Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

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!

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September 22, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 16 Comments