Why Must We Suffer?

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

MANY FACTORS TODAY IMPACT how we feel about ourselves and life. We wonder why bad things happen to good people. We question the existence of an all-powerful, benevolent God in the face of seemingly insurmountable evil and social unrest. America is embroiled in doubt and fear, depression and anxiety, hopelessness and a loss of meaning; caught in a national angst we have not seen since the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the Great Depression. Some of us turn to psychology and psychiatry, hoping medication and talk therapy will cure our misery. Others turn to “religion.” Tragically, many Americans try booze and illicit drugs, and some choose to end their life. What is the answer?

How Could You?

I sat, alone, quietly, wondering what was about to happen. Misery had brought me to this place. I was so sick and tired of myself, yet I had no idea how to change me. And what if I cannot change? Would I be able to live, period? Perhaps you or someone you are close to has been at this point. My complaint, for lack of a better word, was simple: God, how could you? Why did you give me this life, this complete mess. I felt impotent and alone. Nothing thrilled me anymore. Not. One. Thing. I decided to find out why, or die. Why am I lost and alone, confused and burdened? I am so tired of hearing my own voice―especially the one in my head that never seemed to stop making excuses for my circumstances. It is quite unsettling to give one’s self an ultimatum. What happened to the hour I first believed? I saw the face of Jesus at age 13, and asked Him into my heart and my life. There was an unambiguous call on my life to serve as a pastor or teacher of the Word. Finally, my raison d être.

But things did not go “according to plan.” Life got complicated. I got lost on the way to my calling. I’d never really been happy in life, but at least I wasn’t a nihilist. My belief that something matters, no matter what that something is, seemed to propel me toward hope. A chance to see the horizon. Light. There has to be light, right? And doesn’t that light illuminate, reveal? Like that new GE light bulb, giving the best light, filtering dull yellow light to give incredible color contrast and whiter whites for exceptional clarity. That’s what I needed. Exceptional clarity. Let’s get real here. My life did not seem to be “exceptional” and I had absolutely no “clarity.” Instead, I was kneeling in my bedroom, alone, broke and broken, asking God, “How could you do this to me?” How could a Christian lose hope. Lose the horizon? Give up the reigns to a task master like substance abuse?

I didn’t stop there. I wanted to know why my grandmother and father got cancer. Why my father lost his dad when he was only 13 years old. Why he contracted COPD, emphysema, and chronic hypoxemia? When he eventually needed supplemental oxygen 24 hours a day, he said to me, “Well, this is the beginning of the end.” Shortness of breath robbed him of his many favorite activities: woodworking, painting, gardening, landscaping. No longer could he ride his lawn tractor without suffering compression fractures of lumbosacral vertebrae. He had stopped smoking after his heart attack at age 55, yet he still suffered the horrific medical consequences. He passed away in 2014 from pneumonia. Why God? He’d quit smoking decades ago. Why is he gone now that I finally have a life worth living? Why isn’t he here to see the amazing turnaround I’ve finally made? He’s not here to see me preparing for ministry. God, how could you? Thankfully, I am not prone to thinking this way any longer, but it took some exegetical research for me to determine the best way to address these issues without blaming God, my father, or others.

If God Loves Us, Why Must There Be Pain and Suffering?

If God loves us and is an omnipotent and benevolent God, why does He allows pain and suffering. These questions are not limited to skeptics and nonbelievers; they haunt many Christians as well. Surely, He can rid His creation of wars, murders, torture, sickness, tsunamis, earthquakes; He must be capable of arresting evil, right? This issue has stymied believers and non-believers for centuries. Richard Dawkins sees universal suffering as an indictment against the existence of a loving God. Further, he writes, “There is no good case to be made for our possession of a sense of right and wrong having any clear connection with the existence of a supernatural deity” (1). Dawkins believes theodicy (the “vindication” of divine providence in the face of the existence of evil) must keep theologians up at night. However, he provides no further evidence of this claim. Second, I and many other theologians and biblical scholars I know, are not suffering from insomnia over the conundrum of evil in the face of a “good” God.

Dawkins says it is “…childishly easy to overcome the problem of evil. Simply postulate a nasty god – such as the one who stalks every page of the Old Testament. Or, if you don’t like that, invent a separate evil god, call him Satan, and blame his cosmic battle against the good god for the evil in the world. Dawkins’ detractors see the foregoing comment as a straw man fallacy, especially because Christian theologians and biblical scholars do not claim that the issue of evil is easily overcome, nor do they believe Satan is “a separate evil god,” responsible for the existence of evil in God’s creation. Designating one cosmic power “good” and the other “evil” presupposes a third element for making the evaluation, namely an objective standard (or “measuring stick”) of good and evil. For the terms of “good” and “evil” to be meaningful, they must be linked to some objective standard, but “…then this standard, or the Being who made this standard, is farther back and higher up than either of them, and He will be the real God” (2).

C.S. Lewis writes, “Each [entity] presumably thinks it is good and thinks the other bad. One of them likes hatred and cruelty, the other likes love and mercy… Now what do we mean when we call one of them the Good Power and the other the Bad Power? Either we are merely saying that we happen to prefer the one to the other, or else we are saying that one of them is actually wrong, actually mistaken, in regarding itself good” (3). Lewis argues that no created being can be intrinsically evil or love evil for evil’s sake. He contends that there is no way that an evil being can stand in the same relation to its evil that an ultimate good being can stand to its goodness. He adds, “Goodness is, so to speak, itself: badness is only spoiled goodness. There must be something good first before it can be spoiled” (4). Augustine of Hippo postulated that evil has no existence of its own; instead, evil is the absence of good.

I understand this conclusion sounds a bit counterintuitive. So, let us take an exegetical approach to the origin of evil. When God created the heaven and the earth, He paused and saw that it was good (Gen. 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25). On the sixth day, after surveying all He made, God said it was very good (1:31). When we read the account of creation in Genesis 1 and 2, we see no mention of God creating anything bad, corrupt, malevolent, ugly, or wicked. Yet, in Genesis 3 we are introduced to the serpent tempting Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. The serpent, which had not been previously mentioned, suddenly comes on the scene and becomes a major player in the fall of man and introduction of original sin. So, good is morally “prior to” evil such that evil is damaged goodness and love of evil is desiring evil as though it were good. Natural laws and libertarian free will are necessary conditions for a variety of valuable relational situations (within humanity and with God).

Lewis believed pain is “God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world,” emphasizing pain’s capacity to shatter our illusions of self-sufficiency. But this is not a dyed-in-the-wool formula; pain only sometimes shatters our false sense of self-sufficiency and at other times drives us farther from God, depending on our response. Further, Lewis did not make sweeping generalizations about the purpose of all pain, although some interpreters mistakenly represent him as doing so. Moreover, Lewis did not address “evils” such as natural catastrophes that wipe out hundreds of people without giving them a chance to reorient toward God; nor did he engage human wrongful acts like the torture and murder of children who cannot respond productively to the pain. To be sure, however, God can work redemptively with pain when it does occur. There is simply no guarantee that all persons, even when pain exposes their insufficiency, will choose relationship with God.

If the universe is as scientists say it is, then what scope remains for statements about good or bad, right or wrong? What are we to conclude about evil and wickedness? If moral statements are about something, then the universe is not quite as science suggests it is, since physical theories, having said nothing about God, say nothing about right or wrong. To admit this would force philosophers to admit that the physical sciences offer a grossly inadequate view of reality.

Created Selves and Reality

As a created self, a finite personal being possessing intelligence, will, and agency, Satan’s true good would have been realized by accepting his place (as Lucifer) in creation, which he refused to do. We human beings are also created selves who must either accept our nature and ultimate destiny in God or craft for ourselves a destiny apart from God, which Lewis sees as “a free choice.” Essentially, a series of accumulative moral choices in which “good and evil both increase at compound interest” (5). It is inevitable that left unchecked, bad temper, jealousy, narcissism, selfishness, and other spiritual or character defects, gradually get exponentially worse and become Hell when projected out over an eternal future. Finding our true selves, then, is a matter of letting God heal and transform us spiritually. But God will never force himself upon us. He will not ravish, He can only woo. As perfect love, God can do nothing less than will our true good. Lewis said, “He cannot bless us unless He has us” (6).

Concluding remarks

We all hear the question so many typically ask, “Why would a loving God send someone to hell?” Yet, the truth is, people send themselves there. If you see someone walking toward a cliff and you yell to them, “Wrong way! There is a cliff ahead. You’re going to fall off and die if you don’t go the other way.” But if the person foolishly responds with “I’ll take my chances”, “I don’t believe you”, or “All roads lead to safety,” then he or she ends up falling off the cliff and into the abyss, who sent them there? They did! I wrote a poem during my active addiction that looked at the excitement and the peril of living my life right up to the edge of the abyss. Certainly, God did not want me to push myself away from Him, coming closer and closer to the cliff. He wanted to rescue me from myself, but I had to make the first move.

Lewis said a “Cosmic Sadist” might hurt us, but he could not do positive things such as invent or create or govern a universe. To hurt us, the Cosmic Sadist might bait traps, “…but he’d never have thought of baits like love, or laughter, or daffodils, or a frosty sunset. He make a universe? He couldn’t make a joke, or a bow, or an apology, or a friend” (7). It is goodness that is original and fundamental and evil that is derivative and parasitic. I, as Lewis, remain confident that the Christian worldview explains evil and suffering better than other worldviews explain it. Evil occurs within a total world context that includes other important phenomena that cannot be adequately explained by an evil source. The problem of evil itself, as Lewis indicated, can be credibly formulated only if these other realities are assumed. In the final analysis, when Lewis lost his wife Joy, he did not waiver one bit in his faith in God. His theory that pain is a catalyst for spiritual reorientation (a belief he articulated frequently and that many of his readers took as categorical) encountered the hard fact that sometimes we just have to endure pain that seems to serve no particular purpose.

Footnotes

(1) Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (New York, NY: First Mariner Books, 2008), 135.
(2) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: HarperOne, 1952), 43.
(3) Ibid, 42-43.
(4) Ibid.
(5) Ibid., 132.
(6) Albert Schweitzer, The Quest for the Historical Jesus (London, UK: SCM Press, 2000).
(7) C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed (London, UK: Faber and Faber, 1961), 65.

A Plea for Mercy at a Poetry Reading

Be patient please
as these words stumble
off my tongue or as they tip-toe
nervously to the precipice of my lips
nervously to the precipice of my lips
before leaping into your lagoon of thought.
Listen, these words have traveled
long years through the swollen rivers
and frenzied trees of a jungle mind
battered by storm. They are weary
as well as wary. As iron is bent
and tortured across the blacksmith’s anvil
these words are twisted and torqued
over the most trivial of fears;
they are raw with tedious obsessions.
Their blossoming has been withered
by the stale breath of isolation.
But know this, they are honest
and unassuming
as the tip of a blind man’s cane.
So take them gently as you now
lead them through the obstacles
of their own making.

© 2021 Jason James Sheppard

Systematic Treatment of Theologies

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy, M.T.S.

After digesting the theological methods of Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, and Karl Rahner, I am partial to Barth. Barth grew up in Germany, and was in country when Hitler’s Third Reich and extermination of the Jews was rampant. This left Barth quite dismayed. He saw the policies of the Nazi party as evidence of a fundamentally bankrupt theology (1). Both the church and German society were smashed against the rock of imperialism. Wayne Grudem defines systematic theology any study that answers the questionWhat does the whole Bible teach us today?” about any given topic (2). Further, it allows us to focus on summarizing each doctrine as it should be understood by Christians in the twenty-first century. The adjective systematic in systematic theology should be understood to mean “carefully organized by topics,” with the understanding that the topics studied will be seen to fit together in a consistent manner.

My strong endorsement of Karl Barth rests in his call for a theology that starts with God (in the beginning) and focuses on the Word of God. Paul wrote, “And we also thank God constantly for this, that when you received the word of God which you heard from us, you accepted it not as the word of men but as what it really is, the word of God, which is at work in you believers” (1 Thes. 2:13, NRSV). Regarding the primacy of Scripture, we are told, “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds from the mouth of God” (Luke 4:4). God’s Word is truth (John 17:17); it is powerful and does not return to Him void (Isa. 55:11); it will never pass away (Matt. 24:35). Moreover, the Word of God is “…inspired by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim. 3:16). 

Barth’s theology reminds me of Martin Luther’s sola Scriptura (“by Scripture alone”). In fact, consider the milieu of both these theological giants. Luther stood up against the corruption, abuse of power, and lack of primacy of Scripture regarding Roman Catholicism, and Barth spoke out against the atrocities of Hitler’s eugenics and his grab for world power. Barth staunchly opposed any approach to theology that featured human-centeredness. Systematic theology is impossible without the core Doctrine of the Word of God, for it is there that we learn of His attributes and character. Without Holy Scripture, there is no thread of redemption for us to follow, refer to, or teach. 

Barth took on Protestant liberalism, stating that the Word of God must be primary in theology. For me, this is the only means by which we can live our theology, otherwise our faith is mere philosophy. In addition, without a systematic model of theology and an official canon of biblical texts, we cannot hope to discover the Truth that is in Jesus Christ. We would miss the opportunity to satisfy our innate hunger for God. We also lack sufficient wisdom and knowledge to know God without His wisdom, His grace, and His Word.

Without the foregoing, true theology is not possible. The heart of Barth’s theology rests upon the sovereignty of God, the importance of the resurrection, the light of Christ, and the primacy of Holy Scripture. Barth said man’s “religion” is more akin to unbelief. It is a construct of the human mind. He adds, “It is a concern, indeed. We must say that it is the one great concern of godless man. From the standpoint of revelation, religion is clearly seen to be a human attempt to anticipate what God in his revelation wills to do and does do. It is the attempted replacement of the divine work by a human factor” (2).

Footnotes

(1) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1994), 24.
(2) Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics I/2 (Edinburg: T&T Clark, 1956), 299-300.

Riding the Coattails of the Morning Sun

Like a knob-kneed colt
with wild mane flying
I galloped carefree through my youth.
Muddy potholes and thorny hedges
were no obstacles but welcome challenges.
Sparks bounced off my radiant body
as I rode on the coattails of the morning sun.

Now I sit by candlelight,
a crocheted comforter around my shoulders,
recalling old wrongs and shortcomings
as well as the delicate beauties of my life
—and tell stories.

©2017 Ute Carson

Retrieved from: http://www.longshotisland.com/2017/02/08/momentary-poems/

Unbreakable Fragility

By Tim McGee

The more I discover you,
the less I can  ignore—
or claim ignorance of what you ask.

You say to “Follow my commands”

You call me to meekness,
living in humility;
to die to myself—
so as to become holy, perfect.

You say to “Love one another”

You offer more than commands.
You lived among us,
showed us your way—
revealing to us that love is sacrifice.

You say to “Be strong and courageous”

True strength comes when I let go. 
Against the fragility of a shattered ego—
no weapon can prosper.

Never Lose Your Desire to be Sanctified

By Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

GOD’S ULTIMATE AIM FOR believers is to be sanctified and grow in holiness. The Hebrew (qdš) and Greek (hagias-) roots are applied to any person, place, occasion, or object “set apart from” common, secular use onto some divine power. Under the Old Covenant, persons and things devoted to God’s use had to be ritually cleaned, not merely set apart by taboo, decree, or tribal caste. “Fitness” for use becomes increasingly moral. Consider, “You shall be holy to me; for I the LORD am holy, and have separated you from the peoples, that you should be mine” (Lev. 20:26, NRSV). Peter wrote, “But as he who called you is holy, be holy yourselves in all your conduct; since it is written, ‘You shall be holy, for I am holy'” (1 Pet. 1:15-16). Israel is inherently holy, separated by God from “the peoples” to be His own. Yet Israel had to become holy, by obedience, fit for the privilege allotted them” (1).

I have wondered whether God uses exile to set His people apart for further sanctification. The Jews were set free from slavery under Pharaoh only to wander in the wilderness for forty years. Leviticus tells of two ideas of sanctification. The first is that which relates to ceremonial laws (purification). The other is sanctification itself. In this idea, two factors are important: sanctification is called “the way” if it is related to ceremonial laws (e.g., blood sacrifice as a type of purification); and, sanctification is a “progressive work” as it is related to obedience to God’s commands.

Christians are set apart for God’s use. The community of believers is called by Paul as “…those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call on the name of our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Cor. 1:2). The true church of God is comprised of all who are sanctified in Christ, called to be saints, and who call upon Him as God incarnate; who acknowledge Him as their Lord (2). It is through this relationship that believers obtain pardoning mercy, sanctifying grace, and the comforting peace of God. Jesus said, “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you; not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid” (John 14:27). This use of “peace” refers to the Hebrew shalom, a rich blessing that includes peace, harmony, wholeness, completeness, prosperity, welfare and tranquility. The Greek eirēnēn means peace, prosperity, rest, quietness. Christ was saying “peace I let go [aphiēmi] to you,” signifying to leave with, send out, or permit.

Sanctify Me Lord!

To be sanctified by the Lord requires a desire to be set apart for His purpose. This is not synonymous with salvation or redemption; rather, it is an inevitable consequence of the same. Sanctification is a critical part of Christian doctrine, the roots of which began when God sanctified the sabbath as a day of rest and continued with the priesthood as outlined in Leviticus. The Hebrew word for sanctification is qâdash, meaning to separate from a profane to a sacred use. Sanctification in the New Testament is from the word hagiazo as used in John 17:16-17, where Jesus said to the Father, “They are not of the world, even as I am not of the world. Sanctify them in the truth; thy word is truth” (emphasis mine). Progressive revelation of sanctification throughout Scripture allows for a clearer understanding of God’s desire for believers under the Old and the New Covenants to come out from the world and be set apart for His glory.

Under the Old Covenant, God consecrated the places where He dwelt. God was unable to occupy any space or dwell among His people without first setting the place apart as holy. This concept is easier to grasp when holy or sanctified is compared to its opposite: profane or defiled. This is evident in Exodus 3:4-5 where God appeared to Moses in the form of a burning bush. He summoned Moses to Him, instructing Moses to remove his sandals because he was standing on ground that had been sanctified and declared holy. Similarly, God cannot come and dwell in us until we have been sanctified. God is holy and separate from nature and from people. He can only be approached through mediation and sacrifice. It is through Christ that both have been established. Although Israel was corporately holy (set apart from other nations and peoples for a divine task), in order for them to be fit for what they had been called to do (provide the bloodline through which the Messiah would come) they had to deepen their holiness through obedience.

R.E.O. White compares sanctification and justification, stating sanctification means “…keeping oneself unspotted,” but he adds that this is not simply self-discipline. Attempting to obtain complete obedience through self-discipline is an impossible task. It is impossible to perform the will of God without being led, called, or sanctified by God. White believes sanctification is “chiefly the outflow of overflowing life within the soul, the ‘fruit’ of the Spirit in all manner of Christian graces” (Eph. 5:22-23). Justification, however, which White calls the privileged status of acceptance, is acquired by only one means: the cross (3). Sanctification under the New Covenant is not a matter of once-and-done; rather, it is an ongoing process of conformity to Christ, which is achieved through the Holy Spirit. Although New Testament Christians cannot hope to achieve sinless perfection, we are instructed to cleanse (remove) ourselves from all filthiness of the flesh and spirit, perfecting holiness (2 Cor. 7:1). This is considered repentance (“turning away from”), which is the first step in sanctification (setting one’s self apart from the world) under the New Covenant. Our “fitness” for God’s purpose becomes increasingly moral.

The Difference

Justification, on the other hand, is a one-time act performed by God which declares the believer “not guilty,” and is based solely on the sacrifice of Jesus Christ at Calvary. Sanctification occurs on a continuum and includes past, present, and future. Isaiah 50:8 confirms the vindicating aspect of justification (“he who vindicates me is near”). On closer examination, one finds that justification through faith is the foundation upon which Christianity is established as a religion of grace and forgiveness through grace alone, by faith alone, in Christ alone. Paul informs us of this truth: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “He who through faith is righteous shall live(Rom. 1:17).

The changes God expects in us can only take place in the inner man, through the power of the Holy Spirit. The term “perfecting holiness” used in 2 Corinthians 7:1 is derived from the Greek epiteleô, which indicates further fulfilling or completion – bringing through to an end, finishing (see Gal. 3:3). Jesus Christ is the author and finisher of our faith (see Hebrews 12:1). Paul said, “Now before faith came, we were confined under the law, kept under restraint, until faith should be revealed (Gal. 3:23). Second Corinthians 7:1 refers to these promises. This correlates with Paul’s remark, “What agreement has the temple of God with idols? For we are the temple of the living God; as God said, ‘I will live in them and move among them, and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. Therefore come out from them, and be separate from them, says the Lord, and touch nothing unclean; then I will welcome you, and I will be a father to you, and you shall be my sons and daughters, says the Lord Almighty'” (2 Cor. 6:16-18).

Concluding Remarks

Christians are set apart for God’s use. They are chosen, destined, and sanctified. The writer of Hebrews urges, “Strive for peace with all men, and for the holiness without which no one will see the Lord” (Heb. 12:14). Paul wants us to understand that we are washed, sanctified, and justified (1 Cor. 6:11). White writes, “Sanctification is not merely justification’s completion (correlate or implicate); it is justifying faith at work. In the faith counted for righteousness, actual righteousness is born” (4). A believer is justified (deemed “acquitted”) when he or she accepts Christ as the Messiah; the lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world. Sanctification, on the other hand, is the method by which God brings a believer into alignment with His will. Justification is the single act of God’s grace, whereby he pardons the believer’s sins and counts him or her righteous by assigning to them the righteousness of Christ without regard to works.

Romans 3:24 says we are justified freely by the grace of God made possible by the redemption that came through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ. Paul notes in verse 25 that this is accomplished with the shedding of Jesus’ blood on the cross. This is mirrored in Hebrews 9:14-15. Jesus died as a ransom for the sins of mankind. Verse 22 reminds the reader that under the Law nearly everything had to be cleansed with blood, adding that there is no forgiveness without a blood sacrifice. It is therefore appropriate to conclude that God justifies the new believer at conversion, declaring him or her “acquitted.” Regarding sanctification, however, God calls the Christian to be “set aside,” no longer of this world, holy, sanctified, and called according to His purpose. Certainly, this is the very heart of the Gospel. It is through justification that the believer is considered righteous in God’s eyes. This imputing of the righteousness of Christ comes in an instant, at conversion.

Sanctification occurs over time, and includes past, present, and future. As God is holy and set apart from Creation, so too is the believer to be separate from the secular world. Because as Christians we are incapable of self-sanctification (unable to keep ourselves “unspotted”), it is imperative that we yield to the Holy Spirit and begin the work of maturing in the faith.


Footnotes
(1) R.O.E. White, “Sanctification,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd. ed., Daniel J. Treier, ed. (Grand Rapids, IL: Baker Academic, 2017), 770-71.

(2) Matthew Henry, Matthew Henry’s Concise Commentary on the Whole Bible (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson, Inc., 1997), 1095.
(3) White, Ibid., 771.
(4) Ibid.

“Counter-Intuitive Biblical Claims?”

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

John C. Lennox is a mathematician, bioethicist, Christian apologist, and author. He has written many books on religion and ethics and engaged in numerous public debates with atheists including Richard Dawkins. I have a copy of Can Science Explain Everything? wherein Lennox writes, “There is what we might call, for convenience, the ‘science’ side. They view themselves as the voice of reason. They believe they are working to roll back the tide of ignorance and superstition that has enslaved mankind since we crawled out of the primeval slime” (1). Lennox provides a summary of what these empiricists believe: Science is an unstoppable force for human development that will deliver answers to our many questions about the universe, and solve many if not all, of our human problems: disease, energy, pollution, poverty. At some stage in the future, science will be able to explain everything, and answer all our needs” (2).

Lennox states that the other extreme, the so-called “God side,” believes that God is behind everything there is and everything we are. They discount heredity, micro-evolution, weather, culture, education, and individual discoveries, focusing only on a wonderful mind behind literally everything in our beautiful world. To a large extent, this viewpoint muddies the water regarding evil and happenstance. (Please see my blog post “Why Can’t God Stop Evil?”) These two dichotomies have led to centuries of fighting and name-calling, papers, counter papers, debate, editorial license, and shortcuts. It also leads to harsh rhetoric, like what Physics Nobel Prize winner Stephen Weinberg said: “The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation [sic]” (3).

Lennox explains a valuable lesson he learned about a dark side to academia: “There are some scientists who set out with preconceived ideas, do not really wish to discuss evidence, and appear to be fixated not on the pursuit of truth but on propagating the notions that science and God do not mix and that those who believe in God are simply ignorant” (4). The history of modern science includes great Christian and theist pioneers like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and George Mendel. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (5). Thomas Nagel made it known that his atheism arose from a personal dislike of the idea of God. He said, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (6) [italics mine].

Lewis’s apologetic approach looks at a common human observation or experience that fits naturally within a Christian viewpoint. He said Christianity provides us with a bigger picture of reality that is intellectually sound. This stance certainly riles science. Alvin Plantinga, however, echoes Lewis in contending “…if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism then there is a science/religion (or science/quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion; it’s between science and naturalism(7). J.P. Moreland responds to this dilemma as follows: “Scientism says that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality. Everything else, especially ethics, theology, and philosophy is, at least according to scientism, based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing” (8). It is important to note that science is not represented through scientism, and that scientism is philosophy, not science. (Please see my blog post “More on Scientism.”)

You may have heard it said that Western civilization has become a post-Christian culture. Alister McGrath takes it one step further: “…we live in a post-truth world in which we just make up our beliefs… we decide what we would like to be true, then live as if it were true” (9). His post-truth comment is a reference to moral relativism: the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Relativism, secularism, and pluralism have attempted to take a bite out of Christian theology and theism.

McGrath quotes Bertrand Russell: “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (10). Russell believes people should study philosophy because it teaches us “how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed [sic] by hesitation” (11). The apologetic approach of C.S. Lewis serves to identify the common human experience, and then show how it fits, naturally and plausibly, within a Christian way of looking at things. Lewis believes the human sense of longing for something that is really real, truly significant, yet proves frustratingly difficult to satisfy, is a clue to humanity’s true fulfillment lying with God. I have heard this longing identified as “a hole in our soul.”

Lewis asks us to look into the Christian way of seeing things and to explore how things look when seen from its standpoint; as if to say try seeing things this way. Granted, worldviews and metanarratives (with all their preconceptions, biases, and presuppositions) can be compared to lenses. Lewis recommends finding out which view brings things into sharpest focus. Further, he notes in Mere Christianity that many people know a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, leading to emptiness and lack of fulfillment. I might add that this “God hunger” is worldwide regardless of culture or religion. For Lewis, there is a third viewpoint that sees earthly longings as a kind of copy, echo, or foreshadowing of our true homeland.

It is truly appropriate for science to be established through an evidence-based approach to theories. In order for these theories to stand, science must identify the evidence that needs to be interpreted, and then try (through the scientific method) to work out which theories are best able to explain empirical phenomena. Imagine the difficulty Einstein faced when proving his theoretical understanding of the photoelectric effect. He set out to establish whether light is made of particles or waves. This is a highly significant concept. Dawkins is rather suspicious of religious beliefs because they seem to involve a retreat from critical thinking and disengagement from evidence-based reasoning (12). Not surprisingly, Dawkins considers religious faith to be “…blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (12). Faith is not blind trust, for that would make it illogical.

How is apologetics a part of all this? Groothuis refers to Huntington in Christian Apologetics, who said, “What means the most to [people] is, in the final analysis, their worldview: that complex of concepts that explains and gives meaning to reality from where they stand: given their diverse ancestries, histories, institutions and religions” (13). James Sire defines worldview as “…a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (14).

For those who would blame God (or Christianity, or Islam) for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Gene Edward Veith, Jr. penned the following: “[Thomas C.] Oden saw postmodernism in a different light than I did. He saw it as a reversion to the sensibility of premodern times, marking the end of theological liberalism and making possible a return to Christian orthodoxy” (15). Veith said, “But immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I thought I was witnessing another of Oden’s milestones, a building’s demolition that marked the end of an era and the beginning of something new. Postmodernists believe that reality is a construction (of the mind, of the will, of the culture) rather than an objective truth. But those planes flying into those skyscrapers, taking everyone by surprise, were no mental constructions” (16). Veith notes that even as the dust was settling over lower Manhattan that fateful morning, he heard television broadcasts, readings in the press, and dozens of conversations that were decidedly non-postmodern. In considering the terrorists, their background and their ideology, no one sounded like a relativist. What the terrorists did was evil, people were saying. Veith remarked that not all cultures are equally valid after all. In fact, not all religions are equally beneficent.

Dawkins believes there is no room for faith in science. Evidence supposedly compels the drawing of a valid conclusion. “Science” resulting from the scientific method is decidedly true. Dawkins asks what is faith? He asks his readers if it is a state of mind that leads (“pushes” as he would argue) people to believe something (whatever it may be) regardless of a total lack of supporting evidence. McGrath, however, says, “The issue is that Dawkins here fails to make the critically important distinction between the total absence of supporting evidence” (17). McGrath argues that Dawkins seems to make an erroneous logical transition from “this cannot be proved” to “this is false.” Lack of empirical proof does not ipso facto conclude that something is untrue. Of course, science has established its reputation worldwide as an effective way of making sense of the universe for many reasons, including its skepticism about establishing truths beyond what can be observed. Otherwise, science would be a “faith” or religion.

Of course, as a Christian and a theology student, I do not see God as a physical object within the universe. This does not fit in with systematic theology. God is not a part of creation; rather, He has providence over creation. He is the originator, foundation, and grand cause of all things. Romans 4:17 says God called into existence the things that did not exist. Hebrews 11:3 states, “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.” What this signifies is that God did not use any previously existing materials when He created the universe. There were such existing materials. God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing).

McGrath suggests that Christians think of God not as part of a painting or diagram, but rather as the canvas on which the picture is painted, or the frame in which it is set. This concept seems to me to miss the point. Instead, I see God as the painter (the “Grand Artist”), not the canvas. God is identified as Creator in the OT (Isa. 40:28; 42:5; 45:18) and NT (Mark 13:19; Rev. 10:6). Creation occurs by God’s Word (Gen. 1:3; John 1:1-3). Since God as Creator is the explanation for the existence of the world and humans, creation establishes our deepest, most essential relation to God (18). Creation speaks of God’s great power and wisdom, for He alone established energy, substance, movement, gravity, and all that mankind has discovered and categorized. Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ is “…upholding the universe by his word of power.”

Footnotes

(1) John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9.
(2) Lennox, Ibid., 9-10.
(3) Weinberg, in Lennox, Ibid., 14.
(4) Lennox, Ibid., 16.
(5) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 140.
(6) Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130.
(7) Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion & Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), x.
(8) J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 23.
(9) Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life (London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019), 16.
(10) McGrath, Ibid., 17.
(11) Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (London, UK: Allen & Unwin, 1946), xiv.
(12) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2d ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989), 198.
(13) Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 21.
(14) James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(15) Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 14.
(16) Veith, Ibid.
(17) McGrath, Ibid., 23.
(18) D.K. McKim, “Creation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 216.

Many Questions Remain About Youth Substance Use Trends

December 15, 2020

The following is from the web blog of Dr. Nora Volkow, Executive Director of NIDA.

The results of the 2020 Monitoring the Future (MTF) survey of drug use and attitudes in middle and high school students were released today, with the encouraging news that the alarming rises in teen vaping both of nicotine and marijuana seen in prior years had leveled off, although use remained high. But as with so many other efforts in 2020, the MTF survey was impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. And we are left at the end of this tumultuous year with many questions about how circumstances have affected youth, their substance use, and their mental health more generally.

The MTF survey is ordinarily conducted from February until May, with the results released later the same year. This year, schools closed in mid-March before the majority of the students could be surveyed, leaving the University of Michigan researchers who conduct the survey with a smaller-than-usual sample—11,821 students in 112 schools. Although only a quarter the size of the usual sample, it remained nationally representative and contained much valuable data.

Generally, the 2020 MTF showed continued low levels of most forms of substance use among teens, including very low levels of opioid use despite the devastating effects opioids have had on all older age groups including young adults. However, there are other indications that the evolving addiction and overdose crisis is directly affecting youth. For example, a study by CDC researchers just published in the Journal of Pediatrics shows increases in suspected nonfatal overdoses involving stimulants (a category that includes prescription stimulants, cocaine, and methamphetamine) in children and teens between 2016 and 2019. MTF shows decreases in use of prescription stimulants in 10th and 12th graders but a trend toward increased use among 8th graders. It will be important to closely monitor adolescent stimulant use in future MTF surveys.

The MTF data collected at the beginning of this year reflect a certain point of relative normality before the COVID-19 pandemic threw all our lives into upheaval, including the lives of teens. As we seek to understand adolescent substance use in this new reality, we look to research to answer many important questions on how the stresses of the pandemic may have affected substance use by teens. For example, it is important to investigate the consequences of social distancing and virtual classes on adolescent drug experimentation and use, since those are strongly influenced by peer pressure and group dynamics. NIDA has issued supplemental funds to existing grantees to help study the impact of the pandemic on adolescents’ risk of substance use; their access to prevention and treatment services; and the pandemic’s effects on families. Future research, including the results of next year’s MTF survey, can help us understand how school closures and lockdowns affected adolescent substance use.  

Although research has suggested that the pandemic’s stresses have increased many forms of substance use in adults, it remains to be seen whether reduced ability to interact with peers or other sources of drugs may be a mitigating factor in youth. There is already evidence that reduced commercial availability of vape products during the pandemic may be affecting teen vaping. Researchers at Stanford and University of California San Francisco captured self-reported vaping habits of 2,167 teen and young-adult e-cigarette users in May, two months after the national emergency was declared and after MTF stopped gathering data for the 2020 survey. Over half of the respondents reported changing their use of vaping products, with 68 percent of those reporting that they had reduced their use or quit. Inability to purchase the products was one reason cited.

2020 has posed many urgent questions for science. Finding out the different ways the pandemic and other stresses of the year have affected young people is a high priority. Adolescence is an important period of social and emotional development, and the pandemic has disrupted many of the processes that impact that development. NIDA research has pivoted to ensure we address this unique time in history as we pursue scientific solutions to the impacts of drug use and addiction across the lifespan.