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!

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

24 Comments »

  1. I am enjoying keeping up with your blog Stephen

    You and others may be interested in the radio show I have recently aired on the Alpha Course with atheist Michael Marsden and church pastor Nigel Desoborough

    Check out http://www.premier.org.uk/unbelievable the show dated 11 October.

    Michael did the course at Holy Trinity Brompton and has some interesting reflections on why he believes most people who become Christian through the course have a tendency towards belief. Also an interesting discussion on the “Holy Spirit” aspect of the course.

    I couldn’t help noticing that there was no “Ministry” time during your Holy Spirit day, which would normally be part of the weekend. Inviting the Holy Spirit to come on those present etc. Was it just a normal video then discussion time?

    Comment by Justin | October 18, 2008

  2. Why does the notion that people would have no free will in heaven contradict God promising at some future time to make everything perfect? Your logic is flawed.

    It’s very clear to me now when I think of this as you stubbornly refusing to let God give you the evidence he’s constantly handing out to you on a plate.

    Comment by m0rk | October 18, 2008

  3. Hi Justin,

    Yes, I heard your recent show with Marsden and Desoborough regarding the Alpha Course and I enjoyed it, thanks. I’ve also listened to a few of your archived shows, too. I’m sure your radio programme will be of interest to many of the readers of this blog.

    As for my blog entry for this week: yes, the pastor decided not to include the 3rd of the weekend talks, “How Can I Be Filled With The Holy Spirit?”, because he felt it would be more appropriate for people who were new converts to the Christian faith, but not really of any use to non-believers like my fellow sceptic and I. So he chose to skip that particular talk.

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 18, 2008

  4. Hi M0rk,

    In response to some of your comments:

    “Why does the notion that people would have no free will in heaven contradict God promising at some future time to make everything perfect?”
    Where in my article did I say that it did?

    “It’s very clear to me now when I think of this as you stubbornly refusing to let God give you the evidence he’s constantly handing out to you on a plate”.
    I’m refusing to let God give me the evidence??? I’m going out of my way to give God every opportunity, M0rk. I’ve said prayers, I’ve discussed his existence with those that claim to be in a one-on-one relationship with him, and I’ve even had sincere Christians lay hands on me.

    By the way, what is this evidence that, according to you, God is constantly handing out to me on a plate?

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 18, 2008

  5. “Where in my article did I say that it did?”

    You didn’t say it, but it could be inferred from your article. This ‘bliss’ referred to, to you equates with humans being puppets, but also to you it seems, is a desirable goal. You want God to intervene and stop suffering, yet you also want free will. Hence the contradiction.

    Modern interpreters are saying that Heaven is here on earth, and not about life after death. To take the choice to live to God’s will delivers Heaven to us right here, right now. A choice of free will. Hell, conversely, is also a choice of free will.

    The doctrine states “all men are born with the propensity to sin”. They don’t have to ‘do’ anything. But that’s dealt with in a few verses of scripture where the bible says that god will judge. We can’t know who is and who isn’t condemned to hell.

    “I’m refusing to let God give me the evidence??? I’m going out of my way to give God every opportunity, M0rk. I’ve said prayers, I’ve discussed his existence with those that claim to be in a one-on-one relationship with him, and I’ve even had sincere Christians lay hands on me.”

    You don’t seem to have seen my point of view though Steve. What your idea supposes is that it’s entirely God’s effort that will make you believe in him, where all the evidence in the Bible states that it’s the other way around. You’re choosing to ignore that and impose your own rules, and it isn’t working, and I’m not surprised. If you’re taking the Bible as your guide book, you will know that God is unreservedly and constantly pouring his love out to you. It’s you who is blocking the receipt of it. Only you, precisely you alone.

    Christians also have this problem. Just because a person accepts God is real in their lives, they still present barriers against him. Jesus said about having the faith of a mustard seed. The most devout Christian doesn’t have the minutest amount of faith in their belief of God, proved by their inability.

    “By the way, what is this evidence that, according to you, God is constantly handing out to me on a plate?”

    knowledge of him.

    Comment by m0rk | October 19, 2008

  6. ”You didn’t say it [that people having no free will in heaven would contradict God promising at some future time to make everything perfect], but it could be inferred from your article”
    Really? How? You’re going to have to explain how I contradicted myself, M0rk. But please make sure you’re not starting off with a misconception (which I think you are).

    “This ‘bliss’ referred to, to you equates with humans being puppets, but also to you it seems, is a desirable goal.”
    You’re starting off completely on the wrong foot. You’ve obviously misread my article. Read it again. You will find that the Christians in the group are saying that in Heaven there will be no free will (because they state that evil is a natural consequence of free will, and there can be no evil in Heaven). But this leaves THEM (not me) with the contradiction of having earlier said that God does not want puppets (i.e people without free will).

    “What your idea supposes is that it’s entirely God’s effort that will make you believe in him, where all the evidence in the Bible states that it’s the other way around. You’re choosing to ignore that and impose your own rules, and it isn’t working, and I’m not surprised”.
    Are you sure you’re actually reading my articles, M0rk? When did I say that “it’s entirely God’s effort that will make [me] believe in him”? I’ve told you in my last response that I’m doing my part of the deal. I’m going out of my way to find God. The thing is, he’s not offering anything in return. What do you want me to do? Pray? Done that. Read the Bible? Done that. Speak to people who claim to know him and who claim to have evidence of him? Done that. Have pastor’s lay hands on me in the hope that God will reveal himself to me? Done that. Nothing.

    “If you’re taking the Bible as your guide book, you will know that God is unreservedly and constantly pouring his love out to you” .
    Actually, M0rk, I don’t know that. What good reason do I have for believing that your God is pouring his love out to me?

    “It’s you who is blocking the receipt of it. Only you, precisely you alone.”
    This sounds suspiciously like one of those “if your heart isn’t hardened then God will reveal himself to you” claims. One of those ‘Christian trump cards’ that I mentioned in this week’s article.

    M0rk, I asked you earlier “By the way, what is this evidence that, according to you, God is constantly handing out to me on a plate?” and your response was “knowledge of him”. I’m sure I’m not the only one sensing a circular argument brewing there, so maybe you’d like to go into a little more detail, perhaps?

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 19, 2008

  7. Thanks for your response Steve, and thanks for fixing the formatting!

    “Really? How? You’re going to have to explain how I contradicted myself, M0rk. But please make sure you’re not starting off with a misconception (which I think you are)”.
    Possibly, but I’m getting above myself, so will abandon this line if that’s ok. Perhaps someone more intelligent will work it out! I can’t see a point to continuing it either.

    “You’re starting off completely on the wrong foot. You’ve obviously misread my article. Read it again. You will find that the Christians in the group are saying that in Heaven there will be no free will (because they state that evil is a natural consequence of free will, and there can be no evil in Heaven). But this leaves THEM (not me) with the contradiction of having earlier said that God does not want puppets (i.e people without free will).”
    I know that’s what the Christians were saying. I’ve also read all your posts here. You know what I’m saying I think. If they think that free will and Heaven are contradictory then that’s their problem. I don’t think so, as I’ve allured to.

    “Are you sure you’re actually reading my articles, M0rk? When did I say that “it’s entirely God’s effort that will make [me] believe in him”? I’ve told you in my last response that I’m doing my part of the deal. I’m going out of my way to find God. The thing is, he’s not offering anything in return. What do you want me to do? Pray? Done that. Read the Bible? Done that. Speak to people who claim to know him and who claim to have evidence of him? Done that. Have pastor’s lay hands on me in the hope that God will reveal himself to me? Done that. Nothing”.
    I’m taking your viewpoint from all of your statements (That’s all I can do, of course I’m making conclusions on observable facts). There isn’t one that suggests that you are open-minded. Everything firmly points to the effort being towards you and not from you. It’s all God hasn’t/ didn’t/ wouldn’t and never you that could possibly be the problem; when the teachings you’re supposedly wanting to follow state that this is the requirement. You want to play football but you accept none of the rules. Why wouldn’t you get the fact that you wouldn’t be able to play? If you were ignorant of the rules, the referee wouldn’t ignore the rules and make exceptions for you, that wouldn’t work.

    “What good reason do I have for believing that your God is pouring his love out to me?”
    It’s written in black and white. If you don’t want to follow the logic, then fair enough. But if you say you’re genuinely wanting to give it a chance, then surely you should want to try to accept the precept?

    “This sounds suspiciously like one of those “if your heart isn’t hardened then God will reveal himself to you” claims. One of those ‘Christian trump cards’ that I mentioned in this week’s article”.
    A sunshade blocks the sun. Take the sunshade away and the sun shines through. To you, circular reasoning. To me, simple fact.

    “M0rk, I asked you earlier “By the way, what is this evidence that, according to you, God is constantly handing out to me on a plate?” and your response was “knowledge of him”. I’m sure I’m not the only one sensing a circular argument brewing there, so maybe you’d like to go into a little more detail, perhaps?”
    Not that you’re wanting to pre-judge my answer, of course you’d never want to be anything but thoroughly unbiased ;).

    Unfortunately I can’t know the mind of God, or how he is revealing himself to you, apart from that stated in the Bible to be so. Only you can know that. You’ve said repeatedly that you require evidence that I understand to be contrary to the evidence of God recorded in the Bible. Therefore the evidence that you seek is not Christian, and you’ll need to look elsewhere for that.

    If evidence of the nature that you seem to be requiring should present itself, then the Christian Bible would have to be scrapped.

    Comment by m0rk | October 19, 2008

  8. “Thanks for your response Steve, and thanks for fixing the formatting! ”
    No problem. By the way, rather than using the [b] [/b] it’ll be better if you use “strong” and “/strong” (prefixed/suffixed by one of those arrowhead brackets above the comma and fullstop keys on your keyboard (sorry I’ve forgotten the correct name for them), minus the quotation marks)

    “If they think that free will and Heaven are contradictory then that’s their problem. I don’t think so, as I’ve allured to”.
    The fact that you disagree with the Christians that I’m involved with is all well and good. However, I’m commenting on their beliefs, not yours. They’ve contradicted themselves and I’ve highlighted it. Nothing more to it than that. What would you have me do? Ignore it?

    “I’m taking your viewpoint from all of your statements (That’s all I can do, of course I’m making conclusions on observable facts). There isn’t one that suggests that you are open-minded”.
    I don’t think that’s very fair, but you’re free to your opinion of course. Just out of curiosity, could you give some examples from my articles that demonstrate my (supposed) closed-mindedness?

    “It’s all God hasn’t/ didn’t/ wouldn’t and never you that could possibly be the problem”
    What sort of an approach would you recommend that a non-Christian take? How many non-Christians do you know that are willing to pray to the Christian God? How many non-Christians do you know that are willing to put themselves in whatever position a pastor asks? I’m doing these things and you’re intimating that I’m not making the effort??

    M0rk, when I asked you, “What good reason do I have for believing that your God is pouring his love out to me?” your response was “It’s written in black and white. If you don’t want to follow the logic, then fair enough”.
    Firstly, what is written in black and white? The Bible? I should believe that God exists because he says so in a book? Another circular argument. Secondly, what is this supposed “logic” that I’m somehow choosing to avoid? You’ll have to explain.

    “You’ve said repeatedly that you require evidence that I understand to be contrary to the evidence of God recorded in the Bible”
    I’m doing my best to understand your comments, M0rk, but in all honesty I’m having difficulty doing that, as they all seem so vague and often require more of an explanation than what they were meant to explain in the first place. Run that by me again if you would, I’m asking for evidence contrary to the evidence of God recorded in the Bible”?

    “If evidence of the nature that you seem to be requiring should present itself, then the Christian Bible would have to be scrapped.”
    What sort of evidence am I asking for that you find so unreasonable, M0rk?

    All the best,

    S. Butterfield

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | October 19, 2008

  9. Hi Steve. Thanks for the reply. I think you seek to confuse and obscure with your questions. Either that or you really don’t see my point, which I find hard to believe. I made a simple statement, that stands as it is.

    “What sort of an approach would you recommend that a non-Christian take?”
    Not a cynical approach that denies the facts before they’re presented. You’re not acting as a non-Christian, you’re acting as a staunch opponent. Unfair!

    “I should believe that God exists because he says so in a book?”
    You asked for my reasoning, and that’s the only reasoning to apply. If you were genuinely wanting to try out the theory, you would understand that this is the precept. To deny this precept, denies the whole thing from the beginning, so you refuse to begin.

    Tell me if you can, exactly how you think God will present evidence of himself to you. I take from your articles, that it’s God who you put the oness on here and not yourself. Is that correct?

    “What sort of evidence am I asking for that you find so unreasonable, M0rk?”
    Provable evidence of God. Empirical evidence. That is not what the Christian God gives.

    The Bible is your guide to discerning the voice of God. You need to understand it to learn how God speaks with us. Give me examples of what methods God uses to communicate with us, and we can see if you’re looking in the right places, and hopefully point out any glaringly obvious misconceptions.

    You display gross misunderstanding of Biblical text, I would suggest as a result of extreme indoctrination. I would imagine it would be very difficult for you to see the truth through such tainted vision. You’ve already stacked up a huge wall of hatred against this obstruction as you see it. That alone should be cause for concern. That’s unhealthy in anyone’s book.

    Kind regards
    Mark

    Comment by m0rk | October 20, 2008

  10. Mark/m0rk said: “Provable evidence of God. Empirical evidence. That is not what the Christian God gives”.

    So what you’re saying is:
    – the evidence God gives is unprovable
    – the evidence God gives is not empirical

    Wow. God sure knows how to disappoint his critics.

    Comment by TD | October 22, 2008

  11. Mark/m0rk said: “Provable evidence of God. Empirical evidence. That is not what the Christian God gives”.

    Couldn’t anyone say that about any god or indeed any thing? Isn’t that what the courtiers said about the emperor’s apparent lack of clothes?

    Comment by qmonkey | October 23, 2008

  12. Look past the rhetoric & open your eyes guys 😉

    Comment by m0rk | October 23, 2008

  13. 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.”

    Right…thank you.

    Why does this god not come into the lives of murderers and pedophiles before they ruin other people’s lives?

    Why not just get rid of heinous crimes? What is the purpose of having crimes committed?

    Comment by Pimientita | November 21, 2008

  14. I’ve just started reading these proceeding this evening, and all I can say to this episode is “bloody hell!”. I think I would have made my (perhaps polite, but there’s no guarantee) excuses and gotten as far away as possible.

    Kudos to you for sticking it out.

    Comment by null | December 8, 2008

  15. >>Steve: “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”.<<

    ————————

    I couldn't help imagining my own reply at this point:

    RH: "And when did you first realise you were a sociopath? Have you always felt this way or was it a feeling you came to gradually?"

    Steve you are a more tolerant man than I. Good show, sir!

    ————

    By way of explanation:

    I've encountered this kind of belief before online were people think variously either the worst kinds of violence as portrayed in the bible are moral and acceptable or else, were it not for the commands in the bible that – anything goes: rape, murder, incest, sex with gerbils or fruit – you name it.

    I do I choose to call them sociopaths. Usually gets a rise out of them. 😉

    Sociopath: (noun)
    'A person with a personality disorder manifesting itself in extreme antisocial attitudes and behavior and a lack of conscience.'

    Comment by Richard Healy | June 29, 2009

  16. “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”.”

    That’s when I had to stand up and go for a smoke. An extremely harsh hit in anyone’s face. How can he possibly compare a rapist to a little girl and call them both equally sinful?

    Let’s amend the story a bit then. How about having a rapist molest the young lad from earlier in the text who just has been filled with the holy spirit and therefore is, by definition, not a sinner anymore? Why would God allow this?

    Thank you, God, for the ‘Good News’, which in fact are ‘Bad News’.

    Comment by Goliath | September 17, 2009

  17. Steve,

    I’ve been reading this blog for some time now with a sort of horrified fascination.

    I couldn’t have held myself back…My reply to him would have been “Well it is part of your god’s law…” and then pointed him to the relevant verses in Leviticus.

    He seems to be unaware of their existence.

    “So, two points, two flats and a packet gravel, then?”

    Comment by Tim Danaher | October 28, 2009

  18. I’m reading this entire blog in one session, and suddenly feel it necessary to make an irrelevant observation:

    Have you any *idea* how utterly filthy the phrase “long-standing male member” sounds when you’ve read it enough times in a single evening?

    Comment by Cactus Wren | November 9, 2009

  19. “Have you any *idea* how utterly filthy the phrase “long-standing male member” sounds when you’ve read it enough times in a single evening?”

    Well, the guy _does_ present himself as pretty much being a prick. 😉

    Comment by Lurker111 | October 2, 2010

  20. Whoa! That was an awesome post! Really got to some good discussion. Loving the series, but I don’t think I could stomach an Alpha Course, myself.

    Comment by Sum Gai | November 16, 2010

  21. Hi Stephen, it’s me again (I posted a few weeks back). The weekend talks you did sounded quite different to ours – I take it you didn’t go away for the whole day somewhere different for this?

    I found this part of the course quite difficult, very ‘full on’. Your group dynamic was very different to ours, much smaller for one thing. I hesitate to say this and don’t mean it as criticism, because you have raised some very important questions which I share, but I think your stance drastically altered the path of the course. The whole point of these talks seemed geared up to the prayer summoning the Holy Spirit at the end, it’s a shame you didn’t get to experience that & write it up. Whatever your views it was quite an experience.

    A couple of points – you questioned why God needs the Holy Spirit if he is omnipotent? I was told that God IS the Holy Spirit, it’s his presence on earth.

    Another point – I couldn’t fathom the response of your group member about stoning of homosexuals. In the Gospels we are told that Christ tells us “Let he who is without sin cast the first stone”, it is one of the Old Testement teachings he preaches against and is known even in secular culture.

    I have yet to make up my mind but still finding the course and your blog very interesting.

    Comment by Anon | March 21, 2012

  22. Hello Anon,

    The pastor decided not to include the 3rd of the weekend talks, “How Can I Be Filled With The Holy Spirit?”, because he felt that particular talk would be more appropriate for people who were new converts to the Christian faith, but not really of any use to non-believers like my fellow sceptic and I. So he chose to skip that particular talk, and we didn’t go away.

    All the best,

    Stephen

    Comment by Stephen Butterfield | March 24, 2012

  23. Hi Stephen

    Thanks for that reply, reading up on the Alpha Course recently I see that the delivery can be different depending on the choice of the leaders. I can certainly appreciate why he didn’t do the Holy Spirit section in the circumstances.

    I’ve reflected on that bit of the course quite a bit this last week and personally I feel it’s a bit ‘in at the deep end’ for people like me who are just forming their ideas about Christianity. Some people in the group claimed they had wonderful experiences, much like the Lady in your group did, but it did zero for me. I felt spaced afterwards, it is quite a weird experience for the uninitiated but there was one person who did get rather upset because it didn’t work. It seems to me to be a bit of a risky strategy to treat something potentially so deep (whether you think it’s true or mass hysteria) in such casual way.

    One note I didn’t like was Gumbel suggesting that loneliness is caused by not being connected to God in this talk. Also he keeps refering to case studies of men who get their lives back on track, get their wives back through becoming Christians – I think that can give huge expectations to vulnerable people.

    Comment by Anon | March 25, 2012

  24. The whole point of these talks seemed geared up to the prayer summoning the Holy Spirit at the end

    Well, well. This rather confirms my comment (based on no experience of Alpha at all) that it’s “geared towards producing an intense emotional experience in vulnerable people, then telling them that their experience proves the reality of God and reeling them in as converts.”

    Very much what an old boss of mind used to call the “mind-f*** technique”. Quoting myself again:

    “Shoddy stuff, and to my mind basically not very Christian.”

    Comment by Phil | June 27, 2013


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