If none of these questions seems important to you right now, then go on to ch. 5.
Ch. 2, sec. I, said that one of the basic requirements of a scientific theory is rationality, or logical consistency. Ch. 3, sec. IV said that logic and facts can help us find a true faith and prevent deception. This chapter is about the logic and internal consistency of religious faith, especially the teachings of the Bible; see also ch. 6, III, D.
There are many questions about Biblical teachings which cause people to feel that the Bible is inconsistent and/or irrational, and therefore unacceptable. Some of these objections are based on misunderstanding, and can be easily resolved. In discussions with non-Christians, I have listened to their account of contact with various sorts of Christians and what those Christians said and did. Usually I agree with them that what they heard and saw was not right, so I say “I don’t believe Christians should be like that either; because I do not believe the Bible teaches that.” When specifically talking about whether God exists, I ask them what kind of God they don’t believe in, and then usually say “I don’t believe that kind of God exists, either.”
With this settled, we can get on to a few more basic questions about things the Bible really does teach. These objections are not so simple, but I believe that they are neglecting other important considerations. Whatever the reader’s conclusion is after reading this chapter, I hope that those who reject Bible-based Christianity at least know clearly what they reject and why.
There are two basic rules for considering things that seem unreasonable about God.
First, from common experience, we know that when one person thinks another one is stupid, it probably (though not necessarily) indicates one of them knows a lot more about the subject than the other one. But it often takes some further investigation to determine which is which, and usually the one who talks the loudest is not the smartest. When God does and says some things that we find difficult to understand, our natural reaction is to reject it. But we should say so softly, and spend a little more time considering the subject before totally rejecting His approach to things.
It has amazed and sadly amused me to discuss questions with a bright-eyed college student who tells me very directly the reasons why he cannot believe in Biblical Christianity. He/she is not asking me, but telling me. Here is this turn-of-the-millennium twenty-year-old, who is confident that a certain problem is the fatal flaw that undermines all of Christianity. It is always something I have heard many times, and is common fodder in dormitory discussion. That is where he picked it up, not from any careful research on the subject. Obviously he assumes that none of the believing Christians in the world past or present ever thought of this, because of course if they had they could not have continued believing. Could it really be possible that no one in 2000 years of worldwide Christendom ever thought that much? Not even the great minds like Augustine, Calvin, Luther, and others? None of the millions who voluntarily faced agonizing deaths as martyrs for their faith? Not to mention me!!
Second, in this case we are not dealing with another human being, where it is very possible that we really are the better informed party. Here we are dealing with the question of whether our counterpart really is the omnipotent, omniscient Maker of heaven and earth and Judge of our eternal destiny. However, many people’s attitude is one of instantly accusing God of unfairness, and saying “I won’t believe until I understand everything.” This is of course a proud, unsubmissive attitude, and an unacceptable way for a creature to regard the Creator ? and the question at issue often is whether this God exists and is our Creator. At least they profess to be dealing with that question. But many people’s brash, self-confident attitude betrays a lack of genuineness in this inquiry. They show no caution at all, and great confidence in their own very limited knowledge, logic, and sense of justice, revealing that they are already very confident that He does not exist.
The Bible does not forbid us to ask questions in general, nor give a list of forbidden questions. It does not require blind faith that is afraid of facing questions. It forbids blind faith and commands critical discernment. But we must ask our questions humbly, not with an attitude of demanding and objecting until God has replied on our terms. This is based both on common sense and on the nature of the question, “Does the God of the Bible really exist?” As Paul bluntly reminds us in Romans 9:19-24, we cannot talk back to God. His standards and wisdom are beyond our understanding at present.
If we demand that God must answer our questions before we will trust Him, this is self-contradictory, because that is not trust, and it is saying that His wisdom is not greater than ours. If God is not wiser than we are, then He cannot answer these questions, so why ask? If He is wiser than we are, then we cannot decide whether His actions and reasons are right. We would not completely understand if He told us. If God is our Creator, we cannot expect to understand everything about Him or even about ourselves. We must be content with partial understanding. This is God’s basic reply to Job, in Job 38-42. If there is an attitude of denial that God even exists or created us, then it is no use discussing the detailed issues that follow.
The important problem is not how God can be acceptable to us, but how we can be acceptable to Him. He does not need to prepare to face our judgment; we need to prepare to face His judgment. Even if He is unkind and unreasonable, He is greater than we are, and we must submit to Him, whether we are willing or not. Fortunately, the Bible says He is loving and kind, so we can willingly and safely trust Him, even though there are many things we are not able to understand now. The correct question is whether there are enough reasons for us to trust God. If there are, then we do not need everything explained right now. This is the only way we can trust anyone. People can disappoint us, but God promises He will not.
If we are uncertain whether a snake in our path is poisonous or not, we will approach it extremely cautiously, or avoid it. If we are uncertain whether a package contains a bomb, we will handle it very gently and get all the advice and assistance we can from those more knowledgeable, hopefully handing it over to them. If we consider it even remotely possible that there is an Almighty God Who holds our eternal destiny in His hand, then we will approach the question - and Him ? cautiously. We will be open to any help and information anyone else may be able to offer, though we cannot avoid making our own final decision. This is one problem we cannot evade or hand over to others.
Questions should be asked, not told. So, with due humility, let us ask some common questions. Let us be skeptical of our skepticism, and doubt our doubts. Only in that way can we have some hope of being truly open-minded and objective in our search for the truth. It does not guarantee success. But lack of such an attitude guarantees failure.
I Conflict between Christians
There are several related questions in this category. Why does Protestant Christianity have so many denominations? What are the differences between Protestant and Catholic, and what is their relationship with Judaism and Islam?
First, the general question: why is there so much conflict between Christians in general? This is an important question. However, the conflict between churches is not actually as serious as it sometimes appears to be. Usually there is much cooperation, with many interdenominational organizations and activities. But harmony is not news, and not many people notice it. Only conflict is news, so the “church news” that people hear about is mostly the incidents of conflict.
We still must admit that there is more conflict between Christians than there should be. Too often, interpersonal clashes produce church splits and mutual attacks. This is simply wrong, and is an inexcusable failure by Christians. How can people’s behavior be so inconsistent with their professed beliefs?
First, Christians are not perfect yet, and will not be free of faults until they reach heaven. Well-intentioned believers easily slip into seriously wrong behavior, personal conflict, and misunderstanding of the Bible and God. The survival of Christianity, despite such human weaknesses of Christians, indicates that this must be God’s work (this is discussed further in ch. 6, III, L).
Second, a church has no way to make sure that every new member came because he/she loves God. It is impossible to enforce an effective quality control program. As time passes it becomes apparent that people join the church for many different motives. Some join because of genuine conviction, but others join to do business with church members, to find a boyfriend or girlfriend, socialize, etc. Even genuine belief has different levels of commitment to God and the church. And of course the children of believers do not all make their parents’ faith their own, but they often inherit church membership anyway.
Some of the problems in churches are produced by these who join for wrong motives. Eventually some of them become uncomfortable and leave, but usually not without creating much stir and scandal in the process. Many others remain in the church, and in many churches such people actually become the majority and drive out most of the genuine believers (see further discussion of this below).
These problems seldom occur in countries where identifying yourself as a Christian is hazardous to your career or even your life; such pressure effectively weeds out those with other motives. The more freedom a country has, the more complex its churches are. One of Jesus’ parables (Mt. 13: 24 ? 29, interpreted in 36 ? 43) describes the church of this age as a wheat field in which weeds have also been planted by the enemy. In order to avoid damaging the wheat, God (the farmer) will not pull up the weeds (which are inseparably entangled with the wheat) until the harvest, the final judgment.
Third, different churches seem to have different doctrines, which leads many people to assume these doctrines are all man-made, individual opinions, individual interpretations of the Bible, which indicates that the Bible’s meaning is difficult or impossible to determine. This is a mistaken conclusion. The Bible is definitely very deep, with many details whose meaning cannot be determined with certainty. But on many basic matters the Bible is very clear, with no uncertainty about its meaning. (see ch. 6, III, B and C) “Orthodox Christian” denominations (we will define this term below) all believe very nearly the same things, with only minor differences. Different churches emphasize different parts, and their way of expression may be a little different, but they all mean basically the same thing. The differences are not as great as they seem to be, or as some Christians consider them to be, or as outsiders therefore assume them to be. When Christians cause great conflict over little differences, that is another inexcusable failure.
To put it briefly, the existence of so many denominations is mostly a result of history. Different churches were started in different places in Europe, and among different social classes. The Bible does not provide a brief outline of essential theological truths, nor specify the details of church worship procedure or organizational structure. This left each church free to develop its own distinctive creed as a summary of its beliefs, each emphasizing different aspects because of different situations and needs. Then many people emigrated from all these places to America, so America now has more denominations than anywhere else: Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Baptist, Episcopal, and on and on. This in itself is no problem. The problem is that it seems that so many churches are attacking and criticizing each other, each saying all others are wrong and only they are right. This leaves bystanders feeling there is no way to say who is right, in fact they are probably all wrong, because they all say Christians should love one another but their behavior is like a battlefield. This is a major disgrace to Christians. When American Christians go to other countries to spread Jesus’ word, they often are spreading a certain church’s distinctive teachings, methods, and name, so in other countries they also start far more different churches than there is any real need for. This produces unnecessary divisions between believers in those countries.
Fourth, we believe that true Christianity is God’s work, and therefore it is attacked by God’s enemy, Satan, and his demons (ch. 3, V, and ch. 6, III, M). They do all they can to start trouble in churches, tempt and confuse Christians, and spread false rumors.
The mention of “Orthodox Christian” brings up a big question: who defines “Orthodox,” and how? Protestant church beliefs were originally, during and after the Reformation (see the section on Catholic and Protestant below), based on the Bible’s teaching, but a problem occurred several generations later. Some people who became church leaders (including children of believers who never truly came to faith in Christ) said the church was behind the times, unnecessarily offensive, and needed to catch up. Therefore they made it their highest priority to accommodate the popular thinking of the contemporary society, rather than adhere to the Bible and Jesus Christ. They of course said there is a God, and the Bible contains God’s word. However, they insisted that it is not completely God’s Word, but mostly a man-made product of cultural development, and that its relationship to God is difficult to determine. Since they were unable to say which parts of the Bible are God’s Word, they in fact doubted it all. They also assumed we do not need a Savior, but only a noble example. Therefore the status of Jesus Christ was demoted to implicit or explicit denial of His deity, miracles, resurrection, and position as our Savior. This is so-called “liberal” or “modernist” Christianity, but it is neither liberal nor modern nor based on the recorded teachings of Christ. This form of “belief” was briefly mentioned in ch. 3, I, F, in the definition of monotheism, and in the discussion of the meaning of “believe,” ch. 3, II, A, 3.
When a church has some people like this, then it and other churches must distinguish who believes the Bible and who doesn’t. This produces conflict within the church. It is very confusing to observers outside the church, to whom it appears to be conflict between believers. It is a difficult dilemma for believers; whether they insist on distinguishing or do not, either way it appears to bring disgrace on the Bible, by making it appear that the Bible either teaches things that it does not or that its teaching is highly ambiguous. Many believers choose to acquiesce, while others choose to argue.
“Liberal” is supposed to mean free and broad-minded, but it is in fact a very narrow-minded viewpoint that rejects all others. All its “modern” points were raised centuries earlier, and were rejected by the church in general as heresies, incompatible with Biblical teachings. I of course believe in freedom of religion, and do not object to people believing whatever they choose to. But when their beliefs are in fact based on their own chosen philosophy, then it is dishonest for them to borrow the authority of Jesus Christ and the Bible by labeling their own ideas as “Christianity.” What they “believe” is only the part of the Bible they agree with, based on their own opinions which come from sources outside the Bible. We do not consider this to be believing at all. What difference is there between this and unbelief? What is there that an atheist would disagree with? “Believing the Bible” means the Bible is the standard by which we decide whether other things are true or false, not vice versa.
One organization deserves brief mention. To their credit, some people who rejected the Bible’s teaching formed their own new organization, the Unitarian Universalist Church.
There are several other key terms in this debate. I have already used the generic terms “conservative” and “traditional.” In the early 20th century, a series of booklets was published in the US to propagate the Bible-based viewpoint in opposition to growing liberal influence. These booklets were called “The Fundamentals,” and those who advocated such beliefs soon came to be called “fundamentalists.” This was initially an honorable label, but a few decades later it was tainted by a trend toward an anti-intellectual and anti-scientific stance. Perhaps the major incident in this trend was the (in)famous Scopes trial in the 1920s in Tennessee, in which those who opposed evolution were labeled fundamentalists. In some cases fundamentalism became almost a witch-hunt for any trace of doctrinal deviation, and an over-emphasis on “separation” from those who deviated, or even from those who associated with those who deviated. By the 1950s, many who were fully committed to the Bible did not wish to be labeled “fundamentalists,” so a new label was needed to distinguish them from liberals. The term “evangelical” arose, denoting their belief in the need for evangelizing and converting those who have not yet trusted in Jesus Christ.
Another term is “ecumenical.” This emphasizes unity among Christians, which is in itself desirable. But in practice this term is mostly claimed by people whose unity consists of seeking a common denominator and compromising nearly all specific beliefs. Thus such organizations consist almost entirely of liberals.
In the late 20th century, “fundamentalist” has increasingly become an epithet, applied to the most extreme adherents of any religion. The most visible ones have made world headlines by actions of war, terrorism, or gaining control of governments and making harsh laws. The best-known instances have been Moslems, but there are also Hindu and Buddhist fundamentalists.
In the US at least, it has been almost universally true that liberals specifically sought and obtained key positions in church administration and education, marginalizing the evangelical believers who remained. Several of our friends were once in such churches, remaining there with hopes of being an influence back toward Biblical teaching, but they finally were forbidden even to teach Sunday school. At that point they had no choice to but to leave and join a more conservative church. This reveals that it is not only the conservative believers who feel alternative viewpoints should be excluded from their church. This is one reason for the continuing proliferation of denominations in the US. It is interesting that in England’s Anglican Church, it seems possible for both liberal and evangelical segments to co-exist stably. The reasons for this go far beyond the scope of this book.
It should be noted that there is also a very wide range of beliefs within the Roman Catholic Church, but this is largely concealed from general visibility because of the Pope’s authority to state the “official” position. Thus far popes have been quite conservative.
A similar problem is that there are some very distinctive, closed groups with many special and complex doctrines of their own. They claim they are the only ones who really understand the Bible’s meaning, tell people what they must do to be accepted by God, and say all other churches are wrong. They say their teachings come from the Bible, but if you listen just a little you soon see that actually they have placed another authority first, and then go looking in the Bible for passages that can be taken out of context to “prove” their ideas. Such groups are called “cults.” They include Mormonism, the Unification Church (Moonies), Jehovah’s Witnesses, Christian Science, and so on. When people hear on the news about perverted, exploiting groups like the “Branch Davidian” cult in Texas, no wonder those outside the church are confused and assume Christians are all like those groups. It is impossible to anticipate what other groups may have become household words by the time you read this book.
But this does not mean that every church calls every other church a cult just because they have slight differences on a few points. The differences in cults are not just small details, but are in every aspect of basic doctrines: God, Jesus, mankind, church, sin, what salvation is, how to be saved, heaven, hell, etc.
Judaism and Islam
Finally, we will back up still further and summarize
the historical background of the major theistic religions. Judaism, Christianity,
and Islam arose in that order.
Judaism believes the Old Testament, the 4/5 of the (Christians’) Bible that was written before Jesus (ch. 6, III, Intro.). It predicts a Messiah to come from God, but the Jews as a whole never accepted Jesus as being that Messiah.
They are still waiting; at least orthodox Jews are. For the majority of modern-day Jews, Judaism is simply a part of their culture, and they either believe a very liberal version of it, or believe nothing at all. After the destruction of Jerusalem, the Temple, and genealogical records in AD 70, it became impossible to fulfill some of the Messianic prophecies, so if Jesus was not the Messiah it is no use waiting any longer.
Christianity accepts the Old Testament as fully authoritative, not repudiated nor replaced, but fulfilled by Jesus Christ, the predicted Messiah. He did not fulfill all the prophecies at that time. But He promised to come again to this world, and then He will fulfill the remaining prophecies, those that refer to the Messiah in power and glory. Next time He will come to rule the world, not to remain an unnoticed Babe in a manger.
Islam arose in the 5th century in Arabia among animistic people, led by Mohammed, who claimed he was authorized by a revelation from God. His movement was a rejection of both their form of animism and the somewhat confused, corrupted form of Christianity with which they had contact. He wrote Islam’s holy book, the Koran, or rather he wrote many things which were collected by his successors. There are still several competing versions of the collection. And there are numerous divisions of Islam, ranging from extremely fundamentalist to very liberal.
Islam claims a continuity with the Bible, but considers it incomplete and corrupted by alterations. Jesus is considered as one of the prophets, with Mohammed as the last and greatest prophet. Islam specifically rejects the deity of Jesus, and denies that He died on the Cross or that salvation is obtained by faith in Him.
Catholic and Protestant
Christianity is now divided into two major groups. One is (Roman) Catholic and several other very similar Orthodox churches, and the other is Protestant. Catholic means “universal.” The Roman Catholic headquarters is, of course, in Rome, and its highest authority is the Pope. Orthodox churches do not recognize the authority of the Pope, but each is headed by a patriarch. Protestant means, obviously, “protester,” and there is no Protestant headquarters or highest living or written authority outside the Bible.
In the first century Jesus’ apostles started churches in many places, with very simple local leadership. As the generations passed these churches developed a hierarchical regional administrative structure, and Rome naturally became the top level in Europe by about AD 500. Today’s Orthodox churches are in other regions which developed independently, or split off later due to geography and politics. At the same time some concepts and practices became church traditions. Most of these were no problem, but a few violated Biblical teaching. Most people were uneducated, and could not understand the original Hebrew or Greek, nor the authorized Latin translation. Thus the people were kept dependent on the church’s teaching and did not know there were some slight deviations.
Eventually the church leaders actually forbid the common people to read the Bible, or even to have it translated into the current spoken language, “to avoid confusion.” Their fears of confusion were of course well-founded, as evidenced by the above discussion of the current confusing status of Protestant churches. But the alternative of concentration of power in the hands of an elite few has throughout history resulted in even greater abuses and error. Life is full of dilemmas.
By the beginning of the sixteenth century, the accumulated deviations (in the Roman Catholic Church, and to varying degrees elsewhere) were not just slight, but some had become very serious. In Germany there was a very devout priest, Martin Luther, who could see these problems, and in 1517 he wrote his famous “95 Theses.” His goal was to call the church back to the Bible’s original teaching, to reform, not to revolt. Unfortunately, the church in Rome was unwilling to accept his ideas, and instead it attacked him and forced him to leave the church. Luther was amazed and grieved at much that happened in the Reformation that grew out of his activities. Similar things happened later in other places, and this is now regarded as the beginning of Protestantism.
The customary view is to regard the Catholic Church as old, and Protestantism as new. So far as the existence of their institutional structures, this is historically correct, but in reference to their doctrinal systems it is backwards. The Catholic Church added many teachings long after the Bible was written, while Protestants base their beliefs only on the original apostolic teachings recorded in the Bible. Which is old and which is new?
Having said all this, it still is true that Catholic
and Protestant teachings are mostly the same, believing the same God and
Jesus. The differences are important, but are still small in comparison
with the total difference between Christianity and other major world religions.
What we Protestants do not accept in Catholicism are the things that are
outside the Bible: the Pope as God’s supreme representative on earth, priests
as distinguished from common believers, confession of sin to a priest,
praying to Mary and saints, sale of indulgences giving forgiveness of sin
to the living and the dead, and so on. We respect Mary very highly, but
we find the Bible only telling us to pray to God, and telling us He is
loving and welcoming to us. The Catholic system seems to make Him distant,
and loses the good news that God is love. It also loses the good news that
we can receive forgiveness for all our sins now, and we can know we have
become children of God and have eternal life now. The New Testament also
says that all believers are priests. The Catholic Church does not give
its members the assurance the Bible says we can have. That is a serious
error and a pity, and became the basis on which the Catholic Church in
many cases oppressed and exploited people, which is what Martin Luther
objected to. The Catholic Church used its claim of control over people’s
eternal destiny to keep them in obedience to its authorized political structures,
and to extract from them the revenues required for its vast facilities
and personnel. It is a simple fact of history that Catholic-dominated countries
are not outstanding for their cultural or economic development, and not
for their spiritual attainments either. Protestant leaders have rarely
claimed and never achieved a similar level of dominance, so there is no
comparable case with which to compare. More will be said about this complex
and sensitive subject in ch. 6, III, N, the Bible’s good influence on society.