Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

WEEK 11: “How Can I Make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”

(**Note to new visitors**: If you’ve been directed to this page, and you’d like to read this review from the beginning then please look to the right of the screen, and scroll down a little, where you’ll see the “Recent” header. Under that you’ll have access to all the links for each weekly instalment of my Alpha Course review. Click on the bottom one, “WEEK 1a: Christianity: Boring, Untrue and Irrelevant?” to start from the very beginning. Thanks.)

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WEEK 11:

I enter the church to find a few of the group already in attendance. Thankfully Lady Three is back for the last session of the Alpha Course. I ask if she’s been ok and she responds by telling me that she’s fine and the reason why she missed last week’s session was because of a family member’s birthday party. I’m relieved that she’s fit and well. She’s a nice lady, happy and bubbly, calm, well spoken, unassuming, and though I’m fond of every member of the group I must say I’m of the opinion that she’s the best of the bunch.

I take to my seat and the pastor walks over to me and says, “Here’s a leaving present for you”, and hands me a book that I seem to remember him mentioning last week. It’s called, “Secret Believers”, by Brother Andrew. I take a look at the back cover and read the blurb, which says, “Here are the terrifying true stories of the men and women – born Muslims and still living in strict Islamic states – who have chosen to convert to Christianity.”

I thank the pastor and put the book on the table beside me.

For the next few minutes we talk about Muslims and Islam. Lady Three chips in to tell us that certain people, “always used to have a go” at her husband for being a Christian, and that these certain people never used to say anything of a similar derogatory nature about Muslims and Islam. Lady Three’s husband was curious as to why this was so, that is until a friend of his, who “wasn’t of any particular faith”, said “I can tell you the reason why they have a go at you about your faith. What you have has got them worried”

Yes, that’s right, non-believers poke fun at Christianity because they’re deeply worried by its power and truth. And, of course, no one pokes fun at other religions because they’re just so obviously false that they’re not even worthy of ridicule.

Yeah, that sounds like a convincing argument. And no doubt a completely true story, too. Or something like that.

The conversation continues about Muslims and Islam. I stop to think why it is that the group are concentrating on Islam rather than any other faith. Maybe the truth of Islam has them worried? No, maybe not. Maybe that kind of argument is just silly. Christians use it all the same, though.

As we’re talking, my eye catches a glimpse of a heavy-looking cardboard folder which is positioned under Lady Three’s chair. I remember the pastor telling me that Lady Three had spent many hours on the Internet investigating these so-called “sons of god” that I had mentioned to her a couple of weeks ago. Maybe she’s prepared a dossier to counter my claims, as I joked she might.

Only a moment or two after I notice the folder, Lady Three turns to me and says, “I’ve got some things for you, Stephen”. She can barely contain her excitement as she reaches under her chair for the aforementioned folder, thuds the bulging beast on her lap, and proceeds to pull out a host of documents.

“I’ve spent quite a lot of time studying the names you gave me a couple of weeks ago”, says Lady Three. “Yes, [the pastor] tells me you’ve been hard at work on the Internet. Four hours in one session alone, so I hear”, I reply.

She hands me a document, about five or six pages thick, which turns out to be a printout of a Wikipedia entry regarding the question of Jesus’ historicity. I thank her kindly for going to such effort, but also tell her that I’ve read the article previously. I promise to take it home with me and read it once more, though.

She then delves some more into the folder and pulls out another computer printout. “You know the list of names you gave me?”, she rhetorically asks, referring to the “sons of god” list, “Well, I’ve looked them up and most of them were listed on a site by this fellow”. She hands me the document and at the top reads the name “Kersey Graves”.

To those of you who are not familiar with the name – Kersey Graves was a 19th century writer most famous for his book “The World’s Sixteen Crucified Saviors”, which is a book that I own and have read. Unfortunately for Graves he fails to cite sources for many of his claims and is therefore deemed by modern historians as “unreliable and unscholarly”. Richard Carrier, a well-renowned speaker, writer, and atheist, who also holds a PhD in ancient history, says of Graves, “[Y]ou will never be able to tell what he has right from what he has wrong without totally redoing all his research and beyond, which makes him utterly useless to historians as a source”

It’s fair to say, too, that Graves has been the target of heavy and prolonged criticism by Christian scholars, and the butt of many of their jokes. He’s been an easy target, and perhaps justifiably so.

I explain all of this to Lady Three. “Oh”, she says, “his was the website that I found all the names on, you see. And he’s not very credible.”

I’m curious, why would Lady Three’s search for the names that I mentioned (Perseus, Hercules, Mithras, and Dionysus – all well known characters in Greek and Roman mythology) bring up the name “Kersey Graves”? A quick Google search for their names doesn’t bring up an immediate link to his work, so I’m thinking that Lady Three must have searched high and low for a website, most probably a pro-Christian one, that proclaims Jesus Christ to be the only true “son of god” in the history of mankind. Graves, being the easy target that he is, was probably mentioned in such a website, and Lady Three had latched onto that with a vengeance.

Lady Three looks a little flustered as she searches some more within the depths of her folder. I’m beginning to think that she was of the opinion coming into this evening’s session that tonight was the night where she would deliver her winning hand against the pesky sceptic, a certain Mr Butterfield, who, in her eyes at least, has been attempting to poison the minds of the group for the last eleven weeks. Sadly, for her, the royal flush that she thought she was holding has turned out to be a busted flush, much to her dismay.

She pulls out another thick printout, “This is from a Christian website, admittedly, but it’s about all the non-Christian sources that mention Jesus”, she says. Then sheepishly asks, “You may have read it?”

I take a quick look at the page headings, “Josephus”, “Tacitus”, “Suetonius”, “Pliny the Younger”, and so on. Names we have discussed in previous sessions, none of whom were contemporaneous sources, which is what I’d asked for, and the earliest, Josephus, is almost universally regarded as a much later interpolation (most proabably from the 4th century A.D).

I explain this to Lady Three and ask if she managed to stumble upon any contemporaneous, extra-biblical sources that made mention of Jesus, his miracles, his crucifixion, and his resurrection. “I think Josephus wrote during that time. I think someone told me that he wrote about Jesus in 40AD”, she says. “Josephus wasn’t born until 37AD”, I reply, and add that “His Antiquities were written in 93AD”

After all of Lady Three’s hard work I do feel rather uncomfortable having to disregard it, but I thank her so very kindly for making the effort.

The pastor, like he did in a previous session, attempts to explain the contemporary silence about Jesus:

Pastor: “The wife of a friend of mine studies Church history. I spoke to her about the fact that you’d raised the question about the silence of contemporaneous sources. She told me that they were such a small band of people, and that the people around Jesus wouldn’t have been able to write.”
Me: “It does say in the Bible that Jesus was attracting huge crowds wherever he went. And that there were earthquakes, and that zombies popped out of their tombs in their multitudes, and that these zombies walked into the city to reveal themselves unto the crowds [Matthew 27: 51-53]. Yet not a single account outside of the Bible can be found to support such a story”
Pastor:[Long pause] “It’s because they tried to deny it”
Me: “What do you mean?”
Pastor: [Looking very uncomfortable] “They obviously didn’t perceive it as significant”
Me: “I think zombies leaping out of their graves and marching into the nearest city would have been quite a significant event. Don’t you?”
Pastor: [Very long pause] “People are very sceptical about it all, aren’t they”
Me: “But no one even wrote about them being sceptical about such events. There’s absolutely no mention of them anywhere”
Pastor: [He shrugs his shoulders, sighs, leans back in his chair, then whispers] “Fascinating”

At this point Lady Three offers her own viewpoint:

Lady Three: “There was talk about Christians later on, though. To me, they wouldn’t be talking about someone who hadn’t actually existed.”

No one doubts the existence of Christians. The fact that later sources mentioned Christians is not direct confirmation that there existed a historical Jesus. Using her line of thinking I could confirm the existence of any God or indeed any fictional character, just by appealing to the people who wrote about them or believed in them. Which, of course, is just silly.

Lady Three continues in a similar vein:

Lady Three: “He [Jesus] must have existed in order for them to be followers of him”
Me: “Would you take a similar view of Krishna, then?”
Lady Three: “Krishna?”
Me: “There have been followers of Krishna for 3,000 years. Does the fact that people believe in him prove to you that he was a historical character?”
Lady Three: [Avoiding the question altogether] “If the people who wrote about Jesus didn’t believe he existed they would have written in their work, “But there’s no evidence that he actually existed”. If they were proper historians that’s what they would have said.”

This is a comment that barely deserves a response so I’m thankful that the pastor intervenes at this point and jokes, “Steve has kept [Lady Three] very busy for the last two weeks!”. We all smile and Lady Three slides her humongous folder back under her chair. “It’s definitely an interesting subject, though”, she says. She’s right, it’s a fascinating subject.

“What’s it about?” asks a bemused Lady Two, whose been sat glassy-eyed, staring into empty space for the last twenty-five minutes. I like Lady Two a great deal, but she doesn’t talk (or listen) until the time arises when she thinks it’s a good opportunity to offer us her testimony. It’s just so bizarre.

The pastor switches on the DVD player, then inserts the last of Nicky Gumbel’s presentations which is entitled, “How Can I Make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”

Gumbel starts by asking, “How do we make the most of the rest of our lives?”. To answer this question he gives us the words of the Apostle Paul:

“Therefore, I urge you, brothers, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as living sacrifices, holy and pleasing to God—this is your spiritual act of worship. Do not conform any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind. Then you will be able to test and approve what God’s will is—his good, pleasing and perfect will.” [Romans 12:1-2]

Gumbel then spends a couple of minutes dissecting that passage and explaining to the audience in simple terms what Saint Paul actually meant.

He then tells us that, as Christians, we shouldn’t give in to the temptation of taking off our “Christian uniform” and mingling in with the rest of the crowd. “What we’re called to be is distinctive, to retain our Christian identity wherever we are and whatever the circumstance.”

As Christians we should avoid backbiting and character assassination, and instead try to think of something positive to say about somebody. This is, of course, an admirable approach.

Gumbel then touches on the subject of sexual immorality: “We are called to demonstrate the blessing of keeping God’s standards. God LOVES us. God loves YOU. God is the creator of marriage. God is the creator of sex. It was God who INVENTED sex. He came up with the idea of sex!” He continues, “God made us sexual beings. And the Biblical context is lifelong commitment in marriage.” and “It’s God’s perfect plan that children should be brought up in an atmosphere of love and commitment and security.”

I suppose drowning every baby in the world by sending a flood to kill them all demonstrates his “love” for his children. And I suppose executing the innocent first-born children of the people of Egypt is another demonstration of his complete love. Yes, God loves little children so much. I sometimes wonder if Gumbel actually reads the Bible.

Gumbel then alludes to premarital sex and states, “I’ve never met anybody who has said to me, “I really regret that I waited [to have sex] until my wedding day”. I’ve met lots of people who said, “I really wish I had waited because I made a mess of my life””.

A mess?

Gumbel recaps and tells us that in order to become fruitful Christians we should 1) Break with the past, and 2) Make a new start in life.

At this point we are given a story of when Gumbel, as a vicar, was taking a funeral service at his church. The funeral was for a well-known, incredibly poor, homeless lady in the area who used to walk the streets begging for money. Gumbel tells us that this lady was very aggressive and rude to people when she asked for money, and she had no friends at all. However, oddly enough, her funeral was attended by lots of people. Gumbel wondered why this was so, and was then told that “Some years earlier she had inherited a HUGE fortune. Millions of pounds” and that’s why all these people, obviously relatives, had crawled out of the woodwork. Allegedly this lady had acquired an expensive flat in a trendy part of London as well as a number of expensive paintings.

“Why would someone with all this money choose to live on the streets with all their rubbish?”, asks Gumbel. Someone close to Gumbel answered, “I think the problem was she didn’t want to leave behind the life she knew”. Gumbel tells us that he initially thought this to be absolutely absurd, but that was until he had a think and it dawned on him that, “There are many people that are doing something even more absurd. They’re hanging on to the rubbish in their lives, and they’re missing out not just on a flat – they’re missing out on all the treasures that God has for us in our lives.”

By this I suppose he means that non-Christians are the rude, aggressive street-urchins that waste their lives living amongst the rubbish, while the Christians of this world escape the flea-ridden hovels and choose instead to live in the palatial abodes of Christendom, where they bask (and perhaps cower) in the wonderful glory of the biggest bully in the universe: Yahweh.

Gumbel then tells us that even though Christians are lavished with all of God’s treasures they should still be ambitious. “Jesus commands us to be ambitious”, states Gumbel. But we must make sure we’re aiming for noble ambitions. What is the point trying to earn lots of money, he asks. “Its pathetic”, exclaims the wealthy Mr Gumbel. “What you should be saying is “my priority is to seek God’s kingdom and his righteousness.””

Christians must remember to put God first in their lives because, as Gumbel says, “If we live for ourselves we find ourselves in bondage, in slavery. But if we present everything to God we find freedom”

Gumbel then turns up the heat, “If you want an easy life, if you want a life of ease, please don’t become a Christian because it’s not easy being a Christian. But if you want a GREAT life, a FULFILLING life – life at its BEST – then follow Jesus!”

Great stuff.

Gumbel then tells us why it’s not easy being a Christian: “More people have died for their faith in Christ in the 20th century than in all the other centuries put together. So it’s not always easy being a Christian”. He then asks, “So why should we do it?”

“First of all” states Gumbel, “for what God has planned for our lives”.

But all of the hardship is worth it in the end, supposedly. To the outsider this might sound absurd, but Gumbel tells us “I had a totally false view of God before I was a Christian. I thought God was a kind of spoilsport; God was a kind of person that if you gave your life to him he would destroy it; he’d take away all the things that were fun and good in our lives. How absurd that is! God LOVES us far more than we love our own children. And the little sacrifices we have to make for him are NOTHING compared to the sacrifice that Jesus made for us on the cross”

Doesn’t this “God loves us” mantra get a little tiring after a while? Considering that all the evidence in the world suggests that, if he even exists, he couldn’t care a jot about any of us.

To finish his presentation Gumbel offers us a tale about “a wealthy English baron”. I’ll let Gumbel take up the story:

“This man had one son who had left home. When he was away from home he [the son] died. This wealthy man never got over the loss of his son. As his wealth increased he invested in valuable paintings. When he died, his will called for all the paintings to be sold, and because he had such a great collection collectors and museums came from all over the world. On the day of the auction the lawyer read from his will and what it said was this, “The first painting to be sold in this auction is of my beloved son.” It was an unknown painting of poor quality, and the only person who bothered to bid for it was somebody who had worked for the family and who’d known the boy and had loved him, and bought it for sentimental value and the memories it held. Then the lawyer read the 2nd clause of the will: “Whoever buys my son gets everything. The auction is over.””

This, of course, is to illustrate the point that whoever buys into Christianity (to buy the son of God) shall inherit all things. Brilliant!

I’m sure that if Baywatch star, David Hasselhoff, was asked to read aloud that story he would say, “I’m sorry buddy, I can’t read THAT. It’s too cheesy, even for me!”

For the last time the pastor ejects the DVD and switches on the lights.

My fellow sceptic gets up and goes to the toilet. While he’s away Lady Two appears from the kitchen pushing the food trolley, which is stacked with all sorts of fancies. I decide to break with tradition and actually eat something. I plump for a chocolate bun. “YESSSSS!!!!!” jokes the pastor, “Steve’s actually eating something!”

As we’re eating, members of the group express how fond they are of Gumbel, and how great he is at his job. Eventually my fellow sceptic returns from the toilet, sees that the room is peaceful, and jokes “It hasn’t got to loggerheads yet, then?”. The pastor looks at my fellow sceptic, winks, then nods in my direction and says, “Sssshhhhhh, he’s eating his chocolate bun!”. I look up, and also with a wink, joke, “This should keep me quiet for the next forty minutes. You should have offered me a chocolate bun in each of the previous ten sessions.” The group laugh.

When I first entered the room this evening I pictured the session ending with me delivering a rousing, Churchill-esque speech, in which I would point out the flaws and silliness of the arguments that I’d heard during the last eleven weeks. Now, though, I feel no desire to end it that way. I’ve now made a decision to sit quietly for the remainder of the session. The group is in good spirits, and I’ve decided that I’d like to keep it that way. I’ll sit quietly for the remainder of the evening, shake hands at the end and wish everyone well for the future. Nothing is going to get sorted tonight, that’s for certain. It’s too late for that.

The group begin to speak about the supposed beauty of Christianity:

Lady Two: “It [Christianity] gives your life direction. It gives it purpose. You know where you’re going. You know what you’re trying to aspire to and be. You want to be filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit and try to bring others into the fold. That’s your direction.”
New Christian Male: “It opens your eyes as well. When you’re filled with the Holy Spirit you just focus on that. If previously you’d been hitting wall after wall after wall, then after you’ve been filled with the Holy Spirit those walls seem to break down. That’s one thing I’ve learned from this course.”

The pastor tells us about how he’s always been honest in business, and how that’s thanks to his firm Christian beliefs. My fellow sceptic and the rest of the group discuss honesty in business. It’s an interesting discussion that lasts for about twenty minutes or so, and a number of different topics manage to find a way into the conversation, such as 1) how it’s not easy to be a Christian, 2) the environment, 3) the lead singer of U2, Bono, and 4) Cadbury’s chocolate. The Christians in the group then tell us of the challenges they face in daily life, and how their belief in God helps them overcome such challenges.

The next topic to crop up is that of heaven. The pastor says that he’d love to see a united Church where all races, ages and creeds came together as one. “Because that’s what it’s going to be like in heaven” he says.

Lady Two: “Yes, everybody being loving and no backbiting. Every one being kind and filled with the fruits of the Holy Spirit.”

My fellow sceptic jokingly asks how they are all going to cope with no one to preach to? How will they get by without an insatiable thirst to convert people to their faith? What will these Christians find to do with their time if there are no heathens? “We’re all going to be concentrating on worshipping God”, replies the pastor.

My fellow sceptic then wants to know how the pastor envisages heaven. The pastor then tells us about how the Bible mentions God sitting on a throne, and how we’ll all spend time praising his holy name. He also mentions that it is unlikely that pets will be joining us in the hereafter. So any of you reading this blog who are looking forward to seeing your favourite pet when you get to heaven, then forget it – as I have it on good authority that pets aren’t allowed in the heavenly realm. God’s orders.

I break my now thirty-minute silence by asking, “How big is heaven?”

Pastor: “I don’t know”
Me: “Is it bigger than the earth?”
Pastor: “I guess so”
Me: “So there’s going to be people separated by considerable distances, yes?”
Pastor: “I don’t know”

I ask that question because I’m curious as to how we’re going travel from A to B in heaven, particularly if the journey is of a considerable distance (such as, say, from Britain to Australia). Planes perhaps? Rockets? Jet packs? Star Trek style teleportation machines?

Pastor: “I think that’s only an issue when we’re bound by the body. Once we’re in spirit, once we’re in our spiritual bodies, distance and time is just irrelevant.”

I’d love for him to explain exactly what he means by that, but the opportunity for me to ask doesn’t present itself as my fellow sceptic jumps in wanting to know if we’ll be able to recognise people in heaven. The pastor is a bit vague in his response and basically admits that he has no idea [again?], but then says, “That’s like asking if someone dies when they’re seven years old what age are they in heaven?”
I inform the pastor that British theologian, Alistair McGrath, believes we’ll all be thirty years of age! Here’s a quote from one of his books:

“A final question that has greatly vexed Christian theologians concerns the age of those who are resurrected. If someone dies at the age of 60, will they appear in the streets of the New Jerusalem as an old person? And if someone dies at the age of 10, will they appear as a child? This issue caused the spilling of much theological ink, especially during the Middle Ages. By the end of the thirteenth century, an emerging consensus can be discerned. As each person reaches their peak of perfection around the age of 30, they will be resurrected as they would have appeared at that time – even if they never lived to reach that age… The New Jerusalem will thus be populated by men and women as they would appear at the age of 30 (the age, of course, at which Christ was crucified) – but with every blemish removed.” Alistair McGrath, A Brief History of Heaven (p.37)

The long-standing male member picks up the topic and runs with it a little:

Long-Standing Male Member: “God talks about us reigning, but what we’re going to reign over I don’t know [again?]. Other planets, maybe, but I don’t know. If there’s a new heaven and a new earth then what’s to stop us going to other planets?”
My Fellow Sceptic: “So basically all of you are saying that you have no idea what it’s going to be like, no idea where its going to be, no idea what’s going to happen, no idea who’ll be there, yet Christianity is all geared up towards “Lets get to heaven!””

My fellow sceptic is on to something. These people are obsessed with heaven, but, when asked to tell us about it, they know little (or nothing) at all. Yet we non-believers must be absolutely certain of such a place, and long to go there, or be doomed to an eternity of torture in hell. Strange?

Long-Standing Male Member: “Jesus loves us and he doesn’t want us to end up in Hell”
Me: “I asked this to [Lady Two] last week, so I’ll ask you too if you don’t mind: Could you live an eternity of happiness in heaven knowing that people were being fried and tortured in hell? And that they were suffering these torments because of nothing more than them having had a different opinion on religion whilst on earth.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “This is how I understand it: I won’t know about what’s happening to them. That’s something that God deals with as the Almighty. When I get to heaven there will be no sadness, I won’t even be thinking about people in hell”
Me: “So you’ll just forget about them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “That part of my memory will be gone”
Me: “It all sounds rather sinister to me”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Sinister?”

Lady Two jumps in:

Lady Two: “I believe it’s not the father’s will to lose one child. I think he wants to save everybody. I think he’s trying to save us by using Christians and the Holy Spirit, and things like that. We as Christians are trying to witness, we’re trying to get everyone saved. We’re trying to get everyone nice and peaceful with him [God] before they die, so that it’s a safe passage through for them”
Me: “Well, I’ve said this before but he could have created a system where everyone was peaceful with him from the beginning.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “But then we’d have been robots, Stephen”

Oh dear, here we go again. So much for me keeping quiet for the remainder of the evening…

Me: “I don’t understand your line of thinking at all, sorry. Using that kind of reasoning we’re all going to be robots in heaven, then.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “What God has done is this: In the Old Testament he used one nation – Israel – to say, “Look, here’s the laws. You try and live by them”. And they tried time and time again but failed time and time again. They just couldn’t do it”
Me: “But God knew that in advance”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes, he knew that”
Me: “So why bother?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “So that they couldn’t come to him and say “You never gave us a chance to come to you with our own free will. You made us robots””
Me: “So why would he get upset with them if he knew exactly what they were going to do before he even created them?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Because as a father you know what you want your kids to do. Are you a dad, Steve?”
Me: “No, I don’t have any children. Not yet anyway.” [EDIT: My first child, a beautiful baby boy, was born on the 23rd of January 2010]
Long-Standing Male Member: “With my kids if there’s something they should do and they don’t do it, and they hurt themselves, I get very cross. That’s how I picture God. He sees the nation of Israel the same way I see my kids. If my kids are messing about at the top of the stairs I’ll shout “Don’t do that, you might fall!””
Me: “Your analogy might work if God wasn’t omniscient. But he is, so it doesn’t. You don’t know every event – past, present and future. God does. You may have an inkling that your kids may hurt themselves, but then again they may not. God knows precisely what each person will do before it even happens. Would you place your kids at the top of a flight of very steep and hazardous steps knowing in advance that they would fall and kill themselves? You’d get locked up for that, wouldn’t you? But this is what God has done. He’s put mankind on earth knowing in advance that they would fall. Knowing in advance that millions of kids would be tortured and raped, that billions would starve to death, and so on”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God is looking at the end game”
Me: “And if you knew that the “end game” would be that your kids fell to their deaths down the steep steps, would you place them there?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “It’s like stopping your kids from putting their hands close to a coal fire. You teach your kids not to go near the coal fire”
Me: “That’s not what I’m asking.”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “Ask again”
Me: “If you knew in advance that by placing your kids at the top of some steep, hazardous steps they would fall to their deaths, would you place them there?”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Long pause] “It depends what my goal is.”
Lady Three: [Turns to me] “You’re saying that what God has done to us is like him putting some kids at the top of some stairs knowing they would fall. That’s how you see it. But I don’t see it like that. I see that God has made a perfect place and he’s placed his ultimate creation – which is a man and a woman – in a perfect garden with just a guideline”
Me: “Yes, he placed them in the garden knowing in advance exactly what was going to happen”
Lady Three: “Its not like he’s left them at the top of some dangerous stairs. He’s left them in a safe environment with instructions that would keep them safe”
Me: “But it wasn’t a safe environment. He placed them in a garden with a tree bearing fruit that would ruin the future of mankind, if eaten. This is a “safe environment”? Was a garden that contained Satan himself, who was on the prowl looking for a couple of human victims, a “safe environment”? God put them there knowing in advance what would happen.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “He did that because of love. It was because of love. Because he loves us he gives us free will. You’re struggling with the free will bit”
Me: “No, I’m struggling with the fact that God could have created a system where pain, agony, torture and death weren’t necessary.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “If he didn’t give us free will he’d always be controlling us. If we didn’t have free will we couldn’t do wrong even if we wanted to do wrong”
Me: “Supposedly we have free will in heaven, yet never do any wrong. If this sort of free will is possible then God could have given us it in the first place. No kids tortured, no innocent people murdered, no rapes, no muggings, no assaults, nothing like that need ever happen. But God didn’t give us that sort of free will. He gave us the kind where people WILL commit all the atrocities I just mentioned. And, worst of all, he knew it all in advance. And you honestly want us to believe that he loves and cares for us?”
Lady Two: “God wants us to do his will. He wants a relationship with us. That’s the point. He wants the relationship to be lovely and happy. He knows that if we keep in his will we’ll be happy and safe”

The pastor joins in:

Pastor: “You’re looking at this from a completely human point of view, Steve. I gave you a scripture the other day about God’s ways being higher than our ways. The reason why God has done it is beyond our comprehension”
Me: “But that doesn’t answer the question. All you’re saying, basically, is that you’ve no idea [again?] why God set it up the way he did, with him knowing that billions of people would live short, sad, tortuous lives, but that we shouldn’t question God because he knows best, so we should just leave it at that. It’s not good enough. Sorry”
Pastor: [In a tone that suggests he’s just about had enough] “You’re not satisfied with our answers. Fine. But we have an answer that satisfies us”
Me: “Throwing your hands up in the air and saying “God knows best” is hardly an answer likely to be deemed satisfactory by any non-Christian”

Lady Three gets back in the mix:

Lady Three: “What you’re saying is that God should have made us robots”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to Lady Three] “Yes, that’s how I’m seeing what Steve is saying, too.”

Hammer and chisel anyone?

Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to me] If you were God how would you do it?”
Me: “I’d create a paradise where people have the sort of free will that they will supposedly have in your idea of heaven. Where the only things they want to do are good things. No rape, murder, assault, and heartache. Just a wondrous place where everyone shows immense love for one another, and where everyone gets along. An eternity of peace, happiness and well-being. That’s how I’d do it. So what I’m asking you is this: Could God create a system where people have a version of free will where the possibility of raping and abusing children is not there? If you say, “Yes” then I’d like for you to explain to me why God didn’t create such a system in the first place.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Because God is after perfect holiness, perfect righteousness. Not a watered down version”
Me: “So in order for a select few to achieve this state of holiness they must go through a system where the majority of God’s creations are nothing more than collateral damage, as they starve to death, are raped, abused, tortured, and so on?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yes”
Me: “I don’t think there’s anything further to add”

Lady Three thinks she has a solution to the problem:

Lady Three: “The reason why kids are raped is because Satan has influenced people. It’s not because God created it like that.”
Me: “You’re missing the point altogether. God created Satan, knowing in advance what he would do. God could have created a system without Satan, without pain and suffering, and without gratuitous evil. But he didn’t. Ultimately the buck stops with God”

The discussion suddenly turns into a heated free-for-all. Everyone in the group is trying to get their point across to me, and it becomes somewhat of an inaudible jumble. I sit for a moment shaking my head. Lady Three can see that things are getting out of control and tries to shush the baying crowd. The most vociferous of them all is the new Christian male, who’s doing his best to shout over the top of everybody else. As they say, there is none so passionate as a new convert.

Lady Three manages to quieten everyone down and asks me to carry on with what I was saying. I’m thankful to Lady Three. Once again she proves to me that she is the best of the bunch. I ask the question once again:

Me: “God could have created a system where humans live in paradise from the very beginning, just like how you all believe you will live in heaven. If God is so concerned for human welfare, and for us all to worship him, why didn’t he just do that in the first place?”
Pastor: “Well, we’ve answered that question. That was God’s choice and his ways are better than our ways.”

I’m beginning to think that someone should nominate me for the Queen’s Honours List, for my sustained and dedicated services to patience, of course.

The pastor continues:

Pastor: “You just want to blame God. You just want robots. I’m telling you that God didn’t want robots.”
Me: “You’ve told me that heaven is going to be perfect. We’re all going to get along and we’re all going to love each other”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah”
Me: “But God could have made it that way from the off. We don’t need billions of innocent casualties in order to achieve complete happiness.”

The new Christian male then goes into a tirade about how Satan (in the guise of a “smooth talking serpent”) deceived Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge. Satan is to blame for all the world’s ills.

“And who created a garden with such a serpent in it?” asks my fellow sceptic.

Pastor: “I understand your argument. You want to blame God”
Me: “God created the system, did he not?”
Pastor: “I can only give the answer that I’ve given to you. It doesn’t satisfy you, and I can’t change that. But I’ve answered your question”
Me: “With respect, you haven’t really. All you’ve said is God knows best. It doesn’t answer anything”
Pastor: “I accept your argument that it would have been nice to get to heaven without all the raping and the killing. I agree with you on that, but that’s not the way God has chosen. He’s chosen it to be like this instead. I don’t know why.”
Me: “If God chooses it to be like this – a system where innocent people are victims – what, then, makes you so convinced that God is all good, and that he has even the slightest interest in our welfare?”
Pastor: “The fact that God is holy. And because he is so holy no other created being has the right, however good they may be, to be in his presence because that created being is not holy. We are not worthy of being in his presence. Until you perceive the holiness of God, and the miracle of anything else standing in his presence, you have no understanding of the miracle of grace. Until you recognise the holiness and that God is God is God is God [huh?] then human argument and reason can never understand why this dilemma has happened”
Me: “I admire your attempt to explain the situation, but, with respect, and try as I may, it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, to be honest.”

The long-standing male member is still keen to press the issue. He tells me that God gave us free will because he wanted us to choose whether or not we loved him. He continues:

Long-Standing Male Member: “The argument I could make is that we’d be robots if it were any different. If we HAD to love God then we wouldn’t be free.”
Me: “Are you free in heaven not to love him?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m choosing IN THIS LIFE to love God. I make the choice HERE
Me: “Oh, so there’s no choice in heaven? I gather from that that we aren’t free in heaven, then”
New Christian Male: “I think if you didn’t love God he would kick you out of heaven until you said sorry to him”
Long-Standing Male Member: “I’m dead to sin and alive to God in Christ Jesus. I’ve just got to make sure that I listen to Jesus and obey what God’s word says. It’s living that Christian life. I’m preparing myself NOW for when I get to heaven. So when you ask if I have the choice not to love God when I get to heaven the answer is no, because I’m making the choice now.”
Me: “No choice in heaven? So you’re a robot in heaven, then”
Long-Standing Male Member: “No, because I’ve made the choice here.”

The words, “This”, “Is”, “Like”, “Talking”, “To”, “A”, “Brick”, and “Wall” spring to mind, possibly in that order, too.

Long-Standing Male Member: “Would you murder someone?”
Me: “No, of course not”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Not loving God is the same way, it’s like murder. So I’m not going to do it.”
Me: “We’re going round in circles”.
Long-Standing Male Member: “God doesn’t want murder. He doesn’t even want white lies. When you use the example of children being raped you’re using a very emotional topic.”
Me: “Because it’s probably the worst thing I can think of. The simple fact of the matter is that God created a system where such atrocious things can and will occur. And he knew all of this in advance.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “God wants relationships to be pure and holy”
Me: “As I keep saying, God could have made it so that we had pure and holy relationships without anyone ever raping a defenceless, innocent child. But he didn’t.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah, he didn’t”
Me: “Yet you cling to the belief that this God character is all-loving and wants no one to come to harm. I don’t know how you can reconcile that belief with the evidence we have around us in the world”
Long-Standing Male Member: “The reason he didn’t make it without all those nasty things is because he’s given us the free choice. We surrender our lives to God. Being a Christian is not easy. Some people don’t want to be Christians because they don’t want to change their lifestyle.”
Me: “I’d be willing to change if I knew of some evidence in favour of what you’ve had to say. But genuinely I know of none.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “The only way to please God is by faith”

Brilliant this, isn’t it? As I’m typing up this transcript I’m sure I’ve headbutted the wall at least twice, and sprouted a dozen or so more grey hairs.

Long-Standing Male Member: “Faith comes by hearing the word, so you need to spend more time reading the Bible”

I sit back, take a sip from my glass of water and hope [maybe I should pray?] that someone talks about something else. The pastor looks at his watch. It’s 9pm, time for the session to end. The pastor explains that he has to leave immediately in order to make an important phone call. He states that we are free to continue our discussion, though, and that we can stay over for as long as we want. He may even manage to get back before we’ve all gone home, he says. He gets up out of his chair and thanks me for attending. I joke, “You’re leaving? I was just on the brink of giving my life to Christ!” The group laughs, and the pastor shakes my hand and tells me that he hopes that I’ll stay in touch.

As the pastor exits the building Lady Two turns to me and says:

Lady Two: “God is just waiting. The night that I found him [here we go] he was just waiting for me, too. He was waiting for me to reach up to him, you see. As soon as I reached up to him, as a child would, I was looking at him as a God who was white. That’s how I saw him. I didn’t question it, I just thought, “God, you are white. If you’re there, and you’re the God of that Bible, then you’re white and I want to be your child. You know?”
Me: [Trying to nip this in the bud] “Like I’ve said before quite a few times in the past, that’s fair enough”
Lady Two: “That’s how I saw it. He met me in ABSOLUTE LOVE. It was… it was… I can’t describe the ABSOLUTE LOVE that it was. It was just ABSOLUTE LOVE being poured into me. Because I’d reached up to him, in a child-like way, and recognised that if he was there then I wanted to be right with him.”
Me: “Great”
Lady Two: “That was all I needed to do. It was as SIMPLE AS THAT. And that is what he’s waiting for, he’s waiting for his children to say sorry for what they’ve done wrong, that they recognise their sins, they recognise where they’ve been out of line with him, and they’re just saying sorry for it. They’re saying “I want to be your child, I want you in my life and I want to follow your way”. And that’s all he wants.”
Me: [Trying my best to just agree with her] “Ok”
Lady Two:I’M NOT A LIAR, I’M NOT A LIAR. It was simple. All you need to do is go to your maker, go to that place in your mind and APPEAL to him. It’s as simple as that. For me it was over in a space of two minutes, it was all done with. He had ABSOLUTELY convinced me 100% that it was all true.”
Me: [Doing my best to tread carefully here] “I don’t think for one moment that you’re lying to me. But you must remember that people can say things that are false without actually telling a lie. A lie requires intent. Lets say that [the long-standing male member] tells me that he used to live in Australia for twenty years. He would be lying. But I wouldn’t know that. If I went and told you that he used to live in Australia for twenty years I would be spreading a falsehood, but I wouldn’t be lying. He would be lying to me but I wouldn’t be lying to you. Being led to believe a certain thing, which unbeknownst to you is false, does not mean that you’re lying if you then go and tell someone about it. You’d just be mistaken. There’s a difference. Like I say, I don’t think you’re lying to me at all. I think you’re completely convinced by all of this.”

Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to me] “I’d like to ask you something, Steve. Over the last eleven weeks how do you think we have shared the Gospel with you? In a way I’m kinda asking for a review of how you’ve viewed what we have had to say.”

[That’s interesting, isn’t it? I wonder if this website might be of some assistance?]

Me: “I think you’re all incredibly sincere and passionate people. I’m quite fond of all of you.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Have we shared the Gospel with you? Have we communicated the Gospel to you as best we can? Have we communicated to you that Jesus is God, that he came down as a human being, gave up his divine powers, died on the cross for our sins and rose again?”
Me: “Sure”
Long-Standing Male Member: “There’s something that’s been hitting home to me this week and for some reason I’ve felt the need to share it with you. None of us, NONE OF US, deserve to go to heaven. Ok? I deserve to go into heaven as much as the person who is raping a three year old kid. Which is NIL. Ok? None of us deserve to go into heaven. It’s purely God’s choice to give us the opportunity to go into heaven. That’s what the Gospel is. I believe what I believe, and that’s how it is. And when you tell me to look at another faith, and how they supposedly “prove” their arguments, my faith is strong enough not to be fazed by it. Just like your faith is strong enough to make you think, “No, there is no God””
Me: [Laughs] “No, that’s not my faith at all. In fact I don’t think I’ve said such a thing in all of the eleven weeks that I’ve been here.”
Lady Two: [Turns to me excitedly] “You want to believe that there is a God! You WANT to believe that there IS!
Me: “Well, not really. I don’t WANT to believe that there is a god. I’m just interested to know if there is a god or not. But, as it stands at the moment, I have no reason for believing that there is a god. Especially not the kind of god who is supposedly all-loving, and who supposedly has a vested interest in the welfare of human beings, yet for the entirety of human history has allowed kids to be raped in their millions.”
Lady Two: “But God HATES that. It’s not what he wanted!”
Me: [Tongue in cheek] “Well, I think it’s best if I decline the opportunity to repeat myself for the 114th time”

All of the group smile and take my comment as a lighthearted acceptance that we’re not going to solve anything on this particular problem. That is all of the group with the exception of the new Christian male, who looks at me and says:

New Christian Male: “Let’s hope that you’re not forced into believing in God when something bad happens to you.”
Me: “Well, let’s not hope for that, hey?”
New Christian Male: “That’s the only way some people can come to understand God. With my hand on my heart I hope it doesn’t take that for you to believe in God. But if it does then you know why.”

This is nothing but a veiled threat. I’m sure anyone else with less patience than I would have told him where to go, and very promptly, and perhaps with an accompanying scuff of the earlobe for good measure. I understand, though, that he’s just keen to fit in with the group, he’s trying his best to be “one of them”, and this often clouds his judgment. I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt on this one, and I choose not to respond in the way that many people might have.

A few moments later we are discussing charity, and the group tell me about how some Christians work tirelessly for charity. I agree with them, yes, some Christians do work tirelessly for charity, as do some atheists and some Muslims, some Sikhs and some Hindus. To which the new Christian male responds “Yeah, but they’re just jumping on the bandwagon”

I take the group back a few weeks, and take the opportunity to remind them of the session when the pastor laid hands on me. He asked God to reveal himself to me but I’ve heard nothing from God since. There’s been no sign of this God character anywhere. I ask the group why they think God failed to show. No one seems particularly keen to offer an explanation. That is until the new Christian male chimes up with his own theory:

New Christian Male: “When you talk to Muslims do you talk about Allah with them?”
Me: “Of course”
New Christian Male: “Then that is why God is saying, “I won’t speak to you unless you come away from Allah””
Me: “Eh? So I’m not allowed to talk to Muslims?”
New Christian Male: “Talk to Muslims, yes, but don’t talk to them about their faith. Because God thinks you’re going to go to Allah”
Me: “I have to understand what it is that people believe. To do that I have to talk to them about it”
New Christian Male: “You might go home at night and ask God to reveal himself to you but he might be thinking, “Why should I reveal myself to Steve when he’s talking to Muslims about Allah?” God is saying “If Steve wants to be with me then he cannot listen to Allah” So if you don’t talk to Allah then God will talk to you. Then you’ll hear God. Read the Old Testament. When Hezekiah became king of Judah he did evil in the eyes of the Lord. When he decided to talk to another god he was punished by the real God”

Amazing. Absolutely amazing.

The long-standing male member has, what he thinks, a better explanation for why it is that God never revealed himself to me:

Long-Standing Male Member: “I think the more time you spend reading the Bible, especially the New Testament, at some stage the Holy Spirit will reveal himself. That’s why they call it the living word. It’s where the Holy Spirit can take the word and apply it to my life to make me more like Jesus. The reason why God wants us to surrender our lives to him is so that we can become more like Jesus. God wants us to be exactly like Jesus. The two hours or so that you’ve been spending here every week try to use that time in the future for reading the New Testament. It’s great that you’re reading lots of other books. I’m not saying don’t read other books. But if you’re REALLY seeking God then read the New Testament”
Me: “I’ve read the New Testament several times”
New Christian Male: “Every night, every night, you must read it every night”
Lady Two: “When I was a hoper, Stephen, I used to think “Even if it’s not true I want to support it in terms of the way I live my life and the way I treat other people”. Because it’s the nicest ideology, it’s the nicest story going. You know, that a saviour had come to save me from my sins and to show me the way to live my life properly and everything. When I was a hoper, like you, I used to analyse it too. I used to think, “Well, it’s a fantastic story, and even if it’s not true I’m going to try and live my life largely as much as I can to follow it”. I tried to be kind and I tried to say nice things to people because I came to the conclusion that out of all the ways to live your life it was the best one to follow. You know? The ideology was so nice, that God loved us so much that he’d done his utmost to make us live a nice life and a happy life and everything, by following him and working for him. It gave my life purpose, it gave my life direction, it made life fruitful because I would meet other people who were kind and who kept on the straight and narrow as well. They treated each other with respect and everything. Everything was nice about it. So I was always that hoper following it. You know?”

My fellow sceptic looks at me and, with a wink and a shake of the head, states, “You must try harder, Steve”. Everyone laughs.

We’ve over run the time by about 45mins but we’ve all enjoyed our chat and this seems as good a time as any to call a close to the evening. I tell the group that I have really appreciated their time, and that I have enjoyed the course immensely. They thank me for attending.

Lady Three asks, “We’d like to say a final prayer if that’s alright. Is that alright?”. My fellow sceptic and I reply with an “Of course. No problem”

Lady Three: “Heavenly father, we thank you for this course. It has given us the chance to get together and talk about you and to debate different ideas. Lord, I just pray that it would be great if you did reveal yourself to them. To show the truth and the reality of what you’re about, Lord. We can’t persuade them, Lord, it’s got to be you, in a way that is tangible and real to them. Lord, only you know the depth of their hearts and where they are. Lord, thank you for the time we’ve spent together and thank you for the friendships that have developed over the great evenings we’ve had together. Lord I pray that you watch over us and keep us safe, and we ask this in the name of Jesus our Lord.”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

Lady Two has a go:

Lady Two: “Thank you, God, that your Holy Spirit is evidently working in both their hearts, that they’re searching for you as they are and that they come to the meetings every week like they do. You are working in them and that’s obvious, Lord. I just earnestly ask, Lord, that you would not leave them alone. Not let them have rest. I don’t want them to have rest, Lord, until they’ve tussled it out and found you, Lord. I just want them not to give up and to be wrestling with it, and to be searching for you, and for them not to be happy with the direction of their lives until they have made a commitment, Lord, and for you to reach down and make yourself real to them, Lord. I just want that, Lord, because I know it means a lot to them and I know that to have come here for eleven weeks it is obvious that both of them are searching and both of them would love a direction in life which is so holy, so purposeful, and so lovely. I just pray, Lord, that they will both find it in their own time and in their own way. In Jesus’ name. Amen. “
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

The room remains silent for a moment or two, then gradually the Christians in the group open their eyes and look approvingly towards my fellow sceptic and I.

People start to move out of their seats and I help Lady Two clear the pots away. On our walk to the kitchen we all chat about family life and such.

I approach my fellow sceptic and tell him that it was lovely to meet him. Shame we didn’t really get to chat together all that much. When everything is cleared away I put on my coat and say my goodbyes for the last time. I wish everyone well then head for the door. As I open the door to exit the church I bump into the pastor who is on his way back in. We shake each other’s hand and wish each other well for the future. “Stay in touch”, he says. I pat him on the shoulder; thank him for his patience and then I slip him a little bit of money as my contribution towards the cheesecakes and fruit salads that have been on offer over the last eleven weeks. “That’s very kind of you, Stephen” says the pastor. One last final handshake and then I open the church door and head back to my car for the journey home.

My time on the Alpha Course has come to an end.

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November 24, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 152 Comments

WEEK 10: “What About The Church?”

The group is one person short this evening as Lady Three has failed to put in an appearance. Maybe last week’s prayers worked wonders on her injured knee, and subsequently a British cycling team has snapped her up to compete in the Tour De France? Yes, with God all things are possible.

Joking aside, none of the group has heard from her, so they are surprised that she’s not in attendance. I hope she’s ok.

After a moment or two I dig into my jacket pocket, pull out a piece of paper and say, “I’ve brought the Bible verse that you asked for”. The pastor smiles and rubs his hands together, eager to see what I’ve come up with. “Let’s have a look then”, he says eagerly.

“Actually I found two verses of that nature, but I don’t know if there’s any more”, I say as I hand the long-standing male member the piece of paper. “TWO??”, he shrieks in astonishment.

He reads carefully. He looks to the pastor, who is sitting beside him, and reads aloud the verse location, “Numbers 31:17-18”. The pastor opens up his Bible and searches for the verses in question.

There’s a quiet moment as the pastor reads them. His face drops a little, and a few seconds later he looks up from the page and dejectedly admits, “Yep, you’re right”

There’s more silence before Lady Two gets out of her seat and walks towards the pastor. She asks, “What does it say?”. The pastor reads aloud the offending verses:

[Numbers 31:17-18] “Now kill all the boys. And kill every woman who has slept with a man, but save for yourselves every girl who has never slept with a man” [NIV]

And…

[Judges 21:10-12] “So the assembly sent twelve thousand fighting men with instructions to go to Jabesh Gilead and put to the sword those living there, including the women and children. “This is what you are to do,” they said. “Kill every male and every woman who is not a virgin.” They found among the people living in Jabesh Gilead four hundred young women who had never slept with a man, and they took them to the camp at Shiloh in Canaan.” [NIV]

My fellow sceptic, who is grinning from ear to ear, asks the group in his inimitable dry style, “Are you guys trying to tell me you didn’t know about that?”.

No one answers.

“If I may ask, what does everyone here think of verses like that? Do you think that they are examples of morally acceptable behaviour?”, I ask.

New Christian Male: “No, I think it’s wrong”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Turns to the new Christian male] “Well, yeah, on face value… just by reading that sentence”

He says that as if in the hope that there’s some deeper meaning to it all, which we’ve most probably overlooked, that will ultimately shed God in good light. That’s right, God comes out of it smelling of roses no matter what. Like I’ve said before, no amount of evidence will budge these people from believing that 1) God is perfectly good, and 2) The Bible is God’s perfect love letter to his children.

Pastor: “This is just my view but I think he was seeking to bring purity to the Israelites.”

Purity? Is this guy serious?

Pastor: “You see, you judge that from a 21st century, western background. And we’d all say yes, in the 21st century, that wouldn’t be morally acceptable”
Me: “Would God have considered it morally acceptable behaviour back then?”
Pastor: “Obviously, because he allowed it”

So if God allows things to happen then he obviously considers them morally acceptable? Children being raped, old ladies mugged, innocent people tortured and killed? All these things happen today, so, according to the pastor’s principle, God must consider them morally acceptable. What kind of monster are they making God out to be? This is ludicrous.

The long-standing male member asks me if I’d like to live in a world without Christian morals. “What do you mean by “Christian morals”?”, I ask. He replies by reeling off a couple of the Ten Commandments, such as thou shalt not steal, and thou shalt not kill. I state that I don’t need knowledge of the Christian God or his Bible in order to know not to steal and not to kill.

Pastor: “We have a moral absolute that stealing is wrong”
Me: “Don’t you think there are occasions when it could be deemed “good” to steal?”
New Christian Male: [Dumbfounded by my suggestion] “HOW??”
Me: “Let’s try this hypothetical example: A terrorist has hijacked a plane. He has a loaded gun pointed at the pilot’s head and he’s commanding him to head for Manhattan. Unbeknownst to everyone onboard the terrorist intends to have the plane slammed into a skyscraper, killing hundreds of passengers onboard and thousands of innocent people on the ground. Suddenly a split-second opportunity arises where you are able to steal the terrorist’s gun by snatching it out of his hand, thus saving the lives of thousands of innocent people. Would stealing this man’s gun be a “good” thing to do?”
Pastor: “Yes, but I’d hardly call it “stealing”, though”
Me: “To “steal” is to take someone’s property without their consent.”
New Christian Male: [Struggling to think of a quick answer] “But… but… it [the gun] is not his property…. because he doesn’t have a licence for it”

What??!! I’ve offered up a thought experiment about a terrorist that has hijacked an aeroplane, and the new Christian male somehow knows that my invented character hasn’t been issued with a licence for his firearm?? That has to be the craziest comment I’ve heard in a long time. Funny though (albeit unintentionally).

Long-Standing Male Member: “This is how I see it if Jesus was onboard: He [Jesus] wouldn’t go and steal the gun. He’d work in a far different realm, because Jesus said, “Turn the other cheek”.”
Me: “He wouldn’t have just turned the other cheek when confronted with a hijacker who was about to kill thousands of people, surely?”

The pastor intervenes, “Anyway, shall we watch tonight’s DVD?”

Yeah, why not.

Gumbel starts by asking, “Is it possible to be a Christian – to be a follower of Jesus – and not go to church? What does “going to church” mean? What is “Church?””

He tells us of the time, before he was a Christian, of how whenever he heard the word “church” his heart used to sink. Of course since becoming a Christian he views the church in a completely different light, “At the heart of the church is something amazing, something wonderful, something beautiful”. Filled with pride he exclaims, “I LOVE the Church!”

He has a number of reasons for feeling as he does. First reason why he loves the church so much is because, “The Church is the people of God.”

He tells us that, “We become a member of the Church not by birth but by new birth. He then states that “Jesus spoke about being born of water and the spirit”, and that Jesus “commanded his disciples to baptise”

He continues, “Becoming a Christian involves three things: First of all, something WE do… Repentance and faith. Secondly, something GOD does… He gives us the Holy Spirit. Thirdly, something the CHURCH does… Baptism.”

“Baptism is a kind of visible mark of what it means to be a member of the Church”, he adds.

Gumbel states that thousands of people become Christian’s everyday, it’s just that we (Western Europeans) don’t recognise this fact. “We live in Western Europe, and the Church has been in decline for fifty to eighty years”, admits Gumbel. But he states, basically, that we’d be mistaken to conclude that such a decline is ubiquitous. He used to look at it the same way, but that was because he had – as he puts it – a “totally blinkered, narrow view of the world”. He then tells us how the Church in Africa is “growing faster than ever!”. This is an interesting fact that I hope to discuss with the pastor later on in the evening.

The second reason he loves the Church so much is, “because it’s a family!”. He continues, “It’s a family of God. When you come into a relationship with God you come into a family””

Gumbel has to regretfully admit that “The history of the Church has been a sad one because it’s been a story of disunity”. He then tells us that people look at the Church and think, “If you guys cant even agree amongst yourselves what you believe in, why should I be interested?”. He’s absolutely right. That’s precisely what many people think.

But Gumbel isn’t without hope because, as he says, “Jesus prayed. Just before he died Jesus prayed that we would be one so that the world would believe.”. This speaks volumes about the supposed efficacy of prayer, doesn’t it? Even Jesus himself is still waiting for his prayers to be answered!

The third reason why he loves the Church is because “the way in which people see Jesus today. It’s the body of Christ”

Gumbel states that, as Christians, “Each of you represents Jesus, wherever you go”. Let’s hope that isn’t true, if history is anything to go by. The Crusaders, the Inquisitors, the Witch burners, the abortion surgeon murderers… all of these cretins represent Jesus? My goodness.

The fourth reason why he loves the Church is, “It’s where we experience the presence of God in a special way”

He then claims that “There’s a longing for God in every human heart, whether people admit it, acknowledge [it], recognise [it], or not, there’s a longing for God”. I wonder how he would define “God” in this instance? The capitalised “G” of the Christian variety, or the generic god with the small “g”? It’s an important distinction that needs to be made, and Christians are often guilty of blurring the two when it suits them.

And another thing, what are we to think of Christians who claim that it is true that everyone longs for their God whether they recognise it or not? How does that work? This brings to mind the story told by Nobel Prize winning physicist, Niels Bohr, who, when asked for the reason why he had a horseshoe stuck to his front door if he was so against superstitious thinking, replied (with tongue in cheek) that it was there because he’d been told that it would bring good luck whether he believed in it or not. Christians are offering us their own kind of horseshoe, and it goes by the name of Jesus.

The fifth reason why Gumbel loves the Church is because “Jesus loves the Church. It’s his bride. The Church is the bride of Christ.”

A smiley-faced Gumbel then tells us how much he loves his job. Yes, he wants us to know that the Church is great, God is great, and Christianity is great. Talk about a hard sell!

Gumbel returns now to his opening question, “So, is it possible to be a Christian and not go to church?” Gumbel offers the simple answer, “We don’t GO to church, you ARE the Church!”

Gumbel ends his presentation by stating “There’s only one way into the Church and that’s to say, “God, be merciful to me – a sinner.” And the moment we say that, God in his love says, “YOU are part of my people. You’re my family. You’re my representative. You’re my body on earth. You’re a holy temple, my spirit lives within you. You’re my bride””

Roll the credits…

On go the lights and back go the curtains.

The long-standing male member asks me how I felt about this week’s presentation. I’m determined not to be the focus of attention this evening because, believe it or not, I’m not at all comfortable playing the bad guy role week in week out. So I try to be as diplomatic as possible and tell him “I quite enjoyed it, thank you”. With me being one of only two sceptics on the course, and the other one being quite a quiet individual, it makes it hard not to be the one who is asking all the questions.

The pastor turns to my fellow sceptic and asks, “Anything strike you about that video tonight?”. My fellow sceptic responds by saying that he was surprised to learn that the word “Church” doesn’t necessarily apply to a building but to a group of people. He remarks that to him the word “Church” brings up thoughts of a “freezing building with very narrow and uncomfortable seating. Somewhere you were made to go.”. He also says that the Church has done an excellent job over the years of fleecing people of their money and property. “Churches are always looking for money”, he adds. Generally, then, it would seem that my fellow sceptic has a negative view of the Church.

I take a back seat as my fellow sceptic vents his spleen. It’s nice to see him air his views like this. I’m quite happy to sit and listen. For the time being at least.

He then reveals to the group that he was under the impression that the Alpha Course was supposed to be aimed at people like him (and me) – i.e. people who were sceptical about the truth claims of Christianity – but to his disappointment he found the course to be aimed more at the casual Christian, someone who is looking to have his or her faith boosted, someone in need of a spiritual enema. I’m in full agreement, as I certainly don’t think that the course caters well enough for non-believers, and certainly not at all well enough for the informed sceptic.

The new Christian male tells us that he finds the course remarkable because “every time I watch a presentation it answers the questions that I’d been thinking about the week before! I have a question one week and lo and behold the following week it’s answered!”

My fellow sceptic points out that this is probably the case due to the fact that the new Christian male takes home the DVD’s and watches them one week in advance. A red-faced new Christian male has obviously forgotten that he told us this only a few weeks ago. Tut tut.

Despite being a non-Christian, and totally unconvinced by the Christian claims, my fellow sceptic reveals that he occasionally takes trips with the long-standing male member (his next-door neighbour) to Christian festivals, mainly because he’s keen on the outdoors and enjoys camping and such. He tells us of the time he attended the “Grapevine Festival“, and how on that particular occasion, during a performance by a Christian rock group, the seating collapsed in the marquee, which housed 5,000 or so people at the time.

Fortunately no one was killed, but about a dozen or so were seriously injured. “How could this happen to people who were worshipping God?”, asks my fellow sceptic. He then tells us how flabbergasted he was as the tragedy unfolded to see people praying to God rather than rushing to help the injured. As my personal favourite writer, Robert G. Ingersoll, once famously said, “The hands that help are better far than the lips that pray”.

A quick Google search for the Grapevine incident reveals a few interesting remarks made by Christians on various websites. One states, “Most of all we want to thank God for being with us at Grapevine on this day and a very big thank you for all the emergency services and the volunteers involved in helping getting these people from under the seating”

It’s understandable that this person would offer thanks to the emergency services who actually did something to help. But why would God get any of the thanks? Thanks for what? For allowing a dozen or so of his passionate followers to get crushed by a seating collapse?

Another comment, on a different website, by someone who also attended Grapevine on that unfortunate day, states, “It was terrifying but I trusted in the Lord, and no-one was killed – most people were able to walk out”. God gets the thanks even when innocent people are hurt! If 25 kids had been crushed to death at that festival I could imagine Christians saying something like this, “It was terrifying but I trusted in the Lord, it was a miracle that only 25 kids were killed – it should have been many more. Thank God that most people were able to walk out”.

Better still, the same guy who offered the above quote goes on to say, “I think the devil is at work in lots of places… “. That’s right, the devil is to blame for the seating collapse!

Like I’ve said in a previous week, Christians have no difficulty believing that their God is pure goodness, even when he drowns the world’s population, infants and all [see Genesis]. They will not budge from the conviction that God is complete and utter love, even when he executes the dimpled-cheeked first-born babies of a certain people, all because he wants to punish the leader of their nation [see Exodus]. Mind boggling, isn’t it? I’m sure there’s some similarity here between this kind of mentality and that of “Battered Spouse Syndrome”, where the abused will actually defend the abuser if someone happens to point the finger of accusation in their direction. Sufferers of BSS will blame themselves for the abuse and hardship that is meted out to them, even though they are perfectly innocent and undeserving of the abuse they receive. Isn’t this somewhat like Christians who look upon themselves as worthless, miserable sinners who are deserving of eternal torture from their supposedly “loving” and “merciful” God?

It’s worth thinking about.

Suddenly the door opens and in walks a lady who I haven’t seen before. It turns out to be the pastor’s wife. She says hello and the pastor points to me and says, This is Stephen”. It strikes me as though she’s come to see the strange doubter who asks too many questions. She sits at the back and watches the proceedings. Unfortunately she’s picked the wrong night to come and hear what I have to say, as I’m taking somewhat of a back seat this evening.

The long-standing male member looks to his friend and neighbour, my fellow sceptic, and states “At the end of the day, when you stand before God and he asks you why you haven’t committed your life to the Lord, it wont be good enough to say “I didn’t believe in you because you allowed paedophiles to rape children, and that you allowed the seating to collapse at the Grapevine festival”. That is no excuse”

My Fellow Sceptic: “That won’t happen, because I won’t be stood there.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah, but what IF?”

At this point I interject and ask the long-standing male member “What IF it’s a different God when you get there?”. His response? “Then I’ll be the same as you, then”, he says.

So what was the point he was trying to make exactly? Did he have a valid point? I don’t think so.

Let’s go a little further with this. Who’s to say that there isn’t a god up there that rewards people who reject religious dogma? Maybe the “test” in this life is to remain an atheist? Maybe religion is the devil’s deception, the forbidden fruit? “What IF?” indeed. We can all dream things up and ask “What IF?” So what?

My fellow sceptic goes on to talk about the sad, gloomy atmosphere of most churches that he’s attended. And how there’s often a straight-faced, humourless old man stood at the front wearing a black dress, mumbling out a few drab words from an equally drab holy book. Wouldn’t it be better, asks my fellow sceptic, if these places were more accommodating to young people, and if the churches were headed by smiley-faced, fun-loving, energetic priests, pastors and vicars? He mentions that people like Lady Two would be better suited to such positions. “What would you rather see portrayed as the face of your church?” he asks. “I’m sure it would be [Lady Two’s] beaming, smiling face”, he adds.

My fellow sceptic then tells us, in a nice way, how after last week’s session Lady Two had collared him. “She’s obviously totally besotted [with God and the Bible]”, he states. I take from that that she’d given him a full frontal attack with her famed testimony. I wish I’d have stayed to see that!

The pastor picks up on what Gumbel had said in his presentation – that the Church is growing rapidly in places like Africa. “Why are Church attendances dropping off in Western Europe?” asks my fellow sceptic.

I add to the question by asking if there’s perhaps a correlation between levels of high education and the disbelief in God. In Western Europe, where education levels are higher than in most parts of the world, church attendance and religious belief are on the decline. Yet in areas where levels of education are poor, and where superstitious thinking is prevalent – such as parts of Africa and South America – church attendance and religious belief are on the increase.

And what about the surveys taken amongst top scientists, the crème de la crème of the National Academy of Sciences for instance? Of these highly educated people only 7% profess the belief in a personal god, and 93% of them do not.

Could it be argued that, on the whole, less educated people are more gullible and thus more susceptible to religious beliefs?

Pastor: “I think it’s because we [Western Europeans] think we have become self-sufficient and we don’t look beyond ourselves. When you have a comfy home, a nice car, a good job, and nice holidays you feel that you are more self-reliant. We must remember that Jesus came to a very uneducated place in Israel, and he chose lots of uneducated people as his disciples, such as fishermen.”

At this point the pastor changes the subject altogether and says, “Steve, I meant to bring you a book tonight but I forgot. I’ve been reading a book about the persecuted Church and I really felt that God told me to bring you it”. “Who is the author?” I ask. “Brother Andrew”, he replies.

Maybe he’ll bring it next week. I must say, though, it doesn’t sound particularly appealing unfortunately.

“Next week is the big, big finale”, the pastor announces enthusiastically. I jokingly ask if he has bottles of champagne on ice, and a fireworks display planned for the big occasion.

Tonight’s session is then brought to a close as the pastor says a prayer thanking us all for attending. He says a quick prayer for Lady Three, too, in the hope that she’s safe and well. I share his hopes and concerns, but I’m sure there’s nothing to worry about. Speaking of Lady Three he tells me that she’s been on the Internet looking up the ‘sons of god’ that I wrote down for her last week. “Yesterday she was here [using the Internet] for about four hours!” exclaims the pastor. Lady Three is obviously a studious sort, and I admire her effort. Maybe she’s compiled a dossier for me for next week? I get the feeling that I’m going to have to answer a lot of questions! Excellent.

As people head for the door the pastor walks over to where I’m sat and respectfully asks for me not to dismiss Christianity just because there are numerous other religions claiming very similar (and perhaps identical) “proofs”. I respond, in an equally respectful manner, that that is not the only thing stopping me from accepting Christianity. He then offers as an analogy my relatively recent purchase of a new car:

Pastor: “You chose a car to drive despite all the claims by other manufacturers. The fact that there are lots of claims, by lots of different manufacturers, hasn’t stopped you buying a car. Similarly, I don’t want the fact that there are lots of claims, by lots of different religions, to stop you from buying into Christianity and giving your life to Christ.”

I don’t doubt the existence of cars or their manufacturers. But let’s say that car manufacturers were making outlandish claims like for instance that their cars had a top speed exceeding the speed of light, or that they were invisible, or that they transcended time and space. But yet such manufacturers had absolutely no data whatsoever to support any such claims, nor could they demonstrate that such cars even existed in the first place. Then of course, yes, I’d probably tar all those manufacturers with the same brush. But what if one particular manufacturer invited sceptical members of the public to visit their head offices, where a group of employees promised to demonstrate the truth of their claims over a period of several weeks? And what if members of the public went along to such meetings, hoping that the employees could do just that – but discovered that in reality they could not?

If I were one of the sceptical members of the public who had gone along to be shown that the car manufacturers claims were true, when in fact no evidence was presented to support such a thing, then I’d hardly be in a position to open up my chequebook and commit to buying one of their cars. Similarly I am in no position to commit my self to Christianity when I haven’t been offered any evidence whatever in support of the outlandish claims that it makes.

Pastor: “You need to say, “Christ, I want you to be my Lord and saviour. I want you to forgive me for my past. I want you to be Lord of my life, and I want you to come and fill me with your Holy Spirit. And if you do it I’ll live the rest of my life for you””
Me: “But like I’ve said before, I will do that if I have good reason to do so. But, as yet, I don’t have any good reason for doing that”
Pastor: “A reason could be that you trust us as people that you’ve known for the last ten weeks. All I’m saying to you is not to keep using the excuse, that there are lots of similar claims out there, to reject it [Christianity].”
Me: “With respect, that’s not what I’m doing. It’s simply a case of me listening to, and reading about, certain claims that quite clearly do not add up. And when I question certain people about these claims – which they say they can defend – it invariably ends with them being unable to answer simple questions, or them continually contradicting themselves, or them offering the exact same “supporting evidences” as someone of another religion could offer, and in which case they would then deem such “supporting evidences” to be wholly unsatisfactory. In all honesty it couldn’t get any weaker”

The long-standing male member then tells me, “Yes, but it’s all about faith!” as if that somehow solves the problem altogether, when in fact all it does is support what I’ve just said. Anyone from any religion can say, “Yes, but it’s all about faith!”. I think now is as good a time as any to bite my tongue and decline the temptation to respond. It’s for the best.

“Anyway, Steve, thank you for finding those Bible verses and for proving us wrong”, jokes the pastor. We all laugh, and so the session ends, as ever, in good spirits.

It’s been a relatively quiet get-together this evening. But seeing as next week is the Grand Finale, perhaps tonight’s session was merely the calm before the storm?

We’ll have to wait and see…

November 15, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 23 Comments

WEEK 9: “Does God Heal Today?”

The long-standing male member is back for this evening’s session. I’m happy about that because we get along well and he’s always good value for a quote or two.

As a group we sit chatting about our recent holidays. Lady Two serves me two glasses of cold water, which was very nice of her. I never eat any of the food on offer, even though I’m quite partial to the odd slice of cheesecake now and again, so perhaps Lady Two is making sure that I’m well stocked up with at least something. It’s no secret that I find her views on God to be somewhat bizarre, but I do actually like Lady Two a great deal. She’s a nice lady.

We have three sessions left of the Alpha Course, but, says the pastor, “we have potentially four talks to cover”. It would appear that one talk is going to have to bite the dust. The pastor continues, “So we need to decide which three we are going to do. I personally suggest that the session entitled, “Why And How Should I tell Others?”, is probably not relevant, so I recommend we do “Does God Heal Today?”, “What About The Church?” and finally “How Can I make The Most Of The Rest Of My Life?”. So if you’re happy that those are the three that I suggest we do, then let’s proceed.”

We all nod in approval.

So, off we go with week 9, with a presentation entitled, “Does God Heal Today?”

Gumbel begins by telling us of the time, almost thirty years ago, when a charismatic evangelical preacher from the USA, by the name of John Wimber, came to visit his church. Ever the sceptic (of course!), Gumbel tells us how he felt about this American gentleman: “When I saw [him] I was deeply cynical about him”, and “I was deeply suspicious”.

Gumbel continues, “He came and spoke here on the subject of the Holy Spirit, and healing, and wonderful things. But I still left deeply cynical”

The next night Mr Wimber came to speak again, and Gumbel arrived still “very, very cynical”. Wimber spoke primarily on the subject of healing that night, and during his speech he announced to the group, “After a coffee break we’re going to DO some healing”

Gumbel admits to being quite nervous at the prospect of such a thing happening in the church, and tells us that most of the congregation, in typifying the “British reserve”, weren’t too keen to get involved. All that showbiz/razzmatazz kind of stuff might appeal to an American audience, but not for the shy, retiring, self-deprecating British equivalent, intimates Gumbel.

After the coffee break the preacher told the audience that he and his team had been praying, and that they had been granted a few “words of knowledge”. Gumbel tells us that Mr Wimber then defined ‘words of knowledge’ as: “A supernatural revelation of facts about a person or situation, which is not learned by the efforts of the natural mind but is made known by the Spirit of God. This may be in the form of a picture, or words seen or heard in the mind, or a feeling experienced physically.”

Gumbel tells us that no one in the room expected anything special to happen. No one had high hopes for Mr Wimber’s routine to succeed. All of them were sceptical. In fact, admits Gumbel, some of them wanted to see the flamboyant preacher fail miserably.

The preacher stood at the front, thought deeply about the ‘words of knowledge’ he’d received from God during the coffee break, and then declared to the audience, “The first person is a man who injured his back aged fourteen, chopping wood.” To Gumbel’s surprise a gentleman from the audience stood up and identified himself as that very person. Gumbel then tells us several more people came forward after Wimber mentioned “back problems”. The preacher went through his divinely inspired list of personal information, and people came out of their seats “one after another after another after another” in response. Gumbel beams as he states, “we could feel the level of faith in the room rising!”

Gumbel then tells us that there was in fact ONE ‘word of knowledge’ that wasn’t responded to by any of the audience members. God hadn’t got it wrong, though, nor had the preacher misinterpreted the information from God. In fact the information was absolutely correct. The problem was that the person in the audience didn’t respond to the call because the information was of a delicate nature. It concerned a lady who was apparently barren. Allegedly she was unable to have children, and was understandably embarrassed to bring attention to herself. Gumbel sympathises with the lady in question by saying, “We’re British, we don’t even talk about things like that, let alone come forward in response to a word like that!”

The preacher waited. And he waited. Eventually the lady got out of her seat and bravely came forward. Gumbel tells us that the preacher “had no idea that she’d been trying for children for some time and that [she was] unable to conceive”. He also had no idea that the lady and her partner had been “having various tests” in the hope of identifying, and solving, the problem. Gumbel states that the preacher then, “prayed for her”.

You may be wondering what happened to that lady. I’ll let Gumbel break the news, “Nine months later she gave birth to a little baby boy!”

Even after the immensely successful healing and ‘words of knowledge’ demonstration, Gumbel says that for some reason he was still sceptical about the whole affair. So when he got home that night he “started to re-read the Bible, to see what it said on this whole subject of healing”

He continues, “Of course, God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession, but the more I look the more convinced I am that we should expect that God would also heal miraculously. Today!”

What does “God heals with the cooperation of doctors, nurses and the medical profession” supposed to mean? This is something that was mentioned last week. If doctors and nurses are trained to help people recover from illness and injury, and all this is done through natural means, then why the need to shoehorn a supernatural God into the equation? The simple fact of the matter is that “God” offers no explanatory power here at all.

“If you look in the Old Testament God promises healing for his people. It’s [in] his character to heal. He says, “I am the Lord that heals you” It’s part of his love for us!” exclaims Gumbel.

He then gives us an example of when a certain person was healed by God in the Bible. This is quickly followed by Gumbel assuring us that, “If God acted like that in the Old Testament, when there were only glimpses of the Kingdom of God and the outpouring of the Holy Spirit, we can confidently expect that he will do so even more now that Jesus has inaugurated the Kingdom of God. And the fact that we live now in the Age of the Spirit!”

Yes, we know all too well how God acted in the Old Testament! I’d have thought that Gumbel would have wanted to have kept that quiet!

He then tells us of the alleged “first recorded words of Jesus” which can be found in Mark 1:15, “The time has come. The Kingdom of God is near. Repent and believe the good news”

Gumbel then passionately enthuses, “The first time Jesus came he came in weakness”, but we shouldn’t worry about that because “When he comes back he’ll come with power and great glory. History is moving towards this glorious climax”

I must say, if he were reading this straight from a comic book it wouldn’t sound any more childish. Supposedly sometime soon a powerful, invisible, cloud-hopping sky-deity is going to materialise from the ether and wave his magic wand to make everything better. I wonder if Mr Gumbel is willing to place a wager on that? If so, I’ll gladly act as his bookmaker.

Gumbel continues, “When Jesus returns it will be obvious to EVERYONE

Let’s hope so, because it wasn’t so obvious to everyone the first time he put in an appearance on earth! Remember this fact: NOT A SINGLE SOURCE OUTSIDE OF THE BIBLE MADE ANY MENTION OF HIM DURING HIS SUPPOSED LIFETIME. That’s right, not a single one. So, like I say, let’s hope Jesus does a better job of convincing people the second time around.

More comic-book style claims follow from Gumbel, “There will be a new heaven and a new earth. Jesus himself will be there together with all those who love and obey him. It will be a place of intense happiness, which goes on forever. And we will all have new resurrection bodies that will never die!”

Even as I’m typing up this transcript I have to stop and make myself a cup of coffee. I have to have a break while I think to myself how it can be possible for seemingly intelligent, educated and mature adults to believe such obvious nonsense.

Gumbel then assures that “this future Kingdom is coming. It’s near!”. He tells us that Jesus told his disciples to go and spread the word and to heal the sick. “Healing is one of the signs of the Kingdom”, he adds.

Gumbel reveals more about the process of healing: “It’s God that heals, not us. There’s no technique involved. We pray with love and simplicity”.

Does God heal people because we pray? Or would he have healed them anyway? If it’s the former then he obviously wants us to beg before he acts. If it’s the latter then prayer achieves nothing, it’s merely an exercise in futility.

Gumbel then turns his attention to ‘words of knowledge’. “We have found that words of knowledge can be very helpful. It’s one of the ways in which God speaks” he says.

He then tells us of the time he had knee-cartilage surgery about four years ago. But the surgery wasn’t a success, as his knee problems started again shortly afterwards. One night at church someone had a ‘word of knowledge’ for “a right knee” and within no time three other people had received similar messages from God relating to a “right knee”.

Something tells me that perhaps the sight of Gumbel hobbling into church that evening may have had something to do with it. Not to mention the fact that Gumbel is well known in church circles, and many would have been already aware of his knee surgery anyway.

Gumbel eventually came forward and told the group that he did indeed have an injured right knee (much to their surprise?), and that God must have been referring to him in these ‘words of knowledge’. The church group then prayed for his knee. “And I’ve had no problems with it since then”, boasts Gumbel, proudly.

Like I said last week, this talented bunch of churchgoers should pay a visit to their local children’s hospital and set to work on curing some poor, pain-riddled, terminally ill youngsters. Sadly, though, God doesn’t seem keen for them to do their work in such places.

I often wonder, too, why such prayers never work on amputees? We always hear of people that are supposedly “miraculously healed” of headaches, sore throats, knee pains and back pains, but I don’t know of anyone having an arm or leg grow back after a prayer to the omnipotent God. That’s something to think about.

“It’s important to persist” with prayers, states Gumbel. We mustn’t “get discouraged if we don’t see immediate and dramatic results.”

How long do amputees have to wait, I wonder?

“The reason I go on praying is not so much that I’ve seen masses of people healed, but because Jesus commanded us to do it. And that’s why I would go on doing it even if NO ONE was healed”

How incredibly revealing.

Gumbel then finishes his presentation with, “God is a God that healed in the past and still heals today!”

The lights are switched on and the bowls of fruit salad are passed around. As the group are eating, the pastor says, “If anybody wants a prayer for healing, we can pray tonight”

Hopefully it will have more success than the last time they prayed for God to reveal himself to me. Like those amputees, I’m still waiting.

Lady Three mentions that she’s been having trouble with her knee recently, due to the fact that she’s just taken up cycling. The pastor says that he’ll pray for a healing later on. I’m looking forward to that. Hopefully she doesn’t jump out of her seat and start tap-dancing or body-popping immediately afterwards. I’ve managed to keep a straight face for eight weeks, and I’m hoping to keep it that way.

“So, any questions, reflections, or thoughts about tonight’s presentation before we pray for people?” asks the pastor.

Unsurprisingly I have a few questions for the group, but I keep quiet in the hope that someone else will offer something. But no one else does. The pastor shuffles his chair closer to the troubled knee of Lady Three. He’s warming up his hands and looks as though he’s about to summon God into the offending area. At this point the long-standing male member turns to me and says, “Go on, ask your question, Stephen”

Well, I suppose it would be rude not to…

Me: [I turn towards the pastor] “I’m just curious about this ‘healing’ thing. I asked [Lady Two] a similar question last week, so I’ll ask you something along the same lines. If I were to now offer up a prayer to Lord Vishnu in the hope that he would heal her problematic knee [the knee of Lady Three], what are you going to do if her knee gets better? Will I have offered you sufficient proof that Lord Vishnu answers prayers, or are you going to dismiss it out of hand?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “Errr…”
Lady Two: “It would just be coincidence”
Pastor: [In response to Lady Two] “Yeah, probably”
Me: “So why would you expect me to think any differently about the prayer you’re about to offer? What good reason would I have for believing that your prayer made her knee better? Surely the best explanation would be that it was “just a coincidence”, yes?”
Pastor: [Embarrassingly long pause] “Because…. of…. continued experience… of… of… healing, and… the belief that… Jesus told us to do that”

The pastor looks completely flummoxed by my simple question. His face is red and he looks noticeably uncomfortable. Maybe he’s just about had enough of my pesky questions…

The long-standing male member jumps in confidently, as if to rubbish my question:

Long-Standing Male Member: “Do you believe in any of those religions, Steve?”
Me: “No, of course not”
Long-Standing Male Member: “So if you say you’re praying to Vishnu then you’re not doing it in faith”
Me: “But the thing is I could do. And if I did you’d dismiss it, wouldn’t you?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “No”
Me: [Surprised] “Really? Then I’ll offer a genuine prayer to Vishnu tonight. Let’s see what happens.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Look, the devil counterfeits. When Nicky Gumbel talks about ‘words of knowledge’ and ‘healing’, the devil does the same.”
Me: “So if [Lady Three’s] knee gets better after your prayer could I say that the Christian God wasn’t responsible because he is nothing but one of the devil’s counterfeits? Could I say it was actually Vishnu who answered the prayer instead?”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Nicky Gumbel pointed out that the motive for prayer has got to be love. It’s not how eloquent I am or how many big words I use. It’s none of that. It’s done in faith, and for the person we’re praying for it’s done with love. I don’t have to be a minister or a special person. It’s nothing to do with me. I’m just a channel that God uses.”
Me: “People of other religions pray in love and faith. They’re just as sincere as you are.”
Long-Standing Male Member: “Yeah”
Me: “But you wouldn’t accept their accounts of having prayers answered. You’d dismiss every single one of them”
Pastor: “Jesus never saw healing as a means to convincing people”
Me: “I’m not saying that he did. What I am saying, though, is that you would not be convinced by an identical account given by a Hindu, who claimed that his prayer was responsible for the healing of an individual’s knee. You wouldn’t see a causal link between that Hindu’s prayer and the recovery of an injured knee.”
Pastor: “No, I wouldn’t”
Me: “So, with respect, why would you expect us to believe that there’s a causal link between your prayer and [Lady Three’s] knee getting better?”

There’s another excruciatingly long pause as the pastor digs deep to think of an answer. Lady Three breaks the silence:

Lady Three: “The Christian faith works together with salvation. The Bible says that Jesus took upon himself our infirmities, our sorrows, and our sins. I can’t speak for the other faiths because I‘ve not really studied them. I don’t know what these other gods say about themselves but, for me, Jesus is there. He’s the author of creation, the king of creation.”
Me: “I don’t doubt that is what you believe, but, in all fairness, that’s got nothing to do with the question I’m asking.”
Lady Three: “Well, I can’t answer for the other gods because I don’t know enough about them. I only know what Jesus says about himself”
Me: “That’s all well and good. And by the way I hope your knee does get better. Now, we all know that I don’t actually believe in Vishnu, but I could take that “leap of faith” and offer up a genuine prayer tonight in the hope that it will result in your knee getting better. And, like I say, if it does get better have I proved that Vishnu answers prayers? If not, why would you expect me to believe that the pastor’s prayers will result in a recovered knee?”
Lady Three: “I believe that if God wants us to receive a blessing from him then we should receive it. It’s in the Bible, you see. [She then looks at me sympathetically] You’ve not got to that point yet where you’re persuaded that any of this is true, have you?”
Me: “I think the reason why I’m not persuaded is because all of the “evidence” that has been offered here, and the arguments that have been given, are exactly the same sorts of “evidence” and arguments that people of other religions offer. But you don’t believe any of them. You don’t find those arguments in the least bit convincing, yet you use them yourself. You use methods that you don’t trust.”

Out of the corner of my eye I can see that Lady Two is in a deep, contemplative mood. She’s looking at me, thinking deeply, trying to figure me out. I’m sure she’s in the process of diagnosing the reason for my scepticism, again. Suddenly she speaks, and so begins my therapy session. She’s going to get to the root of my problem through a process of elimination:

Lady Two: “You know when you were a child at school, during morning assembly did you ever say the Lord’s Prayer?”
Me: “Yes. Every morning, I think”
Lady Two: “When you were in your bed at night did you ever used to say your prayers to God?”
Me: “Yes. In fact my mother had placed a crucifix on my bedroom wall, and many nights before I got into bed I would kneel and offer up a prayer”
Lady Two: “And did you used to pray the Lord’s Prayer?”
Me: “Sometimes. But mainly they were prayers of my own. Having said the Lord’s Prayer at school on the morning, I didn’t feel it necessary to say the same thing again”
Lady Two: “Did you feel anything warm and comforting when you were praying?”
Me: “I suppose looking back it was more of a feeling of deep contemplation”
Lady Two: “Did you ever feel you were praying to your maker?”
Me: “Yes, of course”
Lady Two: “Were you unburdening yourself and being close with your spirit? Did you feel that?”
Me: “I should imagine so, yes”
Lady Two: “Did you ever relate to God with emotion? With… you know… your needs. Something you were afraid of, or an insecurity. Did you ever reach him and say “Can you help me with this? I’m struggling with this. Can you help me with this?” Perhaps a vulnerability within you or something”
Me: “No, I don’t think so. I was quite carefree when I was a child. I didn’t have any problems or things to worry about, thankfully”
Lady Two: [Feels she’s onto something] “So there’s nothing “deep” that you were appealing for from within your soul from your maker?”
Me: “Not for me, no. As I seem to remember, most, if not all, of my prayers were on behalf of other people”
Lady Two: “You must have had – because we all have – insecurities”
Me: “No. But I’ve got plenty of those nowadays” [laughs]
Lady Two: “We all have things that we’re nervous about and uncomfortable about. That’s where I get my sort of real soul with God. Where I am literally being like a child to him. And I’m looking at him and I’m saying in my heart, “I don’t know how to handle this, I don’t know what to do, but I’m just going to keep doing my best. I love you”. It’s that sort of unburdening yourself, appealing to him as your maker. Have you ever been able to be emotional and vulnerable with him, and seen him as your maker who wants to make everything really nice for you?”
Me: “I’ve seen him as my maker, yes, but I don’t think I’ve gone as deep as you have”
Lady Two: [As though she’s cracked the case] “Ahhh, I think that might be a key that’s missing, then. [Getting excited] Yes, that might be the key that’s missing! That childlike quality where you come to him as his child, and you’re looking at him in your spirit.”
Me: “Maybe”
Lady Two: “Yes, maybe you’re going home from here every week and saying to God, “I’d LOVE to have this faith that they’ve got. I’d LOVE to have this relationship with you. I’d LOVE to feel the Holy Spirit like [Lady Two] did, and feel it come on me and be washed clean like she was”
Me: “There’s none of that, unfortunately”
Lady Two: “Don’t you have the THIRST for the reassurance that he’s come into your life?”
Me: “I’ll have to be honest with you. No I don’t have that thirst”
Lady Two: “You don’t have that great NEED?”
Me: “No. In the same way that you don’t have the great need to know Vishnu, Allah or Zeus. What I do want to know, though, is if there is a god. I haven’t got this great need for your God. I have a need to have answers to the big questions in life. One such question is, “Is there a god?” But I don’t see answers coming for that particular question, unfortunately. Even when I ask people with deep-rooted beliefs such as yourselves. I’m not getting the answers”
Lady Two: “I think it’s the emotion that’s missing.”
Me: “Wouldn’t it be a good idea for God to tell me that, rather than you?”
Lady Two: “Well maybe he’s speaking through me and I’ve discerned it. I think it’s a problem with men. I really do. Women are very sensitive. Men have got to be strong. They’re seen as people in society who go and fight wars and be strong. I think that if you could just REALLY think, “Heck, I’m missing out on all this relationship with you, where I feel the touch of your spirit, to feel that closeness with you, God. It must be absolutely wonderful. I THIRST for it and I YEARN for it”. If you could unburden yourself like that with him, but REALLY MEAN IT. You see, you’ve come here [to the Alpha Course] so you MUST want it. The fact that you’re coming means you must WANT it.”
Me: “I’m here because there’s some big questions in life and there are lots of people saying that they have the answers. The makers of this course for instance. So that’s the reason why I’m here. But I don’t see any such answers”
Lady Two: “I think you’ve got to start talking to God deeply. But you must do it EMOTIONALLY. Look at your insecurities, the things that you’re nervous about, look at the things you’re frightened about, and start to talk to God as your FATHER who knows you. And before you speak it BELIEVE it. God is actually there with you anyway, but you haven’t opened yourself up to him”
Me: “I spent many a night praying to him. But I didn’t get even the slightest response. Nothing”

The rest of the group join the conversation and within no time the subject changes and we come to discuss morality and God’s law. The pastor intimates that if God hadn’t given us the Ten Commandments then society would have destroyed itself by now. The group agree that we only know that it’s wrong to kill because God said so.

That’s right, before Moses came down the mountain carrying those stone tablets containing the Ten Commandments everyone thought it was perfectly fine to slit the throat of a friend or family member. Pushing someone off of a cliff? Top fun. Beheading someone? Great. Disembowelling your grandmother with a blunt trowel? Lovely. All these things were “ok” up until the Christian God decided to make it officially illegal about 3,500 years ago.

Yeah, right.

Lady Three: “When you come across a religion that says it is ok to kill then I would really hesitate to give that religion any serious consideration”
Me: “You can find lots of passages in the Old Testament where God and/or his prophets openly command people to go and kill others.”
Lady Three: “I can’t say such verses aren’t there because they are. Yes, I’ve struggled with that.”
Me: “I know of one particular verse where Moses’ conquering army are commanded to kill every man among the enemy captives, but are ordered to save the virgin females for themselves as spoil”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Flabbergasted] “IT DOESN’T SAY THAT”
Me: “It does”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Adamant that I’m wrong] “Where does it say to keep all the virgins?”
Me: “I don’t know the verse off the top of my head but I’ll get it for you for next week. [I turn to the pastor and ask] You’ll know of that verse, surely?”
Pastor: “No”
Me: “It definitely says something like that”
Long-Standing Male Member: [Totally dismissing my claim] “I think I would have remembered that if it did”
Lady Three: “I remember them saying to kill everything, and to spare nothing, but I’m sure it doesn’t say what you’re suggesting”

I suppose we’ll have to wait while next week, then.

Lady Two wants to tell me about the love of Jesus:

Lady Two: “What Jesus was preaching was all about LOVE, and all about the fruits of the Spirit. And how he would send the Holy Spirit to come upon us, and how we would be able to do great things in his name. It’s all about walking in the light with Jesus. It was all healing. It was all teaching the lovely way to live. That’s what Jesus was on about. And having love in your heart for people, and having kindness. But also it was about obeying the living God and following his commandments as well.”

Lady Three joins in:

Lady Three: “As Christians we believe that Jesus is the exact representation of God. That’s what the Bible says. I believe that Jesus is who he said he was.”

She then opens up her Bible and reads from John 5:19-23:

“I tell you the truth, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, to your amazement he will show him even greater things than these. For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, that all may honour the Son just as they honour the Father. He who does not honour the Son does not honour the Father, who sent him.”

Lady Three: “It’s that last little bit that is the crucial difference between Christianity and all other religions. Jesus IS the one and only Son of God.”
Me: “According to the Bible, yes. But there were numerous ‘sons of god’ in antiquity. Christianity isn’t unique when it comes to that particular claim”
Pastor: “You keep saying that. Who were they, then?”
Me: “Well, off the top of my head there’s Perseus, Hercules, Mithras, and Dionysus. And there’s lots more.”

Lady Three dips into her handbag and pulls out a pen and paper. She wants to know the names of the deities I’ve just mentioned. I don’t think she trusts what I’ve just said. She’s going to look them up. Good for her.

My fellow sceptic turns to her and jokes, “I want a 20-page report on each one for next week”

Actually I admire Lady Three’s approach because all of us should be eager to examine claims that we find hard to believe. That’s the right way to go about it. I do find it strange, though, why these Christians aren’t as keen to examine the claims made in their own holy book.

The pastor is about to offer a closing prayer when Lady Two interjects:

Lady Two: “Before we end I just want to ask Stephen something. [She turns to me] In real terms, Stephen, how DEARLY do you want to find the answer?” [to the question of “Does God exist?”]
Me: “100%”
Lady Two: “Your heart is 100% wanting to find the answer?”
Me: “Yes”
Lady Two: “And are you depressed that you haven’t got it?”
Me: “No. Actually it fascinates me to look for the answers to such questions. The more I learn about existence the better. It gives my life meaning and purpose. I have one chance at life and I’m going to enjoy the search while I’m here”
Lady Two: “Yes, you want direction in your life; to know that your life has a point, and that there’s a place for you with the Father in heaven. Presumably that’s what you’d like for your loved ones? Wouldn’t you like the story to be true for everyone that you love?”
Me: “To be honest with you I wouldn’t want the story to be true if a hell exists. I couldn’t live an eternity of happiness when full in the knowledge that other people were frying in hell.”
Lady Two: “God doesn’t want anyone to fry in hell”
Me: “But people are going to be there if your story is true. I couldn’t live content while being in the presence of a God who tortures people for an eternity. So hopefully the story isn’t true.”

The pastor intervenes: “On that point we’ll pray for [Lady Three’s] knee”

He stands in front of Lady Three, closes his eyes and places his right hand on her knee. He starts to pray, “Father we thank you for all we’ve heard tonight about your desire to bring the healing of God onto this earth, including seeing people saved and set free from sin, sickness and illness. We come now in the name of Jesus and ask, Lord, that you will heal [Lady Three’s] knee so she can carry on cycling. Lord God, we pray that you will give her strength and take away the pain. We ask this in Jesus’ name, amen”

There follows a chorus of amen’s from the group before silence. Everyone sits quietly, eyes closed, apparently summoning God to act. The pastor’s hand remains on Lady Three’s knee, his head bowed and his lips muttering an inaudible and brief prayer. There’s complete silence for about fifteen seconds.

The long-standing male member starts to pray. He says his thanks to God and then asks for him to heal Lady Three’s knee and also to ease the pastor’s nasal problems.

There’s more silence before Lady Three offers up a prayer, which is also for the pastor’s [what I think must be sinus] problems, and reminds God that the pastor is “missing out on all the fragrances that you’ve created”. Another chorus of amen’s follows.

Lady Two then has a go. She thanks God for bringing my fellow sceptic and I to the course. “Thank you that they come every week. They are longing for answers for what’s been a burning question for them for a long time. I do pray, Lord, that you would remind them of who you are and of that all the good things that have happened to them in their lives you were responsible. Lord, you’ve wanted their lives to be close to you and for them to know you as a God of love. I just pray, Lord, that as they go home to their beds tonight and they look to you, Lord, that they imagine you as the Lord of their lives. That they just see you as a loving father who wants all good things for them, and wants them to have the security of knowing that they are walking with you, and that they are secure with you, and that they are at one with you, and that their spirit is in tune with you, and that they are your sons. Lord I pray that you want them as your children, and for them to acknowledge you as their loving father. Just soak away all the stuff that is keeping them from being able to rest in you, and to just be your child, Lord. I pray that they will recognise you as their Lord and saviour. I pray, Lord, that you will break down the barriers and they will tonight go home to their beds and just see you above them, and just see you wanting all the good things for them. You’ve wanted that love, Lord. You’ve wanted relationships with them. You’ve wanted them to have peace. You’ve wanted them to have the fruits of the Spirit in their hearts, minds and souls. You’ve wanted them to be surrounded by people who love you and who are also walking with you, Lord. I just pray all these things in Jesus’ name. Amen”

More amen’s follow.

It’s turning into a prayer-a-thon as Lady Three has another go. She too thanks God for bringing my fellow sceptic and I to the course. “I thank you for their honesty”, she says.

She continues:

Lady Three: “There are so many questions, particularly that Stephen has, that maybe we haven’t got convincing answers for. I just pray, Lord, that you will meet with them and prove yourself to them, Lord.”
Pastor: “Yes!”
Lady Three: “Prove yourself, Lord. Prove yourself”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen!”
Lady Two: “I pray, Lord, that they will ask for the Holy Spirit to come into their hearts and minds. And I pray, Lord, that you will reveal yourself. We know that you know, Lord. We know that you know when people need you. Stephen has said tonight that he wants you 100% [did I?], just like I did that night. I wanted you 100% and didn’t think I could get it. And all I’ve wanted ever since that night is to let other people know about my experience so that it might help them to find you. I pray that you will come in to their hearts and minds and souls. I pray this in Jesus’ name. Amen”
The Group As A Whole: “Amen”

Ooooh, so close! I thought we were going to see out a session without Lady Two mentioning her testimony, but she managed to slip it in right at the very end. She’s certainly persistent! Joking aside, she’s a nice enough lady. She’s absolutely filled to bursting point with religion – she’s got it bad – but she’s a harmless sort.

We all slowly rise from our seats and pack our booklets and pens away. As I’m fastening up my jacket the group remind me to bring the Bible verse, which I claimed existed, to next week’s session. I smile and joke, “If I cant find it I’ll give you a pound”. The long-standing male member laughs and replies, “We’re going to give it to charity!”. Everyone laughs and we all wish each other a good night.

Splendid.

November 8, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 49 Comments

WEEK 8: “How Can I Resist Evil?”

As the group trickle into the church I notice that there is no Long-Standing Male member this evening. I am informed that he won’t be in attendance tonight as he’s attending a work colleague’s retirement celebration.

As ever we start the evening with chats among ourselves. Lots of smiles and laughter, and of course a bowl of fruit salad or a slice of cheesecake each. I go for the glass of cold-water option, again.

After about twenty minutes or so the pastor brings up the subject of God not being slow to act – which we touched upon last week. He says to me, “There’s a verse in the Bible that I mentioned last week, 2 Peter 3:9, but I didn’t give you the full verse. What it says is that the Lord is not slow in doing what he promised the way some people understand slowness. You questioned why God did not intervene [in the case of innocent, defenceless little children being raped]. But God is being patient with you. He does not want anyone to be lost. He wants all people to change their hearts and lives”.

I don’t see how this answers the question of why God does not act to save innocent, defenceless and terrified infants from being raped by paedophiles. Maybe he’ll offer a full explanation this week. We’ll see…

The pastor grabs this week’s DVD, entitled “How Can I Resist Evil?”, and sticks it in the machine. Away we go…

Gumbel begins with, “I remember when I first became a Christian. I had great difficulty coming to believe that there could be a God. And then somebody said, “There’s a devil that exists” and I thought “Oh my goodness. Surely you don’t expect me to believe that?! It’s bad enough believing in God but that is stretching my imagination””

Yes, Nicky Gumbel the hardened sceptic. Imagine that!

He then tells us that, remarkably, there are people who find it very easy to believe in the devil, more so than to believe in God.

He admits, though, that many people have difficulty believing in a devil in the first place. What does the Bible say on the matter, he asks.

Gumbel asks us to turn to Ephesians 6: 11-12 which reads: “Put on the full armour of God so that you can take your stand against the devil’s schemes. For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms”

“Why should we believe in spiritual forces of evil?” asks Gumbel. We have three strong reasons for doing so, he claims. The 1st of these is that “it makes sense of the world”.

Interesting.

He continues, “We see evil regimes, institutional torture and violence, mass murders, brutal rapes, terrorist atrocities on a scale unimaginable, sexual and physical abuse of children. These things litter our newspapers daily”.

Yes, and these things litter almost every page of the Bible, too.

He then tops it off with the remarkable claim that, “Any kind of theology or worldview which ignores the existence of spiritual forces of evil has a great deal to explain”.

Why does it? Why would a non-theistic worldview have great difficulty explaining existence without “spiritual” forces of evil being present? It would appear that Gumbel is offering us another one of his many unsupported assertions.

The 2nd reason for believing in “spiritual forces of evil” is “the Christian experience”. For example, “the struggle against temptation”. And Gumbel adds, “if we’ve had an experience of the Holy Spirit we begin to come a little bit more aware of the opposition”.

The 3rd, “and most important”, reason for believing in “spiritual forces of evil” is “because of the Bible”. Gumbel tells us that the apostle Paul believed in such forces, and that “Jesus himself was tempted by the devil”.

Gumbel then confidently concludes that “scripture, tradition and reason all point to the existence of the devil”.

He then asks, “What are the devil’s tactics?”. In answer to this he explains that Jesus told us that the devil’s ultimate aim “is to destroy us”

Gumbel states, “Right at the beginning of the Bible we have an exposé of how the devil works”. He then asks us to turn to Genesis chapter 3 and describes how the devil’s initial tactic was to raise doubt in the human mind, and how he talked Eve into eating from the tree of knowledge. The devil tries to plant the seeds of doubt in the heads of Christians too, claims Gumbel. “It’s the precursor to the main attack” he warns.

That’s right, whatever you do make sure you don’t have any doubts about God’s existence! If you do then you’re obviously in the first stages of Satan’s deception, and if you continue doubting you’re going to be brutally attacked, somehow. Scary stuff indeed!

What a great deterrent against free thought, huh?

Gumbel then spends a few minutes telling us of the Garden of Eden tale and how “God didn’t want us to know evil, he wanted us to know only good”.

That’s right; God didn’t want us to know about bad and evil things, but he placed a tree in the Garden of Eden which contained fruit that, when eaten, would reveal knowledge of bad and evil things! Wouldn’t it have been a better idea not to put such a tree there in the first place?

Remember, God created humans with an inquisitive nature. But, strangely, he becomes mad if they are inquisitive about a strange and magical tree that he’s placed in the middle of their Garden. If he didn’t want them to be inquisitive then he shouldn’t have designed them with such a nature in the first place!

Imagine leaving your young children at home one evening, and placing a plate of delicious homemade buns in the middle of the room. If you don’t want your children eating those buns, which you already know are your children’s favourites, then don’t leave an uncovered, unprotected plate of them within sniffing and touching distance of your hungry children! Put those buns away in a safe place where they cannot be touched. Don’t leave them so your children are driven by a temptation to eat them.

Imagine you come home later that day and find some of those delicious buns missing from the plate, and your kids’ smiley, happy faces covered in icing sugar and chocolate. What would be a fitting punishment do you think? Sitting them down and explaining to them how they should obey rules in the future? A slapped wrist perhaps? Sent to bed early? No more sweets for a week? Grounded for a fortnight? How about banishing them from your comfortable home into the dead of night, injecting them with an assortment of previously unknown diseases, and inflicting the same punishment on their offspring too? And then after that, to top it off, torturing them all for an eternity? Does this sound like the perfect punishment for succumbing to temptation? A temptation you knew they would succumb to? Does it sound fair to you? Of course not. But get this; the Christian God deems this to be the perfect punishment, but on an unimaginably larger scale. But lets not forget, of course, that he only punishes us “because he loves us!”

Getting back to the Garden of Eden story: The devil tells the woman that if they eat from the tree they will become like God – knowing good and evil. Did Adam and Eve know that to eat from the tree was an “evil” thing to do rather than a ”good” thing? If so then they already had knowledge of good and evil. But if they didn’t know what “good” or “evil” were then you can hardly blame them for doing something “evil” (i.e., eating from the tree) when they were completely ignorant of the concept to begin with.

After Adam and Eve had eaten from the tree “the friendship with God was broken” states Gumbel. And we have seen the consequences of that breaking of trust: All of the horrors that have befallen mankind are a consequence of Eve eating an apple in the Garden of Eden. Gumbel offers us the explanation: “What we see here is a breakdown in human relationships, a breakdown between Adam and Eve. They start fighting each other. We see down in history the breakdown of relationships, the breakdown of marriages, the breakdown of homes, the breakdown of relationships at work. We see it in countries: we have civil wars [and] wars between nations. It all starts here [points to the story of Adam and Eve in Genesis]”

Gumbel reminds us that “one of the tactics of the enemy is to put a thought in our mind and then whip round the other side and condemn us for it”

Hmmm, is this “enemy” God by any chance? Sounds just like him! He puts a thought in our minds by placing a mysterious, magical tree in front of inquisitive animals such as us, and then condemns us for acting upon that very thought!

The devil may have some nasty tactics up his sleeve but King Jesus can save us from all of that nonsense, states Gumbel, because he “has set us free from the addictions, habits, [and] patterns of the past. And that means we don’t have to do the things we used to do. We’re free. We have been transformed from the dominion of darkness to the kingdom of light – the kingdom of Jesus, where Jesus rules.”

I’m trying my best to keep a straight face here. Seriously, I am. The kind of language that these Christians use is just so childish. They speak of an invisible kingdom, ruled by a magical and invisible man, who isn’t particularly keen on men kissing other men but is quite partial to impregnating young virgins and handing out real estate to a bunch of nomadic goat-herders in the olden days. In the eight weeks so far I’ve seen no reason to believe that what they’re claiming has any basis in reality, but I’ve had very good reasons to believe that what they’re offering up are nothing but infantile fairy tales.

Gumbel turns up the heat, “The name of Jesus has SUCH POWER, he exclaims.

Gumbel then tells us the real-life tale of a drug using, violent drunkard who was later convicted of murder. A number of years down the road he was in a coma in hospital. He obviously came out of the coma because he himself wrote about it. I’ll let him pick up the tale in his own words:

“It looked as if my life was over. My mother was summoned to the hospital by the authorities to sign the papers to switch the ventilation machine off that was keeping me breathing. And she turned up at the point where these lads, who had been trying to tell me about Jesus on the streets, had turned up at the hospital. They said to my mother, “Can we pray for your son?” and she said, “Yes”. And they said, “We know someone who loves him and wants to help him. So they came in to this room, in intensive care, and prayed for me. They said, “In the name of your son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, give this man new life”. And I woke up and started breathing myself. Four days later my mother told me about them praying to Jesus. And I said, “What does Jesus want to know about a scumbag like me for?” So I heard all these stories about Jesus and when I came out of hospital I wanted to look into it. So I went along to this Alpha Course at the church. I attended on the third night and I remember being there and swearing. I had four front teeth missing and I was a right rebel. I hated myself but I remember saying, “Jesus, if you’re real come in to my life. These people tell me that you can change me and set me free. If you are real then come and show me”. I had my arms out like this and I fell back and started crying. From that day on I was totally transformed. I had a desire to tell people about Jesus”.

Isn’t it amazing that ordinary, everyday folk can walk in to a hospital, sit at the foot of the bed of a person who is in a deep coma, and manage to bring them back to full consciousness simply by muttering the magical words, “In the name of your son, Jesus Christ of Nazareth, give this man new life”? I’m sure that today’s medical science community would love to speak to these talented lads. Don’t you?

And another thing: If it’s possible to change cretins into pillars of the community, then why aren’t these gifted Christians praying to God to change the mindset of paedophiles and rapists?

Gumbel warns us that “The battle is not over yet. On the cross Satan was defeated and demoralised. The cross and the resurrection are the DECISIVE MOMENTS IN HISTORY. But the devil was not destroyed. There will come a time when he IS destroyed, when Jesus returns”.

In “history”?

He then likens this scenario to that of the 2nd World War, when D-Day was a decisive moment for the Allies, even though the war was not yet won. We had to wait until VE Day for that. Gumbel tells us that Jesus’ resurrection was D-Day for the human race in their battle against Satan, and when Jesus returns to win the war that will be our VE Day!

Remarkable.

Gumbel ends his presentation by assuring us that when Jesus returns he will make the world a better place. In fact, states Gumbel, “we will be better off than we were in the Garden of Eden!”

No treacherous, talking snakes and magical trees with dangerous fruit? Yes, we’d better hope it’s better than THAT!

The pastor ejects the DVD.

The new Christian male is the first to speak. He says that he didn’t used to believe in the devil, but after hearing Gumbel’s talk he now KNOWS that the devil exists. Was Gumbel’s presentation that convincing? It’s dawned on the new Christian male that the devil is alive and well because of “how he tantalises you, tricks and deceives you”.

He gives us an example. He states that advertising is the work of the devil because it triggers envy. “All advertising is wrong,” he says. The pastor agrees with him, “There’s been some research done that says if you want a happy society you should ban advertising. Because, like you say, it creates envy, a want for more, and dissatisfaction”. I ask, “What about advertising for the Alpha Course? There’s posters for Alpha on the back of buses”. The pastor pauses for a moment and replies barely audibly “It’s marketing. It’s good marketing”, and then turns to the table behind him to tuck into some cheesecake. I guess that’s the end of that particular topic, then.

After polishing off his plate of lemon cheesecake the pastor states almost despairingly, “I can’t understand people who worship the devil. They’ve recognised that there’s a spiritual side to life and yet they choose to worship the devil. What causes people, who have chosen to have faith, to pursue evil?”

I don’t know, but I’m tempted to ask him why Christians throughout history have done that very same thing.

The pastor then offers us an example of why it is fruitful to be one God’s children:

Pastor: “I despair of myself sometimes. I’m seeking earnestly to follow Jesus, and there’s a line in one of my favourite songs that says “May I reflect the beauty of my Lord”, and my desire in my life is to reflect the beauty of my Lord, to have the attitude of Christ. But sometimes I’m so far from that but, you know, but, God convicts me of my sin and thankfully I can ask forgiveness and God speaks to me. Even just yesterday God spoke to me. He gave me a Bible verse and said, “This is what you need to help you deal with this area of your life”. So this morning that is what I studied”.

I’m still fascinated, and perplexed, by this kind of claim. It’s all so wishy-washy, so vague, so unfalsifiable, and so… imaginary. The creator of the universe talks to these people, but none can offer a decent argument to support such a claim. It really blows my mind how they expect to get away with such fanciful notions.

My fellow sceptic asks about the Garden of Eden, and what kind of sense any of it can possibly make, considering that God is supposedly omniscient (all-knowing):

My Fellow Sceptic:“God supposedly created this wonderful place, but he must have known what was going to happen, because he knows everything”.
The Group As A Whole: “Yeah”
My Fellow Sceptic: “So, what a pointless exercise that was!”
New Christian Male: “God tried to bring up a civilisation but then he gave them a doubt in their minds as a test. God thought, “Will they turn against me? If they do I’ll wipe them off the face of the earth””
Me: [Sarcastically] “He sounds like a nice bloke”
My Fellow Sceptic: “Adolf Hitler wanted to wipe the Jewish nation off the face of the earth. How is he any different to God?”
Pastor: “The question you raised is a very difficult one.”

Why is it a difficult question? Hitler attempted to wipe a nation off the face of the earth, God succeeded in wiping every nation off the face of the earth (thanks to his lovely flood). The pastor considers Hitler’s to be the most evil mind ever to exist, yet he considers God’s mind to be nothing but complete love. Work that out!

My fellow sceptic wants to know why God would create humans knowing in advance, and for certain, that they would fall. Knowing too that he would slaughter them all for doing so (barring a handful) and that he would have to start again. And knowing too that it would go wrong ONCE AGAIN, and that he would then have to send himself down in the form of a man to get nailed to some wood in order to make it better again. God knew all this in advance. “How silly is that?”, asks my fellow sceptic.

Pastor: “What about your children? You had children knowing that they would be naughty. Knowing that it would be difficult. Knowing that at times they would rebel against you. And yet you still chose to have them… I entered into fatherhood knowing that potentially my children could do wrong. Potentially they could cause me heartache and pain. I hope they wont but I chose to have children because I wanted a relationship them. Similarly this is why God chose to have children, as it were”

This is a poor and perhaps deceptive analogy. Humans aren’t omniscient. They do not possess complete knowledge of all future events. They don’t “know” what each of our children will or will not do during their lives. We understand that there’s a possibility that certain things may happen, but we don’t know this for a fact. If we knew in advance that our child would grow up to be a new Adolf Hitler I’m sure that most of us would not go ahead with the pregnancy. But none of us have this kind of knowledge. I offer the pastor an example relating to what I’ve just written:

Me: “Lets say that you’re at a dinner party and there’s a sexual chemistry between you and a certain lady. You’re both attracted to each other and it looks likely that things will progress so that both of you end up having sex. Suddenly God grants you the power to see into the future. You see that a consequence of you having sex with this lady will be her falling pregnant and giving birth to your baby. This baby grows up to be a tyrant of such magnitude as to put the likes of Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, and Genghis Khan to shame. In fact this child of yours goes on to become responsible for the deaths of hundreds of millions of innocent people. So, knowing this information in advance, would you still have sex with that lady?”
Pastor: [Pauses] “I don’t know because… err… people do stupid things… err… in selfish moments… that… that… are…”
Me: “But remember, you’ve been given a vision of what WILL happen in the future if you end up having sex with this lady”
Pastor: [Struggling to find the right answer] “I might be so infatuated and lustful after that lady”
Me: [Shocked] “So you’re not sure if you would or would not??”

Notice how he’s squirming away from offering a definite answer? He’s intelligent enough to know why I’m asking that particular question, and that’s why he’s choosing not to answer it. Think about this for a moment: I’ve just asked him if he would refrain from having sex with a stranger if he knew that by doing so he would save the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people. And he couldn’t even bring himself to say, “Yes”. Remember, this chap is a university-educated man, an intelligent man, and a supposedly moral man so can he REALLY believe that a one-off sexual encounter with a stranger is more important than the lives of hundreds of millions of innocent people?? What kind of person does this make him out to be?

Stop and think for a moment about what the Pastor is saying here. Please, read again what he’s just said. Comments like his are particularly revealing about the mindset of the deeply religious individual.

I’m worried. Very worried. Aren’t you?

The conversation continues:

Pastor: “What I’m saying is that…. humanity… men…. some men… commit adultery, do immoral things, and are driven by sexual urges”
Me: “Surely that kind of prior knowledge would stunt those sexual urges?”
Pastor: “I don’t know. People have done things in life knowing that the consequences could be horrendous.”
Me: “And what kind of people does that make them? But anyway I’m not asking about other people, I’m asking about you. Would YOU go ahead regardless of the horrendous consequences you KNOW will occur?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “I know what you’re saying”
Me: “God had that kind of prior knowledge before he made mankind. God KNEW IN ADVANCE that he’d end up slaughtering most of us, that billions would die of starvation, and that there would be countless rapes and abuses perpetrated against innocent people. He also knew that Hitler would eventually arrive on the scene and be responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of people. But God went ahead with it all the same. How is God not then culpable?”
Pastor: [Pause] “Satan is always wanting us to concentrate on the negative when it comes to God. But God has given wonders for humanity to experience, and when you do experience them they far outweigh the negatives. God delights in humanity delighting in his creation, and with them being with him and walking with him and loving him”
Lady Two: “Yes, loving him!”
Pastor: “And it all has to be taken into context and balance. We shouldn’t blame God for the negative”

It’s clear to see that these people will believe that God is good regardless of any evidence to the contrary. Nothing will budge them from this belief. And I mean nothing. Their minds are impenetrable to such thoughts.

Lady Two decides that now is a good time to tell us more about her personal testimony. You know the one by now: where she prayed for “100% faith” and God filled her with his Holy Spirit. Yes, that one. This time, though, she reveals more about the experience. Something very interesting in fact.

She tells us that many years ago she met a young man who she really liked. In fact she loved him. She adored him. He was “the one”. However, there was a problem. This young man was a Christian, and she wasn’t. The young man told her that, “I like you but I can’t go out with you if you’re not a Christian, because according to the Bible you shouldn’t go out with a non-believer because the relationship will be unevenly yoked”. Lo and behold that very night God filled her with his Holy Spirit and she became a Christian. She then went on to marry that young man. How terribly convenient!

I think Lady Two has revealed more than she needed to. She’s all but admitted that the experience was psychological rather than supernatural.

Sadly, however, her marriage to this gentleman was not to last. Who was to blame for the separation I wonder? Yes, you guessed it… Satan.

Yes, Satan had got in to the mind of her husband. She explains:

Lady Two: “The devil came in to my marriage. I saw my husband become depressed when he was around me. He wasn’t pulling his weight in the relationship. He wouldn’t even take the children to the park”
Me: “And do you think Satan was responsible for his change of attitude towards you?”
Lady Two: “Yes, I believe that Satan got into his head”

I wonder about the strength of Satan’s powers of deception, so I ask:

Me: “How powerful is Satan’s power of deception?”
Lady Two: “Very, very powerful”
Me: “So how do you know that Satan hasn’t deceived you into believing that God exists, when in fact there is no God?”
Lady Two: [Very long pause] “Because… err” [another long pause]
Me: “Remember, if you’re being deceived by ultra-powerful Satan then you won’t know that you you’re being deceived. His immense powers will see to that”
Lady Two: “It’s because…. err… because…I know… err… that night I did business with my maker. I spoke to him from the bottom of my soul. I did everything right. I said to him “I want you in my life”. I sought him. I said that I was sorry for everything I’d done in my life, and I meant it. I was picturing him as the holy God and me as his child”

Notice how she doesn’t actually answer the question? She just continues with her now famous testimony. For any “Lady Two” fans out there, who haven’t heard her testimony for at least one week, I’ll include the remainder of her “answer” here:

Me: “Yes, but I’m asking how do you know that all of that wasn’t a deception by Satan?”
Lady Two: “I said all of it in Jesus’ name and I had the filling of the Holy Spirit. It was a COMPLETE bathing in LOVE. That’s what it was. It was LOVE. I know it sounds a bit weird, but it was love. It was just like being on the edge of the seashore, and it was like a guiding hand. My brain thought, “What is this?” I actually remember saying to myself “What is this?” and it was a guiding hand that just started to pour in to me. And it was ABSOLUTE LOVE. After about seven waves of the spirit I was completely suspended in this state of utter joy and state of union with God. It was COMPLETELY LOVE. And I realised that the God that I’d sought all of my life was convincing me 100% that he was there. The irony is that I’d even said to a friend once that not even vicars could have 100% faith”

This is the 8th week of the course and I’m sure she’s told me her testimony during every single session so far. I conclude as follows:

Me: “So you do know when Satan is and is not deceiving you, yes?”
Lady Two: “Yes because it was complete love”
Me: “So it would appear that his powers of deception aren’t so powerful after all, then”

Sensing that she’s letting me slip away, and that her beloved testimony is failing to hit the mark (yet again), Lady Two cranks it up a notch:

Lady Two: “I’ve had healings as well. God has worked in my life on other occasions since that time! I once had laryngitis for weeks and I’d been telling everybody about the conversion I’d had, and I’d been trying to convince people to turn to God. I had the Holy Spirit pushed through the blockage in my throat and it healed me. A Baptist minister had the ‘touch of healing’ and we were praying for God to cure my laryngitis. And he did there and then”
Me: “Why doesn’t this gifted chap work his magic in the local children’s hospital? Why does he summon God to heal a woman with a sore throat, which rarely last for more than a few weeks anyway, but not a child stricken with leukaemia?”

My question is met with a deafening silence. They seem momentarily lost for words. That is until the pastor chips in with a stutter:

Pastor: “Actually there is a growing healing ministry in this area. We are seeing more and more people healed miraculously.”
Me: “And how many of these are scientifically verified?”
Pastor: “Well, I think there’s a real cynicism out there…”
New Christian Male: “Yes, they’re scared of losing their jobs”
Pastor: “But I’m sure there are some Christian doctors that have faith and will verify healings”
Me: “Why do medical students spend years at medical school, years earning their degrees, masters degrees and PhD’s, when all they have to do in order to cure someone of an illness is to offer up a quick prayer to God?”
Pastor: [Long pause] “Well… errr… I believe that God uses people’s skills as well”

If it’s the medical skills of the doctor that are responsible for the “healing” of a patient then why invoke God at all?? Why say that God uses the doctor and his skills to heal people? This is like claiming that your favourite football team won their match because you were wearing your lucky socks. You can quip to any potential sceptic, “Oh yes, the footballers themselves played a big part in the win, but my lucky socks intensify the footballers’ skill levels”. This is nothing but superstitious thinking. But how do these Christian claims differ from superstitious thinking? I don’t see how they do.

Lady Two continues in full flow:

Lady Two: “If you’re in the Lord he will honour you and bless you and give you ministries. If you are obeying him in your life, and he knows when you’ve done business with him, he knows when you’ve humbled yourself before him, confessed your sins, and asked him to be your Lord and master, he knows when you’ve meant it. He knows you inside out. When your heart is in union with him, he knows that. All I’m saying is that THAT NIGHT I reached him because I MEANT BUSINESS WITH HIM”.

Oh boy, am I glad I attended the Alpha Course. This is fun!

She then adds that “if life is just a joyride for seventy years, you get married, go on holidays, and have kids…[then] it’s all a waste of time if at the end of it we all go to dust! That thought depresses me!”

Religious beliefs may be consoling, but that doesn’t make them true. And that is precisely what the Alpha Course is about, demonstrating the truth of Christianity to non-Christians like me. Sadly I’ve seen nothing to demonstrate that in the 8 weeks that I’ve been in attendance.

And like I’ve asked in a previous blog entry, why would the fact that life is temporary make it a waste of time? I ask:

Me: “If you have a night at the theatre, and at the end of the magnificent performance the curtains come down, would you think, “Oh, it’s finished. It doesn’t go on forever? What a complete waste of time that was, then!” Would you really think that”?
Lady Two: “I’m not interested in entertainment”

Maybe not, but she certainly provides plenty of it for me! Notice, too, how she didn’t actually answer the question.

Lady Two sits motionless for a moment, as if summoning up a diagnosis for my scepticism. Suddenly it dawns on her, and she says:

Lady Two: “You know what your problem is, don’t you? I think that God is telling me what your big problem is. Do you know what it is?”
Me: “I don’t know. What is it?”
Lady Two: “You’re doing what loads of people do. But I can honestly say I NEVER did it.”
Me: “And what’s that?”
Lady Two:BLAME GOD

She pauses for a moment, looks me in the eye and continues:

Lady Two: “You’re saying ‘he’s done this’ and ‘he’s done that’. You’re blaming God!”
The Group As A Whole: “Yes you are!”
Pastor: “That’s the thing that is stopping you from believing”
Me: “Do you mean a lack of evidence?”
Pastor: “No. You’re of the stance that if there is a God then you’re going to blame him for everything. That’s what stopping you believing in him. Just as Nicky Gumbel said in his presentation: In the very beginning Satan said, “I’m going to blame God”.”

The group nod in agreement. I sit smiling. But before I have chance to respond the pastor says, “Time’s up!”

Everyone laughs, including me.

Lady Three wants to end the session by reading aloud a Bible verse. She reads Isaiah 66:1-2:

“This is what the LORD says: “Heaven is my throne, and the earth is my footstool. Where is the house you will build for me? Where will my resting place be? Has not my hand made all these things, and so they came into being?” declares the LORD. “This is the one I esteem: he who is humble and contrite in spirit, and trembles at my word.”

It’s been an interesting evening. Once again I’ve enjoyed it immensely. We’re all about to pack our things away when suddenly Lady Two says to me, “Try to see him [God] as Holy in your mind. See him as Holy, and then see yourself as just his child.” I respond by saying that I’d have to first believe that God exists, but I can’t do that until I’m aware of some sufficient evidence in his favour. She’s flabbergasted that I don’t accept her testimony as an example of such sufficient evidence, and snaps at me, “Then what happened to me that night??!!” I respond politely with “You had an experience”

The pastor shouts, “STOP!”. He smiles, and I know what he’s smiling for. He knows that Lady Two is getting ready to give me her testimony again, in full. So he’s nipped it in the bud to save us an additional twenty minutes.

The pastor officially ends the session with a prayer. Everyone reaches for their jackets. As I’m packing my things away and reaching for my coat Lady Two shuffles over to the chair beside me and says, “I’m dying to convince you! I’m dying to convince you!”

Lady Two: “When I had my experience I was a respected teacher so I was sure that people would believe me. People know that I’m not a liar; they know I’m respectable, so I thought I’d be able to convince them. I was a teacher, so why would I lie?”
Me: “What about the experiences of teachers that aren’t Christians? What about the testimony of, say, a Muslim teacher? Would you believe his or her testimony because he or she was a teacher? You wouldn’t believe them, would you?”
Lady Two: “I only know what I found”
Me: “And they say the same thing. Remember, I’m looking at this objectively, so what reason would I have for believing that your experience was true and theirs wasn’t?”
Lady Two: “I don’t know”
Me: “You don’t find such testimony to be convincing, regardless of how sincere the person may be. Regardless of how trustworthy they normally are, or of what job they have.”
Lady Two: “I don’t know about Muslims. I only know about what I’ve been brought up with in this country. I just want to work for peace and to be a good person. I don’t believe in killing people. Some of these people [Muslims] go out and kill in the name of their God. As Christians we’re not supposed to do that at all.”
Me: “Christians have been killing people for centuries. How do you explain the Crusades, the Inquisition, or the witch trials?”
Lady Two: “When the Holy Spirit comes upon you you’re supposed to align yourself with God and follow a pure life devoted to him.”
Me: “I understand that you’re passionate about your belief in God, and I’ve learned over the last couple of months that you’re incredibly keen to tell me all about how you came to Christ. But obviously you know that I’m not convinced by it, but I must stress that I don’t think you’re lying to me. I don’t doubt that you’ve had an experience of some kind, but that is not enough in itself to convince me that your God exists. You yourself do not believe such testimonies. They are not enough to convince you. You wouldn’t believe a Muslim, a Sikh or a Hindu.”
Lady Two: “No, because I believe in the Trinity”
Me: “So you wouldn’t believe a word they said, no matter how strong their conviction, yes?”
Lady Two: “That’s right. But I believe in a merciful God. I hope somehow he will be merciful [to them]. That’s what I hope. But all I know is this – it does say in the word of God that you only come to God through the Son.”
Me: “The word of your God, yes. But they also have the word of their god. They have their own holy books. This isn’t enough to convince you, though.”
Lady Two: “Right”
Me: “They have experiences, just like you do. But, again, this isn’t enough to convince you that what they’re saying is true”
Lady Two: “Right”
Me: “Then you must appreciate the fact that I’m not convinced by what you’re saying. Remember, you’re just as sceptical as I am.”
Lady Two: “Right”
Me: “What I’d like you to do is to think of something that you would find convincing if it was given to you by someone of a different religion. A method that you would trust. We know that you don’t necessarily trust personal experiences. You’re not necessarily swayed by Holy books, or by faith. So what trustworthy method do you have for showing me that your God exists?”
Lady Two: “Some of them [people of other religions] lead very good lives but some of them are killing. It’s like when they drove them aeroplanes into them buildings on September the 11th. That’s not what God wants! That’s not a loving God!”
Me: “The mindset of those people that committed the atrocities on 911 is not representative of all Muslims. Those people were fanatics. Not all Muslims are fanatics. Are we to dismiss a religion because some of its adherents kill people? There are Christian fanatics too, don’t forget. We have Christians today killing doctors who perform abortions. We’ve had Christians who burned an untold number of “witches” at the stake. We’ve had the Crusades and the Inquisition. Christians have killed millions. Am I to dismiss Christianity because of the Christian fanatics throughout history?”
Lady Two: “The Christian faith is a faith of love. It’s a faith of “go in peace” and of “love thy neighbour”. It’s a faith with the fruits of the Holy Spirit in your heart.”
Me: “Is it a good argument in favour of dismissing a religion if some of its adherents have committed atrocities and killed people?”
Lady Two: “It is for me”
Me: “Ok, so I should dismiss Christianity for that very reason then, yes?”
Lady Two: “No”
Me: “Then that’s double standards”
Lady Two: [Long pause] “I can only tell you how I found God, and that was through the Trinity”
Me: “That’s all well and good, but it’s not enough to convince someone else. Remember, you don’t necessarily find personal experiences to be convincing. And neither do I.”
Lady Two: “I just know it was a God of love that filled me up”

She then offers me her testimony once again. The whole she-bang: How she prayed for 100% faith, how the Bible sank into her chest, how God’s love poured into her, and how the Holy Spirit filled her up. She finishes it off with, “I long to convince you, Stephen!”

Me: “I could be convinced by evidence that stands up to scrutiny. However, everything I’ve heard so far does not.”
Lady Two: “Ok. [Pauses as she has a long think] The day I went to that prayer meeting [the one where her laryngitis was healed] I heard a voice say to me, “God wants to heal you at three o’clock”. And it was about three o’clock that I got healed!”

I tell her that I’m glad that her throat got better, but that she’s just offering me an account of a personal experience. It doesn’t register with her, though. She carries on:

Lady Two: “It was like a dam in my throat. There was a blockage and there was this force that came up in my throat and pushed this blockage out, and I heard God say, “Pray!” so I just prayed out loud and my voice was normal again!”

Once again, I tell her that I’m glad that her throat got better, but that it’s nothing more than an example of her “personal experience”. She doesn’t seem to get the message, though, and carries on unperturbed:

Lady Two: “All I know is that it was a God of love that filled me up that night. I knew I’d done my business with him, and I’d said sorry for the sin in my life. I prayed these things in Jesus’ name, so I did things according to the Trinity. That’s how I got my answer”
Me: “As I’ve said before, that’s all well and good but it’s your own experience, not mine. These things aren’t necessarily enough to convince others, and you agree because you aren’t convinced by the testimonies of people from other religions.”
Lady Two: “But I do believe God is a God of love and that he wants to save everybody”

She pauses for a moment, smiles at me and says in an almost begging manner, “Just try. Please, TRY your best to see God as a loving father who created you and wants you to be in union with him. Get serious about him! Are you prepared to be his servant? For him to be your Lord and master?”

Me: “If I find evidence in support of that then maybe I will, yes”
Lady Two: “I saw him as my father and I was his child. I wanted to obey him. I wanted to put myself right with him. Is your DESIRE to want to be right with him? Do you want to deal with your sin? Have got that DESIRE?”
Me: “If there’s something there then I’ll act on it. As yet, though, there’s nothing there. But who knows? By the time this course has finished I might have found something. We’ll see. I must be honest with myself and with the group. I won’t lie to you”
Lady Two: “Just think about if everybody followed the word of God, if we all had one husband or one wife and we all had a happy little family. If we all prayed with our families, children were obedient to parents, and there was no sleeping around or pre-marital sex. Just imagine if everybody obeyed the word of God!”
Me: “Like I said last week, God could have made a system like that in the first place. But he didn’t”
Lady Two: “He’s tried”
Me: “Again, like I said last week, he can’t ‘try’ anything, he’s supposedly all-powerful.”
Lady Two: “He’s tried!”
Me: “The simple fact of the matter is that he could have made a system where everyone got along, where people didn’t abuse children or rape old ladies. But he didn’t create such a system. He must take at least some of the blame. If he exists, that is”
Lady Two: “I promise you he does. I promise you with all my heart that he does exist!”
Me: “Well, like I say, think of some good evidence, using a method you find to be trustworthy, and I’ll have a look at it. I can’t be fairer than that”
Lady Two: [She thinks for a moment, then continues] “I think this country generally works for good. It’s a Christian country and it generally works for good. That’s the main ethos behind us. Parliament says prayers on a morning. We are generally a Christian country. I think the power of prayer has kept us strong. We defeated Hitler. During the war years there were lots of vicars praying and praying and praying, and God answered them. He made us defeat Hitler.”
Me: “And what about the German vicars who were praying and praying and praying? Did their prayers fail?”
Lady Two: “The power of prayer won against the evils. Prayer is winning against the evils all the time”

I suppose the skill and bravery of the allied soldiers had nothing to do with it, then? Just like my lucky socks influencing the result of a football match, the prayers of British people – to a Christian God – made sure of our victory. The soldiers’ participation in the war was just incidental. Madness!

I’ve always been fascinated by prayer, and the claims that people make regarding it’s supposed efficacy. I decide to put prayer to the test. Let’s see if Lady Two finds answered prayers to be a convincing method for showing the truth of religious claims:

Me: “Is there anything in your life that you’d like to happen sometime soon?”
Lady Two: “Yes, I want to get back with my husband”
Me: “Ok, how about I pray tonight to Lord Vishnu and ask him to guide your husband back into your life?”
Lady Two: “Who is Lord Vishnu?”
Me: “A Hindu god”
Lady Two: “Oh”
Me: “So, I’ll make the prayer tonight and if you and your husband are reconciled anytime soon then that will be all the proof you need to show that Lord Vishnu has answered my prayer. Yes?”
Lady Two: “No, no”
Me: [Chuckling] “Do you see what I mean?”
Lady Two: [Embarrassed and frustrated giggle] “Yes”
Me: “You don’t even accept answered prayers as evidence. So why expect me to accept them, then?” [Nor does she trust “holy books”, “personal experiences”, or “faith”. What a sceptic!]
Lady Two: [Long pause. She takes a deep breath and, looking frustrated, begs with me again] “If only I could give you my experience. You would just… you know… you would just ABSOLUTELY believe.”
Me: [Still chuckling] “And if a Muslim was sat next to you now and said, “If only I could give you my experience. You would just absolutely believe” you wouldn’t find his sincerely held belief to be in the least bit convincing.”
Lady Two: “It was complete love that poured into me. It POURED into me”

At this point I put my hand on her shoulder and say reassuringly, “I don’t doubt that you’ve had an experience. I don’t doubt you.”
She bows her head and in apparent dejection she whispers, “I don’t know how to convince you, Stephen”

Me: “You could convince me with some decent evidence”
Lady Two: “I’d love to convince you!”

She pauses for a while. Everyone else, with the exception of the pastor, has gone home. I smile and reach for my jacket. This triggers her into having another go at convincing me:

Lady Two: “Christian countries are surviving, and there’s lots of Christians coming in to the fold everyday.”
Me: “There are Christians starving to death in Africa. In what we call Christian countries.”
Lady Two: “Yes, I know, but the United Nations are on to it, aren’t they. They’re trying to do something about it.”
Me: “Why doesn’t God do something about it? He could put crops in the fields and rainwater in the lakes and rivers in an instant. But he doesn’t”
Lady Two: “Because he’s given us free will”

Talk about going round and round in circles! This conversation looks as though it could go on for an eternity. I bend down for a drink of water, and it’s at this point the pastor wanders over to us, looks at his watch and states that it is time that he locked up. We all laugh.

Tonight’s session has been an absolute corker. What I need now is a very strong cup of coffee!

November 3, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 44 Comments