Religion for Atheists?

Dinner with Christians in New Zealand

The world has lost its bearings. Not that ideologies are lacking, to give directions: only that they lead nowhere. People are going round in circles in the cage of their planet, because they have forgotten that they can look up to the sky… Because all we want is to live, it has become impossible for us to live. Just look around you!

-Eugene Ionesco, founder of the theater of the absurd, 1972

I recently read Alain de Botton WSJ op-ed article entitled “Religion for Everyone.”

In it he suggests importing the Christian love (agape) feast into secular society to remedy the threatened and waning sense of community apparent in postmodern life.

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Psalm 90: Dwelling in God to Escape Vanity

grey beach

If you missed my last two posts, Does Science Incriminate the Bible? and Why Can’t Science and Faith be Friends?, I suggest you read them first before continuing on to this one. I have been following a loose but developing line of thought throughout them.

This third post picks up at the assumption that science/life is all there is, i.e. there is no supernatural, spiritual, or eternal elements to the world and human experience.

The most basic human condition is inescapable vanity.

The biggest muscles, atrophy. The sharpest minds, dull. The prettiest faces, wrinkle.

Nothing not only doesn’t satisfy eternally, but nothing even lasts eternally. Man is confronted, not merely conceptually, but actually in experience with his mortality and resulting vanity.

The days of our years are seventy years, or, if because of strength, eighty years; but their pride is labor and sorrow, for it is soon gone, and we fly away.

-Psalm 90:10

If a newborn child could think rationally upon birth and came out of the womb with the full ability of the creative use of language, he might ask his parents on his first day, “What can I expect to gain out of all this?” His mother may look off to the side, pause, and then answer sheepishly, “Seventy years of labor and sorrow.”

Psalm 90:10 describes the quantity and quality of human life.

The quantity of life that we can expect is 70-80 years. Monaco, population 30,500 in July 2011, has the highest life expectancy in the world, at 89.73. So, 3500 years later, Moses’ word still stands. The quality of life we can expect isn’t much better- labor and sorrow.

O Jehovah, cause me to know my end, and the measure of my days, what it is. May I know how transient I am. Behold, You have made my days as mere handbreadths, and my lifetime is as nothing before You; surely every man at his best is altogether vanity. Surely man goes about as a semblance; surely they bustle about in vain: he heaps up riches yet knows not who will gather them. And now what am I waiting for, O Lord? My hope—it is in You.

-Psalm 39:4-7

Modern technology however, masks man’s true condition.

We can cover up the quantity of life with our new available quality of life.

Just think how difficult cooking, childbearing, and life in general were just 100 years ago. In these events, man felt the sagging weight of his mortality. He felt the transience. Moses, the writer of Psalm 90, surely had a poignant sense of this, trudging around the wilderness for forty years while leading the children of Israel. The rawness of human life reminded man that “it is soon gone, and we fly away.”

Technology may be a welcomed form of temporary relief or distraction, but it ultimately has no recourse against the fall.

The promise of a technological salvation is empty. The gospel of Steve Jobs ends up being little more than ingenious entrepreneurship. Apple’s original logo of the bitten, forbidden fruit imprinted with a rainbow, a Biblical symbol of hope and promise, implies that technology can reverse the effects of the curse. But this only creates false hope.

The most it can do is mask the symptoms. Even if modern medicine gives man a little extra strength to extend his days, what does it benefit him? It’s pride is labor and sorrow. Even if man could live to 969 years, the longest recorded life span in the Bible, what would he have to boast of in the end? ” We bring our years to an end like a sigh (Psa. 90:9).”

O Lord, You have been our dwelling place in all generations.

-Psalm 90:1

Only by dwelling in the eternal God, can our finite life have eternal value and satisfaction. The Christian was “regenerated unto a living hope” (1 Pet. 1:3), a hope contingent on the life of God. A multifaceted hope for this life and the next. To be a Christian is to believe into God. This meets not just a religious need but a very human need.

Dwelling in God is the only solution to the human condition.

Why Can’t Science and Faith be Friends?

A thousand times over, the death knell of the Bible has been sounded, the funeral procession formed, the inscription cut on the tombstone, and the committal read. But somehow the corpse never stays put.[1]

–Bernard Ramm

Despite many eminent scientists, who know a whole lot more than the rest of us, who have not merely ceded to the idea of God being plausible or necessary but have fully embraced Him, the friendship between science and faith still seems to be tenuous.

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Does Science Incriminate the Bible?

Recently I have been following a few blogs discussing the historical reliability of the Bible, the historicity of Adam, and questions on the compatibility of science with the Bible.

Christians should not feel threatened by science. Science, in the sense of the way things are and the processes that govern them, is God’s work as much as the Bible is. Actually, both are God’s means of revelation- general and specific (Rom. 1:20, 2 Tim. 3:15).

However, some of what is touted as scientific fact is scientific speculation, assumption, or a leap to conclusions. One common instance of this is the claim that humans descended from chimpanzees because we share 98.6% of our DNA with them. While the latter may be fact, the former is speculation, not science. And this scenario can play out and repeat endlessly as science observes more of the visible universe.

But it is abundantly clear that science can not answer all the questions.

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The Bridge of Time

Bridge of Time

I created this Bridge of Time diagram because I have often drawn rough sketches of it in speaking to people and thought that it would be nice to have a more detailed version online somewhere as a resource. The overall concept is that God’s eternal economy is accomplished in time, which can be viewed as a bridge connecting the blueprint of God’s plan before time with the finished masterpiece in eternity forever.

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Romans—The Fifth Gospel

One, two, three, four… five? The Gospel of God in Romans

How many gospels are there?

This depends on a number of things. Primarily, what is the gospel? Who is it for? What does the message of good news include?

Of course traditionally we refer to Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John as the four gospels. But Paul seems to consider his message in the book of Romans as the gospel too, although in another sense.

Paul, a slave of Christ Jesus, a called apostle, separated unto the gospel of God –Rom. 1:1

This is how Paul kicks off this epistle- invoking the gospel of God as the raison d’être of his ministry. Now I know what you’ll say, this is not conclusive evidence to claim that Romans is a so-called fifth gospel (nevermind the spurious or apocryphal gospels). But look closely at verse 15:

So, for my part, I am ready to announce the gospel to you also who are in Rome.

The question is, who is the you here? Verse 7 makes it abundantly clear:

To all who are in Rome, beloved of God, the called saints: Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Paul is saying that he is ready to announce the gospel to already believing Christians in Rome! Paul is saying that even the Christians need the gospel. Not in a New Calvinist kind of way, but the gospel in its entirety with its proper focus.

What is the gospel? Good News

The most basic definition of the gospel is the good news. The traditional four Gospels are packed with good news. That good news however is largely focused on man’s benefit—his salvation, rescue from eternal damnation, and restoration to a proper humanity. This is certainly good news. But this is admittedly shy of God’s eternal purpose.

Thus, Paul in Romans lets us know that there is much more good news. This is ultimately good news to God, because in the working out of this gospel God is the principal beneficiary.

For if we, being enemies, were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more we will be saved in His life, having been reconciled. –Rom. 5:10

The four Gospels all end with “the death of His Son” resulting in our reconciliation to God and with His subsequent resurrection as the receipt or proof our justification (Rom 4:25). They zoom in on the three and a half years of Christ’s life and ministry on earth which culminated in the cross. They are four distinct but harmonious biographies of the God-man Jesus.

But Paul is here to tell us that there is something “much more.” This implies that if you don’t know this gospel, Paul’s gospel, than you know much less than the totality of the good news.

The gospel in Romans concerns God’s purpose (Rom 8:28-29), God’s will (Rom 12:2), and God’s mysterious economy (Rom 16:25, Eph 3:9).

God’s purpose is to produce many glorified sons that Christ might be the Firstborn among many brothers. God’s will is to obtain the Body of Christ with many members. God’s economy is to mysteriously work Himself in Christ as the Spirit of life into the spirit, soul, and body of His believers for His manifold expression.

Actually the word gospel shows up more times in Romans than in any other book in the New Testament (totaling 9 times as a noun, a few more as a verb including verse 15 above).

  1. Rom. 1:1 …separated unto the gospel of God…
  2. Rom. 1:9 …I serve in my spirit in the gospel of His Son…
  3. Rom. 1:16 …For I am not ashamed of the gospel…
  4. Rom. 2:16 …when God judges the secrets of men according to my gospel through Jesus Christ…
  5. Rom. 10:16 …But not all have obeyed the gospel…
  6. Rom. 11:28 …According to the gospel they are enemies for your sake…
  7. Rom. 15:16 …a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles, a laboring priest of the gospel of God…
  8. Rom. 15:19 …I have fully preached the gospel of Christ…
  9. Rom. 16:25 …my gospel, that is, the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery…

In this sense then, Romans is the fifth gospel.

The gospel of God is an all-inclusive unveiling of God’s full counsel concerning His good pleasure, His will, His purpose, and His economy. This is presented to humanity as a proclamation, as an official announcement made by a herald who has the responsibility to proclaim under official sanction this tremendous announcement.

-Ron Kangas, Crystallization-Study of the Gospel of God

How is the gospel good news for God?

The gospel is good news for God in that through it His eternal purpose to gain the Body of Christ and the kingdom of God is realized and His enemy Satan is crushed (Rom 12:5, 14:17, 16:20).

Next time you are out preaching the gospel then, and someone says, “Oh yes, I’m already a Christian” why not do what Paul did and announce the gospel anyway, for God’s sake?

A Closer Look at “Why I Hate Religion”

What if I told you Jesus came to abolish religion?

Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets; I have not come to abolish, but to fulfill. –Matt. 5:17

For Christ is the end of the law unto righteousness to everyone who believes. –Rom. 10:4

Some have argued against the very first line of Jefferson Bethke’s Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus, and since it is the premise of the whole video it needs careful attention. Matthew 5:17 seems to lean one way on this issue while Romans 10:4 seems to lean the other way. These two verses are not contradictory. Since Bethke doesn’t define religion explicitly it’s left to everyone else to extrapolate. Although, the context makes it somewhat obvious what he is getting at.

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Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus

Why I Hate Religion, but Love Jesus

At 10,587,270 views at 11 pm on only the fifth day since it was posted, the “Why I Hate Religion, But Love Jesus” YouTube video can officially be dubbed viral.

It’s amazing to me that 685 words with the right video editing and some perfectly timed musical swells can attract such a flash flood of attention. The entire video lasts but a brief 4 minutes and 4 seconds.

For counterpoint:

Martin Luther’s 95 Theses was 2,633 words and were nailed to the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg. No lute was playing in the background for dramatic effect.

The United States Declaration of Independence was 1,458 words.

Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, the third longest novel in Latin or Cyrillic alphabets, stands at 1.5 million words and is today creating considerably less a stir. Apparently then, length does not necessarily equal impact. The internet is a different kind of physics.

In fact, it’s very probable that if Jefferson Bethke’s video had been much longer, many people wouldn’t have watched it to the end. But the visual stimulus and moving music appealed to more than just the “relevant” followers of Jesus.

Beyond the appeal to the senses there is the more significant appeal to reason, history, and the Bible.

The thesis sentence seems to be “Jesus came to abolish religion.”

Notable themes are: judgmentalism, self-righteousness, objective teachings that don’t transform, mere rule-following, hypocrisy, works and self-merit. Jesus and the apostles surely touched on all these themes in the New Testament (Matthew 7:1, Romans 2:1, 21-23, 2 Corinthians 3:6, Matthew 15:7-8, Galatians 2:16)

In the deluge of blog responses and their comments, some have come to the defense of religion. Clearly we need some definition of religion in mind then to proceed.

What is Religion?

My working definition of religion comes from Witness Lee and is “the attempt to do something for God apart from Christ.”

Thus, not only is legalism religion but loving people apart from Christ is religion. Zealous works apart from Christ is religion. Patience apart from Christ is religion. Kindness apart from Christ is religion. Anything that is not the result of the subjective experience of Christ living in you may very well be religion.

Galatians is a book that combats religion, and here Paul uses such expressions as “reveal His son in me” (Gal. 1:15-16), “Christ who lives in me” (Gal. 2:20), and “until Christ is formed in you” (Gal. 4:19).

In this sense, Jesus did not come to abolish one religion (Judaism) to establish another religion (Christianity). Christ came to release His divine life into His believers to form the church as His organic Body for His practical, corporate expression. This is His eternal purpose and it is absolutely outside religion.

Let us therefore go forth unto Him outside the camp… –Hebrews 13:13

The History of Judaism

To trace the history of the children of Israel is a lesson in religion. It’s beyond the scope of this post but it’s an enlightening survey- how man went from direct fellowship with God, to indirect fellowship (yet still genuine and in faith) with God through the tabernacle with the offerings and the priesthood, to (generally) degraded traditionalism without much heart for God. What began as a vital contacting of God in faith ultimately became a religion of man.

The synagogue itself became the epicenter of the persecution that Jesus and the apostles experienced.

And departing from there, He came into their synagogue. And behold, a man who had a withered hand was there. And they asked Him, saying, Is it lawful to heal on the Sabbath? so that they might accuse Him. And He said to them, What man will there be among you who will have one sheep, and if it falls into a pit on the Sabbath, will not take hold of it and lift it out? Of how much more value then is a man than a sheep! So then it is lawful to do well on the Sabbath. Then He said to the man, Stretch out your hand. And he stretched it out and it was restored, as sound as the other. But the Pharisees, going out, took counsel against Him as to how they might destroy Him. –Matthew 12:9-14

And all in the synagogue were filled with anger when they heard these things, and they rose up and cast Him out of the city and led Him to the brow of the hill on which their city was built so that they might throw Him down the cliff. –Luke 4:28-29

His parents said these things because they feared the Jews, for the Jews had already agreed that if anyone confessed Him to be the Christ, he should be put out of the synagogue. –John 9:22

And beware of men, for they will deliver you up to sanhedrins, and in their synagogues they will scourge you. –Matthew 10:17

Ultimately Judaism became formal in letter, deadening in quenching the Spirit, killing in man’s communication with God in life, and contending with the gospel of Christ in God’s New Testament economy. If it happened with Judaism in the Old Testament could it happen with segments of Christianity in the New Testament?

What should we do about it then? What do you want to change? Do you want people to do more to reach out to the homeless? Do you want people to be more tolerant and accepting of others? Do you just want people to unwind a little and not be such sticklers? These may all be good things. But the only thing that can save us from religion is the subjective experience of Christ as life.