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Where is God when it hurts? (Plymouth CU Mission Week, Thursday Lunchtime)

With thanks to William Lane Craig and Andrew Wilson and others whose material on this subject was influential. The four wrong, four right outline in the middle is borrowed from the excellent book, GodStories by Wilson.

There are few questions more pertinent and present than this. Despite our best efforts to eradicate pain, evil and suffering in the world the 20th Century was the most bloody in our history, and the 21st Century hasn’t been much better, with terror attacks, pandemics, child abuse and the recent Haitian earthquake.

In the West, we live relatively insulated lives – we don’t expect empty shelves, or collapsing buildings, or hardship or disease to afflict us – while such things remain as “normal” for much of the world.

What does Christianity have to say to this? It’s charged that this is the achiles heel of Christianity. If Christianity has anything to say, it’s argued, there shouldn’t be suffering in the world. The fallacies in this argument are plain enough – if Christianity claimed to be the cure to all suffering then there would be a point to make, but it doesn’t. Likewise it’s phrased, if there is a good and powerful god there wouldn’t be suffering.
But that’s not really true either – it presupposes that the purposes of this god would be above all else to eradicate our pain. Where does that idea come from?

I’m not saying that a painless and plentiful life wouldn’t be good – sounds heavenly. No one is offering it and even if it was on the table – would it really be “best” for us? Take the film Sliding Doors we see Gwyneth Paltrow’s character live two parallel lives, in one things are going well, while in the other things are bad – yet in the end the more difficult life ends happier. We may be too close to the action to be able to tell what is good. Very often, as we reflect on life the pain is painful and yet when you meet someone who has really suffered they’re the better people, they have a substance and a resilience and a perspective and a can’t-quite-put-your-finger-on-it quality. Those who suffer tend to become like metal that has been in the crucible, tested and tempered by fire. I've not suffered much, but I see friends and family who have... they wouldn't choose it and they've lost much and yet they're somehow richer than I've ever been.

Where can we go with this subject of suffering?

At the events the Christian Union has been hosting this week we’ve been inviting you to step inside Christianity and have a look around. Imagine, on this grey day, a beam of sunlight coming in through the ceiling. You could look at it and see the dust in it, but you could step into it and look along it. The experience would be different. See how Christianity feels, tastes and thinks. I want to do the same here by inviting us to step inside the story of a man called Job. His story is told in the Bible. In painting his story I’m not asking that you accept it as history, though I think it is that, rather breathe the air of the world of the Bible for the next 15 mins..

The basic plot of Job is that an impeccably good man suffers massively and without knowing why. As the story unfolds his friends come to counsel him and help him work it out. Their advice is often conflicting and contradictory and deeply unhelpful, but as the “play” unfolds we approach some answers. In the end God speaks to him and provides some resolution. Perhaps not a complete answer but perhaps an answer that will help us. Job’s life is to some degree a test case for the question of suffering.

What can't a Christian say?

1. Suffering isn’t real. Some argue this. The Buddhist will argue that suffering in an illusion. Richard Dawkins wrote after the Boxing Day Tsunami with “pitiless indifference” – yet he can’t consistently do, having recently set up the Non-Believers Giving Aid charity for Haiti. He’s inconsistent and I would hope as much Job’s friends don’t say it’s an illusion that his health, his home and his children are taken from him – its clear that that’s not true. Denial wont do. It’s cold and heartless and unsatisfying.

Conceding the possibility of God might raise awkward questions for us but let’s not pretend the issue resolves simply if we exclude God. Suffering hurts and it feels wrong, it makes us cry out “what just happened!” – We grate against it in frustration. Something about it feels out of place. Why is that?

2. God doesn’t cause suffering. Easy to imagine that God is a distant deity, a King Richard who can’t save his people from the wiles of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Not so. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately and lovingly involved in this world. And, difficult as it is to understand, Job confidently counsels us:  “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”.

3. God is not good. Job’s wife says he should curse God but he responds, “Shall we receive good from God but not evil?” God will not be limited and he will not get himself off the hook.We might think he would but 

4. We get what we deserve. The basic argument of Job’s friends is that he’s suffering because he sinned against God. You know… “why does it always rain on me, is it because I lied when I was seventeen”. But this kind of “karma” isn’t Christianity at all. Some might suggest we get what we deserve whether in this life, in a reincarnated life or in an afterlife. Not so Christianity. Job is painted as a genuinely good man – whatever else is going on he’s not suffering for being bad. The Christian will say that this is a world under frustration because of the totality of human evil – but not in any cause or effect relationship. Some suffering is self-inflicted but generally we'll get in trouble if we try to draw connections too tightly.

What can a Christian say?

1. Nothing. This is the one good thing that Job’s friends do (2:13). “no one spoke to him for they saw that his suffering was very great”. While we sit here talking about suffering it’s entirely possible that it’s not an intellectual issue for you, but a real and personal present suffering in your life or that of someone close to you.
First and foremost I know that you don’t need an answer you simply need someone to be with you, to listen, to share your grief and to wait. My hope would be that a Christian would offer you that kind of support not that others wouldn’t, equally I know we’re all capable of being complete oafs and being insensitive.

2. God is still in charge. Job never concedes God’s sovereignty and we wont be able to purchase answers to suffering at the expense of either God’s goodness or his power. A world where God isn’t in control of suffering leaves us no better off. This is not a world of pitiless indifference but one in which the God of self-giving love is intimately involved.

3. There will be a resurrection. Job speaks (19:25-26) “For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.” This is not all of life – there is a day beyond this. That’s not to propose some kind of trite “pie in the sky when you die” answer, but simply to say there is more than now and that there can be hope of restoration and relief.

4. God is greater than us. The climax of Job’s story is an encounter with God. Ultimately that is what we need - to meet with God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit - the God who wants us to know him. Job and his friends are silent and God speaks. And then Job speaks a last time (42:3): “I have uttered what I did not understand, things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.” I don’t offer this as a complete answer but as something things we can hold on to, to help us cope and to help us comfort others.

In the course of Job’s story:
Job 9:32-33. We hear Job crying out that he wants someone who can arbitrate for him, if only one could stand between Job and God and have his case heard. 
Job 23:3-7. Again, we hear Job desire that the throne of God would be within reach, so his case could be put before God.

You see suffering’s real answer, Christianly, is not an argument, it’s not a philosophical construction that can resolve our experience and our definitions. The answer in Christianity is a person, Jesus. In Jesus, Job’s desire is met. God becomes a man to mediate between us and God. One Bible writer says this (Hebrews 4:14-15)

Since then we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.

One who comes and loves us, suffers with us and for us, and is himself resurrected from the dead to stand for us as our “high priest” our representative. And so the writer concludes (v16):

Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

That’s not a promise that the pain goes away, or that the questions go away, but it is an invitation to “receive mercy and grace” – to receive comfort from God, and in the company of his people. Jesus is the assurance that God isn’t out to get you, but out to invite you to know him, and the assurance that you’re not alone. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit forever love one another perfectly, and they invite us to join them in intimate relationship too.

One of the hardest things about suffering is to be bombarded with trite answers – like Job was.
But, worse than dodging cheap answers is to suffer alone, suffering hurts physically but the loneliness is often worse. You see “the church” isn’t a building or a meeting but a family, a community where when one person is honoured all can rejoice, and where one person suffers, all suffer together. The church might not be the only place you can find people who will stand with you, but it is a place for that – a place where the hurt and happy devote themselves to one another because they each know the comfort of Jesus, the innocent one who made the world but also planned before creation to come and suffer for his people, if anyone can speak to us in our suffering it is not me, but him.

Foundationally “suffering’s answer” isn’t an argument or an answer but community, company and comfort. Let’s pause for a moment’s quiet. Reflect on what we’ve said and then we’ll take some time for questions and comments.

Questions asked at the event: One on isn't the Bible just chinese whispers (partially answered, but next event is on that subject). One on even if I know God if he's behind suffering how can I trust him, and one on why are there so many rules to Christianity.


  1. bish, this is blinking brilliant. shows deep reflection, sympathy & personal experience of trusting christ.

  2. I make very few claims to originality, standing on the shoulders of giants, but studying up for this has really driven me to trust Christ afresh and find a warmth in him than I'm not sure I'd known before.

  3. Like this, good foundation, but I think you made the mistake of arguing from an authority source that sceptical people just won't give you.

    I'm not saying 'drop argumentation from and to Scripture' but some small persuasive tightening for next time would be more persuasive for a less 'Christian' mind.

    So I would supplement the responses from Job, with some reasons that a non-Christian, who doesn't think that Job is designed to tell us about God, would get. For example, when you say that we can't say that '3. God is not good.' You didn't actually provide any argument for that assertion. I think you need to in order to reach beyond the fringe.

    And then this was a bit hard to follow "2. God doesn’t cause suffering. Easy to imagine that God is a distant deity, a King Richard who can’t save his people from the wiles of the Sheriff of Nottingham. Not so. God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are intimately involved in this world. And, Job counsels us: “The LORD gave and the LORD has taken away”."

    This confused me because the quote from Job actually seems to prima facie undermine the claim made in the first sentence. If God takes away things, then it would look like God DOES cause suffering, prima facie.

    Perhaps this is unfair, and unwanted criticism, but if I was a non-Christian in the audience I might feel like you had made some assumptions about my basis for belief - and that while I was glad that the bible gave you answers, I'm just not there yet.

    I'd also like to hear/see more of us talking about a combined practical level response - talking about compassion child sponsorship, and challenging people to take jobs that pay less but form part of the solution. Some will say that this muddies the water - I think we must be reading different bibles. We can and must do both/and.

  4. Did you really get away with using 'Sliding Doors' as an illustration? God really is remarkable at what he can work through!

    Having said that, I do like that film.

    In other news, good post mate and I'm praying that the mission weeks up and down the country are being blessed by God. (The reports from Warwick, my old stomping ground, have been very encouraging)

  5. Something else we know: Jesus came and removed some suffering (healing some sick, but obviously not every sick person on the planet exorcising some demons, but not all, etc.) but that wasn't the focus of His ministry.

    If Jesus did not take away all suffering on this earth, then no efforts on our part ever could. But at least after this life, when we go to our real Home, all suffering will end! Great post!

  6. Tom...

    The Job quote supports the claim "We can't say God doesn't cause suffering" (the heading for those first four points is four things that Christians can't say).

    I guess I went with - a riff on Lewis' Meditation in a Toolshed... arguing that you've tried to explain suffering yourself outside of Christianity, now step inside Christianity for a bit and see how it feels, thinks, tastes, works... try it on for size... not having to believe it but seeing if it works. And so I'm arguing - four things Christians can't say about suffering, and four things they can.... whether or not the guests believes that isn't really what I'm shooting for... I wanted them to see how a Christian wrestles with suffering and see whether that's anymore coherent and compelling than the alternatives offered. Whether or not it works, I'm not sure - people responded with good questions and comments...

    Beagle - yes, seemingly I did. I borrowed it from William Lane Craig, and was quite surprised to hear it on his lips to be honest!

  7. Yes, I see I think I misunderstood it first time around. Perhaps because I never expected to read it...

    Some will think that I'm uncomfortable with God using suffering, but I'm not. My point is more subtle, but still crucial. Let me say this clearly: it isn't right to say that God doesn't allow suffering to happen, clearly in some way, he wills (I would say indirectly), or allows suffering, although he never causes, actualises or requires it.

    But - here is the point I'm getting to - unless you say these things very clearly, you communicate that God is the origin of evil. Which is closer to a Muslim idea of the origin of evil, than a Christian one.

    I think that if you are going to say that in some way God causes suffering, then you've got to work a lot harder to be clear about what God's character is like, and what you mean. What you have here is pretty blunt and harsh. I really hope that you said more than this in the talk. What did you say?

    I've been trying to check my reaction - hence delaying responding for a few hours to read out that little bit to some friends, I'm getting a similar reaction. It's so direct, and so compressed, that people actually find it quite offensive.

  8. I agree with the concern, and I'm open to correction. I think I set it very much in a context of encounter with the God of love - of which I said more than I scripted (certain things I naturally expand on and so don't script in great detail).

    My initial concern actually was that people would think my approach was too soft with it's answer of the comfort and company of a person and people in suffering... but I'm prepared to consider that it can be heard the other way.

    My tone in this talk was very much one of compassion too I think, granted there were some hard things to say.

  9. Had a few more days to muse on this discussion. Here is the problem.

    Evangelism is about going to the listener, starting with where they are at. Climbing into their worldview and helping them to understand what the gospel means, in terms of the concepts and stories of their w'view, then you lead people through the saving life of Christ into the Christian worldview. You've done the exact opposite - As you have put the Christian w'view out as your starting point, and expected people to start with the Christian w'view, rather than going to them.

    It isn't your theodicy that I'm questioning. It's your missiology. Paul went into the listeners worldview - Acts 17. We should do the same shouldn't we? Or are we using someone, or something else as our paradigm example?

  10. Its an interesting point. Jesus pretty much invited people into his worldview though, right?

    I'm not saying we can't do it the other way around too, but strikes me there's something positive - especially when it's a question like this that invokes God - about saying how we see it... and asking people if that seems consistent and coherent...

    When people come in to a Christian event seems like we short change them if we don't invite them into the Christian worldview and show them around it...

  11. Well, often Jesus was talking to Jews, so, yes, that would follow. He engaged with where they are are too, just like Paul did. But you're not speaking to Christians (at least I hope you are not trying to in a mission campaign), so you shouldn't assume a Christian w'view on account of Jesus & Paul's examples.

    There is something positive, about showing coherence, and consistency, but I can do that with Buddhism. It is a coherent system, in many ways (though not all).

    I think it lacks rational bite. It isn't clear that you are claiming that it is true. Only that it works. Of course - you'll say that this attribute is a clue that its true.

    I just don't think you need to make this into an either/or. Instead argue/persuade towards the truth of the Christian w'view, from the non-Christians point of view - use correspondence, systematic consistency and coherence (and add in pragmatic applicability and power to change lives), and you will have persuasive dynamite.

    This is the THE MISTAKE that people who read slightly more conservative theology make when it comes to evangelism.

    "If I preach the gospel.. If I hold Christ up.. then they will be persuaded.. If I show them how good God is.."

    I just can't find that approach in my bible, and I just can't see the fruit from it. I just think that persuasion is not a matter of the Holy Spirit getting people to do things that they don't want to do. Instead the Holy Spirit appeals to the heart/will, through the mind with truthfulness.

  12. Tom, can I ask specifically what you might have added to Bish's talk? The terms you use "correspondence, systematic consistency and coherence": I don't know what they would mean in this talk.
    Furthermore - you don't think there's ANY Biblical evidence for the "hold Christ up, his beauty will persuade them" approach? Really? Not at all?

  13. Good questions
    In terms of this talk, let’s just concentrate on ‘correspondence’ and ‘liveability’, its already strong in coherence and internal systematic consistency.
    Correspondence is just “telling it like it is” or “describing reality”. In order to achieve this, you would have to add some argumentation that affirmed the overall, and underlying reality of the Christian w’view.
    Imagine two people are talking. John, a Buddhist and Sam, a Christian. Sam explains how it looks from the inside, to say that Christian faith helps him to deal with the challenge of suffering. John explains how his Buddhist understanding gives him an answer to the problem of suffering. Both systems look attractive to each of them.
    John also, as a Buddhist, thinks that things that are verbalised, or expressed are lower in value and importance than things that are not verbalised. To verbalise something is to buy into the illusion that there are individual selves. The most spiritual things must be left unsaid – pure being cannot be articulated, and has no voice.
    So John hears Sam, to describe a w’view that he sees value to, but ultimately just affirms his perception of Christian belief. That it is lower down the religious/philosophical pecking order, and so isn’t worth much further consideration.
    Now, it might so happen that Sam can describe Jesus in such a way that Jesus’ goodness and truthfulness will be attractive to John, but this is fairly unlikely, because John has such a different belief structure – that he will likely just incorporate it into that instead.
    Sam is therefore stuck, he might be a brilliant preacher, who will present things with a big voice, that will perhaps have a deeper impact, but John’s underlying w’view is the real sticking point.
    Apologetics/evangelism/preaching should offer Christ up, and describe his character, his beauty and goodness persuasively, but this is not the key persuasive tactic that Jesus or Paul use. They do lift Christ up in preaching, and proclamation, but only using “seeing and savouring” as a persuasive strategy is not really the reasoning that they offer to a sceptical mind, to repent and believe.
    Can you think of an example where they ONLY use the "hold Christ up, his beauty will persuade them" approach?
    We might turn to Acts 17, where we have both together. This is likely a distillation of a much longer talk. What we have is the version recounted by Paul, afterwards to Luke. A key claim in this are a number of positive arguments for the truth (correspondence) of the Christian w’view. And this is done alongside the "holding Christ up, his beauty will persuade them" approach.

  14. So to add that persuasive force you could add a discussion of:
    1. Problem of Evil: Mackie and/or Rowe, and responses to them
    2. Moral argument for God's existence, from something being wrong with the world
    3. Historical Jesus arguments (life & resurrection)
    4. Other arguments! There are many!

  15. Obviously I could say more - though when you've only got 1500 words it's hard isn't it.

    I'd genuinely like to see a lunchbar length talk on the subject that you've used - to help me.

    I don't think I just did the "hold up Jesus" approach - I engaged with the question and some other perspectives on the issue. I think I spoke a little to the "something is wrong with the world" and that at least makes us appeal to God with the titular question... arguments for historicity of Jesus is fair enough, but was something I did more in another talk during the week... can't do everything in one 15 minute talk.

  16. It is tricky. My shortest suffering talk is coming in at 30 mins. Hard to get it under that.

    But I think it is possible - and we're all learning to do this stuff. We are all inexperienced and need to work out the best way to communicate to outsiders.

    On argumentation: other than, "step in and see: its true because it works" what argumentation for the truth of the Christian perspective do you think that you deployed in this talk?

    I can't see a clear persuasive (towards the veracity of Christianity) thread other than this.

  17. Hi Tom,

    I'll jump into this conversation with a question if I may. I've found this discussion really stimulating and challenging. And reading your recent blog comments here and there it comes through how much you've thought about these things.

    I think that you're right that the contemporary church I know more quickly runs to the "hold Christ up, his beauty will persuade them" approach to evangelism/apologetics than any period past, including the OT/NT. And I must confess that it is my default approach too. But I don't think there is enough critical engagement in doing this. And I suspect that the reason I, and others, default to it so often is laziness (not wishing to really take time to understand the dialogue partner) and fear of real confrontation (instead presenting the gospel as take-it-or-leave-it).

    When I think about it I suppose I'm on the fundo-fideist end of the spectrum in some ways and consider that Jesus has to be the starting point as well as the end of any apologetic argument. But there must be engagement, but it is tricky to think about what form that should take.

    You brought up Acts 17 which we all ought to know inside out, but I had a think about it (again) this evening. It seems to me that Paul is getting inside that worldview and then pulling it down, partly from the inside and partly from outside. He also presents the Christian worldview positively and invites people to 'step into' it.

    To quote 2 Cor 10, he (i) destroys arguments and every lofty opinion raised against the knowledge of God, and (ii) takes every thought captive to obey Christ.

    I have some sympathy for Van Til, although I'm pretty unfamiliar with him [Newbigin, Lewis, and current UK evangelicals have been my main dialogue partners as I've thought over these things in the past]. I recently read this:

    "The heart of Van Til's approach is twofold. These are not meant to be sequential steps, but complementary moves. First, the apologist must get over onto the ground of the unbeliever for argument's sake and show him that his claims cannot succeed....Second, the apologist should invite the unbeliever over onto Christian ground, for argument's sake, and show him how meaning and value are established by the biblical worldview"

    It seems you can do that in quite a bare rational way, or in a more emotive/aesthetic way... perhaps like Tim Keller does in his 2-part 'The Reason for God'? Either way I think broadly that twofold approach is the best.

    But I guess the alternatives I can think of are:
    > Not to engage at all, but just to present... perhaps that is what Dave does here, but he did have very limited time and I think its an excellent talk in itself.
    > Build, in a constructive way, from the true parts of the opposing worldview to the Christian one - like classic evidentialism or the cosmological argument.

    What do you think of the 'twofold' approach described? Are there other approaches that I'm blind to?

  18. Hi Dave,

    Thanks for your interaction here.

    Weak fideism is biblical, strong fideism isn't. How do you see evidence/reasons fitting in? I'm quite enthusiastic about reformed epistemology.

    I think Van Til is largely helpful, but I don't think that he emphasises the proactive/positive aspect of apologetics enough. His apologetics is defensive. Neither Paul's nor Jesus' were like that, they made the running. They were very canny. And they had a number of different methods up their sleeves - depending on the audience/community they were reaching out to.

    Can I go back to the start?

    Apologetics/Evangelism (I never separate them) has two aspects:
    1. Communication
    2. Defence

    I see this practically working out in the following four basic stages (I go into a bit more depth in the talk Persuasive Evangelism - Apologetics talk and handout, which has a diagram laying this out more clearly)

    1. Illuminate (subvert) - Asking questions
    2. Invigorate (persuade) - Listen to and give reasons
    3. Illustrate (proclaim) - Explain core gospel
    4. Invite (invite) - Commitment and Christian community

    I like your idea of starting on 'their ground' and 'drawing them over to Christ's ground'. But I would want to see positive argumentation for the Christian ground happening on the sceptics ground (while still being absolutely faithful to Christ). I could also see this as a big fat excuse to keep doing the ineffective "simply hold Christ up, his beauty will persuade them" approach for a bit longer.

    We have practical, personal, theological and intellectual barriers to hurdle here. And there is a risk of getting dirty, when we engage. But, Jesus and Paul give us the model, and we can't edit the battle plans. It isn't our place.

    If you check out Ravi Zacharias, Michael Ramsden, Amy Orr-Ewing, Richard Cunningham, then you'll have some good examples of an apologetic/evangelistic strategy that speaks to heart/will, mind, and soul. We have to convince the whole person.

  19. I'll have to be brief because I'm meant to be revising for exams I have next week.

    I'll listen to your talk next time I go for a run! ... which will be very soon.

    Thanks for your recommendations. I've read/listened to a little of Amy Orr-Ewing. I liked how on the bethinking website you emphasised listening/reading to good examples. Maybe I should do more of that.

    But I think we should be careful to think theologically (which is always practical/personal/intellectual at its best) about the approach we take, because that communicates as much, if not more, than the message itself.

    I see evidence/reasons fitting in within the context that Christ is the content and way to understand truth. Everything true testifies about him, although we have an unending ability to blind ourselves to that. However, everyone is more/less blind (or inconsistent) in different areas. Some may be more willing to see the truth in arena of history, others logic, others experience etc. At these points it is particularly good to discuss and explore what they think and share what the bible says about the subject. However, it is also good to deal with their strongest objections and discuss those to reveal how they are incoherent/unfufilling etc, as a form of ground clearing.

    So I'm sceptical about whether the gap to Christ can be bridged in a constructive way. How can you show that dying to self is the way to live? You can only do that by pointing to Christ. His life is the only place that has happened - and that stands in contrast to all reason, experience and history. However, you can show by reason, experience and history that (a) resurrection life is a good thing and should be desired (in the arts, relationships etc); and (b) resurrection life is unobtainable by seeking it apart from Christ. But I think that is the limit. I don’t think you can ever explain the ‘Christ event’, and show its relevance to us. That can only be declared. So I think there are signposts to Christ everywhere, but there are no roads or bridges.

    So my answer to your question “How do you see evidence/reasons fitting in?” would be “in the middle“. The message (either lived or preached) should lead and ask questions (either literally or metaphorically) of people. They should respond and we should listen and respond to clear away the barnacles encrusting the hull of truth that we all know but suppress (a destructive, but at the same time constructive work). This may involve showing up the false promises of money, revealing historical blinkers we have when we look at the gospels, and showing the lack of grounding for morality. As the outline of the hull of truth becomes clearer THE question we all have to deal with becomes clearer too. How are we going to deal with a holy creator God whom we have rebelled against. You cannot then reason from that question to the answer, but you can then present the answer and invite people to believe and live it.

    I suppose that is my Lutheran law-gospel understanding of the bible (and the universe) coming through. I see law as the question, which people can understand and really already know although they suppress it, and Gospel as the answer, which is a mystery revealed.

    So I suppose that’s where I‘m coming from. Critique away...

    PS like your emphasis on the 'whole person' too.

  20. Hope the revision goes well.

    Would it be fair to say that you have a very low view of both the unregenerate mind, and the actual rationality of the gospel?

    In my view: the mind is fallen, but does still work - but not perfectly. The unregenerate mind is able to grasp things, and so Paul's approach makes perfect sense. He is bridge building in Acts 17, relying on what they already knew and thought about. And his approach of reasoning with people is surely impossible without a higher view of gospel/mind. From your starting point, Paul's approach in Acts 17, and throughough acts as he 'reasons' with people is hard to understand. Was he mistaken? Did he change tactics when he got to Corinth?

    When Paul tells us that the gospel sounds like foolishness to the world, he actually says that it is high above the wisdom of man. It is a wise message to a mature, well formed mind. "We do, however, speak a message of wisdom" (1 Cor 2:6) Many people misinterpret these chapters, but Paul is actually declaring his foundational assumptions. He is still persuading, still reasoning. You should hear the bit about eloquence read out in greek - it is the most beautiful poetic rhyming mitre.

    Here is something to chew over: it's interesting to note that God (Gen 3); Jesus (E.G. Luke 10:25-37), and Paul all used questions as their starting point with people. It's as if they might have believed that unregenerate people can actually think? They must have had a higher view of the mind/gospel?

    I'm also interested in thinking theologically, but I'm looking both at the examples of evangelism as well as what the bible says about the mind.

    The book Your Mind Matters by John Stott is a fuller treatment of this subject, even if you might have to double check Amazon's sums - they have unregenerate minds!


  21. I’m bored with law, so I’ll procrastinate and respond... as you say in your talk, ‘persuasive evangelism’ is fun and to a lesser extent so is talking about it.

    I listened to your talk while walking to the library today. It was very good, thanks. Encouraged me to read Michael Green in particular. As you say, we should probably spend more time looking at the examples of evangelism we have in the bible.

    I am quite pessimistic about the unregenerate mind, but I do think it still works. As I heard Esther Meek say recently, “we’re still alive aren’t we?” The unregenerate mind is amazing in what it produces in terms of art, philosophy etc. In most cases it describes the world better than I manage. It makes some pretty profound reflections on the nature of God and humanity. Listening to your talk, I think I love watching and talking about films for similar reasons to you.

    I think the gospel is rational. It is wise and not foolish in essence. BUT, I only think that it is wise if it is taken as the starting point. Only if we define wisdom as Christ will it ever be seen for what it is. And that is a personal commitment.

    So I am quite positive about the amount of truth we can agree on apart from faith in Christ by the Spirit, but the one thing we can’t agree on without faith is the central Gospel fact of Jesus; his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension. We can go a long way, but only so far before there has to be a paradigm shift.

    I think you see that in Acts 17. Paul is able to reason with the Athenians, and they go with him a long way. They listen as he explains the concept of one creator god, who is spirit, needs nothing and sustains the world. However, when it comes to the resurrection there is an eruption. I don’t doubt he continued with the same approach the rest of his life. That’s the nature of evangelism, in line with the whole bible, and I don’t really see why people think that Paul changed tactics in Corinth.

    I think that fits with common sense, and my own spirituality. I can understand that God created the world, that he commands people to obey him, that he deserves worship, that I have merited hell – that is helped by the fact I’m a Christian. Millions have believed the same and not been Christians as well. But one thing I can never understand, and can never see the logic of, it that he sent his Son to die for me. Why? That doesn’t mean there is no answer, but it does mean that I can’t find it and I am left joining in with Paul’s exclamation at the end of Rom 11 when he’s laid out the story of redemption and declares “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! ‘For who has known the mind of the Lord’”. So I do believe that the Gospel is rational, but it is rationality is “secret and hidden” (1 Cor 2:7).

    So, when you say that God, Jesus and Paul asked questions. I agree wholeheartedly. As I said in my earlier comment I think we should lead with questions. We should expect people to think. But that is not because we’re trying to reason them to believing the Gospel directly. Instead, we’re trying to reason them to the place where they see the need for the Gospel. That’s important work. Then, when people see their need the Gospel can come in as the surprise declaration that it was to the Jews, and as it was to all of us when we heard it. It’s like the twist at the end of a film. Everything was heading towards it, but not in a linear way – instead it was leading us to “just the right time” for it to happen.

    Of course, while logically I can lay it out like that. Relationships don’t work that way and neither do conversations. They zip back and forth, involve broken phrases and unexplained actions. But that is the background structure that they fit into I think.
    I realise, I’ve tightened up my position slightly from earlier comments which was a little incoherent. The interaction has helped me think about this.


  22. I suppose I’m left wondering whether you see a disjunction between the non-Christian and the Christian mind. I presume you must, but I’m not sure where you’d place it. Is the disjunction behind the scenes of the argument? Is it when you go from saying to committing (in action?)? Is it the Holy Spirit in the background? Or is the disjunction on the surface of the argument?

    PS you should try (I love that shop). 50p cheaper than Amazon. They’re obviously even further from the kingdom...

    PPS I just realised that maybe it would help clarify if I said that I don’t think “the Christian worldview” = “the Gospel”. I think that maybe at the heart of some of the problems.

    ... blimey that is some procrastination. Thanks for baring with we, and Dave Bish for letting me hijack the comments.

  23. I realised that I should clarify something. I said: "So I am quite positive about the amount of truth we can agree on apart from faith in Christ by the Spirit, but the one thing we can't agree on without faith is the central Gospel fact of Jesus; his incarnation, death, resurrection and ascension."

    However, I do think that you can use arguments to show that Jesus lived and that the gospels are relatively reliable. Perhaps you can even demonstrate that he was brought back to life. However, I don't see how you can show that he was God-incarnate, that he died for our sins, and that his resurrection declared his lordship. To believe that, you have to believe Jesus himself. You have to take him at his word. Thankfully, that is what we have in the Scriptures.

  24. Thing is, I basically take your point - and given half an hour I might well have added in lots of arguments for God's existence or the historicity of Jesus, but I had 15 minutes and so I decided to do something else... namely to engage the defeater objection that suffering excludes Christianity... by accepting the objection is real, by arguing that suffering feels wrong, and by saying - how do Christians live with the experience of suffering, which is something all human beings experience... and from there, the invitation to look at the issue through the eyes of suffering, whilst engaging with the alternative ways of dealing with suffering that we're offered by different worldviews...

    Not an airtight case I'm sure, but sometimes its better to try and do one thing, rather than squeeze in everything...

  25. This comment has been removed by the author.

  26. A further remark.

    Your theological starting point, in terms of sola scriptura, sola fides, etc. Christ as the foundation is a different thing from your evangelistic/missiological starting point.

    Seems to me that the bible supplies one answer for the theological starting point, and a very different answer for evangelistic/missiological strategy/tactics.

    I think this is another confusion in the approach that you've articulated.

  27. Hi Daves,

    Tim Keller says that if you are going to say D,F and G, then you need to give A, B, and C. And justify your assumptions regularly. That's what I'm trying to persuade you both to do. Dave B are you sure that it's a space issue? I think it could be a theological commitment too, perhaps?

    Dave K said, "I only think that it is wise if it is taken as the starting point. Only if we define wisdom as Christ will it ever be seen for what it is. And that is a personal commitment."

    So for the gospel to be 'wise' you have to be a Christian. I'm going to get a bit feisty now and say that this is just untrue. The gospel makes sense, even if it has mystery within, and joined to it.

    I think that you both want people to suspend critical reflection and discussion and 'leap in' and take Christ as the starting point. Do you realise what you have done to faith and reason by asking for them to do this? This is an odd view of faith and reason. It actually sounds just like strong fideism. Unfortunately whether you intend so or not, I think it is a strong fideism, and when it comes to it, a strong Barthian fideism.

    In this view: only the eyes of faith can "see" spiritual truths. Thinking things though, and believing what makes sense, isn't generally possible. The message of the gospel (a mystery made known) is not something that people who are unregenerate can understand. Right?

    On mistake that I think one of both of you is making is that you are confusing 'motive' with cognitive 'intelligibility'. They are not the same thing at all.

    When you say, "But one thing I can never understand, and can never see the logic of, it that he sent his Son to die for me. Why? That doesn’t mean there is no answer."

    Firstly, John 3 19-20 says...

    "This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.

    So, this tells us that the sense of the worlds "not understanding" (John 1) is at its root not a cognitive kind of understanding but a moral motive, a desire to have autonomy (in goodness, power and knowledge). In this passage, people understand the gospel, and its demands, but choose not to submit to the truth/light.

    Secondly, the argument that Dave K, has offered just doesn't get him to where he thinks it does. Not having an answer to the question "that he sent his Son to die for me" doesn't mean that there isn't an answer that makes sense. There may be a logical and rationally intelligible, which unregenerate minds can grasp. It just means that we doesn't know the answer to the question - you can't smuggle in fideism here I'm afraid.

    This is actually a classic Barthian strategy, either using Christology, or the Trinity to introduce paradox, and then use that to separate faith and reason. The logic is completely bogus though, as I think I've pointed out.

    The gospel makes some sense. Surely the unregenerate person must have access to more data than you are allowing if they are going to be able to see the demands that the Christian life will surely place upon them, to submit their life to Christ, and yet refuse to do so because of that?

    Apologetics then, comes into helpful service, to help people to understand.

    As Michael Ramsden says, “Apologetics is not about injecting a dose of confusion into the Christian Gospel to try and make it sound more profound. It is about communicating the profundity of the Gospel so that it removes the confusion surrounding it."

  28. Still seems to me that with this question it's not quite the point. The objection is raised and seeks a Christian response... and needs a clear statement of what Christianity has to say.

    I'm not saying that on other occasions one might not argue for historicity or existence of God (though I'm unconvinced by your allegiance to some of your arguments...), here God is put on trial in the question - presupposed albeit probably wrongly thought of... its not always God's existence that's at stake, and in this one it's the problem of suffering that's the obstacle that needs addressing.

    I'm happy to use other arguments where its suiitable to argue for historicity from extra-Biblical testimony. I did this in a talk on the historicity & relevance of the Bible later in the week, for example, spurred on by Tim Keller's approach to that subject.

    I don't think I'm trying to suggest people can't understand what Christianity is, I'm inviting them to do just that. I'm saying this is coherent, sensible, rational - and appealing. I'm all up for adding more argument and engagement, but I still don't really see what's so harmful, on this subject where people are saying "how can you believe in God when there is suffering in the world" to say, come in and see... I'm seeking to build the experiential and intellectual integrity of Christianity in their thinking so that they might then be prepared to consider Christ for themselves. What's the problem there - on this subject?

    In all seriousness, I'd like to hear or read the way you do this.

  29. Isn't what I'm doing what happens anytime someone tells a story... they invite you into their world, and as long as we give plausible grounds to do that, surely it's worth while?

    The question is enough to makes the exercise plausible, plus some engagement with our dischordant experience of suffering as somehow wrong and out of place in our lives...

  30. I'll have to come back to this Tom, as I haven't got the time to give a response you deserve.

    1. Dave makes a fair point. In story-telling and (as Polanyi says) in science stepping into a paradigm/worldview/story and trying it on like a pair of glasses is something that is not opposed to rationality, but enables rationality to happen. So while that personal commitment to trust someone you cannot 'reason out' is trustworthy is actually a friend of reason.

    2. I think it is fairly biblical that to be wise is to fear God, and trust Jesus. To not do that is to be foolish. I'm quite comfortable with that.

    3. I don't think you picked up on my distinction between 'the Christian worldview' and 'the Gospel'. I'm not saying that "only the eyes of faith can "see" spiritual truths", just that only the eyes of faith can see the Gospel.

    4. You say that at the root of lack of cognitive 'intelligibility' is lack of ethical 'motive'. I agree that is often the case. But not everything can be understood even with the right motives, and while I can't say for certain that because I don't understand something it is impossible for anyone to understand QED. I think in the case of the Gospel, that its very nature is such that if you can say "oh, was always obvious that the Father would send his Son for sinful humanity", then you've taken a misstep.

    5. Re, your further remark that we should start in different places with our theology than our evangelism. I'm sceptical. That seems manipulative to me. However, as I've tried to explain. I see two starting points for our theology (although one has priority over the other). Firstly there is General revelation (and subsidiarily special revelation) of the 'law', and secondly there is Special revelation (and subsidiarily general revelation) of the 'Gospel'. That provides a point of engagement, as well as a point of confrontation, which does justice to the NT witness.

    6. I really would be interested to hear your answers to my questions about where you see the disjunction... if you see one at all. I've listened to your talk, and read your comments closely and appreciate and have learnt from much of what you've said. But I'm not sure of quite what your theological underpinnings are to your approach are.

    Thanks again for the interaction.

  31. Just back from hearing McGrath on "CS Lewis as an Apologist" which was tremendously helpful for our discussion. Some of the lecture is in this article

    Ok, so Dave K, might be trying to say that unless you are regenerate the gospel is going to be impossible for you to understand/rationally comprehend. I understand that you don't hold that view Bish.

    Here is a question that might help to clarify what we are talking about: Why in his apologetics did C.S. Lewis seem to make such little use of scripture?

  32. Hi Tom,

    I suspect the answer to your question would be for good and bad reasons, here are some answers that come to mind:

    1. He didn't want to put obstacles in the way of the message (in the words of the article he wanted to "translate... into uneducated language").

    2. He had the imagination and the intelligence to do the work of translation, which is hard work.

    3. He really believed that the ideas he presented in themselves were powerful enough to convince without an appeal to authority.

    4. He saw the process of coming to faith more as the decision of the person, rather than a decision of God (or course it is both in a sense, but I don't think he got the right balance or the priority of the latter over the former).

    I read quite a lot of CS Lewis last year, and appreciated a lot of what he does. However, the question I was left with in the end was, "why in his apologetics did CS Lewis seem to so rarely call upon people to repent?"

    In that lack of bringing God's verdict on the world to bear on people, I think he was not in line with the NT witness on evangelism/apologetics.

  33. Do you think that you are more or less fruitful than CS Lewis in evangelism?

  34. I'm definitely less fruitful. There is much I've learnt from Lewis, and much I have still to learn.

    How would you answer my question?

  35. I'll get back to you on the question of how the fall affects the mind. I think my answer is going to be quite complicated.

    To start with I think its the wrong way to ask the question (spot the pedantic philosopher). Instead the questions that must come first (it does in Grudem, Systematic Theology), are: how did God make us like himself? What is the image of God? What is a Christian anthropology?

    Following Dallas Willard, in Renovation of the Heart I would want to say that human beings are six things together (mind, feelings, will/heart, body, social context/networks, soul), which are all unified together in the soul.

    I would say that the fall, affects each part of this whole self, in different and specific ways. I certainly affirm both original sin, and a historical/space time fall, and believe that this has had a deep effect upon us.

    At the core, any reasonable reading of Gen 3 must see both a physical and spiritual dimension to the fall...

    I see this as crucially affecting the human heart/will/volitional centre. I am not using heart to communicate 'feelings'. Because the volitional centre is fallen, the other parts of the human self are used to serve prideful/evil ends. So the intellect comes to justify a heart/will/volitional rebellion. And the feelings follow the heart/will/volition, for good or ill into sin. And the body is also led into acts, and actions of sin, by the will. I think I would want to say more about all of these things, and other areas, but this is what I'm happy to say at this point.

    I want to read up on this a bit more before I give a more detailed answer, that I might later come to regret.

    Does what I have said so far, make sense?

  36. Someone asked McGrath your question, and he said that there is much more of this in the private personal letters.

    There is more to say on this, but I think Lewis does ask for repentance, but in a much less offensive way than many of us seem to ask for it.

    I do think that we have a huge problem with emotional IQ on this subject. We are very blunt and very strange about it. Much of evangelism is very offensive (in a bad way) to a non-Christian listener. Nine years ago I wasn't a Christian, so I'm a bit more clued up on this.

    Affirm the need to make the call though! Love Billy G!

  37. I love the way Lewis tells us to treat others well, he does this particularly in The Funeral of a Great Myth, massively sympathising with the view others hold (as one who loved/loves it himself) but still calling for something better.

  38. 12.5 years ago I wasn't a Christian.

    Cranmer was "my" evangelist though, very subtle and inoffensive in a beautifully anglican way... though dead he spoke.

  39. Hi Tom,

    I think I followed your argument there. I'll look forward to the rest if you get time. I usually regret getting into these discussions at the time, but weeks and months later I'm grateful for the time and effort I put in. Iron sharpening iron and everything.

    Interestingly it was about 9 years ago that I became a Christian too, prompted initially by endless arguments about creationism with a Christian on my corridor. And I remember the offence of being told about hell at a Grill a Christian event. But it was precisely that offence that made me question what I believed and take the time to read Mark's gospel (not out of fear, but a desire to know the truth).

    The first Christian book I read was Mere Christianity, although it actually had no impact on me that I can remember. By some bizare series of events, the next Christian book I read was Calvin's Institutes (hard work at the time), and it was him who taught me that I couldn't please God with my works such was the seriousness of my rejection of him, and that Christ had died for my sins out of sheer grace.

    I sometimes reflect that how we became Christian can have a powerful effect on our view of evangelism. We can tend to think that the way that we came to Christ is paradigmatic for how everyone should... we're not all that rational in all sorts of spheres. Although we should be!


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