Two posts ago (“Beyond Belief – How Can You Believe in Jesus and Science?“), I received the following comment from a blogger known as “Catxman”:
But then there are disasters that happen — large-scale and personal. The average person, stricken by a personal calamity in his life (death of a loved one, etc.), may shout out, “Why, God? Why have you done this to me?” The assumption seems to be that God is deliberately choosing every act on the planet. It probably is more accurate to guess that, if there is a God, he lets the cards fall where they may and steps back from their action.—Catxman
There are a few things I wanted to talk about regarding this feedback, so that’s why I’m addressing it in a post of its own. First of all, I really appreciate the raw honesty of this reply. It doesn’t matter whether or not I agree with it, I appreciate the fact that he provided it. Now, on to the things I want to discuss relative to the comment, which I hope I do with the utmost respect.
Does God Exist? Oh Wait, What Was the Score of the Hockey Game?
Let me first start with the last part of the comment: “It probably is more accurate to guess that, if there is a God, he lets the cards fall where they may and steps back from their action.”
The implied question in the phrase “if there is a God” is the most important question each of us has to answer in our lifetimes. Why so important? Because the answer we give determines where we will spend eternity–with God in heaven or separated from God in hell. And as I’ve pointed out in previous posts, God would rather have everyone with him in heaven, but he gave us the free will to make our own decisions, including whether we want to be with him or separated from him.
Because how we answer the question of God’s existence is so important, I am frankly surprised how many people leave it hanging out there unanswered without bothering to investigate answers with honest intellectual curiosity. Most people spend a lot of time looking things up that have no eternal consequence: sports scores, stock prices, movie times, answers to trivial questions like what did this Hollywood star or politician or social media influencer say about this or that? In the long run–and I mean, in the really long run, as in eternity–who cares? And yet, people Google these things for hours, while at the same time spending little, if any, intellectual energy trying to figure out whether or not God exists.
Based on the criticality of your answer to this question, my hope and prayer for “Catxman” and anyone who is grappling with it is that you will spend the time and energy required to investigate and find the answer. There are many ways you can do this. I created a post earlier in this series that can help get you started: Beyond Belief – How Do We Know God Is Real?
But Wait, There’s More!
Now that we have addressed the most basic, urgent, and important question (“does God exist?”), I need to clarify something further, and I hope this is not diving too deep into theological concepts because there are distinctions that are important to understand. As it turns out, it is not enough to believe that there is a God. That is just the starting point. Let me explain. I’ll start by defining various terms you may have heard regarding various beliefs about God: atheism, deism, theism, agnosticism, and Christianity. Then I’ll explain why this matters.
Anyway, the first four beliefs are summarized nicely on Infoplease:
A theist believes there is a God who made and governs all creation; but does not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, nor in a divine revelation.
A deist believes there is a God who created all things, but does not believe in His superintendence and government. He thinks the Creator implanted in all things certain immutable laws, called the Laws of Nature, which act per se, as a watch acts without the supervision of its maker. Like the theist, he does not believe in the doctrine of the Trinity, nor in a divine revelation.
The atheist disbelieves even the existence of a God. He thinks matter is eternal, and what we call “creation” is the result of natural laws.
The agnostic believes only what is knowable. He rejects revelation and the doctrine of the Trinity as “past human understanding.” He is neither theist, deist, nor atheist, as all these are past understanding.Infoplease (emphasis added)
I have written at length in various posts about atheism. I believe that anyone who honestly examines the evidence with an open mind can only reach one logical and philosophical conclusion: that God is real. There are many people who have set out on this intellectual journey–even those who intended to prove that Christianity was a bunch of nonsense–who actually arrived at that conclusion. Some notable examples I’ve mentioned previously include journalist Lee Strobel and Oxford professor and author, C.S. Lewis, who ended up referring to himself as the most “dejected and reluctant convert” in all of England.
As you can see from the definitions above, it’s a long way to go to get from atheist to the point where you believe in God. Similarly, it’s an equally long distance to travel to get from believing there is a God to becoming a Follower of Christ. We will unpack that as we go.
Detour – Warts Growing on Christianity’s Face
Allow me to take a couple little detours here for a moment. First, I know I have pointed, both here and in other posts, to people who have taken the intellectual journey to determine whether they believe in God’s existence. I use them as examples of the investigation anyone should undertake if they wish to receive a certain level of informed certainty. You may push back on me, pointing to one of many examples of Christians behaving in ways that are contrary to what you would expect or hope. Catxman, for instance, said in his post “A NEW MESSIAH, A NEW PROPHET“, that “Christianity has a ton of warts growing on its face these days.” He points out the “mega-millions mansion of Joel Osteen” and includes other observations about Osteen that are not suitable to repeat in polite company. Another wart he mentions is the existence of cults that call themselves Christian but diverge from the teachings of Christ.
These concerns are perfectly valid. What I say to challenges like this is that we should not blame Christ for the inappropriate behavior of his followers. This is not an excuse, but a fact: we are all imperfect people with, as it turns out, imperfect understanding of important things like the Bible and, more specifically, Christ’s instructions to us. Such an imperfect understanding has led numerous people throughout history to do a lot of horrendous things in Jesus’s name–much worse than what you may think of Osteen’s ostentatious lifestyle or cults spinning off of Christianity. The crusades provide an easy example. Nowhere in the Bible do we see Christ telling us to go kill other people who do not believe in him. Nor does he provide such an example. On the contrary, Jesus is loving toward people who do not believe he is who he says he is. He is patient with them. He shows them endless patience, grace, and mercy. He prayed for the people who were killing him.
So if you are looking for examples of behavior, look at Jesus. He is what God looks like. You should not allow the behavior of imperfect humans to distract you from the important question about God. This has been a stumbling block for my younger daughter, so I continue to pray that someday she will be able to look past their bad behavior to see that’s not the way God intended for us to be.
Secondly, the other point I’d like to make on this little detour is that through this series, my intent is not to say that the only path to Christ is via intellectual exercises. There is definitely an emotional response required when you reach a certain point in your journey, passing beyond intellectual belief to faith. Some people can get there without a thorough intellectual investigation, and that is perfectly fine. Others–especially those who point to science or other reasons for not believing in God–need to do a deeper dive into the evidence before they can get there. And that’s fine, too. The point is that you need to do whatever you need to do to get yourself to the point where you make a specific decision to believe (or not believe) that God is real and interested in a personal relationship with you. A default answer is not good enough, not for a question this important.
Agnosticism – Believing Only What You Can Know
That brings me back to the definitions of the various ways of viewing God. Next to atheism, the other view that’s a complete mystery to me is agnosticism. If you limit your beliefs to only what is knowable, there are far more things you cannot believe in than just religious views. What makes something beautiful is unknowable, so evidently you cannot believe in beauty. Can anyone know what makes us love another person? Or what gives us hope? This must mean you can’t believe in love or hope. From a biological and evolutionary perspective, our natural instincts are for self-preservation. So how can you explain why many people perform selfless acts, putting others above themselves, even to the point of death? This must mean you cannot believe in selflessness then.
What’s even more difficult to understand is the idea of Christian agnosticism, a view to which my son claims to subscribe. But here’s the problem with this viewpoint: in order to call yourself a Christian, you need to believe all the teachings of Christ, who proclaimed himself part of the Trinity. But the Trinity is beyond human understanding, so it can’t be part of any agnostic viewpoint. Thus, the term Christian agnostic really is an oxymoron. It is perhaps a form of intellectual laziness–an acknowledgment that the question of God’s existence might be an important one, but a lack of willingness or energy to investigate to determine whether or not it’s true.
And here’s the thing: Jesus never gave us an option to sit on the fence about who he is. Either you believe everything he said and accept him as Lord and Saviour or you believe nothing he said and reject him as a fraud. He forces us to make a choice. And not to decide (as Christian agnostics would prefer) really is to decide. If you do not accept him, you have rejected him.
Deism and Theism
I’d like to return now to the comment from Catxman to cover a couple more thoughts that basically highlight deism and theism:
The assumption seems to be that God is deliberately choosing every act on the planet. It probably is more accurate to guess that, if there is a God, he lets the cards fall where they may and steps back from their action.–Catxman
The first part of this quote is essentially what theists believe–that there is a God who is running the universe. However, because they do not accept the doctrine of the Trinity (i.e., they do not believe in Jesus), that means they do not believe in a personal God. This in turn implies that they believe that God is “out there somewhere” and cannot really be bothered caring about what happens to each of us individually.
Setting aside the “if there is a God” part of the second sentence (which I dealt with earlier), this sentiment leans more to the deist point of view, which basically says that God created the universe and then walked away from it to let it run its course. Whatever happens, happens. He may not know what happens, and he certainly doesn’t care.
While both of these points of view are closer to the truth than atheism, they are hardly more comforting. In fact, they are probably more disturbing than the bleak opinion that there is no God at all, since accompanying these viewpoints is undoubtedly also a picture of a judgment at the end of our lives being made by a vengeful, angry God who would like nothing more than to cast us all into the fiery lake of hell. Yikes! No wonder people who have such a view of God prefer not to think of him at all!
A Better Way – a Personal God
Thankfully, there is another option. Jesus, as the fulfillment of all the prophecies about the coming Messiah in the Old Testament, shows us a God who is neither distant nor uncaring. On the contrary, Jesus shows us a God that is, to be certain, disturbed by the mess humanity has made of itself, but instead of shrugging his shoulders and doing nothing to help us make it right, he devises a plan to rescue us. This plan involves having one part of the Trinity–Jesus, the Son–leave heaven to become a regular person for a while. This is the very definition of a personal God.
To that point, Jesus walked among us so he could enter into a relationship with us. He ate dinner with regular people. He camped with his buddies. He had compassion for and healed sick people. He taught ordinary folks right where they were, not requiring them to put on fancy clothes to come to the temple to hear him speak.
The only thing he did that even remotely resembled a religious ritual was to teach people an example of how to pray (known as “the Lord’s Prayer”). And he did this not to provide a formula to get God to do what we want, but to show us that when we talk to God, it’s supposed to be a conversation. I mean, he started it off with the loose equivalent of “Hey Dad”. Of course, he did many other things that have turned into religious rituals, but that was not his intent.
Religion vs. Relationship
All this is to say that Jesus did not come here to start a religion. He came to renew our relationship with God, since we had strayed so far from the way he had intended it to be. Genesis 2 describes Adam and Eve hanging out with God in the Garden of Eden. They truly seemed to enjoy each other’s company.
But the evil one tricked Adam and Eve away from this fellowship with God. And over several millennia, Satan had dragged humanity farther and farther away from Eden. Farther and farther away from God. So far, in fact, that when Jesus came down to walk among us and show us the way back to God, most people failed to recognize him. And many people today are still making the same mistake, with dire eternal consequences.
What looks like a religion to us–what is commonly referred to as Christianity–is mostly a set of rituals that are human interpretations of what we think Jesus told us to do. I am not saying there is anything wrong with fellowshipping with other Followers of Christ (which includes what people usually call “going to church”). What I am saying, though, is that we must not take a good thing like that and make it the ultimate thing. We must not trade a relationship with God for religion, for that is the very thing God wants us to avoid. In fact, that was pretty much the only thing that made Jesus angry during his time on earth–religious people over the centuries had morphed what had started as a relationship with God into a set of hundreds of rules, which were impossible for any ordinary person to follow.
Picture this instead: Jesus sits across the table from you, his piercing gaze disarming you. You’re having dinner with him the night before he is going to be executed. He hands you a piece of warm bread and tells you that it’s his body, and asks you to remember him whenever you have a meal like this. Maybe that doesn’t make a lot of sense to you right now, but you take it and eat it. Then he hands you a cup of wine. It’s his blood, he tells you, which he is spilling for you, to show you the way back to God. He asks you to think of him whenever you drink wine like this in the future. Also a mystery at this point, but you shrug and drink it anyway. He looks you straight in the eye and tells you he has really enjoyed his time with you–that he loves you, in fact–but now he has to go.