Resources for Following Christ in All of Life
I’ve heard it many times. Maybe you have too. In fact, maybe you have even said it. It starts with these words, “I can’t believe in a God who…” and then is followed with phrases like “lets young children die” or “would let his own Son be crucified” or “sends people to hell.” In most cases, the last few words represent something that bothers our sensitivities. If there is a God like that, we surmise, we want no part of Him.
Now sometimes when people say “I can’t believe in a God who…” they mean only that the God who is portrayed is distasteful, and they prefer to think of Him in another way, such as with a feminine pronoun. Others, however, mean that because the God spoken of is not to their liking, no God exists at all. It seems to me there is a problem with either kind of thinking.
On occasion, I ask people what their least favorite color is. One young man told me it was puke green. That sounds like a solid pick for a disliked color. After he shared with me his choice, I said, “Suppose God showed up, and to your surprise and even disgust, His entire being was a shade of puke green. You might say to yourself, ‘Boy, God is really ugly, I sure don’t like the way He looks.’ But I doubt you would say you can’t believe in a God who is puke green or that God doesn’t exist altogether. In fact, if anything you would believe in God—even a puke green God—more after the encounter.”
I know the scene I set for the young man is rather silly, but I think it makes an important point. And that point is that our likes and dislikes don’t determine whether something exists or whether something exists with certain characteristics. I, for example, might not like Barak Obama or Donald Trump, but that should not lead me to the conclusion that they do not exist or that they don’t have certain unpreferred characteristics.
This all said, it seems to me we must be careful that our beliefs about things are not shaped primarily by our sensitivities and preferences but by the actual characteristics of the object in question. This is true even when it comes to God. That does not mean that everything said about God must be believed. Sometimes what people try to pin on God is faulty and ought to be rejected because it doesn’t accurately portray God and His ways. But it does mean that if God exists there might be some things about Him that at least at first glance are distasteful or uncomfortable.
This makes me think of the biblical story of David. He had just become king and wanted to bring the recently recovered ark of the covenant back to his hometown. Along the way, a priest reached out and touched the ark when it seemed to be falling off an ox-led cart. Immediately, the priest was struck dead by God. David couldn’t believe it. Why would God do such a thing? The Bible even says that David was angry with God and became afraid of Him as a result. What it does not say, however, is that David concluded that God must not be the kind of God who would do such a thing or that God didn’t exist all. Those simply weren’t reasonable options given what David had seen.
Now please don’t read me as saying that if properly understood God will disturb all our sensitivities. I don’t think that to be so. As those made in the image of God, I think there are many things about God which we will probably find very easy to swallow, delightful in fact. But given that we are not God and are probably enamored with plenty that is antithetical to Him, we should not be surprised that as we gain a clearer picture of who God is there will be times when He comes off a bit puke green.
© 2018 John Hopper
Even if you weren’t a baseball fan before 2017, it is likely you became one if you lived in Houston. Who could have guessed (other than one seemingly prophetic Sports Illustrated writer) that a team that was the worst in baseball for years would win the World Series?
With baseball fandom comes familiarization with a plethora of stats common to the sport, including RBI, ERA, and OBP. Try to talk some baseball smack without sprinkling in a few of these acronyms, and you quickly get exposed. One of the more recent stats, and perhaps least understood, is WAR. It stands for Wins Above Replacement, and is a statistic which tries to measure the number of wins a player adds to his team over what a top minor league prospect would add. Apply the stat to the last 100 years of the sport, and you will find the players with the highest career WAR are Hall of Famers like Babe Ruth, Willie Mays, and Ty Cobb.
WAR seems like a pretty intimidating statistic to me. Sure, it might be great if you’re an MVP caliber player like Houston’s Jose Altuve, but what if you’re a run-of-the-mill performer? Do you really want one little statistic publicly declaring how you’d compare against your replacement? I served as a pastor for many years. I wonder what my WAR was. Or how about my WAR as a husband or father? Yikes!
But let’s take this whole discussion a step further by asking the question: What is God’s WAR? How much better is he over his replacement. Of course, if God is anything like what the Bible describes, (omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent) then there really isn’t a comparable replacement. But let’s for the sake of conversation consider a view of the world without God in it.
If our world is one without God, the universe we inhabit would not exist as part of some grand plan, but merely as a product of chance. Our universe would simply be a roulette ball that spilled out of some eternal universe making machine, and our humanity nothing more than the product of blind biological mutation. But this kind of world loses more than just God, it also loses things like reason, free will, love, beauty, justice, and human equality. “How is that?” you might ask.
Take reason, for example. Reason, in a world without God, is simply not reliable. Think it out this way: our reasoning skills in some pre-human formative state were different than they are today, and if evolution continues as it is said to have occurred in the past, our reasoning skills will be different a million years from now. But if reasoning itself is transitory (representing at any time only what helps us survive and not necessarily what is true), can we really trust any conclusions we come to today? Perhaps this is why Charles Darwin wrote: “With me the horrid doubt always arises whether the convictions of man’s mind, which has been developed from the mind of the lower animals, are of any value or at all trustworthy.”
Free will also cannot be sustained without God. Best-selling atheist Sam Harris declared so much in his book Free Will. As accidents of the cosmos, we are driven by bodily chemical reactions to the stimuli around us. It might feel like we chose the mocha chocolate ice cream during our last stop at the grocery store, but something in the makeup of our DNA made the choice inevitable. At least, that’s the story in a world without God.
Or consider, love and beauty. There is hardly a day that goes by without me telling my wife that I love her and that she is beautiful. But can love and beauty (in any substantive way) be sustained in a world without God? I don’t think so. Love would simply be the name we give to the chemical reaction we are having in response to the object of our affection, and beauty would fare no better. Rather than love and beauty being richly poetic, a world without God makes them nothing more than fizz in an earth-sized lab.
And then there is justice and human equality. These are the battle cries of secular society, are they not? But can these concepts be grounded in a world without God? We never consider one lion fighting another lion unjust; we only say it is the way of the wild. If we are but creatures of chance, should we not come to the same conclusion when one human kills another? Sure, we could say that our sense of justice is a well-honed evolutionary adaptation missing from other species, but even then it would be but a biological mechanism (better found in some individuals than others) and not some standard to which we have a duty. Furthermore, we must remember that justice often rests on the concept of human equality. But can we sustain human equality in a happenstance world? According to the evolutionary model, aren’t some humans more fit to survive than others?
All this might sound a bit unfair, as though I am painting a picture without God in an unnecessarily negative light. But this is not just my picture, it is one that atheists themselves regularly paint. Consider these words from Cornell University’s William Provine: "Let me summarize my views…There are no gods, no purposes, no goal-directed forces of any kind . . . There is no ultimate foundation for ethics, no ultimate meaning to life, and no free will for humans, either." 
This is the world without God. Take God out of the equation and replace him with atheism and we have a mechanistic world in which all we truly treasure is nothing but a mirage of nature.
So back to the original question: what is God’s WAR, at least relative to atheism? I think his Wins Above Replacement is nothing less than reason, free will, love, beauty, justice, and human equality, among other things. Take him out of the line up and I can’t help but think the whole human enterprise would go into a slump of epic proportions.
© 2018 John Hopper
1. “Charles Darwin to W. Graham, Down, July 3, 1881,” in The Life and Letters of Charles Darwin, ed. Francis Darwin (1897; repr., Boston: Elibron, 2005), 1:285.
2. “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?: A Debate between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994,” Origins Research, vol. 16, no. 1, http://www.arn.org/docs/orpages/or161/ 161main.htm (accessed March 4, 2013).
It’s been a year and a half since I left the pastorate of a local church. For sixteen years, I walked people through Scripture and helped them wrestle with how to apply it to their lives. Along the way, I made some assumptions. Many whom I taught had been in the church a long time. They knew how to navigate their Bibles reasonably well. They were generally familiar with major Bible stories, if not much more. And so I taught with certain assumptions that people already knew this or that, believing it was rarely necessary to re-hash the basics.
For the last year and a half, my assumptions have been challenged, at least for the larger church in Houston. During these 18 months I have taught in a variety of well-resourced congregations. I’ve also met with hundreds of Christians in offices, homes, and coffee shops. And along the way I’ve changed my assumptions about how familiar Christians in general are with the what, why, and how of their faith. Maybe what I’ve learned will make you re-think your assumptions as well.
Many Christians can’t tell you what Christianity is all about.
One of my favorite questions to ask is: “If you had to describe to someone what Christianity is all about, what would you say?” Sometimes, I ask this of people who do not call themselves Christians to see what their perspective of Christianity is. It’s not surprising that they come up with broad-ranging descriptions of the message of Christianity. But what is most revealing to me is how few Christians can offer much better clarity. You might be quick to say, “Well, that’s probably because they are not really Christians after all.” I wouldn’t be so quick to make that judgment though. In many cases, I think Christians have a number of the basics right, but are poor at communicating them very well. But that’s a problem too, isn’t it? What if you were to ask the “What is Christianity all about?” question to everyone at your church, what percentage would include something of sin and judgment, would tell of Christ and His grace, or would speak of faith instead of works in order to know Christ’s forgiveness? Based on the responses I’ve received of late, I am guessing it’s a lot fewer than you think.
Even fewer Christians know why they believe what they do.
I like to help people think through why they believe what they do regardless of their faith background. When it comes to Christians, I’ll ask questions like: “If someone asked you how you know God is real and not a figment of your imagination, what would you say?” And “If someone wonders if the Bible is more than just some man-made stories that probably aren’t even true, what would be your response?” Or, I might ask, “Suppose someone believes the existence of evil and suffering in the world is a clear defeater for the existence of God, what would you say?” Frequently, when I ask these questions, I get a blank stare. Christians by and large have no idea how to respond to these questions, even if they are among the minority who can communicate what Christianity is all about. In other words, even Christians who are clear on what to believe rarely know why they believe it. The best many can say is: “Well, I just have faith.” Some people consider Christianity blind faith, which I am afraid for many Christians isn’t too far from the truth.
A tiny few have any sense of how to share Christ with others in an effective way.
Ask a Christian if she thinks it is important to tell others about Christ and she will likely say yes. But close behind that declaration, she’ll say something like, “But I am not very good at it.” That answer is probably not a surprise when you consider my first two discoveries. If people are unable to share the basics of Christianity and they are unable to explain why they believe what they do, that is going to make sharing Christ with others particularly challenging. But beyond that, many Christians think evangelism involves a different kind of engaging with people than what they already do day to day. The result is when they do try to share with others, they get stiff and awkward and sometimes argumentative. No wonder they don’t feel very good at it! Perhaps you have been telling those under your pastoral care to share Christ more. That’s all well and good if they know how to do so in a manner that will resonate with the listener. But I doubt that’s a reasonable assumption.
Now you might guess that I am sharing these thoughts as a knock on the average American Christian. But that is not my point at all. I am sharing these thoughts because I think as church leaders, we are largely responsible for what the average American Christian looks like. And what I have discovered is that we have failed those under our care. Indeed, I failed those under my care.
There are all kinds of great things I can do as a pastor. I can exegete passages, so people are aware of Scriptural details. I can lead people in great community programs that meet important needs. I can see that kids and teens have places to hang out in what we might call a better environment. I can even lead my congregation to give generously to “professional” evangelists and missionaries. But if in all that, I am not seeing to it that those who call themselves Christians can clearly communicate what Christianity is all about, are able to explain why they believe what they believe, and know how to share comfortably with others, I have fallen short in my calling. Perhaps you have too.
John likes to help people wrestle with the big questions of life in his work with Search Ministries. He served as a pastor in Houston for 16 years, earned his doctorate at Biola University, and is a contributing author of Reasons to Believe: Thoughtful Responses to Life’s Toughest Questions