Monday, March 31, 2014

Do Christians Believe in Extra-terrestrial life?

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about Christians and extra-terrestrial life:  

Q:  Do Christians believe in aliens or that life exists on other planets?  What evidence is there from the Bible for or against this idea?

While it would be convenient if the Bible contained information about every conceivable topic, the fact is that it only contains the information relevant to its purpose – to provide the history of God’s interaction with man and His ultimate revelation in the crucified and risen Christ.  Even though the Bible never mentions aliens or other life forms, it does contain a number of concepts that would influence the way Christians respond the question of extra-terrestrial life. 

From Genesis, the Bible portrays humanity as the pinnacle and crowning element of creation.  In relation to all other life on earth, Adam and Eve are placed as the superior caretaker and described with qualities not attributed to other creatures.  While God speaks other creatures into existence, He forms Adam from the dust and breathes life into him.  He then gives Adam the task of naming the rest of creation, then creates Eve from Adam’s rib as a fitting complement to Him. 

When the creation account describes the rest of the creation beyond the earth’s atmosphere, it describes everything in relation to earth.  Sun and moon are created for the purpose of creating a fitting environment on earth.  Stars and other planets are described as being tasked with marking time and seasons – both purposes that center on activities here on earth, and not out in space. 

In any of the Bible’s descriptions of the origins of life, the whole story is centered on earth and only on earth.  We are not given any positive indication that there are intelligent creatures elsewhere – or any form of life at all.  We also are not given any absolute denials that God could have created life elsewhere beyond our planet.  The question is simply not addressed.    

While there have been attempts made by imaginative individuals to explain some of the unusual images of the book of Revelation, as well as other prophetic elements as descriptions of future alien encounters, these ideas are not well-supported by textual study or church history, and are more likely wishful thinking or exceeding the appropriate bounds of creativity in handling these portions of Scripture.

What we do know is that the Bible describes the creation of life here on earth.  We do know that it describes the fall of that creation into sin at the hand of our first parents, and we do know that it describes the perfect life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as our substitute and points us there as the remedy for every spiritual ill, and directs us to the Resurrection of the Last Day as the end of all earthly suffering that is the consequence of sin. 

While we cannot dogmatically say that there is no life beyond our own planet, we also have no confirmation that there is, nor do we have any instruction to seek it out.  If God desired to form other creations in far-away solar systems, that look and operate differently than we do, it would certainly be within His ability and rights to do so.  However, because we have found no credible evidence that this is true, nor has it been revealed to us in Scripture, there is no warrant for Christians to introduce such ideas into discussion of spiritual things, because even if they did exist, it would apparently be of no consequence to us or our salvation in Christ– which is the purpose and central theme of God’s revelation. 

Monday, March 17, 2014

What is a Christian to make of Psychics, Mediums, etc.?

My article from this week's newspapers answers a question about psychics, mediums, and other similar practitioners:  

Q:  How should a Christian understand the existence of psychics and mediums?  Are their services genuine, and if not, what is their source?

The two typical reactions to psychic phenomena and those practitioners who engage with such things is either to embrace it as real and genuine, or on the other hand, to reject it as fantasy or mythology.  However, it seems that a fair treatment of this question must acknowledge that there are several explanations for this sort of experiences. 

The criticism that these experiences are pure imagination is certainly plausible, and on several occasions is probably an accurate analysis.  A person who believes herself to have psychic powers or communicate with another realm of spirits could potentially be imagining her experiences, but convinced in her own mind that they are genuine.  Legitimate mental illness is also a possibility, as is the individual simply misinterpreting otherwise natural phenomena as more than they really are. 

It also must be acknowledged that there are those practitioners who are skillfully fabricating these paranormal experiences.  They may be adept at reading their clients or subtly mining them for details that they can use to better create the desired experience and give the appearance of a psychic connection.  In such a case, nothing spiritual is occurring, but simply a fraudulent manipulation. 

On other occasions, these logical explanations do not seem adequate.  Perhaps the medium knows something that they could not have possibly known, or the psychic makes a prediction that is ultimately found to be accurate, making it necessary to explore spiritual causes. 

The Christian can rule out that genuine communication with the spirits of deceased humans has occurred, because Jesus description of the Rich Man and Lazarus from Luke 16 describes a gulf that cannot be breached between the habitation of the deceased and the world of the living.  Hebrews also explains that “it is given man once to die, and then to face the judgment.” 

It can also be ruled out that the revelation is angelic, as every instance of angelic revelation in Scripture is unmistakably clear, and not concealed or mysterious.  Nor is the Holy Spirit a plausible source, as Scripture’s record of the His role never describes Him working in the ways seen in relation to psychic experiences, and when Jesus Himself describes the Holy Spirit’s work in Gospel of John, He describes a work of pointing to Jesus and reminding of Jesus words – and not one of revealing anything new or hidden. 

Assuming that a chance guess is not a satisfactory explanation, it would be necessary to explain the source of such knowledge, which is the more challenging task – and one that brings potentially unwelcome conclusions. 

If an experience cannot be explained after ruling out human, divine, and angelic sources, only one option remains – the demonic world.  Although we may be hesitant to make such claims, Scripture’s revelations about the demonic world do make this a plausible explanation. 

We know that demons are immortal spirits and so have knowledge that reaches beyond that available to living generations, making it possible for them to reveal events and details of the past that could not be known except by an eyewitness.  We also know that their goal is lead people away from Jesus by any means, which allows that they may even provide appealing and comforting revelations for the sake of distracting a person from Jesus. 

So, it is possible that a demon might impersonate a deceased spouse or parent, revealing little-known details to the psychic, because the demon witnessed the life and relationships of the deceased.  Or perhaps a demon can reveal the location of a body or weapon to a psychic who has been asked to help with a murder investigation because he was the one who inspired the murderer to commit the crime in the first place. 

Ultimately, the Christian can be certain that Mediums, Psychics, and similar practitioners, no matter how sincere, are not what they seem, and that there is no cause to consult them.  Even when it is difficult to discern what is happening in the spiritual world, the Christian can be sure that through Baptism they are protected from those spiritual forces which would seek to harm or deceive them.  God’s promises, having been applied to them through the water, defend them from the devil, his angels, and even death itself with the certain and unconquerable power of the Cross of Christ.  

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

No other has ever known how Jesus lives within the unseen things above my heart...

My article from this week's newspapers about feeling God within us:

Q:  Sometimes, I feel so certain that God is real and with me.  Other times, I don’t feel Him, or He feels so far away.  Since God is unseen, how can we be sure that He is real and with us?
This question has been a challenge for Christians for generations.  Sensing has been such a prominent element throughout the history of religion that in the academic study of world religions, one of the categories most religion textbooks use is “Characteristic Emotional Experiences.” 
At times in Christian history, this has also been emphasized by well-meaning Christian preachers.  One example of this was 2 generations after the Reformation when people began to feel that Reformation theology was too dry and unemotional and wanted to reinvigorate it with a more personal emotional experience.  This same intention also motivated the Wesleys in a later generation to begin the movement that led to those we call Methodists today. 
Here in the United States, we also saw this current driving the revivals of the 19th century, and it is still with us today as many of that era’s popular hymns and songs, or those inspired by that era, are still with us today. 
One of these centers around the line, “You ask me how I know He lives; He lives within my heart” – directing Christians to look within their hearts to find the risen Christ.  The Apostle Paul, on the other hand directs Christians in 1 Corinthians 15 to look outside of themselves to the Cross of Christ and His empty tomb.  Instead of directing the Corinthians to find the risen Christ within their hearts, he catalogues Jesus’ post-resurrection appearances and the eyewitnesses who observed them as the foundation for the Christian’s belief that Jesus rose from the dead. 
Another similar song begins, “I love to tell the story; of unseen things above…” but this also differs from the way that the Gospels and Paul point Christians to Jesus.  Instead of concentrating on the unseen things of God, they repeatedly direct their readers and hearers back to the events that occurred here on earth as the foundation for their hope and the source of their righteousness before God, and to the eyewitnesses who observed them as evidence, rather than within themselves or into the unseen reaches of heaven. 
A final song, and one of the favorites of a certain generation, describes the relationship between God and the Christian as an experience “…no other has ever known.”  This is certainly an appealing and sentimental image, but again, one that arises out of 19th century popular culture expressions rather than Scripture.  The New Testament Epistles, the ancient Church Fathers, and the Reformers never direct Christians within to any kind of personal experience as the evidence for faith – because those feelings come and go, leaving the Christian to wonder if their Savior or their trust in Him has also come and gone. 
Instead, they direct people first to the empty tomb of the Resurrected Christ and the eyewitnesses who saw it.  Then they direct them to the Church where this message is proclaimed and applied to individual Christians through the preaching of the Word, through Baptism, and through the Lord’s Supper.  These are the methods through which God desires to assure us of His promises for us, and these are the sure foundation which cannot be shaken (Hebrews 12:27-28)