Is Christian Comfort ‘Pie in the Sky’?
First published 18 March 2010
This post is now incorporated with 22 other similar ‘reflections’ in my book, Facing Cancer with Faith.
Well it’s not quite what I expected to be dwelling on when I started my blog just over 6 months ago, but my thoughts on hardship and suffering as a Christian do seem to be multiplying. So this is turning into a series, and I intend to pursue it as long as I can find useful things to reflect on. And by useful I mean God-glorifying.
To set the context, I’m starting to write this on 13 February 2010, four days after completing my first cycle of chemotherapy. I am still in hospital. The lymphoma was found primarily in my duodenum (pipe between stomach and intestine). This meant that as the swollen area got worse it was not letting food through, and therefore I kept being sick because my stomach was just filling up. I now have a naso-gastric tube which relieves pressure in my stomach if it happens to get blocked up. That isn’t comfortable, I can tell you! And I’ve been back on IV fluids for a few days. So fully tubed up – that’s me!
Apparently even the first cycle of chemotherapy will reduce the swelling, so I should (according to the doctor) be able to eat normally again within the next few days or so. And I can leave hospital when I have shown signs that food is going through properly. So hopefully I will be home in a few days, and be eating fine. And since I haven’t had a proper meal since just before Christmas, that will be great.
All that probably sounds unpleasant. And don’t get me wrong, it is a bit of a pain. But I am well looked after in hospital. The nurses are brilliant. And there are always drugs on hand to make things feel better. And my mind is, most of the time, pretty alert, even when my body is a little weak. I praise God for those mercies! But it’s not particularly the aches and pains of my body that bother me most of the time.
Surely I should be worried about the fact I have a life threatening disease? But I’m not. Not at all. I do not worry about what is going to happen in the future. Not only is there no point worrying about things I cannot change, but I also trust the One who has the future in His hand. And as I have said elsewhere, He holds not just the future in this life, but assures the place of believers in the glorious New Creation after the judgment day.
But it might be that some people are thinking that this all sounds a bit ‘pie in the sky’! We “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen. For what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.” (2 Corinthians 4:18) “We live by faith, not by sight.” (2 Corinthians 5:7) “Faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) “Hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.” (Romans 8:24-25) “Though you have not seen him, you love him; and even though you do not see him now, you believe in him and are filled with an inexpressible and glorious joy, for you are receiving the goal of your faith, the salvation of your souls.” (1 Peter 1:8-9) “Then Jesus told him, ‘Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.'” (John 20:29)
We Christians seem to take a lot of comfort from something wonderful that is completely inconceivable in the present world, promised to us by a God who is invisible, to be received a time perhaps way off in the future and almost certainly after we die… by which time it will be too late to change our minds about it! What grounds do we have for having that kind of hope? Is this “blind faith”? Isn’t it just too convenient that we rationalize all the bad things that happen to us by saying it will be all outweighed by something we can’t see, in the future we can’t see, promised by the God we can’t see?!
For those who are not Christians this may be a major obstacle to them having a faith in God. For those who are Christians it is not always easy either. In fact it is in the nature of the “spiritual battle” I have been talking about elsewhere. Part of our struggle is against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms” (Ephesians 6:12), which we can’t see! So this is the fight of faith, the battle to find our satisfaction in God, trusting Him for the present and the future through the love of Christ.
Belief in an invisible God
First of all let’s quickly deal with the issue of having an invisible God. Is it irrational to believe in a God that you can’t see? Doesn’t it involve a leap of irrational blind faith?
Unfortunately, some Christians do talk about a “leap of faith”, as if you take leave of your senses and just believe. But true Biblical faith has never been like that. The Bible portrays the truth about God as something rational, reasonable, logical. And can it be otherwise? God, who created the universe in an orderly design, with laws of logic and laws of physics inherent within it, surely would not then hide himself behind a mask of irrationality! Human beings are made “in the image of God”, and therefore it is His imprint on us that requires us to be rational and logical in our reasoning. So I am not arguing that this is a battle between faith and reason. I am arguing that faith itself is reasonable, but a lack of faith in the Christian God of the Bible is irrational.
If you were reading fast at this point, I urge you to slow down and pause a few seconds and re-read the last couple of sentences. They look fairly innocuous, but they are pretty significant and worth reflecting on.
So let’s deal with this issue of the fact that we can’t see God, or the future that He promises, and yet we hold firmly to hope in Him. Is the fact that we can’t see Him a convincing reason for not believing in Him? Shouldn’t we only trust fully the things we can see, or sense (touch, smell, hear, etc)?
Well, let me ask, can you see the laws of logic? Did a law of physics ever bump into you? No! These are intangible, abstract, concepts. They are not made of physical matter. And yet we live our lives, necessarily, putting our faith in them as universally true. We could not function if we thought that somewhere the laws of logic did not hold true, because the fundamental law of logic is that of non-contradiction. i.e. something cannot be true and not true at the same time. If something could be true and not true at the same time, then all our reasoning would fall apart. So we have to believe that the laws of logic apply universally.
Similarly with the laws of physics. We could not function if we thought that the laws of physics were not true universally in all places at all times. All our movement, our conversation and our living and breathing depends on it. For example, oxygen has the same effect on our lungs anywhere in the world at any time. If it didn’t we would live in fear of dropping dead randomly one day because a physical law suddenly changed! All our technology, building, design and communication, energy production, medicine and so on, are all based on the belief that physical laws are true all the time, in every place, and never change. So we have to believe that the laws of physics apply universally.
So if we have to believe that the laws of logic and the laws of physics are always in force, and yet we can’t see them, then the fact that we can’t see God should be no barrier to belief in Him.
But also this points to the nature of faith in God. I hope that you can follow me through the argument from this point. I’ll try to put it as clearly as I can.
But someone may say that believing the laws of nature, laws of physics, laws of logic is nothing like believing in God. Yes, all of them are intrinsically invisible. However, we believe natural laws because we see evidence that they apply. We discover through mathematical and scientific research in the physical world (i.e. the world that we experience with our senses – sight, touch, smell, taste, hearing) that certain rules seem to apply to things. And therefore we believe them. On the other hand surely we can make no such discoveries with God, so why should we believe in him?
The answer to that is that it is incorrect thinking on two counts.
Firstly, it overstates the quality of the evidence for natural laws. Remember we live our lives on the basis that these so called natural laws (laws of logic, laws of physics, laws of mathematics, etc) apply universally. That means they work at any time in any place in the world. But there is no physical evidence that we have, or can possibly have, that the natural laws apply universally. We do not see every action and consequence at every moment in every place. We only see the things we see. How do we know there is not something different and contradictory happening somewhere else we can’t see, or that we will see at some time in the future?
So how do we live our lives with the confidence that we can walk down the street without gravity suddenly acting differently, or without running out of oxygen, or without bumping into air? We have faith!
Secondly, the incorrect thinking I was talking about understates or completely discounts real evidence for God. The Bible says that, “God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that men are without excuse.” (Romans 1:20) The world around us shows the hand of the almighty, personal God. Even our own existence, and the inner workings of our hearts and minds, show the touch of a just, loving and personal God. If we would open our eyes we would see the hand of God everywhere, so that we are “without excuse” if we doubt his presence.
At this point we should note, importantly, that this is where it comes to the crunch. The committed atheist will often cry foul at this argument, saying that we only see design and beauty and emotion and justice as evidence of God, because we have assumed he exists in the first place. They say that all these things are illusions and don’t really exist. We’ve evolved chemical and hormonal responses to external stimuli that we label as emotion or justice or design or beauty etc.
And at first that seems to be a valid argument. But it’s not. You see the atheist is doing exactly the same. They are looking at the universe saying, “nope, no evidence of any god”, because they have assumed he does not exist in the first place. They can explain away anything that the believer calls evidence because they have decided that it cannot be evidence based on their belief that no god exists.
So how do we resolve this? First of all, it is critical that we all understand and accept that we are seeing worldviews head to head. We are seeing what we call presuppositions. Presuppositions govern the way we all look at the world. If we are convinced God exists then we look at the world one way; if we are convinced God does not exist then we look at it another way.
There is a lot more that could be said, but I am already working way beyond my allotted space. And I want to mention something else important.
Are we at loggerheads? We Christians look at things one way, atheists look at things another. Is that it? No way of resolving the conflict of worldviews?
I believe there is a way to show that Christianity is rational and required, whereas atheism is irrational. And that is, briefly, to go back to the questions we came to above. How do we live our lives with the confidence that we can walk down the street without gravity suddenly acting differently, or without running out of oxygen, or without bumping into air?
With atheism or agnosticism we are left with nothing. No-one can say that they can see the future, so no-one can say that they know everything about everything. And therefore no-one can legitimately say that the laws of logic and mathematics that meant that their bank account balanced today will still apply tomorrow. But none of us questions that will be the case. We’d think someone nuts if they suggested that it wouldn’t be the case. So why does the atheist believe it? It turns out that they are only capable of blind faith!
On the other hand the Christian has the reason for their belief. The reason that we have confidence in natural laws applying universally is because we believe in a God who is rational, personal and created the universe with purpose. He has set it up that way, and told us that in the Bible.
The philosophical way of putting it is that belief in God provides the “preconditions of intelligibility”. That means that only belief in God can provide the beliefs that are necessary to make sense of the world.
So you see far from belief in an invisible God being irrational, it is the only belief that will make sense of the world. This, in its deepest sense, is why the design of the world, the way the universe works, its beauty, justice, our emotions and our unique abilities, are evidence. They are clearly seen in the world, and we all live using them. And yet the only belief that will make sense of them is Christianity.
So the punch line is that even atheists live like Christians, because they live by presuppositions that only Christianity can substantiate. And yet they use those very things (logic and reason) to try and prove that God doesn’t exist!
I find this a really strong reason to believe in an invisible God.
There is more to say, but I will break at this point, and in the next article speak to Christians about how they can believe God’s promises about the unseen world and the unseen future.