Apologetics with Christian Speaker Alex McFarland

Alex's answers to common questions, part 2

Question 1:  Is God self-centered and conceited because He created an entire universe just to sit around and worship Him?

Question 2Alex, what do you say about the so-called lost books of the Bible?

Question 3: Why are Christians obsessed with putting down homosexuals? Give up on trying to control people’s sex lives!

Question 4What about those who haven’t heard of Christ?

Question 5: I am a spiritual person already, and I’m comfortable with my doubts.  Why do you insist that people see God from your perspective?

Question 6: Who decided which books would be included in the Bible?

Question 7: Okay, the manuscripts that make up the Bible may be trustworthy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were supernaturally inspired. How can you be so sure that the Bible was given by God?

Question 8: Religion has caused most of the wars and evil in the world. Why do you want to perpetuate this?

Question 9If God knows everything, as you claim, He would have known how much suffering would eventually come into this world. Why didn’t He stop this process before it all got started, and save His creatures from all of the pain that would befall them?

Question 10: Where did Cain get a wife?

Question 1: Is God self-centered and conceited because He created an entire universe just to sit around and worship Him?
Let’s ask ourselves this question: “What does our worship do for God? Does it really enhance Him in any way? Is God somehow better for humans having worshiped Him?” God is not encouraged, enlarged or in any way aggrandized by our worship. He receives no benefit from it.

Worship does relate to God’s own self-knowledge and His comprehensive understanding of us. God must treat Himself as the greatest good because He is the greatest good. He is the perfect being based on His nature, apart from any function related to us.

If God treats anything else as the greatest good, then He is not affirming the truth about Himself. It is wrong for us to treat ourselves as the greatest good because we are not. It is not wrong for God to treat Himself as the greatest good because He is. He is not the one who benefits from our worship; rather, worship allows us to see Him as He is and so continues the extension of His love and goodness in creation.

Question 2:  Alex, what do you say about the so-called lost books of the Bible?
This question relates to the subject of canonicity. When someone speaks of the “canon of Scripture,” they are referencing the collection of 66 recognized books that have come to be known as the Holy Bible. The word “canon” means “measuring rod.” Christians believe that the Bible is the measuring stick God has given the human race for  evaluation of what is true or false, right or wrong.

Just as a ruler helps the carpenter saw the board at precisely the correct length, our spiritual measuring instrument—the canon— helps us “get things right” according to what God wants for us.

But how did the volume of Scripture get compiled? Why did some ancient religious books from that era not make it in? For a variety of reasons, Christians accept that God determined canonicity (through His prophets). Over time, the people of God discovered which of these books were prophetic (and therefore canonical).

Scholar J. I. Packer—who has served on the faculties of such notable schools as Oxford University—notes, “The church no more ‘gave us’ the canon than Sir Isaac Newton ‘gave us’ the force of gravity. God gave us gravity by the work of His creation, and similarly, He gave us the New Testament canon by inspiring the original books that make it up.”1 During the time of Jesus, the Jewish Scriptures that make up the Old Testament had long been collated and recognized. The last book of the Old Testament (Malachi) was completed 400 years before the birth of Christ. About 250 years before the birth of Christ, the Septuagint (a rendering of these Jewish Scriptures from Hebrew into Greek) was translated. Clearly, the God-ordained books that comprise the canon of the Old Testament are undisputed, having been recognized even centuries before the birth of Jesus.

By the time of the Early Church, the inspired writings that would ultimately make up the New Testament began to achieve circulation. During this time, there were also writings in circulation that Christians recognized were not from God, and those were rejected for canonization.

Books from the Old and New Testament eras that were not recognized as belonging to the God-ordained collection of Scripture came to be known as “apocryphal” writings (meaning “hidden”).  Origen (who lived AD 185-254) may have been the first scholar to use the word “apocryphal” in alerting early Christians to the questionable value of these non-inspired writings. Depending on how one divides the chapters/sections, there are a dozen apocryphal books that exist from the Old Testament era and about 15 from the New Testament era.

The question becomes, “Why should the apocryphal books be rejected as inspired (and therefore not part of the biblical canon)?” Here are the reasons: Unlike the actual biblical books, no apocryphal writing claims to have been penned by a prophet (in the case of the books from the Old Testament era) or by one of Christ’s apostles (regarding the writings from the New Testament era). Further, the New Testament quotes all Old Testament books, but never quotes any of the apocryphal writings, except in one instance, Jude 9, which does not contradict the Old Testament. Also, Jesus and the apostles never quoted from any of the apocryphal books.

Few Early Church leaders ever referenced any of the apocryphal writings the way they referenced canonical Scripture. Early Church leaders who did not consider the apocrypha to be canonical Scripture include Athanasius, Cyril of Jerusalem, Origen and Jerome (a fourth-century biblical scholar and translator of the Latin Vulgate).

In the second century AD, the earliest copies of the Peshitta (the Syriac Bible) did not contain any of the apocryphal writings.  When the Dead Sea Scrolls (a collection of more than 900 ancient texts) were discovered at a place called Qumran in the mid-1940s, included were commentaries on all of the Old Testament books. Within the cache of manuscripts were some fragments of Jewish apocryphal writings. However, while there were commentaries accompanying all of the Old Testament books, there were no commentaries written on any of the ancient apocryphal books— leading many to conclude that the Essenes (ancient scholars from the area) didn’t view the apocryphal writings as being on the same plane as Scripture. One of the most respected Dead Sea Scroll scholars, Millar Burrows, said of these apocryphal writings, “There is no reason to think that any of these works were venerated as sacred Scripture.”

When considering questions about the apocryphal writings (and about canonicity in general), the comments and writings of notable leaders from the early Christian era are worth noting. Philo (who lived from 20 BC to AD 40) was a Jewish teacher from Egypt. He quoted the Old Testament prolifically, citing virtually every canonical book. However, he never once quoted from the Apocrypha as inspired.

Josephus (a Jewish historian who lived from AD 30 to 100) references the same 39 books that we know as the Old Testament.  Though demonstrating familiarity with them, he never quotes any apocryphal books as Scripture. The Westminster Confession of Faith (written in 1647) states: “The books commonly called Apocrypha, not being of divine inspiration, are not part of the canon of the Scriptures; and therefore are of no authority in the church of God, nor to be any otherwise approved, or made use of, than any other human writings.

In summary, we may be confident that the canon of Scripture is complete. Regarding the New Testament, Jesus alluded to the closing of the canon by the authority He appointed to His apostles, all of whom died before the end of the first century (see John 14:26, 15:27; 1 Cor. 2:13).

Question 3: Why are Christians obsessed with putting down homosexuals? Give up on trying to control people’s sex lives!
Generally speaking, Christians are not obsessed with putting down homosexuals. However, many Christians believe that the homosexual lifestyle is morally wrong. Practicing homosexuals, generally speaking, tend to deny that their lifestyle is wrong. Moral disagreement often produces social tension between the parties who disagree, and all the more so when both parties are deeply committed to what they believe.

According to Christians, our moral obligations are grounded in God’s intention for mankind. As our Designer, God created mankind to operate in a certain way. Acting contrary to that design is wrong and unacceptable to God. It is unacceptable to God because God always desires what is good for us. Since He designed us, He knows (better than we do) what is good for us.

Accordingly, our physical design, our inherent tendencies towards either masculinity or femininity, and the testimony of almost every society on earth indicate to us that there is something profoundly wrong with the homosexual lifestyle. We were not designed to live that way.

It is often taken for granted that the Christian’s views on sexuality are simply a collection of passionately held opinions. This is not the case. Two thousand years of Christian orthodoxy is informed by both reason (which many thinkers call “Natural law”) and written revelation. (As has been well documented, the Bible is a book shown to be divinely inspired by compelling lines of evidence).

The plea of the Christian today is for the practicing homosexual to abandon his or her lifestyle. This plea is not (or at least, should not be) rooted in hateful intentions. Rather, our plea stems from our belief that God intended something better for the homosexual.

Question 4: What about those who haven’t heard of Christ?
The Scriptures are clear that those who believe in Jesus will be saved (see John 1:12). But what about those in unreached people groups? In 1989 there were 5.2 billion people in the world; only 1.7 billion were Christians. What was the fate of the other 3.5 billion people (67 percent of the population)?

God has not forgotten the un-reached peoples. First Timothy 2:4 clearly states that God “wants all men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Acts 17:26-27 asserts that God has determined the times and places for everyone to live “so that men would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from each one of us.”

Scripture and contemporary missionary evidence support the claim that those who seek God based on the light they have will be given the knowledge of the gospel in some way, even if part or all of the process happens supernaturally (as is the case for the Gentile. Cornelius, whose story is found in Acts 10). This conclusion has been held by such ancient Christian thinkers as Thomas Aquinas and James Arminius, as well as by modern theologians like Ronald Nash and Robert Lightner. This view satisfies the claim that a loving God would make salvation universally available, but it avoids the problematic claim of inclusivism that people can be saved without knowledge of the gospel.

A striking example from modern missions in support of such a position is related by Don Richardson in the book Eternity in Their Hearts. A man named Warrasa Wange from the Gedeo people of Ethiopia cried out to “Magano” (his tribe’s notion of the highest and most benevolent Deity). Warrasa asked the Deity to reveal himself.  Almost immediately, he began having visions of two white men building shelters under a large tree in his village. A voice in the visions told him, “These men will bring you a message from Magano, the God you seek. Wait for them.” Eight years later, two Canadian missionaries came to Warrasa’s village and met him under the same tree he saw in his vision. The missionaries shared the gospel, and Warrasa and many of his fellow tribesmen believed.

I believe that this is a compelling example of God getting the gospel to a person who honestly sought after Him based on the “light” he had. But what is important is that his salvation was based on the gospel he came to believe, not just on the “light” he had initially. Beyond this, the Bible does not clearly teach what will happen to those who never receive the good news of the gospel but do attempt to seek God. As C. S. Lewis puts it in Mere Christianity, “The truth is God has not told us what His arrangements about the other people are.”  The best a Bible-believing Christian can do is to trust in God’s wisdom, mercy and grace, and to suspend judgment as to the salvation of the un-evangelized. As the editors of Four Views on Salvation in a Pluralistic World conclude in their introduction, “These optimistic hints can never become a first-order control belief ” because the Bible is just not clear on this subject.

In reality, there is only one person of whom you may speak authoritatively regarding the condition of the soul: yourself. As with so many things in the Christian life, C. S. Lewis offers practical wisdom for the situation: “In the meantime, if you are worried about the people outside, the most unreasonable thing you can do is to remain outside yourself. Christians are Christ’s body, the organism through which He works. . . . If you want to help those outside you must add your own little cell to the body of Christ who alone can help them.” 

The bottom line is that we can trust that God, who loves the whole world, will take care of the questionable situations; our job as Christians is simply to bring the gospel to a world that desperately needs it.

Question 5: I am a spiritual person already, and I’m comfortable with my doubts.  Why do you insist that people see God from your perspective?
Millions of people today would concur with sentiments similar to this. Rather than speak about God in specific terms, many prefer to handle the ultimate questions of this life (and the next) in terms of vague generalities. In C. S. Lewis’s Screwtape Letters, the apprentice demon is encouraged to deceive people in this way: “Keep his mind off the plain antithesis between True and False.”6 In other words, a potent way to keep people from the truth of the gospel is to lull them into assuming that there is no actual truth to embrace nor error to avoid. There are only feelings and opinions—mine, yours and everybody else’s—with none being more or less correct than any other.

C. S. Lewis asserts that such “spirituality” is the oldest heresy in Christian history because it denies devils and denies sin. When conversing with someone who is skeptical that there is objective truth beyond our own subjective opinions, I have found it helpful to ask questions. For one thing, I genuinely want to understand what the person truly believes. Also, it is likely that most who embrace an unstructured, undefined “spirituality” haven’t evaluated their positions in any depth. Asking good questions forces them to do this. Ask them, for instance, “Is there a difference between spirituality and religion?”

Discuss people who are known to have been “spiritual” (Jesus Christ, Mother Teresa, Adolph Hitler, David Koresh, Martin Luther King Jr., Jim Morrison, Abraham Lincoln, Kurt Cobain, Allister Crowley, John Lennon and Muhammad, to name a few). All of these people pointed to God or some transcendent, higher power as the basis for their beliefs and behaviors. Yet their values and teaching are all very different, if not completely incompatible. Ask, “Is there a right or wrong way to be spiritual? Why or why not?

What is our authority or basis for deciding this?” Other critical questions about “spirituality”:

• The world is full of things that have been described as spiritual: crystal rocks, witches, Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, California’s Getty art museum, the birth of a baby and U2 in concert, among many others. Ask, “How are you spiritual, and how is that better than these?”

• How are religion and spirituality different? Do you think objective truth is a religious or spiritual principle? Why?

• Do you believe Jesus was spiritual? Why? Jesus made many absolute statements concerning salvation from sin and deliverance from evil, and He gave warnings about demons and hell. Was Jesus correct in the things He taught?

• What things can hinder a person’s spirituality?

• Some religious cults are spiritual, and they are evil. Can you define spiritual goodness without a specific reference point? If there were a specific reference point that  determines goodness, wouldn’t that be something above and beyond our individual spirituality? In other words, wouldn’t there be an ultimate standard of “the good” (i.e., “righteousness”)?

The point is that while it may feel good to think of ourselves as spiritual, this means little without specific definitions based on objective reality. The cold truth is that many who call themselves “spiritual” are unable to explain what that means, how they became spiritual, what is necessary to grow spiritually, or how to meaningfully share this with others. More and more younger Americans (including 38 percent of those born since 1980) say that religious beliefs have no influence on their lives.  Into this context, Christianity offers objective, testable truth claims, corroborated by evidence that may be investigated.

Question 6: Who decided which books would be included in the Bible?
The short answer: God did. God is the author of all Scripture, and the Bible is the collection of that Scripture. Perhaps a better question is this: How were those books recognized and collected?

The collecting of the manuscripts that now make up the Holy Bible occurred as books were circulated among the people of God and recognized as Scripture. Scholars call this canonization (from “canon,” the Latin word for “measuring stick”). The Early Church leaders did not “choose” the canon. They recognized the books that God had chosen.

Five principles guided this process. Early Church leaders considered these aspects of a given text according to the following criteria:

1. Does it have the authority of God? There may be authoritative claims about how a believer should live or what God has done. There may be an explicit claim: “Thus says the Lord.” In some form, the book will claim the authority of God.

2. Was it written by a servant of God? The author may have been a prophet or apostle, or have been sponsored by one.

3. Does it tell the truth about God? Does its content harmonize with other known Scripture? All Scripture is without error. If a book contained factual errors or contradicted other Scripture, it would fail this test.

4. Does it display the power of God? True Scripture has the power to change lives and build up the people of God.

5. Is it accepted by the people of God? The book had to be accepted by the people of God to whom it was initially given.

Question 7: Okay, the manuscripts that make up the Bible may be trustworthy, but that doesn’t necessarily mean they were supernaturally inspired. How can you be so sure that the Bible was given by God?

The Bible claims to be given by God to man. Its own testimony of itself and other lines of evidence, when taken together, make a strong case for the divine origin of the Bible. Consider the following:

• Manuscripts: No other ancient document comes anywhere close to the Bible in terms of the number and accuracy of surviving copies.

• History: Archaeology has repeatedly verified the biblical record. While there are a small number of people and places that so far have no extra-biblical reference, there are no known inaccuracies in the Bible.

• Authorship: The men who wrote the Bible were known as men of integrity. They were pious Jews, persons of authority, and ones who suffered for the things they wrote. There is no reason to believe that they recorded false accounts of their experiences. Jesus Christ also testified that the Bible comes from God (see Matt. 24:35 and John 10:35, among others).

• Prophecy: There are numerous prophecies of future events in the Bible. A single false prophecy would be enough to refute the Bible’s claim to divine origin; instead, many prophecies have been fulfilled and none have been proven false.

• Power: For 2,000 years, the Bible has exhibited amazing power to change people’s lives, even to the point of impacting history. No other book has shaped individuals—and even world events—like the Holy Bible.

All of these facts are best understood in terms of the Bible having a divine (rather than merely human) origin.

Question 8: Religion has caused most of the wars and evil in the world. Why do you want to perpetuate this?
This question makes an errant assumption: that followers of Christ desire to perpetuate religion or rituals. True Christians do not aspire to perpetuate religion as such, nor does the New Testament instruct the Church to do this. Christianity is about the advancement of the gospel, the “good news” that Jesus Christ died and rose again to pay for the sins of humanity. The gospel is the message that each person may experience forgiveness and freedom through a personal relationship with Jesus Christ. This living relationship offered by Jesus Christ is a tangible thing—no mere ritual—and is certainly not based on meritorious efforts carried out by the believers.

In reality, followers of Jesus are as antithetical to “religion” as are skeptics. Thus, the question can have force only if it is assumed that Christianity has caused most of the wars and evil in the world. This is hardly plausible.

In addition, is the above claim merely that religious people have caused most of the wars and evil in the world? This may or may not be the case, but this would be relevant only if such people fomented war in pursuit of their religious convictions. It is clear, at least in the case of Christianity, that believers are never told to wage war as a matter of theology. We are told, in fact, to live peaceably with everyone, if possible (see Rom. 12:18).

Those who fail to discharge this obligation are thus not doing so as a result of proper religious convictions, but in spite of them. Crimes have been carried out in the name of Christianity, and this is deplorable. Regarding the rejection of Christianity in particular because of such “wars caused by religion,” let’s look for a moment at the evidence for the “prosecution.” As far as Christianity’s supposed contributions to bloodshed and suffering, the primary offense is usually said to be the Crusades, which took place during the eleventh to thirteenth centuries. Much has been written in response to this favorite example of atheists who wish to paint Christianity in a morally culpable light.

Space does not permit a thorough unpacking of the historical context and the role that religion played in the Crusades. The Crusades did not involve—as is often popularly thought—bands of bloodthirsty Christians going off on arbitrary killing sprees. As researcher Dinesh D’Souza notes, “Without the Crusades Western civilization might have been completely overrun by the forces of Islam. The Christians fought to defend themselves from foreign conquest, while the Muslims fought to continue conquering Christian lands.”  It must be pointed out the Bible grants to nations the right of self-defense (see Rom. 13).

While it is true that wrongs were committed by both Muslims and professed Christians during the course of the Crusades, four things should be noted:

1. Jesus’ message of salvation in no way contained an edict to kill in the name of Christianity.

2. Participants in the Crusades may or may not have been truly born-again followers of Christ. The Gospel message should not be judge by the behavior of those who were perhaps Christians in name only.
3. The Gospel is still true regardless of failures on the part of those who may name the name of Christ. In other words, we are to have our eyes on Christ (who is perfect) and not on man (who is imperfect).

4. The excesses of the Crusades happened when Christians deviated from their Scriptures.

The Crusades in no way negated the realities of Jesus’ prophesied coming, miraculous deeds, substitutionary death, literal resurrection and life-changing power.

Question 9: If God knows everything, as you claim, He would have known how much suffering would eventually come into this world. Why didn’t He stop this process before it all got started, and save His creatures from all of the pain that would befall them?
Here the questioner assumes that it is possible for God to (a) know that X will happen; and (b) do something to prevent X from happening. But (a) and (b) are incompatible. If God knows X will happen, then it is true that X will happen. If it is true that X will happen, then there is nothing anyone (including God) can do to prevent X. It would be a contradiction to say that, “X happens” and also that, “X does not happen.”

Nothing can both happen and not happen.  So perhaps what the questioner means to ask is, “Why, if God knew what would happen were He to create, would He have chosen to do so?” Specifically, why would God have created free creatures if He knew they would wreak such havoc? This assumes that there are truths about what creatures would freely do if placed in certain circumstances. If there are, then God is constrained by what those truths happen to be, and (for all we may know) this is the best world that could be, given what those truths in fact turned out to be. If there aren’t such truths, then God can hardly be held responsible for not acting on the basis of them.

When discussing such matters, theologians and philosophers often talk about “the best of all possible worlds” God could have created. But most Christian thinkers assert that our realm of existence, with all the details as they are, is “the only possible world.” Let’s again look at the facts as we have them: God created humans who were initially perfect, yet with free will (and therefore the capacity to disobey and sin). It would have been a contradiction for God to create free creatures who weren’t free.

Thus, in order to act in accord with His own nature (holiness, righteousness, truth, love, justice) and to act within the parameters of what is logical and reasonable, God created the universe as it is. God populated this universe with creatures as they are.

Someone will point out that, in its current fallen condition, the world we live in is not “the best of all possible worlds.” True. But God’s plan of redemption and universal restoration is in process (the empty tomb is proof of Christ’s victory over sin and death), and that plan will culminate in the restoration of righteousness throughout the created order. Thus, some say that reality as we know it is “the best way to the best of all possible worlds.”

In light of all the known facts, the world could be no other way than the way it is.

Question 10: Where did Cain get a wife?
This question is apparently a favorite of skeptics. Cain was a member of Adam’s family. He, along with his brothers, Abel and Seth, represented the first generation of children born on the earth (see Gen. 4:1-2, 25). After Cain killed his brother Abel, the Lord put a curse on him and drove him from the land, and later we read that he went to the land of Nod, east of Eden, where he took a wife. Presuming there were no other people on earth at the time, the question becomes how Cain was able to find someone there to marry.

A few times, when I’ve been speaking at universities, a resident skeptic has brought up this old chestnut of a question. But there is a logical answer to this initially perplexing question. Genesis 4:17 says, “Cain made love to his wife, and she became pregnant and gave birth to Enoch” (TNIV). Notice that the Bible doesn’t say that Cain found his wife in Nod. The Scripture just states that Cain had a wife and that they had children. Neither Scripture nor history implies that there were other races of people on earth whom Cain somehow stumbled across, and from among whom he found a wife.

It is important to note that Genesis 5:4 mentions that by the time he was 800 years old, Adam had had “other sons and daughters.”  Adam lived a very long time (930 years total), and during this time were born other children besides Cain and Abel. One of these siblings was the female Cain would ultimately marry. Yes, Cain married one of Adam’s daughters, making his wife one of his sisters. In a similar sense, every child descended from Adam marries another child descended from Adam (i.e., a relative). At this early juncture in history, such intermarrying was a practical and logical necessity.

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