Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 11: “How Can I Make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”

(**Note to new visitors**: If you’ve been directed to this page, and you’d like to read this review from the beginning then please look to the right of the screen, and scroll down a little, where you’ll see the “Recent” header. Under that you’ll have access to all the links for each weekly instalment of my Alpha Course review. Click on the bottom one, “WEEK 1a: Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?” to start from the very beginning. Thanks.)

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WEEK 11:

I enter the church to find a few of the group already in attendance. Thankfully Lady Three is back for the last session of the Alpha Course. I ask if she’s been ok and she responds by telling me that she’s fine and the reason why she missed last week’s session was because of a family member’s birthday party. I’m relieved that she’s fit and well. She’s a nice lady, happy and bubbly, calm, well spoken, unassuming, and though I’m fond of every member of the group I must say I’m of the opinion that she’s the best of the bunch.

I take to my seat and the pastor walks over to me and says, “Here’s a leaving present for you”, and hands me a book that I seem to remember him mentioning last week. It’s called, “Secret Believers”, by Brother Andrew. I take a look at the back cover and read the blurb, which says, “Here are the terrifying true stories of the men and women – born Muslims and still living in strict Islamic states – who have chosen to convert to Christianity.”

I thank the pastor and put the book on the table beside me.

For the next few minutes we talk about Muslims and Islam. Lady Three chips in to tell us that certain people, “always used to have a go” at her husband for being a Christian, and that these certain people never used to say anything of a similar derogatory nature about Muslims and Islam. Lady Three’s husband was curious as to why this was so, that is until a friend of his, who “wasn’t of any particular faith”, said “I can tell you the reason why they have a go at you about your faith. What you have has got them worried”

Yes, that’s right, non-believers poke fun at Christianity because they’re deeply worried by its power and truth. And, of course, no one pokes fun at other religions because they’re just so obviously false that they’re not even worthy of ridicule.

Yeah, that sounds like a convincing argument. And no doubt a completely true story, too. Or something like that.

The conversation continues about Muslims and Islam. I stop to think why it is that the group are concentrating on Islam rather than any other faith. Maybe the truth of Islam has them worried? No, maybe not. Maybe that kind of argument is just silly. Christians use it all the same, though.

As we’re talking, my eye catches a glimpse of a heavy-looking cardboard folder which is positioned under Lady Three’s chair. I remember the pastor telling me that Lady Three had spent many hours on the Internet investigating these so-called “sons of god” that I had mentioned to her a couple of weeks ago. Maybe she’s prepared a dossier to counter my claims, as I joked she might.

Only a moment or two after I notice the folder, Lady Three turns to me and says, “I’ve got some things for you, Stephen”. She can barely contain her excitement as she reaches under her chair for the aforementioned folder, thuds the bulging beast on her lap, and proceeds to pull out a host of documents.

“I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying the names you gave me a couple of weeks ago”, says Lady Three. “Yes, [the pastor] tells me you’ve been hard at work on the Internet. Four hours in one session alone, so I hear”, I reply.

She hands me a document, about five or six pages thick, which turns out to be a printout of a Wikipedia entry regarding the question of Jesus’ historicity. I thank her kindly for going to such effort, but also tell her that I’ve read the article previously. I promise to take it home with me and read it once more, though.

She then delves some more into the folder and pulls out another computer printout. “You know the list of names you gave me?”, she rhetorically asks, referring to the “sons of god” list, “Well, I’ve looked them up and most of them were listed on a site by this fellow”. She hands me the document and at the top reads the name “Kersey Graves”.

To those of you who are not familiar with the name – Kersey Graves was a 19th century writer most famous for his book “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”, which is a book that I own and have read. Unfortunately for Graves he fails to cite sources for many of his claims and is therefore deemed by modern historians as “unreliable and unscholarly”. Richard Carrier, a well-renowned speaker, writer, and atheist, who also holds a PhD in ancient history, says of Graves, “[Y]ou will never be able to tell what he has right from what he has wrong without totally redoing all his research and beyond, which makes him utterly useless to historians as a source”

It’s fair to say, too, that Graves has been the target of heavy and prolonged criticism by Christian scholars, and the butt of many of their jokes. He’s been an easy target, and perhaps justifiably so.

I explain all of this to Lady Three. “Oh”, she says, “his was the website that I found all the names on, you see. And he’s not very credible.”

I’m curious, why would Lady Three’s search for the names that I mentioned (Perseus, Hercules, Mithras, and Dionysus – all well known characters in Greek and Roman mythology) bring up the name “Kersey Graves”? A quick Google search for their names doesn’t bring up an immediate link to his work, so I’m thinking that Lady Three must have searched high and low for a website, most probably a pro-Christian one, that proclaims Jesus Christ to be the only true “son of god” in the history of mankind. Graves, being the easy target that he is, was probably mentioned in such a website, and Lady Three had latched onto that with a vengeance.

Lady Three looks a little flustered as she searches some more within the depths of her folder. I’m beginning to think that she was of the opinion coming into this evening’s session that tonight was the night where she would deliver her winning hand against the pesky sceptic, a certain Mr Butterfield, who, in her eyes at least, has been attempting to poison the minds of the group for the last eleven weeks. Sadly, for her, the royal flush that she thought she was holding has turned out to be a busted flush, much to her dismay.

She pulls out another thick printout, “This is from a Christian website, admittedly, but it’s about all the non-Christian sources that mention Jesus”, she says. Then sheepishly asks, “You may have read it?”

I take a quick look at the page headings, “Josephus”, “Tacitus”, “Suetonius”, “Pliny the Younger”, and so on. Names we have discussed in previous sessions, none of whom were contemporaneous sources, which is what I’d asked for, and the earliest, Josephus, is almost universally regarded as a much later interpolation (most proabably from the 4th century A.D).

I explain this to Lady Three and ask if she managed to stumble upon any contemporaneous, extra-biblical sources that made mention of Jesus, his miracles, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. “I think Josephus wrote during that time. I think someone told me that he wrote about Jesus in 40AD”, she says. “Josephus wasn’t born until 37AD”, I reply, and add that “His Antiquities were written in 93AD”

After all of Lady Three’s hard work I do feel rather uncomfortable having to disregard it, but I thank her so very kindly for making the effort.

The pastor, like he did in a previous session, attempts to explain the contemporary silence about Jesus:

Pastor: “The wife of a friend of mine studies Church history. I spoke to her about the fact that you’d raised the question about the silence of contemporaneous sources. She told me that they were such a small band of people, and that the people around Jesus wouldn’t have been able to write.”
Me: “It does say in the Bible that Jesus was attracting huge crowds wherever he went. And that there were earthquakes, and that zombies popped out of their tombs in their multitudes, and that these zombies walked into the city to reveal themselves unto the crowds [Matthew 27: 51-53]. Yet not a single account outside of the Bible can be found to support such a story”
Pastor:[Long pause] “It’s because they tried to deny it”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Pastor: [Looking very uncomfortable] “They obviously didn’t perceive it as significant”
Me: “I think zombies leaping out of their graves and marching into the nearest city would have been quite a significant event. Don’t you?”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “People are very sceptical about it all, aren’t they”
Me: “But no one even wrote about them being sceptical about such events. There’s absolutely no mention of them anywhere”
Pastor: [He shrugs his shoulders, sighs, leans back in his chair, then whispers] “Fascinating”

At this point Lady Three offers her own viewpoint:

Lady Three: “There was talk about Christians later on, though. To me, they wouldn’t be talking about someone who hadn’t actually existed.”

No one doubts the existence of Christians. The fact that later sources mentioned Christians is not direct confirmation that there existed a historical Jesus. Using her line of thinking I could confirm the existence of any God or indeed any fictional character, just by appealing to the people who wrote about them or believed in them. Which, of course, is just silly.

Lady Three continues in a similar vein:

Lady Three: “He [Jesus] must have existed in order for them to be followers of him”
Me: “Would you take a similar view of Krishna, then?”
Lady Three: “Krishna?”
Me: “There have been followers of Krishna for 3,000 years. Does the fact that people believe in him prove to you that he was a historical character?”
Lady Three: [Avoiding the question altogether] “If the people who wrote about Jesus didn’t believe he existed they would have written in their work, “But there’s no evidence that he actually existed”. If they were proper historians that’s what they would have said.”

This is a comment that barely deserves a response so I’m thankful that the pastor intervenes at this point and jokes, “Steve has kept [Lady Three] very busy for the last two weeks!”. We all smile and Lady Three slides her humongous folder back under her chair. “It’s definitely an interesting subject, though”, she says. She’s right, it’s a fascinating subject.

“What’s it about?” asks a bemused Lady Two, whose been sat glassy-eyed, staring into empty space for the last twenty-five minutes. I like Lady Two a great deal, but she doesn’t talk (or listen) until the time arises when she thinks it’s a good opportunity to offer us her testimony. It’s just so bizarre.

The pastor switches on the DVD player, then inserts the last of Nicky Gumbel’s presentations which is entitled, “How Can I Make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”

Gumbel starts by asking, “How do we make the most of the rest of our lives?”. To answer this question he gives us the words of the Apostle Paul:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [Romans 12:1-2]

Gumbel then spends a couple of minutes dissecting that passage and explaining to the audience in simple terms what Saint Paul actually meant.

He then tells us that, as Christians, we shouldn’t give in to the temptation of taking off our “Christian uniform” and mingling in with the rest of the crowd. “What we’re called to be is distinctive, to retain our Christian identity wherever we are and whatever the circumstance.”

As Christians we should avoid backbiting and character assassination, and instead try to think of something positive to say about somebody. This is, of course, an admirable approach.

Gumbel then touches on the subject of sexual immorality: “We are called to demonstrate the blessing of keeping God’s standards. God LOVES us. God loves YOU. God is the creator of marriage. God is the creator of sex. It was God who INVENTED sex. He came up with the idea of sex!” He continues, “God made us sexual beings. And the Biblical context is lifelong commitment in marriage.” and “It’s God’s perfect plan that children should be brought up in an atmosphere of love and commitment and security.”

I suppose drowning every baby in the world by sending a flood to kill them all demonstrates his “love” for his children. And I suppose executing the innocent first-born children of the people of Egypt is another demonstration of his complete love. Yes, God loves little children so much. I sometimes wonder if Gumbel actually reads the Bible.

Gumbel then alludes to premarital sex and states, “I’ve never met anybody who has said to me, “I really regret that I waited [to have sex] until my wedding day”. I’ve met lots of people who said, “I really wish I had waited because I made a mess of my life””.

A mess?

Gumbel recaps and tells us that in order to become fruitful Christians we should 1) Break with the past, and 2) Make a new start in life.

At this point we are given a story of when Gumbel, as a vicar, was taking a funeral service at his church. The funeral was for a well-known, incredibly poor, homeless lady in the area who used to walk the streets begging for money. Gumbel tells us that this lady was very aggressive and rude to people when she asked for money, and she had no friends at all. However, oddly enough, her funeral was attended by lots of people. Gumbel wondered why this was so, and was then told that “Some years earlier she had inherited a HUGE fortune. Millions of pounds” and that’s why all these people, obviously relatives, had crawled out of the woodwork. Allegedly this lady had acquired an expensive flat in a trendy part of London as well as a number of expensive paintings.

“Why would someone with all this money choose to live on the streets with all their rubbish?”, asks Gumbel. Someone close to Gumbel answered, “I think the problem was she didn’t want to leave behind the life she knew”. Gumbel tells us that he initially thought this to be absolutely absurd, but that was until he had a think and it dawned on him that, “There are many people that are doing something even more absurd. They’re hanging on to the rubbish in their lives, and they’re missing out not just on a flat – they’re missing out on all the treasures that God has for us in our lives.”

By this I suppose he means that non-Christians are the rude, aggressive street-urchins that waste their lives living amongst the rubbish, while the Christians of this world escape the flea-ridden hovels and choose instead to live in the palatial abodes of Christendom, where they bask (and perhaps cower) in the wonderful glory of the biggest bully in the universe: Yahweh.

Gumbel then tells us that even though Christians are lavished with all of God’s treasures they should still be ambitious. “Jesus commands us to be ambitious”, states Gumbel. But we must make sure we’re aiming for noble ambitions. What is the point trying to earn lots of money, he asks. “Its pathetic”, exclaims the wealthy Mr Gumbel. “What you should be saying is “my priority is to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.””

Christians must remember to put God first in their lives because, as Gumbel says, “If we live for ourselves we find ourselves in bondage, in slavery. But if we present everything to God we find freedom”

Gumbel then turns up the heat, “If you want an easy life, if you want a life of ease, please don’t become a Christian because it’s not easy being a Christian. But if you want a GREAT life, a FULFILLING life – life at its BEST – then follow Jesus!”

Great stuff.

Gumbel then tells us why it’s not easy being a Christian: “More people have died for their faith in Christ in the 20th century than in all the other centuries put together. So it’s not always easy being a Christian”. He then asks, “So why should we do it?”

“First of all” states Gumbel, “for what God has planned for our lives”.

But all of the hardship is worth it in the end, supposedly. To the outsider this might sound absurd, but Gumbel tells us “I had a totally false view of God before I was a Christian. I thought God was a kind of spoilsport; God was a kind of person that if you gave your life to him he would destroy it; he’d take away all the things that were fun and good in our lives. How absurd that is! God LOVES us far more than we love our own children. And the little sacrifices we have to make for him are NOTHING compared to the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross”

Doesn’t this “God loves us” mantra get a little tiring after a while? Considering that all the evidence in the world suggests that, if he even exists, he couldn’t care a jot about any of us.

To finish his presentation Gumbel offers us a tale about “a wealthy English baron”. I’ll let Gumbel take up the story:

“This man had one son who had left home. When he was away from home he [the son] died. This wealthy man never got over the loss of his son. As his wealth increased he invested in valuable paintings. When he died, his will called for all the paintings to be sold, and because he had such a great collection collectors and museums came from all over the world. On the day of the auction the lawyer read from his will and what it said was this, “The first painting to be sold in this auction is of my beloved son.” It was an unknown painting of poor quality, and the only person who bothered to bid for it was somebody who had worked for the family and who’d known the boy and had loved him, and bought it for sentimental value and the memories it held. Then the lawyer read the 2nd clause of the will: “Whoever buys my son gets everything. The auction is over.””

This, of course, is to illustrate the point that whoever buys into Christianity (to buy the son of God) shall inherit all things. Brilliant!

I’m sure that if Baywatch star, David Hasselhoff, was asked to read aloud that story he would say, “I’m sorry buddy, I can’t read THAT. It’s too cheesy, even for me!”

For the last time the pastor ejects the DVD and switches on the lights.

My fellow sceptic gets up and goes to the toilet. While he’s away Lady Two appears from the kitchen pushing the food trolley, which is stacked with all sorts of fancies. I decide to break with tradition and actually eat something. I plump for a chocolate bun. “YESSSSS!!!!!” jokes the pastor, “Steve’s actually eating something!”

As we’re eating, members of the group express how fond they are of Gumbel, and how great he is at his job. Eventually my fellow sceptic returns from the toilet, sees that the room is peaceful, and jokes “It hasn’t got to loggerheads yet, then?”. The pastor looks at my fellow sceptic, winks, then nods in my direction and says, “Sssshhhhhh, he’s eating his chocolate bun!”. I look up, and also with a wink, joke, “This should keep me quiet for the next forty minutes. You should have offered me a chocolate bun in each of the previous ten sessions.” The group laugh.

When I first entered the room this evening I pictured the session ending with me delivering a rousing, Churchill-esque speech, in which I would point out the flaws and silliness of the arguments that I’d heard during the last eleven weeks. Now, though, I feel no desire to end it that way. I’ve now made a decision to sit quietly for the remainder of the session. The group is in good spirits, and I’ve decided that I’d like to keep it that way. I’ll sit quietly for the remainder of the evening, shake hands at the end and wish everyone well for the future. Nothing is going to get sorted tonight, that’s for certain. It’s too late for that.

The group begin to speak about the supposed beauty of Christianity:

Lady Two: “It [Christianity] gives your life direction. It gives it purpose. You know where you’re going. You know what you’re trying to aspire to and be. You want to be filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit and try to bring others into the fold. That’s your direction.”
New Christian Male: “It opens your eyes as well. When you’re filled with the Holy Spirit you just focus on that. If previously you’d been hitting wall after wall after wall, then after you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit those walls seem to break down. That’s one thing I’ve learned from this course.”

The pastor tells us about how he’s always been honest in business, and how that’s thanks to his firm Christian beliefs. My fellow sceptic and the rest of the group discuss honesty in business. It’s an interesting discussion that lasts for about twenty minutes or so, and a number of different topics manage to find a way into the conversation, such as 1) how it’s not easy to be a Christian, 2) the environment, 3) the lead singer of U2, Bono, and 4) Cadbury’s chocolate. The Christians in the group then tell us of the challenges they face in daily life, and how their belief in God helps them overcome such challenges.

The next topic to crop up is that of heaven. The pastor says that he’d love to see a united Church where all races, ages and creeds came together as one. “Because that’s what it’s going to be like in heaven” he says.

Lady Two: “Yes, everybody being loving and no backbiting. Every one being kind and filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”

My fellow sceptic jokingly asks how they are all going to cope with no one to preach to? How will they get by without an insatiable thirst to convert people to their faith? What will these Christians find to do with their time if there are no heathens? “We’re all going to be concentrating on worshipping God”, replies the pastor.

My fellow sceptic then wants to know how the pastor envisages heaven. The pastor then tells us about how the Bible mentions God sitting on a throne, and how we’ll all spend time praising his holy name. He also mentions that it is unlikely that pets will be joining us in the hereafter. So any of you reading this blog who are looking forward to seeing your favourite pet when you get to heaven, then forget it – as I have it on good authority that pets aren’t allowed in the heavenly realm. God’s orders.

I break my now thirty-minute silence by asking, “How big is heaven?”

Pastor: “I don’t know”
Me: “Is it bigger than the earth?”
Pastor: “I guess so”
Me: “So there’s going to be people separated by considerable distances, yes?”
Pastor: “I don’t know”

I ask that question because I’m curious as to how we’re going travel from A to B in heaven, particularly if the journey is of a considerable distance (such as, say, from Britain to Australia). Planes perhaps? Rockets? Jet packs? Star Trek style teleportation machines?

Pastor: “I think that’s only an issue when we’re bound by the body. Once we’re in spirit, once we’re in our spiritual bodies, distance and time is just irrelevant.”

I’d love for him to explain exactly what he means by that, but the opportunity for me to ask doesn’t present itself as my fellow sceptic jumps in wanting to know if we’ll be able to recognise people in heaven. The pastor is a bit vague in his response and basically admits that he has no idea [again?], but then says, “That’s like asking if someone dies when they’re seven years old what age are they in heaven?”
I inform the pastor that British theologian, Alistair McGrath, believes we’ll all be thirty years of age! Here’s a quote from one of his books:

“A final question that has greatly vexed Christian theologians concerns the age of those who are resurrected. If someone dies at the age of 60, will they appear in the streets of the New Jerusalem as an old person? And if someone dies at the age of 10, will they appear as a child? This issue caused the spilling of much theological ink, especially during the Middle Ages. By the end of the thirteenth century, an emerging consensus can be discerned. As each person reaches their peak of perfection around the age of 30, they will be resurrected as they would have appeared at that time – even if they never lived to reach that age… The New Jerusalem will thus be populated by men and women as they would appear at the age of 30 (the age, of course, at which Christ was crucified) – but with every blemish removed.” Alistair McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven (p.37)

The long-standing male member picks up the topic and runs with it a little:

Long-Standing Male Member: “God talks about us reigning, but what we’re going to reign over I don’t know [again?]. Other planets, maybe, but I don’t know. If there’s a new heaven and a new earth then what’s to stop us going to other planets?”
My Fellow Sceptic: “So basically all of you are saying that you have no idea what it’s going to be like, no idea where its going to be, no idea what’s going to happen, no idea who’ll be there, yet Christianity is all geared up towards “Lets get to heaven!””

My fellow sceptic is on to something. These people are obsessed with heaven, but, when asked to tell us about it, they know little (or nothing) at all. Yet we non-believers must be absolutely certain of such a place, and long to go there, or be doomed to an eternity of torture in hell. Strange?

Long-Standing Male Member: “Jesus loves us and he doesn’t want us to end up in Hell”
Me: “I asked this to [Lady Two] last week, so I’ll ask you too if you don’t mind: Could you live an eternity of happiness in heaven knowing that people were being fried and tortured in hell? And that they were suffering these torments because of nothing more than them having had a different opinion on religion whilst on earth.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “This is how I understand it: I won’t know about what’s happening to them. That’s something that God deals with as the Almighty. When I get to heaven there will be no sadness, I won’t even be thinking about people in hell”
Me: “So you’ll just forget about them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “That part of my memory will be gone”
Me: “It all sounds rather sinister to me”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Sinister?”

Lady Two jumps in:

Lady Two: “I believe it’s not the father’s will to lose one child. I think he wants to save everybody. I think he’s trying to save us by using Christians and the Holy Spirit, and things like that. We as Christians are trying to witness, we’re trying to get everyone saved. We’re trying to get everyone nice and peaceful with him [God] before they die, so that it’s a safe passage through for them”
Me: “Well, I’ve said this before but he could have created a system where everyone was peaceful with him from the beginning.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But then we’d have been robots, Stephen”

Oh dear, here we go again. So much for me keeping quiet for the remainder of the evening…

Me: “I don’t understand your line of thinking at all, sorry. Using that kind of reasoning we’re all going to be robots in heaven, then.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “What God has done is this: In the Old Testament he used one nation – Israel – to say, “Look, here’s the laws. You try and live by them”. And they tried time and time again but failed time and time again. They just couldn’t do it”
Me: “But God knew that in advance”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, he knew that”
Me: “So why bother?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “So that they couldn’t come to him and say “You never gave us a chance to come to you with our own free will. You made us robots””
Me: “So why would he get upset with them if he knew exactly what they were going to do before he even created them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Because as a father you know what you want your kids to do. Are you a dad, Steve?”
Me: “No, I don’t have any children. Not yet anyway.” [EDIT: My first child, a beautiful baby boy, was born on the 23rd of January 2010]
Long-Standing Male Member: “With my kids if there’s something they should do and they don’t do it, and they hurt themselves, I get very cross. That’s how I picture God. He sees the nation of Israel the same way I see my kids. If my kids are messing about at the top of the stairs I’ll shout “Don’t do that, you might fall!””
Me: “Your analogy might work if God wasn’t omniscient. But he is, so it doesn’t. You don’t know every event – past, present and future. God does. You may have an inkling that your kids may hurt themselves, but then again they may not. God knows precisely what each person will do before it even happens. Would you place your kids at the top of a flight of very steep and hazardous steps knowing in advance that they would fall and kill themselves? You’d get locked up for that, wouldn’t you? But this is what God has done. He’s put mankind on earth knowing in advance that they would fall. Knowing in advance that millions of kids would be tortured and raped, that billions would starve to death, and so on”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God is looking at the end game”
Me: “And if you knew that the “end game” would be that your kids fell to their deaths down the steep steps, would you place them there?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “It’s like stopping your kids from putting their hands close to a coal fire. You teach your kids not to go near the coal fire”
Me: “That’s not what I’m asking.”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “Ask again”
Me: “If you knew in advance that by placing your kids at the top of some steep, hazardous steps they would fall to their deaths, would you place them there?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “It depends what my goal is.”
Lady Three: [Turns to me] “You’re saying that what God has done to us is like him putting some kids at the top of some stairs knowing they would fall. That’s how you see it. But I don’t see it like that. I see that God has made a perfect place and he’s placed his ultimate creation – which is a man and a woman – in a perfect garden with just a guideline”
Me: “Yes, he placed them in the garden knowing in advance exactly what was going to happen”
Lady Three: “Its not like he’s left them at the top of some dangerous stairs. He’s left them in a safe environment with instructions that would keep them safe”
Me: “But it wasn’t a safe environment. He placed them in a garden with a tree bearing fruit that would ruin the future of mankind, if eaten. This is a “safe environment”? Was a garden that contained Satan himself, who was on the prowl looking for a couple of human victims, a “safe environment”? God put them there knowing in advance what would happen.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “He did that because of love. It was because of love. Because he loves us he gives us free will. You’re struggling with the free will bit”
Me: “No, I’m struggling with the fact that God could have created a system where pain, agony, torture and death weren’t necessary.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “If he didn’t give us free will he’d always be controlling us. If we didn’t have free will we couldn’t do wrong even if we wanted to do wrong”
Me: “Supposedly we have free will in heaven, yet never do any wrong. If this sort of free will is possible then God could have given us it in the first place. No kids tortured, no innocent people murdered, no rapes, no muggings, no assaults, nothing like that need ever happen. But God didn’t give us that sort of free will. He gave us the kind where people WILL commit all the atrocities I just mentioned. And, worst of all, he knew it all in advance. And you honestly want us to believe that he loves and cares for us?”
Lady Two: “God wants us to do his will. He wants a relationship with us. That’s the point. He wants the relationship to be lovely and happy. He knows that if we keep in his will we’ll be happy and safe”

The pastor joins in:

Pastor: “You’re looking at this from a completely human point of view, Steve. I gave you a scripture the other day about God’s ways being higher than our ways. The reason why God has done it is beyond our comprehension”
Me: “But that doesn’t answer the question. All you’re saying, basically, is that you’ve no idea [again?] why God set it up the way he did, with him knowing that billions of people would live short, sad, tortuous lives, but that we shouldn’t question God because he knows best, so we should just leave it at that. It’s not good enough. Sorry”
Pastor: [In a tone that suggests he’s just about had enough] “You’re not satisfied with our answers. Fine. But we have an answer that satisfies us”
Me: “Throwing your hands up in the air and saying “God knows best” is hardly an answer likely to be deemed satisfactory by any non-Christian”

Lady Three gets back in the mix:

Lady Three: “What you’re saying is that God should have made us robots”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to Lady Three] “Yes, that’s how I’m seeing what Steve is saying, too.”

Hammer and chisel anyone?

Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to me] If you were God how would you do it?”
Me: “I’d create a paradise where people have the sort of free will that they will supposedly have in your idea of heaven. Where the only things they want to do are good things. No rape, murder, assault, and heartache. Just a wondrous place where everyone shows immense love for one another, and where everyone gets along. An eternity of peace, happiness and well-being. That’s how I’d do it. So what I’m asking you is this: Could God create a system where people have a version of free will where the possibility of raping and abusing children is not there? If you say, “Yes” then I’d like for you to explain to me why God didn’t create such a system in the first place.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Because God is after perfect holiness, perfect righteousness. Not a watered down version”
Me: “So in order for a select few to achieve this state of holiness they must go through a system where the majority of God’s creations are nothing more than collateral damage, as they starve to death, are raped, abused, tortured, and so on?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes”
Me: “I don’t think there’s anything further to add”

Lady Three thinks she has a solution to the problem:

Lady Three: “The reason why kids are raped is because Satan has influenced people. It’s not because God created it like that.”
Me: “You’re missing the point altogether. God created Satan, knowing in advance what he would do. God could have created a system without Satan, without pain and suffering, and without gratuitous evil. But he didn’t. Ultimately the buck stops with God”

The discussion suddenly turns into a heated free-for-all. Everyone in the group is trying to get their point across to me, and it becomes somewhat of an inaudible jumble. I sit for a moment shaking my head. Lady Three can see that things are getting out of control and tries to shush the baying crowd. The most vociferous of them all is the new Christian male, who’s doing his best to shout over the top of everybody else. As they say, there is none so passionate as a new convert.

Lady Three manages to quieten everyone down and asks me to carry on with what I was saying. I’m thankful to Lady Three. Once again she proves to me that she is the best of the bunch. I ask the question once again:

Me: “God could have created a system where humans live in paradise from the very beginning, just like how you all believe you will live in heaven. If God is so concerned for human welfare, and for us all to worship him, why didn’t he just do that in the first place?”
Pastor: “Well, we’ve answered that question. That was God’s choice and his ways are better than our ways.”

I’m beginning to think that someone should nominate me for the Queen’s Honours List, for my sustained and dedicated services to patience, of course.

The pastor continues:

Pastor: “You just want to blame God. You just want robots. I’m telling you that God didn’t want robots.”
Me: “You’ve told me that heaven is going to be perfect. We’re all going to get along and we’re all going to love each other”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah”
Me: “But God could have made it that way from the off. We don’t need billions of innocent casualties in order to achieve complete happiness.”

The new Christian male then goes into a tirade about how Satan (in the guise of a “smooth talking serpent”) deceived Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge. Satan is to blame for all the world’s ills.

“And who created a garden with such a serpent in it?” asks my fellow sceptic.

Pastor: “I understand your argument. You want to blame God”
Me: “God created the system, did he not?”
Pastor: “I can only give the answer that I’ve given to you. It doesn’t satisfy you, and I can’t change that. But I’ve answered your question”
Me: “With respect, you haven’t really. All you’ve said is God knows best. It doesn’t answer anything”
Pastor: “I accept your argument that it would have been nice to get to heaven without all the raping and the killing. I agree with you on that, but that’s not the way God has chosen. He’s chosen it to be like this instead. I don’t know why.”
Me: “If God chooses it to be like this – a system where innocent people are victims – what, then, makes you so convinced that God is all good, and that he has even the slightest interest in our welfare?”
Pastor: “The fact that God is holy. And because he is so holy no other created being has the right, however good they may be, to be in his presence because that created being is not holy. We are not worthy of being in his presence. Until you perceive the holiness of God, and the miracle of anything else standing in his presence, you have no understanding of the miracle of grace. Until you recognise the holiness and that God is God is God is God [huh?] then human argument and reason can never understand why this dilemma has happened”
Me: “I admire your attempt to explain the situation, but, with respect, and try as I may, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, to be honest.”

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”
New Christian Male: “I think if you didn’t love God he would kick you out of heaven until you said sorry to him”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. I’ve just got to make sure that I listen to Jesus and obey what God’s word says. It’s living that Christian life. I’m preparing myself NOW for when I get to heaven. So when you ask if I have the choice not to love God when I get to heaven the answer is no, because I’m making the choice now.”
Me: “No choice in heaven? So you’re a robot in heaven, then”
Long-Standing Male Member: “No, because I’ve made the choice here.”

The words, “This”, “Is”, “Like”, “Talking”, “To”, “A”, “Brick”, and “Wall” spring to mind, possibly in that order, too.

Long-Standing Male Member: “Would you murder someone?”
Me: “No, of course not”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Not loving God is the same way, it’s like murder. So I’m not going to do it.”
Me: “We’re going round in circles”.
Long-Standing Male Member: “God doesn’t want murder. He doesn’t even want white lies. When you use the example of children being raped you’re using a very emotional topic.”
Me: “Because it’s probably the worst thing I can think of. The simple fact of the matter is that God created a system where such atrocious things can and will occur. And he knew all of this in advance.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God wants relationships to be pure and holy”
Me: “As I keep saying, God could have made it so that we had pure and holy relationships without anyone ever raping a defenceless, innocent child. But he didn’t.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah, he didn’t”
Me: “Yet you cling to the belief that this God character is all-loving and wants no one to come to harm. I don’t know how you can reconcile that belief with the evidence we have around us in the world”
Long-Standing Male Member: “The reason he didn’t make it without all those nasty things is because he’s given us the free choice. We surrender our lives to God. Being a Christian is not easy. Some people don’t want to be Christians because they don’t want to change their lifestyle.”
Me: “I’d be willing to change if I knew of some evidence in favour of what you’ve had to say. But genuinely I know of none.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “The only way to please God is by faith”

Brilliant this, isn’t it? As I’m typing up this transcript I’m sure I’ve headbutted the wall at least twice, and sprouted a dozen or so more grey hairs.

Long-Standing Male Member: “Faith comes by hearing the word, so you need to spend more time reading the Bible”

I sit back, take a sip from my glass of water and hope [maybe I should pray?] that someone talks about something else. The pastor looks at his watch. It’s 9pm, time for the session to end. The pastor explains that he has to leave immediately in order to make an important phone call. He states that we are free to continue our discussion, though, and that we can stay over for as long as we want. He may even manage to get back before we’ve all gone home, he says. He gets up out of his chair and thanks me for attending. I joke, “You’re leaving? I was just on the brink of giving my life to Christ!” The group laughs, and the pastor shakes my hand and tells me that he hopes that I’ll stay in touch.

As the pastor exits the building Lady Two turns to me and says:

Lady Two: “God is just waiting. The night that I found him [here we go] he was just waiting for me, too. He was waiting for me to reach up to him, you see. As soon as I reached up to him, as a child would, I was looking at him as a God who was white. That’s how I saw him. I didn’t question it, I just thought, “God, you are white. If you’re there, and you’re the God of that Bible, then you’re white and I want to be your child. You know?”
Me: [Trying to nip this in the bud] “Like I’ve said before quite a few times in the past, that’s fair enough”
Lady Two: “That’s how I saw it. He met me in ABSOLUTE LOVE. It was… it was… I can’t describe the ABSOLUTE LOVE that it was. It was just ABSOLUTE LOVE being poured into me. Because I’d reached up to him, in a child-like way, and recognised that if he was there then I wanted to be right with him.”
Me: “Great”
Lady Two: “That was all I needed to do. It was as SIMPLE AS THAT. And that is what he’s waiting for, he’s waiting for his children to say sorry for what they’ve done wrong, that they recognise their sins, they recognise where they’ve been out of line with him, and they’re just saying sorry for it. They’re saying “I want to be your child, I want you in my life and I want to follow your way”. And that’s all he wants.”
Me: [Trying my best to just agree with her] “Ok”
Lady Two:I’M NOT A LIAR, I’M NOT A LIAR. It was simple. All you need to do is go to your maker, go to that place in your mind and APPEAL to him. It’s as simple as that. For me it was over in a space of two minutes, it was all done with. He had ABSOLUTELY convinced me 100% that it was all true.”
Me: [Doing my best to tread carefully here] “I don’t think for one moment that you’re lying to me. But you must remember that people can say things that are false without actually telling a lie. A lie requires intent. Lets say that [the long-standing male member] tells me that he used to live in Australia for twenty years. He would be lying. But I wouldn’t know that. If I went and told you that he used to live in Australia for twenty years I would be spreading a falsehood, but I wouldn’t be lying. He would be lying to me but I wouldn’t be lying to you. Being led to believe a certain thing, which unbeknownst to you is false, does not mean that you’re lying if you then go and tell someone about it. You’d just be mistaken. There’s a difference. Like I say, I don’t think you’re lying to me at all. I think you’re completely convinced by all of this.”

Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to me] “I’d like to ask you something, Steve. Over the last eleven weeks how do you think we have shared the Gospel with you? In a way I’m kinda asking for a review of how you’ve viewed what we have had to say.”

[That’s interesting, isn’t it? I wonder if this website might be of some assistance?]

Me: “I think you’re all incredibly sincere and passionate people. I’m quite fond of all of you.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Have we shared the Gospel with you? Have we communicated the Gospel to you as best we can? Have we communicated to you that Jesus is God, that he came down as a human being, gave up his divine powers, died on the cross for our sins and rose again?”
Me: “Sure”
Long-Standing Male Member: “There’s something that’s been hitting home to me this week and for some reason I’ve felt the need to share it with you. None of us, NONE OF US, deserve to go to heaven. Ok? I deserve to go into heaven as much as the person who is raping a three year old kid. Which is NIL. Ok? None of us deserve to go into heaven. It’s purely God’s choice to give us the opportunity to go into heaven. That’s what the Gospel is. I believe what I believe, and that’s how it is. And when you tell me to look at another faith, and how they supposedly “prove” their arguments, my faith is strong enough not to be fazed by it. Just like your faith is strong enough to make you think, “No, there is no God””
Me: [Laughs] “No, that’s not my faith at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve said such a thing in all of the eleven weeks that I’ve been here.”
Lady Two: [Turns to me excitedly] “You want to believe that there is a God! You WANT to believe that there IS!
Me: “Well, not really. I don’t WANT to believe that there is a god. I’m just interested to know if there is a god or not. But, as it stands at the moment, I have no reason for believing that there is a god. Especially not the kind of god who is supposedly all-loving, and who supposedly has a vested interest in the welfare of human beings, yet for the entirety of human history has allowed kids to be raped in their millions.”
Lady Two: “But God HATES that. It’s not what he wanted!”
Me: [Tongue in cheek] “Well, I think it’s best if I decline the opportunity to repeat myself for the 114th time”

All of the group smile and take my comment as a lighthearted acceptance that we’re not going to solve anything on this particular problem. That is all of the group with the exception of the new Christian male, who looks at me and says:

New Christian Male: “Let’s hope that you’re not forced into believing in God when something bad happens to you.”
Me: “Well, let’s not hope for that, hey?”
New Christian Male: “That’s the only way some people can come to understand God. With my hand on my heart I hope it doesn’t take that for you to believe in God. But if it does then you know why.”

This is nothing but a veiled threat. I’m sure anyone else with less patience than I would have told him where to go, and very promptly, and perhaps with an accompanying scuff of the earlobe for good measure. I understand, though, that he’s just keen to fit in with the group, he’s trying his best to be “one of them”, and this often clouds his judgment. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and I choose not to respond in the way that many people might have.

A few moments later we are discussing charity, and the group tell me about how some Christians work tirelessly for charity. I agree with them, yes, some Christians do work tirelessly for charity, as do some atheists and some Muslims, some Sikhs and some Hindus. To which the new Christian male responds “Yeah, but they’re just jumping on the bandwagon”

I take the group back a few weeks, and take the opportunity to remind them of the session when the pastor laid hands on me. He asked God to reveal himself to me but I’ve heard nothing from God since. There’s been no sign of this God character anywhere. I ask the group why they think God failed to show. No one seems particularly keen to offer an explanation. That is until the new Christian male chimes up with his own theory:

New Christian Male: “When you talk to Muslims do you talk about Allah with them?”
Me: “Of course”
New Christian Male: “Then that is why God is saying, “I won’t speak to you unless you come away from Allah””
Me: “Eh? So I’m not allowed to talk to Muslims?”
New Christian Male: “Talk to Muslims, yes, but don’t talk to them about their faith. Because God thinks you’re going to go to Allah”
Me: “I have to understand what it is that people believe. To do that I have to talk to them about it”
New Christian Male: “You might go home at night and ask God to reveal himself to you but he might be thinking, “Why should I reveal myself to Steve when he’s talking to Muslims about Allah?” God is saying “If Steve wants to be with me then he cannot listen to Allah” So if you don’t talk to Allah then God will talk to you. Then you’ll hear God. Read the Old Testament. When Hezekiah became king of Judah he did evil in the eyes of the Lord. When he decided to talk to another god he was punished by the real God”

Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

The long-standing male member has, what he thinks, a better explanation for why it is that God never revealed himself to me:

Long-Standing Male Member: “I think the more time you spend reading the Bible, especially the New Testament, at some stage the Holy Spirit will reveal himself. That’s why they call it the living word. It’s where the Holy Spirit can take the word and apply it to my life to make me more like Jesus. The reason why God wants us to surrender our lives to him is so that we can become more like Jesus. God wants us to be exactly like Jesus. The two hours or so that you’ve been spending here every week try to use that time in the future for reading the New Testament. It’s great that you’re reading lots of other books. I’m not saying don’t read other books. But if you’re REALLY seeking God then read the New Testament”
Me: “I’ve read the New Testament several times”
New Christian Male: “Every night, every night, you must read it every night”
Lady Two: “When I was a hoper, Stephen, I used to think “Even if it’s not true I want to support it in terms of the way I live my life and the way I treat other people”. Because it’s the nicest ideology, it’s the nicest story going. You know, that a saviour had come to save me from my sins and to show me the way to live my life properly and everything. When I was a hoper, like you, I used to analyse it too. I used to think, “Well, it’s a fantastic story, and even if it’s not true I’m going to try and live my life largely as much as I can to follow it”. I tried to be kind and I tried to say nice things to people because I came to the conclusion that out of all the ways to live your life it was the best one to follow. You know? The ideology was so nice, that God loved us so much that he’d done his utmost to make us live a nice life and a happy life and everything, by following him and working for him. It gave my life purpose, it gave my life direction, it made life fruitful because I would meet other people who were kind and who kept on the straight and narrow as well. They treated each other with respect and everything. Everything was nice about it. So I was always that hoper following it. You know?”

My fellow sceptic looks at me and, with a wink and a shake of the head, states, “You must try harder, Steve”. Everyone laughs.

We’ve over run the time by about 45mins but we’ve all enjoyed our chat and this seems as good a time as any to call a close to the evening. I tell the group that I have really appreciated their time, and that I have enjoyed the course immensely. They thank me for attending.

Lady Three asks, “We’d like to say a final prayer if that’s alright. Is that alright?”. My fellow sceptic and I reply with an “Of course. No problem”

Lady Three: “Heavenly father, we thank you for this course. It has given us the chance to get together and talk about you and to debate different ideas. Lord, I just pray that it would be great if you did reveal yourself to them. To show the truth and the reality of what you’re about, Lord. We can’t persuade them, Lord, it’s got to be you, in a way that is tangible and real to them. Lord, only you know the depth of their hearts and where they are. Lord, thank you for the time we’ve spent together and thank you for the friendships that have developed over the great evenings we’ve had together. Lord I pray that you watch over us and keep us safe, and we ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord.”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

Lady Two has a go:

Lady Two: “Thank you, God, that your Holy Spirit is evidently working in both their hearts, that they’re searching for you as they are and that they come to the meetings every week like they do. You are working in them and that’s obvious, Lord. I just earnestly ask, Lord, that you would not leave them alone. Not let them have rest. I don’t want them to have rest, Lord, until they’ve tussled it out and found you, Lord. I just want them not to give up and to be wrestling with it, and to be searching for you, and for them not to be happy with the direction of their lives until they have made a commitment, Lord, and for you to reach down and make yourself real to them, Lord. I just want that, Lord, because I know it means a lot to them and I know that to have come here for eleven weeks it is obvious that both of them are searching and both of them would love a direction in life which is so holy, so purposeful, and so lovely. I just pray, Lord, that they will both find it in their own time and in their own way. In Jesus’ name. Amen. “
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

The room remains silent for a moment or two, then gradually the Christians in the group open their eyes and look approvingly towards my fellow sceptic and I.

People start to move out of their seats and I help Lady Two clear the pots away. On our walk to the kitchen we all chat about family life and such.

I approach my fellow sceptic and tell him that it was lovely to meet him. Shame we didn’t really get to chat together all that much. When everything is cleared away I put on my coat and say my goodbyes for the last time. I wish everyone well then head for the door. As I open the door to exit the church I bump into the pastor who is on his way back in. We shake each other’s hand and wish each other well for the future. “Stay in touch”, he says. I pat him on the shoulder; thank him for his patience and then I slip him a little bit of money as my contribution towards the cheesecakes and fruit salads that have been on offer over the last eleven weeks. “That’s very kind of you, Stephen” says the pastor. One last final handshake and then I open the church door and head back to my car for the journey home.

My time on the Alpha Course has come to an end.

November 24, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 152 Comments

WEEK 10: “What About The Church?”

The group is one person short this evening as Lady Three has failed to put in an appearance. Maybe last week’s prayers worked wonders on her injured knee, and subsequently a British cycling team has snapped her up to compete in the Tour De France? Yes, with God all things are possible.

Joking aside, none of the group has heard from her, so they are surprised that she’s not in attendance. I hope she’s ok.

After a moment or two I dig into my jacket pocket, pull out a piece of paper and say, “I’ve brought the Bible verse that you asked for”. The pastor smiles and rubs his hands together, eager to see what I’ve come up with. “Let’s have a look then”, he says eagerly.

“Actually I found two verses of that nature, but I don’t know if there’s any more”, I say as I hand the long-standing male member the piece of paper. “TWO??”, he shrieks in astonishment.

He reads carefully. He looks to the pastor, who is sitting beside him, and reads aloud the verse location, “Numbers 31:17-18”. The pastor opens up his Bible and searches for the verses in question.

There’s a quiet moment as the pastor reads them. His face drops a little, and a few seconds later he looks up from the page and dejectedly admits, “Yep, you’re right”

There’s more silence before Lady Two gets out of her seat and walks towards the pastor. She asks, “What does it say?”. The pastor reads aloud the offending verses:

[Numbers 31:17-18] “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” [NIV]

And…

[Judges 21:10-12] “So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.” They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan.” [NIV]

My fellow sceptic, who is grinning from ear to ear, asks the group in his inimitable dry style, “Are you guys trying to tell me you didn’t know about that?”.

No one answers.

“If I may ask, what does everyone here think of verses like that? Do you think that they are examples of morally acceptable behaviour?”, I ask.

New Christian Male: “No, I think it’s wrong”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to the new Christian male] “Well, yeah, on face value… just by reading that sentence”

He says that as if in the hope that there’s some deeper meaning to it all, which we’ve most probably overlooked, that will ultimately shed God in good light. That’s right, God comes out of it smelling of roses no matter what. Like I’ve said before, no amount of evidence will budge these people from believing that 1) God is perfectly good, and 2) The Bible is God’s perfect love letter to his children.

Pastor: “This is just my view but I think he was seeking to bring purity to the Israelites.”

Purity? Is this guy serious?

Pastor: “You see, you judge that from a 21st century, western background. And we’d all say yes, in the 21st century, that wouldn’t be morally acceptable”
Me: “Would God have considered it morally acceptable behaviour back then?”
Pastor: “Obviously, because he allowed it”

So if God allows things to happen then he obviously considers them morally acceptable? Children being raped, old ladies mugged, innocent people tortured and killed? All these things happen today, so, according to the pastor’s principle, God must consider them morally acceptable. What kind of monster are they making God out to be? This is ludicrous.

The long-standing male member asks me if I’d like to live in a world without Christian morals. “What do you mean by “Christian morals”?”, I ask. He replies by reeling off a couple of the Ten Commandments, such as thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not kill. I state that I don’t need knowledge of the Christian God or his Bible in order to know not to steal and not to kill.

Pastor: “We have a moral absolute that stealing is wrong”
Me: “Don’t you think there are occasions when it could be deemed “good” to steal?”
New Christian Male: [Dumbfounded by my suggestion] “HOW??”
Me: “Let’s try this hypothetical example: A terrorist has hijacked a plane. He has a loaded gun pointed at the pilot’s head and he’s commanding him to head for Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone onboard the terrorist intends to have the plane slammed into a skyscraper, killing hundreds of passengers onboard and thousands of innocent people on the ground. Suddenly a split-second opportunity arises where you are able to steal the terrorist’s gun by snatching it out of his hand, thus saving the lives of thousands of innocent people. Would stealing this man’s gun be a “good” thing to do?”
Pastor: “Yes, but I’d hardly call it “stealing”, though”
Me: “To “steal” is to take someone’s property without their consent.”
New Christian Male: [Struggling to think of a quick answer] “But… but… it [the gun] is not his property…. because he doesn’t have a licence for it”

What??!! I’ve offered up a thought experiment about a terrorist that has hijacked an aeroplane, and the new Christian male somehow knows that my invented character hasn’t been issued with a licence for his firearm?? That has to be the craziest comment I’ve heard in a long time. Funny though (albeit unintentionally).

Long-Standing Male Member: “This is how I see it if Jesus was onboard: He [Jesus] wouldn’t go and steal the gun. He’d work in a far different realm, because Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek”.”
Me: “He wouldn’t have just turned the other cheek when confronted with a hijacker who was about to kill thousands of people, surely?”

The pastor intervenes, “Anyway, shall we watch tonight’s DVD?”

Yeah, why not.

Gumbel starts by asking, “Is it possible to be a Christian – to be a follower of Jesus – and not go to church? What does “going to church” mean? What is “Church?””

He tells us of the time, before he was a Christian, of how whenever he heard the word “church” his heart used to sink. Of course since becoming a Christian he views the church in a completely different light, “At the heart of the church is something amazing, something wonderful, something beautiful”. Filled with pride he exclaims, “I LOVE the Church!”

He has a number of reasons for feeling as he does. First reason why he loves the church so much is because, “The Church is the people of God.”

He tells us that, “We become a member of the Church not by birth but by new birth. He then states that “Jesus spoke about being born of water and the spirit”, and that Jesus “commanded his disciples to baptise”

He continues, “Becoming a Christian involves three things: First of all, something WE do… Repentance and faith. Secondly, something GOD does… He gives us the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, something the CHURCH does… Baptism.”

“Baptism is a kind of visible mark of what it means to be a member of the Church”, he adds.

Gumbel states that thousands of people become Christian’s everyday, it’s just that we (Western Europeans) don’t recognise this fact. “We live in Western Europe, and the Church has been in decline for fifty to eighty years”, admits Gumbel. But he states, basically, that we’d be mistaken to conclude that such a decline is ubiquitous. He used to look at it the same way, but that was because he had – as he puts it – a “totally blinkered, narrow view of the world”. He then tells us how the Church in Africa is “growing faster than ever!”. This is an interesting fact that I hope to discuss with the pastor later on in the evening.

The second reason he loves the Church so much is, “because it’s a family!”. He continues, “It’s a family of God. When you come into a relationship with God you come into a family””

Gumbel has to regretfully admit that “The history of the Church has been a sad one because it’s been a story of disunity”. He then tells us that people look at the Church and think, “If you guys cant even agree amongst yourselves what you believe in, why should I be interested?”. He’s absolutely right. That’s precisely what many people think.

But Gumbel isn’t without hope because, as he says, “Jesus prayed. Just before he died Jesus prayed that we would be one so that the world would believe.”. This speaks volumes about the supposed efficacy of prayer, doesn’t it? Even Jesus himself is still waiting for his prayers to be answered!

The third reason why he loves the Church is because “the way in which people see Jesus today. It’s the body of Christ”

Gumbel states that, as Christians, “Each of you represents Jesus, wherever you go”. Let’s hope that isn’t true, if history is anything to go by. The Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Witch burners, the abortion surgeon murderers… all of these cretins represent Jesus? My goodness.

The fourth reason why he loves the Church is, “It’s where we experience the presence of God in a special way”

He then claims that “There’s a longing for God in every human heart, whether people admit it, acknowledge [it], recognise [it], or not, there’s a longing for God”. I wonder how he would define “God” in this instance? The capitalised “G” of the Christian variety, or the generic god with the small “g”? It’s an important distinction that needs to be made, and Christians are often guilty of blurring the two when it suits them.

And another thing, what are we to think of Christians who claim that it is true that everyone longs for their God whether they recognise it or not? How does that work? This brings to mind the story told by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr, who, when asked for the reason why he had a horseshoe stuck to his front door if he was so against superstitious thinking, replied (with tongue in cheek) that it was there because he’d been told that it would bring good luck whether he believed in it or not. Christians are offering us their own kind of horseshoe, and it goes by the name of Jesus.

The fifth reason why Gumbel loves the Church is because “Jesus loves the Church. It’s his bride. The Church is the bride of Christ.”

A smiley-faced Gumbel then tells us how much he loves his job. Yes, he wants us to know that the Church is great, God is great, and Christianity is great. Talk about a hard sell!

Gumbel returns now to his opening question, “So, is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church?” Gumbel offers the simple answer, “We don’t GO to church, you ARE the Church!”

Gumbel ends his presentation by stating “There’s only one way into the Church and that’s to say, “God, be merciful to me – a sinner.” And the moment we say that, God in his love says, “YOU are part of my people. You’re my family. You’re my representative. You’re my body on earth. You’re a holy temple, my spirit lives within you. You’re my bride””

Roll the credits…

On go the lights and back go the curtains.

The long-standing male member asks me how I felt about this week’s presentation. I’m determined not to be the focus of attention this evening because, believe it or not, I’m not at all comfortable playing the bad guy role week in week out. So I try to be as diplomatic as possible and tell him “I quite enjoyed it, thank you”. With me being one of only two sceptics on the course, and the other one being quite a quiet individual, it makes it hard not to be the one who is asking all the questions.

The pastor turns to my fellow sceptic and asks, “Anything strike you about that video tonight?”. My fellow sceptic responds by saying that he was surprised to learn that the word “Church” doesn’t necessarily apply to a building but to a group of people. He remarks that to him the word “Church” brings up thoughts of a “freezing building with very narrow and uncomfortable seating. Somewhere you were made to go.”. He also says that the Church has done an excellent job over the years of fleecing people of their money and property. “Churches are always looking for money”, he adds. Generally, then, it would seem that my fellow sceptic has a negative view of the Church.

I take a back seat as my fellow sceptic vents his spleen. It’s nice to see him air his views like this. I’m quite happy to sit and listen. For the time being at least.

He then reveals to the group that he was under the impression that the Alpha Course was supposed to be aimed at people like him (and me) – i.e. people who were sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity – but to his disappointment he found the course to be aimed more at the casual Christian, someone who is looking to have his or her faith boosted, someone in need of a spiritual enema. I’m in full agreement, as I certainly don’t think that the course caters well enough for non-believers, and certainly not at all well enough for the informed sceptic.

The new Christian male tells us that he finds the course remarkable because “every time I watch a presentation it answers the questions that I’d been thinking about the week before! I have a question one week and lo and behold the following week it’s answered!”

My fellow sceptic points out that this is probably the case due to the fact that the new Christian male takes home the DVD’s and watches them one week in advance. A red-faced new Christian male has obviously forgotten that he told us this only a few weeks ago. Tut tut.

Despite being a non-Christian, and totally unconvinced by the Christian claims, my fellow sceptic reveals that he occasionally takes trips with the long-standing male member (his next-door neighbour) to Christian festivals, mainly because he’s keen on the outdoors and enjoys camping and such. He tells us of the time he attended the “Grapevine Festival“, and how on that particular occasion, during a performance by a Christian rock group, the seating collapsed in the marquee, which housed 5,000 or so people at the time.

Fortunately no one was killed, but about a dozen or so were seriously injured. “How could this happen to people who were worshipping God?”, asks my fellow sceptic. He then tells us how flabbergasted he was as the tragedy unfolded to see people praying to God rather than rushing to help the injured. As my personal favourite writer, Robert G. Ingersoll, once famously said, “The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray”.

A quick Google search for the Grapevine incident reveals a few interesting remarks made by Christians on various websites. One states, “Most of all we want to thank God for being with us at Grapevine on this day and a very big thank you for all the emergency services and the volunteers involved in helping getting these people from under the seating”

It’s understandable that this person would offer thanks to the emergency services who actually did something to help. But why would God get any of the thanks? Thanks for what? For allowing a dozen or so of his passionate followers to get crushed by a seating collapse?

Another comment, on a different website, by someone who also attended Grapevine on that unfortunate day, states, “It was terrifying but I trusted in the Lord, and no-one was killed – most people were able to walk out”. God gets the thanks even when innocent people are hurt! If 25 kids had been crushed to death at that festival I could imagine Christians saying something like this, “It was terrifying but I trusted in the Lord, it was a miracle that only 25 kids were killed – it should have been many more. Thank God that most people were able to walk out”.

Better still, the same guy who offered the above quote goes on to say, “I think the devil is at work in lots of places… “. That’s right, the devil is to blame for the seating collapse!

Like I’ve said in a previous week, Christians have no difficulty believing that their God is pure goodness, even when he drowns the world’s population, infants and all [see Genesis]. They will not budge from the conviction that God is complete and utter love, even when he executes the dimpled-cheeked first-born babies of a certain people, all because he wants to punish the leader of their nation [see Exodus]. Mind boggling, isn’t it? I’m sure there’s some similarity here between this kind of mentality and that of “Battered Spouse Syndrome”, where the abused will actually defend the abuser if someone happens to point the finger of accusation in their direction. Sufferers of BSS will blame themselves for the abuse and hardship that is meted out to them, even though they are perfectly innocent and undeserving of the abuse they receive. Isn’t this somewhat like Christians who look upon themselves as worthless, miserable sinners who are deserving of eternal torture from their supposedly “loving” and “merciful” God?

It’s worth thinking about.

Suddenly the door opens and in walks a lady who I haven’t seen before. It turns out to be the pastor’s wife. She says hello and the pastor points to me and says, This is Stephen”. It strikes me as though she’s come to see the strange doubter who asks too many questions. She sits at the back and watches the proceedings. Unfortunately she’s picked the wrong night to come and hear what I have to say, as I’m taking somewhat of a back seat this evening.

The long-standing male member looks to his friend and neighbour, my fellow sceptic, and states “At the end of the day, when you stand before God and he asks you why you haven’t committed your life to the Lord, it wont be good enough to say “I didn’t believe in you because you allowed paedophiles to rape children, and that you allowed the seating to collapse at the Grapevine festival”. That is no excuse”

My Fellow Sceptic: “That won’t happen, because I won’t be stood there.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah, but what IF?”

At this point I interject and ask the long-standing male member “What IF it’s a different God when you get there?”. His response? “Then I’ll be the same as you, then”, he says.

So what was the point he was trying to make exactly? Did he have a valid point? I don’t think so.

Let’s go a little further with this. Who’s to say that there isn’t a god up there that rewards people who reject religious dogma? Maybe the “test” in this life is to remain an atheist? Maybe religion is the devil’s deception, the forbidden fruit? “What IF?” indeed. We can all dream things up and ask “What IF?” So what?

My fellow sceptic goes on to talk about the sad, gloomy atmosphere of most churches that he’s attended. And how there’s often a straight-faced, humourless old man stood at the front wearing a black dress, mumbling out a few drab words from an equally drab holy book. Wouldn’t it be better, asks my fellow sceptic, if these places were more accommodating to young people, and if the churches were headed by smiley-faced, fun-loving, energetic priests, pastors and vicars? He mentions that people like Lady Two would be better suited to such positions. “What would you rather see portrayed as the face of your church?” he asks. “I’m sure it would be [Lady Two’s] beaming, smiling face”, he adds.

My fellow sceptic then tells us, in a nice way, how after last week’s session Lady Two had collared him. “She’s obviously totally besotted [with God and the Bible]”, he states. I take from that that she’d given him a full frontal attack with her famed testimony. I wish I’d have stayed to see that!

The pastor picks up on what Gumbel had said in his presentation – that the Church is growing rapidly in places like Africa. “Why are Church attendances dropping off in Western Europe?” asks my fellow sceptic.

I add to the question by asking if there’s perhaps a correlation between levels of high education and the disbelief in God. In Western Europe, where education levels are higher than in most parts of the world, church attendance and religious belief are on the decline. Yet in areas where levels of education are poor, and where superstitious thinking is prevalent – such as parts of Africa and South America – church attendance and religious belief are on the increase.

And what about the surveys taken amongst top scientists, the crème de la crème of the National Academy of Sciences for instance? Of these highly educated people only 7% profess the belief in a personal god, and 93% of them do not.

Could it be argued that, on the whole, less educated people are more gullible and thus more susceptible to religious beliefs?

Pastor: “I think it’s because we [Western Europeans] think we have become self-sufficient and we don’t look beyond ourselves. When you have a comfy home, a nice car, a good job, and nice holidays you feel that you are more self-reliant. We must remember that Jesus came to a very uneducated place in Israel, and he chose lots of uneducated people as his disciples, such as fishermen.”

At this point the pastor changes the subject altogether and says, “Steve, I meant to bring you a book tonight but I forgot. I’ve been reading a book about the persecuted Church and I really felt that God told me to bring you it”. “Who is the author?” I ask. “Brother Andrew”, he replies.

Maybe he’ll bring it next week. I must say, though, it doesn’t sound particularly appealing unfortunately.

“Next week is the big, big finale”, the pastor announces enthusiastically. I jokingly ask if he has bottles of champagne on ice, and a fireworks display planned for the big occasion.

Tonight’s session is then brought to a close as the pastor says a prayer thanking us all for attending. He says a quick prayer for Lady Three, too, in the hope that she’s safe and well. I share his hopes and concerns, but I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Speaking of Lady Three he tells me that she’s been on the Internet looking up the ‘sons of god’ that I wrote down for her last week. “Yesterday she was here [using the Internet] for about four hours!” exclaims the pastor. Lady Three is obviously a studious sort, and I admire her effort. Maybe she’s compiled a dossier for me for next week? I get the feeling that I’m going to have to answer a lot of questions! Excellent.

As people head for the door the pastor walks over to where I’m sat and respectfully asks for me not to dismiss Christianity just because there are numerous other religions claiming very similar (and perhaps identical) “proofs”. I respond, in an equally respectful manner, that that is not the only thing stopping me from accepting Christianity. He then offers as an analogy my relatively recent purchase of a new car:

Pastor: “You chose a car to drive despite all the claims by other manufacturers. The fact that there are lots of claims, by lots of different manufacturers, hasn’t stopped you buying a car. Similarly, I don’t want the fact that there are lots of claims, by lots of different religions, to stop you from buying into Christianity and giving your life to Christ.”

I don’t doubt the existence of cars or their manufacturers. But let’s say that car manufacturers were making outlandish claims like for instance that their cars had a top speed exceeding the speed of light, or that they were invisible, or that they transcended time and space. But yet such manufacturers had absolutely no data whatsoever to support any such claims, nor could they demonstrate that such cars even existed in the first place. Then of course, yes, I’d probably tar all those manufacturers with the same brush. But what if one particular manufacturer invited sceptical members of the public to visit their head offices, where a group of employees promised to demonstrate the truth of their claims over a period of several weeks? And what if members of the public went along to such meetings, hoping that the employees could do just that – but discovered that in reality they could not?

If I were one of the sceptical members of the public who had gone along to be shown that the car manufacturers claims were true, when in fact no evidence was presented to support such a thing, then I’d hardly be in a position to open up my chequebook and commit to buying one of their cars. Similarly I am in no position to commit my self to Christianity when I haven’t been offered any evidence whatever in support of the outlandish claims that it makes.

Pastor: “You need to say, “Christ, I want you to be my Lord and saviour. I want you to forgive me for my past. I want you to be Lord of my life, and I want you to come and fill me with your Holy Spirit. And if you do it I’ll live the rest of my life for you””
Me: “But like I’ve said before, I will do that if I have good reason to do so. But, as yet, I don’t have any good reason for doing that”
Pastor: “A reason could be that you trust us as people that you’ve known for the last ten weeks. All I’m saying to you is not to keep using the excuse, that there are lots of similar claims out there, to reject it [Christianity].”
Me: “With respect, that’s not what I’m doing. It’s simply a case of me listening to, and reading about, certain claims that quite clearly do not add up. And when I question certain people about these claims – which they say they can defend – it invariably ends with them being unable to answer simple questions, or them continually contradicting themselves, or them offering the exact same “supporting evidences” as someone of another religion could offer, and in which case they would then deem such “supporting evidences” to be wholly unsatisfactory. In all honesty it couldn’t get any weaker”

The long-standing male member then tells me, “Yes, but it’s all about faith!” as if that somehow solves the problem altogether, when in fact all it does is support what I’ve just said. Anyone from any religion can say, “Yes, but it’s all about faith!”. I think now is as good a time as any to bite my tongue and decline the temptation to respond. It’s for the best.

“Anyway, Steve, thank you for finding those Bible verses and for proving us wrong”, jokes the pastor. We all laugh, and so the session ends, as ever, in good spirits.

It’s been a relatively quiet get-together this evening. But seeing as next week is the Grand Finale, perhaps tonight’s session was merely the calm before the storm?

We’ll have to wait and see…

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

WEEK 9: “Does God Heal Today?”

The long-standing male member is back for this evening’s session. I’m happy about that because we get along well and he’s always good value for a quote or two.

As a group we sit chatting about our recent holidays. Lady Two serves me two glasses of cold water, which was very nice of her. I never eat any of the food on offer, even though I’m quite partial to the odd slice of cheesecake now and again, so perhaps Lady Two is making sure that I’m well stocked up with at least something. It’s no secret that I find her views on God to be somewhat bizarre, but I do actually like Lady Two a great deal. She’s a nice lady.

We have three sessions left of the Alpha Course, but, says the pastor, “we have potentially four talks to cover”. It would appear that one talk is going to have to bite the dust. The pastor continues, “So we need to decide which three we are going to do. I personally suggest that the session entitled, “Why And How Should I tell Others?”, is probably not relevant, so I recommend we do “Does God Heal Today?”, “What About The Church?” and finally “How Can I make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”. So if you’re happy that those are the three that I suggest we do, then let’s proceed.”

We all nod in approval.

So, off we go with week 9, with a presentation entitled, “Does God Heal Today?”

Gumbel begins by telling us of the time, almost thirty years ago, when a charismatic evangelical preacher from the USA, by the name of John Wimber, came to visit his church. Ever the sceptic (of course!), Gumbel tells us how he felt about this American gentleman: “When I saw [him] I was deeply cynical about him”, and “I was deeply suspicious”.

Gumbel continues, “He came and spoke here on the subject of the Holy Spirit, and healing, and wonderful things. But I still left deeply cynical”

The next night Mr Wimber came to speak again, and Gumbel arrived still “very, very cynical”. Wimber spoke primarily on the subject of healing that night, and during his speech he announced to the group, “After a coffee break we’re going to DO some healing”

Gumbel admits to being quite nervous at the prospect of such a thing happening in the church, and tells us that most of the congregation, in typifying the “British reserve”, weren’t too keen to get involved. All that showbiz/razzmatazz kind of stuff might appeal to an American audience, but not for the shy, retiring, self-deprecating British equivalent, intimates Gumbel.

After the coffee break the preacher told the audience that he and his team had been praying, and that they had been granted a few “words of knowledge”. Gumbel tells us that Mr Wimber then defined ‘words of knowledge’ as: “A supernatural revelation of facts about a person or situation, which is not learned by the efforts of the natural mind but is made known by the Spirit of God. This may be in the form of a picture, or words seen or heard in the mind, or a feeling experienced physically.”

Gumbel tells us that no one in the room expected anything special to happen. No one had high hopes for Mr Wimber’s routine to succeed. All of them were sceptical. In fact, admits Gumbel, some of them wanted to see the flamboyant preacher fail miserably.

The preacher stood at the front, thought deeply about the ‘words of knowledge’ he’d received from God during the coffee break, and then declared to the audience, “The first person is a man who injured his back aged fourteen, chopping wood.” To Gumbel’s surprise a gentleman from the audience stood up and identified himself as that very person. Gumbel then tells us several more people came forward after Wimber mentioned “back problems”. The preacher went through his divinely inspired list of personal information, and people came out of their seats “one after another after another after another” in response. Gumbel beams as he states, “we could feel the level of faith in the room rising!”

Gumbel then tells us that there was in fact ONE ‘word of knowledge’ that wasn’t responded to by any of the audience members. God hadn’t got it wrong, though, nor had the preacher misinterpreted the information from God. In fact the information was absolutely correct. The problem was that the person in the audience didn’t respond to the call because the information was of a delicate nature. It concerned a lady who was apparently barren. Allegedly she was unable to have children, and was understandably embarrassed to bring attention to herself. Gumbel sympathises with the lady in question by saying, “We’re British, we don’t even talk about things like that, let alone come forward in response to a word like that!”

The preacher waited. And he waited. Eventually the lady got out of her seat and bravely came forward. Gumbel tells us that the preacher “had no idea that she’d been trying for children for some time and that [she was] unable to conceive”. He also had no idea that the lady and her partner had been “having various tests” in the hope of identifying, and solving, the problem. Gumbel states that the preacher then, “prayed for her”.

You may be wondering what happened to that lady. I’ll let Gumbel break the news, “Nine months later she gave birth to a little baby boy!”

Even after the immensely successful healing and ‘words of knowledge’ demonstration, Gumbel says that for some reason he was still sceptical about the whole affair. So when he got home that night he “started to re-read the Bible, to see what it said on this whole subject of healing”

He continues, “Of course, God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession, but the more I look the more convinced I am that we should expect that God would also heal miraculously. Today!”

What does “God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession” supposed to mean? This is something that was mentioned last week. If doctors and nurses are trained to help people recover from illness and injury, and all this is done through natural means, then why the need to shoehorn a supernatural God into the equation? The simple fact of the matter is that “God” offers no explanatory power here at all.

“If you look in the Old Testament God promises healing for his people. It’s [in] his character to heal. He says, “I am the Lord that heals you” It’s part of his love for us!” exclaims Gumbel.

He then gives us an example of when a certain person was healed by God in the Bible. This is quickly followed by Gumbel assuring us that, “If God acted like that in the Old Testament, when there were only glimpses of the Kingdom of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we can confidently expect that he will do so even more now that Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. And the fact that we live now in the Age of the Spirit!”

Yes, we know all too well how God acted in the Old Testament! I’d have thought that Gumbel would have wanted to have kept that quiet!

He then tells us of the alleged “first recorded words of Jesus” which can be found in Mark 1:15, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”

Gumbel then passionately enthuses, “The first time Jesus came he came in weakness”, but we shouldn’t worry about that because “When he comes back he’ll come with power and great glory. History is moving towards this glorious climax”

I must say, if he were reading this straight from a comic book it wouldn’t sound any more childish. Supposedly sometime soon a powerful, invisible, cloud-hopping sky-deity is going to materialise from the ether and wave his magic wand to make everything better. I wonder if Mr Gumbel is willing to place a wager on that? If so, I’ll gladly act as his bookmaker.

Gumbel continues, “When Jesus returns it will be obvious to EVERYONE

Let’s hope so, because it wasn’t so obvious to everyone the first time he put in an appearance on earth! Remember this fact: NOT A SINGLE SOURCE OUTSIDE OF THE BIBLE MADE ANY MENTION OF HIM DURING HIS SUPPOSED LIFETIME. That’s right, not a single one. So, like I say, let’s hope Jesus does a better job of convincing people the second time around.

More comic-book style claims follow from Gumbel, “There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus himself will be there together with all those who love and obey him. It will be a place of intense happiness, which goes on forever. And we will all have new resurrection bodies that will never die!”

Even as I’m typing up this transcript I have to stop and make myself a cup of coffee. I have to have a break while I think to myself how it can be possible for seemingly intelligent, educated and mature adults to believe such obvious nonsense.

Gumbel then assures that “this future Kingdom is coming. It’s near!”. He tells us that Jesus told his disciples to go and spread the word and to heal the sick. “Healing is one of the signs of the Kingdom”, he adds.

Gumbel reveals more about the process of healing: “It’s God that heals, not us. There’s no technique involved. We pray with love and simplicity”.

Does God heal people because we pray? Or would he have healed them anyway? If it’s the former then he obviously wants us to beg before he acts. If it’s the latter then prayer achieves nothing, it’s merely an exercise in futility.

Gumbel then turns his attention to ‘words of knowledge’. “We have found that words of knowledge can be very helpful. It’s one of the ways in which God speaks” he says.

He then tells us of the time he had knee-cartilage surgery about four years ago. But the surgery wasn’t a success, as his knee problems started again shortly afterwards. One night at church someone had a ‘word of knowledge’ for “a right knee” and within no time three other people had received similar messages from God relating to a “right knee”.

Something tells me that perhaps the sight of Gumbel hobbling into church that evening may have had something to do with it. Not to mention the fact that Gumbel is well known in church circles, and many would have been already aware of his knee surgery anyway.

Gumbel eventually came forward and told the group that he did indeed have an injured right knee (much to their surprise?), and that God must have been referring to him in these ‘words of knowledge’. The church group then prayed for his knee. “And I’ve had no problems with it since then”, boasts Gumbel, proudly.

Like I said last week, this talented bunch of churchgoers should pay a visit to their local children’s hospital and set to work on curing some poor, pain-riddled, terminally ill youngsters. Sadly, though, God doesn’t seem keen for them to do their work in such places.

I often wonder, too, why such prayers never work on amputees? We always hear of people that are supposedly “miraculously healed” of headaches, sore throats, knee pains and back pains, but I don’t know of anyone having an arm or leg grow back after a prayer to the omnipotent God. That’s something to think about.

“It’s important to persist” with prayers, states Gumbel. We mustn’t “get discouraged if we don’t see immediate and dramatic results.”

How long do amputees have to wait, I wonder?

“The reason I go on praying is not so much that I’ve seen masses of people healed, but because Jesus commanded us to do it. And that’s why I would go on doing it even if NO ONE was healed”

How incredibly revealing.

Gumbel then finishes his presentation with, “God is a God that healed in the past and still heals today!”

The lights are switched on and the bowls of fruit salad are passed around. As the group are eating, the pastor says, “If anybody wants a prayer for healing, we can pray tonight”

Hopefully it will have more success than the last time they prayed for God to reveal himself to me. Like those amputees, I’m still waiting.

Lady Three mentions that she’s been having trouble with her knee recently, due to the fact that she’s just taken up cycling. The pastor says that he’ll pray for a healing later on. I’m looking forward to that. Hopefully she doesn’t jump out of her seat and start tap-dancing or body-popping immediately afterwards. I’ve managed to keep a straight face for eight weeks, and I’m hoping to keep it that way.

“So, any questions, reflections, or thoughts about tonight’s presentation before we pray for people?” asks the pastor.

Unsurprisingly I have a few questions for the group, but I keep quiet in the hope that someone else will offer something. But no one else does. The pastor shuffles his chair closer to the troubled knee of Lady Three. He’s warming up his hands and looks as though he’s about to summon God into the offending area. At this point the long-standing male member turns to me and says, “Go on, ask your question, Stephen”

Well, I suppose it would be rude not to…

Me: [I turn towards the pastor] “I’m just curious about this ‘healing’ thing. I asked [Lady Two] a similar question last week, so I’ll ask you something along the same lines. If I were to now offer up a prayer to Lord Vishnu in the hope that he would heal her problematic knee [the knee of Lady Three], what are you going to do if her knee gets better? Will I have offered you sufficient proof that Lord Vishnu answers prayers, or are you going to dismiss it out of hand?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “Errr…”
Lady Two: “It would just be coincidence”
Pastor: [In response to Lady Two] “Yeah, probably”
Me: “So why would you expect me to think any differently about the prayer you’re about to offer? What good reason would I have for believing that your prayer made her knee better? Surely the best explanation would be that it was “just a coincidence”, yes?”
Pastor: [Embarrassingly long pause] “Because…. of…. continued experience… of… of… healing, and… the belief that… Jesus told us to do that”

The pastor looks completely flummoxed by my simple question. His face is red and he looks noticeably uncomfortable. Maybe he’s just about had enough of my pesky questions…

The long-standing male member jumps in confidently, as if to rubbish my question:

Long-Standing Male Member: “Do you believe in any of those religions, Steve?”
Me: “No, of course not”
Long-Standing Male Member: “So if you say you’re praying to Vishnu then you’re not doing it in faith”
Me: “But the thing is I could do. And if I did you’d dismiss it, wouldn’t you?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “No”
Me: [Surprised] “Really? Then I’ll offer a genuine prayer to Vishnu tonight. Let’s see what happens.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Look, the devil counterfeits. When Nicky Gumbel talks about ‘words of knowledge’ and ‘healing’, the devil does the same.”
Me: “So if [Lady Three’s] knee gets better after your prayer could I say that the Christian God wasn’t responsible because he is nothing but one of the devil’s counterfeits? Could I say it was actually Vishnu who answered the prayer instead?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Nicky Gumbel pointed out that the motive for prayer has got to be love. It’s not how eloquent I am or how many big words I use. It’s none of that. It’s done in faith, and for the person we’re praying for it’s done with love. I don’t have to be a minister or a special person. It’s nothing to do with me. I’m just a channel that God uses.”
Me: “People of other religions pray in love and faith. They’re just as sincere as you are.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah”
Me: “But you wouldn’t accept their accounts of having prayers answered. You’d dismiss every single one of them”
Pastor: “Jesus never saw healing as a means to convincing people”
Me: “I’m not saying that he did. What I am saying, though, is that you would not be convinced by an identical account given by a Hindu, who claimed that his prayer was responsible for the healing of an individual’s knee. You wouldn’t see a causal link between that Hindu’s prayer and the recovery of an injured knee.”
Pastor: “No, I wouldn’t”
Me: “So, with respect, why would you expect us to believe that there’s a causal link between your prayer and [Lady Three’s] knee getting better?”

There’s another excruciatingly long pause as the pastor digs deep to think of an answer. Lady Three breaks the silence:

Lady Three: “The Christian faith works together with salvation. The Bible says that Jesus took upon himself our infirmities, our sorrows, and our sins. I can’t speak for the other faiths because I‘ve not really studied them. I don’t know what these other gods say about themselves but, for me, Jesus is there. He’s the author of creation, the king of creation.”
Me: “I don’t doubt that is what you believe, but, in all fairness, that’s got nothing to do with the question I’m asking.”
Lady Three: “Well, I can’t answer for the other gods because I don’t know enough about them. I only know what Jesus says about himself”
Me: “That’s all well and good. And by the way I hope your knee does get better. Now, we all know that I don’t actually believe in Vishnu, but I could take that “leap of faith” and offer up a genuine prayer tonight in the hope that it will result in your knee getting better. And, like I say, if it does get better have I proved that Vishnu answers prayers? If not, why would you expect me to believe that the pastor’s prayers will result in a recovered knee?”
Lady Three: “I believe that if God wants us to receive a blessing from him then we should receive it. It’s in the Bible, you see. [She then looks at me sympathetically] You’ve not got to that point yet where you’re persuaded that any of this is true, have you?”
Me: “I think the reason why I’m not persuaded is because all of the “evidence” that has been offered here, and the arguments that have been given, are exactly the same sorts of “evidence” and arguments that people of other religions offer. But you don’t believe any of them. You don’t find those arguments in the least bit convincing, yet you use them yourself. You use methods that you don’t trust.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Lady Two is in a deep, contemplative mood. She’s looking at me, thinking deeply, trying to figure me out. I’m sure she’s in the process of diagnosing the reason for my scepticism, again. Suddenly she speaks, and so begins my therapy session. She’s going to get to the root of my problem through a process of elimination:

Lady Two: “You know when you were a child at school, during morning assembly did you ever say the Lord’s Prayer?”
Me: “Yes. Every morning, I think”
Lady Two: “When you were in your bed at night did you ever used to say your prayers to God?”
Me: “Yes. In fact my mother had placed a crucifix on my bedroom wall, and many nights before I got into bed I would kneel and offer up a prayer”
Lady Two: “And did you used to pray the Lord’s Prayer?”
Me: “Sometimes. But mainly they were prayers of my own. Having said the Lord’s Prayer at school on the morning, I didn’t feel it necessary to say the same thing again”
Lady Two: “Did you feel anything warm and comforting when you were praying?”
Me: “I suppose looking back it was more of a feeling of deep contemplation”
Lady Two: “Did you ever feel you were praying to your maker?”
Me: “Yes, of course”
Lady Two: “Were you unburdening yourself and being close with your spirit? Did you feel that?”
Me: “I should imagine so, yes”
Lady Two: “Did you ever relate to God with emotion? With… you know… your needs. Something you were afraid of, or an insecurity. Did you ever reach him and say “Can you help me with this? I’m struggling with this. Can you help me with this?” Perhaps a vulnerability within you or something”
Me: “No, I don’t think so. I was quite carefree when I was a child. I didn’t have any problems or things to worry about, thankfully”
Lady Two: [Feels she’s onto something] “So there’s nothing “deep” that you were appealing for from within your soul from your maker?”
Me: “Not for me, no. As I seem to remember, most, if not all, of my prayers were on behalf of other people”
Lady Two: “You must have had – because we all have – insecurities”
Me: “No. But I’ve got plenty of those nowadays” [laughs]
Lady Two: “We all have things that we’re nervous about and uncomfortable about. That’s where I get my sort of real soul with God. Where I am literally being like a child to him. And I’m looking at him and I’m saying in my heart, “I don’t know how to handle this, I don’t know what to do, but I’m just going to keep doing my best. I love you”. It’s that sort of unburdening yourself, appealing to him as your maker. Have you ever been able to be emotional and vulnerable with him, and seen him as your maker who wants to make everything really nice for you?”
Me: “I’ve seen him as my maker, yes, but I don’t think I’ve gone as deep as you have”
Lady Two: [As though she’s cracked the case] “Ahhh, I think that might be a key that’s missing, then. [Getting excited] Yes, that might be the key that’s missing! That childlike quality where you come to him as his child, and you’re looking at him in your spirit.”
Me: “Maybe”
Lady Two: “Yes, maybe you’re going home from here every week and saying to God, “I’d LOVE to have this faith that they’ve got. I’d LOVE to have this relationship with you. I’d LOVE to feel the Holy Spirit like [Lady Two] did, and feel it come on me and be washed clean like she was”
Me: “There’s none of that, unfortunately”
Lady Two: “Don’t you have the THIRST for the reassurance that he’s come into your life?”
Me: “I’ll have to be honest with you. No I don’t have that thirst”
Lady Two: “You don’t have that great NEED?”
Me: “No. In the same way that you don’t have the great need to know Vishnu, Allah or Zeus. What I do want to know, though, is if there is a god. I haven’t got this great need for your God. I have a need to have answers to the big questions in life. One such question is, “Is there a god?” But I don’t see answers coming for that particular question, unfortunately. Even when I ask people with deep-rooted beliefs such as yourselves. I’m not getting the answers”
Lady Two: “I think it’s the emotion that’s missing.”
Me: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea for God to tell me that, rather than you?”
Lady Two: “Well maybe he’s speaking through me and I’ve discerned it. I think it’s a problem with men. I really do. Women are very sensitive. Men have got to be strong. They’re seen as people in society who go and fight wars and be strong. I think that if you could just REALLY think, “Heck, I’m missing out on all this relationship with you, where I feel the touch of your spirit, to feel that closeness with you, God. It must be absolutely wonderful. I THIRST for it and I YEARN for it”. If you could unburden yourself like that with him, but REALLY MEAN IT. You see, you’ve come here [to the Alpha Course] so you MUST want it. The fact that you’re coming means you must WANT it.”
Me: “I’m here because there’s some big questions in life and there are lots of people saying that they have the answers. The makers of this course for instance. So that’s the reason why I’m here. But I don’t see any such answers”
Lady Two: “I think you’ve got to start talking to God deeply. But you must do it EMOTIONALLY. Look at your insecurities, the things that you’re nervous about, look at the things you’re frightened about, and start to talk to God as your FATHER who knows you. And before you speak it BELIEVE it. God is actually there with you anyway, but you haven’t opened yourself up to him”
Me: “I spent many a night praying to him. But I didn’t get even the slightest response. Nothing”

The rest of the group join the conversation and within no time the subject changes and we come to discuss morality and God’s law. The pastor intimates that if God hadn’t given us the Ten Commandments then society would have destroyed itself by now. The group agree that we only know that it’s wrong to kill because God said so.

That’s right, before Moses came down the mountain carrying those stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments everyone thought it was perfectly fine to slit the throat of a friend or family member. Pushing someone off of a cliff? Top fun. Beheading someone? Great. Disembowelling your grandmother with a blunt trowel? Lovely. All these things were “ok” up until the Christian God decided to make it officially illegal about 3,500 years ago.

Yeah, right.

Lady Three: “When you come across a religion that says it is ok to kill then I would really hesitate to give that religion any serious consideration”
Me: “You can find lots of passages in the Old Testament where God and/or his prophets openly command people to go and kill others.”
Lady Three: “I can’t say such verses aren’t there because they are. Yes, I’ve struggled with that.”
Me: “I know of one particular verse where Moses’ conquering army are commanded to kill every man among the enemy captives, but are ordered to save the virgin females for themselves as spoil”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Flabbergasted] “IT DOESN’T SAY THAT”
Me: “It does”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Adamant that I’m wrong] “Where does it say to keep all the virgins?”
Me: “I don’t know the verse off the top of my head but I’ll get it for you for next week. [I turn to the pastor and ask] You’ll know of that verse, surely?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “It definitely says something like that”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Totally dismissing my claim] “I think I would have remembered that if it did”
Lady Three: “I remember them saying to kill everything, and to spare nothing, but I’m sure it doesn’t say what you’re suggesting”

I suppose we’ll have to wait while next week, then.

Lady Two wants to tell me about the love of Jesus:

Lady Two: “What Jesus was preaching was all about LOVE, and all about the fruits of the Spirit. And how he would send the Holy Spirit to come upon us, and how we would be able to do great things in his name. It’s all about walking in the light with Jesus. It was all healing. It was all teaching the lovely way to live. That’s what Jesus was on about. And having love in your heart for people, and having kindness. But also it was about obeying the living God and following his commandments as well.”

Lady Three joins in:

Lady Three: “As Christians we believe that Jesus is the exact representation of God. That’s what the Bible says. I believe that Jesus is who he said he was.”

She then opens up her Bible and reads from John 5:19-23:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”

Lady Three: “It’s that last little bit that is the crucial difference between Christianity and all other religions. Jesus IS the one and only Son of God.”
Me: “According to the Bible, yes. But there were numerous ‘sons of god’ in antiquity. Christianity isn’t unique when it comes to that particular claim”
Pastor: “You keep saying that. Who were they, then?”
Me: “Well, off the top of my head there’s Perseus, Hercules, Mithras, and Dionysus. And there’s lots more.”

Lady Three dips into her handbag and pulls out a pen and paper. She wants to know the names of the deities I’ve just mentioned. I don’t think she trusts what I’ve just said. She’s going to look them up. Good for her.

My fellow sceptic turns to her and jokes, “I want a 20-page report on each one for next week”

Actually I admire Lady Three’s approach because all of us should be eager to examine claims that we find hard to believe. That’s the right way to go about it. I do find it strange, though, why these Christians aren’t as keen to examine the claims made in their own holy book.

The pastor is about to offer a closing prayer when Lady Two interjects:

Lady Two: “Before we end I just want to ask Stephen something. [She turns to me] In real terms, Stephen, how DEARLY do you want to find the answer?” [to the question of “Does God exist?”]
Me: “100%”
Lady Two: “Your heart is 100% wanting to find the answer?”
Me: “Yes”
Lady Two: “And are you depressed that you haven’t got it?”
Me: “No. Actually it fascinates me to look for the answers to such questions. The more I learn about existence the better. It gives my life meaning and purpose. I have one chance at life and I’m going to enjoy the search while I’m here”
Lady Two: “Yes, you want direction in your life; to know that your life has a point, and that there’s a place for you with the Father in heaven. Presumably that’s what you’d like for your loved ones? Wouldn’t you like the story to be true for everyone that you love?”
Me: “To be honest with you I wouldn’t want the story to be true if a hell exists. I couldn’t live an eternity of happiness when full in the knowledge that other people were frying in hell.”
Lady Two: “God doesn’t want anyone to fry in hell”
Me: “But people are going to be there if your story is true. I couldn’t live content while being in the presence of a God who tortures people for an eternity. So hopefully the story isn’t true.”

The pastor intervenes: “On that point we’ll pray for [Lady Three’s] knee”

He stands in front of Lady Three, closes his eyes and places his right hand on her knee. He starts to pray, “Father we thank you for all we’ve heard tonight about your desire to bring the healing of God onto this earth, including seeing people saved and set free from sin, sickness and illness. We come now in the name of Jesus and ask, Lord, that you will heal [Lady Three’s] knee so she can carry on cycling. Lord God, we pray that you will give her strength and take away the pain. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen”

There follows a chorus of amen’s from the group before silence. Everyone sits quietly, eyes closed, apparently summoning God to act. The pastor’s hand remains on Lady Three’s knee, his head bowed and his lips muttering an inaudible and brief prayer. There’s complete silence for about fifteen seconds.

The long-standing male member starts to pray. He says his thanks to God and then asks for him to heal Lady Three’s knee and also to ease the pastor’s nasal problems.

There’s more silence before Lady Three offers up a prayer, which is also for the pastor’s [what I think must be sinus] problems, and reminds God that the pastor is “missing out on all the fragrances that you’ve created”. Another chorus of amen’s follows.

Lady Two then has a go. She thanks God for bringing my fellow sceptic and I to the course. “Thank you that they come every week. They are longing for answers for what’s been a burning question for them for a long time. I do pray, Lord, that you would remind them of who you are and of that all the good things that have happened to them in their lives you were responsible. Lord, you’ve wanted their lives to be close to you and for them to know you as a God of love. I just pray, Lord, that as they go home to their beds tonight and they look to you, Lord, that they imagine you as the Lord of their lives. That they just see you as a loving father who wants all good things for them, and wants them to have the security of knowing that they are walking with you, and that they are secure with you, and that they are at one with you, and that their spirit is in tune with you, and that they are your sons. Lord I pray that you want them as your children, and for them to acknowledge you as their loving father. Just soak away all the stuff that is keeping them from being able to rest in you, and to just be your child, Lord. I pray that they will recognise you as their Lord and saviour. I pray, Lord, that you will break down the barriers and they will tonight go home to their beds and just see you above them, and just see you wanting all the good things for them. You’ve wanted that love, Lord. You’ve wanted relationships with them. You’ve wanted them to have peace. You’ve wanted them to have the fruits of the Spirit in their hearts, minds and souls. You’ve wanted them to be surrounded by people who love you and who are also walking with you, Lord. I just pray all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen”

More amen’s follow.

It’s turning into a prayer-a-thon as Lady Three has another go. She too thanks God for bringing my fellow sceptic and I to the course. “I thank you for their honesty”, she says.

She continues:

Lady Three: “There are so many questions, particularly that Stephen has, that maybe we haven’t got convincing answers for. I just pray, Lord, that you will meet with them and prove yourself to them, Lord.”
Pastor: “Yes!”
Lady Three: “Prove yourself, Lord. Prove yourself”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen!”
Lady Two: “I pray, Lord, that they will ask for the Holy Spirit to come into their hearts and minds. And I pray, Lord, that you will reveal yourself. We know that you know, Lord. We know that you know when people need you. Stephen has said tonight that he wants you 100% [did I?], just like I did that night. I wanted you 100% and didn’t think I could get it. And all I’ve wanted ever since that night is to let other people know about my experience so that it might help them to find you. I pray that you will come in to their hearts and minds and souls. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

Ooooh, so close! I thought we were going to see out a session without Lady Two mentioning her testimony, but she managed to slip it in right at the very end. She’s certainly persistent! Joking aside, she’s a nice enough lady. She’s absolutely filled to bursting point with religion – she’s got it bad – but she’s a harmless sort.

We all slowly rise from our seats and pack our booklets and pens away. As I’m fastening up my jacket the group remind me to bring the Bible verse, which I claimed existed, to next week’s session. I smile and joke, “If I cant find it I’ll give you a pound”. The long-standing male member laughs and replies, “We’re going to give it to charity!”. Everyone laughs and we all wish each other a good night.

Splendid.

November 8, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments

WEEK 8: “How Can I Resist Evil?”

As the group trickle into the church I notice that there is no Long-Standing Male member this evening. I am informed that he won’t be in attendance tonight as he’s attending a work colleague’s retirement celebration.

As ever we start the evening with chats among ourselves. Lots of smiles and laughter, and of course a bowl of fruit salad or a slice of cheesecake each. I go for the glass of cold-water option, again.

After about twenty minutes or so the pastor brings up the subject of God not being slow to act – which we touched upon last week. He says to me, “There’s a verse in the Bible that I mentioned last week, 2 Peter 3:9, but I didn’t give you the full verse. What it says is that the Lord is not slow in doing what he promised the way some people understand slowness. You questioned why God did not intervene [in the case of innocent, defenceless little children being raped]. But God is being patient with you. He does not want anyone to be lost. He wants all people to change their hearts and lives”.

I don’t see how this answers the question of why God does not act to save innocent, defenceless and terrified infants from being raped by paedophiles. Maybe he’ll offer a full explanation this week. We’ll see…

The pastor grabs this week’s DVD, entitled “How Can I Resist Evil?”, and sticks it in the machine. Away we go…

Gumbel begins with, “I remember when I first became a Christian. I had great difficulty coming to believe that there could be a God. And then somebody said, “There’s a devil that exists” and I thought “Oh my goodness. Surely you don’t expect me to believe that?! It’s bad enough believing in God but that is stretching my imagination””

Yes, Nicky Gumbel the hardened sceptic. Imagine that!

He then tells us that, remarkably, there are people who find it very easy to believe in the devil, more so than to believe in God.

He admits, though, that many people have difficulty believing in a devil in the first place. What does the Bible say on the matter, he asks.

Gumbel asks us to turn to Ephesians 6: 11-12 which reads: “Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”

“Why should we believe in spiritual forces of evil?” asks Gumbel. We have three strong reasons for doing so, he claims. The 1st of these is that “it makes sense of the world”.

Interesting.

He continues, “We see evil regimes, institutional torture and violence, mass murders, brutal rapes, terrorist atrocities on a scale unimaginable, sexual and physical abuse of children. These things litter our newspapers daily”.

Yes, and these things litter almost every page of the Bible, too.

He then tops it off with the remarkable claim that, “Any kind of theology or worldview which ignores the existence of spiritual forces of evil has a great deal to explain”.

Why does it? Why would a non-theistic worldview have great difficulty explaining existence without “spiritual” forces of evil being present? It would appear that Gumbel is offering us another one of his many unsupported assertions.

The 2nd reason for believing in “spiritual forces of evil” is “the Christian experience”. For example, “the struggle against temptation”. And Gumbel adds, “if we’ve had an experience of the Holy Spirit we begin to come a little bit more aware of the opposition”.

The 3rd, “and most important”, reason for believing in “spiritual forces of evil” is “because of the Bible”. Gumbel tells us that the apostle Paul believed in such forces, and that “Jesus himself was tempted by the devil”.

Gumbel then confidently concludes that “scripture, tradition and reason all point to the existence of the devil”.

He then asks, “What are the devil’s tactics?”. In answer to this he explains that Jesus told us that the devil’s ultimate aim “is to destroy us”

Gumbel states, “Right at the beginning of the Bible we have an exposé of how the devil works”. He then asks us to turn to Genesis chapter 3 and describes how the devil’s initial tactic was to raise doubt in the human mind, and how he talked Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge. The devil tries to plant the seeds of doubt in the heads of Christians too, claims Gumbel. “It’s the precursor to the main attack” he warns.

That’s right, whatever you do make sure you don’t have any doubts about God’s existence! If you do then you’re obviously in the first stages of Satan’s deception, and if you continue doubting you’re going to be brutally attacked, somehow. Scary stuff indeed!

What a great deterrent against free thought, huh?

Gumbel then spends a few minutes telling us of the Garden of Eden tale and how “God didn’t want us to know evil, he wanted us to know only good”.

That’s right; God didn’t want us to know about bad and evil things, but he placed a tree in the Garden of Eden which contained fruit that, when eaten, would reveal knowledge of bad and evil things! Wouldn’t it have been a better idea not to put such a tree there in the first place?

Remember, God created humans with an inquisitive nature. But, strangely, he becomes mad if they are inquisitive about a strange and magical tree that he’s placed in the middle of their Garden. If he didn’t want them to be inquisitive then he shouldn’t have designed them with such a nature in the first place!

Imagine leaving your young children at home one evening, and placing a plate of delicious homemade buns in the middle of the room. If you don’t want your children eating those buns, which you already know are your children’s favourites, then don’t leave an uncovered, unprotected plate of them within sniffing and touching distance of your hungry children! Put those buns away in a safe place where they cannot be touched. Don’t leave them so your children are driven by a temptation to eat them.

Imagine you come home later that day and find some of those delicious buns missing from the plate, and your kids’ smiley, happy faces covered in icing sugar and chocolate. What would be a fitting punishment do you think? Sitting them down and explaining to them how they should obey rules in the future? A slapped wrist perhaps? Sent to bed early? No more sweets for a week? Grounded for a fortnight? How about banishing them from your comfortable home into the dead of night, injecting them with an assortment of previously unknown diseases, and inflicting the same punishment on their offspring too? And then after that, to top it off, torturing them all for an eternity? Does this sound like the perfect punishment for succumbing to temptation? A temptation you knew they would succumb to? Does it sound fair to you? Of course not. But get this; the Christian God deems this to be the perfect punishment, but on an unimaginably larger scale. But lets not forget, of course, that he only punishes us “because he loves us!”

Getting back to the Garden of Eden story: The devil tells the woman that if they eat from the tree they will become like God – knowing good and evil. Did Adam and Eve know that to eat from the tree was an “evil” thing to do rather than a ”good” thing? If so then they already had knowledge of good and evil. But if they didn’t know what “good” or “evil” were then you can hardly blame them for doing something “evil” (i.e., eating from the tree) when they were completely ignorant of the concept to begin with.

After Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree “the friendship with God was broken” states Gumbel. And we have seen the consequences of that breaking of trust: All of the horrors that have befallen mankind are a consequence of Eve eating an apple in the Garden of Eden. Gumbel offers us the explanation: “What we see here is a breakdown in human relationships, a breakdown between Adam and Eve. They start fighting each other. We see down in history the breakdown of relationships, the breakdown of marriages, the breakdown of homes, the breakdown of relationships at work. We see it in countries: we have civil wars [and] wars between nations. It all starts here [points to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis]”

Gumbel reminds us that “one of the tactics of the enemy is to put a thought in our mind and then whip round the other side and condemn us for it”

Hmmm, is this “enemy” God by any chance? Sounds just like him! He puts a thought in our minds by placing a mysterious, magical tree in front of inquisitive animals such as us, and then condemns us for acting upon that very thought!

The devil may have some nasty tactics up his sleeve but King Jesus can save us from all of that nonsense, states Gumbel, because he “has set us free from the addictions, habits, [and] patterns of the past. And that means we don’t have to do the things we used to do. We’re free. We have been transformed from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of light – the kingdom of Jesus, where Jesus rules.”

I’m trying my best to keep a straight face here. Seriously, I am. The kind of language that these Christians use is just so childish. They speak of an invisible kingdom, ruled by a magical and invisible man, who isn’t particularly keen on men kissing other men but is quite partial to impregnating young virgins and handing out real estate to a bunch of nomadic goat-herders in the olden days. In the eight weeks so far I’ve seen no reason to believe that what they’re claiming has any basis in reality, but I’ve had very good reasons to believe that what they’re offering up are nothing but infantile fairy tales.

Gumbel turns up the heat, “The name of Jesus has SUCH POWER, he exclaims.

Gumbel then tells us the real-life tale of a drug using, violent drunkard who was later convicted of murder. A number of years down the road he was in a coma in hospital. He obviously came out of the coma because he himself wrote about it. I’ll let him pick up the tale in his own words:

“It looked as if my life was over. My mother was summoned to the hospital by the authorities to sign the papers to switch the ventilation machine off that was keeping me breathing. And she turned up at the point where these lads, who had been trying to tell me about Jesus on the streets, had turned up at the hospital. They said to my mother, “Can we pray for your son?” and she said, “Yes”. And they said, “We know someone who loves him and wants to help him. So they came in to this room, in intensive care, and prayed for me. They said, “In the name of your son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, give this man new life”. And I woke up and started breathing myself. Four days later my mother told me about them praying to Jesus. And I said, “What does Jesus want to know about a scumbag like me for?” So I heard all these stories about Jesus and when I came out of hospital I wanted to look into it. So I went along to this Alpha Course at the church. I attended on the third night and I remember being there and swearing. I had four front teeth missing and I was a right rebel. I hated myself but I remember saying, “Jesus, if you’re real come in to my life. These people tell me that you can change me and set me free. If you are real then come and show me”. I had my arms out like this and I fell back and started crying. From that day on I was totally transformed. I had a desire to tell people about Jesus”.

Isn’t it amazing that ordinary, everyday folk can walk in to a hospital, sit at the foot of the bed of a person who is in a deep coma, and manage to bring them back to full consciousness simply by muttering the magical words, “In the name of your son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, give this man new life”? I’m sure that today’s medical science community would love to speak to these talented lads. Don’t you?

And another thing: If it’s possible to change cretins into pillars of the community, then why aren’t these gifted Christians praying to God to change the mindset of paedophiles and rapists?

Gumbel warns us that “The battle is not over yet. On the cross Satan was defeated and demoralised. The cross and the resurrection are the DECISIVE MOMENTS IN HISTORY. But the devil was not destroyed. There will come a time when he IS destroyed, when Jesus returns”.

In “history”?

He then likens this scenario to that of the 2nd World War, when D-Day was a decisive moment for the Allies, even though the war was not yet won. We had to wait until VE Day for that. Gumbel tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was D-Day for the human race in their battle against Satan, and when Jesus returns to win the war that will be our VE Day!

Remarkable.

Gumbel ends his presentation by assuring us that when Jesus returns he will make the world a better place. In fact, states Gumbel, “we will be better off than we were in the Garden of Eden!”

No treacherous, talking snakes and magical trees with dangerous fruit? Yes, we’d better hope it’s better than THAT!

The pastor ejects the DVD.

The new Christian male is the first to speak. He says that he didn’t used to believe in the devil, but after hearing Gumbel’s talk he now KNOWS that the devil exists. Was Gumbel’s presentation that convincing? It’s dawned on the new Christian male that the devil is alive and well because of “how he tantalises you, tricks and deceives you”.

He gives us an example. He states that advertising is the work of the devil because it triggers envy. “All advertising is wrong,” he says. The pastor agrees with him, “There’s been some research done that says if you want a happy society you should ban advertising. Because, like you say, it creates envy, a want for more, and dissatisfaction”. I ask, “What about advertising for the Alpha Course? There’s posters for Alpha on the back of buses”. The pastor pauses for a moment and replies barely audibly “It’s marketing. It’s good marketing”, and then turns to the table behind him to tuck into some cheesecake. I guess that’s the end of that particular topic, then.

After polishing off his plate of lemon cheesecake the pastor states almost despairingly, “I can’t understand people who worship the devil. They’ve recognised that there’s a spiritual side to life and yet they choose to worship the devil. What causes people, who have chosen to have faith, to pursue evil?”

I don’t know, but I’m tempted to ask him why Christians throughout history have done that very same thing.

The pastor then offers us an example of why it is fruitful to be one God’s children:

Pastor: “I despair of myself sometimes. I’m seeking earnestly to follow Jesus, and there’s a line in one of my favourite songs that says “May I reflect the beauty of my Lord”, and my desire in my life is to reflect the beauty of my Lord, to have the attitude of Christ. But sometimes I’m so far from that but, you know, but, God convicts me of my sin and thankfully I can ask forgiveness and God speaks to me. Even just yesterday God spoke to me. He gave me a Bible verse and said, “This is what you need to help you deal with this area of your life”. So this morning that is what I studied”.

I’m still fascinated, and perplexed, by this kind of claim. It’s all so wishy-washy, so vague, so unfalsifiable, and so… imaginary. The creator of the universe talks to these people, but none can offer a decent argument to support such a claim. It really blows my mind how they expect to get away with such fanciful notions.

My fellow sceptic asks about the Garden of Eden, and what kind of sense any of it can possibly make, considering that God is supposedly omniscient (all-knowing):

My Fellow Sceptic:“God supposedly created this wonderful place, but he must have known what was going to happen, because he knows everything”.
The Group As A Whole: “Yeah”
My Fellow Sceptic: “So, what a pointless exercise that was!”
New Christian Male: “God tried to bring up a civilisation but then he gave them a doubt in their minds as a test. God thought, “Will they turn against me? If they do I’ll wipe them off the face of the earth””
Me: [Sarcastically] “He sounds like a nice bloke”
My Fellow Sceptic: “Adolf Hitler wanted to wipe the Jewish nation off the face of the earth. How is he any different to God?”
Pastor: “The question you raised is a very difficult one.”

Why is it a difficult question? Hitler attempted to wipe a nation off the face of the earth, God succeeded in wiping every nation off the face of the earth (thanks to his lovely flood). The pastor considers Hitler’s to be the most evil mind ever to exist, yet he considers God’s mind to be nothing but complete love. Work that out!

My fellow sceptic wants to know why God would create humans knowing in advance, and for certain, that they would fall. Knowing too that he would slaughter them all for doing so (barring a handful) and that he would have to start again. And knowing too that it would go wrong ONCE AGAIN, and that he would then have to send himself down in the form of a man to get nailed to some wood in order to make it better again. God knew all this in advance. “How silly is that?”, asks my fellow sceptic.

Pastor: “What about your children? You had children knowing that they would be naughty. Knowing that it would be difficult. Knowing that at times they would rebel against you. And yet you still chose to have them… I entered into fatherhood knowing that potentially my children could do wrong. Potentially they could cause me heartache and pain. I hope they wont but I chose to have children because I wanted a relationship them. Similarly this is why God chose to have children, as it were”

This is a poor and perhaps deceptive analogy. Humans aren’t omniscient. They do not possess complete knowledge of all future events. They don’t “know” what each of our children will or will not do during their lives. We understand that there’s a possibility that certain things may happen, but we don’t know this for a fact. If we knew in advance that our child would grow up to be a new Adolf Hitler I’m sure that most of us would not go ahead with the pregnancy. But none of us have this kind of knowledge. I offer the pastor an example relating to what I’ve just written:

Me: “Lets say that you’re at a dinner party and there’s a sexual chemistry between you and a certain lady. You’re both attracted to each other and it looks likely that things will progress so that both of you end up having sex. Suddenly God grants you the power to see into the future. You see that a consequence of you having sex with this lady will be her falling pregnant and giving birth to your baby. This baby grows up to be a tyrant of such magnitude as to put the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Genghis Khan to shame. In fact this child of yours goes on to become responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent people. So, knowing this information in advance, would you still have sex with that lady?”
Pastor: [Pauses] “I don’t know because… err… people do stupid things… err… in selfish moments… that… that… are…”
Me: “But remember, you’ve been given a vision of what WILL happen in the future if you end up having sex with this lady”
Pastor: [Struggling to find the right answer] “I might be so infatuated and lustful after that lady”
Me: [Shocked] “So you’re not sure if you would or would not??”

Notice how he’s squirming away from offering a definite answer? He’s intelligent enough to know why I’m asking that particular question, and that’s why he’s choosing not to answer it. Think about this for a moment: I’ve just asked him if he would refrain from having sex with a stranger if he knew that by doing so he would save the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people. And he couldn’t even bring himself to say, “Yes”. Remember, this chap is a university-educated man, an intelligent man, and a supposedly moral man so can he REALLY believe that a one-off sexual encounter with a stranger is more important than the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people?? What kind of person does this make him out to be?

Stop and think for a moment about what the Pastor is saying here. Please, read again what he’s just said. Comments like his are particularly revealing about the mindset of the deeply religious individual.

I’m worried. Very worried. Aren’t you?

The conversation continues:

Pastor: “What I’m saying is that…. humanity… men…. some men… commit adultery, do immoral things, and are driven by sexual urges”
Me: “Surely that kind of prior knowledge would stunt those sexual urges?”
Pastor: “I don’t know. People have done things in life knowing that the consequences could be horrendous.”
Me: “And what kind of people does that make them? But anyway I’m not asking about other people, I’m asking about you. Would YOU go ahead regardless of the horrendous consequences you KNOW will occur?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “I know what you’re saying”
Me: “God had that kind of prior knowledge before he made mankind. God KNEW IN ADVANCE that he’d end up slaughtering most of us, that billions would die of starvation, and that there would be countless rapes and abuses perpetrated against innocent people. He also knew that Hitler would eventually arrive on the scene and be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. But God went ahead with it all the same. How is God not then culpable?”
Pastor: [Pause] “Satan is always wanting us to concentrate on the negative when it comes to God. But God has given wonders for humanity to experience, and when you do experience them they far outweigh the negatives. God delights in humanity delighting in his creation, and with them being with him and walking with him and loving him”
Lady Two: “Yes, loving him!”
Pastor: “And it all has to be taken into context and balance. We shouldn’t blame God for the negative”

It’s clear to see that these people will believe that God is good regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Nothing will budge them from this belief. And I mean nothing. Their minds are impenetrable to such thoughts.

Lady Two decides that now is a good time to tell us more about her personal testimony. You know the one by now: where she prayed for “100% faith” and God filled her with his Holy Spirit. Yes, that one. This time, though, she reveals more about the experience. Something very interesting in fact.

She tells us that many years ago she met a young man who she really liked. In fact she loved him. She adored him. He was “the one”. However, there was a problem. This young man was a Christian, and she wasn’t. The young man told her that, “I like you but I can’t go out with you if you’re not a Christian, because according to the Bible you shouldn’t go out with a non-believer because the relationship will be unevenly yoked”. Lo and behold that very night God filled her with his Holy Spirit and she became a Christian. She then went on to marry that young man. How terribly convenient!

I think Lady Two has revealed more than she needed to. She’s all but admitted that the experience was psychological rather than supernatural.

Sadly, however, her marriage to this gentleman was not to last. Who was to blame for the separation I wonder? Yes, you guessed it… Satan.

Yes, Satan had got in to the mind of her husband. She explains:

Lady Two: “The devil came in to my marriage. I saw my husband become depressed when he was around me. He wasn’t pulling his weight in the relationship. He wouldn’t even take the children to the park”
Me: “And do you think Satan was responsible for his change of attitude towards you?”
Lady Two: “Yes, I believe that Satan got into his head”

I wonder about the strength of Satan’s powers of deception, so I ask:

Me: “How powerful is Satan’s power of deception?”
Lady Two: “Very, very powerful”
Me: “So how do you know that Satan hasn’t deceived you into believing that God exists, when in fact there is no God?”
Lady Two: [Very long pause] “Because… err” [another long pause]
Me: “Remember, if you’re being deceived by ultra-powerful Satan then you won’t know that you you’re being deceived. His immense powers will see to that”
Lady Two: “It’s because…. err… because…I know… err… that night I did business with my maker. I spoke to him from the bottom of my soul. I did everything right. I said to him “I want you in my life”. I sought him. I said that I was sorry for everything I’d done in my life, and I meant it. I was picturing him as the holy God and me as his child”

Notice how she doesn’t actually answer the question? She just continues with her now famous testimony. For any “Lady Two” fans out there, who haven’t heard her testimony for at least one week, I’ll include the remainder of her “answer” here:

Me: “Yes, but I’m asking how do you know that all of that wasn’t a deception by Satan?”
Lady Two: “I said all of it in Jesus’ name and I had the filling of the Holy Spirit. It was a COMPLETE bathing in LOVE. That’s what it was. It was LOVE. I know it sounds a bit weird, but it was love. It was just like being on the edge of the seashore, and it was like a guiding hand. My brain thought, “What is this?” I actually remember saying to myself “What is this?” and it was a guiding hand that just started to pour in to me. And it was ABSOLUTE LOVE. After about seven waves of the spirit I was completely suspended in this state of utter joy and state of union with God. It was COMPLETELY LOVE. And I realised that the God that I’d sought all of my life was convincing me 100% that he was there. The irony is that I’d even said to a friend once that not even vicars could have 100% faith”

This is the 8th week of the course and I’m sure she’s told me her testimony during every single session so far. I conclude as follows:

Me: “So you do know when Satan is and is not deceiving you, yes?”
Lady Two: “Yes because it was complete love”
Me: “So it would appear that his powers of deception aren’t so powerful after all, then”

Sensing that she’s letting me slip away, and that her beloved testimony is failing to hit the mark (yet again), Lady Two cranks it up a notch:

Lady Two: “I’ve had healings as well. God has worked in my life on other occasions since that time! I once had laryngitis for weeks and I’d been telling everybody about the conversion I’d had, and I’d been trying to convince people to turn to God. I had the Holy Spirit pushed through the blockage in my throat and it healed me. A Baptist minister had the ‘touch of healing’ and we were praying for God to cure my laryngitis. And he did there and then”
Me: “Why doesn’t this gifted chap work his magic in the local children’s hospital? Why does he summon God to heal a woman with a sore throat, which rarely last for more than a few weeks anyway, but not a child stricken with leukaemia?”

My question is met with a deafening silence. They seem momentarily lost for words. That is until the pastor chips in with a stutter:

Pastor: “Actually there is a growing healing ministry in this area. We are seeing more and more people healed miraculously.”
Me: “And how many of these are scientifically verified?”
Pastor: “Well, I think there’s a real cynicism out there…”
New Christian Male: “Yes, they’re scared of losing their jobs”
Pastor: “But I’m sure there are some Christian doctors that have faith and will verify healings”
Me: “Why do medical students spend years at medical school, years earning their degrees, masters degrees and PhD’s, when all they have to do in order to cure someone of an illness is to offer up a quick prayer to God?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “Well… errr… I believe that God uses people’s skills as well”

If it’s the medical skills of the doctor that are responsible for the “healing” of a patient then why invoke God at all?? Why say that God uses the doctor and his skills to heal people? This is like claiming that your favourite football team won their match because you were wearing your lucky socks. You can quip to any potential sceptic, “Oh yes, the footballers themselves played a big part in the win, but my lucky socks intensify the footballers’ skill levels”. This is nothing but superstitious thinking. But how do these Christian claims differ from superstitious thinking? I don’t see how they do.

Lady Two continues in full flow:

Lady Two: “If you’re in the Lord he will honour you and bless you and give you ministries. If you are obeying him in your life, and he knows when you’ve done business with him, he knows when you’ve humbled yourself before him, confessed your sins, and asked him to be your Lord and master, he knows when you’ve meant it. He knows you inside out. When your heart is in union with him, he knows that. All I’m saying is that THAT NIGHT I reached him because I MEANT BUSINESS WITH HIM”.

Oh boy, am I glad I attended the Alpha Course. This is fun!

She then adds that “if life is just a joyride for seventy years, you get married, go on holidays, and have kids…[then] it’s all a waste of time if at the end of it we all go to dust! That thought depresses me!”

Religious beliefs may be consoling, but that doesn’t make them true. And that is precisely what the Alpha Course is about, demonstrating the truth of Christianity to non-Christians like me. Sadly I’ve seen nothing to demonstrate that in the 8 weeks that I’ve been in attendance.

And like I’ve asked in a previous blog entry, why would the fact that life is temporary make it a waste of time? I ask:

Me: “If you have a night at the theatre, and at the end of the magnificent performance the curtains come down, would you think, “Oh, it’s finished. It doesn’t go on forever? What a complete waste of time that was, then!” Would you really think that”?
Lady Two: “I’m not interested in entertainment”

Maybe not, but she certainly provides plenty of it for me! Notice, too, how she didn’t actually answer the question.

Lady Two sits motionless for a moment, as if summoning up a diagnosis for my scepticism. Suddenly it dawns on her, and she says:

Lady Two: “You know what your problem is, don’t you? I think that God is telling me what your big problem is. Do you know what it is?”
Me: “I don’t know. What is it?”
Lady Two: “You’re doing what loads of people do. But I can honestly say I NEVER did it.”
Me: “And what’s that?”
Lady Two:BLAME GOD

She pauses for a moment, looks me in the eye and continues:

Lady Two: “You’re saying ‘he’s done this’ and ‘he’s done that’. You’re blaming God!”
The Group As A Whole: “Yes you are!”
Pastor: “That’s the thing that is stopping you from believing”
Me: “Do you mean a lack of evidence?”
Pastor: “No. You’re of the stance that if there is a God then you’re going to blame him for everything. That’s what stopping you believing in him. Just as Nicky Gumbel said in his presentation: In the very beginning Satan said, “I’m going to blame God”.”

The group nod in agreement. I sit smiling. But before I have chance to respond the pastor says, “Time’s up!”

Everyone laughs, including me.

Lady Three wants to end the session by reading aloud a Bible verse. She reads Isaiah 66:1-2:

“This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

It’s been an interesting evening. Once again I’ve enjoyed it immensely. We’re all about to pack our things away when suddenly Lady Two says to me, “Try to see him [God] as Holy in your mind. See him as Holy, and then see yourself as just his child.” I respond by saying that I’d have to first believe that God exists, but I can’t do that until I’m aware of some sufficient evidence in his favour. She’s flabbergasted that I don’t accept her testimony as an example of such sufficient evidence, and snaps at me, “Then what happened to me that night??!!” I respond politely with “You had an experience”

The pastor shouts, “STOP!”. He smiles, and I know what he’s smiling for. He knows that Lady Two is getting ready to give me her testimony again, in full. So he’s nipped it in the bud to save us an additional twenty minutes.

The pastor officially ends the session with a prayer. Everyone reaches for their jackets. As I’m packing my things away and reaching for my coat Lady Two shuffles over to the chair beside me and says, “I’m dying to convince you! I’m dying to convince you!”

Lady Two: “When I had my experience I was a respected teacher so I was sure that people would believe me. People know that I’m not a liar; they know I’m respectable, so I thought I’d be able to convince them. I was a teacher, so why would I lie?”
Me: “What about the experiences of teachers that aren’t Christians? What about the testimony of, say, a Muslim teacher? Would you believe his or her testimony because he or she was a teacher? You wouldn’t believe them, would you?”
Lady Two: “I only know what I found”
Me: “And they say the same thing. Remember, I’m looking at this objectively, so what reason would I have for believing that your experience was true and theirs wasn’t?”
Lady Two: “I don’t know”
Me: “You don’t find such testimony to be convincing, regardless of how sincere the person may be. Regardless of how trustworthy they normally are, or of what job they have.”
Lady Two: “I don’t know about Muslims. I only know about what I’ve been brought up with in this country. I just want to work for peace and to be a good person. I don’t believe in killing people. Some of these people [Muslims] go out and kill in the name of their God. As Christians we’re not supposed to do that at all.”
Me: “Christians have been killing people for centuries. How do you explain the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the witch trials?”
Lady Two: “When the Holy Spirit comes upon you you’re supposed to align yourself with God and follow a pure life devoted to him.”
Me: “I understand that you’re passionate about your belief in God, and I’ve learned over the last couple of months that you’re incredibly keen to tell me all about how you came to Christ. But obviously you know that I’m not convinced by it, but I must stress that I don’t think you’re lying to me. I don’t doubt that you’ve had an experience of some kind, but that is not enough in itself to convince me that your God exists. You yourself do not believe such testimonies. They are not enough to convince you. You wouldn’t believe a Muslim, a Sikh or a Hindu.”
Lady Two: “No, because I believe in the Trinity”
Me: “So you wouldn’t believe a word they said, no matter how strong their conviction, yes?”
Lady Two: “That’s right. But I believe in a merciful God. I hope somehow he will be merciful [to them]. That’s what I hope. But all I know is this – it does say in the word of God that you only come to God through the Son.”
Me: “The word of your God, yes. But they also have the word of their god. They have their own holy books. This isn’t enough to convince you, though.”
Lady Two: “Right”
Me: “They have experiences, just like you do. But, again, this isn’t enough to convince you that what they’re saying is true”
Lady Two: “Right”
Me: “Then you must appreciate the fact that I’m not convinced by what you’re saying. Remember, you’re just as sceptical as I am.”
Lady Two: “Right”
Me: “What I’d like you to do is to think of something that you would find convincing if it was given to you by someone of a different religion. A method that you would trust. We know that you don’t necessarily trust personal experiences. You’re not necessarily swayed by Holy books, or by faith. So what trustworthy method do you have for showing me that your God exists?”
Lady Two: “Some of them [people of other religions] lead very good lives but some of them are killing. It’s like when they drove them aeroplanes into them buildings on September the 11th. That’s not what God wants! That’s not a loving God!”
Me: “The mindset of those people that committed the atrocities on 911 is not representative of all Muslims. Those people were fanatics. Not all Muslims are fanatics. Are we to dismiss a religion because some of its adherents kill people? There are Christian fanatics too, don’t forget. We have Christians today killing doctors who perform abortions. We’ve had Christians who burned an untold number of “witches” at the stake. We’ve had the Crusades and the Inquisition. Christians have killed millions. Am I to dismiss Christianity because of the Christian fanatics throughout history?”
Lady Two: “The Christian faith is a faith of love. It’s a faith of “go in peace” and of “love thy neighbour”. It’s a faith with the fruits of the Holy Spirit in your heart.”
Me: “Is it a good argument in favour of dismissing a religion if some of its adherents have committed atrocities and killed people?”
Lady Two: “It is for me”
Me: “Ok, so I should dismiss Christianity for that very reason then, yes?”
Lady Two: “No”
Me: “Then that’s double standards”
Lady Two: [Long pause] “I can only tell you how I found God, and that was through the Trinity”
Me: “That’s all well and good, but it’s not enough to convince someone else. Remember, you don’t necessarily find personal experiences to be convincing. And neither do I.”
Lady Two: “I just know it was a God of love that filled me up”

She then offers me her testimony once again. The whole she-bang: How she prayed for 100% faith, how the Bible sank into her chest, how God’s love poured into her, and how the Holy Spirit filled her up. She finishes it off with, “I long to convince you, Stephen!”

Me: “I could be convinced by evidence that stands up to scrutiny. However, everything I’ve heard so far does not.”
Lady Two: “Ok. [Pauses as she has a long think] The day I went to that prayer meeting [the one where her laryngitis was healed] I heard a voice say to me, “God wants to heal you at three o’clock”. And it was about three o’clock that I got healed!”

I tell her that I’m glad that her throat got better, but that she’s just offering me an account of a personal experience. It doesn’t register with her, though. She carries on:

Lady Two: “It was like a dam in my throat. There was a blockage and there was this force that came up in my throat and pushed this blockage out, and I heard God say, “Pray!” so I just prayed out loud and my voice was normal again!”

Once again, I tell her that I’m glad that her throat got better, but that it’s nothing more than an example of her “personal experience”. She doesn’t seem to get the message, though, and carries on unperturbed:

Lady Two: “All I know is that it was a God of love that filled me up that night. I knew I’d done my business with him, and I’d said sorry for the sin in my life. I prayed these things in Jesus’ name, so I did things according to the Trinity. That’s how I got my answer”
Me: “As I’ve said before, that’s all well and good but it’s your own experience, not mine. These things aren’t necessarily enough to convince others, and you agree because you aren’t convinced by the testimonies of people from other religions.”
Lady Two: “But I do believe God is a God of love and that he wants to save everybody”

She pauses for a moment, smiles at me and says in an almost begging manner, “Just try. Please, TRY your best to see God as a loving father who created you and wants you to be in union with him. Get serious about him! Are you prepared to be his servant? For him to be your Lord and master?”

Me: “If I find evidence in support of that then maybe I will, yes”
Lady Two: “I saw him as my father and I was his child. I wanted to obey him. I wanted to put myself right with him. Is your DESIRE to want to be right with him? Do you want to deal with your sin? Have got that DESIRE?”
Me: “If there’s something there then I’ll act on it. As yet, though, there’s nothing there. But who knows? By the time this course has finished I might have found something. We’ll see. I must be honest with myself and with the group. I won’t lie to you”
Lady Two: “Just think about if everybody followed the word of God, if we all had one husband or one wife and we all had a happy little family. If we all prayed with our families, children were obedient to parents, and there was no sleeping around or pre-marital sex. Just imagine if everybody obeyed the word of God!”
Me: “Like I said last week, God could have made a system like that in the first place. But he didn’t”
Lady Two: “He’s tried”
Me: “Again, like I said last week, he can’t ‘try’ anything, he’s supposedly all-powerful.”
Lady Two: “He’s tried!”
Me: “The simple fact of the matter is that he could have made a system where everyone got along, where people didn’t abuse children or rape old ladies. But he didn’t create such a system. He must take at least some of the blame. If he exists, that is”
Lady Two: “I promise you he does. I promise you with all my heart that he does exist!”
Me: “Well, like I say, think of some good evidence, using a method you find to be trustworthy, and I’ll have a look at it. I can’t be fairer than that”
Lady Two: [She thinks for a moment, then continues] “I think this country generally works for good. It’s a Christian country and it generally works for good. That’s the main ethos behind us. Parliament says prayers on a morning. We are generally a Christian country. I think the power of prayer has kept us strong. We defeated Hitler. During the war years there were lots of vicars praying and praying and praying, and God answered them. He made us defeat Hitler.”
Me: “And what about the German vicars who were praying and praying and praying? Did their prayers fail?”
Lady Two: “The power of prayer won against the evils. Prayer is winning against the evils all the time”

I suppose the skill and bravery of the allied soldiers had nothing to do with it, then? Just like my lucky socks influencing the result of a football match, the prayers of British people – to a Christian God – made sure of our victory. The soldiers’ participation in the war was just incidental. Madness!

I’ve always been fascinated by prayer, and the claims that people make regarding it’s supposed efficacy. I decide to put prayer to the test. Let’s see if Lady Two finds answered prayers to be a convincing method for showing the truth of religious claims:

Me: “Is there anything in your life that you’d like to happen sometime soon?”
Lady Two: “Yes, I want to get back with my husband”
Me: “Ok, how about I pray tonight to Lord Vishnu and ask him to guide your husband back into your life?”
Lady Two: “Who is Lord Vishnu?”
Me: “A Hindu god”
Lady Two: “Oh”
Me: “So, I’ll make the prayer tonight and if you and your husband are reconciled anytime soon then that will be all the proof you need to show that Lord Vishnu has answered my prayer. Yes?”
Lady Two: “No, no”
Me: [Chuckling] “Do you see what I mean?”
Lady Two: [Embarrassed and frustrated giggle] “Yes”
Me: “You don’t even accept answered prayers as evidence. So why expect me to accept them, then?” [Nor does she trust “holy books”, “personal experiences”, or “faith”. What a sceptic!]
Lady Two: [Long pause. She takes a deep breath and, looking frustrated, begs with me again] “If only I could give you my experience. You would just… you know… you would just ABSOLUTELY believe.”
Me: [Still chuckling] “And if a Muslim was sat next to you now and said, “If only I could give you my experience. You would just absolutely believe” you wouldn’t find his sincerely held belief to be in the least bit convincing.”
Lady Two: “It was complete love that poured into me. It POURED into me”

At this point I put my hand on her shoulder and say reassuringly, “I don’t doubt that you’ve had an experience. I don’t doubt you.”
She bows her head and in apparent dejection she whispers, “I don’t know how to convince you, Stephen”

Me: “You could convince me with some decent evidence”
Lady Two: “I’d love to convince you!”

She pauses for a while. Everyone else, with the exception of the pastor, has gone home. I smile and reach for my jacket. This triggers her into having another go at convincing me:

Lady Two: “Christian countries are surviving, and there’s lots of Christians coming in to the fold everyday.”
Me: “There are Christians starving to death in Africa. In what we call Christian countries.”
Lady Two: “Yes, I know, but the United Nations are on to it, aren’t they. They’re trying to do something about it.”
Me: “Why doesn’t God do something about it? He could put crops in the fields and rainwater in the lakes and rivers in an instant. But he doesn’t”
Lady Two: “Because he’s given us free will”

Talk about going round and round in circles! This conversation looks as though it could go on for an eternity. I bend down for a drink of water, and it’s at this point the pastor wanders over to us, looks at his watch and states that it is time that he locked up. We all laugh.

Tonight’s session has been an absolute corker. What I need now is a very strong cup of coffee!

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments

WEEK 7: Weekend Talks 1 & 2

You may be wondering if God had revealed himself to me sometime during the last week. Was the pastor’s ‘laying on of hands’ routine a success?

The answer, unfortunately, is no.

There’s been absolutely no sign of God since I left the church in high spirits (pardon the pun) last week. There’s nothing to report.

Why would God fail us so spectacularly?

As I drive towards the church for tonight’s session I wonder about the reception I am to receive. Will the Christians be eager to find out the news? Will they be sat in high expectation? Will they be waiting for me at the church gates? I don’t know, but I feel a little uncomfortable having to break the news to them that God failed to show.

I walk up to the church doors and pause for a moment to take in a deep breath. Here goes…

I enter the room and everyone is in fine form, chatting away, smiling and joking. I say my hellos as Lady Two hands me a glass of cold water. I remove my jacket and take to my seat. The group are discussing nature conservation. I join in the discussion.

In no time we’re on to gardening, then to angling, and then to swimming. Not three of my strongest subjects I must admit. In fact I don’t really know why (or how) any of these topics have sprung up but everyone is enjoying themselves, and it’s lovely to see. It’s great that we can come together and get along so well, despite the fact that we have views on religion that are diametrically opposed to each other.

We’ve been chatting now for about twenty-five minutes or so, and everything is fine, but I’m beginning to find it rather odd that not a single person in the group has asked me about any potential godly revelation that I may have had over the last seven days. Particularly after last week’s performance where the pastor laid hands on me as the group prayed in unison, all in an attempt to bring God into my life. I wonder why no one has mentioned it?

Maybe, just maybe, they know deep down that the chances of me hearing from God are miniscule, and if I were to admit that I haven’t heard from him – despite the pastor’s blistering one-man show last week – they’d have to offer an explanation as to why God has not responded to the call. I imagine they don’t want to face that prospect, so they’re shying away from bringing up the topic altogether.

The pastor brings the chatter to an end and tells us that during tonight’s session we will be watching two presentations. The first entitled, “Who Is The Holy Spirit?” and the second, “What Does The Holy Spirit Do?”

He then switches on the DVD and the first presentation begins…

Talk 1: “Who Is The Holy Spirit?”

Gumbel begins by telling us that for a long time in the church’s history the Holy Spirit has been ignored. This has been because of the “big concentration on ‘God the Father’ and of ‘God the Son’”. Not only has the Holy Spirit been ignored he’s also been misunderstood, claims Gumbel.

“The Holy Spirit is not a kind of 20th century phenomenon” states Gumbel. “He has been around literally since the creation of the world”. He then tells us to open up our Bibles and turn to Genesis chapter 1 verse 1. Gumbel states that, “The Holy Spirit was INVOLVED in creation”. He then offers us an insight in to how the Spirit was involved:

“In the beginning God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was formless and empty. Darkness was over the surface of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the waters like a bird hovering over her nest, waiting. The Spirit of God was about to bring something new into being. The whole trinity were involved in creation. God the father – the creator – created the world through Jesus, by his Spirit”.

Gumbel then tells us that “in the Old Testament the Spirit of God came upon particular people at particular times for particular tasks”. He then gives us a few examples from the Old Testament where God chooses certain individuals and “fills them with the Spirit of God” so as to ensure that they were better equipped to carry out his will.

The Holy Spirit can make us better people, claims Gumbel. “Many of us find ourselves bound by habits, patterns of thought, [and] addictions. When the Spirit of God comes upon us he enables us to break free. Sometimes it’s obvious things like drugs or excess alcohol addiction. But it can be other things – bad temper, envy, jealousy, anger, immorality of some kind, [and] impurity of some kind. The Spirit of God wants to set us free.”

Gumbel tells us of the time he was speaking at a particular church, and that after the service he “invited the Holy Spirit to come and to fill people there”. I’ll let Gumbel describe the events of that evening:

“I remember this extraordinary scene as people were filled with the Holy Spirit. What struck me particularly was two people on whom the Spirit came with particular power. So much so that they were actually lying on the floor in front of me. One was a little old lady with white hair, and next to her was an eight-year-old boy who was just laughing and obviously having an amazing time with God” Gumbel then tells us that sometime later the mother of the young boy wrote to him. In her letter she said that her young boy had previously been “quite difficult, bad tempered and naughty on occasion, [but] since his encounter with the Spirit he’s become a very different person: much sunnier, more helpful, kinder [and] anxious to please. Obviously he still has his moments but he is different”.

It would appear that God cures naughty little boys of their misbehaving ways with a quick blast of his Holy Spirit. This is something that I’m going to ask the pastor (and the group) to explain, because, to me, it just doesn’t add up.

The rest of the presentation continues in a similar vein, punctuated by an assortment of Bible verses and anecdotes. Gumbel goes on to tell us how “the promise of the father” was fulfilled, and how John the Baptist linked the Holy Spirit to Jesus.

The first presentation comes to an end and the pastor switches on the room lights. “Anyone want to raise any questions or pass any comments before we go onto the 2nd presentation?” he asks.

Everyone shakes their heads.

I mention that I do have a query but am willing to wait until the 2nd of tonight’s talks is over before raising it.

So on we go to the second of tonight’s presentations:

Talk 2: “What Does The Holy Spirit Do?”

Gumbel begins by asking what it is to be ‘born again’. He explains to us that “just as when a man and a woman come together in an act of love that produces a physical baby, so it is when the Spirit of God and the spirit of a man or woman come together in an act of love a new spiritual birth takes place. A person is born anew. They’re born again. They begin a new spiritual life” .

He continues, “What I want to look at in this session is what happens when the Spirit of God comes to live in a man or a woman”. There are a handful of examples that Gumbel wants to use to illustrate this point, and his first one is that “we become sons and daughters of God”

We become official members of God’s family when we are filled with the Holy Spirit; hence we are his sons and his daughters. Gumbel explains this point: “Jesus on the cross took all of our sins past, present and future. He takes all of our sins and he buries them in the very depths of the sea. And that’s where they are to stay. The slate is wiped completely clean the moment we come to Christ. And then something even more amazing happens: you are adopted into God’s family”.

The next one on the list of Gumbel’s examples is that the Spirit helps us to develop our relationship with God. “Relationships grow by communication, so the Spirit of God helps us to pray” and that “The Spirit gives us access to God” and also “He [the Spirit] also helps us to understand God’s word”

Interesting stuff.

I wonder, though, why a guiding Spirit is indeed necessary to understand God’s word. Isn’t it written clearly enough in the first place? I would have thought that clarity would have been of first importance to an omnipotent God? Evidently not, seeing as he needs to send down an assistant in order to make sure the book is understood properly.

But even with the Spirit helping people along there’s still a problem, because there’s literally thousands of Christian groups (Wikipedia estimates there to be 38,000 Christian denominations) that interpret God’s word differently. Maybe the Spirit needs to be subject to some sort of disciplinary action? He’s obviously not doing his job properly.

Gumbel tells us of the time the Spirit helped him to understand the word of God: “I remember before I was a Christian. I heard this book [the Bible] read in services, but I didn’t understand it. It was only when I took a step of faith did some of the intellectual objections [disappear]. I suddenly realised… that I understood things that I never understood before”. The Spirit of God helped him to overcome his objections and to see the Bible in a whole new light.

He then quotes the 11th century theologian, Saint Anselm of Canterbury, who famously wrote, “I do not seek in order to believe but I believe in order to understand”.

That’s right. Believe first, then you’ll understand. A tad convenient, though, me thinks.

To be honest I’ve never really understood that kind of thinking. What if I were to say to you, “A, B, C is true and you should believe it” and you were to ask, “But what does A, B, C actually mean?” Would you be satisfied if I were to reply, “You won’t understand it until you believe it”? Of course you wouldn’t. It can’t be the case that a belief in A, B, C comes before an understanding of what A, B, C actually means. If so we’d be open to believing absolutely anything and not have to offer good reasons for doing so.

Come to think of it that is precisely how some religious people operate!

Gumbel then offers us the next thing that we see as an effect of the Holy Spirit, and that is “Unity”. Gumbel goes on, “We have a unity because we are sons and daughters of God. That makes us brothers and sisters. The Spirit of God lives in every Christian regardless of background, colour, race, culture and denomination. The Spirit of God lives within Catholics and the Protestants [and] within Orthodox and Pentecostal”.

Strange, then, how Christians have demonstrated this unity by slaughtering one another for the best part of 2,000 years.

Another of Gumbel’s examples is that the Holy Spirit brings, “gifts for all the children”. No, there’s no connection here between the Spirit and Santa Claus, but what Gumbel means by “gifts” is those talents that some Christians are supposedly blessed with – such as being able to receive “words of knowledge” from God, as discussed in a previous session. Gumbel offers us a passage from the Bible to explain these gifts:

“There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men.
Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. To one there is given through the Spirit the message of wisdom, to another the message of knowledge by means of the same Spirit, to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by that one Spirit, to another miraculous powers, to another prophecy, to another distinguishing between spirits, to another speaking in different kinds of tongues, and to still another the interpretation of tongues. All these are the work of one and the same Spirit, and he gives them to each one, just as he determines”. [1 Corinthians 12:4-11]

And finally, the last of Gumbel’s examples is “The growing family”. He states that, “This family into which we are born, the family of God, is meant to be a growing family”. In other words we are to spread the word and win converts. Or, as kids would put it, try to create a bigger gang.

However, this entails that we go out and talk to people, tell them of our faith, perhaps even argue and debate. This is a terrifying prospect, admits Gumbel. But help is at hand, in the form of that most helpful of immaterial assistants, the Holy Spirit. Gumbel declares, “when the Spirit of God fills us it’s not an effort to tell people – it’s an overflow, something we are longing to do because it’s such wonderful news”.

HOW can we be filled with the Holy Spirit?” asks Gumbel. He thumbs through the Bible and ends the presentation by leaving us with this particular verse:

“The Spirit and the bride say, “Come!” And let him who hears say, “Come!” Whoever is thirsty, let him come; and whoever wishes, let him take the free gift of the water of life”. [Revelation 22:17]

Oh no, not those “free gifts” again…

The DVD is ejected, the curtains drawn, and the lights switched back on. The pastor turns to me first and asks about the question that I had on my mind after the first of tonight’s presentations. I tell the pastor that I’m curious about the example given of the little boy who was known to be naughty, and upon God filling him with the Holy Spirit he became a much better behaved young lad. God seems keen to help him and turn his life around. But why doesn’t God seem as keen to offer that kind of life-changing help to other people? I ask the pastor:

Me: “I’m curious as to why God doesn’t just do that to paedophiles, rapists and murderers”.
Lady Three: “He might do”
Me: “The thing is, he doesn’t do”
Lady Three: “Well I suppose he doesn’t do it to everybody”
Pastor: “I do know of people who have committed serious criminal things that have been changed by God”
Me: “It would have been a better idea for God to have filled them with his Holy Spirit BEFORE they committed those crimes. Wouldn’t it?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “But he doesn’t”
Me: “I know, and that’s why I have great difficulty with all of this.”

Turn on your TV or open up a newspaper and it wont take you long to learn of new cases of child abuse, murder, rape and other assorted cruelties. People are committing the most heinous of crimes every day of the week, and the number of innocent victims is piling higher and higher as each minute ticks by, yet there’s supposedly a loving God who can turn individuals into lovely people by simply filling them with his Holy Spirit. I’m curious as to why he doesn’t just do that to everybody and we can all get along in peace.

I really don’t understand the Christian claim that their God is so caring. Really, I don’t. If the Christian God does indeed exist then all of the evidence we have in the world seems to point to him being anything but caring. How would you demonstrate that you cared for someone’s welfare? I offer the pastor an example off the top of my head. I want to know what his answer will be.

Me: “Let’s say that one night you’re in the church alone and you’re checking around before you lock up. In the corner of one of the rooms you stumble across a man who is raping a defenceless and terrified little girl. Would you just stand and watch and do nothing? Or would you act?”
Pastor: “I would act”
Me: “Why would you act?”
Pastor: [Thinks for a moment] “Because I’d be concerned for the little girl”
Me: “Exactly”
Pastor: [Pause]
Me: “God sits and watches little children get raped every hour of every day and does nothing. God DOESN’T ACT, so why do you make out that he’s so concerned about people’s welfare?”

There’s another pause. Suddenly the long-standing male member offers an answer. An answer that I find to be nothing short of barking mad:

Long-Standing Male Member: “When God looks he sees that rapist as guilty as that little girl. We’re all sinners. All of us. So when God looks at us we’re all black, because sin is sin”.
Me: “God still sits there and watches innocent children being raped and doesn’t do a thing about it”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but what I’m saying to you is that when God looks down he sees that the sin is as bad in the girl as it is in the rapist. You and I look at the situation and think that the rapist is a bigger sinner than that girl, but she’s just as much a sinner as that man. God is so holy that all sin is black”.
Me: “Anybody who is concerned for the welfare of little girls and has the power to stop somebody from raping them they would.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but that’s in YOUR understanding. When you say that someone is being raped your rules say that the rapist is the bigger sinner”.

My question wasn’t anything to do with who was the biggest sinner of the two. I was asking about how one would demonstrate that one cares for the welfare of an individual. In this case an innocent, defenceless and terrified infant.

But am I the only one who finds his response to be rather disturbing? He’s justifying God’s choice not to intervene on the girl’s behalf because, for want of a better way of putting it, she deserved it. She’s just as guilty as the rapist in the eyes of these Christians (and I’m sure many others).

Disturbing is too mild a word.

At this point the pastor rejoins the conversation:

Pastor: “The Bible says that one day God will come and put a stop to all of that. But the challenge is this. On that day he is going to judge everybody, and if you want him to stop rapists raping little girls are YOU prepared to suffer the consequences of YOUR sin? Because the day he stops rapists raping little girls he’s going to stop YOU and YOUR LIFE too. God’s word says that God is not slow at keeping his promises. You’re saying that he’s slow to act.”
Me: “I’m not saying that he’s slow to act. I’m saying that he doesn’t act.”
Pastor: “Scripture says that he’s not slow at keeping his promises [2 Peter 3:9]. He’s faithful and just in every way. He’s holding back until the end of days to give people a chance to respond to him. And he does. He weeps and he hurts to see that little girl raped. But he also weeps and hurts to see you, Steve, on your way to hell.”

He tells me that God is weeping over me, but if that’s the case why didn’t he reveal himself to me this past week? Why no sign of him? I think it’s about time that I asked the pastor what he thinks about that:

Me: “Last week you put your hands on me and prayed over me. You sincerely asked God to reveal himself to me. But he hasn’t. It’s in God’s hands, so why would he weep over me when he can cure that problem in an instant? How am I to blame?”
Pastor: “Nicky Gumbel said in the presentation that he came to a point where he had to put aside his intellectual objections. He realised he had to take a step of faith.”
Me: “But we don’t bet our lives on faith alone. We don’t accept massive claims just on faith. Faith isn’t good enough. Let me give you an example. If I knocked on your door one day and told you that your wife was having an affair with John Smith down the road, would you just take my word for it? No, you’d want a bit of evidence. And what if I said, “Well, forget evidence, you just have to take it on faith”. That wouldn’t be sufficient to convince you of your wife’s infidelity, would it?”
Pastor: [Pause] “No, because my belief that my wife wasn’t having an affair would be based on my knowledge of her and our relationship.”
Me: “That’s right, it would be based on evidence
Pastor: [Long pause] “Yeah”
Me: “So we agree that faith isn’t enough”.

There’s another lengthy pause before the long-standing male member adds, “All I have to say is that the Bible says that EVERYONE is condemned. I was condemned before I gave my life to God. And I know that you’re saying that you’d like some evidence, but that is an intellectual aspect”.

So?

He then goes on to suggest that God will reveal himself to anyone who asks genuinely. He’s obviously intimating that the reason I haven’t heard from God this week is because deep down I’m not being genuine. Yes, the finest of Christian trump cards. Works every time.

The conversation then turns to my days as a youth, when I used to be a believer. “What made you stop believing?” asks the usually silent Lady One. “I suppose I came to the slow realisation that I had no good reason for believing God to exist” I reply.

There are a few shakes of the head. I think it’s fair to say that the group do not understand my lack of belief at all. They’re baffled by it. They’re convinced that their God exists and expect everyone else to be as convinced as they are. Sadly, for them, that’s not how it works.

The long-standing male member touches upon morality and law. He suggests that the world would be a better place if we followed the Ten Commandments. He says that kids no longer have respect for their parents because kids are “no longer using God’s standard”.

Me: “I’ve read the Old Testament and I can’t say that ‘God’s standard’ strikes me as particularly praiseworthy. Commanding that disobedient children and homosexuals be stoned to death? That’s a standard to which we must aim?”
Lady Three: “Him commanding that homosexuals be stoned to death was him making a stand and saying that it wasn’t right.”
New Christian Male: “Exactly! He was saying that he wasn’t going to stand for it”
Me: “Nowadays we’d view that [executing homosexuals] as abhorrent”

The new Christian male sits shaking his head. Why is he shaking his head? I want to know the reason why, so I ask him to explain himself. Nothing could have prepared me for what was about to follow:

Me: “Do you think killing homosexuals is ok by today’s standards? Would you, for example, stone a homosexual to death?”
New Christian Male: “If it was part of God’s law then yes I would”.

Now it is me that is sat shaking my head. I’m blown away by such a response. This is a dangerous, in fact VERY DANGEROUS, mind set. How does his way of thinking differ from that of the suicide bomber who straps on an explosive belt with the intention of blowing people to smithereens because God would appreciate the sacrifice? This is religious belief at its most dangerous. It is able to warp the minds of otherwise sane and rational individuals. I recommend that he avoid reading Leviticus.

I’ve always thought of myself as a patient person, but I’m definitely proving it tonight. How can any sane person spew forth such vile, hateful nonsense?

The long-standing male member can see that I’m noticeably shocked but he wants to stress the point that we all deserve to go to Hell. Yes, all of us.

Long-Standing Male Member: “All of us have done wrong against God, whether we’re a child or whether we’re a grown up. We all deserve to go to Hell”
Me: “What of a young child that has just been born? What has that child done wrong to God?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Pause] “It might have lied”

What? An infant barely out of its mother’s womb, incapable of speech, “might have lied”? I don’t know whether to laugh or cry. I ask the pastor the same question. His response is just as ludicrous:

Pastor: “It might have been selfish”
Me: “And that deserves eternal torture??”
Pastor: “I’m prepared to leave that up to God. You can argue and debate and have intellectual arguments, but I’m happy to leave that in God’s hands”
Me: “Well personally I think it’s something that needs answering. It’s certainly a big difficulty for me. A supposedly all-loving, merciful God that sends infants to eternal torture and also sits idly by while more infants are raped by crazed men? You can’t be serious”
Lady Two: “But he gave everybody free will. He doesn’t want puppets!”
Me: “And is evil a natural consequence of God allowing humans free will?”
Lady Three: “Yes”
Pastor: “Yes it is”
New Christian Male: “Yeah”
Me: “So do we have free will in Heaven?”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “No”
Me: “So we’re puppets in Heaven, then? I thought God didn’t want puppets?”

There’s a lengthy silence. I’m half expecting tumbleweed to roll across the room.

Lets think about what’s just occurred in that brief conversation. The pastor answered “No” to my question of “do we have free will in Heaven?” because he knew that if he had said “Yes” then he would have had to concede that evil will occur in Heaven (as he had already admitted that evil is a natural consequence of free will). But by answering “No” he is therefore left with a Heaven consisting of puppets, something God supposedly does not want! Either way the pastor is stumped.

At this point Lady Two adds a few cents:

Lady Two: “God is love! God is love! Every time you have a loving thought about somebody that’s a lovely feeling isn’t it? It’s a positive thing. It makes the other person feel good when you give them a loving comment. So you imagine EVERYBODY being like that”.
Me: “That would be great. That’s how it should be”
Lady Two: “That’s how God WANTS it to be!”
Me: “God could have made it that way from the off”
Lady Two: “He tried to!”
Me: “God can’t ‘try’ anything. He’s supposedly omnipotent.”
Lady Two: “He tried to. He’s given us the word of God to follow it. And if we follow the word of God we’ll have a happy life”
Me: “The point is he could have made it like that in the first place, but he didn’t. Look at the world we have. Kids are starving to death for goodness sake.”
Pastor: “I believe that God DID create the world perfect because in Genesis chapter 1 it says that God looked at what he had created and said that it was good”
Me: “Can perfection go wrong?”
Pastor: “Yes”
Me: “So there’s potential for it to go wrong in Heaven, then, because that too is perfect, yes?”
Pastor: [Yet another excruciatingly long pause] “I’ve often wondered that”
Me: [Tongue in cheek] “So I guess it’s possible that in a few millennia we could all be sat in a church somewhere in Heaven, sat watching DVD presentations from some pious apologist who’s trying to explain how it all went wrong again.”

I look around the group and I’m met with blank faces and a few shrugs of the shoulders. The pastor looks at his watch and says, “I’m afraid that time is up”.

This session has been a real eye-opener!

Next week’s session is entitled, “How Can I Resist Evil?”

Hmmm, something tells me there’s going to be fireworks!

October 18, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 24 Comments

WEEK 6: “How Does God Guide Us?”

I arrive at the church slightly earlier than usual and am surprised to find everyone already in their seats. It’s good to see that everyone is keen to attend. I’m really enjoying the sessions and it looks like everyone else is, too. Fantastic.

I sit chatting to Lady Three, who I find to be a really warm person, and it isn’t long before she’s telling me of her weekly jaunts into the local town centre on Friday evenings. She doesn’t go to town to sample the fine beers and wines that the assortment of bars and clubs have on offer, but she does stand outside those bars and clubs… equipped with her Bible. She tells me that other members of a Christian group join her and, as Friday night becomes Saturday morning, they wait for the young revellers to exit the clubs. As the wobbling, pie-eyed youths spill from the bars Lady Three and her entourage stop some of them and ask if they know of the saving grace of Jesus Christ. They ask some of them if they would like to be prayed for, and to others they offer Bible verses.

They’re a very brave bunch. I’ll give them that.

She tells me that one member of the group is a particularly gifted chap who is “very good at choosing people to speak to who turn out to have ailments”. This gentlemen then prays with these people in the hope that Jesus will cure them on the spot.

Lady Three is noticeably excited as she tells me of their most recent foray into the town centre. She begins, “Last weekend we got to see something amazing! He [the gifted chap] actually picked someone out who had a fractured collarbone. He went up to the young lad and asked “Do you have any faith in God?” and the boy replied “No”. So my friend asked him, “Do you have any reason for not having faith in God?” and the boy replied, “BECAUSE YOU CAN’T PROVE IT!” So my friend asked the lad about his arm, because he had it in a sling, and he told us that he’d fractured it by falling off of a motorbike. My friend asked, “Can we pray for you? Because we believe that Christ heals” so we prayed for the boy and moments later he could lift his arm up!”

I must say, there were a couple of points that sprung immediately to mind. The first was that I wasn’t aware that a fractured arm stops you from lifting it upwards. Why would that seem so astonishing? And the second point that sprang to mind was to do with the “gift” that this Christian chap supposedly had. Lady Three had said earlier that he was gifted in that he was, “ very good at choosing people to speak to who turn out to have ailments”. And the first example she gives in support of that is to tell me that he stopped a young lad who had his arm in a sling. Some gift! Stevie Wonder could have spotted that ailment, I’m sure.

Lady Three continues, “The boy took off his sling for a moment but then put it back on. We asked him why he was putting it back on and he replied, “Because my mum wont believe me””

I reach for my glass of cold water that sits on the table beside me and as I do so I catch the eye of the pastor who nods at me and says, “I’ve got a word for you”. By this he means that God has given him a ‘word of knowledge’ about me. I’m quite excited at the thought. I wonder what God could have told the pastor? Has he told him something really specific about me, something that only I could know? I can’t wait.

As the rest of the group chat I have a moment to think about this supposed ‘word of knowledge’. I must admit that I’m curious as to why God didn’t just tell me himself. But I don’t want to get in front of myself, maybe I’m in for a surprise? The pastor says that he’ll tell me all about it after tonight’s DVD presentation has finished. I’m looking forward to that!

The DVD begins to play. Tonight’s session is called, “How Does God Guide us?”…

Gumbel starts by asking, “Who will God guide?” and then offers an immediate answer to this question by stating, “He’ll guide those who are willing to do what he wants”.

Nice start.

Gumbel then tells us that we should all have a similar attitude to that of Mary, the mother of Jesus, who was willing and grateful to be “the Lord’s servant”. I must admit that Mary’s attitude was indeed remarkable considering that an invisible ghost, by means of magic, had just impregnated her.

Gumbel informs us that we don’t have to be special in order for God to use us for something. He then lists the names of a number of misfits from the Bible who God used in various ways.

He then asks, “So how does God guide us? How does this relationship work?”

“We’ve got 5 main ways we’re going to look at tonight”. says Gumbel.

The 1st of these is:
#1: COMMANDING SCRIPTURE:

Gumbel begins, “In the Bible the general will of God for all of us is revealed”. He continues, “He’s spoken about marriage, family life, work, money, children and all kinds of things. We know for example that marriage is for life”. Gumbel goes on to tell us that we shouldn’t commit adultery, because the Bible commands that we shouldn’t. We should also pay our taxes each year, because the Bible commands that we should. For these important matters the Bible is our guide.

God can use the Bible to guide us as we read it. “Sometimes he [God] will bring to light a particular verse as we’re reading”. says Gumbel.

The presentation continues and he offers us an example from his own experience of how God pointed him toward a certain passage in the Bible. Gumbel picks up the tale, “I’d been practising as a lawyer for some years [but] I sensed that God was calling us to ordination in the Church of England. Pippa [his wife] and I went off for a weekend together to pray. During this weekend I wrote down all the ways in which God had been guiding us. And the first thing that I wrote down was the ways in which he had guided us through the Bible, and there were fifteen different occasions where we had sensed God speaking to us through this book. One of them was through a verse in Romans 10 which says this, ‘How, then, can they call on the one they have not believed in? And how can they believe in the one of whom they have not heard? And how can they hear without someone preaching to them?’ I wondered whether that was God calling me”.

What does he mean by that last sentence? Why isn’t he sure that God has communicated with him? Why the uncertainty? If God communicates with people why are they always left saying things like, “I THINK that God is telling me such and such”? Why do they only “think” that he is telling them something? Does he have trouble making himself clear? Why are his methods of communication so vague? I have to say that this kind of thing smacks of wishful thinking.

The 2nd way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#2: COMPELLING SPIRIT:

Gumbel tells us that we learn in the New Testament that the apostle Paul was led by the Holy Spirit.

Gumbel then talks about how we get to know people’s voices and how we can recognise certain people by their voices. He adds that his wife, Pippa, recognises his voice because she knows him so well. In the same way that we come to recognise human voices we can also come to recognise the voice of the Holy Spirit, claims Gumbel. This is all part and parcel of our developing relationship with the Holy Spirit.

We are then told that the Holy Spirit leads us in a number of different ways. Gumbel offers us an example, “First of all God speaks to us when we pray”. He continues, “Prayer is a two-way conversation. It’s not just a question of us pouring out our requests to God and then going off without ever listening, because he may want to speak to us when we pray”.

He then gives us an illustration to show how silly it would be for us to simply pour out our feelings then walk away before a response could be offered. Gumbel says that none of us would go to see our doctor and simply reel off a list of ailments that were troubling us and then walk out of the room before the doctor had chance to offer some medical advice. It would be ludicrous to do something like that, suggests Gumbel. Similarly it would be just as silly, when praying to God, to reel off a number of problems and then end the prayer before God could supply you with an answer. We must understand that God guides us through prayer.

We can also tell when God is guiding us if we have, for example, “a good thought” such as “maybe I ought to ring that person” or “maybe I ought to write a letter to that person” . All these nice thoughts emanate from God, claims Gumbel.

The Holy Spirit can guide us in more unusual ways, such as, “prophecy or visions or pictures or angels” or even “in dreams”.

Gumbel admits that, “Guidance is a very difficult thing,” but thankfully “there are various tests” that we can perform. “St John says, ‘Test the spirits to see whether they’re from God’”. Now that sounds interesting. I’ll have to raise that particular point in our discussion after the presentation. If we can test these things then maybe we as a group can devise a way in which we can demonstrate God’s involvement in earthly life. I do hope so.

Gumbel then gives us some examples of how we can test that an idea emanates from the Holy Spirit. We should ask ourselves, “Is it in line with the Bible? Does it promote love? God is love, so if it’s not a loving idea then it wont come from God”

I must say that I found that sort of “test” to be very disappointing. Is that really how we are to test if an idea in our heads has come from God? How weak is that?

Do we sit and ponder, “Errr… I’m not sure if God is communicating with me…so… errr… let me think… errr… yes, this is a decent idea that I have in my head and it involves love so it must have come from God, therefore God was communicating with me”.

My goodness.

The 3rd way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#3: COMMON SENSE:

Gumbel starts by stating, “God has given every human being a conscience” which is “like a very sharp knife that can be blunted if it’s misused and ignored. But if it’s used in the right way it can become more sharp. God has also given us minds to think and reason”.

He continues, “In the big decisions [in life] common sense is very important”. He then gives us an example of how we should use common sense when confronted with a big decision, such as to who we should marry, “Paul warns us of the danger of marrying someone who is not a Christian” and that “if we’re a Christian we should look to marry a person whose faith we respect”. It’s all “common sense” says Gumbel.

The 4th way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#4: COUNSEL OF SAINTS:

Gumbel begins, “The word ‘Saints’ is used in the New Testament to mean ‘all Christians’, in other words the church”. He then offers us a Bible verse:

[Proverbs 12:15] “The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.”

Make of that what you will because that is all he offers in support of point #4.

The 5th way in which we know that God is guiding us is:
#4: CIRCUMSTANTIAL SIGNS:

Or to put it another way, “The providence of God” says Gumbel

He then paraphrases Psalm 37:5 “Commit your way to the LORD; trust in him and he will act.”

Gumbel explains that particular verse, “What he means is this: if we’re faced with a difficult decision, as all of us are from time to time, we can go to the Lord and say, ‘Lord, I don’t know which direction to go. I don’t know whether this decision is right or whether it’s not’”. By doing this we are committing ourselves to the Lord. We are putting our trust in him. Gunbel continues, “His [God’s] promise is this… he WILL act. God can shut doors or he can open doors”. and then adds, “But we have to be willing to say [to God], ‘I trust you with this’”.

Gumbel then gives us an account of a circumstantial sign. He tells us the story of two of his friends, a young man and a young lady, who were going out with each other. They’d become Christians and after a little soul searching they decided that it was for the best that they split from each other temporarily. During this time they would leave it in God’s hands to show them whether or not they should stay together. After a week of being apart from each other, and after a series of chance occurrences, they happened upon one another in the street. They ran towards each other and met in a loving embrace. The young man later wrote about this episode, “Meeting like that was a chance in a million, and we took it as a sign from God”. Gumbel then tells us that they’ve since been happily married for nearly thirty years.

Isn’t this what anyone else would call a “coincidence”?

Gumbel ends his presentation with a prayer. The pastor switches off the DVD and switches on the lights…

“I liked that! It was my favourite so far” says the pastor. The Christians are in full agreement. I must admit that I enjoyed it too.

The pastor talks about similar relationship difficulties to those of the young couple. He solemnly admits that his own marriage once went through some really rough times, and that such difficulties arose because “God was calling me to the ministry but I kept fighting it”.

Why did he keep fighting it? Didn’t he trust God or something? What’s all that about?

As a group we chat for a few moments about certain relationship difficulties. It’s not long before there’s a pause in the action. The pastor looks around the room to see if anyone has any questions. There are none forthcoming so I offer something:

Me: “Early in his presentation Gumbel gave us an example of someone sitting in the doctor’s surgery reeling off his problems without waiting for a response from the doctor. He gave this as an analogy to us praying to God without waiting for a reply, leaving God to ask, “Don’t you want to hear what I have to say?” Well in a way I’m sitting in the doctor’s surgery now but I’m actually hanging about for a response. But I’m not getting one. If God doesn’t want to speak to me personally he can speak to me through one of you, I don’t mind”
Pastor: “Can I share with you what I felt God say to me today?”
Me: “Of course.”
Pastor: “I was praying this morning and I was also reading the Bible. I read these two verses and I just felt God say to me, “That’s for Steve””.
Me: “Ok”
Pastor: “It’s from Luke chapter 19 verses 41 and 42. “As he approached Jerusalem and saw the city, he wept over it and said, “If you, even you, had only known on this day what would bring you peace—but now it is hidden from your eyes”. I hope you don’t mind me being personal here but there are two sets of eyes: there’s Jesus’ eyes and there’s your eyes. I really sensed that God was weeping over you, Steve. That’s the passion that Jesus has for you. There is something inside of you that’s wondering what all this [life, the universe and everything] is about”.
Me: “Yes, you’re right. I’m interested in the ‘big’ questions”
Pastor: “Jesus is longing that you’ll know peace, but at the moment it’s hidden from your eyes. It’s interesting that you say that you’re here waiting for God to respond to you because I felt, and this is entirely up to you, but I felt that God wanted us to pray for your eyes, your spiritual eyes, to be opened. I think that God sees your heart and he knows you want answers, but I felt him say to me that you’re blind.”
Me: “Do you think that God sees me as hard-hearted perhaps?”
Pastor: “I don’t think you’re hard-hearted, Steve. I see you as a very gentle person, a very thoughtful person and a very caring person. I think “hard-hearted” would be the last phrase I’d use to describe you. But your blindness is, and I don’t want to sound rude here, but your blindness is an illness that can only be healed by Jesus. In the Bible Jesus said, “I’ve come to give sight to the blind,” and he meant that both physically and spiritually. And Jesus went around laying hands on people and they received their sight both physically and spiritually”
Me: “Thanks. However I must ask that if it is true that God is weeping over me and he knows I have a good heart, why does he contact you to tell you to read a bible verse to me? Why does he contact you to tell you to tell me that he’s weeping over me? Why doesn’t he come to me and tell me that?”
Pastor: “I think he has”
Me: “But I’m not aware of that”
Pastor: “Maybe not but…well… I can only offer to you what I’ve heard God say to me”
Me: “Yes, but why didn’t he just say it to me, though? Wouldn’t it have been easier, and a lot more persuasive, if he had cut out the middle man?”
Pastor: “In the last six months [the long-standing male member] has shared things with me, which were about me, which he felt were from God. Now, I could have said, “God, why didn’t you tell me that directly?” but I didn’t because I feel that [the long-standing male member] has, after listening to God and on my behalf, brought the words that he’d had for me straight from God. That gives me a real thrill to think that God is THAT interested in me! I feel that I’m more likely to succumb to wishful thinking, whereas [the long-standing male member] has no agenda.”

In other words he could merely be imagining that God was speaking to him, whereas the long-standing male member is an unbiased source so whatever comes from him must be legit. But I must ask, why couldn’t he be guilty of wishful thinking too?

Isn’t it incredibly revealing, though, that he admits to being prone to wishful thinking? Maybe he’s revealed more here than he would have liked.

The conversation is getting a bit heavy now as the pastor has tears in his eyes because he is so passionate about the fact that God communicates with him. I try to lighten the tone:

Me: “What if [the long-standing male member] came up to you and said, “I’ve just heard from God, and I felt that he was telling me to tell you that you must give me a couple of thousand pounds per month, paid directly into my bank account”

The group laughs. The pastor then responds by telling me that such a message couldn’t possibly have come from God because it doesn’t fit with scripture.

Interesting.

Anyway, after that minor diversion I get back on track by asking:

Me: “Why are such things so vague, though? We are after all talking about a God who is everywhere, knows everything and can do anything, but the only way I can get to know if he exists is if you come up to me and say, “Steve, I think that God has told me to read this Bible verse to you”.
Pastor: “Well it’s more than that. I felt as though he asked me to ask you if you’d be willing to be prayed for. And for your eyes to be opened.”
Me: “I have no problem with anyone wanting to pray for me.”
Pastor: “That’s fantastic. So tonight before you go, and with your permission, I’d like to do that”
Me: “Of course you can”

Things are getting interesting now!

These sessions are getting better by the week. It would appear that by the end of the evening I’m going to be surrounded by a mob of salivating Christians, who will be trying to will the power of the Holy Spirit into my doubt-riddled soul. I sit and listen to the rest of them chat as I try to imagine what is going to happen to me later on.

The conversation jumps swiftly from one topic to the next, and I’m quite content to sit quietly, that is until “punishment”, “discipline” and “hell” enter the discussion. The pastor explains to us that he has to discipline his own children but he does so because he loves them, and that it’s for their own good in the long run. He likens this to God sending non-Christians to hell.

Pastor: “God’s punishment is a discipline that comes out of his love. Just as my love for my children expresses itself both in abundance and in strict discipline at times.”
Me: “I don’t doubt that we need to have some sort of discipline in the world, but torturing someone is a different matter. When [my fellow sceptic] and I die we are, supposedly, going to get tortured for an eternity”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, but that torture is self-inflicted”
Me: “Didn’t you say the other week that my doubts were justified?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes… errr… yes… but when God speaks to you it depends how much of an argument you put forward to God. You say you’re genuinely searching so God will genuinely break through, because if we draw close to God he’ll draw close to us”
Me: “The thing is, though, according to your belief, if I were to have a heart attack now and die I’d be spending an eternity in a lake of flames, even though I’d genuinely looked for God, but never heard from him or stumbled across any evidence for his existence”
Long-Standing Male Member: “If you don’t have a relationship with Jesus, where you’ve surrendered your life to Jesus, that is what will happen, yes”

It astonishes me how Christians can say things like that and not even flinch at the thought. The threats of eternal torture roll effortlessly off the tongue. They are quick to tell us how much their God loves us all, but are just as quick to tell us that he created an eternal pit of flames in which to torture those of us who do not reciprocate his love. Isn’t this just absolutely bizarre?

The pastor supports what the long-standing male member has just told me. He agrees that I’m doomed to (and deserving of) being sent to a place of eternal torture “because that’s been your choice”.

My choice? I don’t think so. We’ll come to that in a moment.

I ask them about this supposedly loving God who tortures his children for an eternity:

Me: “If your children had been naughty would you discipline them by holding their hands over a hot flame for a few seconds?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “What about holding their hands over the flame for ten seconds, then? What about a minute, an hour, a day? How about a zillion years? How about even longer without any chance of them ever being able to pull their hands away?”
Lady Three: [Long pause] “But what if they threw themselves in the fire?”
Me: “But I’m not throwing myself in any fire”
Lady Three: “Maybe on a spiritual level you might be. The Bible says we were created to have a relationship with God, to have a two-way communication with him”
Me: “But God isn’t communicating with me”
Lady Three: “You can’t have communication with God without having a faith that he’s there”
Me: “I’ve had faith that he was there. I’m a former believer. And I can honestly say that I’ve never heard from God”
Lady Three: “What made you believe back then?”
Me: “I was raised that way. I didn’t know any different. I suppose if I’d have been raised in Pakistan I’d have been a Muslim”
Pastor: “I always think of it like we’re walking towards a cliff. God doesn’t push us over that cliff. All the time God is saying, “Look at the cross. My son died for you. Look at the cross. You don’t need to go over that cliff!””
Me: “But I genuinely do not see the cross or the cliff, despite being told that they’re there, and despite me looking for them for many years”
Long-Standing Male Member: “That’s because you’re like a blind person walking without a guide towards the cliff edge”
Me: “If I’m blind then I’m not choosing to throw myself off of a cliff that I don’t even know is there!”

Again, I’m dumbfounded at the way these Christians attempt to defend their beliefs. Much of it is childish. Some of it is just plain absurd. It’s as though they have never questioned these beliefs in the past, and have never even heard anyone else question them either. So now that someone IS questioning them (i.e. me) they panic and leap to the first thing that comes into their heads.

The long-standing male member then suggests that maybe God is communicating to me by nudging me towards attending the Alpha Course every week (I seem to remember that someone else suggested this in an earlier session too). I pose a similar question back at him:

Me: “And when I talk to Muslims maybe it is Allah who is guiding me towards them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “And that’s the choice you have to make. How do you know that God is not telling you things through us?”
Me: “I don’t.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Well I’m saying to you that God IS telling you things through us”
Me: “But I’d just have to take your word for that”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes”
Me: “But why would I take your word for it about your God, rather than the word of a Muslim, Sikh or Hindu about their gods?”

There’s a momentary pause before the pastor interjects by changing the subject. In a previous session I had told the group that Christianity was not original in having a godman sent to earth. One of the names I’d mentioned was Krishna, a Hindu deity. Krishna was an earthly manifestation of the Hindu god Vishnu, and he is still worshipped today. The pastor wants to pull me up on the topic of Krishna.

The pastor cannot understand how anyone could seriously believe in Krishna due to the fact that he “went around killing people and took sixteen thousand wives!”

The Christians in the group erupt into fits of hysterical laughter, and it doesn’t stop for almost a full minute. It’s as though someone has just told the greatest joke in the history of the universe.

They obviously find it ludicrous to believe in a god who kills humans. Yet they believe in the Christian God, the most notorious killer of all. Remember, this is the very same God who slaughtered the entire world’s population barring Noah and seven members of his family. And this is the same God who slaughters people on almost every page of the Old Testament.

They obviously find it ludicrous, too, to believe in a god who marries many women. Yet they believe in the Christian God who impregnates a young virgin without so much as asking her permission.

It blows my mind how can they laugh at one set of beliefs whilst holding firmly to a similar (or even sillier) set of beliefs themselves. It really is remarkable.

At this point Lady Two, who has been quiet for almost the duration of the evening so far, turns to me and asks:

Lady Two: “Have you repented? Do you feel the need to repent before a Holy God?”
Me: “No, not really”
Lady Two: “Do you think your life is ok?”
Me: “Yes I do”
Lady Two: “Before a Holy God? Say the Bible is true, do you think that everything in your life is as good as you can get it to please a Holy God?”
Me: “If the Bible is true then no, my life wouldn’t be pleasing to him because I’m not a Christian. I’d have to make myself a Christian, pretty sharpish I’d imagine”
Lady Two: “You know that night when I prayed for 100% faith?…”

Oh dear. We’re only 25 seconds into the conversation and already she wants to present her testimony again. The exact same testimony that she’s given at almost every session so far. “I never thought anyone could have 100% faith”… “God filled me with his Holy Spirit”… “It was complete POWER”… “Tears rolled down my face”… “The Bible sank into my chest”… “God had revealed himself to me, a nobody”…

You get the picture.

Her testimony lasts for about eight minutes before the pastor interrupts to state that now is a good time to pray for me. I’m quite excited at the thought. I’m just hoping, though, that it’s not going to be embarrassing. In my head I picture the scene from the film “The Exorcist” where the priest is attempting an exorcism on the demon-possessed young girl, dousing her with Holy Water as she squeals and vomits as her head spins around 360 degrees. I’m hoping it’s going to be a milder experience for me!

The pastor suggests that after he has finished with me I should go home and “read the Bible afresh so that God can speak directly to you through his word”. The long-standing male member adds, “Part of my love for God is to read the Bible. And as I read the Bible I sense God speaking to me, sometimes very consciously, to the point of tears”.

The pastor asks, “Can I pray for you? I’d like to lay my hands on you because Jesus did that”. I respond with a “No problem”.

He walks towards me and rubs his hands together as if to warm them up. I smile and say to him with a wink, “Be gentle with me”.

He puts one hand on the top of my head, holds his other hand in the air, closes his eyes and then begins his prayer:

Pastor: “Father God I just want to thank you for your word. God I want to thank you for Steve. I just want to thank you Lord that you do weep over Steve and that your eyes, Lord, are full of tears. I just want to thank you for Steve’s heart, Lord. He’s earnestly seeking you, Lord, and I want to thank you for the honesty and integrity with which he speaks to us. I praise and bless you for that, Lord. I lay my hands on him now just as Christ laid hands on the blind, and I want to pray in Christ’s name Jesus, Lord, that you will open his spiritual eyes that he may receive all he longs for. And Lord please make him be certain about the things of which he currently has no certainty. Open his eyes I pray. As he reads the Bible from this day onwards he’ll find you speaking to him and showing him the way. I ask this in Jesus’ name. Amen”

He stands quietly for a moment, with his eyes closed and his hand firmly gripping my head. He’s in the zone. I look around the room and the other Christians have their arms aloft. Some have their eyes closed and are rocking back and forth in their chairs, mumbling inaudible prayers to God.

A few seconds later the pastor lets go and thanks me for allowing that to happen. I tell him that it’s no problem. I look around the room again and the Christians seem quite moved by the experience. Ladies Two and Three have tears in their eyes. I’d say that they’re hopeful, if not certain, that I’m on my way to becoming a Christian now that I’ve made that first step.

The room remains quiet; everyone sits motionless as all eyes are focused on me. I sit still in my chair, taking in the moment. I wonder, do I have to say something at this point? Is this the point where I’m expected to start speaking in tongues or throwing myself on the floor, body convulsing from the power of the Holy Spirit? I don’t know. I don’t feel any different. Maybe it’ll come later.

The group remain with their arms aloft, as they take turns to mutter thanks to Jesus. The long-standing male member gives his thanks more audibly than the rest, “I want to thank you Lord for being an amazing God. Even though I might find it difficult to understand that Steve can’t see you, Lord, I pray that you help him to see you and understand you. Lord I pray that you’ll touch his heart, and I thank you, father, for promising to draw close to them who draw close to you. Lord, I give Steve into your hands and I pray that over the next week you will speak to him and that Steve will sense your powers and your presence. Lord, you know exactly how Steve thinks, and I pray that you will reveal yourself to him. This I ask in Jesus’ name. Amen”

His prayer is met by a chorus of amen’s from the group. Everyone smiles. The room is buzzing. The atmosphere is similar to that of an operating theatre after a surgeon has performed a difficult but life-saving operation on a patient. Success is in the air.

Or is it?

We all pack up our things and put on our coats and jackets. Tonight’s session has come to a close. There’s some hearty backslapping and a few excited handshakes. They all wish me well for the week ahead and I thank them for a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable evening.

This could be a momentous week in my life. God could be revealing himself to me sometime between now and the next session. It’s kind of exciting.

God, the ball is in your court…

October 11, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

WEEK 5: “Why And How Should I Read The Bible?”

This week’s review will be shorter than usual. The reason for this is that my audio recording device, which I use to record each session, sadly ‘gave up the ghost’ about one hour in to this week’s proceedings, and I didn’t notice this until I was typing up this transcript. Thankfully my device managed to last long enough to record the full presentation that was given by Nicky Gumbel, but the group discussion that followed is sadly lost. Divine intervention perhaps?

Therefore this week I will just be having a look at what Mr Gumbel had to offer. Next week I will endeavour to raise a few more points about this week’s session so that I have some recorded material to work with, as I don’t want to do the group a disservice by constructing conversations from memory. I want to continue as I have done in the previous four weeks, which is to type the discussions up as they actually happened – verbatim – from the audio recordings.

I can’t be fairer than that.

So let’s begin…

I’m one of the first to arrive for this week’s instalment. The pastor and the new Christian male are discussing the action from last weekend’s football (soccer) matches, so we have a laugh and a joke about that for ten minutes or so. The rest of group trickle into the room and we chat for a while as we enjoy a drink and a bowl of fruit salad.

After we’ve all been ‘fed and watered’ the pastor slips tonight’s DVD into the player. This session is called, “Why and How Should I Read The Bible?”…

Gumbel begins this week’s presentation by telling us of the time he and his father journeyed to Russia armed with a concealed box of Bibles.

Why the hidden stash of Bibles?

Gumbel explains to us, “It was back in 1976 and Russia was behind the Iron Curtain and we knew that there was persecution of Christians.” So much so that for the average Russian Christian, “it was very hard to get hold of a Bible”

So off they went in search of people who they thought “would appreciate these amazing Russian Bibles.” In one particular town in central Russia, Gumbel and his father attended a church service but found it “difficult to tell at the time whether the people in the church were genuine Christians or whether they were members of the KGB who were infiltrating the meetings”

I assume Gumbel was then guided by the Holy Spirit to take notice of a man who “had a wonderful beaming face.” Gumbel considered this ‘beaming face’ an obvious giveaway, and led him to conclude that the cheesy-grinned Soviet MUST have a faith in Christ.”

After the service he followed the smiley man outside and eventually down a neighbouring street “until there was just him and I alone”. Gumbel pulled out a new Bible and offered it to the gentleman. “He was just SO excited!” exclaims Gumbel. “He was jumping up and down. He was dancing!” In no time the pair of them were “running up and down the street dancing together!”

Joyous scenes indeed.

Gumbel then asks us, WHY was this man SO excited?” There is a momentary pause and the audience leans forward to hear his answer. Gumbel continues, “The Bible is the most popular book in the world”

He goes on to tell us that the works of Shakespeare have been translated into 60 languages, but such numbers pale into insignificance when compared to the Bible. The Christian holy book, he assures us, has been translated into over 2,000 languages. He adds, “it’s the world’s best seller by several miles” and that “44 million copies of the Bible are sold every year”. Impressive numbers, I’m sure you’ll agree.

But how important are such numbers?

British author, J.K Rowling, sold 11 million copies of her book, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, in the first 24 hours of its release back in 2007, and has since gone on to sell nearly 500 million books from the Harry Potter series. Do such mind-boggling numbers tell us anything about the truth content of those books? No they do not. And the same goes for the Bible. The sales figures for a book are no guide to the truth of claims made in that book.

Gumbel is still spouting numbers, and offers us the interesting statistic, “In the average American household there are 6.8 Bibles”. Really? I’d bet that in the average American household there are 6.8 mullet-style haircuts too. So what?

He tells us that the Bible is “the most powerful book in the world” and that it has “the power to change lives” and he caps it off by telling us that it’s “the most precious book in the world”. I don’t know about you but I’m getting the sneaking suspicion that Gumbel is quite fond of the Bible and that he would heartily recommend that we read it.

He then asks us, “Why is it so popular? Why is it so powerful? Why is it so precious?”

To answer this he offers us a Bible verse (the Bible is precious because the Bible says so?), [Matthew 4:4]
Jesus answered, ‘It is written: Man does not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”

Gumbel elaborates, “Material things leave us with a sense of unfulfilment, because human beings, all of us, were created to live in a relationship with God” and that such a relationship is triggered by reading the Bible. God communicates with us through the pages of his word – his “written revelation”.

“The Bible is a manual for life” says Gumbel. Oddly enough I never got that impression when I read the Old Testament. Perhaps all the best tips for living a wholesome, peaceful life were hidden somewhere in between the genocide and incest. I’ll look a little closer the next time I read it.

As we have just learned, the Bible is God’s revelation to us in written form, but God has revealed himself to us in other ways too, claims Gumbel. “God has also revealed himself in creation”. He continues, “The earth proclaims his handiwork. You only have to look around!” He then offers us some examples, “Look at a beautiful sunset, look at the oceans, look at the stars, they speak about God”

Says who? God?

Try this as an experiment: approach a Christian and say, “Allah has revealed himself in creation… The earth proclaims his handiwork. You only have to look around!” and then offer some examples in support of your claim such as, “Look at a beautiful sunset, look at the oceans, look at the stars, they speak about Allah”. See what kind of response you get. I think it’s safe to say that such a claim will be met by ill-concealed laughter and perhaps derision. This is yet another example of how religious people find their own arguments to be completely unsatisfactory.

Gumbel then tells us that science helps us to discover God. He states, “Science is an exploration of the way in which god has revealed himself in creation. That’s why there’s no conflict between science and faith. Indeed they complement one another. They’re two different ways in which we explore Gods revelation.”

He then quotes possibly the greatest scientific mind of all time, Albert Einstein: “Science without religion is lame, religion without science is blind”. Gumbel uses Einstein perhaps in the hope that such a name will make any uninformed sceptic think, “Hmmm, Albert Einstein agrees with what Nicky Gumbel is saying, so I’ll have to take Christianity very seriously indeed.”

But did Albert Einstein believe in the Christian God?

No he did not. Nor did he believe in ANY personal god. It was Albert Einstein who wrote the following:

“It was, of course, a lie what you read about my religious convictions, a lie which is being systematically repeated. I do not believe in a personal God and I have never denied this but have expressed it clearly. If something is in me which can be called religious then it is the unbounded admiration for the structure of the world so far as our science can reveal it.”

Einstein is hardly endorsing Christianity, is he?

Back to God’s supposed written revelation, the Bible. Gumbel admits that difficulties can arise when reading the Bible. One such difficulty, he says, is the existence of suffering. “Every Christian believes that God is love. And yet there is this extraordinary amount of suffering in the world. How can we hold on to believing in a God of love AND seeing all the suffering that is in the world?” What we mustn’t do is abandon our belief, he advises. What we should do, rather, is “wrestle with those problems. And as we wrestle with those problems we get a deeper understanding of the Bible and a deeper understanding of the problems. The Bible is our supreme authority”

He adds that by reading the Bible we “find out what is right in God’s eyes and what is wrong in God’s eyes” He states that the Bible is, “full of practical material for how to bring up children, for example”.

If the Bible is to be believed then I’m not so sure if child welfare is high on God’s list of priorities. He seems to have a penchant for slaying defenceless infants whose only ‘crime’ is to have been unfortunate enough to be the first-born child of a certain couple for example, and God seems to have a liking for having infants offered up to him as a burnt offering (only to present the child’s father, the man assigned the duty of killing the boy, with a rib-tickling “Gotcha! I was just seeing if you’d obey me!” seconds before the child’s throat is to be slit). Yes, God is love indeed.

Gumbel then makes the point that we need rules in life. Without rules there would be anarchy and chaos. Thankfully God has that covered, as he offers us the greatest rulebook of all in the shape of… yes you guessed it… the Bible.

To highlight the fact that we need rules he offers us the tale of how he was once roped in to refereeing a boy’s game of football, after the designated referee failed to show up. Unfortunately Gumbel didn’t know the rules of the game, so it wasn’t long before the match turned into chaos. Thankfully the real referee eventually turned up and managed to sort out all the mess. He imposed the basic ground rules and the boys went on to have a great game of football. They had rules to follow and a lawgiver to obey. Things are better that way, says Gumbel. Similarly, he suggests, life is better when we have basic ground rules to follow (the Bible) and a lawgiver to obey (God).

Gumbel wants us to realise that just because God has laid down some rules for us this does not make him a dictator or a bully. On the contrary in fact, as Gumbel explains, “God loves us. He hasn’t given us this [the Bible] to restrict our freedom. He’s given us this book to set us free. To enjoy life as he intended us to live it.”

Gumbel continues, “He didn’t give us the command ‘You shall not kill’ because he is a spoil-sport… He didn’t say ‘Don’t steal’ because he wanted to ruin our fun… He didn’t say ‘Don’t commit adultery’ because he wanted to ruin all our fun. He said it because he knows that people get hurt. And he doesn’t want people to get hurt because he loves us. This [points to the bible] is how to live. This is life at its very best, and within that we find freedom.”

Moving into top gear now, Gumbel adds that the Bible is “a love letter from God”.

A love letter?

I must admit I haven’t had many love letters in my life, but the ones that I have received have been conspicuously lacking in grizzly tales of mass human slaughter, rape, and torture. If I were to receive a “love letter” from a lady whose career highlight to date was the extermination of the entire worlds population (with the exception of 8 individuals), and that such a lady also had an unhealthy fascination with torturing homosexuals and the non-religious, I think it’s safe to say that her letter would hardly ‘warm the cockles’ of my heart. And I doubt that I’d be inviting her over to my parents’ home for Sunday luncheon anytime soon. I’ll go out on a limb here and admit that those kinds of “love letters” are, to me, a tad unattractive. Maybe that’s where Gumbel and I differ.

Sticking with the love letter theme Gumbel tells us of the time he was parted for a few weeks from his then fiancée (who later became his wife). He found it very difficult, but the two of them wrote to each other every day. Every morning he’d get up and look for a letter popping through the letterbox. “If I saw a letter with [his fiancée’s name] on it I felt this excitement, this thrill. Why? The letter in itself wasn’t what it was about. It was because of the relationship. Because it was a letter from the person I loved” Gumbel, of course, is likening this scenario to that of the Christian’s relationship with God, and the warm personal attachment they feel when they read his love letter to them – the Bible.

Gumbel assures us that God “brings faith to those people that are not Christians” when they take time to read the Bible. As the apostle Paul states [Romans 10:17], “faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of God.”

Surely there are millions of people that have read the Bible and haven’t been imbued with faith as a result? I’m certainly one of them. Why does God not treat us all equally?

Keeping up a strong gallop, Gumbel enthuses “it never ceases to amaze me that this book, about a person who lived two thousand years ago, we can actually KNOW that person. We can speak to them and they speak to us through this book. Communication is vital to any relationship, that’s how we develop relationships, and that’s how relationships grow and strengthen.”

I don’t see much of a “relationship” there, to be honest. I’m a big fan of the work of Robert. G. Ingersoll, the magnificent orator and freethought advocate of mid-to-late 19th century America, but I don’t have a “relationship” with him, as such. His words touch me very deeply and they satisfy me intellectually, but I don’t claim to be in a “relationship” with Robert. G. Ingersoll. Not in the everyday sense, at least. Gumbel claims to have such a relationship, in the everyday sense, with God through the pages of a book. I think Gumbel is misleading us by misusing the word “relationship” in the way that he does.

If anyone is interested in reading some of Ingersoll’s work you can click on his name in the paragraph above, or alternatively you can find a link to his writings to the right of this screen, under the “Links” header.

Moving on…

All parents know that when you have a child you have to feed it so it will grow. Gumbel tells us that the Bible is “spiritual food. It helps us to grow” and that it “brings joy and peace”, as well as “gives us wisdom” and “challenges us” and “guides us”

He stresses now that it’s an absolute must that we read God’s word. “If you want to grow as a Christian. If you want your relationship with God to grow you need to set aside time to read the Bible.”

We should read it “rather like with foods: little and often”, then gradually increase the dosage. He suggests that we go to a solitary place to read, as this may help us focus on the message.

Gumbel adds, “I think you’ll find that if you do this on a regular basis over the years you’ll find that day-by-day God speaks to you. Sometimes in very ordinary ways and sometimes in very important ways”

Gumbel then offers us an example of when God spoke to him regarding one particularly important matter. A matter involving his father, “a secular Jew by background”, who died in 1981.

Gumbel states, “I never quite knew, because he was a man of very few words, what he thought or what he’d come to believe. And when he died I was obviously very sad because his death came very sudden, but also I was worried about whether he really had a relationship with God, through Christ. Whether he really had a belief, a faith. It was about ten days after he died that I was reading the Bible [and] I prayed that God would speak to me. I read a verse that day from Romans 10:13 and it says this, ‘For whosoever shall call upon the name of the Lord shall be saved.’ I sensed God say to me, ‘Your father DID call on me and he WAS saved.’”

I happen to feel for Gumbel on this point. I’m sure that every ounce of his being hopes that his father survived death, that he’s living in a paradise free from pain and that he’s in a state of perfect happiness. As humans we all want what is best for our loved ones, but, I’m sorry to say, I don’t see how these supposed admissions from God are anything but wishful thinking on Gumbel’s part. I really don’t.

There are plenty of people that claim to hear voices in their heads. Many of whom are now locked in lunatic asylums for our (and their) safety. Peter Sutcliffe (The Yorkshire Ripper) was also convinced that he had heard the voice of God in his head commanding him to slaughter prostitutes. The thing is I have no good reason for believing that the lunatics are telling the truth and, similarly, I have no good reason for believing the testimony of Gumbel. Though I am not for one moment likening him to the lunatics listed above. He is, on the whole, a reasonable fellow. Only when religion enters the fray does he, in my eyes at least, deviate from reasonableness.

Shortly after God had assured him that his father was safe in heaven, Gumbel’s wife entered the room and said, “I’ve just been reading a passage in the Bible and I think I’ve got a verse which is for your father. Its Acts 2:21 and it says this, ‘And everyone who calls on the name of the Lord will be saved’”

Obviously Mrs Gumbel knew of her husband’s concerns regarding his father’s fate (as stated earlier), so it’s hardly surprising that she would tell him of a verse that would possibly offer him some emotional comfort. Gumbel doesn’t see it that way, though. He sees this as God guiding his wife to that particular verse so as to prove that he’s a caring God, and that he is a God who is eager to put their concerns to rest.

Through Gumbel’s presentation we’ve come to learn that God speaks to people. He speaks to the Gumbel family and supposedly millions of others too, but Gumbel wants to know about members of the audience, particularly the fence sitters and would-be-Christians amongst them. A fully focused Gumbel asks, “Let me ask you this question tonight. Do you think the Lord may be trying to speak to YOU?”. A doe-eyed Gumble then looks toward the audience and pleads in a whisper, “In which case will you let him?”

There’s a quiet pause as the room looks towards Gumbel contemplatively. He then brings the presentation to a close with a prayer.

There were quite a few points worthy of discussion in tonight’s session, as I’m sure you’ll agree. A couple of issues that I want to get my teeth into are:

1 – How the Christians in the group reach the conclusion that stars, oceans and sunsets are “designed”.

And…

2 – How the Christians in the group reconcile the existence of an all-loving God with the existence of gratuitous evil in the world.

We did touch upon these issues in our discussion after tonight’s presentation, but, as stated earlier, they weren’t recorded. So I wont include them here. Hopefully I can steer the conversation towards these topics in the coming weeks.

Next week’s session is entitled, “How Does God Guide Us?”

Until then…

October 4, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

WEEK 4: “Why And How Do I pray?”

As promised to the group at last week’s session, I went home that evening and asked God to reveal himself to me. After failing to get a response I didn’t just quit there and then. No, over the next few days I asked God on several more occasions. Sadly, however, I wasn’t granted a revelation. Obviously I’m going to have to tell the group at this week’s session. I wonder what they will offer as an explanation?

As I arrive I find the group to be in their usual high spirits. They’re a really friendly bunch. Lady Two has very kindly poured me a glass of cold water, and it sits on the table next to my seat ready for when I arrive. I thank her for being so thoughtful.

The pastor informs the group that he will not be able to oversee this evening’s session, as he has a church meeting to attend held at another location. He promises to be back before the session closes.

He leaves the room and as a group we continue with our friendly chat. After about twenty-five minutes I begin to wonder if the session will even begin this evening, as there’s not much sign of a discussion brewing. That is until, out of the blue, the long-standing male member asks if anyone has any questions outstanding from last week’s session. My fellow sceptic wants to know why God doesn’t reveal himself to both him and me, but does reveal himself to the Christians in the group. Lady Two gives a confusing response to this question. She starts by telling us that she “knows what Jesus stood for” and then within seconds manoeuvres her response towards her own personal testimony about the night she “prayed to God for 100% faith”. She tells us, again, of how the Bible sank into her chest and how the tears rolled down her face as God filled her with his Holy Spirit on that memorable evening. My fellow sceptic seems somewhat bemused, as his question appears to have fallen on deaf ears.

Things become hard to follow, as the five Christians in the group seem eager to speak at the same time. Each one of them telling us how they believe such and such. Lady Three wants us to know that she believes that her God created the universe, that she believes that Jesus existed, that she believes the disciples’ accounts, and that she trusts the Bible with all of her heart.

Without the pastor as moderator this session is turning into a free-for-all.

I assure Lady Three that I have no doubts as to the strength of her religious conviction. It’s beginning to become apparent that these Christians think that the more they express their passion for their beliefs the more likely we are to believe them. I point out the strength of the convictions that Muslims, Sikhs and Hindus hold. How do Christians explain that?

The long-standing male member offers a response, but rather than addressing the question he simply barks, “There’s nothing I can do that will make you believe”

Me: “Actually, there is. You could offer some evidences or logical arguments that support the claim you’re making.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God doesn’t work logically.”
New Christian Male: “That’s right, he works from the heart.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “… When you have a belief in your heart there’s an inner voice that you hear. Sometimes I can spend thirty minutes reading one verse [of the Bible] because God is talking to me throughout that one verse. It [the verse] might have only ten or twelve words. There’s an interaction going where the Holy Spirit is taking those words and working with me in my mind.”

Let’s break down what he’s just said: An “inner voice”, “talking to me”, “in my mind”? Interesting isn’t it? If God was imaginary wouldn’t we expect that kind of response? Yes, we would.

I’m also curious why it is that Christians find it so hard to offer some decent evidence.

The long-standing male member can see that I’m not buying the whole “God doesn’t work logically” thing, so he turns his attention once again to the historicity of Jesus (the Christians in this group don’t seem to want to let this topic go).

He seems to think that he’s on to something with regards to the reasons for my doubts and scepticism concerning God’s existence. He states, “You’ve got your doubts as to whether he [Jesus] even existed.” and adds, as if revealing the root cause of my problem, “Now straight away that’s a very difficult hurdle to overcome if you don’t believe that he even existed.”

Why is it a difficult hurdle to overcome? I doubt that God exists, and to a lesser extent doubt that Jesus existed. I’m a non-believer, so why would that seem to be anything out of the ordinary to doubt God’s existence? I’m not sure that I understand his point.

I’m getting the distinct feeling that these people believe that I believe that there was no Jesus. I take the opportunity to stress my position and to ease any misunderstandings:

Me: “When I say that I don’t believe that Jesus existed, this is not to say that I believe that he didn’t exist. That’s two different things altogether.”
Lady Three: [Turns to the rest of the group to clarify] “That means he’s on the fence”
Me: “Right. I’m not claiming that there is/was no Jesus. That’s not my stance. I approach the question with the mindset, “There may have been a Jesus or there may not. I’ll have a look at the evidence.” And that’s why I’m here.”

Lady Two decides to have yet another go at convincing me with her testimony. But this time she adds more passion, detail and energy to her presentation, as if under the impression that these were the missing ingredients needed to convince me the first three times she presented the exact same testimony.

Lady Two: “The night I found God I was like a child before him. I came to him with humility and I appealed to him to be part of me. I wanted to find out if he was real. I was desperate, absolutely DESPERATE, to find out if he was real. I was SICK of thinking about it. I was sick of hoping, sick of getting disappointed, and I thought… you know… NO ONE can have 100% faith. Then I thought that I’d just place my Bible on my chest and say my prayers to God. And that’s what I did. I just put myself in a humble position and just saw God as white. In my mind I thought, “If you’re real, God, then you are white””
Me: “Do you mean that he had white skin?”
Lady Two: “I mean white in terms of perfect. He’s perfectly clean and pure. And I just wanted to appeal to him if he was there, and to say to him “Reveal yourself”. I never thought for one moment that he would because I’d never read any books about the filling of the Holy Spirit. I didn’t know about it because I hadn’t been mixing with Christians. So I didn’t know that there were experiences to be had like the one that I had. I just said sorry for everything that I’d done wrong, and then I was thinking in my brain “what shall I pray about now?” and those thoughts were interrupted by this guiding hand. It was like the sea getting closer to me, then the tide gradually ebbing over me. It was POWER. It was ACTUAL POWER. And each wave that swept into me was absolute love. It was just LOVE. And each wave that came in was stronger than the last. It was just ABSOLUTE PERFECTION, and after about seven or eight I was totally filled. I was suspended in this spiritual state of union with God and the Holy Spirit. I just CRIED and I realised that this GREAT GOD was bothering to reveal himself to ME, a NOBODY!”

The room goes quiet. Lady Two’s eyes pierce into mine as if awaiting my confirmation of my newfound faith in Christ, all thanks to her blistering testimony. Unfortunately I’m going to have to disappoint…

Me: “I do not doubt that you had an experience. In fact I am convinced of that. But God hasn’t revealed himself to me. Another person’s testimony, however sincere, is not enough to demonstrate that a particular God exists. You wouldn’t be persuaded by the passionate testimony of a Sikh, Hindu or Muslim.”

In a frantic bid to keep me focused on the existence of the Christian God, the new Christian male almost pleads with me to believe his own testimony. He adds:

New Christian Male: “I once wanted to jump off of a bridge, and I thought, “Please God, for the last time, I beg you, just tell me something!” I was in absolute despair and I was crying out to him. The next thing I remember was waking up next to the bridge, and the sun came out. I felt this warmth come over me. Thankfully I believed in God, otherwise I would have gone over that bridge. Steve, you’ve GOT TO LET HIM INSIDE so that you know he exists!”

How about knowing that he exists first, THEN letting him inside? They assure me it doesn’t work that way. No, I thought not. How very convenient.

I then ask the new Christian male if he would be convinced of Allah’s existence if a Muslim were to offer a similar account to his own, but who credited Allah as the one who saved him from leaping off of the bridge.

He tells me he would not.

Think about this for a moment… if he finds such testimonies to be completely unconvincing why then would he expect me to believe the very same thing? I just don’t get it. These Christians are clearly using “evidence” that they themselves find unsatisfactory. So why do they use it?!

I tell the group that it’s best if they avoid using arguments they find unacceptable. For example they would not be convinced by these kinds of arguments if presented by someone from an opposing religion:

* My god exists because he answers prayer.
* My god exists because he revealed himself to me.
* My god exists because I have a relationship with him.
* My god exists because I have faith that he exists.
* My god exists because we have his words written in a holy book.
* My god exists because I see his creation all around.
* My god exists because millions of people believe that he does.

This list could go on and on. We can all agree, surely, that such arguments are not good enough. I think that the group now realise that such “evidences” aren’t sufficient to demonstrate the truth of a religious claim, so I’m going to keep my fingers crossed that during the remainder of the course they will eventually offer something decent.

The long-standing male member turns to me and says, “God is working in your life, Steve. Whether you choose to see that or not is up to you. If you look with a humble heart then God WILL reveal himself.”

This is simply one of those “guarantees” that I mentioned last week. I’m beginning to feel the urge to raise the white flag.

Lady Three can see my frustration and says, “Steve, I think that the best thing we can do is look for evidence of Jesus Christ She states that in the remaining eight weeks of the course she will do her best to gather together all the evidence she can find. I give her the thumbs up. She’s a nice lady and is giving this her best shot. I admire her approach.

She gives me a smile and turns on the DVD. Today’s presentation is entitled, “Why And How Do I Pray?”…

Gumbel, as ebullient as ever, begins with the question, “What is Christian prayer?” to which he answers, “Christian prayer is THE most important activity of our lives. It’s the very purpose for which you and I were created. That is to be in a relationship with the God who made us”

He assures us that we are to pray in Christ’s name, as through him we have access to the father. Gumbel then gives us an example with which to demonstrate the need for an intermediary in this regard.

He offers us a tale of a soldier, from the American Civil War of the 19th century, who wished to be granted an audience with the president of the United States. He wished to discuss the possibility of him earning exemption from military service. Much to his dismay, though, he was turned away upon arrival at the Whitehouse. Heartbroken he sat alone in the nearest park, crying aloud. Out of nowhere appeared a young boy who asked him what the problem was. The soldier emptied his heart out to the boy, and, strangely, the boy took him to the Whitehouse. The two of them walked straight through all the security cordons and eventually in to the president’s office. Remarkably this young boy was the president’s son. Yes, you guessed it… the soldier had gained access to the father through the son!

I have to give credit to Gumbel for making me chuckle, though on reflection I’m not sure he intended to make anyone laugh. But anyway, let’s press on…

Gumbel asks, “Why should we pray?” and then tells us that we should pray because, “Jesus prayed and he taught us to do the same.”

He adds, “As we pray, this Spiritual thirst that we all have is satisfied; this spiritual hunger is met”

Then he hits us with the biggy, “Prayer not only changes US it also changes SITUATIONS.”

The group nod in approval.

Prayer changes situations? Unsurprisingly I’m not as comfortable with that thought than the Christians seem to be. Why aren’t I comfortable with a claim like that? Well ask yourself this: when has a prayer ever stopped a war or a famine? When has a prayer ever rid the world of paedophiles or rapists (or both)? When has a prayer ever brought forth a cure for cancer, AIDS, or for cot death? When? I’ll tell you when: NEVER.

Prayers don’t always work as hoped though, admits Gumbel. “The New Testament tells us that there are some things that can stop our prayers being effective. For example things that are wrong in our lives can put a barrier between us and God. But Jesus, on the cross, died for us so that we could be totally forgiven.”

He explains that another cause for unanswered prayer could be that “We misunderstand what God’s will is for us” Wouldn’t it be a good idea, in that case, to pray to him first and inquire as to what his will for you actually is? Once you have that important information you will be able to pray to God in accordance with his will. This then rids us of barriers and misunderstandings. But, as ever, it would seem that God doesn’t work that way. But why not?

Gumbel continues, “When we pray, God promises to answer. God sometimes says, “Wait” but sometimes he says “No”… if the things are not good in themselves or not good for us or for others”.

Over the years I’ve said innumerable prayers, all without a discernable reply. I’ve not heard a “Wait” or a “No”. I’ve heard absolutely nothing. Of course, I can’t say that other people haven’t had replies from God, but even if they do get a “Wait” or a “No” why does God just leave it at that? Couldn’t he perhaps offer an explanation as to why a “Wait” or a “No” is appropriate? Couldn’t he say, “No, I don’t want you to do such and such because….” Or “Wait, it would be better if you didn’t do that because…”?

If God turns down certain prayer requests because they are “not good in themselves or not good for us or for others” then how do we explain the millions of rejected prayer requests that were made by millions of people during the Beslan School hostage crisis of 2004? If you don’t remember that horrific event I’ll refresh your memory. In 2004 a group of armed Chechen rebels stormed in to a school in the Russian town of Beslan and herded 1,100 people (almost 800 of them children) at gunpoint into the school’s gymnasium. All the captives that were considered a potential threat, like male teachers and assistants, were executed on the spot.

The attackers then placed a number of explosive devices next to the terrified children and surrounded the gymnasium with trip wires so that none of them could escape. Outside the school gathered the Russian Special Forces, who were ready to storm the building. The rebels threatened to blow up the school if the government forces attacked.

Three days of negotiations followed and the world watched with baited breath as video footage of the terrified children was beamed around the globe.

We couldn’t possibly put an exact number on the amount of prayers that were made by God-fearing people over those three fateful days. Millions of men and women must have dropped to their knees and begged God to help those defenceless little ones. Sadly, each and every one of those prayers fell on deaf ears as the crisis ended with the heinous massacre of over 300 people (186 of them children).

Could it have been even remotely possible that a supposedly all-loving God would have considered all those millions of prayers to be “not good in themselves or not good for us or for others”??

I could give a million more examples of a similar nature. Why would God hear the cries of a mother whose child has just been abducted by a paedophile, and not grant the mother’s prayer request for a safe return of her child? How could he ever say to her “I’m sorry but your prayer is not good in itself nor is it good enough for you or for others”? What kind of monster would act that way? The Christian God apparently.

Would a loving parent sit and watch and do nothing, despite having the power to intervene, as their innocent and defenceless children are raped, tortured, maimed, or killed? No loving parent would. Yet God sits and watches such crimes day-in and day-out, and does nothing. To call this gross negligence would be an understatement of cosmic proportions. Yet Christians will not budge from the belief that God cares for us and that he wants the best for us, and they can say this in the face of such overwhelming evidence to the contrary. There’s something seriously wrong here.

Gumbel states that we shouldn’t be disheartened when God seems silent. “Sometimes we’re never going to know, in this life, why he didn’t answer the prayer in the way that we hoped” admits Gumbel. What he’s trying to say here is that if the prayer isn’t answered to your satisfaction just trust that God knows best and leave it at that. And if the prayer is answered to your satisfaction then go out and tell everybody how much God cares for you. Either way, God gets all the credit. God is definitely on to a winner with this sort of “relationship”, isn’t he?

Gumbel moves on to give us an account of the terrible day that one of his closest friends died of a heart attack, aged only 42. Gumbel adds, “I have never cried out to God more than I cried out at the moment. That God would heal him and bring him back to life, that he would not die, but he did. I don’t know why” He tells us that the next morning he walked along the beachfront crying out to God, “Lord, I cannot understand why you allowed this to happen but I’m not going to stop praying, I’m going to carry on trusting you for the rest of my life.”

Why?

Picture this: Let’s say that your child has been unfortunate enough to be involved in a horrific car accident and is taken to your local hospital by ambulance. You hear of the accident and speed to the hospital. You’re an emotional wreck. Your child is wheeled in to see the surgeon and the doors are closed. You sit in the waiting area, barely able to sit still with worry. You put your trust in the surgeon. You have faith that he’ll do his best to save the life of your precious child. However, as you’re sitting outside with fingers crossed, the surgeon is inside the operating theatre watching TV and eating hamburgers as your beloved child bleeds to death on the gurney. The surgeon hasn’t helped. He’s done nothing. He’s simply sat and watched your child die. He had the power to help her, to save her, but he did not. What would you think of this surgeon? Would you demand his instant dismissal from the medical practice? Would you seek his prosecution for gross incompetence and wilful negligence? More than likely. But is there any part of you that would consider the following as a possibility: you’d approach the surgeon, pat him on the back and say, “Mr surgeon, I cannot understand why you allowed this to happen but I’m not going to stop putting my faith in you, I’m going to carry on trusting you for the rest of my life.” ? Would any SANE individual take such an approach? Of course not. However, Mr Gumbel takes PRECISELY that approach when it comes to God.

Gumbel spends the next ten minutes telling us the story of a British actor who once had marriage difficulties and was on the verge of divorce. Gumbel befriended the chap and invited him to church. They prayed together and after a while the actor became a Christian. Two years later he and his wife decided to give it another go. Who gets the credit for the reconciliation? God of course!

Gumbel reads to us a paragraph from his ‘prayer diary’ that was written shortly after the actor got back together with his estranged wife. He wrote, “Praise you Lord so much for yesterday. The best day that I can remember… Thank you so much that you’re a god who answers prayers. Lord I love you so much. I commit myself back to you, to serve you with all my heart for all of my life. Is anything too hard for the Lord?”

Although I find Mr Gumbel to be a pleasant enough sort – he’s bright and articulate, interesting and jovial – I’m beginning to find the content of the presentations to be positively absurd. It’s bordering on ludicrous. To the Christians in the group it is standard fare, but to me – and I’m sure to my fellow sceptic too – the whole thing seems to be rather odd. “Odd” in a worrying sort of way. There’s something not right about all of this.

Tonight’s presentation comes to an end and the lights are switched on. At that moment the pastor returns from his meeting and sits down with the group.

He wants to know if he’s missed anything interesting.

Long-Standing Male Member: [with a cheeky grin] “We’ve had an interesting debate with Steve again, about non-biblical sources who mentioned Jesus”.

Lady Three tells me that Christianity is unique in that God comes down from heaven in the form of a human (Jesus) to work alongside other humans, as opposed to the gods of other religions who remain comparatively distant and demand that humans work their way up to them.

I tell her that Christianity isn’t unique in that regard at all. Actually there were a number of religions from antiquity that had godmen walking the earth. As examples I offer the pagan gods Attis, Dionysus, Mythras and Asclepios.

In ancient religions there can be found tales of miracle-working godmen whose biographies bear some striking parallels to Jesus:

* A divine son born of a mortal virgin.
* Born on the 25th of December.
* Birth announced by a star or comet.
* Birthplace is visited by wise men or shepherds (often bearing gifts).
* Called the “Saviour” or “Light Of The World” or “The Lamb Of God”.
* Has twelve disciples or companions.
* Able to heal the sick and cast out demons.
* Is executed, before dying and rising again after three days.
* Ascends in to heaven to sit at the right hand side of the father.

All these things (and many more) are not confined solely to Christianity.

The pastor states that these other religions were all myths. He assures us that we shouldn’t confuse the truth of Christianity with the myth of some ancient religions. I explain to him that at the time that these religions were popular their devotees did not consider them myths. He tells me that it’s all rather irrelevant anyway because Christianity has stood the test of time, whereas those other religions have not.

He seems to think this is a reliable guide to the truthfulness of Christianity and to the falsehood of those old religions of yesteryear. I suggest to him that perhaps in two thousand years Christianity will be viewed in the same light as the religions we now call “myths”. Lady Three offers an argument similar to that of the pastor’s:

Lady Three: “And where are these religions now?”
Me: “They died out”
Lady Three: “Well Christianity is still here so that must say something!”
Me: “Hinduism is many centuries older than Christianity, and it still exists today. Is this a legitimate guide to the truthfulness and superiority of Hinduism?”

There’s a long pause. A few of the group look around for someone to offer a riposte. It doesn’t come.

The long-standing male member returns to the topic of Jesus’ historicity. The group seem to want to get this problem solved as soon as possible. It’s clear to see that it is troubling them somewhat. The usually quiet Lady Two joins the conversation:

Lady Two: “The historical evidence seems to be a big stumbling block for you”
Me: “It is a stumbling block, yes, but there are bigger stumbling blocks. I can’t reconcile the existence of an all-loving God with the evil we see in the world. In addition to this I don’t see any evidence for God anywhere. No matter where or how I look. I’m not saying that there isn’t any evidence, merely that I don’t know of any evidence. That’s all”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Why do you find it necessary to search?”
Me: “Because I think that the question, “Is there a God?” is the biggest question of all.”

The pastor jumps in and states that the “relationship” that Christians have with God is strong evidence. He wants to know why I’m sceptical about that.

Pastor: “During the presentations Nicky Gumbel has spoken a lot about the relationship with God. What do you want to know about it?”
Me: “To be honest with you I don’t think that I understand it. What do you mean by “relationship?””
Pastor: “Its a two-way interaction”
Me: “Ok. Do you mean that you converse with God?”
Pastor: “I do, yes”
Me: “Does God give you answers to things that you weren’t aware of previously?”
Pastor: “Yes.”
Me: “That’s great. I’m sure there’s a way that you could prove that, then”
Pastor: “Everyday I’m just so excited about my relationship with God. God is showing me things and talking to me everyday. He’s touching my heart, thrilling me, showing me new stuff, challenging me with new things, and for me, well, I just get thrilled by it. I’m just so excited about what he’s going to show me next.”
Me: “That’s wonderful. So, if you can converse with God, and he gives you answers to things you weren’t aware of previously, why don’t you converse with him now and ask him what he knows about me? Ask him for specific information about my life then tell me what he said. Will you do that?”
Pastor: [Pause] “Well… err… I don’t think he’s a performer like that.”
Me: “With respect, isn’t that just rather convenient?”

A few of the group try to talk to me at once, its all a jumble of noise. I seem to have hit a nerve, though it wasn’t my intention. After having a moment to think the pastor continues:

Pastor: “Actually I have had “words of knowledge” for people. And I’ve experienced people who have had words of knowledge for others”

[NOTE: Wikipedia defines ‘A Word of Knowledge’ as “a spiritual gift mentioned in 1 Corinthians 12:8 but not in any other New Testament list of Spiritual Gifts. Among apostolic and prophetic Christians it is often taught to be a gift of knowledge given by the Holy Spirit to one individual for the benefit of another… A Christian knowing detailed information about a stranger is considered a "Word of Knowledge" and allows the Christian to minister to strangers more effectively” ]

Pastor: “If God gives me a word of knowledge about you I will share it”
Me: “Can you ask him now?”
Pastor: “I have been asking him as you were speaking to [Lady Three]”
Me: “Yes, but it would appear that he’s not answering you”
Pastor: [There’s a pause, and the pastor looks somewhat dejected] “That’s right. He hasn’t given me anything yet.”

At this point a few of the group come to the pastors assistance:

Lady Three: “God is not at our beck and call”
New Christian Male: “We don’t have God on speed dial”

The pastor joins in again:

Pastor: “I have an example from yesterday. I was praying and suddenly I got a picture of a boat sinking. It was a sort of rowing boat. Not a big special boat. Anyway, I didn’t think much about it but later that day I felt that I should phone my brother-in-law. I shared with him my vision of a boat that was going under. And I said to him, “I feel that God is telling me to tell you that the sinking boat is you. God knows that you feel like that you are about to go under, that you’re about to sink, and about to give up.” I then read a scripture to him and told him “God wants you to know that your faithfulness is your security and banner.”. My brother-in-law replied, “That’s spot-on. That’s exactly where I’m at. Yes, I am the boat. That is me.””

This sounds awfully like someone reading a newspaper horoscope and shrieking, “That’s me!” Nothing more than vague comments interpreted to be specific information about the reader, by the reader. When in reality there is no specific information at all.

The pastor doesn’t waste time in offering another example. This time it is his brother-in-law that is giving him a message from God.

Pastor: “About three months ago the treasurer of the church and myself had just had a really difficult meeting with somebody about a certain situation. It was a really tough meeting. Later that day my brother-in-law phoned me. He didn’t know ANYTHING about the situation I was going through and he said, “I’ve just had a word from God for you. God says you’ve got to use a sledgehammer now. You’ve been using a chisel to prise the situation for too long, so you need to use a sledgehammer”. And we’d just used a sledgehammer! Now you explain that to me, Steve”

The pastor isn’t suggesting that he’d literally just used a sledgehammer. What he means here is that during the tough meeting he’d pulled no punches and tried to get the matter resolved there and then. No pussyfooting around. The “sledgehammer and chisel” is merely a metaphor. In reality, then, his brother-in-law was not offering any specific information about a specific event, he could have been talking about ANY situation whatsoever. The pastor merely interprets the information to be specific. This is precisely how horoscopes operate. Perhaps I could offer an example:

My father has been suffering from a sore back as of late, so he’s been finding it hard to get up and down. Prior to his back becoming sore he and my mother had made plans to take my nephew to the tenpin bowling alley for his 15th birthday, which was last week. It was to be a close family affair, twelve of us in total. Sadly, however, my father’s back injury looked like it was going to derail such plans. Thankfully, though, on the morning of my nephew’s birthday my father reported that his back was considerably better, so the arrangements went ahead as planned. My father managed to get there and hobble around a little, and we all had a great evening.

Now, I’ve just picked up a magazine from last week and turned to the horoscopes page. My father’s horoscope reads, “Even though you started out with clear plans, things are going a little astray. Mercury’s doing a back-flip and, for a while, it will be a case of two steps forward and one step back. Yes, you’re still heading in the right direction, but at a slower pace”

Think about that. How did the astrologer KNOW that my father had hurt his back, that he was therefore moving around at a slower pace, and that the bowling plans were close to derailment? Can any of you explain that?

Of course you can. And so can I. There is NO SPECIFIC INFORMATION contained in that horoscope whatsoever, but if you really try, and if you really WANT it to speak to you that way, then you WILL interpret it as specific. And this is PRECISELY what the pastor did with the telephone conversation with his brother-in-law.

But lets have a look at that telephone call again: His brother-in-law had said, “I’ve just had a word from God for you. God says you’ve got to use a sledgehammer now. You’ve been using a chisel to prise the situation for too long, so you need to use a sledgehammer” But remember that the brother-in-law is offering the pastor this information AFTER he’d already used “a sledgehammer”. This was later in the day, after the pastor’s meeting. Now if God wanted to get an urgent message to the pastor why did he do it after the event?? Worse still, why would an omnipotent (all-powerful), omniscient (all-knowing) super-being like God offer information that is too late AND non-specific??! This kind of demonstrable nonsense beggars belief.

I ask the pastor what he would do if a Hindu told him a similar tale. Would such an account be enough to convince the pastor as to the existence of Vishnu? He thinks for a moment then offers this as a response:

Pastor: “The only way into a true relationship with God and to guaranteed salvation is through Jesus Christ”

In other words he avoids the question altogether.

Lady Three exclaims, “We trust the Bible!” before the pastor adds that if a Hindu were to make such a claim then it would be clear to rational people that, “A deception is happening. The Bible talks about counterfeits.”

That’s right. A Hindu can offer an account of godly communication but we must consider such testimony to be deceptive and untrustworthy. However, if a Christian offers the same sort of an account then we are to take the matter very seriously indeed, in fact we ought to be convinced to the truth of such a testimony! Talk about double standards!

It’s the same kind of arguments over and over. The same kind of arguments that people of other religions can use. These Christians do not accept these kinds of arguments themselves, so why do they keep offering them as support for their claim?!

The pastor then raises the point, as if to drive away any possibility of doubt from the minds of his flock, of Jesus being a certain character from history. I’m keen not to touch on this subject again, as I find it is a question that is taking up far too much of our time, but they are adamant that we discuss it further. It’s a question that has definitely ruffled a few feathers. Lady Three thinks she has the perfect response to my scepticism:

Lady Three: “So do you have any historical evidence that proves Jesus DIDN’T exist?”

The eyes of the Christians in the group light up, as if the onus is on me to disprove the existence of Jesus. They are of course mistaken. I am not making a positive assertion that Jesus did not exist. THEY are making the positive assertion that he DID. They have the burden of proof, not me. But how does one disprove the existence of an alleged historical character anyway? I continue:

Me: “That can’t be “proven”, as such. It would mean attempting to prove a negative. For example, if I were to claim that there exists an invisible and immaterial Teddy Bear sitting on that chair over there, could you prove its non-existence?”

There’s a lengthy pause before the pastor offers his answer:

Pastor: “Yes, I’d sit on the chair!”
Me: “But the bear is immaterial. You sitting on it would not make any difference. So how do you “prove” that such a bear does not exist?”
Pastor: [There’s a long pause. Then in a “eureka!” like moment he exclaims] “But the existence of the bear doesn’t matter because it doesn’t make any difference to our lives whatsoever!”
Me: “But that’s not the question. [Lady Three] asked if I could prove that Jesus didn’t exist. My answer is no I cannot, in the same way that you cannot prove that my invisible, immaterial bear does not exist.”

If I claim that an invisible, immaterial Teddy Bear is sitting on a chair in the room then I need to offer evidence in support of such an assertion. The onus is on me. I can’t conclude that the existence of said bear is legitimised because they cannot disprove its existence! This is the kind of logic these Christians are attempting to use when it comes to the existence of Jesus!

Long-Standing Male Member: “If you keep searching and asking, then God WILL reveal himself”
Me: “Maybe he will, but until he does I am justified in doubting his existence”
New Christian Male: “Steve, think about this…. Do you think there’s a reason why you’re coming back each week?”

He is of course implying that God is guiding me to participate in the Alpha Course every week.

Me: “I come here each week because I’m fascinated by religions in general and Christianity in particular”
New Christian Male: “Do you think that perhaps it is God that is telling you to come here?”
Me: “No, I wouldn’t have thought so.”
New Christian Male: “You could choose not to come back here each week, but every week you do”
Me: “Of course, and that’s my choice. What does that have to do with God?”

These people are trying their best, I’ll grant them that, but it seems to be weak argument after weak argument. Everything they offer is just so transparent, so easily refutable, and so lacking in evidentiary support that I’m finding it quite tiring to have to continuously rebut everything they have to offer. I’m a sensitive sort of man, and I don’t like hurting anyone’s feelings, but I can see they’re becoming gradually deflated as the session’s progress. It’s a shame. I try to make my position as clear as possible:

Me: “I want to stress that I’m not stuck in a state of perpetual unbelief. I will change my mind in light of new evidence. I’m willing to do that, and that’s why I’m here””
Pastor: “I think that is fantastically honest of you. But I think the thing that will change your position is an experience of God’s Holy Spirit.”
Me: “That may be true, but until then I’m justified in my lack of belief”
Pastor: “You’re absolutely right. You ARE justified”
Me: “But think about this for a moment. If the end of the world arrives in a minute from now….”
Pastor: [laughing] “Then you’re stuffed!” [The group erupts into hysterical laughter]
Me: “But think of this. You’ve just agreed that I’m justified in doubting God’s existence due to the fact that I haven’t experienced him, so how could God send me to an eternity of punishment for doubting his existence? Something that you admit that I’m justified in doing!”

There’s a very, very long pause.

Lady Three: “Personally I don’t think God would punish you. He gives everyone every opportunity to come to Christ. God is a loving God so I don’t think that he would punish you at all”

Now there’s an interesting admission for us all to think about!

Bring on next week!

September 28, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 19 Comments

WEEK 3: “How Can I Be Sure Of My Faith?”

I arrive at church to be met by the happy faces and bright smiles of the group. As usual the ladies are preparing the fruit, cakes, and drinks. We sit down and partake in some friendly chitchat.

The pastor is talking about his former career in the farming industry. The topic of vegetarianism crops up.

Pastor: “Before The Fall we were all vegetarians. Ultimately, when Jesus returns, we’ll all be vegetarians once again”
Me: “Were Great White sharks vegetarians before The Fall?”
Pastor: “Yes, everything was”
Me: “What did they used to eat?”
Pastor: “I don’t know. But something must have happened to them after The Fall because their digestion system changed.”
Me: [Tongue pressed firmly in cheek]“I assume that God originally gave them such huge teeth for nibbling sea turnips”
Pastor: [Laughs] “Well, we’ll save that debate for another day”

Yes, I think we ought to.

My suspicions from last week appear to have been confirmed. This group are Biblical literalists. They genuinely believe that Great White sharks (and other predatory animals) were once placid vegetarians that one day had an instantaneous and major physiological transformation to become super-efficient killing machines, and that such a transformation was caused by a female human gnawing on a special apple in a magical garden somewhere in the Middle East, in the olden days.

Hmmmm.

The pastor is keen to get this evening’s presentation under way, so without further ado the lights are dimmed and the DVD starts to play…

Gumbel begins by giving us an account of how he met and fell in love with the lady that would later become his wife. He goes on to stress the importance and beauty of relationships.

“Relationships are exciting” enthuses Gumbel “and the most exciting relationship of all is our relationship with God”

He asks, “What is a Christian?” A question to which he offers his own response, “A Christian is… someone who has a relationship with God through Jesus Christ”

He reminds us that, “If you’re in a relationship, you know”. He supports this statement by offering as an example the fact that we know that we have a relationship with our spouse.

He then tells us that we can also know that we are to receive the gift of eternal life. And that, as Christians, we can have confidence in this belief because… “Our confidence is based on this book [points to the Bible]. The promises in this book. And therefore it’s based on facts and not on feelings. Our feelings are changeable; they go up and down. And if our faith was dependent on our feelings it would be up and down all the time. But it’s not. It’s dependent on the promises of God”

He reads a Bible verse [Revelation 3:20] “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”

Gumbel adds, “Holman Hunt, the pre-Raphaelite painter, illustrated this verse [Revelation 3:20] with [a] painting; it’s called ‘The Light Of The World’”. Gumbel then describes the painting, “Jesus, the light of the world, is standing at the door of someone’s house. And the house represents your life or my life. And this particular person has never opened their life to Christ, and that’s shown by the fact that this door is overgrown with weeds and thorns and thistles that have grown up around it. And Jesus is saying, “Here I am. I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, and invites me in, I will come in and eat with them and they with me”.

Gumbel continues, “But when Holman Hunt painted this picture someone said to him, “Hang on a second, you’ve made a mistake. You’ve left off the handle. There’s no handle on the door”

And Holman Hunt replied, “That’s not a mistake. There is a handle, but the handle is on the inside

Gumbel offers us a simple explanation, “In other words, Jesus is not going to force his way into your life or my life. He [Jesus] says, “I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door then I will come in.” He doesn’t say, “I might come in” It’s a promise. “I WILL come in”

Basically Jesus is with us always and is waiting patiently for us to accept him into our lives. It’s in our hands. All we have to do is let him know. Just like a ‘vehicle recovery and assistance organisation’ awaits your emergency call before they despatch one of their patrolmen, Jesus is similarly tooled-up and ready for the job. Just call him!

I must say, though, that in all my years as a believer I never once heard the voice of Jesus, or his knock for that matter. I’m sure I’m not alone in that respect. And I can honestly say, hand on heart, that I have never experienced Jesus in any way, shape or form. Why is that?

I have prayed innumerable prayers and have sincerely asked God to reveal himself on goodness knows how many occasions in the past. All to no avail. Again, why is that? I wonder.

From my experience the usual Christian answer is that my heart must have become hardened and/or my mind become closed. But couldn’t I say the same sort of thing to them about any other god? Couldn’t I say to the Christian, “I can GUARANTEE that Allah will reveal himself to you now if you allow him to do so, and as long as your heart is sincere and your mind is open”. When they go ahead with the challenge and do not get the revelation that was promised, all I need to tell them is that their heart is obviously hardened and/or their mind closed. It wins every time. Such “guarantees” are completely unfalsifiable.

Any sensible Christian would not buy these sorts of ‘guarantees’ for one moment. In fact they would more than likely laugh them off. And rightly so I might add. But one must ask this: if Christians do find such ‘guarantees’ and promises to be laughable, why do they themselves offer the same sort of ‘guarantees’??

Gumbel takes a moment to look back to the previous Alpha presentation. And in regards to Jesus being resurrected, he asks, “How can we KNOW that [the resurrection] really DID happen?”

I sit motionless in anticipation, my eyes and ears tuned in to the words of Gumbel, and, slowly but surely, his answer rolls majestically off his tongue…

“The answer is we know it because he rose from the dead. God raised him up from the dead” he exclaims, without so much as batting an eyelid.

Let me run that past you again. We know that Jesus rose from the dead because… well… because he rose from the dead.

Impeccable logic, huh?

Let us pay another visit to last week’s hypothetical courtroom. A prosecution lawyer approaches the judge and says, “I know that Mr Smith murdered Mr Jones.” To which the judge asks, “And how do you know that Mr Smith murdered Mr Jones?” In a flash the prosecution lawyer delivers the checkmate, “I know it because Mr Smith murdered Mr Jones”

The prosecution lawyer hasn’t offered evidence in favour of his claim; he’s merely reasserted that claim. Nothing more.

As a former barrister would Mr Gumbel find the case for the prosecution to be a convincing one? No, he would not. In fact I’m sure he’d have no hesitation in dismissing it as ludicrous. But, oddly enough, he just used a similar line of reasoning.

Gumbel is in full-flow now as he hammers home the point that, “We really can have a relationship with Jesus. Jesus is not dead; he’s alive. And therefore you can know him.”

He then expands upon his earlier statement of how we know that we are in a relationship with our spouse. “If you ask me how I KNOW I’m married I could show you the wedding certificate. And another thing I could do is point you toward an event [in history] that took place here on the 7th January 1978 [Gumbel was married in the church where the presentation is being recorded]. And if you ask me how I KNOW I’m a Christian I would point you toward an event in history – the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ”

I’m wondering if he could offer a date for that, too? Strange how Gumbel gave so much detail about his wedding – the location, the day, the month and the year – but offered nothing remotely as concrete for the alleged resurrection of Jesus. I wonder why?

Gumbel decides that now is a good time to have another run at Romans 6:23 and reads it aloud. “For the wages of sin is death, but the GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” He then tells us that some versions of the Bible have that particular verse down as “For the wages of sin is death, but the FREE GIFT of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” I smile as I think back to last week’s session and my example of offering a lady a ‘free gift’ of a beautiful bouquet of flowers. I’m hoping, for his sake, that he’s not going to dwell on God supposedly giving out ‘free gifts’.

He continues, “I don’t know what you feel when you hear the expression “free gift” but if you’re anything like me I’m cynical of “free gifts”.

Yeah, I bet.

He tells us that when a free gift is offered to us we all automatically think, “There’s a catch!” He smiles as he says that not only do we think there’s a catch we KNOW there’s a catch!”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve got this feeling that Gumbel is going to prove that he’s not as cynical as he makes out, especially when it comes to ‘free gifts’!

It doesn’t take him long.

Within seconds he assures us that it’s completely different when it comes to God’s free gift (surprise surprise). “God’s gift is FREE. It’s not cheap, but it’s free to us. It cost Jesus everything.”

I need not address further God’s supposed “free gift”, as I gave it quite a bit of time in last week’s blog entry. [See “WEEK 2: “Why Did Jesus Die?”]

The topic now changes to faith. “What is faith?” he asks. He then offers his own explanation. “Faith is TRUST. Everybody exercises faith. You’re all exercising faith tonight! By sitting on these chairs you’re exercising faith. You’re putting your TRUST in those chairs by sitting on them”

In a way he’s right, we do put faith in chairs, but this is a faith based on evidence and reason. From our experience of chairs we know that they are designed for people to sit on. That’s their purpose. I’ve sat on many chairs, and I’ve seen many others sit on chairs. The overwhelming majority of chairs have held the weight of the person sitting on them. This is good evidence to strengthen my “faith” that chairs hold people. There have been occasions, of course, when a certain chair has collapsed under the strain, but from my experience chairs do a good job of supporting people. It is reasonable, therefore, to put trust in chairs.

But here’s the difference between faith in chairs and faith in God. I don’t have faith in the existence of chairs. I know that chairs exist because it is a demonstrable fact. There’s no ambiguity regarding the existence of chairs. My “faith” is placed in the likelihood that a certain chair will hold a certain someone’s weight. When it comes to God, however, I will need “faith” that he even exists in the first place. I know of no sound evidence that shows God to exist. But the same cannot be said of chairs. Gumbel’s analogy, therefore, is poor.

Gumbel returns to his ‘knowing’ that God exists. As he explained earlier he knows that he is married and knows he has a relationship with his wife because he can point to a marriage certificate and an event in history (his wedding day). But he has a third reason for knowing that he is married and that he has a relationship with his wife, and that is “28 years of experience

He claims that Christianity is analogous to the above in that it offers the same sorts of supporting reasons. For example he “knows” that Christ died for our sins because he can point you toward an event in history (the resurrection) and he “knows” that Christ lives on today because he has personal experience of him.

He expresses passionately how Christians are changed positively as the Holy Spirit enters them. He alludes to the fact that people become better people when they enter into a relationship with Jesus.

He tries to legitimise the nature of faith, that it is in fact something solid, something trustworthy, something concrete, and that faith in God is not blind but “a step of faith based on evidence.

I’m interested to know what this “evidence” is, but sadly we’re not going to find out in this presentation because it comes to a close with Gumbel confidently stating that “Jesus is alive and he’s here tonight!”

The room goes quiet as people contemplate over that last statement. I can see that the faces of the Christians in the room are beaming. They “know” that Jesus is here with us, too…

The pastor turns off the DVD, turns on the lights, sits down, then has a look around at each of us and asks, “So has anybody got any questions, thoughts, reflections, or queries after having seen that?”

There’s a lengthy silence, as no one seems as though they have anything to say. I just sit quietly and wait for someone to raise a point or two. The eldest of the three Christian ladies (who I’ll refer to as “Lady One”) breaks the silence and states that she found it refreshing to hear Gumbel say what he had to say, as it reinforced her belief in Jesus Christ. The other Christians nod in approval.

Another lengthy silence ensues.

I have plenty of questions, as ever, but I’m determined to wait for other people to have their say.

The youngest of the three Christian ladies (“Lady Three”) asks, “Anyone else got any thoughts?”

There are a few nervous twitches as a number of eyes scan around the room looking for someone to ask a question.

Then there’s more silence.

I look around the room myself and notice that most of the group are looking at me. A few smiles begin to crack, and a few giggles are let slip before the pastor says, “Ok, Steve, go on!” Everyone bursts into laughter.

Pastor:[Laughing] “I bet that Steve’s got a list of questions a mile long!”

(Actually the pastor is wrong. My list is two miles long.)

The relatively new Christian male tells us about the time that he had asked Jesus into his heart.

Lady One: “And did you feel him?”
New Christian Male: “Well… I felt a warmth and then… well… that was it”

Hardly a convincing testimony. But isn’t it rather strange that a genuinely sincere would-be Christian like this young man can ask the creator of the universe into his heart and the best this creator can do is to give him a little bit of a warm feeling inside as confirmation of his presence? I mean, come on, can’t God do a little better than that?? We’re talking about an omnipotent being, lets not forget!

The new Christian male goes on to tell us that he wasn’t such a nice guy before he became a Christian, but since he became a Christian he says, “I’m not shouting at the people that I used to shout at. I’m more kind and more helpful.”

I tell him that if his life has been turned around for the better, and he is seeing positive effects in his life, then this can only be a good thing. The pastor then says, “I think I’d be a really horrible person if I wasn’t a Christian”

I’m beginning to feel as though Christians do not have a very good opinion of themselves. Maybe it’s this sort of mentality that is required in order to embrace Christianity in the first place, seeing as it would have a person believe that he/she is an undeserving, worthless sinner who is in need of forgiveness.

The pastor then refers to the example of us having faith in chairs. He says every time we go to sit on a chair we could look at it, examine what it’s made of, and then determine the chances of it holding our weight. But there’s a much easier way to approach everyday situations like sitting on chairs, says the pastor: we could just take a leap of faith. It’s a lot simpler to just put our trust in the chair. We shouldn’t over-analyse things, he says.

The thing is, though, having faith that something is true doesn’t necessarily make it so. Having faith that a chair will hold your weight is no guarantee that it will. Similarly, having faith that God exists is no guarantee that he does.

Do the Christians in the group believe that faith is sufficient for supporting a truth claim?

Me: “Muslims have faith, Sikhs have faith, and Hindus have faith. But you don’t think “Oh, they have faith therefore their beliefs must be true”.
Lady Three: “That’s right”
Me: “And that’s how I view the claims of Christians like yourself. The fact that you have “faith” that something is true isn’t an argument in favour of it being true”

At this point Lady Two repeats her testimony from last week, about the time that she had prayed for “100% faith” and how she had experienced God filling her with his Holy Spirit. She wants to know how I can explain that. Basically she wants to know that if God doesn’t exist then how can she have experienced him?

First of all I tell her that I’m not making the claim that God doesn’t exist. Secondly I ask her to explain the “experiences” of those people of other religions. If their gods don’t exist, I ask, then how can they experience them?

After a momentary pause she suggests we change the subject.

Curious as to why it is that I do not believe in their God, the group ask for my reasons. I tell them that I have a problem with reconciling the existence of their supposedly all-loving God with the existence of evil that we see in the world. I ask them for their thoughts on God’s mass slaughter of the firstborn children of Egypt [Exodus 11:5]

Long-Standing Male Member: “Whatever God does is right. So whatever decision God makes is the right decision. God is God and he’s perfect. So whatever he decides to do is right”
Me: “An all-loving God that kills innocent children in order to punish a Pharaoh, well, that just doesn’t add up.”
Lady Three: “How do you know they hadn’t done anything wrong? Pharaoh’s regime was oppressing the Israelites”
Me: “And what’s that got to do with the firstborn?”
Lady Three: “They refused to release the Israelites from slavery. To enslave a whole nation is a sin”
Me: “A little child sleeping in a cot hasn’t enslaved anybody. Its only ‘crime’ is to have been born of Egyptian parents”
Lady Three: [Long pause] “Hmmmm”
Pastor: “When we make sin individual then your argument is very logical, I agree. But I happen to believe that sin is corporate, so a nation has to be responsible for the way a nation behaves, and they should bear the consequences.”
Me: “So the Egyptian firstborn were guilty by association?”
Pastor: “In a sense, yes”

This kind of thinking would see no problem with judges sending children to prison for the crimes committed by their parents. This kind of thinking is a dangerous kind of thinking, and I don’t like it. I don’t like it one bit.

The pastor can see that I’m having trouble believing that an all-loving God would slaughter defenceless children. He admits, “There are things in the Old Testament that I struggle with.” He continues, “I have to interpret what I read in the OT through the eyes of faith in Christ. That brings a real insight, because if I were to just look at it on its own it would seem very harsh. In the past I have wrestled with the problems that you are currently wrestling with, but this was only because I failed to grasp what “holiness” meant. Nothing can stand in the presence of a holy God unless it’s made holy itself. Even those firstborn, they were not holy because they were blemished. Yes, it’s hard for me to understand why it had to be so ruthless, but I think that is because I still, after 27yrs of a Christian, fail to comprehend the awesome holiness of God. I just have to trust him.”

Is that really an explanation, though? I don’t think so.

We return to the topic of personal experience. I tell them that I have never experienced their God. I ask why it is that God supposedly has all this love, power and knowledge but he can’t even make himself known to me. They “answer” this by saying that there have always been doubters.

Pastor: “When Jesus rose from the dead there were people who still didn’t believe him”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Thomas doubted him, but when Jesus turned up he told Thomas to stick his hand in his side”
Me: “So why doesn’t Jesus turn up here now and cure our doubts in a similar manner? We’d be sorted then”
Long-Standing Male Member:[With a hint of sarcasm] “Do you think so?”
Me: “Yes”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Well I think that God knows that even if he showed himself you STILL wouldn’t believe”
Lady Three: [Laughing in agreement] “If Jesus were to appear here now you’d say, “I’m not sure that you’re Jesus. Are you really him or aren’t you?””
Me: “Well he’s supposedly omniscient. He knows everything that has ever happened and ever will happen. I’d just ask him a few questions about myself that only I knew the answers to. That would be a good start.”

I don’t know about you but if a person were to appear in the room out of thin air, proceeded to defy a few laws of physics, and then finished off by giving me answers to things that only I could possibly know, then I’d probably find that quite a convincing demonstration. Wouldn’t you?

The pastor states that he believes that I will come to know God. And when I do I’ll be in a happier place.

Pastor: “I honestly think that if you’re honestly seeking God then you will come to that place. And when you do come to that place your faith will be stronger because, as Jesus said to Thomas, “Blessed are those who believe who haven’t seen me”. You need to walk by faith. If you don’t then you’re probably going to want Jesus to show himself every time you go through a rough time.”
Me: “Him showing himself once would be a start. As for faith, well, I wouldn’t mind a touch of faith based on reason and evidence, rather than just pure blind faith”
Pastor: “I don’t think anyone of us [Christians] have blind faith because my faith is based on evidence and reason.”
Me: “That’s great. And that’s why I’m here, to listen to such evidence. Supposedly my eternal well-being depends on me accepting the Christian claim. So I must have some good evidence on which to accept such a claim. Blind faith isn’t enough.”
Pastor: “When you come to faith you will be grateful that Jesus didn’t turn up every time you were having problems, because faith is more real when you just feel it inside”

Faith is more real when you just feel it inside? What does that mean? Let us think about that for a moment. Let us suppose, say, that God doesn’t exist. Now, if there was no God, yet people believed in him, wouldn’t we expect these believers to be perfectly satisfied with merely a ‘feeling inside’? Because, after all, that’s all they could ever get.

We are approaching 9pm and as a final thought for the evening Lady Three suggests, “Stephen, you could always challenge God and ask him if he’s there”. I state that I have done that on innumerable occasions in the past, however I assure her that I will try again later tonight.

On that note the pastor brings the session to a close with a prayer.

Another thoroughly enjoyable evening on the Alpha Course. Next week’s session is entitled, “Why and How Do I Pray?”

Should be interesting!

September 22, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments

   

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