Christianity and the Big Questions

A little exercise in Christian apologetics:

Having an interactive blogsite means you will get plenty of questions thrown your way – by friend and foe. Sometimes one comment will have quite a few questions. And often they deal with mega-topics that can hardly be properly answered in a short comment. An article at least is required – and thus a piece like this.

It gets more difficult when a 2000-word article can still barely do justice to the big-ticket topics being raised – the topics that can easily fill entire libraries. A recent comment that was sent to me is a case in point, and what follows is the comment and my attempt to offer at least some brief and introductory answers to it. The comment was this:

Agreed, end times speculation is for another time, so to speak. Unfortunately the subject is of critical importance to the very meaning of life, yet we know so little with any certainty and there are so many different interpretations and opinions that it’s hard to know what to think. What is heaven? Why is there a distinction in eschatology between the past dead and the future saved, who apparently retain a human body?

 

It’s a real sticking point for my non-Christian friends who ask why I believe in an afterlife when I can’t provide any evidence that we survive death. A question I was asked recently was at what point in human evolution did humans acquire souls. As an evolutionary biologist specialising in consciousness I struggle with this question myself since the evidence shows a continuity rather than a defined break. If it’s DNA related which part of the genome is determinant given we are so closely related to other primates?

 

So many questions. I respect your scholarship Bill but I’m sure you also must struggle with these conundrums.

What follows are some of the sorts of things that can be said in response. One, the article where this comment appeared under had nothing to do with eschatology, but a few others had raised the issue anyway. So I will try to deal with that matter here in a moment.

Two, I know nothing about the person who sent in the comment except for what he wrote. Assuming he is being honest and open here – and not all commentators are – it still leaves me with little to work with. A preference would be to track the guy down, have a coffee with him, and chat for a while to see where he is coming from.

In that setting I would seek to determine just what sort of Christian he is. There are all sorts of course, from very nominal and superficial ones to those who have a very deep and serious faith, with a firm commitment to the authority and reliability of Scripture.

As such, some may put their career – be it in science or whatever – in first place, with Christianity just a little add-on at the end, with no real bearing on what one believes. Others will take biblical revelation as the starting point, and seek to put all knowledge and understanding within that framework. Again, I have no idea where this fellow fits in here.

Three, let me begin with his last point. As to issues like the intermediate state and the future life, actually I don’t “struggle with these” nor see them as “conundrums”. Let me explain. Sure, I have a kazillion questions about a kazillion things when it comes to Christianity. How could it be otherwise with fallen and finite creatures seeking to understand the perfect and infinite God?

However, the good news is, we do have comprehensive – although not exhaustive – truth revealed to us in Scripture. And on all the really crucial issues (eg., Who is God? What is man? Why are we here? What is our problem? What is the solution?), we have solid and sufficient answers provided.

But on secondary matters that are not as vital, we may have less clear information. But that is OK. I do not need to know everything about what happens immediately after death, or what exactly heaven will be like. But I DO need to know something about God and myself, and what he expects of me.

However, let me just quickly address one point he raised, about the distinction “between the past dead and the future saved, who apparently retain a human body.” There is no real problem here. All people, when they die, retain their soul, while they await a future bodily resurrection. They await the reuniting of their soul with their resurrection body.

Those who have already died are in the intermediate state – which Scripture does not speak a whole lot about. And those who are alive when Christ returns look forward to the same process: their soul and a new resurrection body will inhabit the new heavens and new earth. Christ is the first fruits of this resurrection reality that we all look forward to.

Four, as to differing and confusing views on eschatology, well yes and no. As I said, these are really secondary matters, and it is not essential that we have full clarity on those matters to properly function as a Christian and to offer real help to truth-seeking non-Christians. Sure, different questions and viewpoints will arise here, but they are not vitally important matters.

Furthermore, there ARE in fact plenty of very good books out there which do provide much help, information, and insight on these matters. Those who are interested can consult volumes such as the following for example:

Alcorn, Randy, Heaven. Tyndale, 2004.
Boettner, Loraine, Immortality. P&R, 1962.
Fabarez, Mike, 10 Mistakes People Make About Heaven, Hell and the Afterlife. Harvest House, 2018.
Gomes, Alan, 40 Questions About Heaven and Hell. Kregel, 2018.
Kreeft, Peter, Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Heaven . . . But Never Dreamed of Asking. Ignatius, 1990.
Morey, Robert, Death and the Afterlife. Bethany House, 2001.
Morgan, Christopher and Robert Peterson, eds., Heaven. Crossway, 2014.
Pache, Rene, The Future Life. Moody, 1962.
Twelftree, Graham, Life After Death. Monarch, 2002.
Williamson, Paul, Death and the Afterlife: Biblical Perspectives on Ultimate Questions. IVP, 2017.

Five, concerning “evidence that we survive death” – this too is another big discussion, requiring an article or two just for starters. But three brief things can be said. First, the science of NDE (Near-Death Experiences) is one area where even many non-Christians are doing work in. It is not just something only Christians are interested in.

Second, on many of these issues it all depends on one’s presuppositions. If one is committed to philosophical naturalism for example, one will rule out a priori any sort of miracle, including life after death and resurrection. So then the conversation has to be taken back a step and those sorts of issues must first be thrashed out.

Third, a number of important works by noted Christian apologists deal with this matter. It has been covered by many careful Christian thinkers over the years, with Gary Habermas being one of them. Check him out here: www.youtube.com/watch?v=_Y56qjTFd4M

Another is Steve Miller, also on video: seanmcdowell.org/blog/near-death-experiences-the-evidence

But if books are preferred, see these two to begin with:

Habermas, Gary and J. P. Moreland, Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality. Crossway, 1992, 1998.
Miller, J. Steve, Near-Death Experiences as Evidence for the Existence of God and Heaven. Wisdom Creek Press, 2012.

Image of Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality
Beyond Death: Exploring the Evidence for Immortality by Habermas, Gary (Author), Moreland, J. P. (Contributor) Amazon logo

Six, as to things like evolutionary biology and related fields, one can run with just the secular take on all this. But the biblical Christian will seek to let revealed biblical truths form the framework by which such matters are assessed and evaluated.

As I said above, it makes all the difference in the world how one approaches such matters: is Scripture the supreme arbiter of truth here, or is it just an interesting book of moralisms that has no real bearing on any of the big questions in life?

And the truth is, plenty of important work has already been done in these fields. Those scientists, philosophers and others who are also strongly committed Christians already have thought and written quite a lot on these matters. Thus my commentator should be aware of at least some of their key works.

I have been interested in these issues for a while now, so last year I put together a bibliography looking at a number of related themes: anthropology, neuroscience, socio-biology, the mind-body problem, evolutionary psychology, and the new brain research. See here: billmuehlenberg.com/2020/02/17/biblical-anthropology-a-readers-guide/

It features 60 key books that can be read with great profit. Again, knowing nothing about my commentator, I do not know if he is familiar with any of these sorts of titles – but he should be. The various questions he raises – and many others like them – are all carefully and intelligently answered in many of the books featured there.

Seven, and as a subset to the last point, I would let my biblical faith determine how I understand things like evolutionary biology, and not the other way around. It sounds from what he has said that he believes that at some point in evolutionary history consciousness became a feature of human beings. The biblical view would differ.

Assuming the account in Genesis is not pure myth but features historical truth, it does not posit a slow development from non-human to human, but the sudden appearance of human beings, complete with consciousness and the like. Our first parents had consciousness and a soul from day one – from when God first created them.

A somewhat different question – when the soul is created and/or united with each individual human being – does have at least two main answers. The theologically literate Christian would know about these two basic options: traducianism or creationism. I speak to them briefly here: billmuehlenberg.com/2019/07/18/on-original-sin-part-two/

So if this fellow is not asking rhetorical questions, but really does want to know what I and other biblically informed Christians think about such issues, I hope he makes use of the bibliographies I have presented here and grabs some of these important works to learn more.

If he knows more about his chosen field in terms of the secular worldview and analysis that it provides than he does about the biblical and theological perspectives, then he needs to correct that imbalance. I hope he will run with some of the reading tips I have offered here.

If he is asking honest questions and looking for honest answers, I think a lot of the titles contained in the bibliographies featured here will be of some real assistance.

[1754 words]

13 Replies to “Christianity and the Big Questions”

  1. Thanks Roger. Well, I know a little bit about certain things. But I try to take seriously the command of 1 Peter 3:15, the verse that says we should always be ready to give an answer to those who ask of us. Basic Christian apologetics is something all Christians should be able to engage in, at least to some extent.

  2. I had never heard of traducianism till today very odd.

    Be careful with NDE’s, visions and visitations always check everything about them with the Bible and even compare them to one another. Too many Christians just run with them, often making them a addition to the Bible going so far as to cite them in answers to biblical questions, and never bother to check scripture for their accuracy or compare them and see if they contradict each other. Not saying dismiss them out of hand but be cautious and investigate. God will give discernment to those who ask. Sorry to stick this in but I have seen way too many fooled by false visions and experiences.

    I wholeheartedly recommend Randy Alcorn’s Heaven book.

  3. Thanks Paul. Yes, it of course goes without saying that there would be plenty of bogus and dubious NDEs, just as there are plenty of bogus and dubious miracles – or claims to miracles. The authors of the books I mentioned above would be the first to acknowledge this.

    As is so often the case, two opposite extremes need to be avoided. On the one hand we must assess all such claims carefully and critically, and not just blindly buy whatever we are told or may have experienced. But on the other hand, we dare not throw the baby out with the bath water, and say these things can never happen, or are never legit.

  4. Bill, face to face on the street, we have seconds, or at best a minute or two, to give an answer. So, it’s best to rely on a simple, solid, defensible Biblical approach. This quickly susses out what the person believes. That’s both a forced discipline and a luxury that, as you lament, blogs don’t provide.

    Meaning of life? Why are we here? The Bible and Jesus, says love the Lord your God with your whole being and love your neighbour as yourself. That’s it; that’s why we’re here. Then take it from there from their response.

    Heaven? Where God is and where everything is always perfect. How do they react?

    Pre and post death bodies? In this life we have mortal bodies and we are on probation in an imperfect world. If we accept Jesus’ offer of reconciliation with God if we turn away from our rebellion against God, and if we stick with that, we are, by grace not by our own deeply flawed merit, accepted by God into heaven on death, where he has promised eternal life and resurrected bodies. However, if we have stubbornly stuck with ignoring God in this life, he honours our decision and so we get no interference from God – and that’s otherwise known as hell since everything good is from God. Then take it from there depending on the enquirer’s response.

    Evidence of an afterlife? The Bible says so. History says Christianity started when Jesus’ followers changed from fearful wimps to people willing to die rather than deny their eye-witness claims that Jesus rose from the dead as the scriptures foretold. OK that’s a miracle, but similarly there is no logical ‘natural’ explanation from where life came from other than from the God as described in the Bible. If they question that, point out that evolution relies on numerous miracles with no miracle worker and no purpose.

    Evolution? Totally contradictory to a straight reading of Genesis as understood by Old and New Testament writers. To believe in evolution requires either:
    Theistic evolution (belief in a weak god who took ages of cruel ‘nature red in tooth and claw’ extinctions and evolutionary experiments to get the recipe for life, mind, intelligence and consciousness right),
    or,
    The atheists’ approach: to deny the existence of any god. But that is irrational blind faith to believe that absolutely nothing (no time, space, matter, mind or intelligence) turned into everything we see, know, love and understand for no reason whatsoever. They can’t even claim an eternal universe because that also contradicts fundamental laws of experimental science.

    True experimental science can say nothing about the origin of universe, life, mind or intelligence except to say that its origin is outside of ‘natural’ science. Clearly, it is more rational and takes less faith to believe that the omnipotent, omniscient Yahweh god of the Bible has the power, mind, intelligence and will to speak creation into being.

  5. An interesting topic introduced to me, this Traducianism.

    At first blush, I believe one’s soul is a metaphysical reality thus created by God with a beginning though immortal to fulfill God’s desire for all men to come unto Him (or not). If objectively true then traducianism must be false as it would infer that the soul or body must be co-generated with the body or the soul that if so them the soul would be as material as the body.

    The corollary to the principal of cause and effect (the greater effect cannot come from a less cause) would establish traducianism to be false as the effect, a greater effect, i.e. the soul, cannot come from a lesser cause (the body).

    Constructive criticism always appreciated.

  6. Thanks Anthony. Well, this is another case of questions in a comment really best being dealt with by a full-length article, not a short comment in reply! So stay tuned. But a very brief answer can be offered here. Christians have held to both views over the centuries, with perhaps creationism slightly being the preferred option. And both views have their strengths and weaknesses.

    Creationism says the soul is directly created by God for each new individual, while traducianism says somehow it comes about by propagation (traducem) from the parents. But there is more than one understanding of the latter view. And it can all get rather complex, so as I say, I best pen a whole new article on this matter. I will add it to my to-do list!

  7. In my experience the issues raised here are rarely discussed in churches. Perhaps that’s because scripture is so obscure or silent on such matters. A key issue is one’s Millenial position which is typically influenced by the branch of Christianity we find ourselves in. Even the term “Christian” is problematical when trying to define beliefs about end times. Many of us will say it’s all too hard and we just have to wait and see.

  8. True Bill I won’t completely discount but of the two extremes the first is sadly FAR more represented today which makes ALL Christians look like gullible fools to the world. We should be careful because when we do foolish things we don’t JUST bring reproach to ourselves we bring reproach to CHRIST.

    Funny thing is I am on the autism spectrum and the subjects of heaven, the New Jerusalem, and the Millennial Kingdom are of GREAT interest to me yet are not spoken much of in the Bible. This often leads to much speculation which is fine be often I see speculation become dogma for many. I like Randy Alcorn’s Heaven book because he always points to verses as the starting point and lets you know what is speculation.

    I think it is only NATURAL for us to want to know details about heaven after all when moving to a new state or country on often researches and find out all one can about it. We will one day move to heaven so it is only natural to want to find out all we can. What is in the Bible is what we NEED to know for our salvation but so many things or historical interest and future interest simply aren’t there because they aren’t needed for our salvation. (for instance in genesis you go through 1650+ years of history in 3 chapters! So many things would’ve happened in that time it would be fascinating to look at everything. Also the theory about the genesis 1:1 – 1:2 gap which if the gap is only 4000 years at the max would still fit a young earth and young earth creationists put the earth age at 6,000 – 10,000 years nothing happening then would be important to our salvation so it wouldn’t need to be put in the Bible but would be interesting.)

  9. Thanks Paul. As to: “We will one day move to heaven so it is only natural to want to find out all we can” – a few thoughts. Christians are above all God-focused – not so much focused on any benefits that might come along. How much more so the next life: in heaven our focus will be 100% on God, glorifying God, worshipping God, enjoying God. And the Bible already tells us so very much about God and who he is. It is God we long for and hope to more fully enjoy now and in the next life. Thus the Bible may not give us heaps of details about heaven, but it gives us heaps of details about God. That should be sufficient for his people. Our aim is not so much to go to heaven, but to be with God and enjoy him forever.

  10. 1. Bill, when I saw the questions you were asked, I was sharpening my keyboard for a good long reply…but you said what I would say. Thanks.
    2. On speculation about the new creation: Paul tells us it transcends anything we can even think. Our assignment here is to make disciples,

  11. True Bill but also God delights in us doing the things he has given us the talents to do. Remember he had Adam tend to the garden. On can believe there are many thing has for us to do as well. And even Adam had free time so why wouldn’t we. Worshiping and enjoying God can involve many things not just songs and words of praise. Remember we are to rule with him in the Millennial Kingdom.

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