“For no property of God which the mind can grasp is more characteristic of Him than existence, since existence, in the absolute sense, cannot be predicated of that which shall come to an end, or of that which has had a beginning, and He who now joins continuity of being with the possession of perfect felicity could not in the past, nor can in the future, be non-existent; for whatsoever is Divine can neither be originated nor destroyed. Wherefore, since God’s eternity is inseparable from Himself, it was worthy of Him to reveal this one thing, that He is, as the assurance of His absolute eternity.”
On the Trinity
St. Hilary of Poitiers
I’ve often been asked why an intellectual type guy such as myself would believe in God – a figure most Americans equate to a good bedtime story, or a religious symbol for people who need that sort of thing. After about 30 years of life as a Christian, my faith in God is the only thing that’s peeled me off the pavement through many hard times in my life, and helped keep me grounded during COVID. What God has to say about me – as a human – having intrinsic value , and deserving love (even in times when I didn’t love myself), is likely the only reason I hadn’t pulled the trigger a few times in my life. But it is far from a crutch; it has pushed me to conquer my own selfishness as a human, to learn to forgive, to suffer myself to be defrauded for the sake of my testimony, and to serve something greater than myself. Striving to understand God, especially through all of the American nonsense that is in the church today, has been a thought provoking and captivating journey as well. I wasn’t raised in a Christian home, nor did I have any real preconceived notions about concepts such as church or the Bible. I didn’t really understand Christianity at all through my youth, other than from the perspective of an outsider – all I had figured was that he was a religious symbol for religious people.
Today’s perception of Christianity in America is that of a hate-filled group of racists that are too stupid to take a vaccine. A title that many so-called Christians have rightfully earned for themselves. This doesn’t represent Christianity any more than the other extremes do, though, and even atheists know this. There is a real standard we are called to meet as Christians, and much of this country has fallen short. It doesn’t mean that God isn’t who he said he is, and it doesn’t move the bar of accountability for those that profess to be Christian. There are countless people who are not of this stereotype, who strive to love and to do good, who won’t judge you, and who try their best to walk out a life worthy of the Christian faith.
I’ve been a Christian since 1993, and am convinced, based on my experiences and my understanding, that God is more than just a story. But it takes looking outside of the white American evangelical culture that’s often portrayed as Christianity to understand what God is about. I think most people already know in their heart who God is, and that’s why they’re so averse to the church. In recent times, there has been a cognitive dissonance between historical Christianity and the way the church behaves. Christians are equally mystified by this – but it does not invalidate everything that’s been written about God.
I started my Christian journey at 17, after being exposed to a youth group for the first time. The marked difference in the people at this particular church was enough for me to start asking questions. Kids in my time were awful, mean, and judgmental. Yet these kids were filled with grace and love for other people, even the different ones. They accepted and even cared about other people. This was entirely new for me; the 80s were full of little jerks, and so seeing a rather large group of kids that were transformationally different really had an impact on me.
It didn’t take long for me to feel a dramatic personal change, and I credited that directly to my new found faith. My fits of rage and anger ceased. Other people became “human”, and not merely other talking beings in my life. Simply knowing that a human has intrinsic value, and can be forgiven and redeemed for their mistakes has a profound affect on a person. While I could not deny the personal change that faith in God had made, I developed a healthy curiosity in wanting to know just why my beliefs were qualified from a purely intellectual (as opposed to experiential) point of view. It’s real easy to get involved in a church and a set of communal beliefs, but what I really wanted to know was whether or not these beliefs had a solid historical foundation, or if we were all just playing religion. It’s been about 20 years since I started studying hermeneutics, apologetics, the Greek language, and the writings of early church fathers and of great historians. It truly ticked me off to see so-called experts on A&E pretending they knew anything about Christianity, and so I self-taught so that I could read the same manuscripts these pop-star historians did, such as the Codex Sinaiticus, Codex Vaticanus, and so on. I wanted to see firsthand what was written about God and the Christ event, and without all the translation and indoctrination getting in the way.
Unlike many students who study this in seminary and later abandon their faith, I found my studies to only strengthen mine. All of this information eventually helped me to put together a solid context to better understand what it was that I believed, and how it reconciled to history and science. All of this knowledge can help to paint a context around the collection of books we call a Bible, and to come to a better understanding its purpose. The Bible is not a history book, nor a science book, nor a future-telling horoscope of sorts. The Bible is a record of God’s redemption story throughout history. It begins with humanity and sin, and concludes with reconciliation of man to God through the Christ, and the birth of the Christian church. Some parts of it are poetic, others allegorical, and yet others historical. I will spend a lifetime peeling back the layers of progression to this incredible redemption work – and as a smart person, I am truly blown away by how ingenious it is; many take this for granted.
I’ll never understand why some Christians fail to study anything beyond the store-bought Bible they have, which, in English, is quite possibly the most poorly translated, highly indoctrinated, most void of historical context version of scripture in existence. Many argue that because the Bible is inspired directly by God that it is the only relevant text to read. That statement makes a lot of dangerous theological and historical assumptions though, suggesting that God’s inspired words depend largely upon what time period and geographical location you happen to live in. The Canadian Conference of Catholic Bishops wasn’t wrong to observe that “evangelicals feel authorized to interpret the Bible in isolation from the Christian community extended both in space and time.” There have existed (and still do today) many different scriptural collections (canons). Luther didn’t even consider the Epistle of James to be written by an apostle, let alone inspired scripture! History has seen countless spirited arguments by scholars and theologians about not only what is “God inspired”, but also how to interpret it at all. At least five major schools of hermeneutics exist today, all of which parse scripture with a different focus, and with their own set of biases.
The idea to simply trust that everyone throughout history was directed by the hand of God in throwing together the book you bought on Amazon is simply naive and leaves truth as relative. Theologians have not agreed for most of history about how to interpret certain concepts. Reading works from early writers such as Athanasius, Augustine, Origen, Marcion, and Tertullian demonstrate the deep rifts in theology, early as a few hundred years after Christ. Our current canon is in better condition than I believe it ever has been, but it’s still imperfect – and different Christian organizations cannot agree on how to interpret major theological points of doctrine. This is also the beauty of scripture, in that – within certain parameters – it can speak to the reader individually. Unfortunately, this causes many to go off the rails, and so there is a lost discipline it would seem for the “layperson” interpreting scripture corporately.
In my own journey to understand God, my beliefs have stemmed from the sum total of what I’ve grown to understand, in the context of historical and literary knowledge – as far separated from indoctrination as this knowledge can get without losing its meaning. My conclusions of the true meanings behind scripture are at the very least tempered with some sobriety and discernment over and above the many dogmatic church beliefs. You’re probably already starting to surmise that my beliefs are not merely rays of sunshine and ginger snaps, void of intellectual reflection. While it’s true that Christianity is ultimately based on faith, one does not need to commit intellectual suicide to accept Jesus as the Christ; as God’s savior of the world, and I believe the claims about him are true.
What we have today as a Bible is a critical text put together by scholars reconciling thousands of variants within manuscripts to reflect our best assessment of what we think the original material included. Reconciling countless variations is difficult enough, however the English language is one of the least precise languages to translate into. The Greek doesn’t translate cleanly into English, and so translators are often forced to compromise by substituting a more dumbed down word or phrase to prevent a passage from being misread. Those word meanings are decided by scholars who have their own theological biases, and so the English translation you read already has doctrine baked into it. Add to this technical error; linguists may determine the same word to have drastically different semantic ranges and reference spaces, or interact with synonyms differently. Others make mistakes in the weight they throw behind a root etymology, or make historical errors that lead to an anachronistic meaning. On top of this, grammatical analysis is based on surrounding text, compounding an error. Its easy to end up with a slowly degrading feedback loop over time – a garbage-in-garbage-out problem of sorts. If this doesn’t seem bad enough, many publishers, such as Zondervan, have gone to great pains to make their version of the Bible easy to read at the expense of castrating what the original manuscript intended to convey. In a nutshell, translating and interpreting scripture is a hard problem.
This kind of accidental (or reckless) indoctrination happens all the time, and often causes problems. To give one profound example of this, Dr. Peter Williams outlined slavery in a lecture; the word “slave” rarely ever appeared in Bibles until the 1980s, but is ubiquitous in modern Bibles today of all languages. If you watch his lecture, you’ll see just how that kind of leap was made, and the intricacies about how biblical meanings intertwine with social understanding – a dangerous way to treat scripture. There’s a level of clarity that goes missing in English. For example, a verse in the Greek says, “bind up the loins of the thoughts of your minds”. In Greek, loins literally means “reproductive parts”; so the scripture is saying to bind up the reproductive parts of your mind – significant imagery there, and lots of power. One English translation replaced it with a mere, “be sound minded”. What was wrong with the Greek version? If you’re studying Greek, I’d advise picking up a lexicon that isn’t indoctrinated (such as Oxford’s Greek-English Lexicon – the big, heavy one) to get the full realm of meaning.
When I talk about reliability of scripture, I’m speaking directly to its integrity, as opposed to its interpretation or its translation. Much of the Old Testament’s integrity was confirmed with the discovery of the Dead Sea scrolls between 1947 and 1956. Although most of these scrolls were written in Hebrew, they provided samples of scripture written before AD100, and were surprisingly close to the manuscripts we already had in our possession. These, along with countless other manuscripts, helped in building a critical text of high quality. The most widely accepted New Testament critical text is called the Nestle-Aland text (there is also a UBS variant that is considered widely respected). This critical text incorporates hundreds of different manuscripts and papyrus fragments from all over the world from dozens of languages, and documents notable variations. From this is where a majority of translations ultimately source from, which is why I bought my own copy. The Old Testament masoretic text has also gone under heavy review and new research in this field is particularly promising in restoring the origins of a language that had become convoluted due to many mistakes and lack of vowels in the language’s infancy.
As it goes for historical integrity, it is remarkable how well the texts have survived.
Some dismiss Christianity as a religious system created by man. If this were true, we sure blew it when we could have created a god that was more passive and catered to our emotional and physical desires; one who allows us to live by our own impulses. That’s what Roman gods were all about. Yet Christianity isn’t for the weak minded or the emotionally immature. It speaks of a powerful, perfect God and explains that if one is to follow Christ, they must deny themselves of their own wants and desires. It guarantees trials, tribulation, and persecution – and that’s for the ones who are living right. We must forgive and turn the other cheek. We must suffer ourselves to be defrauded. We are called to be generous, patient, and kind – ugh. Our role models were treated as the garbage of the world, and the Christian signs up for nothing short of this.
Christianity is one of the hardest things to live out – especially if you live in a country that persecutes Christians, which still happens today. Now imagine that you lived during the times of the early church, under the rule of a Caesar. You were considered an enemy of the state, since you refused to worship the emperor as God. You risked being dipped in wax and burned alive, having animal skin sewn to you and fed to animals, or tortured in a number of other ways, simply for believing that Jesus was God, and not Caesar. The faith these early Christians had was unfathomable. Millions would surely not have willingly faced torture and execution if they weren’t completely convinced in the authenticity of God.
It’s easy to forget this in the modern, prosperity-church world. When you choose to become a Christian, you are essentially giving up your allegiance to human nature to follow Christ’s teachings. There are many in this world that give up far more for their faith in God.
Fundamentalism would have you believe that you must believe in a literal seven-day creation, or some other such concepts, to be Christian. Not so. While fundamentalist Christianity may be quite prevalent in American churches today, these ideas have really only been around for around a century and a half. The Bible isn’t a science book; it does not use scientifically precise language, and none of the church fathers or theologians that advocated for a literal interpretation would have even understood such a concept. Scripture is a different species of information from science. Yet it’s not hard to see the fingerprints of God everywhere in science. Christianity doesn’t teach creation any more than it teaches evolution, or any other theory on origin of life. It teaches why, not how. We know we are here for a reason. We have purpose. Reason. Souls. As St. Hilary writes, “For true faith in God would pass unrewarded, if the soul be destroyed by death, and quenched in the extinction of bodily life. Even unaided reason pleaded that it was unworthy of God to usher man into an existence which has some share of His thought and wisdom, only to await the sentence of life withdrawn and of eternal death; to create him out of nothing to take his place in the World, only that when he has taken it he may perish. For, on the only rational theory of creation, its purpose was that things non-existent should come into being, not that things existing should cease to be.” God creating mankind is to accept the most rational reasoning for our existence. To be a biological accident, to have no purpose, and to merely cease to exist upon our death, that is the irrational argument.
It is both sensible and natural to expect that God would have used science to bring the world into existence, and if he used methods similar to evolution, or punctuated equilibrium, or whatever – so be it. Shouldn’t an all powerful god be able to manipulate, or even define, the laws of physics and shape the contours of biology? The book of Romans tells us that not everything that’s God is supernatural- and in fact, that God is clearly seen in the natural things. So if we see something marvelous of his through science, and it is at odds with our interpretation of scripture, shouldn’t we consider that perhaps our interpretation might be wrong? Even the most basic of common sense science can see that the appearance of life on earth is diachronic, yet the most common literal creation interpretations are synchronic. A literal creation event is, by all accounts, incongruent with what we observe in God’s nature. That doesn’t discount God, only the antiquated literal ideas of man.
Yet on both sides of the argument, theories on origin of life (including Darwinian evolution) have become just as much a religion, and just as un-falsible. If you’re going to believe in God, you have to be honest enough to admit that god isn’t magic – he created a universe that abides by laws and constraints. Likewise, if you’re going to study science, you have to be honest enough to admit your atheism is a bias. I believe that the science we study today was inspired by God; a belief that is in good company with many respected mathematicians. I see God’s fingerprints all over what look like design patterns and anthropic tuning of physics and life in a way that could have gone any other way, but didn’t. Perhaps as an engineer, I’m more receptive to the notion of design patterns. These natural processes that we observe, and many used to explain away God, could have just as easily been the scientific building blocks used by a master architect. It’s almost a bit self-aggrandizing of humanity that engineering recognizes design patterns, but biology doesn’t. Descent with modification could be the vehicle, but there’s also something bigger going on here that we’ve yet to adequately understand.
Stephen Jay Gould’s theory of punctuated equilibrium ironically uses the same basic observations that Christians use in their creation theories, but with an atheist’s spin on things. The problem, I suppose, is that sometimes science can be predisposed to philosophically discount the divine, and so therefore no matter how compelling the evidence of God is, the conclusions of any evidence already presume atheism. The opposite is quite true as well among Christians; we tend to discount anything that doesn’t look like magic, confining our own god to cheap parlor tricks. I have no idea how we got here… intelligent design? Darwinian evolution? Literal creation? Punctuated equilibrium? I haven’t seen a theory yet that doesn’t have some big holes in it. We might as well believe that God really did bury dinosaur bones if we’re going to accept any of those without criticism.
Usually when we think about God, we think about an all-powerful king who would most likely want to be served on earth, and contribute to amazing social advances that would solve world problems – all from the comfort of his bathtub. It’s very difficult to imagine a god that became one of us, suffered for us, washed our feet, and took on our sin to become as dirty as us. The most profound part of the Gospel for me is not the resurrection (although that’s the most crucial), but rather when Jesus spoke these words while on the cross:
Eloi, Eloi, Lama Sabachthani?
Which translate to “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”. These words paint the image of Jesus as the bearer of all sin – he is the only god throughout all of history that dared to become as dirty as his people, and sacrifice himself for his people. Jesus overcame sin to pay for a death penalty that we had earned. When he was on the cross, the weight of the sin of the entire world was upon him, and he became sinful like us. The undeniable realization is that God the Father had to turn his back on his son because of the sin that was on Him – our sin.
And so we get a brief glimpse into the relationship between God and his son and observe just how painful humanity’s broken promise to God was. The act of bearing the sins of the world illustrates the love Jesus had for his people, as he was willing to be separated (for a time) from his father by bearing our sin. Never before has anyone else’s god shown such a love to the point where they would themselves become just as dirty and detestable as the world for the purpose of redeeming us. In fact, no other god written about has ever been interested in redeeming us at all, but rather more having us claw our way up to their lofty position. Other gods hold our souls for ransom, but Jesus became a ransom for our souls. Other gods offered rules and asceticism while Jesus offered freedom. He knew we could never make ourselves worthy, and so he stooped to our level of filth so that we could be raised to his level of purity.
Jesus did what no other gods worshipped by the people ever did: dwelled among the people, became common among the people, and sacrificed himself for all humanity.