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A Wineskin In The Smoke

A Wineskin In The Smoke

Doubting As I Grow Old

Doubt is always an issue for Christians. Recently I struggled with the question of the existence of God. I even listened to two atheists on YouTube and then, reading Psalm 119, I found my answer. These are my thoughts about atheism, doubt and how to read the Bible.

Psalm 119 describes a state of human affairs as being like a “wineskin in the smoke”. Obviously, this is an idiom and its doubtful we will ever know exactly what it means. The context suggests something dried up, useless. I had read the Psalm many times before I actually noticed the phrase. When I did see it my imagination was piqued. It’s an image that has stayed with me.

The phrase is found in the “Kaph” section of Psalm 119, verses 81-88. The Psalmist’s use of the idiom adds to the image from the previous verses. He longs for salvation and only has hope in God’s Word. He has been looking for God’s promise to the end that his eyes fail. “When will you comfort me?” he cries. Then he declares that, though he is like a wineskin in the smoke he trusts God. He still finds hope in God’s Word.

Searching the Internet I found an informative comment on the idea. Click this link to find it.

The comments from Justin Hale were very interesting. Basically, old wineskins were renewed by hanging them in a tent with hot coals and pouring water and spices on the coals. This rejuvenated the old wineskin. Once the wineskin was rejuvenated it could be filled with stable, fully fermented wine. In his comments he suggests that these old wineskins were valuable. So, perhaps, I’m like one of those old, rejuvenated wineskins? Don’t put new wine in me, I’ll burst. Put the old, well aged wine in me. 🙂 

This could easily describe Job. For, like the Psalmist, Job never abandons his faith. Job does question God, who replies, in effect, ‘How dare you! Where were you when I created the world?’ (Well, Elihu in chapter 32 & following…but almost the whole book questions God.) If you read it carefully you’ll see that God is not angry, He’s somewhat amused. God asks who is using ‘words without knowledge’ and then says, “Brace yourself like a man; I will question you, and you shall answer me.” (Job, chapter 38, NIV) And, yes, I enjoy the way God phrases it, “Words without knowledge”. We all (All Y’All plus me) do that much more than we think. We think and say things without knowing what we’re talking about. I pray that I don’t engage in that, especially as I write this.

I’ve been struggling with some medical issues and sometimes wonder why God has not healed me. I have reminded myself of others who God did not heal, including my bishop’s wife. She suffered for many years, but God never healed her. Instead, God used her as a catalyst, her prayers for healing others were most often answered affirmatively.

One image of a ‘wineskin in the smoke’ rings true with me. The image of a wineskin hanging in a tent with the smoke of the cooking fire blowing around it, drying it out, making it brittle, is how I sometimes feel. I’m getting old. Arthritis and other medical issues influence my daily routine. Twenty years ago I could do almost as I pleased. Now I have to take my aged body into account. I can’t go out in the forest with just my dog. It’s difficult to even go shopping. Walking around a mall or even a WalMart is very tiring.

So I struggled with doubt. Does God really exist? Are my prayers futile? I knew what devout Christians would say. I wondered what atheists would say. So I looked at a few YouTube videos from two men who were Christians but are now atheists.

One was Dr. Bart Ehrman (UNC Theology Professor) who explained why he’s now an “agnostic atheist” in an episode of “Misquoting Jesus”, his YouTube vlog. You can find it here. I also watched the vlog of a young man who sometimes sounds like he struggles with his atheistic beliefs: The Genetically Modified Skeptic. His vlog on why he is an atheist can be found here.

My consideration of these videos reminded me of the picture of a wineskin in the smoke. So, as you think about a wineskin, empty and hanging by the fire, either it’s getting stiff and brittle in the smoke, or it’s getting rejuvenated. Either way, consider the following thoughts:

First, I must assure you that this is not an effort to bash anyone. God demands that we love (and show love) to everyone. Everyone includes friends, acquaintances and enemies; like-minded people and those we think misinformed. I do pray that God will help me live up to that standard. So, second, I confess that I am a sinner. I try to obey my Lord, Jesus, but I am far from perfect. Third, I’m not a theologian. I’ve been a Christian for many, many years; however I did at one time not truly believe.

When I was much younger, I really wasn’t interested in God. That, I think, might be a good definition of “atheist”. I won’t say I didn’t believe, but that I was so uninterested in God that I most likely did not really believe. I never thought about it. I just didn’t care. How’s that for being “agnostic and atheist”? Eventually God called me and I became a Christian. That’s a story for another time. As I watched these videos for the second and third time I wondered why these atheists cared so much that they had to try to convince others that they are thinking properly. It could be, I suppose, that Christian friends and relatives find it hard to accept that they are no longer believers. But if there really is no God then why bother? It was only when I began to understand that God does exist that I started thinking about spiritual and theological things.

The atheists I listened to made some interesting points. I thought about what they said. I compared it with what I already knew. The result is this essay/blog post. I won’t repeat their arguments because I might have misunderstood them. I will respond to them because it was in my pondering what they said that helped me understand what and why I truly believe.

Let’s start with suffering. My suffering is rather insignificant compared to those who experience natural disasters like famine and earthquakes; or are victims of the prejudice of other, more powerful, humans. Still, the pain of arthritis and some other medical issues are with me constantly. It’s very hard to ignore. Pain makes me think about ‘me’ much more than I would like.

As I listened to the explanation of why God does not exist because of the suffering in the world I began to realize that I could not accept what was presented as correct. Yes, at a glance it does seem that God should prevent suffering. But once you consider the alternative, it’s easy to understand why there is suffering.

Many people, regardless of their professed beliefs, find suffering confusing. Why does God permit suffering? The Bible does address the question of suffering. The book of Job, for example. In it we see that Satan causes suffering but only with the permission of God. So an atheist can claim that God could have prevented Job’s suffering but not only did God permit it, it was for His own Glory. The atheist would ask, “…what sort of god would let anyone suffer so that god would gain glory?” and it does seem a valid question. But Job did not suffer in vain. Job remained faithful and God rewarded that. My current answer is that the God who did this is the very same who actually died on the cross, bearing all of our sins, that we might be saved. And this answer begs the question, “Does God also suffer?” and then we wonder how an all powerful deity can suffer. But that’s the heart of Christianity. It’s also difficult. So, let’s postpone it for now.

Many claim that God should prevent all suffering. But for that to happen on this planet God must remove our free will. That’s the result of Sin: Adam & Eve & the snake & the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge of Good & Evil. And yes, it sounds mythological; it is mythological in that myth presents fundamental understanding of the world through a story. But it is also much more True than mere history. The story as recorded in Genesis 2 & 3 (not in some children’s version) reveals Truth about humans and our sinful nature. It also reveals truth about the nature of the world. Therefore, we are doomed to suffering at the will of other humans and at the capricious nature of the natural world.

(I won’t argue about the existence of Adam and Eve and the Snake. What I do argue is that their story rings true as compared to Pandora’s Box. Evil was not accidentally released into the world nor was it released on a whim, instead, it was the result of a human decision to try to be like God. Hope is not a pathetic little creature struggling to get out of the box, but true Hope is the result of trusting God.)

So, how is the world after Adam ate the apple different from the world of the atheist? It seems to me that the atheist lives in an uncaring, capricious world. How is that different? Again, I turn to Genesis chapters 1, 2 & 3. God creates a world which is “good” but humans disobey and turn the world into what we experience today. Whole books have been written about this.  For me, my answer is that God gives us Hope in the person of His Son. And while that is ‘no answer’ for the atheist or pagan, it is the only explanation that makes sense to me. Why would the Psalmist say that he still has faith in God’s statutes, in God’s word? He has Hope. He may feel like an old dried out wineskin, but an old wineskin hanging in the moist smoke gets rejuvenated. The world, for unbelievers, offers only technology, and maybe sympathy; for Christians there is Hope. We messed up the world. Yet God provides a cure. And so I find that suffering is not God’s will. It is the result of human will. God suffered and died that we can find salvation in Him. The proof of this is His Resurrection.

Many atheists claim to be very moral, having to use their internal “moral compass” because they don’t use one designed by religion. Yet they have much difficulty in explaining how this moral compass is created. C. S. Lewis does explain succinctly where morality originates. Mere Christianity begins with that explanation. I recommend you read it. Jesus told us to love God with all our heart and to love our neighbors as we love ourselves. That’s very difficult; much easier to define morality to suit your own purposes. Then you can bewail the suffering in the world without having to actually do anything about it.

Not that atheists do that. Many do work to rid the world of poverty and injustice. Some Christians never lift a finger. You can’t make generalities about groups of people like that. I do know some pagans who have defined their morality so that they can do as they please. I also know some who claim to be Christian, but who emphasize rules rather than love, to the detriment of other humans.

The idealist who fights to make life better for the poor is far closer to loving his neighbor than the prince in his ‘ivory palace’ or the middle class suburbanite with an immaculate lawn and house. But those who, like the “Good Samaritan”, offer care to those they meet are actually doing the will of God.

As I listened to one atheist explain why he could not believe the Bible I was astounded at his reason. He picked a very minor apparent discrepancy and used that to prove the Bible was in error. What I was expecting to hear from him was a truly reasonable argument. But, I guess, the arguments over the past millennia have made most arguments against the Bible moot. So, we get nitpicking. Here is my reaction to the “error” in the Bible that the earnest atheist proffered:

Mark 2:26 tells us that Abiathar was the High Priest when David ate the showbread (the consecrated bread or Bread of the Presence) when he was running away from King Saul (1st Samuel 21). Jesus, when he said this, was making a point about rules, the Law and the Sabbath. Jesus was demonstrating how the Pharisees were misinterpreting the fourth commandment. Now, if you want to nitpick, it was not Abiathar who was High Priest when David took the bread, but his father, Ahimelech. This is a provable error. Or is it?

When you read something in the Bible that seems at odds with something else, then you need to ask, “What’s this all about?” then do the research to discover what the situation actually is. The fact that Jesus used the name Abiathar instead of Ahimelech is most interesting. In 1st Samuel it only says “priest” for both men. Jesus knew his audience. The Pharisees knew the Scripture. In fact, they memorized all or almost all of it. I’m sure they knew exactly what Jesus was doing by invoking the name Abiathar. So did the disciples and most of the others listening. They, too, had read and memorized many parts of the scriptures. Our problem in the 21st Century is that we don’t really understand the fine point that was being made here. What we do know is that sometimes the son of the High Priest was called the High Priest. Note John 18:22 that the officers first took Jesus to Annas whom they call the “high priest”. Later Jesus is taken to Caiaphas “the high priest”. These men are father-in-law and son-in-law. Annas was called “high priest” much the same as former U. S. presidents are called “president”.

As to why Jesus referred to the showbread incident as during the time of Abiathar instead of his father, I do not know. It could be that using the term ‘high priest’ to apply to Abiathar implied something we don’t get. So we delve deeper into scripture. It seems that Abiathar did become high priest during the reign of King David. But 1st Kings 2:27 tells us that Solomon removed Abiathar to fulfill what God had said about the house of Eli. (See 1st Samuel 2:27-34). Was Jesus reminding the Pharisees that God can remove them? Or was it that Abiathar backed the wrong son to be king after David? Or both? We don’t know. Besides, that’s not the point I want to make. What is important is that Jesus was teaching his disciples and the Pharisees about the Sabbath. The Pharisees were complaining that Jesus was not following their rules. Jesus, instead, was interpreting the Sabbath with love. Now, to toss that out because we don’t understand why he said “Abiathar” is nitpicking, which is exactly what the Pharisees were doing about the Sabbath. If you want to nitpick you’ll never find anything you can believe. You’ll always be searching and you’ll never find anything resembling Truth. We’ll come back to this. It’s important. But we need some more information first.

I’ve heard devout Christians claim that, because Matthew, Mark and Luke record the event known as the ‘cleansing of the Temple’ at the end of Jesus’ ministry, during what we now call Holy Week and because John records this event at the beginning of his ministry, some three years (at least) earlier, then Jesus cleansed the Temple twice. So far as I am concerned, this is, I think, an attempt to reconcile the Gospels. But they don’t need reconciling. If you look carefully at John’s Gospel, you’ll see that the only other place this could be recorded is in Chapter 12. But where would you put it? It makes no sense to interrupt the story John is telling just to conform to the three other Gospels. All four Gospels build their Good News one story at a time. Matthew, Mark and Luke have Jesus enter Jerusalem once. That’s to emphasize the Palm Sunday procession. They also can’t tell this important story except after Jesus enters Jerusalem. Matthew, Mark and Luke give Jesus much teaching time in Jerusalem. Perhaps not all of that teaching was done during that one trip? But they are telling their story. John, telling his Gospel from a much different viewpoint, emphasizes the raising of Lazarus from the dead. John has Jesus enter Jerusalem several times. The first time is when the temple is cleansed. There’s no error in this. All four Gospels tell us that the first time Jesus entered Jerusalem he cleansed the temple. The Gospels are not modern chronological biographies. They are written to teach us just who Jesus is.

One more example: The Book of Ruth. I think this may help you to understand the Bible. Consider why this book is included in the Bible. Many preachers have preached at length about how Elimelech took his family to Moab and why that was wrong and how we should trust the Lord and not wander into pagan lands. Well, that’s nice. But it fails to explain why the book is necessary. There’s really one reason: the lineage of King David and thus the lineage of Jesus of Nazareth. Ruth was the great-grandmother of King David. And she was from Moab. The whole point is that King David is not a pureblood Hebrew. In Harry Potter terms, he’s a “mudblood”. King Saul would have been a pureblood; but David was a “man after God’s own heart.” The Bible is not about a scientific, factual history. It’s about the relationship between God and humans. The stories related in the Bible are for our spiritual edification. So, was it “wrong” for Elimelech to go to Moab? Well, God used this decision for good by providing the fugitive David with a place to send his parents when King Saul wanted to kill him and all his family. Then God used the decision to illustrate that ancestry is not important, but the condition of one’s heart is most important. And God used this decision to illustrate that He is God of all, not just Israel.

Even our greatest theologians sometimes get confused about Holy Scripture. Martin Luther, for example, thought some of the Cannon books (the consensual agreement of what constitutes Holy Scripture) were worthwhile and others were useless. He is famous for disliking the book (or letter) of James, the brother of Jesus. And that’s easy to understand. Luther was ‘gung-ho’ on ‘faith alone’ while James was concerned with how one’s faith is demonstrated. Thus the “discussion” through the centuries about “faith versus works”. That Christians take sides in this “discussion” shows that we are human; but also that we don’t really understand Holy Scripture. Both Luther and James are correct. But this is not the place to explain that. My point here is that when we see what seems to be a contradiction we should be very careful; in fact, very very careful. There’s a reason God put that in the Bible. It may not be something you will ever understand, but as Martin Luther said, we are saved by faith alone. Which is a useless thought when you have no faith.

Many pick the Bible apart, pointing to that which they perceive as “error”. When they do this they destroy their hope. For, after destroying the Bible, it’s easy to pick apart and destroy The Buddha & Lao Tzu & the Bhagavad Gita & the Koran & etc. Thus one becomes an atheist; re-creating the world to their desires, a world without God’s mercy: a world that is indifferent, uncaring. One may have friends, but they’re human. All one can really depend upon is the self. And one day you realize that you can’t even rely on yourself.

As I pondered all that we’ve covered I realized that I wasn’t anywhere near ‘losing my faith’ but that I was just frustrated that I wasn’t getting my way. I want to be healed. I want to live today with the body I had when I was half my age. I want a miracle, a magic cure. That’s the wineskin: old age is the smoke. At least, that’s the way I see it. My desire to be young, to be free of arthritis, to … well …

Like the Psalmist, I still find hope in God’s word. I never want to return to the life I had when I was an indifferent agnostic: to not know God and to not care, either. My morality then? Of course I’m more ‘moral’ than I was then. That’s partly due to the wisdom of old age. The hedonistic life can seem to be loads of fun; but it’s really immoral. I know that through many years of living and observing. I’ve lived long enough to know that God was and is correct.

But those atheist videos? They also provide the image of a wineskin in the smoke. There’s an old joke: the Christian says, “I don’t believe in the God you don’t believe in, either.”

As I listen to the videos I realize that the God they describe is not the God I worship. One argument against God is homosexuality. First, God did not design homosexuals and then condemn them. For that matter, God did not design liars, thieves, adulterers or murderers or coveting and then demand we stop sinning. The Bible tells us that Adam and Eve gave their sovereignty to Satan. It is Satan that corrupts the entire world. Of course, if you don’t believe in God then you don’t believe in Satan. Therefore, this is incomprehensible.

God is right about divorce and fornication. When a marriage is dissolved there are many who get hurt. The partners, the children, the parents, the siblings, the friends. Even in a “friendly” divorce there is pain. “Affairs” or “one night stands” do not offer the joy that hedonism claims. When sexual partners leave each other or cheat on one another, the heartbreak can be emotionally and psychologically devastating. So it would seem that God is not in control. Until you read Genesis 2 & 3. Then you begin to get some understanding.

Real understanding comes when you comprehend the Gospel of John. John goes to great effort to help his readers understand what Jesus did when He died on the Cross. St. Paul in his Letter to the Romans lays it out point by point. The atheists know what’s written: they seem to ignore it. When they ask “What sort of God would permit suffering?” I wonder if they really understand the suffering God underwent when He died on the Cross? When they complain about the state the world is in I wonder if they understand that it is our ancestors who caused the problems we have today: God gave them and us free will. He then provided instructions on how to employ it to our best advantage. They, and now we, decided to ignore Him.

Adam’s sin was the ultimate sin: Adam wanted to be in control. He wanted to ‘be like God’. That desire blinded him to the fact that he was being told by this serpent creature that God had created a fruit that would give Adam the power to ‘be like God’. Adam was believing in magic! So he gave away his birthright to Satan. In return, he got the consequences of sin; which he then passed on to all of his children.

Yes, this does sound a little like Pandora’s Box. The actions of someone eons ago released Evil into the world. But somewhere in the midst of the Genesis myth is Truth. The real problem the atheists are trying to explain is why a loving deity would permit the world to be as corrupt as it is. Their answer is that there is no deity. That, however, really is a ‘cop-out’. However, the real question is why humans would ignore God. The answer is that, like Adam and Eve, we want to be God. We think our free will is our license to do as we please. The Truth: our free will is our license to freely love God and our neighbors.

Christianity is first, last, always about our relationship with both God and with each other. It is not about God rewarding us for being good. It is not about scoring points in order to get into heaven. It is not about being a good Christian so God will heal my arthritis.

I’m not sure there are any religions that promote love the way Christianity does. And Christianity has not done it very well. The Gospel of Luke, chapter 10, verses 25-37 tell the story of the “Good Samaritan”. Verse 34 is relatively easy to do. Verse 35? That’s tough. Love, the sort of love that Jesus asks us to show to others, requires something that most of us are not willing to give up. The priest and the Levite avoided the injured man because of their understanding of the law. They were not willing to give up their rules in order to show compassion. I do not know why. But should I blame the God they claim to worship for their actions? What I know is that God sees the gossip telling a “little white lie” just as evil as idolatry and murder. For God it is all the same. When you hear, “It’s God’s honest truth!” you know the next thing you hear will be a lie. It may contain something true, but we all know that the intention is not to tell what God would call truth. Why is that? The speaker acknowledges that there is a deity. The speaker is acknowledging that the deity desires truth: honest truth instead of dishonest truth. The commandment is that when we offer witness to something, our witness is not false. It’s dishonest to tell just a bit of truth to obscure the real truth. We are to provide a humble, compassionate witness. That’s the difficulty. Sometimes we are so blind to our own sins that we cannot offer a “humble, compassionate witness”.

Homosexuality is a problem for Christians. To Christians who denounce homosexuality I can hear God saying, “Take the log out of your eye so that you can see clearly to take the speck out of your neighbor’s eye.” It’s a problem because we let our prejudice interfere with our compassion. I know of people who, through much prayer, seem to no longer have a same-sex attraction. I sure hope so. But I also know that it’s like addiction. Once an alcoholic, always an alcoholic. Once a drug addict, always a drug addict. Same for a sexual orientation. Or so I guess. (Not that sexual orientation is an addiction. But that sexual sin is deeply embedded in our humanity. The promiscuous heterosexual has, I’m sure, much the same difficulty as the homosexual with their proclivity. In some ways it’s like gambling: you’re always seeking a win, a new partner or experience that tops the last experience.) That doesn’t mean prayer can’t help. But it does mean that we who are not addicts to those things may well be addicts to other things. We need to be compassionate to everyone. We need humble hearts. Maybe you can always do that under your own power. I confess that I need spiritual assistance.

Things like suffering and homosexuality are difficult to understand. Of course, we can deny God because He said that He is beyond our understanding. His ways are not our ways. It’s just a trick of the religion. When we don’t understand why the religion prescribes certain activity and prohibits other activity it is just a trick of the leaders to stay in control. Right?

I learned the other day that Science has theories about how electricity works, but there is no proof: nobody knows exactly how it works. It’s actually a theory, not a fact. I was surprised. I always thought we understood electricity. The same applies to evolution. It’s a theory. That does not mean it’s wrong. We don’t know for certain the age of the earth, the sun or the universe. The astronomers keep finding evidence that changes the theories. There’s evidence for the various Theories of Evolution, there’s also evidence for the Creationist Theories. And, yes, there’s more than one theory on each side. Creationists offer the Biblical account of how God created Order out of Chaos. But it’s not a scientific account, it’s a spiritual account: the idols of the ancient peoples, such as the Sun and Moon and certain animals, these were created by God. He created things in a specific order, removing chaos. How was this creation accomplished? By the spoken word or God. How does that work? I don’t know. And neither do the creationists or the scientists. Astronomy and physics constantly get updated as to the latest theories, based on new discoveries.

All of that to say that I’m not going to toss out God because I don’t understand everything. That’s not a cop-out. It’s sanity. For example, I have a vague understanding of Dr. Einstein’s General and Special Theories of Relativity. I sort of understand that, if I travel at the speed of light I’m going to arrive at my destination instantly. But some observer may see that it takes me eons to travel that distance. Really? Actually I don’t understand that at all. So I guess I’ll toss out Dr. Einstein because I don’t understand him? God, the Creator of the Universe, is much more intelligent than Dr. Einstein. How do I propose to understand Him? Why toss out God when I don’t understand?

As I grew older I began to understand some of God’s wisdom because I observed how it works. Divorce hurts. I discussed that earlier. The social statistics seem to indicate that children born outside of marriage do suffer more than children whose parents are married. God says these things are wrong. But God does not ask us to persecute the divorced or bastard children. Quite the contrary: by the Jewish standards of the time Jesus was a bastard. Christians blatantly ignore the facts surrounding the birth of the Messiah even though they are plainly stated in the Gospels. We’re even told that Joseph, Mary’s husband, was going to divorce her until God told him to keep her as his wife. Some have offered that the reason there was no room for Joseph and Mary in the “inn” or “house” was because Joseph’s relatives knew about the situation: she was pregnant before she should have been. Jesus was persecuted by both the Jews and the Romans. The Gospels make this quite clear. So God knows, firsthand, about persecution and suffering. Some claim that if you are not being persecuted or if you are not suffering for the Gospel, then you are not a Christian. Atheists don’t want to discuss this because they can’t comprehend it. I know I did not understand it when I was a hedonist.

It’s this lack of understanding that causes many to criticize some Biblical ideas. For example: Heaven and Hell. Dante (The Divine Comedy) did not help when he described Hell. In fact, he seems to have made things worse. I much prefer C. S. Lewis’ ideas about Hell. His description of Napoleon in Hell (See The Great Divorce) has stuck with me as much more likely than Dante. Yes, the Church propagated the myth of Hell as a way to keep people moral. But consider the environment of the times: Rome had fallen. There really was no government. Petty warlords, idealized as King Arthur, were the only government. Except for the Church. So the Church tried to keep some sort of civilized stability as best as it could. Threatening thieves and murderers with Hell might prevent some suffering. I’m not about to excuse the Church for propagating the myth. But the reality is plain: Jesus did use the trash dump outside Jerusalem as an example of what the afterlife might be for those who defy God. He also told us that he was “going to prepare a place for us” which we assume to be Heaven. Jesus also said that God would “separate the sheep from the goats” and (Matthew 25:46 NIV) “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” But that’s not the Dante version of Hell.

It was Blaise Pascal who said, “There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the Creator, made known through Jesus.” 

Admittedly, this is not a direct Biblical principle. Still, many in the modern world have adopted this quote. I see it as parallel to Genesis 4:13-16 (NIV)

Cain said to the Lord, “My punishment is more than I can bear. Today you are driving me from the land, and I will be hidden from your presence; I will be a restless wanderer on the earth, and whoever finds me will kill me.”

But the Lord said to him, “Not so; anyone who kills Cain will suffer vengeance seven times over.” Then the Lord put a mark on Cain so that no one who found him would kill him. So Cain went out from the Lords presence and lived in the land of Nod, east of Eden.

Cain is banished from the presence of the Lord and he claims that this banishment is more than he can bear. That sounds much like the idea of Hell. Not a place where demons torture the souls of the wicked dead, but a place that is outside of the presence of God. Some cultures have the concept of “outlaw” in which the person deemed an “outlaw” is placed outside the protection of the law. That means that if someone attacks and hurts or kills the outlaw, then the law of the land does not apply. The “outlaw” is “outside the law”. Any person who hurts or kills the outlaw will not be judged by the law of the land. That sounds, in some ways, like what God did to Cain, except that no one was allowed to kill Cain. It may be (I do not know!) that this is what Hell will be. Many Christians believe that Hell is not a judgment imposed on evil souls but instead the evil souls have judged that they prefer to be severed from the presence of God. The “Last Judgment” is, therefore, the confirming judgment of a confession by the soul on trial.

But that is not why I try to be moral. In fact, I mostly do not try to be moral or to obey the law. What I try to do is obey my Lord. It is His Love that propelled Him to die on the cross for me. He did that for me; but also for you. When he died on the cross Jesus saved me from myself. He has enabled me to live though his life while at the same time Jesus lives through my life. Or, that’s what we are attempting to effect. It’s not easy: I’m stubborn. And blind. And crippled. I confess that I need help. I look to my Savior to help me. Sometimes I want Him to help me do what I want. It can be difficult to forgive my neighbor and restore to him that which is his: his honor, his dignity, his rights. 

As I said, this really is not an attempt to refute everything the atheists said. Instead, it’s my meditation on what they said. As I pondered their words I realized that they really didn’t put much effort into their arguments. Instead of arguing that the Bible has errors or that God treats homosexuals poorly I thought they would show that God is not necessary. Instead, I find that their arguments led me to the conclusion that God really is necessary. 

One of the most important things I learned in college was that anything can be proved in any subject depending on the assumptions made before the argument begins. These assumptions color one’s thinking. Once the result desired is found then all other research stops. So when I redefine what constitutes a “planet” then I can reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet”. That’s because I redefine my assumptions and so divide “planets” into two classes. Based on my assumptions I can prove both that a tax decrease will bankrupt the country or that it will be a great boon to the economy. Ultimately, Pluto is still a planet. Ultimately, the effect of a tax decrease depends on exactly how much the current tax rate represses the economy. That bit of data depends on one’s assumptions: they may or they may not be correct.

The atheists I watched on YouTube claim that they believed until they encountered theological arguments that made them doubt. When you listen to them carefully you can find the point that they stopped believing: it was when they decided they no longer wanted to believe. That point was based on their assumptions. For me, it wasn’t that I did not believe that there were no errors in the Bible. It was that I assume that when I read something I don’t understand, I pray for God to reveal His purpose in having that placed in the Bible. Martin Luther was correct in his claim that it is “faith alone” that enables Jesus to save you. The problem is just where one has placed that faith. Perhaps, if you have doubt in God, your faith is not in the one, true God? What are your assumptions? My faith has provided the experience that God exists. I have a relationship with Him. That experience has changed my assumptions about just who God actually is.

And so we return to that wineskin in the smoke. In one case it is drying out, shriveling, wrinkling, getting brittle and soon to crumble. In the other case it is hanging in the restoration tent, the warm, moist smoke restoring the leather, returning it to a useful state.

I can’t prove to you that God exists. But I can suggest that if everyone did as the Bible prescribes the world would be a much better place.

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