The Science of Generosity

Here is the text of my Christmas Day talk 2017.

The pleasure of giving…

presentsToday I  want to ask a fairly simple sounding question. What’s so great about Christmas?  Presents? Food? Family? Holidays. There are so many reasons. Here’s one really profound reason why Christmas is so good. Because on Christmas Day, not only do you get to receive gifts from other people, but you get to give presents to other people. Jesus said, “it is better to give than to receive”, and here is something really strange. Science tells us that it actually feels really good to give presents to other people. There is great pleasure in giving. Weird. Why is it that losing money out of my bank account, spending time trying to find presents in frantic shopping malls, giving something which cost my money to somebody else, actually makes me feel good?

Yet it’s true. My daughter has shown such an obsession with giving- she’s been going round the house grabbing all kinds of random objects, wrapping them up, allocating them to all kinds of people and putting them under the tree. Why? Because giving presents is so much fun. Why does generosity make us feel good?

In 2008, a professor by the name of Michael Norton, asked 632 Americans about how much money they earned and how they spent it, and then asked them to rate their happiness. Regardless of their income, people who spent money on others reported greater levels of happiness than people who only spend their money on themselves. Norton says, “Instead of buying yourself a coffee, buy your friend a coffee and that might actually make you a happier person.”

In 2014, another study was done- 2000 people were studied over 5 years, they measured the levels of peoples generosity- how much time people spent volunteering, and how much money they gave away. People who described themselves as very happy volunteered an average of 5.8 hours per month, while those who considered themselves “unhappy” volunteered just 0.6 hours. People who gave more than 10% of their income away were far less depressed. People who were hospitable in their relationships were more likely to be in excellent health. The happiest people were almost always the most generous people.

The Survival Value Theory

So- a question this morning: why is it that generosity makes you feel good? Well, let me share 2 theories. Theory number 1: The Survival Value Theory. Many many ages ago our brains evolved a pleasure in generosity because it had better survival value. You hear scientists and psychologists using this theory all the time to explain everything. The reason we are the way we are is because many ages ago, there was some kind of survival advantage for our brains to have some feature, so that feature became more common. So- in terms of generosity, one day many ages ago, a monkey up a tree had some funny thing happen in his brain which made him  generous, and that helped him, and so all his children started being generous, and generosity prevailed.

Now, I don’t know what your thoughts are on how our world came about, whether God created the world, or did it come about via evolution. Christmas Day is really not the day to give a lecture on that topic. But all I want to say this morning is that this particular theory which people use all the time has got some serious problems in it.

A fact free theory

The first problem is that it is a fact free theory- it is just a story people tell, but it’s not actually based on any facts, it’s just based on imagination. No one saw any monkey become generous, and pass his generous genes on. There is no way to test the theory. I could quite easily make up an alternative story, and say- the reason why so many people get depressed is because there was survival value in getting depressed. The reason why I’ve got warts on my toes? Many ages ago, a monkey got warts on his toes, and all the other monkeys thought warts on toes were really cool, or maybe they felt sorry for him and treated him nicely, and so he and his genes survived. You can explain anything very easily just by making up a story of why there might have been survival value in something- but unfortunately, you’re just making up stories of why something might have happened. You’re not dealing with facts, you’re just dealing with fairy tales. If you’ve got a good imagination, you can make up a reason for why anything should have survival value.

A generosity that is really all about you

There’s another problem though, which brings us back to Christmas Day. The second problem with the Survival Value theory is that it actually leads us to a horrible conclusion. The ultimate reason why you should be generous- according to the Survival Value theory- is because it is better for you. It’s better for your survival, your prosperity, your happiness.You get more out of it for yourself. This unfortunately makes generosity actually all about you, and what you can get out of it. So, you’ve just gutted the heart out of generosity.

According to this theory, there is nothing really good in itself about being generous, it’s just a handy strategy for making yourself feel good. You’ve made yourself the centre of the world in the act of being generous. There is something incredibly bleak and disconcerting to think that only reason I really enjoy giving presents, is because my brain is playing tricks on me, because if I give gifts to other people this year, I’m more likely to get bigger and better presents from people next year, that’s really what I’m after.

The God Theory

There is another theory about why generosity makes you feel happy. It’s the God theory. The reason why generosity makes us feel happy is because it really is good to be generous, whether it makes you feel nice or not. The reason why it does often feel good to be generous is because we were designed to be generous, we are fulfilling our purpose. We were made to reflect God’s character- and at the heart of the universe, the reason why our universe exists in the first place- is because behind the scenes of this physical world, there exists an eternal God- and this God is a God of great generosity, of infinite love, of incredible joy.

So, when we act in a way which reflects God’s character- you are doing what you were meant to do. A dolphin was meant to swim in the ocean- it’s just what it is designed to do. A bird was meant to fly in the sky , a dog was meant to take delight in gulping down his doggy biscuits, a cat was meant to sit on the garden fence and imagine it is the ruler of the universe. You and I, we were designed to live in love, in joy, in generosity. God made us to reflect his own character. That’s what we were meant to do. When we do what we were designed do, it feels great. We experience the heart of the infinitely joyful God.

And so today, let’s enjoy the generosity of others given to us, let’s enjoy our generosity which we express to others, and let’s reflect on the great infinite generosity of God who we get our generosity from, and which we have been tremendously blessed by.

But why is life so tough if God is so generous?

Someone might be here this morning, and you might say- well, hang on? Why is my life so tough? I’ve had some tough experiences this year. How has God been generous to me? I’d just remind you this. This world we live in is a spiritual battlefield. There is a spiritual war. We are separated from God, and we suffer as a result in all kinds of ways. This world is not heaven. It’s a spiritual warzone. That’s why things don’t always go right.  The signs of God’s generosity to us are everywhere we look- should we be open to look. Our enjoyment of good food, precious gift of our family and children, amazing bodies which are designed to enjoy so much in life. But there is a place far more profound where we see the generosity of God. Allow me to read a verse from the Bible for you.

2 Corinthians 8:9  “ For you know the grace [generosity] of our Lord Jesus Christ, that though he was rich, yet for your sake he became poor, so that you through his poverty might become rich.”

The incredible generosity of God

The Generosity of GodThe greatest act of the generosity of God is seen in Jesus. God entered the warzone of this world as one of us- Jesus. Jesus the one who was infinitely rich- creator of the universe, owner of everything- became absoloutely dirt poor- he becomes a tiny human baby in a dirty middle eastern village 2000 years ago. He grew up, was agonizingly executed on a cross, a death reserved for slaves and criminals. He became poor- he went pretty much as low as it was possible to go for us.

Why? So that we through his poverty could be rich. He came to end the spiritual war. In what he did 2000 years ago- his birth, his life, his death and resurrection- he has defeated Satan. We know that one day, the war will be over. We now still live in the battlefield- but the outcome has already been decided. We can now change allegiences, and be reconciled to our maker, because of what Jesus has done. And so we know, we can be rich, eternally reconciled with God, because of the incredible generosity of Jesus Christ to us.

So- today, let’s enjoy and celebrate generosity. Enjoy opening your presents, and also enjoy the experience of giving your presents to your loved ones. Enjoy your generosity. And as you do that, remember that your joy in your generosity is actually a reflection of the great generosity of God to you. That’s something which will really revolutionise our whole idea of generosity, isn’t it?



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Do we really want the end of gender?

Someone might respond to the traditional marriage argument- “But does it really matter if gay people can’t conceive children? They are going to adopt children anyway, and maybe letting them in on marriage will strengthen their relationships and make them feel validated as well. Is there really any problem with calling their relationships marriage as well?”

Well, if affirmation is what the gay community is seeking, then why not be open about it instead of just framing it as a case for equal rights? However, the problem is that this debate is more involved than just seeking to bring affirmation to the gay community. Rather, it is hard to ignore the fear that the same sex marriage campaign is really the beginning of the slippery slope to gender eradication. Same sex marriage says that gender does not matter, and in essence, it is a movement to eradicate gender. That is the logic here- it does not matter what sex you are, all that matters is love. Gender is fluid- some people are more masculine, some people are more feminine. People can be whatever gender they like.

The slippery slope to gender eradication has already well and truly begun. Facebook now gives you 71 gender options you can choose from. Calling someone your husband or wife is frowned upon, partner is the gender neutral politically correct term. In Canada and in Europe, there is the push to create new pronouns instead of he or she- “ze”, for example, and universities are penalizing students who do not use the correct forms. Recently the call has started to grow in Australia already to get rid of Mothers or Fathers Day, calling it “Special Persons day” instead. The logic which is inherently embedded in the LGBT belief system is that gender is a harmful thing which must be eradicated.

So, do we really want the end of gender? Well, let’s acknowledge that terrible abuse on the basis of gender has occurred in history, and it still occurs in shameful ways in many societies. Let’s also acknowledge that a small minority of people struggle for various reasons with gender identity issues. Let’s acknowledge that some women show some traditionally masculine traits, and some men show some traditionally female traits, and that’s perfectly ok.

However, in spite of all these disclaimers, the Christian understanding is that gender is a beautiful thing, and we should celebrate it, not eradicate it. Men tend to be taller in height, physically stronger and better equipped biologically to do the manual labour required to provide for a family. Women tend to be softer in nature, better at caring and nurturing of children. Not everyone fits into those tendencies, but those tendencies are typical for what most people do fit into, and they are linked to the way we are typically biologically made.

So who has made the decision that gender is evil and we’re going to eradicate it? We should always guard against the danger of gender becoming a reason for  abuse, but why should we not celebrate the beauty of gender? Since when do we have to eradicate it? Same sex marriage essentially says that gender no longer exists in any meaningful sense.

Traditional marriage celebrates the reality that we are made of two biological types which typically expresses itself in two gender types. While we are going to always love every single individual on the face of the earth with all our many different varieties, we can celebrate the fact that we are designed as two different types, and the institution of marriage is the celebration of the two different natures coming together as one.

A one line argument for traditional marriage

Many others have written arguments for traditional marriage. In a world in which people only have the patience to listen to 10 words or less, we need to express complex ideas succinctly. So here is a one line argument which I hope might help in expressing the argument for traditional marriage. Why traditional marriage? Here’s why. Heterosexual unions are unique and important.

Firstly, heterosexual marriages are unique. Same sex marriage will never be equal because same sex relationships are different. The heterosexual relationship alone is capable of creating a child. Two men cannot create a child, neither can two women, neither can 1 man alone or 1 woman alone, neither can 1 man and two women, or two women and one man. There is a uniqueness in the combination of 1 man and 1 woman. As much as we don’t want anyone to feel like their relationship is lesser in quality, the hard fact exists that there is at least one respect in which homosexual relationships are inferior- that is, they are biologically incapable of producing offspring. So the heterosexual relationship is unique.

Secondly, the heterosexual union is important. The relationship between male and female with the capacity of producing a child is such an important building block in our society that it is wise for the government to continue to legally validate it and promote its stability through this institution we call marriage.

There are many people in society who passionately love sport. But the government does not legally declare them to be a sport lover. There are many people who love music. But the government sees no reason to declare them a music lover. Of course, it may be inappropriate to compare the love of sport to the romantic sexual love of two humans together. But it prompts the question of why the government should need to legally celebrate any relationship. There are other kinds of sexual love relationships. In some societies a man could have a wife and a mistress- a wife for children and a mistress for sexual pleasure. Both could involve love, but only one is recognised as marriage. A group of 3 or 4 people could all love each other. But this is not marriage (so far at any rate!).

There is something unique about the relationship of one man and one woman, and that uniqueness is important enough for the government to legally recognise and promote it. The reason is that our society’s health and future is built on the foundation of heterosexual relationships who bring children into the world, and this should be celebrated and promoted as the norm of society.

Now, of course, the counter-argument. It is said that children are a red-herring because many gay couples already have children, and studies show gay parents make just as good parents as heterosexual parents. Well, even if you grant the assumption that this is what the studies say (consider this review for example), the issue is not whether gay couples make good parents. Of course they could make good parents. But the fact is, I could be an absolutely lousy parent, and my neighbours could be terrific parents, but of course this doesn’t mean my neighbours have a right to parent my children. I have a permanent biological link to my children which ideally should never be severed. Of course, sometimes a parent’s link with their children is broken. Perhaps the relationship breaks down, and sadly sometimes significant abuse necessitates a separation. Ideally however, children should never be taken away from their parents. There is a biological link which should be normalized, celebrated and promoted.

The same is true for children. A child has a biological link to both of his or her parents which should ideally never be severed. A child should grow up in the care of his or her parents. This is an issue of justice and compassion for them. The problem with same sex marriage is that it is not now just permitting children to be adopted by gay parents. It is now normalizing it and indeed promoting it as completely normal and equivalent. It is stating that there is no difference, and that the union of father, mother and children together is a matter of no difference or priority at all.

Other types of family arrangements will exist of course, but this does not mean we should pretend they are all as ideal as each other. The formation of the core family unit, bonded together by one man and one woman who together conceive and raise their children together is the ideal.  This ideal is the reason we legally recognise and promote the institution called marriage in society.

How to engage the gay marriage debate

Same sex marriage is at least really giving Christians some serious air-time. However, sometimes our manner of speaking on the topic is not creating an overly positive image! Here are four principles to consider on how we should engage on the topic.

Firstly, let’s discuss the issue with gentleness and respect. We need to recognise that this is a very emotionally charged topic with strong feeling on both sides, and often, we have the two camps completely talking past each other on this topic. I often hear Christians talking about this topic, mostly I can’t help thinking what you’re saying would completely infuriate a gay person, and also many just ordinary heterosexual Aussies. Many non-Christians I imagine could well hear what Christians say, and just respond by thinking- “you Christians just hate gay people, don’t you?”. So, let’s work hard at thinking and talking about this topic in a way that makes sense to non-Christians. My encouragement would be that whenever this topic comes up in your family or with friends, imagine you’ve got a gay person standing next to you as you talk about the issue and talk with them in mind. If you don’t practice talking about this complex issue in a sensitive way in a safe environment first, you are unlikely to be successful when the subject comes up in a more hostile environment.

The reason why this debate is so polarising is because Christians can be coming at this topic from a completely different starting point from secular people. It’s like an NRL devotee and an AFL devotee having an argument about the best shape of a football. You’re going to have a very frustrating discussion if you don’t realise you’re starting with two different frameworks. Similarly, Christians and secularists have very different starting points about marriage. Christians believe that God designed marriage, so we don’t get to make up the definition of what it is. Secular people believe that marriage is just a social convention we created, so we can adjust it as we like. So, this is why a lot of the arguments which Christians make against same sex marriage are just not convincing to non-Christians- they just roll their eyes at them, and this is why secularists are not going to be very successful at convincing Christians.

Let’s realise there is going to be differences of opinion in this question, and that arguments will only prove to have limited success. We need to speak with respect and gentleness on the issue.

Secondly, we can affirm the desire for justice and dignity for all people. A good place to start in any debate is by affirming the good points of an opponent’s point of view. Let’s start then by acknowledging that the motivation for changing the definition of marriage for most people is not a sinister socialist plot to re-engineer society, but rather a sincere desire to bring greater justice and dignity to a minority who have long struggled for social acceptance. It is to bring affirmation and acceptance for a group of people who typically suffer greater rates of depression, drug abuse and self-harm. If I was in a discussion with a passionate advocate for same sex marriage, I would start by complimenting them on their passion for justice and compassion. I would suggest that this is the fingerprint of God on their hearts. And I would far prefer to talk with them about why they are so passionate about justice and mercy for the disadvantaged- and whether they get that desire from God or not.

Now of course, they will respond, “well, if you believe in justice and compassion, why are you not showing justice and compassion to gay people by allowing same sex marriage?”. And the answer of course, is that there are other factors to consider as well which make us believe that it is not the ultimately most just and compassionate decision to make, and  that will be the occasion to present your case for a traditional understanding of marriage. But having started by affirming their passion for justice and compassion will lead to a far more healthy and respectful conversation.

A third factor we need to consider is that the Christian marriage horse has already bolted to some degree. The institution of marriage in most people’s minds is already a watered down concept from the Christian vision of marriage. The great majority of couples live together first before getting married, and when they do that, what are they saying? They’re saying that marriage doesn’t really matter. It is just a piece of paper. Divorces are easily obtained, and even fidelity within marriage is on the decline. So, the institution of marriage has already fallen off its lofty perch in the mindset of most western people- it’s already been treated very differently from a traditional Christian ideal. Thus it’s no surprise that many people don’t have any huge problems with tinkering with it even more. The virtue of chastity and the idea of sex being only for a married relationship is laughable for most secular people. That is another reason why the Christian view of marriage is difficult to get across, and why we shouldn’t be surprised if our point of view isn’t readily embraced.

Finally, I would say that in spite of the difficulties in presenting our view, Christians should engage in the debate and should participate in the postal  vote. Some good Christian friends argue that this isn’t an issue that we should get too worked up over. They say that we Christians are about helping people have a relationship with God. We’re not about telling non-Christians how they should live. So, therefore, it’s simply not our business to be making a big fuss about this.

I think there is some truth to this. We aren’t really a Christian society. Trying to force people to live by Christian ideals when they aren’t Christians is rather counter-productive. Our mission is to tell people about Jesus, not to be having a temper-tantrum when non-Christians live in line with their beliefs.

However, having said that, we live in a democracy. It is our privilege and responsibility to have our say in what we believe is good for the future of the country. Jesus spoke up when he was asked his opinion on the moral issue of his day- the issue of divorce, even when his conservative response was way out of line with the majority view of his day. So, as Christians, I do believe it is our responsibility to speak politely and winsomely into our culture with what we believe marriage should be, and why we believe the Christian view of marriage is best for our country’s future.

Let’s engage in the debate with wisdom, grace and boldness. Most of all, we will really need to be soaking all our words and actions in prayer for this is such a polarising and divisive topic which influences peoples perceptions of Christianity so easily.

Is the resurrection really a big deal?

tombChristians often claim that the resurrection of Christ is the piece of evidence that seals the deal- the game-changer. If Christ rose from the dead, then Christianity must be true! But let’s think about this. What’s so special about the resurrection?

It is probably true that Mohammed heard a voice speaking to him. It probably did happen. But is it really special? Lots of people hear voices. Joseph Smith may well have had a vision which started Mormonism. But is it really special and unique that he had a vision? Lots of people have had visions. Lots of people have funny spiritual experiences. Is there anything really special and compelling about the resurrection experience of Christ which compels our allegiance? The resurrection of Jesus is a battle with our greatest enemy- death- and therefore it is a more special experience to consider than most others for that reason alone. But furthermore, Jesus engages our greatest enemy death in a way that is entirely unique from how others have engaged with death. Consider these three factors.

1. Jesus did not just escape death- he confronted death. There are plenty of stories of religious experiences of heroes in history who escaped death by ascending up into Heaven without dying. Enoch and Elijah are two examples of people in the Bible who did that. The Greek god Hercules was said to have done this. There are various figures within Hinduism who are said to have ascended into Heaven without dying. These would all be fairly impressive stories if they were true. Unfortunately, there is no real historical evidence for them. But, even if they were true, Jesus does something more. He doesn’t just escape death. He doesn’t sidestep death. He enters into death, and challenges it head on. He has come to deal with death, not just fly away from it.

2.Jesus did not just survive death- he defeated death. There are many reports of people apparently surviving after death. I’m talking about ghost appearances. We hear the word ghosts- and we say, “ Oh that sounds spooky”. We laugh or even mock people who think they saw a ghost, but the reality is, many people claim to see or hear the spirits of their loved ones after they die. No one likes to talk about it though because people may well say you are crazy. A famous study done in Iceland of 900 people found 30% claimed to have had encounters with the spirit of a deceased person. Even Michael Shermer, the famous atheist and skeptic of all things supernatural recently confessed to having had a supernatural experience of a deceased person which he couldn’t explain. So, some people say that Jesus resurrection is not really special- because he was just appearing as a ghost to his disciples.

There are however a number of problems with that theory. Firstly, it is evident that whatever the appearances were, they were real, they weren’t just hallucinations. They were witnessed by groups of people at the same time, and they occurred to all sorts of people, at all sorts of places. Secondly, there is the problem of the empty tomb. There is a very strong case that can be made that Jesus tomb was found empty on that first Easter Sunday morning, and so, if that is the case, what happened to Jesus’ body? Thirdly, if what the disciples saw was just the ghost of Jesus, well, why didn’t they call it that? Why did they call it a resurrection? From day one- we know that the disciples all came out with what was for them in their day a radical claim, the claim of Jesus being resurrected. They could have used the term ghost. Resurrection meant a body coming back to life. Fourthly, we have reports of Jesus being touched and Jesus even eating meals with his disciples in multiple accounts. Only a body can do that.

You see, Jesus didn’t just survive death in a ghostly existence in the afterlife, and make appearances to us. There’s nothing really special about that. Jesus goes into death, and survives death- yes. But he also conquers death and comes back bodily from it. Death has lost its physical power over Jesus.

3. Jesus did not just return from death- he reversed death. Jesus does not just resuscitate from death. Again, there are plenty of stories of people who die in some sense, and come back to life. Lots of people have near death experiences where they have an accident, they are as good as dead, and they have an experience in which their soul goes up to Heaven, and then told they have to go back, and they come back into their body and survive. There are numerous resurrection stories- like Lazarus in the Bible- who die, and by a miraculous act, they are restored to life. Jesus’ resuscitation is more remarkable than all of these resuscitation stories. For him to be executed by crucifixion, remain dead for at least 36 hours, and then to resuscitate without any medical assistance and convince his followers he was the saviour of the world- that is quite a remarkable resuscitation.

But this is even more than just a physical resuscitation. Jesus transcends death. He reverses death. He comes back in a body which is physical, and which still bears the marks of his wounds, but this new body transcends the merely physical. It’s a body which can operate in the physical world, but it’s also a spiritual body which is not subject to the physical. Jesus’ new body, although it is physical, is also a bit like an angelic body which can appear and disappear. This new body of Jesus has authority over time and space, and is not subject to it. It is a body not just for this world, it’s for a new world, a heavenly world. The resurrection of Jesus is the opening of the doorway for us to have access to that heavenly world in a new creation body as well.

Now if you ask me, all this is pretty impressive. It’s unique. Jesus has just not successfully escaped the Grim Reaper as it were- Jesus has got in the boxing ring with the Grim Reaper, and hit him out of the stadium. That is what Jesus has done- that’s why he’s unique. And when you put that on top of all the other factors which show Jesus uniqueness- well, the claim of Jesus’ uniqueness is out of this world. No one else really comes close.

This is the claim of Easter Sunday, and I think you’ll have to agree- that if it is true- it is huge. He has lived an incredible life, he has died an incredible death, and he’s risen from the dead on top of everything else as well. The claim of the Bible is that someone has entered the world who is absoloutely unique- he is a game-changer. The resurrection is the event which demands our attention, both in its uniqueness in the past and its implications for our future life beyond this world.

Explaining holy war in the Bible

One of the chief battlegrounds for Christian apologetics is concerning moral issues in our society today. These questions are emotional questions that criticise Christianity on the grounds that it teaches old fashioned values or even immoral values. In this article I will discuss the classic issue of the presence of holy war in the Bible. Throughout the Old Testament, God gives instructions to the nation of Israel to wipe out their enemies, even their women and children. So how may we respond to this?

This certainly is a difficult question which is not to be downplayed at all. However, I would start by keeping the question in its place. This question is concerning the Bible’s morality or truthfulness, and so it is secondary to the main question of the truthfulness of Christianity, which starts with merely the existence of God and the resurrection of Christ. Furthermore, as usually it is atheists who bring this question up, the atheist may be asked on what basis is holy war wrong in a world which has relied on survival of the fittest for our origin? Of course, atheism in just the twentieth century had its own “holy wars” to account for.   Vox Day writes: The total body count for the ninety years between 1917 and 2007 is approximately 148 million dead at the bloody hands of fifty-two atheists, three times more than all the human beings killed by war, civil war, and individual crime in the entire twentieth century combined.  The historical record of collective atheism is thus 182,716 times worse on an annual basis than Christianity’s worst and most infamous misdeed, the Spanish Inquisition. It is not only Stalin and Mao who were so murderously inclined, they were merely the worst of the whole Hell-bound lot.” So these aren’t great records for what happens when religion is replaced by atheism.

However, let us move to giving a positive response to the question. We can present a response by moving through 5 questions about it.

1.Why does God take lives in the Bible? God has right to take people’s lives as he sees fit. He is not obliged to give anyone 80 years of life. He gave people their life, he does have the right to take it whenever he should choose. So it is silly to call God a mass murderer, as if He is subject to some human rights law which says he has to give people 80 years of life.

2. Was it reasonable for God to kill the Canaanites? The reason for this judgement in OT is not their race- it is sin. In addition to divination, witchcraft, and female and male temple sex, Canaanite idolatry encompassed a host of morally disgusting practices that mimicked the sexually perverse conduct of their Canaanite fertility gods: adultery, child abuse, bestiality, and incest. Worst of all, Canaanites practiced child sacrifice. So, holy war is a matter of God judging these people for their depraved level of sinfulness.

3. Why did God use a holy war as opposed to another method of judgement? The manner of their destruction probably reflects something of the destruction they had wreaked on others. See Judges 1:7- “ThenAdoni-Bezek said, “Seventy kings with their thumbs and big toes cut off have picked up scraps under my table. Now God has paid me back for what I did to them.” Obviously, the Canaanite nations were saturated in brutal and barbaric wars with one another, if this king has done this to 70 others. God has had enough and is stepping in to bring his judgement on them in the only language which they will understand.

4. Why the killing of everyone, including women and children? For starters, there is good evidence to suggest that the language used may have been deliberately hyperbolic- it probably didn’t literally mean everyone. It’s like us saying we’re going to walk all over our opponents in a football match- it’s not meant to be taken literally. Furthermore, most would have been driven out of the land rather than actually killed. However, the killing that did take place was the nature of holy war- communicating in their cultural language God’s total rejection of their culture. An analogy may be that during wartime, things are done which ordinarily would never be contemplated-eg bombing towns risking civilians’ lives. In World War 2, after Hitler began bombing hospitals and synagogues in London- there was only 1 way to communicate with him- to flatten his own country. It’s easy for us now to look down our nose at such a strategy but when you are on the receiving end of such ruthless and barbaric tactics from such an enemy, you cannot merely respond with gestures of peace and good will. So the judgement of the Canaanites may seem harsh according to our modern sanitized standards, but may have been the only thing to communicate to these hardened peoples that their sin was no longer going to be tolerated. 

5. Does this not give religious people a precedent for violence today? For example, if I thought God told me to kill someone today, should I do it? No, that is like deciding to murder a German today because I read a history of an assassination attempt taken against Hitler in WW2.  The instructions given about holy war were for a very specific time and situation- they were not general rules for normal life. So if I thought God commanded me to murder someone or go to war: this would go against whole thrust of scripture, and contradict many commands of scripture. I would therefore conclude it is far more likely I am being deceived in thinking God told me to do this.

The challenge about holy war in the Bible is certainly a difficult one. However, when thought through properly in terms of its historical context we can see the reasons why such unpleasant historical accounts may be present in our Bible.

Does it really matter what I believe?

One of the most common and  challenging objections to Christianity is the challenge of pluralism. What is pluralism? Pluralism is the idea that there are many ways to God. Pluralism doesn’t really deny that Christianity is true, but what it does deny is the idea that only Christianity is true. So, I’m going to deal with this topic by responding to 7 very common questions that come from a pluralistic point of view.

Question 1: Is there such a thing as objective truth regarding God? Some people say “There is no such thing as objective truth”. Well, is that proposition true? If so, then there is at least one objective truth- that there is no such thing as objective truth! If that statement is not true- well, why should I believe it then? There you go- the statement refutes itself doesn’t it? What we need to understand here is that sure, it is true that no one has an exhaustive understanding of the truth. However, this does not prevent somebody from having a significant understanding of the truth.

All our understanding of truth is influenced by our upbringing, culture, and biases. However, just because our understanding of truth is influenced does not mean that it is entirely relative and socially constructed. It is undoubtedly true that we subtly alter our understanding of the truth, for example, in history to suit ourselves. For example, we may tell the story of European settlement of Australia as a glorious achievement without reference to the treatment of Aborigines who lived in Australia before Europeans. However, this does not mean that I can propose a true history of Australia that proposes that the first Europeans were a race of noble kings who arrived in splendid warships, rather than being a penal colony from England. Truth may have aspects of relativity but it is not completely subject to an individual’s uncontrolled bias and imagination. So, objective truth does exist, although we may not be able to claim to have exhaustive truth of any matter, and although our understanding may be biased through our bias, nevertheless we may have significant and objective understanding of real truth.

Question 2. Aren’t Christians intolerant and judgemental? If Christians say they disagree with another religion or viewpoint, often they are accused of being intolerant of others or judgemental. But the word tolerate means to allow or to permit, to recognize and respect others’ beliefs and practices without sharing them, to bear or put up with someone or something not necessarily liked. It doesn’t mean that agreeing that everybody is right simultaneously. Do we need to respect everybody’s point of view? No, we need to show respect for people, and for their right to have a point of view, but not necessarily for their point of view itself. Tolerance is allowing people to have a view you don’t hold- it doesn’t mean that you’ve got to pretend there is no difference between what you believe. Tolerance is not the key issue! Rather than talking about tolerance, we should talk about loving one another, and part of loving one another involves sharing and helping people find the truth. People have a right to believe whatever they wish, but we would be failing in our duty if we did not share our point of view with people. It is not intolerant or judgemental just to share that you have a different point of view.

Question 3: Is there anything wrong with proselytising? Modern society strongly discourages proselytizing. For example, an editorial in the Sydney Morning Herald put it this way: “It is arrogant and dangerous, however, for anyone to assume a right or duty to convert others. All the blood that has been shed, and continues to be shed, around the world in the name of religion adequately makes this point. In the multicultural, multi-god nation that modern Australia is, proselytising can only needlessly provoke community tensions. In Australia, one’s religion is largely a private matter. It should remain that way.” The assumption here is proselytization is the opposite of tolerance. Asserting the superiority of one’s religious beliefs, in this view, is not merely bad manners; it involves a kind of divisive, offensive judgmentalism.

But, why is it we are allowed to talk about politics, or sex, but not matters of religion? This seems to be arbitrary, and puts religion into a category of irrelevance. Why is it that people are allowed to argue for the reality of climate change, but not religion? Why can people argue for gay marriage but not the existence of God? Surely what is needed is polite and open conversation on important topics, not a silencing of conversation. In the unwritten rule against proselytisation, what really is being done is to marginalize religion and to say that it is not important.

A good way to respond is to contend for the need for people to be open-minded and to learn from one another. Express a genuine interest in other people’s beliefs, and seek to learn from them. You then earn the right to share your beliefs with them. On the appropriateness of seeking to convert somebody, again, compare it with other topics which people passionately contend for: do you think it is right to try to convince someone that climate change is real? Would it be ok for everybody just to say- oh well, everybody is allowed to have a private opinion about climate change, but let’s never try to determine what the facts about it are.

Question 4: Isn’t there truth in all religions? Well undoubtedly this is right. We have been created in the image of God, and so we all have a moral nature, and this moral nature values love and compassion and justice, and so religions all are motivated by our moral nature to create rules and patterns of life which help us to live moral lives. But just because lots of religions seek to help us to live moral lives doesn’t mean they all have been given to us by God, and they are all true. They cannot all have been given to us 100% by God, they cannot all be true because they contradict each other. In Judaism, Islam and Christianity, there is only 1 God. In Hindusim, it is believed there are millions of gods. In Christianity, a core belief is that Jesus is God. In Islam, Jesus is only a prophet, and certainly is not God. In Hinduism and Buddhism, after death comes reincarnation. In Christianity, after death comes resurrection. So they cannot all come from God- they cannot all be true- unless you think God is contradicting himself and saying different things to different people.

But Question 5: Does it really matter what you believe? Isn’t it just sincerity and goodness that matter, not what you believe? One person writes “Beliefs are actually no one’s business but the believer’s. At the deepest level, what we believe surely matters a whole lot less than how we live and, in particular, how we are helping to make the world a better place. So why waste time and energy picking on each other’s religious beliefs?”

Yes, being good is very important. You don’t need religion to tell you that, even atheists want to try to be good. There is no argument there. However, the problem is that we haven’t been good, and that where religion comes in. How do we get forgiveness for the times we haven’t been good?

Is all that matters that you just try to be sincere in believing something- it doesn’t matter what- be sincere and try to be good? Well, sure, it is important that you’re sincere, but really, is it not also important that you are believing in what is true? Shouldn’t we be examining what we believe, and seeking to make sure that it is true? I mean, if Islam is true, then it is important that we all make a pilgrimage to Mecca in our lives. In Hinduism, your present suffering in life is caused by your sins you’ve committed in a previous life. In some religions, you can only receive forgiveness for your sins by punishing yourself in very degrading ways. Surely what you believe is also important, as well as being sincere in your belief. If it is true that there is a personal God who created us and desires to enter into a relationship with us, is it not important that you discover that truth and live in the light of it, rather than say- live under an atheistic view in which you have no relationship with God, but just try to be a nice citizen. Surely your sincerity is not the only thing, but also that you are seeking to follow what is true. Indeed, pursuing after truth is a moral value, so if goodness is what really matters, then you will pursue the truth about religious matters, and not just dismiss it by saying it doesn’t matter what you believe.

But Question 6: Aren’t your beliefs just a result of your culture? I mean, isn’t it the case, that if you grew up in India, you would be a Hindu, if you grew up in Saudi Arabia, you would be a Muslim, if in America, you would be a Christian. Is this true? Well, maybe so, but maybe not. There are plenty of atheists who live in America. There are plenty of Muslims who are becoming Christians. But even if it is generally the case, should it be that way? Should you just believe what everybody around you believes? Surely you should be pursuing truth. Surely people who live in a primitive tribe who trust in a witchdoctor’s remedies for treating sickness should progress to learning from modern medicine? Surely if you grow up in a racist society, you should not remain a racist in your beliefs? If you grew up in a country which believed the earth was flat, and you were a scientist and discovered the world was round, well, surely you should change your view.

Question 7: What about those who have never heard about Jesus? It’s a good question, it’s an interesting question. Christians have different points of view about it. Some people believe that God will judge different people according to different standards- some people believe that only those who have actually responded to the message about Jesus will be in Heaven. Ultimately we can trust God to be just and wise in dealing with those who have never heard about Jesus. Nobody will stand before God on judgement day and be able to say- that’s not fair God. It’s impossible for God to be unjust.

It’s an interesting question, but unfortunately, it’s also an irrelevant question. It’s not really our business to worry about how God will judge those who haven’t heard about Jesus. What is more important to consider is what sort of response which we should make to the truth which we do know.

Question 8: But is it really possible to discover the truth when there are so many opinions? Well, we would argue that there is indeed good evidence for why it makes sense to believe that God exists and that Jesus is the Risen Messiah. I would argue that there is not any religion which can make as good a case as what there is in Christianity. What we need to remember, is that most people in the world don’t follow their religion because they have examined the alternatives and found their religion the most reasonable. Rather, they follow their religion out of tribal loyalty to their culture.

And this point brings us to the crux of the matter in dealing with pluralism. The attraction of pluralism is that we don’t have to ever disagree with anybody. But if we are to pursue truth, disagreeing with different people will be perfectly normal. Pluralism encourages us to follow the crowd. Really, we need to be following and pursuing after the truth, wherever it should lead us. Pursuing truth is the pathway which God calls us to embrace, and unfortunately that means just being sincere about believing something is not enough.