Tuesday, May 10, 2016


Not long ago, a friend of mine who is a dedicated atheist posed this questionnaire on Facebook.  He asked some very specific questions, so I took the time to answer them in some detail.   I've already posted these to my FB timeline, but I reach a different audience here, so I thought I would share his introduction, his questions and my answers for this week's blogpost.  Feel free to comment below!

I wrote this questionnaire with the intention of getting Christians to think about and possibly re-evaluate their beliefs, although I am also interested to learn more about what different Christians actually do believe.

I have provided space underneath each question for you to put your answers - please try to be concise and answer the questions yourself rather than linking to other sites.

Please also make sure you actually answer the questions I have asked!

1.     There are thousands of different religions in the world, and in the vast majority of cases people follow the dominant faith of the culture they were born into. Is it not arrogant and self-centered to think that your faith is the "true" one and all the others are false?

Why follow a faith if you do not believe that it is The Way?  I believe that no other faith has the historical evidence in its favor that Christianity does. Therefore, as a historian, Christianity passes my “smell test.”  Islam ultimately depends on whether or not you believe Allah spoke to Muhammad, with no proof offered that he actually did.  Buddhism depends on whether or not you believe that Siddartha Gautama actually discovered the Four Noble Truths and the Eight-fold path, with no proof offered that he actually did.  Hinduism requires you to believe that the Great World Soul, Brahman, incarnates himself as 10,000 different deities – again, with no proof offered.  Christianity is the most falsifiable religion in the world – its claims are all centered on one set of events that took place in a specific location, during a specific time period, in which God broke into human history in a very dramatic way. And the capstone of all the New Testament claims lies in the Resurrection of Jesus, which I find to be as historically well-established as any other event in the ancient world.  Despite your ongoing attempts to prove that the NT narratives are “just stories,” frankly, I find the overall evidence for the Resurrection and the Gospels  – not one specific point, but the totality of it all – to be far more convincing than any naturalistic explanation anyone has been able to provide.

2.     What is the point of prayer? Surely your god knows what you are going to pray for beforehand - and has already decided on his course of action. Is it not absurd to think that you can persuade god to change his mind?

I shall answer your question with a question.  As a father, don’t you want your children to talk to you?  Wouldn’t you be upset if they didn’t want to?  That’s what prayer is about – it’s not some celestial candy machine where we pop in a request and automatically get a blessing back.  God wants us to talk to him because He loves us, cares about us, and desires a relationship with us. The whole Bible is the story of God trying to restore a relationship that mankind had ruptured.  And, as any good counselor will tell you, communication is the key to a successful relationship. So God asks us to talk to him, and in His way, through His word, and through the voice of His Holy Spirit, He speaks back to us.  Yes, we can ask God for things, and yes, sometimes He chooses to grant them.  But that is not what prayer is all about.  Prayer is about communion with our Maker - it’s an ongoing dialogue between Father and child.

3.     Why does god insist that you worship him? Is he insecure - or an egomaniac?

“Worship” comes from an old Anglo-Saxon term that means “to acknowledge the worth” of something.  Now, think about this a moment.  We have a divine creator who is all-powerful, all-seeing, all-knowing, who loves His creations enough to incarnate Himself as one of us, and then allows Himself to be tortured to death -simply to redeem us from the horrible fix we got ourselves into by our own stubborn disobedience.  He didn’t have to do that – He could have left us to stew in the miasma of our own sin and decadence.  Yet He chose to redeem us and restore the fellowship that we had broken. What is the only proper response to that kind of extravagant love except to acknowledge its worth – hence, worth-ship Him?  All worship amounts to is recognizing and appreciating God for who He is.

4.     Matthew 1:16 "And Jacob begat Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom was born Jesus."
Luke 3:23 "And Jesus himself began to be about thirty years of age, being (as was supposed) the son of Joseph, which was the son of Heli."
The bible is full of contradictions - explain how, even with just the small and fairly insignificant contradiction above, the bible can be the infallible word of god.

Of all the alleged contradictions in the Bible, this one is perhaps the easiest to explain and the silliest to make a big deal of.  It is painfully obvious to even the most casual reader that Matthew and Luke are giving two completely different genealogies, not  just for the first generation but all the way back to David’s line. Confusing?  Well, we all get two sets of ancestors, one from our mother and one from our father.  Matthew was clearly providing Jesus’ LEGAL lineage, from his adoptive father, Joseph.  It’s also clear that Matthew’s entire version of the Nativity story is from Joseph’s perspective.  Luke, on the other hand, is equally clearly presented from Mary’s perspective, and he provides Jesus’ BIOLOGICAL lineage from his mother, who was also a descendant of David.  The fact is that, in the Greek language of the First Century, it was not at all uncommon to use the same word for “father” and “father-in-law.”  Note that Luke does NOT say that Heli “begat” Joseph, as Matthew does.

   On the larger issue of infallibility – God used human instruments to record His word.  The 27 books of the NT preserve Jesus’ teachings, but they also bear the imprint of their mortal authors.  So if Matthew and Mark and Luke record slightly different versions of the same sermon, but in the end, each version is essentially says the same thing, the minor variations in the wording simply show how each Evangelist understood and recalled Jesus’ words.  It is perhaps worth noting that the same folks throwing a hissy fit about “contradictions” would protest just as loudly if every quotation and story in the Synoptic Gospels was cookie cutter identical to its counterpart in the next Gospel.  They would be hollering about “collusion” and “conspiracy” all day long.  There’s just no pleasing some folks.


5.     Thomas Paine: "Whenever we read the obscene stories, the voluptuous debaucheries, the cruel and torturous executions, the unrelenting vindictiveness, with which more than half the Bible is filled, it would be more consistent that we called it the word of a demon than the Word of God. It is a history of wickedness that has served to corrupt and brutalize mankind; and for my own part, I sincerely detest it, as I detest everything that is cruel."
Please explain why the bible is referred to as the "good book".

Well, whenever we see a quote that is derogatory, venomous, and hyper-critical, you have to consider the source.  Thomas Paine was indeed a noted champion of human liberty, as his authorship of COMMON SENSE attests.  However, he was also a bitter, hostile, and miserable human being who burned every bridge he crossed, alienated every friend he made, and poisoned every relationship he entered into.  According to the nurse who tended him on his deathbed, he died shrieking in terror at the damnation he knew awaited him.  In short, he was a man who looked for the worst in everything, and found it.

But, to answer the question you posted after your quote from Thomas Paine, the answer is simple: The Bible is filled with true stories of humanity in its rawest stage.  The Bronze Age was a savage time, and most people who lived then were savages.  Even the best among them displayed instances of barbaric and cruel behavior.  Any accurate account of human behavior during that time would record similar events.  The Bible simply shows humanity as it was during that time.

So why is the Bible “the Good Book”? Because it contains the story of a Creator who never gives up on his creation, no matter how sorely He is tempted by their wicked behavior.  He always preserves a righteous remnant, He always counsels His people to walk a higher path.  There are times, it is true, when God sends His people to war to eliminate the most egregious offenders – but those who are thus singled out are always given opportunities to change their ways (in the case of the Canaanites, they are given 400 years to do so before God grew fed up with their wickedness).  But above all, the Bible is a story of human redemption, and that’s a good thing, so it’s a Good Book.

6.     Thomas Paine was referring to the old testament in the above quote. Please explain why the god of the old testament (an angry, vengeful god, worthy of scorn not worship) - is so different from the god talked about in the new testament.

    Paul says in Galatians: “When the fulness of time had come, God sent His son into the world.”  God did not change, but mankind did.  Several enormous factors had shown God’s people (the ancient Hebrews) that the sacrificial system at the Temple, dependent as it was on their own ability to honor God’s covenant, simply could not save them from their innate tendencies to sin and wickedness. 

   Simultaneously, the establishment of Greco-Roman hegemony over most of Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa meant that, for the first time, over a quarter of the world’s population was united under one language (koine Greek), one government, one network of roads, and one legal system.  It would be fourteen centuries before such a large area was so politically unified again.  This meant that, at the moment Jesus was born, there was a window of opportunity for the Gospel to travel further, faster, and reach more peoples than it ever would have been able to before, and would not be able to again until modern times.

  The intellectual awakening that began in Athens in the fifth century BC caused men to ask the big questions – “Who am I?  Why am I here? What is the purpose of our existence?” – and simultaneously to realize that the anthropomorphic gods they had worshiped could not answer those questions in any meaningful way.  So when “the Word became Flesh, and dwelt among us” – when God finally prepared to reveal Himself more fully than He ever had before – more of mankind was in a position to hear and understand that message than ever before.

Q7 (regarding creation)

a.      "In the beginning God created the heaven and earth" ... what was god doing before "the beginning", and where did he reside?

   Spoken like a temporal, material being.  What was God doing before He made us?  He simply WAS.  God is not bound or limited by time, as we are.  He created time, and he is within it, outside it, and independent of it all at the same time.  For Him, the beginning, the end and the middle are all one.  The same with where He is - He doesn’t reside in any one place, unless He chooses to do so.  He is omnipresent, so to speak of “where He resides” makes no more sense than asking you which one of your cells you live in.

b.     Explain how god made light, then separated light from darkness, BEFORE he had created the sun, moon and stars.

    I John provides one possible answer to this:  “This is the message that we have heard from Him, and proclaim to you – that God is light and in Him is no darkness at all.”  God provided the universe with a portion of His own essence, His light, before He divided that light into the moon, stars, the sun, and all the other luminous bodies that light our heavens at night.  Each of them, for all their brilliance, is only a scrap of His great luminance. 

  Another possible explanation is this: When God revealed the account of creation to the author of Genesis – whether that was Moses, or some earlier source that Moses drew on – the easiest way for Him to do that would have been to show that person what creation looked like from one who was standing on the surface of the earth as God shaped it and cooled it. Looking from the earth skyward, there was a massive blanket of clouds and gases that had not yet thinned into the atmosphere, so there would have been “light” diffused through the clouds, gradually becoming clearer and separated into the heavenly bodies we now recognize as the atmosphere thinned and they became visible.

    Take your pick, either way makes sense.

c.     Explain why "he made the stars also" - countless billions of them - at the end of the fourth day, when it had taken him all of the previous time to work on just one small planet.

    Several things here – “also” doesn’t necessarily mean “afterward” or “all at once.”  It just means “in addition to.”  Stars don’t contain life, and they aren’t the home to God’s children.  Omnipotence means that God can take as long or as short a time to create anything as He wants to.  The Bible is not an exhaustive, scientific account of the process by which God made the universe.  It is an account of God’s dealings with man, and therefore we are seeing creation from an anthropomorphic view point.  To the denizens of earth that God revealed this account to – and I hold to traditional authorship, so that would be Moses around 1400 AD – the stars would indeed be “lesser lights” that were not as important as the sun and the moon,  in precedence or in illumination.

d.     "And God set them [the stars] in the firmament of the heaven to give light upon the earth". We know that the stars are not set in anything, and they are rather more than just light-givers (particularly as most cannot even been seen from earth). Why is god so ignorant about his own creation?

    God is not ignorant, silly!  But at the time Genesis was written, mankind was.  First of all, “firmament of heaven” was a figure of speech, like “the four corners of the earth.”  A good paraphrase might be “up in the sky.”  That’s how they appear to us, and that’s how God explained them.  The Creation account, as I said above, is not a scientific treatise.  It’s an abbreviated account of an enormous process that God gave to explain our beautiful world to His people some 3500 years ago.  I’ve often said that the Creation account is like an auto mechanic father explaining to his three year old how the internal combustion engine works.  You’re not going to break out the Chrysler tech manual; you’re going to give him a very simplified version of the tale.

   As I alluded to earlier, it’s also quite possible that when God revealed this narrative to Moses (or whoever the author was), that he visally re-played the Creation process for him at high speed.  Modern science has said that earth’s atmosphere was very thick and opaque early on, then gradually thinned to let the lights of the galaxy become visible.  So to man on earth, it would appear as if a vast, diffuse light in the sky gradually resolved itself into two great lights, and finally into a thousand points of light.  So God hung the sun and moon in the firmament, and then “he made the stars also.”

7.     Thomas Paine: "When I am told that a woman called Mary said that she was with child without any co-habitation with a man, and that her betrothed husband Joseph said that an angel told him so [in a dream!] I have a right to believe them or not; such a circumstance requires a much stronger evidence than their bare word for it; but we have not even this - for neither Joseph nor Mary wrote any such matter themselves; it is only reported by others they said so - it is hearsay upon hearsay, and I do not choose to rest my belief upon such evidence."
Please explain why you believe that Mary was a virgin mother.

   Every single book of the New Testament consistently refers to Jesus as “the Son of God.”   Both Gospels that include the birth narrative – Matthew from Joseph’s point of view, and Luke from Mary’s – mention that Jesus’ birth was supernatural. Matthew was part of the Jerusalem church which was headed by “James the Lord’s brother,” so his information probably came from James himself.  Luke most likely had an opportunity to speak to Mary during his research (see the preamble to his Gospel; he spoke to those who were “from the beginning eyewitnesses and servants of the Word.”  Jesus performed miracles (something even His Jewish enemies recorded in the Talmud), referred to Himself as the Messiah and the Son of God, and then rose from the dead.  A supernatural life, logically speaking, would have been preceded by a supernatural birth.  If you start with the Resurrection of Jesus and work backward, all the pieces add up that Jesus was no normal man.  Nothing about Him – His words, His life, His preaching, His resurrection – was like Mohammed, or Buddha, or any other founder of any other faith.  So why would His birth not be different also?

   Granted, all this depends on accepting the Gospels as being accurate.  But, after years of research, I am convinced of the following: First, the four Biblical Gospels were written (or dictated) by the men whose names they bear.  Second, that the arguments for the later dates of these Gospels proposed by liberal Bible scholars make far less sense and hold far less weight than the arguments for the early dates, so I accept those early dates for all three Synoptic Gospels, with John’s account being written last of all.  Given those conclusions, then, the Gospels were derived from very early sources that knew whereof they spoke.  They are accurate in many small things, so I take their words for the greater claims as well.

8.     Please also explain why you believe that Jesus rose from the dead, and why the accounts in the bible of this event conflict.

        First of all, the entire origin of the Christian faith makes no sense without a Resurrection.  No naturalistic explanation fits all of the available facts – there is, in the words of one author, a “gaping hole in history that is the size and shape of a Resurrection”!  I’ve written reams about this and would refer you to some of my earlier comments on the topic.  The “swoon theory” doesn’t work, the “spiritual resurrection” theory doesn’t work, the “they made the whole thing up for their own benefit” doesn’t work.  Nothing but a Resurrection fits all the facts and circumstances that we know.

     Secondly, these so-called conflicts you refer to are simply the minor discrepancies that are the hallmark of genuine eyewitness testimony.  This is where the critics drive me nuts, to be honest.  If all four Gospel accounts of the Resurrection recorded the exact same version of events, they would say: “Aha! Collusion! The writers obviously got together and cooked up a false tale in advance!”  But since they all record different details and impressions instead, the critics say “See! They all record different details!  Conflict! Contradiction! THEY’RE LYING!!!”

     Think about all the points on which the Gospels absolutely agree: Jesus was crucified.  He was removed from the cross late in the afternoon and buried in a nearby tomb.  The grave was sealed and guarded.  His followers stayed away from the tomb because it was the Sabbath day, and then a group – possibly two different groups – of women came to the tomb on Sunday morning and found the tomb opened and His body gone. They encountered a messenger or messengers who told them that Jesus was not there because He had risen, and then they told the disciples. At various points during the day, the women, two travelers, and then the male disciples, all encountered the Risen Christ.  Details vary because each Gospel preserves a different impression of the events, from a different person’s perspective, but in the essentials they all agree. There is no conflict, only minor differences.

9.     Jesus apparently died for us, facing god's wrath in our place. Why did he have to do this? Why couldn't god forgive us anyway? Why does god - a perfect being - have negative, human-based emotions like anger and wrath? Is not the whole concept absurd?

     There you go again, packing four questions into one. No worries, I will answer them all!  First of all – as to WHY?  God, in order to be any kind of God at all, must be just.  If God is not just, He is not God.  One of the principles of justice is that actions have consequences, and forgiveness does not negate those consequences.  This leads into your second question.   If you were to walk up and punch me in the nose, and I forgave you for it, I would still have a broken nose.  I would bear in my body the cost of your action, whether I forgave you or struck back.  A God who ignores evil without requiring justice is complicit in that evil.  So our evil actions merit His just retribution (wrath), but in His love He chose to take our sentence upon Himself.  Therefore the Creator of the universe stepped down from heaven, emptied Himself of many attributes of His divinity (see Philippians 2) and walked among us as one of us.  He lived a blameless life, taught eternal truth, and sacrificed Himself to answer the demands of God’s perfect justice so that we would not have to.  That answers the third part of your question: It’s not about anger and wrath – it is about having the consequences of our own vile actions deflected from us so that we could be purified, cleansed, and made worthy to stand in the presence of a Holy God.  So no, it is not absurd. The true absurdity would be a God that completely overlooked sin, or was sinful in Himself. A just God who pays with His blood the price of our wickedness so that He can restore the relationship that we severed – that is about as far from absurd as you can get.  That is love in its most pure form.

10. Please attempt to justify eternal damnation. Surely even the most evil people who ever lived (Hitler, Stalin etc.) don't deserve to be horrifically punished for eternity (and I don't think many Christians have really thought about what eternity really is).

Before I delve into the meat of the question, let me say this – I am sure that the tens of millions of innocents whose lives were snuffed out by those two vile men would mostly agree that both of them deserve to have their entrails ripped out by flaming eels for all eternity while being forced to listen to Justin Bieber songs!

Now, jokes aside – first of all, let’s define damnation.  What is it?  It is an eternity of exile from God’s presence.  That’s it, first and foremost, above all – those who are condemned to hell are banished from the presence of God forever.

So does that mean that all those sentenced to hell will be sitting up to their necks in a lake of fire forever and ever?  Well, not necessarily.  What did Jesus tell the people of Capernaum?  “It will be more tolerable for Sodom and Gomorrah in the Day of Judgment than for you . . . I tell you, it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon in the Day of Judgment than for you.”  In other words, hell is NOT the same place for all people.  Those who have had ample chances to hear and respond to God’s message will be more harshly judged than those who never got the message.  Paul talked about this in Romans 2:  “When those who have not the law instinctively do the things of the law, they become a law unto themselves, and their own thoughts will alternately accuse or defend them in the Day of Judgment.”  I think, reading those two passages and several others together, it is evident that hell will have levels of punishment that fit the crimes of those who are there.  Will this be something like the Nine Circles of Hell pictured in Dante’s Inferno?  Possibly, but we don’t know.  However, God is eminently just, so I do think that, for those who are sentenced to damnation, the punishment will fit the crime.

But is this just?  Here is a quote I heard long ago: “Hell represents God’s ultimate respect for man’s freedom of choice.”  Let’s use you as an example.  You have spent your adult life dismissing the notion of God.  In fact, you spend an inordinate amount of time on social media trying to persuade Christians to reject their faith and stop believing in God. You even said so in your introduction to this questionnaire (what else does “reconsider their beliefs” mean?).  In so doing, you have made yourself God’s enemy.  So, answer me this – what kind of monster would God be if He then forced you to share His presence, His kingdom, for all eternity?  That would be the spiritual equivalent of rape – to force yourself on someone who clearly wants nothing to do with you.  So, since you have isolated yourself from God, God will respect that choice . . . forever.  That’s what free will ultimately means – each individual’s right to embrace their Creator or walk away from Him.

What about those who never know about God?  The Bible is clear that God has littered creation with clues to His existence.  He isn’t playing hide and seek with us.  Those who seek Him will find Him.  But what could be more terrifying than suddenly, upon death, to be forced into the presence of an all-powerful deity that you had no clue existed, and then be forced to dwell with him for all eternity?  So the ignorant are also separated from God forever, although the quote by Jesus above shows (at least to me) that their fate is far more tolerable than that of those who heard God’s message and chose to walk away from it.


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