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Dar es Salaam, 29 July 2015

Jambo! I've arrived to Tanzania from Kenya. As I looked out the airplane window, I saw snow-topped Mt. Kilimanjaro (over 19,000', or about 6000m)! Yet I'm not here for the scenery, but for the people. And we seem to have many friends in East Africa! The airlines are talking about a nonstop flight from Atlanta to Nairobi (about 8000 miles, or 13,000 km). Now that would be convenient!

In Nairobi I spoke on: Leadership, Counter-cultural Faith, Witchcraft, Miracles, Acts 19:18-20 (sermon). Obama's presence in the city caused numerous road closures, preventing some from reaching the classes, but still it was a highly productive weekend. (Or so they tell me.)

Usually I see very little of any city where I teach, but sometimes there's an opportunity to be a "tourist" -- and I welcome it. In Dubai my fellow preacher Jacob whisked me up to the top of the Burj Khalifa, the world's tallest building (828m, or 2717') -- wow! Two other great brothers brought me to the rough desert straddling two emirates, for a "desert safari." In Nairobi my old friend Edward (from our campus ministry days in London, 1980s) drove me to Westgate Mall, site of al-Shabaab's 2013 attack, which killed 67 and wounded 175. Today security is high (lots of guns and barricades), and the stores are reopening. This trip has certainly not lacked excitement.

Photos, clockwise: In desert w/Mahavir & Mark / the Burj / baptisms in Nairobi / Dubai Thurs service.
This is our last installment on God in the Answering Skeptics series. Several future lessons are connected with this unit, but they fall under different categories, like Science or Jesus Christ. (To be determined, as the series is under construction.)  As usual, a recap of last week precedes today's lesson.
Recap: Gods that let you down
  • Idols leave us empty; they cannot fill the God-shaped void in our hearts.
  • "The Force" has far less explanatory value than the Old Man in the Sky, since impersonal energy cannot account for personality, morality, or intelligence.
  • Nothing has the right to claim our total loyalty, except for God himself, which means that Christians can never go along with totalitarianism.
  • New Age mysticism is silly. We are not God, despite the divine claims of those flattered by this elitist fantasy. 
  • All "gods" are doomed to fail; they aren't real, nor does it makes sense to serve them. The true God, however, whom we know from the Bible and through Jesus Christ, is rational (the biblical concept makes sense), relational (he's not just a power, but a being who interacts with his creatures), and righteous (since he's holy, his will often does not gibe with our own selfish preferences).

Coming to terms

How should you react when someone tells you, "Sorry, I'm an atheist"? Or what about when the person you were hoping to share the gospel with proclaims, "I'm an agnostic"? The goal of this week's unit is to orientate us. First, a few key points about atheism and agnosticism, so that we know what we're dealing with.

Atheism (a [not] + theism [belief in theós, God] isn't a real position, but an anti-position. Nothing is positively affirmed, and this is its weakness. One exception suffices to disprove it. Theists hold that there is a God, an all-present, all-powerful, all-knowing being. Atheists hold that nowhere in the universe is there such a being. Yet in order to know that nowhere in the universe is there such a being, the atheist requires complete knowledge of the universe. He would need to be that which he denies -- a being with universal knowledge! And again, a single instance of God's presence or activity refutes atheism in its entirety.

There are at least three types of atheists.
  • Type 1: Most atheists simply assert that there is no God; they haven't really thought the matter through, and when challenged for their reasons, they either change the subject or plead ignorance.
  • Type 2: Others have given the matter some thought. Most type 2 atheists resort to a blend of the various criticisms we have previously addressed, often with ad hominem attacks on believers. Yet such an approach hardly disproves God. Harping on the faults of Christians, insinuating that modern science overturns Scripture, or bringing up the scandal of the Crusades doesn't amount to much of an argument. They may well discredit some Christians, but this hardly discredits Christianity.
  • Type 3: A small minority of atheists are serious thinkers, for instance several whom I have debated. In order to win their respect -- and hopefully nudge them towards a biblical understanding of God -- you'll need to be familiar with the wide spectrum of Christian apologetics.
Backwards reasoning
Apart from a handful of type 3 atheists, most unbelievers have arrived at their position through what I call backwards reasoning. That is, they find atheism comforts them and they then back-fill the gaps in their position. For example, maybe Christianity cramps their style (they're sexually active though unmarried), or they may be put off by the notion of a day of judgment, and so they declare their atheism. Then they get busy seeking reasons to justify their new-found position. Or perhaps their peer group rejects church and morality and they want to fit in, so they give Confucius a cursory reading, grab a few sound bites from a documentary on the "missing" books of the Bible, and fold in some of their own speculations.

In all fairness, believers sometimes do the same, whether born into a faith family or coming to faith in Christ later on. They're seeking justification for a position already embraced. Obviously, if you want to be thorough in your consideration of eternal matters, such an approach is defective.

Like the word atheism, agnosticism also comes from the Greek (a [not] + gnostós [known]). God is either unknown or unknowable. Christian apologists recognize two flavors of agnosticism. 
  • Hard agnosticism: "God is unknowable." This is the more philosophical of the two versions, yet it makes some unwarranted assumptions. It rules out experience of God -- supernatural experience is simply explained away. Agnosticism correctly recognizes that a God would be infinitely above the comprehension of finite man, yet it fails to consider that the infinite God might purpose to reach down to us humans (John 1:1-2,14). Christians agree that God is unknowable exhaustively, yet they have experienced him in part. There is a difference between (some) knowledge of God and comprehensive, exhaustive knowledge of him. To illustrate, I have been married 30 years, but in one sense I'm still getting to know my wife. How much more is this the case in knowing the infinite God! 
  • Soft agnosticism: "I dunno if there's a God." This is seldom little more than lazy thinking. Of course there's one exception: the agnostic actively seeking answers, aiming to put together the pieces. In this case soon enough he or she will come to a conclusion, relinquishing the state of temporary ignorance. Oddly enough, I've met many (soft) agnostics who fancy themselves to be seekers, yet are not seeking in the biblical sense (Matt 7:7-8; Heb 11:6). We should distinguish between between intellectual modesty (I don't have all the answers) and intellectual lethargy (I may make a short-lived effort to seek now and again).
Other terms to know (which might come up in serious discussion):
  • Theism: belief in a personal God. Christians and Jews are theists.
  • Deism: belief in an impersonal God who created the cosmos but then stepped back and is no longer involved. He neither works miracles nor answers prayers. This was the position of many Enlightenment thinkers, as well as of many of the Founding Fathers of the United States.
  • Pantheism: God is everywhere and everything; the world itself is divine. This is the view espoused by the New Age Movement, borrowed from such Eastern Religions as Hinduism and Buddhism.
  • Polytheism: belief in many gods.
  • Monotheism: belief in one god.
So how should we respond when someone says he's an atheist? Here are a few ideas.
  • Find out how long he's been an atheist, and why he thinks as he does. Has he lost his faith, or never had it? What does he think about "church people"? Ask lots of questions, and listen
  • Where appropriate, utilize the information in this week's bulletin, and draw on other material in the Answering Skeptics series.
  • Inquire about his relationship with his parents, especially his father. Most of us conceive of God as a heavenly father, extrapolating from our perception of our earthly parent. A harsh or distant father doesn't model God as he truly is. Warm, nourishing father relationships (1 Thess 2:6-12) create climates in which faith easily grows.
  • If he/she asks you a tough question, don't change the subject. Answer it, or else admit that you don't know -- though you'll get back to him later with an answer.
When they tell you they are agnostics:
  • Some of the responses above may be appropriate for your agnostic friends.
  • Hard agnostics: Agree that in some sense God would be unknowable had he not taken the initiative to communicate with us. The Bible informs us that certain things may be known about God from nature, but other qualities are only known from scripture, his relationship with Israel in the Old Testament, and the life and death of Jesus Christ. Show them from the scriptures that in Christ God has personally taken the initiative.
  • Soft agnostics: Since they admit that their ignorance, ask them, "Why not sort this out?" Offer your help in guiding them through the issues.
For both atheists and agnostics:
  • Expose them to the biblical storyline. Help them to realize that the Bible isn't a book of rules, but an (unfinished) story about God, humans, and our place in his world.
  • Patiently build a relationship with your atheist friend. Although Christianity has an intellectual side -- and we are to relate to God with all our mind -- it is the relational aspect that wins most people to Christ. 
  • Pascal's Wager may come in handy. The philosopher reasoned: It makes sense to believe in God, for if it turns out that there is a God yet we haven't believed in him, we stand to lose everything; if there isn't a God and we believe in him, in the long term we have lost nothing; yet if we believe in him and he exists, we have gained everything. Nothing to lose, everything to gain -- I found the Wager especially useful in evangelism during my university years. Of course a biblical leap of faith isn't a decision to believe in spite of the lack of evidence; faith is in part a response to evidence.
  • Remind them of what Jesus said in John 7:17. We won't find the answers through discussion alone; we must be willing to act on the evidence. Ask your friend, "If it turns out that what Jesus taught is true, would you be wiling to live the rest of your life for him?" If he/she cannot instantly reply in the affirmative, you know the bottom-line issue isn't intellectual. It's moral.
Israel 2016
After Africa, I'm back in the United Arab Emirates to visit a friend. Then the 15-hour flight home to Atlanta, and the second summer tour will be over. Thanks to everyone who contributed to make this tour possible.

Actually, there's a trip I'm hoping you might be be interested in taking with me. We may hold our 2016 Biblical Study Tour in Israel (late October). As for the 2015 BST to Germany & Switzerland, there are still 15 spaces left. If you're interested in either of these faith-building adventures, please shoot me an email.

All for now!

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