Alpha Course: Reviewed

by Stephen Butterfield

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!

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