Sunday, February 8, 2015

Credo in Deum Patrem Omnipotentem

As you likely know, this morning we’re going to continue a series of sermons on the Apostles’ Creed. In particular, we will look at the words “I believe in God the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth.” But we’re going to take the scenic route to get there, so please be patient… let’s start by looking at a really important verse from the Bible…

In Acts 16:31, we read: “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved…” Bible verses rarely come more to the point than that, do they? “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” Of course, “believing in Jesus” must certainly also involve “believing what Jesus says to be true.” So what does Jesus say about being saved? (Jesus says):

“I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though they die and whoever lives by believing in me will never die. (John 11:25)”
“I tell you the truth: whoever believes has eternal life. (John 6:47)”
“I tell you the truth: whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. (John 5:24)”

Wow! Never die? Not be judged? Eternal life? You see, Jesus didn’t come to make bad people good, he came to bring dead people to life. And of course Paul had this in mind when he said “Believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.” But all too often, people trip up when they encounter this verse...

There are three pieces to this verse: believing, the Lord Jesus, and salvation. Since believing comes first, that is where we naturally focus. And because we think belief happens “up here” (in our heads), we end up focusing on ourselves. And after that, well, salvation represents “what’s in it for me”, and so that becomes our secondary concern. Finally, we turn our left-over energy to the Lord Jesus. But this is altogether backwards, isn’t it? It treats the matter as all about us when salvation cannot possibly come from us! Only Jesus has the power to save us! So when we hear “believe in the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved”, we need to give priority of focus to him!

You see, when the Bible talks about believing in someone, it means much more than just believing that they exist or just believing facts about them. But that makes listening to sermons more difficult, doesn’t it? You see, a preacher can only give you words, and while they can point to the True Word, only the Holy Spirit can provide an encounter with the Word Himself -- the Word who was in the beginning, who was with God and who was God. A preacher can tell you truth, and while it can point to the Truth, only the Holy Spirit can provide an encounter with the Truth Himself -- the Living Truth -- our Lord Jesus.

It is useful to keep this in mind as we go through the Apostles’ Creed. While this creed is a great opportunity to open our minds to God’s amazing wisdom and love, it will be of lasting value particularly as it points us to the One who is the only source of our salvation.

With that in mind, let’s (finally) consider these words: “I believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

These days, it has become more and more uncomfortable to voice such words in public. In the last decade, atheist writers -- those who most certainly do NOT believe in God -- have published a dozen or so best-selling books, including The God delusion and God is not great. And while these books bring no new evidence or new argument to the table, they certainly  have changed the social environment, making it very much less open to talking about God.

Now if you’ve never had a conversation with an atheist, I can assure you that your children will, if they haven’t already, and so I hope you don’t mind if I describe two typical atheist tactics and offer some defence against them. One of the most common atheist claims is that “there is no evidence for God.”

First, the claim that there is no evidence for God is bit of a bluff. They don’t really mean it, of course. What they really mean is that there is no direct, empirical evidence for God. That is, you can’t see Him, or hear Him, or touch Him, or taste Him or smell Him. But let’s face it, we deal with indirect evidence all the time -- as anyone with any experience with science or anyone who has ever watched an episode of CSI can tell you. Part of the problem is that some atheists don’t really want you to think very carefully about what “evidence” means at all.

Let me give you an interesting example concerning evidence from history: in the late seventeenth century, there was substantial agreement among all the scholars of the day that there was no evidence at all for “action at a distance”. That is, in order to make something move, one needed to be touching it, and pushing it. But then Newton came along and proposed the unthinkable: that the sun was exerting force on the planets, drawing them into orbit from a distance! He called it gravitation. And from that point until Einstein, gravity has been taken to be an example of “action at a distance”. So how is it that scholars were so mistaken? How could they -- in essence -- not see the evidence for... gravity!? After all, surely there was just as much evidence for gravity before Newton as there has been after, right? Well, here’s the deal with evidence: when considering evidence, we need (first) to look in the right places and (second) we need to apply an appropriate “interpretive lens”. Newton discovered plenty of evidence for gravity in the orbits of the planets. But it was only after he could explain that evidence that people finally realized “Oh! now I see that there really IS lots of evidence for ‘action at a distance’!”

Well, the same is true about evidence for God. There is p-l-e-n-t-y of evidence for God. In fact, the universe is f-u-l-l of evidence for God. But if you don’t want to see it, if you insist on looking in the wrong places, or if you aren’t willing to engage the right “lens” to interpret it, then you will feel well within your rights to claim that there is none.

“Well,” the atheist would respond, “You say there is plenty of evidence for God -- let’s see it!” Indeed: let’s. As it happens, the best places to look for evidence for God are exactly where the Bible says they should be. Psalm 19 says: “the heavens declare the glory of God.” Of course, the “heavens” and the stars and planets and galaxies they contain is the subject of the modern discipline of Astronomy. Here’s what Nobel Prize-winning Arno Penzias says:

“Astronomy leads us to a unique event, a universe which was created out of nothing, one with the very delicate balance needed to provide exactly the conditions required to permit life, and one which has an underlying -- one might say ‘supernatural’ -- plan.” More recently, the Wall Street Journal published an editorial with this remarkable title: “Science Increasingly Makes the Case for God” (Eric Metaxas, Dec 25, 2014) here are some of the things he said:

“Today there are more than 200 known parameters necessary for a planet to support life—every single one of which must be perfectly met, or the whole thing falls apart. The odds against life in the universe are simply astonishing.

“Yet here we are, not only existing, but talking about existing. What can account for it? Can every one of those many parameters have been perfect by accident? At what point is it fair to admit that science suggests that we cannot be the result of random forces? Doesn’t assuming that an intelligence created these perfect conditions require far less faith than believing that a life-sustaining Earth just happened to beat the inconceivable odds to come into being?

“Fred Hoyle, [another famous astronomer]... said that his atheism was “greatly shaken” at these developments. He later wrote that ‘a common-sense interpretation of the facts suggests that a super-intellect has monkeyed with the physics, as well as with chemistry and biology . . . . The numbers one calculates from the facts seem to me so overwhelming as to put this conclusion almost beyond question.’

“Theoretical physicist Paul Davies has said that ‘the appearance of design is overwhelming’ and Oxford professor John Lennox has said ‘the more we get to know about our universe, the more the hypothesis that there is a Creator . . . gains in credibility as the best explanation of why we are here.’

“The greatest miracle of all time, without any close seconds, is the universe. It is the miracle of all miracles, one that ineluctably points with the combined brightness of every star to something—or Someone—beyond itself.”

Yes: the heavens declare the glory of God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth! But as impressive as that declaration might be, I might have to respectfully disagree with Mr. Metaxas. Because there is an even bigger miracle -- there is even more evidence for God -- in the second place that the Bible indicates.

In Genesis, we read that “God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” So we should expect to encounter a great deal of evidence for God in each of His image-bearers on earth -- that’s you! That’s us! Seriously, human beings represent the greatest challenge to atheist thinking -- at least we should. And not just our biology, either, as remarkable as that is.

In fact, what we currently know about microbiology is so remarkable, that it led the most prominent atheist of the twentieth century, Anthony Flew, to change his mind about God - he wrote: “the findings of more than fifty years of DNA research have provided materials for a new and enormously powerful argument to design.” - that is, the existence of a Designer. It is true: we need an explanation for the presence and intricacy of biological information. And we need an explanation for the astonishing nanotechnology that exists in every cell in your body, processing that information. And please don’t let anyone try to tell you that evolution solves this problem. It doesn’t even address this problem -- because without that biological information there in the first place or without that nanotechnology there in the first place, there could be no biological evolution at all! When we encounter a functional representation of any meaningful sort in our daily lives, whether in a book, or a picture, or a computer program, we never doubt that an intelligence is behind it. But somehow, when some people encounter astronomically more sophisticated functional representation within their genome, they manage to deny the Intelligence behind it! Of course it represents evidence for God the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

But if you really want evidence for God, there is more than in all astronomy, and in all biology. The best evidence for God is in the things that make us uniquely human. This is the reason that atheists want so desperately to convince us that humans are really nothing but animals. But we are more than animals, as any visit to the symphony, or to Notre Dame, or to any major museum should convince you. Those things that make us uniquely human include language (my area of study), rationality (our ability to use logic and think about things), morality (our sense of good and evil), aesthetics (our sense of beauty), humor, consciousness and personality. None of these things can be explained by matter and energy. They all require something more. Whenever you hear someone talking, you encounter evidence for God. Whenever you figure something out, you encounter evidence for God. Whenever you feel that life should be fair, you encounter evidence for God. Whenever you hear music, or see art, or laugh at a good joke, you encounter evidence for God. All these things point to God the Father, almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

But that brings us to the second atheist tactic. At this point in a conversation, an atheist is likely to exclaim “God of the gaps!” When they use this phrase, they (correctly) want to point out that using God to explain things that we can’t explain otherwise has an embarrassing history. After all, before Newton observed the effects of gravity, there were some philosophers who actually thought that God was actively moving the planets in their orbits. And not too many people think that these days, of course. So when an atheist says “god of the gaps”, they are promising that for all these things that I’ve just said we need God to explain, that some day, perhaps in the distant future, there will be a physical explanation for all of them.

But “God of the gaps!” only makes sense if one doesn’t understand science. You see, the underlying assumption is that there is a finite amount of knowledge to be discovered, and that science is well on its way to finding all of it, as if all the available knowledge in the universe was like a fence being painted -- and every day the amount of unpainted fence becomes smaller. Well, reality is much different. Rather than like a fence (with a finite surface area), the available knowledge in the universe is more like a fractal (with an infinity surface area!) That is, every time a scientific question is answered, it raises more scientific questions. What this means, of course, is that “gaps” in knowledge are always becoming bigger -- there is always something deeper to be discovered; there is always something more fundamental to be understood.

So when an atheist says “God of the gaps!” they typically don’t want you to think too carefully about that, either. You see, the common atheist misconception of the universe only has room for space and time and matter and energy. But the difficulty with such a position is that so much of the human experience is impossible to reduce to those simple things. Not just difficult, impossible. When you see a sunset and go “w-o-w”; when you lose track of time talking to a friend; when you see puppies playing and you laugh - none of these things can be sensibly described by the movement of the elementary particles of physics - there simply cannot be a physical explanation for something beyond the physical. That sense of beauty you get from the sunset; that love you share with a friend; that fun you get from watching puppies playing - these are all examples of what we call “transcendence” - something beyond the mundane, something more.

But nothing makes an atheist less comfortable than transcendence - because it, too, needs an explanation; it, too, needs a source. And it is impossible to get away from the fact that the obvious explanation for transcendence is God. There are only two escapes from this conclusion. First, the atheist can claim that the experience of transcendence is an illusion, but in that case the poor fellow goes through life avoiding the very things that make life worth living. What’s more, the very rationality that is necessary for science itself -- is transcendent! And it is very embarrassing for an atheist to discover that he is undermining the very ground that science stands on. So claiming transcendence is an illusion is actually self-defeating.

The only other escape for the atheist is to claim that the experience of transcendence represents an “emergent” property of matter. But “emergence” isn’t magic. For something to “emerge” means that it was “built in” (or “pre-programmed”) in the first place. And that, too, requires an explanation. Unfortunately for the atheist, the fact that such marvels are built into the fabric of matter is yet one more good reason to marvel at the wisdom and power of God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth.

You see, God is (among other things) the explanation for the universe! If there were no explanation, then there would be no universe. But more interestingly, if there was no explanation, then there would be no science at all. After all, science is simply the exercise of finding better explanations for things. Science assumes that things have explanations and goes out to find them. It would be very odd form of “science” indeed that engaged in a relentless pursuit of explanations “inside” the universe, but didn’t seem at all curious to explain the universe itself.

So please don’t let anyone tell you that there is a conflict between science and Christianity. On that score, Chesterton said it well: what is “known as the quarrel of Science and Religion”, he said, is really just a “clumsy collision of two very impatient forms of ignorance.” Folks who think there is such a conflict don’t understand one, or the other, and usually both.

Rather, there are many good reasons to believe in God the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth. If we lived in a rational society, this first line of the Apostle’s Creed would be universally accepted.

But as much fun as it might have been for me to give a hard time to the atheists (very few, if any, who have been in attendance to defend themselves), please remember: the important matter isn’t just avoiding an atheist’s mistakes. Belief that God exists is not enough. Instead, we must put our trust in this God and then and only then will you find the love, the Holy presence and the eternal life that He offers freely through His Son.

Yes, there is a God who is almighty and made heaven and earth. But this God is also willing for us to call him Father. We can come to him with our burdens; we can ask him to help us with our problems. And he cares and listens! Of course, he doesn’t always operate the way we expect him to - but what would you expect: after all, He is God, and we are not.

When my eldest daughter was four or five years old, she once came to me with a broken toy. “Daddy can you fix it?” she asked. So I looked carefully at her toy, put it down on the coffee table, turned to her and said, “yes.” Then I stood up and left the room. And Grace was angry! I was a bit surprised that she should be angry, but then it occurred to me that I hadn’t told her that a screwdriver was necessary to fix her toy, and that I had gone to retrieve that screwdriver from the toolkit. So here was Grace, angry at her father, who loved her, and who was taking the absolute most efficient path to address the very problem that she had brought to him. But then it occurred to me: I do that with God all the time. We do find it difficult to trust when we don’t understand, don’t we?

The One who designed you, who selected the genetic material that makes you who you are, He knows better than you could ever imagine. And he knows what’s best for you. Come to him. Meet him this morning. Trust in Him, even if you might not understand what He is up to. Ask him to give you his Holy Spirit, so that these truths and these words could result in an encounter with the Living Word and the Truth Himself, Jesus Christ, because the God, the Father Almighty, the Creator of heaven and earth, loves each one of you this morning, and he sent his Son Jesus to demonstrate that love to you.