Reason and faith

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Living with reason, science and faith


Reason and science have brought humanity many blessings.  But they have proved  unable to limit human evil.  To overcome evil the world needs the spiritual renewal promised by Christian faith.  Reason, science and faith are all necessary for a good life.

Atheists insist that our lives should be guided by reason and science and not by faith.  They see these two as not merely different, but as opposed to one another.  They point back to the European Middle Ages, often referred to as the Dark Ages, as a period of cultural and economic stagnation which was the result of the rule of faith.  To avoid everlasting punishment in hell, people then believed what the church taught them and lived as the church required. Progress came, they go on, only with the development of scientific means of inquiry, and with the Renaissance of classical values in art and the humanities focussing on the pleasures of earthly existence. The goal of humanity now became happiness, not holiness.  The church and the feudal society it supported began to lose relevance, and today progressive thinkers want to sweep away the last vestiges of its influence and its faith.

Critical reason and scientific inquiry have brought immense benefits to humankind.  Unjust feudal structures have been replaced by democratic ones, and advances in medicine, engineering and technology have been amazing.  No wonder atheists believe that reason and science are all that people need to live well.  With writers like Richard Dawkins the optimism of the eighteenth century, based upon its faith in reason, has surfaced again in the twenty-first.

The achievements of reason and science are the result of their ability to discover the truth.  Religious faith has often obscured the truth.  For example, the church often preaches that God loves everyone He has made, or at least those who believe in Him.  But this statement needs qualification in the face of dreadful suffering that He allows to occur.  Only by applying critical reason to such statements can the truth be eventually discovered:  God wants His love to be expressed through people. Then again, the church sometimes teaches the opening chapters of Genesis as scientific fact, whereas the findings of science tell another story, one much more likely to be true.  Genesis has a lot to teach us about the relations of God, humankind and nature, but when science so overwhelmingly diverges from it, we should follow science if we want to live by the truth.

Strictly speaking, one should say that reason and science are more likely to reveal truths about the world than can be discovered by uncritical faith.  The conclusions of science are superseded from time to time as scientific theories change.  But the scientific method of devising theories to account for observations has proved a very useful way of arriving at reliable beliefs about the world.

Then why not agree with atheists that we should live by reason and science and not by faith?  Because reason and science are powerless in combating evil and injustice, and in developing goodwill towards all.  Only a spiritual transformation based upon Christian faith will foster the steady altruistic love that a good life and a good community require.

When evil people employ reason, science and technology to achieve their ends, the results can be horrific.  Nazi and communist dictatorships are the paradigm cases, but evil dictatorships elsewhere around the world have produced untold misery as well.

How can evil be overcome?  Kant argued that human will can overcome immoral desires, and that human reason can judge which maxims are just and deserving of respect.  Sometimes indeed people can see what is just, and find the will to pursue it. But very often, as St Paul said in Romans, people do not act as they know they should.  His conclusion was:  “if I do no what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it.” (Romans 7: 20)

St Paul knew that the solution to this problem involved religious faith:  faith that God was willing to forgive his sins and that God wanted him to live by His Holy Spirit, who would give him the wisdom and desire to live honouring God and in the service of others, as Jesus did.  (All this he explained in the following chapters of Romans.)

Why, then, have more people not embraced St Paul’s solution to the problem of evil?  One reason is that many people are unaware that there is a problem.  To live for others is difficult, but many people live just for their family and friends, and so do not encounter the difficulty of loving God and their neighbours very often.  And those whose hearts are set on increasing their wealth and even their power are relatively insensitive to moral concerns, and of the need for spiritual renewal.

Another reason for ignoring St Paul’s message is that it requires religious faith, which many think is irrational superstition.  Notice, however, that faith in God and in his Holy Spirit is not contrary to reason.  The truth of God’s existence and the power of his Spirit cannot be proved rationally or scientifically.  But there is evidence of God’s existence in the ingenious systems and regularities of nature and evidence of the Holy Spirit in the spiritual transformation of believer’s lives, so it is not irrational to believe in these things. Indeed there are great benefits in doing so.

Civilizations have benefited immensely from the application of critical reason and scientific methods.  But they are in danger of collapse from moral failure.  There is, therefore, an urgent need for the world to pay attention to St Paul’s advice on overcoming moral evil.  Then people will employ critical reason and scientific understanding not to exploit others but to help them, in the hope of creating a glimpse of heaven here on earth.

Pragmatic justification of religious beliefs

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Can Religious Beliefs be Justified Pragmatically?


C. Behan McCullagh


This question arises for two important reasons.  The first is that it is impossible to justify religious beliefs epistemically, as they are not clearly the best explanation of the evidence that supports them.  The world might have been created by a good God, but it might also be a result of chance events, or have been created by several gods, good and evil.  So if religious beliefs cannot be justified epistemically, is there any other way of justifying them that deserves serious consideration?  Pragmatic justification seems a possibility, especially as religious beliefs are closely related to good practices and experiences which often flow from them.

The second reason for asking the question is that pragmatic justification of beliefs is of interest in its own right.  We often believe facts about the world of which we have scant evidence because it is useful to do so.  But to accept pragmatic justification seems like accepting wishful thinking, believing something to be true because you want it to be so.  Most people would condemn this as the height of irrationality.  So it is interesting to ask whether pragmatic justifications of belief are ever rational, and if so, under what conditions.

Let me explain these points a little more fully, though they are commonly agreed and fairly well known.  Scientists often postulate invisible fields of force to account for observable facts.  Thus the regularity with which ripe apples fall to earth can be explained by the force of gravity.  And the regularity with which a compass points in one direction is explained by the force of magnetism.  If one assumes these fields of force exist, then the regularities they explain can be predicted. If an explanation of some observations, such as this, is clearly superior to any other that people can think of, according a number of well-known criteria (refs), then it is generally accepted as probably true. Indeed, when such predictions are not confirmed by observation, the assumptions on which they are based are regarded as incorrect in some way.  Often they have to qualified;  sometimes they are abandoned.

The regularities of nature themselves can be explained as the work of a wise, kind creator, who designed them for humans to understand so that they could master nature.  The trouble with this religious hypothesis is that it seems inconsistent with the existence of much pain and suffering, which the hypothesis cannot explain.  Consequently it seems not much better than the hypothesis that the world came into existence by chance, though this does not explain the remarkable regularity and intelligibility of laws of nature;  or that it was created by two or more gods, some good and some evil, though this hypothesis is less simple that the first.  When the evidence supports different hypotheses more or less equally, it is better to regard them as interpretations of the evidence, rather than as good explanations of it.

Paul Davies, for example, has noted the remarkable “fine tuning” of the fundamental constants of the forces in the cosmos that are necessary for the existence of our world, so perfectly fitted to human life.  He postulated an “anthropic principle” at work in nature, unwilling to accept that the conjunction of so many critical values, that could easily have been otherwise, was a matter of chance.[i]  The “strong” anthropic principle is “The universe must be such as to admit conscious beings at some stage.”[ii]   “Alternatively,” he wrote, “the numerical coincidences could be regarded as evidence of design.  The delicate fine-tuning in the values of the constants … might be attributed to God.”[iii] Davies’ “anthropic principle” is a scientific explanation that admits of testing.  But to ascribe the fine-tuning to God is not a scientific explanation.  Instead, it is an interpretation of the data, which could be understood as the work of a single intelligent creator.  An interpretation of facts about the world is a way of making sense of them, and of significant patterns in them, by postulating causes for which the evidence is ambivalent.  All metaphysical beliefs, such as beliefs in the reality of the physical world and in the reality of other minds, are interpretations of the world as we know it.  The existence of a physical world helps to explain our perceptions of material objects;  and the existence of other minds helps to explain people statements about what they think, feel, dream and imagine.  But it is quite possible for all we know, and as some have argued, that our perceptions of the world are just ideas we have;  and that other minds are simply physical brains.

Given that evidence for the existence of God is not entirely convincing, one wonders whether people are rationally justified in holding religious beliefs as firmly as they do.  Prima facie, it seems that they are not, as they lack convincing epistemic justification of the kind that clearly warrants belief.  Can the valuable consequences of such beliefs justify people in holding them?

It would seem that they cannot, for to hold a belief because you like the consequences of doing so is a case of wishful thinking, something that is widely condemned. I shall return to the question of wishful thinking shortly.  Before doing so, let me mention another reason for denying that religious beliefs can be justified pragmatically.

To believe a proposition is to be convinced that it is true.  When Richard Swinburne considered the rationality of religious beliefs, he insisted that the only reasons that could justify belief are reasons that imply its truth, epistemological reasons.[iv]  The fact that a belief has good consequences implies nothing about its truth.  It is comforting to believe that God made us and loves us, but the fact that this belief is comforting is no evidence of its truth.  An illusion of this kind would be just as comforting.  Consequently, Swinburne concluded, one cannot provide rational support for a belief by referring to its valuable consequences.

One way of responding to Swinburne is to ask what is the point of rationally justifying a proposition?  If by ‘rational justification’ one means epistemic justification, then by establishing the truth of a proposition one generally provides conditions sufficient for believing it.  So if the point of a rational justification is to create a belief in a proposition by demonstrating its truth, then an epistemic justification will usually do the job, and a pragmatic justification will not.  People do not usually believe a proposition simply because someone points out the good consequences of doing so.  Pascal recognized this when he advised those who want to acquire a religious belief to follow religious practices in the hope of acquiring it along the way.

In that case, what is the point of a pragmatic justification?  If it is not to create religious beliefs in others, it could be to encourage those who already have religious beliefs to continue holding them and not abandon them in the face of evidence apparently inconsistent with them. Often people acquire religious beliefs in their youth, from their family or church group, and wonder whether they should continue to hold them when they become autonomous, rational adults.  If their beliefs have very good personal and social consequences, as they do in many devout religious people, it would seem dreadful to urge them to abandon them.  So let us contrast the rationality of acquiring beliefs, which is what Swinburne was considering, and the rationality of continuing to hold them, which is where a pragmatic justification might be appropriate.

It is important to note, however, that when someone finds the evidence against a belief they hold to be so great as to convince them that it is false, then they will probably abandon it, no matter how comforting it may be.  Thus although it may be comforting to believe that those lost at sea are still alive, after a while people abandon it when the evidence against that proposition is overwhelming.  One is pragmatically justified in abandoning a belief that is clearly false because, were one to act on it, one’s action would probably be unsuccessful.

These points help us to reply to those who claim that religious beliefs are cases of wishful thinking, and that wishful thinking, being irrational, should be avoided. W.K. Clifford, for example, objected that wishful thinking often leads to false beliefs that can have disastrous consequences for others, no matter how comforting they are to those who hold them.  His example is brilliant, of a shipowner who ignores evidence of the fragility of a ship carrying people abroad, and convinces himself that it is good for one more voyage, and that God would never allow it to founder.  When it sinks in a storm, with the loss of all souls, he cheerfully collects the insurance![v] If Clifford is right, it seems that a belief cannot be justified because of the comfort and other benefits it brings.  In which case, it would appear that religious beliefs cannot be justified pragmatically.

It is important to contrast, however, irrational beliefs that people hold because they want the consequences of believing them to be true, and non-rational beliefs that they hold as a result of the same desire.  The shipowner’s belief was irrational if the evidence that the ship was not sea-worthy was overwhelming.  In that case the belief was probably false, and there are both epistemic and pragmatic reasons for abandoning it.  Indeed pragmatic justifications take into account, not just the probable truth of a proposition, but the value of the consequences of holding it true.  If the consequences of holding a belief true which turned out to be false could be disastrous, then it is wrong to hold it true without very strong evidence indeed.  For this reason, it would have been wrong of the shipowner to believe his ship was seaworthy even if the evidence for and against that proposition was fairly balanced.  However, if the consequences of holding a non-rational belief, such as a religious belief, are good, and would not be very bad if it turned out to be false, then there is a good pragmatic reason to hold it, even though it is held because its consequences are desired.

When religious people are asked to justify their faith, they often say that it is important because without it they will not get to heaven.  Blaise Pascal famously argued in his Pensees that since it is possible that people who have a Christian faith will go to heaven and enjoy eternal bliss, that is a good reason for holding or seeking such faith.  If there is no heaven after all, nothing much would have been lost by leading a religious life.[vi]

A pragmatic defence of religious faith that appeals to theological facts, such as a reward in heaven, will seem reasonable to those who already believe in such facts, but not to those who do not.  In this paper, reference to a rational justification of religious belief is meant to signify a justification that all rational people could accept on the basis of their experiences of the world.  To refer to a reward in heaven is to assume a theological fact, a matter of religious belief, whose justification is in question.  In effect, it is to beg the question being addressed by this paper.  So it is not an argument that can be accepted here.

It is important to note that Pascal does not assume the truth of a theological proposition.  He does not affirm a reward for the faithful in heaven, but simply entertains it as a possibility.  His argument is objectionable on other grounds.  For a pragmatic justification to be convincing, it must refer to consequences which there is good reason for believing really will follow.  Or, to put it more accurately, as the probability of the consequences decreases, so does the strength of the justification.  Is it rational to buy a lottery ticket?  The rationality of doing so diminishes as the chances of winning diminish, though the value of the guaranteed prize for the winner is relevant.  If it is strongly desired and little is lost in buying a ticket, then there could be a pragmatic reason for buying one.  But when there is absolutely no evidence of the reward existing, but it is a mere possibility, as in Pascal’s case, then the justification for believing is vanishingly small, no matter how great the possible reward might be.

William James’ pragmatic defence of religious beliefs

The most famous defence of a pragmatic justification for religious beliefs is to be found in William James’s essay “The Will to Believe”.[vii] James said that if one entertains a proposition that is “live”, ”momentous” and “forced,” then one has a right to believe it if one wants to.  A proposition is “live” if one is inclined to accept it; it is “momentous” if accepting or denying it have important implications; and it is “forced” if a decision between its being true or false is not avoidable, as there is no middle ground.  James pointed out that we often believe propositions whose truth has not been established by evidence, when it is important to do so.  We cannot prove many facts about the world are true, but we believe them to be so when we must act on them.  James remarked that one cannot prove the truth of moral beliefs, but if we want a moral community, we believe them and act upon them.  Similarly we cannot prove that strangers are trustworthy, but we believe they are in order to act in a friendly manner towards them.[viii]

In many cases such as these, the evidence that is available points to the truth of the propositions we believe, even though it falls short of providing an absolute proof.  James was, in fact, writing about propositions, including religious ones, for which there was some evidence, but which could just as easily be false as true.  He emphasised this condition in the following passage:

The thesis I defend is, briefly stated, this:  Our passional nature not only lawfully may, but must, decide an option between propositions, whenever it is a genuine option that cannot by its nature be decided on intellectual grounds;  for to say, under such circumstances, ‘Do not decide, but leave the question open,’ is itself a passional decision, — just like deciding yes or no,–and is attended with the same risk of losing the truth.[ix]

He concluded that if we want it to be the case that God exists, then we have the right to believe that he does.

John Hick objects that “this virtually amounts to a license for wishful thinking.”[x] How, then, can James defend his thesis?  James said that sometimes, by acting on the assumption that a proposition is true, we acquire evidence which implies that it is.  For instance, if we believe a stranger is trustworthy, and lend him our car, we might discover that he is indeed trustworthy when he returns it in good order. James’s basic argument is that if we always wait for empirical proof, we might miss out on many true facts, belief in which would be to our advantage.  Rationalists would confine beliefs to those propositions which the relevant evidence makes much more likely to be true than false.  James says that such scepticism is itself an emotional response in cases of uncertainty, and no more rational than his proposal that we believe those propositions that we want to, when the evidence for them is equivocal.  Even if, by believing a proposition we are unable to prove it true, it could still be true for all we know, and the benefits of believing it could be great.

Is this response by James of any help in providing a rational justification for religious belief?  In fact James rejected many religious beliefs as false or insignificant.  “The Will to Believe” was published in 1897.  In The Varieties of Religious Experience, published in 1902, he declares one basic religious belief obviously false:  namely the idea that God exists and is just and loving, which “the moral complexion of the world” shows to be mistaken, as Job was so well aware.[xi]  Other Christian beliefs he objects are “destitute of all intelligible significance”, meaning that whether they are true or false makes no difference to our lives.  His list is a long one, and includes the following:  “God’s aseity [underived self-existence], for example … his necessariness;  his immateriality;  his “simplicity” … his indivisibility … his actualised infinity” and so on.[xii]   James also adopted a much more rational approach to religious belief in his book Pragmatism, published in 1907,where he said that both religious and scientific beliefs should be tested against experience. [xiii]

It is wrong to believe propositions which there is good reason to think false, because to do so might involve trusting in something that does not exist, or does not have the properties attributed to it.  The results could be disastrous.  If someone believed that God loved them and would look after them and their family through thick and thin, then they might fail to provide for themselves and the others leaving them destitute.  Indeed James remarked that those who rely on God’s goodness in this way tend not to worry about the evils in this world:  they “take a moral holiday”.[xiv]

A worry about James’s response in “The Will to Believe” is his insistence that the only options available are belief or scepticism.  Why not allow that people are capable of degrees of belief in a proposition, corresponding to the strength of the evidence, or the balance of evidence, in its favour?  This seems to be the rational response in cases of evidential uncertainty.  He has not offered any reason for the more passionate response, besides saying that it might result in good consequences.

I shall argue shortly that a passionate or strong conviction can indeed be justified in some cases by its good consequences.  But here let us note that it might also result in bad consequences, if the passion driving it was bad.  This is an objection raised recently by John Bishop.  It would be morally wrong to believe in “a white-supremacist God”, for example, simply because one desired a God like that.[xv]  It would be wrong because faith in such a God could vindicate white-supremacist behaviour:  severe discrimination against people of other colours, which is unjust.  So the mere fact that the results of holding a belief are desired does not justify holding that belief.  James should have insisted that the results be not only desired but good.  I suspect he assumed that if they were desired they were desirable, an old fallacy in ethics.

The requirement that the consequences of religious beliefs must be moral if holding them is to be justified, raises a difficult problem for those defending the rationality of religious belief.  There is no problem if moral values are universal, but given the variety of moral standards both within and between cultures, it is the case that there is no universal yardstick for judging the moral goodness or badness of the consequences of human behaviour.  It follows that judgements about the value of religious beliefs will not be universal.  Does that mean they are not rational?  No, it means that what one group of people judge to be a good reason for holding a belief might not be accepted as a good reason by another group.  Pragmatic reasons for belief, then, are not universal, but vary from tradition to tradition, and from group to group.  (I elaborate on this point at the end of the paper.)

Incidentally, I suppose that a belief for which there is no evidence, but which has harmless consequences, should not be condemned.  Suppose people believe that God inhabits all living things, then that might result in their reverence for all living things, which would generally be a good thing.  The worry is that the number of beliefs with good consequences is without limit.  Rationalists like T.H.Huxley and W.K.Clifford, to whom James refers,[xvi] would limit beliefs to those propositions whose truth is necessary or very probable on available evidence.  But there are many propositions we believe without being able to prove them true.  Some of these appear indispensable.  John Bishop has described a number of  “framework principles,” as he calls them, that are generally believed without proof, such as the proposition that there is an external reality and the proposition that the methods of induction are reliable .[xvii]  In fact Bishop explains that people need not believe such principles are true in order to live by them.  They can get by simply by assuming their truth for practical purposes, for instance when acting on their perceptions, or drawing inferences about the world from what they know.[xviii]   A sceptic could act as if these principles were true, while consciously and deliberately refusing to endorse their truth or to believe in it.  If these basic principles can be accepted without being believed, it makes one wonder whether any beliefs are really necessary for practical purposes.  We will address this question soon.  For the time being, to limit the number of acceptable beliefs without requiring absolute proof of their truth, let us assume that it may be rational to believe a proposition if there be some evidence of its truth, and it is not exceeded by (epistemic) reasons for believing it false.

This discussion of William James’s defence of a pragmatic justification of religious belief has yielded the following conclusions.  For religious beliefs to be rationally justified, there must be some evidence of their truth, which is not outweighed by evidence that they are false, and believing them must have generally good moral consequences, not bad ones.

The first of these conditions in effect excludes those cases of wishful thinking that are condemned as irrational.  The mere fact that the truth of a proposition is desired does not mean it must be false or rejected as irrational.  That depends on the evidence available.  The ship owner’s conviction that his ship was sea-worthy was irrational, not because it was desired, but because the evidence on balance showed that it was not true.  The requirement that for beliefs to be rational there must be evidence of their truth, which is not outweighed by evidence that they are false, puts a severe constraint upon religious beliefs, given the problems of evil.  For many the evidence of evil outweighs that of God’s love, so they reject the proposition that God loves the people he has made.

Can any religious beliefs be justified?

Rather than discuss the problems of evil, let us consider some religious beliefs that do not imply that God loves everyone and is wise and powerful enough to ensure their perpetual happiness.  Here are three central propositions from the Christian tradition that are worth considering: (1) that a powerful, intelligent being has created and sustained the universe so that humankind could evolve and live within it;  (2) that this God revealed his will for humankind to and through Moses and the prophets, and above all in Jesus, each revelation being appropriate to the people to whom it was given;  and (3) that God provides a spirit of truth and love, the spirit that characterised Jesus, to those who are willing to submit to it.  Many Jews and Muslims would accept these assertions, as well as Christians, though they would doubt the special significance of Jesus.  There is no implication in these three propositions that God would or even could intervene in physical nature in a miraculous way to help those in need, as some traditional concepts of God imply.  These three propositions are consistent with the existence of both natural and moral evil, and so cannot be immediately dismissed as incompatible with known facts about the world.

Furthermore, there is some evidence in support of these assertions.  (1) The fine tuning that so impressed Paul Davies is quite remarkable, and suggests the existence of a creator intent on providing a universe in which humans could evolve and live. That such a universe involves pain and suffering, decay and death, as well as pleasure and joy, growth and regeneration, is consistent with a wish to create human beings and world in which they could exist, at least for a while.  (2)  Some of the laws of Moses are repulsive to modern westerners, but the ten commandments, requiring respect both for the will of God as expressed in these commandments, and for one’s parents and neighbours, provide a foundation for a just society and would be almost universally approved.  Subsequent Jewish and Muslim prophets developed the same theme, particularly the need to have mercy on the destitute.  This theme was taken further by Jesus, who taught that people should not merely respect others, but love them to the point of self-sacrifice.  Most people would applaud such love within the family, and many would approve it towards others outside the family as well.  The near universal respect shown for the commands to respect and love others can be interpreted as evidence of their divine origin.  (3) Those who commit themselves to obeying God’s commands have often found spiritual support from what is referred to as the Holy Spirit, which reveals the truth to them, especially about God’s will, inspires them to act in a just and loving way, and gives them the resolve to do so.  There are numerous accounts of people’s characters being transformed once they make a religious commitment, and this can be interpreted as a spiritual transformation.  Diogenes Allen has remarked on people’s natural desire to be good, and sees Christian beliefs as helping to strengthen that desire and meet that need.[xix]

While the facts I have mentioned are capable of a religious interpretation, as supporting the three propositions stated above, they do not prove the truth of those propositions.  Indeed, they are capable of other interpretations as well.  For instance, the extraordinary appropriateness of the fundamental constants of the cosmos might be a matter of chance;  the Mosaic law and the commands of Jesus might be said to be good because Moses , the prophets and Jesus were wise and good men, not because they were divinely inspired;  and the changes in character found among believers could come simply from their determination to imitate Jesus, not from any mysterious spirit at all.

If the evidence that supports the theological propositions can be explained without any theological assumptions, then is it not rational to adopt the simpler interpretation?  It is widely accepted that Ockham’s razor should be applied to excise unnecessary assumptions.  Why not in this case?  The only answer that suggests itself is that the beliefs are of such value that it would be dreadful to abandon them.

The value of these three beliefs is well known. (1) If  the cosmos and the world were made for people to live in, that gives their lives an extraordinary value.  All this was made for them.  People, then, are of objective and absolute value.  Their lives should be treated as of ultimate value, to which all other values, such as the prosperity or good order of the country they inhabit, should be subordinate. (2)  If the commands given by Moses, Jesus and other prophets were the word of God, then they deserve unqualified respect.  A consequence of obeying them would be the creation of just and loving communities, something that almost all people value.  (3)  Finally, if  God’s Holy Spirit of wisdom and love is available to those intent on obeying God’s commands, it would enable people to overcome their wayward and wicked natures, and live as they ought and as they desire.

It is possible to believe that the three propositions are true, yet ignore them in deciding how to live.  Passionate faith, or complete conviction, however, is marked by a commitment to let them become a basis of one’s decisions and find expression in one’s life.  Those who are convinced of the truth of these propositions will treat all people, including themselves, as of ultimate value;  they will act as justly and lovingly as they can;  and they will seek the support of God’s Holy Spirit to enable them to lead a holy life.  The consequences for both the believers and their societies is so good, it could be argued, as to justify their faith.

Be that as it may, there are two objections to this conclusion that deserve careful consideration.  The first is as follows.  We have seen that the observable facts that support the three religious propositions could be interpreted without employing theological assumptions.  It is now claimed that the good consequences of believing those propositions justify faith in them.  But that argument fails if the good consequences of faith in them could be achieved without that belief.  Then the argument for ontological simplicity kicks in once again.  If theological beliefs are not necessary for these good outcomes, this last reason for retaining them seems to collapse.

It is certainly possible to argue that religious beliefs are not necessary to achieve the goods that have been described as following from them. There are people who value the lives of others as well as their own, though many love members of their family most, and treat others with less concern.  Doubtless many of those who work for social justice, believing all people are of value and should cooperate to live as happily as possible, act without religious beliefs.  Finally, Aristotle taught us how to curb excessive passion and live rationally and well, without religious beliefs.  It seems there is no need to hold religious beliefs to enjoy these good consequences of them.

I have just suggested that if the benefits of religious beliefs can be achieved without them, then in the interests of ontological simplicity one should, if one is rational, abandon such beliefs.  But if religious beliefs do a lot to motivate people to live well and achieve the goods outlined above, is that not a good reason for maintaining them?  More to the point, does not that benefit outweigh the value of maintaining ontological simplicity?  If those without religious convictions generally acted according to the values outlined above, then there would be little lost in abandoning them.  But these days alternative values, of personal wealth, reputation and power, seem increasingly attractive to those able to achieve them.  Indeed they always have, as the prophets have declared.  Without the motivation provided by religious belief, fewer and fewer seem willing to work for a society of justice and love beyond their own families.  Consequently I conclude that although belief in those propositions might not be absolutely necessary to produce the goods associated with them, nevertheless strong belief in them provides a very important motive for pursuing them, one which the world can scarcely do without.

The second objection to the pragmatic justification of these religious beliefs is one that was first argued by Richard Swinburne, and has been repeated since.  Swinburne described religious faith as involving both belief that certain propositions, usually about God, are true, and trust in those propositions when deciding how to live.  A religious life, Swinburne says, involves “acting on assumptions” that God will support and reward those who try to please him.  He goes on to remark that to many people religious faith seems more about trusting in God than holding beliefs about him.[xx]

The difference between belief and acceptance has been the subject of detailed philosophical discussion recently.[xxi] Jonathan Cohen, in An Essay on Belief and Acceptance, says that whereas belief involves a feeling that a proposition is true, acceptance requires no more than an assumption that it is true, for practical purposes.  He writes:  “To accept that p is to have or to adopt a policy of deeming, or postulating that p—i.e. of including that proposition or rule among one’s premises for deciding what to do or think in a particular context, whether or not one feels it true that p”.[xxii] He allows that one can accept a proposition for practical purposes, even though one’s belief in it is slight.  For example a lawyer might assume that a person she is defending in court is innocent when preparing and presenting her case, while privately believing he might well be guilty. As Engel puts it:  “acceptance is more the outcome of a practical, pragmatic decision than the outcome of a cognitive, epistemic reason.”[xxiii]

If one accepts this distinction, it is then possible to argue that while the good consequences of living a religious life are indeed of value, all they require and so justify is an assumption that certain religious beliefs are true, and not a strong conviction that they are.  Andrei A. Buckareff, for example, has argued that a life of religious faith “is a sub-doxastic venture that involves pragmatic assuming.  One assumes that p as a means to achieving a religious goal.  The assumption is an action-guiding assumption.” [xxiv]By “sub-doxastic” he means that it does not involve strong belief.  He quotes Joshua L.Golding with approval, when he writes that it is enough to believe “there is some chance God exists.”[xxv]  He does not give an example, but it is easy to imagine one.  One could assume that God made the cosmos so that humans could evolve and live, and that He values human life very highly, without being quite sure that this is the case, and then value human life highly as a consequence of accepting this proposition, no matter how hesitantly.

If, as these authors suggest, religious faith is nothing more than making an assumption about God for practical purposes, the rationality of faith becomes simply a matter of the rationality of the assumptions involved.  There are ways of calculating the value of such assumptions.  One way is suggested by decision theory.  According to this theory, in deciding which of several possible courses of action to adopt, one should calculate the value of each possible course of action by calculating what is called its “expectation.”  This is said to equal the product of the value of the consequences of the action, the “pay-off,” and the probability of their occurrence, with a deduction made for the costs involved.[xxvi] Clearly any estimate of the value and probability of the consequences of acting on a religious assumption will usually be vague and subjective.  But they might be clear enough to enable a person to compare the expectation of acting on a religious assumption and the expectation of acting otherwise.

Incidentally, there is some evidence that James thought religious belief could be the product of a rational decision. When James discusses the will to believe, he offers examples of belief in morality and belief in someone’s trustworthiness. He writes:  “The question of having moral beliefs at all or not having them is decided by our will. … If your heart does not want a world of moral reality, your head will assuredly never make you believe in one.”[xxvii] Many of our beliefs, such as beliefs about the material world around us, are acquired without decision.  The evidence for them is so compelling that we simply acquire them without further consideration.  But some beliefs, such as moral and religious beliefs, are not so easily arrived at.  However, once a person begins acting as if a proposition were true, the disposition to believe it  can be acquired quite quickly.  At the end of his paper, James writes of people for whom religious faith is “a living option,” and he urges them to act upon the assumption that it is true.[xxviii] That is how they should exercise their will to believe.

Both Buckareff and Bishop agree that to enjoy the benefits of religious faith, people need do no more that assume certain theological propositions are true.  Unfortunately neither of them considered objections to this theory.  For although some of the goods of religious belief can be enjoyed by merely assuming the truth of certain religious propositions, there are others goods that require strong religious convictions.  Here, for example, are two common religious beliefs whose good consequences are widely attested, and the consequences can only be enjoyed if the beliefs are held with strong conviction.  (1)  The belief that God in his love forgives our sins, our actions contrary to His will, yields relief from a sense of absolute guilt and condemnation. (2)  The belief that there is life hereafter with God when we die gives peace of mind to those facing death or those whose loved ones have just died.  In both cases the benefits are very significant, and they would not be enjoyed by someone who assumed them to be true, but without conviction.

Why did Bishop, who was inclined to defend strong religious faith, overlook these religious beliefs, which are central to Jewish, Christian and Muslim faiths?  There is a hint in one of his publications in which he declares that faith in an “omniGod”, that is “a unique omnipotent, omniscient, omnibenevolent, supernatural person who is creator and sustainer of all else that exists,” is not rational, given the arguments from evil.[xxix]  He adds, later on, that faith in life after death requires faith in an omniGod, or at least in a God so powerful that He could eliminate evil.[xxx] Bishop says, in a footnote, that he prefers “a genuinely naturalist concept of God” as existing in human loving relationships.[xxxi]  Such a God is not a lawgiving person capable of forgiving people their sins; nor is He capable of providing another heavenly world for those who die.  Indeed whether such a God even provides “hope in the midst of suffering,” which Bishop says is the most important function of religious belief,[xxxii] is very doubtful.

These remarks raise the question of whether there are any epistemic grounds for holding these two beliefs, even if there is reason to believe, as was argued before, that a supernatural God does exist.  Take the first, that God forgives people their sins.  Forgiveness is an aspect of altruistic love, so if God were characterized by such love, then it would be natural for him to be forgiving.  But, given the facts about natural and moral evil in the world, the evidence of His love is ambiguous at best.  Christians, believing that Jesus was divine, get around this problem by holding that he was both loving and forgiving, from which it follows that those are God’s attributes as well.  His love involves suffering the effects of evil rather than abolishing evil, and by  rising from the dead to show that it is not of ultimate significance. His prayer of forgiveness for those who crucified him is the most striking evidence of his love.  But why hold that Jesus was divine?  Largely because he was raised from the dead, and proclaimed himself the Messiah, sent by God.  Faith in his resurrection is also the reason Christians believe in life after death.

One could discuss the evidence for these Çhristian beliefs at great length, but it is already evident that the epistemic support it provides for the two propositions we are considering, is slight.  However, to abandon those beliefs for this reason would be to deprive Christians of the immense comforts they bring.  Although those comforts are not reasons implying the truth of the beliefs, they are very strong practical reasons for continuing to hold the beliefs, once the beliefs have been established.  But those comforts would not be enjoyed by someone who doubted God’s forgiveness, and His promise of heaven for the faithful.  Such doubts would result in doubt whether one’s sins really had been forgiven, and doubt whether one’s family and oneself really would enjoy life hereafter.  Only a firm conviction will produce the peace of mind that comes from such faith.


The conclusion we have reached, then, is that although religious beliefs cannot be proved true, the goods that follow from religious faith can justify the faith that produces them.  While many of those goods can be produced without religious faith, the probability of them occurring is considerably increased by the presence of such faith.  The faith required for some of them might be little more than an assumption of the truth of certain religious propositions, but the faith required for others is a strong religious conviction.

To show how some religious beliefs could be justified pragmatically, in the last section I suggested some of the personal and social benefits that followed from holding them.  There are some negative consequences of religious belief, however, which should also be considered.  Sometimes religious beliefs have driven people to cruel and immoral acts towards others.  Medieval Christians, for instance, are famous for setting up inquisitions to torture and execute heretics, and for organizing crusades against the Muslims who occupied the Holy Land.  Clearly this was not Christ-like behaviour, but seemed to be driven by anxiety over the authority of the church, the purity of the faith, and the veneration of a holy place.  It was wrong of Christians to believe that they should persecute and kill those who challenged their faith. These days some Muslims are convinced that God wants them to kill unbelievers, with the result that suicide-bombers not only kill themselves but also kill or maim a number innocent bystanders.  Because of their thoroughly immoral consequences, the religious beliefs that inspire such behaviour are clearly not justified.

This discussion highlights the importance of not considering religious beliefs indiscriminately.  Some religious beliefs can be justified and some cannot.

Even when religious beliefs produce good consequences, for example a life committed to justice and love, there remains a need to consider the negative aspects of such a life in deciding whether the beliefs are justified.  For some, particularly very religious saints, the costs of a religious life can be considerable.  St Paul’s missionary endeavours involved him being scourged, imprisoned, beaten, stoned, shipwrecked, and finally executed.  (See II Corinthians, xi, 22-27.)  St Paul said: “Our troubles are slight and short-lived;  and their outcome is an eternal glory which outweighs them far” (II Corinthians iv, 17).  For those who doubt eternal glory, however, the hardships of a Christian life are simply the price one pays for living a life of love towards the needy.

This brings us to the final, vital point.  A pragmatic justification of religious beliefs is only valid for people who highly value the characteristic consequences of those beliefs.  From a this-worldly perspective, Christian beliefs are justified for those who value love and justice much more highly than physical pleasures and even life itself.  But there are many who do not rate those virtues as highly as Christians do.  Western humanists, for example, put human happiness first, and approve of love in as much as it contributes to that.  Other religious traditions have other emphases.  Jews and Muslims are devoted to their religious and moral laws.  Buddhists value peace of mind.  People commonly adopt the religion of the society into which they were born, and acquire the values of that religion as they acquire its beliefs.  They approve the beliefs because they promote those values that their tradition has enshrined.

[i]  Paul Davies, God and the New Physics (Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin, 1984) ch. 13.

[ii]  Davies, p.171.

[iii]  Davies, p. 189.

[iv]  Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford;  Clarendon Press, 1981), p.45.

[v]  Cited by David A. Hollinger, “James, Clifford, and the scientific conscience”, in The Cambridge Companion to William James, ed. Ruth Anna Putnam, (Cambridge:  Cambridge University Press, 1997), p.76.

[vi]  Blaise Pascal, The Pensees, trans. J.M.Cohen (Harmondsworth, Middlesex:  Penguin, 1961), section 451, pp. 155-9.

[vii]  Reprinted in The Writings of William James, ed. John J. McDermott (Chicago:  The University of Chicago Press, 1977), pp. 717-35.

[viii]  James, pp.730-1.

[ix]  James, p.723.

[x]  John Hick, An Interpretation of Religion.  Human Responses to the Transcendent (New Haven:  Yale University Press, 1989), p.227.

[xi]  William James,  The Varieties of Religious Experience (London:  Fontana Books, Collins, 1960), p.427.

[xii]  James, Varieties, p.427.

[xiii]  Hollinger, pp.79-81.

[xiv]  James, “What Pragmatism Means”, The Writings, pp.387-9.

[xv]  John Bishop, “Faith as doxastic venture”, Religious Studies 38 (2002), pp.476-7.

[xvi]  James, “The Will to Believe”, pp.720-1.  The same position is defended in Jonathan E. Adler’s Belief’s Own Ethics”(Cambridge, Mass.: Bradford, 2002).

[xvii]  Bishop, p.481.

[xviii]  Bishop, p. 483.

[xix]  Diogenes Allen,  The Reasonableness of Faith (Washington:  Corpus Books, 1968), p.55.

[xx]   Richard Swinburne, Faith and Reason (Oxford:  Clarendon, 1981), pp. 121-2.

[xxi]   (See Believing and Accepting, ed. Pascal Engel, Kluwer Academic Publishers, Dordrecht/Boston/London, 2000).

[xxii] Jonathan Cohen, An Essay on Belief and Acceptance (Oxford:  Oxford University Press, 1992) p.4;  quoted in Engel, p.8.

[xxiii]  Engel, p.9.

[xxiv]  Andrei A. Buckareff, “Can faith be a doxastic venture?” Religious Studies 41 (2005), p440.

[xxv]  Buckareff, p.441.      In reply, John Bishop agreed with Buckareff: John Bishop, “On the possibility of doxastic venture: a reply to Buckareff,” Religious Studies, 41 (2005), pp.447-51.

[xxvi]  See, for example, Morris, Thomas V., ‘Wagering and the Evidence,’ in Jeff Jordan (ed.) Gambling on God.  Essays on Pascal’s Wager (Lanham, Maryland:  Rowman and Littlefield, 1994), p.49.

[xxvii] James, “Will to Believe”, p.730.

[xxviii]  James, “Will to Believe”, pp.734-5.

[xxix]  John Bishop, “Can There Be Alternative Concepts of God?”, Nous, 32. (1998) p. 174.

[xxx]  Bishop, “Can  There Be”, p. 182.

[xxxi]  Bishop, “Can There Be”,  Note 7, pp.187-8.

[xxxii]  Bishop, “Can There Be”, p. 184.

Is violence justified?

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            Today you can scarcely imagine the loyalty and affection that Australians once felt towards Britain.  Today Australia is proudly independent, but prior to the Second World War the colony regarded itself as an offspring of the mother country.  People’s genuine enthusiasm for their king and queen when they came here on royal visits was an expression of their commitment to the Crown.  It was no wonder, then, that when Britain found herself at war in 1914 and 1939, Australians rallied to her defence.

Australians who were willing to lay down their lives in defence of Britain and her empire are rightly honoured on Anzac Day.  Jesus said:  “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.” (John 15:13).  Their self-sacrifice deserves our respect.

The worry Christians have about self-sacrifice in war, though, is that in protecting their nation, soldiers harm, and often kill, others.  Quakers have decided that, while they are willing to suffer in support of their comrades as stretcher bearers, they will not take up arms against the enemy.  They take seriously Jesus’ teaching that one should love one’s enemies (Matt. 5: 44).

Many wars are fought from hatred, to revenge past wrongs.  Some are fought from a lust for the benefits of conquest.  These are clearly ignoble, unchristian motives for war.  Even wars fought in self-defence can be motivated by a hatred for the enemy.  How can Christians fight wars without spiritual pollution?

Then there are the objective facts that in war soldiers maim and kill those fighting against them, and destroy their property, which cannot possibly be an expression of love.  So how can Christians, whom Jesus taught to love their enemies, possibly engage in such violence?

It is vital to realise that wars are not always fought from revenge, greed or hatred.  They are sometimes fought in a just cause.  A civilised way of dealing with  people who inflict harm on others, is to judge and punish them under a law that forbids such destructive behaviour.  According to the Bible, God established such a system of justice when he issued Moses with the Ten Commandments, and told him to set up judges to enforce them by punishing those who disobeyed them.  The Ten Commandments were largely to restrain people within the nation of Israel from harming one another.  They did not include laws about international relations, but we have since learned that such laws are important for maintaining world peace.

There is no hint in the Old Testament of God disapproving of the Israelites fighting to protect themselves and their lands from their external enemies.  Indeed, they expected God’s support and often received it.  Saul killed his thousands, but David his tens of thousands!

But, you might ask, does not Christ’s gospel of forgiveness and love supersede the rule of law and justice?  I suggest it does not, but rather it supplements it.  In the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said he had come, not to abolish the law but to complete it (Matt. 5: 17).  St Paul reminded his readers that governors have an authority given by God to maintain the law.  The governor, he writes, “does not bear the sword for nothing.  He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans, 13: 4b)  Just as it right to punish those who harm others to maintain the security of the people, so it is right for governments to order war against those who attack their state.  A government’s chief responsibility is to defend its people from harm.  Its motive in doing so should always be, not hatred, but self-defence.

Well, you might reply, but Jesus did not defend himself against his enemies.  So why should we?  But Jesus submitted to his enemies for an important purpose:  to reveal the depth of God’s forgiveness by showing how much he was willing to suffer in love for his enemies.  Normally when citizens suffer at the hands of wicked men, no great good comes from their doing so.  Rather, it usually results in pointless pain for themselves and their families.  Such suffering should be checked, first by appealing to those inflicting the pain to stop doing so, and if this fails, by forcing them to refrain.

As individuals who love our enemies, we must always respect them and try every peaceful way possible to stop them from hurting others.  However, when peaceful methods fail, then as agents of the government we must be prepared to administer justice for the sake of the community in which we live.

God’s plan for humanity, it seems, was first to minimise conflict by a system of justice, and then, once a peaceful society had been established, to deepen the bonds between people by encouraging them to love one another.  Love was not to replace justice, but to supplement it.

(817 words)

Is God to Blame?

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First we had droughts and fires, then storms and floods, recently there was the devastating earthquake in Christchurch, and now there is the tsunami in Japan. With so many devastating catastrophes in our region, some will be asking “Is God to blame?”

In God’s defence one could note the following facts. First, pain and suffering have positive value, in that they alert us to dangerous, undesirable situations and they motivate us to attend to them and correct them if we can. If our wounds caused no pain, we might ignore them at our peril.

Sometimes the damage or disease that afflicts us cannot be cured, and ends only in death. And death, whether painful or not, will come to us all. Why do people die rather than enjoy eternal good health? I do not know. It might be a bit boring to live for ever. And how could the world contain all the people, if none had died? We would have to stop having babies!

Second, the world God has created is not chaotic, but runs according to remarkably constant laws of nature. We have the ability to understand the laws of nature and to calculate ways of predicting and controlling many natural events, to a large extent. We know how to improve crops, cure many diseases, build safe houses, and communicate efficiently. Of all the animals, our power of reason is quite exceptional and has enabled us to live very securely and happily most of the time.

Third, although some people use their reason for selfish and destructive ends, most people have enough compassion and love to help others when they are in difficulties, and to celebrate with them when things go well. The Bible’s New Testament sees such unselfish love as a special gift from God, manifest in the life and death of Jesus.

So although we have to work for a living in this world, and sometimes face difficulties, God has not left us helpless. He has provided us with reason to guide us, and the support of loving family and friends to assist us, particularly over the rough patches.

Still people ask: why does God allow bad things to happen to people on earth? Why does He allow storms, floods, earthquakes, droughts and fires to destroy people and animals? Why does he allow dreadful diseases to maim and kill so many thousands every day? Why does He not intervene to prevent the harm these things cause?

Why God created these destructive things I do not know. I can only imagine they were unavoidable by-products of the forces by which He formed the planet, and the processes of evolution by which He populated it. But it is easy to explain why God has not intervened to prevent them affecting people as they do. For us to understand and control natural processes, the laws of physics and biology that govern them must remain regular, unchanged. If God were to intervene on every occasion that someone might be harmed, we simply could not predict what was going to happen. We could not use our reason to predict and control the environment in which we live.

Finally, people also ask: why does God allow so many people to act badly, to exploit others through greed, and to kill others in the pursuit of power? It is easy to see that many natural desires are good: they incline to us eat and drink which is important for survival, to acquire resources to see us through hard times, to form families who will support us when we are in need. Trouble comes when we let these desires control us, and drive us to eat and drink to excess, to acquire more property than we need, to seek greater and greater power over others. We have the ability to master our natural desires, though with time it can become difficult, and to lead a simple, productive, and generous life. God has given us the intellectual capacity and the desire to do so, and it is up to us to lead a good life. If we do not, we often suffer physical pain, personal anxiety and social hostility, all signs that something is wrong and needs to be corrected.

God has not created heaven on earth. But He has made a world whose natural laws remain constant, so that we can understand them and so control events to a large extent. And he has given us compassionate, loving hearts so that we help those in need. Even the pain and suffering he has made for a good purpose, though sometimes it has no good outcome. Our world might not be perfect, but it is hard to think of a better one.

How does God love us?

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The recent bushfires have produced such destruction and suffering as to make even fervent believers wonder about the nature of God’s love. Less dramatic, but just as heart-rending in its way, has been the economic recession, resulting in loss of earnings and increased unemployment. God’s love seems far away.

It is impossible to believe that God loves each of us as normal fathers do, by providing for our needs and protecting us from harm. Even the early disciples, such as St Peter and St Paul, met painful deaths, and the perfectly holy man Jesus suffered most dreadfully. Those who most deserved God’s blessings were not protected by him from pain and suffering. We hope they will be rewarded in heaven. But if God’s love were like that of a human father, they would surely have been blessed with a happy life on earth.

The church is aware of the limitations of God’s love, and most clergy refuse to preach a prosperity gospel. Instead they rightly focus on the amazing ways in which God has blessed humankind. He has given us an extraordinarily bountiful world which, with hard work and wise management, can meet our physical needs. He has revealed his will for us through his priests and prophets, through his Son Jesus, and through the Bible, showing us that we should worship him and love one another. In his love, we are taught, he forgives us our sins. And finally, God’s love is manifest in the fellowship of his Church, whose members exhibit that forgiving, supporting grace that we can see in Jesus.

These beliefs about God’s provision and God’s will are so familiar that their significance can sometimes be overlooked. Many people think such religious beliefs are irrelevant to society at large. It is good that church leaders are pointing out their social implications more and more frequently and clearly, urging believers to show compassion for the needy, respect for people of other cultures, and justice in economic affairs. As Christians express these values in their public lives, their faith earns increasing respect.

Focus on the social benefits of Christianity, however, is in danger of obscuring an absolutely central, vital feature of God’s love. One can belong to a church and enjoy its fellowship yet feel that God is still very distant from one’s own life. We are in danger of forgetting that God’s love is personal, that he knows us individually, that he is always with us, that he has a particular good will for each of us, and is willing and able to help us achieve it.

How do people discover God’s love for them as individuals? The way is familiar, but no less important for that. People must discover, not just that God loves them, but that he has a particular will for them to express His love for those around them. This will is not just one option among many, for it is the will of their creator, who is entirely good and wise. Once people realise this, they are generally moved to acknowledge his authority and commit themselves to obey him.

The personal love of God is discovered in trying to obey his will. One of the first problems one encounters is the waywardness of one’s nature, the limitations of one’s understanding, and the barriers of resentment and frustration at having to give up one’s own desires for God’s. We turn to Jesus for help, we pray for forgiveness of our failures, and for wisdom and guidance in deciding what to do, and for a willingness to suffer humiliation in carrying out God’s will. It is when these prayers are offered and answered that we discover the personal love of God. He helps us, meeting our particular needs as we attempt to obey him. As Jesus taught his disciples: “If you heed my commands, you will dwell in my love, as I have heeded my Father’s commands and dwell in his love.” (John, 15: 10)

It is quite common to preach the gift of the Holy Spirit to believers, as evidence of God’s love, and to note the fruits of the Spirit, love, joy, peace and so on as entirely desirable and admirable. But what is less often explained is how one comes to be blessed by the Spirit, to acquire these fruits oneself. The path of obedience, repentance, prayer and submission seems rather demanding, but these make possible a life led and empowered by his Holy Spirit.

Personal submission to God’s will is very unattractive to many people today. It seems to involve a shameful loss of independence and integrity, a pathetic submission to the will of another. Once God is thought to be dead, as Nietzsche knew so well, then the individual can reign supreme. Our largely secular society has applauded independence and self-assertion, a life of pride and prosperity. But independence is a mirage: we are almost entirely dependent on one another. And self-assertion is evil if it involves the exploitation of others. Integrity is only as good as the values it expresses.

The alternative to a society of proudly independent people, is the Kingdom of God, in which people respect and love one another in a self-transcending community. Such communities are animated by God’s love, by his Holy Spirit working in each individual as they obey his command to honour him and love one another. In obeying God, people discover, not just the fruits of the Spirit in their lives, but the joy of discovering God’s loving support at every turn.

(927 words)

Dawkins’ Challenge

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Why have hundreds of thousands of people bought Richard Dawkin’s book The God Delusion and watched the TV series? Why are so many highly educated people inclined to agree with him that religion is irrational and often evil, and that the world would be much better without it?

Certainly many wars in the world have a religious component. If the book confined itself to an attack on religiously motivated killing of innocent people, one could understand its popularity. But it does not. It attacks belief in God, religion as a whole.

The public would not give Dawkins’ book so much attention if they had greater understanding of and respect for religious faith. Dawkins challenges the world religions to convince the public that religious faith is an instrument for good, not evil.

One way for the Christian church to do that is to remind people of the great good done by its saints, such as William Wilberforce, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Teresa and Martin Luther King. Their passion for freedom, humanity, and interracial harmony and justice is truly inspiring. And there is Jesus himself, the compassionate holy man who is the exemplar of the Christian life and the cornerstone of the church.

But the public perceive these as exceptional individuals, not as typical members of the Christian church. The church in its wisdom has a stack of beliefs and practices that it says contribute to a good Christian life, but which outsiders, and perhaps some insiders, find bewildering. Consequently, many people do not think much would be lost if churches were closed down.

The challenge for the church, therefore, is to explain the gospel so clearly that it can be seen as good news; and it must explain its practices so that people can appreciate their value in producing good lives and just communities. This task, however, is not as simple as it might seem. More than engaging preaching is required. The message itself is in need of clarification. Too often the church’s beliefs are confused, its sacraments seem pointless, and the Christian life appears to be such a denial of individual worth and autonomy as to be abhorrent.


Consider for example the doctrine of substitutionary atonement. St Paul and the author of Hebrews interpreted Jesus’ death as a sacrifice in the tradition of those in Leviticus, designed to appease the just wrath of God against sinners. But unlike the sacrifice of animals, they say, Jesus’ sacrifice was eternally acceptable. Knowing that, believers should accept that God has forgiven them their sins. Jesus’ sacrifice and God’s forgiveness are expressions of God’s great love for us. This doctrine is at the heart of their gospel.

There are several well known problems with this doctrine that make it unintelligible. First, it depicts God as both just and wrathful and loving and forgiving. Leon Morris suggested that a loving father can entertain righteous anger. 1 But that is so only if the anger is motivated by a desire to reform the offender. God’s anger was for retributive, not reformative justice, first requiring the death of an animal, if not of a sinner, and finally, according to St Paul, the death of Jesus. A god who demands the death of sinners is not forgiving in a loving way, and to claim that he is, is to say something self-contradictory, unintelligible and confusing. Emil Brunner drew attention to this confusion in his book The Mediator, where he wrote of Jesus’ crucifixion:

The whole classical Christian doctrine…recognizes both the wrath of God and the Divine Love which blots this out. It is the same paradox and mystery as the doctrine of the Trinity. …

Hence the Cross, conceived as the expiatory penal sacrifice of the Son of God, is the fulfilment of the scriptural revelation of God, in its most paradoxical incomprehensible guise. 2

The second serious confusion in the doctrine of substitutionary atonement concerns God’s justice. God’s just wrath required the death of sinners. But to satisfy this demand for justice, we are told, he allowed his perfectly innocent son to be crucified and let all the guilty go free. It is contrary to every theory and intuition about justice to punish the innocent. So once again, the picture of God presented here, of one who is both just and unjust, is contradictory and therefore unintelligible.

Calvin, referring to Isaiah 53, declared that on the cross “The guilt that held us liable for punishment has been transferred to the head of the Son of God.” 3 In that case God is punishing the guilty, not the innocent, in letting Jesus die, and so his justice is preserved. Although this conforms to traditional ideas about substitutionary atonement, it does so by creating another problem. Even Calvin knew that according to the Bible, Jesus was not guilty of any sin. Consequently to say that God held him to be guilty is to accuse God of self-deception, of believing something to be true when it is — and is easily known to be — false.

As a result of Jesus’ crucifixion we can believe that God forgives us our sins. But here is another explanation of that faith, one that avoids contradictions and is true to experience. It was hard for Jews, so aware of the righteousness of God, to believe that he would really forgive them their sins. The condition of forgiving those who offend you is to accept the harm and suffering they inflict upon you without retaliation. On the cross Jesus revealed the depth of God’s love by demonstrating a willingness to accept every evil people could possibly inflict upon him—physical, social and spiritual—and yet He returned to offer them peace and his Holy Spirit. Seeing this, we can now believe in God’s willingness to forgive us. 4


To most people the sacraments are a mystery. It is not enough to be told rather vaguely that they are an outward and visible sign of an inward invisible grace.

Baptism is surely a symbol of repentance and renewal, and communion an acceptance of Christ’s forgiveness and the life of his Holy Spirit. But the significance of the sacraments has to be explained in detail, to make it quite plain how essential they are to a holy life, and consequently to a Christian community.


Let me turn to the problem of autonomy. I recently saw the film As it is in Heaven, which portrayed a Protestant clergyman demeaning and belittling people by pointing out their sins and requiring them to submit, in penitence, to a life of purity as defined by the church. The people of the town were liberated from this oppression by a man who affirmed the value of every one of them and encouraged each to follow his or her dream, in fellowship with the others. In effect he preached, not sin and repentance, but acceptance and autonomy.

Few Christian churches today are as demeaning and repressive as the one presented in this film. Most exhibit genuine care, and have a truly loving fellowship. In fact there is much less emphasis in modern churches on sin and repentance, and on humble discipleship in obedience to Christ. Rather there is great celebration of God’s love, often vaguely defined, but little on discerning God’s will for our lives. The churches have adopted the same optimistic attitude as the film, that love will conquer all ills and produce a heavenly harmony.

Christian tradition, however, demands something sterner, namely submission to Christ. Sins must be identified, repentance must follow, and there must be a commitment to Christ in order to live consistently by his loving Spirit. Outsiders would see this as a repudiation of one’s own rationality and autonomy, a mindless and rather pathetic subservience to the will of another. What needs to be explained is that submission to Christ is, in fact, an autonomous act or attitude, which is reaffirmed by Christians every day. Autonomy is of value, but if it is exercised badly, people can become instruments of evil.

The Bible

When discussing Christian beliefs, I suggested that some traditional biblical doctrines be abandoned as unintelligible. But some will say: the Bible is the authoritative basis of Christian faith, God’s word to humankind, so that its doctrines must be respected. Very well, but what should be done about its inconsistencies? One response is simply to affirm those passages with which we agree, and ignore those that do not please us. Dawkins complains that Christians do this, picking and choosing which doctrines to follow according to their taste. 5 But this is not true of professional theologians. They try to discover the main themes of biblical teaching, paying particular attention to those that are confirmed by experience. I think they must adopt a doctrine of progressive revelation. God’s word to the Jews in the Old Testament was probably appropriate at the time as He attempted to create a pious and just community, and later his word through Jesus met the need of both Jewish and non-Jewish communities to discover a new heart of compassion and love to motivate them to live well together. Perhaps God has a new word for us today.

Faith and reason

My criticisms raise the question of how much faith should submit to reason. This question is central to Dawkins’ book. To begin with he opposes scientific reason to speculative metaphysics, and denies that there is any scientific reason for believing that God exists. Later in the book he argues that a quite uncritical acceptance of all the doctrines of a faith produces a ready acceptance of some quite mad and wicked injunctions by extremist groups. “Faith,” he writes, “is evil precisely because it requires no justification and brooks no argument.” 6 What place have faith and reason in Christian belief?

This is a huge topic that deserves continuous reflection. I have two points to make. First, the evidence for God’s existence is strong and manifold, but not overwhelming. But scientific proof is not the only rational ground for belief. It is also rational to hold beliefs which are not inconsistent with accepted facts and which are of value to people’s lives. Christians hold their beliefs largely because they foster peace, love, adoration—a host of good things they treasure. There can be pragmatic as well as epistemic grounds for belief. In fact we hold many beliefs about the world for which we lack conclusive proof because it is useful to do so. Dawkins is wrong to insist that all beliefs should be capable of scientific proof. 7

My second point is that contradictions really are unintelligible. So if the church preaches something self-contradictory, such as that God is both vindictive and loving, that is nonsense. And if it preaches a doctrine clearly contrary to fact, that is quite incredible. When preachers declare that God loves everyone he has made, this cannot mean he will save them from all harm. One has only to think of the millions who suffer from war, famine or disease, to see that that is not true. God loves people in offering them the fellowship of his Son and the life of his Spirit, but he does not love them as a father who protects all his children from harm. It would be mad to suggest otherwise. The church must not be content with paradoxes, but try to resolve them.

The way forward

How can popular understanding of Christian beliefs and practices be improved? We must have theologians who will identify problems of intelligibility and credibility, and who will consider them, discuss them, and propose answers that are both clear and plausible, and consistent if possible with the major Christian doctrines of the Bible and the creeds. Grey areas will remain. For instance, evidence of life after death is meagre, but the value of faith in it is immense—it has given people hope and comfort down the ages. The scholars must teach the clergy who will explain the faith to their congregations, and then the faithful will be able to share their beliefs intelligibly and convincingly with their friends.

As the National Church Life Survey remarked recently:

A great challenge remains for church leaders to help attenders develop a compelling vision, to be committed to that vision and to maintain that commitment through to its fulfilment.” 8

This was published in The Melbourne Anglican, September 2007.

  1. Leon Morris, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, Tyndale Press, 1955.
  2. Emil Brunner, The Mediator, tr. O.Wyon (Lutterworth Press, 1934) pp. 471, 473.
  3. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, ed. J.T. McNeill, tr. F.L. Battles, Westminster Press, 1960,vol1, II, xvi,6.
  4. C. Behan McCullagh, Theology of Atonement, Theology, vol. XCI, no. 743, September 1988, pp. 392-400. SPCK
  5. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion, ch.8. Bantam, 2006
  6. Ibid., p. 308.
  7. C. Behan McCullagh, Can Religious Beliefs be Justified Pragmatically? Sophia vol. 46, issue 1, May 2007.
  8. Quoted in The Melbourne Anglican, June 2007, p.12.

Who Gets to Heaven?

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Will we all get to heaven?

These days people are not as concerned about salvation as they used to be. Some Christians worry whether their unbelieving family and friends will go to hell. But most people do not really believe in hell any more. They just hope that when they die, they will go to heaven, that God, who made them and perhaps loves them, will welcome them with open arms.

For those who take the New Testament seriously, however, it is not so simple. Nowhere does it say that everyone will go to heaven. On the contrary, it insists that some will be in and others will be out. In which case, the question of who gets in and who does not is quite an important one.

St Paul had a lot to say about the Last Days. His theory encompassed the salvation of the natural world, of history and of the individual, as I shall explain shortly.   Unfortunately today, nearly two thousand years after he wrote, his expectations have not been fulfilled and do not really seem plausible.

Philosophers have long wondered, if God made the world, why is there so much pain, suffering and even death? St Paul knew that according to Genesis ch.3, all these, together with “thorns and thistles,” were inflicted on humans as punishment for their sins, symbolised in the disobedience of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Indeed punishment for sin is a major theme of the Old Testament. In Deuteronomy 28:15-68 Moses clearly spells out the horrific suffering in store for those who fail to obey God’s laws.

St Paul, steeped in Jewish tradition as a former Pharisee, was also familiar with a sacrificial system as a means of assuaging God’s wrath against sinners. It is not surprising, therefore, that he regarded the crucifixion of the perfect man Jesus as a perfect sacrifice, that would reconcile God and humanity for ever. He explains his theory clearly in Romans. For instance Romans 5:18: “just as the result of one trespass [Adam’s] was condemnation for all men, so also the result of one act of righteousness [Jesus’ sacrifice] was justification that brings life for all men.”

If, thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, God was now able to forgive humans for their sins, St Paul expected that he would withdraw his punishment of pain and suffering, decay and death, for their sins. For instance in Romans 8:21 he writes of his “hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.” And elsewhere he adds, “The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (I Corinthians 15:.26). He saw Jesus’ resurrection from the dead as a sign of the new order of things to come. Thanks to Jesus’ sacrifice, St Paul believed that paradise would be restored with the creation of new heavens and a new earth. Natural evil would be done away with.

But what about those who refuse to accept God’s sovereignty? St Paul was familiar Old Testament passages about God’s plan to send a Messiah to clear the wicked from the land before he created new heavens and a new earth (Isaiah 65), and he assumed that Jesus was the promised Messiah who would do this. In I Thessalonians 4:13-17 he says that Jesus would return within his lifetime to raise his followers into heaven, and in II Thessalonians ch.1 he describes how Jesus will return “in blazing fire with his powerful angels” to punish those who do not honour God “with everlasting destruction” (vv.7-9).

The Last Judgment marks the end of human history. Thereafter no wicked people will remain, so all moral evil will be eliminated. A new Jerusalem will be established, populated by saints, with Christ in their midst enlightening their world (

Finally, St Paul said the faithful were to be rewarded.   All who believe in Jesus’ “sacrifice of atonement” (Rom 3:25) and submit to God’s authority will avoid the punishment meted out to unbelievers and enjoy eternal life with Christ. When he returns to judge the world, he will then provide his followers with a new body, like his resurrection body, so that we can live with him for ever. (I Cor. Ch.15). So, as well as destroying natural evil and moral evil, Jesus will save those who love him to be with himself for ever. What a magnificent vision! No wonder its fulfilment has been longed for down the ages.

Unfortunately there are a couple of problems with this theological forecast that make it difficult to believe today. The first is that events have not occurred as St Paul predicted. Creation continues to cause suffering, decay and death just as it always has. And moral evil flourishes as much today as ever, causing unnecessary harm across the world. If the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was indeed enough to assuage the wrath of God, why has He continued to punish us? Was the sacrifice not enough? Or is our suffering not punishment after all?

The second problem concerns the character of God as Christians present it. If God’s character is one of love and self-sacrificial forgiveness, it is impossible that he also wants to punish those who fail to honour him. Indeed if he were just, rather than loving, would he really accept the death of a completely innocent man as just punishment for the sins of everyone else? He would not, as there is no justice in punishing the innocent instead of the guilty. Rather, Jesus’ suffering and death displays for all to see that there is no crime humans can commit whose pain he is not willing to bear, in order to forgive them and continue to love them.

There is another theme in St Paul’s writing on salvation, however, that is interesting. It is not about ending natural or moral evil, but about eternal life. The greatest punishment for Adam, I suggest, was that he was barred by “cherubim and a flaming sword flashing back and forth” from access to “the tree of life.” (Gen.3:24) The tree of life is the eternal life of God himself, known to us in his Holy Spirit. With Jesus’ death, St Paul said, the Holy Spirit has become available to all. If people identify with Jesus’ death, dying to their sinful selves, and then ask God to send them his Holy Spirit to guide and strengthen them, he will do so (Romans ch.6). He goes on: “those who are led by the Spirit of God are sons of God…Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ.” (Romans 8: 14,17.) St Paul makes this point repeatedly. For instance in Ephesians 1:13: “And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance…” The same theme infuses the gospel of St John, who repeatedly points to Jesus’ life, his Holy Spirit, as the source of eternal life for all believers. For instance, he writes: “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” (3:16) And again, according to St John, Jesus said: “the water I give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (4: 14) “I am the bread of life.” (6:35) “The Spirit gives life.” (6:63) And so on.

The idea seems to be that although physical life is limited, the life of God is eternal, and if God animates us now, then He might do so for ever, both in this physical world and in some other world where Jesus lives.

So then, who gets to heaven? Perhaps those who let God’s eternal Spirit live in them and work through them, to the glory of his holy name.

The Peace of God

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I expect we all know people who often suffer pain or distress. A dear friend of mine has severe arthritis in her feet. When I am with her, I am always anxious that her pain does not become excruciating. I have another friend who is poor and prone to depression, and I am anxious that he remains able to cope.

We not only worry about other people, but can have quite legitimate concerns about ourselves—about our health, our work, even about whether we are serving God as well as we ought.

Should Christians be worried about themselves and others? In our church services we regularly say to one another “Peace be with you.” But peace is not always easy to find.

Jesus warned his disciples that they would experience strife and persecution: “You must not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. I have come to set a man against his father…” and so on (Matt. 10: 34-6) Jesus taught his disciples to expect the same sort of hostility and violence as he received. In his farewell discourse, according to St John, he said: “Remember what I said: ‘A servant is not greater than his master.’ As they persecuted me, they will persecute you…” (John 15:20)

Then what should his disciples on earth expect? Perhaps they should expect to enjoy peace of mind, peace within, yet a measure of hostility from those without who oppose the values they hold. The Bible seems to endorse this view.

Indeed, according to the Bible we can enjoy the peace of God himself. St Paul promised the Philippians the peace of God which surpasses all understanding (Philippians 4: 7). According to St John, Jesus offered his disciples his own peace: “my peace I give you” (John 14: 27), and again “in me you may have peace” (John 16: 33). Finally, according to St Paul, one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit is peace (Galatians 5:22).

What peace is to be found in God, and how can we find that peace for ourselves? Here are a couple of suggestions.

First, God, being wholly good and wise, is not torn by temptation to act badly or foolishly, as we often are. Rather, his will is always good and right. We can enjoy that single mindedness to the extent that we turn away from the temptation to follow our own desires, and listen to God and obey him.

Soren Kierkegaard wrote a work entitled “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.” He points out that it is not enough to seek God’s will for the benefits that might follow from doing so, for that is what he calls “double mindedness.” He also explains that to find God one must be still and listen. He writes that God’s presence in us

is like the murmuring of a brook. If you go buried in your own thoughts, if you are busy, then you do not notice it at all in passing. You are not aware that this murmuring exists. But if you stand still, then you discover it. And if you have discovered it, then you must stand still. And when you stand still, then it persuades you. And when it has persuaded you, then you must stoop and listen attentively to it. And when you have stooped to listen to it, then it captures you.

In this way we can draw near to God, and discover his word for us. Here is one way to find peace of mind.

Another experience of peace comes from discovering God’s love for us. Augustine famously wrote of God: “You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they find their rest in you.” We not only long for God’s guidance, but also for his love. God’s nature is loving. There is the love of the three persons of the Trinity for one another. And there is the love all three have for us, expressed in creation, revelation, salvation and sanctification. We become particularly aware of God’s love for us as He guides and supports us in His service. St Paul was right to identify our peace of mind with our knowledge and love of God (Phil. 4:7).

But does our awareness of God’s word to us and of his love for us ensure our peace of mind? In our love for others, we feel distress when things go badly for them, and anger towards those who harm them. Jesus wept over Jerusalem when it failed to recognize him as its Messiah; and he was angry with religious leaders who failed to love the people in their care. When Jesus knew that his friend Lazarus was dead, we are told, “he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled” and indeed “Jesus wept.” (John, 11:33, 35)

To find complete peace of mind we would have to follow the teaching of the Stoics, who advised people to detach themselves from all their emotions, both selfish and compassionate. Instead, they said, we should act purely rationally, loving others as a matter of duty. Even Bertrand Russell, who was not a Christian, found such teaching abhorrent. He writes of

a certain coldness in the Stoic conception of virtue. Not only bad passions are condemned, but all passions. The sage does not feel sympathy; when his wife or his children die, he reflects that this event is no obstacle to his own virtue, and therefore he does not suffer deeply. …It has not occurred to him to love his neighbour as himself; love, except in a superficial sense, is absent from his conception of virtue. (History of Western Philosophy, Allen and Unwin: London, 1946, pp.278-9).

God puts wisdom in the service of love. He does not call us to a life of emotional detachment, but to a life lived in love of himself and others. As we love others we are bound to be distressed, anxious and sad and times. This is part of the price of love, of the cross we have to bear. But in loving others, our pain matters little to us beside the suffering of the people we love.

We are promised perfect peace only in heaven, where “There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Rev. 21: 4)

The kingdom of heaven

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The church today needs a fresh vision of what, with God’s grace, it hopes to achieve.  What should that vision be?  Should the church be preparing people for the Last Judgment, ensuring that they will qualify for heaven rather than hell?  Or should it be trying to extend the Kingdom of God on earth, in which case, how is this to be done?  According to the gospels, Jesus was concerned about both, and the church has followed his example, seeing Christian conversion as both a blessing in this life and a passport to heaven in the life to come.

This dual vision, however, has been a source of confusion.  First, it presents a contradictory picture of Jesus, as both an unforgiving just judge and as a forgiving loving friend.  He cannot be both.  Second, it remains unclear whether people’s short lives on earth matter much, compared with eternal bliss in heaven or eternal suffering in hell.   In the past the churches have focussed on salvation, regarding daily hardships as relatively inconsequential.  Today, as belief in the Last Judgement fades, the opposite is occurring:  churches are so keen on providing a loving community for their members, that they have obscured the nature and cost of discipleship in the world.

Although those within the church are aware of this shift of emphasis, people outside it repeatedly portray it as terrifying people with visions of hell, and demanding allegiance to the church and its rules as the condition of avoiding eternal punishment.  Medieval preoccupation with the Last Judgement in fact continued through the Reformation, the only difference being that Luther and Calvin argued that faith in the sufficiency of Jesus’ propitiatory sacrifice is all that is needed for salvation.  Protestant churches have continued this tradition, with its Pauline focus on faith rather than works as the mark of holiness. Again and again missionaries and minsters have been depicted in books and films as being so focussed on salvation hereafter that they overlook the obvious needs of the people before them.  No wonder the public commonly judge the church to be of no earthly use.

I am not alone in thinking that faith in the Last Judgement should be questioned.  Clayton Sullivan, for example, after a critical study of C.H. Dodd’s writing on realized eschatology, concluded that Jesus’ teaching that he would shortly return to set up God’s kingdom of earth “turned out to be an error.” (Rethinking Realized Eschatology, Mercer University Press, 1988, p.118.)  Jesus and his disciples expected that he would return shortly after his death to judge the world and establish a reign of peace and justice.  This did not happen, so in this belief they were mistaken.  How did their belief in it arise?

It is very interesting to study Isaiah chapter 59.  The author despairs of the sin of Israel, and of the suffering it brings. He asks how can justice and truth be established in the land, so that it can prosper as God wishes?  The answer he suggests is that God himself must intervene and send a Redeemer to establish his kingdom in Zion.  He will repay people according to their deeds, and as the following chapters explain, he will create heaven on earth, a new Jerusalem that will glorify his name.

The doctrine of the Last Judgement clearly has its origin in this prophecy. Jesus, believing himself to be the Messiah, thought it was his vocation to fulfil this prophecy.  And St John in the book of Revelation took up the theme, augmented with details from Daniel’s dream in Daniel chapter 7, and portrayed Jesus fulfilling this role at the end of history, whenever that will be.

It is interesting to compare Jeremiah’s prophecy about the restoration of Israel in chapter 31.  He has a different solution to the problem of their wickedness. He said God would forgive people their sins, and change their hearts so that they would want to live justly.  That is the solution that Jesus in fact helped to bring about.

Although Jesus preached the Second Coming, he encouraged his followers to work with him to create a kingdom of love and forgiveness in this world.  In doing so they created a new community, his church.  Such a community is both just and loving.  It is just, with each respecting the interests of all, and loving, with people caring for the welfare of others, doing what they can to make their lives good.

Members of the church today value it for providing a caring community, in which people forgive, love and help one another.  This, I think, was what Jesus and St Paul and St John valued, and it should be the clear focus of the church’s vision.  The new danger for the church is that some of its members so rejoice in their love for one another that they forget to love those outside their circle.  The love people find in the church is one that God wants them to take into the world.  The Christian church can be a mighty agent for social justice, individual welfare and peace throughout the world if Christians work for that in whatever sphere God has placed them.

But what about heaven hereafter?   Although there is evidence that Jesus rose from the dead, there is no compelling evidence that anyone else has done so.  Nevertheless, if people have immaterial souls that are, perhaps, the seat of their consciousness, their thoughts, desires and will, it may be possible that their souls will survive death and live in a new state with God.  Because our mental states are a function of our brain states, however, it is doubtful that they would survive the death of the brain, though that is not to say it is impossible.

People for whom this world is intolerably brutal and oppressive have generally found great solace in the belief that after they die they will go to heaven, to another world of light and love.  And those approaching death have found comfort in this belief as well.   For instance African slaves in the southern states of America remembered how God sent a chariot of fire to whisk Elijah away into heaven, and longed for him to take them as well.  They recalled how God had taken the tribes of Israel out of Egypt when they were slaves, and led them across the river Jordan into the promised land, flowing with milk and honey.  The deep river of death was, for them, a passage to heaven.  The dream of heaven helped to sustain them in troubled times.  Indeed for time immemorial, people around the world have believed that physical death is not the end of spiritual life.

However, a hundred years after their emancipation, consider the dream that inspired that Christian African American saint Martin Luther King.  In his speech at the Lincoln Memorial, Washington, in 1963, King dreamed of black and white men, women and children, living together in friendship and peace.  King was sure that God would bring a kingdom of peace and love on earth, and dedicated his life to furthering that dream.  Towards the end of  his speech he said:

“With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, to go to jail together, to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.”

The vision of a heavenly Jerusalem ruled by Jesus and infused with the light of his love represents an ideal that will continue to inspire Christians down the ages.  But it would be wrong to wait for Jesus to come again to create it.  Disciples of Jesus must work wherever they are placed to continue the work he began here on earth.  Those who share his compassion will be drawn to his vision of a just, loving, dedicated society, and with God’s help, they will spend their lives trying to create it. Heaven is an inspiration, a dream that Christians share with God.  As it says in the song:  You’ve got to have a dream, if you don’t have a dream, how you going to make a dream come true?

The glory of God

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In the book of Revelation (chapter 4), St John depicts the glory of God.  His throne shines with the colours of gems, flashes of lightening and thunder witness to his awesome power, all living things acknowledge his greatness as creator, and finally, in the centre of his throne is a Lamb, “looking as if it had been slain.”  Both God and the Lamb are praised by the saints.

Must we wait for heaven to witness God’s glory?

The Christian life has often been represented as one of service and suffering, with a promise of glory to come.  John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress is the archetype, describing the life of faith as a long and turbulent journey with the new Jerusalem glimpsed at its distant end.  The book of Hebrews paints a similar picture in chapters 11 and 12.  The patriarchs and prophets led tough and often painful lives, and Christians are encouraged to run the race of life with courage, like Jesus, “for the joy set before him”.

But even Jesus, while on earth, saw God’s glory in a flower.  And we glimpse it from time to time in nature, in the infinite splendour of the stars, in peaceful pastures and rippling streams, in magnificent sunsets, and in the animated features of beautiful young men and women.

People of all cultures have been inspired to celebrate the beauty, life and power of nature in poetry, art and ritual.  Buddhists and others enjoy contemplating nature, and some identify with it, seeing their lives as involved in the cycles of the birth and death of beauty all around them.

Should we regard such glimpses of beauty as merely natural events or as epiphanies, as manifestations of God?  Plato said that things that radiate beauty had their origin in heaven, and that through them we have an idea of the perfection which informs them.  But Plato’s heaven was not the creation of a single god.

If we believe God created the universe, then it follows that the beauty it contains is his creation, a gift for us to enjoy.  Believing this to be the case, we appreciate not just the beauty of things, but also God’s love of them and us that their creation expresses.  They are wonderful, undeserved gifts that give us a hint of His glory.

It is surely right to remind worshippers of God’s glory in the art and architecture of our churches, and to celebrate it with flowers and music and song.  These remind us of His amazing, endless creativeness, so that we lift our hearts to the Lord.  There is no need to wait for heaven to glimpse God’s grandeur, and to praise him for it.

But the beauty of nature is always transitory.  A splendid sunset evolves, and then fades into a black night.  So are the gifts of God transitory, here one moment, gone the next?

St John’s Revelation supplies the answer:  in the centre of God’s throne was the crucified lamb, the symbol of God’s unending love for all the people He has made.  He sent his Son to live and die for us, and to be with us until the end of time.  And He has sent his Holy Spirit, to guide, empower and animate all who love him, without ceasing.  As St Paul said:  nothing can separate us from the love of God that is in Jesus Christ our Lord. (Romans 8: 39)

But where do we find this love, in a world so torn with greed, pride and hatred?  We often find it in families and among friends.  We can find it in Christian communities that are focussed on Jesus.  And some find it in the gift of the Holy Spirit, who guides their thoughts, motivates their actions, and comforts them in times of trouble.  In these ways we experience God’s love, and are enabled to love others.

The beauties of nature are fleeting expressions of God’s love.  But the steadfast love of people, and of God’s spirit, are what sustain us through difficult times, indeed lighten our load and provide cause for rejoicing. No wonder people say that the marriages of those who truly love one another are made in heaven.

Are there any other expressions of God’s love for us that should be acknowledged?  Is a free space in a crowded car park ever a gift from God?  The story of David, in the Old Testament, is interesting.  It suggests that God assisted and protected David to enable him to establish a just and godly kingdom.  The Psalms repeatedly praise God for his aid to those who honour him.  Christians also witness to prayers for minor blessings being answered against the odds.  So there is some reason to think God does bless those who love him by meeting their needs in his service.

However, as Hebrews reminds us, faithful servants of God have also suffered dreadfully, as Jesus did.  Sometimes, it seems, God’s plans are not what we imagine them to be and He does not give us what we ask for.

We can only pray for God’s blessings, and thank Him when our prayers are answered.