Tuesday, September 21, 2010

The Rival Conceptions of God & One Shocking Alternative

“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. See, I have given you authority…over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10: 17-20). These astounding words spoken by Jesus in the midst of his Galilean ministry are like a declaration of war by a King over his adversary; a King who is determined to take back what was unjustly taken from him.  Was Jesus deceived, or was he divine?  Is there an Evil Power that we must confront as Jesus obviously did...or is evil an illusion, the spiritualization of anti-social behavior?  There is nothing which reveals the similarities and differences between worldviews and philosophies more than the problem of evil…and our dreams of justice, goodness, and setting the world right. We can divide the rival conceptions of God into roughly three groups…those who believe that nothing is God, those who believe that everything is God, and those who believe that God is God (the One who made everything out of nothing). 

(i) First, there are those who believe that nothing is God (atheism). The philosophy of atheism, or nihilism is the philosophy of nothing…that nothing and meaninglessness is the destiny of everything; that evil is simply our subjective experience of random events and the blind forces of nature. Listen to Jose Martinez, a taxi driver with a nihilistic outlook: "We're here to die, just live and die...Life is a big fake.  nobody gives a damn.  You're rich or you're poor.  You're here, you're gone....Life is nothing"  (Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God).  C. S. Lewis explains in his Mere Christianity that this was his position for many years…and it was the experience of evil and injustice that made it the most difficult for him to believe in God (Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 1).

But then Lewis was struck by a thunderbolt. His argument against God was that this world seemed so cruel and unjust, and therefore meaningless. But to say that this whole world was meaningless, he had to be comparing it with something -- something meaningful and good. Where did this idea come from? If you see a line that looks crooked, it’s because you are comparing it with the picture of a straight line. If you feel “wet” when you dive into the pool, it’s because you know what it’s like to feel dry. As Lewis points out, a fish never feels “wet”!  If the world seems unjust, cruel, and meaningless, it’s because you have in your mind a picture of something good, pure, and meaningful.

To put it another way, if the world seems “dark” it is only because you have seen the light. John writes, “This is the judgment, that light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil” (John 3: 19). The atheist denies the light (in a manner of speaking) -- a world of meaning and purpose and real goodness. But if the world is simply dark -- cruel, unjust, and therefore meaningless, how did we come to know that with any meaningful certainty? Where did we get the light to see that we were in the dark? You can’t even say the words “This world has no meaning” without assuming that you just said something meaningful. See what I mean? It would appear that atheism is too simple...like a man who tries to prove there are no proofs...or tries to reason that the world is irrational.   Beyond this, there are terrible consequences to the atheistic worldview (take, for example, 20th century dictators like Hitler, Stalin, Mussolini, and Mao; as well as contemporary studies of evil like that of psychologist  M. Scott Peck's People of the Lie).

Scripture, tells us where the light of meaning and goodness comes from: “God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5). I have a ring on my finger that says, “Let there be light,” the seal of the University of California, and it refers to the light of understanding and knowledge; but this is a 3000 year old quote from Genesis 1:3 (ironically). God is the source of our reason and understanding…God is our light! We live in a God-illumined world, and it is by God’s light that we see clearly enough to know that some things have gone terribly wrong; that we were made for a good and just world, a meaningful world, a heavenly world.  

(ii) Secondly, there are those who believe that everything is God (pantheism): the sky is God, the mountains are God, the sea is God, the stars are God, you and I are part of an emerging 'God consciousness;' but this is the key point: if you take away the universe, you take away God too. Those who look at the universe in this way tend to feel that good and bad are just different ways of looking at a single reality. If you are confronted with a cancer or with terrible poverty and disease in Haiti – a pantheist would say, “Looking at this from one point of view, it looks pretty bad…but if you could see it from the divine point of view you would realize that this also is God" (Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 1).

(iii) Now the Christian and others who believe that God is God, and created this world but is separate from it would say (to quote C. S. Lewis) ‘Don’t talk damned nonsense.’  According to Genesis 1-2, God created the world good, some parts of it have gone bad, contrary to his will…and God insists that they be put right again. Just because God permits evil and suffering does not mean that God wills or desires it. “This is the message we have heard from him….that God is light and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1: 5). With the responsibility of growing up into adulthood that we have increasing freedom…and with that freedom we must decide for ourselves what rules, what values, what principles we will live by. Our choices will sometimes cause us or others pain…but this is the price of freedom and growth.

Now we may resent (or even doubt) a God who permits suffering, but consider this: a universe in which God intervened and prevented anything “harmful” from happening, would be a puppeteer’s world where every action and every event was pre-determined and nothing “real” ever happened…and where we never had to grow up into spiritual maturity. In such a universe, we could neither truly love one another…nor could we genuinely love God. This God-ordained freedom to love or to hurt, as far as Christians are concerned not only includes human beings…but superhuman beings…which leads me to my next point in this discussion of God and evil, and that is...the Invasion (see Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 2).

There is a version of Christianity that’s popular today which Lewis calls “Christianity and Water.” It’s Christianity without all that difficult stuff about sin, the devil and hell. It’s the kind of Christianity that 'over-accentuates the positive' and says (with apologies to Ray Stevens) “Everything is beautiful in its own way.”  Although I love the lyrics of that song....the title is, strictly speaking, not true. Everything is not beautiful! The holocaust was not beautiful. Poverty and disease is not beautiful. Child abuse is not beautiful. Graft and gov’t corruption are not beautiful. Betrayal and dishonesty are not beautiful…and the denial of evil is not beautiful either…it is tragic. 

One of the most obvious facts about the Bible is its recognition of evil. It takes evil seriously…but it does not fear the triumph of evil. The Bible does not picture evil as a power that is equal to but opposite of the good. How could it? Evil is a second rate power. It gets all of its raw material from what is good. There is nothing that is evil for evil’s sake. Evil is always spoiled goodness. Take the scandal in the city of Bell here in Los Angeles county. The city leaders there have conspired to cheat their citizens out of hundreds of thousands of dollars…why? To enrich themselves…to accumulate money, pleasure, power, and security. But as Lewis points out, money, pleasure, power, and security are not bad things. They are actually good things. Money and power can be used for tremendous good. Pleasure is something our bodies and spirits were designed for. To want safety and security for our families is reasonable and good. The badness of what happened in the city of Bell is that govt’ leaders were pursuing these basically good things in a corrupt way, in a way that did not benefit anyone but themselves and actually hurt their citizens.

Pausing in the midst of his own ministry in which he was confronting evil, Jesus said something extraordinary, “I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightening. See, I have given you authority…over all the power of the enemy” (Luke 10: 17-20). There is a 2000 year old Christian tradition that Satan is a fallen angel…a superhuman spirit that has gone wrong, and it is based in part on this passage; and on the fact that evil is a parasite, that evil is always spoiled goodness. That should give us pause…because we know from history and our own experience, that every talent we possess, all the powers of our mind and will and body, and all our creativity and cleverness can be used for good…or in the service of evil. It should come as no surprise then, that there might be spiritual beings, superhuman spirits that have gone wrong too; that we live in a corner of the universe engaged in civil war and that we are, to use Lewis’ phrase, “Enemy-occupied territory" -- a phrase that was particularly meaningful to Lewis' British listeners as they endured the nightly air raid sirens, and Nazi buzz bombs.

There is a personal power of evil in this world…and (in Lewis’ words) Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed (in disguise) and is calling us to join him in a divine conspiracy to sabotage the enemy’s stronghold. Has it ever occurred to you that there may be a reason why civilizations rise and fall, why terrific energy is expended and tremendous institutions are built…and advances made in art, architecture, language, science, philosophy…but then sooner or later they all come crashing down? Has it ever occurred to you that this world has been running on the wrong fuel (as Lewis would say) that we’ve become disconnected from the One who made us?  John says, that “The Son of God was revealed for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8); and if Jesus’ purpose is to break Satan’s hold on this world, should we be shocked that we encounter resistance as his followers? Has it ever occurred to you that the reason you find it so difficult to rise up in the morning to go to church or to read the Bible may be more than simple fatigue, laziness, or doubt; that there is Someone who doesn’t want you here; who doesn’t want you to know the King; or to be faithful to your family, or to open up your mouth about Jesus with your co-worker, or to get involved with people in need?  It would be hopeless…if it were not for what Lewis called, The Shocking Alternative (Mere Christianity, Book II, ch. 3)....

Late in the evening on September 19, 1931, Lewis was having a conversation with J.R.R Tolkien and Hugo Dyson about the Christian faith. He uses the analogy of a chess game, and says in his biography that this was the night in which God checkmated him (Surprised by Joy, ch. IV). Three days later, Lewis was riding on a motorcycle with his brother Warren to the Whipsnade Zoo: “When we set out I did not believe that Jesus Christ is the Son of God, and when we reached the zoo I did.” Four truths that he and his friends discussed were important in his conversion…

First, the gift of conscience…the voice that calls out to us from childhood to do right and flee from what is evil, the Moral Law that is consistently seen in different times and cultures (see Mere Christianity, Book I, Romans 2: 12-16, and my recent blog, A Clue to the Meaning of the Universe).

Secondly, that God has given us good dreams…stories in every culture that carry within them pictures of God’s sacrificial love and saving grace  One of my favorites is alluded to by Lewis himself...a citation I ran across as a Classical Studies major in college.  Plato, writing 500 years before Christ answers the question, “How would one recognize the truly just man?” Plato says that he would be revealed in this way: by how he responds to the greatest injustice; for he is that man “who though doing no wrong [bears] the repute of the greatest injustice…enduring the lash, the rack, chains…and finally, after every extremity of suffering, [is] crucified” (Republic IIe.362).  Who is this just man whom Plato dreams of, this otherworldly man who returns evil with good, even to the point of laying down his life? Is it not the Christ he speaks of, though not knowing him?  Other examples abound...but I urge you to read about the fascinating redemptive keys found in primitive cultures by Canadian missionary Don Richardson (Peace Child, and Eternity in Their Hearts).

Thirdly Lewis was struck by the history of a particular people, the Jews, a people through whom God revealed in a unique way what kind of God he was and the things he cared about…and the Hebrew scriptures tell their astounding story.  And finally, the phenomenon of Jesus…that from among those Jews there emerged the “Shocking Alternative” to all that is unjust, cruel, ungodly and inhumane in this world. The gospels tell us his story… of a man who is not only a man, but a man who says and does all the things we would expect God to say and do, including rise from the dead (something Lewis became convinced there was very good historical evidence for). Here was a man who spoke like no man spoke…“He who has seen me has seen the Father,” (John 14: 9) and “Before Abraham was, I am” (John 8: 56-58) and who says to paralytics, tax collectors and prostitutes, “Your sins are forgiven” (Luke 5: 20-21)  He spoke as though (1) He was the God who created this world out of nothing, (2) as though it was His world that had become Enemy-occupied territory, overrun by evil; (3) and as though He was the rightful King who planned to take it back!

Such a man must either be the most arrogant and narcissistic man who ever lived, certifiably insane…or exactly who he said he was…the Son of God. But could a madman or a deceptive liar have inspired the devotion of scientists from Kepler to Collins, the conversion of a slave trader like John Newton, musical genius from J.S. Bach to Sting, the compassion of Mother Theresa, the moral clarity of Bishop Desmond Tutu, and visionaries like Tolkien and Lewis, or the spiritual passion of a Billy Graham? It doesn’t seem likely…but then what?

There is a well known passage in Lewis' The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe in which Peter, Susan, and Edmund have entered Narnia through a magic wardrobe and are preparing to meet Aslan, the Christ-figure of these brilliant children's stories. Mr. Beaver announces that “Aslan is on the move....And you’ll be meeting him soon.” Ooh…” said Susan. “Is he – quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.” “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.” Peter adds, “I’m longing to meet him…even if I do feel frightened” “That’s right, Son of Adam” said Mr. Beaver, “And so you shall.”  Friends, if you want to meet the King, if you’re longing to meet him more than playing it safe, if your longing to know his goodness and power, and to join the ranks of his forever followers. Just tell him today…and so you shall!"

Jesus, we confess here and now that you are the Rightful King who has landed in this Enemy-occupied world, that you have come to destroy the works of the devil, and to reclaim that which is yours by divine right; that you are both Son of God and Son of Man…that your Spirit will prevail over us, that you bring healing to the sick, forgiveness to the sinner, blessing to your children, and life to the dead.  Hear our prayers, cleanse our hearts, and make us your very own -- to the glory of God the Father.  Amen. 

No comments: