Probably Not?

‘There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.’ So reads an advertisement on a number of buses in London and elsewhere. Sponsored by the British Humanist Association, the advertisement is designed to counter the claims of Christians (and, no doubt, others) in the name of enlightenment and intellectual freedom. If Richard Dawkins is to be believed (and there probably is a Richard Dawkins), humanists and other assorted unbelievers are an embattled and even persecuted minority in Britain who need to have the courage of their lack of convictions to stand up to the tide of Christian propaganda which threatens to plunge us into another dark age. Children in particular need to be protected from such threats.

Perhaps we are to imagine a poor benighted believer in God catching a glimpse of a passing bus, reading the Good News ‘There’s probably no God’, receiving a blinding flash of illumination, falling prostrate on the Edgeware Road, and entering into the joy of atheism in a 21st century conversion experience.

Perhaps members of the British Humanist Association do enjoy life. Perhaps the conviction that this life is all they have and that the grave is really the end does add a special dimension to living. Certainly, you need to enjoy it while you can, and if you are not finally accountable to anyone, maybe there are avenues of enjoyment that others dare not travel. Perhaps if you think there’s probably no God, you can stop worrying and enjoy your life.

Such a life, however, can have no ultimate significance. What is the point of life if all you will be in a few years is a handful of dust? Lasting influence on succeeding generations, perhaps? But not many are remembered for long even by the next generation. The truth is that a life lived without God the giver of life and meaning is, in the end, empty and futile. It is, in a profound sense, a complete waste.

How ironical to listen to the unbeliever use the Creator’s gift of speech to deny God’s existence. How foolish to construct rational arguments to deny that there is a God (probably) when the only secure foundation for the use of reason is the fact that God made an ordered rational world that can be understood by minds that he has created to reflect something of his rationality. The unbeliever will take another breath to proclaim that there’s probably no God only if God permits it. If anyone ever sawed off the branch he is sitting on, it is the believer in the (probable) non-existence of God.

Many Christians have protested against the BHA advertising campaign and several groups and individuals have sponsored advertisements proclaiming the existence of God. Ron Heather, a Christian bus driver in Southampton, refused to drive a bus carrying the advert, and has had numerous opportunities to bear witness to his faith. We can only applaud their efforts.

And yet… perhaps it is no bad thing to let people see the best that unbelief can do. ‘There’s probably no God’ – stirring stuff, isn’t it? The kind of belief you would die for? Probably not! It’s not too impressive, after all. There won’t be a rush of converts banging on the doors of the BHA. When the sponsors of the advertisement are handfuls of dust, the Lord will still be there and his people will still be serving him.

‘There’s probably no God’ – but what if there is? A life spent in rebellion against the Creator will end in an eternity of woe.

Watching Straws

Straws in the wind. None of them large in itself, but taken together, they show quite clearly the direction of the wind, and that direction is very clearly against public expression of religious, especially Christian, convictions.

Nurse Caroline Petrie asks a patient if she would like the nurse to pray with her. The patient is not offended, but the offer is reported and the nurse suspended from duty. A Christian foster carer is struck off the fostering register because a Muslim girl in her late teens, who had been placed with the carer, sought Christian baptism. Although there was no suggestion of coercion by the carer, council officials argued that she had failed in her duty to preserve the girl’s religion and should in fact have used her influence to prevent the baptism. A Christian Care Home for the elderly in Brighton has thousands of pounds of funding withdrawn by the local council because of its religiously-based objections to homosexuality. A five-year-old girl from Devon is reprimanded by her teacher for talking about Jesus in class and her mother, a part-time receptionist at the school, is being investigated by the school governors because she e-mailed friends at church to ask them to pray about the situation, and she could face dismissal. Draft guidance produced by the General Teaching Council for England would require Christian teachers to ‘proactively combat discrimination’ and ‘value diversity’ based on religious belief and sexual orientation.

We could fill this article with examples, but enough have been cited to support the recent claim of former Prime Minister Tony Blair that Christians are being sidelined in an age of ‘aggressive secularism’ and his criticism of ‘ludicrous decisions’ which have seen Christians punished for expressing their beliefs. Whilst many will respond with wry smiles, given Blair’s actions while in power and his reluctance to express his own beliefs before retirement, he is accurate in his comments. Although a BBC poll has shown that 62% of the 1000 Britons surveyed think that ‘religion has an important part to play in public life’ and 63% think that laws ‘should respect and be influenced by UK religious values’, it is clear that in the public square religious values, particularly Christian ones, are often unwelcome. Tolerance of diversity is the dominant value, before which all else must give way. Although the poll showed that nine out of ten Muslims and 100% of Hindus supported a strong role in public life for the religious values characteristic of the UK, political correctness dictates otherwise.

We can be thankful that a number of the situations already mentioned have been settled satisfactorily, although not all. The difficulties should not be exaggerated, and at times Christians provoke controversy unnecessarily. Nevertheless when all qualifications have been stated and allowances made, there is no doubt that Christian beliefs and values are increasingly being marginalized in the public square. The idea that Christian teaching should be allowed to shape public policy or, indeed, show its face outside the homes of its adherents or the walls of Churches, is just not acceptable, at least to the opinion-formers and policy makers. In fact, what is said within the walls of Churches is scarcely sacrosanct.

All is not yet lost. There is still a weight of opinion at the popular level supporting the public expression of Christian values. A number of organisations are working diligently to hold the line, if not turn back the tide. How long that will continue to be the case, we cannot tell. The Lord could of course act in grace and power at any time to transform the character of the nation. In the 150th anniversary year of a great revival, we can rule nothing out. If, however, it is not the Lord’s will to work in that way, the fluttering straws tell us that the wind will be in our faces in days to come.

Angels Instead

‘Granny’s Little Angel on Board’. So read the sign in the back window of the car in front, along with the name of the aforementioned ‘little angel’. Twee, sentimental, naïve – describe it how you will. Not too theologically sound in its optimistic view of human nature. Hard to see John Calvin – biblical theologian that he was – hanging that one up in his motor. Maybe Mum would have revised Granny’s view, given half a chance.

Anyway, angels are everywhere at the moment, in every imaginable shape and variety. Just take a look at the shelves of your local bookshop and see how many recent volumes are devoted to angels: how to contact them, how to engage their services, everything you ever wanted to know, plus a lot of things you didn’t know you didn’t know. With your guardian angel on your side, you can face any problem, so it seems. You can even get a little model of your angel to put on your mantelpiece or carry around with you. It’s a marketer’s paradise. The tougher the going becomes, the more you need your angel.

Curious how angels get the spotlight and God scarcely gets a look-in. Of course, angels are there to provide help on demand. They don’t make inconvenient demands in the way God does. Like all the other God-substitutes on offer, these modern-day angels are a lot easier to live with. Sadly, little that is retailed in such angelology has any basis in reality. Whatever people may ‘like to think’, the truth as revealed in Scripture is very different.

Yet again we see the truth of Paul’s words in Romans 1:25 regarding fallen, sinful men and women: ‘They exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshipped and served created things rather than the Creator’. It always has been and always will be so. Sinners’ thinking is futile and their foolish hearts are darkened (Romans 1:21). If it is not angels, it will be some other object of superstitious devotion. It is the essence of sin to put something – anything – in the place of God. Devotion to angels is not new. The church as Colosse was under attack from false teachers who were beginning to influence the members of the congregation. Defining the precise nature of the heresy keeps New Testament scholars in a job. Sufficient to say that the person and work of Christ were being denigrated and, among other things, angels were being exalted. Hence Paul refers to ‘the worship of angels’ in Colossians 2:18. Calvin was exactly right when he said that ‘man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols’ (Institutes 1.11.8).

The answer, as Paul so clearly demonstrates in Colossians, is to focus on Christ: ‘in Christ all the fulness of Deity lives in bodily form’ (2:9). Christ is supreme by nature and over every aspect of the created order. No created thing deserves the honour that should be accorded to him. A recognition of the supremacy of Christ in creation, providence and redemption is the antidote to all forms of idolatry ancient and modern.

Not that angels should be ignored or forgotten. Exaggerated, misplaced honour accorded to them should not lead us to swing to the opposite extreme of disregarding their ministry entirely. The holy angels, who did not join in Satan’s rebellion, are part of God’s good creation. With his redeemed people, they worship and serve the Lord. They have a very specific role in the unfolding of the divine plan of salvation: ‘Are not all angels ministering spirits sent to serve those who will inherit salvation?’ (Hebrews 1:14). The Bible gives occasional glimpses of angels at work, sufficient to remind us of their existence and activity for our benefit, but certainly not enough to satisfy our curiosity or answer all our questions. We must be content with what God has revealed, avoiding speculation that has no root in Scripture (unlike some of the Colossians). How many times God has used his angels to protect or deliver us from danger we will never know, at least on this side of glory. That they have been busy we can be sure. We thank God for the ministry of angels, and keep our eyes fixed on Christ alone.

The Boring Bits

Do we need everything that’s in the Bible? Could we not get along perfectly well without some parts of it? If we had a kind of Readers’ Digest version, with all the important bits kept in and all the boring bits taken out, would that not be far better? Just think how much easier it would be for children, new converts with no Bible knowledge, people with limited education. That way, they would not get bogged down, for instance, in the endless genealogies, bamboozled by who begat whom. There are some people fascinated by such things, but not many. Would a slimmed-down, reader-sensitive volume not serve us rather better than the present tome? If you have ever ground to a halt in Chronicles, or given up on the oracles against the nations in Isaiah, it might seem an attractive option, and if some Christians were to admit the truth, their Bible reading might as well be from a volume a lot less than the sixty-six books. Anyone for Nahum?

But what are the ‘important bits’? We might suggest the parts that deal with God’s nature, with human nature, with sin, with the identity of Jesus, with salvation. The list, however, is hard to conclude. What about the Holy Spirit, the Church, the return of Christ? Aren’t the sacraments important? Death and what lies beyond? Very soon we will find that most of the Bible is included, of necessity.

And who decides what is important, anyway? Do you think that you are qualified? I certainly don’t think I am. If we believe that the ultimate author of all Scripture is God, that he is the one who ‘breathed it out’, to use Paul’s language in 2 Timothy 3:16, then whatever he has chosen to give us is, by definition, important. Would we accuse the Almighty of wasting words? Yet by limiting our study to only certain parts of the Bible, mostly in the New Testament, that is exactly what we are doing. Although we may hold to a high doctrine of Scripture, in a day when this is very much a matter of debate, our practice must match our profession.

There are parts of the Bible that are hard to figure out, however. The mind-benders like Ezekiel and Revelation pose all sorts of problems for Bible readers, yet their very strangeness can also exert a fascination. Perhaps it’s more of a struggle with parts that don’t seem to serve a useful purpose for readers today, even if the original readers were riveted by them. The genealogies – the ‘boring bits’ to many people – are a case in point. It might be interesting, even delightful, to work out your family tree if you are a Jew returning from exile in Babylon, but how can a twenty-first century Christian gain any benefit from time spent reading a list of mostly-unpronounceable names? It needs a bit of thought, but there are answers.

The genealogies, like the other historical material in the Bible, serve to remind us that Christianity is rooted in history. It is not based on incredible myths, nor does it offer an abstract set of philosophical ideas: it is based on the actions of a sovereign God in history by which he provided for himself a worshipping and serving community of people. Our God works in history and is Lord of history. The genealogies record the names of some of the people in whose lives he worked, people who were significant to him even if we know nothing more than their names. History matters to Christians in a way that it does not matter to people of other religions. As Paul says, ‘if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in our sins’ (I Corinthians 15:17). Biblical history, the genealogies included, matters tremendously. If we do not have reliable access to history, our faith and hope collapse.

The genealogies in particular trace the line of God’s covenant promise through history from one generation of his people to the next, an unbroken golden thread beginning with Adam and culminating in Jesus Christ, the Messiah and Redeemer of God’s people, the thread that holds the entire Scriptures together. We may not be able to trace our physical lineage in the Bible, but our spiritual ancestry is set out clearly for us. The genealogies, far from being ‘boring bits’, are shot through with the love and grace of God.

1859 Revival

1859 – an amazing year. A year of revival. A time when the Spirit of God moved in a mighty way and many were converted. For a time the face of Ulster church life was deeply affected. The impact on the wider society was also profound, with crime rates, for example, dropping significantly. The best means of social reform was clearly a widespread turning to living Christian faith. For an exhilarating time the preaching of the gospel was heard and accepted by large numbers. Congregations grew by the addition of new members and, just as importantly, existing members who had actually been unsaved were soundly converted. Those must have been heady days to live through.

It was, as we might expect, not all plain sailing. There were those who opposed the revival, in whole or in part. For some it was a matter of opposition to the kind of religion that spoke of grace, sin, salvation and conversion: they simply could not stomach it, and various means were found to explain it away in purely material or psychological terms. Crowded factory conditions were blamed, for example, despite the many conversions that took place in the open air. But if the very idea of conversion is rejected, any other explanation becomes acceptable.

Others objected to elements of the revival, without dismissing it entirely. For some the common scene of uneducated people, even women, preaching and leading meetings was too much. For others, and this was not an uncommon reaction, the strange phenomena accompanying many of the revival meetings were problematical. Shouting, weeping, groaning might be acceptable under the pressure of emotion, but the sometimes dramatic bodily prostrations caused anxiety and raised questions in the minds of many observers. Could such physical manifestations be the work of God? Could such disorder be the result of the Holy Spirit’s ministry?

From the safe distance of one hundred and fifty years it is easy to assume that we would have been among the hearty supporters of the revival. We can readily see how much good was done during those days. We can find explanations for the phenomena that make a degree of sense of them. And yet some of the objections voiced are not all that different from the kind of criticisms heard in our own circles regarding various contemporary religious movements. We may we be warranted in our criticisms, yet would we have been sufficiently discerning in 1859 to accept what was good and reject what was dubious without writing off the entire movement?

We often hear Christians say that what we need is revival. Are we prepared for what revival might actually mean? If 1859 is any guide, the demands that would be placed upon church leaders and church members would be extreme. There were daily prayer meetings in some places, many gatherings for preaching and the sharing of testimonies. For some ‘normal’ life must almost have come to a stop. As always when there is a work of God, the devil too will be active, and if anything the ferocity of spiritual warfare will increase. 1859 was not only a year of revival – it was also the year of the first publication of Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of Species, a book which enabled Richard Dawkins to describe himself as an ‘intellectually fulfilled atheist’.

Revival, wonderful as it might be in many respects, would not be the final and complete answer to the spiritual state of the world. The effects of the 1859 revival did fade in time. The Lord may work in revival if he so chooses – he is, after all, utterly sovereign. His usual way of working, however, is the slow spread of the gospel through the witness of his people and the preaching of those he has called to the task. Not as spectacular as revival, but that is the work most of us have been assigned.

Rising Costs

It certainly came as a great relief to churches and Christian organisations. At the end of January the British Government lost several significant votes in the House of Lords in relation to its Equality Bill. The whole subject of ‘equality’ is an explosive one, but the proposals contained in this Bill in relation to churches and faith-based organisations were especially worrying. Had the Government succeeded in getting its Bill through Parliament in its original form, it could have been illegal for a church of a faith-based group to insist on Christian standards of conduct in anyone it employed, unless the person were engaged specifically in a preaching role. Youth workers and many others would not have been covered by the exemptions the Government was offering.

Although reassurances were given by Government Ministers, the legal advice obtained by a number of Christian bodies indicated that the wording of the Bill could pose a serious threat to their freedom to employ only those who accepted Christian ethical standards for sexual conduct. To refuse to employ, for example, an openly-practising homosexual could well have led to Court action, with a real probability that the complainant would win. Efforts by churches to reason with the Government came to nothing, but an amendment proposed by Lady O’Cathain, was passed by a significant majority.

The controversy over the Equality Bill has simply served to highlight the fact that Christians’ freedom to practise their faith in the public arena is coming under increasing pressure from various directions. A Christian teacher, Olive Jones, was sacked after offering to pray for a sick pupil during a house tutoring visit. Her managers were afraid, it seems, that her comments about faith could be seen as ‘bullying’. Lillian Ladele, a Christian registrar who refused to perform same-sex civil partnerships, was dismissed and eventually lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal. Nadia Eweida was asked by British Airways to remove or hide the cross she wore around her neck at work, although religiously significant items such as turbans and hijabs are permitted for BA employees. She subsequently lost her case for religious discrimination at the Court of Appeal. In many situations it seems that the authorities operate double standards which penalise Christians but not followers of other religions. Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan-Smith commented recently that Christians in public office are made to feel as though they must apologise for their faith. The Prime Minister may say that Christian engagement in politics is beneficial for building a better society, but the actions of the Government he heads speak a very different message.

There are rays of light. We should be thankful for them. The victories in the votes on the Equality Bill are a good example, and the approach of a General Election encouraged the Government to abandon the proposed changes so as not to slow down the passage of the entire Bill. Another encouraging case is that of Christian hoteliers Ben and Sharon Vogelenzang. A Muslim guest accused them of insulting Islam in the course of a discussion which arose at the hotel. They were arrested and prosecuted under the 1998 Public Order Act, but were cleared by the Court when the case came to trial. A price, however, was paid in an 80% fall in business. A significant proportion of their income came from guests who were outpatients at a local hospital which withdrew its business when the prosecution began. A legal victory does not necessarily solve all the problems.

We are living in a society where even outward respect for Christianity is waning and this is evident in some of the cases we have cited. All is by no means lost, but the cost of discipleship for many will increase significantly. We must be ready to support, encourage and, perhaps, suffer.

The Invisible Church

News reporting is – of necessity – very selective. Some stories are covered at length and in detail, some are accorded a brief mention, others never make it to mainstream media reports. All kinds of factors colour what is served up to readers, listeners and viewers: remoteness, sensation-value, public perceptions of interest or significance, racial, religious and cultural biases, even the simple availability of a reporter to cover a story. It is fascinating to compare the news stories covered by British news media with those from other countries, even in their English-language services. British news consumers are totally in the dark about large tracts of the globe, and are probably little concerned that that is the case. The same probably holds true in most nations.

Many stories never see the light of day. Among them are generally accounts of the pressures faced by the Christian Church in various parts of the world. Perhaps because of a pursuit of ‘balance’ and ‘neutrality’, perhaps because of ignorance, perhaps because of the increasing marginalization of Christianity in the public arena, the hardships endured by many of our brothers and sisters are largely unknown outside a fairly small circle.

Iraq is constantly in the news at present. It appears that, despite continued terrorist outrages, sometimes on a considerable scale, the underlying situation is improving. But not for everyone. As Christians close to the situation will tell you, the predicament of Christians in Iraq is increasingly desperate. In Mosul in the north fanatical terrorists who control the streets are now targeting Christians. Recently twenty Christians were murdered and six homes torched. Unsurprisingly Christians are fleeing the area, leaving everything behind them. One ray of light is that the church in Kirkuk continues to meet and is able to operate a school and a clinic. In contrast, the congregation in Baghdad, which used to number about 1200, is now down to 60 or fewer. Some children’s ministry continues, but the difficulties are great. In Basra fewer than 10 elderly people now meet and all the young have left.

All this in a country where, before the war, Christians enjoyed a greater degree of freedom than in most of the neighbouring countries. The reasons for this were mainly political, but none the less the cause of the gospel was advancing. Now western forces may be – to some degree – in charge, but the church is declining rapidly. Many have fled to safer locations, others would go if they could. It would be hard to blame them.

We could multiply examples from different parts of the world. For many the cost of Christian commitment is high and in some places any Christian activity is covert. In theology we speak of the ‘invisible church’ when we refer to the whole body of true believers, whose composition is known only to the Lord. Not all are happy with the terminology – surely true believers are inevitably visible? In at least one sense, however, there is certainly an ‘invisible’ church – the church unnoticed or ignored by the media, too often unknown even to fellow believers. Success-oriented western churches have little idea what to make of believers struggling for their very existence in harsh and hostile environments, even when they do become aware of their existence. The invisible church is made up of our brothers and sisters in the Lord, for whom we are to pray and whose pain we are to feel (Hebrews 13:3). We should seek to be as well informed about their situation and needs as possible, for prayer and practical support. There is no ‘invisible’ church as far as the Lord is concerned. There should not be for his people either.