Saturday, December 23, 2006

The Good News of Christmas

"So just because I don't believe in Jesus I'm going to Hell?"

This is one of those questions where answering "yes" or "no" does more harm than good. If you answer "no" you run the risk of heresy. But if you answer "yes" you might have made Christianity more offensive than it needs to be. And sadly, that's probably the case among non-believers. They ask that question, receive an apologetic "yes," get incensed at the pettiness of the religion, and then storm off into the darkness, deeper in unbelief.

There may be a better way to answer. I think most people believe in absolute morals, that there are things you ought to do and things you ought not to do, no matter the context. Murder, torture, rape, for example. These things, in and of themselves, are wrong, regardless of whether a majority thinks otherwise (like Nazi Germany) or whether we're incapable of judging someone to have committed them (like our fallible court system). They are violations of some moral law that no human ever created, and so in a real sense, can be called moral crimes that this Nonhuman will eventually exact justice for. So here comes the bad news. We've all committed moral crimes. We've all done things we know we oughtn't to have, whether it was cheating or stealing or hurting someone, in action or in thought. That's why we have pangs of guilt. We know we did something bad, that we've committed some sort of moral crime, and the only reasonable conclusion is that we deserve punishment. Just like how a murderer, unless he receives a pardon, gets jail time as punishment, so will we, unless we receive a pardon, get jail time as punishment. It's unfortunate that this latter sort of punishment is an eternity without God, but that just means God is all the more serious about moral crimes, as one can only expect from a morally perfect and just God.

By now you might see that technically the answer to the original question really is "no." You don't have to believe in Jesus to go to Heaven. You just have to never commit any moral crimes. Ever. You must be perfectly innocent on the day you die. But if you're not, if your record is blemished in the slightest, sorry to say, you will be punished. You can't pull yourself up by your moral bootstraps, cleanse your record with your own hands. The only way to avoid the punishment you deserve is for the sovereign power to offer a pardon, and equally important, for you to accept it. That's the good news. There's a pardon dangling in front of you. His name is Jesus Christ.

I understand that even this response, though in keeping with orthodoxy, may not be very palatable. And though Truth is not meant to appease any sort of palate, there is a degree to which it should at least resonate with the human condition. I'm no great writer so I probably have missed the mark for some of you. If so, I'd encourage you to read the first several chapters of C.S. Lewis' Mere Christianity, which does a much more masterful job of conveying the message without compromising the fundamentals. Then judge for yourself how well Christianity, both rationally and intuitively, compared with your current worldview, explains the world before you.

To sum up the Good News: Grace is necessary and Grace has been given. I hope that maybe this Christmas season we can all reflect on this Grace just a little more than we normally would. After all, this Grace is the very reason for the season.

Thursday, December 14, 2006

Dawkins, an Atheist

"If there is a God, it's going to be a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible than anything that any theologian of any religion has ever proposed."

Anyone who read the "God vs. Science" cover story in the Nov. 13, 2006 issue of Time will recognize this to be the last sentence of the entire article. It was spoken by Richard Dawkins, one of the more prominent and vocal atheists of our time. This statement is so characteristic of the atheistic mindset that I think it's worth diving into, to see how they think. And in so doing, maybe we can all have more fruitful discourses when it comes to the topic of God.

First of all, Dawkins, along with all atheists, doesn't believe in the existence of God. That's his underlying belief and where he gets his foot off in all arguments. So, if he believes there is no God, of course every religion that posits one is a manmade religion. If you start with Jesus as only a mortal, then of course Christianity will be, to you, manmade. Bombasting tautologies during debates is useless, especially when presented as a positive argument for your side, which then makes it disingenuous.

On the flipside, Christians have reached the conclusion that Jesus was not just a man. As such, Christian theologians only attempt to understand what God revealed to us through His Work and His Word, the Scriptures. Theologians don't intend to propose anything new. Now how they reached that supernatural conclusion is the question and what should be discussed. Same goes for the atheist. How have they come to their conclusion? Little ground will ever be covered if we neglect the "how" and simply spew begging-the-question consequences of our view.

Secondly, Dawkins appears open to the possibility of God, but only one that is "a whole lot bigger and a whole lot more incomprehensible" than anything we have today. That is, if there is a God, it is one that leaves less room for reason and more room for faith. Isn't that odd? As a man who appears to champion human reason above all else, he is arguing (i.e. using his reason) that if there is a God, he would have to take a pretty big leap of faith to accept it. Sounds like a New Ager to me.

Lastly, I think his statement is partly a complaint that religious people claim to know it all. If this is true, then maybe Christians need to change their style of communication. Perhaps more humility is in order. But does Dawkins, or any atheist for that matter, really believe that Christianity is completely comprehensible even to the most spiritual, say the Pope, or St. Peter himself? I certainly don't think so. I don't think any honest Christian can say, "My finite mind has penetrated the infinite God." Now, I believe that there are many good reasons to believe Christianity is true, but that in no way implies I believe I understand Christianity through and through. In my lifetime, I will be as far from that as any number is to infinity. Christians understand a lot, to be sure. They have a clue to the answers of the big questions: Who am I?, Where did I come from?, and Why am I here?. But they don't claim much more and never have. Indeed, much of how to live life flows from the answer to these questions.

And just for the sake of clarity, Christianity is not something anyone could ever have guessed or proposed. The words of C.S. Lewis rarely fail, here speaking of the central tenet of Christianity, of God becoming a Man to save us:

"Indeed, if we found that we could fully understand it, that very fact would show it was not what it professes to be--the inconceivable, the uncreated, the thing from beyond nature, striking down into nature like lightning. You may ask what good it will be to us if we do not understand it. But that is easily answered. A man can eat his dinner without understanding exactly how food nourishes him. A man can accept what Christ has done without knowing how it works: indeed, he certainly would not know how it works until he has accepted it."