Dark Matter and Other Phenomena

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

Religion and science are two of the most significant and contentious cultural and intellectual forces known to man. Leading Christian thinkers at the time of the Renaissance used the metaphor “God’s 2 Books” as a way to illustrate allowing both science and religion to tell us about reality. Theologians delineate God’s revelation as General (the physical universe and all its inhabitants) and Special (the Bible as God’s written revelation). It was believed that we must “read” both books to understand Creation. I often use the phrase “all truth is God’s truth.” Albert Einstein remarked, “Science without religion is lame; religion without science is blind.” As a theologian and student of the Bible, I choose to study science and religion because these subjects are interdisciplinary: neither science nor religion can provide a comprehensive view of the world. We simply cannot achieve a “complete picture” without integrating these two worlds.

We know the Milky Way is a barrel-shaped spiral galaxy, one of hundreds of billions in the observable universe. It’s also our home. Like other galaxies, the Milky Way is comprised of stars and other material bound together by gravity. Scientists estimate our galaxy to contain 100 billion to 400 billion stars; a similar number of planets likely exist in the Milky Way—some of them are part of solar systems and others are free floating. In addition to stars, the Milky Way contains innumerable nebulae, which are clouds of gas and dust. The vast majority of interstellar gas is made up of hydrogen and helium. Evidence seems to suggest that material in the Milky Way orbits the center far too quickly to be held together by gravity between the orbits of visible objects. Accordingly, most of the mass of the Milky Way is made up from a form of matter that does not interact with light. Astronomers have labeled this phenomenon dark matter (1).

What is Dark Matter?

Dark matter is the name theoretical physicists give to all the mass in the universe that remains invisible. Research suggests that about 70% of the universe is composed of dark energy, while the remaining 25% is composed of a mysterious substance known as dark matter. Unlike normal matter, dark matter does not interact with electromagnetic forces. This means it does not absorb, reflect or emit light, making it extremely hard to spot. In such instances, we typically look for the “result” of the presence of dark matter. All matter around us is made of elementary particles, the building blocks of matter. These particles occur in two basic types called quarks and leptons. Each group consists of six particles, which are related in pairs, or “generations”. The lightest and most stable particles make up the first generation, whereas the heavier and less-stable particles belong to the second and third generations. All stable matter in the universe is made from particles that belong to the first generation; any heavier particles quickly decay to more stable ones. Dark matter isn’t the same thing as dark energy, which makes up some 68% of the universe, according to the Standard Model.

The prevailing theory of today’s astrophysicists identifies four fundamental forces at work in the universe: the strong force, the weak force, the electromagnetic force, and the gravitational force. The idea of a “cosmological constant” was first proposed by Einstein as a means of explaining the concept of a static universe. His formula used dark energy to balance gravity. We later determined that Einstein was wrong: rather than the universe being “static,” it is expanding at a uniform rate. Amazingly, gravity is the weakest of the four forces, but it has an infinite range. Electromagnetic force also has infinite range, but it is much stronger than gravity. The weak and strong forces are effective over a very short range, operating at the level of subatomic particles. It may sound counterintuitive, but the weak force is much stronger than gravity. Bentovish believes theoretical physics is in a state of paradigmatic crisis. The two pillars of theory for the material-causal paradigm—Relativity Theory and Quantum Mechanics—seem “inconsistent,” as up to 95% of all the energy and mass in the universe cannot be directly accounted for. Hence the terms “dark energy” and “dark matter” (2). This paradigm was shown to “replicate” or account for all major relativistic or quantum phenomena, and offered a satisfactory alternative explanation for the unexplained accelerated expansion of the physical universe. Relativity and gravity alone cannot explain this feature.

What about these “Black Holes?”

The first scientist to talk about black holes was John Michell of Cambridge in 1783. Keep in mind this was theoretical, as no one had observed a black hole in space. Michell broached the subject by explaining how gravity works: If you fire a cannon ball straight up in the air, it will eventually be slowed down by gravity; it will stop moving upwards, and then it will fall back to Earth. However, if the initial upwards velocity were greater than what is called the “escape velocity,” gravity would not be strong enough to pull the object back to the ground. Escape velocity is governed by mass, with the escape velocity for the Earth at 11 kilometers per second. Our sun is far more dense than Earth, with an escape velocity of 617 kilometers per second (3). You may have heard about this phenomenon in relation to launching rockets into space. Hawking states, “During most of the life of a normal star, over many billions of years, it will support itself against its own gravity by thermal pressure caused by nuclear processes which convert hydrogen into helium. Eventually, the star will exhaust its nuclear fuel” (4).

Hawking tells us Einstein’s equations can’t be defined at a singularity, adding “…at this point of infinite density one can’t predict the future” (5). The most drastic consequence of Einstein’s description of gravity in terms of curved spacetime geometry in the framework of his general theory of relativity is the possibility that space and time may exhibit “holes” or “edges,” or spacetime singularities. In general relativity, spacetime itself behaves pathologically, and it can do so in several ways. According to the present standard, a spacetime singularity can be identified by examining particles in free fall—both ordinary matter particles and massless particles like photons. All singularities formed by the collapse of stars or other bodies are hidden from view inside black holes. Naturally, we cannot tell what’s inside a black hole from the outside. But we do know a black hole has a boundary called the event horizon, where gravity is just strong enough to drag light back and prevent it from escaping. As Hawking notes, because nothing can travel faster than light, everything else will get dragged back also.

I am mesmerized by Hawking’s example:

“It is a bit like going over Niagara Falls in a canoe. If you are above the Falls, you can get away if you paddle fast enough, but once you are over the edge you are lost. There’s no way back. As you get nearer the Falls, the current gets faster. This means it pulls harder on the front of the canoe than the back. There’s a danger that the canoe will be pulled apart. It is the same with black holes. If you fall towards a black hole feet first, gravity will pull harder on your feet than your head, because they are nearer the black hole. The result is that you will be stretched out lengthwise, and squashed in sideways. If the black hole has a mass of a few times our Sun, you would be torn apart and made into spaghetti before you reached the bottom. However, if you fell into a much larger black hole, with a mass of more than a million times the Sun, the gravitational pull would be the same on the whole of your body and you would reach the horizon without difficulty (6).”

Michell believed there are stars more massive than our sun that might have an escape velocity at or faster than the speed of light—186,282 miles per second. In this scenario, we would be unable to see the star because any light it might emit would be dragged back inside by gravity. Michell called these entities “dark stars,” or what we now call black holes. It is mind-boggling to imagine a star so dense not even light can escape its gravitational force. Gravity acts over great distances, which is perfect for our universe. The Earth is held in orbit by the Sun, 93 million miles away, and the Sun is held in orbit around the center of the Milky Way galaxy, about 10,000 light years away!* Gravity is only attractive in nature; it never repels. Science has discovered gravitational energy as a byproduct of gravitational collapse—the gravity of a collapsing star draws all its surrounding matter inward. This is believed to lead to a point of infinite density: a singularity.

I cannot help wondering how matter can be squeezed further and further in on itself without reaching a specific value of density. Would not such a never-ending singularity eventually suck everything in? If so, does this represent Creation at its primitive stage prior to God calling things forth? Scripture says, “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters” (Gen. 1:2, ESV). More intriguing is the problem of “information,” or the idea that every particle and every force in the universe contains data. However (at least from a theoretical point of view), there is a limit to the amount of information one can pack into a region in space. Hawking says “information” in this instance requires energy, and that energy has mass in accordance with Einstein’s famous equation E=mc². Consequently, if there is too much information in a region of space, it will collapse into a black hole, and its density will be in direct proportion to the amount of information being compressed. But what is meant by information in a black hole? Theoretical physicists believe it is the puzzling result of combining quantum mechanics and general relativity. Calculations suggest physical information could permanently disappear in a black hole.

Are Science and Christianity REALLY Incompatible?

Sadly, the study of science and religion continues to be a “battle” or conflict. Atheists tend to follow a zero-sum model—relating to or denoting a situation in which whatever is gained by one side is lost by the other. Reality cannot be properly studied under this model. John Lennox said about scientists, “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 primordial slime” (7). Yet, many of science’s key pioneers were firm believers in God—Galileo Galilei, Johannes Kepler, Blaise Pascal, Robert Boyle, Sir Isaac Newton, Michael Faraday. Bertrand Russell said, “Most sciences, at their inception, have been connected with some form of false belief, which gave them a fictitious value. Astronomy was connected with astrology, chemistry with alchemy [but] mathematical knowledge appeared to be certain, exact, and applicable to the real world” (8).

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? —Tertullian.

At the core of the “science over religion” argument lies observable, verifiable phenomena. Plato’s worldview sprang forth from this axiom, asking Is there any standard of “good” and “bad” except what the man using these words desires? Russell conceded that religion has, at first sight, a simple answer: God determines what is good and what is bad. Accordingly, the man whose will is in harmony with the will of God is a good man. This naturally led to a discussion on the standard of goodness. Is there “objective truth” in such a statement as “pleasure is good” in the same sense that “snow is white?” These thoughts are extremely important, for we are speaking of ontological truth; ultimate standards of morality. Science certainly strives for resolving scientific query through the scientific method: a method of procedure that has characterized natural science since the 17th century, consisting in systematic observation, measurement, and experiment, and the formulation, testing, and modification of hypotheses.

“Athens” refers to the mathematical, observable, natural realm. Indeed, formulas and equations regarding thermodynamics, gravity, relativity, electromagnetism, subatomic particles, dark matter, black holes, and physics are used to decode the physical realm. “Jerusalem” refers to the theological, religious realm. For the most part, the search for “objective” or “ontological” truth is avoided under the Athens model. Instead, we hear, “I shall consider a statement true if all, or virtually all, of those who have investigated it are agreed in upholding it.” At the risk of engaging in hyperbole, we must not allow “mob rule” to answer vital questions like What is the meaning and source of morality”? or Where did we come from? Admittedly, almost everything that distinguishes observances and theories in the modern world from earlier centuries is attributable to science. Scientific discoveries led to theories and paradigms meant to govern or instruct society. Kuhn writes, “Observation and experience can and must drastically restrict the range of admissible scientific belief, else there would be no science at all” (9). He adds, “At least in the mature sciences, answers (or full substitutes for answers) to questions…are firmly embedded in the educational initiation that prepares and licenses the student for professional practice. Because that education is both rigorous and rigid, these answers come to exert a deep hold on the scientific mind” (10). A hold that is quite difficult to shake free of later in life.

In light of the foregoing, I would like to address scientism—an excessive belief in the power of scientific knowledge and techniques. A basic (dogmatic) tenet of scientism is that science itself is the only means by which a thing or a condition can be explained or defined. This is not “scientific” thought; rather, it is the expression of a philosophical orientation or worldview. Ian Hutchinson of MIT says, “I think science has some very distinctive characteristics. Most of which, we are all kind of familiar with, though we perhaps have not made a list of them…things like observation, experimentation, measurement, systematization, mathematization, and so forth. These characteristics of science, I believe, can be brought together in two primary abstract categories, so we can really, in a certain sense, boil down what we mean by natural science into the insistence upon reproducibility (science depends on repeatable experiments or observations) and clarity (the unambiguous descriptions of things like measurements or sometimes mathematics that science insists upon). These characteristics, I would say, imply that science’s scope of application is limited” (11).

Moreland defines scientism as, “…the view that the hard sciences—like chemistry, biology, physics, and astronomy—provide the only genuine knowledge of reality” (12). According to scientism, the claim that ethical and religious conclusions can be just as factual as science, and therefore can be affirmed like scientific findings, is seen as a sign of narrow-mindedness or elitism at best, and bigotry and intolerance at worst. Marilyn vos Savant famously said, “Religions cannot be proved true intellectually. They come from the heart—and your parents—and, if you choose to believe it, a soul” (13). Incidentally, she has an IQ of 228, which is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the highest IQ recorded to date.

Scientism presupposes that the only true knowledge about reality comes solely from science, and empirical knowledge claims derived from “hard” science are the only claims that deserve the backing of public institutions. This has been the worldview of public education for decades, implying that religious and philosophical claims are matters of personal belief. Moreland says, “Words such as conclusions, evidence, knowledge, no reasonable doubt, and intellectual heritage become associated with science, giving science the ‘right’ to define reality, while words like beliefs and personal reservations are associated with nonempirical claims, framing religious beliefs as mere ungrounded opinions” (14).

A Most Amazing Creator

I place a great deal of value in science, and particularly in scientific method. As a Christian, I believe in ultimate or ontological truth: a belief is true if there exists an appropriate entity (a fact) to which it corresponds. If there is no such entity, the belief is false. Facts, for the Neo-classical correspondence theory, are entities in their own right. Pythagoras is given credit for the first discussions on the ontological categorization of existence—the philosophical study of being in general, or of what applies neutrally to everything that is real. Essentially, ontology addresses the question Is there such a thing as objective reality? Ontology is closely associated with epistemology, which is concerned with the nature of knowledge itself, its possibility, scope, and general basis: How do we go about knowing things? or How do we separate true ideas from false ideas? or How do we know what is true? or “How can we be confident when we have located ‘truth’?”

McGrath addresses the concept that “…a plurality of methods was required to engage our world…we cannot reduce all cognitive activity to a single fundamental method, but must rather make use of a range of conceptual tool-boxes, adapted to specific tasks and situations, to give us as complete an account as possible of our world” (15). For example, consider the five different ways to explain a frog jumping into a pond: physiological, biochemical, developmental, animal behavioral, and evolutionary. All five explanations are part of a bigger picture. McGrath reminds us that the term “science” is often misused. The general (accepted) definition is “the intellectual and practical activity encompassing the systematic study of the structure and behavior of the physical and natural world through observation and experiment.”

Hypothesis. Theory. Law. These scientific words get bandied about regularly, yet the general public usually gets their meaning wrong. Both natural science and social science are known as empirical sciences. This means that any theories must be based on observable phenomena, reproducibility of results and peer review. Of course, science is never really finished. It must constantly collect and interpret new empirical evidence and determine if such new findings cause a shift in the paradigm.

Christianity remains the religion who is said to have the most run-ins with science. The chasm between science and Christianity seems to be perpetrated by those who have no personal standing regarding faith in God. Skeptics tend to ride the middle of the road on the subject. Rather than prosecute this war of faith and science, perhaps it is wiser to establish a dialog that can lead to enhanced understanding. Pope John Paul II said, “Science can purify religion from error and superstition; religion can purify science from idolatry and false absolutes. Each can draw the other into a wider world, a world in which both can flourish” (16). I have made it my life’s mission to help increase the dialog between science and Christianity. I see a need for improved dialog and cooperation; indeed, for a new apologetic. It is for this reason that I will follow this article with Science and Religion: The Two Must Meet.

References

*Traveling at the speed of light, it would take 10,000 years to reach the center of the Milky Way.
(1) Paul Sutter, “What is the Milk Way?” Life Science (June 10, 2021). URL: https://www.livescience.com/milky-way.html
(2) J. Bentovish, “G-d’s Physics: On the True Nature of Dark-Energy & Dark-Matter,” Journal of Physics and Chemistry Research (May 23, 2021).
(3) Stephen Hawking, Brief Answers to the Big Questions (New York, NY: Bantam Books, 2018), 101-102.
(4) Ibid., 103.
(5) 104.
(6) 106.
(7) John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? (UK: The Good Book Company, 2019), 9.
(8) Bertrand Russell, The History of Western Philosophy (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1954), 34.
(9) Thomas S. Kuhn, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press, 2012, 1962), 4.
(10) Ibid., 5.
(11) Ian Hutchinson, “What is Science and What is Scientism?” The Veritas Forum (January 20, 2010). URL: http://www.veritas.org/what-is-science-and-what-is-scientism/
(12) J.P. Moreland, Science and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2019), 26.
(13) Michael Kinsley, “If You Believe Embryos are Humans,” Time (June 25, 2001), 80.
(14) Moreland, Ibid., 28-29.
(15) Alister E. McGrath, Science & Religion, 3rd. ed. (Hoboken, NJ: Wiley Blackwell, 2020), 66.
(16) In Science & Religion, Ibid., 10.

The Devoutness of Islam

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

NO DOUBT THE ABOVE TITLE strikes you as a bit odd coming from a Christian theology blogger. Please know that I believe Islam to be a false religion; that there is only one God, in three persons, and that Jesus Christ is wholly God and wholly man. I steadfastly trust the inerrancy of the Bible. I wholeheartedly believe in the virgin birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. I strive to study and adhere to the doctrines of Christianity.* However, I am most assuredly impressed by the unfailing loyalty and discipline of Muslims to the faith—devotion to daily prayers and to memorizing the Qu’ran. There is much correlation between Islam and Old Testament Judaism relative to devout reverence. In each of these faiths ceremonial observance of laws is regarded as superior to heart-felt faith.

“I lay prostrate in a large Muslim prayer hall, broken before God. The edifice of my worldview, all I had ever known, had slowly been dismantled over the past few years. On this day, my world came crashing down. I lay in ruin, seeking Allah.” — Nabeel Qureshi

In his book Seeking Allah, Finding Jesus, Nabeel Qureshi describes a regimented and consistent life of devotion in Islam, beginning each day with the adhan, the Muslim call to prayer. Daily prayer serves to acknowledge Allah each day from sunrise to sunset. Muslim worship is similar to the Jewish tradition, with a dedicated ion to following every edict and tradition.

Spirited Devotion

Muslims rise each morning to adhan, or the call to prayer, intending to arouse themselves and one another to the presence of Allah. Traditionally, every Muslim child must hear the adhan the moment they are born. Accordingly, fathers recite it softly in the ear of their newborn children. The primary purpose of attendance at mosque is for corporate (or “congregational”) prayer, called salaat. There are five obligatory prayers in Islam: fajr (sunrise), dhuhr (noon), asr (afternoon), maghrib (sunset), and isha (night). Each prayer has a specific window of time in which it must be completed. There is much dedication regarding facing Mecca, standing, bowing, genuflecting, and lying prostrate, before sitting on the heels to continue praying. Each repetition is called rakaat. Seventeen rakaat are required daily as a minimum obligation, and optional prayers can be offered as well. Prior to prayer, Muslims perform a ceremonial washing of the arms, face, and feet, called wudhu. Daily prayer is a means of cleansing the soul in the same manner wudhu cleanses the body.

Muslims are required to memorize the Qu’ran in its original Arabic language. In fact, Muslim clerics and Imams believe translations of the Qu’ran into English or other languages is not truly the Qu’ran as its meaning only holds true in the original language. Tradition teaches that every word in the Qu’ran was spoken aloud by Allah to Muhammad through the Archangel Gabriel. In fact, the word qu’ran means “recitation.” In addition, Muslims study the life of Muhammad as an exemplar. Every devout Muslim is called to venerate the Prophet, so they must learn stories about his life from books of surah and hadith and be guided accordingly.

A Corollary

Shema, the Jewish confession of faith, is comprised of three core scriptural texts (Deuteronomy 6:4–9, 11:13–21; and Numbers 15:37–41), in addition to proscribed prayers. This forms the vital part of daily worship. The word Shema refers to the first word in the passage, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God is one Lord” (see Deuteronomy 6:4), and can be interpreted as “hear and do.” There is a sacred duty to learn, study, and apply the Torah to everyday life as a profession of one’s faith. Life in the Jewish holy community is understood to encompass every level of human existence. The corpus of rabbinical laws morphed from the original Ten Commandments (the Mosaic Covenant) into 613 commands or mitzvot with the intention of establishing the way to behave, or the way of walking. Halakha (Jewish law and jurisprudence) is based on the Talmud, and serves to guide not only religious practices and beliefs, but establish Jewish requirements for daily life. We see this reflected in table blessings, Kiddush (“sanctification” of the Sabbath and festivals), the erection of the booth (sukka) for Sukkoth (the Feast of Tabernacles), the seder (the festive Passover meal) with its symbols and narration of the Exodus from Egypt, and the lighting of the lamps during the eight days of Hanukkah (the Feast of Dedication).

Like Islam, Judaism puts much more credence in deeds than beliefs. Because Judaism is a set of practices as well as a religious faith, it’s called a Way of Life. MacArthur believes a major factor that contributed to widespread misunderstanding regarding the Messiah was because “…most Jews simply did not see the need for a sin-bearing savior” (1). Israel expected a conquering Messiah who would vindicate the Jewish people and finally elevate Israel to world dominance politically and militarily. Paul provides a critical piece of Israel’s rejection of Jesus as the Christ: “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom. 10:3). The Jews returned from captivity under Pharaoh with a new devotion to the Law. A strict stress on legal obedience (with a particular attention given to the Law’s external and ceremonial features—dietary laws, dress, ritual washings, and visible symbols of piety) resulted from this orientation. By the time Jesus arrived, sheer legalism was the dominant feature of Judaism. MacArthur believes this “…stemmed from the fact that they didn’t really feel the weight of their own guilt” (2).

Muslims believe Jesus is no more than a prophet. To call Jesus “God incarnate” would be blasphemy, and would cause anyone who made such a claim to be condemned for heresy. The Qu’ran states, “…by their blasphemy and their terrible words of slander against Mary, and their saying, It is we who killed the Christ Jesus son of Mary, the messenger of God—they killed him not, nor did they crucify him, but so it was made to appear to them” (4:157). The single most important belief in Islam is Tawhid, the oneness and unity of God. To Muslims, God is not three persons, nor did He manifest Himself in the body of a man. Muhammad is believed to be the true and final messenger of Allah. This is so critical to the faith that Muslims claim Muhammad was the last and greatest of the prophets of Allah’s revelation, sent to set the record straight regarding the corruption of God’s revelation in the Bible and the misidentification of Jesus as the God-man. Muhammad is considered the Seal of the Prophets, and the Qur’an is God’s final and absolute word.

The Cost of Clarity

Nabeel passionately pursued clarity. Who was this God we are called to worship? How can we know whether our personal belief is in line with ultimate spiritual truth? C.S. Lewis said, “The church exists for nothing else but to draw men into Christ” (3). If a fruitful church makes disciples (see Matt. 28:19-20), a fruitful movement makes disciple-making churches. This is precisely where the Protestant Reformation gets mixed reviews. McGrath said perhaps the proper term is Protestantisms, plural (4). Vanhoozer notes the tendency in some circles to view the Reformation as the story of a divided kingdom. I believe the essence of the Reformation is simple: man in his very nature destined to be free to worship God independent of institutional ecclesiology. Troeltsch said, “Protestantism became the religion of the search for God in one’s own feeling, experience, thought, and will” (5). He feared that a church freed from church authority would be tossed to and fro on the sea of individualism. Yet, Martin Luther gave us a Christianity devoid of works. Indeed, no unambiguous Protestant template or paradigm arose from the ashes of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses. Some biblical scholars ask whether sola scriptura can ever produce consensus? To be Protestant is to strive to be biblical.

Nabeel wanted truth, but his search slammed him up against the wall of Islamic indoctrination. Judaism likewise clings to devout adherence to codified practices as if one’s behavior could become holy enough to earn eternal salvation. Martin Luther burned with desire to wrest Christianity from the grips of the papacy, yet he risked causing a movement of radical religious individualism. Luther’s sola scriptura seemed to cause dissension and schism, borne on the wave of biblical authority apart from church authority. But I truly believe the application of sola scriptura must be rooted in consensus among the community of believers and not the rulings of a dictatorial clergy as with Roman Catholicism.

When Nabeel finally believed that Jesus is the Messiah and fell to his knees, accepting the redemptive work of the crucifixion, he did not immediately convert. He says, “I told God I know what I needed to do but I needed time to mourn.” He turned once again to the Qu’ran for personal guidance. This time he looked for comfort, realizing there is not one verse in the Qu’ran designed to comfort a hurting man. Turning to the Bible, he read, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4). He continued reading through the Gospel of Matthew: “So everyone who acknowledges me before men, I also will acknowledge before my Father who is in heaven, but whoever denies me before men, I also will deny before my Father who is in heaven” (10:32-33). Nabeel said to God, “But if I proclaim you Father, I have to give up my family.” He then read Matthew 10:37: “Whoever loves father or mother more than me is not worthy of me, and whoever loves son or daughter more than me is not worthy of me.” Nabeel realized he was being asked to deny not only his family, but his whole life. Then he read, “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it” (10:38-39).

Nabeel says, “God knows the cost we must pay to truly surrender our will and our life to Him. It’s the same heavy cost the disciples faced 2000 years ago. The cost we all must be willing to pay if we’re going to follow Jesus.” As he finalized his decision to convert, Nabeel prayed, “Lord, I believe you are Jesus, and I submit to you.” He he did not truly understand the commitment he’d made until a few days later when he told his father he had become a Christian. His father began weeping uncontrollably, and said, “Nabeel, today I feel as if my backbone has been ripped out from inside me.” His mother didn’t say a word. Nabeel remarked, “It was like there had been a light in her eyes up to that moment and I just turned it off. She hasn’t been the same since.” Nabeel cried out to God, “Why didn’t you kill me? Before my parents found out I was a believer, I was saved. I would go to heaven if you killed me. I’d be happy, you’d be happy, and my parents would be happy. Everyone would be happy! Why didn’t you just kill me?” Nabeel said he heard these words: “Because this is not about you.” At that moment, Nabeel’s life and his theology were rebooted. He realized the gospel is not something you simply hear and believe. He said, “If it doesn’t change your life, it hasn’t hit you yet.”

At that moment, Nabeel realized, “This God is worth everything.”

“Jesus said, “Truly, I say to you, there is no one who has left house or brothers or sisters or mother or father or children or lands, for my sake and for the gospel, who will not receive a hundredfold now in this time, houses and brothers and sisters and mothers and children and lands, with persecutions, and in the age to come eternal life” (Mark 10:29-30).

References

(1) John MacArthur, The Gospel According to God: Rediscovering the Most Remarkable Chapter in the Old Testament (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 47.
(2) Ibid., 48.
(3) C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1996), 171.
(4) Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution (New York, NY: HarperOne, 2007), 62-63.
(5) Ernest Troeltsch, Protestantism and Progress (New York, NY: G.P. Putnam, 1912), 98.

* The Doctrine of the Word of God; the Doctrine of God; the Doctrine of Man; The Doctrine of Christ; the Doctrine of the Holy Spirit; the Doctrine of Redemption; the Doctrine of the Church; the Doctrine of Last Things.

“Identity Politics” in Social and Biblical Justice

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Social justice. We hear about it everywhere. The term seems so “user friendly.” It elicits positive emotions and vibes. Yet, as with so many other things, appearances can deceive.

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.A. Theology

HOW DOES SOCIAL JUSTICE differ from biblical justice? Is there room in the gospel for social justice? Are followers of Christ expected to strive for fairness and equality? If so, what should be done to promote these crucial concepts? Biblical “justice” means “to make right.” Justice is a relational term—people living in right relationship with God, one another, and the whole of creation. “Justice” is getting what we deserve, and might be an act of vengeance or force. “Mercy” means exercising forbearance, and it qualifies as an act of grace and compassion.

All secular political options and theories of justice, from “right” to “left” (Libertarianism, Liberalism, Utilitarianism, Progressivism, Relativism) are grounded in reductionistic worldviews. Christians should not ignore any of the rightful concerns raised, but they must not wholly align themselves with any of them. Only biblical justice is comprehensive enough to address the needs of the human condition. But biblical justice is not a mere set of bullet points or a set of rules and guidelines; it is not derived from political agenda. Rather, it is rooted in the very character of God and it is the outworking of that character, which is never less than just.

Social Justice Stands in Opposition to Biblical Justice

In 2013, Dr. Calvin Beisner, of the Cornwall Alliance for the Stewardship of Creation, wrote an excellent booklet in which he warned about the erroneous and perilous ideas promoted by the social justice movement. Titled Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel, the booklet begins with a vivid illustration from Dr. Beisner’s family life, which he uses to explain social justice. The following is an excerpt from that booklet.

Calvin Beisner and his teenage son A. J. frequently play ping-pong. Typically the score is lopsided, with one player beating the other badly. Some observers may object. Isn’t the winner being heavy-handed and hardhearted, callous and lacking compassion? Shouldn’t Beisner and A. J. simply add up the total number of points, divide by two, and assign the same score to each player? After all, both are made in God’s image. Leveling out the score would only be “fair,” rectifying the disparity between players and compensating for the strengths and weakness of both. Pride and feelings of inferiority would be eliminated, gloating and discouragement overshadowed (1).

Social justice involves the distribution of wealth, opportunities, and privileges within a society; individuality gives way to the struggle for social justice.

There are four interrelated principles of social justice: equity, access, participation and rights. Personally, I have never believed it advisable (or helpful) to take from the Haves and give to the Have-nots. First, this is unjust to those who built a net worth of their own. Second, this will not alleviate the problem. Those who work hard to build their wealth will ultimately look for a new way to hold on to their assets. Moreover, those who have not earned assets of their own will never learn to rise above their present circumstances. Lacking motivation, they will remain “in need,” always looking for a handout. Incidentally, I am making no distinction of race, culture, nationality, or gender. We do not need to go on a tangent about the causes of discrimination in this article. I will, however, discuss the biblical guidelines for love, humility, justice, equality, and support, the building blocks of biblical justice.

Social justice does not resemble biblical justice at all. Actually, it is injustice. I do support striving to even the playing field at the level of “equal access” to opportunity. This is different from redistributing wealth. I believe we should make it possible for all citizens to participate in college, trade training, transportation, child care, Internet access, and obtaining the necessary equipment such as a laptop computer. Essentially, providing a path to wealth and success for every citizen. Social justice is a concept of fair and just relations between the individual and society, which, by its very definition, is measured by the explicit and tacit terms for the distribution of wealth, opportunities for personal activity, and social privileges. Those belonging to the social justice camp present themselves as the only ones pursuing justice, to the exclusion of all who disagree with their assessments.

Perhaps the most egregious aspect of social justice today it its tendency to mischaracterize Christians: on one side we have “compassionate” Christians who are concerned about justice; on the other are “insensitive” Christians who do not consider injustice in today’s society. A new breed of atheists have formed in the Western world whose fundamental belief is that Christians are elitist and narrow-minded. Although biblical justice is the key to eradicating injustice in society, the New Atheists take every step necessary to eliminate what they see as an archaic Judeo-Christian system of justice.

For generations, we have seen how difficult it is to live in harmony with one another. We are to be loving, supportive, forgiving, and compassionate with one another. Paul wrote, “Let us hold fast the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who promised is faithful. And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another” (Heb. 10:24-25, ESV). An apt description of society. For me, if Christians were to consistently strive toward such an attitude—following the exemplar left for us by Christ—the Church would actually represent the gospel. Our “theology” and “philosophy” must be a lamp for the rest of the world. Our actions and words should exemplify our LORD. When people look to us, they should see Jesus. If we walk in harmony with the will of the Father, and strive to present His attributes, our identity will be clear: we are brothers and sisters; members of the Body of Christ.

Identity Politics is the Culprit

We should strive to live respectfully and peaceably with everyone. Who would not want to live in a society rich in equality? But what if “growth” in social justice (the “appearance” of harmony) is actually causing deep divisions; chasms in the very foundation of society? Bauchman writes, “We are right to pursue justice, peace, and unity” (4). The apostle Paul said, “If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all” (Rom. 12:18, ESV). But our society is beginning to fracture in a troublesome manner. These cracks lie in believing we can achieve a fair and just society by merely using proper terminology, or from presenting the ideal of justice through lectures and symposiums. From a worldly perspective, it is as though society is saying, “The eleventh commandment is ‘Thou shalt be nice,’ and we don’t believe in the other ten.”

If we look too long and hard at “social justice” without exploring the core elements of societal harmony (or disharmony), we will be sorely disappointed by the lack of improvement in society. We will be continually plagued by theories, schools of thought, philosophies, and a persistent breakdown in our communities. Unfortunately, identity politics demands that we crush injustice by attacking those holding such ideals. We know this to be true. The politics in America during the past four years has led to arguments and violence that has served to widen the gulf between class, political party, religion, and nationality. So-called “true” patriots have resorted to disruption, misinformation, smear campaigns, insurrection, and acts of violence. The foundation on which these actions are established focus solely on “identity.” Today, America is hampered by identity politics, bipolarity, and addiction.

People who subscribe to identity politics tend to form exclusive political alliances according to their religion, race, social background, and other identity, moving away from traditional broad-based party politics. Rather than organizing solely around beliefs, manifestos, or party affiliation, identity political formations typically aim to secure the political freedom of a specific constituency marginalized within its larger context. Members of that constituency assert or reclaim ways of understanding their distinctiveness that challenge dominant characterizations, with the goal of greater self-determination. It doesn’t take much effort to see how identity politics does not foster interaction with groups whose philosophy or suffering is not like their own. Such orientation leads to isolation and a sense of the oppressed versus their oppressors. Identity politics builds on analysis of social injustice. It then suggests ways of reclaiming, redefining, or transforming stigmatized citizens. In many instances, such groups use hundreds or thousands of years in determining identity.

As Sonia Kruks puts it,

What makes identity politics a significant departure from earlier, pre-identarian forms of the politics of recognition is its demand for recognition on the basis of the very grounds on which recognition has previously been denied: it is qua women, qua blacks, qua lesbians that groups demand recognition. The demand is not for inclusion within the fold of “universal humankind” on the basis of shared human attributes; nor is it for respect “in spite of” one’s differences. Rather, what is demanded is respect for oneself as different (5).

Indeed, we are all different. Our personal history, culture, religion, status, and struggle is ours alone. Identity is established in relation to a series of differences that have become socially recognized. These differences are essential to its being. If they did not coexist as differences, there would be no distinctness and no solidity. Entrenched in this indispensable relation is a second set of tendencies, themselves in need of exploration, to conceal established identities into fixed forms of thought and lived as if their structure expressed the true order of things. When these pressures prevail, the maintenance of one identity (or field of identities) involves the conversion of some differences into otherness, into evil, or one of its numerous surrogates. Identity requires differences in order to be, and it converts difference into otherness in order to secure its own self-certainty (6).

Mitchell says identity politics is a very loud public affair (7). Further, it is making constructive public life increasingly difficult if not impossible. Consider this: alongside the amazing strides man has made in the visible economy there is an undertone concerned with one thing: weighing and measuring. But in this model, we are measuring transgression and innocence. This orientation has two glaring faults: (i) no balance of payment between the parties is possible; and (ii) there is typically a demand that all accounts be settled no matter how obscure or distant. The invisible task of quantifying transgression and innocence disrupts and mocks the well-measured world of money, time, and materials of the visible world. Under this system of social justice, no effort or accomplishment will ever be satisfactory. Indeed, this concept is plaguing America, and it perpetuates the concept of oppressed and oppressor—victim and perpetrator. A transgression has occurred, and it must be paid for in full (e.g., financial or other reparations to Black Americans for slavery).

Mitchell writes, “…identity politics declares that the deeper cause of the visible imbalance is the systemic racism in the invisible economy of transgression and innocence… identity always maintains the purity of those it considers innocents and the stain of those it considers transgressors, regardless of any visible evidence to the contrary” (8). What evidence? you might ask, then you counter with, There is plenty of “proof” that white heterosexual fundamentalists are the problem. They are either invisible or they are the hidden cause of every visible transgression in the world! But no one wants to have an honest discussion about this paradox; this fixation. The predominant account of identity politics, says Mitchell, treats identity as if it pertains to differing kinds of people. He adds, “…as we become more disconnected and our lives get smaller in the democratic age, the temptation to make distinctions between others and ourselves grows” (9). If democracy morphs into socialism, the individual is completely swallowed by the nation-state.

Frankly, I welcome a diversity of friends and want to feel safe among my fellow citizens, but this is impossible under the current system. Identity politics is about identifying and blaming so-called transgressors. Its reach goes beyond the willful perpetrators, beyond the racist police officers and those who deliberately use the system to oppress others because of race, culture, nationality, sexual orientation, or gender. It tends to blame all “us” for the ills suffered by “others.” It reduces all of mankind to “the stained” and “the pure.” It does not take much to see stained versus pure as an unworkable criterion. God is nowhere to be found in the identity-politics accounting scheme. Neither is forgiveness, which (if sincerely applied) would erase the so-called “score” and leave us with no scores to settle. Mitchell believes Americans have not lost their religion; they have relocated their religion to the realm of politics. Consider the countless prophecies, predictions, justifications, and radical fringe groups prevalent today. We know what it looks like when a national extremist group swoops down on our democratic process!

Biblical Justice

Bad ideas, like ideological social justice, are terribly destructive, ripping the social fabric, exacerbating hostility, and ultimately destroying relationships (10). One such ideology is the Black Lives Matter movement. This simple statement, three words, is inherently flawed in several ways. The most obvious is that all lives matter. To single out one social group and apply this “logic” to them serves to promote identity politics. Blacks are the oppressed, and white heterosexual Protestant men (if not the entire white community) is the oppressor. We have already determined that not all whites are racist. Further, there are no innocents; we all sin; fall short of glorifying God. Indeed, wise and careful discernment has been hard to come by. Allen writes, “In my thirty-five years of working with church leaders around the world, from over seventy-five nations, I’ve never met anyone who endorses in any way the idea that white people were created to rule everyone else” (11).

The word “justice” comes from the Latin (justus), meaning “straight, or close.” Like a plumb line, justus refers to a standard of goodness. It is justice that aids in determining good laws or tenets from bad ones. St. Augustine said, “An unjust law is no law at all.” Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law.” It is the moral law that must rule in all matters. It is not morally acceptable to establish any law, regulation, procedure, or tenet that harms any citizen or group, especially on the basis of skin color, nationality, culture, sexual identity, or gender. It violates the Law of God, which Greg Koukl calls “the Law-over-everything-and-everyone.” There truly is a universal standard to which even the most powerful are accountable: even the Pablo Escobars and Governor George Wallaces of this world.

Because God does not change, this standard of justice does not change. God is the immovable Rock whose “…work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he” (Deut. 32:4). God is both righteous and just. If He were not righteous, He could not be just; if He were not just, He could not be righteous. God communicates His justice and righteousness to us inwardly. He imprints His Word on our hearts. C.S. Lewis calls this innate moral code “a clue to the meaning of the universe.” As Christians, we strive to obey God not because we can behave ourselves into heaven—this is impossible. We obey Him because we want to honor Him in all our ways. We obey Him to show we love Him. In fact, God’s moral law is one of His greatest gifts to humanity, because it provides the only true, unchanging foundation for justice in human history.

Micah wrote, “He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Justice also requires that we walk humbly with one another. Genuine humility requires that we put ourselves second rather than striving to be first. Jesus said, “So the last will be first, and the first will be last” (Matt. 20:16).

Driving Out a Bad Worldview

Tim Keller (paraphrasing Aristotle),

We do justice when we give all human beings their due as creations of God. Justice requires recognizing what it means to be human—that we all possess inherent dignity and worth with unalienable rights. To do justice is to treat others as uniquely valuable, and respect their God-given rights. It is loving your neighbor as yourself.

Unfortunately, the current “social justice” model is distorting the picture and taking hostages. I read an expose by a self-proclaimed social justice crusader that sheds light right where it is needed. This individual said he’d decided to find a purpose in his life: membership in a community. He found it exhilarating to call people out on Facebook and other social media platforms, accusing them of racism or sexism. It gave him a “rush.” He received validation through the thousands of “likes” and reposts he received. He decided this was his life’s purpose: fighting against white supremacy, the patriarchy, and toxic masculinity. His life consisted of trolling social media all day long seeking out transgressors. Social justice is, after all, a surveillance culture. He discovered, ironically, that in the world of ideological social justice, there is no justice for those accused of wrongdoing. Unfortunately, once judgment has been rendered against you, everyone starts gunning for you.

Millions of individuals have been swept into the puritanical cult of ideological social justice. Allen writes, “The false religion of ideological social justice lures people by providing them with a source of identity, community, and purpose,” and he counters with, “Our calling is to boldly proclaim the truth that sets people free” (12). Allen believes many of our prominent evangelical leaders have abdicated their responsibility to be salt and light by promoting many of the central tenets of a rather dangerous unbiblical worldview. This distorted, secularized definition of justice distracts us from applying biblical justice to the predicament. What we need is a true story: one that says true identity isn’t found in our skin color, ethnic background, sex, or nationality.

Allen concludes,

“If your story tells you that your primary identity is victim, your life will be marked by bitterness, resentment, grievance, and entitlement. If your story tells you your primary identity is privileged oppressor, your life will be marked by guilt and shame. However, if your story tells you that your identity is sinner, yet loved by God and saved by grace, your life will be marked by gratitude and humility” (13) [italics added].

It is critical that we reject this zero-sum ideology of social justice, where truth and love don’t exist. Instead, I leave you with the biblical passage that defines for all mankind the true sense of love: “Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away… So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor.13:4-10, 13).

References

(1) B. Nathaniel Sullivan, Social Justice: How Good Intentions Undermine Justice and Gospel (Chattanooga, TN: Cornwall Alliance, 2013).
(2) Voddie T. Baucham, Fault Lines: The Social Justice Movement and Evangelicalism’s Looming Catastrophe (Washington, DC: Salem Books, 2021), 5.
(3) Ibid., 5.
(4) Ibid., 132.
(5) Sonia Kruks, Retrieving Experience: Subjectivity and Recognition in Feminist Politics (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2001), 85.
(6) William Connlly, Identity\Difference: Democratic Negotiations of Political Paradox (Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2002), 64.
(7) Joshua Mitchell, American Awakening: Identity Politics and Other Afflictions of Our Time (New York, NY: Encounter Books, 2020), xii.
(8) Ibid., xvi.
(9) Ibid., xvii.
(10) Scott David Allen, Why Social Justice is Not Biblical Justice: An Urgent Appeal to Fellow Christians in a Time of Social Crisis (Grand Rapids, MI: Credo House Publishers, 2020), 14.
(11) Ibid., 15.
(12) Ibid., 178.
(13) Ibid., 179.

Having a “Grace-Receiving” Mentality

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

THERE ARE THOUSANDS OF words and phrases we toss around during our lives. Grace is one of those words. Those who have trusted in Jesus for salvation were never meant to live defeated, despairing, boxed-in, unhappy lives; rather to live in victory through grace. In Romans 5, Paul writes of the “abundance of grace” we receive everyday, along with the gift of righteousness, which helps us to reign in life through Jesus. He says, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ. Through him we have also obtained access by faith into this grace in which we stand, and we rejoice in hope of the glory of God (Rom. 5:1-2, ESV). God’s grace is bestowed on us without merit. Further, it sets in stone the infrastructure on which we are to live our lives. It is erroneous to imagine that this sacrament—or any other means of grace—operates automatically, as though mere reception were a guarantee (1).

A Proper State of Mind

Paul tells us to do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit (see Phil. 2:2-4). What is comparison if not the means by which we decide we are better or worse than others? Paul said, “For we dare not make ourselves of the number, or compare ourselves with some that commend themselves: but they measuring themselves by themselves, and comparing themselves among themselves, are not wise (2 Cor. 10:12). He also said, “For, being ignorant of the righteousness of God, and seeking to establish their own, they did not submit to God’s righteousness” (Rom.10:3). Comparing ourselves to others limits our potential. When we compare our performance and actions to others we allow them to set our standard of achievement. Paul reminds us that “everything is possible” for the person who believes (see Rom. 9:23). Nowhere in Scripture does it say one’s success is dictated by his or her stature in the community. Moreover, we are not to compare ourselves to ourselves, or we run the risk of stunting further growth by looking back and saying, “I’ve come a long way. I am nothing like I was before.” This is a recipe for complacency. Rather, we are to compare ourselves to Jesus Christ, aiming every day to emulate Him in all that we do. Grace should propel us to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ.

Our path in life can be likened to a tightrope. Consider how tightrope walkers never look back after they take their first step. Seldom do they look up or they would become concerned about how much of their walk remains, making it seem as though they have made little progress. But they do look down, watching their feet, making sure to take measured and accurate steps. Each step, at the moment it is taken, is what is present. It represents what the tightrope walker must do “at that moment.” As Christians, we are not to regret the past, nor should we worry about the future, for in doing so we squander today. Isaiah wrote, “Remember not the former things, nor consider the things of old. Behold, I am doing a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it? I will make a way in the wilderness and rivers in the desert” (Isaiah 43:18-19). Jesus said, “No one who puts his hand to the plow and looks back is fit for the kingdom of God” (Luke 9:62).

God’s Continuing Grace

God’s grace continues to bless us and keep us after conversion. Jesus is the true human being (wholly man and wholly God) in whom we are to be able to participate by grace. Grace propels believers to grow in holiness after the pattern of Jesus Christ. Peter tells us, “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be the glory both now and to the day of eternity” (2 Pet. 3:18). Johnson believes God’s grace comes to us more like a power, bonding us to Christ so that we may live with Him in accord with our status as God’s beloved children (2). He believes prevenient grace comes to sinners before salvation to convict them of their unrighteousness, call them to repentance, and enable them to freely cooperate with God’s grace by ceasing to resist its work. Other theologians argue that God’s irresistible grace enlightens the minds of sinners, changes their hearts, and draws them to salvation. They’re being led to the living water. Although the condition of beginning the covenant of grace is by faith alone (per fidem), the condition of continuing in grace rests in obedience to God’s commands (3). James said, “So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).

It is critical for us to admit how undeserving we are of God’s grace and mercy. When faced with the consequences of bad or illegal behavior, justice is rendered when people “receive their due” according to violation of the law. In fact, justice is “what the accused deserves,” whereas mercy applies kindness and forgiveness to our lives without merit. We receive God’s grace and mercy through Christ, receiving the free and unmerited gift of His righteousness, then begins the practice of recognizing and receiving God’s ongoing grace. There is a often grave misunderstanding that Jesus had one sole mission: to suffer and die for our sins. To be the scapegoat for mankind. The crucifixion of Christ redeems us, but it also must serve to sanctify us as we step out in faith to live as Christ would have us live. Christ is all things to us. He has been made to be our wisdom, righteousness, sanctification, and redemption. All glory belongs to the Lord. Our part is to receive Christ as LORD and Savior. He is grace, mercy, forgiveness, direction, righteousness, sanctification, redemption. We cannot complete ourselves any more than we can save ourselves because He is both our redemption and our sanctification. He is all and in all. There is nothing left for us to do or earn. A missionary friend of mine puts it this way: justice is getting what we have coming to us (our just punishment) and mercy is receiving what we do not deserve.

Then Peter came up and said to him, “Lord, how often will my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times? Jesus said to him, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy-seven times. Therefore the kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who wished to settle accounts with his servants. When he began to settle, one was brought to him who owed him ten thousand talents. And since he could not pay, his master ordered him to be sold, with his wife and children and all that he had, and payment to be made. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything. So the servant fell on his knees, imploring him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you everything.’ But when that same servant went out, he found one of his fellow servants who owed him a hundred denarii, and seizing him, he began to choke him, saying, ‘Pay what you owe.’ So his fellow servant fell down and pleaded with him, ‘Have patience with me, and I will pay you. He refused and went and put him in prison until he should pay the debt (Matthew 18:21-35).

In this parable we learn that God forgives on request without restitution being required. We also learn something important about unforgiveness. The man’s refusal to forward the grace he received resulted in a series of divine consequences. If we remain unforgiving of the unforgiveness of others, we turn back toward legalism. We are being as exacting and demanding as the law; like we are keeping a precise balance sheet on debts owed to us. We selfishly hold everyone to payment in full. This, of course, is an example of justice rather than grace. Unforgiveness is grounded in “debtors-mentality,” a merciless mindset that refuses to release others until they pay all that is due, rather than a “grace-receiving” mentality. When God forgives, He frees the forgiven from all obligation to repay. We have been forgiven and set free as a result of the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Despite this divine explanation of God’s grace, too often we demand forgiveness from those we have wronged as if we can change their heart. Nothing could be more contradictory to the example of Jesus. God didn’t send Jesus into the world to condemn the world; but that the world through Him might be saved (John 3:17). He didn’t come to browbeat sinners, but to set the captives free. The whole of Christianity is about forgiveness, not about holding a “balance sheet” on others.

A Prime Example

A prime example of grace-receiving mentality can be found in John 4. Jesus and the disciples were headed for Galilee. Jesus decided to take a shorter route, which involved going through Samaria despite Jews and Samaritans being sworn enemies. While Jesus rested at Jacob’s well, a Samaritan woman approached to draw water from the well. Jesus asked her for a drink. She responded, “How is it that you, a Jew, asks for a drink from me, a woman of Samaria?” (see John 4:9). Jesus said, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Jesus continued: “Everyone who drinks of this [well] water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life” (4:13-14). The woman asked for a drink of this everlasting water. The Hebrew word hallomai (to “well up”) occurs only here in John’s gospel and in the Acts of the Apostles. The water that Jesus gives is vibrant and cleansing, and produces the abundant life Jesus was promising to the woman.

Jesus told her to go home and bring her husband, to which she announced that she had no husband. Jesus replied, “You are right in saying, ‘I have no husband;’ for you have had five husbands, and the [man] you now have is not your husband. What you have said is true.” She immediately decided this man must be a prophet. In the Greek and Roman world, for Jesus to possess such knowledge of the woman’s marital history would certify him as a miracle worker, but in the religious world of Israel it would be recognized as the distinguishing mark of a prophet. When she expressed the longing she had for the coming Messiah, Jesus said, “I who speak to you am he” (4:26). It is at this point the woman grasps the magnitude of what Jesus has said to her. It’s as if the very atmosphere changed. Nevertheless, she asked Jesus to “explain everything.” What is this living water? Who is this man, Jesus, that he dares to use the “I AM” remark? Is this man Yeshua? I have no doubt that Jesus chose to travel through Samaria because He knew of the Samaritan woman he would encounter at the well. As she sped off down the hill, spreading the good news through the streets of her village, Jesus told the disciples it was time to go forth and preach the gospel (see Luke 9:1-6).

How to Get It

God’s grace is seen throughout all of creation; in our daily living as well as our salvation. Some believe grace and mercy are synonymous. However, grace is defined as unmerited divine favor or assistance given to us for regeneration or sanctification. Mercy is compassion or forbearance shown, especially to an offender or to one subject to the power of another; leniency or compassionate treatment. It is through grace that God presented His Son Jesus for sacrifice; there is literally nothing we could ever do to earn God’s grace, or to obey the letter of the Law, in order to be saved from eternal damnation. Martin Luther struggled with this concept, becoming increasingly anxious over how he could be clothed in righteousness. Luther initially failed to grasp the meaning behind Romans 1:17: “For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith for faith, as it is written, ‘The righteous shall live by faith'” (ESV). This conflict drove Luther to extremes, such as self-flagellation, remaining outdoors in the winter without a coat or shoes, solitary meditation for days, asking incessantly for God’s forgiveness. He feared he would die in his sleep without having confessed everything. His understanding regarding God’s grace had roots in Roman Catholic teaching: man is justified by God’s grace plus some merit of our own. This, of course, is against Christian doctrine.

Grudem writes, “Justification comes to us entirely by God’s grace, not on account of any merit in ourselves” (4). God’s grace forms believers into the image of Christ in anticipation of their eternal life as God’s beloved children (see Rom. 8:29-30). Because we cannot hope to earn sanctification by obedience to the Law (i.e., through our works), it was necessary for God to provide a means by which we can be redeemed from our sin. God established a covenant with man, setting only one condition: faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). God’s grace means His goodness toward those who deserve only punishment. God’s mercy means His goodness toward those who are in misery or distress; God’s patience is manifest in His willingness to withhold punishment toward those who have sinned (5). Because of God’s grace, mercy, and patience cannot be earned, it is reasonable that we provide our bodies (as a living sacrifice), living a life of worship and faith. Regardless of our circumstances, we can have a quiet heart, but this requires total confidence in God. Luther wrote, “Faith is a living, daring confidence in God’s grace, so sure and certain that a man would stake his life on it a thousand times” (6).

Specific to Luther’s trouble with righteousness, he said Romans 1:16 presents the gospel as a power which saves all who believe it. Luther came to believe that Romans 1:17 speaks of God’s righteousness. When we accept Christ as our Lord and Savior, we are clothed in righteousness. When the Father looks upon us, He sees the righteousness of Christ. He separates us from our sins as far as the east is from the west. Luther said, “The righteousness of God is the cause of our salvation… it is called the righteousness of God in contradistinction to man’s righteousness which comes from works” (7). The phrase “from faith to faith” is meant to establish that the righteousness of God comes through, but without ignoring the “works” of our faith as an outward sign to others that we have become a new creation. It is the adage, “We are not saved by good works; we are saved unto good works.” Luther added, “The words ‘from faith to faith’ therefore signify that the believer grows in faith more and more, so that he who is justified becomes more and more righteous” (8). Augustine defined from faith to faith as, “From the faith of those who confess it with the mouth to the faith of those who actually obey it” (9).

In order to receive God’s grace we need first to admit that there is nothing in us that can merit it. We need to honestly admit, “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out” (Romans 7:18). Jesus didn’t come to justify the godly, but the ungodly. When the Pharisees confronted Jesus about eating with sinners, Jesus said, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick. I came not to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Unfortunately, many Christians forget the importance of God’s grace in their daily walk. The heart of this deception is the belief that after being redeemed by the sole merit of Christ’s finished work, we must then sanctify ourselves. Though seemingly responsible, this denies the grace of Christ. Not only was our redemption purchased by Christ, but also our sanctification. When God places us in Christ, He makes Christ to be all things to us.

According to Peter, grace and peace are multiplied in us through the knowledge of God and of Jesus our Lord, and that His divine power has granted to us everything pertaining to life and godliness to the end that we may become partakers of the divine nature (see 2 Peter 1:2-3). Peter went on to exhort us to add to our faith moral excellence and to moral excellence, knowledge, and to knowledge self-control, and to self-control, perseverance, and to perseverance, godliness, and to godliness, brotherly kindness, and to brotherly kindness, love. Many of these things are listed in Galatians 5 as fruits of the Spirit. Paul was who he was by the grace of God. He labored abundantly, but not by his own might or capabilities. He said, “But by the grace of God I am what I am, and his grace toward me was not in vain. On the contrary, I worked harder than any of them, though it was not I, but the grace of God that is with me” (1 Cor. 15:10). This is what is meant by having a “grace-receiving” mentality.

References

(1) K.L. Johnson, “Means of Grace” in the Evangelical Dictionary, 3rd. ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: 2017), 358.
(2) K.L. Johnson, Ibid., 358.
(3) Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: 1994), 519.
(4) Ibid., 729.
(5) Ibid., 200.
(6) Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1954), xvii.
(7) Ibid., 40-41.

Upcoming Podcast!

I am in the process of starting a podcast regarding the same categories and issues discussed on this blog. I have not yet decided the frequency of postings, but ideally I would like to do one every day. The podcast episodes will be hosted by WordPress, and possibly one other mainstream host site. I am pitching to my board of elders at church for placing a link on the church website and Facebook page. Please watch for additional announcements.

I am very excited about expanding my ministry to include podcasts.

History of the Christian Church: Part One

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

Jose Ottega y Gasset once said, “Each generation stands on the shoulders of its predecessors” (1). This applies even to promulgation of church doctrine, establishment of proper church administration, and systematic theological studies. Today’s Christian church must rest firmly on the theology of its patristic fathers. From its onset, Christianity has impacted culture and society; however, culture and society have impacted Christianity as well. Culture is known to push back with force, often in an oppressive and violent manner. Today’s militant atheists are intent on eradicating Christianity from public discourse, and often file lawsuits to that end.

The early Christians did not consider themselves followers of a new religion. Gonzalez writes, “All of their lives they had been Jews and they still were” (2). Their main difference with the rest of Judaism was that they were convinced the Messiah had come, whereas other Jews continued to await His advent. Jewish leaders considered Christianity a heretical sect within Judaism. Christians were “…going from town to town tempting good Jews to become heretics” (3). Nationalistic and patriotic sentiment was aroused by the fear that these new heretics could once more bring the wrath of God upon them. As we will discover in this series, Jews routinely looked for someone else to blame for their woes. This resulted in protracted generations of exile from God.

From its very beginning, the Christian message was grafted onto human history. Through generation after generation, Christians have taught that Jesus Christ is the complete embodiment of God, and He is salvation for all who believe in His sacrificial death on the cross. Much history, lineage, and geography is presented throughout the Synoptic Gospels. Identity and lifestyle were especially important to the largely Jewish audience for whom the Gospel of Matthew was initially written. It attests to considerable hostility toward synagogues (6:2-18; 10:17-18), and utter rejection of Jewish leaders, especially Pharisees (12:14; 15:12-14; 21:45-46; 23). Matthew describes doctrinal infighting, the sacking of Jerusalem (AD 70), and destruction of the Temple. He notes how the early church would question God’s faithfulness (as they waited on Him), and he references apologetic debates.

John’s gospel is instrumental in establishing significant events discussed in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. John rightly commences with in the beginning, which refers to the first chapter of Genesis. Paul said, “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law, so that we might receive adoption as children” (Gal. 4:4. NRSV). John describes his experience when he baptized Jesus. The distinctiveness of John’s writing style is easily recognizable: Jesus’ teaching moved beyond parables that are featured in Matthew, Mark, and Luke; instead, Jesus taught in much longer speeches. The “I am” sayings we see in the Gospel of John are not found in the other three Gospels. Further, John spends much time on the incarnation. “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1).

The Jewish Diaspora (the scattering of Jews far and wide), had a critical impact on the history of Christianity. Gonzalez writes, “…for it was one of the main avenues through which the new faith expanded throughout the Roman Empire” (4). In addition, the Diaspora played a large role in the Greek translation of the Old Testament. Diaspora has also been used to characterize the flourishing Jewish community that lived in Alexandria shortly before the rise of Christianity. Trade flourished during the early centuries of the Christian church. This factor brought the story of redemption to new regions; but through traveling traders, slaves, and others, more than through missionaries or preachers. With this wide dispersal, syncretism crept into the Christian church, beginning with Constantine (AD 280-337) and others like him who practiced pagan rites while also attending Christian services.

Constantine’s dubious claim of conversion to Christianity notwithstanding, he provided the church with his “legal blessing,” while continuing to embrace paganism. Jews and Christians stood firm in their faith, which garnered the reputation of unbending fanatics. When the early Christians refused to light incense to the Roman gods, or to the emperor, they did so as a testament to their faith in Christ alone. Because Christians throughout the Roman Empire stayed home rather than participate in “societal” activities and street fairs which typically involved in festivals honoring the gods, Roman authorities condemned Christians as disloyal and seditious. This is one of the many reasons that Christians were persecuted, tortured, and executed by Roman authorities.

Other key factors impacted the early Christian church during the first three centuries. For example, as soon as the Christian message started reaching the Gentiles, it came under attack from individuals who wanted to alter or nullify it. Gnosticism began to infiltrate the Christian church: a prominent heretical movement of the 2nd-century Christian Church, partly of pre-Christian origin, which believed the world was created and ruled by a lesser divinity, the demiurge, and that Christ was an emissary of the remote supreme divine being, esoteric knowledge (gnosis). It would take the church nearly 100 years to rid itself of Gnosticism. These developments led to emergence of early Christian apologists, such as Justin the Martyr and Augustine of Hippo. Apologetics has survived into the twenty-first century. The church responded specifically to heresy and accusations by establishing canon, creed, and apostolic succession. At times, it was necessary to convene a synod to decide issues of doctrine and administration.

Christianity was established as an official religion at the Edict of Milan in AD 313. This was an important step in securing the civil rights of Christians throughout the Roman Empire. For nearly 300 years, Christianity was functionally illegal in the Roman Empire, often subjecting Christians to persecution. This proclamation protected full rights for Christian citizens of the Empire, restoring their property, releasing them from prisons, and effectively banning government persecution of their faith. It also declared a general state of religious tolerance, allowing for the expression of virtually any spiritual belief. Unfortunately, the bad came with the good in the form of heresies, such as Donatism: the belief that Christian clergy must be faultless for their ministry to be effective and their prayers and sacraments to be valid. This led to schism in the Church of Carthage from the fourth to the sixth centuries AD. Arianism – the ideology that Jesus was merely human and not divine – arose practically overnight. The Roman Empire banned Arianism in 379. Shortly thereafter, the church instituted the death penalty for heresy.

In AD 425, Augustine of Hippo proclaimed salvation through faith alone (sola fide) in Christ alone (sola Christus). This was an apologetic answer to the claim of Pelagius that salvation could be earned by good works. Augustine wrestled, however, with the origin of evil. He ultimately settled on evil being “…a looking away from God and turning one’s gaze to the inferior realm.” It was believed that a single being, of infinite goodness, was the source of all things. He said evil is real, but it is not a real or created “thing.” Rather, Augustine taught the concept that evil is a direction away from the goodness of the One. I am familiar with the suggestion that we are either walking toward or walking away from Christ. Walk is discussed throughout the New Testament. The 4th Ecumenical Council (AD 451) reestablished the two natures of Jesus (human and divine). The birth of monasticism furthered the teachings of the Church and led to the promulgation of the Gospel.

Christianity’s next great challenge was Islam. Jerusalem was conquered by the Muslims in AD 636. Alexandria, Egypt and Spain were next to fall to the Muslims. Persecution of Christians by Muslims began AD 717 under Caliph Umar II. Many of the newer Christian churches were destroyed. In AD 850 Caliph Mutawakkil forced Christians to wear yellow patches. (This is a sad but accurate foreshadowing of Nazis forcing Jews to wear Star of David arm bands during the reign of Adolf Hitler.) When Vladimir of Kiev adopted Christianity in AD 988, this halted the advance of Islam in Eastern Europe. Thankfully, Charles “The Hammer” Martel defeated the Muslim invasion of France in AD 732. It was the caliph’s intention to conquer Europe in the name of Muhammad.

Trouble with Islam continued. In AD 1009 Caliph Hakim destroyed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem, and the Seljuk Turks drove Christian priests out of Jerusalem in AD 1091. In May 1291, the world entered a new era. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say the world left an era behind, because this was the month that saw the end of Crusader power in the Middle East. The decisive event was the Siege of Acre, which culminated in the bloody defeat of the Knights Templar and their Crusader brethren. Acre was their last major stronghold – after this, it was only a matter of time before the Christian presence in the Holy Land was extinguished.

Please join me next time when I discuss the historical importance of monasticism in the early Christian church. As always, please consider replying to these posts to help foster dialog.

Footnotes
(1) Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity Vol. 1, The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation (New York, NY: HarperCollins, 2010), xiii.
(2) Gonzalez, Ibid., 27.
(3) Ibid., 42.
(4) Ibid., 18.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Christian Ethics and the “Good Life.”

I am now only 9 credits from completing my M.A. in Theological Studies. I have enjoyed sharing with you what I have learned. I started Christian Ethics last week. The following is from my first discussion assignment. In the first class (Classical Methodologies of Ethics) is about Consequences.

Consequences. Every choice we make results in certain consequences, whether good or bad. As a Christian, I am concerned with the results of sin in God’s creation. Hosea said, “Sow for yourselves righteousness, reap the fruit of steadfast love; break up your fallow ground, for it is the time to seek the LORD, that he may come and rain salvation upon you. You have plowed iniquity, you have reaped injustice, you have eaten the fruit of lies. Because you have trusted in your chariots and in the multitude of your warriors, therefore the tumult of war shall arise among your people, and all your fortresses shall be destroyed, as Shalman destroyed Beth-ar’bel on the day of battle; mothers were dashed in pieces with their children” (10:12-14, NRSV).

Four decades of active addiction led to unfortunate results, yet I continued to seek my own pleasure. Ultimately, I chose to get clean, putting God and others before my own needs. This was a hard undertaking, mainly because I was self-centered to the extreme. Today, I say yes to God rather than “secretly” pursuing my agenda. Each time we say yes to Him, He is pleased. The more we step into God’s will for us and say no to sin, the easier it gets. The sinful life is very tempting. Choosing good over evil improves our spiritual formation and serves as an example to others.

Critical thinking (as a Christian disciple) allows for self-evaluation, and typically leads to self-correcting decisions. In Luke 6:45 Jesus said, “The good man out of the good treasure of his heart produces good, and the evil man out of his evil treasure produces evil; for out of the abundance of the heart his mouth speaks.” To grasp this tenet is to allow for integrity, humility, sound reason, fairmindedness, and courage (1). These signposts can help us attain “the good life.” Aristotle believed whenever we act we are aiming at some good. I would suggest that this sounds like “the ends justifies the means.” Specifically, while building our lives and our futures, we may rationalize our behavior as a “means” to achieving our goals.

As Christians, we learn about “goodness” from attending church, reading Scripture, and individual (not corporate) prayer. Given the many related terms (e.g., morals, values, principles), our ethics as Christians must be rooted in the good life of Jesus Christ. After all, much of our “source material” relative to ethics involve understanding God’s attributes and choosing to let His character guide our daily living.

I agree with Robin Lovin that some autonomy must be protected. Without free will to evaluate the ethics of a behavior or event, we become mere “automatons” of God. The important subject of this session is to determine what makes something right. As Western thought slowly disintegrated over the last century, the consequence has been moral relativism. Absolute truth has all but been rejected. The ontological sense of truth and morality is systematically ignored for the mantra What’s true for you is true for you; what’s true for me is true for me.

Lovin provides four primary means for moral reflection: teleology (study of the “ends” or results); deontology (a top/down theory that actions are good or bad as determined by a clear and uniform set of rules); virtue theory (the focus is on determining and living life out of moral character); and contextualism (the belief that ethics reacts to an evolving world). Contextualism allows for the individual’s “context,” which is quite similar to moral relativism. A good life is not synonymous with “the good life.” Living a good life involves an ethically-informed life that seeks justice, virtue, and flourishing within the kingdom of God.

Footnotes

(1) Dr. Richard Paul and Dr. Linda Elder, The Miniature Guide to Critical Thinking (London: Rowman & Littlefield, 2020), 15.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Apologetics Interview

After some delay, I am able to share my final paper in “Apologetics” as part of my master’s in theological studies at Colorado Christian University. Instructions were to interview someone who was an atheist or skeptic regarding Christianity. I hope you will find this paper beneficial. I really enjoyed doing this assignment.

Introduction

The primary reason for Christians to engage in apologetics is to better prepare them for giving a defense for their faith, and to do so with gentleness and reverence (1 Pet. 3:15, NRSV). Koukl, author of Tactics, believes proper defense of the gospel begins with a game plan. Apologetics consists of three primary elements: defending the truth; defeating false ideas; and destroying speculation raised against God. And yet, this is not done through a frontal attack. Rather, the prudent plan is to proceed as God’s ambassador.[1]

Groothuis believes Christian apologists should offer answers for skeptics and non-believers based on rational arguments. The apologist’s method of arguing for Christianity will unavoidably be rooted—at least to some degree—in his or her personality and style of argument. Groothuis advised that apologists are often met with belligerent response. Such vehemence stems from atheists’ and skeptics’ belief that Christianity is indefensible. In addition, non-believers build their objections on a mantra that simply says, “…religion rests on blind faith and not reason for so long that many even within the church have actually come to believe it.”[2]

R. C. Sproul states that believers are to answer all inquiries—even the abusive ones—with gentleness and meakness. Indeed, this describes the mission and ministry of Jesus Christ. It is remarkable that many Christians today believe they should not participate in trying to “prove” the veracity of the gospel. Sadly, they base this assumption on their conclusion that faith and proof are incompatible. Additionally, as Sproul notes, an apologist may present a response to a non-believer that proves the argument for Christianity, but “[I]n their bias they refuse to be persuaded.”[3]

The Interview

This writer was able to secure an interview with Dale, a skeptic at best. When he agreed, he remarked, “You’re not going to like what I have to say, but sure, why not?” At times he shared rather determined and caustic comments about God and Christianity.

Regarding belief about God or an ultimate reality, Dale said,

God is a crutch. He doesn’t exist. I can’t see him and he hasn’t answered my prayers. I cried out to him hundreds of times while I bounced from house to house in the system.[4] He didn’t answer my prayers to stop my mom from abusing heroin. She died of a heroin overdose. What kind of God is that?

Dale was asked how he views humanity in general. He did not mince words: “People suck! I hate people. I’d rather live deep in the woods somewhere.” Dale added, “I can’t relate to the “essence” of people you asked me about.” This writer explained, stating, “Essence is basically the core nature of a person.” Dale does not believe humans are made in God’s image. He believes the basic problem concerning mankind is rampant evil. He noted recent violence in America over racism, and said, “There have been lots of wars, and people taking what others have… there is way too much selfishness and me first.”

When asked about Jesus Christ, Dale responded,

You believe in Jesus, so that’s your higher power, like it says in the 12 Steps. My higher power is not a specific god. I get my power from the universe. I don’t believe God is looking down on me and judging me. If he is, well then it sucks to be me, I guess. I see no evidence of God or Jesus. In fact, the opposite. Guys in jail, or people struggling with addiction, buy into Christianity and go to Bible study in the prison to look good. They “find Jesus” while in jail.” Christians are a bunch of hypocrites.

Given Dale’s harsh remark about hypocrisy in the Christian church, it was important to address duplicity. Decidedly, hypocrisy is partially responsible for keeping people from attending church services. This writer shared with Dale his struggle with hypocrisy over the years. One’s personal life and character have a direct effect on efforts to share the gospel. He addressed Dale’s concern about evil in the world, quoting Grudem: “We must never blame God for the evil men do. Secondary causes, such as the actions of human beings, bring evil upon others.”[5] He told Dale it is impossible for mankind to have free will to literally choose anything at any given moment and not expect wrong or evil choices to be made.

Dale’s hope for eternity, salvation, or redemption is vapid. He said there is nothing for him to “hope about.” He denied the existence of heaven and hell. When pressed, he said his spirit will leave his body when he dies and become (or return to) the ultimate spirit in the universe. He stated, “To me, that’s god or a higher power.” He believes in an unnamed higher power, as demonstrated by the beauty and magnitude of the universe.

Dale’s concluding remarks:

I don’t think our morals came from “up there somewhere.” Maybe Heaven and Hell are right here. I always thought American Indians had a clear idea of the grand spirit. Other religions too. If God exists, then he must be in everything. But thinking about evil, how can we work that in with God? I told you flat out when we started, belief in God is a crutch. And God has an evil side. It bugs the crap out of me that he punishes everyone for the sake of a few. You can’t tell me all those who drowned in the flood were bad people. So why be God if you’re doing evil. A loving God? Come on man.

In closing, this writer said,

I lived a life of complete disobedience. My own motives and desires fueled me. I had to come first, even at the other person’s expense. I got into booze and drugs, ending up in prison. I kept struggling for four decades with no concept of compassion or trustworthiness. Yet, inside I believed in ultimate truth and salvation. I decided to hit my knees and ask Jesus to renew my relationship with him and to forgive my rebellion.

Dale’s final rebuttal:

When I think about religion, I think of 9/11 right away. Religious fanatics. So, I’m on the fence. One thing the Bible got right about man is his deceitfulness.

Analysis

As is often seen in 12-step programs, Dale has a rather vague idea of spirituality. He reiterated his belief in an ultimate power somewhere in the universe but cannot provide a concrete description or identity of that power. He believes this power has “always been.” He said mankind would “…not need Jesus to die for sin if God just outlawed evil. I can’t believe in a benevolent God in the face of terrorism, murder, cancer, wars, rape. Why can’t God stop evil?”

A key criterion underlining this writer’s approach to evangelism and apologetics can be summed up by Colson and Pearcey: “As agents of God’s common grace, we are called to help sustain and renew his creation, to uphold the created institutions of family and society, to pursue science and scholarship, to create works of art and beauty, and to heal and help those suffering from the results of the Fall.”[6] There is a bit of Christianity’s social mandate.

Chandler believes the purpose of Jesus’ ministry was “…to bring the kingdom of God to bear on the earth.”[7] He believes salvation includes a real world reconciliation. He says, “For the reconciliation enacted by the cross to be cosmic, then, it must encompass more than just our individual relationship with God.”[8] In other words, Christians are reconciled “to reconcile.”

Christians are not simply “the recruited,” nor are they to merely be recruiting others. Certainly, the entirety of creation is out of sorts with the effects of sin. God expects Christians to participate individually and corporately in reversing the curse by setting things right. Christians are the eyes, ears, feet, and hands of the Body of Christ, and are commissioned to help bring about redemption and reconciliation.

Conclusion

Apologetics and personal evangelism are certainly intertwined, with personal testimony about faith in Jesus Christ being narrower than the broader discipline of apologetics. Regardless, it is not possible to genuinely engage in evangelism or apologetics while harboring an anti-Christian or hypocritical worldview. It is critical to ask one’s self, “How would I behave in the world if my outward actions matched what I claim to believe in my heart?” This question was a substantial factor in this writer’s change of orientation toward God and others. Once this has been established, the real work of evangelism and apologetics can begin. 

Footnotes

[1] Gregory Koukl, Tactics (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2009), 19-20.

[2] R.C. Sproul, Defending Your Faith (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Books, 2003), 8.

[3] Ibid., 18.

[4] Dale was a ward of local child services for 7 years.

[5] Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, IL: Zondervan, 1994), 328.

[6] Charles Colson and Nancy Pearcey, How Now Shall We Live? (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale House, 1999), xii.

[7] Matthew Chandler, The Explicit Gospel (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2012), 136.

[8] Ibid., 143.

Ravi Zacharias (1946-2020)

We have a right to believe whatever we want, but not everything we believe is right” (Ravi Zacharias).

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

Ravi_Zacharias_250_291

I DISTINCTLY REMEMBER THE first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak. Unfortunately, it was not “in person,” but that did not matter. His words were so captivating it was as if I were sitting in the front row. Learning of his organization, Ravi Zacharias International Ministries (“RZIM”), I hoped to one day interview for a position on staff. I was leaning toward a ministry of apologetics before I began listening to Ravi, but I was so impressed by the clarity and passion with which he “defended the faith” that I decided to move headlong into that mission.

I was first introduced to apologetics in an undergraduate class at Colorado Christian University (“CCU”) in 2018. It was called World Views. I have been studying philosophy, psychology, comparative religion, and Christian theology for a number of years, but CCU is preparing me for a purposeful examination of these fascinating and vital disciplines. I learned that “worldview” means the framework of our most basic beliefs that shapes our view of and for the world and is the basis of our decisions and actions (1). James Sire issued a caveat: “A worldview is a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true, or entirely false) which we hold (consciously or subconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic make-up of the world” (2).

I am totally convinced the Christian faith is the most coherent worldview around. Everyone, pantheist, atheist, skeptic, polytheist has to answer these questions: Where did I come from? What is life’s meaning? How do I define right from wrong? What happens to me when I die?—Ravi Zacharias.

Ravi suggested one role of apologetics is “seeing things God’s way.” The apologist must take what he or she has learned about the Christian faith (through a God’s eye view), then present it in a manner conducive to the intended audience. Paul said, “To the weak I became weak, that I might win the weak. I have become all things to all men, that I might by all means save some” (1 Cor. 9:22, NRSV). If there is an intellectual (theoretical) barrier, start there. If there is a sensory (aesthetic) barrier, start there.

When sharing the gospel, I find it useful to start where there is common ground: In the beginning. It is better to open your Bible to Genesis 1 than John 3:16. One’s understanding of God must be rooted in origin, sovereignty, immanence, and aseity (“from self”) before the concept of “God in the flesh” and the crucifixion of Christ can be grasped.

A Christian Worldview

Amy Orr-Ewing said, “By its very nature the the postmodern worldview is difficult to define, and some would resist calling it such. It is an eclectic movement, originating in aesthetics, architecture, and philosophy. A postmodern perspective is skeptical of any grounded theoretical perspectives. It rejects the certainties of modernism and approaches art, science, literature, and philosophy with a pessimistic, disillusioned outlook.” (3). Postmodernists reject any clear meaning of truth, citing discontinuity, suspicion of motive, and an acceptance of logical incoherence. This pervasive worldview makes it hard to engage in evangelism and apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture. However, it is not necessary to understand and evaluate other worldviews in order to have a personal faith in the gospel.

According to data published by George Barna in 2002 “…just 9% of all born again adults and just 7% of Protestants possess a biblical worldview” (4). This study notes that only half of Protestant Pastors in America possess a biblical worldview. Ronald Nash defines biblical worldview as believing “…human beings and the universe in which they reside are the creation of God who has revealed himself in Scripture” (5).

“The central miracle asserted by Christians is the Incarnation. They say that God became Man… If the thing happened, it was the central event in the history of the earth—the very thing that the whole story has been about.”—C.S. Lewis

A biblical worldview rests solely on the revelation of God to His creation, which is activated by the Holy Spirit to those who adopt it. A theistic worldview and a biblical worldview are not synonymous. Here’s the difference: the biblical view begins where the basic acceptance of God leaves off, compelling the Christian to seek God (“Yahweh”) through His written Word, and apply to everyday life what Scripture teaches.

Ravi’s Profession

Ravi Zacharias was indifferent to “all things religious” early in his life, and as a result had no “good options” for his misery and existential angst. He was born in southern India and raised in Delhi. He played a variety of sports growing up, including cricket and tennis. He focused too intently on sports and began failing his courses, leading to complete shame and despair. He attempted suicide by ingesting a cocktail of dangerous chemicals, but was found by someone who immediately sought medical attention. Lying in his hospital bed, he saw how empty his life was at seventeen years of age; essentially, he was at a loss regarding the purpose and meaning of his life. Someone brought a Bible to him and he began reading. He came upon John 14:19: “Because I live you will live also.” At that moment Ravi’s life became defined, and Jesus Christ transformed his life.

“You see, there is an intellectual side to life but also a side to life where deep needs are experienced. We falsely think that one side deals with truth and the other with fantasy. Both need the truth, and the elimination of one by the other is not the world in which God intends for us to live.”—Ravi Zacharias

Ravi’s biblical worldview was simple and elegant. He began with “what is truth?” His evangelism and apologetics were rooted in “helping the thinker believe and the believer think.” We tend to doubt what we cannot see. Ravi said, “Truth is generally measured in three ways: logical consistency, empirical adequacy, and and experiential relevance” (see above video). Also, “Truth that is not under-girded by love makes the truth obnoxious and the possessor of it repulsive.” Jesus plainly stated who He was with these critical remarks: “I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me” (John 14:6).

Ravi spoke many times on the impact of secularism and relativism in Western civilization, stating that the world’s religious ideas, institutions, and interpretations have lost their social significance. Pluralism by design features a competing number of worldviews to choose from with no one viewpoint being dominant, let alone “correct.” Moral relativism completely discounts universal and ontological points of reference for right and wrong. Instead, morality is seen as contingent upon any number of variables: cultural, historical, situational. Of paramount importance is that none of these worldviews is able to solve the sin problem. Ravi said, “The points of tension within secular worldviews are not merely peripheral. They are systemic. Indeed, they are foundational” (6).

“The problem is not only to win souls but to save minds. If you win the whole world and lose the mind of the world, you will soon discover you have not won the world.”—Charles Malik

With Gratitude

I close my eyes and remember. I can hear a voice from my early teens, someone I’d come to admire: confident and moving. This voice was particularly compelling one a Sunday morning in 1972 when I got up from my seat in the pew and answered the call to come down front and accept Jesus Christ as my Messiah, my Lord and Master. I was thirteen. I can also remember sitting in my room on occasion listening to Billy Graham. Reverend Graham’s voice was compelling, bold. It rose above everyone in that auditorium, above every earthly concern. He asked the audience, “What’s wrong with the world?” 

There is only one other man of God who has moved me like Billy Graham has: That man is Ravi Zacharias. Ravi opened the door to a deeper walk with Jesus. To a compassionate “living” theology. He took on the many isms of this world, graciously explaining where they miss the mark. He compared the “secular gods” (pluralism, naturalism, secularism, and moral relativism) to Christianity: the Way,  the Truth, and the Life. Ravi’s distinctive voice and emphatic apologetic pierced my heart. He confirmed God’s call on my life—evangelism and apologetics. 

I could not be more grateful to Ravi Zacharias and Billy Graham, mighty men of God, who came into my life. Each of these men impacted me at major crossroads. I must thank the living God for men such as these.

Suggested Additional Reading

The Holy Bible (New Revised Standard Version)
Beyond Opinion: Living the Truth We Believe, Ravi Zacharias
The End of Reason, Ravi Zacharias
Jesus Among Secular Gods, Ravi Zacharias
I Don’t Have Enough Faith to be an Atheist, Norman L. Geisler & Frank Turek
Total Truth: Liberating Christianity from its Cultural Captivity, Nancy Pearcey
There is a God: How The World’s Most Notorius Atheist Changed His Mind, Antony Flew
The Universe Next Door, James Sire

Footnotes

(1) Phillips, Brown, and Stonestreet, Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview, 2nd ed. (Salem, WI: Sheffield Publishing Co., 2008), 8.
(2) James Sire, The World Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009),20.
(3) Amy Orr-Ewing, “Postmodern Challenges to the Bible,” in  Beyond Opinion: Living the Faith We Defend by Ravi Zacharias (Nashville, TN: Thomas Nelson Publishing, 2008), 3.
(4) George Barna, “Only Half of Protestant Pastors Have a Biblical Worldview,” (Jan. 12, 2004), Barna Research. https://www.barna.com/research/only-half-of-protestant-pastors-have-a-biblical-worldview/
(5) Ronald Nash, Faith and Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1988), 47.
(6) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York, NY: FaithWords, 2017), 6.

Let’s Go to Theology Class: Art and Spirituality

The following summary is from the first week of my new class—Theological Aesthetics—in pursuit of my master’s degree in theology at Colorado Christian University.

Assess the claim that art relates us to realities of a “spiritual” sort. Include in your answer particular reference to John Ruskin’s notion of Theoria (1903).

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

ART SPEAKS TO ME on a level that reaches far deeper than tenets or doctrines. Although such underlying (especially “systematic”) precepts provide a degree of universality to religious practice, my valuation and interpretation of art (for art’s sake) must not be rooted in preconception, bias, “proper” or “theological” interpretation, or value—it’s not theological, but spiritual. Theoria is, after all, contemplative and rational by nature. Here is the fascinating part. In Neoplatonism, theoria (contemplation) is the creative power of the cosmos. This makes me think a painter could present the “unadulterated truth” of a subject, yet the beholder could see a completely different “truth.” Moreover, relative to whose “unadulterated truth?” Ask that question of the wrong person and you will get an earful about absolute truth being a myth. What, therefore, is causing the “creation?” The act of doing art, or the act of interpreting it? (Why does this question sound hauntingly like the proverbial “If a tree falls in the woods but no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?”)

It seems Ruskin understands how psychology also plays a role in interpretation of art. Even experimental psychology looks for “visual truth.” That is not to say all art is a therapeutic Rorschach, but how one views an object of art says something about the beholder that can be distinct from the intention of the artist. Does not theoretic faculty involve analyzing the “value and meaning” of mental impressions? Further, Ruskin does not believe imagination can be taught or explained. And even if in arguendo such skills could be taught, I would think the paradigm of the teacher and/or the technique being used to teach could (to a certain degree) impact or “mentor” the student regarding what is imagination and how to practice it. Moreover, interpretation can be impacted by one’s community of believers through suggesting (from a group think or group feel perspective) what one sees or should see. I think this communal context often causes geniuses and the gifted to fear misunderstanding, ridicule, or rejection, which can ultimately stifle expression. This begs the question Can something created but never publicly shared be called art?

I feel more confident now than at the beginning of this exercise to state that art must have a spiritual component. Creativity is gifted to us by the Creator. We are commanded to be creative; to procreate, use, subdue, name, categorize, and build upon what is. In this manner, creation (or if you prefer, art) is not “just art.” It is not only mechanical action. To a degree, art is “functional.” It is the “creative” use of that which is in order to make something which is not. This is precisely how God “created” Creation. He had a concept, intention, or desire (indeed, the “will” to make something) and He “expressed it” by essentially painting with His words! To me, this same process (albeit to a much lesser or universally dramatic degree) is utilized by artists (i.e., other “creators”) to express their vision in a manner that is an honest and accurate expression of what they were thinking or feeling. Creating a painting on canvas does not have the same “function” as a 1957 Corvette Stingray, but both are (at least to some) works of art. Of course, I cannot drive the painting to work!

I look forward to your feedback.

“Real appreciation demands the opposite process. We must not let loose our own subjectivity upon the pictures and make them its vehicles. We must begin by laying aside as completely as we can all our own preconceptions, interests, and associations. We must make room for Botticelli’s Mars and Venus, or Cimabue’s Crucifixion, by emptying out our own. After the negative effort, the positive. We must use our eyes. We must look, and go on looking till we have certainly seen exactly what is there. We sit down before the picture in order to have something done to us, not that we may do things with it. The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such an surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)” C.S. Lewis, An Experiment in Criticism (Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press, 1961/2000), 18–19.

Responses from Classmates
From Meredith:

Hi Steven!

When reading through Ruskin, I found it very interesting how he related beauty to morality. You mention the idea of absolute truth, and I am curious if you think there is an absolute truth to what is beautiful–an absolute truth to what should inspire theoria? Ruskin also mentioned that humans can misuse pleasures and the senses, and that the Christian goal is not a hedonistic lifestyle. Do you think that art, when misused, can lead to lust, greed, or idolization that would not align with what Christianity teaches?

My response to Meredith:

The question of “absolute truth” is something I’ve been studying and writing about for over a year. I find it quite fun to compare and contrast the various isms (pluralism, moral relativism, secularism) with the Truth of the gospel. I wet my whistle (so to speak) in an undergraduate class at CCU regarding the history and philosophy of psychology. I’ll begin with deontological ethics. This school of thought is a principles-based system in which actions are intrinsically right or wrong, and dependent on adherence to the relevant moral principles or values. This differs from moral relativism in that the latter takes its cue (indeed, its definition) from culture or the situation. It is “relative” to the circumstances. Moral relativists believe morals are malleable. As a Christian, I believe moral truth is found in the Scriptures.

One of the greatest influences on my worldview (and my “apologetic” focus) is Ravi Zacharias. Moral relativism says, “That might be true for you, but not for me.” It touts the “freedom” of not being held to “someone else’s moral compass.” Ravi says, “Unless we have a moral principle about such delicate matters as marriage and murder, the whole world will become a welter of exceptions with no rules” (1). He adds that Christianity is a belief grounded in freedom. It allows us to respond to any situation in a uniform manner, freeing us from trying to “figure out” right and wrong in an ad hoc manner regarding each given scenario. We live in a society that increasingly does not value truth on the biggest questions of life. I believe man’s fear stifles the truth about what we’re doing here, how we got here, how we should “behave,” and where we’re going when we die. Man bends the truth, stretches the truth, manipulates the truth to fit a particular worldview, culture, time period, or situation.

I do not believe there is a definition of “absolute beauty” as it applies to any give piece of art or to an observer’s response to that work of art. This is kind of tricky, because I do believe in an absolute underlying truth and morality that applies no matter the person or situation. This universal truth actually reveals the character and attributes of God. I see the ministry of Jesus as a pure revelation of truth and of the will of the Father. Given the fact that theoria essentially means “comprehension,” and can be impacted by linguistics and knowledge, it is not a foolproof means for determining the absolute meaning or “truth” behind a work of art. However, theoria is supposed to focus on direct experiential knowledge of the divine. Indeed, this can be implicated in interpreting art that has a philosophical or theological theme. What might muddy the waters a bit is that Neoplatonists not only see theoria as contemplation, they believe it is the creative power of the cosmos. This likely refers to Creation being spoken into existence. God created the universe and all its elements and creatures by “saying” what He wanted and it came to pass. His words were his “paint brush.”

Yes, I do believe art can be misused, but that seems to be limited to misuse of a work of art in a heretical or cult-like situation. It would be virtually impossible for the observer of a work of art to make an ontological determination of the intent or truthfulness of the artist by merely looking at the art. If the artwork seems wildly off base, however, then it seems a conversation with the artist would clarify his or her meaning. However, I don’t know where I stand regarding art as idolatry. I recommend looking at Professor Buchanan’s feedback to my initial discussion post. 

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(1) Ravi Zacharias, Jesus Among Secular Gods (New York: Faith Words, 2019), 28.