Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

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!

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September 28, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 20 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

WEEK 2: “Why Did Jesus Die?”

I arrive early for the second session of the Alpha Course. The pastor is pottering around in the hallway and as I enter the building he greets me with a warm smile and a pat on the shoulder. “Great to see you, Steve” he says.

Both of us sit down in the meeting room and begin to chat. We spend ten minutes or so becoming more familiar with each other. We ask about each other’s family, each other’s history, our likes and dislikes, and whatnot.

People begin to trickle in to the room and in a matter of minutes the group is made up of the same people that attended last week’s course opener. That’s a good sign.

As the pastor chats to another member of the group my eye is drawn to the table opposite. I notice something familiar. It’s a Christian apologetics book that I have at home. I go to pick it up and as I finger through its pages the pastor tells me that he has brought it along for me to read because, he assures me, “it answers all your questions”.

I break the news that I have read the book already, in fact I have several books by that particular author, but I don’t tell the pastor that the book offers no answers to the question of extra-biblical, contemporaneous historical sources that mention Jesus. It offers none. I don’t want to appear rude by refuting his claim that “it answers all your questions” so I thank him for being so thoughtful, and offer him my appreciation for the kind gesture.

He picks up the book and turns to a page that he has book marked. He reads a paragraph from the book that says, more or less, that the historicity of Jesus is as certain as that of Julius Caesar. Maybe he has forgotten that we touched upon this claim last week? I mention again that we have historical accounts of Caesar from the time that he lived. Could the same be said of Jesus?

The pastor says that Julius Caesar was a well-known man in the day, so people will have written things about him. Jesus on the other hand wasn’t such a big shot, suggests the pastor, and that is why we have no record of him from the time that he lived. Hmmm. God himself wasn’t that much of a big deal? Is the pastor pulling my leg or grasping at straws?

He then offers an analogy…

Pastor: “If, in two thousand years from now, people were to look back to the start of the 21st century there would be quite a lot of evidence about Tony Blair. There will have been a lot of people writing about him. There may be some evidence about us, but there could possibly be none.”

Is the pastor suggesting that Jesus was nothing more than a simple, unspectacular man who made no impact on the society in which he lived? Was Jesus just an ordinary, run-of-the-mill man like you and me? God in human flesh made no mark in history? Is this really what the pastor is suggesting? Surely not?

What if you or I were going around in 21st century Britain raising the dead, curing the blind, feeding thousands with a few crumbs, and walking on water? What if, upon our death, the skies darkened and the earth trembled, and out of their tombs sprang the dead, who walked in to the nearest town and revealed themselves to the multitudes? Would this not at the very least make the local newspaper? Such events are not everyday events; they are the miraculous, the sensational, and the fantastic. It would be WORLD NEWS. People in two thousand years from now would find tons of accounts referring to such earth-shattering events.

But think about this for a moment: if the Gospel accounts are to be believed [Matthew 27:51-53], such events DID happen in 1st century Palestine. But what most Christians today do not know is that not a single person at the time made any note of these astonishing events whatsoever. That’s right, there is absolutely no record to be found of such tales outside of the Bible. The contemporary silence is deafening.

And we are supposed to take such claims seriously?

It just doesn’t add up, as I’m sure you’ll agree.

The conversation then moves on to how people have personal experiences of God. I ask what he thinks of people who have experiences of other gods. I mention the Aborigines of Australia, who, prior to the latter part of the 18th century – when the British arrived – had never heard of Jesus. Why is it that they had absolutely no knowledge of Jesus, Abraham, Moses, and all the rest of the Biblical characters? Why hadn’t the Christian God revealed himself to them?

“They didn’t worship Jesus because no one had ever taken them the good news” explains the pastor.

Shouldn’t God have thought of that, though? Why would he want the Aborigines to get Christ’s salvific message 1800 years later than most?

Lets say that you have a message of utmost importance that you need to send to a few friends in various parts of the world. Knowing that their knowledge of the content of such a message could save them from an eternity of torture, how would you get it to them? Pretty quickly I’d imagine. Perhaps you’d send them an email, call them on the telephone, send a text message, or maybe even a fax. To make sure they received the message you may even hop on a plane and deliver it by hand. But what about this for an idea… you’d glue the message to the back of a tortoise, point it in the right direction and hope it gets there. Good idea? No, of course not. It’s a preposterous idea. Isn’t it?

Think about this for a moment. What kind of method would God employ in order to get an important message to his children? Remember, God is omnipotent. God could have revealed himself to the Aborigines instantaneously. He could have sent down a copy of his divine word for them to peruse and digest, there and then. Countless Aborigines died in the 1800 years it took for them to receive the word of God from the European colonisers, when all it would have taken was a click of the fingers from God to make them aware of his existence. He chose the tortoise approach rather than the email. What a flagrant misuse of omnipotence!

At this point I suggest to the pastor that the evidence in favour of personal experiences of the Christian God would be immeasurably strengthened if, for example, the first European explorers arrived in Australia to be met by Aborigines whose religious experiences were identical to their own. If the Aborigines already knew of Jesus, of Abraham, of Moses and Joshua, of Elijah and Enoch, and of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, and if they already knew of Christ’s passion and his message of salvation, independently from people of another continent, wouldn’t this be good evidence in support of objective religious experiences? The fact is, though, they knew NONE OF IT. And this is precisely what we would expect if “religious experiences” were subjective and/or culturally influenced.

This impromptu discussion has been going on now almost one hour, and we haven’t even started watching the video presentation yet. A break in the action gives the pastor a chance to insert the DVD into the machine. We all quieten down, sit back, relax, and get ready to watch the second video presentation of the Alpha Course entitled, “Why Did Jesus Die?”…

Gumbel begins by explaining the significance of the cross. He tells us that Jesus “died for our sins” and that we should understand that, “All of us have done wrong. We have all sinned”.

He lists a few of these “sins” such as “evil thoughts”, “sexual immorality”, “theft”, and “murder”

He then tells us what Jesus thought of sin. Gumbel states that “Jesus said, really, if we’re angry with someone [then] that’s kind of committing murder in our hearts”.

A bit over-the-top I thought.

He then lists a few more of these sins – “greed, malice, deceit, envy, slander, arrogance”.

He then talks about the horrors of children being molested and abused, and of old people being attacked in their homes. “Something within our nature cries out for justice” he says. “The people who did that should be brought to justice. There should be a penalty for that” exclaims Gumbel. Of course we all agree.

Gumbel has us on his side – in that we agree that people who do bad things should be punished. I sense that we’re about to be told that being a non-Christian is also a ‘bad thing’, and that my fellow sceptic and I are about to find out that we’re in for some deserved punishment after we die, if we remain sceptical to the truth claims of Christianity.

Gumbel brings a Bible verse to our attention [Romans 6:23] and reads it aloud, “For the wages of sin is death; but the gift of God is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord”

What he’s saying here is that all of us “sin”, so we all deserve punishment of some sort. “There is a partition between us and God caused by the things that we do wrong” states Gumbel. God’s punishment for sin is death. “That’s the bad news,” he says.

Yes, I’d have to agree with him on that one, death isn’t particularly great news is it?

But, Gumbel assures us, Christianity isn’t all bad news, there’s a way that we can escape death. Christianity brings good news, and the good news is, according to Gumbel, that, “God loves you and me. God so loved the world – that’s you and me – that he sent his one and only son to do something about it”. Then he asks, “So what was the solution?”

He tells us that Jesus bore our sins into his body by getting nailed to a cross outside the gates of Jerusalem some two thousand years ago. “Jesus died in our place” says Gumbel. “He endured crucifixion for us”.

It doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, to be honest.

Gumbel then goes in to graphic detail about the methods of crucifixion, and tugs at our heart strings by highlighting the kinds of torment and torture that Jesus must have suffered by being subject to such a punishment. And to make it all worse, “Jesus never did anything wrong. He lived a sinless life”, laments a now emotional Gumbel. “Jesus on the cross was carrying your sin and my sin.”

Gumbel reads us a Bible verse [John 3:16] “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.”

“We can receive total forgiveness!” says Gumbel.

By dying on the cross Jesus paid the “ransom price” to free us from sin. Whatever that means. To clarify this term Gumbel gives us an illustration of two school friends who, after leaving university, go their separate ways. One goes on to become a lawyer and later a judge. The other goes into a life of crime. One day the criminal appears in court before his old friend the judge. The judge loved his friend but he had to serve justice upon him. Gumbel likens this to God’s dilemma with us, in that he loves us but he must serve justice upon those that have done wrong. The judge eventually fined his old friend the appropriate penalty of £20,000… but… moments later the judge removed his robes, went round to meet his friend on the other side of the courtroom and wrote him a cheque for £20,000. Gumbel smiles as he says, “He [the judge] paid the penalty himself and almost tearfully adds “That’s what God has done for us in Christ” (There will be more of this later when the pastor and I discuss courtroom proceedings to see if justice has in fact been served).

Gumbel hits us once more with John 3:16 to emphasize the point that we can become free of sin and death, and that we can achieve eternal life by simply believing that God himself intervened in world affairs, in a certain way, at a certain place, in the form of a certain man, at a certain time in human history.

I don’t know about you but I’d much prefer to accept these sorts of claims based on the evidence that supports them (if any), rather than just “believing” something on faith because it’s emotionally, rather than intellectually, satisfying.

Gumbel then tells us how God is offering us a free gift of salvation. Like the judge and his old friend, God is “offering us a cheque”. According to Gumbel we should accept it. All we have to do is “believe”. In any case what do we have to lose? Who’d turn down a free gift anyway? God is being incredibly generous to us. Isn’t he?

I’m not sure that I agree that God is offering us a free gift in the first place. Think about it. If you give someone something and demand something in return then it’s hardly a “free gift”. Let me offer an illustration of my own. If I walk up to a lady in the street and hand her a wonderful bouquet of flowers and say, “Here’s a free gift for you!” and then moments later add, “all you have to do now is give me £75”. I’d probably get a slap in the face and be on the receiving end of a few choice words. Of course it isn’t a “free gift”!

But it doesn’t end there. Think about this, too. If the lady refused my “free gift” would I then be justified in torturing her for a few years? Wouldn’t this be the sort of “justice” that Christians find appropriate? Remember, it is Christians who believe that God is justified in sending us to an ETERNITY OF TORTURE if we do not accept his “free gift” of salvation!

If God REALLY wants us to have a “free gift” then he’ll give it to us without demanding anything in return, and that includes leaving us free to not believe that he did something a couple of thousand years ago. In fact it includes leaving us free to not believe that he exists in the first place!

The DVD presentation comes to an end. The lights are turned on and our talk begins…

The pastor begins, “Ok. Lots and lots of issues covered in that talk. So if you’ve got any questions then let them come to the fore”

The youngest male, a relatively new Christian and member of the church, wants to know a little more about sin, so the pastor explains a few points to him. They talk for ten minutes or so.

The long-standing male member of the church adds his few cents with regards to God’s nature, “The human aspect of God, Jesus, was that he was sinless. No sin. He never even had a bad thought!” How does he know that?? How can he possibly know what the creator of the universe actually thought?

He then supports what was said in the presentation by telling us that every sin deserves a punishment. He then gives us the account of Adam and Eve. It would appear that this group of Christians are Biblical literalists. This course is going to be interesting…

I’ve kept quiet for the best part of fifteen minutes, as I’m keen to let other people have a chance to air their views. I don’t want to come across as someone who is anxious to do all the talking. It isn’t long before there’s a lull in the action and it is at this point that the pastor turns to me and asks if I have any questions…

Me: [Scratching my head] “Well, I suppose I’m a little perplexed by the whole idea, to be honest. I don’t understand God’s apparent need to torture someone. Supposedly he’s sitting in heaven with such incredible power and, from what I’m led to believe, loves us all very dearly. Yet the BEST idea he can come up with to make things better is to send his son down from heaven and have him nailed to some wood. Is that really the BEST solution that omnipotence can produce?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “How would YOU have done it, Steve?”
Me: “I’m sure there are innumerable methods that are better than having your own son tortured and killed. God could have clicked his fingers and solved the problem. Surely?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Seems shocked that I would even suggest such an idea] “So you think God could have just clicked his fingers and sorted everything out?”
Me: “God is supposedly omnipotent, so of course he could have. I think it’s better than torturing someone to achieve the same goal”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “So where does freewill come in if I want to carry on sinning?”
Me: “I don’t know what you mean. Can you elaborate?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “When God made us he gave everyone freewill. So if God clicks his fingers and says that he wants everyone to love him, but I want to carry on sinning, then God is going to have to keep clicking his fingers every time!”
Me: “Well, he doesn’t have to keep torturing Jesus every time someone wants to sin, does he?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “But that only had to happen once”
Me: “So he’d only need to click his fingers once, then!”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But I’d need to make a choice that I accept Jesus as my Lord and saviour, that I believe that he died for us, and that I surrender my life to him.”
Me: “Well, you wouldn’t need to believe that Jesus died for you, only that he clicked his fingers for you, because he cares for you. You can accept Jesus as your Lord and saviour, and you can surrender your life to him. And, best of all, no one needs to have been tortured in the process. A much better idea, I’d say”

A few more people add their thoughts to the conversation, and all the Christians in the group cannot accept that any other method – than Jesus being tortured and killed – would have been good enough to save us from sin. This had to happen, they say. And their reasons for believing that? “Because he loves us!” they exclaim in unison.

I take a sip from my glass of water and we break for a moment as someone pays a quick visit to the toilet.

It strikes me as somewhat curious as to why they consider it a good thing to punish an innocent person (in this case Jesus) for the crimes of the guilty (in this case us). I’m reminded of Gumbel’s courtroom illustration that he gave during the presentation. I decide to use a courtroom illustration of my own in my next query…

Me: “Do you have any children?”
Pastor: “Yes. I have three”
Me: “Let’s say that one of your children is murdered by a madman. This man is brought before a court of law and the sentence of twenty-five years imprisonment is given to him. As the judge passes judgment I stand up and say “It’s ok, judge, I’ll do the twenty-five years for this guilty man. You can let him go.” Would you consider justice to have been done? Would you give me a round of applause for making such a sacrifice?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “Why not?”
Pastor: [Pause] “Because the guilty one has gone free”
Me: “So the innocent shouldn’t be punished in his place?”
Pastor: “No, because the price hasn’t been paid”
Me: “The price is twenty-five years in prison. I’ve said I’ll pay that price. Will justice have been served?”
Pastor: [Long pause]
Me: “It’s not justice, is it?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “But you consider it to be perfect justice when an innocent man, Jesus, pays the price for the sins of the guilty”
Pastor: [Pause] “Because he chose to take on our sin”
Me: “Yes, and I could choose to do the twenty-five years in prison for the child murderer. But that WOULDN’T be justice, according to you. But when it comes to innocent Jesus taking the punishment for the guilty you think it’s ideal”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “I understand what you’re saying”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But the thing is, though, God is the judge. The judge is paying the price.”
Me: “So if the judge stood up and said that he’d do the twenty-five years, that would be perfect justice according to you, yes?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Thinks for a moment] “Yes”
Pastor: [Turns to the long-standing male member and says] “I wouldn’t consider that to be justice, no.”

I admire the pastor’s honesty here. He’s openly disagreeing with one of his congregation on this point when he could have sat back and kept quiet. This is turning out to be a very interesting conversation. These two Christians do not agree with each other on what does, and what does not, constitute justice. Yet the foundation of their belief demands that they know such a thing. I sit back and watch as they quietly discuss the matter.

Their conversation slowly drifts towards forgiveness, something my fellow sceptic isn’t quite sure about. They spend a minute or two explaining to him that all one must do to receive forgiveness is to accept Jesus in to your heart whilst sincerely admitting that you’re a sinner who is in need of forgiveness. My fellow sceptic states that he has a problem with the belief that on one hand a murderer or a rapist can gain entry to heaven just by asking the Lord for forgiveness, whilst on the other hand there can be people who spend their entire lives caring for the unfortunate, feeding the hungry, and giving shelter to the poor, who are then doomed to an eternity of torture in hell simply because they do not hold certain beliefs about a particular religion.

Isn’t it just absolutely preposterous?

I ask, “If Adolf Hitler had asked God for forgiveness moments before he killed himself in his bunker as World War II came to a close, would he be in heaven now?”

Pastor: “The answer is yes.”
Me: “And if [my fellow sceptic and I] remain sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity, despite genuinely investigating them, and despite being relatively “nice” people, God is going to burn us for an eternity?”
Pastor: “Yes. It’s because when we come to Judgment Day we’ll all be judged, and the only difference between you and me is that I stand clothed in the righteousness of Christ. When God looks at me he doesn’t see [pastor’s name] he sees a white robe. I’ve got Christ’s goodness all over me. If you stand next to me, and haven’t accepted Christ, then you’re not wearing Christ’s robe, so he sees you in your sin”

He continues…

Pastor: “The trouble is that we measure sin. We tend to think that our own sins are nowhere near as bad as, say, Myra Hindley’s, and Myra Hindley may think that her sins are nowhere near as bad as Adolf Hitler’s, but if the gap between us and God is this big [holds his hand about 5 feet from the floor], and I’m here [holds his hand about an inch from the ground] and Adolf Hitler is here [holds his hand about an inch and a half from the ground] there isn’t really that much difference.”
Me: “I disagree. I happen to think there’s A LOT of difference between someone being responsible for the deaths of FIFTY MILLION PEOPLE and someone harbouring a few doubts concerning the subject of religion!”

I must say I was quite troubled by the last couple of comments made by the pastor. He is without a doubt an intelligent, pleasant, honest, and passionate fellow, but can he REALLY believe in the sort of God he is describing? We’re only two sessions in to the course, but already this God character is coming across as inconsistent, petty, cruel, childish, and vindictive. It’s early days yet though, so I’ll reserve judgment until the end of the eleven weeks. I don’t want to reach a hasty, and perhaps inaccurate, conclusion so it’s only fair that I give these people more time.

We’re approaching 9pm – finishing time – and it is at this moment that one of the three ladies (the second youngest of the three, who I will refer to as “Lady two”) decides to give us an account of how she became a Christian.

Lady Two: “The night I became a born-again Christian I actually said to a friend that I didn’t believe that anyone could have 100% faith. I said that to her at about 11pm. At 1:30am that night God filled me with his Holy Spirit and I said sorry to him for the things that I had done wrong, and I prayed to him through Jesus Christ that he’d forgive me. I asked him to fill me up with the Holy Spirit and he did just that. And the whole Bible that I was holding on my chest… just… well… I couldn’t feel the weight of it. In this experience it [the Bible] just went into my body. I couldn’t feel the Bible at all, but I was filled completely with the Holy Spirit. Tears poured down my face because I knew that due to what I’d said a few hours ago God was giving me what I’d always wanted, and that was 100% faith”
Pastor: “And that’s what I pray for you too, Steve”
Me: “I don’t deny the strength of religious conviction, or indeed the power of a “religious experience”, but whether these experiences are supernatural experiences as opposed to psychological experiences, well, that’s another matter.”
Pastor: [Smiling]“And that is what we’re here to explore”

We all smile and the pastor brings the wonderful session to a close with a prayer.

These conversations are fuelling my interest in religion and religious people. I’m thoroughly enjoying the course, and next week’s session is entitled “How Can I Be Sure Of My Faith?”

Hopefully it will be as fascinating as the first two sessions!

Until next week….

September 14, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 55 Comments

WEEK 1b: “Who Is Jesus?”

Gumbel begins his presentation by telling us of his youth and how during this time he viewed Christianity as “completely irrelevant to my life”. He confesses to being “really an atheist”. All that was to change, though, after picking up a Bible and reading it. Night after night he read, and it wasn’t long before his scepticism had been replaced with a newfound faith in Jesus Christ. You may be wondering what it was in particular that convinced him. I’ll let Gumbel explain in his own words: “When I got to the end of the New Testament I came to the conclusion: It’s true!”.

Surely there’s more to it than that?

He continues…

Christianity is, he says, “based on evidence. Historical evidence” and proceeds to rhetorically ask, “So what is the evidence? How do we know for example that Jesus even existed? The answer is that there is a great deal of evidence”

He reels off the names of a couple of Roman historians, namely Tacitus and Suetonius, in whose voluminous writings can be found only very brief allusions to Jesus. More of that later.

Gumbel covers ground quickly and assures us of the reliability of the New Testament documents. He concludes the question of a historical Jesus with, “So, we know from evidence outside and inside of the New Testament that he existed, but who was he?”

Do we really know such a thing? I was about to look around the room to see if anyone else thought his conclusion was perhaps just a tad hasty, but then I reminded myself that I was in a room with a group of Christians already convinced of a historical Jesus by faith, so I doubt they were weighing up the argument like I was.

The talk then moves on to the topic of Jesus Christ as God. Gumbel lists a number of “evidences” that support the likelihood of Jesus’ divine nature. A number of Bible verses are presented, a number of his “miracles” are highlighted, then there’s a quick reference to C.S Lewis’s “Lord, Liar or Lunatic” trilemma (as expressed in his book Mere Christianity), before it’s all topped off with the triumphant assertion that the words attributed to Jesus in the Bible are, “The greatest words ever spoken”

The resurrection of Jesus is touched upon briefly, and how “five hundred people at one time” witnessed Christ’s post-resurrection appearance. They can’t all have been hallucinating, claims Gumbel. I’ve often wondered who these five hundred witnesses were [1 Corinthians 15:6]. Can the existence of any of them be verified? Did any of them write a single word about such an episode? If I were to accuse a neighbour of vandalising my property, and I were to tell the police that I had 500 witnesses to the alleged crime, would it be a shock to me if the police were to ask for a few of their names and addresses? Or would the simple fact that I made the claim that there were such an amount of witnesses be enough to convince the police and to convict my neighbour? I wouldn’t have thought so. Would you?

From the resurrection we seamlessly blend into the Christians “relationship” with Jesus. For me this is one of the more fascinating aspects of the Christian claim. “Countless millions throughout the ages have experienced a risen Jesus… Millions of Christians around the world today experience this relationship” states Gumbel.

A brief return to Lewis’s false trilemma is capped off with, “the possibilities of him [Jesus] being evil or deluded – I think we can rule them out as being impossible” and “To say that he [Jesus] was evil or deluded is absurd. It’s illogical”. Is it? It didn’t escape my attention that today’s presentation, though interesting, seemed to be absolutely crammed full of unsupported assertions like these.

The twenty-minute video comes to an end and the pastor ejects the DVD…

“Any questions?” asks the pastor. There is a quiet pause as people look at each other to see who has the guts to speak first. A few nervous giggles follow, but the silence is broken by the pastor who boldly states, “Jesus existed. Historically he was a figure on earth. Whether you’re an atheist, a believer or whatever, that [the fact that Jesus existed] is undeniable. He existed on earth. There is historical evidence.”

Me: “Do you think it is unjustifiable to perhaps doubt that there was a historical Jesus? Is it really that clean-cut?”
Pastor: “The question I would ask you is do you believe that Julius Caesar existed?”
Me: “Yes”
Pastor: “And if you were to say “no” then you would go against a big grain of historical support.”
Me: “True. With Julius Caesar we have accounts of his life from contemporaneous sources from various parts of the globe. We have coins depicting Caesar, which were minted during his lifetime. That’s decent evidence in support of the existence of Julius Caesar. What do we have of Jesus, in terms of supporting evidence, from the time that he lived?”

The pastor puts forward the name Flavius Josephus as a contemporary historian who made mention of Jesus. Josephus was, the pastor claims, “a man who was writing when Julius Caesar was alive”. Sadly there are two problems with the pastor’s claims. 1) Josephus was not a contemporary of Jesus; in fact he was not born until nearly 10 years after the alleged death of Jesus. Josephus wrote his “Antiquities” more than 60 years after Jesus’ supposed execution. 2) Julius Caesar died in 44BC. It doesn’t take a mathematical genius to see the problem with the claim that Josephus was a contemporary of Julius Caesar. I need not expand further on that point.

The pastor then names the two sources offered by Gumbel in his presentation, those being Tacitus and Suetonius, both of whom, I point out, were writing in the 2nd century – therefore not contemporaneous. He then mentions the Gospel writers Matthew, Mark, Luke and John (even though the earliest of the Gospels was not written until 40 years after the death of Jesus).

The pastor seems to be drawing a blank on this question. Why could he not offer any historical sources who made mention of Jesus during his alleged lifetime?

He then tries a different tack to explain how and why accounts of Jesus did not appear until decades after his death. As an analogy the pastor gives an example of a 110yr old World War One veteran who was interviewed on TV recently. The pastor says that the veteran is “speaking of things that happened 90 years ago. He’s speaking of his experiences. We all trust most of what he speaks of, though there may be parts what he doesn’t remember clearly”

I think the pastor is missing the point completely here. The conversation continues…

Me: “Yes, but what the veteran says is supported by accounts from the time. We have innumerable, corroborating, contemporaneous accounts of WW1 from every corner of the earth. We don’t just take the word of a WW1 veteran that WW1 was a historical event. Why is it that no one wrote of Jesus during his supposed lifetime?”
Pastor: “The historical evidence that a man called Jesus existed is pretty solid”
Me: “Outside of the Bible we have the likes of Josephus, Tacitus, and Suetonius, but you’re looking at nearly a one hundred years gap between the supposed Gospel events and the accounts of the Roman historians. If this event [God himself coming to earth in the form of the man Jesus] is supposedly the biggest event in human history then why was everyone at the time silent about it?”

It doesn’t add up. What I’m being led to believe here is that the biggest event in the history of mankind went unnoticed by every single chronicler and historian in the area where it allegedly occurred! Are we supposed to take that seriously? Think about that for a moment.

I’m conscious of the fact that this course is scheduled for eleven weeks, so I’m willing to give the pastor more time to produce the contemporaneous sources. Hopefully as the course progresses we will come to know of an abundance of written evidence about the life of Jesus from people who wrote during his alleged lifetime. But for now we’ll have to wait and see.

The conversation then (conveniently?) drifts into the differences between Christianity and other religions, and how Christianity is a “relationship”. As stated earlier, this has always been something that has puzzled me. Thankfully the pastor assures us we’ll delve more deeply into this in a later session.

At this point the long-standing male member of the church gives us a rather lengthy testimony of how he came to Christ. Beaming with enthusiasm, pride and passion he tells us how one day “something just told me “God exists”. So I pulled out a Gideon Bible and read the Gospel of John. After that I was absolutely hooked!”

One of the ladies asks for a little information about my background. I reveal to her, and the group, that I am a former believer. This raises a few eyebrows, and it is at this time that the pastor highlights the fact that we have overrun the allocated 2hrs for this evening’s session.

The session ends with the pastor saying a prayer. He thanks us all for attending the first of eleven sessions and states that he hopes we have all enjoyed it. I most certainly did.

After the prayer we all nod to each other in appreciation. The pastor gives me a smile, shakes my hand and promises to bring some examples of those “contemporaneous sources that made mention of Jesus” to next weeks session. He is without doubt a likeable, personable chap who displays an admirable attitude. I like him already.

As I fasten up my jacket he says to me, “I want you to test me. I want you to challenge us and to ask questions”. He looks me cheerfully in the eye and states that in regards to Christianity being true, “I am 100% convinced.” To which I reply, with a wink, “I am 100% convinced that you’re 100% convinced”. We laugh, shake hands, wish each other a safe and enjoyable week ahead, and then shuffle off separately into the night.

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 48 Comments

WEEK 1a: “Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?”

I arrived at church early and was warmly welcomed by a fresh-faced gentleman sporting a beaming smile who introduced himself as the pastor of the church. After shaking my hand he led me into the room where the course would be held. In the room were three men and three women. The three women were all members of the church, and had been for some time. Two of the men were also members of the church, one a long-standing member and the other a relatively recent addition to the flock. The remaining gentleman was a neighbour of the long-standing male member but he was not a Christian. So of the bunch we were the only two non-believers in attendance, which, I must admit, came as somewhat of a surprise.

As we all exchanged pleasantries the three ladies served drinks and handed round slices of cheesecake and bowls of fruit salad. It was a very warm and pleasant atmosphere.

After we had eaten, the pastor asked us all to introduce ourselves in turn. After that he switched on the DVD player and inserted the first disc of the program, which would last approximately twenty minutes. As the introductory credits rolled, the pastor quickly assured us that any questions would be allowed. Each one of us would be free to air our views and he would do his best to assist. He then handed out a manual that accompanied the complete set of DVD’s that we were to be watching throughout the course, which gave us a rough outline of each weekly session, and in which we could make notes.

Lights were dimmed and the course began…

On the DVD an amiable chap called Nicky Gumbel would present the weekly programmes, and he began by trying to get us to imagine the big questions in life. We should ask ourselves, “What are we doing on earth? Where did we come from? Where are we heading? Who are we? Does our life have any ultimate purpose and meaning? What happens when we die?”

He then goes onto explain that there’s more to life than material possessions. He tells us a story of the legendary lead singer of the rock band Queen, Freddie Mercury, who had all the material goods he could wish for, yet, as Gumbel tells us, Mercury was lacking the one thing he really wanted in life: a loving relationship. Gumbel doesn’t waste time moving into God territory, and claims, “Ultimately there is only ONE relationship that is completely loving and totally ongoing, and that is a relationship with God.” And that such a relationship brings “reality to a confused world”.

More of the same followed, including a brief allusion to, of all things, Pascal’s Wager. He then assures us that, “Jesus came to set us free” and that “the Christian message is good news… and the good news is this – God loves you. And he loves you and me so much that he came in the person of his son, Jesus Christ, to live and to die for us”.

A little later he ends the sermon by stating that Christianity wasn’t boring and that “it’s not untrue. It’s not irrelevant to our lives. It’s exciting. It’s true”

Interesting stuff.

The program ends, the DVD is ejected, and we begin to discuss what we had just watched.

“Can anyone relate to any of the points raised in the programme?” asks the pastor. One of the ladies says that she had asked herself those ‘big questions’ in her childhood. She begins, “As a child I asked myself, “Do I love my mum and dad as much as I do and its all going to dust at the end of the day? All this love that I’ve given out, and all the love they have given me, is it not going to be anything at the end of it all?” I was thinking these kinds of things when I was really small and it used to make me really sad. I used to think that if the story [Christianity] was not true then what a waste all of this [the universe, life and everything] would be.”

I suggested to her that the things that we humans consider to be valuable in life are often the things that are rare and temporary. Diamonds and other precious jewels, for example, are considered valuable not because they are common, but because they are rare. A collector would not spend £5million on a blade of grass from a neighbouring field, or on a grain of sand from the Sahara Desert, but he may spend that much on an original Ming Vase or an original painting by Van Gogh. An evening at the theatre does not lack meaning because the performance is only two hours in length. Does the show/movie/ballet have to go on forever in order for it to be fulfilling and meaningful? Of course not. Similarly the temporariness of life does not preclude meaning and purpose. Our lives are full of meaning, despite being finite. I then suggest to her that if indeed there is no God and no eternal paradise, and that this life is the only life we’re ever going to get – then it becomes all the more valuable because of it.

The group then takes it in turn to offer insights into why it is that we do or do not believe in God, and we discuss these reasons briefly.

We’re now one hour into the course, and it is at this point that the pastor turns on the DVD player again, for we are about to watch the first proper session on the DVD, entitled, “Who Is Jesus?”….

[Note: To read the next instalment click on the appropriate link under the “Recent” header to the right of the screen. Or alternatively scroll down to the bottom of this page and click on the “Next” button.]

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 36 Comments

INTRO: What Is The Alpha Course?

I’m sure that most of you will have come across an advertisement for the Alpha Course at one time or another. They can usually be found plastered on the back of public transport, on the occasional billboard, and on banners attached to churches, which run the headline “The Alpha Course. Come and explore the meaning of life”.

The adverts do grab ones attention and they are thought provoking but it isn’t obvious, from a first glance at least, that they are religiously affiliated (unless you’re reading one that is attached to a church, of course!) In fact some people who take a look at the ones on buses and billboards may be surprised to learn that they are the product of Christian think tanks. But, one may ask, what has kick-started the church into such a move? Why are they clamouring for us to take an interest in what they have to say? Why now?

The answer is simple.

With church attendances dwindling ever closer to non-existence, as more and more of the British populace look upon organised religion with dissatisfaction, distrust and in some cases disdain, the church has been forced to act. Keen to bring ‘lost souls’ back into the fold, a Christian apologetics program was formulated back in the early 1990’s designed to entice sceptical and/or undecided people into attending weekly meetings with Christians, where they could learn about core Christian beliefs and, more importantly, learn how it is of great importance that they adopt such beliefs themselves!

Their website states that the Alpha Course is “an opportunity for anyone to explore the Christian faith in a relaxed setting over ten thought-provoking weekly sessions, with a day or weekend away”.

Having been raised as a Christian, only later to drift away from the faith, I thought I’d give the Alpha Course a go. What did I have to lose? Maybe I’d get some questions (that had troubled me for a while) answered? What did the Christian faith have to offer in terms of evidence and fact? Would their arguments stand up to examination? I was looking forward to discovering the answers.

After finding a course in my local area, and after swapping a few emails with the gentleman who was running the course, I was all set to go. What follows is a week-by-week, blow-by-blow account of my time spent on the Alpha Course….

September 9, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 15 Comments