God’s Mercy in Death

By Hugh Ross – July 22, 2019

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A question that is frequently posted on my Facebook page is: Why, if there is an all-powerful, all-loving God, do good people die while they are still young? Here’s a recent example:

A famous Christian singer I admire, very passionate about his faith, died young from cancer. Doesn’t the Bible state that God will not let you suffer and will grant you long life if you are his faithful child? Why did this singer die of cancer? This death is messing up my belief in God.

From my scientist’s perspective, here is how I briefly answered this question:

First, none of us is “good” in a biblical understanding of goodness. Only God is perfectly good. However, God is on a mission to make people good who want to become good.

God subjects all humans to the laws of thermodynamics, gravity, and electromagnetism as tools to discourage us from committing sin and evil acts and to encourage us to come to him for redemption. These laws ensure that the more sin and evil we commit, the more pain, more work, and more wasted time we will endure. These laws and our biological makeup are such that we find extra work, pain, and time unpleasant and, thus, are motivated to avoid sin and evil. As we discover our inability within the laws of physics and our physical and spiritual makeup to entirely avoid sin and evil, we are motivated to seek deliverance from our sin and evil by the Redeemer-God who created us. I explain all this more completely and in greater detail in my book, Why the Universe Is the Way It Is.1

Humans need continual exposure to the laws of physics to have any hope of deliverance from our sin. Because of these laws of physics, though, we all experience decay, suffering, declining health, and eventual physical death. On rare occasions God miraculously intervenes to deliver someone temporarily from the consequences of the laws of physics, but only when that deliverance brings about a stronger response to his offer of redemption than allowing the laws of physics to run their course.

Isaiah 57:1–2 may apply to the singer you admire. God knows the future for each one of us. If that future involved suffering for the singer, God would have known it and may have decided to allow him to “graduate” early. Another possibility is that God used the death of this singer in a similar way he used the stoning of Stephen (Acts 7), to bring others to faith in Christ.

As finite creatures, death can be perplexing to humans. As such, we can identify four categories of mystery: (1) Why does God allows “good” people to die young? (2) Why are “good” people required to spend much longer lives on Earth than what they desire? (3) Why are some evil people permitted to live long lives? and (4) Why do other evil people have their lives cut short? In each case there are Scripture passages that explain why. What follows are selections of Bible passages that first address the physical death of humans in general followed by lists of Bible passages that address each of the four categories of people.

Background References on Physical Death
Genesis 2:16–17 Isaiah 65:19–25
Genesis 3:22 Ezekiel 18:20–32
Genesis 6:3 John 16:5–11
Proverbs 16:4 1 Corinthians 3:12–15
Ecclesiastes 7:2–4 Hebrews 9:27
Ecclesiastes 8:8 Revelation 20:11–15
Ecclesiastes 9:2–6

The righteous sometimes die young
—to protect from future torment
—to protect heavenly rewards
—as an instrument for good
1 Kings 14:6–13 Isaiah 57:1–2
2 Kings 20:1–21:16 Acts 4:32–5:11
2 Chronicles 32:22–33:6 Acts 7:54–8:4
Isaiah 36–39 Acts 9
Psalm 23:4

The righteous sometimes die old
—to maximize heavenly reward
—to protect a spiritual heritage
—to provide an opportunity to achieve an ignored priority
Psalm 116:15 Ephesians 2:10
1 Corinthians 3:12–15 2 Timothy 4:6–8
Philippians 1:21–26 Revelation 14:13

The wicked sometimes die young
—because of a lack of wisdom
—because they are led astray by folly
—to stop the spread of wickedness
—to limit judgment on the wicked
—to limit the grief of their relatives
—to transfer wealth to the righteous
Genesis 38:6–19 Proverbs 5:21–23
Job 20:4–11 Proverbs 29:16
Psalm 55:15 Ecclesiastes 2:26

The wicked sometimes die old
—to give them time to recognize their evil ways and repent of their evil
Ezekiel 18:23 2 Peter 3:9
1 Timothy 2:4 Revelation 2:21

Whenever I conduct a funeral or graveside service, I always hand out these Scripture passages. Afterward, I hear from many people how much comfort, assurance, and understanding these passages bring. They also get people thinking about the most important issues of life, issues that all too often those who are “living the good life” ignore.

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RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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Voted the Best Christian Book of All Time

By Kenneth R. Samples – July 23, 2019

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What is the best Christian book of all time? (Outside of the Bible, of course.) And how could something as grand as that claim ever be determined? Well, scholars are typically never afraid to take on big challenges.

Scholar Voting

In a bracket reminiscent of the NCAA Division 1 Men’s Basketball Tournament, several years ago members of InterVarsity’s Emerging Scholars Network picked 64 great books written by Christian authors in four categories: (1) Theology & Apologetics, (2) Christian Life & Discipleship, (3) Fiction & Poetry, and (4) Memoirs, Devotionals, & Spirituality. At the end of the voting, St. Augustine’s Confessions emerged as “The Best Christian Book of All Time.”1

C. S. Lewis’s Mere Christianity was runner-up, with J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings and Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s The Cost of Discipleship rounding out the final four. The elite eight also included The Chronicles of Narnia by C. S. Lewis, The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis, The City of God by Augustine, and Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster. So both Augustine and Lewis had two books in the final eight selections—an amazing accomplishment for two of Christendom’s finest thinkers and writers.

A Winner for All Times

Considered both a literary and a Christian devotional classic, Augustine’s Confessions is one of my favorite Christian books. I’ve read the book numerous times, yet, like all great books, it continues to challenge me intellectually, morally, and spiritually. The great educator Mortimer Adler defined a classic as a book that a reader can never exhaust. The Confessions is listed in all of the great books programs offered in various institutions in America.

Confessions, written about AD 397, gave birth to the autobiography, a new literary genre in Western culture. The work chronicles Augustine’s intellectual, moral, and spiritual pilgrimage from paganism to Christianity. The title “Confessions” can be understood in a triple sense: Augustine’s candid and contrite confession of sin, his sincere confession of newfound faith, and his grateful confession of God’s greatness.

The content of Confessions may provide the most penetrating spiritual and psychological self-analysis of any work ever written. Suffusing his work with profound theological, philosophical, and apologetics insights, Augustine quoted from and expounded on the Scriptures throughout. He devoted the latter part of the book to an exegetical analysis of Genesis’s first chapters (the created world being the cosmic setting for the soul’s journey to God). Written in the form of a prayer to God (similar to the Psalms), the work also serves as thought-provoking devotional literature.

While Confessions records Augustine’s extraordinary life and spiritual pilgrimage, the book may really be about the human soul’s search for God. In reading it, people often feel they are reading about their own search for God. It’s no surprise to me that a group of scholars ranked Confessions as the best Christian book ever written. After reading it for yourself, you will likely agree.

Resources

Reflections—Your Turn

Have you read Augustine’s Confessions? If not, does its being voted the number one Christian book motivate you to pick it up? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Endnotes
  1. Micheal Hickerson, “The Best Christian Book of All Time: the Winner,” Emerging Scholars Blog (blog), April 5, 2013, https://blog.emergingscholars.org/2013/04/the-best-christian-book-of-all-time-the-winner/.

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Is Faith in Progress Warranted?

BY GUEST WRITER – JULY 12, 2019

Mark T. Clark

 

Anyone who has lived at least a couple of decades has witnessed technological breakthroughs that have transformed society. Many people hold the ideas of “progress” and “progressive” in high regard. Who could be opposed to making progress toward a better future? As we consider an answer, this question raises another: To what end shall we make progress?

In chapter 9 of their book, Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism, Fazale Rana and Kenneth Samples show that transhumanism holds great faith in progress. They note that transhumanism “relies on advances in technology to improve the human condition, bring an end to pain and suffering, usher in a utopian future, and even attain human immortality . . .” (p. 206). They also argue that “Transhumanism plays an eschatological role for people who embrace an atheistic, materialistic worldview.”1 But the authors also note that advances in science and technology lead to unease about the unintended consequences of such advances. As C. S. Lewis pointed out, progress can bring about both good things and bad.2

 

Origin of Secular Faith

Modern hope in the future and faith in progress come from nineteenth century political theories that largely remain with us today. In particular, a school of political thought called progressivism (which gave rise to our modern sense of the term) influenced American educational institutions. Progressivism is steeped in the philosophies of Georg Hegel and Karl Marx, who theorized that history unfolds in certain (progressive) directions and a robust faith in science and technology will aid in that progress.3 Progressivism came to the US by way of the many Americans who studied in German universities in the nineteenth century. They brought their training back to American higher education, influencing students and future policymakers. As these progressives fanned out into American higher education, they formed various academic associations late in the century that remain the premier associations of the social sciences to this day.4

Progressive intellectuals’ impact was achieved in successive waves through the elections of three presidential administrations. The first was Woodrow Wilson; the second, Franklin Roosevelt; and the third, Lyndon Johnson. All three presidents implemented important elements of the progressive agenda that have changed the American form of government to more administrative agencies (read: bureaucracies) that cover everything from health, housing, education, social safety nets, and the like.

The newer, more radical, and postmodern form of progressivism today has emerged from the older one and differs in significant ways—though it, too, holds to a faith in progress. Modern progressivism’s most important belief is an abiding faith in history unfolding favorably in the direction of progress.

Modern Progressivism

For modern progressives, the salient question is, To what end is history progressing? They affirm that historical progress has been leading toward a form of democracy to be headed by nonpolitical administrators, both here and abroad. The administrative state is to be staffed with “neutral” scientists who can solve society’s ills apart from the normal political process. At the same time, progressives hold “a pervasive distrust of private associations (family, church, business, fraternities, clubs, political parties, and lobbyists) and a corresponding confidence in the capacity of public officials to direct the lives of the people.”5

This is their eschatology (ultimate destiny of humanity), the democratization of the world through administration. As far back as 1888, for example, Woodrow Wilson asserted that the question of the best type of government (democracy) was settled by history.6 Despite setbacks during the twentieth century wars, both hot and cold, the faith (in progress) of progressives continues today. At the end of the Cold War, political scientist Francis Fukuyama proclaimed “The End of History,” the triumph of western liberalism over all other viable political systems.This triumph is upheld in the theory of democratic peace which arose after the Cold War, the idea that democracies do not fight other democracies.8

Thus, progressives view the democratization of the world as a worthy objective. Such a goal has led the US to promote “democracy” abroad while overthrowing or shaming authoritarian regimes. The unintended consequence of this strategy has resulted in increased resistance from illiberal (more authoritarian) regimes (e.g., China, Russia, Iran, and North Korea) and the emergence of a new nationalism throughout the world.9

Utopia or Redemption?

Perhaps progressives have too much faith in their views. Everyone should be cautious about an unrealistic hope in the future. Unbridled faith in the ability of some people to direct the progress of history toward their idea of the good can lead to unhealthy idolatry and unintended consequences.

When we think about the progressive view of the utopian future, we would do well to recall the irony in Sir Thomas More’s political thesis, Utopia (1516). In it, he compared the then-current social and economic conditions in Europe with an ideal, fictional society off the coast of the Americas. It was a useful way to highlight the appalling conditions of his time. However, More was a realist. He created the title from the Greek ou (meaning “no” or “not”) and topos(meaning “place”). Utopia literally means “nowhere.”

Christian realists do not dismiss that progress can be for the betterment of humanity, but we also caution that things can (and often do) get worse. Christianity has historically supported charities that alleviate hunger and suffering, helped the poor, provided medical relief, and defended the weak, and continues to do so today. The work of Christian missionaries in the developing world has led to the development of more stable, liberal (free) democratic societies in many of these countries.10 They brought about such changes by caring for the people they ministered to, not through regime change.

Thus, Christians can partner with some ideas of the modern progressive agenda but should be cautious about its potential for idolatry and a utopian future. Christians believe that history is unfolding in a different way; namely, it directs people at all times toward a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ (Acts 17:24–27). The real future “good” will be the redemption of human beings from sin, a process that God must do through the work of Jesus Christ and not a political system.

 

Endnotes
  1. Fazale Rana with Kenneth Samples, Humans 2.0: Scientific, Philosophical, and Theological Perspectives on Transhumanism (Covina, CA: RTB Press, 2019), 206.
  2. C. S. Lewis, “Is Progress Possible?” in Walter Hooper, ed. God in the Dock: Essays in Theology and Ethics(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1970), 312.
  3. Thomas G. West, “Progressivism and the Transformation of American Government,” in John Marini and Ken Masugi, The Progressive Revolution in Politics and Political Science (Lanham, Boulder, New York, Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc., 2005), 14.
  4. Tiffany Jones Miller, “Freedom, History, and Race in Progressive Thought,” Social Philosophy and Policy Foundation, vol. 29, no. 2 (2012), 224.
  5. West, “Progressivism,” 22.
  6. West, “Progressivism,” 22.
  7. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?,” The National Interest, Number 16, 1989.
  8. See Dan Reiter, “Democratic Peace Theory” in Oxford Bibliographies, last modified October 25, 2012, http://www.oxfordbibliographies.com/view/document/obo-9780199756223/obo-9780199756223-0014.xml.
  9. For a good series of articles on the recent rise of nationalism, see the special collection of essays on The New Nationalism, in Foreign Affairs, vol. 98, no. 2 (March/April 2019), 10–69.
  10. Robert D. Woodberry, “The Missionary Roots of Liberal Democracy,” American Political Science Review, vol. 106, no. 2 (May 2012), 244–74.

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RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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Does the Universe Have a Purpose?

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – JULY 9, 2019

Life is full of big questions. And one of the most common is this: Does the universe have a purpose?

In 2012 the Templeton Foundation asked this timeless question to astrophysicist and popular science communicator Neil deGrasse Tyson. In the video below, he explains his answer while a hand-drawn animated video illustrated his ideas.

So does the universe have a purpose? According to Tyson, he’s “not sure” but he says “anyone who expresses a more definitive response to the question is claiming access to knowledge not based upon empirical foundations.” Yet at the end of the video he asserts that “the case against it [having a purpose] is strong and visible to anyone who sees the universe as it is rather than as they wish it to be.”

I hope you’ll find my response to Tyson’s video helpful as you engage with others who hold a similar view. I think his answer to the question shows convoluted logic and selective reasoning (fallacy of stacking the deck). Here’s how.

Three Examples of Convoluted Reasoning

First, while Tyson says he isn’t completely sure that the universe has a purpose, he nevertheless presents a purposeful case for why he thinks it likely that the universe has no purpose. In other words, if the universe is indeed purposeless, then how is Tyson able to rise above that cosmic purposelessness and make such a purposeful case (a presentation reflecting purpose and meaning)? C. S. Lewis reasoned in his book Mere Christianity that meaningless (or purposeless) creatures would never know or discover that they are meaningless (or purposeless) because such a discovery would be profoundly meaningful (or purposeful).1

Second, Tyson seems to imply that it is arrogant and misguided to trust sources not based on or grounded in science (“empirical foundations”). But the necessary assumptions upon which science depends—like the truth and reliability of logic and mathematics—are not empirically derived. In other words, science itself depends upon nonscientific truths.

Third, Tyson asserts that it is obvious to anyone without a worldview agenda that the universe is purposeless. But Tyson does not come from an objective and neutral position in order to make such a claim because he also carries a worldview agenda.

Three Examples of Selective Reasoning

Selective reasoning (also known as the fallacy of stacking the deck) takes place when an arguer appeals only to evidence that favors his or her position and ignores counterevidence.

First, Tyson says that religious worldviews have been wrong about cosmological questions. But he ignores or is unaware that the Christian worldview historically birthed the prized scientific enterprise and that the philosophical assumptions that science is based on fit well in the Judeo-Christian worldview.

Second, Tyson ignores or is unaware that Christian theism possesses greater explanatory power and scope than does atheistic naturalism. Contrary to atheistic naturalism, Christian theism provides a plausible explanation for life, beauty, logic, mathematics, consciousness, morality, the human enigma, the universe’s beginning and intelligibility, and more.

Third, Tyson mentions the seemingly chaotic and inhospitable aspects of the cosmos that would appear to validate purposelessness. However, he ignores the elegant, aesthetic mathematical elements of the universe and the exquisitely fine-tuned constants of physics that are surprisingly intelligible to the human mind.

A Takeaway

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s case for doubting that the universe has a purpose reflects convoluted logic and selective reasoning. All people, regardless of their station in life, must subject their thinking to the universal laws of logic. While Tyson holds specialized training in science, his reasoning reflects glaring weaknesses in logic, philosophy, and worldview thinking.

Reflections: Your Turn

Have you watched Tyson’s video? If so, what did you think about his reasoning? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Endnotes
  1. C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York: MacMillan, 1952), 45–46.

About Reasons to Believe

RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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Seeking Holiness Through Righteousness

By Will Myers

One can seek holiness through the laws of God. One to seek Holiness is to seek God’s Holy Spirit Who is the fulfillment of life and is the Life. The life in this world can receive a taste of eternal life through our Savior Christ Jesus Who is the Righteousness of God.

For in the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed—a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”

But if our unrighteousness brings out God’s righteousness more clearly, what shall we say? That God is unjust in bringing his wrath on us? (I am using a human argument.)

Righteousness Through Faith ] But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify.

This righteousness is given through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe. There is no difference between Jew and Gentile,
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When he comes, he will prove the world to be in the wrong about sin and righteousness and judgment:

about righteousness, because I am going to the Father, where you can see me no longer;
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in holiness and righteousness before him all our days.
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But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.
Man when first created was exposed to God’s perfect righteousness which is in the physical laws. The material gave support to our lives; also, the material was inducing knowledge to our minds. Psalms:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
    the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
    night after night they reveal knowledge.

God’s equation in the creation reflects His perfect righteousness as the dynamics reveal multitudes of things as spoken of in Romans 1:20;

For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.

God’s equation can be symbolically represented as a metaphysical equation: UspaceVspace=Q, whereas Uspace is God’s perfect righteousness, and Vspace is the nexus of all things with Q being the thing that IS; the results that come into being and goes out of being. Although, as Apostle Paul stated in Romans 1:20 it’s the invisible thing that is responsible for the development of what exists which reveals the Godhead of Father God, God the Son, and God’s Holy Spirit. The Word of God encompasses science and all other disciplines. God created science alone with all other disciplines; man observes what God has created.

God’s Word is in the universe and the living Word of God is His Son, Jesus. Man’s fleshly nature is too weak to overcome sin and receive God’s Word which demands perfection void of sin. God desired that we all be saved in that He sent His Son to pay our sin debt by the shedding of His blood as a ransom payment. Through Him, we can receive from His perfect life. Jesus, our Lord and Savior, gives us the true Word of God.

נ Nun ] Your word is a lamp for my feet, a light on my path.
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Responding to UFOs in the News

BY GUEST WRITER – JUNE 25, 2019

Is the US government interested in the UFO phenomenon again? A recent spate of news reports indicates so. What does this development mean for Bible believers who are skeptical of the idea? And how can Christians respond respectfully and helpfully?

 

More UFOs Being Reported

As of May 2019, the US Navy has drafted new guidelines for pilots and other military personnel to report encounters with “unidentified aerial phenomena,” usually called unidentified flying objects (UFOs).1 The guidelines are designed to destigmatize self-reporting of such observations and allow for assessments of them. According to the reports, there has been an uptick since 2015 in the number and frequency of unknown but “highly advanced” aircraft encroaching on US Navy aircraft and strike groups and overflying governmental facilities. Descriptions of these aircraft vary. Sometimes they are described as flying “tic tacs” and sometimes as oblong spheres. Most importantly, however, these objects act in ways that defy the laws of physics.

This news comes on the heels of a recently reported effort by the US to conduct research into “unexplained aerial phenomena” (UAP).In 2017, Politico reporter revealed that the Defense Intelligence Agency had funded more than $20 million of research into an Advanced Aviation Threat Identification Program (AATIP) from 2007 to 2012. This research effort came at the request of then-Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.). At best, the research projects were intended to determine whether Russia or China were testing advanced propulsion systems; at worst, to determine whether such exotic (i.e., alien) technology could “enhance the human condition.” The five-year study was terminated in 2012, with little results from the research.

 

What to Think about This Recent News

In our book, Lights in the Sky and Little Green Men, Hugh Ross, Ken Samples, and I evaluate the US experience of the UFO and extraterrestrial phenomena. We do so through the prism of physics, philosophy, theology, government conspiracies, classified military research, and the occult. Several points can be brought to bear for those intrigued by this latest news and who seek to understand what it means.

First, most research shows that the vast majority (95–99%) of all UFO sightings have natural explanations. We give examples in the book where most sightings had naturally occurring explanations, including misperception, faulty instrumentation, and the like. This high number of false identifications remains constant over a long period of time (since 1947). Most of these reports can be explained by natural phenomena, including classified government research into new technologies.

Second, there remains a small residual number (1–5%) of sightings that cannot be explained naturally. We call this the residual UFO, or RUFO phenomenon. RUFO activity fails to conform to the laws of physics, just as these pilots have reported.

As with our military pilots, however, there exists a problem. These pilots are highly trained and very credible witnesses. In our book, we identify credible witnesses to real, but nonphysical phenomena that include UFOs. What things are real but nonphysical? The mind, unlike the brain, is real though nonphysical. As Christians, we believe that spirits are both real and nonphysical. Also, God is both real and transcends the physical dimensions of space-time. RUFOs, however, are not benevolent. We hypothesize they are, in fact, demonic.

We discovered something else as well. The credible witnesses to incredible physical phenomena we studied had open doors to the occult. Because so many investigations into UFO phenomena fail to ask the questions we pose, this can be best seen with the people who have reported alien abductions or contacts. These open doors could easily have been the result of “innocent” activities like participating in seances, Ouija board games, fortune telling or tarot card readings at a party early in life. Or, they could be the result of something more concerning, such as active involvement in cults, the occult and New Age religion.

This news will likely continue to generate public interest, but for reasons that may not be obvious. As reported in Politico, Bob Bigelow was a regular contributor to Harry Reid’s Senate campaign, and was the one that encouraged the Senator to launch the AATIP program in the first place. As founder of Bigelow Aerospace, he was also the recipient of some of AATIP research funding. He is an outspoken proponent that extraterrestrial visitors frequently travel to earth. In addition, the head of the AATIP program, Luis Elizondo, resigned from the Pentagon in October 2017, complaining that the administration was not taking these research efforts seriously enough. Both men have now joined with other, likeminded people to launch a for-profit company called To The Stars Academy of Arts & Science to continue promoting these ideas. They have a television series, titled Unidentified: Inside America’s UFO Investigation, on The History Channel, which premiered May 31 of this year.

How to Respond

For Christians, there are some things we can do. Opinion surveys continue to show that at least 50% of Americans believe either in UFOs or extraterrestrials.3 Because of this widespread belief, most Christians will know someone with an interest in—maybe even a fascination with—these stories. I would recommend several things. First, get equipped for understanding UFOs, the precursor to the current UAP phenomenon. Our book can help readers get the background, history, and evidence needed to understand the phenomenon. Second, listen attentively and talk respectfully with those fascinated or enthused by them. Ask questions to elicit their or their friends’ interest. And third, see our book chapter dedicated to showing how you can help people close any doors they’ve opened to the occult. You may have the opportunity to show them how to allow the genuinely real but nonphysical power of God to enter into their life. As 1 Peter 3:15 commands us, “Always be ready.”

Endnotes
  1. Bryan Bender, “U.S. Navy Drafting New Guidelines for Reporting UFOs,” Politico, April 23, 2019, https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/23/us-navy-guidelines-reporting-ufos-1375290. See also Marina Koren, “Just Don’t Call Them UFOs,” The Atlantic, April 27, 2019, https://www.theatlantic.com/science/archive/2019/04/us-military-wants-pilots-report-ufos-despite-stigma/588232; and Deanna Paul, “How Angry Pilots Got the Navy to Stop Dismissing UFO Sightings,” Washington Post, April 25, 2019, https://www.msn.com/en-au/news/world/how-angry-pilots-got-the-navy-to-stop-dismissing-ufo-sightings/ar-BBWgtkj.
  2. Bryan Bender, “The Pentagon’s Secret Search for UFOs,” Politico, December 16, 2017, https://www.politico.com/magazine/story/2017/12/16/pentagon-ufo-search-harry-reid-216111.
  3. Jason Walsh, “Poll: Have You Had a UFO ‘experience’?,” Sonoma Index-Tribune, April 25, 2019, https://www.sonomanews.com/opinion/9535048-181/poll-have-you-had-a?sba=AAS.

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RTB’s mission is to spread the Christian Gospel by demonstrating that sound reason and scientific research—including the very latest discoveries—consistently support, rather than erode, confidence in the truth of the Bible and faith in the personal, transcendent God revealed in both Scripture and nature. Learn More »

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A Christian Perspective on Pagan and Secular Belief Systems

BY KENNETH R. SAMPLES – JUNE 4, 2019

How are Christians to view systems of thought that are rooted in pagan or secular beliefs? Are non-Christian belief systems so filled with error that Christians can learn nothing from them? Are they so foreign that they only corrupt Christian truth?

Or is there important revelatory common ground made available to all people that allows non-Christians to discover critical truths about life and the world? Could that discovery of truth mean that Christians can learn from pagan or secular sources?

This controversial question of how Christians should view non-Christian belief systems goes back a long way in Christian history. In the ancient world, the question centered on Christianity’s relationship to Greco-Roman philosophy. Two early and prominent Christian church fathers in the ancient world came up with different answers to this challenging issue. Interestingly, both of these Christian thinkers were noted North African church fathers.

Tertullian’s Antithesis Perspective

Tertullian (c. 160–220) was a Latin, North African church father who was educated in the subjects of law and rhetoric and was an engaging writer. He converted to Christianity in midlife. Unique, bold, and temperamental, he served as an apologist and polemicist for early Christianity at a time when the faith encountered a hostile Roman culture.

Tertullian’s view of Christianity’s relationship to pagan philosophy reflects a clear antithesis (a clash of opposition). He strongly believed that Christians had no need or use for pagan philosophy. In his mind, pagan philosophy contaminated and corrupted the one true Christian faith.

Here’s Tertullian at his polemical best:

What indeed has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What concord is there between the Academy and the Church? What between heretics and Christians? Our instruction comes from the porch of Solomon who himself taught that the Lord should be sought in simplicity of heart. Away with all attempts to produce a mottled Christianity of Stoic, Platonic and dialectic composition! We want no curious disputation after possessing Christ Jesus, no inquisition after enjoying the Gospel! With our faith, we desire no further belief. For this is our palmary faith, that there is nothing which we ought to believe besides.1

Augustine’s Critical Appropriation Perspective

Augustine (354–430) was a prolific author, a robust theologian, an insightful philosopher, and a tenacious apologist for the truth of historic Christianity. He is a universal Christian voice within Western Christendom and remains as important to Protestants as he is to Catholics.

Augustine recognized that pagan philosophy certainly involved false beliefs about God, the world, and the human condition. He saw a clash of worldview between Christian theology and pagan philosophy. But he also recognized that pagans were made in the image of God and were the recipients of general revelation and common grace. Thus, pagans got certain things wrong but also some things right about reality and moral goodness (Acts 17:22–30).

Here’s Augustine commenting on the Platonist philosophers’ nearness and farness to truth:

Platonist philosophers excel all others in reputation and authority, just because they are nearer to the truth than the rest, even though they are a long way from it.2

For Augustine, philosophy is a handmaid (servant) to theology. But pagan philosophy should not be accepted or rejected in totality. Rather, pagan philosophy needs to go through a critical appropriation. In Augustine’s thinking, the Platonists possess the divine image, general revelation, and common grace; thus their keen philosophical insights put them near or “nearer to the truth.” But original sin distorts truth and without special revelation (Christ, the gospel) they are still “a long way from it.”

Augustine’s thinking on this topic became the consensus position. For example, the great Catholic philosopher Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274) followed Augustine’s critical appropriation model when forming his Christian-Aristotelian synthesis. Here’s Christian theologian Gerald McDermott’s description of Aquinas’s approach to evaluating the philosophy of Aristotle:

Thomas accepted from Aristotle what he thought was in accord with Christian doctrine, rejected what he thought was not (and explained why), and used some of Aristotle’s categories to help teach Christian faith.3

What We Can Learn

Though they got some important ideas wrong, the great Greek philosophers still had deep insights about such realities as truth, goodness, and beauty. But how do the ancient pagan religions compare to today’s world religions? Well, the ancient pagan religions were a lot like contemporary non-Christian world religions. They got a lot wrong (false gods and false beliefs about humanity) but they also got some critical issues right (for example, a sense of the divine and important aspects about morality).

I think Augustine’s model is superior to that of Tertullian when it comes to explaining how Christianity can relate to other belief systems. As Christians, we grant that people in other religious systems get important things right by a revelation of truth that is given to all (Psalm 19). Yet we must also appreciate the inevitable errors and distortions due to idolatry (false gods and immoral practices) that are inherent in non-Christian religions (Romans 1:18–28). This common ground affords Christians the opportunity to build responsible bridges that can hopefully lead to sharing the gospel message with people who don’t know Christ.

Reflections: Your Turn

Is it biblical to think non-Christian religions will always combine some basic truths mixed with deeply false ideas about God? If so, why? Visit Reflections on WordPress to comment with your response.

Resources

Endnotes
  1. As cited in Alister E. McGrath, ed., The Christian Theology Reader, 2nd. ed. (Oxford, Blackwell, 2001), 7-8.
  2. St. Augustine, The City of God, Henry Bettenson trans. (New York: Penguin, 1984), Book 11, section 5, 434.
  3. Gerald R. McDermott, The Great Theologians: A Brief Guide (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2010), 65.

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