Skeptics Welcome 1: The Times They are a Changin’

By on Aug 3, 2015

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For thousands of years we assumed that Earth was the center of the universe. That the sun and moon and stars and whatever else there was out there revolved around the Earth. And that the earth itself was stable and unmoving—completely at rest. After all, it certainly seems that way when you step outside and stare out into the universe.

 

But now we know that none of this is true. Now we know that well, we’re tiny little ants, who live in a tiny little corner of this huge planet…which is spinning around its axis at a thousand mph…while orbiting the sun at the center of our solar system at 66,000 mph…a solar system which is itself flying around our galaxy at 450,000 mph…which is itself hurling through the universe at a couple million mph! Do you ever trip and fall and don’t know why?

 

That’s why.

 

We thought we were the kings of the cosmos, but we’ve discovered we’re more like ants on a rollercoaster. We’ve discovered the universe is a whole lot bigger and we’re a whole lot littler than we ever imagined.

 

It reminds me of the words of that great prophet, Bob Dylan:

 

Come gather ’round people

Wherever you roam

And admit that the waters

Around you have grown

And accept it that soon

You’ll be drenched to the bone

If your time to you

Is worth savin’

Then you better start swimmin’

Or you’ll sink like a stone

For the times they are a-changin’.

 

Now the times are always a changin’, but it certainly seems to be the case that in the 50 years since Dylan penned these prophetic words, the times have been changing at a rate never before seen in the history of the world. In particular, technology has created, for all intensive purposes, a new world. You click a few buttons and in a few minutes you can learn more about the world than previous generations could have hoped to learn in an entire lifetime.

 

Think about it. Our ancestors interacted with a small handful of people each day—their family and maybe the family that lives in the cave down the street. But you and I interact with hundreds, if not thousands of people on a daily basis—because of cars and planes and TV and internet, we bump up against people from all over the world all the time.

 

And as we’ve bumped into all these people from all over the world, we’ve discovered something; namely, that we disagree with each other about an awful lot of stuff—food and clothes and politics and religion. Think about something that you’d be willing to stake your life on; something you believe so deeply that you’d be willing to die for it. Got it? Well no matter what that something is, somebody else is willing to die for their belief that you’re wrong about that.

 

I was in college when the bigness and diversity of the world came crashing in on me. The claims of science and other religions started ringing in my ears and I realized that there were a lot of voices out there claiming to have the truth. And as all those voices ricocheted around in my head, I got more than a little confused, and for the longest time I just didn’t know what to do with it—the skepticism and the doubts and the questions. Many people are in the same place—on and off the fringes of faith because they just don’t know what to do with their skepticism.

 

This series is for skeptics, which probably means it’s for all of us. Because most of us have a skeptic down in us, somewhere and sometimes. And so before we go to the Bible to let it show us what to do with our skepticism, we need to talk for a second about what faith isn’t.

 

Your faith is as strong as you feel certain about it—this is the way many of us have been taught to think about faith.[1]

 

To have faith is to be certain that what I believe is true. So certainty = strong faith and skepticism = weak faith. And when you think about faith this way, it’s pretty clear what you’re supposed to do with your skepticism: you better pretend it’s not there and push it out of your mind and heart so that you can get back to feeling certain, because that’s what it means to have faith, that’s what God wants from you: certainty.

 

Now maybe you’ve never had anybody come right out and say that to you, but if you’re anything like me, this is the way you’ve been taught to think about faith. And there are lots of problems with this—two in particular.

 

#1- You Can’t Be Certain

 

I can only assume that most of you reading this are human beings. And so, fellow human beings, the first problem with the whole faith = certainty idea is that, well, we’re all human beings…which means we simply cannot be certain about much of anything.[2]

 

Think about it. We’re painfully finite, limited, fallen creatures who know far less of reality than we could ever even begin to comprehend. We peek at the infinity of the universe through a tiny pinhole, during a very brief space in time. And no matter how long we live and how much we learn, what we don’t know will always greatly outweigh what we do know.

 

So you can stretch for certainty all you want, but it will always lie beyond your reach. Because you’re a human, and that means you don’t get to be objective or certain. And that leads to the second big problem with the idea that faith = certainty.

 

#2- It’s Crazy

 

Trying to convince yourself that you’re certain of something that you know good and well you can’t actually be certain of…is crazy!

 

Case in point. Greg Boyd tells a story about a young father with a young family who learned he had an incurable form of brain cancer. So a group gathered together to pray for him and before they started praying, someone reminded them how God rewards those who have faith and so everyone needed to push aside all of their doubts and believe that God was going to heal this young father.

 

So…if they could convince themselves that God was going to heal him, then God would in fact heal him. This young family’s future hinged on the ability of a group of people to convince themselves they were certain God would heal this man.[3]

 

And all of a sudden, Greg realizes just how ridiculous all of this is, and an image pops into his head: it’s God, holding this young father hostage, with a gun to his head. And God says, “If you convince yourself you’re certain that I’ll heal him, he lives. But if not, he dies.”[4]

 

How sadistic and crazy is that!? How sadistic and crazy is a god who runs the universe like that!? And yet, that’s the way many of us tend to think about faith. It’s this bizarre psychological game in which we try to convince ourselves that we’re certain about things that we simply can’t be certain about.

 

Because if faith is the ability to convince yourself that something is true, then blessed are the Bigfoot hunters for theirs is the kingdom of God.

 

Some of you have lived your whole life thinking that the healing of loved ones, that the answering of prayers, that your eternal destiny hinges on your ability to play this ridiculous psychological game. And I’m sorry you’ve lived with that burden, and I’m happy to tell you that’s not the way God does things, so you can quit trying to convince yourself that you’re certain—that’s not your job.

 

And so for our next installment, we’ll turn to the book of Job and let it teach us what to do with our skepticism and what faith really looks like.



[1] Greg Boyd does a great job unpacking this idea in Benefit of the Doubt.

[2] An idea I explore in chapter 9 of my book, Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed.

[3] Mark 11:24 is often appealed to in support of this way of thinking. While on the surface it can be taken that way, a deeper look at the text in the context of the wider teaching of Scripture makes it clear this cannot be taken at face value. I’ll have to leave it there for now.

[4] This is recounted in Benefit of the Doubt.

10 Comments

  1. donbeeson

    August 7, 2015

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    Hey, Austin! I just sent you something to your Facebook account to look at . I actually just discovered Geg Boyd this week . I definitely think he is right about a lot of stuff–everything– not so sure of –but isn’t that true of all of us : ) and I like your Twitter comment about Jesus leaving us the Holy Spirit and not the Bible. I never thought of that before really but that does cause a person to pause. Looking forward to reading more in this current series about faith and doubt. Our chat in Aoril was one of the highlights of my trip btw : )

    • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

      August 11, 2015

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      Hey Don! Yea I like Greg a lot…he’s a good guy. I enjoyed our visit as well. Glad you made it back safe!

  2. donbeeson

    August 7, 2015

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    Hey, Austin. I just had a thought . Maybe this has occurred to you as well. Because people like Piper and MacArthur actually believe God chose them for salvation before the foundation of the world , any ideas they have must be blessed and sanctioned by God. And conversely , if other Christians disagree with them, those people are either deceived or they aren’t Christians at all. Bad theology results in dangerous , faulty thinking. The Christian Right is rapidly losing their influence as it should. Their incessant rants about being persecuted would be laughable if they weren’t so serious about it.

    • Truth first

      April 5, 2016

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      Hebrews 11:1 say it beautifully:

      KJV
      Now faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.

      The Amplified Bible says it thus:
      Now faith is the assurance (the confirmation, the title deed) of the things [we] hope for, being the proof of things [we] do not see and the conviction of their reality [faith perceiving as real fact what is not revealed to the senses].

      This is much less doubting than the doubt Austin expresses. Austin, like many, is the victim of postmodernism. Yet we are set apart to go AGAINST postmodernism, which says that there IS NO truth. That is a fundamentally UN-christian thought. Jesus contradicts it:

      I am the way, the truth and the life!

      .As Christians we have the privilege to know that there IS one truth: the one of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. We will never understand the Bible 100%, but God will reveal it to us as he deems fit.

      The persecution of conservative Christians IS a fact, mostly by those who are supposed to be their brothers and sisters in the faith. Christianity is already under fire by non-Christians, and those who deem it appropriate to stray from the word and condemn those who stick to it are doing a big disservice to the faith.

      Which brings me to the other discussion we had on the 10 reasons why Jesus would never get the evangelistic vote.

      Jesus the END of the Law? Anything but, I would say.

      The three most important rules of Bible interpretation are Context, Context and Context.

      The context of Galatians 3 is provided in Galatians 2:14:

      How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?

      Paul was chastising Galatian Jewish Christians who wanted gentiles to become Jews and do all their ceremonies and stick to all of their customary 613 laws. That’s something different from a general adherence to the 10 commandments.

      Paul says in Romans 6:1:

      1What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin so that grace may increase? 2May it never be! How shall we who died to sin still live in it?…

      How much clearer than that can you be?

      Jesus concluded His comments about God’s law with a warning to the religious teachers of His day:

      “Whoever therefore breaks one of the least of these commandments, and teaches men so, shall be called least in the kingdom of heaven; but whoever does and teaches them, he shall be called great in the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 5:19).

      Jesus was clearly talking about God’s spiritual law, the 10 Commandments. He refers in this context to the commands “You shall not murder” (verse 21) and “You shall not commit adultery” (verse 27). Thus, Jesus ratified the 10 Commandments as the basis for Christian behavior. He showed that if a man has hate in his heart or if he even lusts for a woman, he is breaking the spirit of the law and is spiritually committing murder or adultery.

      Clearly the Bible does not say that we are free from keeping the law because Jesus fulfilled the law for us. Those who follow Christ and desire to be in His Kingdom are obligated to obey and uphold God’s In Matthew’s record of what is commonly called the Sermon on the Mount, these words of Jesus are recorded: “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not the smallest letter, not the least stroke of a pen, will by any means disappear from the Law until everything is accomplished” (Matthew 5:17-18).

      Of special significance in this study is the word rendered “abolish.” It translates the Greek term kataluo, literally meaning “to loosen down.” The word is found seventeen times in the New Testament. It is used, for example, of the destruction of the Jewish temple by the Romans (Matthew 26:61; 27:40; Acts 6:14), and of the dissolving of the human body at death (2 Corinthians 5:1). The term can carry the extended meaning of “to overthrow,” i.e., “to render vain, deprive of success.” In classical Greek, it was used in connection with institutions, laws, etc., to convey the idea of “to invalidate.”

      The long and short of it is that we must not, in order to plaster over our transgressions, commit eisegesis and deliberately interpret texts in such a way that it justifies what is essentially ungodly behaviour. Yes, we all still transgress, but are also convicted by the Holy Spirit when we do, and subsequently repent and ask God for forgiveness. That is NOT the same as deliberately scheming to commit a crime, or, in the case of our sexual transgressions, plan or sustains sexual acts that are clearly condemned by God. Adultery and homosexual lifestyles most certainly fall in that category.

      • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

        April 6, 2016

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        This blog is not a platform for you to get on a soap box about issues not related to the post. I’m allowing this comment this time but try to limit your response to what is discussed in the post.

        First, I don’t think you understand postmodernism. Postmodernism does not say there “is no truth.” Postmodernism says many things regarding the truth, but the chief point would be that even if there is objective truth, it cannot be known objectively. That is very different from saying there is no truth.

        Second, I think your reading of Hebrews 11:1 would benefit from a survey of the wider context of Hebrews 11. Hebrews 11:1 gives a description of what faith is like, then the rest of the chapter shows what it looks like in action. Think of who is named there…Abraham, Sarah, Jacob, Moses. These were people of tremendous faith, and tremendous doubt. I don’t have time to list the litany of doubts all fell prey to throughout their lives, and yet, they are called people of faith. Doubt is not to be made a virtue nor an unforgivable vice. Doubt is to be dealt with faithfully.

        • Truth first

          April 7, 2016

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          Appreciate your comeback, Austin, and will do justice to it later on. For the time being my apologies for using your nick of the woods to discuss issues not directly dealt with in your blog, which was otherwise nicely written. It’s just that it is rather frustrating to be blocked from a site when there really should be no reason to do so. It is not as if I am some sort of ranting atheist or rank heretic spilling his bile. On the contrary, my posts are Bible based. All of which regrettable baggage is NO attack on, or reflection on you, Austin, but I just felt I had to clear this up. Where are we if we do not even tolerate Biblical criticism on a supposedly Christian website?

          • Austin Fischer Austin Fischer

            April 7, 2016

            Sure I understand, and I didn’t block you. It’s just that time is precious so I like to make sure things are kept pretty closely to the topic at hand.

          • Truth first

            April 8, 2016

            Understandable. At least you are moderating your thread. Many others don’t.

        • Truth first

          April 8, 2016

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          Epistemology has vastly changed.
          Modernism still claimed the truth may be known if we look for it long and hard and scientifically enough bu the study of the material world.
          Before that we acknowledged a mix of the supernatural and science as the basis for truth, and before that the spiritual/existence of the supernatural explained all.
          Now the world in its postmodern mindset has even given up on knowing the truth altogether, where do we stand as Christians?

          Are we, as Christians, not the custodians of the Truth in Jesus Christ as he appears in the Bible? Why should we share the world’s doubts? What sets us apart from the world if we buy into its philosophical fads?
          God is the same yesterday, today and forever. Why are we looking to be accepted by a world that does not WANT to know the truth?

          Doubt or scepticism are NOT virtues, and God punished people for that with dumbness, blindness and 40 years in the desert where less than a year would have sufficed. Where doubt is a lack of faith God will hold it against us. It is the ultimate separator of man and God, as the Fall showed. Did God REALLY say that…etc?

          I am curious to know where you see doubt in Abraham. He did not know where he was going but fully trusted God. Thomas and Peter showed doubt and were not commended by Jesus for it.
          We are asked to believe like children. They fully trust their parents and do not doubt that their father or mother are THE BEST parents in the world. In that sense Jesus wants us at faith level to go back to childhood. What keeps us from doing so?
          Our worldly knowledge, and not even always supported by science (see evolution and an alleged billions of years old earth), the fear of losing credibility, pride. Not exactly virtues!

  3. Dave Anfenson

    August 13, 2015

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    Grateful for the encouraging words! I remember the first time I heard the story from Boyd, it turned on a theological light that never shut off. Thanks for making our faith brighter and more beautiful 🙂

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