A whisper of truth?

In my last post I argued that the real story of our world ‘has the ring of truth. It is the beautiful, tragic, terrible story of creation, fall, redemption and transformation.’ So, to begin at the beginning, the first words of the Bible are these: ‘In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.’ Wow. The universe is not here by chance; our world is not an accident but was designed, made, fashioned, by God himself. To answer the question raised by Jodie Foster the film ‘Contact‘: are we alone in the universe? Emphatically no. We are not alone. We are guests.

I think many (all?) people instinctively know this. We find ourselves not just intrigued but thankful when we see a newborn child. And we find ourselves reaching beyond our experiences, yearning for something extra. I don’t know about you but even in the most enjoyable moments of family life; or when I am mesmerised by a sunset or a breaking wave; there is a small pang of loss, a realisation that this is fragile and passing. A sort of homesickness for a place I have never seen. And I think we all (unless we have trained ourselves to think in a very unnatural way) think and feel and act as if our lives have meaning – a meaning that goes beyond our immediate relationships and economic situation. If we are mere animals, we are not very good at it.

Could it be that our instinctive reactions to the beauty of the world and our feeling that our lives have meaning are not the cruel tricks of a meaningless, accidental universe but actually a whisper of truth? Maybe, as CS Lewis argued, ‘If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world.’ Or at least for a better one. That’s what I will discuss in my next post.

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The true story of our world

Why is the world – and why are you and I – such a puzzling and distressing mixture of good and bad? Atheist Alex Rosenberg (Professor of Philosophy at Duke University) thinks he knows. He argues that his fellow materialists should follow through on the implications of their worldview. Here are some of his answers to the big questions.

Is there a God? No.

What is the nature of reality? What physics says it is.

What is the purpose of the universe? There is none.

What is the meaning of life? Ditto.

Why am I here? Just dumb luck.

Does prayer work? Of course not.

Is there a soul? Is it immortal? Are you kidding?

Is there free will? Not a chance!

What happens when we die? Everything pretty much goes on as before, except us.

What is the difference between right and wrong, good and bad? There is no moral difference between them.

Why should I be moral? Because it makes you feel better than being immoral.

Is abortion, euthanasia, suicide, paying taxes, foreign aid, or anything else you don’t like forbidden, permissible, or sometimes obligatory? Anything goes.

What is love, and how can I find it? Love is the solution to a strategic interaction problem. Don’t look for it; it will find you when you need it.

Does history have any meaning or purpose? It’s full of sound and fury, but signifies nothing.

Does the human past have any lessons for our future? Fewer and fewer, if it had any to begin with.

Satisfying? Logical? True to experience? I don’t think so. No, the real story has the ring of truth. It is the beautiful, tragic, terrible story of creation, fall, redemption and transformation. This story affirms our humanity, explains our predicament, and offers us help for the present and hope for the future. In my next few posts I’ll try to describe and explain it. It’s a huge, wonderful, mysterious tale that is still unfolding and which I don’t pretend to fully understand. But I’ll do my best!

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No purpose to the universe? Give me a break…

Why is the world the way it is?

Of course if God is always loving, always just, and always does what is right, then a further question arises: Why is the world the way it is? Certainly we see beauty, love, pleasure and justice in the world. But we also see ugliness, hatred, pain and injustice. The world is a strange mixture of good and evil, of life and death, of plenty and of want, of harmony and conflict. And men and women are an equally perplexing mix of generosity and selfishness, of forgiveness and revenge, of nobility and pettiness, of cruelty and kindness. In fact, a moment’s consideration shows us that we ourselves contain such a mixture; that the world is not divided into ‘good’ and ‘bad’ people but is populated by people who exhibit a bewildering mixture of thoughts, feelings and behaviours. People like you and me. Why is the world, why are people, why are you and I such a puzzling and distressing mixture of good and bad? And can anything be done about it?

What is God like?

If the universe is made by God then it raises the question, ‘What is God like?’ We glimpse the nature and character of God when the historian Luke introduces the public work of Jesus. Jesus is being baptised to show that he belongs to God, and Luke reports,  “Jesus was baptised too. And as he was praying, heaven was opened and the Holy Spirit descended on him in bodily form like a dove. And a voice came from heaven: ‘You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.’” We see Jesus the Son of God lovingly obeying his Father; and the Father expressing his delight in the Son through the Holy Spirit. All of this as Jesus begins his work of drawing lost men and women into relationship with himself. God is drawing back the curtain and letting us see into his heart. What do we see? We see that God has always been in loving relationship within the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. God didn’t start loving when he created; he was perfectly and fully loving before he made anything at all. But now that he has made the world, it is not surprising that he loves everything that he has created, including you and me.

God is also perfectly just. He always does what is right. Consider for a moment what we would be faced with if God was even a little bit evil or selfish. We would be like the ancient Greeks: half fearing, half despising their gods; never certain of the divine motives or purposes; living in fear and desperation. What a relief to hear that Father, Son and Holy Spirit always do good, always love, always show compassion, always act justly – and that they care about you and me.

We are made for a wonderful purpose

Because God the Father created everything through and for his Son, Jesus Christ, you and I are significant. We are not accidents; not just a collection of molecules. We are made for a high and wonderful purpose. This is in stark contrast to those who believe human beings are no more than the sum of their drives, instincts and desires. One such was the influential German philosopher Freidrich Nietzsche (1844 – 1900). In beautiful but despairing words he wrote,

‘In some remote corner of the universe, poured out and glittering in innumerable solar systems, there once was a star on which clever animals invented knowledge .…. After nature had drawn a few breaths the star grew cold, and the clever animals had to die .…. how wretched, how shadowy and flighty, how aimless and arbitrary, the human intellect appears in nature. There have been eternities when it did not exist; and when it is done for again, nothing will have happened.

Nietzsche was at least honest about the implications of his understanding of the world. But was he right? I don’t think so, and I suspect you don’t either. There is something in every human heart that protests, “I am significant, my life does mean something, I am more than a ‘clever animal’!” If that is what you find yourself saying, then you are right. A long time before Nietzsche, King David of Israel also contemplated the universe and the place of humans within it. He had quite a different reaction:

    O LORD, our Lord,
how majestic is your name in all the earth!

…When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers,
the moon and the stars, which you have set in place,
what is man that you are mindful of him,
and the son of man that you care for him?
Yet you have made him a little lower than the heavenly beings
and crowned him with glory and honor.
You have given him dominion over the works of your hands;
you have put all things under his feet,
(Psalm 8)

Your intuition is right. You do matter; your life does have meaning – a potentially wonderful purpose and destiny.

One of the wonderful things about Jesus is that he made the universe

One of the wonderful things about Jesus is that he made the universe. I want to lift this above the ‘Was the world created by God or through purely materialistic processes?’ debate (although if you are of a philosophical bent here are some interesting arguments). Let’s focus instead on the implications of Jesus being ‘the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.’ (Colossians 1:15-16).

Yes, the universe was created by God – and not by some sort of generic god, but by a particular God who has revealed himself as three persons in one God. What Christian thinkers call the Trinity. This means there is only one true and living God; that this one God eternally exists in three persons – God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit; that each person is fully and completely God but they are not identical. They differ in the way they relate to each other and the roles they play, which we see in the way they relate to us humans.

Now the reality of the Trinity may seem (and in fact it is!) puzzling but it is also tremendously encouraging. It’s encouraging because it shows that the universe is not an impersonal, indifferent, accident; blindly and mindlessly proceeding without reference to human life and human concerns. No, the universe was created out of the relationships of Father, Son and Holy Spirit. It was made out of the overflow of their love and creativity, made to be in relationship with God and with a special place for human beings. I think that is exciting, intriguing, and full of hope.

The Trinity

Diagram from the ESV Study Bible, Crossway, 2009

Good News!

The New Testament word ‘gospel’ means ‘good news’. It’s not primarily a system of thought; still less a set of rules. Rather, it’s an announcement that something truly wonderful has happened. Like when your sister tells you she is engaged; or you get the call to say you have got the job; or that the medical tests are clear; that you passed your exams; or the baby is born.

I’m writing this because Jesus really is good news – for you, for me, and for the whole human race. I want to show that he is the answer to every question, that he meets every need, that he brings joy, purpose and fulfillment. Not in some fantasy life but in the real life we all face. In the midst of boredom, frustration, stress, broken relationships, broken promises, sickness and death he can be our help and consolation. He can meet us in the pain of disappointment with others and in the shame and shock of our own weakness and self-centredness. This is what I have found. This is what I am discovering every day. This is what I hope to share with you.