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Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil, Pt 2

Last time we began to look at how to answer an objection to theistic belief called the problem of evil.  The problem of evil notes the apparent incompatibility of several essential attributes of God and the existence of evil in the world.  The objection could be formally stated as follows:
“If God is good and loves all people, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver the creatures he loves from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
Some then conclude that since evil exists, the God of the Bible – a good, all-knowing, and all-powerful God – cannot exist.
Today we will continue looking at those attributes of God – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence.  Are they essential truths of the Christian faith?  Or can we afford to sacrifice one of them in order to deal with the problem of evil?
Last time, we saw that God’s goodness was an absolute essential.  Without God’s goodness, we have no gospel.  So now, what about omniscience?  We actually need to break that question down into two smaller questions: (1) does the Bible teach it? and (2) is it essential to our faith?
There is no question that the Bible teaches that God is omniscient, that is, that He knows all things actual and possible – past, present, and future.  God knows everything that is actual. Job 37:16 describes God as the one who is “perfect in knowledge.”  1 John 3:20 tells us that He “knows everything.”  He knows every bird (Psa 50:10).  He knows every thought of man (Matt6:7-8; Psa 94:11). 
God also knows everything that is possible.  Matt 11:21-23:  21 "Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. 22 But I tell you, it will be more bearable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you. 23 And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? You will be brought down to Hades. For if the mighty works done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day.  Here Jesus tells what would have been true had circumstances been different.  Consider also 1 Sam 23:11-13 and 2Kings 13:19.
If God knows everything that is actual and possible, that would have to include all things past, present, and future.  However, because of recent debate about God’s knowledge of the future, I’d like to take minute to address that specifically. 
In Isaiah 41:21-23, knowledge of the future is presented as the test of a true God. Speaking to worshipers of false gods, Isaiah writes, Set forth your case, says the LORD; bring your proofs, says the King of Jacob.  Let them bring them, and tell us what is to happen. Tell us the former things, what they are, that we may consider them, that we may know their outcome; or declare to us the things to come.  Tell us what is to come hereafter, that we may know that you are gods; do good, or do harm, that we may be dismayed and terrified.
In Isaiah 46:9-10, the Lord declares that He alone has this ability: …remember the former things of old; for I am God, and there is no other; I am God, and there is none like me, declaring the end from the beginning and from ancient times things not yet done, saying, 'My counsel shall stand, and I will accomplish all my purpose'…
There are nine separate sections of Isaiah 40-48 whose point is essentially the same: the God of Israel is the one true God as evidenced by the fact that He alone knows and declares the future (Isa 41:21-29; 42:8-9;43:8-13; 44:6-8; 44:24-28; 45:20-23; 46:8-11; 48:3-8; 48:14-16). 
Psalm 139 is also a classic text on the foreknowledge of God.  v4: Even before a word is on my tongue, behold, O LORD, you know it altogether.  v16b: In your book were written, every one of them, the days that were formed for me, when as yet there was none of them.  
There is really is no denying that the Bible teaches that God knows all things.  So now the question is, is the omniscience of God an essential truth of the Christian faith?  This question can be answered by referring back to the Isaiah passages above.  If we take Isaiah seriously, we would have to conclude that if God does not know all things, He is not God, since that is the standard that God Himself presents as the difference between true and false deity. 
So in the end, asking the question “is the omniscience of God an essential truth of the Christian faith?” is like asking “is God an essential truth of the Christian faith?”  Without omniscience, God isn’t God.  Without God, there is no Christian faith.  The bottom line is that like the doctrine of the goodness of God, the omniscience of God is an essential doctrine for us.  We simply cannot sacrifice it in order to deal with the problem of evil.
Next time, we’ll consider the omnipotence of God – does the Bible teach it and if so, how important is it?
Between now and then, I would encourage you to take some time to read and meditate on Psalm 139 and consider how intimately essential God’s omniscience is in your life.

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Dealing with the Problem of Evil

Perhaps the greatest objection to belief in the existence of God is the "problem of evil."  There are a number of essential Christian beliefs about God that seem to many to be incompatible with the existence of evil in the world.  Orthodox Christianity teaches that God is good, all-knowing, and all-powerful.  Some would say that it is impossible for a God like this to exist and for there to be evil in the world.  How do they arrive at that conclusion?  Like this:
“If God is good, it is reasonable to believe that he wants to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-knowing, it is reasonable to believe that he knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering.
If God is all-powerful, it is reasonable to believe to he is able to deliver his creatures from evil and suffering. 
…But evil exists.”[1]
The existence of evil seems incompatible with a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent.  If God exists and allows evil, they argue, he cannot be good, omniscient, and omnipotent.  He could have any two of those three attributes and it would make sense that evil exists; but he could not be all three and allow evil to exist.  We could have a God who wants to deliver his creatures from evil and knows how, but who does not have the power to do so.  Or we could have a God who wants to deliver his creatures from evil and has the power, but doesn’t know how.  Or – most concerning – we could have a God who knows how to deliver his creatures from evil and has the power to do so, but who is not good and does not want to deliver them.  Any of those conceptions of God would be compatible with the existence of evil in the world.  But not a God who is good, omniscient, and omnipotent. 
Many have found it natural to simply take the extra step of saying that the existence of evil makes it unlikely that God exists at all. 
This is not just a philosophical and theological conundrum with which professors busy themselves on a theoretical level.  Though many books have been written on a scholarly level, the problem is painfully real where the rubber meets the road.  4-year-olds die of Leukemia.  Innocent people lose their lives in acts of terrorism.  The weak are victimized and abused by bad men.  Tsunamis, earthquakes, car accidents, serial killings, and suicide bombings testify to a world where evil runs rampant.  We have all experienced it in some way.  We have all seen it with our eyes.  It is real.  No one in his right mind denies the existence of evil.
It is much easier to deny that God is good, all-knowing, or all powerful…or that He exists at all. 
So how are we to make sense of this?  Is this an insurmountable problem?  Does the Christian armed with Scripture have a meaningful reply?  Or should we just ignore the dilemma?
I don’t think we can ignore it.  Sooner or later, we will all be confronted by someone struggling with this issue.  And we need to be prepared to answer the question biblically and without fear. 
The first thing we need to consider is whether or not those three attributes of God – goodness, omniscience, and omnipotence – are essential truths of the Christian faith.  Can we afford to sacrifice one of those in order to deal with the problem of evil? 
First, is God good and if so, is that essential?  Certainly the Bible testifies that God is good: “The LORD is good” (Nah 1:7; cf. Ps. 34:8, Ps. 100:5, Ps. 135:3, Ps. 145:9, Jer. 33:11, Lam. 3:25, 1 Pet. 2:3).  This is goodness in a moral sense.  He is the very standard of goodness.  Jesus said in Luke 18:19, “No one is good but God alone.”  The psalmist instructs, “O give thanks to the Lord, for He is good” (Psa 106:1).  The psalmist also connects God’s inherent goodness with the goodness of His deeds: “You are good and you do good; teach me your statutes” (Psa 119:68).  We also know that God is the source of all good things:  Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change (James 1:17).
So clearly, the Bible affirms that God is good, so we must believe it.  But for the sake of argument, let’s consider whether or not His goodness is an essential doctrine of the Christian faith. 
It is not too bold to assert that if God is not good, Christianity cannot exist.  The gospel of Jesus Christ is founded upon the goodness of God.  Consider the role that God’s goodness plays in our salvation according to Titus 3:3-7:  
  3 For we ourselves were once foolish, disobedient, led astray, slaves to various passions and pleasures, passing our days in malice and envy, hated by others and hating one another.
 4 But when the goodness and loving kindness of God our Savior appeared,
 5 he saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit,
 6 whom he poured out on us richly through Jesus Christ our Savior,
 7 so that being justified by his grace we might become heirs according to the hope of eternal life.
If God were not good, He would not have made any effort to save sinners.  We should back up even further and note that without God’s perfect goodness as the standard for human conduct, there would be no way for us to know sin.  Further, if God were not good, there would be no punishment for sin, since the justice of God arises from His moral perfection.  If God were not good, Christ would not be good and would therefore be unable to atone for our sins.  In short, if God is not good, we lose every part of the gospel – there would be no sin, no judgment, no Christ, and no salvation. 
We simply cannot afford to sacrifice the doctrine of the goodness of God in order to deal with the problem of evil.  But what about God’s omniscience and omnipotence?  We’ll address those in our next post in this series.
Until then, I would encourage you to take some time to meditate on Psalm 16, in which the psalmist writes, I say to the LORD, “You are my Lord; I have no good apart from you.” 

[1]Ronald Nash, Faith & Reason: Searching for a Rational Faith (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1988) p178.
 Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 10, 2011

The Benefits of Suffering

It seems that our small congregation is keeping the entire medical industry of Cincinnati afloat.  We have cancer, chicken pox, allergies, shingles, heart arrhythmias, sore throats, high blood pressure, bulging disks, head trauma, melanoma, broken bones, fibromyalgia, and a brain tumor.  (If I left out your specific ailment, it wasn’t intentional – it’s getting hard to keep up.)  We have people recovering from surgery, some preparing for surgery, and others considering it.  We’re waiting for test results, enduring treatments, getting second opinions, scheduling physical therapy, and filling prescriptions.
We have other problems, too.  Beyond our own physical ailments and those of family and friends, we are enduring trials financially, relationally, emotionally, psychologically, and every other way imaginable.  

And I’m so encouraged by it all.  Not so much by the trials themselves, but by how the body is responding to them.  I haven’t heard anyone complain.  I haven’t seen any bitterness.  Instead, I’ve heard people praying for and encouraging one another.  I’ve heard people talk about trusting the Lord in the midst of it all.  I’ve heard those who are coming out of trials speak about what the Lord taught them through it.  It looks as though we are living like we believe what we say we believe. 

There is nothing wrong with wanting trials to be over.  As we saw in Matt 5:4 a couple of weeks ago, it is characteristic of a true disciple to mourn the effects of sin in the world.  But I want to encourage you to continue to keep in mind what God is accomplishing through these trials.  

All of our sicknesses, struggles, and heartaches are mechanisms that God is using to sanctify us.  And this has numerous effects.  First, our trials teach to value God’s Word.  The believer who is enduring a trial is drawn to God’s Word to find comfort and help from the Lord.  Psalm 119:71 captures this well: It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I might learn your statutes.  A trial can be a gift from the Lord to a person whose devotional life has grown stale.  He graciously puts us in a position where we instinctively run to the shelter in His Word.  

Trials are also beneficial to us in that they can be used by the Lord to expose our hearts.  Either the difficulties of life show us sin that we are harboring in our hearts or affirm to us that we are trusting the Lord as we should.  Both are good for us.  For example, if we are enduring a difficult time financially and we find ourselves complaining about all the things we don’t have, that trial has shown us that we are valuing something above God and that we have a grumbling spirit.  This is good because after seeing our sin, we then know what needs to be killed.

On the other hand, if we are enduring an illness or injury and we find ourselves trusting in the Lord rather than grumbling, that trial gives us evidence of God’s grace in our lives and shows how he has grown us.  The pressures of life force whatever is in our hearts to come out.  That is always good for us.

Another purpose that trials can serve is preparing us to comfort those who will suffer in similar ways in future.  Paul writes in 2 Cor 1:3-4, Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.  Pain trains us to help others who suffer.  Who can serve a parent who has lost a child better than another parent who has lost a child?  Who can come alongside one enslaved to a besetting sin more effectively than another who has struggled with the same issue?  When we go through that training ground, we are actually getting the same instruction Christ did – He is able to help us because He endured all the trials and temptations of we have.  When use our experience to help others, we follow in His footsteps.

Another benefit of the difficulties of this life is that they make us long for and trust the Lord.  To endure any trial, we must trust Him.  And to maintain hope, we must continue to believe that He will come again, defeat the enemy, and erase the effects of sin for all eternity.  A person who never experiences difficulty will be a person with weak faith and superficial hope.  

Finally, our trials afford us opportunities to spread the truth of the gospel.  We are exhorted in 1 Pet 3:15, be prepared to make a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you.  This is a classic verse for defending the faith, but the context is about enduring suffering.  We are surrounded by a lost world.  We are aliens here.  And when we suffer, the world is watching to see how we respond.  If we do not respond as they would, if we remain faithful to the Lord, never losing hope, they will wonder why.  Your specific trial could be the tool that the Lord will use to draw a lost soul to Himself.

All these things together are conforming us to the image of the Son: And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.  For those whom he foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, in order that he might be the firstborn among many brothers. And those whom he predestined he also called, and those whom he called he also justified, and those whom he justified he also glorified (Rom 8:28-30).

Everything…even what you are currently suffering through, is part of His plan for your good and His glory.  May we keep this in mind and may we continue to suffer well that Christ might be exalted.

Posted by Greg Birdwell

Thursday, November 3, 2011

"Ceremonial Deism"

On Tuesday this week, the U.S. House of Representatives passed a measure reaffirming the national motto, “In God We Trust.”  Some have scratched their heads about this, since the motto had already been reaffirmed in 2002 (it was made the official motto of the country in 1956). 
As expected, numerous secularists decried the action as being a violation of the Establishment Clause in the First Amendment of the Constitution (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion”).  This claim has already been rejected in numerous lawsuits either seeking to overturn the national motto or to rid “under God” from the pledge of allegiance.  Earlier this year, the U.S. Supreme Court refused to even hear a case challenging the printing of “In God We Trust” on the nation’s coins and currency. 
As I was reading about it this week, one detail jumped out at me.  The typical way the courts reject these challenges is to identify the national motto and the reference to God in the pledge as “ceremonial deism.”  Ceremonial deism is a legal term used to refer to nominally religious statements that are merely ritual and non-religious due to long usage.  In other words, the phrases “have lost through rote repetition any significant religious content.”[1]  For this reason, the courts maintain, the phrases do not violate the Establishment Clause.
The reason this caught my eye is because just this week in our Wednesday night series on worldviews, we studied deism.  The irony in using the phrase “ceremonial deism” to describe the use of “In God We Trust” as our national motto is that a consistent deist would never affirm the motto in the first place!
The God of deism is perceived to be nothing more than a First Cause.  According to the deist, the world is like a magnificent clock.  It is ordered perfectly and works in absolute precision – just like clockwork.  But to have a universe so well ordered, there must have been a clock maker.  This is the God of deism.  He created the universe as a uniformity of cause and effect, and walked away.  He has had nothing to do with the creation since creating it.  He does not love the creation or have any kind of a relationship with it.  The universe is now a closed system that cannot be acted upon from the outside.
So a deist who is being consistent would never trust this God.  It would be irrational to do so, since the God of deism is not sovereign over the creation and does not act providentially within it.  The deist cannot even trust in himself since everything that happens is the result of a closed system of cause and effect.  Everything that has ever happened and ever will happen was determined at the moment of creation.  Neither God nor man can change the course of history.  The universe is nothing but one big machine.
If the national motto is “In God We Trust,” it can’t be the deistic God.  As we will see in the course of our worldview series, the only God who can be trusted is the God of Scripture. 
Although “ceremonial deism” is not a good descriptor of our national motto, it does accurately reflect the spiritual climate in our country.  At its core, deism is an attempt to rid man of responsibility to God, yet without completely doing away with the idea of God.  That has been the course of America for decades now.  That the legislators of a nation as secularized as ours would vote overwhelmingly to affirm “In God We Trust” proves the point.  We don’t want God’s moral absolutes, but we are not quite ready to remove Him altogether.  This underscores the fact that referring to America as a“Christian nation” is a misnomer.  Though the majority of American’s may identify themselves as Christians, the popular conception of God is the God of deism, a god who cannot save. 
What will it take to change this?  It will take the church living faithfully in the midst of a lost world and a brand of revival that can only be created by the Holy Spirit.  In other words, more than a simple act of Congress.

[1]Justice Brennan’s dissenting opinion in Lynch v. Donnelly, 465 U.S. 668 (1984).
Posted by Greg Birdwell