Friday, 19 June 2009

Eternal Life and Forgiveness of Sins

Hands up who would like eternal life in a perfect world? The good news following my statement that Christians believe everyone is a sinner (see previous blog) is that Christians also believe everyone can be forgiven and saved. Now, this sounds like good news, but what does it actually mean?

God sent Jesus to earth to live amongst mankind and experience the difficulties of being human, the temptation to sin. But Jesus, being the Son of God, was able to lead a perfect sinless life. As is well known Jesus’ life came to an early end when he was betrayed by Judas Iscariot and he was crucified. The death on the cross of Jesus is the foundation of the Christian faith. In effect it is an exchange orchestrated by God for our benefit. God planned that Jesus, his only Son, would die so that our sins can be forgiven.

I find it difficult to grasp the full extent of the implications of God’s generous exchange. When Jesus died on the cross he somehow took on all the sins of the world, both contemporary and future sin. God exchanged all the sin in the world for the life of the only perfect man that has ever lived. In this amazing deal God gives everyone the option to have their sins forgiven and be rewarded with eternal life in heaven. It sounds easy! Why would God do this, because he certainly doesn’t seem to get much from the deal? The simple answer is God does this because he loves us and has given us the freewill to decide for ourselves.

Now as we would expect in our material world such a promise does not come without a condition. The sins that you and I commit can be forgiven by God. We need to take action to have our sins forgiven; we need to say sorry for our selfish ways, the things we do that are not motivated by love. Christians would describe this as “repenting our sins”. We need to thank God for sending Jesus to die in exchange for our sins and recognise Jesus as our Saviour. If we do this genuinely, from the heart, then we will be forgiven and will get eternal life. This is what Christians mean when they talk about being saved.

Does this mean Christians can do whatever they want, knowing their sins are forgiven? Well no. If you accept God as Saviour and love God with all your heart then you will wish to lead your life to God’s standards or at least aspire to. I guess this is the hard bit, our motives are critical, we have to be genuine. If Christians aren’t genuine then the all-seeing, all-knowing, all-powerful God will know. Basically it is back to love, which needs to be the primary motive for all a Christian’s thoughts and actions. And this is so difficult!

Tuesday, 16 June 2009

Sin - What is Sin?

Once I started reading about Christianity and talking to other Christians it soon became clear that sin is one of the key concepts to grasp when trying to understand Christianity. I have come to realise my view of sin was totally mistaken and I don’t think I had a particularly different appreciation to many other non-Christians. It makes you wonder how Christians have so let others fail to understand their view of sin for the last 2000 years!

I had assumed Christianity was all about being good, doing your best to live a virtuous life. A life in many ways defined by no and not: no swearing, no drinking, no smoking, no drugs, not being materialistic, acquisitive or obsessed by earthly things like money, fashion and gadgets. In short no fun. I thought a Christian life was about being sensible, acing in moderation and avoiding excess. In my mind Christians were the good guys, despairing of everyone else; the sinners. This makes Christians seem judgemental and even superior and not surprisingly can cause resentment. But this is not what Christians believe nor is it what Christianity teaches about sin.

So what is sin? Well, it’s a difficult question but the answer starts with God and our old friends Adam and Eve. For me sin is perhaps the main reason why we hear about Adam and Eve in the Bible. Most people understand the traditional story in so far as Eve follows the advice of the serpent and influences Adam to eat an apple from the forbidden tree. Then there is much more confusion. Somehow this was not a good thing to have done and it had consequences for the whole of humanity, not just Adam and Eve who were expelled from the Garden of Eden.

My view is this is one of those Bible stories that make a far deeper point easier to understand. God created a perfect world, with everything in balance giving humans all they needed to live. There was no need to grow food, plough fields etc, we could enjoy nature and live in harmony with God. I think of this as the Garden of Eden. Adam and Eve symbolise humanity and the choice humans make to go against the wishes of God. This is one of those other Christian concepts, what gets called “freewill”. God gave us the ability to think and make decisions and Adam and Eve used it to decide to go against God and follow the advice of the devil (serpent). The result of this turning away from God is man has to work to feed himself and woman has to suffer in childbirth. Being expelled from the Garden of Eden is saying the perfect world became corrupted with the man made introduction of sin.

Christians know the advent of sin as “the fall” or will say that we live in a “fallen world”. It is mankind’s turning away from God and doing anything in conflict with God’s wishes that is sin.

The story is so human. It has behaviour and characteristics that are directly relevant today. Adam and Eve had everything they needed, but they wanted more. They had to have the one thing they were expressly forbidden from having. When they finally succumbed to temptation and had the forbidden fruit they were embarrassed and hid from God. They knew they had done wrong. Today we still have an innate sense of when we are doing wrong, even if we have no idea where these values of right and wrong originate.

Humanity as a whole is sinful, we are all sinful. Christians are sinful. The only human life ever lived that has been without sin, is Jesus, the Son of God. Humans clearly do many bad things that most would recognise as bad or sinful, they murder, steal, cheat on marital partners. But sin runs much deeper than that, humans do things that might not necessarily seem bad for selfish reasons and to look good. Our motives for action can make those actions sinful. Our motives are suspect when we do not act out of love.

In being sinful Christians are no different to non-Christians, except perhaps they are more conscious of it!. It explains to me why my Grandmother always used to retort “I go to church because I’m bad, not because I’m good” when one the family teased her about being a goody-goody who went to church. Christians should not judge people as judgement is Gods prerogative not ours. There is no hierarchy of sin, there is no thinking “well this is only a tiny sin” and “this one is a much worse sin”. A Christian recognises the sinful world, believes in God and loves him wholeheartedly. A Christian tries to conduct their lives in accordance with Christian teachings out of their love for God.

Having now said that we are all sinful, my next blog must be more cheerful! The good news is there is plenty to be cheerful about in the face of sin.

Friday, 5 June 2009

You can't Believe that Adam and Eve Story, can you?

The story of Adam and Eve was another of the reasons I rejected the whole Christian package.

We all know the story of Adam and Eve, don’t we? God created Adam, the first man on earth, put him to sleep and extracted a rib from which he made Eve. They lived at one with God in the Garden of Eden, a kind of paradise with plenty of food to eat. The devil in the form of a snake tempted Eve to eat an apple from the forbidden tree. This resulted in Adam and Eve being flung out of the Garden of Eden, with Adam destined to work land for food and Eve destined to suffer pain in child birth. The first couple had two sons, Cain and Abel, one of whom killed the other and somehow the whole world gets populated from there on.

This simplified account, or something close to it, is probably the account most non-Christians are familiar with. I am embarrassed to admit my views were formed without reading the biblical account in the first few pages of Genesis.

Having now read Genesis and works on the subject by other authors I have come to the understanding that many Bible stories are not meant to be taken literally. It seems this story would have meant something quite different to those who read it at the time it was written down. Most of us lack the contextual understanding of the language and culture to extract the full original meaning from the text, apart perhaps from some Old Testament scholars.

That said I believe there are a number of points we can clearly take from the story.

  • God made the world perfect with people in his image
  • In choosing to disobey God, humans brought sin in to the world
  • Man has a responsibility to look after the earth upon which he lives
  • Man and woman are meant to be together as one, in partnership.

I think in context of the other Genesis stories that both precede and follow Adam and Eve, the important point of the Adam and Eve story is that it introduces sin to the world. The successive descendents of Adam and Eve are shown to become ever more distant from Gods path, causing great frustration and anger in God. God’s anger eventually produces the flood to wipe out life on earth, apart from Noah who God allows to save his family and the animals because Noah is the only one who lives a good life. So from Adam and Eve’s initial sin humanity has a downward path of greater sin, until God regrets creating people and wipes them out apart from Noah and family.

Maybe one day in my studies I will reach a much fuller understanding of this story. I’m sure it can be pieced together, but for now it is enough for me to know it is not a literal story. The story is a mechanism for a deeper message, to teach us about the workings of God.

Tuesday, 2 June 2009

Can you really believe in Divine Creation

My rejection of the whole Christian package was largely based on my understanding of the Creation versus Big Bang debate. I could not see how to reconcile a seven day divine creation with scientific knowledge of the formation and development of the earth and universe. If the Bible was incorrect on this point, then it undermines its whole credibility. In order to become a Christian, confident in my faith, I have had to genuinely overcome this obstacle. This is my personal understanding, far simpler than academics on both sides of the debate, but how I have come to resolve the question.

The Bible is not a concise history of the universe and our world, nor is it a science book. It does not seek to tell us everything that has happened and how from the beginning of the universe onwards. What the Bible does contain is Gods message to humanity, teaching about our place in the vast universe, why we are here, the purpose and meaning of life, our responsibilities on earth, how we should conduct ourselves and the future that can be ours.

Genesis, the first book in the Bible, seems to have been written approximately 3000 years ago. It is amazing that something written so long ago can still cause such passionate discussion. Despite its age the Genesis creation story carries a timeless message for all, which is obviously the point.

I understand this to be essentially a simple message that is surrounded by much confusion. In context, the creation of the universe naturally is the first story of the Bible, but it is told in a single page before the narrative moves on to the Garden of Eden.

The simple message of the Genesis creation account is that God created everything.

There is no need to dwell on the seven days of creation or the particular order of the creation. The Bible often uses stories to help us understand its message. I am convinced this is a story to present the main point that God created everything. The universe is here because God created it, there is light and dark, day and night, land and water, animals and people because God wanted this to be so and made it happen.

Scientists are trying to answer the questions surrounding the what, when and how of the creation of the universe and human life. There is an excellent book by Bill Bryson, “A short history of nearly everything”, which succeeds in explaining science to non-scientists. I took from this book just how precarious life is and how perfect creation is. If the equations and balances at play were only just slightly different, then there would be no life. It seems implausible that all these perfect arrangements exist through random chance.

The science as yet is incomplete. Assuming at some point in the future scientists develop complete coherent theories describing and explaining life and the universe, we will still be left with the question, why? And why we are here? This is what the Bible is telling us. We are here because God made it so.

Friday, 22 May 2009

Christians Give Christianity a Bad Name

The wicked things done in the name of religion were one of the major reasons I rejected any involvement with any religion. There is a disgracefully long list of crimes that the Christian religion has been used to justify, including violence, fraud, greed, corruption and all kinds of atrocities. A few examples readily spring to mind:
Spanish Inquisition and the torturing of heretics
  • Institutionalised child abuse within the Catholic Church
  • Sectarian violence in Northern Ireland
  • Catholics and Protestants burning each other at the stake
  • The crusades in the Middle Ages
  • Selling of dubious relics claiming to be from Jesus or other saints
  • False TV evangelists who are always ready for your credit card

And I know there are many more that could be mentioned, but the most distressing fact is religion is still abused in this way.

What I have come to recognise is that you can’t blame God for the actions of those who claim to be Christian. God teaches us through the Bible and the example of the life of Jesus how we should conduct ourselves; acting always out of love. This central Christian message is separate to the actions of people, however much they claim to be Christian. People after all are only human; they get things wrong, have imperfect motives and are clearly capable of great wrongs. To deny the message of God because of the actions of some followers would be like blaming a football team for the behaviour of its supporters or blaming parliamentary democracy for the MPs expense scandal.

Christianity is primarily about a person’s relationship with God. He loves us and wants to have a relationship with us, but has granted us the free will to decide for ourselves whether we want this relationship. A Christian does not necessarily have to be part of a church or organised religion; it can be a very personal matter.

I have found developing a relationship with God a difficult concept to get to grips with and have been surprised to find many mature Christians also have difficulties. Like any other relationship it grows from small beginnings. It takes time and builds through prayer, which is just talking to God. I find encouragement in books by other Christians, reading about their experiences helps develop your own faith. I now enjoy going to church where I meet other Christians and feel part of a community (the Christian word for this is fellowship). Through church I have joined a house group where we study Christian teachings.

I now see church as a community of like minded individual Christians who come together to worship God.