Free-Will Has Always Had Limitations

I think it’s funny how people talk about “free will” sometimes. Not that the discussion isn’t an important one, because it is, but I think the discussion is often flawed before it starts. Now here I am speaking generally, of course, and there are those who go to great pains to carefully define their terms when they speak on this matter. Still, most people seem to speak of “free will” in a way that I think is nonsensical. Let us first consider why the issue of freedom, as it relates to the will, is important at all and then we will address the matter of how we ought to properly think of freedom of the will.

The reason the issue is important is not difficult to discern. If all of the decisions a person makes are determined in such a way that they could not make different decisions than the ones they do then that person can hardly be considered morally culpable for their actions. It is for this reason that any kind of holistic determinism must be considered outright foreign to the Christian worldview. Moral responsibility must rest upon the shoulders of individual persons if those persons are to be justly condemned for their immoral (sinful) behavior. If all of a person’s decisions are controlled by forces which they themselves have no control over then they can be neither praised nor reprimanded for any act or moral consequence whatsoever.

This being the case, and with Christianity being a religion which unashamedly speaks of God’s goodness, his absolute justice, and the wickedness of sinful mankind, the freedom of the will is a crucial matter. It’s no small wonder, then, why so many people speak about it with passion and force as they do. To strip man of his free exercise of will is to free him from culpability for his actions and if God then punishes creatures who are not morally culpable it, in turn, impugns the goodness and justice of God. All of this said, as one who is Reformed in my theology, I understand the reason why many people rabidly defend the issue of free will. They are not primarily defending free will, they are defending the goodness and justice of God and for that they are to be commended.

It is my contention, however, that many speak of free will in a way that simply cannot be the truth about how human will is exerted. Many times when I listen to someone talk about free will I hear them speak as though free will means “a person can make any choice they desire to.” Not only can they exercise their will and make an inward mental choice, but many proponents of free will seem to suggest that such a mental state as “choice” (which is an internal reality) must not be hindered in physical action or follow through (which is external). Allow me to demonstrate what I mean.

A person with free will can decide he does not want to be handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. That same person may not, however, be able to do anything but be handcuffed and placed in the back of a police car. But the person’s freedom of will is not thereby annulled because he cannot do what he wants to do. The fact of the matter is that there are always external (and sometimes internal) factors which constrain our ability to do what we might desire to do.

Even in the state of absolute freedom, the Edenic state prior to the fall, where man was surely as free as ever he has been, Adam, presumably, could not burst into the sky like Superman. It was not in his nature, as God designed him, to be able to fly in the sky even if Adam willed to do so. The freedom of the will simply does not mean, nor has it ever meant, that a person can do anything that they want to whenever they want to do it.

To be sure, there are situations where actions are forced or coerced in which it might be fair to say “they were not acting of their own free will” such as when a man is put into the back of a police car although he wills to do otherwise. But it does not follow that because of this the man, as a being, ceases to have control of his will. He remains able to make decisions and to will things internally regardless of his outward ability. Outward ability and inward will are two different issues that really ought to never be confused.

Often when there are discussions about “Calvinism” and “Arminianism” the debate is coined in terms of “determinism” vs. “free will.” But here, again, I think many who have these heated debates aren’t careful about their terms. To be sure there are some Calvinists who believe in a holistic determinism in that they would say every single decision of mankind (and everything that occurs in the natural world) is predetermined by God’s decree. Not merely that God knows what will occur (and could change it if he desired), or that he is actively engaged in the salvation of the elect and bringing certain things about, but that the reason that all things occur the way they do is because God causally-determined them to occur before the foundation of the world (including actions like rape or even basic choices like what kind of toothbrush you pick at Wal-Mart). On the flip side there are extreme Arminian positions which exalt the freedom of human choices to the extent that they deny God’s ability to definitely know what will occur in the future. They reason that if God knows man’s choices beforehand then those choices are not free.

But I believe both of those extremes are flat out denied and refuted by Scripture. Indeed I think Christians can affirm the genuine exercise of freedom of human will and the total sovereignty of God without falling into either of these extremes. We may disagree on how God works within the hearts of men and women to draw them to himself by his grace but we need not suggest that the Calvinism/Arminian debate is merely about determinism versus free will. We must all, as Christians, affirm that freedom of choice is essential for moral culpability and therefore necessary to maintain the goodness and justice of God in condemning the wicked. But we must also all realize, as Christians, that the will is not free in this fantastic sense which says “there are no factors which can narrow your range of desire or ability.” Our very nature as human beings narrows our field of ability we can make (again, we cannot fly in the sky like Superman). The fall of mankind into sin (unless we affirm Pelagianism) further funnels our range of ability due to our inherited sinful nature. Indeed man’s fall was something like being put into the back of the police car, the will is still in tact but my range of ability has been significantly limited.

What freedom of the will must mean is that when given a choice between A or B, all thing otherwise being equal, I can choose either one. And we most certainly do have free will in that sense. I’m convinced that when you walk into the toothbrush aisle at Wal-Mart and are trying to decide between a blue Oral-B or a red Reach toothbrush that the decision is really and truly yours. God knows what you will pick, but he didn’t predetermine it. God could intervene if he wanted to, but in many such cases he really just leaves that to us. But all things are not always equal. We must admit there are other constraining factors that limit our ability to carry out desires, or even their are constraints that sometimes limit our very desires themselves.

But if we can ever say about a man that he has the above kind of free will, and option A was to do something morally praiseworthy and option B was to do something morally reprehensible and he chose B, then we have someone who is morally culpable who is a sinner and deserves God’s judgment. Just because their are constraining factors that limit mankinds range of of choices or that change their desires thereby affecting their range of choices does not thereby invalidate the genuineness of the decisions before them or the culpability they bear for the decisions that are theirs to make.

Are Apologetics Degrees Worthless?

I have heard it said several times lately that apologetics degrees are worthless and not looked well upon by others. The reasons given for this statement is that apologetics degrees are by their nature “interdisciplinary”, that is, they don’t focus on one subject but a broad spectrum of subjects and therefore those who gain a degree in apologetics are not an expert in anything. Another problem with apologetics degrees, I’m told, is that people simply don’t know what apologetics is. When you say Philosophy, Biology, Theology, at least people have some perception of what you do, but “apologetics?” Finally, you’ll never be able to teach in a secular university (and maybe not even in a lot of Christian universities) with that kind of degree, it’s just useless.

Well…is it useless? Honestly, “useless” is probably the last thing an apologetics degree is. A good apologetics degree will basically help you to become an evangelism ninja, ready for anything, equipped to deal with some of the most relevant and frequent questions and objections that Christians face as they share the gospel message with the world around them. That’s hardly useless.

But let’s get down to brass tacks. The real question when considering furthering your education and considering an apologetics degree is this: “What do you want to do with your life?” That has to be your starting point when making a decision about continuing (or starting) your education. So here is the God’s honest truth, if you want to do groundbreaking research on Intelligent Design, the Resurrection, God’s Existence, etc., then you don’t want an apologetics degree. If that’s your heart’s desire then get yourself a degree (probably 3) in one of the sciences, history, New Testament studies, Theology, or Philosophy. If you want to teach in the university, you are probably best served to do the same (although there is no promise of a career in teaching even with a Ph.D.). If that’s what you want to do, then an apologetics degree (or at least only an apologetics degree) will not as likely take you where you want to go.

On the flip side, if you want to serve in pastoral ministry (adults or students), if you want to be a college campus missionary (Ratio Christi for instance) or if you want to start your own apologetics ministry, or even just become a more effective ambassador for Jesus Christ while working in a secular field, then an apologetics degree has your name all over it! The beauty of apologetics training is that it equips to deal with and answer the questions and objections that you deal with every day in real life ministry. An apologetics degree will train you to be an effective evangelist who can boldly proclaim the gospel without fear of any response by an unbeliever or skeptic.

The truth is, we need both kind of apologists. We need the highly focused on one field, professional academic apologists whose presence in academia provides real challenges to secularism and who can rebut bad ideas from other Ph.D’s on the other side of the culture war. People like Dr. Michael Licona whose work on the resurrection of Jesus topples so many erroneous arguments presented by atheist, agnostic and skeptic scholars, J.P. Moreland whose mind rivals the brightest secular philosophers and who has so ardently argued for the existence of God and even the human soul, etc., these guys (to mention only two of our giants in apologetics) are needed.

But you know what else is needed? Apologists who are youth pastors, and like those who work on campuses around the country (and indeed world) through Ratio Christi and Cru, the people who will spend their lives pouring into young people the truth of God’s word and the reasons we have to believe all that it tells us. The pastors who faithfully shepherd one church for 10, 15, 30 years and who faithfully exposit the text of Scripture and reinforce their congregations faith in the word of God and the power of the resurrection! The street evangelist who works a secular job during the day but faithfully, week after week, goes out to share the good news with those who pass by. These guys are needed to.

People like Ravi Zacharias, Michael Licona, J.P. Moreland, William Lane Craig, etc., these guys are those who develop the weapons, and strategies to effectively defeat the enemy. The other group, are the ones who get their boots dirty every day carrying those weapons that have been developed to the battlefield and getting bloody. You tell me, which is more important? The correct answer is “neither.” In the end both kind of apologists are absolutely essential to the overall war for the truth.

I proudly throw my name in with the ranks of the foot soldiers and I admire greatly the minds who have helped train and equip me to effective fight the enemy for the sake of the gospel and all that the Christian wordview entails. So is an apologetics degree worthless? Not on your life. But which part of the battle do you want to take part in, weapon development or ground combat? That’s the question which you have to answer for yourself.

Defending Apologetics as an Academic Discipline

Sometimes apologetics does not get a lot of respect among scholars, and one might imagine a few reasons why. For one it is by nature committed to defending the Christian faith and, as such, is seen as dogmatic and not really open to being led by truth if indeed that truth leads away from Christianity. Secondly apologetics is often interdisciplinary and not always focused on a specific field such as history, biology, mathematics, etc., and therefore viewed by many as a non-specialized discipline that does not really contribute to our knowledge of anything. Thirdly, too many people seem to want to call themselves an apologist which serves to denigrate the term. The purpose of this post is to address these three issue and make some suggestions as to why I think Apologetics is a respectable and legitimate discipline and what needs to happened for that to be better recognized by others.

Problem 1: Apologetics is by nature committed to defending the Christian faith and, as such, is seen as dogmatic and not really open to being led by truth if indeed that truth leads away from Christianity.

To be honest, this problem affects more than just Christian apologists. One might argue that many naturalists are so committed to their view that there is no supernatural realm that no matter how much evidence you show them they will never be swayed to believe anything else. In fact, any honest person realizes that we all have biases and that some will hold to their bias come what may, even if their personal beliefs are tantamount to clinging to Titanic while screaming “I don’t believe in Icebergs!”

That said, there are those in any field and worldview who are truly open to the evidence. This is itself evidenced by the fact that we can all note notorious figures who have jumped from the ship they deemed to be sinking and grasped the lifeboat of another position they deemed to be better off. Whether it be Antony Flew who was a renowned naturalist who now accepts at least a Deism of sorts, or Lee Strobel who was once an Atheist but now a famous Christian Apologist, or the reverse such as  Bart Ehrman who once was a believer and now is one of the most prominent critics of Christianity in our day. So then, despite the fact that many do behave as ostriches in their worldview, it is clear that many people really are open to interacting with ideas outside of their sphere and in some cases are so moved by those ideas that they make major paradigm shifts.

On the flip side, it’s only natural that no matter what a person’s position is on any given issue that they have come to hold it for a reason (some reasons better than others) and they should not be expected to abandon that position unless given a better reason to believe something else. Christian apologists are no different in this regard than molecular biologists. We have come to certain conclusions based upon evidence, reason and experience. From my perspective the Christian Worldview answers the big questions of life and its meaning better than Atheism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Judaism, Islam, Wicca, etc., and therefore deserves my allegiance. I have, however, often told those whom I have interacted with that if they can present a comprehensive worldview that makes more sense of the world than Christianity does that I am open to changing my position. Furthermore if you can disprove a central tenant of the faith, like the Resurrection of Jesus, then I will abandon my faith (as even the Apostle Paul suggests we ought to do in 1 Cor. 15 if it is the case that Christ was not raised).

As it stands I am very confident that no one will be able to offer me a better worldview or sufficient evidence against the Christian faith (or sufficient evidence in favor of another view) to move me from my position. That does not mean, however, that my confidence could not be undermined but only that I feel I have strong warrant for my beliefs and that my experience in interacting with others outside of Christianity suggests that others do not stand on nearly so firm of ground as I do. But, as my friend Jim Wallace would say, please, convince me! I am open to following the evidence because I want to believe that which is true. I don’t want to be living a life of self-deception.

So all of that said, the first problem with apologetics is not exclusively a problem with apologetics, nor is it necessarily an inherent problem with apologetics as a discipline and therefore it does not stand as a reason why apologetics ought to be condemned or looked down upon.

Problem 2: Apologetics is often interdisciplinary and not always focused on a specific field such as history, biology, mathematics, etc., and therefore viewed by many as a non-specialized discipline that does not really contribute to our knowledge of anything.

It’s important here to differentiate between two kinds of apologetics that exist today. We could call one form of apologetics “general apologetics” and the other “specialized apologetics.” General apologetics could be likened to the high school science teacher who has studied broadly in the field of general science so that he or she has a working understanding of biology, chemistry, geology, etc. As is usually the case such a teacher will probably have a favorite area of science which they are more specialized in but they are well equipped to give a general education in the sciences and answer the most common questions in each of the more specific fields. General apologists are very similar in this way. They have gotten a degree or degrees in “apologetics” and they have studied broadly in science, philosophy, history, theology, etc. and have a working understanding of many things in those fields and are able to answer some of the most common questions about those fields as they relate to the issues pertinent to Christianity. Depending on their interests and where they went to school (some schools are stronger in certain areas than others) they will be better equipped and more specialized in one or more areas than in others.

Specialized apologetics, on the other hand, we should liken to the science teacher who has done graduate or even doctoral studies in a specialized field science such as chemistry. While they probably still have some good general knowledge on other scientific disciplines they have highly specialized knowledge and understanding in one in particular. It is they who are doing new research and adding to the field of knowledge. There are Christian apologists who are specialized in this same way, they are those who have likewise pursued graduate and doctoral level degrees in an area of science, or philosophy or history or theology, etc. They are contributing new research in their areas and making discoveries and publishing and adding to the knowledge base of their field. These kinds of Christian apologist may have a good understanding of apologetic issues in other fields but they are highly specialized in one field in particular and make significant contributions to their respective disciplines.

It’s easy to see how both levels of apologetics are legitimate forms of the discipline and that the second problem with apologetics really is not a problem at all. We would also be wrong to conclude that one couldn’t make significant contributions in more than one field; there have been many brilliant men and women who have done just that. If one has studied math and philosophy then you know that Rene Descartes made significant contributions in both fields (Cartesian Coordinates / Cartesian Foundationalism) but who wants to say that he should not have done anything interdisciplinary!

Problem 3: Too many people seem to want to call themselves an apologist which serves to denigrate the term.

This is, in my estimation, the most significant problem at hand. There seems to be a massive influx of individuals in the Christian community labeling themselves as “Christian apologists.” To be fair, in one sense, every Christian is supposed to be an apologist. 1 Peter 3:15 is a general command to all believers and certainly did not have in mind a specific academic discipline. Those of us who are apologists want all believers to be properly equipped to “give an answer for the hope they have within them.” That is largely why we are doing what we do (not to mention that we desire to satisfy our own thirst for understanding).

So then I would not suggest that the answer is that people not be so interested in apologetics. Far from it, I wish more Christians would take a serious interest in apologetics and incorporate it into the life of every local church. But I would suggest that Christians use the title “apologist” more sparingly in the sense of a professional title that they bear. We should guard the use of such a title for those who have committed their life and study to the mission of proclaiming and defending the Christian faith as one of their primary disciplines.

Too many people confuse the idea of being a big fan or enthusiast of something and actually being expert in that area. Someone may read a lot of history books and enjoy talking about them, but that does not necessarily make them a “Historian” per se. I would recommend that people who are “into apologetics” or “apologetics buffs” identify themselves more in this way rather than calling themselves “an apologist” unless they are serious about it as an actual academic discipline either as a generalist or specialist. When we start using titles then people expect us to be able to back it up with an appropriate knowledge base. If then a title gets applied too widely and the experience of those who interact with the people bearing those titles is negative or to the effect of seeing those people as inadequate to speak to the issues then I believe it denigrates the field as a whole. The same would be true if everyone who liked to collect rocks called themselves geologists.

I don’t say any of this to be discouraging. I want you (yes you) to be very “into apologetics” and in fact I would invite you to consider whether or not God would lead you into the field and discipline of Christian apologetics. I am also not saying that someone cannot truly become professional in a field apart from formal education (although most do not). I am just saying that we ought to use appropriate titles and be honest about where we are at as an individual and that we should recognize and respect the difference between trained professionals, students in progress, or enthusiasts of a discipline. If we guard the discipline together then we might be able to make “Apologetics” seen with more respect as the actual academic discipline that it is.

Conclusion:

In conclusion I think that these three problems can be shown mostly to be an issue of perception and that this perception can indeed be changed through more information. Apologetics is an important and multi-tiered academic discipline that is crucial to the life of the Christian church. Legitimate apologists are well trained, know the issues, can make significant contributions to their respective fields of knowledge, and are open to the evidence. Apologetics will hopefully continue to grow in popularity and acceptance in our local churches and the average believer will hopefully grow in knowledge and understanding of the issues so that they are prepared to give a defense of the faith wherever God has placed them professionally without needing to misappropriate the title of “apologist” unduly.

A Preliminary Response to Arizona’s Legislation of Same-Sex Marriage

This past Friday the Attorney General for the state of Arizona announced that our state would begin to issue marriage licenses to same sex couples effective immediately. At the same time the Mayor of the city of Houston, TX has begun to violate the constitution by subpoenaing pastors to turn in their sermons or any other statement that address homosexuality. Our church refuses to be silent (or to be silenced) about what God has said marriage is and how human sexuality is to be expressed. We will faithfully speak what the Bible speaks and we will address both heterosexual and homosexual sinful behavior and we will call all people to repent and follow God’s will for their sexuality and for their entire life, by trusting and obeying Christ as Lord and Savior. Here is an initial statement from pastor Joel Ellis which reflects the official position of the teaching pastors at Community Christian Church where I serve as the pastor for discipleship and apologetics.

What is the Relationship of Faith and Reason and How Does this Relate to Salvation through Faith?

In our last post we discussed what the nature of faith is and whether or not the concept of faith (as it is used in the Bible) is rational. In short we determined that the popular concept of what faith means is not how the Bible uses that terminology. Faith, in the Bible at least, is really the idea of trust or having confidence in something or someone. We then determined that whether or not faith in an object is rational depends on the circumstance and reasoning that one has for placing their faith in that object. Furthermore we determined that faith without an object is inherently irrational whereas faith in something or someone is not inherently irrational and that faith in the God of the Bible is demonstrably rational.

With all of that established there now comes another question, what is the relationship of faith and reason/evidence as it relates to obtaining salvation? Now, in our last post, we killed the idea that faith and reason are opposites. This would only be true if faith were defined as believing against or contrary to reason and evidence or if it were defined as something that is above reason and not comprehensible by it. But because the Bible uses faith so as to communicate the idea of having confidence or trust in God, these definitions of faith are irrelevant as it relates to biblical Christianity. So then faith is not something that is inherently opposed to reasons and evidence, rather, it is something that can exist apart from it or strengthened by it. Let me demonstrate what I mean when I say faith can be something apart from reasons and evidence, but can also be strengthened when it has reason and evidence.

Imagine a frozen pond before you. Is it safe to walk on? The answer is ‘C’ not enough information, right? But let’s say you decide to walk on it anyway, you think you’ll be okay if you do. Essentially you’ve place your faith/trust in the strength of that ice to hold your weight. Will you be okay? It just depends on the reality of the situation. If it has been cold enough for a long enough period of time so as to allow the water to freeze and the ice to thicken to a dense enough state then, yes, you’ll be fine. But if it hasn’t then, no, you’ll fall through and you may just drown.

Now if you say to yourself, “I have all the faith in the world that this ice will hold me!” Does this affect the density of the ice? Not at all, but your belief may determine your willingness to walk on the ice. In the same way, perhaps you say to yourself “I’m scared to death that this ice won’t hold my weight but I am willing to take my chances and trust it.” Does your meager faith affect the density of the ice? No again. So what is the crucial issue? Is it the amount of faith one has in the ice or is it the whether the ice itself is sufficient to bear your weight? Obviously it is the latter.

This illustration of the frozen lake will serve us well to demonstrate the relationship of faith, reason and how they relate to salvation. Imagine that the frozen lake represents a religion, philosophy or worldview. You might look at the frozen lake and call it Buddhism, Islam, Atheism, or Christianity, etc. People all around the world have chosen to place their trust in a certain worldview (frozen lake) and many, if not most, have done so without sufficient reason or evidence to be certain that the metaphorical ice will hold their weight. In other words the majority of people in this world are skating on ice that they don’t know for sure will hold them. They may believe very strongly that it will hold them; they may have unwavering confidence that it will hold them but they don’t have sufficient reasons or evidence to support their faith in the ice they are. In these cases then I would agree with the idea that they have a faith that is irrational. It does not follow, however, that all faith is necessarily irrational just because many people don’t believe for rational reasons.

Now if we take the metaphor of the frozen lakes to be that only one of them is actually capable of bearing the weight of people walking upon it which correlated to only one religion is actually true and able to offer people salvation and eternal life, then a lot of people are in very real danger of falling through the ice right now because they are believing without sufficient reason that they are on the right ice. All people, in fact, are in danger except those who happen to be walking on the right frozen lake. As we have established already the level of one’s confidence that the frozen lake will bear their weight doesn’t strengthen or weaken the integrity of the ice. So what is the primary issue for that person’s safety? The issue is that they are on the right frozen lake which has thick enough ice to support them.

This is also true of religion. A person can fully believe that Islam is true, or Buddhism, etc., but because it is indeed false they will eventually fall through the ice. But because Christianity is true (which I will not here defend but for the sake of this article we are taking for granted) then people on this frozen lake are safe even if they had only the weakest faith but just enough to put their lot with Jesus. The degree of faith/trust/confidence is not what brings about salvation, rather, it is picking the right belief system that will actually save you.

In this way there are many Christians who believe in Jesus for salvation for just as insufficient of reasons that the Muslim believe in Allah and the Qur’an, however, the Christian will fare much better at the judgment because they have just so happened to trust in the one frozen lake that will bear their weight. It is in this way that faith can exist apart from reason and evidence and if a person happens to have put their faith in the right object that they will still have salvation whereas others who have just as much faith but chose the wrong object will not have salvation. So faith can be irrational, even faith in the right object (Jesus) can be irrational but the issue of whether or not that faith saves a person leans wholly upon whether they chose the right object of faith. So saving faith can exist apart from reason and evidence but it is a dangerous game of Russian Roulette and not one that I recommend people play. So then, a person ought to have a faith/trust informed by reason and evidence because this is what can lead them towards safety and away from danger, show them that they need to get off the thin ice they are on or that they happen to be standing on thick ice.

Imagine once again that you are standing before a frozen lake and pondering walking across it. You can decide to blindly place your confidence in it and hope you are going to be okay, or you can do some research. You can pull out your smart phone and look up the weather report for the last month or two and see how cold it has been. You could then find out how long it takes ice to form under certain temperatures and you could try to figure an approximate volume of the lake, you could even take a heavy rock and hurl it onto the ice and see whether the ice cracks. There are lots of things you could do to try and determine the strength of the ice before blindly walking on to it. You could then determine with some level of confidence whether or not this frozen lake is safe to walk on. And the level of your confidence in the ice should be proportional to the evidence and reasoning that you’ve established.

So the relationship of faith and reason are not polar opposite so that if you have one you cannot have the other but nor does faith necessarily entail reasons and evidence because a person can believe without them (have irrational faith). But the wise person will investigate what they are considering believing/trusting in before they step out onto the ice so that they may know if it will support their weight. As a Christian, given that our religion is actually true, reason and evidence will serve to support and strengthen your confidence that you are on strong ice whereas for other religions it will hopefully encourage them to get off the thin ice before they fall through.

While faith can be irrational, and if you’re lucky it may even save you from your sins if you’ve haphazardly ended up on strong ice, this is not the kind of faith the Bible would commend us to. If we as Christians blindly believe then we are no different from the sincere Muslim, Mormon, Buddhist, etc., who blindly believes other than being luckily on the right lake. So inform your faith, look into it and see how solid the ice is beneath your feet. If you’re a Christian you’ll find you’re in luck and standing on solid ice, but if you’re not I think you’ll find you have reason to be less confident about where you’re standing.

Jesus said “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” (John 14:6). Also “For God so loved the world that he gave his only son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” (John 3:16). The intensity of your belief doesn’t make this true or false, rather, the fact that Jesus actually lived, was crucified and died and then rose back to life in history makes it true. How much better to not just believe in Jesus but to actually be able to say “I have good reasons to believe that Christianity is true!”? Christians your irrational faith may save you but you are much better off with having reason and evidence to support why you believe you’re in a safe place with Christ. Let’s put aside irrational faith and trade it in for reasonable faith.

 

What is Faith & is the Christian Faith Rational?

Some recent discussions I have been involved with have led to a critical question about the nature of Christian faith. Is faith irrational? Is it super-rational? Or is faith perfectly rational? If faith is irrational then it is for those who want embrace the absurd and implicit, if not explicit, contradictions in concepts. If this is right then we are asked to believe in spite of good reasons not to. If faith is super-rational, meaning that it is above our ability to reason with, although not necessarily contradictory and irrational, then it is of a blind nature where one is asked to believe apart from sufficient reason. But if faith is rational, meaning that it is logically coherent and corresponds to reality, then we are asked to believe in something or someone for good reasons.

Admittedly, Christians of different stripes throughout the history of Christianity have contended for all of these different ideas of what faith is. But to simply point out that there have been significant disagreements about the nature of faith should hardly lead us to the conclusion that there is no right view and that all of the views are equally valid or invalid. Although some Christians have embraced the idea that we should believe against reason and that evidence and reason are actually the opposite of faith (indeed they are mortal enemies according to some) I would contend that this is not even close to how the Bible asks us to believe in Christ nor anything else.

When the Scripture says “believe in the Lord Jesus”, what is it saying? The most natural understanding of this command is that we are to “trust” in the Lord Jesus. Or to put it another way, we are to have “confidence” in the Lord Jesus. When Jesus said “For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son so that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life” what did he mean? The Bible is explicitly clear what it doesn’t mean. It doesn’t mean to believe in Jesus in the sense that we are merely to give mental ascent to the proposition that Jesus was a real person. James 2 tells us that even demons believe factually accurate statements about God, but this has no salvific effect for them nor does it mean that they have endearing feeling towards God. Rather the most obvious sense in which Jesus communicates that we should “believe” in him for eternal life is in the sense that we should trust him, rely on him, have confidence in his ability to save us.

So let’s take all of the mystery away from the concept of “faith” as though it is a thing in itself that has existence. Faith is by necessity tied to an object. When people use faith in our culture today as some sort of mystical word by saying “I just have faith that everything will work out” but that faith has not object to which it is attached, this is admittedly absurd! But this is not how the Bible uses faith. Faith is always attached to an object in the Bible, indeed more than an object, a person…God.

Take Abraham as an example (indeed we ought to because the apostle Paul in Romans 4 makes him the archetype example of salvific faith). In Genesis 15 God promised Abraham that he would give him a son through whom he would give Abraham many decedents and make a great and powerful nation. The Scripture tells us that Abraham believed God and it was counted to Abraham as righteousness. Paul expounds on this in Romans 4 saying that Abraham was made right with God by his faith in this instance. Now was Abraham irrational in his faith in God? Some would say yes because he was believing something that seemed impossible since his wife was barren and well beyond child bearing age. Abraham would indeed have been irrational if he had simply believed that he would have a son apart from that belief being tied to anything but just shot in the dark optimism. But this is not what Abraham did, no, Abraham believed/trusted/ had confidence in God that he would have a son. This wasn’t a blind leap this was trusting in the character of a capable person who was able to bring about the promise that he had made. So likewise when we trust in Jesus, we are not believing in pure optimism that everything is going to be okay, we are trusting a person, a divine one at that, who is able to save us just as he says. This is not a non-evidenced trust, but a trust built on a reputation that God has shown himself to be faithful and worthy of our confidence.

So faith, as the Bible uses the concept, is not inherently irrational because it is tied to an object. Were faith used in a subjective sense without any external attachment then it would be irrational to begin with but, again, this is not a biblical usage of the term although it may be used this way in popular culture and even by Christians at times. Since biblical faith carries the concept of trust or confidence in a person (God or Christ) then it is not inherently irrational. The question then turns to whether ones reasons for faith in God are rational or irrational. Someone could approach you and tell you that there is a tree in their yard that is the source of all life on earth and it is truly a deity and they might invite you to come and worship the tree with them. If you were to then sell all your possessions and buy the highest grade fertilizers to bring as an offering to this tree and devote yourself to worshiping the tree and making new disciples for the tree, then I would argue you have made an irrational decision to place you faith/trust/confidence in this tree in your neighbor’s yard. Why? Because there does not seem to be any evidence that supports your neighbors claim that this tree is anything more than a normal tree and now you have attached you faith to this object for no good reason whatsoever.

But is this picture similar to that of your neighbor inviting you to have a relationship with God through faith in Jesus of Nazareth? To the person hearing the message of Jesus for the very first time it might seem so, but under investigation of the claims of the Christian worldview (such as God exists and made the universe, made mankind in his image, our rebellion hurled the world into sin and chaos, we have lost our relationship with God, God still loves us and made a way back to him through Jesus his son, and by faith/trust in Jesus we can be restored to a right relationship with God) it would seem like there might be some good reasons to believe this is so. When one considers the solid arguments in favor of God’s existence from the origins of the universe, the existence of objective morality, and design in the universe and biological things, as well as, the unique nature of the Bible and its preservation and historical reliability, to the evidence that suggests Jesus really did rise from the dead, deciding to trust in Jesus is not irrational at all.

Now I will grant you that some will not find the evidence and reasoning in favor of the Christian worldview to be compelling enough for them to go ahead and believe it is true and place their faith in Jesus, but to call it irrational (apart from or in contradiction to reason) is really not accurate at all. In fact, even if Christianity turned out to be wrong that still would not mean that Christians were irrational for having believed it. How many things have rational people throughout history believed for good reasons just to later be shown that they lacked sufficient information to have formulated a correct belief? It would hardly be fair to have called a person irrational for believing the sun rotated around the earth before we had sufficient technology to determine otherwise. At the time, given the information they had, this was a rational inference.

So as a Christian, perhaps I am wrong but I am not irrational. But as an atheist, perhaps you are wrong. I am not going to call your position irrational. I do think that that the evidence is in our favor that our beliefs are the correct ones about the way things really are in the world, but if you can put one logical foot in front of the other and present a respectable case for your point of view I will not stoop to calling your position irrational, I will just continue to offer counterpoints and hope that by God’s grace you will come to see things as I believe they really are.

For our next post we will continue this discussion into a different nuance and interact with the question “What is the relationship of faith and reason and how does this relate to salvation through faith?

Why The World Craves Superheroes

I am about to reveal, to those of you who were not already painfully aware, that I am a nerd. Even so I thought in light of all of the super hero movies that have been coming out over the past decade, and with the great success of the Avengers movie and all of the individual super hero movies surrounding it, I would take some time to wax eloquent upon the notion of super heroes. In this post it is my intention to discuss two matters in particular. 1. What is the difference between a “hero” and a “super hero” and 2. Why does the world crave them? The first question is purely for fun and something of a matter of controversy among us nerds who care and it will be dealt with on a philosophical level. The second will take on a theological tone and is something that is genuinely worth considering even if you’re not a hardcore comic super hero fanatic.

  1. What is the difference between a hero and a super hero?

This question may seem silly to some right off the bat but it is actually not so easily answered. Take for instance Batman as opposed to Superman. Batman has no super powers, he can’t fly, see through walls, shoot laser beams from his eyes, nor could he withstand a bullet to the head. So is Batman not a super hero whereas Superman is? Is it “super human” abilities that makes one a super hero? Is that the sole condition?

If Batman is not a super hero because he does not have “super powers” then is he a hero on the same level as a local police officer or firefighter? Yet it would seem that there is a difference between Batman and officer Dave, right? If Batman isn’t a super hero then neither is Iron Man, after all, he is just a man in a really cool suit but he has no super powers either. That of course also knocks out Hawkeye and Black Widow, etc. So there you go, 3 of the 6 Avengers in the movie that just came out are not super heroes by this line of thinking. But, gosh, that just doesn’t set well with me.

I am not personally convinced that “super human powers” are what makes a super hero as opposed to just an average hero. I think there is more to it than that. For one, I would counter the notion that a super hero needs super powers in the sense that it has to be “super human” to the point of almost “super natural”. For instance I think that while the ability to fly or wield lightning certainly counts as a super power, I would argue that extreme intellect or skill of some kind might count also. A super hero needs some sort of almost untouchable quality or ability such as genius intellect, incredible fighting skill, or phenomenal use of a bow and arrow, etc. So whether it is an almost paranormal ability or just such a high level of skill or intelligence that no more than a handful in the world might be able to match, this is one necessary component of a super hero.

So a super hero needs what we might call “extraordinary ability” and may be, but need not be, possessing powers that exceed actual human potential. But this is not the sole component of being a super hero is it? I think not. After all one with “extraordinary ability” could just as easily be a super villain! So it would seem that another feature of a super hero is a strong sense of, and belief in, the need for justice in the world. This need for justice drives all true super heroes. It is what turned a billionaire playboy like Tony Stark into Iron Man, it is what drives Batman and Spider-Man who experienced the loss of loved ones at the hands of evil and injustice. Superman, Thor, Green Lantern, etc., are all equally committed to doing what’s right and protecting the innocent. So then it would seem that this is a necessary component of what is necessary to be a super hero as well.

So we have 1. extraordinary ability and 2. a compelling sense of justice but I think we are still missing one key element in the making of a true super hero, namely, a persona. Super heroes are separated from regular heroes by adopting a persona that strikes fear in the hearts of those who are evil and that brings hope and courage to those looking for someone to fill the gap. Batman, Superman, Spider-Man, Iron Man, Black Widow, Captain America, etc., etc. They all have a name and an image that says something to those who would oppose what is good, a message of fear, a message of assurance that their days are numbered. They stand as symbols of freedom, safety, and hope to the people they protect who desperately need a hero like them to do what the police and even the military can’t accomplish without them.

So I offer you these three points that I believe make for a super hero.

  1. Extraordinary ability.
  2. A compelling sense of justice.
  3. A powerful persona.

This is, I think, a working definition of a super hero and, although it is not perhaps the final word on the matter, I think it has merit. I would genuinely welcome your thoughts as to what qualities are essential to and/or separate hero from super hero. That is if you’re willing to out yourself as a nerd like me.

  1. Why do we love super heroes?

I, like so many other young boys (and I’ll bet a not a few young girls), grew up enthralled by the notion of super heroes. I remember excitedly reading through my comic books, watching Marvel’s X-Men on Saturday mornings, collecting trading cards and doing my best to draw pictures of my favorite heroes like The Amazing Spider-Man. I have always loved super heroes, I still do, and I am certain I always will.

I know I am not alone either because they keep cranking out more and more Marvel Comics movies. Not only that but the movie The Avengers was one of the highest grossing movies of all time and has become the highest-grossing movie in Walt Disney Studios history.

So why is it that this film and many of the other super hero films have been so wildly popular? I think I know. I think it is because the world needs and longs for a hero and deep down within the soul of every person there is a longing for perfect justice which is an ideal that seems completely beyond our grasp. We want someone to stand in the gap and answer the injustice we see in this world day after day.

How many times have we seen or heard about something that has happened which demands that goodness prevail over it and that justice be served and yet it goes completely unanswered? When we see the poor and the weak oppressed and preyed upon by the vultures of this world, or the man who raped and murdered a woman but who gets released because of a mishandling of the chain of evidence, we want justice and yet our imperfect system of law and the endless bureaucracy keeps perfect justice from being fulfilled.

We long for a savior figure who is above reproach, who is perfectly just and perfectly capable of executing justice. We want someone who isn’t tied down by the imperfect system, we want someone above the law but who keeps the spirit of the law, someone who does what’s right no matter what the personal sacrifice might be.

I think we love super heroes because built into our soul is a longing for our creator-God who is perfect justice. We are longing for the kind of justice that can only be met in the cross of Jesus Christ and will finally culminate at the judgment throne of God. One day Christ will return and every knee will bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord and on that day all the wrong that has been done from the beginning until that day will judged and perfect justice will be dealt out. Those in Christ who have had their sins paid by the death of Christ will enter into a new world of perfect justice, free of pain and suffering where no more tyrants will exist. Those apart from Christ will see the justice in their condemnation for their rebellion and all that they have done in rejecting God’s sovereignty and they will enter eternity in hell.

Our longing for a super hero is our longing for God. Our longing for justice is prophetic of a future day of perfect justice. Our super hero, Jesus, has intervened in our trouble and gave his life to save us from our sin and he overcame death itself. All who trust in Christ will one day see perfect justice and will know what it is to be in the presence of a real live super hero.

Objection: If God is Real Then Why Are There No Miracles Today?

Some have challenged Christianity’s validity on the basis that miracles simply don’t happen. The objection is usually formed in a statement like “If miracles are real then why have I never seen one?” Some have even boasted “If God would do a miracle right now in front of me I would believe He was real!” Somehow I doubt that would be true for many of them as committed to naturalism as they are. You could raise their 30 years dead grandmother from the grave right in front of them and they would be looking for a naturalistic explanation.

Even so, it is not an altogether unfair question to ask “Where are all the miracles today?” A cursory reading through the Bible would might give a person the impression that from the time of Adam and Eve until the death of the apostles that miracles were an almost daily occurrence (or at least monthly, right?). So why is it that God, if He is really real, just stopped performing miracles? Doesn’t this point to the reality that the Bible is little more than a bunch of mythical tales full of legends gone wild?

Well, if there is one thing I have learned over the years it is that you need to take a closer look and be very careful before you come to snap conclusions. So here is a key question in this discussion that I would ask an objector “Is it really true that miracles in the Bible are as common as you think?”

Actually if you take the number of miracles talked about in the Bible, around 350 give or take (depending on how you define miracles this list can fluctuate some) and divide them across the time span of the writing of the Bible (about 1,500 years) then you end up with 0.2333 miracles a year or one miracle about every 4 years. So miracles were not happening every day apparently, but there is even more that ought to be said here. The miracles in the bible, as it turns out, are not evenly spaced throughout the biblical timeline.

In fact, the majority of miracles occur surrounding figures like Moses, Elijah, Jesus, Peter and Paul. In other words, large bulks of these miracles happen around a specific people and at a specific period of time. A relevant question to ask would now be “Why is this the case?” Well I am glad you asked! The answer is because God has often used miracles as a way to validate the message or ministry of a certain individual. When Moses claimed in the Exodus account to be Yahweh’s chosen leader of His chosen people how did he prove this was so? God did miracles all around him to validate that Moses really was God’s servant (e.g. staff turned into a snake, 10 plagues, parting of the Red Sea, water from stones, etc.). And God did this with Elijah and Jesus and the apostles too.

So, in reality, most people throughout biblical history never saw miracles either! There were long periods of time where God (as far as we know) performed no miracles among his people. That such events more often than not surrounded certain figures at certain times and in certain places guarantees that the majority of people throughout history are much like you and I and have not seen one of these acts of God first hand. This is not to discount their validity in any way though for there are good reasons to believe that miracles have occurred and still can.

In fact the eye-witness accounts of Jesus found in the Gospels and even earlier in Paul’s epistles weigh in as strong evidence that Jesus really died and rose from the dead. A great book for considering this is The Case for the Resurrection by Gary Habermas and Michael Licona. The historical evidence surrounding Jesus’ life, death and resurrection are staggering. Furthermore, the fact that we have not personally seen something doesn’t negate its possibility. I have never personally seen many things in this world that I believe to really exist and the same goes for you I am sure.

So then arguing that miracles don’t happen or that God doesn’t exist because you haven’t seen a miracle happen isn’t all that strong of a case. The Bible gives a logical reason for the sparsity of miracles, and there are plenty of things that are real that you and I may never see but don’t doubt. Ask yourself this also, if miracles happened every day, would they still be considered miracles? If a miracle occurred in front of you on a daily basis you would probably draw the conclusion that miracles are like gravity, a part of the natural order of things! It is the rarity of miracles that in part makes them so powerful for affirming God’s plan in this world. If they were common place then you could raise someone’s 30 years dead grandma from the grave and they would simply exclaim “Big deal! Happens all the time.”

Is There A Difference Between a “Human Being” and A “Human Person”?

It is noteworthy that the abortion debate is starting to take a major shift in terminology. The popular argument has gone from “The unborn is not a baby” or “The unborn is just a mass of tissue” or “The unborn is simply part of the mother’s body” to “The unborn is a human being, but not a person!” The reason for this shift is largely due to the fact that medical technology and science have progressed to the point that our knowledge about what the developing entity in the womb actually is has made it clear that it is not just a thing, rather, it’s an individual and unique human being.

The developing child has its own heartbeat from two weeks into the development process forward, it has its own unique DNA from the moment of conception when sperm and egg meet. The fact of the matter is, an unborn developing child in the womb is from the very beginning distinct from the mother’s body, a living organism, a human being. That the developing child is dependent upon the mother for survival is without question, but the last time I checked my two-year old is still dependent upon my wife and I for survival as well, so that hardly negates a developing child’s humanity.

The advancements in ultrasound technology (such as the 3D ultrasound picture seen in this post) have made the humanness of the developing child in the womb so much clearer to the eyes of so many. In fact, women who see an ultrasound picture of their baby prior to having an abortion are significantly more likely to choose  to keep their baby than those who never do.

In fact with every step science has made towards better understanding the process of development in the womb it has become ever more clear that from conception a new distinctly human and distinctly separate human being has come into existence. As such, pro-abortion advocates have started to use language wherein the unborn are now recognized for what they are, human beings! Surely this settles the matter, right? Wrong.

It is now in vogue to try to make a distinction between being a human being and a human person. That is to say some (and the numbers who would argue this way are growing) are now arguing that the developing embryo, fetus, etc., is undeniably biologically human, but to be biologically human (they would argue) is not the same as being a person.

So then, the obvious question is what is it that makes the distinction between being biologically human and being a human person? Well every explanation that has been offered up by those who argue this position points towards functionality. In other words the dividing line between these two categories is the ability to achieve a certain level of (or perhaps number of) function. Suggestions have been put forth such as a human becomes a person when they are able to live outside the womb, breathe on their own, have self-awareness, consciousness, walk, talk, communicate or respond a certain way in specific set of circumstances, etc.

It would seem that no two lists of functions that supposedly gap the bridge between human being and human person tend to agree. In fact, this argument used by pro-abortion advocates is being used by some to go beyond justifying abortion and even advocating infanticide, killing those with mental disabilities and euthanizing the elderly whose functionality has slipped below a certain level.

The primary problem with this argument that divides humanity from personhood is that it is completely subjective and arbitrary. After all, whose list of functions is the right one? When exactly does personhood begin? Why should your list be the correct standard of personhood and mine the wrong one? If consciousness is an essential attribute of persons, is a human not a person when they are sleeping? What about if they are in a coma for a week, a month or a year? If I kill your baby before it meets a minimal amount of functions should I be charged for murder or for killing your pet?

It would seem that we are not able to ground the beginning of personhood in anything objective at all once we separate it and make it non-essential to human existence. This reasoning is what has allowed for the genocide of various people groups, slavery and of course abortion. If being human doesn’t mean being a person and it is okay to kill non-persons then we can justify any kind of murder we desire if we can simply label them a non-person. Whether they be Jews, black people, unborn babies, the elderly, the mentally handicapped, the slippery slope just never stops.

From the moment of conception there is a human person in continual development who in the very essence of their existence is filled with potential. Our responsibility as fellow human persons is to respect that developing life from conception to natural death. Regardless of whether that person realizes its full potential or not, by merit of being a human being it is to be afforded the respect of being a human person. There is no argument that reasonable gives us a basis to separate the two.

Humanity and Personhood, these two terms are a difference without a distinction. To be human is to be a person. Functionality doesn’t determine personhood and the day we allow that argument to take root in our country we have lost the ability to defend innocent life in so many categories and we open ourselves up to a new kind of Holocaust where you or someone you love may one day find yourself a victim of this horrid and unfounded philosophy.