Got a comment from a friend last night on my previous blog post that warrants another blog post since I’ve long had countless thoughts on the same matter itself.
My friend Chris wrote:
Hi Ian, it’s me.
I’d like to think that I’ve got a more balanced perspective than usual because I’m an apostate Christian, and still go to church regularly to support my Christian wife despite my unwavering apostasy. That doesn’t automatically make me an all-seeing expert, but I do know my bible better than some practising Christians while also having formal grounding in secular philosophy.
I find the so-called gospel of grace, which frees modern Christians from some of the more problematic laws of the Old Testament, somewhat problematic. It’s a bit of a cop-out, while making God seem unfair to those who lived in the world of the Old Testament.
Common teleological justifications for God not being very lenient on these old-timers include the need to demonstrate man’s inability to justify his worth under the Law and his consequent need for grace. The argument that God exists outside the flow of time and could have intervened with grace before Christ’s birth is countered by the fixed eschatological scheme that starts with Adam, has Christ presaged by Joshua and Melchizedek, and ends with the millennial battle against Satan. It’s viewed as a necessary progression. We exist within time, unlike God, and hence can only experience salvation within the framework of time.
However, none of this gets around the fact that if God is omnipotent, omniscient and omnipresent, he must then have known that Lucifer would fall, etc. If he knew all that, and this world and its recorded history was the best compromise he could come up with, how does that reflect upon his various omni-attributes? Moreover, if we also assume that god is All Good, then how could he stomach anything less than a perfect solution devoid of suffering? Various modern theologians like Alvin Platinga have proposed various workarounds for this, but none of them comprehensively resolve these basic problems.
Obviously, we’re entering turgid theological territory not everyone can relate to, but my point is that, as I see it, there are some very fundamental problems with the gospel of grace. This therefore means that I don’t think Christians can pick and choose which biblical laws to follow without running into problems of consistency, because the gospel of grace is the only solution and as I’ve already argued, I don’t think it holds up to scrutiny.
However, you and I are in clear agreement when it comes to the Bible’s stance on homosexuality – it’s unequivocally condemned, which is one of the reasons for my continued apostasy.
I actually bothered to wade through Aware’s manual for sex education trainers and don’t have a problem with any of it.
In case anyone’s wondering why a straight man’s bothered with gay rights, I’ll paraphrase John Donne by pointing out that no man’s an island, and I therefore never ask who the bell’s tolling for; I know it tolls for me.
Thanks for the great sharing, Chris 😀
You know, bro, whatever I write here is not going to change your views overnight but that’s ok. Any belief system requires vigorous questioning before one can accept it wholly. Which is more than I can say for many Christians who go to church assuming what is said at the pulpit is always right, without applying any critical thought on it.
IMO, it all really boils down to this eternal mortal question: “Why, God, why?” and I’ve often questioned the following to God:
– Why are there hungry and starving people in the world today who will die in the millions before they reach their teens?
– Why are there babies born with all sorts of horrific disabilities? What crime did they commit to deserve this?
– Why did You let Satan loose upon Earth if you knew he was going to cause so much death and destruction? Could you not have stopped Eve from eating the apple?
– How can you create man, allow him to breed in the billions, then single out a fraction of them to go to heaven and the rest to suffer eternal damnation? What makes the chosen ones any different from the rest? Why can’t you save everyone from hell?
– What do you mean man has free will? You say everything is predestined, so am I not a mere puppet in your hands? Shall I now live life in a random and anarchistic manner since you already know what’s about to happen next?
– What really causes homosexuality? What do I say to my gay friends about you being dead-set against their lifestyle? What if they say they were born like that?
– My friend has never heard of Jesus and he died. Will he go to heaven or hell based on his ignorance?
– Where were you when I really needed you?!? How can you be all-good when all-bad is happening in my life now?
And so on and so forth. Many of us will ask one of these questions sooner or later when faced with the ultimatum : “Will you believe in a God?”.
The biggest problem is that when non-Christians turn to their Christian friends with these questions, they usually get two types of responses:
– “You know, I’m not sure why either.” Then the Christian starts questioning their own faith. Many leave the faith because they can’t find a satisfactory answer.
– “I’ve got the theology textbook here, here’s the technical answer on predestination, foreknowledge, the blood of Christ….” The non-Christian listens, gets confused by all the terminology and gives up. The Christian tells himself: “Oh, he doesn’t get it because he’s not meant to be saved.”
Of course, a wise pastor could provide far better guidance, but because the average Christian is not equipped to answer properly, the questioner often never gets to the stage of meeting the pastor.
Or perhaps the non-believer will get to visit one of the many different types of churches out there – get a huge dose of the speak-in-tongues Charismatics and bored to tears by the fundamentalists. And wonder what’s the fuss between the Protestants and the Catholics. Confusion leads to despair, leads to no answers again.
Well, guess what, I don’t have any 100% satisfactory answers either and I’m still looking for some good answers I can give my non-believer friends.
But what I do have (and why I believe in Jesus) is faith based on personal experience and a simpler understanding of the Bible than most theologians would have me do.
1 Corinthians is my starting point:
For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God. For it is written:
"I will destroy the wisdom of the wise;
the intelligence of the intelligent I will frustrate."
Where is the wise man? Where is the scholar? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? For since in the wisdom of God the world through its wisdom did not know him, God was pleased through the foolishness of what was preached to save those who believe. Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks look for wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified: a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those whom God has called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than man’s wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than man’s strength.
To some, that’s like saying, “Oh you just won’t understand God no matter what. Don’t bother lah.” But my other favorite book is Ecclesiastes, and in chapter 3 Solomon writes:
I have seen the burden God has laid on men. He has made everything beautiful in its time. He has also set eternity in the hearts of men; yet they cannot fathom what God has done from beginning to end. I know that there is nothing better for men than to be happy and do good while they live. That everyone may eat and drink, and find satisfaction in all his toil—this is the gift of God. I know that everything God does will endure forever; nothing can be added to it and nothing taken from it. God does it so that men will revere him.
From there I had to accept upfront that philosophy doesn’t hold the final answers to Christ, even though philosophy is good and useful in itself for understanding the secular world (and getting people to think out of the box). Why? Because God said so from the start, and I reasoned he must be right because for all the debates I had with fellow men and intellectuals on the tough questions in life, no human had the white paper on God’s Will even after several thousand years of intense study. Man’s intellect will not bring him any closer to God, or else science would have proven the existence of God already.
Yet I cannot rely on that above reasoning alone, because I would contradict myself. If I reason that my mortal reasoning could not bring me to God, anything I assume henceforth would be untenable and hence I must be damned to hell.
This sort of circular thinking can drive you absolutely nuts, so I looked up from the books and sought answers in the world around me.
I found God everywhere I looked!
Romans 1 says:
…since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.
Science still cannot fully explain the complexity of man’s brain, the birth of the universe, the dizzying range of animals or even why the dinos died. New papers are written everyday to correct the older papers. Everything we see and touch points to the indelible fact that a supreme being beyond our fathoming was responsible. How do we recognise something as beautiful in its time? Why do we love? Only because it’s been deliberately programmed into our genes from the start, and not by mere chance from two amoebas merging together like the game Spore.
That for me, is enough to prove the existence of God in a very simple and straightforward way. Yes, it makes me sound simplistic too, but why must things always be made complex? So the next bit was understanding why God mattered in my life.
If you read about my childhood in Balestier Road, you’d know I spent my formative years in Chinese temples, watching spiritual possessions of mediums, praying to countless idols, experiencing the supernatural (ghosts and such) and so on. The supernatural world is as natural to me as the physical, so I believed from a young age in the existence of heaven and hell.
Studying in Anglo-Chinese School didn’t make me a Christian but made me even more resistant to being one. The benefit was that I started questioning God on everything!
Now the first time I saw God explicitly intervene in my life was when my mum suffered from late-stage breast cancer and I begged him for help. He did, but my mum still died from a different form of cancer nine years later. Was God evil? No, because he did answer my prayers in 1992 but didn’t promise he wouldn’t take her away in 2001. God is good, but in His time.
My friend Edwin asked me a simple but devastating question: “If you believe that heaven exists, why do you want to go to hell?”
On that question alone, I went to church, accepted Christ for good after years of questioning, started studying the Bible in depth, and then during my university years, was anguished with the same tough questions that I mentioned earlier.
But over the years, I’ve also seen God acting in other people’s lives in unfathomable ways, namely my best buddy Darren who made an incredible recovery from a devastating stoke. I saw God take away my classmate Hok Su with SARS, and he was one of the most faithful Christians I ever knew. I saw my buddy Derek die at the age of 29 from sudden heart failure despite being the fittest in our bunch. From these tragedies, I began to understand more and more.
As a young journalist in The New Paper, I covered countless human tragedies – some logical, some totally senseless. But what God was showing me in its totality then was the seeming randomness of the world that Solomon encountered and chronicled in Ecclesiastes too.
Now where then, is the message of grace in my case? I had put the philosophy aside because it was not leading me anywhere. I found my personal answers in the work that God was doing in my life and the lives of people I know. It’s a cop-out to many to say the cliche “God works in mysterious ways”, but not to me. The day I accepted Christ in my life, I suddenly saw things from a different perspective. I could understand, even though I didn’t have the Wikipedia answers, why many things are the way they are. Is it the act of the Holy Spirit? I don’t really know, but for sure, it was like putting on a different set of glasses!
Over the past decade, I re-oriented my life from asking “What can you do for me, God? How about some good grades?” to asking “What can I do for you, God? I don’t want to be a pastor, I just want to be contented and happy. What does it take?”
God has shown me everything in life I desire requires a sacrifice of some sort, but today I am contented with my lot, and despite various hiccups here and there, I have everything I need (not want) – my wife and kids most of all.
I still like to rant and complain about everything, but that’s because my mind remains curious about how things can and should be better from a human point of view.
I continuously challenge God with tough questions because I keep learning new things. This life I lead is one to continues to make me, an utter sinner, refined again and again by fire, trials and tribulations. Will bad things continue to happen to me? Of course, else how will I appreciate what is good? God MUST allow bad things to happen, otherwise I will become complacent and forget who provides me with all that I need. I’ve learnt an all-knowing God paints a bigger picture than man can see, and I keep asking “Let me see more of the canvas please!” and Solomon is right in Ecc 1:
For with much wisdom comes much sorrow; the more knowledge, the more grief.
Ok, that’s alot of words and I have to end my piece now so I can run to work.
I just close with this story from the book of John, Chapter 9, that our pastor brought up last week. Jesus explains why bad things happen to innocent people:
As he went along, he saw a man blind from birth. His disciples asked him, "Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?"
"Neither this man nor his parents sinned," said Jesus, "but this happened so that the work of God might be displayed in his life. As long as it is day, we must do the work of him who sent me. Night is coming, when no one can work. While I am in the world, I am the light of the world."
All the best in your search for your own answers, I hope mine have provided a different perspective from what you’ve seen so far. My old selfish self continues to argue with my Christian self over the tough questions, but I know now that above all, God prevails.
(This post first appeared in www.iantan.org)