This summer in the world of Pete, in the occasional moments when I've not been getting engaged or planning a wedding, my reading and listening have centred upon books and lectures seeking to argue for the reality of God. What I find interesting is that all the arguments I've read or heard have been framed in very similar ways. So indulge me for a bit ... allow me to try and very briefly summarise the framework of their arguments here.
The theorists began by acknowledging that they can't prove - like, actually, mathematically or scientifically - prove God; just as someone can't prove the non-existence of God. But nevertheless they tried to argue their case in a rigid proper academic way.
And here's the thing: they started with worldviews - they started by weighing up the possibility of a deistic or theistic worldview over an atheistic or materialistic one. 60 years ago, C.S. Lewis did this in 'Mere Christianity' by considering our common sense of law and injustice. But today's theorists - at least the ones I've read and heard - did this (perhaps surprisingly) by starting with science.....
They started with the Big Bang and scientific evidence which points towards a starting point to time and space. And the question was raised: what caused a beginning? How did something come from nothing? When you boil it all down, they said there are only two possible answers to this: either something came from nothing by chance; or it was a deliberate act, brought about by choice. And the theorists argued for the latter.
If the latter is chosen, the theorists have so far only come as far as deism - a creator who sets the world in motion but then sits back, disconnected, disinterested. To get to theism, their arguments (again, perhaps surprisingly) turned to evolution ... they turned to the existence and development of life on earth.
Like the Big Bang, the evolution of life on earth can either be viewed as an undirected process or it can be viewed as a directed ongoing act of creation from a creator. If viewed as the latter, it serves as evidence for theism over deism.
The theorists also considered the concept of 'fine tuning' - the idea that there are so many different 'dials' which have to be in exactly the right place for life to exist on earth. By attempting to calculate the probability of all these 'dials' being in the right place, even factoring in all the planets in our universe(!), they claimed that the probability of life on one planet is absolutely minuscule. The only way round it they said, to make the Maths work, was to invent billions of other parallel universes (science fiction style) so that the probability of life existing in one of those universes becomes much more likely.
So as I see it, we are still left with two options: we either opt for a creator that we can't see or prove. Or we opt for multiple parallel universes which we can't see or prove (and we're still left with the question of how did those multiple universes begin!) In other words, in either option, you've got to have faith.
Even some of the most ardent atheists acknowledge that the world looks like it has been designed - a quote from Dawkins was usually rolled out at this point - but they claim that the appearance of design is an illusion, the result of evolution and survival of the fittest. At this point in the argument, those arguing for God sometimes pointed to the complex construction of DNA; by calculating the probability of DNA being randomly constructed they claimed that it cannot be a result of undirected chance. Theism fits the evidence, they concluded.
The question now was, which kind of theistic worldview? If there is a creator, what is this creator like? Does this creator care? Is this creator still interested in the world? Does he/she/it interact with the world? Does he/she/it desire relationship with the world?
And this was where the arguments left science behind and move off into the realms of the arts, examining historical, literary and sociological evidence. Some theorists asked 'what is wrong with the world?' and continue philosophically. Others went down a historical route, examining the validity of historical claims of revelation from a creator, using non-biblical archeological evidence to point towards the validity of the Bible.
But whatever route the theorists chose at this point, all concluded their books or lectures with a study surrounding the life of a 1st century Jewish rabbi named Jesus. Some had space to examine non-biblical literary and archeological evidence for Jesus' life ... one lecturer I heard even went to town on the probability of Jesus accurately fulfilling all the prophecies about a Jewish messiah. But all finished with historical evidence for Jesus' resurrection.
And that's it ... that's my quick, crude skeleton sketch of other people's arguments. Further reading is required to flesh in the details. There are obviously counter-arguments to be considered, and counter-counter arguments etc etc.
But let's finish with some personal reactions ... the first thing that strikes me is the length of the journey. The need to strip everything right back to worldviews is quite overwhelming. But it does make sense. I mean, if you're starting from a strong or subtle atheistic view point (as so many people are) then of course the resurrection of Jesus sounds like absolute nonsense!Yes, it is a long logical journey from atheism > deism > theism > Judeo-Christian theism > the resurrection of Jesus. But in order to build a strong sound reasonable argument for a Christian perspective of God then that's the journey some choose to take.
And finally, from in amongst the field of probabilities and uncertainties, if there's one certain thing that I do take from my summer of reading and listening, it's that scientific evidence and theories haven't discounted belief in a creator God - on the contrary, they provide a lot of evidence pointing towards one.
Writing in defence of his atheistic beliefs, the comedian Ricky Gervais points out that Jews, Christians and Muslims are all nearly as atheist as him. 'I don't believe in 2870 gods,' he quips, 'and they don't believe in 2869.'
And he is right.
Because four thousand, three thousand, two thousand years ago, pretty much every culture in the world believed in hundreds of different gods.
Throughout the narrative of the Bible, tracing through millennia of history, the nations and empires rise and fall. And each one believed in a pantheon of gods.
There were gods of cattle, gods of crops, gods of the sea, gods of fertility, gods of the sun ...
The list goes on.
The gods were distant. Disconnected.
The gods were demanding. Dictators.
Take the Babylonian gods for example.
These gods fought amongst themselves and created the world out of war and violence.
These gods created humans to be their slaves.
To do the work they did not want to do.
What's more, throughout history there has been an unrelenting belief that the gods are angry with their human slaves.
The gods demand human blood. Human life.
They demand the ultimate sacrifice. Child sacrifice.
It is chilling, isn't it?
And it is so, so, so wrong.
Throughout the Biblical narratives, there is a gradual earth-shattering revelation that the god of the Israelites is not like the other gods of the human imagination. This god, called 'Yahweh', did not create the world out of war and violence, but peace and love. Yahweh just spoke and there was.
In the shocking famous account of Abraham and Isaac, the most shocking part is not that the god of the Israelites asks Abraham to kill his son. It is that Yahweh stops Abraham from killing his son.
In place of Isaac, Yahweh provides a lamb.
And the lamb is sufficient.
In the most dramatic way possible, the god of the Israelites makes his point.
Love is absolutely repulsed by the spilling of human blood.
To Yahweh every human life is valuable. So so precious.
Every human is a masterpiece of creation. Created and crafted in the image of the one God - the only God.
Love is absolutely repulsed by the spilling of human blood. And the one God Yahweh is desperate for the whole world to grasp this. But the dramatic story of Abraham and Isaac, passed down through the generations, was not enough. It did not stop the practice of child sacrifice. It did not stop the Israelites from killing their own children - let alone the Egyptians, Assyrians, Babylonians... Even the Kings of Israel lay down their own children in the flames. (2 Kings 16:3, 21:6)
Centuries before Israel had a King, before Israel even had its own land, Moses had cried out, 'Don't let anyone among you offer a son or daughter as a sacrifice in the fire ... Yahweh hates anyone who does these things.'(Deut. 18:10-12)
But centuries later the Israelites were still asking, 'What can I bring before Yahweh? Should I give my first child for the evil I have done? Should I give my
very own child for my sin? (Micah 6:6-7)’
And Yahweh replied: no, no, no, no, no! 'I never commanded it. It never entered my mind that they should do such a detestable thing.(Jer. 32:35) The sacrifice I seek is justice and mercy; humans walking humbly with their God.' (Micah 6:8)
The first Christians were incessant in their insistence that human sacrifices were no longer needed - incessant in their belief that even animals were no longer needed as a sacrifice for sin. The ultimate sacrifice had been made, they claimed. There had been a definitive death that had defeated 'the power of sin just once - enough for all time.' (Romans 6:10)
And whether or not you agree with their belief that Jesus' death was the ultimate sacrifice 'enough for all time', there can be no doubt about it, the beliefs of the early Christians changed the world. The spread of their beliefs all but eradicated the practice of child sacrifice from the world.
One of the words we translate as 'hell' is the Greek word Gehenna. It literally means 'The Valley of Hennom'. This was an actual, physical place. It was a place where flames rose high, a place where children were sacrificed to the Canaanite god Molech.
So, through the beliefs of the early Christians, through their changing of the world,
Jesus literally, physically, rescued us from burning in hell.