In this last round of the debate, atheistic physicist Bernard Leikind demands proofs that Christianity is superior, while defending the superiority of an ethical system that learns and improves with experience. He challenges Heeren to get specific and defend biblical morality in matters of divorce, women’s rights, slavery, and more. Heeren defends Christianity’s uniqueness in its historical claims, its assessment of human nature, and its answers to life’s biggest questions.
Science writer Fred Heeren is in a position to know the arguments for his position from his seven-year search for evidence both for and against God’s existence, a quest that involved picking the brains of today’s great discoverers in science: Nobel prize-winning astronomers, NASA team leaders, and today’s leading theoretical physicists. His search continued in a study of history and the world’s major religions. He wrote the book Show Me God and founded the Day Star Network to provide the best information possible to aid others who wish to make this quest.
As a physicist and Senior Editor for Skeptic magazine, Dr. Bernard Leikind is in a position to know the arguments for his position. He received training in plasma physics and fusion energy at Cornell University and the University of Maryland, and his work has involved laser, particle accelerator, and nuclear energy projects. He has become known for his investigations into the paranormal–and for his debunking of them–while guesting on such popular venues as The Tonight Show.
As you may recall, in the first round of this question’s debate, Fred Heeren argued “YES!” because:
1. There are universal moral standards, though neither science nor religion can help us live up to them.
2. The ideal moral system must be superior to what science or religion have to offer: It must exist outside the cosmos to view it objectively, and it must confront/destroy evil.
3. Christ (not a religion about Christ) offers all the above.
4. Revelation from a Source outside the universe not only gives the best moral direction, but meaning for our lives as well.
5. The world seems to be set up in such a way that we persons should seek the Source of our personhood; we find no true satisfaction without it.
6. We should expect that the Father of us all is at least as compassionate as we are; this is the innate hope of humans.
7. When we search for a sign of such compassion from God in history, our eyes are drawn inescapably to one place and time: a cross outside Jerusalem 2000 years ago.
8. Conclusion: Ultimate moral standards are found only in an objectively just, set-apart God. Meaning in life is found only in relationship with a God of love. Both are supremely found together in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for us.
And last time, Bernard Leikind argued “NO!” because:
1. The burden is on Fred to show that all other possible reasons for a moral or meaningful life are lacking.
2. Fred picks and chooses from parts of the Bible to decide which parts are metaphorical.
A. The Bible writers taught creation in six days, contra Fred.
B. Surely Fred believes that Adam and Eve are fictional characters.
3. The Bible is filled with immoral rules.
A. The Bible condones slavery.
B. The Bible promotes obsolete dietary rules.
C. Jesus bans divorce.
4. The Bible is filled with contradictions, such as its contradictory accounts of creation.
5. Jesus’ teachings were often immoral.
A. Jesus’ prohibition of divorce was cruel and wrong-headed.
B. Jesus gave foolish advice that God would provide for us as He does for birds and flowers.
6. Christians themselves don’t know which teachings to believe.
7. Science is the way to find true answers on those questions that can be answered.
A. Science currently tells us that we are here as the result of the operation of natural law and directionless evolution.
B. The best way to find out whether something is true is the empirical method.
8. Christianity requires its adherents to turn off their rationality.
Here is the rebuttal from Bernard J Leikind:
A Universal Moral Code?
My friend, Fred, believes that the world would be a better place if there were some objective, universal moral code upon which we could all agree in the same way that every knowledgeable person agrees about whether or not the earth orbits the sun. Fred also believes that he knows what this universal moral code contains. Unfortunately, he doesn’t actually tell us the items in this moral code, so we cannot judge if this proposed universal, objective moral code is a good one.
One thing we can be sure of is that Fred’s moral code in some way differs from that of nearly every other Christian. After all, in Fred’s argument, he proves that religions are no more successful than science has been in discovering and proving their moral codes. In some mysterious way, Fred’s belief in Jesus Christ is not a religious belief, according to Fred. Otherwise, Fred’s objections to all other religions’ claims to know the moral truth would apply to his proposed code as well.
Source of All Knowledge: The Empirical Method
|Fred and I differ on a key item. That is whether or not there is any source of knowledge available to human beings other than the empirical method.|
Fred and I differ on a key item. That is whether or not there is any source of knowledge available to human beings other than the empirical method. I say that any proposed moral code cannot be accepted as good, correct, or universal except by reasoned review of its contents, and by careful review of its effects in practice. Fred believes that it is possible to know that his unspecified moral code is the correct, universal, and good moral code because, according to Fred, Jesus says that it is.
Applying the Code to Slavery, Homosexuality, Divorce
Let us subject this claim to analysis. Of course, because Fred did not actually tell us what his moral code is we will have some difficulty. We know, for example, that the Bible taken as a whole did not condemn slavery. In fact the Bible contains various rules to regulate the practice of slavery, but does not ban it. Is this part of Fred’s universal moral code?
The Bible taken as a whole is hard on homosexuality. Of course, today we know that except for their homosexual behavior, homosexuals are no more or less moral than the rest of the population. Furthermore, the best scientific knowledge is that homosexuality is not a conscious choice. To condemn homosexuals as criminals, as did Senator Lott, is to condemn many people for matters over which they have little control and which pose little harm to anyone. Does Fred’s code contain the Bible’s condemnation of homosexuality? Some Christians believe that AIDS is God’s way of punishing homosexuals. “Too bad,” they say, “for hemophiliacs and babies born to AIDS infected mothers. It is just a little collateral damage in God’s anti-gay bombing campaign.”
What if we limit ourselves to the supposed words of Jesus? We know that Jesus forbade divorce. Is this part of Fred’s universal, objective moral code? This cruel and unwise policy has caused immense suffering for men and women for centuries. The Catholic Church still adheres to this teaching, unless the marriage never really happened, but Protestant churches tend to allow divorce. Is divorce part of Fred’s universal moral code?
Is God Moral?
We might even ask if the source of Fred’s moral code is moral? We know that the God portrayed in Exodus, for example, is one mean, nasty, murderous fellow, a regular Slobodan Milosovic. The slaughter of the firstborn child of every Egyptian family would today be called a genocidal crime against humanity. I don’t know if it is possible to make this crime worse, but we should remember that according to Exodus, Pharaoh had already told the Hebrews that they could leave, several times, and each time, God had caused Pharaoh’s heart to harden. So God was punishing the Egyptians for something that he, himself, had caused to happen.
|Jesus forbade divorce…. This cruel and unwise policy has caused immense suffering for men and women for centuries.|
Fred, and many other readers, might reply that Exodus is part of the Bible’s mythology and not its history. The real and merciful God who provided us with his absolute moral code is to be found in the Gospels. This leaves out the murderous wrath and unending torment that God threatens to any who do not believe in him, for example, in the Book of Revelation.
Predestination vs. Good Works
Christians themselves argue about these points. Let us consider one of many possible examples. What is the way that a Christian achieves salvation, whatever that is? Is it through being selected by God for no obvious reason whatsoever, that is, predestination, or is it through good works? I would suppose that any absolute, objective moral code should answer this question clearly and unambiguously. Christians, unable to decide this question, have, in the past, fallen to murdering one another to support one view or the other.
Why were they forced to resort to this method of proving their point? Because they did not have the idea of applying the empirical method to their claims. Of course, for this particular claim investigators would find no way of telling which was correct since there is no way to find out if someone has been saved or not. A rational person would leave the matter at that.
Let us consider, on the other hand, a matter such as slavery, or the rights of women. These are matters about which we can gather evidence as to the results of one policy or another. We have had many societies that have adopted different views as to the answers to these questions. Are societies that allow one person to own another better or more successful than those that do not? Are societies that prevent half their number from achieving their full freely chosen potential more successful than those that do not assign women to the important tasks of rearing children or ironing men’s shirts?
Not only can we gather evidence as to these questions, we can propose for discussion the criteria that we will use to decide them. Is it to be evolutionary success; that is, getting the most genes into the next generation? Is it to be producing the greatest freedom for the members of a society? Is it for generating the greatest contributions to humanity? Fred might propose, “Which society produced the greatest number of saved believers?” Each of these criteria, and there can be others, might lead to different evaluations of societies.
|Unlike Fred’s absolute, universal moral system, frozen to the supposed words of thinkers from 2000 years ago, my idea of a good moral system would allow us to learn from the mistakes and experiments of our own and other societies.|
Let us consider the ancient Greeks. This small society created the foundations of Western civilization through their astonishing and undying contributions to philosophy, political and ethical thinking, science, mathematics, literature, and art. In these areas they created great works that thrill us more than 2,000 years later. They were, however, a society that held slaves and among which homosexuality was a common and normal behavior.
Let us consider the Chinese. This ancient and stable society posed a great problem to the Europeans of the 16th century. These Europeans believed, as does Fred, that the supposedly universal Christian God was the source of morality, and that those who did not believe in him would not behave in a moral fashion. The early European visitors, foremost among them Jesuit scholars and missionaries, were astonished to find a large, obviously moral and ethical society that had never heard of Jesus. If we were to use evolutionary success, the most genes in the present generation, for our criteria of judging the quality of a moral system, we might conclude that the Confucian and Taoist ethical system, one that tends to produce a dictatorial, stable, and hierarchical society, is the best.
Let us consider our own Western society. In contrast to the great stable systems of societies such as the ancient Egyptians and the Chinese, our society produces turmoil, change, and innovation. During the past five centuries or so, largely as a result of our inventions of capitalism, political freedom, and the empirical method, we have produced the greatest contributions to the world of any culture. We have also done a lot of damage. Our ideas have spread to other societies that are now wrestling with how best to adapt them to their own purposes.
Is Western society morally better or worse than other societies? Only time will tell. The existence of some absolute, universal moral system is unlikely to be a fact to be established, like whether birds are descendants of dinosaurs. It is a fact, however, that any moral system can be judged by its results. Unlike Fred’s absolute, universal moral system, frozen to the supposed words of thinkers from 2,000 years ago, my idea of a good moral system would allow us to learn from the mistakes and experiments of our own and other societies
Tasty Humans – An Alien Perspective
As to Fred’s alien visitors, I see no reason to believe that they would find Fred’s arguments as to whether they should use humans for pet food persuasive. Our arguments about whether it is moral to eat a lobster are entirely within our species and do not involve the opinions of the entrée. Even if they did, we would likely dismiss them as self-serving on the part of the lobsters. Besides we would offer counter arguments, such as, “We need to eat you to live,” or “We have always eaten you.” We would, of course, be puzzled that the lobsters did not accept our powerful arguments.
Fred holds the view that we humans are somehow a special, distinctive part of his God’s creation. He might, therefore, argue that the part of his absolute, universal moral system that comes from Genesis and gives the fruits of the fields and the animals of the world to us to use is sufficient to persuade the lobsters that they should be happy to be our dinner. What will Fred do when the alien visitors, in response to his arguments, tell him about their absolute, universal moral code that explains that they are the fruits of their God’s plans, which include dining on any other creatures too primitive to have interstellar travel? Too bad, Fred. Do you go better with mustard or mayonnaise? Would you like a little fresh ground pepper?
Here is the rebuttal from Fred Heeren
Put yourself in the following scenarios and ask yourself who you’d trust, a genuine atheist or a genuine Christian:
Scenario 1: A high-IQ, million-year-old extraterrestrial race (yes, we’re back to the last issue’s superior folks from Altair’s star system) has invaded the planet. Its hunters are now rounding up humans to provide entertainment in their gladiator-like games. Or maybe the superior Altairians are simply feeding Earthlings to their pets, just as we feed live mice to our pet snakes. The rounding-up task would be made easier if they could find a few Earthlings in each community willing to serve as stool pigeons. While you’re on the run between hiding places, you find it difficult to know who to trust. Two people give you opposite directions for finding safety. You know that one of them believes that there are no higher rules or rights than those given us by society. The other believes that each person is created in God’s image and has inherent rights, meaning that no one’s life can be taken simply because he is intellectually inferior to another. Who do you trust? Whose system of morality is better?
Scenario 2: You’re one of millions of people who, with the best of intentions–well, maybe with mixed intentions–have spent much of your life killing and maiming people while fighting for a political ideal (pick one: Soviet Marxism, Communism under Mao or Castro, Naziism, campaigning for better food in the school cafeteria). Your cause no longer appears so ideal to anyone. Now you find yourself in a hospice dying of cancer with just days to live. You’ve always had a feeling that you’re accountable to a Creator, and you’re wondering whether to push these feelings aside or to seek some way to find resolution.
Who would you rather have at your bedside to comfort you at a time like this, an authentic atheist, who will tell you to rest assured that no Creator exists while you wonder how he can be so sure, who advises you to simply face the fact that your insignificant life is coming to an end? Or an authentic Christian, who will encourage you to follow your conscience and seek God with all your heart, to own up to your faults and consider the good news of a way to yet get right with God through Jesus Christ? Whose path has a better chance of helping you to find meaning in life?
Who gives better reasons for morality and meaning?
This debate question gives readers a chance to compare atheistic and Christian viewpoints in tangible matters, showing the logical outcome for each in terms of real life decisions. Let me start by summing up key differences between us:
My atheist friend admits that his view gives “superior” creatures the right to kill and eat us–which raises the question: What if someone following this logic thinks he belongs to a superior race? In contrast, the Bible believer sees each individual as made in God’s image, with the direct result that we are accountable to God for the lives of our fellows (Genesis 9:5-6).
While Dr. Bernard Leikind seeks to impose a growing list of external moral rules learned by experience, Christ promotes broader principles–and the internal motivation to live by them. Bernard wants to add rules to meet each problem that comes up, and he can list no higher motivation than to generate “the greatest contributions to humanity” or to get “the most genes into the next generation.”
Though Christ doesn’t give us specific commands for every situation, he does something better: he gives us heart-changing principles that can be applied to every situation. The principle of love is primary, meaning that we deny our selfish nature and “regard one another as more important than ourselves” (Philippians 2:3). Moreover, Christ provides the best possible motivation, as the Creator who values us so much that he offers himself sacrificially to us. We love him–and others–because he first loved us.
Dr. Leikind’s simple utilitarianism is universally recognized as deficient, as every high school student who has read Brave New World knows. Christians live by a higher principle–love–and grant each individual, as an eternal soul, infinite worth. While accusing Christians of turning off their rationality, he himself irrationally restricts his dealings with moral issues to scientific methods.
|While Bernard seeks to impose a growing list of external moral ruleslearned by experience, Christ promotes broader principles–and the internal motivation to live by them.|
When asked for his view on the meaning and significance of human life, my friend Bernard can only say that “we are here as the result of the operation of natural law and directionless evolution.” Christians claim that human life has significance because God created us with tremendous purpose, including the development of a trusting relationship with Him. Whether or not God used evolution of some sort to create us is not the issue: the issue is whether we are here intentionally. Bernard’s conclusion is that we are not, and though he has the perfect opportunity, he gives us no reasons to find meaning in a life where this is all there is.
Bernard rightly questions the rationality of Christian claims of a relationship with our Creator through Jesus Christ, but he doesn’t seem interested in personally investigating it or subjecting it to the empirical tests he otherwise promotes. His specific criticisms of Christianity are with a straw man version of it, demonstrating his lack of honest examination. As I’d like to show, truth demands listening to the real Christ. Jesus said: “Everyone on the side of truth listens to me” (John 18:37).
Reasons for Morality
Superior Aliens and Universal Morals
So what role would each of us play if our planet were invaded by a superior-but-homicidal civilization from Altair? Can we say precisely why we shouldn’t become stool pigeons to save our own necks?
We can take comfort in the fact that the prospects for an Altairian visit appear as remote as their star system. However, right here on Earth, history shows us that whole societies have at times believed themselves to be superior to certain classes or races of humans–and have acted much like those superior Altairians. Those with no convictions about the absolute value and significance of each human life have had the fewest qualms about allowing inhumane treatment of their fellows.
The enslavement, torture, and “ethnic cleansing” of peaceful people by “superior” groups is not only a sad fact of history, but a present reality in many countries around the world today. Strong convictions about the value of each individual human life are not only needed for philosophical discussions, but for the very survival of persecuted minorities in places where people are devalued because of their racial, religious, or political differences.
Bernard has clearly taken the wrong position on the issue of the rights of superior groups, and I purposely use the word wrong to again point out the need to acknowledge universal moral standards. I commend Bernard for being logically consistent: If there is no God, then there are no universal moral standards, and there can be nothing wrong, objectively, with any actions approved by the most highly evolved group present. What Bernard never says outright, but strongly implies, is that in his view, human life has no objective value, no special significance.
Bernard sees no reason why those advanced Altairians shouldn’t treat us the way we treat lobsters. He fails to recognize that between us and lobsters there is a difference of kind, not just of degree. We are self-aware beings with the ability to make decisions that have to do with more than instinct. Lobsters are not free-willed, self-aware beings. God may have endowed other creatures in the universe with moral awareness, perhaps making them in His likeness as He did us. But no such group would have the right to eat another, just because it had the power or superior intelligence to do so.
Obviously, there can be only one universal moral code, if it is truly universal. Thus, contrary to Bernard’s assertion, superior aliens could not possibly have a universal moral code giving them the right to dine on Earthlings. Wouldn’t the Creator of all be in the best position to tell us what His standards are, and wouldn’t other creatures be just as subject to that universal code as we? Bernard’s contrary non-Christian position raises a point hit upon by a number of thinkers: Christians are the ones who have the greatest reason for optimism in meeting intelligent extraterrestrials, since self-aware aliens, as children of the same Father, would be brothers to us.
External Rules Vs. Internal Principles
Bernard scolds me for not listing the items in my moral code. Does he actually seek a list of rules as his highest authority for right action? He himself wants enough flexibility so that these rules can be amended when experience shows us that some work better than others. But the whole point of an ideal moral code is that you shouldn’t have to list millions of rules to cover every conceivable situation that might come up. Moral law may be similar to scientific law here: scientists seek the shortest, simplest, most aesthetically pleasing law; extended explanations are considered clumsy and unlikely to be the final word.
Likewise, the ideal moral code should be graspable through simpler, higher principles, by which we may judge moral behavior in any situation, any culture, any time period. Christianity is known for one, simple law, which Jesus expressed when an “expert in the law” asked him, “Which is the greatest commandment in the law?” Jesus responded with the law of love: “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, and mind.” And then to be sure that everyone knew what should spring forth from that one law He gave the second: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” He said that “all the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments” (summing up Matthew 22:34-40).
Such a principle of love is certainly more in keeping with the highest of the three levels of morality that moral philosopher Lawrence Kohlberg recognizes. In the last issue, we described Kohlberg’s moral level #1, where people are motivated only by rewards and punishments; moral level #2, where people are motivated by rules (which seems to be the highest level Bernard can envision); and moral level #3, where people are motivated by the higher principles behind the rules. People living at Kohlberg’s third level don’t have to stop at every point to ask themselves: “Well, is there a rule about this?”
Jesus, of course, challenged people to live at the highest level. He denounced the Pharisaical practice of adding man-made rule upon rule, instead emphasizing the law of love. While the most religious people of his day were concerned about exacting dietary laws, Jesus said that it’s not what goes into a person that defiles him, but what comes out from the heart (Mark 7:1-23). The heart, after all, is the birthplace of society’s problems–and solutions–not our external rules.
|The heart, after all, is the birthplace of society’s problems–and solutions–not our external rules.|
If it’s true that, as Einstein said, “the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men,” then any society or religion that merely tries to contain evil with law cannot solve the real problem. Christ, however, aims to change us from within. The Hebrew prophets of old predicted that a day was coming when the law would be written, not on stone or scroll, but on our hearts (Jeremiah 31:33).
Of course, selfless love doesn’t come naturally to selfish people. So Christ demands more than a little moral self-improvement course; he wants to totally transform us; he says we need to be born a second time, this time from above. Our physical birth was based upon the decision of our parents. Our spiritual birth, into his kingdom, must be based upon the Spirit of God (John 1:13).
The old Hebrew prophets had predicted that God would put a new heart and a new spirit, His Spirit, within His people (Ezekiel 36:26-27). Christ fulfills the prophecies about the new covenant that, unlike the old covenant, was predicted to be for Gentiles as well as Jews, to be eternal rather than temporary, and to be unconditional rather than conditioned upon our law-keeping (Isaiah 49:6; Ezekiel 16:60; Jeremiah 31:31-34).
The new covenant between God and man would depend upon God Himself, not upon us, making it foolproof for all who enter into it. The new covenant would not be in the form of commands written on a scroll, but in the form of a person (Isaiah 42:6): the coming suffering servant, who would be pierced for our transgressions and who would justify many (Isaiah 53). His death would be the sacrifice to end all sacrifices. (In fact, shortly after Jesus’ death, the Romans destroyed the Jerusalem temple, the only place where sacrifices were allowed, making sacrifices according to the old covenant impossible.) God’s principles of love and justice met together–based on His own terms–at the cross.
What is so powerful that it can regenerate a corrupted human heart? Bernard’s list of items in a moral code? The religions Bernard mentions that offer systems of duties? Buddhism’s Noble Eight-fold Path, or Islam’s Five Pillars? Here’s an idea: How about God Himself? Might He be powerful enough?
Over the millennia, many teachers have created religions describing rules and methods to help us try to reach God. Only Christ, however, offers arelationship with God, based on what God has done to reach us. No list of rules can motivate us to love one another like Christ’s sacrificial love for us at Calvary. No items or duties can compel us to forgive one another like coming to grips with our own need of forgiveness–and experiencing it first-hand from the One we have ultimately offended, the Creator to whom each of us is accountable.
Perhaps Bernard knows that his case for utilitarian ethics is not going to sound convincing next to Christianity. Thus he spends little time telling us anything about an atheist’s system of morality. Instead he devotes his space looking for problems with Christian ethics, but he can only do so by creating a straw man’s version of it. First, he tries to establish that the Bible is unclear, or that Christians like me simply pick and choose among the Bible’s rules, declaring the distasteful parts “metaphorical.”
He assumes, for example, that a science journalist like me cannot possibly accept the Bible “literally,” and that I only accept some parts as divinely inspired. I must not accept as inspired the Bible’s comments about dietary laws, slavery, women’s rights, and divorce. I must consider as metaphors all mention of miracles or statements that don’t clearly line up with modern science.
Old Testament Dietary Laws
Examples he chooses, however, show that he is setting up a version of Christianity that few, if any, hold. Dietary laws under the old covenant of Moses were given to the ancient Hebrews, helping to keep them specially set apart from all other nations (and their idolatrous ways) as God’s covenant people. As I mentioned above, Christ brought the long-awaited new covenant, broadening the promise of God’s covenant relationship to Gentiles as well, as predicted in the Old Testament (Isaiah 49:6). New Testament believers were taught to no longer call any of the foods God provided “unclean” (Acts 10:10-15). So I can believe that the Bible is literally true without believing that I must observe all the dietary laws designed for the ancient Hebrews under the old covenant.
Genesis Creation Account
I can also believe in God’s “literal” creation of the heavens and the earth in Genesis 1 without seeing a contradiction with modern science. The Bible tells us that God did it, and science tells us how (or at least tries). The Bible never tells us that God created the heavens and the earth instantaneously, fully formed. In fact, Genesis 1 takes some pains to describe creation as a process performed in stages.
Must I believe that each stage, or yom, which we translate “day,” was a 24-hour day? Bernard says that the writer of Genesis could not have intended these days to be taken metaphorically. However, Genesis 2:4 clearly uses the word to mean something longer than a 24-hour day, since all six days of creation are summed up in one yom, literally, “the day that the LORD God made earth and heaven.”
Both Young’s and Strong’s concordances list literal and figurative definitions for the term yom, including such synonyms as “age” and “time.” The Bible writers certainly used the word metaphorically in the many times they speak of “the day of the Lord” or “in that day.”
When Bernard says that I, as one who takes science seriously, must not believe that the Bible “is literally true,” he demonstrates that there is an excessively strict sense and a natural sense for the word “literal.” In the first sense, we must interpret each word to have the most physical meaning possible, and we must not recognize any metaphors. In this sense, when Jesus said, “I am the door,” we should understand that He is made of wood.
The second use of the word “literal” asks us to understand a literary passage the way the writer intended it: history as history, poetry as poetry, metaphor as metaphor. This, of course, is what almost all Christians understand. Bernard has set up a straw man. No serious student of Scripture reads it “literally” in the first sense.
When Jesus predicted his own resurrection before the people of Jerusalem, he put it this way: “Destroy this temple, and I will raise it again in three days” (John 2:19). People who took him literally in the first sense didn’t even try to understand his real meaning, while truth-seekers eventually understood that “the temple he had spoken of was his body” (Mark 15.29; John 2:21). Jesus often used parables and metaphors, not only to create memorable pictures in people’s minds, but as a way of testing their hearts. Only those truly seeking truth would find it.
Bernard accuses Jesus of dispensing foolish advice when he tells us not to worry about material matters, as Bernard puts it, “on the ground that God [will] provide for us as He does for the birds and flowers.” Jesus creates a more colorful picture than we have space to reproduce here, but most of us get the point. After setting the context with, “You cannot serve God and wealth,” he says, “For this reason, do not be worried about your life, as to what you will eat … nor for your body, as to what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing?” (Matthew 6:24-25). Our value doesn’t come from things. Jesus challenges us to think beyond our animal nature and reach our uniquely human potential. Most of us do indeed need to stop becoming absorbed in material concerns; most of us need to depend more on God in faith. But does anyone really take Jesus to mean that we must all quit work and sit around waiting for God to drop food into our mouths?
|Jesus often used parables and metaphors, not only to create memorable pictures in people’s minds, but as a way of testing their hearts.|
Distinguished Oxford literary scholar and critic C.S. Lewis wrote of people who try to make the Bible ridiculous through their literalizing of scriptural images: “The answer to such people,” he advises, “is that if they cannot understand books written for grownups, they should not talk about them.”
Bernard declares that the first two chapters of Genesis contradict one another, because one speaks of the man’s creation first, and the other speaks of the man and woman’s creation together. Actually, the writer’s intent in Genesis 1 and 2 is plain to any adult or child who reads it without bias. The first chapter gives a broad account of all of God’s creation activities–heavens, earth, oceans, continents, plants, animals, and finally, humanity (male and female). The second chapter focuses on the first humans, spelling out creation details omitted in Chapter 1, including their created order and God’s original intention for a one-man-one-woman, “one flesh” relationship. You really have to be trying hard to find a contradiction between the two chapters.
One last matter about creation: Notice that Bernard has finally conceded that the Bible does indeed teach God’s original creation from nothing. But Bernard clings to the idea that the Bible also teaches that “God created the Universe from tohu and bohu, a trackless wilderness and featureless, water mass,” in Genesis 1:2. Of course, the verse actually states that “the earth was formless and void,” not the universe. It doesn’t say that God created the universe from something that was formless and void, but merely describes early conditions on earth after verse 1, which does speak of the creation of the entire universe, without mention of any previous substance.
Good Works vs. God’s Work
There are passages in the Bible that present challenges for the Bible interpreter, but Bernard hasn’t found any of them. Fundamental teachings are spelled out quite clearly, with amazing unity between writers separated by vast distances and periods of time. Bernard’s example of salvation doctrine is no exception.
What brings a person into a loving relationship with God? The person’s actions or God’s actions? A human’s good works or God’s predestined plan? Putting the question this way, Bernard commits the logical fallacy of limiting the question. There may be more possibilities, or it may be that God’s action and our faith are both critical.
Contrary to Bernard’s claim, one of the clearest teachings throughout the New Testament is that we are saved from sin and death by Christ’s work alone, not ours, and that our part is merely to trust in Him. Thus both parties are necessary to the relationship, but they play different roles. Concerning “predestination,” the Bible tells us that “those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the likeness of his Son” (Romans 8:29, taking us back to the original Genesis plan that humans be created in God’s likeness).
Genuine conversion results in a changed heart and good works, but the good works are the result, not the source, of salvation. This is one of the clearest and most consistently taught doctrines of the New Testament (and it is foreshadowed throughout the Old Testament). Anyone who believes that the Bible is inspired by God believes this. Though there is plenty of room to argue about exactly how God does it (does predestination imply He causes our faith?, etc.), there is no lack of clarity about the fact that salvation comes by faith in Christ, not by our works. Our deeds merely show whether our belief is authentic–and thus there is no contradiction.
If, as Bernard claims, people have fallen to murdering each other over this issue, they certainly cannot be said to have been practicing Christ’s principal teaching of love–and his specific admonition to even love our enemies. Such murderings are better examples of opposing the Christian way.
Bernard brings up slavery and women’s rights as examples of practices tested by various societies. His policy is to accept as best whatever proves most successful–simple utilitarianism–a policy which Kohlberg would classify in his lowest level of morality. Educators in this country have their students read Brave New World precisely because they want them to learn that there are higher principles to guide our social and political institutions than simple utility.
After all, Bernard’s own example of slavery did work quite well, from the economic and social perspective of this country’s southern slave-owners. What didn’t work so well was the slave-holder’s attempt to rationalize slave-holding as compatible with Christ’s fundamental principle of love.
In the only place in the New Testament where we see an example of the personal relationships between early Christians and slaves, the apostle Paul sends a runaway slave back to the master he stole from with a note that gives unheard-of advice in that society. Paul urges Philemon: “If then you regard me a partner, accept him as you would me” (Philemon 17). Paul offers to pay back whatever the slave Onesimus stole and urges Philemon to take him back, but “not now as a servant, but above a servant, a brother beloved” (Philemon 16).
Admittedly, Paul could have taken more direct action to help Onesimus simply escape from slavery (and he does advise other slaves in general: “If you can gain your freedom, do so,” in 1 Corinthians 7:21). Apparently Onesimus had run to Rome, where he had met the imprisoned Paul, had responded to the gospel message, and then had become an extremely invaluable helper to him. Paul depended upon outsiders to help him with his missionary work during his confinement in a house where he was chained to a Roman guard. Paul lets the master Philemon know how much Onesimus has come to mean to him in order to persuade Philemon to free him; he says that by sending him back he is sending his “very heart.”
My point is that, in a society where runaway slaves risked execution when caught, Paul’s method of seeking freedom for Onesimus was more wise, more gentle, more loving, and more permanent than the one I might have chosen. Paul even hints that he is hoping Philemon will allow Onesimus to come back to Rome as a free man to help him, “but without your consent I did not want to do anything, so that your goodness would not be, in effect, by compulsion but of your own free will” (Philemon 14). Here is the center of the matter: A permanent solution to the slavery problem, like any sin problem, is best implemented from the heart, not by compulsion.
Again, Christ changes people from within, rather than forcing people to change from without. He changes them heart by heart, rather than overpowering societies en mass, as by the force of a “moral majority.” He sends his own “as sheep among wolves” (Matthew 10:16), expecting the few to be just the seasoning needed to salt a bitter world (Matthew 5:13, 22:14). Christ did not come, like Spartacus, to lead slaves in a forceful, bloody revolution (and we recall that Spartacus’s revolution didn’t bring lasting freedom). He didn’t even come to lead the Jews to freedom from Rome, as they had hoped. He came to bring something greater, because his kingdom is not of this world. He came to bring freedom from sin and death to Jews and Gentiles alike, to bring a personal relationship with God to whoever would give their hearts to Him.
|Christ changes people from within, rather than forcing people to change from without. He changes them heart by heart, rather than overpowering societies en mass.|
Christ encouraged relationship-building, not institution-building. You won’t find specific commands to start institutions like orphanages, convalescent homes, or hospitals–and yet no other name has inspired the creation of so many of these. Likewise, Jesus didn’t tell us how to organize an underground railroad. But it was his teaching that led people, heart by heart, to see slavery as an intolerable sin–and that eventually wiped out the practice from the Western world.
Note the case of the British Empire. If Bernard’s utility and simple “success” should be our guide, then England’s interests were wonderfully served during the days when 500 slave-trading ships were sailing out of Liverpool. William Wilberforce was among the many who thought so–until he came under the Bible preaching of John Wesley and became convicted about the offense the practice posed to a holy God who had made all people in His image. Passing up the chance to become Prime Minister of England and enduring threats from London businessmen, he mounted a twenty-year campaign to end the slave trade and eventually slavery itself throughout the British Empire.
The German philosopher Hegel declared that the end of slavery, the end of monarchy in government, and the rise in individual freedom in the world are most directly due to the Bible’s influence. He wrote, “Only through Christianity did people come to realize that man is free, that freedom of spirit is the very essence of man’s nature.”
More than any religion, Christianity demands freedom of choice in order for the relationship between God and human to be real. Freedom, after all, is the theme of the gospel message. Running throughout the Bible, the message of redemption tells us that God wants to rescue us from our bondage to sin, so that we may be free indeed (John 8:31-36). The greatest physical picture of this spiritual redemption is the Old Testament account of God’s physical rescue of Israel from their bondage in Egypt. Under the pharaoh’s orders, Hebrew workers were treated inhumanely and their children were murdered. In this case, God did choose to forcefully free slaves from their masters. Apparently this fact is lost upon Bernard, who accuses God of cruelty for punishing the masters in the process.*
|*Bernard also accuses God of unjustly punishing the Egyptians when God Himself had hardened Pharaoh’s heart. Actually, Exodus 7:22-10:27 shows a progression in which Pharaoh first hardened his own heart after the end of each of the first five plagues, and then God hardened Pharaoh’s heart until the 10th, climactic plague, when Pharaoh finally lets the people go. (I take this as a warning to all who reach a point of freely rejecting God so many times that God finally removes our ability to choose Him).|
Bernard thinks God is also cruel for warning people against easy divorce, calling Jesus’ teaching on the subject a “cruel and wrong-headed prohibition.” He says it “contradicts early parts of the Bible that allow divorce.”
Actually, Jesus makes the point that God’s standards are higher than the traditions that teachers of the law had built up around the old covenant laws. Pharisees in Jesus’ day taught that salvation was a matter of following the laws (plus their added directions). Jesus said, “You’ve been told, ‘Don’t murder.’ I say: ‘Don’t even let anger burn within you.’ You’ve been told: ‘Don’t commit adultery.’ I say: ‘Don’t even look lustfully” (summarizing Matthew 5:21-30). Again we see that the heart is Jesus’ concern.
And in the same spirit Jesus condemned the popular doctrine that Moses’ divorce regulations gave husbands the right to divorce their wives “for any and every reason” (Matthew 19:3). In fact, a prominent rabbi named Hillel taught that a husband had just cause to throw his wife out of the house if she burned his dinner. Jesus’ response was a protection for women in a society that made it too easy for wives to be left destitute while technically fulfilling the rules of the religious leaders. Moreover, as “God with us,” Jesus appealed to couples to stay together based on God’s original ideal for two to become one (Mark 10:5-9), a bonding force not recognized by the rabbinic courts.
The most conspicuous celebrity divorce of the day was the double divorce of Herod and Herodias, who divorced their spouses in order to marry each other. John the Baptist denounced them for their contempt for the marriage bond. Their response was to have him beheaded. Undaunted, Jesus fearlessly preached God’s same ideal, even while teaching in Herod’s jurisdiction.
Whether the divorcing parties are celebrities or common folk, Jesus wants us to measure ourselves according to God’s ideal. If we fall short (and we all do), then we are among the sinners he came to save. It’s not as if divorce‚ homosexuality, or any of the sins Bernard mentions, is unforgivable. The good news is all about God’s mercy on the repentant.
Even measured by Bernard’s utilitarian standards, surveys don’t show people getting happier after divorce. New problems are certainly created for children. Bernard is convinced that Jesus’ high standards for divorce cause “immense suffering” for couples, while I wrestle with which policies cause the most suffering. Which is worse? The suffering of people who learn to live together by making personal changes and sacrifices, or the suffering of families broken and problems compounded with remarriages that often break apart again? I am certain that the neglecting of such standards causes immense suffering for most children whose parents divorce. By age 17, 46 percent of American children today come from broken homes. Certainly, the many millions who have chosen divorce haven’t let Jesus’ words stop them; so it’s unclear how Jesus’ teaching “has caused immense suffering.”
When it comes to the rights of women, the Bible taught us about the equality of women long before anyone could run tests to see whether granting women equality made a society more successful. Jesus broke customs judged highly successful at the time by talking with the Samaritan woman at the well (a double breach of cultural piety, since rabbis weren’t supposed to talk to women, and Jews weren’t supposed to have any dealings with Samaritans). Jesus freely taught women as well as men, counting women like Mary and Martha among his closest friends. Though first-century writers were fully aware that a woman’s testimony carried little weight in their day, the gospel writers related that after Jesus’ resurrection, his first appearance was to women. Paul taught that for Christians, the cultural and biological distinctions that once alienated people are erased: “There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male nor female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus” (Galatians 3:28).
In each of the cases where my atheist friend has tried to show Christ’s moral teaching to be “cruel” or “immoral,” we have seen it instead to be ideal. Interestingly, Bernard has said little about the atheistic approach to any of the moral issues he raises. Does he finally make a case of his own when it comes to finding meaning in life?
Reasons for Meaning
Let’s say we come up with a long list of rules to govern society, founded upon Bernard’s ideas (based on secular humanism? … atheism? … he never tells us). The question arises: Where do we find the motivation to keep the rules? Is it wise to ask our children to keep rules that come from nowhere? At some point a child is bound to ask a very good question: “Why?”
If an atheist can’t find reasons to believe that humans have rights in the presence of those hungry Altairians, then will he find good reasons to believe that human life has value or meaning at all? How does his case for finding meaning stack up against the Christian’s?
My atheistic friend tells us that “we are here as the result of the operation of natural law and directionless evolution.” He gives no more reason than this for finding meaning in life. Bernard makes no case of his own, but only voices his dislike for Christianity. Bernard’s dislike of Christianity was never in dispute.
The dispute was supposed to be over whether Christianity offers the best reasons for a moral and meaningful life. As we formed this final debate question together, I encouraged Bernard to use at least part of his piece to tell us how an atheist finds meaning in life. After all, he can’t say that Christianity isn’t the best without offering something with which to compare it.
Our Reason for Being
While atheism tells us that we were produced by “directionless evolution,” the Bible tells us that we were intentionally created by God; we are here because Someone wanted us and has a purpose for us. The differences in potential meaning between these two viewpoints could hardly be greater. While atheism tells us that our lives may be worth nothing in the sight of advanced beings, Christ tells us that our lives are highly valued in the sight of the Greatest of all.
According to the Bible, the Supreme Being created us in His own likeness. According to simple observation, we humans are unique on this planet for our possession of high intelligence, moral sensibility, an aesthetic sense, and a will, which we can use to override our animal instincts. We see similar characteristics behind creation: Nature’s fine-tuning reveals a will at work beyond the material universe. Einstein also believed that “the harmony of natural law … reveals an intelligence.” Given a Creator who demonstrates willfulness and intelligence, what should we think about a finely tuned universe whose history culminates with beings who are also characterized by their will and intelligence? Why would an intelligent, volitional Creator want to have other beings around with intelligence and volition?
The most obvious answer carries glorious meaning for humans: Our Creator made us to be persons because He is Himself a person–and He intends to have a personal relationship with us. Christians believe that He values each of us so much that, when we used our wills against Him, He was ready with a way, at great personal cost, to restore the relationship for which He had designed us.
The Best Reason for Hope
According to the Bible, there is even a sense today in which the relationship is better, more secure and more full of love, than the relationship God had with the very first humans, who had no knowledge of good and evil, but who took their up-close-and-personal relationship with their Creator for granted. Now that we have experienced life apart from God’s ideal, we understand something of the anguish brought about by missing the mark, falling short, going astray. Part of being human means that we understand the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be. We have experienced alienation from our Creator, and yet we have heard that God loves us so much, even when we were in our hard-hearted state, that He would die for us. We now have the knowledge and experience to appreciate the relationship; we’ve also seen His active love for us in a more personal way than creation alone could demonstrate.
|Part of being human means that we understand the difference between the way things are and the way things ought to be.|
Our wills today can be used to accept His way back into fellowship with Him, or to continue along our own way, apart from Him. In that sense, life is a test of our will, the heart, the one thing that is truly ours (unlike our bodies, intellects, and the circumstances we were “dealt” at birth). We’re free to offer our heart back to our Creator in gratitude or to clutch it selfishly. Our decision today is not so different from the decision of our earliest human ancestors, who also had before them life or death, a decision to trust His word or to make their own way (Genesis 2:17). But there is a wonderful difference: those who trust Him today need never fear falling away from Him again (in terms of losing our status or relationship with Him). The decision we make in this life, however fragile, is locked in and upheld forever by the promise, the covenant, of the faithful One “who is able to keep you from falling and to present you before His glorious presence without fault and with great joy” (Jude 1:24).
We have all the advantages of the highest form of relationship (true love, based on hearts freely given to the relationship), without fear that those same hearts, during an eternal future, may one day throw it all away in a mid-life crisis or moment of misplaced passion.
But Is It Rational?
Bernard says that the Bible requires us to turn off our rationality. For many of us, however, Biblical faith is not the result of “our unhappiness with what the facts proclaim,” but, to begin with, it is the most rational inference from that proclamation. The facts proclaim that our universe began in a creation event. The facts proclaim that the universe is fine-tuned, against astronomical odds, for conscious life. Cosmology’s anthropic principle raises the Biblical question: “When I consider your heavens, … what is man that you are mindful of him, the son of man that you care for him?” (Psalm 8:3-4).
Moreover, the facts of history proclaim that if the infinite God ever reached down to humans in a personal way (as opposed to the less rational attempts of finite humans to reach up to an infinite God), it was through Jesus Christ. No one else fulfilled so many prophecies of his coming. No one else proclaimed such a unique message of salvation from sin’s consequences for all who trust in Him. No one else claimed to be God incarnate, predicting his own execution and resurrection, and then leaving an empty tomb and over five hundred witnesses as evidence for his claims.
Search through history: you won’t find any other ancient religious leader whose followers, within twenty-five years of the events, left behind written testimony citing hundreds of witnesses to their master’s resurrection (1 Corinthians 15:6). Nowhere else will you find ancient references of such supernatural events in letters to contemporaries who personally knew the witnesses. Jesus’ miracles were very public. Luke records Paul’s arguments before Judea’s King Agrippa, after the Roman governor Festus questioned Paul’s claim of a resurrection: “What I am saying is true and reasonable. The king is familiar with these things, and I can speak freely to him. I am convinced that none of this has escaped his notice, because it was not done in a corner” (Acts 26:25-26).
Better Than a Religion
The closest Bernard comes to making a case for himself isn’t actually for his own position, but for Muslims and Hindus. Even here he goes no further than to raise the question: “Does Fred believe that Moslems find their lives less meaningful than he finds his?” For the reasons cited above, my answer is an unequivocal “Yes!” Muslims merely have what they believe to be the final prophet, who gave them another list of duties (five pillars) to try to reach heaven. Those who believe in Christ have God Himself, who entered our spacetime to literally offer Himself to us in love, removing the barrier between God and humankind. Muslims and Hindus have no promise of a personal relationship with their Creator, and far less reason to believe that God has ever truly communicated to us.
The world’s religions leave us unsure about whether we’ve done enough good to get into heaven or nirvana. Only a perfect person could ever be sure. But Jesus is the perfect one who brings us to God just as we are, in our present much-less-than-perfect state, rather than asking us to speculate on a future reincarnation or purgatory experience when we might be suitably purged and approved.
Jesus makes the more realistic claim that we utterly lack the ability to come to God on our own moral terms, that we can’t atone for our own bad actions any more than a murderer can bring back a victim by doing penance. As the Victim to whom we are fully accountable, our Creator alone has the right to forgive or set terms of forgiveness. The Bible tells us that nothing short of God’s own forgiving action can restore the relationship.
Just as we were all once in Adam, our first representative before God, and all were separated from God through him, so now we can be in Christ,our new representative, restoring us to God, the source of life. “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22).
Jesus did the God-pleasing we could never do; moreover, he saw that justice for our offenses against our Creator and against His universal standards was executed through his own human flesh. The Creator, who had raised up humans to represent Him and His most loving attributes, lowered Himself to represent humans at their worst. In a world trying to appease the gods by offering them faultless lambs and goats, he was himself the “Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29), fulfilling a plan in God’s mind “before the beginning of time” (2 Timothy 1:9).
The Bible is unique in its insistence upon human neediness. Which claim sounds more like it’s from God, and which made up by humans? On the one side, we have the many religious claims that concentrate on innate human goodness and human deeds; on the other we have the single, unique claim that emphasizes God’s loving work on our behalf and describes all human righteousness as “filthy rags.”
Where Human Expectations Are Met
Many religious leaders have said: Follow these rules and you might get to heaven or nirvana. Only Jesus said that he himself is the way, the truth, and the life. He is the only one to claim to die for the sins of the world, to so insistently claim to offer eternal life and a personal relationship with God. There are many teachings that have resulted in religions about God, but only one that emphasizes a personal relationship with God. The best religions can offer in terms of a relationship with God is similar to the relationship we have with the IRS: the deal is that if we stay out of trouble and meet the minimal requirements, we’ll get by. That’s not much of a relationship.
If we have any real, knowable hope of finding a loving relationship with God, Christ is it. We have good reasons to believe that we were made for this. As we’ve seen, it’s not as if we live in a universe that shows no sign of purpose or care from Creator to creature. And it’s not as if humans have no innate yearnings for something beyond what this world has to offer. Somehow we aren’t satisfied with the idea of simply living, reproducing, dying and taking our place in the fossil strata, like the other animals. We’re made with a longing for something more.
The Christian view is that this life is our opportunity to decide whether to accept or reject God’s offer of something more. Certainly, there is nothing irrational about examining the real Christ, since no one else in history has ever so convincingly claimed to be the basis upon which God offers us His love. When we bring children into the world, we don’t normally abandon them; we love them and show them our affection. Shouldn’t we expect the Father of us all to do as much?
If we searched diligently through history and through the world’s religions to see if our expectations were anywhere met, to see if we could find any sign of a Creator who truly loves us, and if we came up with nothing, then we could say that perhaps our expectations are baseless, a cruel trick of nature. And indeed, life may have no more meaning than we can find in Bernard’s directionless cosmic happenstance.
But in reality, when we look, even casually, at history, our eyes are inescapably drawn to Jesus of Nazareth, and to the one place and time where we have tremendous evidence that God entered our world, where He demonstrated in the most personal and dramatic way possible His love for us. There is no greater love than this, that one would lay down his life for his friends (John 15:13).
|Many religious leaders have said: Follow these rules and you might get to heaven or nirvana. Only Jesus said that he himself is the way, the truth, and the life.|
Demand for a Decision
Jesus did not allow truth-seeking people to say that he was merely a good teacher. He was either a perverse liar or our one hope. Jesus said: “No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6). This is the boldest, most audacious statement ever made. His words, his life and his death demand a decision from each one of us.
Think about it: Why was Jesus crucified? For being a good teacher? The Romans didn’t crucify people for that. For leading a rebellion against Rome? This was the man who told Jews to pay Caesar the taxes due him and whose prophet told Roman soldiers to be content with their wages. Jesus was crucified because of who He claimed to be: “the Messiah, Son of the Blessed One,” (Mark 14:61-62), uniquely one with the Father of all (John 10:30), the I AM (John 8:58), the rightful King, not of this world, but of the one to come (Mark 14:62, John 18:36). This “Son of Man” was the only innocent human who ever lived (Psalm 14:2-3; John 8:29, 46). And yet, as the predicted suffering servant, “he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities,” so that “the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all to fall on him” (Isaiah 53:5-6).
Some readers are thinking: What iniquities? I’ve lived a mostly moral life. That’s old-fashioned talk for guilt-fixated ancients and modern, out-of-touch rednecks. I’m not one of those types. Truly guilty people, real sinners, are people like that murderer in the scenario at the beginning of this piece, right? That Communist hatchet-man for Stalin may have something to worry about when he meets his Maker, if there’s a Maker to be met.
But when we think about it, how far are any of us from the moral level of that murderer? The distance would shrink from the much more morally distant perspective of an absolutely holy God. And remember I said that this murderer had the best of intentions, or at least mixed intentions, and that he had been fighting for what he had thought was a good cause. Moreover, how do we know what we would have done if we had been born into his circumstances? To an objective Judge, mightn’t the small offenses of a privileged person be weighed as heavily as the great offenses of someone brought up surrounded by criminals? In fact, wouldn’t perfect justice demand this?
|How far are any of us from the moral level of that murderer?|
The fact is, the Bible reveals a God whose character is the reason we have a sense of justice, whose nature forms the reality behind our ideals. He goes by the names, “The Holy One” and “The Righteous One.” In an ancient world where the gods’ activities were often believed to be as vile as the worst of mortals, this Hebrew understanding of a pure God beyond all was extraordinary. This God demands, and will ultimately enforce, perfect justice. By such standards, we have all fallen short.
Arthur Schopenhauer, who was no Christian, said that of the world’s religions, only Christianity gave a true assessment of the human’s dismal condition. We recall Einstein’s view that “the real problem is in the minds and hearts of men.” Agreeing with Einstein and Schopenhauer, I claim that the real problem for humans is not the challenge of reaching our technological potential, or the problem of finding the right set of rules. The real problem for humans is us. I claim that each of us as individuals faces two problems as burdensome in actuality as they would be for that hypothetical murderer: we have a real death day approaching, and our level of morality is insufficient to prepare us to meet our Maker.
The only hope any of us have of fellowship with this holy God is the hope He gives us: that He is not only “The Righteous One,” but “The LORDOur Righteousness” (Jeremiah 23:6, 33:16). This was the name Jeremiah said the Messiah would one day be called. God would Himself be our righteousness. The prophets predicted that this descendent of David would bring God’s forgiveness through a new, everlasting covenant offered to all people. The promise would no longer be based on our impossible task of rule-keeping, but on the righteousness of God Himself.
This new name and new covenant implies a God who is not only righteous, but loving as well. In love He offers us His best, His own righteousness, rescuing us from eternal separation from the Good. Again, nowhere else in the ancient world do we have gods who are described so profusely with the kind of terms the Hebrew writers used to portray this God: “compassionate, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin” (Exodus 34:6-7).
Accepting His offering to us is far simpler, and infinitely surer, than the traditional, religious practice of trying to appease God by making an offering to Him. How do we accept His offer of forgiveness and eternal life with Him? We simply put our trust in Jesus, God’s anointed one. God invites us to look to the cross, where Jesus offered himself, his physical body and blood, to pay the price for our sin, a price that we could never pay ourselves. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life” (John 3:16).
To readers of this debate: If His love moves you to respond to Him, simply thank God for what He has done through Christ on the cross. And then, continuing in faith, look to Jesus for direction, as the Lord who will lead you from this moment on into eternity. Reading Jesus’ words in any of the gospel accounts is a great place to start to find that direction. Then the adventure begins. Then you can not only learn, but experience, what meaning in life is all about.
To sum up: Jesus gives both the ideal moral principle of love and the reason to turn sentiments into action: We love God and our fellows because He first loved us. And when it comes to finding meaning in life, what can compare to Jesus and the eternal, loving relationship he offers? We were made for this.