Weblog of a Christian philosophy student

Weblog of a Christian philosophy student. Please feel free to comment. All of my posts are public domain. Subscribe to posts [Atom]. Email me at countaltair [at] yahoo.com.au. I also run a Chinese to English translation business at www.willfanyi.com.

Location: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

The gospel for people who are really, really nice

Sometimes it can be a bit hard to talk about Jesus to some people because in most of the situations they are in every day, they do the right thing. So when people hear from let's say, a fiery preacher that they are 'liars', 'haters', 'coveters' and other negative stuff they may think 'Well that may apply to some people but not really me'.

How should one think about presenting the gospel to a non-Christian who is an extremely nice, loving, self-sacrificial person who almost always looks out for the interests of others? I believe it has an added degree of difficulty that is not present if you are talking to someone who has done some really awful stuff in their life.

Here are a couple of important points to think about on this issue.

The first is that there are some people who are good enough to do the right thing in most of the situations which they are in every day. But this does not mean that they would do the right thing in really, really challenging situations. So when God looks at such a person, He sees not only that they would do the right thing on most days, but also that if they were put in a really challenging situation that they would fall short and do the wrong thing.

An example of this kind of possibility can be found from the Stanford prison experiment (link). When people do the wrong thing, it's often not that they are 'bad apples' as much as apples that have been put into 'bad barrels'. In the prison experiment, the professor got a group of normal college students together and gave some of them great power over the rest. The nasty results showed what can happen when people are put into extraordinary situations. A similar thing might be going on with the goodness we have every day versus what goodness we would have under a lot of pressure.

So when God looks at us He sees our failures in situations that haven't occurred yet, and which may never occur, but which still apply to us because it's how we would act. We shouldn't be willing to do the wrong thing in these not-yet-occurring situations, but we are. Thus, if you hate someone, you are a murderer in a situation where you have absolute power. If you lust after people other than your spouse, you are an adulterer in a possible situation. If you are tempted to lie, you are a liar in a possible situation. So God sees these potential sins, and thus we can be sinners in a pretty big way but about potential stuff rather than actual stuff.

A second point to remember is that one way you can talk about the gospel is that we are all horrible sinners and so on, but another way is a lot gentler. The point of the gospel was ultimately to get humans to hang out with God and be perfectly happy forever. Happiness in heaven is about experiencing the happiness of God. See Psalm 16:11; 36:8-9, and Romans 14:17 which says: "For the kingdom of God is not food and drink, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit." If someone isn't willing to meet God's standards then it's hard to see how they could have access to God's happiness in the Holy Spirit. It would be hard for that person to live with the Holy Spirit, and for God to live with that person, if they don't want to meet God's standards. So the deal is: not being willing to meet God's standards = you can't experience God's happiness through the Holy Spirit, and so you can't go to eternal life.

God's standard is perfection as shown by the life of Jesus (not our own idea of perfection), and the only way to meet that standard is to accept that you can't meet it and that you need God's help. When Jesus died for us "our old self was put to death on the cross with him" (Rom 6:6a) and "It is no longer I who [faces situations where I cannot avoid sinning] but Christ ... living in me [who faces those situations and will always do the right thing]" (Gal 2:20a). Thus, anyone can meet God's standards because Jesus can do everything related to meeting God's standards in someone who accepts him, and so they don't have to worry about it at all as long as they genuinely trust Jesus.

So the gospel doesn't have to be about how everyone is a horrible, horrible sinner necessarily. Although I think that we usually overestimate how good we are, so maybe we are worse sinners than we think, even the really, really nice non-Christian. Presenting the gospel can be more like, "Well I know you're a really, really nice person, but getting to heaven isn't about being really nice. It's about being willing to meet God's standards, which is a perfect standard. Because eternal life consists in experiencing God's happiness in the Holy Spirit. And you can't experience God's happiness in the Holy Spirit if you aren't willing to meet God's standards, because the conflict between you two will be too great (or something like that). However nice you are, this is a situation that can't be gotten around. So to make it to eternal life you either need to meet God's standard, or accept you can't meet it and that Jesus took all of our wrongful intentions towards others onto himself on the cross."

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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The 'Salvation' Theodicy

This is one type of answer as to why God allows people to suffer. A 'salvation' theodicy says that at least some of the suffering in the world is a key part of bringing people into eternal life. I don't think it can be a very complete explanation for why people suffer, but it has something worthwhile to say.

The Bible associates the suffering caused by our disconnect from God with people returning to God and choosing to enter eternal life by giving their lives to Christ:

Luke 15:11-24 'And he said, "There was a man who had two sons. And the younger of them said to his father, 'Father, give me the share of property that is coming to me.' And he divided his property between them. Not many days later, the younger son gathered all he had and took a journey into a far country, and there he squandered his property in reckless living. And when he had spent everything, a severe famine arose in that country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to one of the citizens of that country, who sent him into his fields to feed pigs. And he was longing to be fed with the pods that the pigs ate, and no one gave him anything.

But when he came to himself, he said, 'How many of my father’s hired servants have more than enough bread, but I perish here with hunger! I will arise and go to my father, and I will say to him, "Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son. Treat me as one of your hired servants."' And he arose and came to his father. But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him and felt compassion, and ran and embraced him and kissed him. And the son said to him, 'Father, I have sinned against heaven and before you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.' But the father said to his servants, 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him, and put a ring on his hand, and shoes on his feet. And bring the fattened calf and kill it, and let us eat and celebrate. For this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost, and is found.' And they began to celebrate."'

In the 'salvation theodicy' somehow, in a way that we can't rationally explain, this world is the world in which the greatest number of people choose to enter eternal life.

The picture below illustrates a 'magical black box' analogy for God's decision to create our world, click it to see it full size:

Below is an illustration of the possible histories God might have faced in creating our world, click it to see it full size:

It makes sense that if 100 'degrees' of evil gets just one more person into eternal life, then God would choose to make that world. But God can never use immoral means to get someone to choose Him, so there must be limits on how much and what type of suffering can be a part of this process.

God cannot explain His choice of world because He cannot explain His understanding of our choices. Only God knows how someone is going to choose because only God knows how free will really works. So God's explanation wouldn't make sense to us because we'd only be going on what God says, we couldn't 'see' into other people's souls and understand why more people choose to enter into eternal life in this world rather than another, for ourselves. See Matt 24:36, Deu 29:29, and Rom 11:33.

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Tuesday, December 15, 2009

One way of interpreting hell

Hell is described in pretty awful terms in Revelation, but we must remember that it is described in other places as simply not being with God. 2 Thes 1:9 "Whose reward will be eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his strength".

I've noticed on forums that it's easier to criticise Christianity if you accept the 'Revelation' view of hell but it's not as easy if you accept the '2 Thessalonians' view.

Maybe Revelation talks about hell in such a terrifying way because doing so will ultimately get more people into eternal life? Proverbs 14:27: "The fear of the LORD is a fountain of life, turning a man from the snares of death".

But if hell isn't all that bad then the Bible is being a bit deceitful about how awful it is. And if hell is awful, then why would anyone would choose to go there?

I think a good illustration of how people could choose to go to hell, and yet hell involves an eternity of suffering, was given in a Twilight episode called 'A Nice Place to Visit' (quoted from here):

"A two-bit thug, shot to death by the police, wakes up on the far side. Given his life of crime, he is puzzled to find himself in what he takes to be heaven: a penthouse of Pascalian divertissement has been provided for him in which he can sate his every sensuous appetite. The supply of booze and broads is endless, and he can't lose at the gaming tables. But soon enough our man tires of the 'good life' and heads for the door — which is locked. Turning to his host, the thug complains that he'd rather be in the other place. "This is the other place!" the host demonically laughs."

I think if we were forced to live with the happiness we have now for let's say... a trillion to the power of a trillion years, then eventually we would be weeping and gnashing our teeth in pain. The happiness we have now cannot sustain us for that long.

There is another interesting take on this in a quote from the science fiction novel 'Permutation City'. In it Greg Egan tries to imagine life as an eternal being:

"The workshop abutted a warehouse full of table legs – one hundred and sixty-two thousand, three hundred and twenty-nine, so far.  Peer could imagine nothing more satisfying than reaching the two hundred thousand mark – although he knew it was likely that he'd change his mind and abandon the workshop before that happened; new vocations were imposed by his exoself at random intervals, but statistically, the next one was overdue.  Immediately before taking up woodwork, he'd passionately devoured all the higher mathematics texts in the central library, run all the tutorial software, and then personally contributed several important new results to group theory – untroubled by the fact that none of the Elysian mathematicians would ever be aware of his work.  Before that, he'd written over three hundred comic operas, with librettos in Italian, French and English – and staged most of them, with puppet performers and audience.  Before that, he'd patiently studied the structure and biochemistry of the human brain for sixty-seven years; towards the end he had fully grasped, to his own satisfaction, the nature of the process of consciousness.  Every one of these pursuits had been utterly engrossing, and satisfying, at the time.  He'd even been interested in the Elysians, once. No longer.  He preferred to think about table legs."

The eternal existence of 'Peer' in this quote indicates what our existence might be like if it lasted forever.

Is there another kind of happiness and way of being? According to the Bible there is, which everyone can find in God's presence. Talking about eternal life, Romans 14:17 says "For the kingdom of God is not a matter of eating and drinking, but of righteousness, peace and joy in the Holy Spirit". So the happiness of heaven actually involves people experiencing God's happiness. This joy will make us complete and fulfilled forever, in a way that we have never known and literally cannot imagine (1 Cor 2:9: "However, as it is written: 'No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him'").

The catch in experiencing God's happiness is that it requires someone to want to live under God's standards, because we get it through the Holy Spirit (Rom 14:17) - who is Christ's spirit. Since we experience God's contentment through Christ's spirit, we need to be willing to be 'in' Christ. As Galatians 2:20 puts it: "I have been crucified with Christ and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me". This is how close we need to be to God to experience His happiness. In Christ we can express our personalities however we want minus actions that treat others in a way we wouldn't ideally like to be treated.

And yet people can and it seems would choose to go to the 'hells' described above rather than heaven, if heaven requires entering into a state where we love and serve God with all heart, soul, strength and mind, and love and serve our neighbour as we would ideally like to be loved, which is God's standard (through trusting in Jesus' death on the cross for us).

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Thursday, December 10, 2009

A visual argument on the nature of God and the infinite

The picture below is meant to visualise the difference between the infinite and the finite, and thus between God and creation.

Click on it to see it full size

This picture highlights one idea of what the 'finite' is: that the 'finite' is basically about differences/'distinctions' between things. Numbers keep increasing from an original point, let's say -1, 0, and 1. They do so forever. The original point could be thought of as the 'ability' to make distinctions/differences between things. If there are differences, then there can be a lot of numbers to represent those differences.

The same thing applies to finite objects like computers, tables, chairs etc. For example, a computer is made up of a number of parts and each part has a huge number of distinctions you could assign to it, e.g. small, light, electronic, and so on. The idea of a 'location' is essentially a finite concept, where you need to make a distinction between where you are and where you're not.

The infinite is surely different from what I've described above or it seems it would be finite. This picture visualises how the infinite might be different. If the finite is associated with distinctions, then maybe the infinite is associated with 'distinction-less' existence? Perhaps a finite world of distinctions can 'emerge' out of a distinction-less unity, as in the picture. This would imply (although it's hard to understand) an infinite unity that contains everything in a way that doesn't break up the unity into separate parts.

What could that infinite unity possibly be like? Without the finite, there is simply 'oneness', the eternal infinite that stretches from everlasting to everlasting. With no concept of time, place, cause, effect, before, after, and so on, as such are 'distinction concepts'. It is the ultimate 'I AM' - it 'just' exists, from eternity.

If there is such a 'distinction-less existence' underlying the finite, then an interesting conclusion arises. The fact that we are here would imply that this 'distinction-less infinite' is a mind. Otherwise, why would distinction-less existence ever give rise to existence with distinctions, if there was no mind involved anywhere? Because distinction-less existence is so totally unlike existence with distinctions, it makes no sense that it distinction-ful existence would emerge 'naturally' as a natural part of distinction-less existence.

Does this idea of the infinite fit with the Bible? It might. Suppose that the Christian God is this infinite, and that through being infinite God has all the qualities that the Bible gives Him in a way that finite reasoning cannot grasp. Suppose that in a way finite reasoning cannot understand, distinction-less existence has a mind, free will, love, and is a trinity of one person who is three persons. I think it's OK that we don't understand it, because finite reasoning seems very unlike whatever is going on in 'distinction-less existence'. This could be an interesting way of looking at God. But it's important to remember it's just speculation.

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