Monday, September 30, 2013

The Questions of Life, Part 1

“In sepulchral black and red, the cover of Time magazine dated April 8, 1966—Good Friday—introduced millions of readers to existential anguish with the question Is God Dead? If he was, the likely culprit was science, whose triumph was deemed so complete that ‘what cannot be known [by scientific methods] seems uninteresting, unreal.’ Nobody would write such an article now, in an era of round-the-clock televangelism and official presidential displays of Christian piety. ... What was dying in 1966 was a well-meaning but arid theology born of rationalism: a wavering trumpet call for ethical behavior, a search for meaning in a letter to the editor in favor of civil rights. What would be born in its stead, in a cycle of renewal that has played itself out many times since the Temple of Solomon, was a passion for an immediate, transcendent experience of God.” —journalist Jerry Adler

We live in an odd time. You know something doesn’t add up when a mere click of the television remote separates Pat Robertson, Howard Stern, SpongeBob SquarePants and South Park (now on network TV, of course). In our post-Nipplegate world, secular and non-secular critics alike note a decline in our nation’s morals, while conservative activist groups and concerned parents can be heard louder than ever. At the same time, Internet pornography continues to expand to a multi-billion dollar business, and audiences faithfully flock to the latest $100 million-earning sex comedy or horror flick.

Philosophers have dubbed our era a postmodern one in which relativism reigns supreme. Whatever works for you, man. Whatever floats your boat. (Which I guess explains the moral dichotomies in action.) To a degree, this seems hard to believe given the supposed rise in spiritualism or, as Jerry Adler calls it, the “era of round-the-clock televangelism.” Almost 80 percent of all Americans describe themselves as “spiritual.” The same number believes the universe was created by God. Two-thirds say they pray every day. Eighty-five percent consider themselves Christian.

Yet under the thin surface of religiosity lies a mess—at least when it comes to Christianity. Only 45 percent of those who profess to be Christian attend worship services weekly—only a percentage point different than in 1966, when God was declared dead. Almost 70 percent of evangelicals believe there is more than one way to salvation. The same percentage of incoming freshman at Christian colleges say there are no moral absolutes. And 84 percent of those collegians are unable to explain basic Christian beliefs.

Grabbing a Life Preserver

Clearly, something is wrong. Either we’re not grasping basic biblical truths or we’re redefining what it means to follow Jesus Christ. My hunch is that it’s a little bit of both. Capsized by the cultural wave that says there’s no such thing as absolutes and that ultimate truth is relative, we’re sprawling for anything to get us back on solid ground. The result is that we grab hold of whatever seems to work for the time being and, in the meantime, create a piecemeal version of true Christianity.

This book is an attempt to get you back to land. By answering 10 of the most frequently posed (and most challenging, mind you) objections concerning Christianity, my hope is that you’ll find yourself standing on the newfound, unshakeable ground of a truly biblical faith. But be warned: Doing so will always set you apart from the crowd. Today there is tremendous pressure to buy into the principle that all systems of belief may be true at the same time. It’s reminiscent of a fascinating but disturbing experiment conducted more than 50 years ago by psychologist Solomon Asch.

In the experiment, several people were shown a pair of cards with vertical lines on them. One card had a single line on it; the other had three lines of different lengths. While showing the cards, the experimenter asked each person around the table, one after another, to identify which of the three lines on the second card matched the length of the line on the first. Unknown to the participant who sat in the next-to-last seat, all the other participants were shills—they’d been instructed ahead of time to unanimously give the wrong answer. Each time the pair of cards was shown, they all picked the same wrong line.

Keep in mind, this wasn’t a difficult test. The correct answer was obvious. Yet 74 percent of the time the average subject (the lone real participant) went along with the group and answered incorrectly at least once. What’s more, even when they didn’t conform, subjects were noticeably anguished in their decision-making process. (Photos taken during the experiment document how hard it was to go against the group.)

Today, Christians are much like the subjects in Asch’s experiments. Academically, morally, socially and emotionally, we’re at odds with most of our peers. We know which line is right, but saying so means bucking the status quo. We may be challenged by others on a daily basis in the workplace, on a university campus, during a high school biology class or even while watching our kids play at the playground. And standing up against the societal tidal waves of immorality isn’t easy. In fact, claiming to believe in the absolute truths of God in today’s world is more challenging than anything Asch’s subjects faced. At least in his study the answer was always clear!

Scholar and apologist R.C. Sproul was once asked, “What is the difference between the Christian God and the gods of other religions?” In his simple yet profound answer, Sproul pointed out that the main difference is this: The God of Christianity exists.

A Fight for the Truth

The truth—with a capital T—calls us to contest. Your faith isn’t about being nice and obliging to whatever culture tells us is right. It’s about standing strong, holding fast to a bigger truth. But to do so requires something deeper than head knowledge or tradition. You don’t willingly stand in the face of an oncoming moral tsunami just because your parents said you should, or because it’s the “good” thing to do, or even because that’s what you’ve been taught your whole life. It takes believing in something whole-heartedly to risk that kind of confrontation and persecution. And ultimately, that requires knowing why you believe what you believe.

That’s what this book is all about. Discovering (or maybe just solidifying) the reason behind your faith.

One night not too long ago my wife, Angie, and I went to the opera. I’m not much of a fan of large ladies caked in makeup with wigs singing in a foreign language, but this was different. A friend of ours, Deborah Fields, is a mezzo-soprano from New York and had the lead role in a production called Suzannah. We were there to support her.

“Just settle down and enjoy this,” Angie said, knowing full well that I wasn’t looking forward to the upcoming two hours of high-brow art. I nodded half-heartedly and slouched in my seat like a little kid. Who signed me up for this, anyway?

The truth is, I didn’t fall asleep. In fact, there was even a moment that caused me to sit straight up. Suzannah is the gripping story of a woman falsely accused of murder. Throughout the opera, she defends her innocence and pleads for justice. And as the story reaches a climax, an exasperated Suzannah cries out to the night sky, “The truth sure has to fight hard to get believed!”

That line alone made my trip worth it. I could relate to her exasperation, having attempted to uphold the truth on a daily basis for more than 15 years. The fact is, the truth does have to fight hard these days. It’s being attacked from all sides. It’s regularly assaulted from those claiming it to be mere “religious belief.” Think about it: How many times have you heard someone say, “Well that may be fine for you, but ...”

Here’s where the rubber hits the road. We are defenders of the ultimate truth. If we believe God is who He says He is, then His words are true. They are the truth, not some here-today, gone-tomorrow fad of thought. And that’s exactly why God asks us to be defenders of His Word, the eternal truth. He’s instructed us to be ready to defend our faith, to answer the questions of why we believe what we believe. In short, we’re called to apologetics.


Apologetics is just a fancy word to describe the reasons for what you believe. If you’ve ever witnessed to an unbeliever, you’ve undoubtedly used apologetics to explain your beliefs. Most likely, you’ve also heard a few objections to your message. Maybe one of your listeners argued that the Bible contains errors. Another person might have questioned how a loving God (if He even exists) could allow massive tragedies such as tsunamis, hurricanes or even human genocide to wipe out innocent people. All of these objections pave the way for an explanation of the Christian faith, which is essentially what apologetics is.

By definition, apologetics simply means “a defense.” The word is used several times in the New Testament, often when Paul was defending his beliefs before a challenging crowd. Like Paul, when we “do” apologetics, we are defending what we believe by showing that the content of the gospel is “backed up” by both evidence and sound reasoning.

I mentioned 1 Peter 3:15 before, the verse that encourages believers to “always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you.” The NIV translation uses the word answer in place of defense. In the original Greek language, these words, along with reason, imply an “analysis,” a “consideration of one’s position,” and the “defense of a conclusion.” In addition to being used in the context of Paul confronting his critics, the term is repeated in Jude 3 to encourage believers to earnestly “contend” (stand up for) the faith. Whether we’re simply answering someone or staunchly defending ourselves from an aggressive line of accusations, the point is that we’re to be prepared to “back up” our beliefs.

Is Apologetics Really in the Bible?
Apologetics isn’t just a term made up after the Bible was written. The original Greek word from which we get the English term apologetics can be found in the following New Testament verses:

• Acts 22:1; 25:16
• 1 Corinthians 9:3
• 2 Corinthians 7:11
• Philippians 1:7, 16-17
• 2 Timothy 4:16
• 1 Peter 3:15

An Opposing World

This isn’t always easy in a world that openly rejects God. The America of today isn’t the same as it was just a generation or two ago. Despite the so-called rise of “evangelical Christiandom,” we as a society have unmistakably moved away from our Judeo-Christian roots and into a world characterized by relativism and corruption. History says we’ve passed through our infatuation with romanticism and modernism, and since neither could provide solid answers to life’s bigger questions, we’ve turned to postmodernism. So how does postmodernism answer these questions? By simply concluding that no answers exist.

Don’t you wish we could use that line of logic for other things in life? “I wasn’t late to work, boss ... I just decided today that my job really didn’t exist—at least not until 10:30 A.M.” Keep that up and you’ll really find out whether your job exists or not.

According to postmodernists, claiming to have an absolute or right answer is both arrogant and intolerant. As a result, our Western society, which has bought postmodernism hook, line and sinker, is based on constantly shifting standards of right and wrong in which absolute truth is nonexistent. And as for those Christian freaks who have the nerve to say God is absolute and His ways are the ultimate truth? They’re just narrow-minded, intolerant and naive, now aren’t they?

Monday, September 23, 2013

God's Love and Hell

Divine Retribution: Reconciling the Love of God With the Reality of Hell

“God is love, and the God I believe in would never send someone to hell!” The audience applauded enthusiastically as the TV talk-show host passionately stated her position about the afterlife. A panel of guests had been assembled to explain various views about death, heaven, hell and God’s judgment. Of those authors and scholars, only one individual defended the biblical teaching about hell. And as the show progressed, both audience and interviewer seemed increasingly hostile to the lone evangelical panelist.

Surveys show that here in the West, belief in a literal hell is at an all-time low, and its most vocal opponents include some clergy. Scary, huh? Nevertheless, the Bible teaches that both heaven and hell are very real places and that each of us will eventually spend eternity in one of them. Most of what we know about hell, in fact, comes straight from Jesus’ mouth:

“If your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life maimed or crippled than to have two hands or two feet and be thrown into eternal fire. And if your eye causes you to sin, gouge it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into the fire of hell” (Matt. 18:8-9).

“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life” (Matt. 25:46).

“Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out— those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned” (John 5:28-29).

To deny the reality of hell undermines the authority of Jesus. Such denial also debases humans. How? To deny that man has free will—and may use it—counters the Christian concept that we are “image bearers” (Gen. 1:26). We are not free to re-invent, revise or change biblical truths and Christian doctrines for mere accommodation.

We must not evaluate truth based on what is popular, preferred or politically correct. Forget conventional wisdom. We must evaluate truth based on God’s Word. If we deny hell because we find the notion unbearable and undesirable, then why not drop any other part of Christianity that’s unbearable or undesirable? The reality of hell is inextricably tied to the person and work of Christ. If there is no hell, then our understanding of who Jesus is and what He did must be thoroughly revised.

Some opponents of the biblical view may not be trying to throw out the doctrine of hell; they just have trouble seeing how such a place can exist if God is love. Here’s the truth: God lovingly offers us forgiveness, but it must be accepted. It cannot be forced.

Accepting the reality of hell doesn’t make God vengeful or hateful. He is characterized by love and mercy, but also by justice and righteousness. The truth is that hell is necessary because God’s holy, just nature demands that evil be punished. Similarly, Calvary was necessary because God’s merciful nature demanded that salvation be offered.

Since we all fall short of God’s standard (Rom. 3:23), we all deserve hell. It is completely fair that people go there. It’s anyone’s going to heaven that could appear unfair. No one is good enough. The opportunity to enter God’s holy presence illustrates His mercy and grace. The Bible tells us that people loved darkness rather than light (John 3:19) and is clear that Jesus is the only way to get to heaven (John 14:6; Rom. 5:12-17). Those who fail to accept Christ’s payment for their sins will go to hell. It’s that simple. Heaven and hell are very real places. Which neighborhood we move into after leaving this mortal coil will depend on whether we chose to accept God’s gift and follow Jesus.

Monday, September 16, 2013

The Big Rock

Can God Make a Rock So Big He Can't Lift It?

I had just finished speaking at the "Spirit West Coast" festival and was enjoying the sunny California weather when I noticed a group of teens huddled together, whispering to one another. Curious, I watched while a boy of about 16 sauntered toward me with a smirk on his face. He flashed a quick grin in the direction of his friends, thinking he had caught both me and God in some kind of cosmic checkmate. He asked, "Can God make a rock so big that He can't lift it?"

This was not the first time I've been asked that question, and I am sure it won't be the last! The challenge inherent in this question is whether there's something God cannot do. I've found that nonbelievers enjoy asking us this question, because either way we respond we submit that there is, in fact, something God cannot accomplish. Either we answer that God can make a big rock He cannot lift or that God cannot make a rock big enough that He can't lift it.

On the surface this presents a seemingly insolvable conundrum. However, God is not put in checkmate at all. In fact, this problem in no way proves there's something God cannot do. It simply asks a meaningless question that contradicts itself in many ways.

Essentially, the questioner is asking, "Is there any way that God—who can make all things—create a rock so big, that the God who can lift all things cannot lift it?" Worded this way, the inconsistency and meaningless nature of the question is underscored. It's actually a pseudo-question. It makes no sense. The question itself has no truth value in order to be evaluated as either true or false. It proposes impossible conditions that can never be met. Trying to answer this question is much like trying to answer "What does the color blue smell like?" or telling someone to think about two boys, each shorter than the other.

The question also reveals false ideas about the biblical concept of omnipotence. Omnipotence does not mean God has the power to do anything at all; it is the power to do anything consistent with His character and who He is. The question is not really one of power as much as it is of logic and consistency. God cannot do something that is logically contradictory or contrary to His nature. For example, He cannot lie or sin or learn anything new. Those things that are true about His character will always be true, and He cannot do anything to contradict them.

Does it mean the Lord is not powerful because there are things He cannot do? Not at all. It simply means He is a perfect and unchangeable God. Just like He cannot do things that contradict His perfect nature, He also cannot do those things that are logically impossible. For example, He cannot make a square circle. Likewise, it is a logical impossibility—and a nonsensical thing to ask—for God to make a rock so big that He can't lift it.

Your teens live in a society obsessed with its own abilities, one that idolizes reason and knowledge as the only right or good thing. Asking the question "Can God make a rock so big He can't lift it?" is yet another attempt by mankind to trap or outsmart God. However, God tells us in Isaiah 55:8, "My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways." We cannot comprehend His ways. He desires that we continue to grow in our knowledge and understanding of Him (Phil. 1:9), but He also wants us to treat Him with the reverence and awe He deserves, because His mind and abilities are so far above and removed from ours.

I thanked the young man for reminding me that we serve a logical, coherent and all-powerful God. I thanked him for helping me to remember that we will never be able to outsmart the Lord or put Him in checkmate. I am so grateful that nothing we can do and no question we can ask could ever limit the omnipotence and perfect power of our loving Creator.

Monday, September 9, 2013

Reaching Out to Muslims in a Post Boston-Bombing World

The cover of music and social commentary magazine Rolling Stone has been a coveted piece of real-estate for decades. Since the 1970’s, several groups have mentioned the magazine and its famed front cover in their songs. Many people today, however, are angry that the predictably left-leaning magazine pushed their anti-establishment envelope farther than ever before: Their cover story (along with a rock-star-styled cover photo) featured Muslim terrorist (and confessed participant in bombings that took place during the Boston marathon) Dzhokar Tsarnaev. That Rolling Stone would give prime exposure and a positive editorial slant to one who admitted to partying with college friends and nonchalantly Tweeting after carrying out an attack that killed 3 Americans (and severely injured over 200 others) was— for many— unthinkable.

As news of the Boston bombing flooded the airwaves in April, I thought back on the days immediately following 9-11. Watching coverage of the arrest of one of the bombing’s chief architects, I thought back on the mood of our country more than ten years ago. Many then were becoming familiar with Islam for the first time. A decade later, many Americans still struggle over how to appropriately engage their Muslim neighbor / co-worker / acquaintance. I thought back on a particular friendship that I developed with a Muslim not long after the September ’01 attacks.

His name was A.J. A friendly, twenty-something immigrant from a predominantly Muslim country, A.J. worked at a sandwich shop my wife and I frequented. He would sometimes sit and talk with us as we ate. He seemed intrigued, that not only was I a Christian, but a minister, no less. Awkwardly at first, and then very candidly, we discussed our faiths. As might be expected, acceptance of the Bible, Jesus’ deity, and the Trinity didn’t resonate with his Islamic beliefs.

We invited A.J. to attend a conference where I was scheduled to speak on, “A Christian Response to Islam.” Would he come? Let’s face it, in the years since 9/11, discourse on Islam has been rather emotionally charged. So when I saw A.J. enter the auditorium, I mouthed a silent prayer.

In the months that followed, A.J. and I continued talking. I’ll never forget the day A.J. called and said, “Alex, I’m ready.” A.J. and I met that afternoon, reviewed the Gospel message one more time and prayed together as he received Jesus as his Savior.

Witnessing A.J.’s journey to faith in Jesus Christ, I had seen the Lord use several key conversations to open his heart. These included discussions about:

1. Jesus’ claims about salvation, which were confirmed by an unparalleled degree of proof: Christ physically rose from death, thus confirming who He was and what He taught. I reminded A.J. that Muhammed’s teachings were not accompanied by any supernatural confirmation and, in fact, the Muslim prophet himself said he did no miracles.

2. The Christian doctrine of the Trinity is not a belief in multiple gods (The shirk, or “the assigning of partners to God” is blasphemous to Muslims). Christians agree there is only one God (Deut. 6:3; Isa. 43:10-11) and not three.

3. There is compelling data affirming the trustworthiness of the Bible. Muslims have a level of respect for the Bible, though they believe what the New Testament says about Jesus is not trustworthy. I explained to A.J. that the New Testament is accurate and can be trusted- no one can point out what the alleged “changes” are or when they were supposedly introduced into the text- because the corruptions simply aren’t there.

4. Be prepared to patiently explain the subject of Christ’s incarnation. Regarding this topic, many Muslims struggle with the English wording of John 3:16. Whether a version reads that Jesus is God’s “only begotten Son,” or “One and only Son,” point out that John 3:16 does not imply that God had physical relations with Mary. The original language asserts that Jesus is, literally, “of the same nature” or “essence” as the Father.

5. Point out that the Prophet of Christianity is unique in that Jesus was a loving and sinless Savior (in suras 40:55 and 48:1-2, the Koran teaches that Muhammed was a sinner). Because He possessed both full divinity yet sinless humanity, Jesus was qualified to die sacrificially and capable of rising by His own power.

6. Emphasize that Christians have an intimate, personal relationship with Jesus, and have great joy in knowing that they are secure in Christ (John 10:28-29). Gently remind Muslims that where one stands with God is the most important issue of life—more important than culture, family background or social customs

Becoming friends with A.J. taught me several practical lessons about reaching out to Muslims here in America. I had prayed that God would help me “connect” with A.J., regardless of where our conversations about religion would end up. I wanted him to know that I cared about him as a person, and while I disagreed with his theology, I truly cared about him as an individual made in God’s image. The friendship required patience, and including my explaining certain things about my faith (and America) numerous times.

Apprehension of the Boston bomber is a reminder that no one is powerful enough nor clever enough to elude God’s hand of justice. But no living person is so far from God that they cannot experience His hand of redemption and forgiveness, either. Seeing A.J. come to Christ after 9-11 cultivated within me a deeper commitment to pray for Muslims living in the U.S. We should be grateful to God and to our military for bringing down Bin Laden. But it is my firmly held conviction that the world’s Muslims are in spiritual darkness, and to them we must reach out with compassion. God is able to supernaturally penetrate the human heart … even one brought up to resist the errors of “infidels” like us.

Monday, September 2, 2013

Looking for Self-worth and Value in the Right Places

It seems that several times each year, media coverage focuses on who have recently died. Only days ago, reports broke of Glee star Cory Monteith tragically passing from a drug overdose. Earlier this summer, Faye Hunter (an alternative rocker who enjoyed a smattering of success in the 1990’s) committed suicide, presumably despondent over a musical career long-gone. Still fresh in the minds of those within the music world is the death of singer Amy Winehouse from alcohol poisoning. These people were award-winning celebrities who enjoyed praise from fans, respect from critics, and international fame. But clearly the perks of stardom and the gratification of artistic expression aren’t enough to fill the human heart. When public figures self-destruct it is a vivid reminder that beginning as early in life as possible, individuals need to develop healthy perspectives on their value as a human being.

Amy Winehouse, for example, had become part of a group of performers that some call “Club 27.” These musical firebrands partied hard, burned out early, and died at age 27 (other famous names on the list include Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Cobain). Winehouse seemed to truly be on a path of intentional destruction. Her journey over the last few years included habitual drunkenness, drug use, erratic public performances⎯ not to mention shocking changes in appearance. Amy Winehouse had many things that people would assume should amount to happiness⎯ yet it was clear that she was unfulfilled.

Such celebrity passings can be an opportunity to talk about some of the basic realities about what it means to be human. Though they may not say it in these words, all people seek acceptance, significance, and security. We all want to feel like we have value as a person and that our life has meaning. Our pursuits for solid answers to the heart’s deep longings may tempt us to do things that can be personally detrimental. The quest to fill the heart can lead to destruction of the body in which that heart (and soul) are housed.

Lindsey Lohan is not yet 30, but when paparazzi capture her in a non-photo shopped moment, it is clear that years of fast living have not been kind to her. After working with countless people through two decades of ministry, I have interacted with many people who wore themselves down and burned themselves out because they did not know where their true worth lay. I believe that it is important for people of all ages (and especially youth) to find personal worth, value, and meaning in appropriate places. The natural longings of the human mind and soul should be answered in ways that are not destructive to the individual.

A godly, healthy perspective in a “world about me”

 For a Christian, there are clear and tangible reasons to feel OK about who they are. Your teen’s understanding of his own worth should be grounded on (and bolstered by) the following realities:

1. By the fact that they are made in God’s image;
2. In the awareness that Jesus personally cares about them;
3. Through the unconditional love present in your home;
4. Through the accepting haven provided by one’s church;
5. In their true status as a resident (and heir) of heaven;
6. In the confidence that God truly has a plan for their life.

These truths can be a great source of encouragement, but we know that emotions don’t automatically “catch up” to the facts that we hold in our mind. Self-esteem issues often feed on irrationality. We must vigilantly pursue an honest view of ourselves, of our circumstances, and of God. Feelings of insecurity (which can lead to unhealthy behaviors) should not ‘trump’ the facts (that we are made in God’s image and are complete in Him Christ).

For the Christian, one’s self-esteem is grounded in things outside of themselves (see Colossians 2:8-9). Of the six realities listed above, none lead us to find our value by comparing ourselves to others. Somebody will always come along who is prettier, a better athlete, wealthier, or who has a higher GPA. In a world of more than six billion people, that’s inevitable.

Approach life as a competition, and it doesn’t take long to realize that we all eventually get left in the dust of the next fastest runner. The comfort is in knowing that we are a priority to Christ.

Tragic lives like that of Cory Monteith are reminders that people of all ages need a clear understanding of Who Jesus is, and a personal experience of His love and care. This provides lasting purpose and clear direction⎯ even to those traversing the heady, challenging, and sometimes “tooth-and-claw” years of adolescence.