Lets be like Thomas; doubt and certainty in one

I wasn’t always a Christian. I first came to know Christ at age 14 and was heavily involved in the church, eventually assisting the vicar with the services and I also did a lot of Bible readings for the services. But something happened when I was about 18 that led to a lot of questions but very few answers, and I was in quite major financial trouble. By 22 I made a decision to sort out the problems and eventually walked away from the Christian faith. But I never stopped questioning and challenging and after moving to Oxford in 2008, I got to know a Christian couple who went on to become very good friends of mine and came back to Christ in their front room. My whole faith journey has been built on asking questions, expressing doubts, challenging views, getting answers then repeat. So it will come as no surprise that my favourite character in the Bible is Thomas.

I like Thomas but I was being taught that we don’t want to be like Thomas, because Thomas doubted Jesus and that doubt is the enemy of faith. How much of that is actually true though? Did Thomas really doubt Jesus and are we really expected to have no doubts at all in order to have faith?

The main story that seems to have earned Thomas his reputation is in Johns gospel, specifically chapter 20 verses 19-31, but this isn’t the only passage where Thomas is asking questions. In John 14, when Jesus is telling the disciples he’s off to prepare a place for them, Thomas pipes up “Uh, Lord? We don’t know where you’re going so how can we know which way?” Jesus gave him an answer,

I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7 If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him

Now, when Phillip, one of the other disciples chimes in with “Show us the Father that will be enough for us” Jesus reacts very differently; Phillip is given a serious rebuke, “How can you ask such a question? Don’t you know me? Believe me when I say I am with the Father, or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves” Keep that last bit in mind “believe on the evidence of the works themselves” because we’re going to come back to it.

Thomas also makes an appearance in John 11 which covers the death of Lazarus; Jesus is telling the disciples that he needs to go back to Judea. The disciples are like “You’re joking right? They tried to kill you last time and now you want to go back?” This is a justified reaction to be fair but Thomas, the doubter, the one we’re not supposed to be like, steps up and says “Come on guys, let’s go with him so that if he dies, we’ll all die with him”. It seems that Thomas was going to make sure that Jesus didn’t die alone. These 2 events capture Thomas perfectly; expressing doubts and asking questions but also showing complete faith by being willing to stand with Jesus no matter what.

So lets bring all this together as we look at John chapter 20. Verses 19-20 says;

On the evening of that first day of the week, when the disciples were together, with the doors locked for fear of the Jewish leaders, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!”  After he said this, he showed them his hands and side. The disciples were overjoyed when they saw the Lord

So Jesus shows the disciples his hands and his side and then they believed. Now, we know from verse 24 that Thomas was not with the other disciples so he’s not seen Jesus since he died on the cross. We pick the story up at verse 25:

The other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!

But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.

Who is Thomas doubting at this point? He’s doubting what he’s being told by the other disciples and again, you can’t really blame him. Living in the first century under the rule of the Roman Empire, he’s know enough about crucifixion to know that unless they get a pardon, whoever goes up on that cross isn’t coming down alive. He has enough knowledge of biology and experience of life to know that dead people stay dead. So what has he asked for? Nothing more than the other disciples got; to see Jesus, to see the marks in his side and his hands.

So verses 26-28:

A week later, Jesus’ disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!” Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.”

Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”

What an affirmation from Thomas; my Lord, my God!. Thomas didn’t come to that place despite his doubts, he got there because of them. He was honest about his doubts and Jesus let him face them, allowing him to believe on the evidence of the works themselves as Jesus said back in John 14. The evidence that Christ had risen was him standing in front of them. Now, we don’t have that, we don’t have Christ physically standing before us which brings me onto verse 29:

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed”

We haven’t seen Jesus physically risen as I said, but what do we have? The Gospels. John tells us in verses 30 and 31:

Jesus performed many other signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.

Luke says something very similar in the opening of his account. Now this can lead to the question “how do we know the Gospels are reliable”, and my response is “Yes, great question. Let’s look at that and have a discussion”. This leads onto other questions about the Bible because there are so many translations and interpretations, and we need to check what we are being told. This brings us onto the last passage I want to look at briefly which is Mark 16 verse 14:

Later Jesus appeared to the Eleven as they were eating; he rebuked them for their lack of faith and their stubborn refusal to believe those who had seen him after he had risen.

Now, this passage is slightly contentious because it is part of verses 9-20 which don’t appear in early manuscripts and pretty much all Bibles have a footnote or some disclaimer saying as such, so that raises a set of its own questions. But who is Jesus referring to specifically when he said ‘those who had seen him’? The other disciples? The women at the tomb? All of the above? Does this mean we should automatically accept what we’re told regardless? This seems very dangerous as one US pastor found out when he took verse 18 and went with it without question;

they will pick up snakes with their hands; and when they drink deadly poison, it will not hurt them at all; they will place their hands on sick people, and they will get well.”

The pastor was ultimately bitten by the snake and died from the poison. We humans are flawed, our understanding is never 100% correct 100% of the time. We have to question things, otherwise we can end up doing things that are incredibly harmful to ourselves and others. It can also lead to great social changes. It was doubting the then current understanding of scripture that led William Wilberforce to lead cry’s for the slavery laws to be abolished. It was his expression of those doubts that caused others to take another look at scripture and then join the cause.

So what is Jesus talking about in that passage in Mark? I don’t know, it’s one of those things I wrestle with and what is our journey with God if not a wrestling match? Plus, it’s perfectly acceptable to say ‘I don’t know’ because faith is not an expression of certainty, it’s an expression of vulnerability. It says ‘I don’t know if I can do this, but I know you’re with me Lord.’ It says ‘I can see all the pain, all the injustice, but I’m holding on.’ Too often we’re told questions and doubts are signs of spiritual weakness. They really aren’t, they lead to a richer spiritual experience and understanding as we explore and walk closer with God. Certainty is no guarantee that you’re with Jesus. Peter was certain in John 13:37; he said “I’ll lay down my life for you” and Jesus said “Really? When it’s all said and done you’re going to deny me 3 times.”

I found a quote from Archibald Macleish, who was an American poet and Librarian of Congress which says, “Religion is at it’s best when it makes us ask hard questions of ourselves. It is at it’s worst when it deludes us into thinking we have all the answers for everybody else.” When Jesus said, “how can you take the speck out of someone’s eye when you have a plank in yours”, he was about asking us to take a long hard look at ourselves and our faults. How can we start doing something as huge as looking at our faults if we’re not even willing to start the process of doubting what we currently believe about certain things? Doubt is an inevitable part of that process. To quote Claus Westermann;

Where God’s words penetrate a man’s life and are taken seriously there are certain to be struggles and remonstrations and defeat; doubt and temptation also inevitably occur.

There are always things we are going to be certain of though. I’m certain in what I’ve said to you today and that doubting is not wrong and that nothing is beyond reproach. But doubt is not the same as unbelief, it’s a state between beliefs; so if you find yourself doubting, know that you are in good company and that it’s perfectly fine to be there. Jesus will be in there too, as he was with Thomas and as you walk with him with your doubts; and God is not going to be angry with you. Be ready to go places you were never expecting to go and be prepared for some conflict as you end up somewhere different to someone else. Doubts are only dangerous if we make them something to be ashamed of and we insist upon remaining distant from those who doubt and hold different beliefs. Like a splinter, pretending it doesn’t exist or thinking you are wrong for having one isn’t going to solve the problem and it can become infected if not treated.  Making people ashamed is the easiest way to get them to leave their doubts unchecked.

One final thing before I wrap this up; Jesus left us with the Holy Spirit before ascending. How can it be allowed to move, work, guide, show us something new, if we cling so tightly so our certainties and reject anything that contradicts them? It is through doubting that we grow, that we can walk closer with Jesus. Doubts are what make our faith our own, are what lead us closer to truth. It is impossible to be concerned with truth unless you’re genuinely open to the possibility that what you currently believe is wrong. There’s no 2 ways about it.

There’s so much more I want to say but I will end with this. I had my doubts, I still do and if I hadn’t explored them and wrestled with them, and still do so, I wouldn’t be a Christian now. We saw with Thomas that yes, he had his doubts but he was still willing to die with Jesus and that’s what ultimately happened to him when he was killed in India spreading the gospel. This is what we are supposed to be willing to do. I think we could do a lot worse than to be like Thomas. His doubts didn’t get in the way of following Jesus, and neither did they go away afterwards, indeed they were part of what allowed him to make such sacrifices because he explored, he doubted, he learned, he grew through those doubts and ultimately came closer to Jesus as a result.

 

(Not my) Answers to Kevin DeYoung

So Kevin DeYoung over at The Gospel Coalition posted an article titled 40 Questions for Christians Now Waving Rainbow Flags. As the title suggests, he asks 40 questions that “are sincere, if pointed, questions that I hope will cause my brothers and sisters with the new rainbow themed avatars to slow down and think about the flag you’re flying“. There have been some excellent responses posted on various blogs, the Google doc I set up to gather answers and other social media outlets. So below are the responses that were given on my document as well links to the other excellent responses to these questions. Some chose not to answer all the questions which is why you won’t see the same number of answers to each question.

So without further delay:

1. How long have you believed that gay marriage is something to be celebrated?

  • About 2 years
  • Almost a year
  • Since my step-daughter and her wife were married in a church four years ago, and I had to face the Christians who somehow believed that going to that celebration was sending the wrong message.

2. What Bible verses led you to change your mind?

  • Gen 19, Lev 18-20, Matthew 7:15-20, Acts 10:1-11+18, Romans 1, 1 Cor 6:9-10, 1 Tim 1:9-10, Jude 1:7
  • Matt 12:1-14, Mark 2:27-28, Luke 6:43-45
  • Comparing Genesis 19:1-9 against Judges 19:18-25 conclusively demonstrated two things: 1) The judgement against Sodom was NOT about homosexuality; 2) The Bible is not inerrant.

3. How would you make a positive case from Scripture that sexual activity between two persons of the same sex is a blessing to be celebrated?

  • Genesis 2:23-25, Song of Solomon (entire book)
  • “But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” Galatians 5:22. As I have seen these fruits in the lives of my GAY friends, including my step-daughter, I cannot conclude that gay is harmful. Admittedly, this is not a positive argument, except that the POSITIVE fruits evident in the lives of gay people nullify the condemnations often leveled

4. What verses would you use to show that a marriage between two persons of the same sex can adequately depict Christ and the church?

  • The same ones that show straight marriage as a depiction of Christ & the church
  • Does it have to? Can your marriage depict something that someonelse’s doesn’t? Lets list all the straight marriages we know of that do not depict Christ and the church
  • Read the Song of Solomon.

5. Do you think Jesus would have been okay with homosexual behavior between consenting adults in a committed relationship?

  • Yes
  • Yes, I do, and there is evidence in those times that Jesus WAS OK with the centurion and his eunuch servant, which may well have carried sexual overtones

6. If so, why did he reassert the Genesis definition of marriage as being one man and one woman?

  • Because he was answering a question about divorce between a man and woman
  • When did he do this?
  • In Matt 19, He was reflecting the cultural norm. But you cannot argue from this verse that the norm was exclusive.

7. When Jesus spoke against porneia what sins do you think he was forbidding?

  • Lust
  • Need to look up my notes on porneia, but my general view, in light of the Jewish understanding of “sin” as “disorder” is that the sinful part of porneia lay in the excess, or misdirection, or lascivious cruelty it can inspire. Merely HAVING an attraction to a naked body is not wrong, and responding to that attraction is not necessarily wrong, but that depends on response.

8. If some homosexual behavior is acceptable, how do you understand the sinful “exchange” Paul highlights in Romans 1?

  • The exploitative homoerotic behavior common at that time; masters/slaves, pederastry, temple prostitution
  • In Romans 1, Paul would be talking about men and woman who go out side the bonds of their EXISTING marriage, or of their heterosexual nature — either or both

9. Do you believe that passages like 1 Corinthians 6:9 and Revelation 21:8 teach that sexual immorality can keep you out of heaven?

  • No. Salvation is through faith in Christ alone
  • I think Paul is not looking at things they way Jesus would. (Paul was, after all, NOT Jesus, and did not perfectly understand Jesus’ spirit, no matter what the inerrantists might claim.)

10. What sexual sins do you think they were referring to?

  • 1 Cor 6 – exploitative behavior & its explanation common at the time; masters/slaves pederasty, temple male prostitution stemming from excess of lust
  • They were referring to the sexually immoral, the idolaters, the adulterers, the men who practice homosexuality (malakoi)

11. As you think about the long history of the church and the near universal disapproval of same-sex sexual activity, what do you think you understand about the Bible that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin, and Luther failed to grasp?

  • They failed to appreciate sexual orientation itself, as well as Greco-Roman sexual mores & system of Pater Familias
  • That slavery is bad, women are dignified human beings or worth, and the world is bigger than my little bubble
  • The presumption of this question is faulty. But I’ll bite. Augustine did not take a literal view of Genesis. What do fundamentalists understand that Augustine failed to grasp? Luther famously felt uncomfortable with the Epistle of James and would have excised it. But it’s included. The Protestants in general accept 66 books of the Bible, where Catholics accept 70. Yet protestants are the upstarts, having been around only 500 years, where Catholics existed for 1500 years before that. The presumption of this question is that Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin and Luther, cannot be corrected by a simpleton such as myself. Christianity itself is a grand dialog where no one has the entire truth, but only God.

12. What arguments would you use to explain to Christians in Africa, Asia, and South America that their understanding of homosexuality is biblically incorrect and your new understanding of homosexuality is not culturally conditioned?

  • I’m not familiar with their understanding, so I don’t know. Probably the same arguments that convinced me
  • Ask the homosexuals in those countries
  • I don’t see much need to explain to anyone “What the Bible says”, because I think the idea that the Bible delivers just one specific message on all matters of which it speaks is erroneous. But if there IS a message, it would be “Love God, Love Neighbor” upon which hangs ALL the law and the Prophets.

13. Do you think Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were motivated by personal animus and bigotry when they, for almost all of their lives, defined marriage as a covenant relationship between one man and one woman?

  • No. I think they were motivated primarily by political expediency and lust for power
  • They were motivated by societal trends and political pressures just like everyone else
  • No. They were motivated by personal aspirations informed by political realities. As is every politician

14. Do you think children do best with a mother and a father?

  • I think children do best with parents who love them in stable household
  • Some children do better with a great mother and a great father. Many children have one or both of a terrible mother and terrible father. Many children have great or terrible single parents. Many children have no parents. This is a red herring
  • Mother and Father, are not the only influencers in life. There are aunts, uncles, teachers, coaches, ministers and priests, and friends. Children do best surrounded by a community of people with influencers who are able to teach healthy responses to situations as they arise. The number of unhealthy mothers and fathers out there implies that motherhood and fatherhood are not guarantors of success. This question is tailored too narrowly

15. If not, what research would you point to in support of that conclusion?

  • Current sociological research shows that when controlling family stability, income, etc. children of LGBT parents are no different than those with straight parents
  • Let’s locate national census data on households with single parents, on orphans and foster children, on academic performance relative to SES, etc A childs ability to thrive depends on so much more than their parents gender
  • There is no valid research to support your implied conclusion. And I don’t have a list of valid studies showing the opposite memorized. But as for the health of gay men in general, I would point to the seminal study done by Evelyn Hooker in her 1957 paper “The Adjustment of the Male Overt Homosexual

16. If yes, does the church or the state have any role to play in promoting or privileging the arrangement that puts children with a mom and a dad?

  • N/A
  • This is a loaded question. Society does privilege children from two parent households (gender aside) because by and large, they tend to have more many, live in better neighbourhoods, access better schools etc. We privilege the wealthy, not those deemed by a church to be “moral” Does the church have a role to play in promoting its view of morality on all families in the country or world? Absolutely not. Or, maybe, if promoting doesn’t mean imposing

17. Does the end and purpose of marriage point to something more than an adult’s emotional and sexual fulfillment?

  • Yes it does, but the suggestion that sexual fulfillment is the only reason LGBT people want to marry is offensive

18. How would you define marriage?

  • A union of two people to one, intended to be life long

19. Do you think close family members should be allowed to get married?

  • Define “close” I would restrict immediate family members, grandparent/grandchild/aunt/uncle/nephew/niece/1st cousin due to concerns of exploitation and genetic diseases
  • No

20. Should marriage be limited to only two people?

  • I have no in-principle objection to polygamous marriage. Lots of practical problems, though

21. On what basis, if any, would you prevent consenting adults of any relation and of any number from getting married?

  • Lack of legal clarity for practical issues, property rights, parental rights & custody, estate & inheritance issues, etc

22. Should there be an age requirement in this country for obtaining a marriage license?

  • Yes, either age of majority or legal age of consent

23. Does equality entail that anyone wanting to be married should be able to have any meaningful relationship defined as marriage?

  • No
  • No

24. If not, why not?

  • Marriage is still a unique relationship; not just any relationship qualifies. But I don’t think it’s exclusively 1 man-1 woman
  • Another red herring. Nobody is born a polygamist. People are not born with a desire to marry their relatives. Gay people are born gay. Minorities are born minorities. Neither should be robbed of basic societal privileges and norms and rights because of how they were born

25. Should your brothers and sisters in Christ who disagree with homosexual practice be allowed to exercise their religious beliefs without fear of punishment, retribution, or coercion?

  • To the extent that their beliefs do not harm or infringe on the rights of others, yes
  • Depends. They are free to exercise their beliefs by not engaging in a homosexual relationship or certain kinds of sexual activity. They are not free to deny others’ basic human dignity. Such denial, in fact, should also go against their religious belief. Particularly if they believe in an inerrant Bible which teaches love thy neighbor and to obey the authorities God hath put in place

26. Will you speak up for your fellow Christians when their jobs, their accreditation, their reputation, and their freedoms are threatened because of this issue?

  • To the extent that their beliefs do not harm or infringe upon the rights of others yes
  • Not if they are being jerks
  • In the same way Christians have spoken up for Daniel Kirk?

27. Will you speak out against shaming and bullying of all kinds, whether against gays and lesbians or against Evangelicals and Catholics?

  • Yes
  • Yes but not if doing so equates to protecting someone’s right to bully someone else

28. Since the evangelical church has often failed to take unbiblical divorces and other sexual sins seriously, what steps will you take to ensure that gay marriages are healthy and accord with Scriptural principles?

  • The same steps as I do for straight marriages
  • What does this mean? Since we haven’t cared in the past, how can we start interfering with marriages now?

29. Should gay couples in open relationships be subject to church discipline?

  • Yes, as should straight couples in open relationships. But LGBT couples should not be singled out
  • Nobody should be subject to church discipline

30. Is it a sin for LGBT persons to engage in sexual activity outside of marriage?

  • Yes, just like it is for straight persons engaging in sexual activity outside marriage. But because marriage was withheld from them until now, LGBT folk should not be condemned for previous activity
  • Yes

31. What will open and affirming churches do to speak prophetically against divorce, fornication, pornography, and adultery wherever they are found?

  • I don’t know. Probably similar to the way they speak against any other sin and injustice
  • Have you asked them?

32. If “love wins,” how would you define love?

  • See 1 Corinthians 13
  • 1 Cor 13:4-8

33. What verses would you use to establish that definition?

  • 1 Corinthians 13
  • 1 Cor 13:4-8

34. How should obedience to God’s commands shape our understanding of love?

  • Given that love is the operative verb in the two greatest commands, the question is circular
  • Love others as you love yourself. Turn the other cheek. Be a peacemaker

35. Do you believe it is possible to love someone and disagree with important decisions they make?

  • Yes
  • Yes

36. If supporting gay marriage is a change for you, has anything else changed in your understanding of faith?

  • Yes
  • Yes

37. As an evangelical, how has your support for gay marriage helped you become more passionate about traditional evangelical distinctives like a focus on being born again, the substitutionary sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the total trustworthiness of the Bible, and the urgent need to evangelize the lost?

  • It allows me to actually focus on those issues
  • 1) These questions are labelled as being for Christians, not all of whom are evangelicals. 2) Supporting gay marriage is not inherently at odds with substitution atonement or pursuing the lost. 3) What?

38. What open and affirming churches would you point to where people are being converted to orthodox Christianity, sinners are being warned of judgment and called to repentance, and missionaries are being sent out to plant churches among unreached peoples?

  • Too many to list. If you’re not aware of any, that’s on you

39. Do you hope to be more committed to the church, more committed to Christ, and more committed to the Scriptures in the years ahead?

  • Yes
  • These are listed as three equals. Christ, the church, the Bible. This is not the trinity in which I place my faith
  • I only follow one of them (hint; there’s a reason why we’re called Christians)

40. When Paul at the end of Romans 1 rebukes “those who practice such things” and those who “give approval to those who practice them,” what sins do you think he has in mind?

  • Every kind of wickedness, evil, greed, depravity, envy, murder, strife, deceit, malice, gossip, slander, hatred of God, insolence, arrogance, boastfulness, inventing new ways to do evil, disobedience to parents, lack of understanding, infidelity, loveless, merciless

Links to the blogs of other fantastic people who have written some great responses are below:

40 answers for Kevin DeYoung by Ben Irwin

40 responses to 40 questions by Jeff Carter

40 questions for Kevin DeYoung; Now stomping the rainbow flag by John Shore

“40 questions for Christians now waving rainbow flags” by Buzz Dixon

40 answers for Christians now fearing rainbow flag by Ryan Stollar

40 questions for Christians who oppose marriage equality by Matthew Vines

Response to 40 questions by a rainbow flag waving Christian by Dwight Welch

A response to 40 questions for Christians now waiving rainbow flags by Kimberly Knight

40 Answers from a Queer, Rainbow-flag-waving-Christian by Alan Hooker

1 Question for People who won’t wave the Rainbow flag by Alise

To pre-empt the question of whether I will be writing a response to these questions, the answer is no. I was going to, but I’ve been thinking about it and I lack the grace of some my fellow Christians. For me, Kevin DeYoungs questions are neither thought provoking or sincere. They are pointed I’ll grant him that but there’s nothing new here, there’s nothing that those who support marriage equality haven’t thought, studied and prayed long and hard about and if Kevin knew about a small website called Google he’d know that already. I’m not going to play his game.  I will say this though. I don’t wave the rainbow flag because society thinks I must, I do it because my faith doesn’t allow me to do anything else.

Ex-Christian, non-Christian; get over it

Whilst the article was originally written back in February, this piece written by Max Andrews appeared in my Twitter feed and attempts to argue that the term “ex-Christian” is not only incoherent, but apostasy (geez, some Christians love to throw that word around) His argument is as follows:

So, the problem with Ex-Christians is that they never were saved to begin with. At least, they cannot consistently claim to once be saved and now not. To say that one was once saved and now not saved because of apostasy is simultaneously affirming a truth claim on one hand while denying the same claim on the next hand. Any Ex-Christian must say that they were never actually saved or born again because they couldn’t have been if they believe it to be false.

Now I don’t have a PhD from Edinburgh (or anywhere for that matter) but the article doesn’t seem to make much sense.

To be a Christian is to be a follower of Christ, that’s what the term means. Christians follow Him because we believe he is the Son of God and that he died and rose again. We also trust Him with our lives, we believe he is trustworthy. Indeed the Greek word for faith used in the New testament is Pistis; and it carries the same meaning as fides:

Belief with the predominate idea of trust (or confidence) whether in God or in Christ, springing from faith in the same fidelity, faithfulness the character of one who can be relied on

Even the dictionary definition of faith has a similar definition:

Complete trust or confidence in someone or something

So what happens when that trust is broken? What happens when we stop believing Christ is trustworthy? You’re not going to follow someone you don’t trust, so you stop following Him and by the definition of a Christian you are an ex-Christian. You trusted Christ, now you don’t. Trust can be broken for a multitude of reasons, and we can debate until the second coming whether they are good reasons, but given the relational aspect of Christianity, everyone’s reasons will be based on their own personal experience of Christ and events often force perceptions to change. This doesn’t mean that because you’ve changed your mind that you didn’t believe in the first place; Even with the relationship aspect to one side it doesn’t mean that.  If I was a young earth creationist and believed the earth was 6000 years old, then changed my belief to the earth is billions of years old, that doesn’t mean I was never a young earth creationist. My reasons have changed, I am ex-whatever I was. This happens all the time in life, why is it hard to think that it can happen with faith?

This will inevitably raise the question of salvation which is the focus on Max’s article. Now it’s true  that God may indeed change us, but that is a process that can take a long time and may not be fulfilled this side of heaven (we don’t all get to have a “Paul on the road to Damascus” conversion moment) Max’s whole article comes across as an exercise in tribalism; If you’re one of us, you never leave. If you leave, you were never one of us” as one commenter on my Facebook page put it. This is rampant in fundamentalism as justification to shun those they don’t agree with, especially those who have left the fold and to apply pressure through emotional blackmail to get them back. Salvation is between an individual and Christ and Christ was quite clear no one goes through the father except through him (which is not the same as saying only Christians go to heaven) as well as being clear that calling yourself a Christian is no guarantee you’ll get to heaven either (Matthew 7:21-23)

Ultimately Max demonstrates a breathtaking lack of understanding as to why people believe and the kind of journey’s they go through in their life and faith. Not everyones story and faith and the same. He takes the easy option of simply dismissing those stories as “well you were never a Christian then” which I’m sure would not have led to his many honours had he taken the same approach to his studies. Trying to usurp Christ in passing judgement over who is/isn’t a Christian, is not only dangerous but probably apostasy as well.

If an atheist made this argument (and I did have an atheist say to me I was never an atheist) Christians would tear them apart and rightly so, it’s total nonsense and remains so even when said by people with PhD’s.

I would like to apologise if you now have Monty Pythons dead parrot sketch in your head.

How blowing the questions wide open (with the help of some heretics) saved my faith

synchroblog

(This post is part of the synchroblog “What Saved Your Faith?” hosted by Ed Cyzewski to celebrate the release of his new book, “A Christian Survival Guide.” Get the book free today only!)

I’ve written about this previously over many blogs, so my answer has been cobbled from these, but it’s a question that comes up often; mostly from Christians who’s faith seems to be falling apart before their eyes. Hearing the stories of those who have come close to losing their faith, only to come out the other side again can be very inspiring. I hope my story does the same for someone.

If I were to answer this question directly, I would say that those who were considered heretics were the people who helped to save my faith and make it stronger. I’ve never been particularly scared to ask questions, or to challenge the views of others and express my own. Whilst I am very determined, I try to remain open to the possibility I am wrong, though I can be stubborn. An infinite being such as God is never going to be explained properly by my finite mind, so I try to keep it open. Discussions with atheists regarding religion, faith and evidence for God always left me feeling challenged but inspired, and therefore, I’ve always tried to take on board what I was being told.

But none of this really prepared me for my encounters with those regarded as religious fundamentalists. From the beginning I was bombarded with scriptures and was told the ways I should interpret them. Because I was still learning about the scripture, I took what they said as gospel and went with it. Difficult topics, like Genesis, sin, and hell, I went with what I was learning from others. But as time went on, questions began to come to my mind. What about evolution? Why would a loving God send people to hell? In my usual manner, I asked these questions to the people who I was discussing these issues with. Sufficed to say, the responses I got took me by surprise. Same scriptures but with the added “why are you questioning God?” in there for extra spice. “It doesn’t make sense to you? You just need more faith!!!” Wonderful! I just need more faith. How do I get that if I can’t ask questions? “Well you’re not asking the right questions!” Yeah, well that’s less than unhelpful, along with being overly aggressive. I retreated into my shell and just hoped it would all go away.

Something I heard Michael Ramsden once say kept coming back to me; “If you have doubts and you leave them un-answered, they will erode under your faith until eventually it all collapses.” It got to the point for me where that’s exactly what was happening. I couldn’t reconcile everything I knew with what I was being told. I risked losing it all, but according to some, I already was by sending people (and myself) to hell with my theology. What this talk did though was show me that it’s perfectly acceptable to have questions and ask them, and slowly, my confidence and my curiosity grew once more, and my need to ask questions returned.

During one of my Google searches regarding homosexuality and the Bible (it turned out that it was a huge topic for many so I wasn’t alone, which felt good), I came across an article by Rachel Held Evans, titled “How to win a culture war and lose a generation”. Lovely article which really demonstrated love for others. This resonated with me, this was what I was looking for. When I did a search for more of her work, turns out not everyone saw it that way. Many of the searches came up alongside the word heretic; “a professed believer who maintains religious opinions contrary to those accepted by his or her church or rejects doctrines prescribed by that church”. This made me nervous. Was I a heretic for agreeing with her? I’d already been told I was going to hell, maybe this would just seal the deal.

As I researched more topics, more names starting popping up; Justin Lee, Richard Beck, Peter Enns, Derek Flood (who I will come back to), Jeremy Myers; each Google search revealed them to be considered heretics. But the more I read their work, the more they made sense to me. Not only with the points they made, but with the diversity of the questions they were asking. These weren’t people afraid to ask questions, they openly did it and confronted head on many of those who would rather they were quiet. They had opened up a whole new world to the one presented to me before, yet it was a vaguely familiar one as they vocalized the questions I had been suppressing. They took a lot of abuse for it, but they persevered. To this day, I still don’t know how. But in it I began to see the vaguest of ideas of what the Bible was getting at and more importantly, what it meant to be a Christian.

So with my confidence back, I adopted my usual grace of a free falling safe and dove in. I rediscovered what I’d lost – my relationship with Christ. That difficult, slightly odd but totally unique relationship I have with Him.

Everything became different as I learned to embrace the relationship once more, I tried to look to Him for answers and see things as He does. I have my quirks because He gave them to me. If I was expecting a smooth road from there on out, I clearly hadn’t learned my lessons from the past.

Anyone who follows me on Twitter will know that I refer to Derek Flood a lot. I can say that his book helped to save my faith. As I mentioned previously, in the early days of my faith, I was influenced by people like Ravi Zacharias and Michael Ramsden, but their interpretation of the cross, (that it was about the pouring out of God’s wrath onto Jesus) really didn’t seem to settle with me; it didn’t sound like the God I knew. Previous issues regarding Genesis and the whole inerrancy issue were coming back to the forefront as a result. The work from the likes of Peter Enns and John Walton were helping me with these issues, but I couldn’t understand God and His wrath. It wasn’t until I read Flood’s book that I began to understand that the cross was about restoration, not wrath. Until that point, what I was coming to understand about heaven (courtesy of NT Wright’s work), were just words that sounded great, but I had no idea what they meant or how to apply them. Flood’s book acted like a pen joining up the dots, not just about the cross, but about virtually everything that I couldn’t reconcile. It blew away my fears, and I felt a freedom and a peace that I hadn’t had since that night at my friends house.

When you’re in the middle of working through something, and you have all these voices telling you conflicting things, having people you trust who you can go to can really help you to find a path, but in the end, I had to work it out for myself. When relying solely on other peoples opinions, you run the risk of simply being blown about in the direction of whatever author you happen to be listening to at the time. Also, your understanding isn’t really your own – it’s your understanding of somebody else’s point of view. Your faith is effectively somebody else’s. It is a fine line to tread, but there is a difference between being influenced by someone and saying “this is true because they say so”. It isn’t wrong to listen to others, it’s how we learn, and it certainly gives a great starting point. It may even result in a massive breakthrough like Flood’s book did for me.

Looking back, the people I mentioned (and countless more I’ve missed) have helped shape my outlook on the Bible and my faith. These “heretics” have quite literally saved my faith and my relationship with Christ. They blew wide open the questions and dared to go down roads many deemed too dangerous. Anytime I find someone branded a heretic by a Christian, it encourages me to go read their work. This doesn’t mean that I agree with everything, but it encourages me to think differently about things and to be confident when doing so. You can’t do any of that without support, and I’ve not always had that from churches, so I often have to remind myself that it is ok to take a step back. It’s also opened my eyes to a great many things, I still have lots to learn though, and lots to work on, but at least I feel more confident to walk alongside Christ once more.

 

What saved your faith? Write a blog post answering that question and then visit this post at Ed Cyzewski’s blog to learn how you can join the synchroblog or to read additional posts to celebrate the release of Ed’s book A Christian Survival Guide.

Dive in….be adventurous

God often gives me ideas in very unusual and random ways. For instance, I was working on a blog about grace and fighting for redemption, but it simply wasn’t coming together. After getting annoyed and finishing a glass of baileys, He reminded me why I set this website up in the first place; to try and provide answers to questions people have about the Christian faith. Next morning on the way to work I was watching a video from Achievement Hunter where they were playing Minecraft. One of their exchanges went as below;

Ray: Here’s the thing; I want to explore but I don’t, like, I’m really scared

Jack: I’m in the same sort of boat right now, I’m like “OK I know I need to find lava,  that’s a giant pit, I don’t want to go down there”

Ray: It’s dark

Michael: Dude, dive into dark holes head first, find some lava, be adventurous [1]

When applying this to different areas in life, this is a piece of advice I need to follow myself and it suddenly got me thinking; why are so many Christians are afraid to ask questions? I had many questions before I came to faith and I seem to have even more since committing to Christ. I’ve come to realize that my questions are not so much born out of the issues in of themselves, but out of some of the explanations that are on offer. If it doesn’t make sense, I want to query it and try to understand it but I frequently come up against attitudes which give off the impression of “it only doesn’t make sense because we are fallen and don’t understand God. Just accept it for what it is” I tried for so long to take that stance and accept that I didn’t understand, but I felt my faith collapsing from underneath me.

One of the most inspiring books I’ve read recently has been Wild at Heart by John Eldredge [2] (thank you to Sarah for buying it me). This book has helped me come to terms with the fact that I want to go digging deeper, to use different resources. I want to ask questions about following Christ and to figure out the importance of everything; this book has helped me to understand some of those things. I am reborn, I am in Christ. His spirit is in me and it wants to know him better. Once I had grasped that, I felt release. I felt I was now truly on a journey with Christ and meeting (well, finding on the internet in most cases) so many great people who have really challenged and encouraged me. I felt like I was being me again and I feel my faith is so much stronger for it.

Looking back at the exchange, if you replace lava with answers I think you have the current situation for many Christians. They have many questions and there are many viewpoints out there that they are scared to start exploring. This fear is understandable, I’ve been down some very wrong roads and have had to backtrack, but now I know what’s wrong and know not to venture there again (at least not until I’ve got more information) I’m still going down wrong roads but that’s part of learning and growing, part of growing a relationship with Christ. I think part of the problem is the attitude I alluded to earlier – trying to delve deeper has caused me trouble and pain. I think (well, I know) it’s been the same for many. It makes asking legitimate questions very difficult if you’re constantly being shouted down. But there is a wider issue coming out of this; If we can’t stand up and ask questions within a Christian environment, if we don’t have the confidence to do that, will we ever have the confidence to do it in the secular world? What chance do we stand?

So I encourage you to dive into the seemingly black holes, because despite your fears, they won’t be as dark as you think….remember, Christ will be there. One of the things I’ve learned and am continuing to learn is that he doesn’t forsake or leave anyone. Seek and you shall find; isn’t that what Christ said? I’m not talking about being reckless but just explore some different views, attach yourself to Christ and dive in.

 

References:

[1]  Achievement Hunter : Let’s Play Minecraft Part 7 – Enter the Nether Part 2 (available at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Nuj7D5CC_u4)  last viewed 05/03/2013

[2]  Wild at Heart; Eldredge, John (2001 – reprinted 2011) Published by Thomas Nelson

First published 5th March 2013

Eternal questions of the teenage mind

At the weekend I attended a Q & A session with the youth group at St Mary’s of the Arden Church in Studley. The aim was to allow them to ask any question they had and I would try to provide some answers for them. I probably learned more than they did and my respect for youth leaders increased exponentially.  It was a very enjoyable and worthwhile session.

One of the big things I learned was that conversations never stay on one track. I’d had a list of questions from them beforehand and it very quickly became apparent that this wasn’t a session where we’d just work through them. The discussions went off on some great tangents (mostly involving food which is always good) and more questions came out of them. From that, I learned that back and forth is critical in making them feel included and the session more enjoyable. They were pretty much driving where the session went and I (along with the youth leader) was just prodding them back onto topic every now and again. What you don’t do is fire stats and numbers at them as their eyes just glaze over. That’s something I’m going to need to work on for future sessions.

Analogies work really well. When looking at evolution and creation, I took some inspiration from Professor John Lennox except instead of using the Ford car, I used the Red Bull Racing F1 car. It was a very pleasing feeling to see their eyes widen as things clicked into place and they understood it. I felt I had accomplished my task at that moment. I also learned that sometimes you just got to go with a fun answer. The first question was “Does Jesus like KFC?” I could have gone on about capitalism etc. but instead I said “Yeah he does. If he was to do communion today, he’d probably order in a couple of bargain buckets” Probably not the most theologically correct answer but everyone laughed and it broke the ice a bit so it was worth it. Another lesson chalked up.

But the session showed that teenagers have questions and it is beneficial for all involved to simply sit down with them and go through them. No question is silly, especially not if it’s causing them issues. All that’s needed is a little time, a knack for making the point easy to understand, the ability to go with the flow and actually answering the question.

I very much looking forward to going back for another session and I thank the youth group for their questions and comments.

The questions that were put to me (but not necessarily answered) are below:

  • Why are we Christians if Jesus was a Jew
  • Where do different denominations come from?
  • Why did God send Jesus “meek and mild”
  • Who goes to heaven and how?
  • Why do you believe?
  • Who was there before God?
  • Why is there suffering?
  • When will the world end?
  • What does eternity look like?
  • Does Heaven and Hell exist?
  • How do we have different religions?
  • Why do we have communion?
  • What is the proof for the resurrection?
  • Why can’t dogs see colour?
  • How was God around before anything?
  • Do evolution and creation have anything in common?
  • How did we find out about God?
  • How do we know the Bible stories are true?
  • How can we be sure God listens to us?
  • Where do the dinosaurs come in?
  • Does Jesus like KFC?
  • How was God there before everything else?
  • Is there any proof that God exists?
  • How old is God?
  • How does God know everything about you before you’re even born?
  • How different is life now compared to when Jesus was living?

 

First published 4th February 2013

Allowing it all at the table

Ever since I first heard John Lennox speak at a conference, I’ve been learning how to defend the Christian faith and learning more about the intellectual side of it. Reading the likes of John Lennox, William Lane Craig and Alister McGrath have helped to prepare me to answer questions and objections from atheists. The recent Unbelievable conference was on the theme of C.S. Lewis and I learned a lot about how to present my answers more creatively, particularly online. However, by the end of the conference I felt God was calling me to do something else with my faith, something else that is currently requiring me to work 50 miles from home.

In his recent blog post [1], Peter Enns asked 3 devastating questions that really stopped me in my tracks;

  • What are your one or two biggest obstacles to staying Christian?
  • What are those road blocks you keep running into?
  • What are those issues that won’t go away and make you wonder why you keep going at all?

As I thought about these questions, I realized that I find myself increasingly having to defend the Christian faith from other Christians, not atheists. This could be because I spend more time in Christian circles than in others, but even when I look elsewhere, the posts I comment on are the ones where Christians are launching attacks on others and using the Bible to do it. Most of the places I have these discussions are on the internet, which is not known for its decorum. But Christians don’t get a free pass just because they can’t be seen. Virtually all the discussions between Christians are to do with interpretations of scripture and this is how I came to find Peter Enns work. I’ve found his book Inspiration and Incarnation particularly useful in understanding the nature of scripture. He has his fair share of critics but every author does.

Many Christians struggle with the Bible and especially with questions on suffering. The works of Richard Dawkins have obscured these topics somewhat. People are trying to provide answers to these as well as challenge the spread of what is seen as very damaging theology. Rachel Held Evans challenges a lot of the theology of evangelicalism, particularly the abuses of it. How people approach such attempts will differ from person to person. As one commenter on Peter Enns blog puts it;

…..Peter’s blog has done more to expose the problems of the Bible and a Christian worldview than any atheist has ever hoped to. Peter has caused me to doubt the historical accuracy of the Bible, and exposed the intractable problem of an angry God that seems more the product of a peoples’ imagination. Realizing Genesis is wrong, Paul is wrong, and that the Bible are just stories written by people in captivity in 600BC, causes me do doubt inspiration as well. I’m sure Peter never intended for his blog to cause people to lose their faith, but in my case he has provided the strongest case against the Christian faith than any atheist.

It’s comments like this that cause people to “attack” the likes of Peter Enns and Rachel Held Evans, they are seen to be leading people away from Christ, not to him. Many of the responses to Peter Enns questions have been to do with how we approach the Bible and the theology that has been espoused from it. Looking at the intellectual reasons for the Christian faith, it has shown me that it can stand up to scrutiny, but it does cast a light on what peoples faith is actually based on. We are happy to listen to experts when we agree with them, but not so much when they challenge our pr-suppositions. To me, to be consistent with an intellectual application you have to apply the same rigor to scripture itself. If that means challenging traditional views then so be it – traditional views have been challenged and changed throughout the course of history. Sometimes you have to stop defending the indefensible, for nothing undermines a stance more than by doing that.

Apologetics has become focused on defending the Bible; indeed the quote about Peters work contains the assumption that the Christian faith is based on the Bible, but the Christian faith did not come out of the Bible. As Dr Michael Licona put it;

If Jesus rose from the dead then Christianity is true, even it it were to turn out that there were some things in the Bible that aren’t true. The truth of Christianity is not based on the divine inspiration or inerrancy of the Bible, its contingent on whether Jesus rose from the dead and if Jesus rose game, set, match! [2]

Having an understanding of the evidence for the Christian faith is important; my faith has become stronger having evidence to focus on. However, I accept that there are very valid criticisms for the Christian faith, what the Bible contains and how Christians use scripture to treat others. The latter is probably the most powerful factor that is turning people away from the Church. The Bible is all that matters to some people now, we’ve dug a hypocritical hole for ourselves. We ask for our views to be allowed at the table in society, yet we shout other Christians down. We need to be consistent with how we treat arguments and how we allow criticisms to be made. We also need to remember who it is that we follow; not a book but a person, not verse but knowledge. A society can only be deemed free when it allows equal and fair dissent, discussion and difference to be expressed on an open playing field. Jesus has set us free, so why are we as Christians so reluctant to extend that freedom to others?

References:

[1] http://www.patheos.com/blogs/peterenns/2013/05/why-do-i-keep-believing-the-biggest-obstacles-to-staying-christian/

[2] http://www.evidence2hope.com/apps/podcast/podcast/304881

First published May 27th 2013