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I have an agnostic friend named Ben who regularly peppers me with politely-antagonistic questions about my faith. For example, the other day, he asked me whether I really believed what the Bible said about Jesus' life.
"Shoot straight with me, Joshua," he said. "Isn't there at least some part of you that wonders whether this stuff really happened?"
My first instinct was to respond that I didn't have any doubts, probably because I was trying to assure myself that I was solid in my faith. But instead, I decided to search my heart and see if there was a doubting Thomas in there.
"Let me get back to you," I said.
Later on that day, after I had an opportunity to think it through, I saw Ben and reminded him of his question.
"Ben, I'm being completely transparent when I say this: I seriously believe that God was born into a human body, grew up, and rescued everyone by dying and coming back to life."
He looked at me with a smirk and said, "So you're basically saying that you believe in an alien superhero?"
I paused, thought for a moment, and then said, "Yeah, that's right. I believe in an alien superhero named Jesus — kind of like Superman, but with a beard and a robe."
Ben seemed amused, but I was inspired.
I've spent my life overexposed to Bible stories via Easter musicals, manger scenes, and pictures of Jesus doing miracles. As a result, I've effectively lost touch with how far-out the Christian faith is. Ben's question brought me back to reality: If I believe the biblical account of Jesus is actually true, I necessarily believe that at least one real superhero existed in human history.
I mean, think about it: Christians actually believe that here, on this planet, an invisible Spirit supernaturally impregnated a teenage girl, her baby grew up looking like a human, but He had superpowers. He could control the weather (Mark 4:39). He could heal damaged eyes with His spit (John 9:1-7). He could call out to dead bodies and make the dead person's soul go back into it (John 11:38-44), and He could fly (Acts 1:9-12). Oh yeah, and He was God (John 1:1, Colossians 2:9) — that, too.
Atheists and agnostics recognize how wacky all this sounds, and they choose not to believe it. On the other hand, Christians like me develop an immunity to it and forget how scandalous our beliefs are — until we run into honest skepticism from someone like Ben.
To be clear, I really do understand why the biblical account sounds ridiculous to Ben — it's much easier to believe in a Jesus who's limited in the same ways we are, and besides, believing in fairy tales and superheroes, that's baby stuff, right?
Well, everyone's entitled to their beliefs, and to those who decide that Jesus' followers were gladly martyred for a Man who merely inspired them, we're just going to have to agree to disagree. It makes more sense to me to conclude that His followers were heinously martyred for believing in a Man who freaked them out so badly that they couldn't deny what they had seen.
The whole debate reminds me of the classic scene from C.S. Lewis's book The Silver Chair, in which the Emerald Witch of the Underworld traps the four protagonists underground and nearly convinces them that nothing else ever existed — not even Aslan, the lion deity of the story. In an interesting twist, the typically-pessimistic Puddleglum replies,
"Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things — trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's a funny thing, when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a playworld which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play-world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentlemen and the young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's a small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."
Here, here, Puddleglum. I'll see you at the manger-side this Christmas, right next to the alien superhero Baby who saved my life.
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--I love this! And I love that quote from "The Silver Chair." Those books are my absolute, all-time, favorite books. I've read the whole series at least 10 times, maybe more, and now that I'm an adult, I understand them on a much deeper level than I did when I was 10 or 11 and reading them for the first time.
--And the birth story is just the beginning. Theories about the meaning of the crucifixion can sound just as much, if not more wacky and bizarre. Not to mention all the end-times hoopla. Even though I grew up in Christianity, all the talk about beasts, horsemen, raptures, apocalypses, antiChrists, millenniums, "signs," etc sounds like hallucinatory crazy talk to me. No offense to anyone. It just sounds like that to me because the church I grew up in had concise and straightforward beliefs about the end times: "Jesus comes back unexpectedly, then we will all be judged and go to heaven or hell, the end."
--@Alyson, I'm sorry to hear you had a bad experience with the Church, but I hope you don't throw the Baby Jesus out with the bathwater. :)
--@Joshua, no worries. My Christian faith is central to my identity and life. I believe strongly in the core message even though I am still hashing out many theological subjects. I don't mind that many people have different views on many subjects than I do, as long as none of us are causing any harm. I want to clarify that I haven't had a bad experience with end time teachings; I was just commenting on how a lot of religious teachings can sound bizarre to us if we haven't been overexposed to them. :) Some traditions I grew up taking for granted, like how the worship service is done, sound bizarre to people who grew up differently.
--If it is your intention to lead him in the proper direction that he might one day be saved, the approach to that is to not answer all of his questions, because, whether Atheist or Muslim, there will always be questions about every tiny issue, a perpetual chasing of which thread might be pulled on to unravel things, since the plain truth of the scripture is - it will not make sense to the unsaved. The saint will contend with the gravity of it all his life, but the unsaved will see it as nonsense and irrationality.
You should start where the great catechizers started, and where Paul himself started in Romans: the realization that sin is real; the realization that there is nothing that anyone can do to scrub away sin without Jesus Christ; how the sinner knows in his heart that it is black, cold, and dead; that whatever "piece of the divine" might be conjectured as part of the birthright of humanity is stillborn without Jesus Christ; and that a Biblically-grounded Christianity is the only religion that offers an external fix to this situation, since all other religions, which give you advice on what you can do, suggest that the dead might bring forth life, which cannot be done.
So, work at convicting your atheist friend of his sinful nature and utter depravity. That is the starting point. Only those who know they are sick will seek a physician. Further, in this manner, you exposit the giant, coherent edifice of Christianity as one unrolling story for how to fix the sin problem, instead of hoping your interlocutor develops his own mental model that is hopefully fully compatible with the real story.
So, at the start, you are indeed answering questions with questions: Do you not sense that there is something outside the purely material that makes up your being? Do you not think your consciousness is more than random chemical reactions? If you therefore can see free will, can you not see that there are actions that you know viscerally are bad? In the small hours, when fear or reflection rise up in you, do you not wonder if there isn't something more, or if life is just this trip from the maternity ward to the crematorium? Do you not believe that evil is palpable and exists in the world, and that everyone is naturally inclined to the sinful pleasure of doing something wrong? If you know yourself, and are honest with yourself, you know there is nothing good in you that you do not seek something of it - whether you seek to lord it over someone that you're morally superior, or you hope to do a favor so that someone will be in your debt - this is the great doctrine of sin, that all actions are ultimately self-serving, and, the honest man knows that there is nothing divine in the human heart, so that all actions are ultimately futile in that they serve something born to die. Yet, there is clearly something that escapes the bounds of materialism. So, we seek an answer for how to escape this cycle of death, knowing that we cannot do much ourselves, since we have already established that we are sinful and bound for death. If there therefore is something transcendent, this would be knowledge that humanity would cling to, so, we look about for an extant religion that suggests there is a solution that can be achieved by external action (since we've now established the belief in a doctrine of sin, you can't fix yourself). Belief in Jesus Christ and his ability to fill this need led many a person happily to his death at the hands of various regimes from Rome to Communist Russia to North Korea and the Taliban and the FARC-controlled regions of Colombia, trading it all here for eternal life with Jesus Christ; since we in the cushy West are not put against the wall by Claudius or Kim Jung-Un, it is a simple experiment, since atheists all say they are fans of the scientific method, try it - try to call upon the name of Jesus Christ, try to open yourself to the Holy Spirit, try to pray. See what happens.
It is entirely possible that this atheist is, like most, an infantile atheist, clinging to his positions because of some emotional hurt that made his personal image of a god impossible - e.g., how Mr. Darwin couldn't accept his daughter's death, or how innumerable people I've met could not accept how "Christian" parents could divorce - but the dialectic is a reasonable enough approach, since it should at least call his lie that he believes in logic. Once exposed as a rationalizer instead of a rationalist, you could always hit him with fire and brimstone.
--Alyson: You're not alone. :P Eschatology makes me reach for my tin-foil hat eyeroll quicker than just about any other thing that Christians do.
:P Seriously people, if you paid as much attention to the easier-to-understand parts of the bible as you do to the cryptic future-telling parts, we'd all be MUCH better off.
Jaybees: I disagree. Wholeheartedly. I think we lose something when we reduce atheists or agonstics to their ideology and stop seeing them as unique creations and valuable beings and instead see them only as projects for conversion. Sometimes people need a friend who cares for them and respects them. The Holy Spirit draws people to salvation -- not clever argument tactics. People aren't projects, and they are rarely argued to faith in God.
As usual, one can count on the Boundless crowd to miss the context and to suggest that it's unkind to engage in the one true mission of attempting to win souls to Christ by using the time-honored tradition of Jesus, Paul, and many a great missionary by confronting proud and self-righteous people with the doctrine of sin and forcing them to confront and acknowledge their own sin nature.
To paraphrase Penn Jillette - we evangelizes the atheist position, and, therefore, is in the forum, is fighting his fight, is thinking he's the smartest guy in the room, "How much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize?"
Your response is completely divorced from the original context. I'm sure it sounded good for the situation you visualized, but that situation was definitely not being harangued by an atheist acquaintance who's playing the game of who is the smartest guy in the room. If you are being harangued by an Atheist or a Muslim, that person Wants To Know About Jesus. That person Wants To Be Evangelized. They don't want to just be accepted for who they are; they are asking to have the Gospel demonstrated to them, and the way you start that is convicting them of their own sins. Words are provided at the time you are called to make the answer.
The reason you study argumentation is that the vocal atheist community - the kind that harangues as described in the opening paragraphs of this very article - believes they are masters of it. Did Paul not engage on Mars Hill with the very tactic of argumentation, to demolish the sophists of his day, so that, brought low, they could recognize their own foolishness and come to the Lord? Did not Jesus answer the Pharisees differently than he answered the lowly who came to him - with ridicule and scorn, not kindness and acceptance of who they were? The proud don't come to Jesus, only the lowly; when you have somebody lowly, your approach is correct, and I would never recommend upbraiding them; but, when you have somebody who is haughty and thinks he's figured it all out, and he's come to kick the crutches out from the infantile theists who chase after a sky daddy for comfort, you bring him low by beating him through argumentation enough that it discomforts him and he has no peace until he seeks the Lord. You prepare yourself for this by reading and searching the scriptures, then trusting that the Holy Spirit will open these opportunities and give you the words to say to bring the scoffers to the state where the scales start to fall off their eyes and they see themselves as dirty sinners.
Next time, consider the context: Being harangued by an atheist or muslim on a regular basis is different from the serving line at the downtown rescue mission, and should be treated accordingly.
--Jaybees, you said: " If you are being harangued by an Atheist or a Muslim, that person Wants To Know About Jesus. That person Wants To Be Evangelized"
I have found this, through experience, to be categorically false. An agnostic, athiest or muslim who harangues you about your faith has typically had a bad experience in their past with someone of your similar faith -- usually because someone is operating under the exact assumption you're talking about here. In my campus ministry they talked abuot this in terms of a light bulb. Someone, very "cleverly" came up with this illustration: The speaker asks a student to go to the light switch in the room and turn it off. They do. "Now turn it off again!" The student, confusedly says, "I can't! It's already off." "Oh-ho!" the speaker smarms, "That's why you should take advantage of every ministry opportunity! Someone who has already rejected the gospel is already in the dark! You can't make them more in the dark than they already are!" I always wanted the student to come back with, "Yes, but if you give them an INCREDIBLY negative ministry experience, then you aren't merely flipping the switch. You're overloading the fuses, cutting the wires, and stripping down the generator." As a result, I find myself doing a lot of rewiring, and fuse resetting in the lives of my unbelieving friends. Most people in the west know the gospel narrative, but most people have rarely met religious people who practice what they expound on from the pulpit.
Someone with genuine curiosity does not "harangue" you, they may ask questions when you discuss your faith, but they're not going to go for the jugular like someone who has had a negative experience with a Christian in the past will. Treating these people like they are mere ideologues to be won over with proseltyzation misses the point entirely. Someone in their past has convinced them, typically, that Christianity is simply a brainwashed thought-process, or a set of antiquated rules. The most effective way to minister to that misconception is to live out the Christlife, treat them like an actual person and not just a mouthpiece, and be honest and frank about your own views without trying to manipulate every situation into a "ministry opportunity."
--I can see the appeal of having this viewpoint for a young guy, especially in the wake of big fantasy/superhero films being made (and getting better, thankfully)...but it's not necessarily what I'd recommend. I find myself as a I get older taking a more grounded approach to scripture. Not ignoring the supernatural elements, but it's the human interaction, the relatable emotions that resonate and reach people more than anything. Calling Jesus ascension to heaven "flying" is just bringing it to a lower base level intellectually. There are a number of ways scenes could've played out that aren't given a lot of description in scripture - and I just don't think automatically going to the extreme end is a good study approach.
If someone had posed the question to me about it being a bunch of alien/superhero beliefs... I'd probably say something like "Call it what you want, but... " and than go into explaining Christs love for us, his invitation and desire for our lives.
--Um - if I might interject: this isn't a how-to article on sharing your faith with others. It's a personal story about how God reminded me of the mystery and wonder of the miraculous story I believe in.
--Often I wonder what it would have been like becoming a follower of Jesus at a much later age. Raised in the church as well I understand where you are coming from! It's an outrageous faith. Also, the superman and Narnia references were well appreciated. Thanks for the honest viewpoint and great read! I'll be sharing this :)
--Reminds me of playing the board game Loaded Questions, and coming across the question: "What religion do you feel is the most far-fetched?" My friends (knowing how important Jesus is to me) assumed I would pick some other religion, but I said, "Christianity." Initially, I thought God was very different from who I wanted him to be, and I had some struggle that some of the things about him were true. With time, I found that he is far better than what I was looking for, far stranger and more miraculous than I could imagine. To be fair, I still wrestle with what I've witnessed. The more you see of God, the more beyond understanding he is. I could never invent such a God, one who is not "normal" and yet, made himself "normal" and as weak and vulnerable as us for a time...yet his divinity still leaked through, exploded through, in such a powerful way, just to love us when we were unlovely. Truth is stranger than fiction. And it is beautifully freeing, frustratingly puzzling, and everything in between.
--I get what you're saying, but "Alien Superhero" sounds a little more like Mormon heresy than orthodox Christianity. If your friend is using "alien" in the sense of UFOs and green men, then "alien" implies something created, and Christ is certainly not created ("light from light," not "Hie to Kolob") and didn't come here from somewhere else, à la ET. If it's "alien" as in an immigrant, that would make a lot more sense. And while Jesus is supernatural, I wonder if the other half of that miracle is how much we lost touch with our own supernatural-ity when we fell, and how much will be restored when it all comes round again. If Adam is the archetype of fallen humanity, and Christ the archetype of redeemed humanity, then why shouldn't we have been able to "fly," and walk through walls, and the like? And, if it is true, then how wonderful it will be when we re-obtain our original state, not just as God's redeemed, but as the "gods" he made us to be (and if that doesn't sound spectacularly ridiculous, I don't know what does). In that regard, maybe my Catholic friends are right when they talk about our "happy fall," that the whole miracle is not only that Christ came, but how much God brings even greater good out of evil, as Aquinas put it. Or Mr. Lewis:
"'The world is born to-day,' said Malacandra. 'To-day for the first time two creatures of the low worlds, two images of Maleldil that breathe and breed like the beasts, step up that step at which your parents fell, and sit in the throne of what they were meant to be. It was never seen before. Because it did not happen in your world a greater thing happened, but not this. Because the greater thing happened in Thulcandra, this and not the greater thing happens here.'"
O happy fault that merited such and so great a Redeemer! Merry Christmas. :)
--My step-dad sent me an email in which he indicated that one thing he thought needed to be emphasized in the post was that "while Mary did conceive through the Holy Spirit, Jesus was born as a man, Luke 2; was baptised as a man, Mat. 3:13; and was tempted as man by satan, Mat. 4. As Jesus walked the land, taught, led and performed miracles, He did so, empowered by the Spirit of God - John 12:49, 50 and John 14:10-12. Phil. 2:5-8 further tells us that Jesus gave up His God nature and took the form of a bondservant in the likeness of man."
I liked his point - the reminder that even though Jesus had these superhero-like qualities, He was every bit a man at the same time.
--The miraculous is only weird if you start from the position that there is no god.
Logically speaking, if God exists, then the miraculous is reasonable.
As I have never yet met an atheist who can prove that God does not exist, they have bigger problems than I do. Especially as most of them will happily accept that most of the universe is made up of dark matter and dark energy that they cannot detect, but object to the idea of an entity who cannot be detected, either.
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