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.)


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.

November 24, 2008 Posted by | Alpha Course, Atheism, Christianity, God, Religion | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 157 Comments