There is no such thing as a Gnostic Gospel

In 1945 an Arab peasant discovered a collection of papyrus books in a jar buried near Nag Hammadi in Egypt. They included the Gospel of Thomas, the Gospel of Philip and other “Gospels” which are not found in the New Testament. These manuscripts had been written in Coptic (Egyptian) during the fourth century AD, and were translations of earlier Greek texts. Their authors were part of a religious movement known as Gnosticism.

Historians cannot agree on the origins of Gnosticism. It was a combination of Christian, Jewish and pagan beliefs. Gnostics did not believe Jesus was the Son of Jehovah, the Creator God of the Old Testament. They believed the true God was hidden and unknowable, while Jehovah was an evil false god who created the world by accident, trapping  human souls in it. They did not believe Jesus was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament who died to save us from our sins and rose physically from the dead. Gnostics did not believe our problem was sin, but ignorance, and Jesus was a spiritual being (some Gnostics did not even believe Jesus had a physical body), who came to reveal the insight or knowledge (gnosis in Greek) about how souls were trapped and needed to escape from this mistake of a world.

The complete Nag Hammadi writings were first published in English by Professor James M. Robinson in 1977. Elaine Pagels, who is now a Professor at Princeton University, introduced them to the general public when her book The Gnostic Gospels was published in 1979. In 2003 The Da Vinci Code by Dan Brown claimed the Gnostic Gospels, rather than the New Testament, contained the truth about Jesus. Then, in 2006, National Geographic published another Gnostic work, the Gospel of Judas, which had been found at Amber in Egypt around 1978.

When lay people hear that there are Gospels of Thomas, Philip, Judas and others, they may get the impression that they were written by Thomas, Judas and Paul, in the same way that Matthew, Mark, Luke and John are believed to have been the authors of their Gospels. They may assume that the Gnostic Gospels contain historically reliable information about Jesus and the New Testament does not give the complete picture of Jesus.

This impression is encouraged by some of Gnosticism’s modern supporters. For example, the back cover of the DVD of the National Geographic documentary The Gospel of Judas reads,

“Hidden for nearly two thousand years, an ancient Gospel emerges from the sands of Egypt that tells a very different version of the last days of Jesus and questions the portrait of Judas Iscariot as the evil apostle.”

In his book, The Lost Gospel, Herbert Krosney refers to the Gospel of Judas as the “words of Judas” (Herbert Krosney, The Lost Gospel, National Geographic, Washington DC, 2006, p 165). He also writes,

“The Gospel of Judas provided a fresh witness to one of history’s defining events, leading up to the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus Christ. It was as close to a contemporary account of what had happened as many other accounts of Jesus. It was supposedly the gospel, or good news, of one of the chief actors in the epic account of the last days of Jesus.” (The Lost Gospel, p 48)

They make it sound like the Gospel of Judas is on a par with the New Testament Gospels. In other words, between betraying Jesus and hanging himself, Judas found the time to write a Gospel full of Gnostic ideas which probably did not exist at the time.

Students of Christian history used to believe that the orthodox Christians were the original Christians and the Gnostics were heretics who later deviated from the truth. However, the discovery of the Gnostic Gospels supposedly shows that early Christianity was more diverse. In The Gnostic Gospels Elaine Pagels writes,

“According to Christian legend, the early church was different. Christians of every persuasion look back to the primitive church to find a simpler, purer form of Christian faith. In the apostles’ time all members of the Christian community shared their money and property, all believed the same teaching, all revered the authority of the apostles. It was only after that golden age that conflict, then heresy emerged: so says the author of the Acts of the Apostles, who identifies himself as the first historian of Christianity.

But the discoveries at Nag Hammadi have upset this picture. If we admit that some of these fifty-two texts represent early forms of Christian teaching, we may have to recognize that early Christianity is far more diverse than anyone expected before the Nag Hammadi discoveries.” (Elaine Pagels, The Gnostic Gospels, Books, London, 1990, p  20-21)

In his book Lost Christianities Bart Ehrman, Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, writes,

“In the second and third centuries, there were, of course, Christians who believed in one God. But there were others who insisted there were two. Some said there were thirty. Others claimed there were 365.”

“In the second and third centuries there were Christians who believed that Jesus’ death brought about the salvation of the world. There were other Christians who thought that Jesus’ death had nothing to do with the salvation of the world. There were yet other Christians who said that Jesus never died.” (Bart Ehrman, Lost Christianities ,Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003, p 2)

This may sound confusing to Christian readers until one realises that Ehrman is grouping Gnostics together with orthodox Christians and referring to them all as Christians.

Christians do not have to agree on everything. Modern Christianity is diverse with thousands of denominations. Baptists and Presbyterians have some different beliefs, but they still regard each other as Christians and agree on the essential core doctrines. On the other hand, there are groups, like the Mormons and Jehovah’s Witnesses, which go too far and deny the essential doctrines about the nature of Jesus and should be considered as heretics.

The early church was not as unified as Pagels suggests. In Galatians and Acts 15, we can see that the early Christians also did not agree on everything. Paul and some Jerusalem Christians did not agree on whether or not Gentile Christians had to obey the Law of Moses, yet they both agreed that Jesus died for their sins and rose from the dead.

Adherents of a religion can be identified by their beliefs. The Gnostics had very different beliefs about the nature of God, Jesus and salvation. The difference between orthodox Christians and Gnostics cannot be compared to the differences between Christian denominations. Orthodox Christianity has more in common with Islam than with Gnosticism. Those academics, who regard Gnostics as Christians, rarely define what they mean by Christian. It looks like anybody, who believes anything about Jesus or claims Jesus for their agenda, is a Christian. Jesus would not have agreed with such a definition (Matthew 7: 21-23). If I say I am a Muslim, but I do not believe in Allah, the Koran or that Muhammad was a prophet, I am not a Muslim. Likewise, someone, who does not believe in the core Christian ideas about God, Jesus and the New Testament, is not a Christian.

The word “Christian” comes from “Christ” which is Greek for the Hebrew “Messiah”. The Jews believed the Messiah would defeat evil and usher in the kingdom of God. Christians believe Jesus had done this through his death and resurrection and the founding of the Church.  Gnostics believed that Jesus had come from the true hidden God to reveal knowledge of the truth. They did not believe he was the promised Messiah or Christ of the Old Testament. They cannot be Christians.

The Nag Hammadi discovery did not prove the Gnostics really were Christians. Historians have always known about the Gnostics and their different beliefs. Around 180 AD, Irenaeus, Bishop of Lyon, wrote a five volume work, Against Heresies, in which he described and rebutted Gnosticism and other heresies. The pro-Gnostic Elaine Pagels admits that Irenaeus “however hostile, nevertheless is accurate.” (Elaine Pagels, Beyond Belief, Pan Books, London, 2005, p 138) The Nag Hammadi manuscripts only confirm what was already known about their non-Christian beliefs. They do not somehow prove that the Gnostics really were Christians.

If the Gnostic Gospels were historical accounts of the life and ministry of Jesus written by his contemporaries, but they had not made it into the New Testament, then there would be some basis to the modern argument that early Christianity was more diverse and the Gnostics were actually Christians. This is not the case.

The New Testament Gospels were written by contemporaries of Jesus. Matthew and John were written by two of his disciples. Most theologians believe Mark was the first Gospel to be written and Matthew and Luke relied on Mark. According to Papias, Bishop of Hieropolis, writing around 130 AD, Mark received his information from the apostle Peter (Eusebius, Ecclesiastical History, 3:39:15). Peter is believed to have been killed in Rome during the persecution by Nero in 64 AD, meaning Mark’s Gospel must have been written before then.

Luke and its sequel Acts were written by the same person. Luke does not claim to have been an eyewitness, but relied on the accounts of others (Luke 1:1-3). Liberal theologians claim Luke was written around 80-90 AD. However, internal evidence suggests it must have been written before 64 AD. The last half of Acts is an account of the missionary journeys of the apostle Paul. Acts 21-28 describes Paul’s arrest, imprisonment and journey to Rome to face trial. Paul was also killed in Rome by Nero in 64. However, Acts ends with Paul still alive in Rome. If a biography of someone does not mention their death, it was obviously written while they were still alive. I have never heard of a biography written nearly 30 years after the person died but does not mention their death. The logical conclusion is that Acts and its predecessor Luke were written while Paul was still alive, that is before 64, meaning Luke would have been able to rely on contemporaries and eyewitnesses for his information about Jesus. Many theologians believe that one of Luke’s sources for his Gospel was Mark. This again means that Mark must have been written before 64, perhaps in the 50s.

There is no mention of any Gnostic Gospels until the second half of the second century. While Bart Ehrman regards both orthodox Christians and Gnostics as Christians, he has still written that the New Testament Gospels “are our earliest and best accounts of Jesus’ life.” (Bart Ehrman, Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, Oxford University Press, Oxford ,2004, p 110) He says Jesus could not have said the Gnostic teachings attributed to him in Thomas and the other Gnostic Gospels because “we have no evidence to suggest that Gnosticism could be found already in the first two decades of the first century – especially in rural Galilee. These Gnostic sayings must be later traditions, then, placed on Jesus’ lips in some other context (e.g., in the second century, in a place such as Egypt or Syria).” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 125)

When Ehrman examined the historical evidence for Jesus in his book Did Jesus Exist?, the only Gnostic Gospel, which he refers to, is Thomas, a collection of 114 sayings attributed to Jesus, which he suggests was written around 110-120 AD (Bart Ehrman ,Did Jesus Exist?, Harper One, New York, 2012, p 76) and only when it agrees with the New Testament Gospels (Did Jesus Exist?, p 307, 321, 322). He apparently believes the other Gnostic Gospels tell us nothing about the historical Jesus.

Furthermore, Thomas was probably written later than Ehrman suggests. Around 173 AD, Tatian, a Syrian Christian, complied a harmony of the four Gospels called the Diatessaron. In his book Thomas and Tatian and Thomas, The Other Gospel Nicholas Perrin shows that Thomas is based on the Diatessaron. When Thomas is translated into Syriac, over 500 catchwords can be identified (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas and Tatian, Society of Biblical Literature, Atlanta, 2002, p 169). These are words in a saying which can be associated with a word in a nearby saying, i.e., the same word or a similar sounding word, making to easier to memorize. This suggests that Thomas must have originally been written in Syriac.

Moreover, 51 of the 114 sayings in Thomas contain a textual variant which agrees with the Diatessaron. This means that Thomas and the Diatessaron agree with each other, but not with the Greek New Testament. For example, Matthew and Luke say, “Foxes have holes and the birds of the air nests, but the son of man has nowhere to lay the head,” (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:50), but both Thomas and the Diatessaron say, “Foxes have their holes and birds have their nests, but the son of man has no place to lay his head and rest.” (Nicholas Perrin, Thomas, The Other Gospel, Westminster John Knox Press, Louisville, 2007, p 83) This suggests that Thomas is based on the Syriac text of the Diatessaron, so Thomas must have been written after 173 AD.

In contrast, if the Greek words of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark and Luke) are translated back into Jesus’ language, Aramaic, as much as 80% is rhythmic or poetic, which would have made it easier to memorize (Craig Keener, The Historical Jesus of the Gospels, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2009, p 158). This means that the words attributed to Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels were originally spoken by an Aramaic speaker and were not the creation of the Greek-speaking authors of the New Testament and they have been recorded accurately.

The Gnostics claimed they had preserved the inner teachings of Jesus which had been secretly passed down to them. Their actions suggest otherwise. They wrote these supposedly secret teachings down and circulated them so they could be read by their orthodox Christian critics.  Furthermore, Jesus told his disciples to teach everything, which he had taught them, to their disciples, the Church (Matthew 28:19-20). The early Church “devoted themselves to the apostles’ teaching” (Acts 2:42). Peter based his knowledge and authority on being an eyewitness to Jesus (2 Peter 1:16-18). John also said he was an eyewitness and was passing on what had been revealed to him (1 John 1:1-3). Paul instructed Timothy to pass on to “faithful people” what he had taught him (2 Timothy 2:2). Clement, Bishop of Rome, around 96 AD, wrote that Jesus had given the Gospel to the Apostles who had passed it on to the bishops and deacons (1 Clement 42). In Against Heresies Irenaeus (d. 202) said that the Church’s beliefs had been passed down to them from the Apostles and their successor (3:2:1-2) and these were preserved in the four Gospels (3:11:8). They were the inheritors of Jesus’ teaching, not the Gnostics.

In The Da Vinci Code Dan Brown claims, “More than eighty gospels were considered for the New Testament, and yet only a relatively few were chosen for inclusion – Matthew, Mark, Luke and John among them” and “The Bible, as we know it today, was collated by the pagan Roman emperor Constantine the Great.” (Dan Brown, The Da Vinci Code, Corgi Books, , London, 2004, p 313)

In fact, there are only 24   known so-called Gnostic Gospels, Apocryphon of James Apocryphon of John, Apocryphon of Peter, Book of Thomas the Contender, The Birth of Mary, Book of John the Evangelist, Dialogue of the Saviour, Gospel of Bartholomew, Gospel of Basildes, Gospel of the Ebionites, Gospel of the Egyptians, Gospel of Eve, Gospel according to the Hebrews, Gospel of Judas, Gospel of Mary, Gospel of Philip, Gospel of Thomas, Gospel of Truth, Gospel of the Twelve Apostles, , Letter of Peter to Philip, Pistis Sophia and Secret Treatise of the Great Seth.

The exact number of “Gnostic Gospels” is debatable because none of these are Gospels in the same sense as the New Testament ones. In his 1992 book What are the Gospels? A Comparison with Graeco-Roman Biography  Richard Burridge  compared the structure of the Gospels to biographies from the ancient world. Ancient biographies contained little or nothing about the subject’s childhood. They tended to focus on their careers which were usually made up of anecdotes or accounts of events and speeches. There is a lot of attention given to how the person died. Burridge concluded that the Gospels were ancient biographies. Since then most historians have accepted this and they regard the Gospels as biographies of Jesus. (Michael Bird, The Gospel of the Lord, Eerdmans, Michigan, 2014, p 239-240)

None of the Gnostic Gospels are biographies of Jesus. They are not accounts of his ministry, death and resurrection, comparable to the New Testament ones. The Gnostic Gospels consists of Jesus’ supposed sayings with no narrative or context. One would be hard-pressed to tell from the Gnostic Gospels that Jesus even lived in first century Palestine. The only exception is the Gospel of Judas which has a plot about why Judas betraying Jesus was a good thing, but there is still no narrative of his ministry.

“Gospel” means “good news” (euaggelion  in Greek). When we read or watch the news, we expect to learn about what has happened. In the ancient world it was announcing that something good had happened, such as the emperor had won a victory over sin and death. The New Testament Gospels are “good news” because they tell what has happened, what Jesus has done and won a different kind of victory. The Gnostic Gospels are not Gospels, that is, they are not “good news” because their Jesus does not do anything good or great. He purportedly just gives some Gnostic teaching.

The fact that the Gospels were written as biographies shows they were intended to be taken literally and describe what actually happened. The Gnostics do not appear to have had the same concern for historical truth. The Nag Hammadi collection includes Eugnostos the Blessed and The Sophia of Jesus Christ. Eugnostos the Blessed is a letter written by a pagan philosopher to his disciples. It was rewritten as The Sophia of Jesus Christ in which Eugnostos’ words were put into Jesus’ mouth. The Gospel of the Egyptians and the Apocryphon of John are also believed to be Gnostic reworkings of pagan texts (James Robinson (editor), The Nag Hammadi Library in English, Harper, San Francisco, 1990, p 220). Putting a supposed Christian veneer on a pagan text does not make the Gnostics Christian. Rather, it shows their beliefs were pagan in origin. The Gnostics were not interested in preserving the actual words of Jesus. They were looking for figures through which to express their Gnostic ideas.

Elaine Pagels acknowledges their Gospels are not historical,

“Gnostic authors, in the same way, attributed their secret teachings to various disciples. Like those who wrote the New Testament gospels, they may have received some of their material from early traditions. But in other cases, the accusation that the gnostics invented what they wrote contains some truth: certain gnostics openly acknowledged that they derived their gnosis from their own experience.

How, for example, could a Christian living in the second century write the Secret Book of John? We could imagine the author in the situation he attributes to John at the opening of the book: troubled by doubts, he begins to ponder the meaning of Jesus’ mission and destiny. In the process of such internal questioning, answers may occur spontaneously to the mind; changing patterns of images may appear. The person who understands this process not in terms of modern psychology, as the activity of the imagination or unconscious, but in religious terms, could experience these as forms of spiritual communication with Christ. Seeing his own communion with Christ as a continuation of what the disciples enjoyed, the author, when he casts the ‘dialogue’ into literary form, could well give to them the role of the questioners. Few among his contemporaries – except the orthodox, whom he considers ‘literal-minded’ – would accuse him of forgery; rather, the titles of these works indicate that they were written ‘in the spirit’ of John, Mary Magdalene, Philip or Peter.” (Beyond Belief, p 47)

This may leave readers wondering how some academics can believe the Gnostic Gospels represent a valid alternative form of Christianity when they know they are not historically reliable. This is because their opinions are not so much a result of historical research, but of their worldview. They appear to subscribe to a philosophy of postmodernism which says there is no absolute truth and all beliefs are equally true. Texts, such as the Gospels, do not have one true meaning. All interpretations by the reader are equally valid. What the author actually meant is irrelevant. Thus, what Jesus meant, his identity and purpose, are irrelevant to the postmodernist. All ideas about Jesus, orthodox Christian or Gnostic, are equally valid, not whether or not one group has accurately recorded Jesus’ life, teachings and purpose. There is no true Christianity and heresies which have got it wrong. There are many “Christianities”.

Another postmodernist assumption is that “History is written by the winners.” This means the orthodox Christians won, their Gospels were accepted and the Gnostics lost. If the Gnostics had come out on top, they would have become the true Christians and the orthodox Christians would be the heretics. Again, the issue of which side better represents the real historical Jesus is irrelevant.

It may be true that the winners often write history. If Hitler had won World War II and we were all Nazis, our history books would not portray Hitler as an evil dictator. However, it is not always the case. The American lost the Vietnam War, yet they have written numerous books about the conflict. Likewise, Athens lost the Peloponnesian War with Sparta in the fifth century BC, but our knowledge of the war comes from the Athenian historian Thucydides (c. 460-c.395 BC).

The New Testament Gospels were not written by winners, but by a despised and illegal religious minority who were disempowered and persecuted for what they had written and believed. There were a few exceptions but in general, the Roman authorities did not persecute the Gnostics, which suggests the Romans understood what some postmodernist academics do not, that the Christians and Gnostics were two different groups.

The early Christians were persecuted because they refused to sacrifice to the pagan gods. They believed to do so would deny the uniqueness of Jesus. The fact, that the Gnostics were not usually persecuted, suggests they must have compromised, denied Jesus’ uniqueness and sacrificed to the pagan gods.

Postmodernists tend to side with the underdog, those oppressed by the powerful. Thus, they favour the Gnostics whom they see as oppressed by the orthodox Christians. On the other hand, if the Gnostics had “won” and Constantine became a Gnostic, these postmodernist academics would presumably be supporters of orthodox Christianity.

Dan Brown says that Constantine decided which Gospels would be included in the New Testament at the Council of Nicea in 325 (p 313-314, 317).  This is not true. In Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code Bart Ehrman writes,

“The historical reality is that the emperor Constantine had nothing to do with the formation of the canon of scripture: he did not choose which books to include or exclude, and he did not order the destruction of the Gospels that were left out of the canon (there were no imperial book burnings). The formation of the New Testament canon was instead a long and drawn-out process that began centuries before Constantine and did not conclude until long after he was dead. So far as we know, based on the historical record, the emperor was not involved in the process.” (Truth and Fiction in The Da Vinci Code, p 74)

The early Church had already decided by the end of the second century. When it was still powerless and persecuted, that there were only four genuine Gospels. As already mentioned, around 173 AD, Tatian compiled a harmony of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John called the Diatessaron. He did not use any other “Gospels”. In Against Heresies, written around 180 AD, Irenaeus argued that there could only ever be four Gospels because there were four zones of the world, four principal winds, four covenants between God and Man and the cherubim had four faces (AH 3:11:7) . Irenaeus’ reasoning is admittedly dubious but it does show he believed there were only four Gospels. Around 200 AD a list of the Christian canon was drawn up, known as the Muratorian Canon which included the four Gospels. Origen (184-254) wrote, “The Church has four Gospels. Heretics have many.” (Homily on Luke 1:1)

Orthodox Christians did not agree on all of the New Testament books by the end of the second century. The New Testament canon was not finalised until 367. However, the four Gospels had already been accepted for about 200 years. There had only been doubts about whether the General Epistles, Hebrews, James, 2 and 3 Peter, 2 and 3 John, Jude and Revelation, should be included.

Eusebius records how around 200 AD Serapion, Bishop of Antioch, leaned some Christians in Rhossus had been using the Gospel of Peter. At first Serapion accepted it However, when the realised it was not orthodox and could not have been written by Peter, he rejected it and warned others about it (Ecclesiastical History,6:12:2-6). The fact, that Serapion had been previously unaware of the Gospel of Peter, suggests that it was not well-known nor widely distributed, and it was not on a par with the New Testament Gospels. Eusebius does not mention other incidents of Christians being deceived by false Gospels so it sounds like an isolated case. The Gospel of Peter is not even Gnostic in its theology. No Gnostic Gospel was ever considered as canonical and authentic by orthodox Christians.

The Gnostic manuscripts from Nag Hammadi are a significant archaeological discovery in that they show what the Gnostics of the second century, and later, believed. However, they do not challenge or undermine the New Testament’s portrayal of Jesus of Nazareth. The New Testament Gospels were written first and were intended to be biographies of Jesus and record his teachings and achievements. They are Gospels. “good news”, because they tell what Jesus has done for us.

The Gnostic Gospels were written later. Even Gnosticism’s modern academic supporters agree the historical Jesus was not a Gnostic and he did not say the things attributed to him in the Gnostic Gospels. They may be alternative versions of Jesus, but so is Jesus Christ Superstar. They are not reliable historical sources for Jesus of Nazareth. The Gnostics were simply using Jesus as a mouthpiece for their Gnostic beliefs which there is no evidence existed during Jesus’ lifetime.

The Gnostics may have called some of their writings “gospels”, but unlike the New Testament Gospels, they are not biographies of Jesus, concerned with the “good news” of what Jesus has done. The truth is there is no such thing as a “Gnostic Gospel”.

 

 

 

 

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Atheism and the Problem of Evil

One of the most common objections to the existence of God is the evil and suffering in the world. The argument goes, “God is all-loving and all-powerful. An all-loving and all-powerful God would not allow evil and suffering. Since there is evil and suffering in the world, God does not exist.”

The argument, that a good, all-loving, all-powerful God would not allow evil is basically a straw-man argument. This idea of God does not match the God of any religion. Its proponents have made up a God , who would not allow evil, and then argue that the existence of evil means their God does not exist. It is the equivalent of saying, “God is a pink elephant. Pink elephants do not exist. Therefore, God does not exist.”

How do they know God would not allow evil? Have I overlooked a passage in the Bible where God promises never to allow evil and suffering? It is somewhat arrogant for any human to presume to know what an all-powerful, all-loving, all-wise, universe-creating God would do, especially if you don’t believe in Him.

On the other hand, some atheists say because there is no God, there is no such thing as evil. Postmodernists, who tend to congregate in universities cut off from the real world, argue that because there is no God, there is no absolute truth, everything is relative, “What is true for you is not necessarily true for me”, so there is no right and wrong and no evil. Unbelievers argue that the existence of evil means that God does not exist, but if there is no God, there is no such thing as evil. Postmodernism cannot stand up to any critical thinking. The statement “There is no absolute truth” is self-contradictory. Some things, like the law of gravity, are true, whether or not you want to believe they are true.

Nevertheless, postmodernists are right to conclude that if there is no God, there is no source of absolute truth and one person’s opinion about what is right and wrong is no better than anyone else’s. Does the fact, that most of us instinctively reject the moral implications of atheism and still believe there are absolutes, suggest that God really exists?

The issue of God and suffering is largely a Western problem, based on a Judeo-Christian worldview. Those from other religious backgrounds do not struggle with evil. Muslims believe all suffering is Allah’s will. Hindus and Buddhists believe it is because of what you did in a past life and it does not really matter because it’s all an illusion anyway. The ancient Gnostics believed we suffered because God was evil, which might seem a reasonable conclusion. Perhaps we should ask why the Jews of all people did not also conclude that God was flawed, like the ancient pagans believed about their gods, but instead believed He was loving, merciful and forgiving? According to the Bible, this belief is not based on observing the world and all its suffering, but on God revealing Himself to Israel.

If someone is going to argue that an all-powerful, all-loving God would not allow evil, the burden of proof is on them to explain how God would not allow evil – a rather important point which tends to get overlooked. Anyone, who thinks about the issue for five minutes, will come to the conclusion that there is human-caused suffering, wars, genocide, crime and injustice, because there is free will. We have free will, so sometimes (most of the time?)  we choose to do things which cause suffering for others. How is God supposed to stop evil and suffering committed by beings with free will? Should God have stopped the Holocaust by sending down the angels to throw out the Nazis and replace them with liberal democrats?

Even if we are not sure how, many think God should do something about the really big evils in the world or the evil which other people do, but what standard should God use to stop evil, His or ours? God is holy and has a much higher standard of what is right and wrong than we do, e.g. “You have heard that it was said to those of old, “You shall not commit adultery.” But I say to you that whoever looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” (Matthew 5:27-28)

No one, who thinks that God should intervene with the big evils committed by other people, wants God to intervene when they look too long at a hot woman and stop them. They want God to intervene on their terms, but it is doing things on our terms that causes evil and suffering. Their idea of God is a God who is their slave who does what they want, stops others doing something bad, but lets them do whatever they want. Atheists are right. A God like that, with codependency issues, does not exist.

If God were to be consistent and intervene and stop evil according to His standards, we would be living in a nightmare, an Orwellian theocratic dictatorship in which every time there was a sinful thought, God intervened and stopped it. It would be worse than the atheist Communist dictatorships which stuck their lives into everyone’s business. Atheists tried to end suffering through totalitarian control. It didn’t work.

Would we be grateful to God because of all the evil and suffering He had prevented? Of course not. We would think He was an unbearable despot. Actually, we wouldn’t because we wouldn’t be allowed to think that.

if God did not allow evil, we would not know what evil and suffering were and that it was for our own good. God would arguably need to allow suffering for a while, so we could see how bad it was, so we would appreciate God stopping it. Perhaps we are in such a time now, but most of us have not got the message that our way leads to evil and suffering and God’s way is better.

In Joshua in the Old Testament God did something about the problem of evil. He commanded the Israelites to wipe out the Canaanites for their sins. (In his book Is God a Moral Monster (Baker Books, MIchigan, 2011) Paul Copan argues that we get the impression that more Canaanites were killed than actually were.) Atheists do not congratulate God for solving the problem of evil among the Canaanites. They seem to get upset about something which they do not believe happened and say how bad God was for commanding the ethnic cleansing of the Canaanites.

How is God supposed to stop evil without appearing evil to those who think He should stop evil? Whether God allows evil or stops evil, atheists say He is wrong or doesn’t exist. God just can’t win.

Getting back to God and the Holocaust, one way in which God could have prevented the Holocaust would have been if Hitler’s mother had had a miscarriage. No Hitler, no World War II, no Holocaust. There would have been a lot less suffering for the world, except for Mrs Hitler and her miscarriage. If Christopher Hitchens were around then, he would have had said how bad God was for causing Mrs Hitler to lose her precious baby.

However, we would know that Mrs Hitler’s suffering was for the greater good and had prevented so much more suffering.

I’m not suggesting that if you had a miscarriage, that is because your baby would have turned out to be the next Hitler if he had lived. I am suggesting that sometimes cases of suffering could have prevented much greater suffering and we will never know why this side of Heaven because we do not have God’s omniscient perspective.

Free will not only hurts others. Sometimes we make choices which hurt ourselves. If we choose to smoke and get cancer, it is hardly fair to blame God for our suffering. To do so would only reveal our immaturity and an inability to accept responsibility for our actions.

In his book Godforsaken Dinesh D’Souza mentions the case of an atheist friend who committed suicide. At his funeral a family friend said, “God had no right to take that young man.” (Tyndale House, Illinois, 2012, p 6-7) I know this was the statement of a grieving relative who was probably not thinking straight, but was the atheist’s suicide the fault of God he did not believe in because God did not intervene and stop him from doing what he had chosen to do? Is God supposed to stop us every time we do something stupid?

God could have made us so we do not feel any pain, but what would be like if we were all as invincible and indestructible as Superman? Most of us would be completely reckless and irresponsible. There is a website Why won’t God heal amputees? which says that God does not exist because He will not answer the prayers of amputees and regrow their limbs. However, if God did always answer their prayers and regrow limbs, we would chop off our limbs and watch them grow back just for the fun of it. Or is it just me who thinks like that?

We were created with free will. We were also created to experience the consequences of our free will – pain and suffering.

If God were to miraculously end all the suffering in the world, it would last before our selfish natures led us to make decisions which caused suffering in others all over again. Clearly, people like us, who have caused suffering to others, cannot exist in a world with no evil or suffering? What do unbelievers think God should do about us when solving the problem of evil?

People like us also could not exist in a world without suffering because we are all products of suffering. Friedrich Nietzsche (and Kelly Clarkson) said, “What does not kill me makes me stronger.” The Bible says much the same thing, “And not only that, but we also glory in tribulations, knowing that tribulation produces perseverance, and perseverance, character, and character, hope.” (Romans 5:3-4)

It is through suffering that we mature and grow in character. The alternative is spoilt, sheltered people who have never learnt to be patient, diplomatic or control their anger because they have never had to deal with difficult people or situations.

Some unbelievers might say that if God were nicer to us, they would be more likely to believe He exists. This did not work in the Old Testament where God blessed the Israelites but it only made them complacent and they turned away from God.

I recently heard the expression, “The more blessed we are, the less thankful we are.” Australia is arguably the best place in the world to live, we have so much stuff, yet it seems full of people who whinge about everything. In contrast, when Australians come back from Third World countries, they often comment how people living in slums with nothing are happy and content. They must be an advertiser’s nightmare – they do not have all the things they must have to make them happy and fulfilled. The absence of suffering does not make us better people.

This presents a Catch 22 problem for those who think God should not allow suffering because people who have never suffered or suffered little, are not very nice. They are selfish people who are likely to make choices which cause suffering in others.

I have noticed that often success and the absence of suffering seem more likely to cause people to stop believing in God, rather than suffering. This makes sense. If you are overwhelmed by problems and your

On the other hand, I have seen many Christians, who get good jobs, get married, buy a house and decide they have what they really want, so they do not need God anymore and stop coming to church. We can see this on a global scale where Christianity is in decline in prosperous Western nations, but is growing in Africa, Asia and South America where they are experiencing suffering and poverty.

Many in the West look to the suffering in the Third World as proof that God does not exist, yet the suffering in the Third World do not necessarily feel like that. Dinesh D’Souza writes in Godforsaken,

“There is something a little off key about Western academics saying, “I have lost my faith because of the suffering of the Rwandans,” while Rwandans are saying, “Our faith draws us closer to the only one who can console and protect us, which is God.” I recently spoke at a prayer breakfast at the United Nations and had the opportunity to discuss this point with a number of African diplomats.”I am always amazed,” one of them told me, “that people in the West always think they know better, even about what we are going through.”He then wryly added, “I do believe we are the world’s experts in understanding our own experience.”” (Godforsaken, p 12)

If someone has experienced terrible suffering which has caused them to doubt God exists, that is understandable and I know such people will not be comforted with arguments about free will. However, it seems somewhat absurd for philosophy lecturers and other academics with tenure in universities to go on about how they cannot believe in God because of all the suffering in the world when they have had so little experience of suffering themselves. Perhaps, only those, who have experienced great suffering, are truly qualified to comment on whether suffering disproves the existence of God, especially since suffering often has the opposite effect and increases faith in God.

There are some forms of suffering, such as world hunger and earthquakes, which may not appear to be the result of human free will. However, free will does contribute to world hunger and I don’t just mean the way multinationals exploit the poor in the Third World. The increased use of biofuels to replace petrol has meant that some agricultural land, which was once used to grow food, is now being used to grow biofuel for people’s cars. This has resulted in food shortages and higher prices in the Third World. There are probably some atheists driving around on biofuel blaming the God they do not believe in for hunger in the Third World.

Natural disasters, such as earthquakes,cannot be blamed on free will, unless you choose to live in an earthquake zone. However Dinesh D’Souza points out that earthquakes are a result of plate tectonics and without the movement of these plates, causing earthquakes and forcing land upwards, the world would be underwater and no life could exist (Godforsaken, p 123-125). Perhaps we should think of earthquakes as something good and essential for life, which has gone bad. Romans says that all of creation has been corrupted because of human sin (Romans 8:20-22).

All the suffering in the world is supposed to mean God does not exist, but if God does not exist, what’s wrong with suffering? Isn’t it usually just natural selection in action? Why do we think the Holocaust and ethnic cleansing are wrong and not just natural selection and survival of the fittest?

When the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami killed over 200,000 people, some blamed God and argued that it proved He did not exist, but no one suggested it was good because there were fewer people to consume resources and increased our own chances of survival. Why not? Most people, who believe in evolution, are hypocrites, which is a good thing, because unless they are Nazis or in prison, they do not live according to the principles of natural selection and survival of the fittest. We are supposed to be products of millions of years of violence and suffering, yet when we see violence and suffering around us, we do not attribute it to natural law, the ways things are, our instincts scream that this is wrong. Many peole believe in evolution in their heads, that we are products of natural selection, violence and suffering, but in their hearts, they do not want this to be true. They do not believe all this sufffering is normal and natural.They feel that things are not suposed to be like this. Deep down they long for a Christian worldview with justice, meaning and purpose, where suffering is wrong and will one day end.

In theology there is the idea of redemptive suffering – suffering which results in a greater good. An example of this is the story of Joseph in the Old Testament. Joseph suffered, was sold into slavery, then falsely accused and imprisoned, yet as a result of his suffering he became the second most powerful person in Egypt and saved Egypt and his family from famine.

Tim Keller writes in The Reason for God,

“Whenever I preach on this text [Joseph], I hear from many people who identify with that narrative. Many people have to admit that most of what they really needed for success in life came to them through the most difficult and painful experiences. Some look back on an illness and recognise that it was an irreplaceable season of personal and spiritual growth for them. I have survived a bout with cancer and my wife has suffered with Crohn’s disease for years, and we would both attest to this. I knew a man in my first parish who had lost most of his eyesight after he was shot in the face during a drug deal gone bad. He told me that he had been an extremely selfish and cruel person, but he had always blamed his constant legal and raltional problems on others. The loss of his sight had devasted him, but it had also profoundly hummbled him. ‘As my physical eyes were closed, my spiritual eyes were opened, as it were. I finally saw how I’d been ttreating people. I changed, and now for the first time in my life, I have friends, real friends. It was a terrible price to pay, and yet I must say it was worth it. I finally have waht makes life worthwhile.’ Though none of these people are gratefeul for the tragedies themselves, they would not trade the insight, character and strength they had gained for anything.” (Hodder, London, 2008, p 24-25)

Romans says “all things work together for good to those who love God” (Romans 8:28). It does not say all things work together for good for everybody, everything which happens to everybody has meaning and purpose and good will result from it, only for “those who love God”. If we trust God and want to be part of His kingdom where His will is done, then our suffering has meaning. He uses it to fulfil His purposes so that we will turn from sin and depend on God. Suffering is a sign of God’s love for us (2 Corinthians 12:8-10, Hebrews 3:19, Revelation 3:10).

I do not know of anybody, who blames God for allowing suffering, who has grown from their suffering. For those who do not love God, who do not Him in control, sometimes there is no purposes and meaning to their suffering. S___ happens. Nonbelievers say this means God does not exist, but what are they complaining about? They do not want to be part of God’s kingdom, so God gives them what they want, a world of meaningless suffering, separated from God’s love and power.

Evil and suffering exist because God chose to create beings with free will, capable of good and evil, and we often choose evil. In His omniscience God believed this way was better than creating a race of Terminators, Stepford Wives or zombies, incapable of free will or suffering, even though He knew all the suffering which would result. God believed that the ultimate end, eternal life and joy in a new heaven and earth without suffering for those who trust that they are forgiven through Jesus’ death and resurrection, was worth all the suffering.

God also chose to be part of our suffering. Jesus not only became our sins (2 Corinthians 5:21) and died for them (1 Corinthians 15:3,1 Peter 3:18). Jesus also”has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows” (Isaiah 53:4). God in Jesus Christ became and experienced both our sins and all the suffering which resulted from them. All the suffering, which everyone has experienced, Jesus also experienced on the Cross. God took responsibility for all the suffering which resulted from His decision to create us with free will.

The Culture Wars, Enemy of Revival

In the United States the two sides of the “culture wars” are the politically correct Left and the conservative Right, which includes the Religious Right of evangelical Christians, and the war is over moral and social issues, such as gay rights, abortion, the arts and more.

Australia has fewer practising Christians than the United States, so we are not likely to see the emergence of a Religious Right with a similar influence as in the United States.

Our version of the culture wars is nowhere near as bitter as the United States’. For example, Bob Brown, the former leader of the Greens, Australia’s third largest political party, is an atheist homosexual and 99% of Australian Christians couldn’t care. If Bob Brown were in American politics, some  fundamentalist Christians would accuse him of being the Antichrist.

I used to be more interested in Christian involvement in politics and the culture wars. I have always been disillusioned with both sides of politics in Australia which would not represent the wishes of those who elected them. I used to identify with the Far Right of Australian politics (or the “freedom movement” as they like to call themselves), but without the racism, anti-Semitism and Holocaust denial.

I had hopes that a new genuinely conservative political movement would emerge in Australia which would introduce reforms like Citizens’ Initiated Referenda or Voter’ Veto which would ensure that legislation which did not have the support of the majority of the voters could be overturned in a referendum.

The only mainstream political party I identified with was the National Party. When I was in first year university in 1983, I used to graffiti “Joh for PM” on the desks. Joh Bjekle-Petersen was the controversial National Party premier of Queensland for many years. In 1987 there was a “Joh for PM” campaign which ended in disaster and kept the Coalition out of government. I can’t help but think I’m somehow responsible for this and the idea from my graffiti somehow made it to Queensland.

In 1994 to 1996 the National Party set up in Tasmania and I was President of the Esk Branch and State Chairman of the Policy Committee. The Tasmanian Nationals imploded and failed spectacularly at the 1996 State and Federal elections. Part of the problem was that some people were treating the party as a career move. They would not have been good enough to get preselected for the Liberal Party, so they were trying the Nationals. They were more concerned with promoting themselves, rather than promoting the Party and co-operating with other members whom they viewed as the competition. This attitude was even more worrying since there were so many Christians in the Tasmanian Nationals.

I used to be interested in conspiracy theories. Being a member of the National Party helped break their hold over me because it enabled me to see how politics really worked, rather than the simplistic view that everything is part of a conspiracy and nothing happens by accident. In the Nationals I met and had conversations with several Federal politicians. It should take a high level of intelligence to be part of a conspiracy to subvert democracy and install a world government and some of these politicians simply did not have the intelligence to part of such a conspiracy.

After all, do all the people, who believe George W. Bush was behind the 9/11 attacks, really think he could have managed to avoid blurting out that he did it?

Since 1996 there has been One Nation, Australia First, Tasmania First,  Katter’s Australia Party, Palmer United Australia Party and the Jacqui Lambie Network and similar parties which took votes from each other and failed to achieve any long term results.

With all due respect to those involved, I doubt that an alternative political party will be able to emerge in Australia to save us from the Liberals, ALP and Greens. Many (most?) voters in Australia are disillusioned with the major parties, but they keep voting for them because they want stable government rather than a minority government or a coalition of smaller parties or independents which might actually represent the interests of their electorates.

This is arguably for the best since political solutions, trying to turn the clock back to a world which no longer exists, are not the answer to the problems facing Australia and the United States.

Some people accuse the Religious Right of wanting to set up a theocracy where Christians run the government and impose Christian values on the rest of the nation. This may be true for some, but in his book God’s Politics Jim Wallis (not to be confused with Jim Wallace of the Australian Christian Lobby) suggests they are more likely to be concerned about protecting their children from the moral decline in society (Jim Wallis, God’s Politics, Lion Hudson, Oxford, 2005, p 322-324)

The problem is real. Western society is in moral decline, but their solution is wrong. After all, the Religious Right has been around for over 30 years in the United States, but they have not succeeded in stopping abortion, family breakdown, the gay agenda, pornography and other problems. In fact, they are getting worse. It is not working.

Jesus did not found a political movement. He did not give us a political ideology called “family values” which the church is to impose on society. Jesus gave us good news that although we are all sinners, we are forgiven and reconciled to God through his death and resurrection.

Jesus said, “My kingdom is not of this world. If My kingdom were of this world, My servants would fight.” (John 18:36) Does “fight” include the non-violent, but confrontational and bitter, struggles of the culture wars?

Instead, the Religious Right has turned Christianity into one side of a political debate. They seem to have forgotten that those on the other side are not the enemy, but, like themselves, sinners who need God’s grace and mercy.

Unfortunately, many of them are rejecting Jesus, but not because they are rejecting the Gospel. They are rejecting the right-wing moralist political agenda which many Christians are promoting as Christianity. I saw an example in the 2005 documentary Protocols of Zion where, about 14 minutes in, the interviewer Marc Levin was speaking to two protesters at a rally in New York who said words to the effect of, “If George W. Bush is a Christian, I would rather go to hell.”

Do the Religious Right think Jesus is pleased with their political activity if it causes people to reject the salvation made possible by his death? Are any political goals worth turning people off the Gospel?

There have been other periods of moral decline in the West, such as the early 18th Century and early 19th Century. The churches did not try to rectify these declines by getting into politics and passing laws. They repented of their sins and turned back to God, resulting in the First Great Awakening of the 18th Century and the Second Great Awakening of the 19th Century. They experienced revival and large numbers of non-Christians were converted and then society was transformed, returning to Christian values.

The pattern for revival is explained in this passage, “When I shut up heaven and there is no rain, or command the locusts to devour the land, or send pestilence among My people, if My people who are called by My name will humble themselves, and pray and seek My face, and turn from their wicked ways, then I will from heaven, and forgive their sin and heal their land.” (2 Chronicles 7:13-14)

Jesus said Christians are supposed to be the salt of the earth (Matthew 6:13), the preserving influence on society. If society is in moral decline, that is because the salt has lost its flavour. The Church is in moral decline because it has turned away from God.

During the 1960s and 1970s Western society began to decline morally again. This time, instead of humbling themselves, confessing their sins and turning back to God, the evangelical churches in the United States went into politics to pass laws to stem the rising tide of immorality.

They formed the Moral Majority, whose name did not exactly inspire humbleness and repentance of their sins, and which suggested their opponents were the immoral minority.

The doctrine that Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world (John 17:36) and that we are “aliens and strangers in the world” (1 Peter 2:11) seemed to have been forgotten as Christians were defending their pre-1960s world against the new world of the “secular humanists” and progressives.

They gave credence to the lie of their “secular humanist” opponents that political solutions are the answer to society’s woes, not the transforming Gospel of Jesus.

If we look at First Century Jerusalem, who would be the equivalent of the Moral Majority and the Religious Right? Would it be the early church described in Acts or would it be the Pharisees?

The Bible says there is no moral majority. We are all part of the immoral majority (Romans 3:10,23), but some of us have faith that we are forgiven through Jesus’ death. Instead, it looks like the Gospel of grace has to compete with a conservative political message. In his book Beyond Culture Wars Michael Horton writes,

“Recently, I was being interviewed by a radio station, and a man called in who said he was looking for answers and had finally decided, after many years away from church, to give it a try again. He went to a conservative church and , according to his report, heard nothing but a political speech. These are the kinds of reports I used to hear conservative preachers use to show how liberals had turned the pulpit into a soap-box for radical politics. But now we are just as worldly, just as willing to embrace other gospels. Our own people cannot name the Ten Commandments, and yet we are outraged that they are removed from public halls; vast numbers of people in the churches cannot define the Gospel in terms of justification by grace alone through faith alone, while we treat the moral and political crises and solutions as ultimate.” (Michael Horton, Beyond Culture Wars, Moody Press, Chicago, 1994, p 122-123)

Horton also writes,

“The statistics demonstrate that evangelicals are about as materialistic, self-oriented and hedonistic as the unbelievers. It is an irony that at a time when evangelicals are the most worldly themselves that they would be at such a judgemental and even self-righteous pitch. If we are living no differently from the world, what is wrong with these very things we are complaining about. If the children of believers are watching more MTV than the children of unbelievers, as one poll suggests, should we not begin in our own homes before we poke our noses into the homes of those who are not even Christians? If we want to end abortion, why don’t we start by explaining the doctrine of creation to our own congregations, since evangelicals account for one in six abortions in this country?” (Beyond Culture Wars, p 167)

Banning abortion may stop the killing of the unborn, but that would not address the deeper problem of sin in the Church which has resulted in so many evangelical Christian having abortions. The culture wars are a case of Christians trying to take the speck out of others’ eyes, while ignoring the plank in their own (Matthew 7:1-5).

ceasefire

Tom Sine got to the real problem in his book Cease Fire,

“Ivan Illich wrote an education classic called Deschooling Society in which he coined the term “hidden curriculum”. What is the “hidden curriculum in a Christian family in which the kids all have their own CD players, TVs. VCRs, and phones, and, when they get to be a certain age, their own cars? With each succeeding generation, Madison Avenue, the media, and pop culture are gaining greater control over our youth.”

[This was written in 1995 before the rise of smartphones and social media.]

“Do you know what I’m talking about? Every Christmas looks like the department store blew up in the living room! In this “hidden curriculum”, the clear message to the Christian young is that “things” are what matter most. Generation X has gotten the message, and many, including the Christian young, have become disciples of a celebrity culture and devotees of the religion of instant gratification. We are losing them to the new shrines of worship in America, where too many Christian families go to do their devotion – the shopping malls.”

….

“I am convinced that we can’t just blame modern society  for the growing sexual promiscuity of the young. part of the responsibility must also lie with Christian parents who have conditioned their young from the time they were infants to focus on meeting their own needs and desires  and get the best they can for themselves. We are raising the Christian young with a driven, acquisitive individualism that affects every facet of their lives, including the development of their sexual behaviour and their moral values.  It is very difficult for the young to discipline their sexual appetites when they are often encouraged to freely satisfy their consumer appetites with little discipline at all. they need to learn to just say no to all the seductions of secular culture, not just premarital sex.”

“For all the talk about the lordship of Jesus by evangelicals, the real message to the Christian young is to get their careers underway, their house in the suburbs (if they can afford them), and their upscale lifestyle started. Then, if have anything left over, they can follow Jesus like the older generation.”

……….

“What has happened is that we have sold the Christian young the wrong dream. Christian families, churches, and schools have all sold them the American dream with a little Jesus overlay.”

“The real secular threat to our families is not some pack of secular humanists out there trying to do in our families. The real threat is Christian parents who unwittingly allow the aspirations and values of Enlightenment secularism to order their private world and dictate the values they pass on to the next generation.” (Tom Sine, Cease Fire, Eerdmans, Michigan, 1996, p 233-235)

Amen.

Clearly, the culture wars are the enemy of revival. They appeal to pride and make those, whom Jesus loves and died for, the enemy to be defeated, and alienates them from the Gospel. They promote another Gospel (Galatians 1:8-9) of political solutions to society’s problems, rather than the Cross. They deny that sin in the lukewarm evangelical church is the problem. They divert our attention from the real solution to the West’s moral decline – for Christians to humble themselves, turn from their sins and the world’s lies, including its false solutions, and turn back to God. Then , revival, spiritual awakening and social transformation will come.