August 31, 2009

Staying “Married” to My Faith
by Pastor George Van Alstine

There’s a wise old saying about choosing a mate:

“Don’t look at how good he can be at his best; look at how bad he can be at his worst.”

Romance causes us to overlook the person’s downside and be enchanted by his best qualities. In time, marriage can do the opposite—magnify the person’s galling negatives to the point where his best assets are almost completely eclipsed. So it would be smart to think up front about the potential mate’s worst features and ask, “Can I live with that?” It’s likely that in marriage you’ll have to learn to.

Everyone chooses a religion, philosophy of life, or worldview. A person, then, becomes “married” to this choice. Often the choice is made for superficial reasons, such as glamor, easy answers and immediate gratification. Many people make their worldview choice without thinking through the long-term implications.

Belief in the God of the Bible is a commitment some of us have made and others are considering. Maybe we can apply the same realistic test:

“Don’t look at how good the belief system is at its best; look at how bad it can be at its worst.”

This probably seems strange, but hang with me.

Here is where my Biblical belief system is at its worst:

God is sovereign and God is good. Yet, awful evil exists in the world. How can this be?

No answer I have ever heard from Christian preachers, teachers or writers has ever seemed to address this problem adequately. All attempted solutions fall far short of satisfying my mind. The problem is still a problem to me after all these years of “marriage” to my faith.

One very traumatic incident dramatized this for me. While I was in seminary, I had the opportunity to visit back at my college alma mater, Rutgers University, on the occasion of a very big moment for the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship group I had been part of. They were sponsoring the most ambitious outreach event in the chapter’s history, and I was able to attend. A large lecture hall was the location of a well-publicized debate on the existence of God, featuring a well-known theologian from an East Coast seminary against an atheistic philosophy professor from the Rutgers faculty. Good promotion had resulted in an excellent turnout, including many non-believers.

The debate followed traditional paths of give and take, until the atheistic philosophy professor raised the question of the Holocaust. How could a good and sovereign God allow the extermination of six-million Jews by the Nazi regime? Now, Rutgers had a large percentage of Jewish students, and many were in attendance. The crowd became very quiet, awaiting the theologian’s answer. He stated his belief that God must have had some good purpose that would emerge from the Holocaust!

The crowd was no longer silent. There were boos and catcalls all over the hall. That essentially ended the debate. The sponsoring InterVarsity group were totally demoralized that their champion had been publicly defeated.

This has always stuck in my mind as an example of my Biblical belief system at its worst. I too wanted to boo the theologian’s answer, but to be fair, I haven’t thought of a better answer to this day.

However, when I think of other belief system’s I could be “married” to I realize that they all present even worse problems. They try to solve the dilemma “How can a good and sovereign God allow such an awful evil as the Holocaust?” by suggesting that

There is no God (and, therefore, no meaning or purpose in the universe), or

God is not sovereign (and, therefore, the universe is uncontrolled and chaotic), or

God is not good (and, therefore, evil becomes Evil), or

The awful evils we experience are not really evil (and, therefore, our human sufferings are not real, but illusions).

All of these worldviews would be, for me, harder to live with than the problems my Christian belief system has trouble answering.

This is why I stay “married” to my Biblical worldview of choice. Over the years, the problems haven’t gotten easier, and the answers haven’t gotten clearer. But it has become more evident to me that the Biblical worldview more fully faces life’s realities, the good and the bad, than any of the other belief systems embraced by people around me. The fact is, my “marriage” partner’s bad habits haven’t gotten any better—my belief system still has no good answer to that question. But I realize that no other religion or philosophy has an answer either, so maybe the question itself is part of the reality we all have to accept.

For me, it’s too big. I’m satisfied to leave it in the hands of God, whom I believe to be both good and sovereign.