Why Does God Favor Certain People? (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

I have heard this question posed many ways over the years.  Most recently I was having a, mostly friendly, discussion with an old friend on Facebook.  He was voicing many problems he has with Christianity.  One of them is that God seems favor white people.  I corrected him as far as pointing out that the majority of people in scripture were not “white” as the action centers on Africa, Asia and the Middle East.  For centuries after the Bible most Christians were located in this region, the idea of Christianity as a white religion came much later.

But beyond that, I knew what he was really getting at.  Why did God only reveal himself to the Jews?  What about people living in Australia or South America?  Its a good question.  I have a few thoughts that may point us towards an answer:

1. God’s special revelation to Israel/Jews did not mean they were God’s favorite – in actuality their election was for the benefit of the world.

When God called, or chose, Abraham in Genesis 12 the text says that “all nations on earth will be blessed through you.”  We see right away that God’s choosing of Abraham was not solely for his benefit, but with the hopes that the blessings would overflow to all people.  This hope was repeated to Abraham’s descendants, the Israelites.  Israel was actually warned against thinking their relationship to God meant they were God’s favorites and when they rebelled against God they faced the same punishment others faced.  Just one example, in Deuteronomy 9:4 God reminds them that they are not being given the land because of their own righteousness, they did not earn this gift.

Perhaps we may question God’s method, how God worked to bring blessing and salvation to the whole world.  Could there have been another way that might have worked better?  I doubt it, but I think that question is better focused since from the beginning of the scripture story we see that God does indeed care to be in relationship with the whole world.

2. Though other cultures did not receive special revelation, it does not mean God was absent

God was never absent from other cultures and anyone who desired to know the Truth was actually pursuing God.  We see glimpses of this in the scripture story as “outsiders” like Rahab (Joshua 2), Ruth and Namaan (2 Kings 5) are seen to be welcomed into relationship with God.  The important thing in all those cases is that God accepts them based on their limited knowledge.  In other words, God accepts them for who they are.  They probably had a lot of wrong or false beliefs about God, but their desire to know God was most important.

There is a great verse in Amos 9:7 – “”Are not you Israelites the same to me as the Cushites?” declares the LORD. “Did I not bring Israel up from Egypt, the Philistines from Caphtor and the Arameans from Kir?”  Here we see God reminding the Israelites that he has also worked among other peoples too.

Further, many of the early Christians believed that God was present in Greek cultures just as in Hebrew ones.  The Hebrews were prepared for the Gospel with the Law of Moses and the Greeks, they said, were prepared for the gospel of Jesus through Greek philosophy of Socrates and Plato.  The principle here is that wherever people find Truth they are finding God.

3. Those who “never heard” are not automatically doomed

I have been asked this question probably every year – what about those who never heard about Jesus?  Are they automatically sent to hell forever?  My answer – no.

The assumption of this question is that those who never heard were never able to believe in or accept Jesus.  They never said the right words or performed the right actions.  I am not going to say that these things are unimportant, but the danger in such assumption is we reduce a relationship with God to making sure we say the magic words perfectly.  God is not going to condemn people for not dotting their I’s or forgetting to cross their T’s.

In Hebrews 11 the author discusses people who had great faith prior to the coming of Jesus.  In the middle of the chapter we read: “13 All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance,admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14 People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own.”  I think this passage helps.  These people, prior to Jesus, never were able to confess and believe “in Jesus.”  Yet they had a hope based on the limited knowledge they had.  I think we can apply this same idea to those who never heard.  

To put it most simply – we can trust that God is fair.  No one will be condemned for lack of knowledge.  God knows people’s hearts and what they desire.  God knows what people would choose if given greater knowledge.  In the end, we need to focus on what we know of God, on who God is revealed in Jesus, and I think we are on solid ground saying no one will suffer for all eternity because the message did not get to them clearly enough.

4. God desires a relationship with all people

Finally, and I am sure there is much more I can say, but I am a firm believer that the God revealed in Jesus truly is a God of Love.  God is so much better then we often imagine.  And God desires a relationship with all people.  When God visited this planet in the person of Jesus, not even death stopped him from accomplishing his mission.  I doubt, based on that, the geography of where Jesus’ followers are currently located will slow God’s Spirit down from accomplishing his.

5. God desires a relationship with you

I was going to end at four, but as I reread what I wrote I thought something more practical was in order.  It is important to take questions like this from the speculative to a more personal level.  We can spend all day ruminating over texts, trying to discern the fate of people in tiny villages on the other side of the world.

But in the end, the question facing us is what will we do with the person of Jesus?

Does God care about those people who have not yet heard?  Yes.

But God also cares about you, sitting right here talking with me.  We cannot do much, right now, about other hypothetical people but we can discuss you and I.  And the fact is, God loves and wants to be in relationship with both of us.

That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.That’s what I’d want to leave a person with who asked this question.


Is God the Author of Sin? Part Two (Weekly Word)

This summer I am going to dedicate each Friday to questions that students have asked me about God, faith and such.  Some of these questions come were forwarded to me from Christian students or their skeptical friends.  Others are questions that I have been asked in some way, shape or form many times.  I do not claim to offer the final answer on any of these questions, though I do hope to offer something helpful.

So if God is all-powerful and creates everything, is God the author of sin?

My answer is no (and I think I have much of traditional Christian theology on my side).  God created humanity and gave humanity freedom and it was humans who chose sin.  Now some will not buy the difference there, they will simply say that since God is all powerful then God was the author of sin.  To such people I say, we will agree to disagree 🙂  I think, to use an illustration, that there is a huge difference between allowing a child who is learning to ride bike to fall and pushing her over.  In the same way, I think there is a huge difference between God allowing humans to choose sin and being the one who motivates them to choose sin.

Of course, if God knows the future and thus knows what humans will freely choose, is not God still guilty for allowing it to happen?  In other words, even if God did not put the idea in Adam’s head but merely knew what Adam would choose, God still could have stopped it.  And if we look at all the evil and suffering in the world, then we may say God should have stopped it.  If I know a terrorist will detonate a bomb and do nothing to stop it, even though I easily could stop it, most would say I am guilty of a crime.

Honestly, this question causes me to pause.  It causes me to pause because the world is an awful place much of the time.  How can a good and loving God look at holocausts and genocide and rape and violence and not step in?

If God causes it as some sort of ultimate determiner of everything, then God is a monster, no different then Satan.  If God allows it…that is where I struggle.  Why?  Why doesn’t God do more to stop it?  Its a tough question and it does not one any good to pretend it does not cut right to the heart of faith.  One answer that helps me a bit is remembering that I am finite and God is infinite.  Without all the information, I do not know.  In  my anger that God does not do more, I need to realize that perhaps God has already done quite a lot.  My daughter screamed and cried when she got shots as a baby, not understanding how much the vaccines would help her.  I imagine a lot of our suffering, if we saw things from God’s view, may be similar.

Beyond that, I look at the alternative.  If there is no God, then all those holocausts and rapes and genocides are pointless.  If there is no God, then suffering and violence just might have the last word.  But if there is a God, and further if this God is the God revealed in Jesus, then we have hope that a better day is coming.  Suffering is not the last word, resurrection and new life is.

To me then, it is a choice:

1. In the face of suffering and evil, I have a lot of questions for God but have confidence that Jesus showed the way to live and hope that when Jesus’ work is complete there will be no more evil.

2. In the face of suffering and evil, I reject God and despair because life is dark, hopeless and painful.

For a variety of reasons, I choose the first option.  Like so many questions, I do not think there is an air-tight answer nor do I expect all people with a rational mind to agree with me.  But, speaking from my perspective, which is all I can do, option one is much more satisfying.

Why I am Not a Christian by Bertrand Russell (Review)

Recently I watched the movie God is not Dead (which I did not like).  During the scene where the Christian student stands up to his atheist professor, the professor adds an assignment for the whole class as punishment for this one student’s recalcitrance.  The assignment is to read Bertrand Russell’s Why I am Not a Christian on top of their other assigned reading.

I chuckled for I was, ironically, reading this very book at the time.  Russell was a world-famous philosopher and outspoken atheist.  The title of the book is really just the title of an essay that is the first chapter.  The essay is included in a variety of editions of books, each with slightly different other essays included.  In the essay Russell quickly moves through a variety of reasons why he is not a Christian.  Due to the scope covered, he does not go very deep into any one reason.  Yet his arguments do manage to pack a punch and his influence on today’s atheists is obvious.

Actually, it might benefit more popular atheist writers to emulate Russell.  I found myself more sympathetic to his arguments then to those of Dawkins, Harris and their ilk, though I am not sure why.  Maybe it is distance – Russell is dead and unable to speak anymore so I only see his writings, not his obnoxious twitter posts.  For whatever reason, there is something about Russell that both makes me like him more and challenges me more then contemporary atheists.

While I am challenged, and I enjoy a good challenge, I have no intention of abandoning Christianity.  I think Christians ought to read books like this because asking and seeking answers to such questions does sharpen our faith.  In the end, I think faith makes sense.  In this vein, I enjoyed reading the debate between Russell and Catholic Frederick Copleston.  Perhaps not surprisingly, I thought Copleston provided better arguments (guess that’s why I am still a Christian).  So I’d recommend this book to Christians who are interested in tough questions, maybe to Christians who have read lots of Christian apologetics but not much from the other side.  Its worth the read, even if I think the Christian case is stronger.

Question and Answer Night (Weekly Word)

Last night we had a question and answer night at our CSF meeting.  Full disclosure – I am writing this at 5 PM, two hours prior to the event beginning, though this post will not go up till Friday.  So I do not know for sure what questions will be discussed.  But I do know that this is always a fun night filled with lots of ideas and dialogue and debate.

It is one of the nights that reminds me why I love campus ministry so much.

On Fridays on this blog I tend to write what I call “Weekly Words”.  These posts are intended for the college students in CSF, thus for Christian students on a secular campus.  Often I basically summarize what we discussed the night before, in case anyone was absent and wants to catch up.  I am thinking that, with summer break quickly approaching, that it would be fun to dedicate each Friday to answering some of the questions from our Q and A nights.  Or even answering new questions that come in via Facebook or email.

I have always hesitated at the title “question and answer” night though, because it seems presumptuous of me to imply I can offer a quick and easy answer to questions that have stumped people and caused debate for centuries.  We have moved to calling the night a “Spirituality and Religion Discussion” though that is vague enough that people ask what it means and the response is: “ask questions and pastor Dave will answer them.”  That said, I am always very clear that I am offering my opinion.  For some questions I offer what I believe is a straight up and certain answer.  Other questions I offer a variety of possible answers and encourage the students to pick one.  It depends on the question.

All that to say, if you have a question about God, religion or whatever, I’d love for you to send it in to me.  You can reach me via email (campusminister_dave@yahoo.com) or on Twitter (dmlhershey).  Starting in a few weeks, I’ll throw out some answers.

It should be fun!

Cold Case Christianity (Review)

In my college years, learning arguments in favor of Christianity was a huge help to my faith.  Christian apologetics provided answers to many questions I had and gave me a love of learning and reading.  Over the years I have become somewhat skeptical of the utility of Christian apologetics, at least in terms of a method for sharing the gospel.  That said, I still think apologetics has value and that good answers are out there.

J Werner Wallace’s book Cold Case Christianity has been on my kindle for months, I finally read it.  There are a lot of Christian apologetics books out there, what sets this one apart is Wallace’s experience as a detective.  The insights he offers from his career and the stories of cases are the best part of the book by far.  I think such things make this a book, perhaps the book, college students ought to go to if they want to begin reading apologetics.

Honestly, I have to say I skimmed much of his actual argument for Christianity as it consisted of mostly standard arguments I have read before.  While I find the answers of people like Wallace compelling, I even give such answers myself when asked, his book also reminded me of some problems I have with apologetics.  Apologists tend to create too tight a case, too quickly ironing over issues that are much more complex if looked at fully.  For example, he argues that Paul quoted Luke’s gospel in his letter to Timothy.  Perhaps, though it seems just as likely that Paul and Luke heard the same quote in an oral tradition floating around.  Or, since Paul and Luke knew each other, maybe Luke shared it with Paul verbally.  It seems a stretch to say Paul quoted Luke’s writing.  In another case he speaks of Mark, the author of the gospel, as appointing teachers in the school in Alexandria.  His footnote here is only to a secondary source.

I am not saying he is wrong in either of these.  My point is that I suspect New Testament and early church scholars would have a lot more to say on this and that Wallace may be over-simplifying the scholarship to make a case.  Which is fine, he is writing to make a case.  But from that,  I think he could have done better when discussing bias.  Early on he shares how his partner once allowed his bias to lead him down the wrong path in solving a crime.  The error, Wallace says, is that his partner started with the premise – in this case the premise was, when finding a dead woman, that it is usually the husband who did it.  But is Wallace saying we ought to treat every suspect, every idea, equally and never have any biases?  Sure his partner’s bias was wrong in this case, but it is a bias because in most cases it is right.  Such a bias probably helped his partner solve many cases (forget probably, Wallace says his partner was usually right!).  Rather than warning against biases, as Wallace seemed to do, the better thing is to remind us that biases are not 100% correct.  This is what the illustration seems to point to anyway, though it does not seem to be the way Wallace used it.

At the end he discusses the gospels and argues that the early Christians were not biased prior to writing, which is true.  But the gospels, as texts, are not objective documents.  They are written by people who want their readers to believe.  They are biased…and it is okay!  Everyone is biased.  This does not mean we cannot change our opinions or evaluate our biases, but it does mean we ought not act as if they are not there.

So I am sure 23 year old Dave would have devoured and loved Wallace’s book.  If students ask, I will recommend this book to them.  35 year old Dave is a bit more skeptical at points, but still sees value in books such as this one.  Though some difficulties are ironed over to make a better case, it is still a good book.


Science and the Case for God

This past November CSF hosted a Question and Answer night, which is always a lot of fun.  As the questions come up, I try to set the tone for the discussion, directing it towards certain things and away from others.  Inevitably questions about science, evolution, faith and God come up.  On this night, I prefaced the discussion on those topics by stating that Christians hold diverse views on how science and faith relate.  I emphasized that many Christians believe in Darwinian evolution as the best explanation for how we got here.  Finally, I pointed out that college professors will not respect your opinion if you come into class and assume your knowledge of Genesis 1 and your Ken Ham videos make you an expert, able to refute those who have dedicated their lives to studying such things.  If you want respect, learn the material and come to your disagreement based on your own knowledge and study.

Personally, I find science interesting…and kind of irrelevant to faith.  I tried to watch Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Cosmos and after 2 episodes I shifted over to documentaries on World War I.  I’d like to know more, but there are other subjects I am more interested in.  More than that, I am bored with the entire creation- evolution debate.

Well, on that night in November, my effort to stay away from these debates failed.  Pretty soon the students were debating whether science proves God or not.  An intelligent Christian student was arguing lines from either a creationist or intelligent design textbook.  Later on another smart Christian student quoted a random verse in Job to show the Bible teaches the earth is round (the verse does not mean what he, or whomever he got it from, wants it to mean).  It seemed like a fun discussion, but ultimately it never seems to get anywhere.  Science can do a lot of things but it cannot prove or disprove God, such questions are the realm of metaphysics and philosophy.

Over the holidays an article by Eric Metaxas kept popping up on my social media feeds.  This article, published in the Wall Street Journal, argues that “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God.”  Bible scholar Peter Enns points to a rabbi who argues why Metaxas’ approach is doomed to failure.

All are good reads and while I tend to take the side of Enns and those who agree with him, I recommend all articles be read.  In my work with college students one thing I always emphasize is that they keep learning, that they love God with all their mind.  There ought to be no fear in study or learning.  If you are open-minded and the person you are talking with is too, then you will at least discover respect and even friendship in the disagreement.

Any thoughts on the articles from Metaxas and Enns are welcomed!

The Bible Tells Me So by Peter Enns (Review)

Growing up as a Christian, there are a variety of subjects from the Bible that lead any thinking person to ask questions eventually.  How does the creation story relate to modern science?  How could the God revealed in Jesus command the extermination of the Canaanites?  What about all those other weird, even horrific and immoral, rules in the Bible?

A variety of answers are available, some more and some less satisfying.  Peter Enns, in his book The Bible Tells Me So:Why Defending Scripture Has Made us Unable to Read it, offers his answers to these questions.  This is one of those books that can be both liberating and confusing at the same time.  The answers Enns offers are liberating in helping the reader realize that such answers are acceptable within a serious Christian faith.  At the same time, they are confusing because you realize that many other Christians will see such answers as questionable, perhaps even un-Christian.

For example, the Canaanite genocide is often explained by saying that God is just and can judge whomever he wants whenever he wants.  All people deserve judgment and it was their time, the answer goes.  I have found this answer both true and satisfying at times.  At the same time, it often leaves a lot unsaid or unanswered.  Sure, God can judge people of evil.  But does this include viciously exterminating even children?  Enns’ answer is to question whether God actually commanded this.  The Bible is an ancient book written by ancient people.  They, as we do today, filtered their views through their culture and worldview.  In those days it was common for gods to command extermination of enemies.  So the Israelites thought this was what God wanted.  As Christians, with our clearest revelation of God in Jesus, we realize God does not command exterminations of people.  To avoid making God appear schizophrenic, ordering death and execution on one page and commanding we turn the other cheek on the next, Enns’ reading realizes the human element.  So we do not need to spend loads of time and reams of paper trying to reconcile these two contradicting views of God.  As Christians we read scripture through the lens of Jesus.

Enns’ book is helpful and challenging.  To some, he is tossing out too much and ought to be considered a dangerous heretic.  To others, he is offering liberation from awful views of God, perhaps allowing people to remain in the faith who were going to walk away.  At the very least, he has offered a helpful book for Christians that will make any reader think deeply about who God is, how God speaks and what God demands.  And  if our faith truly is centered on the life, death and resurrection of Jesus then we should be willing and able to debate and discuss the sorts of things Enns discusses here.

Enns’ main point is that rather then defending the Bible we need to let the Bible be what it is.  It is a waste of time to try to prove the historical truth of various stories or to prove that all the stories in the Bible portray Jesus alike.  Instead the Bible reflects different people’s stories from various times through history.  And that’s okay.  Enns argues that God loves stories.  So God wants these stories in scripture, even if their picture of God is not correct.

I think Enns’ book is really an argument for a form of progressive revelation.  All Christians accept that through scripture more of God’s character is revealed.  There is a fuller understanding by Paul then by Moses, for example.  Where Enns differs is that he is more open to saying that Moses’ view was wrong in light of later understandings.  Other Christians would try to hold earlier writers as correct in what they said with later writers extending these truths in deeper ways.  Perhaps the question is, does Jesus contradict and overturn what came before (not all of it) or does Jesus extend and fill out what came before?

From a practical standpoint, I wonder how to teach Enns’ view in the church setting.  I imagine my experience is typical – I learned the stories as a kid, took them as just the way things happened.  Later in life I relearned them, coming to realize things were not as simple as when I was a kid.  Perhaps this is just the way it is and there is really no other way to learn the Bible.  This is personal to me, because I have a three year old daughter.  Sometimes we read story books of Noah and the flood.  Eventually she might learn about Joshua and the battle of Jericho.  How does Enns’ understanding play out in a child’s sunday school room?  For example, do we simply teach our kids that Noah’s flood covered the whole earth and later on teach that maybe it did not literally cover the whole earth?  Do they have to learn at one point only to unlearn and relearn later?  Or do we try to bring some of that nuance into a children’s classroom? And how would we do that?

That aside, this is a fantastic, funny and engaging book.  I want to emphasize that it is readable.  To some degree this book reminds me of Bart Ehrman as Enns is seeking to make mainstream scholarship accessible to the church.  But where Ehrman does so as a skeptic, Enns does so as a Christian.  For that reason, Enns and his work is valuable for the church.


Untrumpable by Kevin Moore (Review)

I first heard of this book when the author was a guest on the radio show Unbelievable.  In that episode he debated an atheist on the merits of his updated version of Pascal’s wager.  I was not impressed.  Being a Christian  myself, it was somewhat uncomfortable to find myself agreeing with the atheist.  At times I thought the atheist guest was too nice in his criticism; he could have gone farther and really torn the argument down.

A few days later I saw that the book was on sale on Amazon and it was less than 100 pages.  I figured I’d read it to try to get a better grasp of his argument.  To my surprise, the more I read the more sympathetic I became to Moore’s argument.  Having read the book, I think he simply did not do a good job presenting the primary points on the radio show.

Taken as a whole, Moore is arguing that a wise person will choose the path that avoids the worst sort of end.  In other words, in a godless universe the worst end is simply death but in a universe with god there is the distinct possibility of life, and judgment, after death.  So the wise person ought to live as if there is a God in the hopes of avoiding this afterlife punishment.

One vital point in grasping Moore’s argument is that he is not talking about belief.  He is not saying that you ought to believe in God, or the Christian faith, to avoid hell.  Part of the reason for this is that Moore says changing your beliefs is not that easy.  You cannot simply choose to believe differently then you do, all of a sudden.  I think this is one common critique of Pascal – if you are told to believe in order to avoid hell, are you simply expecting to lie about what you believe?  Would any God accept such a fake belief anyway?

For Moore, the point is to live as if there is a God.  I recall the specifics of how this living might play out were left sort of vague.  The point is that while it is not easy to change what you believe, you can change the actions you take on a daily basis.  As your actions change and you build new habits, it seems Moore is confident in the idea that you will over time come to faith in God and change of belief.

Throughout most of the book Moore’s language remains vague, talking only about God.  Near the end he shares that he is a Christian, which is certainly not surprising to any reader.  I think this does reveal one flaw in the book.  Moore seems to desire to offer an objective argument, seemingly apart from his own personal faith commitments.  I do not think such a tactic is wise.  I could go on a whole tangent here, but I’d rather just point those interested to the works of people like Myron Penner and James K.A. Smith.

Moore is a professional philosopher and I am not even close.  But I have read Charles Taylor and I think what he says about this sort of objectivity is apt.  He talks about how Christian apologetics, in an attempt to appeal to skeptics, ends up giving us such a watered down God that rejection of this God is not difficult.  Smith, in his book on Taylor, summarizes Taylor’s position (Honestly, I do not have the book in front of me and I cannot recall if these are quotes from Taylor, or summaries by Smith):

“The scaled down God and preshrunk religion defended by the apologists turned out to be insignificant enough to reject without consequence” (53)

” The particularities of specifically Christian belief are diminished to try to secure a more generic deity – as if saving some sort of transcendence will suffice” (51)

Another problem in the book, potentially, is that traditional Christianity would not give us a God who accepts the wise person who chooses to live as if there is a God. That person would appear to be pursuing salvation by works.  Moore’s version of Pascal’s wager is still not going to lead to salvation, on traditional terms, for the hypothetical person who takes the wager.  Moore might respond, as he did on Unbelievable, that he is not offering a “Christian” argument.  If so, tht is precisely the problem.  If we are Christians it does no one any good for us to hide that fact in hopes of slipping Jesus in the back door.

Along with that, a wise person may recognize that simply choosing to live as if there is a God is not enough.  Such a person may recognize this as merely Deism.  Why not go the next step and choose the religion whose hell is the worst, in order to avoid the worse punishment?  Perhaps Christianity gives a tame enough version of hell to reject in favor of some other religion?

Finally, like I said, I am no philosopher.  But I have read Pascal’s Pensees and I think there is an important order to how Pascal presents his arguments.  Pascal did not lead off with this argument.  Instead he brought it in at the end, after realizing that both a universe with god and a universe without god make equal sense.  In this quote Pascal says that both sides may be valid and reasonable:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

For Pascal, at least as I understood in reading, it was when you came to this point, where reason seems to fail in offering a way forward, that you bring in the wager.  If both a world with god and one without can make sense, logically, then move beyond logic.

On Unbelievable the atheist guest was not at this point.  He found a universe without god unreasonable.  Moore plowed ahead with the updated wager argument.  The atheist had no problem ignoring it because he saw no evidence for a god.

Overall, I do appreciate this book and think arguments like Moore’s do have a place.  There are flaws in it, but applied in the right situation it may be helpful.


Pascal’s Wager – A Leap of Faith (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

If you’ve heard anything of Pascal, it is probably his famous “wager”:

Let us then examine this point, and say, “God is, or He is not.” But to which side shall we incline? Reason can decide nothing here. There is an infinite chaos which separated us. A game is being played at the extremity of this infinite distance where heads or tails will turn up. What will you wager? According to reason, you can do neither the one thing nor the other; according to reason, you can defend neither of the propositions” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 67-68). . Kindle Edition).

If you gain, you gain all; if you lose, you lose nothing. Wager, then, without hesitation that He is” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (p. 68). . Kindle Edition)

According to the doctrine of chance, you ought to put yourself to the trouble of searching for the truth; for if you die without worshipping the True Cause, you are lost.—”But,” say you, “if He had wished me to worship Him, He would have left me signs of His will.”—He has done so; but you neglect them. Seek them, therefore; it is well worth it” (Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 70-71). . Kindle Edition).

Pascal’s Wager has been criticized by many.  The basic argument is that if you believe in Jesus and are wrong, if there really is no God, then you lose nothing for after death you no longer exist.  But if you believe there is no God and are wrong, you risk hell.  This alone, so it goes, means you ought to believe.

Now if this was how Pascal actually formed things, it would be a faulty argument.  But I don’t think this is what he meant.  First, for Pascal, both belief and unbelief can make at least some sense.  So Pascal’s starting point is a rational examination that leads to the conclusion of uncertainty.  If you think and read and study and conclude that you still aren’t sure, the wager becomes a relevant argument.  It is not an argument made in the face of any rational belief.  Instead, it is an argument made when rational belief has taken you some of the way there but you can’t get any farther.

I suppose if you employed your rationality and concluded you were certain there was no God, the wager would not be for you.  But Pascal would not agree that rational argument leads to where you think it does.

Once again, the wager comes at the end of a long search which the searcher deems at least somewhat inconclusive.  You think there might be a God, but aren’t convinced.  You find some of who Jesus is and what he said convincing, perhaps you find other arguments and ideas intriguing.  But the problem of evil and suffering or some other such problem leads you to balk.  What do you do?  You must make a decision, for even not making one is to make one.

If you take Pascal’s wager you are taking a sort of “leap of faith.”  It is a dive into uncertainty, embracing the mystery, and believing in this leap you will find God.  I don’t think the wager works if you leave it as a mere rational point, if at the end of thought you simply choose to “believe”.  In other words, the wager does not lead to belief as a mere assertion of agreement (I believe 12 eggs are in a dozen, the sky is blue and God is real).  Instead, the wager points to a belief as a radical trust, more akin to the relationship with a spouse: I am not sure what the future holds but I trust that as I leap into this future, you are with me.

What do you think of the wager?


Having Faith and Doubt – When Both Sides Sometimes Make Sense (Reflections on Pascal’s Pensees)

I’ve been sharing reflections on portions of Blaise Pascal’s Pensees (Thoughts), writing with my students at PSU Berks in mind.  Today I come to one of my favorite quotes from the book:

This is what I see and what troubles me. I look on all sides, and I see only darkness everywhere. Nature presents to me nothing which is not matter of doubt and concern. If I saw nothing there which revealed a Divinity, I would come to a negative conclusion; if I saw everywhere the signs of a Creator, I would remain peacefully in faith. But, seeing too much to deny and too little to be sure, I am in a state to be pitied; wherefore I have a hundred time wished that if a God maintains nature, she should testify to Him unequivocally, and that, if the signs she gives are deceptive, she should suppress them altogether; that she should say everything or nothing, that I might see which cause I ought to follow. Whereas in my present state, ignorant of what I am or of what I ought to do, I know neither my condition nor my duty. My heart inclines wholly to know where is the true good, in order to follow it; nothing would be too dear to me for eternity.

Pascal, Blaise (2012-05-12). Pascal’s Pensées (pp. 65-66). . Kindle Edition.

Pascal is saying, it seems to me, that both embracing belief in God and rejecting belief in God make sense to him.  He can see why and how a person could go either direction.  He sees too much to deny God’s existence, but too little to be certain.

I am right there with Pascal on this one.

I used to seek certainty.  When I began pursing my faith more intentionally in college and when I began reading and studying I hoped I would come across a book or argument or something that would clinch it.  I believed that out there somewhere was a formula that, once I saw it,  would bring certainty about God, Jesus and the Christianity.  I eventually realized that such certainty was impossible.  Yet when I see books and blog posts and podcasts by certain apologists and apologetic organizations, it seems that many others are seeking this certainty.  Or, at the very least, there is not much humility out there that recognizes the other side might just have a good point or two.  Instead there is often a smug, condescending attitude that acts as if all obvious truth is on our side.

I write about my tribe, Christianity, but it looks like there is just as much smugness and condescension on the other side.  For many atheists, the sheer obviousness of unbelief means anyone who cannot see it is blind.  As one atheist, in the podcast Unbelievable, recently defined it, faith is believing what you know is not true.  It only takes a complete lack of, or refusal of, understanding of the other side to come to such a conclusion.  You may not find the other side’s arguments and evidence convincing, but a minimal recognition that some do should adjust such a faulty definition.

Too much certainty on two sides of any issue leads to shrill shouting, points to whoever can out yell the other, but to little engagement and understanding.  And I suspect many of us sit somewhere in the middle, perhaps leaning to one side or the other, saying that both sides at times make good points.

Am I absolutely certain there is a God and that Jesus is the human appearance of that God in history?  No.

Are there dark days when I begin to think maybe the universe is just a meaningless void? Yes.

Is there enough out there to push me to embracing the hope and faith in the life and message of Jesus? Yes.

The thing is, faith is not about certainty.  I can’t recommend Greg Boyd’s book Benefit of the Doubt: Breaking the Idol of Certainty enough.  Real faith is honest – a trust in God that admits it is not always easy.  Real faith is open to questions and doubts and humble enough to know you don’t have all the answers.

And I believe that, for college students, it is such a real and honest faith that admits to doubts and can understand those we disagree with that our friends will find compelling enough to want to engage with us.