Witnessing to Jehovah’s Witnesses

“Truth by definition is exclusive. If truth were all-inclusive, nothing would be false.”

― Walter Ralston Martin, The Kingdom of the Cults

jjF7MHHI’ve spent the last few days in Rochester, Minnesota, where my wife is a patient at the Mayo clinic. Last Friday morning, I learned that there were over 3000 Jehovah’s witnesses meeting at the Mayo convention center for an annual convention. I spent the rest of the weekend witnessing to these men and women whenever I could. As a result of this experience, I have a renewed sense of the need for Christian evangelism of JW’s, and a much better understanding of how best to witness to these lost people.

The Watchtower estimates Jehovah’s witnesses have spent billions of hours taking their message door-to-door, conducting “The greatest preaching campaign the world has ever seen.” Regardless of the accuracy of this claim, we should all agree that JW’s take the Great Commission very seriously. And yet in the midst of downtown Rochester, surrounded by dozens of mainline Protestant and nondenominational churches, I didn’t see a single Christian evangelist engaging the thousands of JW’s saturating the city.

I recognize that not all churches in an area are called to the same ministries, but I have a hard time believing that every church in the same area could be called only to minister to existing believers and Sunday service visitors. Here we have a group of lost people in our very midst, who are actively spreading deceit. If the Body of Christ does nothing to minister to them, can we say we are obeying the great commission? I have personally failed to be faithful to this command many times. I’ve avoided ministry opportunities for selfish reasons. I’ve neglected the souls of lost people because I found it too difficult or intimidating to engage them. But I’ve also been encouraged and educated by the work of more faithful men and women. My hope is this post might serve others in the same way.

Stand in the word

There is no one “correct” way to witness to JW’s. Each person has different spiritual gifts (1 Cor 12), and different approaches simply work better for different people. What matters far more than method, is content and heart. If we are to witness to JW’s, we need to do just that–share with them the true gospel of Jesus Christ as found in scripture. Yet the JW believes he has the truth and you are the one who is deceivedPlanting a seed of doubt in his mind is then a necessary first step. Our message should effectively be “I love you for Jesus’ sake and want you to know the truth: Here is convicting evidence that you don’t.”

So where do we find that evidence? Many Christians are drawn to the historical evidence against the Watchtower organization, whose founders were biblically ignorant, corrupt, and published countless false prophecies during the 19th century. Yet nearly all JW’s will immediately discount this evidence as something you’ve made up. Instead, I believe our evidence against the Watchtower should be found in scripture. We know that faith ultimately does not come from persuasive arguments, but through receiving the self-authenticating word of God, for “faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ” (Rom 10:17). I see no reason why our polemic (learn this word if you don’t already know it) against the false teaching of the Watchtower should not be found on the very same pages of scripture as the gospel itself.

Finding evidence from scripture that contradicts the beliefs of JW’s may seem like it would require a great working knowledge of Watchtower theology. It doesn’t. As Dr. James White has noted, the most important preparation you need for witnessing to members of false religions is knowing what you believe. If you can clearly, and accurately, articulate the gospel, and provide scriptural support for that articulation, you can be an effective witness.

A word of Caution

It is of vital importance that we make a clear distinction between debating and witnessing. Debating is an exchange of arguments seeking to convince your opponent (or others) that he is wrong, and you are right, on some particular point. Witnessing is proclaiming the truth of Christ crucified (1 Corinthians 2:1-5), and seeks to speak the truth in love (Eph 4:15) as a faithful obedience to Christ’s command to make disciples of all nations (Matt 28:19-20).

My failures as an evangelist nearly always begin with the conflation of these two distinct types of communication. While debate can be a powerful tool in witnessing to lost people, it is dangerously easy to conflate winning a debate with winning souls for Christ. I have learned to avoid this by taking an approach in which the gospel is central and avoiding topics that JW’s are almost all familiar with, such as the deity of Christ, the personhood of the Spirit, or the accuracy of the Watchtower’s New World Translation. While I do not believe these traditional approaches are wrong, I have found in my experiences that the approach described below works far better.

JW2

May I ask you a question?

I once saw a video of an evangelist named Don Blythe doing what he called “The Two minute Drill.” Rather than beginning with a polemic, he begins with a hypothetical question:

“Suppose while I’m taking to you and all of a sudden, somebody comes up and shoots me. I’m laying on the ground, I’ve got two minutes to live, and I say ‘I’m dying, I’m dying, and I came over here to talk to you because I don’t know God. Please help me.’  What do you say to me?”

This question (or any equivalent) is useful for at least two reasons. First, this is not a question many JW’s are prepared to answer, and It immediately puts them in a vulnerable position in which they have to think critically about their beliefs. Second, the question focuses entirely on the gospel. The good news (As Blythe notes) is clearly defined by the New Testament. The NT also explicitly warns against false gospels, which are cursed by God (2 Cor 11:4, Gal, 1:8-9). In this way, we find our scriptural evidence against the theology of the Watchtower and our witness to the JW in the very same verses.

As the JW struggles to offer you the gospel the Watchtower teaches, it is important to ask clarifying questions such as “What do you mean by that?”  In fact, if you don’t ask these questions, you may run into another problem. More prepared JW’s will sometimes present a gospel that, on the surface, sounds very much like what we believe. Yet with careful questions and listening, you will quickly learn that the JW has redefined common Christian terms to mean something entirely different.

dual-class Christianity

Ultimately, the Watchtower has stripped the word “gospel” of its biblical meaning. Because of this, there are many different avenues of approach when showing the JW how his theology contradicts scripture. The one I prefer to focus on is the Watchtower’s creation of a sort of “dual-class” Christianity. To the JW, when scripture speaks of those who will be called “Sons of God,” be “indwelt with the Spirit”, or who will be “heirs of God” and “kings and priests,” we should think only of an elect group of 144,000 persons mentioned briefly in Revelation chapters 7 and 14. The vast majority of JW’s believe these seats are filled, and our hope is an “earthly hope” to live for eternity on a restored Earth while the Father, Christ, and the 144,000 rule in heaven for eternity.

After, conducting the “2-minute drill” I usually lead the conversation to a very specific question:

“When the Bible speaks of believers being ‘adopted sons,’ receiving ‘the Spirit of His Son’ into our hearts, and making us ‘heirs through God.’ Is this part of the good news you would share with me?”

The JW’s answer is very specific: “No.” Remember, the JW believes these New Covenant promises are reserved only for the 144,000 “sealed” Israelites of Revelation, who the Watchtower interprets to be those who reign with Christ for eternity in heaven. JW’s do not believe these promises apply to you, or them. They believe they are part of a sort of “second-class” Christianity who inherit an eternal life on earth under the rule of the Kingdom, but not in it, and apart from the presence of God.

At this point I will usually ask, like Blythe in the video above, if the JW will read from his own (New World Translation) bible. First I ask him to read Galatians 1:8-9, and highlight how expressly Paul warns that any gospel other than the one he teaches is cursed by God and therefore cannot save us.

Then I ask him to move to chapter 4 and read verses 3-7 aloud:

“In the same way we also, when we were children, were enslaved to the elementary principles of the world. But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law, to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. And because you are sons, God has sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, crying, ‘Abba! Father!’ So you are no longer a slave, but a son, and if a son, then an heir through God.”

Here, only pages after warning of false gospels, I point out that the gospel Paul so desired to protect includes all of the blood-bought New Covenant promises that the JW’s have excluded for all but a tiny percentage of mankind. I then proclaim the true gospel, and warn them of Christ’s words– “But woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you shut the kingdom of heaven in people’s faces. For you neither enter yourselves nor allow those who would enter to go in.” (Matt 23:13)

At this point I almost always pause and offer something like this:  “I am not asking you this because I just want to argue with you, but because my heart breaks for anyone who might be deceived by a false gospel that cannot save him or her from God’s just punishment.” Having the foundations of your worldview shaken is never pleasant, and this simple statement goes a long way in disarming those who might otherwise be frustrated or emotionally charged by your witness.

The Watchtower vs. Scripture

At this point there are really only a few responses the JW will ever give. As mentioned before, most JW’s would love to talk about the Trinity. Don’t let them. They would love to talk about John 1:1. Don’t let them. They would love to direct you to their website, where they are sure you will find the answers to these questions. You won’t. Keep them engaged. They are not trained to defend their views of the gospel, and it shows.

If the JW does respond, he will do so by showing how he reads scripture- through the lens of the Watchtower’s eschatological theory. The JW will tell you that Paul’s words in Galatians must be talking about those who are among the 144,000 sealed by God.

There are many ways to show the absurdity of this reasoning, not the least of which is simply asking the JW “Where does Paul say that?” Even if the JW opens to the book of revelation and gives his theory on the meaning of the “144,000” and the “great crowd” ask where scripture says these two groups will have different eternal destination. They won’t be able to answer either question, because scripture says no such thing.

The point to drive home, however, is more basic. The JW believes that scripture is the Word of God, and most are taught the importance of using scripture to interpret scripture. The plain warning of Paul is that any gospel that differs from his is cursed, and yet the JW’s are preaching a factually different gospel because they hold a man-made interpretive theory on the most symbolic and mysterious book of the Bible above Paul’s clear teaching. They have not only contradicted scripture, but they have violated their own principals of Biblical interpretation. I will often offer something like this:

“I don’t want to debate the interpretation of the book or Revelation with you, but I hold to a different understanding of what the “144,000” and “great crowd” represent. Yet if my interpretation of this symbolism forced me to contradict the Apostle Paul by changing the essence and meaning of the gospel itself, I should reject it!”

Usually at this point, the JW will bring up something about Jesus mentioning his ‘little flock’  (Luke 12:32) and his ‘other sheep’ (John 10:16) which they believe refers to the 144,000 and the “great crowd” of Revelation. Don’t bother arguing that these terms clearly reference the Jews and the gentiles. Instead, ask the JW pointedly: “Does the Spirit of Christ dwell within you?” You will almost certainly not get a straight answer the first time through. This is a touchy subject for the JW, and he will likely say that he has the Spirit working “with” and “around” him. Ask again, pointedly: “Is the Spirit of God dwelling within you?” Eventually you will get a clear answer: “No.”
Now go straight to Romans 8:8-9, where Paul writes:

“Those who are in the flesh cannot please God. You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him.”

 
“Little flock”, or “other sheep?” It doesn’t matter, because both are His and scripture says that unless His Spirit dwells within you, you do not belong to Christ!

 

Politicians Carefully Celebrate Harriet Tubman, Not Her Christian Worldview

Lawrence, Forward.
Lawrence, Forward.

The U.S. Treasury has announced plans to put the faces of several famous abolitionists, civil rights, and women’s suffrage advocates on our paper currency. While it’s possible we won’t see these bills for 10-20 years, the symbolic change is getting attention. While famous leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Eleanor Roosevelt will appear on the back of the new 5$ note, the choice to put Harriet Tubman’s image on the 20$ note (replacing Andrew Jackson) has garnered the most attention. Treasury Secretary Jack Lew, told reporters Wednesday that “[Tubman’s] incredible story of courage and commitment to equality embody the ideals of democracy that our nation celebrates, and we’ll continue to value her legacy by honoring her on our currency.”

On Twitter, liberal political leaders tweeted their support.

https://twitter.com/NancyPelosi/status/722865533834514432
https://twitter.com/NancyPelosi/status/722865533834514432
https://twitter.com/HillaryClinton/status/722846239335804928
https://twitter.com/HillaryClinton/status/722846239335804928

We are right to honor heroes like Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. for their bravery, but strangely absent from these soundbites is reference to the worldview that compelled these champions of justice to give their lives to the causes for which they fought.

Both Harriet Tubman and Martin Luther King Jr. were evangelical Christians. They both recognized the sovereignty of God over our nation and God’s moral law as the foundation of all justice. Within these Christian principals we find the foundation for all just violations of civil law. Remember, Harriet Tubman was once a pistol-wielding fugitive with a bounty on her head. How are we to understand the distinction between those who break laws justly, and those who are merely criminals?

Martin Luther King Jr. understood this question better than most. In his famous “Letter From a Birmingham Jail,” King wrote:

“One may well ask: ‘How can you advocate breaking some laws and obeying others?’ The answer lies in the fact that there are two types of laws: just and unjust. I would be the first to advocate obeying just laws. One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws. I would agree with St. Augustine that “an unjust law is no law at all.

Now, what is the difference between the two? How does one determine whether a law is just or unjust? A just law is a man made code that squares with the moral law or the law of God. An unjust law is a code that is out of harmony with the moral law. To put it in the terms of St. Thomas Aquinas: ‘An unjust law is a human law that is not rooted in eternal law and natural law.'”

Harriet Tubman also understood the difference between the law of man and the law of God. Fellow abolitionist Thomas Garrett wrote of Tubman,

“I never met with any person, of any color, who had more confidence in the voice of God, as spoken direct to her soul. She frequently told me that she talked with God, and he talked to her every day of her life . . . she said she never ventured only where God sent her, and her faith in the Supreme Power was truly great.”

Indeed, her courage to to break the unjust laws of her time, risk her life for hundreds of slaves, and serve as a spy during the civil war can only be explained by her knowledge of God’s sovereignty and authority. In an 1859 letter Tubman wrote
“God’s time [Emancipation] is always near. He set the North Star in the heavens; He gave me the strength in my limbs; He meant I should be free.”

While our political and cultural leaders are rightly praising the life of Harriet Tubman, they are doing so without recognizing the greatness of the Christian worldview, which served as the foundation of her actions. This is historical revision through omission.

I do not think this is by mistake. Acknowledging that the greatest civil rights and abolitionist leaders in our nation appealed to God’s Law as the standard by which civil law should be judged as just or unjust would expose the politically liberal to a frightening irony.

While man’s law values a woman’s right to secure the murder of her unborn child, God’s law forbids the murder of innocent children, including those in the womb (Exodus 20:13, 21:22, 23:7;  Psalm 106:38; Deut 24:16, 2 Kings 23:10). While man’s law defines marriage by the whims and dictates of popular culture, God’s law strictly defines marriage as a sacred covenant between one man and one woman (Genesis 2:24, Matthew 19:4-6, Mark 10:6-9, Romans 1:24-127).

What would happen if we consistently applied the Christian worldview of women like Harriet Tubman to our society?

Were Tubman and King alive today to see their nation praising their memory while failing to praise the God they gave their lives glorifying, what would they say? Would they even see it as an honor to be portrayed on our money, the false god that so many of us are prone to worship? I don’t know the answer to these questions, but I do know that we should not allow our politicians to turn faithful ministers of the gospel into heroes of secular humanism.

Science: No Friend of Atheism

“The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.'”– Psalm 14:1

Jan_Matejko,_Stańczyk
Stańczyk, Jan Matejko, 1862.

We all hold to certain fundamental assumptions about reality. These assumptions act as a sort of lens through which we interpret our experience of reality. Collectively, these assumptions are known as our worldview.  Because we all hold a particular worldview, none of us can claim to be truly “neutral” in any regard. Understanding this concept is essential, and if you haven’t read my article on this topic yet, you should.

Since we presuppose fundamental ideas about knowledge before we even begin to interact with reason and evidence, how can we ever know which view of reality is true? Greg Bahnsen offers a solution: We are simply to ask the question “which worldview makes human experience intelligible?”(1) This means stepping into the shoes of both parties, looking through the lens of their worldview, and determining which worldview comports with our experience of reality. In a previous series, I outlined the failure of the atheist’s worldview to explain our experience of moral truth (part 1, part 2, and part 3). In this article, I will focus on another area of human experience: Scientific knowledge

Find ten people who are not Christians, and at least nine of them will cite “science” as a component of their rejection of Christian truth claims. Some see science as disproving the miraculous claims in the Bible, such as the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth from the dead. Some see evolutionary theory or big bang cosmology as a contradiction of biblical claims. Others simply see science as superior epistemology. The individual arguments aren’t particularly important here. The point is that unbelievers frequently appeal to science when articulating their rejection of God.

Yet there is a fundamental irony to this that is nothing short of worldview-shattering for the unbeliever. The word “Universe” comes from the latin roots unus which means “one” and versus which means “to turn”. The Latin universus literally means “turned into one.”(2) That our universe is a collection of diverse parts, unified into an orderly, rational, predictable system is expressed in the etymology of the term itself.(3) This principal is known as the uniformity of nature, and it is the foundation upon which the scientific method is built.

Science itself is a systematic methodology of observing physical evidence and making inferences based on those observations.(4) This means that science depends entirely on the uniformity of nature. The principal of uniformity holds that material cause and effect relationships will produce the same results if all conditions remain the same. Bahnsen notes that our reasoning “tacitly assumes that the universe is such that uniformities are expected and exhibited in similar things even though they are separated by time and space – that the way things happen can be viewed as instances of general laws and what has occurred in the past is a reliable guide for predicting and thus adjusting to the future. (5)

For example, we know that the fundamental principals of physics that allow aircraft to fly will be the same tomorrow as they are today. We also know that the temperate required to produce chemical reactions in our body will be the same in both Canada and Africa. Without the principal of uniformity, scientific investigation would be impossible, as it relies entirely on an orderly, rational, coherent, and unified system. (6)

But we can take this further. As the Philosopher Bertrand Russell observed, “The general principles of science, such as the belief in the reign of law, and the belief that every event must have a cause, are as completely dependent upon the inductive principle as are the beliefs of daily life” (my emphasis).(7)  In other words, we assume the uniformity of nature in everything we do. When we jump we expect gravity to bring us back to earth. When we talk we expect the sounds we make to reach the ear drums of the person we speak to. When we open the refrigerator, we expect to find food inside, not a black hole.

Try asking someone if he is skeptical about floating away from the surface of the earth when he gets up out of his chair. Any sane person would simply laugh at this suggestion. Why? Because we are strongly committed to the belief that the laws governing the universe are uniform through space and time. But where do we get this commitment, and is it rational? Here we must return to the original question posed in this article: Which worldview can make sense of our experience of reality?

For the Christian, uniformity of nature is to be expected. Scripture states that God created the heavens and the earth (Gen. 1:1). This means God is the author of the physical laws and constants of the universe. In his letter to the Colossians, Paul details the extent of God’s creation, writing

“For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together.” (Col 1:16-17)

The greek sunistemi in the phrase “hold together” is literally “to cause to stand together.” God is the unifying principal that brings harmony and order to the universe, and apart from his continuous sustaining activity, all would fall apart (Heb. 1:2-3).(8) Bahnsen also notes that because the universe was created “by him” and “for him,” The universe does not exist without reference to God. This means we can never expect to properly understand the universe apart from him. (9)

Thus the Christian has the word of the creator himself on which to ground his trust in the principle of uniformity. In fact, science as we know it was birthed in the cradle of Christianity (10). It was trust in God’s word that lead Christians to the belief that the universe was rational, orderly, and discoverable. Prior to the mid 1800’s, science was seen as a form of religious devotion, and it was religious faith that lead to the discoveries of men like Copernicus, Johannes Kepler, and James Clerk Maxwell. (11)

In contrast, the atheist’s worldview can provide nothing to support his belief in the uniformity of nature. If we lived in an unguided and purposeless universe, we could simply marvel at the inexplicable uniformity of nature we experienced. We would also have no reason to think this uniformity extended to all places, or that it would continue to exist in the immediate future.

The problem of induction, as this is known, was first discussed by the famous atheist philosopher David Hume, who reckoned it insolvable.(12) Because of his commitment to solving it in the context of an atheist worldview, he was quite right. The atheist has no choice but to simply assume induction leads to knowledge, without any rational justification for that belief. This is an attitude not of science, but of faith; a faith that is blind and unguided and contains no knowledge or foundation- It is simply asserted.(13)

The almost immediate response to this accusation is that we have every reason to believe the future will be like the past. After all, we have a lifetime of experience to show us that the laws of nature are consistent, and thus we can predict with something close to certainty that things will continue as they always have. The problem with this view is that it is a textbook example of the question-begging fallacy. I am not alone in this assessment. Bertrand Russell eloquently described the error in answering the problem of induction in this way:

“The inductive principle is equally incapable of being proved by an appeal to experience. Experience might conceivably confirm the inductive principle as regards to the cases that have been already examined but as regards unexamined cases it is the inductive principle alone that can justify any inference from what has been examined to what has not been examined. All arguments which on the basis of experience argue as to the future or the unexperienced parts of the past or present assume the inductive principle. Hence we can never use experience to prove the inductive principle without begging the question.” (my emphasis) (14)

This means that the unbeliever cannot claim to have scientific knowledge of any kind, as the foundational principal of induction (on which all scientific knowledge rests) is a baseless assumption; a question mark hanging in the air. Russell was consistent on this point, and conceded that the acceptance of the laws of physics as true was “a purely personal affair, not susceptible to argument.” In other words, consistent atheism leads to subjectivism.(15)

As with the problem of morality, we see that atheism taken to its logical conclusions is absurd. When discussing this topic with the unbeliever, you will find that he almost immediately recognizes the presence of absurdity in the discussion, but not its origin. He and will often laugh-off the notion that gravity might cease to exist tomorrow, or that turning the key in his car might suddenly cause a nuclear explosion. But this is the futility of the unbelieving mind in action. The Christian is not arguing that we should think these things. In fact, only an insane person would consider these absurdities possible. The point is that if the atheist was consistent with his worldview he must consider all of these absurdities possible.

And yet he does not. Like the Christian, the atheist assumes the future will be like the past, despite the irrationality of this belief given his atheism. Thus, when the atheist appeals to science in defense of his unbelief, he is borrowing capital from the Christian worldview in order to attack it. He is a walking contradiction.

This is why scripture says “The fool in his heart says ‘There is no God'” (Psalm 14:1). The term fool does not speak to the unbeliever’s intelligence, but to the futility of attempting to understand the world while simultaneously rejecting the God who created it. Scripture plainly states that the unbeliever already knows God, but suppresses the truth of God in unrighteousness, leading to darkened and futile thinking (Rom 1:18-21). It is this noetic effect of man’s sinful nature that allows very intelligent atheists to hold to these irrational and contradictory views of reality (Prov 1:7; 2 Cor 3:7-16). Thus, it is God’s grace alone that will save the unbeliever from his sinful nature and the cognitive dissonance it leads to.

Trying to out-think this problem by turning to philosophy is like turning to liquor to deal with emotional pain. Nothing is solved, nothing goes away, but the alcohol dulls the immediate experience of the problem and its threat becomes tolerable. Only by placing faith in Christ,  who is himself the foundation of all truth (John 14:6), can the unbeliever be freed from this condition and saved from God’s wrath.

 

  1. Greg Bahnsen, The myth of neutrality, retrieved 2016-02-14.
  2. “Online Etymology Dictionary”http://www.etymonline.com. Retrieved 2016-02-14.
  3.  Bahnsen, Greg (2007). Demar, Gary, ed. Pushing the Antithesis. Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision. p. 186.
  4. “Our definition of science – The Science Council”The Science Council. Retrieved 2016-02-14.
  5.  “Atheism & Induction, Greg Bahnsen vs. Edward Tabash” (PDF). 1993-01-12. Retrieved 2016-02-14.
  6. Bahnsen, Greg (2007). Demar, Gary, ed. Pushing the Antithesis. Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision. p. 187.
  7. “The Problems of Philosophy by Bertrand Russell”http://www.personal.kent.edu. Retrieved 2016-02-14.
  8.  Wenham, G.J.; Motyer, J.A.; Carson, D.A.; France, R.T., eds. (1994). New Bible Commentary. Downers Grove, Illinois: Inter-Varsity Press. p. 1266.
  9. Bahnsen, Greg (2007). Demar, Gary, ed. Pushing the Antithesis. Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision. p. 185.
  10.  Oliphint, Scott (2013). Covenantal Apologetics: Principals & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. p. 210.
  11. “Science owes much to both Christianity and the Middle Ages : Soapbox Science”blogs.nature.com. Retrieved 2016-02-14.
  12. Vickers, John (2016-01-01). Zalta, Edward N., ed. The Problem of Induction (Spring 2016 ed.).
  13. Oliphint, Scott (2013). Covenantal Apologetics: Principals & Practice in Defense of Our Faith. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway. p. 120.
  14. Russell, Bertrand (2012-05-04). The Problems of Philosophy. Courier Corporation. p. 47.
  15. Bahnsen, Greg (2007). Demar, Gary, ed. Pushing the Antithesis. Powder Springs, Georgia: American Vision. p. 185.

Bethel Church: Hip music, False Doctrine

“Controversy for the sake of controversy is sin. Controversy for the sake of the truth is a divine command.”– Dr. Walter Martin

The Homepage of Bethel Church: www.ibethel.org
The Homepage of Bethel Church: http://www.ibethel.org

A few weeks ago a good friend of mine recommended Bethel Music, a community of Christian musicians working together through the ministry of Bethel Church. I really enjoyed their songs, so I began to look into Bethel’s ministry. As I did, I learned that Bethel has been identified as part of the Word of Faith Movement.(1) While I knew this association didn’t say anything about what Bethel Church teaches, Word of Faith proponents have been (often rightly) criticized for unbliblical doctrines.

I decided to do a little more digging. The Church is lead by Bill Johnson, and is based in Redding California. It also seems to have garnered a world-wide influence through its ministry. As I researched Bethel, this hipster-cool church just seemed a little weird. Then weird became concerning, and concerning became deeply troubling. For example, self-proclaimed “born-again witch” Annika Mongan has written about her experience visiting Bethel Church for healing. In her articles, she describes multiple “prophecies” she received from Bethel staff telling her how “God is so proud of her” and that she’s “on the right path.”(2,3)  Clearly something is very wrong with this picture. Recall Ezekiel’s condemnation of Israel for false prophecy that “encouraged the wicked, that he should not turn from his evil way to save his life” (13:22).

I have read extensively on Bethel, both from critics and supporters, and I have found that many of these discussions focus on claims of miraculous experiences (like angel feathers and gold-dust “glory clouds” appearing  in their church).(4) I don’t plan to do that. This is not to say these claims aren’t important to consider, but I feel they can become a distraction from the far more serious issue of aberrant teaching. I have not personally witnessed miraculous “glory clouds,” but I have witnessed the spiritual and emotional harm that can come from false teaching on the gospel and the doctrine of God. Before getting started on this topic, I want to make a few things clear.

First, as the body of christ, there are many non-essential issues in which we may disagree.(5,6) I agree strongly with Rupertus Meldenius’ famous quote, “In Essentials Unity, In Non-Essentials Liberty, In All Things Charity.”(7) Yet I believe Bethel Church is erring on what we would consider essential doctrines. Scripture warns us repeatedly to be watch out for false teachers and (2 Peter 2:1-3, Acts 20:28-31) and to “reprove, rebuke, exhort” (2 Timothy 4:2), though we should do so with love (1 Cor 16:14). As Walter Martin once famously said, “Controversy for the sake of controversy is sin. Controversy for the sake of the truth is a divine command.”

Second, as a charismatic church Bethel makes an easy target for cessationists (8); those who hold that while the Holy Spirit has continued His work since New Testament times, He has “ceased in one function: the miraculous gifts, such as tongues, prophecy, and healing.”(9) I take a continuationist view on the ministry of the Holy Spirit, which holds that spiritual gifts such as healings, speaking in tongues, and miracles are still in operation today.(10) The reason I bring this up is that I do not want my criticism of Bethel Church to be misconstrued as simple anti-continuationism and dismissed as a squabble over the non-essentials previously mentioned.

Healing in the Atonement?

Of foremost concern for me was Bethel’s explicit proclamation of the “prosperity gospel.”(11) For those who don’t know, the prosperity gospel (sometimes called prosperity theology) teaches that faithful christians are entitled to well-being, which is interpreted to mean blessings of physical health and financial wealth.(12) I believe this theology is unbiblical, and creates a me-centered, me-glorifying theology rather than God-centered, God-glorifying theology.(13)

As John Piper explains, The prosperity gospel in action “minimizes sin, minimizes pain, and only talks about how well things will go for you if you follow Christ.” (14) In listening to Bill Johnson’s sermons, I noticed all of these trends. Specifically, Johnson teaches a doctrine known as “healing in the atonement.” This view holds that in Christ’s death, all true believers are given physical healing and can expect deliverance from all disease and infirmity in this life.

On this topic Johnson declares “I refuse to create a theology that allows for sickness”(15) arguing that “The price Jesus paid for my sins was more than sufficient for my diseases.”(16) But Johnson goes a step farther. Referring to 2 Corinthians 12:7, where Paul refers to his “thorn in the flesh” Johnson states “[this] has been interpreted by many as disease allowed or brought on by God… That’s a different gospel.”(15) Johnson believes a gospel that allows for Christians to suffer from disease is a form of the false gospel Paul warns about in Galatians 1:8.

I have reflected, studied, and prayed about this for some time. I can say with confidence that this doctrine is dangerous and unbiblical. It undermines the sovereignty of God and maximizes the autonomous reasoning of man. It plants the false hope of guaranteed healing in the heart of the believer, which can overshadow the living hope (1 Peter 1:3-5) of our salvation in Christ. This false hope leads to a sickness of the heart (Proverbs 13:12) and an unscriptural view of suffering and evil.

1 John 2:2 reads: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” Sam Storms seems to be pointing out the obvious when he notes that “sickness is not sin.”(17) It is true that sickness is ultimately caused by Adam’s fall and the corruption of mankind, but it is an effect of sin, not sin itself. Sickness is not something we are guilty of. So how do supporters of this aberrant doctrine justify the view that our sickness was atoned for by Christ? Most center their position on Isaiah 53:5, which reads:

“But he was pierced for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his wounds we are healed.”

Two new testament authors also quote this prophecy: “And He Himself bore our sins in His body on the cross that we might die to sin and live to righteousness; for by His wounds you were healed” (1 Peter 2:24). “That evening they brought to him many who were oppressed by demons, and he cast out the spirits with a word and healed all who were sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken by the prophet Isaiah: “He took our illnesses and bore our diseases” (Matthew 8:16-17).

By drawing on what these authors had to say about the writing of the prophet Isaiah, we allow scripture to interpret scripture. In the case of 1 Peter 2:24, we need only look at verse 25 to understand his meaning: “For you were straying like sheep, but have now returned to the Shepherd and Overseer of your souls.” Peter is clearly talking about the spiritual healing that comes to believers. If we choose to interpret Peter’s quotation of Isaiah 53:5 literally, we need to literally expect to “die” to sin as well. But that’s not Peter’s point. Peter is consistent as he speaks of spiritual death, spiritual rebirth, and spiritual healing in this verse.

In Matthew 8:16-17 we have something different. Here we see that the context requires a literal interpretation. Jesus was literally healing sickness, disease, and infirmity. But as Elliot Miller points out, Matthew tells us that Isaiah’s prophecy was then being fulfilled by Jesus’ actions during his ministry, prior to the atonement.(18) It appears that the healing of disease was to be expected as a sign of the messiah, but this does not make it a guarantee for all believers.

Sam Storms hits the nail on the head when he writes “To whatever degree we experience healing in this life, it is the fruit of Christ’s atoning death. But it does not necessarily follow that where there is atonement there is always an immediate healing. This passage in Matthew affirms that whatever healing does occur comes as a result of Christ’s redemptive work. But it does not necessarily mean that healing will always occur now as a result of that.” (17) Physical healing is then best seen as benefit of the atonement.

God does heal, often miraculously, but scripture in no way guarantees healing on demand. As blogger R.S. Lawdig humorously observed, “if healing is in the atonement why does Mr. Johnson wear glasses?”(19) A more complete view of scripture includes the reality of living in a world corrupted by sin, and the hope we have in our future glorification.

Consider Romans 8:23-24: “And not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved. Now hope that is seen is not hope. For who hopes for what he sees?” (my emphasis) Or Phillipians 3:20-21: “But our citizenship is in heaven, and from it we await a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ, who will transform our lowly body to be like his glorious body, by the power that enables him even to subject all things to himself.” (my emphasis)

This is the great promise, that even though we are wasting away (2 Corinthians 4:16) we will have full physical healing when we are glorified in the presence of God. This is why the believer in Christ can have peace, even joy in the midst of suffering (James 1:2-4). As Charles Spurgeon says, “It is impossible that any ill should happen to the man who is beloved of the Lord; the most crushing calamities can only shorten his journey and hasten him to his reward. Ill to him is not ill, but only good in a mysterious form. Losses enrich him, sickness is his medicine, reproach is his honor, death is his gain. No evil in the strict sense of the word can happen to him, for everything is overruled for good. Happy is he who is in such a case. He is secure where others are in peril, he lives where others die.” (20)

Bill Johnson. Photo: http://www.bethel.tv/speakers/show/1/bill-johnson
Bill Johnson. Photo: http://www.bethel.tv/speakers/show/1/bill-johnson
Is Sickness the Will of god?

Foundational to Johnson’s doctrine of healing in the atonement is the belief that God is not in control of everything that happens in the world. Bethel’s teachers explicitly endorse this limited view of God’s sovereignty. In one video Q&A session, Johnson states that  “We make a mistake in thinking God is in control of everything.” He goes on to explain that “Anything that happens, He can turn around for good, but it doesn’t mean it was His will or His purpose.” (21) Compare Johnson’s view with God’s revelation about himself in Amos 3:6:

“Is a trumpet blown in a city, and the people are not afraid? Does disaster come to a city,     unless the Lord has done it?”

Or Isaiah 45:6-7:

“That people may know, from the rising of the sun and from the west, that there is none besides me; I am the Lord, and there is no other.

 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.”

Or Lamentatinos 3:37-38

“Who has spoken and it came to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the Most High that good and bad come?”

Scripture even teaches us that a sparrow cannot fall to the ground apart from God’s will (Matt 10:29). I am amazed that Bill Johnson unable to see his departure from God’s word on this point. I believe this is because Johnson’s doctrine is based in emotion rather than exegesis. In one audio clip form Johnson’s teaching, he passionately (and angrily) rejects the idea that God would allow disease and pain in our world. In the same breath he conflates God’s allowance for evil with the idea that God commands evil, asking his audience the rhetorical question “[Did God] put a gun in your hand and said ‘shoot that thing?'”(22)

What Bill Johnson seems to miss is that scripture paints a picture of God’s will as multifaceted. I. Howard Marshall brilliantly notes that “we must certainly distinguish between what God would like to see happen and what he actually does will to happen, and [that] both of these things can be spoken of as God’s will.”(23) (My emphasis) For example, we know from 2 Peter 3:9 that God does not want anyone to perish, and wants all to come to repentance, yet this is not what we see around us. To interpret this to mean that God lacks control would be to contradict the rest of scripture. Instead, we should see this verse as an indication that God’s ultimate will is for something greater than universal repentance.

This is the foundational error of Johnson’s theology of God. He cannot conceive of God allowing tragedy to occur, because he assumes God’s ultimate will is for the comfort and happiness of the believer. Yet scripture makes it clear that all creation exists to bring glory to God (1 Pet. 4:11, 1 Cor. 10:311 Cor. 6:20Phil. 1:20).

This error becomes more clear when Johnson says he finds the idea that God would allow suffering and death to be disgusting. “I’d get arrested for child abuse for doing that, if I did that to my kids,” he says, referring to children dying of cancer. Of course Johnson, in his limited, finite perspective of redemptive history would never choose to allow children to die of disease. His mistake is assuming that God is like him, that his thoughts are like God’s thoughts, and that our understanding of God’s will should come from our moral intuition rather than scripture.

I sympathize greatly with Johnson on this point. The suffering of this world is sometimes so dark, and so agonizing that we struggle to see how God could use it for good. But God owes us no explanation of his motives, and we are to trust him regardless (Rom 8:28, Prov 3:5, Psalm 46:10, Jer 17:7-8). Scott Oliphint, exegeting pslam 50, notes the foolishness in reducing the infinite nature of God so that we might fully comprehend him.The Psalmist makes God’s judgment against this belief clear in verse 21:

“These things you have done, and I have been silent; you thought that I was one like yourself. But now I rebuke you and lay the charge before you.”

Oliphint explains that “This has been the problem in the history of Israel and the history of the church- [trying] to reduce God down so that we can get our minds around what he’s like and who he is. As creatures of God, that is not something we can do.”(24) Isaiah 55:9 similarly highlights the absurdity of minimizing God’s sovereignty that we might understand him:

“For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways     and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

This is what Bill Johnson does when he creates a theology in which God is “one like” ourselves. It is a me-centered theology that leads to a me-centered christianity. The result of this theology can be devastating for the individual believer. Consider a sick person who has become enthralled by Bethel’s promise that God wills to heal her and Jesus died on the cross so that she could be physically healed. Yet as is the case for many believers, miraculous healing does not come. Johnson addresses this situation in a FAQ section of his website:

“Realize the problem isn’t God, and seek Him for direction as well as personal breakthrough… Also, don’t take it personal. There are other factors involved besides great faith. That is only one element in the equation. Just learn to do your best to be faithful to His gospel, and honor Him for the results. It’s also not wise to blame the person who is sick.”(25) (my emphasis)

What “problem” is suppressing the will of God and allowing illness to prevail? Johnson vaguely references “other factors” but doesn’t identify them. Note that he doesn’t say the sick person isn’t the problem, just that it’s not wise to blame her.

In a separate interview on the subject, Johnson identifies reasons that healing might fail to occur. Each example points to the “problem” being the sick person herself: uforgiveness of the heart, self-criticism, and bringing disrespect to the table of the Lord. He simultaneously (and paradoxically) teaches that the sick should avoid self-condmenation, again vaguely referencing “other factors” that could cause healing to be unsuccessful.(26)

The spiritual burden this puts on the sick person is abhorrent. She is lead to believe the lie that her personal failure and sin can thwart the will of God, despite God’s claim that no purpose of his can be thwarted (Job 42:2). She is lead to believe the lie that she could be healed if she can summon enough faith, despite scripture’s claim that faith is itself a gift from God (Ephesians 2:8-9, 1 Corinthians 12:7-9). She is moved to sanctification not for the love of God, but to earn God’s promised gift. This is loving the gift more than the giver. This is idolatry. I have seen this play out with people I care about, and it breaks my heart to see how this false doctrine drains the hope and life from the sick.

The Gospel is not made more powerful by adding the gift of physical healing to it. In fact, I believe this cheapens what Christ did for us on the cross. Elliot Miller, speaking for Christian Research Institute, writes “It seems to us that one who needs to conceive of Jesus bearing all the cancer and leprosy in the world in order to understand the extent of His agony has an inadequate appreciation of the infinite weight and horror that was involved in Christ’s taking upon Himself the sins of the world.”(18)

  1. “Bethel’s ‘signs and wonders’ include angel feathers, gold dust and diamonds”http://www.redding.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  2. “Born Again Witch: Witches at a Pentecostal Church – Healings and Prophecies”Agora. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  3. “Born-Again Witch: Why I Took Witches to a Pentecostal Church (Part 1)”Agora. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  4. “Bethel’s ‘signs and wonders’ include angel feathers, gold dust and diamonds”http://www.redding.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  5. “Have the Charismatic Gifts Ceased?”CARM – The Christian Apologetics & Research Ministry. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  6. “The Essential Doctrines of the Christian Faith (Part One) – Christian Research Institute”Christian Research Institute. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  7. “Ligonier Ministries”Ligonier Ministrieshttps://plus.google.com/107926024921378362573. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  8. Strange Fire Conference – Panel Q&A – Friel, MacArthur, Lawson, Pennington & Peters, 2013-10-20, retrieved 2016-01-20
  9. “Strange Fire Conference: A Case for Cessationism”challies.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  10. “Signs and Wonders: Then and Now”Desiring God. 1991-02-01. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  11. “There is a big difference between… – Bethel Church, Redding | Facebook”http://www.facebook.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  12. “Prosperity theology”Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.
  13. “Apologetics 101 – Free Podcast by Westminster Theological Seminary on iTunes”iTunes. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  14. Why I abominate the prosperity gospel, 2009-10-27, retrieved 2016-01-20
  15. Bill Johnson False Teacher, 2010-08-19, retrieved 2016-01-20
  16. Johnson, Bill (2005-01-01). The Supernatural Power of a Transformed Mind: Access to a Life of Miracles. Destiny Image Publishers. ISBN 9780768422528.
  17. “Sam Storms: Oklahoma City, OK > Is There Healing in Atonement?”http://www.samstorms.com. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  18. “Healing: Does God Always Heal? – Christian Research Institute”Christian Research Institute. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  19. Ladwig, R. s (2011-01-06). “The Puritan’s Sword: A Biblical Examination of Philosophical, Theological, and Political Trends: The Teaching of Bill Johnson and Bethel Church Examined Part II: Bodily Healing In the Atonement Error”The Puritan’s Sword. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  20. Spurgeon, C. H. (1990-01-01). The Treasury of David. Hendrickson Publishers. ISBN 9781565639454.
  21. Bill Johnson – Word Faith-Dominion Now, 2010-09-03, retrieved 2016-01-20
  22. Bill Johnson on Healing, 2012-05-22, retrieved 2016-01-20
  23. Piper, John (2013-09-30). Does God Desire All to Be Saved?. Crossway. ISBN 9781433537226.
  24. “Apologetics 101 – Free Podcast by Westminster Theological Seminary on iTunes”iTunes. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  25. “Is it Always God’s will to heal someone?”Bill Johnson Ministries. Retrieved 2016-01-20.
  26. Bill Johnson on Healing, 2013-02-05, retrieved 2016-01-20

 

Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 3

“Crush a fool in a mortar with a pestle along with crushed grain, yet his folly will not depart from him.” Proverbs 27:22

The_Intervention_of_the_Sabine_Women
The Rape of the Sabine Women, Jacques-Louis David, 1798.

This series began with a simple question: Which worldview can make sense of our experience of reality, the Christian or the atheist? As human beings, we experience moral facts. We recognize questions like “is murdering children is wrong?” have true and false answers.

In Part 1 of this series, I explained that the existence of these moral facts cannot be accounted for within an atheist worldview. If atheism is true, we are nothing but complex clumps of stardust. We exist in a purposeless universe driven by the blind forces of time and chance acting on matter. There is no right or wrong way for clumps of stardust to behave. Therefore, anything that looks to us like a moral “fact” must really be a biological illusion. Yet our experience of moral facts persists in such a way that even those who deny they exist cannot live consistently with that belief.

The Christian worldview supports the existence of moral facts, and grounds moral truth in the universal, unchanging, and perfect goodness of our creator (Psalm 77:13, Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6). Christianity succeeds in explaining reality where atheism fails.

In this article, I will state and respond to the seven most common objections to this argument. I’ve done my best to accurately state these objections, and many of them are nearly exact quotes.

  1. “I’m an atheist and I act morally. We don’t need to believe in God to know what is right and wrong.”

This is the most common misunderstanding between Christians and unbelievers on this topic, and it is responsibility of the Christian to properly frame the argument in order to avoid this confusion. Though misguided, the objection is essentially correct. All mankind has at least some capacity to recognize moral facts and act in accordance with them (Romans 2:15). Most atheists demonstrate their recognition of certain moral facts (i.e. theft is wrong) while simultaneously rejecting God.

This objection mistakenly assumes the argument is saying “belief in God is a prerequisite for behaving morally.” But that’s not correct. The argument is that the existence of God is a prerequisite for the concept of moral truths to even be intelligible.

2. “I don’t agree with your premise that moral facts exists. Morality is just an abstract concept.”

This is an admirably honest position for an unbeliever to take. Rather than trying to have his cake and eat it to, he follows the atheist worldview to its logical (and uncomfortable) conclusion that moral questions such as “is raping and murdering a child wrong?” have no true or false answers.

The problem with this objection is that no one lives or thinks consistently with this view. Ask this unbeliever if he considers it wrong to murder children, and he will naturally agree, as this would conflict with his own stated moral preferences. But what happens when some other person actually does prefer to rape and murder children? He would naturally condemn this behavior as wrong, and argue that we should not commit such acts (who wouldn’t?).

But judgements of this nature only make sense on the Christian worldview, and are in fact incoherent and irrational on the atheist worldview. Consider this simple logical deduction based on the beliefs held by the atheist in this example.

  1. All moral beliefs are individual preferences
  2. Individual preferences, by definition, cannot be right or wrong.
  3. Therefore, the belief that it is morally acceptable to murder children is neither right nor wrong.

In short, by denying that moral facts exist, the unbeliever admits moral questions have no right and wrong answers. To judge another person’s behavior is then to conflate preference with fact, and to ascribe your own personal moral preferences to others who are not obligated to share them. This is logically equivalent to telling a person she is wrong for enjoying chocolate ice cream because you prefer vanilla. Thus, this view also fails to explain our moral experience, leaving the unbeliever in complete contradiction to his own worldview.

3. Moral facts are grounded in what our entire society views as acceptable behavior, not God.

The existence of moral facts is simply inexplicable on atheism, yet the tension between atheism and our experience of moral facts leads unbelievers to attempt to ground morality in, well, nearly anything. One such claim is that widespread acceptance and agreement upon moral norms somehow makes them matters of fact.

Let’s be very clear here, it can be a fact that “most people consider it wrong to euthanize the elderly.” This is a fact about what people believe. It does not follow from this that euthanizing the elderly is factually wrong, which is a factual claim forming the content of their belief. Did you catch that distinction? If it sounds complicated it’s not. Let’s phrase it this way: Just because a large number of people believe something doesn’t make it true.

Society’s agreement on certain moral norms does not make those moral norms factual. For example, If what is morally right and wrong is determined by consensus within an society, moral truth is fluid. In the colonial Americas, it must have been morally right to enslave Africans and force them to work on cotton fields.This is of course absurd. Thus, societal consensus cannot be the basis of the moral facts we experience.

4. Moral facts are grounded in our evolutionary biology, not God. 

Like our last objection, this view conflates the origin of a belief with its truth value. Even if it were a fact that our biology makes us feel that “setting people on fire is wrong,” it does not follow that “setting people on fire is wrong” is a true statement. It’s simply a biologically driven preference for one behavior pattern over another.

But there is a bigger problem here. From an atheistic worldview, all of our actions are driven by our biology. The individual who believes it is acceptable to set others on fire is acting in accordance with his biology just as much as the individual who believes those acts are evil. Like the rest, this view fails to provide the external moral standard by which we evaluate behavior: It fails to account for the universal, unchanging, obligatory nature of morality that we experience in every day life.

5. Moral facts are grounded in what is or is not in the rational self-interest of our species, not God. 

Like the previous examples, it may be a fact that we believe it is right for humans to behave rationally, but this does not make “it is right for humans to behave rationally” a factual statement.

As lofty as this objection sounds (who wouldn’t want to act  rationally?) it completely fails to account for our experience of moral facts as something external to our opinions and preferences. The claim here is that what is moral is rational, and the reason a behavior is morally wrong is because it is irrational. Eating babies, for example, would be a conflict between a person’s actions and his reason for acting, and therefore irrational and morally wrong.

The problem here is that the unbeliever has no basis to ascribe factual values to his claim that we should behave rationally. It is simply an expression of his personal preference. This means the question “should human beings behave rationally?” is not one with true or false answers. This is significant, because the unbeliever has defined moral value as exactly equal to the quality of rationality. If “we should behave rationally” is not a factual statement, it follows necessarily that “we should not eat babies” is not a factual statement, just a preference.

6. Moral facts are grounded in the threat of physical force. Saying we “should” do something  is actually an “or else.”

This view might seem a bit desperate, but in debating atheists on morality it has come up more than once. While threats of physical force, imprisonment, and legal ramifications can certainly influence behavior, we all recognize that these consequences themselves do not determine what is right and wrong. For example, in Saudi Arabia it is illegal for women to drive, yet we know that this does not make women driving morally wrong any more than Inida’s lack of punishment for marital rape makes the practice morally right.

7. Your argument is circular because it is based on the unproven assumption that God exists.

This objection might sound like it has some teeth, but it actually helps to highlight the problem the atheist faces. First, a circular argument is one in which an argument’s conclusion is also a premise in that argument. The atheist argues that by assuming moral facts exist, we have already assumed that God exists, thus beginning with what we are trying to prove.

But the premise of the argument in question is not “God exists.” The premise is that we have a common experience of reality that includes the existence of moral facts. This is readily accepted by atheists like Sam Harris who would clearly deny the argument’s conclusion. This premise can also be accepted by those who claim our experience of moral facts is simply an illusion. If you can accept the premise and deny the conclusion, the argument is not circular. It’s that simple.

So why does the unbeliever see circularity where there is none? Within the unbeliever’s objection is a tacit admission that the existence of moral facts necessitates the existence of the God of the bible. He recognizes that this conclusion follows inescapably from the premise and simply treats the premise as “God exists” in his mind as a sort of shorthand, making it a de facto circular argument.

In reality the atheist is rejecting the premise itself, because he knows what follows necessarily from it. This of course leads to the endless contradiction between the atheist’s claimed disbelief in moral facts and his own personal moral convictions and behaviors (see bullet 2 for a refresher).

Conclusion

Because the atheist worldview fails to comport with our experience of reality, unbelievers who hold to this view have only three options. The first is to attempt to ground the moral facts we experience in any number of concepts other than God. This is an exercise in futility, as nothing in an atheistic universe will ever provide the preconditions necessary to make the existence of moral facts intelligible. The second option is to deny the moral reality we experience and to live as walking contradiction, holding to a worldview that treats as illusory the same moral concepts the unbeliever holds to be true in every day life. This is the definition of irrationality.

The third option is to abandon the atheist worldview. If this were any other subject, that might be easy, but atheism is really just a symptom of a much greater problem. It is not an intellectual rejection of God, but an emotional one. This emotional rebellion against our creator leads to a “futile” and “foolish” heart (Romans 1:21), one that will tolerate self-contradiction and intellectual folly simply to maintain defiance against God. The unbeliever that refuses to reject the atheist worldview doesn’t need more convincing or a better argument for God. He needs to pray for forgiveness for rebelling against God and to submit to Jesus Christ as Lord.

Adventures in Mormonism

“When people say, ‘I believe in Jesus’, look them straight in the eye and ask, ‘Which one?’ ” – Dr. Walter Martin

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Last Friday my friends and I visited the 11th annual Christmas Festival at the Huntsville Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints. The event featured a living Nativity scene, decorated Christmas trees, and a performance by the Orchestra and Choir. But that’s not why we were there. We were there to encourage the young Mormon missionaries on duty at the event to carefully compare the teachings of their Church with the teachings of the Bible they claim to accept.

Our culture would have us believe that it is wrong to treat any religion as erroneous or false, and that we should focus not on doctrinal differences, but on what each religion has in common. But this view simply ignores that all religions make factual claims about both history and the nature of reality. These claims are also often in conflict with one another, and more fundamentally, in conflict with God’s revealed word.

This matters a great deal, because scripture reveals that trusting in the wrong God, the wrong Jesus, or the wrong Gospel is to trust in that which is powerless to save you (1 Timothy 4:1, Galatians 1:6-9, Isaiah 8:20, Romans 16:17-18). As Christians, we are commanded to love our neighbor, and there is nothing that should stop us from humbly and respectfully sharing the truth of God with our Mormon friends. Thus, to keep the saving Gospel of Jesus Christ to ourselves out of a sense of respect for the Mormon faith would actually a form of hatred.

I’d like to point out that my Mormon friends are some of the kindest people I know. They also frequently put the average Christian to shame in terms of devotion to their Church. What I mean to say is that this is not a critique against Mormon people, but Mormon theology. While Mormons are almost always sincere and passionate about their beliefs, those beliefs are fundamentally and irreconcilably at odds with scripture.

Unlike Christianity, Mormonism recognizes theBible (Old and New Testaments), and three other authoritative texts: the Book of Mormon, Doctrine and Covenants, and Pearl of Great Price. The latter three books were supposedly revealed by God through Joseph Smith, who Mormons consider a prophet.

Now because Mormons agree that the Bible is God’s authoritative word, we have a point of continuity from which we can start. Every Mormon I’ve spoken to agrees that it is most reasonable to test the words of any prophet against the antecedent revelation from God. A prophet that contradicts God’s word can be no prophet at all, as God cannot lie. Yet when we compare the teachings of Mormon theology to those of scripture, a disturbing pattern emerges.

Mormon Theology on the Nature of God:

Mormons once held that Adam is “our Father and our God, and the only God with whom we have to do.” (1) This teaching was claimed as revelation from God by Joseph Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, who taught it for over 20 years. Young also claimed to have learned this doctrine from Joseph Smith. (2) The Mormon Church now explicitly denies this teaching, and later Mormon prophets have contradicted it. On this issue Mormon scholar Stephen E. Robinson comments, “So how do Latter-day Saints deal with the phenomenon? We don’t; we simply set it aside. It is an anomaly.” (3)

Yet Mormons still holds that God himself was once a man like us, and is now an exalted man with a body of flesh and bone. (4) In other words, he was not always God, but once a child who had a father before him, who had a father before him, etc. This belief in many God’s fits with the Mormon view that God is a member of a “counsel of gods.” (5)

This is a striking contrast to the God of scripture, who created Adam (Genesis 1:27) and has been God from all eternity (Deuteronomy 33:27; Psalm 90:2, 93:2). Jesus specifically teaches that “God is Spirit” (John 4:24) and states that “a spirit does not have flesh and bones” (Luke 24:39).

In Isaiah 44:6, God further contradicts Mormon polytheism, stating that “I am the first and I am the last; besides me there is no god.”  While some Mormons will argue this passage refers to idols, God goes on to ask “Is there a God beside me?” His answer to the reader is firm: “yea, there is no God; I know not any.” (44:8) This cannot refer to idols, who God clearly knows of, but actual gods. In the New Testament  Jesus also affirms that there is only one God (Mark 12:28-34; Revelation 22:7-13).

Mormon Theology of Jesus

Mormonism holds that Jesus is a created being and one god among many gods, making him our spiritual brother and the spiritual brother of Satan. (6) It is also taught by many Church leaders that Jesus practiced polygamy. Jedediah M. Grant, who served under Church President and supposed prophet Brigham Young wrote that it was “A belief in the doctrine of a plurality of wives caused the persecution of Jesus and his followers.” (7) In Mormon theology it is also held that Jesus was not begotten by the Holy Spirit, but rather was conceived by the Heavenly Father having sexual intercourse with Mary “instead of letting any other man do it.” (8)

Contradicting these views, scripture records that Jesus was not created, but created all things in existence, including Satan (John 1:1, 3, Colossians 1:14-17). Jesus is not one of many gods, but is the eternal God (Isaiah 9:6-7, 7:14; Micah 5:2; Matt 1:23; John 1:1, 14, 8:58, 10:30-33; Philippians 2:5-11; Colossians 1:14-19; Acts 20:28; Titus 2:13.) Regarding the incarnation, Jesus was begotten by the Holy Spirit and was miraculously conceived (Matt 1:18-20; Luke 1:35), not through physical sexual relations between God and Mary (Interestingly, this view is exactly what Muslims think Christians believe).

Mormon Theology on a Member’s Responsibility

Perhaps the most divergent of all is the Mormon view that members must “learn how to be gods yourselves…the same as all gods have done before you.” (9) This means literally becoming gods, just like God himself. Former Church President Lorenzo Snow summarized this view in a memorable couplet: “As man now is, God once was; as God now is, man may be” (10).
By contrast, Scripture teaches clearly that there is only one God. Mormons will often argue that this is true now, but will ultimately change as Mormon believers are exalted to the status of godhood. Yet God explicitly says in Isaiah 44:6 “I am the first, and I am the last; and beside me there is no God.” This excludes any possibility of men becoming gods now or in the future.

Finally, I should note that there is a scriptural basis for the belief that men can become gods. In the Garden of Eden, the Serpent tempts Eve with this deceptive lure, “For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God” (Gen 3:5). The fact that the only scriptural parallel to Joseph Smith’s teaching on becoming gods is found on the lips of Satan should be deeply concerning to Mormon believers.

Mormon Theology of Salvation

The Mormon Church uses the term “salvation” in various ways. The first use describes salvation from death, as Mormonism holds that all mankind will be resurrected from death due to the atoning work of Christ. This work, however, does not save a person from sin, which requires an individual to be baptized and keep the commandments of Christ. (11)

The true salvation that all mormons strive for, however, is exaltation. The exalted Mormon will become a god himself and dwell in the presence of the Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ in the “Celestial Kingdom.” This ultimate state of salvation is only achieved through observance of sacred covenants and obedience to the commandments. This “Glorious gift” is not received until after the final judgement. (12)

This emphasis on earning one’s salvation is expounded by Brigham Young who wrote “There is not a man or woman, who violates the covenants made with their God, that will not be required to pay the debt. The blood of Christ will never wipe that out, your own blood must atone for it.” (13)

Unlike Mormon theology, the bible teaches that salvation is something we experience now. This is only possible because Christ’s atoning work on the cross was completely sufficient for those who believe in him. Scripture explicitly states that the blood of Jesus is sufficient for atoning for all sin (1 John 1:7, Colossians 2:13, Revelation 1:5, Romans 5:9).

We receive the gift of faith in Christ, we are justified by this faith alone, and we are guaranteed eternal life. (Romans 5:1, 9, Ephesians 2:8-10, Romans 6:23). Good works and obedience are not a requirement for salvation (John 6:47; Romans 3:20-31, 4:1-8, 5:1-2; Galations 2:16, 21, 3:10-13, 5:4; Titus 3:5). Through our faith in Christ we are also freely given the gift of the indwelling Holy Spirit as a guarantee of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14). It is He who then guides, convicts, and conforms the saved into people who obey God and perform good works (John 16:8, Galatians 5:16-25).

Jesus himself states “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me; and I give eternal life to them, and they shall never perish; and no one shall snatch them out of My hand” (John 10:27-28). The eternal life that Mormon theology equates with “exaltation” is therefore not only a free gift to those who are justified by faith, but it is one that cannot be lost through a failure to obey and perform (also Romans 8:37-39).

When confronted with these contradictions between the Bible and Mormon theology, many Mormons appeal to their personal experience with the Holy Spirit, who has shown them the truth of Mormon Scripture. This is usually based on a passage from the Mormon book of Moroni that reads:

“Behold, I would exhort you that when ye shall read these things, if it be wisdom in God that ye should read them, that ye would remember how merciful the Lord hath been unto the children of men, from the creation of Adam even down until the time that ye shall receive these things, and ponder it in your hearts. And when ye shall receive these things, I would exhort you that ye would ask God, the Eternal Father, in the name of Christ, if these things are not true; and if ye shall ask with a sincere heart, with real intent, having faith in Christ, he will manifest the truth of it unto you, by the power of the Holy Ghost.”

The contradiction then becomes one between the revealed word of God (the Bible) and this spirit that the Mormon has experienced. I have no doubt that the young men who have told me of this experience were telling the truth. They were convinced by the overwhelming presence of a spirit. The question is what spirit would willingly contradict God’s Word?

Paul seems to have anticipated this phenomena, writing to Timothy, “Now the Spirit expressly says that in later times some will depart from the faith by devoting themselves to deceitful spirits…” (1 Timothy 4:1)

Likewise, 1 John 4:1 reads: “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world.”

In summary, our Mormon neighbors are fellow image-bearers of God. They have been deceived and are lost, just as we were before Christ. We are commanded by God to love our neighbors, and that means respectfully and humbly confronting the false doctrines of the Mormon Church and turning our Mormon friends to the true Gospel.

  1. Brigham Young, “Self Government, Etc.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 1, disc. 8, pp. 46-53, 1852.
  2. Deseret News, 1873, Accessed through Utah Digital Newspapers.
  3. Stephen E. Robinson, “The Exclusion by Misrepresentation”
  4. I Have a Question,” The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
  5. Teachings of the Prophet Joseph Smith, Brigham Young University, pg 138.
  6. Brigham Young, “Why the Saints Are a Strange People, Etc.” Journal of Discourses, vol. 13, disc. 26, pp. 235-256, 1870.
  7. Jedediah M. Grant “Uniformity” Journal of Discourses, vol 1, discourse 49, pages 341-349, 1853.
  8. Brigham Young, “To Know God is Eternal Life, Etc.“, Journal of Discourses, vol. 4, disc. 42, pg. 218.
  9. Joseph Smith, “The King Follett Sermon“- Ensign Apr. 1971
  10. Lorenzo Snow Quotes, The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints.
  11. Salvation” an excerpt from See True to the Faith (2004), 150-53.
  12. Ibid.
  13. Brigham Young, “Instructions to the Bishops, Etc.” Journal of DiscoursesVolume 3, disc. 35, Pg.247, 1856.
  14. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, Gospel Principles, (2011), pp. 275–80.

Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 2

“There ain’t no sin and there ain’t no virtue. There’s just stuff people do.”
― John Steinbeck, The Grapes of Wrath

The blind leading the blind. Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919.
The blind leading the blind.
Gassed, John Singer Sargent, 1919.

In part 1 of this series, we looked at how the atheist worldview directly contradicts our experience of reality. Despite my explicitly stating the contrary, this has lead some readers to think I am arguing that atheists cannot hold moral beliefs. This is not the case. Rather, the problem I am exposing is that those moral beliefs are in contradiction to the atheist’s own view of reality.

Previously, I demonstrated that from an atheistic perspective, ethical claims can only be understood as matters of personal preference. To believe that there are true and false statements about how humans should act can only be considered an illusion. For many atheists, this is too hard to swallow. They recognize that human experience paints a very different picture of reality- one in which moral truths exist. They also recognize the impossibility of living life consistently with this belief. In order to deal with this problem, many atheists try to make moral truth intelligible within their worldview. They want to have their cake and eat it too.

Neurobiologist Sam Harris is one of the figureheads of what is often called “New Atheism.”  He has published, presented, and debated his view that no external moral arbiter is necessary to make moral facts intelligible. (1)

In his book, The Moral Landscape, Harris explains that “Questions about values– about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose– are really questions about the well being of conscious creatures.” (2) The experiences of these conscious creatures, Harris claims, can be scientifically understood as helping or hindering their flourishing. Thus, moral facts reduce to scientifically observable facts about the experiences of conscious beings. (3)

If we grant Harris that human well-being can be scientifically measured, and also grant him that it is true we should pursue human well-being, then it follows inescapably that moral truths exists and science can determine them.

Yet sharp readers will have already noticed that Harris has an enormous problem with his argument. At its foundation, Harris begins by assuming the moral fact that we should pursue human well-being. Harris is supposed to be proving that moral facts exist, and yet he’s appealing to a moral fact as a premise of his argument. This is a textbook example of circular reasoning.

Now of course we all know that human well-being is something we should pursue as a species. The problem is that our experience of this moral fact does not comport with the atheist worldview. Recall for a moment that if atheism is true we are nothing more than complex clumps of stardust: A cosmic accident with no real meaning, purpose, or value. When we make claims such as “we should not eat babies because that would harm our species,”  we are only expressing a fact about our mental state, not a fact about reality. Our moral beliefs are nothing more than sociobiological preferences that have no truth value.

Yet Harris, in an irrational contradiction to his own worldview, begins all of his reasoning by simply assuming as fact that human life should flourish. How does he justify this? He doesn’t. In fact, he seems to intentionally avoid the subject. In a debate with Christian philosopher William Lane Craig, Harris was asked by his opponent why we should care about human flourishing if atheism is true. Harris waved off the question, responding “we have hit philosophical bedrock with the shovel of a stupid question.” (4)

In his detailed review of Harris’ book, the New York Review of Book’s Allan Orr observes the same pattern. Harris believes that those “like serial murderers, who would champion some perversely eccentric conception of the good are so far outside the conversation that they needn’t be refuted, only ignored.” (5)

Again, Harris retreats to our collective knowledge that human life is valuable. Human flourishing is good. Serial murder is wrong. These claims are not in dispute. The question Harris avoids is how these statements can be true if our existence is ultimately devoid of any true meaning and purpose. His assumption of their truth is the very thing his atheist worldview cannot account for. By holding the value of human life to be self-evident and  justification of this belief unnecessary, Harris stands firmly on capital borrowed from the Christian worldview.

Harris’ problem is not a lack of intelligence or philosophical training. His problem is one of sin. Romans 1:21-22 reads “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools.” Harris, a brilliant neurobiologist, is blind to a fundamental contradiction between his own atheist worldview and the moral truths he knows exist. He claims to be wise, and has been reduced to foolishness. 

  1. H. Allan Orr, “The Science of Right and Wrong,” The New York Review of Books.
  2. Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape. 
  3. Sam Harris, “Science Can Answer Moral Questions,” TED Talk, 2010.
  4. William Lane Craig vs. Sam Harris, Is the Foundation of Morality Natural or Supernatural
  5. Orr, “The Science of Right and Wrong,”

Atheist Morality: A House Built on Sand, Part 1

“Without God…everything is permitted.” -Fyodor Dostoyevsky

Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanité”, circa 1671.
Philippe de Champaigne, “Vanité”, circa 1671.

As the name of this blog suggests, there is no such thing as neutrality. To be a Christian is to hold a worldview in which God’s revealed Word is our ultimate authority and the starting point of our reasoning. To be an atheist is to hold a worldview in which human reasoning is this authority. In this way, the Christian and the atheist start all reasoning assuming their ultimate authority is the correct standard. Each also assume that a correct view of reality can only come to those who share the worldview each has assumed (for more on this topic, go here).

How then, can we ever know which view of reality is true? Greg Bahnsen offers a solution: We are simply to ask the question “which worldview makes human experience intelligible?” (1).

This means stepping into the shoes of both parties, assuming for the sake of argument that each worldview is true, and determining which worldview comports with our experience of reality. This is a large task, and I am leaning heavily on the work of many smarter and more eloquent individuals to accomplish it. This post will focus only on one area of human experience: Morality.

Morality is a fairly straightforward concept. At its most basic, it is a standard we use to judge the “right” from the “wrong” when making decisions or assessing our claims against others. (2) Every one of us holds some set of moral beliefs, wether we are conscious of it or not. The belief that we should not scam someone out of her money, that we should assist a drowning child at the pool, or that we should not torture and eat babies, are all moral beliefs. We weigh these moral beliefs as being more than mere opinions or preferences- they are facts of reality.

So which worldview makes sense of this concept? For the Christian, our experience of morality is consistent with our worldview. Moral truth is grounded in the universal, unchanging, and perfect goodness of our creator (Psalm 77:13, Hebrews 13:8, Malachi 3:6). The character of God is the moral standard that all of our actions are measured against. Human life was created in his image (Genesis 1:27) with intrinsic value and dignity (Luke 10:25-37), and acts such as theft, rape, murder, and assault all violate God’s standard. This does not mean that belief in God is required for a person to be moral. It means that moral truth exists, something all of us plainly recognize (Romans 2:15).

Yet for the atheist, moral beliefs present an enormous problem. If we assume that the atheist worldview is true, we must admit that the universe is a cosmic accident. Human life is nothing more than the product of time and chance acting blindly on matter. We are simply complex clumps of stardust. When a murderer runs through a crowd stabbing innocent people, he is ultimately just a clump of stardust bumping into other clumps of stardust. (3) On what basis does the atheist claim that it is morally wrong to attack a crowd of people with a knife? He has none.

Because the atheist lacks an external standard by which human behavior can be judged, he has nothing to offer but his personal preference. Much like the young wolf in Jack London’s White Fang, his worldview leads to a reality in which morality is a meaningless concept- he simply does what his instincts and preferences drive him to do.

To our knife-wielding murderer, the only objective fact the atheist can offer is his mental state: “I do not like that you are stabbing people.” This is a far cry from the claim “You should not stab people,” but the atheist worldview cannot supply the preconditions necessary to make the latter claim intelligible. He has no authority to appeal to but the biochemical state of his own stardust brain. He has only personal preference.

The only way the atheist can be consistent with his own worldview is to consider moral belief a socio-biological illusion.(4,5,6) Yet the flagrant inconsistency of even the most popular atheist writers betrays their knowledge of God’s moral standards. In his book River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life, Richard Dawkins writes:

“The universe that we observe has precisely the properties we should expect if there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil, no good, nothing but pitiless indifference.” (7) (emphasis added)

Here it appears that Dawkins has accepted the logical conclusions of his own worldview, and yet a year later, in a speech delivered to the American Humanist Association, Dawkins makes a profound moral judgement. He claims that  “faith is one of the world’s great evils, comparable to the smallpox virus but harder to eradicate.” (8) (emphasis added)

This hero of modern atheism cannot maintain consistency with his own worldview. He is reduced to absurdity by claiming that belief in God is irrational while simultaneously borrowing from the Christian worldview to make a moral judgement against faith itself. Why is this? Because as an image bearer of God, he recognizes the existence of moral truth, yet suppresses that truth in unrighteousness. As the Psalmist observes of the wicked man “He makes a pit, digging it out,
    and falls into the hole that he has made.” (Psalm 7:15)

 

  1. Greg Bahnsen, The Myth of Neutrality.
  2. T.M. Scanlon, “What is Morality?, in The Harvard Sampler: Liberal Education for the Twenty-First Century.
  3. Jeff Durbin, “The Irrefutable Proof of God,” Scottsdale Community College.
  4. Michael Ruse, “Darwinism and the Moral Argument for God“, Huffington Post.
  5. Edward O. Wilson, “The Biological Basis of Morality,” The Atlantic.
  6. Provine, William B.; Johnson, Phillip E., “Darwinism: Science or Naturalistic Philosophy?, A Debate Between William B. Provine and Phillip E. Johnson at Stanford University, April 30, 1994,” Origins Research (Access Research Network) 16 (1).
  7. Richard Dawkins, River Out of Eden: A Darwinian View of Life.
  8. Alex Berezow, “Richard Dawkins is Wrong About Religion,” Forbes.

Islamic Terrorists: Exchanging the Truth For a Lie

“Islam is not unusual in having a tradition of martyrs. What is unique to Islam is the tradition of murderous martyrdom, in which the individual martyr simultaneously commits suicide and kills others for religious reasons.”
― Ayaan Hirsi Ali

What radical muslims are looking for, I believe, is hope of salvation- the promise of a reconciled relationship with our creator and the gift of eternal life. I also believe the Quran is very ambiguous on this point. Most of its teaching seems to depict salvation as a final judgement of one’s good works against bad, with God ultimately ignoring our evil works and letting us off the hook if we have done enough good.

Romans 3:23 informs us that “all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.” John Piper expands on this fact, explaining that “all human ‘virtue’ is depraved if it is not from a heart of love to the heavenly Father– even if the behavior conforms the biblical norms.” (1)  If our eternal destiny is determined by the weight of our good works, we are all doomed.

Mattaqi Ismail, writing for the website Islamic Learning Materials, made the following admission regarding Allah’s love:

“There’s no precise way to know if Allah loves you because you are not receiving revelation from Allah. All you can do is try to do those things that will make Him love you and try to stay away from those things that will lose His love.” (2)

While not directly speaking of salvation, this quote captures the exact level of confidence Muslims have in their standing before God. By contrast, Christians are assured of salvation because it is a gift that has already been purchased for us. We do not reconcile ourselves to a Holy God through our effort and good works. Rather, we are saved by the blood of Christ despite our lack of good works. This is the hope that all man-made religions lack.

Sadly, the ambiguity regarding salvation in the Qur’an seems to have an exception: Martyrdom.

Sura 4:74 reads:

“So let those fight in the cause of Allah who sell the life of this world for the Hereafter. And he who fights in the cause of Allah and is killed or achieves victory – We will bestow upon him a great reward.” (3)

Similarly, Sura 9:111 reads:

“Indeed, Allah has purchased from the believers their lives and their properties [in exchange] for that they will have Paradise. They fight in the cause of Allah , so they kill and are killed. [It is] a true promise [binding] upon Him in the Torah and the Gospel and the Qur’an. And who is truer to his covenant than Allah ? So rejoice in your transaction which you have contracted. And it is that which is the great attainment.” (4)  (emphasis added)

Those desperate for the hope that their false religion cannot deliver will find only one guaranteed path to righteousness- die fighting for the god of Islam. This seems to be especially true when Allah’s cause is entangled with conflicts of nationalism, political activism, and land. Given this knowledge, It is not hard to see how young muslims are then manipulated into attacking westerners by radical leaders of their faith. 

This view, even if only partially accurate, makes Jesus’ difficult teaching to “love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you” (Matt 5:44) seem possible for Christians in a world rattled by Islamic terrorism. While we can hate what groups like ISIS or Al-Shebab are doing (defending ourselves with deadly force when necessary), we should also feel pity for our enemies. They have been deceived and have suppressed the truth about God just as all mankind does (Rom 1:18).

If I’m correct about these points, I believe it means the key to peace isn’t simply hunting down and imprisoning or killing all of our radical muslim enemies. While I respect the complexity of this topic, peace is ultimately impossible without turning muslims to Jesus Christ.

Predictably, the unbelieving world rejects this solution. After posting this sentiment publicly, I immediately received responses such as “Can’t you see that religion is the cause of terrorism?” and “How do you expect to fix a religious problem with more religion?” This criticism is based on the atheistic assumption that all religious beliefs are equally false, and that these false beliefs persuade otherwise good people to commit evil acts. (5) Yet we know from scripture that all of humanity is in rebellion against God and sinful by nature (Rom 3:9-11). No false religion has a monopoly on evil or violence.

A second category of criticism is that this view is unrealistic. “We need to get real and deal with the issue. Not philosophy our way out of it” wrote one commenter. Again, this view assumes atheism, or at least that Jesus has no power in the real world. While the unbeliever might see conversion as a human-initiated cultural phenomena, we know that true conversion is God-initiated. In John 6:44, Jesus says “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him.” In 2 Corinthians 4:4-6, Paul writes that the minds of unbelievers are “blinded” and that it is God who has “shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ.” This means that the Holy Spirit can choose at His will to overcome any and all resistance within the unbeliever. (6)

As a parting thought, I do not want to appear to be oversimplifying what is a very complex problem. Religion, politics, nationalism, culture, and history have all contributed in some way to the rise of violent Islamic extremism. Yet at its most fundamental level, we are talking about a false worldview that leads to violence.

I believe any secular strategy that fails to exchange this false worldview for the truth will ultimately fail. Jesus Christ is the sacrifice these Islamic martyrs fail to be. While their sacrifice comes as an act of self-righteous evil, His was perfect, and we must bring this good news too them.

  1. John Piper, Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace (Scotland, 2001).
  2. Mattaqi Ismail, “Warning, Allah Might Not Love You.” 
  3. The Quran, 4:74
  4. The Quran, 9:111
  5. Richard Dawkins, Is Religion Good or Evil?, Al Jazeera.
  6. John Piper, Five Points: Towards a Deeper Experience of God’s Grace.

The Myth of Neutrality

“There is no neutral ground in the universe. Every square inch, every split second is claimed by God, and counterclaimed by Satan.”― C.S. Lewis

We reject God a priori when we treat human reason as the ultimate standard of truth. The Apotheosis of Homer, Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1827
We reject God a priori when we treat human reason as the ultimate standard of truth.
The Apotheosis of Homer,
Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres, 1827

Most of us would like to think we asses the fundamental questions of life from a neutral perspective. We imagine an “unbiased” or “objective” perspective as equivalent to standing on a tall peak, allowing us to see the land around us more clearly before committing to a belief. Even some Christians take this view, arguing that we should start from a neutral perspective and apply human reason and argument to arrive at the truth about God. Despite the popularity of this sentiment, neutrality is an illusion. There is no such thing as an unbiased, objective observer.

The idea of neutrality became popular during the enlightenment. In his essay An Inquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, Scottish philosopher David Hume captures this sentiment wonderfully. He writes, “Nothing can be more unphilosophical than to be positive or dogmatical on any subject…When men are the most sure and arrogant, they are commonly the most mistaken.” (1)

What neutrality calls for is the sterile assessment of brute facts without any influence from our current experience, beliefs, or assumptions about reality and knowledge in general. Not only does the very suggestion of this seem impossible, but we should question why Hume’s skepticism can escape his own critique. He writes with sure dogmatism that those with sure dogmatism are unphilosophical and likely mistaken.

Scripture clearly rejects the mirage of philosophical neutralism. Jesus said, “He who is not with me is against me, and he who does not gather with me scatters.” (Matt. 12:30). This means that Jesus is either the ultimate foundation of our thinking, or he isn’t. There is no middle ground.

How could this be?

First, recognize that every human being has a worldview: A system of thought that represents our most basic assumptions about reality, knowledge, and ethics. (2) Worldviews are like an invisible pair of glasses through which we see the world, and which ground and influence all one’s perceiving, thinking, knowing, and doing. (3)

Worldviews also contain a person’s ultimate standard for truth, meaning they are ultimately self-authenticating. This ultimate standard is a basic starting point from which all other beliefs are reasoned. For example, someone who claims we can only know something is true through human reasoning can only use human reasoning itself to argue that belief. One cannot appeal to anything else to support such a standard. It is a foundational, axiomatic assumption about reality. (4)

Those who claim to be neutral often state that they have chosen their worldview through an unbiased assessment of the evidence. “Show me the evidence for God” they claim, “and I will change my mind.”

Yet this is backwards. We cannot know anything about anything until we assume a worldview. As the late Dr. Greg Bahnsen observed “If you don’t know something about reality to begin with, you can’t devise a method that separates the true conclusion from the false conclusions about reality.” (5) In other words, the skeptic who claims to form his worldview based on his own “neutral” reasoning and assessment of evidence has already assumed something about the nature of reality- that human reasoning and observation is the ultimate standard of truth.

This assumption implicitly rejects the Biblical view that God’s Word is the ultimate standard of truth, and affirms that human reasoning is not autonomous. While the Christian begins his reasoning by appealing to the ultimate authority of the bible, the unbeliever begins his reasoning by placing ultimate authority in his own mind. Neither position is neutral, and we shouldn’t pretend they are.

But doesn’t it seem natural to trust in one’s own reason as the ultimate source of knowledge until you are presented with convincing evidence that Jesus Christ really is the risen Son of God? How could Jesus say adopting such a view is equivalent to being “against” him?

The answer is explained in Paul’s letter to the Romans. The Apostle writes of all who have not yet submitted to Christ, saying that “What can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived… So they are without excuse” (Romans 1:19-20).

Paul explains that the unbeliever knows in his heart of hearts that God exists, yet in his unrighteousness he suppresses this truth. The result isn’t pretty. “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Romans 1:21).

Dr. Scott Oliphint refers to this as “the psychology of unbelief.” (6) The unbeliever doesn’t just have some vague idea of a higher power, but a personal knowledge of his creator, who’s image he bears even as he rejects Him (Gen 1:27). In this way, unbelief never comes from a lack evidence or convincing argument, but from hardness of heart which leads to futility of thinking. I didn’t recognize it until later, but this was exactly my experience before Christ.

Jesus didn’t say “He who is not with me is against me, except for he who hasn’t finished his unbiased assessment of the evidence.” There is only one ultimate truth and He either reigns in our hearts, or sin does. We all have knowledge and relationship with God, but if that relationship is not based in the blood of Christ, it will lead to eternal suffering.

There is no neutrality. As John Frame puts it, “To tell an unbeliever that we can reason with him on a neutral basis, however that claim might help to attract his attention, is a lie. Indeed, it is a lie of the most serious kind, for it falsifies the very heart of the gospel—that Jesus Christ is Lord.” (7)

  1. David Hume, An Inquiry Concerning the Principals of Morals, in Essays, Literary, Moral, and Political (London, 1870).
  2. Greg Bahnsen, The Myth of Neutrality.
  3. Kenneth Funk, What is a Worldview.
  4. Greg Bahnsen, The Myth of Neutrality.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Scott Oliphint, A Worldview Framework.
  7. John Frame, Presuppositional Apologetics.