Why Choose Christianity and Not Something Else? Or Nothing Else?

2295355354_e65354babd_nWhy would we choose to be a Christian and not something else? Why follow Jesus when there are so many other options including an attempt at following no one? With so many religions, how can we settle on one, or should we even settle on one? One answer appeals to the tension that exists between naturalistic explanations and supernatural explanations.

There are perfectly good explanations for how the vast majority of religions arose, explanations which make no appeal to the supernatural. For example, it is not hard to see how ancient myths involving a pantheon of gods arose out of need to understand things beyond understanding. Bad things happen because the gods are angry, sometimes at humans, sometimes at each other. As understanding increased, the gods were pushed out as being not a very good explantation of the facts. The naturalistic explanation, saying “men came up with myths about Zeus and others” fits all the data we have available much better than an appeal to a supernatural explanation; “men spoke about Zeus and the rest because those gods were real.” Similarly, to say “Islam arose because Muhammad was impressed with neither the people nor theology of Jews and Christians and so founded his own religion” fits all the data available better than “Islam exists because Allah revealed himself to Muhammad.”  We can follow similar lines of reasoning for 99% of all the world’s religions. In this sense, atheism is a powerful ally to Christianity for the atheists help us make the case for why we reject the vast majority of religions. We should note that in fact the early Christians were accused of spreading atheism! They were going around saying that all idols and myths were human invention.

However, for Christianity, the supernatural explanation provides a better explanation of all the available facts than the naturalist explanation. To give some examples:

  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the amazing consistency of the Biblical message despite the many authors writing over many, many years, from different contexts, writing for different purposes. There is a simple explanation of this: the scriptures are “God breathed.” (2 Timothy 3:16)
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for why people in the days following the death of Jesus were going around saying “Jesus is risen, I have seen him” and were willing to die for that claim. Appeals to hallucinations and/or fabrications do not account for the facts very well.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for sudden birth and rise of an unexpected Christianity theology. The theology of Christianity is not what you would expect from Jewish scriptures and expectations, but it is what you would expect from Jewish scriptures and expectations plus the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the staying power of Christianity and why so many people over so many years have some claim of a personal relationship with God through Jesus. The Christian message was not popular to either Jews or non-Jews from the get go. And yet it caught fire and continues to do so today despite still being unpopular to the point of persecution throughout the world. Yes, other religions have had staying power also, but you can come up with naturalistic explanations for this. Christianity would have died out ages ago if God were not in it.
  • The supernatural explanation accounts for the big questions like “Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there life when the odds are against there being such? How did the universe get started? Why is there something startlingly different about humans compared with other animals? Why is there such a strong yearning for purpose among humans? Why do humans reflect on morality so much? Why is there evil and what can be done about it?” Naturalism struggles to explain what Christianity simply and  profoundly answers.

Within the Bible itself we find an example of this tension between a natural and supernatural explanation. In Acts 26 Paul shares with King Agrippa, the local governor Festus, and many others how he came to be a Christ follower including his experience of the risen Jesus. But at some point Festus has had enough: “And as he was saying these things in his defense, Festus said with a loud voice, ‘Paul, you are out of your mind; your great learning is driving you out of your mind.’” (Acts 26:24) With that Paul says “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25) Here we have a tension between a naturalistic explanation given by Festus; ”Paul, you are mad, no gods here,” and a supernatural explanation from Paul: ”Jesus appeared to and spoke with me.” Paul could have gone for a naturalistic explanation himself “perhaps the stress is getting to me and so I had some sort of hallucination.” However any naturalistic explanation could not fit all the facts, including the fact that his companions experienced something also, “we had all fallen to the ground,” (Acts 26:14) not to mention Paul’s further experience of regaining sight through the ministry of a Christian (Acts 9:10-19). No naturalistic view could account for these things.

So why Christianity and not another religion, or no religion? Why follow Jesus and not someone else, or no one else? Because Jesus rose from the dead, because Christianity is true. That Jesus rose from the dead and that Christianity is true makes the best sense of the all the facts we have. Yes there are naturalistic explanations offered for the rise and spread of Christianity and they are many, diverse, and complicated. But there is a simple explanation that covers all the facts, the supernatural one; Jesus rose from the dead. How should we respond when people say we are crazy for believing in the supernatural? Just like Paul did with Festus: “I am not out of my mind, most excellent Festus, but I am speaking true and rational words.” (Acts 26:25)

There is one more thing we should mention about all this. There is no religious perspective that if found to be true could offer more hope, both for this life and the next, for more people, than Christianity. That Jesus rose from the dead and Christianity is true is not just a rational conclusion, it provides for an amazing hope in God’s amazing grace.

All Bible references are taken from the ESV.
photo credit: Interfaith Banner via photopin (license)

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Desiring Wisdom? Desire God.

There has never been a time of greater access to information. We have so much information, knowledge, and opportunities for education in our society today and yet sometimes people seem to make the craziest choices!  Just having access to information does not ensure that we will use the information to make good decisions. Recently I discovered that a major Christian website has deleted the comments sections from its blogs. Why? I suspect it is because some people say the dumbest things in the dumbest ways and the editors could not keep up. People comment without wisdom, just as people often speak and act without wisdom. We need more than information to make good choices. We need wisdom.

2641925893_d9fcc541cd_nSolomon was known for his wisdom. In 1 Kings 3:1-15 we learn about how Solomon came to be wise. Solomon had recently become the king in place of his father David, and God told him to ask for one thing. Solomon asks for wisdom.  There are six things there we can learn from his request in our quest to speak and act with wisdom:

First, in seeking to be wise Solomon acknowledges God.

At Gibeon the Lord appeared to Solomon in a dream by night; and God said, “Ask what I should give you.” And Solomon said, “You have shown great and steadfast love to your servant my father David, because he walked before you in faithfulness, in righteousness, and in uprightness of heart toward you; and you have kept for him this great and steadfast love, and have given him a son to sit on his throne today. 1 Kings 3:5-6

Notice that Solomon does not immediately shout out his request. I think many of us would have done just that. Instead Solomon takes the time to recognize who God is and what God has done. Notice also that Solomon does not focus on his father David. Yes, David is mentioned, but it is God who is reason David did so well as king. God is the focus. If we want to make wise decisions we would do well by starting off with an acknowledgement of, and focus upon, God. This is one reason why weekly worship with other believers is so important.

Second, in seeking to be wise Solomon becomes humble.

And now, O Lord my God, you have made your servant king in place of my father David, although I am only a little child; I do not know how to go out or come in. 1 Kings 3:7

Notice again Solomon still has not rushed into his request. Before he does he acknowledges who he himself is, and what he is like. There is something about acknowledging God that inspires confession and humility in us. Many people do and say the dumbest things because they think they know everything already, therefore everything they speak and do must be good. They do not have teachable spirit. We will not speak and act with wisdom if we do not learn to say “I have much to learn.”

Third, in seeking to be wise Solomon recognizes the importance of his calling.

And your servant is in the midst of the people whom you have chosen, a great people, so numerous they cannot be numbered or counted. 1 Kings 3:8

Notice that Solomon still has not made his request yet. Before he does Solomon realizes the gravity of the situation. He is now responsible for many, many people. Not only that, but they are the people God has chosen, they are “your great people” v.9. Solomon understands that his role is very, very important. I wonder if people say and do the dumbest things because they do not realize that what they say or do is important. We can carry around the attitude that “it doesn’t really matter”, or “I am of no significance, I don’t really matter, so what I say or do is of little significance and does not really matter.” Every Christian person has a calling from God. Wisdom becomes a greater priority for us when we understand the importance of God’s call upon us.

Fourth, in seeking to be wise Solomon knows the importance of listening.

Give your servant therefore an understanding mind to govern your people . . . 1 Kings 3:9a

Now Solomon finally gets to his request. I often go over the passage I preach on in the original languages, but please don’t think of me more highly than you ought for I am not a master of the Hebrew and Greek languages, I am a student. Being such I was amazed when in verse 9 I did not come across the Hebrew words I was expecting, words for “wisdom.” There instead was the word for listening. It reads something like “give your servant a listening heart.” This also rings through the Greek translation of the Old Testament, the Septuagint. But it does not ring through the English translations. We can have great trust in the English translations, but I wonder if something has been lost here. When we have the idea of listening, the obvious question becomes, “to whom are we listening?” Given that we have already seen Solomon acknowledge God, express humility, and recognize the importance of leading, not his own people, but God’s, it is clear that Solomon is asking for a heart that listens to and is obedient toward God. We can do and say the dumbest things because we are not listening to God.

Fifth, in seeking to be wise Solomon understands the importance of knowing the difference between right and wrong.

. . . able to discern between good and evil; for who can govern this your great people? 1 Kings 3:9b

Have you noticed that in educational situations in today’s society right and wrong, good and evil are barely talked about? The reason is obvious. If good and evil are real, then so is God. So instead we are given information and then asked to discern the best choice. Do you see the danger in this? The astute student (and they all are), figures out, even if only in the back of his or her mind, that while some choices may not be the best, they are still permissible. And so why not if it looks like fun? Christianity moves beyond a discussion of best choices, to right and wrong choices, good and evil choices. Many dumb decisions could be avoided if we knew the difference between right and wrong, good and evil. Solomon knew that.

Sixth, in seeking to be wise Solomon will need to remain committed to God.

Next follow three verses where God expresses his delight in Solomon’s request, and His desire to grant that request and more. But it will not always be automatic, there is a big “if”:

If you will walk in my ways, keeping my statutes and my commandments, as your father David walked, then I will lengthen your life. 1 Kings 3:14

Notice the emphasis on God’s ways, God’s statutes, and God’s commandments. These are not the ways, statutes, and commandments of the king, but of the King of kings. Solomon gets off to a great start, but there are already hints in the opening verses of 1 Kings 3 that Solomon will not always be wise. Indeed he does not listen to the wisdom of God concerning marriage as defined in Genesis 2:24. His many wives and concubines end up being his undoing. Somewhere along the line Solomon’s commitment to following God waned and he started doing dumb things. How is your commitment?

To conclude let us summarize: If you desire wisdom, desire God. 

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom;
all those who practice it have a good understanding.
His praise endures forever.
Psalms 111:10 

One final, but important thought: The most wise decision a person could make is to become a follower of Jesus. Some think that following Jesus and becoming a Christian is a stupid thing to do. But again we go back to acknowledging God, being humble, realizing the importance of His call, realizing the reality and implications of good and evil, and making a lifetime commitment. Some just don’t want to do that. But many of us find that following Jesus is the best and most worthwhile decision we have ever, and could ever make.

For the message about the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. 1 Corinthians 1:1

 

All Bible references are taken from the NRSV

photo credit: solomon via photopin (license)

Loving the Rebel.

1104467408_25e19910e1_nHow do you love the rebel in your life? I’m not referring to an enemy, but rather someone you love deeply. They have hurt you, or hurt someone you love, or you fear that because of their rebellious decisions, they themselves will land in a world of hurt. Do you say “you reap what you sow” and let them suffer the consequences of their decisions? Or do you mount a rescue operation and try to fix everything?

We see this tension being played out in 2nd Samuel 18 as the army commander, Joab, treated the rebellious Absalom in a very different manner than what his father, King David, would have. Absalom had rebelled against his father and led much of Israel to follow him instead. This led to David fleeing Jerusalem with his loyal armies who now stood ready to fight the numerically superior armies of Absalom. As David’s men went out to fight he gave some very clear instructions regarding the rebel son Absalom:

The king ordered Joab and Abishai and Ittai, saying, “Deal gently for my sake with the young man Absalom.” And all the people heard when the king gave orders to all the commanders concerning Absalom. 2 Samuel 18:5

Though his son had rebelled, David’s heart was filled with compassion and hope for him. Joab, on the other hand, had a different attitude toward Absalom. We discover this when Absalom gets stuck in a tree and his misfortune is told to Joab:

Joab said to the man who told him, “What, you saw him! Why then did you not strike him there to the ground? I would have been glad to give you ten pieces of silver and a belt.” But the man said to Joab, “Even if I felt in my hand the weight of a thousand pieces of silver, I would not raise my hand against the king’s son; for in our hearing the king commanded you and Abishai and Ittai, saying: For my sake protect the young man Absalom!. . . Joab said, “I will not waste time like this with you.” He took three spears in his hand, and thrust them into the heart of Absalom, while he was still alive in the oak. And ten young men, Joab’s armor-bearers, surrounded Absalom and struck him, and killed him. 2 Samuel 18:11,12,14,15

Where David wants to be gentle with his son, Joab wants to eliminate the rebel. Where David wants to be compassionate, Joab wants to be practical, eliminating the possibility of any future rebellion. Where David wants to see no harm come to Absalom, Joab wants to ensure he never again harms another. David believes in second chances. Joab believes strongly in the Biblical affirmation that “you reap what you sow.”

So who is the better leader? And which one better reflects how you deal with the rebels in your life? Compassion or justice? Gentleness or practicality? “Let’s fix this,” or “you reap what you sow”?

Is there something we can learn from Joab and David here? At first we might not think so in that their lives seem to be in a greater mess than ours. However, their handling of the rebel points us to the One who really knows how to handle a rebel. Let’s take a look:

First, While Joab enforces consequences without compassion, God lets us sit with consequences because of love. Something we don’t see Joab doing is having any kind of conversation with Absalom. The opportunity is there to discuss the possibilities of repentance and reconciliation, but Joab does not go there. Instead he dishes out the consequences of rebellion with brutality, and, it would seem, out of hatred. On the other hand, God will let us sit with the consequences of our decisions, but when He does, He does so out of love. God does not rescue us from every bad decision like a “helicopter parent” but rather lets us learn from our mistakes. Learning from mistakes is important for our growth and our growth is important to God:

And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children— “My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.”

Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it. Hebrews 12:5-11

God disciplines from a place of love. Do we lash out against the rebels of our lives like Joab, or do we let our loved ones sit with the consequences of their decisions out of love?

Second, while David was the absentee father who was not there for his son in a time of need, God is the loving Father who has made Himself present in our greatest need. We can imagine a very different ending for this story had David come across Absalom rather than Joab. But David was not there and was not able to help. At first David wanted to be with the army as they moved out, but they convinced him to stay behind because his life was more important than theirs. His life was too important to be put on the line. However, on hearing of his son’s death,

The king was deeply moved, and went up to the chamber over the gate, and wept; and as he went, he said, “O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! Would I had died instead of you, O Absalom, my son, my son!” 2 Samuel 18:33

In the end David wished he could have died in the rebels’s place. God is the One who did die in the rebel’s place through Jesus Christ at the cross. God is the One who made himself present to us, in Jesus, and even now through His Holy Spirit. Though it is a Biblical truth that we reap what we sow, it is also a Biblical truth that we reap what God has sown. He has sown and shown love, rescuing us from a predicament and calamity that we could never rescue ourselves from. Do we remain present in the lives of our rebel loved ones to rescue with a second chance when their predicament is too much for them? And do we have the wisdom to know when to rescue, and when rather to call off the helicopter so that a timely lesson may be learned? Do we love enough to put the hard work into thoughtful prayer and discernment?

But perhaps it is not David or Joab that you may relate to in 2nd Samuel 18. Perhaps it is Absalom. You are the rebel son or daughter who needs the Lord’s loving discipline. You are the rebel son or daughter who needs the Lord’s rescue and salvation. Absalom was the rebel son. Jesus is the obedient son who was obedient even to death on the cross. Your rebellion has its consequences. And Jesus suffered those consequences on the cross for you. Unlike Joab with Absalom, you are given the opportunity for repentance and reconciliation.

All Bible references are taken from the NRSV
photo credit: Consequence for Action via photopin (license)