What’s the Best Argument for Christianity?

debateA few weeks ago, I engaged in a lengthy discussion with SM, an atheist, who repeatedly asked this question. He simply wanted to know what my best argument for Christianity was, and he’d be happy to defeat it. Well, I didn’t take the bait – simply because that’s not how the discussion process works, but more importantly because the answer to his question is a bit more complex than he had hoped. In short, there is no single “best argument” for Christianity. Two points and three suggestions for your consideration:

  1. The “best argument” is dependent upon the objection. In other words, an argument I find completely compelling – even convincing – may be entirely unmoving to another. If I reject Christianity because I don’t believe God exists, there are good arguments to use in those situations. I might start with the cosmological argument, moving on to teleological and moral, and try to make some progress. Based on this objection (atheism), the best argument is probably cosmological. Alternatively, if someone rejects Christianity because they don’t believe the Bible is authentic, there are good arguments to address this objection. I might use a historiographical approach, or discuss manuscript evidence or even archaeological and historical evidences. Another great challenge might be from someone who was mistreated by Christians, or encountered hypocritical Christians, and therefore concluded that Christianity is false. Evidential arguments will likely be of marginal use in this circumstance – this would require a more pastoral approach, revealing Christ’s true teaching and what Christian behavior truly looks like.

There simply is no single “best argument” for Christianity. This is the art of apologetics – tailoring the argument to match the objection. If someone offers an emotional objection and I launch into an exposition of the Kalam Cosmological Argument, I will likely make little progress. Similarly, if someone has an objection based on evidence or the lack thereof, offering a testimony about how Jesus makes you feel will likely be received as simply your subjective experience, and largely uncompelling.

  1. Jesus never offered us a “best argument”. He tailored His argument to the objection and to the audience. He never changed the message, but He regularly tailored His arguments and His evidence to the audience and to the objection. When confronted with objections from the Jewish sects – Pharisees and Sadducees – Jesus countered their objections using references from the Torah (Matthew 9, 12, 16, 19, 21, elsewhere). When confronting objections from Roman pagans and other gentiles, appealing to the Jewish prophecies would have carried little weight, as this audience didn’t know these prophecies, and if they had would probably not have recognized them as authoritative. In these situations, Jesus (and Paul, as in Acts 14) used miracles or other devices to demonstrate authority rather than an appeal to Scripture. When confronted with the Samaritan woman at the well in John 4, Jesus again doesn’t refer to fulfilled prophecy, He simply uses love and forgiveness to share His gospel message (Samaritans shared some Jewish beliefs but not all, and a Samaritan woman would probably not have been familiar with the Jewish prophecies).

This same method of tailoring His argument to His audience follows Him wherever he goes. In Matthew 4, while Jesus is in the fishing village of Galilee, He uses fishing analogies – “Come with me, and I will make you fishers of men.” When in the “grainfields” (Matthew 12, probably the agricultural area between Jerusalem and Galilee), He uses agricultural analogies – the mustard seed, sowing and reaping, and others. Had Jesus spoken to the fishermen about the mustard seed or about sowing and reaping, or if He had challenged the shepherds to become fishers of men, His message may have been lost or misunderstood. As Christian ambassadors (2 Corinthians 5:20) and ministers of the gospel, we should do no less. We should follow this Christ-like model – to communicate the message of Jesus, but to do so in a manner sensitive to the audience and tailored to the objections or resistance we are likely to encounter. Never, anywhere in Scripture, do we see Jesus or any of the apostles using a formulaic regimen to share the gospel.

Here is the challenge to clear-thinking Christians: I know of no course where you can learn this. I can’t think of a book that walks you through this process. No, this comes from experience, trial and error, and getting out there and working to share the gospel and overcome objections to it. It is difficult, and there is no “easy out” or panacea that will always work. However, I can offer a few pointers.

  1. Listen.  When talking to someone who has rejected Christ, simply listen. They will eventually share with you their reason for doing so, and usually not immediately. It might take some carefully and prayerfully asked questions, and it might take more than one discussion. If in the first five minutes you start preaching the Roman roads to someone who has rejected Christianity because they don’t think the a Bible is authentic, you’re actually disrespecting them and telling them, quite clearly, that you aren’t listening. Listen first. Question gently and artfully. The other person will almost always, eventually, reveal their reason for rejecting the gospel.  Then, it’s up to you to use the next two recommendations to bring the person back around to the Gospel.
  2. Study.  If you think all you need to do is share your personal testimony, you’ve got a big surprise waiting. If you think all atheists are idiots, you’re in for another surprise. If you think all you need to do is live a “good life,” and people will convert to Christianity just by watching you, then you don’t know Scripture and aren’t following the Biblical model. You need to study. You need to study Scripture, examining how Jesus and Paul and Peter spread the gospel. You need to study – brace for it – theology. You don’t have to enroll in seminary or a Master’s program, but you need to know what you believe, why you believe it, and be able to answer basic objections to the gospel. This is nothing other than the clear command of Scripture in 1 Peter 3:15 – 17.
  3. Practice.  I know it’s difficult. I know it sounds intimidating. I know you’re scared. Unfortunately, the ability to articulate and defend the gospel message is not a gift given to some, it is a command given to all. And the best way to do this – I’d suggest the only way – is through practice. You’ll mess it up, so do I. You’ll face objections you can’t answer, so do I. Some of your study and some of the objections might challenge your preconceived notions – even challenge your faith. Me too. It’s okay, God is with you and will carry you through, and your faith will be stronger on the other side.

The fact is that many within the evangelical community have been misled into a false model of what evangelism looks like. They think what will happen is they’ll meet someone who’s never heard of Jesus, walk them down the Roman roads, pray the sinner’s prayer, add another notch on their belt and move on to the next poor unsaved soul. In reality, especially here in America, you are far more likely to run into someone who has already heard the gospel, and has rejected it for some reason or another. You’ll have to listen, question, understand their objections and reasons for rejection, and be prepared with well-reasoned answers to guide them to the truth. Are you ready?

Advertisements

What Love Isn’t

heart-3

In the last several weeks, I have been sharply critical of several popular pastors and speakers. I’ll save my concerns about Beth Moore, Perry Noble, Mark Driscoll, and others for another blog – what I want to think clearly about this time is the most common objection I received to this criticism. In short, numerous people admonished me that I shouldn’t be so critical, that I should “just love them,” or that as Christians, we shouldn’t judge other Christians, we are called to simply love them. What this has exposed to me is what I think is a disappointingly unbiblical perspective on Christian love.

The fact is, we are certainly to love each other, but it is not enough to just be loving. I can love my enemy until the cows come home, and he will still spend eternity in Hell if I don’t make the effort to share Jesus Christ with him. News flash to “feel good Christians”: the most loving person you know is still going to Hell if he/she reject the free offer of grace that Jesus provides. You simply cannot love your way into salvation, nor can you love others into salvation, this is nothing more than repackaged works-based salvation. It gets a lot of “likes” as a Facebook status and looks great on Pinterest, but it cannot save. Any of us could quickly flip to 1 Corinthians 13 to find what love is, and any of us could probably quote 1 John 4:8 to show that “God is love.” I don’t dispute this, and I know it’s the greatest commandment (Matthew 22:36 – 40), I get all that…but I want to turn it around a bit and encourage Christians to think for a moment about what love isn’t.

  1. Love does not mean agreement.  I can disagree with someone, and still love them – anyone who is married can easily affirm this truth. I love my wife and daughter more than anyone on Earth, yet we disagree frequently. If a pastor – mine or one in the media – says something that I disagree with, and I express disagreement, that is not being unloving. I can disagree with my wife on her choice of hairstyle (not advisable), her preference for Illinois basketball, or anything else, and love her no less. In fact, some issues are so important that love requires – and the Bible commands – engagement and disagreement. Which brings us to…
  1. Love does not mean we don’t correct error.  If someone holds a belief that is clearly in error, in some cases we are required and commanded to correct the error. As Greg Koukl has famously stated, if a diabetic believes that eating ice cream will decrease their blood sugar, we must intervene and correct the error – potentially saving their life in the process. I cannot retreat to my subjectivist corner and simply conclude that they are entitled to their beliefs, and it’s not my business to correct them. The Bible is clear here as well. Shortly after one of the great verses on love, Paul tells us in Colossians, “Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom.” We are to admonish one another using the wisdom of the message of Christ in the Scriptures. “Admonish – to express disapproval or criticism, in a gentle and earnest manner.” We are actually being told to express disapproval for and criticize those among us who are acting or speaking contrary to the message of Jesus Christ in the Scriptures. Ephesians follows closely, with a lengthy passage on Christian living. The well-known passage in 4:1 – 14 encourages us to be mature in the Lord, so that “…we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching…” This is a clear warning against false teachers, those whose “deceitful scheming” and “cunning and craftiness” risks misleading the body of Christ. Instead, we are to “speak the truth in love” (verse 15). I don’t see another way to read this verse other than as a command to correct those who are deceived by false teachers. We do so lovingly, of course (which is reinforced in verse 16), but we must guard against these false teachers. We simply cannot lean on love to avoid the requirement to correct error, which leads directly to…
  1. Love does not mean we endorse unbiblical behavior.  Especially from teachers! As young Timothy was under Paul’s charge, preparing to take over the church at Ephesus, Paul knew the Ephesians were already plagued by false teachers. Both of Paul’s letters to Timothy make this point repeatedly – in fact, the first point of the first letter is telling Timothy to “command certain people not to teach false doctrines” (1 Tim 1:3 – 4). These people want to be teachers, but they “…do not know what they are talking about or what they so confidently affirm.” The parallel here to the many false teachers present today could hardly be more obvious. Again, the relationship to love is reinforced – love that comes from a “…pure heart and a good conscience and a sincere faith,” from which these false teachers have departed. One could easily read 1 Tim 1:1 – 7 as saying that teaching false doctrines is a direct departure from Christian love, thus Christian’s loving response is to correct and rebuke the error. But it doesn’t stop there. After a list of the many false teachings Timothy will likely face in Ephesus, Paul tells Timothy, “If you point these things out to the brothers and sisters, you will be a good minister of Christ Jesus” (1 Tim 4:6). Again, exposing false teachings and holding these teachers accountable, ensuring Christians are following sound doctrine, is what it means to be a “good minister of Christ.” This wonderful chapter ends with Paul’s command to “Watch your life and your doctrine closely.” We could all benefit from such a command! What matters is not only how you behave, but what you believe. Paul’s second letter makes many similar commands, telling us that “Opponents [to the gospel] must be gently instructed,” and the well-known uses of Scripture in 3:16 which includes rebuking and correcting believers. Just prior to his death, Paul’s primary charge to Timothy was to “Preach the Word…correct, rebuke, and encourage, with great patience and careful instruction, for the time will come when people will not put up with sound doctrine” (2 Tim 4:2 – 3). Not to belabor the point, but Titus echoes these commands in every single chapter: “Encourage others by sound doctrine and refute those who oppose it” (Titus 1:9), “You must teach what is appropriate to sound doctrine” (Titus 2:1), “These are the things you should teach, encourage and rebuke with all authority” (Titus 2:15) and so on.

Almost every book of the New Testament stands on these two pillars of belief and behavior. We are to love, that is not in question. But part of loving is disagreement, part of loving is correcting error, and part of loving is rebuking unbiblical behavior and refuting false teachings. Arguably, it is both unbiblical and unloving not to follow these commands. So, if I question the teachings of a popular preacher or teacher, I am not being unloving. Quite the opposite. This applies to me as well – I’ve been teaching for over 20 years, and the most loving things my students could do is challenge me when they think I’m wrong, and hold me accountable to the Biblical standard. I expect nothing less, nor does Jesus Christ, nor should you.

The Christian and Civil Government

CapitolThe Clear-Thinking Christian is back!  After two years off to complete my Master’s Degree at Biola University, I’m “back on the blog” and ready to answer more challenges and questions…this time, with credentials (as if that mattered…).

Having just come through another election season and with another already generating momentum, the Christian’s role in government is a frequent question.  As with most topics, views vary — some suggest that Christians are commanded to participate in civil government, others move in quite the opposite direction, claiming that government is evil and Christians should not participate.  As with most blogs, this one has its genesis in a challenge I recently received, this one from another Christian and classmate, ER.

ER and I were discussing the unique case of Kent Hovind, a Christian creationist known as “Dr. Dino” who has been quite popular among the young-earth creationist crowd over the past several decades.  A little background here:  As one of the primary founders of Creation Science Evangelism (now known as Creation Today) and the driving force behind Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum, Kent Hovind generated quite a following in the Christian community.  Regardless of how you feel about his theology (not the point of the post, though my views on the topic are likely clear from my blogs), the relevant matter is that Kent Hovind has spent the last 8 years in federal prison for multiple charges involving his tax dealings with Dinosaur Adventureland and the Creation Museum (all the details are available from Forbes Magazine here).  In short, he and his wife were not filing 1040s, and were keeping large amounts of cash for most transactions, which masked them from the IRS, and he treated his theme parks as tax-exempt organizations, though they had not received that designation from the IRS.  That’s the background…so what’s the point?

My friend ER said he was not a fan of Kent Hovind “until the tax thing…then I developed a great amount of respect for him.”  ER’s respect for Hovind was based on his ability to evade — personally and professionally — paying taxes.  When I challenged ER on this point, he further articulated that he believed the state to be “the great Satan” and that we are Biblically commanded to resist the state, which he followed with assurance to me that Jesus would support everything Hovind was doing.  Resisting an inherently evil entity (the state) is not only advocated by Christ, but also Biblically commanded.  He referenced 1 Samuel 8:4 – 18 as support for this view.

That’s the situation…now it’s time for some clear thinking.  As with all things, we will seek first to be Biblical.  What does the Bible say about participation in, and submission to, civil government?  It is far from silent on this topic, providing abundant guidance on on how and in what circumstances Christians should engage with government, setting clear bounds for both obedience and dissent.  Following Scripture, several points seem clear:

1.  Civil Government was not part of God’s original design.  After the fall, mankind succumbed to the temptations of sin and the devil, and while he maintains his special place in creation, the presence of sin no longer allows him to live with complete and unrestricted freedom.  The resulting “society of fallen beings”[1] develops very quickly after the fall, with violent crime (murder) present by the fourth chapter of Genesis, followed closely by urban development, industry, philosophy, and art evident by the end of that chapter.  This society of sinners further degenerates into crime, guilt, corruption, and condemnation, mandating the establishment of some sort of civil order, detailed in chapters six through nine. This civil government cannot provide social perfection and therefore rules with force rather than love, but nevertheless it provides a structure of law, obedience, prosecution, and punishment that creates a flawed but adequate social order in which mankind can fulfill his Biblical mandate.  This was not God’s original plan. The world is wholly the creation of a transcendent, self-existent God, and was created perfectly good.  The entire world, including man and all his social connections, belongs to the divine Creator, but in following Satan’s temptation mankind fell and took the world with him into a state of brokenness. This condition of sin and evil is a perversion of the original good, and has polluted the whole natural order.  However, the Christian can rest assured that no matter how powerful the state becomes, it owns nothing it governs — all of creation, including mankind and his institutions, were redeemed by Christ.  This is the “beginning condition” of the world, in which we then move to establish civil government.

2.  Civil Government is a result of the fall, but is established by God.  God’s attributes of creativity and sovereignty extend into providence – that is, the very same One who created the Earth and all it contains also preserves it and governs it. This means that God established all governments present on the Earth, and their continuation or dissolution is simply a matter of God’s providence.  The first appearance of civil government is in a covenant between God and the survivors of the flood, detailed in Genesis 8 and 9.  This covenant with Noah had four provisions.  First, civil government is for the protection and improvement of human life (Genesis 9:7-11), reinforcing God’s desire to see humans prosper and succeed. Second, the ultimate source of all government is the sovereign Lord Himself, it is not the result of a social contract or natural culmination of human effort (Genesis 9:13, 16, 17). Third and fourth, government has a moral basis, founded on man’s creation in God’s image.  Indeed the very concept of justice is a religious concept, rooted in the perfectly good nature of God, extending to every civil right and all authority on earth.  This divine establishment of all government is mandated by the fact that man is sinful, capable of incredible evil, and can only be curbed by the restrictive power of the Holy Spirit upon man’s heart and of the government upon society.  The fact that all government is fundamentally religious also means that justice – up to and including the death penalty – is actually divine vengeance, God’s vindication as governor of the universe.  This Noahic Covenant is echoed in Jeremiah, Isaiah, Psalms, and Daniel, with many of the books of prophecy and poetry reinforcing the concept that it is God who directs the rise and fall of nations, and that He establishes the criteria for kings and rulers and judges (see Daniel 1:2, 4:17, 5:21, 6:26, 7:27, and essentially all of chapter 2; in Isaiah, see especially 44:28 and 45:13; also Jeremiah 22:13 – 17).

3.  The Example of Jesus Christ is One of Submission and Obedience.  While the majority of Biblical proscriptions for civil government are found in the Old Testament, the New Testament gives us guidance as well, not least in the conduct of Jesus and the disciples when dealing with civil government. From His youngest years, Jesus obeyed both His parents and the local authorities.  Although at times He clearly thought the administration (both religious and civil) was corrupt and unjust, He obeyed nonetheless.  Jesus taught, and taught His disciples to teach, to “Submit yourself to every ordinance of man” (1 Peter 2:13 – 14, 17), to even do the bidding of the Pharisees whom He despised and consistently refuted (Matthew 23:2 – 4, 13 – 29).  He obeyed the laws of the civil authorities as well, whether Herod Antipas or Pontius Pilate, though He never gave them more than they requested.  He never encouraged disobedience, or rebellion against a pagan, idolatrous, and unjust civil government (contrary to the charges brought against Him and for which He was crucified).  Even His famous “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s” (Matthew 22:20 – 22) stands as a timeless synonym for obedience to both civil government and the sovereign God of the universe.

Jesus not only set the example for obedience to civil government in His actions, he taught clearly on the topic as well.  In Matthew 17, Jesus is pressed about paying the legally-required temple tax.  This could have been a difficult issue, since the tax supported both the Jewish religious authorities and the construction of a temple for pagan worship.  Jesus wisely sidesteps the central issues, and details that the tax must be paid if for no other reason than to avoid offending the governing authorities.  The second passage, briefly mentioned above, is Jesus’ command to “Give to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”  Various Jewish sects, with varying levels of attachment to the Roman authorities and degrees of compliance with Jewish law, were uniting against Jesus, trying to trick Him into blasphemy or into trouble with the Roman authorities.  When challenged by what could be a true dilemma, Jesus’ artful answer not only resolves the implied conflict but also addresses the fundamental issue underlying the question.  Jesus saw no explicit contradiction between politics and religion, nor did He think submission to one excludes the other.   This answer, in the spirit of love and fairness, is perhaps the greatest Biblical text on the entire topic of civil government.

Paul also teaches on the topic of obedience to civil government, in fact giving more insight than we receive from Christ during His ministry.  Five key passages are relevant here – the first in 1 Corinthians 2, where Paul indicates that pagan rulers of human government are all part of God’s providential plan, though they are unaware of it.  Following closely is 1 Corinthians 6, which discourages a litigious spirit in Christians under the assumption that the civil rulers have less knowledge, and less divine authority, than the apostles.  By far the most significant of the five passages is Romans 13, clearly instructing Christians to submit to the power of ruling authorities, all of which are put in place by God.   Simply put, resistance to constituted government is resistance to God’s ordinance.  Paul’s final two admonitions, in 1 Peter 2 and Ephesians 6, round out his consistent admonition to honor God by submitting to governing authorities.

So, what does this all mean?  With great respect to my Christian brother ER, his view is squarely at odds with the teachings of the Old and New Testament, the living example of Christ, and the teachings of both Christ and the Apostles.  Hovind’s tax practices were both illegal and unBiblical.  No doubt, there are limits, and these are evident from time to time in Scripture as well — if man gives a command that violates God’s command, there may be Biblical liberty to resist or disobey (perhaps that will be the subject of a future post).  There will always be exceptions (I’m sure someone will bring up Hitler) — but the nearly unanimous testimony of Scripture, from Genesis through Revelation, is one of obedience to civil government as a divinely-instituted mechanism for God to conduct His affairs among men.

——————–

[1]. Robert Culver, Civil Government: A Biblical View, (Eugene, Oregon: Wipf & Stock, 2000), 18.  His entire book is worth reading on this topic, and is the foundation of much of this post.

What If You Woke Up in Hell?

Hell   Earlier this week, a good friend of mine was challenged by a co-worker who claimed to be an atheist.  The challenge — “What would you think if you died and ended up in hell?”  This is an interesting challenge, especially from an atheist, and is normally a pointed way of asking, “What if you’re wrong?”  However, when we consider the challenge with careful thinking, we’ll find that the atheist has actually gained little ground here.  In fact, he may have actually lost ground.
   First, I believe in Jesus Christ — so if I died and woke up in Hell, I’d know that I was wrong.  But what was I wrong about?  Specifically, I was wrong in what I thought was necessary for salvation.  I believe all that is required is a belief in the saving work of Jesus Christ…if I’m wrong about that, then I’ll likely wake up in Hell.  That is, belief in the saving grace of Jesus Christ is NOT all that is required for salvation.  But that’s about it.  I think somehow the challenger thinks that if we concede this point, then they’ve “won.”  However, if I die and wake up in Hell, that doesn’t mean that God doesn’t exist.  It doesn’t even mean that Jesus is not God.  It just means that I — and many other evangelical Christians — got salvation wrong.  Going further, if Hell exists, then the Hindus are wrong too.  And so are the Buddhists, as neither Hinduism nor Buddhism believe in the existence of Hell.  In fact, the atheists are wrong too — they also deny the existence of Hell.  And so do Jehovah’s Witnesses, who are annihilationists.  And the Mormons are also wrong, as their lowest level of Heaven (Terrestrial) is just a perfect Earth, and the “outer darkness” where evil people go is just ethereal existence, it is not the eternal conscious punishment of Hell.  Naturalists are also wrong, as Hell is clearly a supernatural place (unless he suggests it’s purely natural, just on another planet or in another universe we haven’t discovered yet).  Unitarians are wrong (all religions lead to God), universalists are wrong (everyone gets saved)…when it comes down to it, if I die and go to Hell, nearly everyone (including me) is wrong.
   Second, when faced with this challenge, if the challenger thinks he’s somehow “got you” or made points with this question, he’s mistaken.  Even if I grant the conditions of the question (me going to Hell), he still hasn’t made much progress in his argument.  He has provided no positive argument for atheism, or any evidence or argument against theism.  At best, all it means is that a central doctrine of Christianity is wrong.  If I die and go to Hell, it means I was wrong about what it takes to be saved.  That’s all.  It doesn’t mean naturalism is true.  It doesn’t affirm atheism.  In hindsight, a fun way to respond would have been, “Well, if I die and wake up in Hell, I’ll know with a high degree of certainty that atheism and naturalism are false.”  Stated simply, if Christianity’s salvation doctrine is false but Hell exists, then nearly every other religious view — including Hinduism, Buddhism, Universalism, Unitarianism, atheism, and naturalism — is also false.
   Fortunately, Christians can rest comfortably in the doctrine of eternal salvation.  Few things are stated more clearly in Scripture.  Unfortunately, the doctrine of Hell is equally clear — so the real task at hand is how to take this question and turn it into an opportunity to minister or witness to the atheist.  Now, THAT’s a challenge!

Creation Concerns Part 2

When examining the creation-evolution debate, there are two issues which are often erroneously conflated — the age of the Earth and the length of the creation period.  Within the Christian community, we generally agree that this creative act took place, but disagree on two subsequent questions:  How long ago did this creative act occur, and how long did it take?  In my last blog, I discussed in some detail the age of the Earth, coming down on the side of the “progressive” or “old-Earth” view.  In this blog, we’ll tackle the other half of the issue — how long did it take?  Again, I remind readers that this is a completely secondary issue, a good topic for internal discussion and debate, but not a topic that should divide Christians.

So, how do we view the week of creation?  Reading Genesis 1:1 – 2:3, we immediately see a clear pattern of “On the first day…on the second day…on the third day…”.  The traditional/historic Christian view has been that these are literal, 24-hour solar days. Unfortunately, few who believe that have actually read closely the account in Genesis 1. Open to it. If you read the whole first chapter, carefully and critically, you should notice some problems. First and foremost, the sun wasn’t created until the fourth day, so it is unlikely that the first three days are solar days. Even worse, if the sun and the lights in the sky weren’t created until day four, where did the light come from on the first day? Furthermore, the plants and vegetation were all created on day three…how could photosynthesis occur without the sun? Sure, plants could probably survive for a day without the sun…but why would God create plants that require sunlight to survive, but not create the sun yet? These are just a few problems, you could probably ferret out a few more if you read closely.  Young-Earth creationists have worked hard to develop coherent answers to these questions, and some do address the concerns intelligently.

But if the days in Genesis 1 and 2 don’t refer to literal 24-hour days, what do they mean? Well, taking into account both a critical reading and the old-Earth/progressive view discussed in my prior blog, they certainly don’t mean 24-hour days.  It turns out that in this case the Hebrew language is not a whole lot different from how we use language. At times, we use “day” to refer to the period of daylight (“during the day” versus “during the night,” a period of about 8 – 10 hours). Other times we use it to refer to an entire 24-hour period (as in “the day before yesterday”), or an entire indefinite period (“back in my grandfather’s day”). In English, that one word can refer to 8 – 10 hours, 24 hours, or an entire epoch/age/generation. Not surprisingly, it’s the same in Hebrew. The Hebrew word “yom” is the word translated “day” in Genesis 1 and 2. Does it have to mean 24 hours, as most if not all young-Earth creationists would support? The answer is no.  Even in the first few cases of Genesis 1, it specifically states, “…and there was morning, and there was evening, the first day.” From morning to evening may actually be closer to our use of the word to refer to dayLIGHT — the 8 – 10 hour period — not a 24-hour day. To make matters worse, look ahead to Chapter 2 of Genesis, specifically 2:4. Depending on the version of your Bible, it might say, “This is the account of the heavens and the Earth in the day they were created.” Other translations say, “in the time” or “when” they were created. Point is the same, and you may have guessed it — the Hebrew word used in Genesis 2:4 is the same word “yom,” used here to mean the entire creative period. Advance to Genesis 4:3, and it says (again depending on the version of the Bible you use), “In that day, Cain brought forth…” or perhaps “In the course of time, Cain brought…” At this point, you can probably guess. Genesis 4:3 is also the same Hebrew word, “yom,” here used to mean an entire indefinite period.

While there are other factors (such as the use of the ordinals “first,” “second,” “third,” and so forth before the word yom), the point is that there is nothing in context, in language, or in interpretation that requires the days in Genesis 1 to be literal, 24-hour days. That doesn’t mean they aren’t, it just means the text doesn’t require it.  In fact, the context and the chapters that follow seem to indicate precisely the opposite, that these are NOT 24-hour days. As we’ve seen, “day” in Genesis is variously used to mean the period of daylight (Genesis 1:5, 8, elsewhere), the entire creative “week” (Genesis 2:4), or an indefinite period of time (Genesis 4:3). Add to this the previously-discussed fact that the first four days are likely not solar days (since the sun didn’t exist yet), and the seventh day — God’s creative or Sabbath rest — is still ongoing (Hebrews 4), and the argument that Genesis 1 refers to seven literal, 24-hour days starts to quickly break down. I know that’s a lot to wrap your arms around — so let’s put it all together.

1. The text in Genesis does not mandate a literal, 24-hour day or a 7-day creation. In fact, such an interpretation causes significant problems with the Genesis 1 text, and makes other areas of Genesis (chapters 2 and 4) problematic.

2. The genealogies in Genesis and Leviticus contain significant gaps and overlaps (see my previous blog).

3. The ages of the individuals in the Old Testament may be symbolic, not literal.

4. Nearly all of the evidence we see today, in nearly every field of natural study (science), indicates that the Earth is far older than the 6000+ years presented by many young-Earth creationists.

I could go on, but you get the point. In my view, the earth is many millions, perhaps billions, of years old, the creative “days” refer to vast periods of time, animals and other living creatures (Genesis 1:20 – 24) were created well before mankind, and many had become extinct (including the dinosaurs) before mankind was created. We did not live simultaneously with the dinosaurs. Please understand, this view is entirely consistent with both scripture and our current understanding of science. Though some will object, there is nothing wrong with using science or natural observation to inform our reading of scripture. Twice before the church has made this error, at one time believing the Earth to be the center of the solar system (some said the universe), and later concluding based on scripture that the Earth is flat.  Both of these views — like young-Earth creationism, the traditional and historic Christian perspective — were eventually abandoned in the face of overwhelming scientific evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps young-Earth creationism is next or perhaps it will endure, I don’t know.  One last note — please don’t make the mistake of thinking that believing in an old Earth equates to supporting Darwinian evolution. That’s a completely separate matter.

Creation Concerns

I’ve been promising a post on creation and evolution ever since I touched on the topic in a previous blog. So, here we go — the first of a two-part blog on the issue. No doubt many of you may disagree with what you’re about to read, and that’s perfectly fine. I can’t stress strongly enough that this is a secondary issue — one about which Christians can disagree and discuss, but should not divide.

First, I believe in creation. I believe in the Bible, and I believe it to be the inerrant word of God. I am also a scientist, with four graduate degrees — three of them in engineering. For some, this may pose a problem — but not me, and I’ll tell you why.

Second, I am what some call an “old Earth” or “progressive” creationist. Some of you are ready to stop reading, but I’d ask that you stick with me for a few more paragraphs, and try to think clearly about this issue. Nearly every discipline of science — astronomy, cosmology, geology, anthropology, paleontology, archaeology, even chemistry and physics — provides considerable evidence that the Earth is billions of years old. I could cite thousands of examples, including distant starlight (known as anisotropic synchrony), sedimentation, the fossil record, ice cores, red shift in space, star ages, cosmological and gravitational constants, radiometric dating, the list goes on. Point is, science is nearly unanimous in this regard. Are there exceptions? Sure. There are a few places where the sedimentary layers are reversed. There are gaps in the fossil record. Radiometric dating is notoriously unreliable. There are inconsistencies in other places — but what we can’t do is use the exception to prove the rule.

Third, I find there to be very scarce credible scientific evidence that the Earth is 6,000 – 10,000 years old. However, there appears to be abundant Scriptural evidence that this is so. Answers in Genesis, one of the leading defenders of the Young Earth view, publishes a Biblically-based timeline that puts the Earth right at 6,000 years old.  The Institute for Creation Research also has some great resources advocating the young-Earth view. Hopefully, my clear-thinking readers are sensing the coming train wreck — if science gives us an old Earth and Scripture a young Earth, there is an apparent “conflict” between science and Scripture. This is a false dilemma — here’s why.

I call the concept “Dual Authorship.” God is the author of nature (Romans 1), and God is the author of Scripture (1 Tim 3, elsewhere). Understood accurately, the two will not — cannot — contradict each other. So, when you see a conflict between what you observe in nature and what you read in Scripture, you are doing one of the two inaccurately. Either you are observing nature incorrectly, or you are interpreting Scripture incorrectly. In my view, many Christians are far too quick to assume it is the former, and discount the possibility that they’re not reading the Bible accurately. When it comes to Genesis 1, this is precisely what we have — nature and Scripture apparently in conflict.

(NOTE: There are two separate issues at play here that are often conflated, but shouldn’t be. First, how long did it take God to create the universe, the Earth, and all its inhabitants? Second, how long ago did this creative act take place? They’re normally conflated since those who believe in a literal 7-day creation almost always also believe in a very young Earth, and those that believe in an old earth usually reject a literal 7-day creation in favor of other models. Let’s deal with the age of the Earth first.)

So, which is it? Are our scientific observations wrong, or is Scripture wrong? I’m sure you know by now that the answer is NEITHER. They’re in synch. How? Well, to get this answer, young-Earth creationists have to do some pretty fancy dancing. Normally they’ll rely heavily on a global flood (which is another issue altogether), and suggest that things like the Grand Canyon can happen in a matter of days if you have enough water and soft enough soil. Multiple layers of sediment may appear thousands or even millions of years apart, but only be days or months apart, due to flood geology. All of these are grand attempts, but they fall short in most serious investigations. But, we don’t have to try to force the observable, natural evidence into a preconceived notion of Scripture.

In fact, there is no discussion in the Bible about the age of the Earth. To get the age, scholars have to use the genealogies from Genesis and Leviticus and the ages of the key figures (Adam, Seth, Enoh, Lamech, the Kings, etc). I believe this is very shaky ground. These genealogies are NOT consecutive (they contain gaps), are NOT complete (many are missing multiple generations), and the ages of the individuals in question are not precise (it’s not like we have birth and death certificates for these folks). From a Jewish perspective, these genealogies are designed to show a general line of descent, not to be all-inclusive. The genealogies are not unlike those referenced in the New Testament, where we hear of Christ referred to as the “son of David,” although we know there were many generations between David and Christ (Matthew 12:23, Luke 1:32 & 18:39, elsewhere). Or when the Israelites as a whole are referred to as “sons of Abraham,” though we know that most are not directly his sons, just in his lineage.

In addition, many believe that the ages are not actual ages, but numerical representations of their lives. Both Hebrew and Greek authors and theologians were frequent practitioners of what is known as Gematria, or establishing theological and linguistic significance to numbers. We see this throughout the Bible, where certain numbers (often 40, 12, or 7) contain significance. You probably already know about these cases…for example, the number “7” in Scripture usually signifies perfection or completeness. How many times do I forgive my brother? “Not 7 times, but 70 times 7 (or 77 times).” Matthew 18:21-22. It’s not telling us to that we should keep count, and when we get to 77, it’s over…it’s telling us that we should ALWAYS forgive. There is no limit. Same with 40. How many years did the Hebrews wander? How many days did the rain last during the flood? How many days was Jesus tempted in the desert? We’re not sure what exactly “40” signifies, but it appears time and time again in Scripture, and carries great significance. How does this apply? Well, when we read that Lamech lived 777 years, this could be much like saying we forgive our brother 77 times. It’s not meant to be a precise count, it’s meant to tell us something of theological significance…perhaps Lamech lived a complete or nearly perfect life. That’s just one example of many…bottom line, using ages and genealogies to establish the age of the Earth, rather than scientific exploration and observation, is bad business.

So, in summary, we cannot create a false conflict between science and religion, and we cannot drive a wedge between how God has revealed Himself in nature and how He has revealed Himself in Scripture. The two are not incompatible or contradictory. The Bible is silent on the age of the Earth, and the use of genealogies to establish the age is unreliable and most probably inaccurate. On the other hand, God has also given us nature in abundance, as well as the tools and mental faculties to observe, test, measure, and draw conclusions from that general revelation. With notable exceptions, those observations, tests, and measurements clearly point to an Earth considerably older than the 6,000 – 10,000 years supposedly determined by the genealogies.

“Biblical” Marriage

20120811-231930.jpgFollowing up from my prior blog on the Chick Fil-A issue, I received a question from Bill in Alexandria the other day. I’ve also received several emails, and had a number of posts on my Facebook site. It’s not directly related to Dan Cathy’s comments or the same-sex marriage debate, but I’ll answer it as best I can.

The question revolves around Facebook posts and a YouTube video that has been making the rounds lately (you can watch it here, but I don’t recommend it…it’s a waste of your time). It’s very, very difficult to respond to a video like this, simply because she’s all over the map and has absolutely no idea how to read the Bible or interpret Scripture.

All of these things — the YouTube video, the emails, the Facebook posts — revolve around the same basic contention. That is, that “Biblical or traditional marriage” is not defined as a man and woman, includes the requirement to marry my brother’s wife if he gets killed, requires me to stone my wife if I can’t prove she’s a virgin at marriage, permits multiple wives and concubines like Solomon and others, you’ve probably seen the list. Let’s try some clear thinking.

1. The Biblical definition of marriage. This starts at the very beginning — Genesis. In the story from Genesis 2, shortly after God creates man, he realizes that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and he creates a companion for him. That companion established the first “marriage,” from a Biblical perspective — one man, one woman, with a relationship described in Genesis 2:24, which outlines a very special spiritual, emotional, and physical union. This is reinforced throughout Scripture, especially in the New Testament. This includes instructions for men to love their wives in Ephesians 5:22-33, and the definition of a godly man being the husband of one wife in 1 & 2 Timothy, Titus 1, and elsewhere. Most Biblically-literate Christians are also very well aware of the New Testament’s constant comparisons between marriage and Christ’s relationship with the church, which further defines what marriage is and how it behaves.

All combined, we understand that marriage, Biblically defined, is a lifelong relationship between a man and a woman, characterized by love, sacrifice, Christ-centeredness, and meeting each other’s physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. Divorce, adultery, and fornication are all violations of this Biblical ideal. Are there other examples of marriage in the Bible? Sure, especially in the Old Testament. But to equate these examples with the Biblical “definition” is to make a critical error is hermeneutics (the science of the study of Scripture) — that is, to equate the descriptive with the prescriptive. This simply means that there are many things in the Bible that are describe various situations, but do not require us to emulate the behavior. In fact, many times the Bible describes behaviors that we are NOT to emulate. Paul supervising the stoning of Stephen, for example (Acts 7:54 – 8:1), is obviously descriptive — the Bible does not condone or endorse this behavior. Examples abound, from David’s adultery with Bathsheba (2 Sam 12:24) to a hundred other examples — including Solomon and David taking multiple wives.

Throughout Scripture, we see many cases of Godly men taking multiple wives — and then see the consequences of that sinful behavior. Nowhere in Scripture is this behavior prescribed. In fact, every prescriptive passage with regard to marriage always identifies it as a wife and husband. Jesus quotes Genesis 2 when talking about a man leaving his father and mother and being joined to a wife (Matthew 19). This passage is directly followed by one that makes it clear that once joined, the union is permanent (except for unfaithfulness). Fast forward to 1 Corinthians 7, and the story is the same. And note the language in these passages — the language of “should,” “do not,” and similar phrases make it clear that these are prescriptive passages. Every prescriptive passage, from Matthew 19 to 1 Cor 7 and elsewhere, detail a long-term, monogamous, heterosexual union.

2. Old Testament Mosaic and Levitical laws. Now, on to this issue or stoning those who aren’t virgins, marrying my brothers wife if he dies, and other concerns. I have already blogged about the fact that we are no longer under the confines of the Mosaic/Levitical law, and that definitely applies here. The New Testament is perfectly clear that we are no longer under the law, and that Christ has fulfilled the law. It is still useful to us as a historical and teaching tool (1 Tim 3:16-17), but we are no longer subject to the law or justified by it. We have a new law now, the law of Christ. You can read more in 1 Corinthians 9, Galatians 3 & 6, Romans 8, or Hebrews 8. Joel C. Rosenberg also has a great blog on the topic — no need to restate his great exposé here. Biblical marriage, under the law of Christ, is loving, caring, and uplifting, much like Christ Himself.