and they are excited to share it. They don’t necessarily have all of the answers, but they are willing to seek. May we capture a bit of their boldness, so that we too can say to others: “Come and see!”


An Interconnected World

September 12, 2014

A 1967 Psychology Today article first proposed the idea of six degrees of separation. In his experiment, Stanley Milgrim asked volunteers from Nebraska and Kansas to pass a package to two people in Massachusetts by passing the package to a social acquaintance that they believed were “closer” to the target. The participants received the name and a vague clue as to where the target person lived. Milgrim found that the packages arrived by passing through the hands of just five other people. Thus the term six degrees of separation—we are separated from anyone in the United States by just six people.

A study published in Science also demonstrated this connectedness. The study enlisted 61,000 participants in 166 countries for the experiment. The participants were to pass a message to one of 18 people. They were to use the Internet by contacting a social acquaintance of theirs that they thought might be “closer” to the target person. On average, it took about five to seven intermediate steps to reach the target. This phenomenon was dubbed the small world effect.

A study by Microsoft analyzed 30 billion instant messages sent by 240 million people in June of 2006. The study found that 6.6 steps linked these people, and a study done of Facebook found people there linked by only three degrees of separation.

God has given us the staggering task of taking the gospel to the whole world (Matthew 28:19-20, Mark 16:15). With a world population over seven billion it may seem overwhelming. The task challenges our faith.

God is wiser than we are. He knows that it is a smaller world than we might first think. Maybe if we with faith reach out to the people we know, and they in turn reach out to the people they know… Maybe everyone could hear the gospel if we live by faith. It’s an interconnected world.


What We Learned from Jerry

October 4, 2013

Jerry Tallman has conducted thousands of evangelistic Bible studies through the years. He shared what he has learned with us in his workshop. What have we learned form Jerry?

Despite having conducted thousands of Bible studies, Jerry has never converted anyone. It is the gospel that is the power of God for salvation (Romans 1:16). The power to convert is in the message not the messenger.

We often worry about being rejected or messing up, but if the person is lost (separated from God because of sin), their situation is not going to be worse because we have attempted to share the good news. The person who is lost is in danger of being eternally lost unless he or she is rescued by the good news.

Jerry asked each night whether we had learned anything new, and the answer each night was no. What he talked about were things that we already knew. Our problem is not needing to know more, but to actually use what we already know.

All of us should be able to tell someone what God has done for us.

When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, he turned a conversation about physical things into a conversation about spiritual things. We need to think of ways of introducing the spiritual into our conversations as well. It may be in simply offering to pray for someone’s needs.

People need to see us as good news. It may be in service. It may be in the quality of our life seen as being different from the world. As Edgar Guest’s poem says, “I’d rather see a sermon than hear one any day.” Seeing us as good news may be the preparation for them to hear the good news.

We don’t have to have all the answers. It is fair to say, “That’s a good question, let me write that one down.” Questions can then become studies. You can research what the Bible says and get back to the person for a further study.

Studying with a person is letting them read what the Bible has to say for themselves. It is not us telling them what we think. We just help them to find the passages. If they object to what the Bible says, then their argument is with God not us.

We need to meet the lost, reach them, and keep them. We all need to think of ways of meeting the people in our lives and getting them to think about spiritual things. Not all of us will be the ones to reach them, that is, actually do a one-on-one study with them. But we all have a part in meeting people and introducing the gospel to them and being the bridge between them and people who can study with them. We also need to keep them. The whole body of Christ plays a part in maturing the new Christian. All of us have things that we can do to make this an evangelistic church.

Jerry reminded us that spiritual swords are sharpened to be used.


When the Flower Withers

August 23, 2013

The statistics indicate a moral change in our society that many of us have witnessed during our lifetime. The violent crime rate in the US was 160.9 per 100,000 population in 1960. In 2011, it was 386.3 per 100,000. The divorce rate in 1960 was 2.2 per 1,000 population. It reached its high point in 1981 with 5.3 per 1,000 and in 2009 was 3.5 per 1,000. If the divorce rate has dropped since the 1980s, cohabitation (“living together”) has increased. In 1960, there were 439,000 cohabiting couples. In 2005, 4.85 million cohabiting couples were reported by the Census Bureau — up more than 10 times the rate in 1960. In 1960, out of wedlock births were 5.3% of the total births. In 2007, they were 40% of the total births.

Elton Trueblood in his 1969 book, A Place to Stand, made an important observation on the moral decline of Western culture:

Always men have broken laws; that is nothing new. What is new is the acceptance of a creed to the effect that there really is not objective truth about what human conduct ought to be. The new position is not merely that the old laws do not apply, but rather that any moral law is limited to subjective reference. While this has been the position of a few individuals in various generations of the past, our time differs in that this has suddenly become the position of millions. Some of them still have a slight connection with the Judeo-Christian heritage, but the obvious conflict in convictions will, if it continues, finally dissolve even the mild connection that still appears to exist. If there is no objective right, then there is not even the possibility of error, and intellectual and moral confusion are bound to ensue.1

Trueblood calls ours “a cult-flower civilization.” His analogy means that when people first began to cut themselves off from Judeo-Christian ethics, they initially behaved in moral ways. Like the cut-flower exhibiting life though cut off from its roots. Such life though eventually withers, and in the same way, cut from the roots of Judeo-Christian ethics, our society undergoes a moral decline.

So what does this mean for Christians and the church today? It is easy to be a bit depressed, and certainly the cultural shift is lamentable. But it does not change our mission to share the good news. In fact it means that the difference between the lifestyle of a truly, biblical Christian is going to be even more distinct from the world around us. We face a culture much more like the one that Peter and Paul faced. They saw opportunity. The good news went out into that kind of world and turned the world upside down. When the flower withers, the good news is needed all the more.

____________________

1Elton Trueblood, A Place to Stand, p. 15.


The Misunderstood Commission

July 12, 2013

If I were to give you their names, you probably wouldn’t recognize the list: Shammua, Shaphat, Igal, Palti, Gaddiel, Gaddi, Ammiel, Sethur, Nahbi, and Geuel. Add two more names, Joshua and Caleb, and many Bible students would suddenly have a flash of recognition – the twelve spies.

The setting is after the Exodus from Egypt. Israel is in the wilderness. They are camped outside the Promised Land. The spy mission is God’s idea: “Send men to spy out the land of Canaan, which I am giving to the people of Israel” (Numbers 13:2, ESV). Moses also states their commission:

Go up into the Negeb and go up into the hill country, and see what the land is, and whether the people who dwell in it are strong or weak, whether they are few or many, and whether the land that they dwell in is good or bad, and whether the cities that they dwell in are camps or strongholds, and whether the land is rich or poor, and whether there are trees in it or not. Be of good courage and bring some of the fruit of the land. Numbers 13:17-20, ESV

It is interesting to note that in the commissioning of the spies the issue is never whether we can take the land or not. Taking the land is a given. God has promised.

The ten spies failed not because they reported strong peoples and fortified cities in the land. Their failure was saying, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” The issue had never been Israel’s strength. The issue always was God’s strength, and what could be accomplished by faith. They misunderstood their commission.

We too have a commission – a great one in fact. It is about going into all the world, making disciples, baptizing, and teaching. It would be failure for us to say, “We are not strong enough; we can’t do it.” It is not about our strength. It is about God’s strength, and what can be accomplished by faith. For this commission too comes with a promise: “And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:20, ESV).