Sunday, May 24, 2009

Disneyland in the Sky

SKEPTIC: I mentioned "Disneyland in the Sky" in the previous post as a reference to Heaven and thought it probably deserved a post of its own. So here are my questions for you: What is your understanding of Heaven? Where is it? What does it look like? Who is there now and what do they do? Who will go to Heaven in the future and what will they do there? Will people stay the same age in Heaven and if so, will it be the age that they died? Do the folks in Heaven have actual physical bodies or are they some sort of spirit beings? I have lots of other questions, but those should get us started.

PREACHER: Of course all I know about Heaven is what is described in The Book. Probably the best description of Heaven in a short sentence is I Corinthians 2:9, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him." Jesus in his discourse with the Saducees said that in Heaven we will be like the angels, not getting married or reproducing.

So to your questions: Heaven is a place in the spiritual realm, so you can't get there by a spaceship. It is referred to as a beautiful garden (paradise) and as a city with streets paved with gold. All those who have died in Christ are there, including the thief that trusted Him while they were hanging on their crosses. Those that go there will enter not by their own merit, but by what Christ has already done for them.

The apostle Paul talks about spiritual bodies. Since he hints that we will be like Jesus, it follows that we would be like He was after His resurrection. He could appear and disappear at will, but while he was visible He could be touched and ate food. So I believe our spiritual bodies will be like that. As to the age at which we would appear to be, your guess would be as good as mine. Since God has always given men something to do, I don't think we will be just sitting around playing harps. The book of Revelations mentions reigning with Him. Hope this was helpful.

SKEPTIC: I'm a little confused about your distinction between a physical body and a spiritual body. You mentioned eating, but if you have a spiritual body in Heaven, how would you be able to eat food? Wouldn't you need a physical body to do that? Or are you saying that your body becomes physical when it elects to appear, but becomes spiritual when it elects to disappear? (For the record, having the power to appear and disappear at will would be pretty cool. I'll admit that.) But the whole "reigning" thing is a bit unclear. What does that mean, exactly? I mean, who would you be reigning over?

PREACHER: I think you are confused concerning resurrected bodies because you draw an arbitrary distinction between the physical and spiritual that doesn't exist. They are both parts of reality. The "reigning" will be ruling over (taking care of and enjoying) all that God has created.

SKEPTIC: Okay, now you're trying to confuse me just for the fun of it, aren't you? Yes, you're right. I'm drawing a distinction between spiritual and physical bodies. Now you're saying that in Heaven your body will be both spiritual and physical? Seems to me that it's got to be one or the other.

You said that there will be no marriage and no reproducing. Does that mean there will be no sex in Heaven? (If so, that doesn't sound like much of a selling point to me.) Of course, you could only have sex if you had a physical body, and I guess if there's no marriage in Heaven, any sex would be illicit anyway. Man, this is getting to be way too complicated.

You said that Heaven is in a spiritual realm. Does that mean it's not a physical place? Does that mean that "streets of gold" is just a metaphor? Sorry to be so hung up on the whole "spiritual" vs. "physical" thing, but I'm not getting it. I guess what I'm saying is that if I was going to book a trip there, I'd want my travel agent to give me a whole lot more in the way of concrete information.

PREACHER: Keep in mind that telling a physical-only human being about Heaven is like trying to tell a caterpillar what it is like to be a butterfly. That is why I think that there isn't much detailed explanation about Heaven, since we wouldn't understand it anyway. I think you are not getting the "spiritual and physical are both the same reality" thing, because your world view denies the spiritual, or at least tries to place it in the realm of only metaphors and symbols. Even a lot of conservative Christians in America have the same problem. They get a big surprise when they go to some other country and see things happen that they thought were impossible. From a Biblical perspective, the visible physical world is temporary and the spiritual invisible-to-us world is eternal. That makes the invisible spiritual world more real than the visible world. In no way does that imply that the physical world is unimportant. It is made more meaningful as you get to know the spiritual Creator behind it. Anyway, as a Christian I feel comfortable with what Jesus said: that He was going to prepare a place for us. I'm enjoying all the experiences of this life, but know that there will something coming that is beyond my wildest imagination.

Will there be sex there or not? Who knows? Who cares? Who wants a little sugar pill when you can have something that is much better than that? (Caterpillars like to eat leaves and that is all they know. Butterflies eat nectar and it is much sweeter, but caterpillars can't experience that until they change into butterflies.)

SKEPTIC: So there isn't much information in the Bible about Heaven because "we wouldn't understand it anyway?" Sounds like God doesn't give his creatures much credit. So God is saying, "Gee, I'd like to fill you in on exactly what's in store for up here in Heaven, but I'm afraid you're just too dense to get it. Sorry. You're just gonna have to take my word for it that Heaven's a really awesome place."

Here's my bottom line: I think Heaven is a creation of man because over the ages man has always been afraid of death. Religion came along and said, "Don't worry, this is just the first act here on Earth. If you sign up with us and give us 10% of every dollar you make for the rest of your life, we'll go ahead and save a place for you up in Heaven after you shuffle off this mortal coil." And so of course, they had to come up with something pretty awesome to make it sound inviting. "Streets of gold, no sadness, no crying, you get to see your loved ones again..." Who wouldn't want to join that club? Throw in your only other available option, burning in a fiery pit forever, and religion has really got you by the short hairs. I see Heaven as an elaborate fantasy which has served religion pretty well over the centuries. It's a fantasy that many people continue to believe because they desperately want to believe it. Kind of like when you were a child and your parents told you that your beloved dog, who had been killed by a car, was actually living on a beautiful farm out in the country.

PREACHER: Getting back to the caterpillar analogy: Caterpillars have eyes that can only sense the presence of light, so they are practically blind. When it comes to the spiritual, I see like a caterpillar. That is why I trust someone who at least claims to see the spiritual clearly(Jesus Christ). So, are you like a caterpillar with 20/20 vision or are you a one that just can't trust anyone.

Friday, May 22, 2009

Kissing Hank's Ass

SKEPTIC: So what do you think about this video?

PREACHER: Although the title is rather juvenile, the content is a good parody of what (unfortunately) a lot of so-called evangelism is. I would recommend all classes on evangelism at Bible schools and seminaries see this video. I have been evangelized by some cult groups in the same manner. The two big mistakes that the evangelists made were 1) they assumed the guy they were visiting had the same world view as they did, and used circular reasoning to try to convince him of something that he didn't believe in, and 2) they cut off further contact with him, seeing him as a terrible evil person, making him no longer worth talking to, and I suppose he didn't want to talk to them again either.

When reaching someone of a different world view, you need to first develop a trusting relationship with them. Then, you need to help them to realize that their world view is really wrong. After that you can talk to them about "Hank."

SKEPTIC: Well, okay, I guess if you want to use the video to show someone how NOT to evangelize, you could do that. But I don't think that was the intent of the producer. I think the video was designed to comically show how silly religion is by placing all the major elements of the Christian belief system into a different context. Listening to John and Mary trying to convince the guy of their beliefs, the viewer thinks...geez, that's ridiculous. But everything they say has a direct parallel in Christianity. So how come it sounds so silly when they say it, but makes perfect sense to many people when it describes the Christian belief system?

PREACHER: I understand the intent of the producer, however the parallels to Christianity are quite outlandish. "Hank" isn't a real person in history (Jesus Christ is: check the sites on my blog roll) and the rule about not eating you hot dogs with anything but buns (isn't that an allusion to sexual variations?) really would be completely unintelligible to anyone outside the American culture. I could go on and on about the crazy parallels. What the video does a good job of conveying is what I think the apostle Paul alluded to: The Gospel is foolishness to those who are perishing. If your world view is completely foreign to what the Bible assumes it IS silly to you. The average Japanese, if confronted with Jesus' death on the cross, finds the message meaningless. They say, "I never asked him to do that for me, so why should I pay attention to that?" You have to lay down the ground work that 1) God is the creator and owner of the universe which includes us humans, 2) Our first ancestors rebelled against God and we are all born with that unnatural bent. So, except for the grace of God working in me to work against that bent and get back in line with His purposes, I and all humanity are bound for His judgment (in other words, discarded since we won't cooperate with Him - we were given free wills to choose, though, by trusting Him) 3) Jesus died on the cross to satisfy God's requirements for us so that if we accept Him, we can pass from eternal judgment into eternal life. And, He rose from the dead to prove He did it. This message is the fragrance of life to those of us who believe, but the stench of death to those who will not believe. You've got to start with the right "reality" in order to understand and appreciate the message. Otherwise, it does sound just as silly as Hank's Ass.

SKEPTIC: Sorry, I don't smell the "stench of death." I experience the "fragrance of life" just as much as you do. I could argue that I experience it even more, since I accept that this life is all there is and so am determined to make the most of it, while you view it as just a way station to the next life, and so everything you do is focused on the next life. I can see how this can cause many Christians to be way too stressed out about life, always worried that they're going to screw up and offend the Almighty and perhaps even risk their eternal soul. When you don't buy into this ancient belief system, though, you're free to live your life joyfully, without the stress that those with rigid belief systems can suffer.

I think you're right about the whole wieners and buns thing, though. Hank says that for two wieners to lay down together is an abomination.

PREACHER: How can you say that you experience the fragrance of life just as much as a Christian does? Your wonderful life lasts for 70 to 80 years. Our lives last for eternity. I don't think that you will feel so joyful about your life when you have been told that you have only a few weeks to live, like my friend with pancreatic cancer who lives in Des Moines IA. He has peace about it. I really doubt that your deathbed scene will be that optimistic, unless you decide to become a believer again. There have been some polls taken that have suggested that religious people are better adjusted and happier than non-religious people. I think you paint a picture of Christians struggling with sin that is gloomier than it really is. We Christians know the joy of being set free from sin and death. Non-believers joy is based on the on the concept of "What you don't know won't hurt you," or "ignorance is bliss."

SKEPTIC: Seriously? You think your life has more value and meaning because you've chosen to believe that after you die you'll spend eternity in some sort of Disneyland in the sky, and since I've chosen to NOT believe that particular fantasy, I can't experience the "fragrance of life" as much as you? And furthermore, I can't possibly be at peace with my own death unless I adopt this particular belief for myself?

Seriously? That doesn't strike you as just a bit arrogant to make that claim?

PREACHER: It isn't my claim. It is His claim. I know whom I have believed and am persuaded that He is able to keep His promises. You just know what you know. Perhaps later I can go into more detail about how the "fragrance of life" He has to offer is both qualitatively and quantitatively infinitely more than what you think you know.

SKEPTIC: Well, it may be "His" claim, but it's also your claim, and it's why so many people are turned off by religion. This idea that by virtue of your belief system, your life has more value than the lives of nonbelievers is not only arrogant, but pretty darn offensive. (Didn't we already cover this ground in a previous post?)

PREACHER: When the apostle Paul called the message of the cross the stench of death, he was refering to it as something offensive to those who don't believe. Some of them thought it offensive enough to persecute him for continuing to proclaim it. If you were more secure in your own belief system, you wouldn't have your nose bent out of shape so badly by the message.

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

Should We Have a "National Day of Prayer?"

SKEPTIC: Some Christians are hopping mad at President Obama because he declined to observe this year's National Day of Prayer with an event at the White House. He issued the proclamation urging Americans to pray (which is required by law), but skipped the annual butt-kissing of religious right leaders that Bush had engaged in by inviting them to the White House each year. By doing so, Obama was doing exactly the same thing as every other president before Bush, going back to Truman, who established the first observance of the day in 1952.

But of course, there are plenty of folks, myself included, who believe that the government has no business telling anyone when to pray, how to pray, or to pray at all. The separation of church and state is a concept that is central to our democracy. Add to that the fact that the observance has been hijacked by the religous right (Shirley Dobson, wife of James Dobson, is the chairman of the National Day of Prayer Task Force), and what you've got is really The National Day of Christian Prayer. If you happen to believe in a different religion, I guess you're on your own.

PREACHER: Historically, America has been strongly influenced by the Christian religion. So, it is not surprising that such events as a national day of prayer have a strong Christian flavor. The historical concept of the separation of church and state, or freedom of religion (not to be confused with the concept of freedom from religion which is impossible to guarantee) was that the government wouldn't institute a national religion, but would not pass laws against religious activities either. I would suggest that those who aren't of the Christian persuasion stop complaining and institute parallel observances showing their appreciation and solidarity with the nation.

SKEPTIC: You're right that the First Amendment prohibits the government from establishing a state religion, and the government is required to permit the free exercise of religion. However, the courts have generally held that the government cannot favor one religion over another, and also cannot favor religion over irreligion (or vice versa). This is why public prayers in government schools are not allowed, and is also why local governments get in trouble when they erect things like a nativity scene or The 10 Commandments on government property.

But to get back to the matter at hand - what is the real purpose of The National Day of Prayer? Do Christians really need a special day set aside to pray? Isn't it just an elaborate commercial for Christianity?

PREACHER: Christians see the National Day of Prayer as a way to encourage people to follow the advice in the Bible that says: If My people will humble themselves and pray and turn from their wicked ways, then God will hear from heaven and hear their prayers and heal their land. We really do believe in a God that listens to humble prayers, and that concerted prayer does make a difference. Then there is a large group of people who see a day of prayer as just a cultural event. Those are the people that unbelievers should try to reach. If instead of complaining and going to court about religious events and objects on public places (which causes a backlash), you were creative at producing what we missionaries call dynamic cultural equivalents you might be able to win over the majority of the population.

SKEPTIC: A "dynamic cultural equivalent..." That's an interesting idea. So we nonbelievers should come up with something along the same lines as the National Day of Prayer that we can celebrate. Hmm...Okay, how about this? I think the U.S. government should declare the second Sunday in June each year as a "National Day of Darwin." On this day, the government will issue a proclamation imploring Americans to meditate on Charles Darwin and thank him for giving us a rational understanding of how the world works. Teachers can have special classes for students to make sure they understand why Darwin is so revered. People can send special Happy Darwin Day cards to each other and maybe even give each other presents. Cake would be optional.

PREACHER: And don't forget the music! How is this title? "In the Name of Darwin We have the Victory." Then you could quote slogans from his world famous book translated into the tongues of all people almost instantly through modern technology: "On the Origin of Species by Means of Natural Selection, or the Preservation of Favoured Races in the Struggle for Life." Surely in a few years there could be a mass turning to atheism. A new age of rationality and peace would emerge. 

I think hell will freeze over before that happens though. 

Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Are Christians Better than the Rest of Us?

SKEPTIC: One of the things that Christians do that bug the rest of us is they like to think that they're better than everyone else. Oh sure, they're quick to deny it, but they've got the 'tude, for sure.

Hey, look at me...I'm going to Heaven and you're going to Hell. What a loser you are!

Of course, they are perfectly willing to share the magic words that will let you join in on the Heaven fun, but I guess some of us are just too stupid to see the truth right there in front of us! This kind of self-righteousness, I believe, has its roots in the idea that that many Christians have that Christianity is the only valid source of morality, and unless the rest of us accept that, we're doomed to be a failure and, oh yeah, to roast forever on some sort of fiery barbecue.

PREACHER: The apostle Paul said, "Brothers, think of what you were when you were called. Not many of you were wise by human standards." I think it goes without saying that Christians aren't necessarily the smartest lot. "But God chose the foolish things of the world to shame the wise." So, Christians aren't any better than the rest of mankind. Morally speaking there is no significant difference, as the the only difference we can claim is a relationship with the Creator of the universe and His Son. If it is that claim of a relationship with Him that you despise, then go ahead and despise us all you want.

My experience on this blog has shone me that atheists are very interesting, beautiful people. That is not surprising since they are created in the image of God, just as everyone else is. However, if you criticize us for insinuating that you might have to roast forever, remember that it is your decision that you have made. You can talk all day about how your decision not to believe is our fault, but nothing is changed except that hair on the back of our necks stood up a bit.

SKEPTIC: Why do you feel the need to amp up my observation that something "bugs" us (i.e. Christians' attitudes) into somehow that means we "despise" you (Christians). That's a pretty big leap from "bug" to "despise," my friend.

I applaud you for saying that "Christians aren't any better than the rest of mankind," but then you go on to explain why you actually, kinda, really are better than the rest of mankind, seeing that you're going to Heaven and the rest of us are going to Hell, but hey, it's your own damn fault for not believing what we believe. It's this kind of disconnect between a "loving" God and a God who stands ready to torture most of humanity in a fiery pit that has turned many people away from Christianity (particularly the Evangelical flavor). The idea that Christians are "saved" and everyone else is "unsaved" causes Christians to create an unhealthy "us" vs. "them" mentality. And by the way - where, when and how did I ever say that my decision to not believe is your fault (i.e. Christians' fault)? That seemed like kind of an odd thing to say on your part. But what's your understanding of atheists' morality vs. Christians' morality?

PREACHER: First of all when it comes to atheists' morality, it all depends on which atheist you talk to. Those like you have a very high level of morality, thanks in part to the influences of a culture permeated with Christian values that you have adopted. This you have developed and improved on according to your supreme reasoning ability. However, if you observe people like the dictator of Korea, Mugabe of Zimbabwe, and Pol Pot who ruled in Cambodia (and a whole group of other infamous atheists) you get another very different view of morality. What is morality anyway? Is it anything more than the opinions of some really smart people or some people who happen to have a lot of power? And what gives your or my opinions more weight than theirs in the end anyway?

There is one issue that makes a big divide between atheists and Christians (and of course Muslims and Jews too for that matter). The denial of ones Creator is the most heinous act of immorality possible. That is why Muslim Sharia law calls for the death penalty for blasphemy. We Christians have been taught to love our enemies so we don't have such a law.

SKEPTIC: Thank you for conceding that even atheists can have high moral character. But when you try to tie my moral character to my previous exposure to Christianity, that's just another way of saying that the Christian view of morality is the only (or maybe most) valid one. And sure, we can agree that the dictators you cited are not men of high moral character, but to attempt to tie that immorality to their supposed atheism is ridiculous and no more valid than saying that they are immoral because they are left-handed or refuse to eat vegetables. I'm guessing that the political and cultural environments these men came from had a lot more to do with their misdeeds than whether or not they believed in God.

But the most interesting thing for me is that you believe "the denial of ones Creator is the most heinous act of immorality possible." Seriously? Anyone who doesn't believe in God is heinously immoral? I think that kind of makes my point. Christians DO think they are better than the rest of us.

But thank you for not wanting to kill us. That makes me feel better.

PREACHER: And thanks for not wanting to kill us either. That's what makes this blog very significant. We both believe in accepting someone who is opposed to what we believe and are willing to talk about it. However what is the main source of your morality? If it isn't the Bible, what is it? If Christianity had never developed into a world religion, would we have the same moral consensus that we have today? Do you believe that moral development is part of the process of evolution (a theory that I don't believe)? Then you guys are better than us Christians since you have moved up the chain of evolution a step or two further and have a greater genetic capacity to understand morality. So, we both think we are better than each other based on our different foundations. I believe that God has revealed through the Bible that He is more pleased with fools (sheep) that believe in Him than geniuses (goats) that don't. You believe that your superior intelegence is the result of evolution, and eons later maybe my descendants will come to understand.

SKEPTIC: Why do we need some sort of ancient holy book to serve as the source of morality? Where does morality come from? It comes from human beings knowing that if they want to survive and thrive together in a community, they need to live and act in a way that will best ensure their goals. It's really not that mysterious. We discovered a long, long time ago that killing our fellow citizens, for example, is something that was not going to serve us well as a community and so we outlawed it. We didn't need the Bible to figure out that killing someone was a bad thing.

PREACHER: If morality was just about not killing each other, your point makes sense to me. However you still need to convince terrorists and many governments that killing is wrong, whether it is done in war or as a punishment of crime. Then again, when we realize that morality is more than just about killing fellow human beings, we discover a whole lot of issues that we don't agree on. So, on those issues are you claiming to be more qualified than those who disagree with you to make the proper judgement? If you are, what are your qualifications?

Friday, May 1, 2009

Mother Teresa: Angel or Agnostic?

SKEPTIC: A couple of years ago the world was taken by surprise when Mother Teresa's personal letters were made public. They revealed that for virtually the entire time that she worked in India (1948-1997), she was operating without God as her co-pilot.

PREACHER: I know of many Christian workers who have had the same kind of struggle. I did when I first came out as a missionary, after I won all those debates about the veracity of the Bible with my profs. I was saying "where is my faith, where is my God?" Luckily, I got kind advice from a senior missionary who didn't judge me. He just suggested that I start a daily devotional of reading the Bible and talking to God out loud. It took a few months, but eventually I felt my faith restored. I have been tempted to fall into that frame of mind from time to time, but never quite so low since.

SKEPTIC: The difference between you and Mother Theresa is that you came back to God, but she never did. Her lack of faith stayed with her until her death. That makes her (at the very least) an agnostic in my book. From reading what she wrote, she really struggled and suffered with her lack of faith and it sounds like she may have become clinically depressed. Imagine how much easier her life would have been if she could have engaged in her good works without the yoke of the church around her neck. It's fascinating to watch Christians and the Catholic church try to spin her lack of faith into some sort of virtue.

PREACHER: The conclusions you give are based on some of her writings. Are you claiminig to be able to read her mind for all the time that she lived on this earth?

SKEPTIC: Well, yes, that's true. I'm basing my comments on what she wrote in her private letters to her confessors over several decades. Unless she just made everything up, I think it's safe to assume that they accurately represented her state of mind.

PREACHER: I would also have to make a disclaimer for her. Since she was Catholic, her understanding of God's grace may not have been fully developed.

SKEPTIC: Oh, that's right. I almost forgot. Only Christians are truly enlightened. Man, if I was a Catholic, I think I'd be pretty insulted by that remark. Oh, what the heck, I'll go ahead and be insulted anyway.

PREACHER: Well, here's the thing. I can understand what happened with Mother Teresa. Believing in God is absurd, but then believing in no God is just as absurd. Both positions are a leap in the dark.

SKEPTIC: There are lots of things I don't believe in. I don't believe in unicorns. Is that a "leap in the dark?" However, if I choose to believe in something that offers no real rational basis, that's a "leap in the dark." But I'm glad to know that you agree with me - "believing in God is absurd."

PREACHER: Believing in God is absurd in that we have no way of proving that to the non-believer (however there may be a day coming when faith becomes sight). Not believing in God is equally absurd because the nonbeliever has no way of proving that to the believer. You can go pretty far with proving that unicorns never existed on this earth by checking out the fossil record and historical records. However when it comes to proving that God doesn't exist, you don't have access to the whole universe or all of the events that ever occurred so you end up with a stalemate. Personally, I think the argument that we and this complex but ordered world we exist in is all a product of random activities of matter is a ridiculous explanation.

SKEPTIC: Nonbelievers have no obligation to prove anything to believers. We are not the ones making irrational assertions based on superstitions and myths. We're just saying, sorry, we don't believe you, but hey, it's your life, you can believe anything you want. Unlike Christians, nonbelievers are not (generally speaking) a proselytizing bunch. And by the way, I'm pretty sure you've totally misrepresented evolution.

PREACHER: When I lived in Fukuyama, I had the acquaintance of a Catholic priest. We used to have united worship services about once a year. He told me that Catholics don't study the Bible or get much training in theology. He and his parishioners always appreciated hearing a protestant preacher explain the Bible. So, I wonder if she had had more of a theological background, would she have struggled so much. Nevertheless I respect her for living a Christian life, even if it didn't make sense to her.

To say that she didn't have God as her co-pilot can hardly be presumed. Actually, He never was her co-pilot. He was her commander and chief. That is why she stuck with the church work all her life despite her agonizing doubts. When God is just your co-pilot and you don't want Him anymore you leave the scene and go to a country where most everyone agrees with you. Now concerning the myth of evolution, that deserves a whole new post.