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TOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD, FAITH, AND LIFE
By Charles Colson
TYNDALE HOUSE PUBLISHERS, INC.Copyright © 2006 Prison Fellowship Ministries
All right reserved.
Chapter OneDoes God Exist, and Can We Know Him?
God and Contemporary Thinking
1 Does life really have any meaning? Sometimes everything seems so pointless.
This question can be so disturbing, particularly when our own kids ask it, that we respond by wishing it away. "You don't mean that," we say, effectively stopping an important conversation before it starts. We sense it will take us rapidly into areas where we are in over our heads.
But when our teenagers ask this question sincerely, they deserve our full attention. Asking the question may be the beginning of a true religious quest. If our teenagers have been brought up in the church-even if they have accepted Christ as their personal Lord and Savior-this question may still be part of their growth in spiritual understanding.
No one-man or woman, boy or girl-can live for long without a sense of purpose, without an understanding of life's ultimate meaning. Let me tell you a story about the lengths (or heights) to which people will go in order to invent a meaning for themselves when they sense life has none.
Larry Walters was athirty-three-year-old truck driver who lived in a small development of tract homes in Los Angeles just beyond the L.A. airport. Every Saturday afternoon he would sit in a lawn chair in his small, chain-link-fenced backyard, sunning himself and drinking a six-pack.
The boredom-or purposelessness-of the situation drove Larry to try something novel. He came up with the idea (I suspect after a second six-pack) of attaching some balloons to his lawn chair and floating up about one hundred feet in the air, drifting over his neighbors' backyards and waving at them. He went out and bought forty-five hot-air weather balloons, had them inflated with helium, and brought them back to his house.
Larry's neighbors came over to watch and helped him hold down the chair as he attached the forty-five balloons. He armed himself with a BB gun so that if he went too high, he could shoot out a few balloons and keep from rising more than one hundred feet above the ground. He also equipped himself with peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and another six-pack.
Then he was ready. He shouted to his neighbors, "Let go!"
They did, but he didn't rise one hundred feet; he went up eleven thousand feet! He never shot out even one of the balloons because he was too busy clutching the chair! He was first spotted by a Continental Airlines captain who reported that someone in a lawn chair had just gone by his DC10. (The captain was asked to report immediately to the tower when he landed.) For four hours (this is a true story!) Los Angeles International Airport diverted flights coming in because Larry Walters was hanging on to his lawn chair at eleven thousand feet.
The authorities sent up helicopters and all sorts of rescue aircraft and eventually guided him back to the ground. When Larry landed at dusk (I remember seeing all this on television), it was an extraordinary scene. There were sirens, police cars with their bubble lights spinning, and hordes of camera crews converging on this man as he landed in his lawn chair.
They shoved a microphone in his face and asked, "Were you scared?"
His eyes were as big as saucers. "Yep."
"Are you going to do it again?"
"Why did you do it in the first place?"
Larry Walters replied, "You can't just sit there."
Something within us tells us there has to be more to life than mindless relaxation. Something within us drives us to find life's meaning-or to go to extraordinary lengths to create our own.
You can't just sit there.
Human beings cannot live without a sense of purpose. Scripture teaches that we were made to know God and to return God's love-that's the sum and substance of every person's reason for living. Made in God's image (see Genesis 1:26-27), we sense this truth about ourselves even when we cannot explain it clearly. Our built-in sense of purpose is so strong that when people turn away from God, they will turn to something else in order to make sense out of their lives, to define some purpose for their existence (see Romans 1:18-22).
The earliest chapters of Genesis set forth this purpose and extend its meaning into our work and daily activities. We are to cultivate the earth, to name the animals (as we do even today in discovering new species), to exercise dominion, becoming cocreators (or partners) with God in caring for the earth's resources. Our work actually furthers God's great creative purpose. When we do our work well, it reflects God's glory and gives him praise. God's purpose can sustain us in triumph or tragedy, in despair and disappointment, and in moments of great joy. Our life and work indeed have purpose: to bring glory to God.
So when your teenager asks, "Does life really have any meaning?" answer, "Yes! To know God and return his love!" (or, in the words of the Westminster Shorter Catechism, to "glorify God and enjoy him forever"). And then go on to discuss how this gives purpose to the young person's life in the present.
For example: Has he or she just broken up with a girlfriend or boyfriend? (Such an event often provokes this question.) Talk together about how relationships aid or hinder our relationship with God. What purpose do they have in the larger scheme of things? Relationships-like everything else-can assume their appropriate meanings once we understand our ultimate reason for living. If we don't understand humankind's ultimate purpose, the meaning of our lesser purposes will always become distorted and assume either too much or too little significance.
2 But how can I know and love a God I'm not sure exists? Is there really a God?
This is a huge question, and we can approach it in several ways. First, the Scriptures teach that God has revealed himself so clearly that only fools deny his existence (see Psalm14:1; Romans 1:20). Then the Bible says that we can discover God's reality through (1) the testimony of creation and (2) the witness of conscience-for we are made in the image of God.
In the book of Romans the apostle Paul writes, "From the time the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky and all that God made. They can clearly see his invisible qualities-his eternal power and divine nature. So they [people who are in rebellion against God] have no excuse whatsoever for not knowing God" (1:20, NLT).
The entire Bible, both Old and New Testaments, echoes Paul's argument, which in philosophical terms is known as the argument from design. "The heavens declare the glory of God," the psalmist writes (Psalm 19:1). And Christ asks us to consider how God cares for the sparrows and the lilies of the field. What we see testifies to what we cannot see.
The apostle Paul also writes in this same passage: "The truth about God is known to them instinctively. God has put this knowledge in their hearts [again, referring to people who have turned away from God].... Yes, they knew God, but they wouldn't worship him as God or even give him thanks. And they began to think up foolish ideas of what God was like. The result was that their minds became dark and confused" (Romans 1:19-21, NLT).
Paul alludes here to a foundational scriptural notion that goes back to Genesis. The human person is made in the image of God. In other words, when God created us, he made us to be mirror images of himself; we are creatures who resemble our Creator in distinctive ways. We have free choice; we are creatures of reason; we are creative; we are made for meaningful work; we are meant to exist in relationship-in all these ways and others we are made in God's image. For this reason we sense, without being taught, that there must be a God.
Don Richardson, a Canadian missionary, spent several years studying the beliefs of different cultures. He discovered that all of the ancient tribes of history believed in the existence of a supreme being. This belief assumed various forms, but belief in some type of god was universal. He also discovered many stories of people journeying from isolated locations to hear a missionary preach. When they heard the gospel of Christ for the first time, they would say, "That is the One [meaning God] I have been wanting to know about."
One of the best stories showing that the truth of God is evident within us is told in my book The Body. It is the story of my friend Irina Ratushinskaya. Irina, a Soviet dissident imprisoned for five years in the Gulag, mentally wrote and memorized three hundred poems, which were published to worldwide acclaim upon her release. Her autobiographical Grey Is the Color of Hope details her life and imprisonment.
Irina's parents and schoolteachers were atheists. When Irina was nine years old, after listening to atheistic teaching from her teachers and her family, she figured, My parents told me there aren't any ghosts. They told me there aren't any goblins. They only told me those things once, though. They tell me there isn't a God every week. There must be a God. In other words, if there weren't something to it, they wouldn't be fighting so hard against it.
She started to read the great Russian authors Pushkin and Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, whose writings contain much of the gospel. Irina became a believer because of this great literature.
Years later when she was in prison, the authorities tried to freeze her to death. She was huddled up against a wall, shuddering with cold, when she had an incredible sense that people around the world were praying for her. It was true. A group praying for Christians in prison had an extensive prayer chain for Irina-I was part of it-and somehow she knew it.
Whether in the worst of circumstances or even in cultures that have not been evangelized, people know there is a God. My own memories teach me this. Long before my conversion, when I attended church only occasionally and it didn't mean anything to me, I went sailing one day with my six-year-old son. I can remember saying, "Thank you, God, for giving me this son." I didn't know who God was, but something within me declared I should be grateful to him for my child.
Just before Bertrand Russell-an avowed atheist and author of Why I Am Not a Christian-died, he sent a letter to a friend. He wrote in his autobiography, "Something in one seems obstinately to belong to God, and to refuse to enter into any earthly communion-at least that is how I should express it if I thought there was a god. It is odd, isn't it? I care passionately for this world and many things and people in it, and yet ... what is it all? There must be something more important, one feels, though I don't believe there is."
God is there. We know it even if we are in rebellion.
The inherent truth that God's existence is evident to everyone reveals itself especially through conscience-one of the most profound ways in which the image of God in us testifies to our Creator. The apostle Paul refers to this as the works of God's law written on our hearts, which justify or condemn our particular behaviors (see Romans 2:14-15).
A number of years ago a teacher asked fifteen students in a class, "If a one-thousand-dollar bill is lying on the ground and someone comes along and picks it up and turns it in, did that person do the right thing?" The students answered yes. The teacher questioned further. "Let's say you are hungry and have hungry children and you find that one thousand dollars and yet you turn it in. Did you do the right thing?" Still the students answered yes. "What if you know that it was dropped by a drug dealer who had gotten it in an illegal drug transaction-Is it still the right thing?" It still is.
How do we know this?
C. S. Lewis, an Oxford scholar, was one of the great intellectuals of the twentieth century. An atheist who set out to prove that there was no God, Lewis instead became a deeply professing Christian. In his book Mere Christianity he says that a sense of right and wrong, a sense of "oughtness," is universal. Where does this sense come from? Lewis argues that it doesn't come from biology or genetics or psychology. It comes from God-the image of God in which we are made.
Lewis uses the term Tao, a word taken from Eastern religion, to sum up this inherent and universal human sense of right and wrong. He shows that the universal phenomenon of conscience proves there must be a Lawgiver, a God who gives us this unaccountable understanding.
So when your kids raise the question of whether or not God exists, help them to see that the evidence of history and the conclusions of great minds concur with what creation and conscience declare: Yes, God exists, without a doubt.
3 But what if people created God out of their own need to feel cared for?
Sometimes our kids say to us, "Don't talk to me about the Bible. Of course the Bible says there's a God. But what if he's just a creation based on people's own needs?" If your kids have picked up on this objection to God's existence, they have been influenced by a strong intellectual current that's been around for the last two hundred years.
The influential German philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach believed that God was made in the image of man, that God was a creation of the human mind. So did Sigmund Freud, who wrote, "A theological dogma might be refuted [to a person] a thousand times, provided, however, he had need of it, he again and again accepts it as true."
Is religion then just a psychological prop? Is it merely a crutch for the weak?
Consider the nature and character of the God revealed in the Bible. If we were making up our own god, does it make sense that we would create one with such harsh demands for justice, righteousness, service, and self-sacrifice as we find in the biblical texts? Would the members of the pious New Testament religious establishment have created a God who condemned them for their own hypocrisy? Would even a zealous disciple have invented a Messiah who called his followers to sell all, give their possessions to the poor, and follow him to their death? The skeptic who believes that the Bible's human authors manufactured their God out of psychological need has not read the Scriptures carefully. That skeptic may have penetrated to the heart of New Age religion, but he or she has not understood the teaching of the Bible.
If we were going to invent a god to prop up our spirits, we wouldn't create one who asked Mother Teresa to spend her life picking dying people out of Calcutta gutters just so they might die with dignity, knowing they were loved.
We would invent the god of superstition-the god who forecasts our future and can be persuaded (or bribed) through prayer or chanting or séances to do our own bidding, a god who never condemns but only condones our most selfish inclinations and desires. We'd invent the god of the New Age.
But the God of the Judeo-Christian tradition is a God who demands everything from us-most of all that we confront, not flee from, reality.
4 Why does the universe exist?
Ultimately this question also deals with God's existence. The popular theologian and apologist Francis Schaeffer used to say it's the first question: Why is there something rather than nothing? Why is there anything at all?
Through the centuries people have attempted to answer this question. Astonishingly, the deepest thinkers in all of human history have been able to come up with only four possible answers. As difficult as this question may be, there are only a limited number of possible replies:
First, the universe is an illusion. That is, we are not here. What we see out there is simply a giant picture that somebody has painted on a screen. It isn't there. It's only an idea in one's mind, just as you or I may be only an idea in someone else's mind.
Second, the universe is self-created. That is, the universe generated itself. First there was nothing, and then nothing became everything.
Excerpted from TOUGH QUESTIONS ABOUT GOD, FAITH, AND LIFE by Charles Colson Copyright © 2006 by Prison Fellowship Ministries. Excerpted by permission.
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