[This section is under MAJOR revision.]
2. As long as each person is genuinely sincere, what difference does it make what they believe?
"Let's think about that for a second. We know that in many cases the issue is that of 'reality' versus 'sincerity'--where sincerity is inadequate to overcome reality. Take for example natural law. I can believe as sincerely (and as fervently) as I can that I can fly, but if I jump off a tall building, reality will override my sincerity. So, when we are dealing with reality (physical or spiritual) being SINCERE may not be enough--we will probably need to be CORRECT as well!
"Or take an example from social law. If I believe the speed limit on a certain road is 60, but it is ACTUALLY 30, the policeman will STILL give me a ticket or citation--REGARDLESS of my sincerity (typically). The old saying "Ignorance of the law is no excuse" could also be paraphrased "Sincere belief in falsehood about the law is no excuse". Sincerity is not enough--we need to be INFORMED and CORRECT as well.
"Now, let me be the first to point out that sincerity is generally a GOOD thing. It is generally associated with personal integrity, and we often admire people who live sincerely according to their beliefs. But, to be accurate, we only do this when we consider their belief to be true. When we come across people who sincerely believe that the moon landing was a media hoax, or that the U.S. government is really controlled by space aliens, we find ourselves amused and less likely to accord high respect for these folks. And, taken to historical extremes, we even find fault with those leaders and terrorists in history that committed atrocities against humanity because of 'sincere beliefs'. Hitler sincerely believed that the world would be a better place if he killed the entire Jewish race (and he lived extremely consistently with this sincere belief) but few today would abstain from passionate denunciation of his 'belief' and actions. And this applies EQUALLY to religious ethics--we don't excuse the David Koresh's of the world, nor the Torquemada's of the Spanish Inquisition--REGARDLESS of their 'sincere' fanaticism. So, practically speaking, we all seem to know that sincerity is not enough--the belief must also be true and ethically good.
"And the obvious conclusion of this is that we need to find out what the REAL TRUTH is, so we can 'sincerely believe' THAT. Fortunately, God has not forced us to 'wallow around in our ignorance' but has told us about REALITY in His communication to us in history (i.e. the Bible).
3. Isn't it narrow-minded for Christians to think that they're right and everyone else is wrong?
"Some of them probably are. We normally consider people 'narrow-minded' when they refuse to consider the pros and cons of their position (especially when being critiqued by people OUTSIDE their position). But, on the other hand, when a college professor spends 40 years studying all sides of an issue, and TAKES A POSITION on that issue, we rarely accuse her of being 'narrow-minded' even though the position may be the same one held by a narrow-minded type. So you see, just holding strongly to a belief that something is true is NOT necessarily being 'narrow minded'. But, beyond this, the REAL question is more an issue of "is this position TRUE?" than it is of "are they holding it in a narrow-minded fashion?"
And, practically speaking, we KNOW that wisdom and experience teaches us to trust some options over others. For example, when our doctor prescribes a medication to help us get well, it is not narrow-minded to accept their advice, even though we know there are psychic healers and tribal witch doctors who would urge a different approach. The question is, who has credentials we can trust?
And, looking at this from another angle, if it were simply one human opinion versus another, we might not be entitled to hold our viewpoints so strongly. But if we become convinced that God has broken into history with a factual message, then it's not narrow-minded to believe HIS statements--its a matter of trusting a credible source of information. (Presumably, He knows the REAL facts.)
4. What credentials back up the claims of Christianity? Is there any good evidence to support it?
"This is a fascinating subject and one that illustrates how God seems to care for our needs--in this case, for our needs to feel confident that we are believing the TRUTH. He has provided us with a surprising amount of varied historical evidence for the truthfulness of His claims in history.
"For example, one of the evidences of God's action in the coming of Jesus Christ is the accurate foretelling of the future. Before the coming of Christ, men and women in Israel made relatively specific predictions of a coming King who would make a way for the whole world to be restored to a healthy relationship with the God of the Universe, and in so doing, begin restoration of other relationships as well. These predictions included some vague ones (e.g. 'things will be good someday' ) to some VERY specific ones (e.g. when the King was executed/crucified, people would play a game of chance to win his clothing--Ps 22). Many of these fall outside the range of statistical probability, due to the detail and the long time gaps. Predictions included the details of Christ's crucifixion (Ps 22), of his birthplace in Bethlehem (Micah 5.2), of His betrayal price (30 coins), of His entrance into Jerusalem on a donkey (the last week of His earthly life), and His being pierced and bruised for the salvation of the world (Is 53; Zech 12). And we know from archeology that these predictions were made and recorded hundreds of years before Jesus was born into history, and that the Jews of Jesus' time understood these predictions in the way the New Testament writers saw them fulfilled in the life of Christ. God has given us some strong assurances that the good news of His love for us in Christ is trustworthy.
"One of the more striking evidences He has provided is the resurrection of Jesus Christ from death. According to predictions made a thousand years before Christ, this promised King-Leader would be killed but would not stay dead for longer than three days. This is EXACTLY what happened to Jesus Christ. Resurrections (after three days!) are almost unheard of in history, and ones predicted far in advance don't exist at all--EXCEPT FOR the resurrection of Jesus from the dead.
"We have quite a bit of evidence to support a belief that the New Testament accounts of the resurrection are trustworthy. First, they never found the body (which would have been used to EASILY REFUTE the early Christian preaching), and it would have been easy for the Roman and Jewish authorities to find if the resurrection had NOT occurred. The explosive growth of Christianity (as a part of 1st century Judaism) in the first five years simply could NOT have occurred if the resurrection were not historically demonstrable in Jerusalem at that time. [Remember, the early preaching of the apostles was NOT about 'living good' or 'the coming kingdom'--it was about the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on the Cross, and of God the Father's raising His Son from the dead.] Secondly, the post-resurrection appearances to a wide variety of people, in a wide variety of settings, and with a wide variety of experiences argue for the truthfulness of the resurrection fact. Third, the changes in the character of the apostles argues strongly that they actually saw a risen Christ. Their overnight change from fearful men to people making bold and outlandish claims about a Risen Messiah--in spite of threats, eventual death, persecution, and lack of overt motivations of status and wealth--simply cannot be explained by natural psychological phenomena. Fourth, the agreement of the different resurrection accounts in the gospels--WITHOUT obvious attempts at harmonization--argues for a historically-accessible resurrection event in those days. All in all, there is some surprisingly strong historical data to support the claims of the New Testament that Jesus Christ rose from the dead.
5. What makes you so confident that the Bible is true? It has so many authors, so many translations, and was written over so many years--there MUST be some mistakes!
"At first blush, you would certainly EXPECT there to be mistakes--there certainly seems to be mistakes in all OTHER such literature. But, we have to keep coming back to the question of God--IF the God described in the Bible DOES exist, and IF He cares enough about us to get a message to us of His love and efforts for us in the person of Jesus Christ, THEN it is CERTAINLY POSSIBLE that He COULD produce such a book that WAS completely trustworthy. So, we are probably not entitled to ASSUME it is untrustworthy--we will have to TEST IT to see if it does measure up to a very high standard of reliability.
"We actually DO have indications that there is something 'supernatural' about this book--in the area of fulfilled predictions of the future. In that portion of the Bible written before the times of Jesus Christ--the Old Testament--there are numerous situations where men and women of God made detailed predictions about the future. To the best of our historical knowledge, ALL of these came true--a VERY 'odd' success rate for foretelling the future! These cases of accurate (and detailed) predictions of the future support the claim that a supernatural influence is involved in this Book.
"As far as modern historical methods, the curious thing about this book is that the farther away in history we get from the actual events it portrays, the higher our confidence grows that the record is correct! In other words, in generations past, scholars would have a list of passages in the Bible that they thought contained errors. But as time went by, and we learned more about ancient civilizations and cultures, and as we did more archeological excavations, the more those passages were found to be true. For example, for the longest time we believed that camels were not domesticated in the times of Abraham. But in the early 20th century, we discovered archeological remains that clearly demonstrated that the Bible record was historically accurate. So, as we learn more about history, the more our confidence in the historical accuracy of the Bible increases.
" Your question about the translations is a natural one, for if the bible we had today was a translation of a translation of a translation (and so on), we COULD have a problem. Fortunately for us, archeology works FOR us again. Each year we find more and more copies of the original manuscripts, from earlier and earlier dates. We even have manuscript fragments that date to the time of the apostles' deaths--LONG before we got into the 'translation business'! So each year provides us with better data about what the original authors wrote (and a way to check the modern translations for accuracy).
"And, even though this is going to sound strange, the very WEIRDNESS and DIFFICULTY of the Bible's content is a witness to the reliability and trustworthiness of the record. Let me explain. There are many passages in the Bible that are difficult to understand, easy to be offended at, or an embarrassment to the early church leaders. But these passages were NOT altered, omitted, or diluted! The emphasis on faithful recording and reporting was ETHICALLY HIGH, with the result that the Bible that we end up with is a trustworthy account.
"In fact, academic historians point out that, compared to the OTHER historical documents of the times, the Bible is incredibly more reliable, non-mythological, and historically testable.
So, by all the modern historical standards, we are justified in placing our confidence in the Bible.
6. How do you know God exists?
"Actually, the only way we really KNOW that God exists is that He has broken into history and made Himself known. He revealed Himself in a pattern of events, over a span of thousands of years, and the record of this 'disclosure' is in the Judeo-Christian scriptures. He gave us a 'book' in which He told us about Himself, His likes and dislikes, what the universe is like, what would made us happy, and how to have a wonderful relationship with Him. He even went so far as to surround this Book with 'special evidences' of its supernatural origin--largely fulfilled prophecy and miracles that accompanied the early messengers He used.
"Indeed, He actually went beyond simply sending purely human messengers--He came to earth Himself in the person of Jesus Christ! He literally sent His Son (the identical image of the Father's character and commitments) to earth for us to see what He was REALLY like. God the Father proved the supernatural character of His Son by raising him from the dead (after being dead 3 days). Those around this person Jesus Christ recorded his words, deeds, character, miracles, resurrection--so that we might know what God the Father was like. And THEIR message was likewise vindicated by miraculous events.
"These are the really strong evidences we have--historical events right in front of our eyes. But there are other arguments that generally support the idea of God's existence, that we can glean from the fact and nature of the universe.
"We know from both science and philosophy that the universe had a beginning. And we generally know that anything that has a beginning ALSO has a 'cause' of its coming into existence. [And this cause has to be 'different' from the universe so IT doesn't need a cause itself.] So we generally can understand that something like 'God' must exist.
"In addition to the simple fact of the universe, the nature of the universe also makes more sense if it were created by a God. We naturally believe that behind every work of art is an artist, that behind every invention is an inventor, that behind every building is an architect. When we see evidence of intelligent design (even imperfect or incomplete) we suspect that there was an intelligent designer. And the same applies to the universe in all its incredible complexity and inter-connectedness. The delicate balances in physical and biological laws can be seen as strong evidence for an Intelligent Designer--God.
"In fact, if you take this argument one step farther, we end up with important data about this "God's" character. As scientists in the last 50 years examined the fine balance in the universe, they were shocked to discover that the universe has somehow been 'fine tuned' to produce humanity. The slightest variances in the initial conditions of the birth of the universe would have precluded humanity's existence. This seems like an important clue that God has a special purpose for humanity, and perhaps even that He 'cares' for us and our well-being.
"This evidence in both history and nature argues pretty strongly that God exists, that He is active in our History, and that He cares for us. But, to be honest, in addition to these evidences, I personally have an additional source of data--God has changed my life and has answered prayer beyond the boundary of statistical probability.
7. If a loving and powerful God really exists, why doesn't He do something about all of the evil in the world?
"Actually, He IS doing something about evil--not the least of which is being patient with you and I about OUR evil! Even though He gets a lot of slander for not judging evil quickly, nevertheless many of us appreciate the fact that He didn't judge us too early, and that He gave us time to 'get right with Him'!
"And practically speaking, the world COULD BE a great deal more evil than it is--so the statements in the Bible that He 'restrains' evil 'somewhat' indicate definite action on His part as well.
"And in some cases, He actually will take consequences of evil choices and 'twist' them for the good of others. The selling of Joseph into slavery by his brothers was very evil, but God took the historical consequences and used them to save the entire nation of Egypt.
"I know personally that God DOES deal thoroughly with MY evil--as His child. He has been working on reducing my moral failures over the past years, and has made real progress. I am not where I need to be yet, but I am certainly better than I was earlier. So, He is reducing evil at least in MY life.
"But the BIGGEST thing God has done about evil is to guarantee an end to it! By coming to earth in the person of His Son, and taking the just consequences of evil upon Himself on the Cross (in our place!), He has guaranteed a future universe WITHOUT evil, for those of us who trust Him to forgive and remove OUR personal evil choices and orientation.
8. What about innocent people who suffer, like little children? Why doesn't God do something to help them?
"This is a sad reality of the situation we humans have gotten ourselves into. Much of the suffering we experience in life is constructive--we develop strength, character, and discipline from some, we learn from mistakes ("you do not grasp a rose stem without gloves"), and in some cases, the human spirit reaches new heights of achievement when confronted with physical or environmental challenges. This does NOT make the situations 'pleasant' but it CAN make them productive. God has made the human personality resilient, adaptive, and in most cases, able to transform situations of personal suffering into experiences of growth.
"But there are still those situations--however in the overall historical minority--in which the sheer horror of the situation overwhelms us. Most of these are cases of our OWN atrocities--human against human--and as such, do not allow us to shift the blame from ourselves to God. We exist as a race and as a social unit. Our daily choices affect the lives of others--for good or ill. In most cases, we affect others for good--and appreciate the "group effects" of our existence. In other cases, we do not. Many of these will escape our analysis, but they will not escape the truthful judgment of God.
"But we must realize that this is not an abstract question for God. Indeed, His Son suffered innocently at the Cross, experiencing both the rejection/hatred of the world, PLUS the penalty for evil that was due to you and I. He probably experienced things we could not even fathom. So this is no theoretical discussion for God the Father. He has experienced this firsthand, and with the depth of spirit and sensitivity that only an infinite Person can feel. He is someone we can turn to in OUR moments of experiencing these painful and unjust moments.