Monday, May 28, 2007

FAQ 3: Would a God of love send people to hell?

This is without a doubt one of the questions I am asked most. It is asked with varying degrees of seriousness by Christians and those who would not call themselves Christians alike. It is asked as a "defeater" - an intellectual objection to Christianity. It is asked as a personal struggle. And it is asked by people who are simply confused about who God is, what love is, what people are like, and what hell is.

And at one level, the answer is extraordinarily simple: yes.

Yes, because he says he will. Yes, because the God of love is also the God of justice and will see justice done. Yes, because we live in a moral universe with a moral Sovereign who will call people to account.

At this level, I think there is something in all of us that feels that this is right. Everyone I know has some sense of justice, and feels outraged when people "get away with" injustice. Most people like to think that somehow people's wrong-doing will catch up with them, in this world or the next. Hell is the final guarantee that this will be so.

But there is another level at which the answer to this question is harder - very much harder. When we think of hell, we naturally think of people who have done what we class as "terrible things" - the Hitlers and Stalins of this world. But the Bible tells us that we should think more broadly; that hell is the default destination of all of us. If we are logical, we may be able to see this - that if wrong-doing is always punished, and if no-one ultimately gets away with it, then our moral and social failings (however small they may be) cannot just be brushed under the carpet. But logic isn't the level at which we operate here. We are emotional creatures, and the thought of hell - of God's final justice - is horrible to us. It should be.

So I can argue fairly easily that hell is real - that one of the two possible outcomes for every human life is punishment by God. But I have to do it with tears in my eyes.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God is real, and therefore he cannot be imagined by you to have only those characteristics that you like. He is as he has revealed himself to be. And he has revealed himself to be just - absolutely just. He is the God who will not let any wrong go unpunished.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God's love does not over-rule his justice; that we cannot take some general idea of love from the world around us and assume that God's love is just like that. God's love is revealed at the cross - and the cross is the display of God's justice as well.

With tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that people are not as you imagine them to be. We are all of us more wicked than we can imagine. Even the nicest of us is inherently rebellious and radically self-centred.

And with tears in my eyes, I have to tell you that God's judgement will fall on everyone who doesn't accept the sacrifice of Jesus in their place, without exception. And this will be hell.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

FAQ 2: Why trust the Bible?

The question of authority is a massive one, for those who are Christians and for those who aren't. Where is truth to be found? Whom should I trust? What is 'pure' information, and what is spin?

The question is particularly acute when it comes to the Christian claim to know about God. It is not that claiming to know about God per se is particularly problematic as a concept: many people of many different religions and philosophies make the claim. The problem is that the Christian stubbornly refuses to base their knowledge of God on anything other than a very old book. Indeed, they base their claim to know that God exists on this self-same book. Most problematic, they base their claim to that God can be known through this book on this book. (Still following?) The more philosophically inclined will notice at once that this is a circular argument, so called because it goes in circles:

"why should I believe in God?"
"the Bible says so."
"why should I believe what the Bible says?"
"because the Bible come from God."
"why should I believe in God?"
...and so on and so on, ad infinitum, or at the very least ad boredom.

The thing is, this is the right thing for the Christian to say. As soon as they give any other reason for believing the Bible than "the Bible comes from God", they launch themselves on to a sea of uncertainty and relativity.

What answers, after all, might they give?

Perhaps that the Bible changes lives? But demonstrably so do many books for which much less exalted claims are made.

Perhaps that the Bible is very old? Indeed. But so is Homer, and no-one shapes their lives by him. (I hope).

Perhaps that archaeological evidence backs up the Bible? Maybe it does, but it has to be said that there is no archaelogical evidence for anything directly supernatural, and so this line of argument would most naturally lead us to say there is some truth in the Bible but probably not much.

No, the Christian trusts the Bible because it comes from God, and they know it comes from God because it tells them so.

So I can give lots of reasons why I think you should look at the Bible - some external (like archaeology) and some internal (like the fact that it simply makes sense). But if you look at it seriously, read it carefully, and find that it is not from God, there is nothing I can do except tell you to read it again. If that seems like a dead end, I propose that there is no other way to go.

Like my previous question, this one also comes down to the concept of revelation. If God has revealed himself in history - in the real world of time and space - and if he still reveals himself through the record contained in the Bible, then and only then we might know something about God. If not, then nothing we can do can get us that knowledge - all we will have is guesswork.

Of course, for the Christian this foundational point is not in fact circular. It is circular in terms of its human logic, but it is also the point at which God actually speaks, breaking in to the circle from outside with his powerful word, which grips us and compels us to hear him. And thence comes certainty, and from nowhere else.

Saturday, May 19, 2007

FAQ 1: Don't all religions lead to God?

This is a question I've been asked a great many times. Normally, it has to be said, the person asking is not actually a religious person. I suppose this is because people who are actually followers of a religious tradition are more aware of the divergences in theology and practice between the various faiths than those who have no particular interest. Since the questioner is normally not a religious person, I tend to interpret the question as something more like this:

"Suppose, as seems highly unlikely to me, there were a god, whatever that might mean, would not any religion, and hopefully also any vaguely spiritual world-view, be equally valid as a means of reaching aforementioned probably-non-existent deity?"

The assumptions built in to the question bring it crashing down. Firstly, the assumption that we can even speak intelligibly of "god" seems highly questionable. After all, many people doubt the existence of "god" or plain disbelieve it. There are many explanations (psychological, anthropological, historical, sociological... to name just a few) for the idea of "god" that do not involve there being any actual content to the idea. "God" could be a word that refers to nothing. Not only can we not assume that "god" exists, we cannot even assume that the word "god" means anything at all. The question itself is meaningless.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The second problematic assumption is that there is some way of reaching "god". Of course, the questioner is seeking to establish that there are many - perhaps infinite - ways of "reaching god". But they're assuming I'll agree with them that there is at least one way. In fact, this seems an unwarranted assumption. How could I know that if there were a "god" he/she/it would be at all interested in humanity? How could I know that he/she/it was in any way accessible by me? I could not possibly say.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The third massive assumption is that "reaching god" would involve religion, or at least its fuzzier cousin "spirituality" in some way. Well, as far as I can tell, religion is a system of structures, rituals and beliefs that people can and have manufactured for themselves. There is a striking similarity between all religions at the level of ethics and practical living, and I think a basic agreement about aims: religion is about reaching out into the beyond and hoping that whatever is there will be pleased with our efforts. But how would I know whether all of this effort was successful? I couldn't.

Unless, of course, God has in some way revealed himself.

The point is that the questioner has assumed substantial agreement with me on three fronts: that there is a god, that he/she/it can be reached, and that religion is involved.

I repudiate all three points.

If God has revealed himself by stepping into the world in the person of Jesus, I don't agree that there is "a god". There is God (upper-case "G"): the real, personal, living God who is there. You see, if God has not revealed himself then of course we can grope in the dark and come up with arbitrarily defined ideas of "god", and each in their own way may be profound, moving, inspirational. But none of them is real. But if God has entered our world (or rather, his world) in the person of Jesus Christ, then God is. Not the "god" we all assumed was out there, but God - the real God, who cuts across all our assumptions by his sheer reality.

And if God has revealed himself in Jesus, then one of the clearest things he has revealed is that there is no way to him. Because the God who is revealed in Jesus reveals himself as the One who dies to make such a way. He reveals himself as the One who sees us as guilty, and cut off from him, and doomed to die - and then steps in to take all those things into himself so that we can be made right, reconciled, and given life. But this way cuts across all our assumptions about the way to God. It is not a way that is naturally open to us. It is a way given to us by God himself, and so it is a real way.

And if God has revealed himself in Jesus Christ, by condescending and entering into our world, then he has revealed that all our reaching out and reaching up, all our striving to find God - that is to say, all our religion and spirituality - is useless. God steps down because we cannot climb up. And this too cuts across all our assumptions. Religion cannot get us to God.

But Jesus Christ can.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Frequently Asked Questions

I read a lot of books. It's one of the things I really enjoy doing. And the way I think about the world is changed by those books. I don't agree with everything I read, of course, but I do try to hold my mind open to the challenge that each new idea and new perspective brings. Otherwise, what would be the point of reading? Anyway, the point is that my opinions and thoughts change, fairly regularly. I like to think it's development.

On the other hand, I get asked a lot of questions. Partly this is because I work with Christian students, who have enquiring minds. This also puts me into contact with students who wouldn't call themselves Christians, who also have enquiring minds. So I get friendly questions, and not-so-friendly questions, and I try to answer them.

But it occurs to me that I haven't really "updated" my answers to some of the questions I am asked most often for a while. So I haven't been joining up my own thinking and reading with the answers I've been giving to other people. So I thought I'd take a little time to get straight what I think on a few common questions and issues, and I thought it would be fun to do it here. So that's what any readers can expect over the next couple of weeks.

Just so it doesn't catch you by surprise.

Sunday, May 06, 2007


Some days reading the news makes me very cross indeed. Today was one of those days.

Fresh from reading about the mighty Saints push for promotion, I stumbled on this. Apparently, children no longer need space to play in at school. In fact, play is merely a distraction from learning.
The head of the newest and most expensive school in Peterborough told BBC News:

"This is a massive investment of public money and I think what the public want is maximum learning. They recognise that youngsters can play in their own time, play in their local communities. What I want from my teachers is maximum teaching and I want maximum learning from the youngsters."

What on earth is wrong with these people? Seriously!

"Maximum teaching." "Maximum learning."

The logic seems to be that we invested money in these kids, and we'd better get a quantifiable outcome from each and every one. What about learning to be people? What about learning that life isn't just about hitting the next target?

But of course for our current government, that is what life is all about. I think I will have to forebear any sort of procreation until the Tories are safely back in control.

Incidentally, I think this links to my previous post. Wouldn't you agree?