Recent Sermon 2017-03-20T11:36:30+00:00

Making sense of existence

I am a Christian because it makes sense of the universe and our lives within it.

January 13-14, 2018
Pastor Joe Wittwer
Why I am a Christian
Part 1: Making Sense of Existence

ILL: Mark Twain famously tells about a small boy who came home from church. His father asked him what he had learned. “We learned about faith,” he said. “And what is faith?” asked his father. “Faith is believing in something you know isn’t true.”

Isn’t this what many people imagine when they think of faith? For many people, believing in God is wishful thinking.

ILL: I once asked a young man if he believed in God. “Oh no! I believe in science. Science is all about facts and religion is all about faith.”

Have you heard that before? Many people think that faith is unreasonable; they suspect that in order to become a Christian, you must kiss your brains goodbye. For the next few weeks, I want to challenge that assumption. I want to demonstrate that there are some compelling reasons for faith, and that you can believe in God with intellectual integrity. I want to tell you why I am a Christian.

If someone were to ask you, “Why are you a Christian?” what would you answer? Do you have compelling reasons for your faith? The apostle Peter wrote:

1 Peter 3:15 But in your hearts revere Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect.

Are you prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you the reason for your faith?

The practice of giving reasons for your faith is called “apologetics.” This doesn’t mean that we are apologetic about our faith. The word “apologetics” comes from the Greek legal term apologia which meant “to give a defense.” (apo = from + logia = reason) “Be prepared to give an answer,” Peter says, and the word “answer” translates the Greek word apologia. Be prepared to give a defense of what you believe, give the reasons for your faith. In these four talks, I’ll be skimming the surface of a very deep subject. For those who would like to dig deeper, there are many excellent resources on apologetics; we will include a bibliography online and on our app.

Why am I Christian? Most of you have heard my story. I was 13 and considered myself an atheist. This was my reasoning: I wanted to be able to do what I want. If there was a God, there would be right and wrong. He might cramp my style, so I simply eliminated God. No God: do what you want. It was unsophisticated, but as we’ll see, not far off the mark.

One day a junior high friend invited me to a youth rally at his church. I did not want to go, but didn’t want to disappoint my friend. So I went and was ambushed by Jesus! The speaker that night, a young college student named Sam Owen, talked about Jesus like he knew Him! It was compelling, and on the way home, I prayed my first prayer. “God, I don’t know much about you, but what that guy has, I want.” I got up the next morning, and thought, “Now what?” It was Sunday, and the one thing I knew about Christians is that they went to church, so I walked back to that church, and the rest is history. God heard my prayer and my life began changing radically.

Why am I a Christian? You might say, “You were moved by hearing a speaker when you were young and impressionable. If you had been older and more sophisticated and heard the same message, you may not be a Christian.” That may be true. But why, when I got older and much more sophisticated—check out these socks!—why did I not only keep my faith, but become more convinced of its value and truth?

When I was in college, I began facing the hard questions about my faith, and discovered it could withstand the scrutiny. I have continued to wrestle with these questions, as have millions of Christians before me, many of them much smarter than me, and am convinced that there are good reasons to believe in Jesus. Over the next four weeks, we’ll look at several. Here’s the first:

The Big Idea: I am a Christian because it makes sense of the universe and our lives within it.

ILL: When I was in college, I took a couple psychology classes from Dr. Lawrence Bixler. Dr. Bix was a very smart guy. He was one of the most popular professors at my Christian college, and at the University of Oregon which was next door. He told us that he was often asked by students at the UO about his Christian faith, and he told them that he found it intellectually satisfying because it gave the best answers to life’s biggest questions.

Tim Keller, in his excellent book, The Reason for God, agrees with Dr. Bixler. “Christians do not claim that their faith gives them omniscience or absolute knowledge of reality. Only God has that. But they believe that the Christian account of things—creation, fall, redemption, and restoration—makes the most sense of the world.”[1]

Your heart cannot rejoice over what your head can’t accept. I want your heart to rejoice, so I need to engage your head! I’m going to focus on two questions:

 

  1. The cosmological question: what caused everything that exists?

ILL: Imagine walking on a path through the woods and coming across a large glass ball. What would you think? “How did this glass ball get here, and why is it here?”

Mankind has always asked these sorts of questions about the universe we live in. Where did it come from? Why is it here? What caused it? This is the cosmological question.

Don’t let “cosmological” scare you. Cosmology comes from two Greek words: “cosmos” which means the world, and “logos” which means reason. Cosmology is the reason for the world. Cosmology is simply people trying to make sense out of the universe they live in.

Philosophers and theologians and scientists have all wrestled with the cosmological question for centuries; and millions of words have been written attempting to answer this question. And frankly, it is some pretty heady stuff.

In the end, there are only two possible answers, or categories of answers, to the cosmological question. What caused everything that exists? The universe had either a personal or an impersonal cause. Either an infinite, personal God created the universe; or the universe is self-caused or self-existent. Something came first: it was either God or matter. Those are the two basic options: Theism or Naturalism.

Theism Naturalism

Personal Impersonal

Starts with God Starts with matter

Eternal God Eternal universe

Can I prove either one of these? No. Each of these starting points is assumed, or said another way, is a point of belief or faith. I can’t prove there is a God. Nor can I prove that there isn’t, and matter is all there is.

Let’s consider the nature of proof. Someone may ask you to prove that God exists. You can’t; absolute proof is impossible. In our courts of law, we don’t require absolute proof, but proof beyond a reasonable doubt. We make decisions every day based on degrees of probability, rather than absolute proof.

ILL: Here is a simple example: Can you absolutely prove that you are who you say you are? No. The documents that you offer could be forged and those who claim to know you could be lying or mistaken. But generally, if you show me your drivers’ license and credit card, and introduce me to your wife and kids, I’ll believe you are who you say you are; I’ll believe it based on the high probability of it being true.

All of us believe things to be true based not on absolute proof, but reasonable probability. This is the normal way we process information and make decisions, which is why it is unreasonable to expect absolute proof when it comes to God.

Tim Keller suggests that we approach it with “critical rationality,” and look at the clues. These clues or arguments may be convincing for some, but are rationally avoidable. Yet taken together, while they are not conclusive proof, they are enough to reasonably believe in God. So what are some of these clues?

First, the evidence that the universe had a beginning. For many years, scientists thought that the universe was eternal, that matter had always been. But most scientists agree now with theists that the universe had a very specific beginning. Recent conclusions about the Big Bang theory have supported the Biblical cosmology. The universe is expanding. All of the galaxies are moving away from each other at tremendous speeds. By tracing these movements backwards, scientists believe that, at some point in time, a tremendous explosion occurred that ejected all matter outward from a central point of high density compression. This big bang, they say, was the birth of the universe. Of course, the scientists can’t tell us how all that matter got there in the first place.

Scientists also tell us that the universe is aging. The second law of thermodynamics, the law of entropy, says that the amount of usable energy in the universe is decreasing. The universe is running down, which suggests that it had a starting point when it was wound up with maximum energy.

So even though many theists disagree with modern science on its originating cause, they agree that the universe is not eternal, that it had a beginning. And after years of believing that the universe was eternal, this has been quite a shock to some scientists. Dr. Robert Jastrow, a well-known astronomer, wrote,

“For the scientist who has lived by his faith in the power of reason, the story ends like a bad dream. He has scaled the mountains of ignorance; he is about to conquer the highest peak; as he pulls himself over the final rock, he is greeted by a band of theologians who have been sitting there for centuries.”

The first words of the Bible are, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” The universe had a beginning. This doesn’t prove God, but it’s a clue.

Second, the anthropic principle: the fine-tuning of the universe. When we study the universe, we see that it seems to be set up to support life like ours. What is shocking is how many variables seem to be fine tuned, and that if even one of them were off, there would be no life. Respected geneticist Dr. Francis Collins, leader of the Human Genome Project, and author of The Language of God, said:

When you look from the perspective of a scientist at the universe, it looks as if it knew we were coming. There are 15 constants—the gravitational constant, various constants about the strong and weak nuclear force, etc.—that have precise values. If any one of those constants was off by even one part in a million, or in some cases, by one part in a million million, the universe could not have actually come to the point where we see it. Matter would not have been able to coalesce, there would have been no galaxy, stars, planets or people. In sum, our universe is wildly improbable.[2]

Renowned physicist Stephen Hawking wrote: “If the rate of expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in 100 thousand million millionths, the universe would have re-collapsed before it ever reached its present size into a hot fireball. The odds against a universe like ours emerging out of something like the Big Bang are enormous. I think there are religious implications.”[3]

Going even further, Hawking states: “It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us.”[4]

The anthropic principle—the fine tuning of the universe that makes it look like it was designed for life, for us—doesn’t prove God. But it’s a clue.

I am Christian because God is the best explanation for the universe we live in. The universe makes more sense with a person behind it. Which leads to my second question:

  1. The moral question: how do we explain human morals and meaning?

This is where C.S. Lewis, in his famous book, Mere Christianity, begins. The first section is entitled “Right and Wrong as a Clue to the Meaning of t he Universe.” Lewis demonstrates that there is a universal sense of moral obligation. Human beings act like there is true right and wrong—an objective standard that exists outside of them. Even those who insist there is not such a standard still act as if there is.

Whenever you find a man who says he does not believe in a real Right and Wrong, you will find the same man going back on this a moment later. He may break his promise to you, but if you try breaking one to him he will be complaining ‘It’s not fair’ before you can say Jack Robinson.[5]

Lewis argues that morality seems hardwired into us. How can we explain this? Lewis points out that, as I did earlier, that there are basically two answers to the cosmological question: how did the universe come to be? He calls these two answers the materialist (start with matter) and the religious (start with God), and says, “Please do not think that one of these views was held a long time ago and that the other has gradually taken its place. Wherever there have been thinking men both views turn up.”[6] Let’s look at the moral question from these two views.

If God is not there, what does that make you? We are, as Carl Sagan says, “cosmic accidents”. If matter is all there is, then you have no meaning, and morality is an illusion. But if we are, as the Bible says, created by God, in His image, then we have meaning, and an objective basis for morality.

The first problem is how do we explain the universal human desire for meaning, and the universal presence of morality. If the universe began impersonally, where did this desire for meaning and morality come from, and to what does it correspond? I am thirsty for water, and water is there. I am hungry for food, and food is there. I desire meaning, but in an impersonal universe, there is none; there is nothing there to correspond with my need. Where then did that need come from? The presence of a personal, infinite God best explains human nature. We are created in His image.

“Wait a minute”, you say, “morality is not universal”. It is true that different cultures have varying standards of right and wrong, but there does seem to be a universal morality. First, everybody has a sense of right and wrong. They may disagree about what is right and wrong, but everybody has a sense of right and wrong. Where did that come from if the universe is impersonal? If all there is, is time plus matter plus chance, then whatever is, is. There is no right and wrong, for there is no objective standard of rightness. Second, this moral sense is seen clearly in how we all want to be treated. While some people murder, no one wants to be murdered; while some people lie, no one wants to be lied to; while some people cheat, no one wants to be cheated; while some people steal, no one wants to be stolen from. There are some universals and they are apparent when you examine, not how we treat others, but how we want to be treated.

My point here is that you cannot adequately explain the presence in human beings of morality or the desire for meaning by starting with an impersonal beginning. God is the best explanation.

A second problem is that it is impossible to live consistently with the presuppositions of an impersonal worldview. In other words, it is easy to say that you believe people have no meaning and there are no moral absolutes, but it is impossible to live that way. No one does, and those who attempt to, go mad or live in utter despair.

ILL: Carl Sagan says in his work “Cosmos” that we are cosmic accidents, and yet he doesn’t act like it. I read an article by he and his wife on the abortion issue. Why should he care? If we are only cosmic accidents what does it matter what we do to each other? If we are cosmic accidents without meaning and destined to annihilation, why bother?

There is a fundamental inconsistency in those who say there is no God, but live as if there is.

Without God, you have no reasonable meaning, and no hope of ever having any; and no reason to live morally or expect others to do so. If you believe that the universe is impersonal, then I challenge you to live consistently with those beliefs. I don’t think you can.

Since naturalism provides no rational basis for morals, we are left to construct our own. And this of course is what naturalists suggest we do. But the question then becomes, “Who will decide what is right and wrong? And on what basis?” There are several suggestions—all of them fraught with peril.

  • Pragmatism: whatever works is right.
  • Individualism: you decide what’s right for you.
  • Multiculturalism: all cultures are equally right; just fit into the one you’re in.
  • Moral relativism: there are no absolutes; it all depends on the situation.
  • Majority rules: as long as the majority thinks something is right, it’s right.
  • Might is right: whoever is in power calls the shots.

All these answers have been proposed, but none has a rational basis. They are all arbitrary attempts to impose moral order on an amoral natural universe. And all are deeply problematic. For example, individualism and moral relativism are very popular. Each person decides what is right for them in any given situation. But if you really believe that, you have no reason to say that someone else’s behavior is right or wrong. You can say, “I don’t like it,” but you can’t say it’s wrong. You can’t say abortion is right or wrong, or racism is right or wrong, or polluting the environment is right or wrong. But no one lives that way.

ILL: Mark Clark, in his book, The Problem of God, tells the story of talking with a friend at work.

One day he said to me, “I believe all morality is culturally constructed, relative, a product of our evolution, and that it’s wrong for our Western ideals to be projected onto other cultures.” To test how committed he was to this belief, I asked him: “If we went into a village in the middle of a jungle somewhere, and we brought your sister along, and they captured her, tied her up, tortured her, and then ate her alive because that’s what their culture believed in, how would you feel about that? What would your response be? If you are true to your worldview, you could not say they had done something decisively wrong. You could only say they did something you didn’t like but that is nonetheless morally acceptable.”

He sat there for a minute or so weighing his options. And then he looked at me and said, “As much as it would hurt me to say it, I would not say they did something wrong, only something I personally disagreed with.”

Despite what my friend said that day, I know he was lying to me. Moral relativists still care. We all care.[7]

At least his friend tried to be consistent—but no one can live that way. We all believe that some things are right and others wrong—whether we like them or not. Tim Keller writes:

People who laugh at the claim that there is a transcendent moral order do not think that racial genocide is just impractical or self-defeating, but that it is wrong. The Nazis who exterminated Jews may have claimed that they didn’t feel it was immoral at all. We don’t care. We don’t care if they sincerely felt they were doing a service to humanity. They ought not to have done it.[8]

Why shouldn’t they have done it? Because it’s wrong. We all know that. But naturalists have a difficult time explaining why. If matter is all there is, then what is, is. Period. We have to make up our own morals, and we’re back to square one. But if God is there, if there is a Person behind the universe, that explains our universal sense of moral obligation, and gives meaning to our lives.

I am a Christian because it best explains human nature, our desire for meaning and morality.

Conclusion:

Speaking of morality and race, here’s how I want to finish. Tomorrow is Martin Luther King Day. We are celebrating Dr. King and his work for racial justice. We’ve come a long way…and we still have lots of work to do. Take a look at this:

CBS video—A Honeymoon Story[9]

“Obviously, this does not make up for decades of racial injustice. But it’s a step, and a sign, that we can get there.” We can get there! And I think that Christians should lead the way because we believe that every human being was created in the image of God and has eternal value and dignity. Honestly, people who believe we’re just cosmic accidents have no reason to care about those who are different. We do.

I love that one of the kids wrote that meeting the Caldwells “made me think about not only standing up for myself, but standing up for others and fixing mistakes that were made in the world.”

Tomorrow, I’ll be at the MLK rally and march at 10 AM at the Spokane Convention Center. I’m going to stand with my brothers and sisters of color, and walk with them for racial justice. We can get there.

[1]Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (pp. 120-122). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[2]Q. in Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (p. 128). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.   See also, The Language of God, by Dr. Francis Collins, (p. 74). Free Press. Kindle Edition.

[3]Q. in Clark, Mark. The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity (p. 59). Zondervan. Kindle Edition. See also Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time (New York: Bantam, 1988), pg. 121–122.

[4]Q. in Collins, Francis S.. The Language of God: A Scientist Presents Evidence for Belief (p. 75). Free Press. Kindle Edition. See also Hawking, Brief History, pg. 144.

[5]Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 6). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[6]Lewis, C. S.. Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis Signature Classics) (p. 13). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[7]Clark, Mark. The Problem of God: Answering a Skeptic’s Challenges to Christianity (pp. 45-46). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.

[8] Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism (p. 145). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

[9]https://www.cbsnews.com/news/students-who-took-couples-honeymoon-story-to-heart-take-action/

Making sense of existence

 
 
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