Kathy and I went to see the movie "The Case for Christ" this afternoon. It was an excellent movie and well acted. I found myself being caught up in the emotion of it all.
In case you don't know, Lee Strobel is a famous Christian apologist who started out as an atheist. He has written many poplar apologetic books. This movie depicts his journey from atheism to faith. As an investigative journalist for The Chicago Tribune, he was a firm believer in following the facts wherever they led. When his wife becomes a Christian, he sets out to prove the resurrection of Jesus never happened by visiting and interviewing experts in many fields of study. Eventually he realizes that the evidence for the resurrection was strong and he could not disprove it, so he converts to Christianity himself.
I have read several of Strobel's books and used to watch a question and answer TV show he hosted. His story is intriguing, as are other stories like his, such as Josh McDowell's. There have been a number of atheists that have come to believe in the resurrection of Jesus after examining the evidence. But on the other hand, there have been a number of Christians that have become unbelievers upon more thoroughly investigating the evidence. I am one of those people as is Dan Barker, who was an evangelical preacher for 19 years before realizing that he really didn't believe what he was preaching.
So, how can that be? How can two people examine the exact same evidence and come to such radically different conclusions? It's a conundrum, but fascinating. Think about a trial where 12 people are listening to the evidence being presented about the guilt or innocence of an alleged criminal. Sometimes the evidence is overwhelming one way or the other and all 12 vote the same way. However, in other cases, the evidence is not quite so clear. There is some evidence that makes you think the person is guilty, but other evidence that makes you think the person is innocent.
So what makes a person come down on one side or the other? Well, I believe it has to do with how much evidence each individual requires in order to be convinced of something. Some people can be told that friendly space aliens are going to land in Central Park tomorrow to take willing Earthlings to a better planet, and they will be lined up waiting at midnight. Others could actually see aliens land and take people and still not believe it, thinking some sort of delusion had overtaken them.
There's many other factors that can affect someone's decision in the face of conflicting evidence. Past experiences, facial expressions of the witnesses while they were testifying, how often they have been lied to by supposedly trustworthy people, etc. So, getting 12 people to agree on the meaning of the evidence is actually quite a feat.
In my case, I'm hard-nosed. I want to have near ironclad evidence, especially when it concerns supernatural events such as a resurrection. But when I conducted my multi-year investigation of the Bible, I discovered that the evidence for the supernatural events reported in it, especially the resurrection of Jesus, didn't even come close to being ironclad. In fact, the more I studied, the more ironclad it became against the resurrection. But, it never became what I would call conclusive. And that's the problem. I recorded my thoughts concerning my studies in a book entitled, "God Is."
The Bible says that God does not want any to be lost. Yet, it also says that if you don't believe, you WILL be lost. If you had a child that was in danger and you knew exactly what that child needed to be saved from that danger, would you not do exactly what was required of you? So, if God knows what each of us needs to believe and be saved, why does he not provide that for each individual? Why leave some hanging with a lack of evidence? These are the questions I cannot answer, assuming there is really a loving, powerful God in control.
Today, on the radio, I heard a Christian say, “When an atheist claims
he has certain rights, he is absconding the argument of the Christian, because
rights can only come from God. Without God, no one has any rights.”
I understand where this person is coming from. He knows that if humans
attempted to provide rights to their fellow humans, they would fall short. He
wants there to be an absolute set of inviolable rights that apply to all of
humankind. But here’s the problem. Suppose such a list of rights dictated by
God actually exists. How do we humans determine what they are? After all, God
did not carve them into the face of the Earth for all to see. So, how do we
discover them? A Christian would say, “God has given them to us in the Bible.”
But a Muslim would say, “God has written them in the Koran.” People of other
religions would have equally diverse responses. Who gets to decide for everyone
else what the true set of rights are?
As you can see, it is problematic discovering the true God-given rights
of man when we can’t even agree who the true God is. In addition, people who
believe in the same God can’t agree on what their God’s list of rights consists
of. Further, even if two people agree on a right, they may not agree on how to
implement that right in the real world.
Look at the US Constitution. Even though our Declaration of
Independence states that all men are created equal and are endowed by their
Creator with certain unalienable rights, our founders found it necessary to
include a Bill of Rights in the Constitution. Why was that necessary if we
already had unalienable rights? Well, I believe it was because they knew there
would be disagreement over what those unalienable rights were and thus needed
to be defined in some way in our founding document so there would be less
Another issue is that of enforcement. If humans have rights, then it
seems reasonable for there to be some sort of punishment for those that violate
those rights. We humans recognize that without those punishments, we essentially
don’t have any rights, for evil men could run roughshod over good men without
retribution. We can state all we want that we have rights, but that will not
stop a bad guy with a fist, or a knife, or a gun.
It’s this enforcement issue that makes me question whether our rights
come from God. As we all know, God does not find it necessary to exact justice
on those that violate others rights. But without that side of the rights coin,
the other side fails. Rights mean nothing if a violator of them sees no
retribution. It’s like a blind man being told that his eyes are reacting to
light just fine. It does him no good if the optic nerve is damaged.
So, why would God give us rights, then do nothing to protect them?
Perhaps he just wants to see us flounder about figuring it all out ourselves.
The problem is that men are not omniscient. Even with the best intentions, we
fail. We sometimes convict people of crimes they did not commit. We sometimes
set free the worst among us. Just think of how much better it would be if
God—assuming he is a good God—made the decisions about who should be punished
and who should not. And I’m not talking about punishment in the next life. That
does no good for all the subsequent victims of crimes after the initial one. In
fact, if indeed God is omniscient, he could actually prevent all crimes before
they are committed. How cool would that be? Kind of like those officers in the
movie “Minority Report,” but with a perfect knowledge of the future rather than
a murky one.
It seems to me that even if God does have a list of rights that all
humans possess, he has left it to us to figure them out for ourselves. We must
decide what those rights are, write them down for all to see, get a general
agreement on their correctness, and then enforce them by punishing those who
violate them. But as we can see by looking at the world around us, there is no
agreement across the globe on what rights we have. That is one reason we are
divided up into countries with differing sets of laws that define differing
sets of rights for its citizens. Also, some countries like the USA are further
divided into states, counties, and cities that each define our rights. It seems
that’s the best we can do in the absence of God doing it for us.
My son and I have been watching
the entire series of the TV show “House, M.D.” A few days ago, we started the
sixth season. In one episode, a maniacal genocidal dictator, who was visiting
the United States, gets ill and comes under the care of Greg House’s team at
the hospital. Throughout the show, one of the team members, Cameron, struggles
with helping this dictator get well because she fears she will then be
complicit in any deaths he brings about in the future. Others on the team keep
telling her that their jobs as doctors are not to pass judgment on their
patient, but to cure him. The conflict builds and finally Cameron’s husband,
Chase, who is also on the team, becomes convinced that this dictator is going
to commit genocide against many thousands of his own people if he recovers and
goes back to his home country. He can’t bear that thought, so switches a blood
sample to make it look like the dictator has a medical problem he does not
have. The treatment will most certainly kill him given what they believed his real
condition was. The plan succeeds, the dictator dies, and now Chase must figure
out how to cover up his actions and fight his inner demons.
Moral dilemmas in TV shows and
movies have always intrigued me. They push me to evaluate how I would response
if put in a similar situation. The answer is not always easy. In fact, more
often than not, I am left not really knowing for sure what I would do.
During World War II, there were
quite a few Germans who saw Hitler for what he really was, which was a maniacal
genocidal dictator like the one in the “House, M.D.” episode. Some of these
astute citizens realized they needed to stop Hitler before he destroyed their
country. Several assassination attempts were unsuccessfully carried out. I
often wonder how those people, had they been successful at assassinating
Hitler, would be viewed by the world. Most assuredly the German military would
have executed them for treason. But much of the rest of the world would have viewed
them as heroes and martyrs.
It is interesting how varied
people’s opinions can be over the same actions of others. In most of the cop
shows, the main issue is justice. Someone mistreats other people and the police
talk about bringing that person to justice. In other movies like “John Wick,”
the issue is revenge. Someone did something bad, and the victim won’t stop
until he gets his vengeance against the perpetrator. In religious shows, the
emphasis is oftentimes placed on forgiveness. Rather than seeking justice or
revenge, seek to forgive the person who transgressed against you. Yet in other
shows, the emphasis is salvation. Consider the movie “Taken.” A man’s daughter
is kidnapped and about to be sold into slavery. Since the man has “certain
skills,” he goes on a rampage to save his daughter. He is not driven by justice
or revenge, but rather solely by rescuing his daughter from the hands of evil.
Anyone who stands in his way is a target of his wrath.
This afternoon, my wife and I
went to see the movie “The Shack.” I had read the book many years ago but,
given the inefficiency of my long-term memory, could not recall much about it.
The basis of the movie is that a young daughter of the main character is
kidnapped and killed. The father struggles with this as does his wife and two
other children. He gets an invitation from God to return to the shack where his
daughter was murdered. There his judgmental mentality and his inability to
forgive others is challenged. And, interestingly, a question that I had just challenged
my wife and son with at lunch earlier was asked in the movie. “How does one
decide what is good and what is evil?” If you think deeply about this, the
answer may not be as obvious as it seems at first glance.
Now, ask yourself, “Which
response to evil do you like the best?” Revenge? Justice? Forgiveness?
Salvation? If you are like me, I think perhaps you might be saying, “I like
them all.” I cheer on John Wick as he leaves a trail of dead bodies in his wake
while seeking revenge on the man who stole his car, killed his dog, and knocked
him unconscious. I applaud the police officers who relentlessly investigate a
murder and finally bring in the murderer so justice can be served. I cry at the
struggle victims go through to forgive the criminal who did them wrong. I urge
on the man who will do anything to save the person he loves.
So, what’s going on? Do I have
multiple personalities living within my brain? Am I simply crazy? Or is it
simply coded into my DNA, and perhaps yours as well, to want all these things
to occur simultaneously? Is that even possible?
Upon thinking about these
questions, I have concluded that it is possible. Revenge seeks to teach an evil
person how deep the pain of what they did was by having that person experience
that same pain. Justice seeks to right a wrong, as much as humanly possible, by
taking them out of society, thus making it impossible to perpetrate the same
evil on others. Forgiveness seeks protection of yourself by letting the past go
and to quit obsessing over the evil that occurred. Salvation seeks to prevent
harm to a loved one and perhaps prevent additional harm to others. A
combination of these things can be both therapeutic and good for society as a
whole. While all four of these reactions are legitimate, different situations
call for a differing mix of the four.
I don’t pretend to have it all
figured out, but I do have an inkling of how these four reactions should be
applied. For instance, while seeking vengeance, you must not cross a line that
ends up making you the evil one. When seeking justice, one must be certain,
usually through a trial process, that the right person is being punished. When
seeking to forgive, you should not “deal with the devil” or place yourself or
others in danger. When seeking to save, one must be confident that the actions
they take do not end up bringing harm to the one you are trying to save.
Accomplishing these things will most likely not be easy. Mistakes will often be
made, but doing nothing will probably end badly.
After watching “The Shack,” I
told my wife that I view some movies as following the Old Testament, where we
typically think of God acting out of vengeance and justice, while other movies
are like the New Testament, where God is defined by forgiveness and salvation.
I like a little of both. Concerning forgiveness, I should note that there are
actually three levels of forgiveness: 1) letting go, 2) no punishment, and 3)
restored relationship. “The Shack” only addresses the first. That level of
forgiveness is difficult, but the other two are much more so. For a complete
explanation, please see my book, “God Is:
Exploring the Nature of the Biblical God.”