Evil: Part of an Exquisite Poem

July 29, 2015

C. S. Lewis coined a phrase, “Chronological snobbery”.  This phrase comes to mind when I encounter atheists who seem to think anyone who lived before the mid 1800’s was an intellectual simpleton.  They seem to think that in the past, religion went unchallenged but, finally, we modern sophisticates have discovered the intellectual big guns to shoot it to bits.

The reality is, Christians have been aware of, and engaged with, intellectual challenges to their faith since almost the very beginning.

To illustrate, I turn to Augustine, the inspiration for this post.  Augustine was a notable North African Christian who died in the year 430.  Augustine touched on the “problem of evil” in a passage that runs, in part, thus:

For God would never have created any, I do not say angel, but even man, whose future wickedness He foreknew, unless He had equally known to what uses in behalf of the good He could turn him, thus embellishing the course of the ages, as it were an exquisite poem set off with antitheses. – Augustine, City of God, Book 11, Chapter 18.


Why does God allow suffering (and other difficult things in life)?

July 17, 2012

A world without difficulties is a world without champions.

I don’t mean to trivialize suffering, or to give a trite answer, but think about it.  If there was nothing to overcome, there wouldn’t be anyone who had overcome.  We’d lack champions and heroes.  Our stories would lack conflict, and conflict resolved.  Victory would be a word without meaning.  Perhaps in suffering, God allows humans to foreshadow, in their own small victories, that Great Victory that will be His alone, already begun, but yet to come.

Do You Want to Live the Good Life?

February 11, 2011

Upward Basketball Devotional, Feb 12, 2011, John 14:6


So I started thinking about prayer and the sorts of things we ask God for.

We don’t ask for bad things. We don’t ask God to make us miss every basket we shoot for, or to give us the flu, or to take our jobs away.

No, we ask God for good things. We ask for things like making a few baskets in our game – for success. We ask for good health. We ask for a new job when we’re unemployed. We ask for all kinds of good things. So let’s think, what is highest or greatest good that we could ask God for?

How about asking God to give us himself? After all, what can be better than having God? Think about it. What friend could top God? God has more power than any President or king. He knows more than any genius; he knows everything there is to know. When it comes to art or beauty, God didn’t just paint a landscape or sunrise, He created them. God is richer than anyone; He owns everything. And how about being famous? Who hasn’t heard of God?

It’s true that God wants to give us good things, but what he wants most of all is to give us the very best: Himself. He doesn’t want to be our slave, a genie in the bottle, waiting around to grant our next wish. He wants to have a relationship with us. So what has he done about it? Well, He sent us Jesus.

In our verse this week, Jesus said, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father but through me.” Jesus told us he is the way to the Father. Following Jesus is following the path to the highest, greatest good, to the most excellent being there is – God.

Jesus also told us he is the truth. God wants us to know the truth. He wants us to know that He really loves us and that He wants us to come to Him and have a relationship with Him. Jesus is the proof of that. Jesus shows us the truth about God.

Now, imagine for a moment that you live in a small hut, and work at hard labor all day long everyday. Then, suddenly, you’re made wealthy and find yourself lying on the beach on a beautiful, tropical island. You might say to yourself, “Now this is the life!” You might look back on your former life and say that wasn’t living at all.

Jesus told us he is the life. If we don’t have Jesus, we don’t have life. Life without God isn’t just a worse life, it isn’t life at all; it’s death. When good things come into our lives, they enrich our lives. When God comes into our lives, we become truly alive for the first time; for the first time we can truly say, “Now this is living!”

Do you want to live the good life? The good life is life with God, and Jesus is the way.

Christmas: Celebrating the Light

December 9, 2010

What does Christmas have to do with light? Christmas lights? Winter solstice? How about the unveiling of the light – the light of the world?

I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life. -Jesus, Gospel of John 8:12

Jesus once spoke of a wide gate, opening onto an easy road. What is an easy road like? No potholes. No hills. Nothing to get in your way or to hinder your progress. The outlook is sunny and you feel good. You travel at your pleasure. Jesus contrasted this with a narrow gate, opening onto a hard road. On this road, you struggle to make progress. Obstacles loom large. Hills must be climbed, slowly, tediously. Travel is exhausting. In calling our attention to these two alternative paths, Jesus is warning us against the hard road, isn’t he? Naturally, God would want us to walk the easy road, wouldn’t he? What may shock us is that Jesus says the easy road leads to destruction while the hard road leads to life. Contrary to what we might have expected, Jesus says, “Enter by the narrow gate!” He actually tells us to take the hard road! Perhaps because he knows our tendency to find comfort in majority opinions, Jesus also warns us that many take the easy road while few find the hard road. Time for a location check. Is your spiritual GPS turned on? Which road are you traveling on today? Are you one of the many, or one of the few? How do you know?

Well, how do you know whether you are on the right road? You look down the road and see if Jesus is walking the same road ahead of you. Quite simply, you check whether you are following Jesus. How do you know whether you are following Jesus? You learn what he did, what he taught, why he came, what he cared about. You can’t follow Jesus without knowing Jesus, and there’s only one way to do that – read the Bible. If you have never read the Bible, I would suggest reading any of the gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John) and then following that up by reading the book of Acts, but don’t stop there.

There are only two roads.  Following Jesus is Life.  Going it your own way is Destruction.

Thoughts on Koran-Burning

September 8, 2010

In the news: pastor plans to burn Korans

I do not intend to support the burning of Korans.  First, burning books is only useful if the book is truly harmful and you have realistic chances of burning every last copy; otherwise, it is merely a symbolic act.  Second, what good can come of this?  This is not how you persuade people that Islam is evil or just plain wrong.  These things aside, there are some interesting observations to be made in relation to this story.

Various people are concerned that this would incite violence against Americans in the Muslim world.  First of all, we shouldn’t care what radical Muslims think about this, since they’ll be trying to kill us regardless.  Are we then afraid of the actions of “moderate” Muslims?  If we are, then we should ask whether they are really moderate, because it seems anyone who kills over an insult is hardly a moderate anything.  Beyond that, it would be rather hypocritical for moderate Muslims to insist on not being lumped in with radical Muslims while at the same time lumping together all Americans with a small church that burns some Korans.

There is also the usual religious pluralism nonsense at work, demonstrated by the Gainesville mayor, who declared September 11th, “Interfaith Solidarity Day”.  That would be solidarity with everyone except those of the faith who are planning to burn Korans.  On what principle are these people standing in solidarity?  The principle that no religion should criticize another religion?  Surely the world would be a better place if all criticism were done away with.  Never mind whether something is true or not.  I suppose this principle of non-criticism must be what David Axelrod had in mind when he said burning the Korans was “not right.  It’s not consistent with our values”.  I actually thought that having the freedom to show your contempt for something that you considered wrong was one of our values.

We also should not fail to appreciate the Muslim response to all of this.  A candidate for the Afghan parliament was quoted as saying, “If this happens, I think the first and most important reaction will be that wherever Americans are seen, they will be killed. No matter where they will be in the world they will be killed.”  By calling the reaction “first and most important” I conclude he isn’t merely predicting what will happen but what ought to happen.  This is a wonderful proof that the Koran does not deserve to be burned.  I sure hope this guy falls into the “radical” category.

Then we have Eric Holder who calls the whole thing idiotic.  So, if you publicly criticize Islam, you may have the Attorney General calling you an idiot.  And, finally, we have some comments from State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley.   According to Crowley, the administration is hoping that Americans will rise up and condemn the planned burning.  Why should we?  It certainly isn’t an insult to me, and I frankly don’t think it is necessary for everyone from Joe Smith on up to the President to call out someone for throwing around insults, however nasty they may be.  Crowley went on to say not only that the burning is “inconsistent with our American values” and “un-American” but, moreover, that it is “consistent with the radicals and religious bigots who attacked us on 9/11.”  Hold on!  So there’s a moral equivalence between murdering a few thousand people and throwing around insults?  This is a truly outrageous statement.   Crowley, however, made his gravest error when he said the burning was “a divisive potential act of disrespect to one of the world’s great religions.”  In point of fact, Islam is not great.

Should This Be the Last Generation?

June 13, 2010

Peter Singer is Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. He raised this question in a NY Times Opinionator blog post: Should This Be the Last Generation?

Singer ultimately answers no to this question:

I do think it would be wrong to choose the non-sentient universe. In my judgment, for most people, life is worth living. Even if that is not yet the case, I am enough of an optimist to believe that, should humans survive for another century or two, we will learn from our past mistakes and bring about a world in which there is far less suffering than there is now. But justifying that choice forces us to reconsider the deep issues with which I began. Is life worth living?

So what is his justification for his choice?  Either today or in the relatively near future, we will have a world where there is less suffering.  In other words, on the whole, people will have lives where the joy outweighs the pain, and life will be worth living.

What reasons does Singer give in favor of this being the last generation?  He refers to Schopenhauer who claimed that even the best life is a futile struggle of satisfying our desires.  He refers to Benatar who argues that you can only harm – never benefit – individuals by bringing them into existence, and that “we can be sure that some future children will suffer severely [so that] continued reproduction will harm some children severely, and benefit none”.   According to Benatar, those who believe that lives can be, on balance, good, are merely Pollyannas – “irrepressible optimists” (Webster).  Singer appears to disagree at only one point: he is an unapologetic optimist.  Singer’s ethics are based on the principle of maximizing joy and minimizing suffering.

There are several unstated premises in this article worth noting.   Whether we accept them or not has a significant impact in how we answer the question at hand.

First, there is the assumption that the value of life is rooted in experience: how much suffering versus how much joy one experiences.  A competing premise is that life is valuable because it is the creation of a Creator and it is held valuable by Him, and that human life in particular is valuable because humans resemble that Creator in various ways (we reason, we love, we relate, we create).

Second, there is the assumption that the suffering and joys one experiences are limited to this life.  A competing premise is that our bodies are tents in which eternal souls dwell, and that beyond this life, we have been invited to enjoy inexpressible joy for eternity, dwelling with our Creator.  On this view, any suffering we experience in this life is nothing compared to the joy that is ours, just for the asking, in the life to come.

Third, there is the underlying assumption that it is not necessarily a good, indeed it may even be evil, to “be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth”.  The biblical view is that doing this is positively a good thing (Genesis 1:28).

Other issues I would raise are:

  • The events that bring suffering into a person’s life are confused with the creation of that life.  To give a person existence is not the same as inflicting all the suffering on them that they will ever suffer.  So it is not clear how bringing a life into existence can be said to either harm or benefit that person.
  • If, somehow, bringing a person into existence can be said to either harm or benefit that person, no justification is given for the claim that it can only harm, but not benefit them.
  • How can a non-existent person be either harmed or benefited?

In the end, Singer offers us a thought experiment.  He offers us a choice “between a world like ours and one with no sentient beings in it at all”.  Which one is better?  Which ought we to choose?  His wording suggests the premise that the only difference between these two choices is the presence of sentient beings.  This assumes that we are merely sentient beings, and that is all there is to be said about us.  However, suppose that we are not merely sentient beings.  Suppose that we are created sentient beings, created for relationship with our Creator.  Suppose that suffering is present in the world because we rebelled, and continue to rebel, against our Creator.    Further suppose that there is promised a place to come where there will be no more pain, where we can delight in the glory of this awesome Creator, and that we have been given simple directions on how to get there: “Repent and believe”.   Add to this the fact that the Creator himself, on account of his love for us, entered his creation and suffered right along with us so as to open the way for us from here to there.  This is the view that the Bible presents, and these premises radically alter the choice that Singer sets before us.  It is terribly difficult to see what can make life worth living in Singer’s world of merely sentient beings.  Can there be any real meaning or purpose to our lives?  Can there be any real joy without real meaning or purpose?  I’ll take the world as presented in the Bible any day.  Be fruitful and multiply.

Hutaree: Going Too Far Or Not Far Enough?

April 1, 2010

In case you missed the news about Hutaree, here is a quick snapshot:

The undercover agent credited with infiltrating a Christian extremist group before it could carry out its alleged plot to kill law enforcement officers has provided potentially damning evidence that Hutaree leaders were planning a “new revolution.” ….

Court documents charge that the group had planned to kill an unidentified law enforcement officer, then target the officer’s colleagues with IEDs and other explosives during the officer’s funeral.

-ABC News

For the sake of argument, I’m going to assume the accusations against Hutaree are true.  I am not going to prosecute or defend Hutaree.  Instead, I am concerned about how people think about such accusations, assuming they were true.

Some on the left are quick to label Hutaree as just another “Rightwing extremist group”.   This simply isn’t fair.  It is difficult to see what Hutaree has in common with conservative principles like limited government, fiscal responsibility, personal responsibility, and so on.  Okay, perhaps they embrace all of those principles, but dedication to those principles doesn’t lead, with logical necessity, to forming a militia and planning armed rebellion.

Atheists are quick to point to Hutaree as an illustration of how religion is a scourge upon the earth.  This paints with too broad a brush.  Hutaree was united around religious beliefs, and perhaps motivated by religious beliefs.  However, had one of Hutaree’s religious beliefs been “God forbids the use of weapons” or “God demands that you never get out of bed”, then Hutaree wouldn’t be in the news today.  The problem is not religion, but rather particular religious beliefs.

Some think Hutaree are Christian fundamentalists, part of an ugly movement that is somehow parallel to Islamic fundamentalism.  This is an abuse of language, whereby “fundamentalist” is equated with “radical” and “extremist”, where those terms are given negative connotations (probably also an abuse of language; wouldn’t a radical love be a good thing?).  Here is the definition of fundamentalist (Webster):

1 a often capitalized : a movement in 20th century Protestantism emphasizing the literally interpreted Bible as fundamental to Christian life and teaching b : the beliefs of this movement c : adherence to such beliefs
2 : a movement or attitude stressing strict and literal adherence to a set of basic principles

Historically, Christian fundamentalists were dedicated to the fundamentals, i.e. the basics, of Christianity.  As a movement, they, and their heirs, do tend to have some certain shortcomings, but forming militia groups to wage war against the US government is not one of them.

Perhaps Donna Stone, the ex-wife of one of the arrested Hutaree members, had the “fundamentalist” label in mind when she commented on her ex-husband’s actions.  “It started out as a Christian thing,” said Donna Stone, 44. “You go to church. You pray. You take care of your family. I think David started to take it a little too far. He dragged a lot of people with him.”

Apparently, Donna thinks David took Christianity too far.  People seem to think there is a spectrum of Christian belief and practice; on the right are folks like the Hutaree, those who go too far, who take Christianity too seriously.  In reality, groups like Hutaree don’t go far enough.   They take a few verses from the Bible and stop there, having justified their agenda to themselves.  Hutaree didn’t go far enough.  They should have continued on: seeking to be peacemakers, recognizing God establishes governments for our good, loving one’s neighbor, living humbly before God, forgiving, and so on.   Faith, hope, love, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and self-control.  These are the marks of people deeply committed to the fundamentals of Christianity.  If only the Hutaree had been Christian fundamentalists.

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