Archive | May, 2008

God loves me, God loves me not . . .

This is an email from one of the P&P readers. I asked him if I could share this with you to try to get some help and encouragement.

Michael, I read your “Leaving Christianity” article with great interest. I am 44 years old, and for most of my adult life I have vacillated among steps 1 through 4. Sometimes I think the only reasons I haven’t gone on to step 5 are my family and my fear of being wrong.

My reasons for discouragement as a Christian are caused less by a lack of answers than by a lack of God. I am (mostly) comfortable with the historicity of the Bible, the deity of Christ, and other issues for which there are good apologetics answers. My biggest struggle is that God doesn’t seem to be “there.” When I pray, I never feel like I’m connecting with God, and I just don’t see much in the world that gives me confidence that God really gives a rip. God seems like a character in a book who is real when I read the book, but when I close the book and look around, he’s just not there.

I’ve heard people talking for years about a “personal relationship” with God, and perhaps my problems arise in part because I’ve taken that too literally. I just don’t see God caring very much about (most) human beings in this life. God seems about as relational and caring as the weather, or gravity: interesting subjects to study, and certainly a great influence in our lives, but not quite the same as a father who calls us his children and claims to love us.

I found it ironic that your biography page on the Parchment and Pen blog lists “A Mighty Fortress” as, apparently, a song that you like. I’ve reached the point where I just can’t sing that song, because it feels so false. I used to think that God would essentially protect his children from any major suffering, but I now realize that that is not true. I’ve heard people say that God will not withhold any good thing from those who love him, but I now think it’s more accurate to say that God won’t withhold any bad thing from them, either.

Well, I could ramble on for a while, but you probably get the gist of what I’m saying. If nothing else, Christianity has convinced me that all other world views are false, but it’s getting harder to hold onto Christianity as well.

Where do I go from here? I’m tired of life being so empty and pointless, and I feel let down by promises of “meaning,” “purpose,” and “abundant life” that just fall flat.

Defending the Closet Atheist

I use the word atheist to be provocative. Agnostic might be a better word.

I have an acquaintance who is a closet agnostic, not wanting to disrupt his family and friends. He attends church, sings the hymns, takes communion, but is not at all sure that God exists. He has become settled in this state of mind and heart and only confides in a few individuals—including me, whom he came to know through my book, Walking Away from Faith.

If I know him, why haven’t I argued him back into faith, some would say. I talk about atheism and apologetics in my book and I touch on related issues in an article I wrote in the most recent issue of Mission Frontiers.

People come back to faith most often through their emotions, including music and personal relationships. When someone admits their unbelief, they are regarded as unbelievers—as objects of evangelism—which puts them outside the community of faith.

I defend my acquaintance because I believe he will discover his faith again inside the community of faith—more likely than he would on the outside, hanging out with the atheists.

Two comments come to mind. Madeleine L’Engle who said, With my naked intellect I cannot believe in God. She needed the emotions and community to believe in God. The other comment is from Kathleen Norris who had wandered in unbelief for 20 years: “I came to understand that God hadn’t lost me even if I had seemed for years to have misplaced God.”

So, I defend the closet atheist.

Albania 2008

May 24, 2008: The Center for the Study of New Testament Manuscripts has sent a team to Albania for the second year in a row. Four of us are here in Tirana as I write this. The National Archive opened wide its doors to us today. We began in earnest, setting up the cameras to do UV photography. We had to borrow some poster boards and duct tape them to the windows. By the time we could start shooting with UV photography, everything went at a good clip. We brought two UV lamps which really sped up the process. With one, it can take up to 30 seconds to shoot one page. With two lamps, that was cut down to less than 10 seconds.

The UV photography is necessary for pages that are water damaged, faint from wear, erased by a later scribe, smudged, and the like. Even with our new 21 megapixel camera, such pages cannot be shot successfully without black light.

We were able to photograph more than one fourth of the pages that we are scheduled to shoot this week. We are scheduled to be here only one week, so time is of the essence.

After we finish our duty here, we will fly to Athens next Saturday and take an 8-hour ferry to Patmos. With seventeen (!) large pieces of luggage in tow, this is no picnic.

Please pray for continued mercy from our Lord as we seek to please him in all we do. And pray, if you would, that we could receive donations of frequent flyer miles from friends. The cost of travel has risen considerably since last year’s expeditions, and even checked-in luggage is starting to cost. Our budget this year was based on an anticipated rise in costs, but not one that has gone up as significantly as this. If any of you are interested in donating some miles, please write to miles@csntm.org.

“A Short Defense of Imputation” or “Am I Really Condemned for the Sin of Another?”

The concept of Original Sin has long been a vital part of Christian Orthodoxy, yet is being challenged and redefined by many in the Church today. Some are beginning to question the validity of the traditional Evangelical understanding of the doctrine asking questions of its legitimacy in its current understanding. Most particularly, the doctrine of imputation is being questioned. I will explain what this is after I put some pieces in place.

Perhaps John Calvin defines Original Sin most concisely as “The deprivation of a nature formerly good and pure.” More specifically, from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, it refers to the fall of humanity from its original state of innocence and purity to a state of corruption and guilt (distinguished later). It is the cause of man’s translation from a state of unbroken communion before God to one of spiritual death and condemnation.

The term “Original Sin” is not found in Scripture; Saint Augustine coined it in the 4th century. The primary passage used to defend the doctrine of Original Sin is Romans 5:12-21. Most specifically, Romans 5:12 gives us the most explicit reference to this concept: “Therefore, just as through one man sin entered into the world, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men, because all sinned.” The “one man” is Adam. The “all men” is all of Adam’s posterity—the entire human race.

J.I. Packer clears up a possible misconception and further defines Original Sin:

The assertion of original sin means not that sin belongs to human nature as God made it (God made mankind upright, Ecclesiastes 7:29), nor that sin is involved in the processes of reproduction and birth (the uncleanness connected with menstruation, semen, and childbirth in Leviticus 12 and 15 was typical and ceremonial only, not moral and real), but that . . . sinfulness marks everyone from birth . . . it derives to us in a real . . . mysterious way from Adam, our first representative before God.

This concept is not only hard to understand, but it is also quite disturbing. From the perspective of traditional Evangelicalism as it finds its roots in Augustine, the west has believed that humanity is condemned for Adam’s sin. To state that we are condemned for the sin of another is not only offensive and unfair, but in the mind of most it is also ludicrous. It is because of this that Pascal wrote the following:

Without doubt, nothing is more shocking to our reason than to say that the sin of the first man has implicated in its guilt men so far from the original sin that they seem incapable of sharing it. This flow of guilt does not seem merely impossible to us, but indeed most unjust. What could be more contrary to the rules of our miserable justice than the eternal damnation of a child, incapable of will, for an act in which he seems to have so little part that it was actually committed 6,000 years before he existed? Certainly nothing jolts us more rudely than this doctrine . . .

It certainly does seem unfair for us to be blamed for the sin of another. My little niece used to commit various misdemeanors such as messing up the living room. She would find solace in her younger brother, who was not yet able to speak and defend himself. She would blame him for the mess that she had made, which, of course, was not right. Unfortunately, she got away with it many times before her parents caught on. Because of this, her brother was punished for crimes he did not commit. Is it the same with Adam and humanity? Are we being punished for a sin that we had nothing to do with?

Death, Paul says, is passed down to us from Adam. But there is more to it than that. As Bob Pyne puts it, “We have no problem affirming that all people die, but what did Paul mean when he linked death to sin?” Furthermore, physical death is not the only consequence of Adam’s sin that we inherit. Romans 5:18 states that the transgression of Adam resulted in our condemnation. So then, we are not only destined to die physically because of Adam’s sin, but we are also condemned to eternal death.

Was the sin of Adam transferred to us? If so, how? Are we condemned for the sin of another? Are Pascal’s concerns valid?

Let’s get some basic terminology down so that we can surf this wave with more balance.

Proposed three types of sin:

Personal Sin: Sins committed by the individual. All people have personal sin (Romans 3:23; 1 John 1:10)

Inherited Sin: The physical and spiritual corruption which produces a bent and inclination toward sin and a natural enmity toward God (Eph. 2:3; John 8:44; Jer. 13:23; Ps. 51:5). This sin is mediated (inherited) directly from our parents.

Imputed Sin: God’s immediate declaration of guilt to every individual for the sin of Adam.  This sin is “imputed” (or credited) to all people as if they had committed the sin.

Here is a chart (!) that illustrates these three:

Notice, imputed sin or guilt is directly from Adam (the big guy). Inherited sin begins with Adam but is transmitted by our corrupted nature we inherit directly from our parents. Personal sin is connected only to the individual.

Here is where the traditions fall with regards to these three.

Reformed Evangelicals:

We are totally corrupted physically and spiritually because of Adam’s sin through a mediate transferal from our parents (inherited sin).

Because of this, we all have personal sin.

We are also condemned (pronounced guilty) immediately by God for Adam’s sin (imputed sin). 

This guilt is only resolved through God’s sovereign redemptive action in our lives.

Arminians:

We are totally corrupted physically and spiritually because of Adam’s sin through a mediate transferal from our parents (inherited sin).

Because of this, we all have personal sin.

We are also condemned (pronounced guilty) immediately by God for Adam’s sin (imputed sin) after we sin in a like manner as Adam

This guilt is only resolved through God’s redemptive action in our lives as we respond to Him in faith.

Catholics:

We are corrupted physically and spiritually because of Adam’s sin through a mediate transferal from our parents (inherited sin).

Because of this, we all have personal sin.

We are also condemned (pronounced guilty) immediately by God for Adam’s sin (imputed sin). 

This guilt is only resolved through baptism.

Orthodox:

We are corrupted physically and spiritually for Adam’s sin through a mediate transferal from our parents (inherited sin).

Because of this, we all have personal sin.

We do not, however, have Adam’s guilt imputed to us.

Short History of Original Sin

The doctrine of Original Sin was not adequately dealt with among the early Church Fathers. This is not surprising as issues were only dealt with as problems arose. Once controversy challenged “orthodoxy,” orthodoxy had to define itself. Before the challenge and theological articulation, as with many issues, simple biblical language was used without interpretation (e.g. see Nicene Creed on the church and the Holy Spirit). 

Pelagianism

The first time substantial discussion arose was at the time of Augustine (354-430). Augustine held that man is unable to do any good because man is inherently depraved. Augustine believed that all men are born with a predisposition to sin. This is what led him to his strong promotion of the necessity of predestination. “Give what thou command,” said Augustine, “and command what thou wilt.”

At this time, believing Augustine’s position to be unfair and extreme, a British monk named Pelagius (c. 354- after 418) denied that sin was passed on from Adam to the human race. As to his interpretation of Romans 5:12, Pelagius believed that, “As Adam sinned and therefore died so in a like manner all men die because they sin.” According to Pelagius, we inherit Adam’s sin neither by imputation of guilt nor by nature. The only effect that Adam had on the human race is the example he set. In the view of Pelagius, all men are born neutral in a like manner to Adam with no predisposition to evil. Pelagius was eventually condemned by two African councils in 416 and by the council of Ephesus in 431 which affirmed both inherited and imputed sin. All major orthodox tratitions of Christianity reject Pelagianism. In spite of his condemnation, the Pelagian doctrine of sin is still prominent in the Church today. It seems to be the “default” position of sin for all people.

Arminians

Jacob Arminius believed that all men are considered guilty only when they partake in sin by their own free will in the same manner as Adam did. As one writer put it, “When people would voluntarily and purposefully choose to sin even though they had power to live righteously then, and only then, would God impute sin to them and count them guilty.” Therefore, the sinful state is transmitted by natural generation, while the condemnation for the actual sin is only transmitted by partaking of sin in a like manner. (This is not necessarily held by all Arminians today. Some would opt for the Fedral view below).

Augustinianism

Many theologians have proposed a theory called Augustinianism (also called “realism” or “seminalism”). This theory has traditionally been linked with Augustine and has most recently been staunchly defended by Shedd. According to an Augustinian interpretation of Romans 5:12, “all sinned” in that all humanity was physically present in Adam when he sinned. Those who hold to the Augustinian view of Original Sin insist that we can be held accountable only for what we have actually done. As Shedd puts it, “The first sin of Adam, being a common, not an individual sin, is deservedly and justly imputed to the posterity of Adam upon the same principle which all sin is deservingly and justly imputed: Namely, that it was committed by those to whom it is imputed.” This view is attractive in that it takes literally Paul’s statement that “all sinned.”

Federalism

The federal view of humanity’s relationship to Adam proposes that Adam was selected by God to be humanity’s federal representative. This view was first proposed by Cocceius (1603-1669) and is the standard belief of Reformed theology. As Achan’s family was held responsible for his sin (Joshua 7:16-26), so it is with Adam’s family. By this view, the “all sinned” of Romans 5:12 would not be taken literally. As one writer puts it, “No one but Adam actually committed that first sin, but since Adam represented all people, God viewed all as involved and thus condemned. The reason that Adam’s sin is imputed to his posterity according to the federalist is because God imputes the guilt of Adam, whom He chose to represent mankind, to mankind.”

Romans 5:12-21

As some have wisely said, if Romans 5:12-21 were never penned, the doctrine of imputation would not be an issue. While I don’t agree, I do think that Romans 5 represents the clearest and most theologically precise argument for the necessity of imputation. Here is the passage for reference.

12 Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned— 13 for sin indeed was in the world before the law was given, but sin is not counted where there is no law. 14 Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam, who was a type of the one who was to come.

15 But the free gift is not like the trespass. For if many died through one man’s trespass, much more have the grace of God and the free gift by the grace of that one man Jesus Christ abounded for many. 16 And the free gift is not like the result of that one man’s sin. For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation, but the free gift following many trespasses brought justification. 17 For if, because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man, much more will those who receive the abundance of grace and the free gift of righteousness reign in life through the one man Jesus Christ.

18 Therefore, as one trespass [5] led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness [6] leads to justification and life for all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The way in which one interprets this passage will determine which of the options presented thus far, if any, is adopted. The context of the passage has Paul explaining the believer’s position in Christ by comparing it to our former position in Adam. The subject of the section is not the transgression, but the free gift (v. 15). Paul uses the analogy of Adam’s sin and compares it to the free gift of Christ’s righteousness.

The meaning of the phrase, “because all sinned” in verse 12 (NAS) is the initial and primary subject of debate. What is the meaning of “all sinned”? Most commentators would argue that it is very difficult to interpret the “all sinned” as an act of personal choice (contra Pelagius and Arminius). Why? Because of the force of the verb tense; it is likely a historic aorist (past tense referring back to the sin of Adam). If the Pelagian or Arminian interpretation were correct, the present tense would have been a much better choice for Paul in this context. Then it would naturally read, “Because all sin.” Then we could answer the question “Why are all people condemned?” with “Because all people sin.” But this is not the case here in Romans. The force of the verb has caused every translation that I know, except the NJB (a Catholic translation), to translate this passage “all sinned” with the implied referent to the being Adam’s sin. Therefore, we are connected with the past sin of Adam.

If this is correct, what Paul is saying is that when Adam sinned, we all sinned. As Leon Morris has it, “The aorist [tense] points to one act, the act of Adam; we would expect the present or the imperfect [tense] if the Apostle were thinking of the continuing sins of all people.”

It should be noted that the historic aorist is used in Romans 2:23 in a similar but not identical way and is translated “all have sinned.” Notice there that the context only leaves room for the past tense referent to be the sin of the individual. This is brought up so that you can understand how the context of Romans 5:12 plays a determining role.

Verse 12 attempts to begin the comparison of Adam with Christ but Paul then feels inclined to break off on one of his all-too-common parenthetical statements in verses 13-14 to defend his statement “because all sinned.” This is important because Paul’s understanding of what “all sinned” means is wrapped up in his defense which follows. Verse 13 begins with the conjunction “for” (gar). This links it with the previous statement, “because all sinned.” It is as if someone got the impression that Paul was stating that all people sin and, therefore, all people die as a consequence of their own sin. At this point (v. 13), Paul says that before the Law, there was sin. But people did not die on account of these personal sins, because they were not imputed as sin (”but sin is not imputed when there is no law” v. 13). Then the objection may be “How do you explain that all people still died before the law?” Paul is saying that the reason people died before they commit an act of sin is because they are suffering the consequences of a sin already committed. They died not for personal sin, but for imputed sin. This sin was the sin of Adam. All people die because of the one sin of Adam. Otherwise, how do you explain the fact that all people die? Physical death is the first and most visible evidence of our identification with the condemnation of Adam.

With death being introduced through the avenue of Adam’s sin, we need to understand what death means. This death is most certainly to be seen as both spiritual and physical considering Pauline theology (Eph. 2:2ff). Therefore, the condemnation to which all suffer as a result in our participation in Adam’s sin is both spiritual and physical with the spiritual being evidenced by the physical (v. 13).

Lest you think I am saying too much with regards to the subject, let us press on and see how the context will provide further evidence that Paul is speaking about imputed sin or guilt. Paul returns to his comparison to expound further. This comparison is between two things:

1. The effects of Adam’s sin
2. The effects of Christ’s righteousness

Whatever one does with Christ’s righteousness, one must do with Adam’s sin. First let us draw out the comparison so that it might be better seen.

Through Adams Sin | Through Christ’s Righteousness
Judgment (16) Free gift (16)
Condemnation (16) Justification (16)
Death Reigned (17) Life Reigned (17)
One Transgression=Condemnation of all (18) One Act of Righteousness=Justification of all (18)
Adam’s disobedience=many were made sinners (19) Christ’s obedience=many were made righteous (19)

The comparison is unmistakable. Whatever we do to inherit the free gift is the same thing we did to inherit judgment (v. 16). This is the force of the “just as” (hosper) in v. 12. Whatever we do to receive justification is the same thing we did to receive condemnation (v. 16). The effects of the “one act of righteousness” are brought about by the same means as the “condemnation of all men” (v. 18). The way in which believers are made righteous is analogous to the way all mankind was made sinners (v. 19). In order to answer the question as to how it is that “all sinned” and all were condemned in Adam, we must answer the question as to how Christ’s righteousness is applied to us to the end that we are justified by that righteousness.

If we were to adopt the view as held by Pelagius, that Adam’s sin has no effect upon us whatsoever and that only his example has given us trouble, this means that Christ’s righteousness has no effect upon us either. He simply came to set the example. But this is not what the text teaches. It states that the many were made sinners and that the many were made righteous. The effect of these two men’s acts goes far beyond that of an example.

If we were to say, as some Arminians do, that we have Adam’s sin imputed to us only when we act in the same manner as Adam did, then we must state that we have Christ’s righteousness imputed to us only when we act as Christ acted. This cannot be true seeing as how we inherit Christ’s righteousness while we are sinners (Rom 5:8, 10).

If one were to opt for a purely Augustinian interpretation of the passage, in that we all actually and realistically sinned in Adam, then we would also have to concede that we all actually and realistically were righteous in Christ. This, of course, will not do, for the analogy would be rendered meaningless and would contradict Paul’s doctrine of justification by faith (Rom 3:28; Eph 2:8-9).

Paul is attempting to explain our relationship to Christ’s righteousness by comparing it to the imputation of Adam’s sin to us. This relationship, in my opinion, is best seen in the federal headship view of imputation. As Doug Moo puts it, “Throughout this whole passage what Adam did and what Christ did are steadily held over against each other. Now salvation in Christ does not mean that we merit salvation by living good lives; rather, what Christ has done is significant. Just so, death in Adam does not mean that we are being punished for our own evil deeds; it is what Adam has done that is significant.”

Adam, as our chosen federal head, has represented us and passed on sin and all of its consequences. Christ, as the second Adam, represents those who believe and passes on righteousness along with all its benefits. Christ’s righteousness is imputed to us without any participation of our own, just as Adam’s sin is imputed to us without our consent.

Here is what this looks like:

On the next blog we will deal with some of the implications and I will attempt to explain how this really can and does make sense.  Remember through all of this that the palatability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity.

“Will One Sin Really Send You to Hell for All Eternity?” or “Why is Hell Eternal?”

I have heard this since I was a very young Christian. It seemed somewhat reasonable as it was explained to me by pastors in sermons and by Christians as they explained the seriousness of sin. The claim goes something like this:

All sin is so bad that even the smallest of sins deserves eternal punishment in hell. It does not matter if it is losing your temper at a lousy referee, not sharing your Icee, or speeding 36 in a 35, every sin deserves eternal torment in Hell. Why? Although it may seem unreasonable to us (as depraved as we are), it is fitting for a perfectly holy God who cannot be in the site of sin, no matter how insignificant this sin might seem to us. In fact, there is no sin that is insignificant to God. Because He is infinitely holy, beyond our understanding, all sin is infinitely offensive to Him. Therefore, the punishment for all sin must be infinite.

I have to be very careful here since I am going against what has become the popular evangelical way to present the Gospel, but I don’t believe this is true. Not only do I not buy it, I think this, like the idea that all sins are equal in the site of God, is damaging to the character of God, the significance of the cross, and I believe it trivializes sin. Let me explain.

First off, I don’t know of a passage in the Bible that would suggest such a radical view. It would seem that people make this conclusion this way:

Premise 1: Hell is eternal
Premise 2: All people that go there are there for eternity
Premise 3: Not all people have committed the same number or the same degree of sins
Conclusion: All sin, no matter how small, will send someone to hell for all eternity

The fallacy here is that this syllogism is a non-sequitur (the conclusion does not follow from the premises). Could it be that people are in Hell for all eternity based upon who they are rather than what they have done?

Think about this. Many of us believe that Christ’s atonement was penal substitution. This means that it was a legal trade. God counted the sufferings of Christ and that which transpired on the Cross as payment for our sins, each and every one. Therefore, we believe that Christ took the punishment that we deserved. But there is a problem. We are saying that we deserve eternal Hell for one single sin, no matter how small. I don’t know about you, but I have committed enough sins to give me more than my share of life sentences. I have committed sins of the”insignificant” variety (I speed everyday) and significant variety (no description necessary!). So, if Christ were only to take my penalty and if I deserve thousands upon thousands of eternities in hell, why didn’t Christ spend at least one eternity in Hell? Why is it that he was off the Cross in six hours, payment made in full? Combine my sentence with your sentence. Then combine ours with the cumulative sentences of all believers of all time. Yet Christ only suffers for a short time? How do we explain this?

You may say to me that I cannot imagine the intensity of suffering that Christ endured while he was on the cross. You may say that the mysterious transaction that took place was worse than eternity in Hell. I would give you the first, but I will have to motivate you to reconsider the second. Think about it. Do you really believe that the person who has been in hell for 27 billion years with 27 billion more times infinity would not look to the sufferings of Christ and say, “You know what? Christ’s six hours of suffering was bad. It is indeed legendary. But I would trade what I am going through any day for six hours, no matter how horrifying it would be.” You see, what makes hell so bad is not simply the intensity of suffering, but the duration. Christ did not suffer eternally, so there must be something more to this substitution idea and there must be something more to sin.

I believe that Christ did pay our penalty. I believe that hell is eternal. But I don’t believe that one sin sends people to hell for eternity. Sin is trivialized in our day. Sin is first something that we do, not something that we are. In other words, people think of God sitting on the throne becoming enraged (in a holy sort of way) each time that someone breaks the speed limit. It is only the cross of Christ that makes Him look past the eternally damning sin and forgive us. Don’t think that I am undermining the severity of sin, but I am trying to bring focus to the real problem that has infected humanity since the Garden.

The real problem is that we are at enmity with God. From the moment we are born, we inherit the traits of our father Adam. This infectious disease is called sin. This disease issues forth into a disposition toward God that causes us to begin life with our fist in the air, not recognizing His love for us or authority over us. It is rebellion. While this rebellion does act according to its nature, the problem is in the disposition, not so much the acts. When we sin, we are just acting according to the dictates of our corrupt nature. But the worst of it—the worst sin of all—is that we will never lower our fist to God. We are “by nature, children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3) and as a leopard cannot change his spots, so we cannot change our rebellious disposition toward our Creator (Jer. 13:23).

This disposition is that of a fierce enemy that cannot do anything but fight against its foe. Paul describes this:

Romans 8:7-8 For the mind that is set on the flesh is hostile to God, for it does not submit to God’s law; indeed, it cannot. Those who are in the flesh cannot please God.

We are of the “flesh,” therefore we commit deeds according to the flesh. Does this mean that the person in this state does no good at all? Well, it depends on what you mean by “good.” Can an enemy of God love his neighbor? Of course. Enemies of God can and do all sorts of acts that the Bible would consider virtuous. But from the standpoint of their relationship with God, they cannot do any good at all (Rom. 3:12). Giving a drink to someone who is thirsty with the left hand while having your right hand in a fist clinched toward heaven does not count as “good” before God. Why? Because we are in rebellion against Him. This is our problem.

This I propose is the only sin that keeps people in Hell for all eternity.

It is important to understand that hell not is filled with people who are crying out for God’s mercy, constantly hoping for a second chance. People are in hell because they have the same disposition toward God that they had while they were walking the earth. They do not suddenly, upon entrance into Hell, change their nature and become sanctified. They still hate God. People are in hell for all eternity, not because they floated a stop sign, but because their fists are still clinched toward God. They are not calling on His mercy. They are not pleading for a second chance. They are in hell for all eternity because that is where they would rather be. It is their nature. As C.S. Lewis once said, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

Christ, on the other hand, was the second Adam. He did not identify with the first either in disposition or choice. He gained the right to be called the second Adam who would represent His people (Rom. 5:12ff). He is not spending eternity in Hell because he was never infected with the sinful nature which caused him to be at enmity with God. His fist was never clinched toward the heavens.

Will one white-lie send someone to Hell for all eternity? No! To say otherwise trivializes sin and makes God an overly sensitive cosmic torture monger. Sin does send people to Hell. People will be punished for their sins accordingly. But the sin that keeps people in Hell for all eternity is the sin of perpetual rebellion.

Oprah's Millions of Paths to God: Dealing with Religious Diversity

I just returned from a weekend in beautiful San Juan Capistrano, California. I spoke at The Case for the Real Jesus conference, which was centered on Lee Strobel’s recent book by the same title. Reclaiming the Mind Ministries colleague Dan Wallace was there, and we enjoyed some great late-evening dinnertime conversation together. Dan spoke on the reliability of the New Testament text. As he did at the recent Greer-Heard Forum at which we both presented, he pointed out the startling contrast in textual scholar Bart Ehrman’s approaches to popular-level audiences, on the one hand, and to scholarly audiences on the other. Ehrman is misleading when writing to popular audiences, but more sober-minded and conservative to the scholarly. To the former, he suggests that Christian doctrines such as the Trinity and Incarnation are affected by variant textual readings and that the fact that there are more textual variants than there are words in the New Testament should lead us to skepticism regarding its reliability. To the latter, however, he has (in his work with his esteemed late mentor at Princeton, Bruce Metzger) argued that the New Testament’s textual reliability is sound. In fact, in his paperback (i.e., post-hardcover) edition of Misquoting Jesus, he had to qualify his popular-level skepticism by inserting that essential Christian beliefs are not affected by textual variants in the manuscript tradition of the New Testament and that this position doesn’t stand at odds with Metzger’s. By the way, Lee Strobel had interviewed Metzger for The Case for Christ, where Metzger clearly stated that his Christian faith had been strengthened—not weakened—through the abundant and reliable New Testament manuscripts available to us. (If you want to read further, see Dan Wallace’s article on this Ehrman: http://www.bible.org/page.php?page_id=3452.)

Sean McDowell, who also helped organize the conference, did a great job addressing the topic of Christianity’s allegedly being a “copycat religion” of Mediterranean mystery cults. If anything, it was the Christian faith that had an influence on these other religions! (In addition to Lee’s Real Jesus book, see Ronald Nash’s Gospel and the Greeks for a thorough refutation.) According to New Testament historian N.T. Wright, efforts to find parallels between Christianity and these mystery religions “have failed, as virtually all Pauline scholars now recognize,” and to do so “is an attempt to turn the clock back in a way now forbidden by the most massive and learned studies on the subject (What Saint Paul Really Said, 172, 173).

Of course, Lee Strobel was also there. He told his own story of how he, as an atheist, investigated the claims and evidences surrounding Jesus life and ministry, and this investigation resulted in the real, historical Jesus’ transforming his life!

I guess it’s starting to look like my blog is a report on the conference! Actually, I do want to write about some of the things I spoke on this past weekend. I addressed the topic of religious pluralism—the idea that all (ethical) religions, though culturally-conditioned, are equally capable of bringing salvation or liberation, which is evidenced by the production of “saints” in the various religions—Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, or the Dalai Lama. My talk began by citing Oprah Winfrey, who claimed on her show that it’s a big mistake to believe there is just one way to salvation: “There are millions of ways to be a human being and many paths to what you call ‘God’; . . . there couldn’t possibly be just one way” (February 15, 2007).

In my next blog, I’ll offer a few critical responses to religious pluralism. One of those criticisms is that religious pluralists surely don’t act as though their view is merely culturally-conditioned. They seem to assume that they’ve risen above their own cultural conditioning to give us the actual, objective scoop on religions. (Just as pluralists say, “If you grew up in Saudi Arabia, you’d probably be a Muslim,” we could reply, “And if you grew up in a society of religious pluralists, you’d probably be a religious pluralist.” It’s hard to know what conclusion to draw from the “geography argument.”) Religious pluralists sound quite similar—indeed, logically equivalent—to orthodox Christianity, which claims that God has broken through the confusions of cultural conditioning to reveal himself in Christ! Oprah is basically saying, “All roads lead to ‘God,’ and all those who think otherwise about this point are wrong.”

Well, back to a few points on religious diversity! Next time I’ll look at some concerns with religious pluralism itself.) When trying to come to grips with the uniqueness of Christ in the face of the world’s religious, we should first remember that all truth is God’s truth — whether within the Christian faith or outside it. Some Christians make the mistake that if God’s revelation in Christ is wholly true, then all other religions are 100% false. This is inaccurate. Romans 2:14-15 reminds us that Christians and non-Christians can agree about a lot of moral truths since we’ve all been made in God’s image. Consider Paul’s exemplary communication at Athens. In Acts 17, Paul cited pagan (Stoic) thinkers who spoke of God as the Creator and Sustainer, who is not contained by man-made temples. So Christians should pay attention to commonalities and bridges with other religionists by affirming God-originated truth when we come across it. Buddhists or Confucians believe in honoring parents or in religious freedom. Muslims maintain that an eternally existent God created the universe, with which Christians readily agree. Christians can work together with Muslims or Buddhists in opposing tyranny and oppression throughout the world. Because all persons are God’s image-bearers, Christians can affirm that the poor or illiterate need to be helped without making basic aid or education contingent on receiving the gospel.

We can add that that Christ truly fulfills the deepest longings of all religions—the need for grace, hope, forgiveness, and purification; the need to connect with the transcendent and immortality, and so forth. Rather than focusing on trying to “refute” religions (although there is a place for discussing truth and error in religious beliefs), Christians haven’t been very good about understanding other religious perspectives sufficiently to graciously show how Christ comes as the answer to the intellectual resources, weighty problems, and felt needs raised by these religions.

Second, non-Christians who think Christians are narrow-minded for believing in Jesus’ uniqueness need to remember that he spoke of it first. Non-Christians who are offended by claims that Jesus is the only Savior need to know that this claim originated with Jesus; Christians didn’t make this up. The earliest Christians were simply faithfully abiding by the implications of Jesus’ identity claims, his authoritative actions, and his resurrection from the dead (for example, Matthew 11:27; John 14:6; compare Acts 4:10; 1 Corinthians 8:6; 2 Corinthians 5:19). The critic must ultimately contend with Jesus’ own authoritative and staggering identity claims—not with Christians who take his them seriously.

Third, religious dialogue requires equal respect, not equality of belief. Here is a common interfaith scenario: Christians are invited to prayer breakfasts, dialogues, and panel discussions, but they’re told that they can’t pray in Jesus’ name or mention Jesus’ uniqueness because this might offend Jews or Muslims. But isn’t that restriction offensive to Christians? Why is it permissible to offend Christians but not Jews and Muslims? After all, Christians don’t know how to pray except in the name of Jesus. So a Christian invited to such events needs to be allowed to pray as a Christian, not as a Deist praying to some generic deity. In dialogue, he needs to graciously speak as a Christian rather than accept a lowest-common-denominator approach to the discussion.

Religious dialogue must begin with the equality of persons, not belief. Participants can discuss their individual views and experiences openly, and all sides can benefit from empathetically listening to clarify views and to prevent the creation of caricatures and stereotypes (James 1:19 reminds us to be “quick to listen, slow to speak”). Furthermore, each participant should be allowed to give publicly-accessible reasons for believing what he does.

Fourth, religion—including idolatrous conceptions of God within Christendom—may prevent people from knowing the living God. As with many religious leaders in Jesus’ day, religiosity may hinder people from salvation and from savingly encountering God. In India, I have witnessed Hindu festivals in which people cut and gouge their bodies. Rather than being “happy as they are,” many religionists live in bondage to evil spirits or are oppressed by karma, bound by superstition, and paralyzed by fear of death. The true Christian, who has experienced grace, forgiveness, and hope, shouldn’t be arrogant when passing on the good news. Rather, she should be like one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread—indeed, the Bread of life (John 6:35)! As one Muslim convert to Christ declared, “The more I see of the world’s religions, the more beautiful Jesus appears to me.”

Conversations with an Atheist Concerning the Irrationality of Atheistic Rational

Dear Atheist,

Having discussed the God questions with you for quite some time, it would seem that we have come to an impasse in our conclusions concerning the evidence that the universe provides. I, on one hand, have argued that the intricacies of the universe from cosmology and biology compel any honest observer to the conclusion that there is a self-existent, all-powerful, intelligent, and personal force behind its genesis. As you said, and I agree, this does not necessitate the God of the Scriptures being this creator, but, upon concession, it would create common ground between you and I with regards to the existence and nature of the creator.

Unfortunately, common ground has not been created. You did not concede to my compelling but responded with many counter arguments of your own, explaining that your view of naturalism was the simplest most reasoned explanation. You concluded, therefore, “There is no need for a God hypothesis to explain the genesis of the universe. The rational arguments for atheism/naturalism should compel people to abandon belief in God.”

Your last letter had many counter arguments which led you to this rationale. I do wish to respond to these in time. Please forgive me, however, as I want to stop and examine something more expedient at this point. I want to deal with what I believe to be a self-defeating premise upon which your arguments stand.

My proposal for your consideration is this: To make a rational argument that people should not believe in a creator is self-defeating for two reasons: 1) There is no such thing as “rational argument” in your worldview and 2) There can be no place for moral statements such as “should” or “ought” in your worldview.

1) There is no such thing as a “rational argument” in your worldview.

You said in a previous letter that the universe came about by chance and that there was no personal agency behind its creation. You also said that “Chaos cancels creation” and that “Chaos is the foundation of the universe, not God.” If I were to grant this proposition, then I would out of necessity have to reject your arguments since they become necessarily chaotic.

Let me explain.

You define your arguments as “rational.” Rational is defined as “agreeable to reason; reasonable; sensible.” Reason is defined as the ability “to form conclusions, judgments, or inferences from facts or premises.” An argument is made when the reasons for a position are explained in a compelling manner. The problem with positioning your stance in such a way is that it assumes that which it denies. If the genesis of existence has no reason or order, then the effect will carry the same attributes (remember, the effect cannot be greater than the cause). Yet you are saying that reason (the effect) came from chaos (the cause)? Rational arguments, in your worldview, can only amount to a conventional interpretation of the data that is subjectively held, but not universal truth. In other words, your “rational arguments” are not really rational at all. They are devoid of the power that they assume. All you are left with is the statement, “This is true for me according to my conventions that are random and chaotic, but it is not universally true in any way.” If this is the case, then a “rational argument” is not possible. In other words, you are borrowing from my theistic worldview where rational arguments are possible because of order and design. You use a theistic system in order to make your arguments against theism! This is self-defeating.

2) There is no place for moral statements such as “should” or “ought” in your worldview.

This is closely tied to the previous argument, but approaches it a little differently. If you believe that all that exists today is the result of a meaningless chaotic explosion 14 billion years ago, and that there was no personal agency then or now, then we are all destined to a worldview of fatalism. Fatalism is “the doctrine that all events are subject to fate or inevitable predetermination.” “Fate” is defined as “something that unavoidably befalls a person; fortune; lot.” The key here is “unavoidable.” Just like when a billiard ball hits another ball which starts a necessary (unavoidable) chain reaction without a personal determining agency, so also, according to your naturalistic worldview, all events that have transpired since the big bang are just as necessary (or unavoidable). There is no outside determining cause of the events. No freedom in any sense. As some people have put it “Naturalism has nothing outside the box.” All that is in the box is fatalistically due to a series of molecules bumping into each other. We may be billions of years beyond the first “strike of the ball” but we are still caught up in the motions having not only who we are, but why we are who we are determined by fate. Therefore, according to your worldview, there is no such thing as “should” or “ought,” only “is.” You are the way you are necessarily, not because of any good, wise, or rational decisions that you have made. Since all things are fatalistic, being determined by the first strike of the ball, you have no real “self-determinism.”

In order for you to come to the conclusions that you have and say that others “should” follow in the same suit, you would have to presuppose that they can, by their own self-determined free will, change their mind and do what they are morally compelled to do. But, once again, in order to have this type of expectation or demand, you would have to assume that chaos and fate are not the foundation for creation. You would have to assume either divine determinism of some sort or the divine gift of self-determinism. In other words, you are borrowing from my theistic worldview once again to make your argument! Therefore, once again, your argument is self-defeating.

I believe that you are intelligent because my worldview allows it even if yours cannot recognize intelligence! I believe that you “ought” to submit to God because my worldview allows for moral obligations even if yours cannot.

For a much more thorough presentation of this same type of argument, I suggestion you listen to Alvin Plantinga’s interview on Converse with Scholars called An Evolutionary Argument Against Naturalism.

You can find it here. (Please forgive me as the audio is not the best. You get used to it after a while.)

Evolutionary Argument Against Atheism

I pray that this conversation is stimulating you to think more deeply about the presuppositions that you hold.

Truly,

Michael Patton