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.”


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The pastor joins in again:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

In other words he avoids the question altogether.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There’s a very, very long pause.

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

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

Bring on next week!

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


  1. “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 wonder, did the pastor read all the apologetics and history of these ‘myths’ before declaring them so? Tut tut.

    You are correct to point out the ‘reasonableness’ and ‘justification’ of unbelief… at very least. You should also ask how one goes about making a decision ‘from the heart’ .. does ones heart always make the ‘correct’ decision? isnt it just another way of saying… make a decision that deep down you really WANT to be true. The ‘goodness’ and ‘possitivty’ and ‘life changing-ness’ of Christianity are irrelevant to its truth. A lot of people get off drugs via Hari Krishnaism etc, but it’s still bunkum.

    Comment by qmonkey | September 29, 2008

  2. “The New Testament tells us that there are some things that can stop our prayers being effective.”

    So says Gumbel.

    Matthew 21:20-22

    “Jesus replied, “I tell you the truth, if you have faith and do not doubt, not only can you do what was done to the fig tree, but also you can say to this mountain, ‘Go, throw yourself into the sea,’ and it will be done. If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.”

    If you believe, you will receive whatever you ask for in prayer.

    Even Gumbel knows this is nonsense….

    Comment by Steven Carr | September 29, 2008

  3. I find your assumptions about what the Christians in the group believe to be incorrect. You’re unfairly crippling them, which might be an unconscious ruse to undermine their views.

    When listening for God, are you expecting empirical evidential communication or are you listening to the thoughts that arrive into your head?

    Thankyou for the fantastic coverage of the course 😉

    Comment by m0rk | October 1, 2008

  4. Thanks for these posts, I am reading them with great interest and look forward to the next installment.

    I’ve just finished running an Alpha course at my local church where we had a similar experience of a reasonably informed skeptic attending our group. He was keen to delve into issues such as the historicity of the NT and the philosophical arguments for and against miracles to a depth which, it would be fair to say, exceeded that which the rest of the group could be reasonably expected to contribute to in a meaningful way.

    In our case we found the most productive way forward was to have complex one-on-one discussions together to give these issues the time they deserved. Although this worked well for us, it has got me thinking recently about what limits, if any, exist with Alpha’s structural layout and format, particularly given its emphasis on small-group discussion with theological ‘newbies’ who may not yet be aware of the subtleties of the debate.

    I maintain that Alpha presents material to a sufficient level of depth to satisfy about 95% of the public, both skeptics and believers alike. There are, however, a remaining 5% or so – those I would classify as “informed skeptics” or “informed theists” – ie. those who would read the works of a Polkinghorne or a Ruse – who may wish to engage at a deeper level still.

    Perhaps these folk (of which I would include your good self as a part) might be better served by attending a CiS event, or a seminar run by the Faraday Institute, where these higher-level arguments and concepts can be knocked about with equally matched persons of a theistic persuasion.

    As for the ‘evidences’ that I myself personally find compelling, I’ve found the broad three-stage argument tendered by Dallas Willard in his ‘Language, Being and the Three Stages of Theistic Evidence’ to be perhaps the most thoughtful systematic presentation of the plausibility of theistic belief. In it, Willard essentially argues that (i) a extra-natural ‘something else’ or state of being that lies beyond the universe demonstrably exists, (ii) that it is highly plausible that that this ‘something else’ is a mind, possessing intelligence and purpose, and (iii) that this ‘mind’ has sought to intervene in human affairs in some, or perhaps many ways throughout the course of human history.

    Speaking of such intervention, I’d be VERY interested to hear your interpretation of Nicky’s “more power!” experience with John Wimber… I think you’ll have to wait until session #8 or #9 for that one. Suffice to say that, to me at least, a theistic explanation for Nicky’s experience seems to have greater explanatory power than the alternatives, especially given the specific theistic context of the experience.

    Comment by James Garth | October 1, 2008

  5. Hello Garth

    Yes, I can see the problem with someone turning up to an Alpha Course wanting to discuss the complex theological and philosophical issues that lay at the heart of the Christian claim, or if they’re keen to discuss the finer points of the molecular structure of DNA or of string theory and quantum gravity models concerning the origin of our universe, particularly if the remainder of the group are “newbies” to even the fundamentals of the Christian message or of scientific literature. You’re absolutely right. However, I am of the opinion that such people can benefit from hearing the simple arguments for and against the claims that are being presented throughout the course. They would hardly be in a position to make an informed judgment if they were only hearing one side of the argument.

    To be honest with you, though, I don’t think I have touched upon anything particularly complex during our discussions, in fact I’ve been going out of my way to keep my arguments as simple as possible.

    I’m aware of Dallas Willard though I haven’t read the book of his that you mentioned. After I’ve finished the Alpha Course you’re more than welcome to present his arguments here, so that we can discuss them. I’m sure others would be interested too.

    I’m looking forward to hearing of Nicky’s “more power!” experience with John Wimber. I cant imagine what that might be, but it sounds fascinating! I’ll probably have to wait 3 or 4 weeks before that crops up in the programme, but I’ll endeavour to be as honest as I can with my write up.

    Thanks Garth.

    All the very best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 4, 2008

  6. Hi Stephen,
    I will agree with you on this post. I don’t agree with the “Word of Knowledge”, “Word of Truth”, “Slain in the Spirit” stuff. I’m not denying that people have had religious experiences, but it’s just not convincing proof whether or not a god exists. When people have to resort to sharing their religous experiences in order to convince others that their religion/god is true, then it just shows they are not very bright. Christianity has enough merit in many other areas to not have to resort to untestable subjective individual experiences. I’m beginning to think you should find another Alpha course with people who will be able to give you intelligent arguments and answers. At one time most of the greatest thinkers in society were Christians, now they are some of the least intellligent.

    Comment by Frank W. | October 9, 2008

  7. Hi Stephen,

    Thanks for the kind invitation, yes I’d be delighted to have that discussion re: Willard’s three stages at some point in the future.

    You can read his article here (it’s part of a response to a structured debate, and commences in earnest about a third of the way down, at section ***)

    I also agree with you the merits of regarding presenting both sides of the argument, even to theological newbies. We have nothing to lose, and much to gain through such dialogue.

    I just wonder whether Alpha is structured in such a way to enable this dialogue to be the most fruitful. Perhaps an alternative might be an informal home group that runs PBS’s ‘The Question of God’ course:

    Now that might be an interesting discussion group!


    [Video for the ‘The Question of God’ programme can be found here: Edit: S. Butterfield]

    Comment by James Garth | October 14, 2008

  8. Stephen, I am having a hoot reading your web blog. My congratulations to you for the efforts you are making.

    One thing that occurred to me about this Gumbel fellow. Do you think his friends, especially when he was at school, would have nicknamed him “Apple”? Or possibly “Mustn’t”.

    Just curious.

    Cheers, Galactor

    Comment by Galactor | October 16, 2008

  9. Hi, Could I send you a coopy of my book? I became a Christian while serving in the Spanish Foreign Legion. It might put a new perspective on things for you!
    If you want to look first, it’s on Amazon, type in ‘Crucifying The Christ’ Author ‘Mark Gee’

    Comment by Mark | July 14, 2010

  10. Hello Mark,

    If your book contains persuasive arguments for your position then perhaps you’d like to present them here?

    You’re more than welcome.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | July 14, 2010

  11. Sorry mate, as much as I would like to, I can’t condense the whole book into a couple of paragraphs! It’s a free book, you’ve got nothing to lose1

    Comment by Mark | July 14, 2010

  12. Ok Mark, no problem. I just thought that perhaps you might have fancied offering the readers of this blog a quick summary of your position, and perhaps a sneak preview as to the type of arguments we can expect to find in your book.

    Getting people talking about your book would certainly boost sales. I’ll leave the offer open for you just in case you have a change of heart.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | July 14, 2010

  13. i have come across this page as I am at present on an Alpha as a helper. i find what you are saying very typical and very understandable. interestingly as a helper we are not meant to give our opinions but help open up the debate and get the guests to open up and think things through.
    at the end of the day – nobody comes to Christ through arguement – I just pray that you can become open to God being in you – I pray that you can put all your questioning to one side and just open up to him coming in to your life- is this what you want ?- then the answers will come. God Bless you

    Comment by Rosie | October 20, 2010

  14. Rosie’s comments illustrate the way Christians know that all their arguments are rubbish, but for Christ’s sake, stop thinking and just believe whatever we tell you to believe, regardless of the fact that we have spent a million pounds on devising a 10 week course whose arguments are so pathetic that we don’t even expect people to be convinced by them.

    ‘The answers will come’ Now stop asking questions and believe what we tell you to believe.

    Comment by Steven Carr | October 20, 2010

  15. Fascinating – vicarious experience – thanks – humanism rocks !

    Comment by Gesso Jezzos | November 9, 2011

  16. hi stephen, i am very much enjoying my alpha course atm !
    managed to pose a few questions which our group leader tried awkwardly to answer !

    as to the question of belief, i feel its a two fold statement, its belief, and acceptance.
    whilst i might find something which leads me to believe there is some supreme deity, it does’nt mean i have to accept that its a very moral and loving `god`, that would be my next stumbling block.
    reconciling the fact that i, a generally nice guy who tries to live life the best i can, can be condemend to an eternity of damnation and torture, whereas some mass murdering child killer can turn to god and be forgiven, and ascend to heaven, or at least be closer to `god` !

    Comment by Gav | May 12, 2012

  17. Hi Stephen. I massively enjoyed your blog, and I have adapted some of your arguments for my own Alpha course, which I also am enjoying hugely (hope that’s OK! You are much more ingenious in your arguments than I ever am). Great stuff, and damn funny.

    I am now trying to investigate them as a business. They appear to be both a registered charity (so they pay no income tax on earnings) and a limited company. Do you have any idea how I might progress this? Given that they are effectively discriminating against homosexuals (who are ‘called to celibacy’ according to Nicky Gumbel), I’m wondering if this puts them into conflict with the Equalities Law 2010.

    I’d be really interested to discuss them further with you.

    Comment by Simon Maginn | May 31, 2012

  18. Hello Simon,

    Sorry for the delay in responding to your message.

    Unfortunately I wouldn’t have the first idea on how to progress with a legal investigation. It might be worth you looking in to it but I’m sure if there was something that was vulnerable to a potentially devastating legal challenge then it would have been exposed and acted upon by now.

    Nice to hear that you enjoyed the Alpha review, and I do hope you had fun on the course that you were attending.

    All the very best,


    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | June 11, 2012

  19. These people are clowns. I was brought up as a Christian, and nobody in my parents’ church – from the Rector on down – would have had any truck with this simplistic smiley-face travesty of belief. Christians – intelligent Christians – have been thinking seriously about a lot of the questions you raised, the problem of evil in particular, for most of the last 2,000 years. Gumbel’s answer is to brush it all under the carpet so he can carry on handing out the sweeties. Mmm, Jesus loves you! Lovely Holy Spirit! Yummy!

    But the existence of the bear doesn’t matter because it doesn’t make any difference to our lives whatsoever!

    Right! If someone says they believe in something invisible and intangible, which has no substance and can’t interact with anything physical, obviously their belief is meaningless and can be disregarded. Unless it’s the Christian God, of course, who does exist. All clear now.

    Comment by Phil | June 24, 2013

  20. The only thing this proves is that christians have no reservation about lying to outdo each other in “holy experiences.” But hypocrite and theist (any religion) are semantically equal.

    Comment by James Smith | August 14, 2014

  21. Stephen,
    I think it is great that you are really trying to understand and that you asked God to reveal himself to you. There is no reason in the world that a believer should feel threatened by that. And I can’t imagine God would be either! I am a believer but I will be the first to admit there are many mysteries…. and we all have our stories of how we came to faith. I don’t know what your journey will be like but from what I have read of what you have written… You are very aware of each step and I think that is great!
    Pam K.

    Comment by knudsonfamily | October 4, 2017

  22. Thanks for your kind words Pam!

    Take care


    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 5, 2017

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