Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 7: Weekend Talks 1 & 2

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

The answer, unfortunately, is no.

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

Why would God fail us so spectacularly?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk 1: “Who Is The Holy Spirit?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Everyone shakes their heads.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Interesting stuff.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Oh no, not those “free gifts” again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Disturbing is too mild a word.

At this point the pastor rejoins the conversation:

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

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

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

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

So?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point Lady Two adds a few cents:

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

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

This session has been a real eye-opener!

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

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

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