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Jack Reacher, Superheroes, and Jesus Christ


By Tom Thomas

Jack Reacher is a former military policeman. With neither permanent address nor credit card this formidable 6’5” martial arts tactician drifts in anonymity. Wherever he goes he finds helpless victims caught in powerful webs of evil. Against insurmountable odds Reacher comes to their aid.

Author of the super popular Jack Reacher novel series, Lee Child, discussed with writer Steven King at Harvard University the derivation of his character ‘Jack Reacher’. ‘Jack Reacher’, he said, is his iteration of the ageless longing for the superhero.

This Advent season we Christians reflect on the coming into the world of the promised Prince-King-Savior, Jesus Christ. Is he, like Jack Reacher, just another construct of wishful human thinking? So skeptical critics since the nineteenth century have argued. They discount Jesus Christ as just another myth in the long line of human longing for the super hero – the deified Man. Such critics have taken their cue from the philosopher Ludwig Feuerbach who said God—substitute Jesus Christ—is a human invention. He is the deified essence of Man. Jesus Christ is humankind’s highest ideals, hopes, and imaginations fictionally personified. Namely, Jesus, just like Jack Reacher, is a projection of the human imagination.

Feuerbach’s and the skeptical critics’ contention is as unsuitable as it is an inadequate explanation of Jesus Christ. Jesus Christ was enough unlike the profile of a hoped-for messiah-savior that not only his own Jewish people but the world did not recognize him. Let me point out why Feuerbach’s claim is off base and show the disparity between the human, idealized super-hero and Jesus Christ.

The imagined deified heroes embody what we are not but wish we were. They fill up our cosmic inadequacies. Fantasize with me about an archetypical super-human. What is your god or goddess’s profile? The idealized deified idol is endowed with super-human strength. Muscular, attractive, with enhanced intelligence, he or she is a champion who knows what to do in all circumstances. Endowed with an indomitable spirit, the conqueror is virile, generous, and has a streak – just a streak – of good. With death-defying acts, the divine hero surmounts improbable odds to triumph over every impossible predicament to save helpless persons. In the superhero, evil meets its match. They right wrongs, fight for justice, and defend the public from the catastrophic machinations of tyrannical, psychopathic villains. You know their names: Hercules, James Bond, X-Man, Batman, Wonder Woman, et cetera. We cannot forget Superman! In 1935, two New York City taxi-cab-drivers imagined a superman who could defeat crime and fight for truth and justice. He is faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound. “Is it a bird? – Is it a plane? – No, it’s SUPERMAN!” Possessing X-ray vision, he has extraordinary, muscular strength, good looks, and, yes, he is honest and humble.

He was a model for this American male. I had my Superman suit with the big ‘S’ on my chest. I waited for that suit to arrive for two months. Mom said it was only two weeks. I went “flying around” – I mean, running around – our backyard. I could not bend steel, or outrun the dog, but I was hopeful.

Superman is made to be seen! His stupendous saving acts are performed before the eyes of the watching world. Who can miss a man flying down Wall Street in royal blue tights, a giant red ‘S’ centered on his chest, and a red cape flapping behind him? Humankind dreams of heroes who flex their muscles, and make the spectacle of their superiority resoundingly clear. At the end of the day, no one is left in doubt who wields the greatest strength, the superior intelligence, and the supreme prowess.

Contrast the hero tradition with the coming Ruler, Messiah-King, Jesus Christ. Does Jesus match their profile? He is born in an animal shelter to a craftsman family in an obscure country. The prophet Isaiah says of him, “He had no form or comeliness that we should look at him, and no beauty that we should desire him.” He did not possess the unusually attractive Grecian star-quality looks of Hercules. We’re told nothing of his looks, or the color of his skin, in fact, but plenty about his character. Moreover, contrary to Superman, his great works were performed not in the great cities like Rome or Athens but in the rural, country villages of Galilee … the Big Islands and Tight Squeezes of this world. His miracles were always awesome, but often not sensational. He was not Hercules holding up the world or Batman swooping down from a skyscraper in Gotham City’s searchlight. Though there were exceptions, He worked in understated and invisible ways to leave room for doubt … and faith. Though the results were overwhelming, one saw very little flash. When religious or secular leaders asked him for the spectacular sign of a ‘superman’, he refused to give it.

The Gospel writers make clear in Jesus’ own as well as the Gospel writers’ minds his culminating glory was the scornful cross! What human fantasy would ever conceive it? What hoped-for human imagination would envision the ideal hero-god’s climaxing achievement a humiliating public execution by his enemies on a cross? Shall the ideal superhero die like a dog an excruciating and humiliating death stretched out naked publicly in front of his enemies?

Jesus Christ is distinctly different from human fictions. Contra Feuerbach and the skeptical critics, human authors could not imagine him. His profile is not a construct of wishful, human thinking. He is not the fantasized superhero. Jesus Christ is beyond human fantasies. He is from elsewhere. ‘Of the Father’s love begotten, Ere the worlds began to be, He is Alpha and Omega, He the source, the ending, He.’

And yet none like Him so deeply satisfies our yearning for a Savior, for in allowing Himself to be broken, He offered the world its only chance to be healed.


“Consumed by Christ” A Sermon by Dennis Kinlaw

“Consumed by Christ” is a sermon by Dennis Kinlaw. Dr. Kinlaw was president and chancellor of Asbury College; he also taught Old Testament. He is also the author of many books, including This Day with the Master, Let’s Start with Jesus, Preaching in the Spirit, The Mind of Christ, We Live as Christ, and Malchus’ Ear and Other Sermons.

In this sermon, Dr. Kinlaw explains what it means to be “consumed by Christ.” Kinlaw offers worthwhile insight into why a person would want to follow Jesus when he demands so much. First, Christ has given all of himself as the Lamb and so he does not ask for something he has not also provided. Second, though his way may seem hard, in the end, it will be the only thing that can truly satisfy the human soul.

Download “Consumed by Christ”


Dennis F. Kinlaw: Naming and Showing That Mysterious Quality

Service Celebrates Past President Kinlaw

By Jerry Walls

Dennis F. Kinlaw finished his course on April 10, 2017 at the age of ninety-four. He was an Old Testament Scholar, a former President of Asbury College (now University), and an icon in the Wesleyan-Holiness movement.

Dr. Kinlaw was one of the most popular camp meeting preachers in America, and it is easy to see why.  He was one of the greatest Biblical preachers I have ever heard. When he preached, you often wondered where he was going for the first fifteen minutes or so, but you needed to listen very carefully because he was laying his groundwork. Then several minutes later, as he connected the dots, lights would start flashing in your mind and heart and you would find yourself understanding, and loving, Biblical truth in ways you had never appreciated before. It is hardly surprising that several of his students went on to become noted Old Testament scholars themselves.

Dr. Kinlaw had a lifelong passion to learn, to think, and to grow.  Several years ago my good friend and former student James Mace and I had the privilege one afternoon to talk theology with him at his house and ask him questions (James calls him Gandalf, but not to his face!). He was well into his eighties, but his enthusiasm for thinking hard and deep about the most important issues in life was as warm and infectious as ever.  His provocative insights he shared that day ranged over Biblical theology, systematic theology and philosophy, and I found myself admiring his octogenarian passion for learning and his ongoing curiosity and delight in discovering ideas he had not considered before.  More, I was inspired to follow the example he so beautifully modeled.  His grandson, Dennis F. Kinlaw III is my colleague at HBU, and he visited him several days ago. Even in his weakened condition at age ninety-four, Denny reported that he was exerting his best efforts to discuss the truth he loved and gave his life to understand and articulate.

As a son of the Wesleyan movement, Dr. Kinlaw had a particular passion for the Church at large to recover the message of Christian holiness.  Unfortunately, the word holiness conjures up for many people images of repressive legalism, dour dogma, and joyless judgmentalism.  Much of the holiness movement seems to have forgotten that John Wesley constantly insisted that holiness and happiness are inseparable.  Indeed, one Wesley’s most memorable descriptions of God was “the fountain of happiness, sufficient for all the souls he has made.”

Dennis Kinlaw reminded you of that fountain when you talked to him.  He had a deep resonant voice, and when his eyes sparkled and he broke into laughter as he was sharing his insights on the Trinity or the nature of personhood, you got a picture of what holiness is all about.

I am reminded here that C. S. Lewis was first drawn to Christianity in his teenage years by reading a novel by George McDonald, though he had no idea that was happening at the time.  He was attracted by something mysterious that was conveyed in that book but had no idea what it was.  In his spiritual autobiography, he writes, “I did not know (and I was long in learning) the name of the new quality, the bright shadow, that rested on the travels of Anados.  I do now. It was holiness.”  In view of this experience, it is not surprising that years later, after he was converted, he wrote the following in a letter: “How little people know who think holiness is dull.  When one meets the real thing (and perhaps, like you, I have met it only once) it is irresistible. If even 10% of the world’s population had it, would not the whole world be converted and happy before a year’s end?”

That is a great question to ponder, and it is fitting way to express gratitude for the life and ministry of Dennis Kinlaw.  Many of us who knew him believe he was the “real thing.”  He was a great holiness preacher and a profound Biblical scholar, a respected educational leader and administrator.  And while doing all of this, he showed us that holiness is not dull.


The Love of God in the Life of St. Patrick

by Marybeth Davis Baggett 

Most religious celebrations and feast days for saints of the church garner little attention outside ecclesiastical circles. St. Patrick’s Day is a notable exception, especially throughout America. Across the country parades and festivities are held to commemorate all things Irish. It’s a delightful holiday in many ways, with ubiquitous shamrocks and obligatory green clothing or accessories and Shamrock shakes galore. Because the church traditionally lifts the Lenten restrictions on alcohol for this celebration, the revelry of St. Patrick’s Day is often marked with more than a little inebriation. Regardless of the specific form of the celebration, rarely invoked are the particulars of the man for whom the day is named. Just who is this Patrick, patron saint of Ireland? Why commemorate his life at all?

The most obvious and the official answer is that we celebrate Patrick’s life because of the key role he played in turning the Irish away from paganism and toward Christianity. This was no mean feat. In Philip Freeman’s helpful biography of Patrick, he tells of the entrenched cultural powers—kings, druids, slaveholders—that Patrick would need to engage to carry out his sixth century mission’s work. The political structures, religious customs, and social practices of Ireland at the start of Patrick’s ministry were all overtly and fiercely anti-Christian. Patrick’s navigation of those dynamics is certainly noteworthy; his overwhelming success in subverting them is nothing short of miraculous. Attempts to capture the astonishing outcomes of Patrick’s work have elevated the man himself to something of a spiritual superhero, complete with his own folklore and fantastical stories.

Sensationalistic tales such as his banishment of snakes from the island and his staff that took root and grew into a tree give the saint an air of mystery and the heroic. The rapidity and breadth of Christianity’s growth across the island is difficult to explain without appeal to the supernatural, and these fabricated stories were probably intended to capture something of the divine power that clearly animated and directed his missions work. But the legends might just as easily distract us from understanding Patrick as the model for Christian faithfulness he provides. True, Patrick was instrumental in radically transforming the landscape of a cruel and dehumanizing culture. Yes, he is rightly recognized as a luminary of the Christian faith. But his life also serves as an example and encouragement for all Christians seeking to live out their faith. What we find in Patrick’s own words testify that the source of this work is the life of Christ available to all Christians. The inspiration of Patrick’s life is not to be found in its outsized results but in its steady faithfulness.

To be sure, the circumstances of Patrick’s life were extraordinary. He was born in fifth-century Britain, the privileged son of a Roman official. During his teenage years, he was kidnapped by Irish mercenaries and forced into slavery in Ireland for six years. After an escape from captivity prompted by an angelic vision, he returned home and devoted himself to the study of scriptures and preparation for ministry of some kind. During his years as a slave, he had become deeply aware of God’s call on his life and of his need for a savior. He later attributed his spiritual growth in this time to his terrible conditions: only when all was stripped away did he realize his complete dependence on God. His physical slavery counterintuitively brought him spiritual freedom. This transformational experience affected him so deeply that when he felt led to return to Ireland, the land and people responsible for his greatest torment, he abandoned himself wholly to that calling. Not only did he return to share the life-giving gospel message with the hardened and violent people of Ireland; he came to love them, even risking his life and reputation for their sake.

This love motivated his letter to the soldiers of Coroticus, a British tribal ruler. This letter jeopardized Patrick’s standing in the church and cost him no small amount of anxiety and energy; nevertheless, his commitment to the Irish people and to the gospel overrode those personal concerns. He wrote his note in response to a raid into Ireland by British soldiers who killed and kidnapped a group of Patrick’s newly baptized converts on their way home from the baptism. Sending this missive put Patrick in danger because it violated long-standing church protocol that leaders should not meddle in the congregations of other church leaders. And Patrick’s letter did more than meddle. It condemned not only the actions of the soldiers but the soldiers themselves, appealing to scripture to justify the judgments he rendered.

God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Patrick’s righteous indignation and rage at the soldiers’ actions permeate the letter, but undergirding that wrath is a devotion to God and commitment to his people. Britons thought very little of the Irish, seeing them as less than human and suited only for slavery. Patrick’s writing proclaims again and again that God cares for them. Patrick upends the British assumptions by describing the Irish as his brothers and sisters, and even more by extending that relationship to the soldiers themselves, who publically pronounced themselves Christian. Patrick puts that presumption to the test by challenging them to release those they had enslaved. He also called on other fellow Christians to cut off fellowship with them until they demonstrated their faith through their actions.

For Patrick, faith and works go hand in hand. This is demonstrated by his Confession, a follow-up to his earlier epistle that appears to be a response to challenges to his leadership that stemmed from his rebuke of Coroticus. In this recount of his testimony, what emerges is a picture of a man who submitted himself fully to God’s call on his life. What is most remarkable about this account is the way it depicts how receiving God’s love leads to serving others. The mercy God showed Patrick in his early years as a slave stirred in him gratitude and a desire to share that blessing with others. The love he offered the Irish, despite their responsibility for his kidnapping and enslavement, was an overflow of the love God bestowed on him.

Despite the time and space that divide us, the Patrick of these letters has much to teach us. He displayed remarkable courage in confronting wrongdoing, but not of his own strength. Forged in the fire of oppression was his abiding conviction about God’s love and its radical and often counterintuitive demands. The debasement of slavery and dehumanization he’d endured had stripped away all pretenses of his superiority, making him acutely aware of his desperate need for God for power and productiveness, for trust and tenacity. God’s redemption of his brutal circumstances constituted a crucible that formed his understanding of God alone as good, as the lone source of any real value, and as the one whose calling on our lives confers on us our true purpose.

Near the end of his letter, Patrick wrote these poignant words we would do well to take to heart:

“My final prayer is that all of you who believe in God and respect him—whoever you may be who read this letter that Patrick the unlearned sinner wrote from Ireland—that none of you will ever say that I in my ignorance did anything for God. You must understand—because it is the truth—that it was all the gift of God.”

Image: “Detail of St Patrick with a shamrock in a stained glass window at the Smith Museum of Stained Glass Windows at Navy Pier in Chicago.” by T. Zajdowicz. CC License. 

Seven Reasons Why Moral Apologetics Points to Christianity


By David Baggett

Various moral arguments for God’s existence are usually deployed for the purpose of arguing for the truth of God’s existence per se, but they strongly hint at a more specific conclusion. Namely, they are plausibly taken to be evidence that Christianity in particular is true. The claim isn’t that by moral apologetics alone one can somehow deduce all the aspects of special revelation contained in Christianity, but rather this: in light of Christianity having been revealed, moral arguments for God’s existence point quite naturally in its direction. The following list is far from exhaustive, but offers a few reasons to think this is so.

First, one of the great virtues of moral arguments for God’s existence is that they point not just to the existence of God, but to a God of a particular nature: a God who is morally perfect. A. C. Ewing once said that the source of the moral law is morally perfect. Such a notion is described in various ways: omnibenevolent, impeccable, essentially good, and the like. What does it look like when omnibenevolence takes on human form? Jesus is a powerful answer. Moral apologetics works best when it’s Christological.

Second, to conceive of God as essentially and perfectly loving requires some sort of account. The right account, again, isn’t the sort of idea that we’re able to generate on our own; we depend on special revelation to tell us what it is. But Christianity has provided us with an account of the divine nature that’s Trinitarian in nature. C. S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity, “All sorts of people are fond of repeating the Christian statement that ‘God is love’. But they seem not to notice that the words ‘God is love’ have no real meaning unless God contains at least two Persons. Love is something that one person has for another person. If God was a single person, then before the world was made, He was not love.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s Trinitarian.

Third, Christianity has a demonstrated track record historically in reaching people of every race and ethnicity, and every socioeconomic background, and radically transforming their lives. In a book chronicling the spiritual lives of various Christian saints called They Found the Secret can be found this description: “Out of discouragement and defeat they have come into victory. Out of weakness and weariness they have been made strong. Out of ineffectiveness and apparent uselessness they have become efficient and enthusiastic. The pattern seems to be self-centeredness, self-effort, increasing inner dissatisfaction and outer discouragement, a temptation to give it all up because there is no better way, and then finding the Spirit of God to be their strength, their guide, their confidence and companion—in a word, their life.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s individually transformational.

Fourth, Paul Copan speaks of an historical aspect of moral apologetics: the historical role played by Christ and his devoted followers to promote social justice. Morality demands deep cultural transformation too. Copan cites specific cultural developments that can be shown to have flowed from the Jewish-Christian worldview, leading to societies that are “progress-prone rather than progress-resistant,” including such signs of progress as the founding of modern science, poverty-diminishing free markets, equal rights for all before the law, religious liberty, women’s suffrage, human rights initiatives, and the abolition of slavery, widow-burning, and foot-binding.

Jürgen Habermas, who isn’t a Christian himself, writes the following: “Christianity has functioned for the normative self-understanding of modernity as more than just a precursor or a catalyst. Egalitarian universalism, from which sprang the ideas of freedom and a social solidarity, of an autonomous conduct of life and emancipation, the individual morality of conscience, human rights, and democracy, is the direct heir to the Judaic ethic of justice and the Christian ethic of love. This legacy, substantially unchanged, has been the object of continual critical appropriation and reinterpretation. To this day, there is no alternative to it. And in light of current challenges of a postnational constellation, we continue to draw on the substance of this heritage. Everything else is just idle postmodern talk.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s culturally transformative.

Fifth, Christianity holds out the hope for total moral transformation. Morality upholds a standard that all of us fall short of all the time, yet there’s nothing about morality that hints at accommodation or compromise. The right ultimate explanation of morality should be able to make sense of our aspirations for radical moral transformation, and even perfection as something more than a Pollyannaish pipedream. Christianity offers, by God’s grace through faith, moral hope instead of moral despair, forgiveness and liberation from guilt, and the prospect to be totally conformed to the image of Christ, in whom there’s no shadow of turning. The resurrection offers the prescription from both death and sin: abundant and everlasting life. Moral apologetics works best when it is soteriological (offering both forgiveness and transformation, both justification and sanctification).

Sixth, Christianity offers principled reason to think that the glory to come will not just outweigh, but definitely defeat, the worst evils of this world. Christian philosopher Marilyn Adams writes, “If Divine Goodness is infinite, if intimate relation to It is thus incommensurably good for created persons, then we have identified a good big enough to defeat horrors in every case.” Moral apologetics works best when it’s eschatological.

Seventh, Christianity gives compelling reasons to think that every person possesses infinite dignity and value. To be loved by God, the very archetype of all goodness—each of us differently, but all of us infinitely—and to have been made a person in his image is to possess greater worth than we can begin to imagine. And humanity isn’t just valuable in the aggregate, according to Christianity. Rather, each person is unique, each is loved by God, each is someone for whom Jesus suffered and died. And in the book of Revelation, for everyone who accepts God’s overtures of love, a white stone will reveal a unique name for each one of them—marking their distinctive relationship with God and vocation in him. Moral apologetics works best when it’s universal.

The way a labyrinthine maze of jumbled metal filings suddenly stands in symmetrical formation in response to the pull of a magnet, likewise the right organizing story—classical theism and orthodox Christianity—pulls all the moral pieces of evidence into alignment and allows a striking pattern to emerge.



Twilight Musings “What’s Really New?”

By Elton Higgs

We Americans are fascinated with all things new, largely because both the word and the idea of “new” are at the center of promoting products, from cereals to automobiles. I heard just this morning in a newscast (as you can see, the word is even embedded in the media) a report about how Apple can get away with marketing a new iPhone every couple of years: people want and eagerly await the next new thing, especially in communications technology.

The assumption of the superiority of the new is also deeply woven into the fabric of modern Western thought. It is intricately connected to the idea of progress, undergirded both by ever-expanding scientific and technological knowledge and by the application of Darwin’s theory of biological evolution to human social development. Arising out of these elements of thought is the rather arrogant assumption that the present age is by definition more advanced than any that has preceded it, merely because it is the latest. This is the state of mind described by C. S. Lewis as “chronological snobbery.” In this context, it’s not surprising that modern theological opinions are considered superior to old ones. If doctrines and moral standards clearly stated in the Bible conflict with modern, enlightened, “scientific” understandings, then we must cast the old aside and embrace the progressive new.

However, the God of the Bible is actually the source of all things new—is, in fact, the only source of the New. The conflict is not primarily between the old and the new in a chronological sense, but between mankind’s “new” and God’s “New.” God demonstrated the archetypal New when He “created the heavens and the earth.” No such thing had ever existed before; it was unique, completely original, and God “saw that it was good.” When sin corrupted this perfect new world, God provided a lesser but sufficient way for the human race to survive on earth until God’s redemption of the fallen world could be worked out. For Adam and Eve, newly banished from the Garden, He balanced the penalties of pain in childbirth and painfully tilling the ground for food by providing them garments and promising that the Serpent who had deceived them would one day be bruised (fatally and finally, it is implied) by one of their offspring. (See Gen. 3:14-21.) We now know that the “offspring” referred to was Jesus Christ, Messiah and Incarnate Son of God, whose heel was bruised by the Serpent Satan when Jesus died on the cross. But before the culmination of that divine plan in the Incarnation, there was a very long period of progressive New Things, beginning with the purging and purifying of the earth through the Flood; the calling of Abraham to be the father of God’s nation, Israel; the institution of a Covenant with that nation, based on the Law given to Moses; the blessing of Israel with a land to live in; the apostasy of the nation leading to their being exiled from that land; and their return from exile to rebuild Jerisalem and the Temple. Thus, over long years, the way was prepared for the coming of God’s Son, the Newest Thing ever seen.

Jesus’ appearance in the world marked the creation of a New Adam, a being who, like the original creation, was unique and without precedent. The first Adam was created from the earth, and God breathed into his physical form the breath of life; but the Second (or New) Adam sprang from the very Spirit of God and was only temporarily clothed in a perishable body (see I Cor. 15:45-49). When Jesus arose from the grave after being struck to death by Satan, He became the source of a New Covenant, established through the shedding of His perfect blood to remove forever the curse invoked on mankind because of sin. With this New Covenant came a New definition of the people of God. No longer was His people merely physical Israel, but a unification of Jew and Gentile into “one New Man” (Eph. 3:15, my caps, and so throughout), so intimately identified with Christ as to be referred to as His Body. The people of God are made up of all those who have accepted Jesus as Lord and have experienced the transformation from death to life, putting off the “old self” and being “renewed” so that we can “put on the New Self” (Eph. 4:21-24), which is actually Christ in us (Col. 1:27). As Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Gal 2:20-21). All of this is preparation for our being ushered into the New Heaven and New Earth with which God will replace the flawed universe in which we now dwell. (See Is. 65:17-18; II Pet. 3:11-13; Rev. 21:1-8.)

God’s New is obviously glorious and benevolent, greatly to be desired and joyfully to be embraced. And yet, as I indicated above, we in this fallen world easily fall prey to the glittering temptation of the temporal new. Scripture has many examples from which we can profit in this regard. One of God’s repeated accusations against Israel was that they went after “new gods” and “forgot the God who gave [them] birth” (Deut. 32:17-18). The jaded old man whose voice we hear in Ecclesiastes is so satiated with his pursuit of the ephemeral “new” that he concludes “there is nothing new under the sun” (Eccl. 1:9-10). And he is right, for what is under the sun is not God’s New, but mankind’s flawed new. Nevertheless, God is at work in His people of every age providing spiritual renewal in the midst of our weariness. Inserted into the middle of the book of Lamentations (3:22-24) we find the beautiful affirmation: “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases; his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is your faithfulness. ‘The Lord is my portion,’ says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in him.’” In Isaiah 40:31, those who “wait for the Lord” are promised that they will “renew their strength” and “run and not be weary . . . walk and not faint.”

Nevertheless, perverse beings that we are, we not only are easily lured by the glitter of the world’s fleeting “new,” we often are frightened and threatened by God’s ‘New,” even though he makes it readily available to us for the asking. But to receive God’s New, we must put off the old that would hinder us from growing in our walk with Him. I once wrote a New Year’s poem that expresses this ambivalence, and I present it here by way of conclusion.

A Reluctance for New Wine

The fabric of threadbare hope
Stretches toward year’s end.
Pieces of frayed ambition extend
To cover the old wineskins
That many disclaim
But few set aside.
Like children clutching tattered dolls,
We hug in vain security
The rags of the past,
Because in some degree
They are accommodated to our wills.

The outworn selves we cling to
Can be our own
The more as time goes by:
We patch and mend
In order to possess.

The New
Stirs something deep within—
But I would not willingly admit it.

–Elton D. Higgs
(Dec. 31, 1977)

Image: “Beginning” by Uzzaman. CC License. 

Twilight Musings “Why do you have faith?”

By Elton Higgs

One day at lunch, my wife asked me, “Why do you have faith?”— meaning, of course, “Why do you have faith that the Christian message is true, and that you should continue to follow it?” Peter instructs us to be ready to give an answer to that kind of question, but I had to pause a few seconds to come up with a concise, focused reply: “Because I need to.” However, that conciseness conceals a great deal that lies behind it. One can identify a variety of contributing elements that can flow into that core, short answer. One is cultural influence. Those who grow up in a theistic culture will usually have a predisposition for some kind of faith, and those who are nurtured from birth in a Christian family are more likely to be Christian believers. Another element is temperament. Some people are led to faith by an emotional experience, and they continue to live in faith because it supports them emotionally. For others, it might have been a path of weighing the arguments of the Christian message, and they continue to find intellectual fulfillment in studying the Word of God. A third element is the experiences of a believer after an initial commitment to walking with Christ. Has the person grown through challenges to his or her faith? This last line of response is the most important, I think, for the question is not addressed merely to the present state of one’s faith, but is also an inquiry as to how the person got to the faith he now holds. A full answer to the question requires some attention to the person’s “journey of faith.” By what stages has one arrived at the kind of faith that he now holds?

My own journey of faith began as I grew up in a devout Christian household. My father was a lay elder, and nightly prayer was faithfully observed (the “family altar” it was called) with all on their knees. I was a Bible reader from at least the age of 8, and I made a profession of faith and was baptized when I was 9. I went to church 3 or 4 times a week, including youth group. In my teen and early college years, I seriously considered being a preacher or a youth worker, but I finally settled on majoring in English, thinking to teach in high school so I could be a self-supported missionary. As I approached my last two years in college, my English professors encouraged me to go to graduate school. When I graduated with my B.A., my wife and I went off to begin my graduate work at the University of Washington, where I encountered for the first time the kind of secular thinking I had been protected from at Abilene Christian College. I went through a couple of years of angst, trying to accommodate my belief in the God of the Bible to the rationalism and materialism assumed by the faculty and many of my fellow students. This experience marked my transition from childhood faith to one forced to deal with the intellectual complexity of believing.

When I finished my graduate work in 1965, I took a position on the faculty of the newly established University of Michigan-Dearborn, at the age of 28. For approximately the first half of my 36 year career there, I was able to tap into the needs of a growing campus, contributing administratively to the creation of new structures to accommodate the expansion from an institution of fewer than a thousand students to an eventual 6,000 or more. During this period my Christian convictions were a sort of curiosity to most of my colleagues, but not a source of any great difficulty. The faculty and staff were fairly close-knit until the academic units began to multiply and we were pulled apart by growth. Eventually, academic and political factions were the rule, and when these factors merged with social changes growing out of the restless ‘60s, particularly the militancy of homosexuals, I increasingly became a target for my publicly stated conservative religious convictions. To these disruptions of professional relationships were added ruptures in church relationships, the two kinds unrelated to each other but both contributing to the painful recognition that my best intentions in interacting with others were not sufficient to prevent those relationships being broken. In the same time period I also had to accept that my professional ambitions were not going to be realized to the extent I had envisioned. In addition to all of this, our church life became unstable, and for the first time Laquita and I considered churches outside the denomination in which we had grown up. Out of this perfect storm of challenges and changes, we began a period of redefining who we were as members of the Body of Christ, and I had to consider a faith that not only went beyond generally accepted intellectual boundaries, but one that transcended the insecurities of friendship and got past conflict within the church.

The resolution of these experiential challenges to my faith came through a deeper understanding of the church as family and of my personal relationship with God. I had to realize that the definition of who I am doesn’t depend on the impression I make on others, but on discovering God’s definition of who I am. I suppose it boiled down to God undermining my self-created security so that I was forced toward humility. When I was in my childhood and young adult faith, I saw myself as a sterling example of a “good boy,” conforming to and exceeding the expectations of both my natural and my spiritual families. In my graduate and early professional years, I had an image of myself as one bravely standing up for my faith in spite of the opposition of my colleagues. But when long-cherished friendships crumbled in both academic and church settings, I had to face the possibility that somewhere along the line, I might have made some really bad choices. The faith that emerged out of that struggle was based on the grace of God, not my own attempts at perfection. My sense of self-worth had to be reestablished through confidence (faith) that I have value because God loves me.

The final stage of my faith development was also born out of difficult personal circumstances, but this time of a sort that brought Laquita and me face to face with an evil that had to be endured more than explained. We had two adopted daughters (mother and daughter biologically) who both developed a genetically transmitted malady called Huntington’s Disease, which is irreversible and fatal, progressing through ten to fifteen years of steady deterioration in mind and body. God called us to be direct caregivers to both of these beautiful daughters over a period of years, beginning when the older daughter was 25 and we were in our mid-fifties. Because the older daughter (Cynthia) was already symptomatic when the younger one (Rachel) was born, we were the newborn’s parents from the beginning of her life. But we knew God had called us to this complex task before it became complex. At first it was agreeing to adopt a child (Cynthia) whose possible “handicap” seemed relatively remote and theoretical when we brought her home. Years later, when she was diagnosed with Huntington’s Disease, it helped enormously to remember that taking care of her was a task assigned to us by the Lord. That confidence was confirmed over the years of our care for her, during which both our need and His faithfulness were beyond what we could have imagined at the time.

Now, nearly 50 years since we adopted Cynthia, God has brought us through not only Cynthia’s illness (she died at age 42), but He has enabled and blessed us to raise Rachel and to be her direct caregivers during the first years of her own illness. (She was diagnosed with the juvenile form of Huntington’s Disease four years ago, when she was only 18; she has just recently been placed in an adult foster care facility, after it became clear that we were no longer able to give her the 24-hour a day attention that she needs.)

From this last stage of experience, we have learned a level of faith that has been absolutely necessary to our survival as care-givers. We understand better now why God waited until Abraham’s old age to give him the supreme challenge to his faith, the order to sacrifice his only son. We are told that, although Abraham knew God could even raise his child from the dead, he did not know how God would actually make this preposterous demand come right. Abraham knew only that God had been absolutely faithful up to that point, and he was willing to trust that although he didn’t see how, God was at work in this situation, and in His sovereign power and provision, He would bring it to His glory and honor. In the same way, Laquita and I have been so faithfully sustained in all that God has called us to do that we can look beyond the mystery of the moment and be assured that as God has been the Perfect Provider in the past, He will continue to be so, to His glory, in the present and future.

This is the journey that explains how my short answer to Laquita’s question about the foundation of my faith was, “Because I need to—because I have to.”


Twilight Musing “The God of More”


By Elton Higgs

We live in a society geared to “more.”  We are urged by advertising to acquire more possessions, more pleasures, more comforts, or more power and success, abetting our own desires for increased possessions or.  But of course what humanity in general wants more of doesn’t fit very well with what God’s “more” is.  Recently I noticed some of His “mores,” voiced through Paul, in my reading of Romans 5, and I’d like to share those with you now.

Romans 5  begins with a summing up of God’s marvelous provision of unmerited salvation through His Son’s death and resurrection and the generosity of His grace, concluding that through His  generosity, we also ”rejoice in hope of the glory of God” (vv.1-2), the same glory that God is going to bestow on the Son (Rom. 8:17). And then he goes on to say (italics my emphasis),

3 More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering  produces endurance, 4 and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, 5 and  hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love  has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us (Rom. 5:3-5, ESV).

“More than that, we rejoice in our sufferings.”  Whoops!  Wasn’t that a slip of the tongue, Paul?  Didn’t you mean, “We exult in our being the elect of God”?  No, indeed, for this is one of God’s “mores” that contrasts with human expectations.   Although God is constantly and faithfully generous in pouring His love into our hearts by the power of the Holy Spirit (v. 5), we do not embrace the hope of glory without struggle or pain, any more than our Lord Jesus did.  He “learned obedience through what He suffered” (Heb. 5:8) and “for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross” (Heb. 12:2).  Paul goes on in Romans 5 to expound on the progression by which “suffering  produces endurance,  and endurance produces character, and character produces hope”—that is, the seasoned hope that rests in a faith that has been put through the fire to be proven as pure and precious as refined gold (see I Pet. 1:3-8).

We are now better prepared to understand the “mores” of verses 9-11.

9 Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God. 10 For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God by the death of his Son, much more, now that we are reconciled, shall we be saved by his life. 11 More than that, we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received reconciliation.

Verse 9 picks up from the fact that Jesus died for people because they were in desperate need and in spite of their being thoroughly undeserving of His sacrificial death.  If, Paul argues, we were “justified by His blood” when our value was severely tarnished by sin, “much more shall we be saved by Him from the wrath of God” now that we are in covenant relationship with Him.   Similarly, if Jesus’ death reconciled us to God while we were still enemies, “much more . . . shall we be saved by His life” (v. 10), the resurrection life that prefigures our own participation in His glory.  The final “more” of this little paragraph brings us back to the rejoicing Paul referred to in v. 2, which has gained depth by being subjected to the suffering that brings maturity to our hope.

There is yet one other, culminating “more” at the end of this chapter that will serve to sum up the theme of God’s abundance overcoming all obstacles:

18 Therefore, as one trespass led to condemnation for all men, so one act of righteousness  leads to justification and life for  all men. 19 For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous. 20 Now the law came in to increase the trespass, but where sin increased, grace abounded all the more, 21 so that, as sin reigned in death, grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The analogy drawn in vv. 18-19 seems to be an equivalency: one trespass resulting in condemnation for all = one act of obedience resulting in justification for all.  But the problem of sin brought to light by God’s Law, which “came in to increase the trespass,” was cumulative.  Humans did not cease to sin when Christ died, and therefore the grace of God had to cover not only the sins committed up to the point of Jesus’ death and resurrection, but for all of the time from the Fall until God chooses to wrap things up in the final judgment and the restoration of creation.  God’s grace had, so to speak, not only to keep up with but to outstrip the pace of sin revealed by the Law.  Thus, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.” And so, as Paul sums up at the end of Romans 8, “we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us” (v.37).  Our God is not merely adequate, He is abundantly sufficient.





A Critical Review of Is Goodness without God Good Enough? Chapter 2

Summary by Robert Sloan Lee

Is Goodness without God Good Enough?

Chapter Two: C. Stephen Layman, “A Moral Argument for the Existence of God”

In this chapter, Layman unfortunately ignores most of the debate between William Lane Craig and Paul Kurtz, but he does present an interesting argument for the existence of God (or an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded) based on the idea that there are necessary moral truths which serve as reasons for our actions.  However, his moral argument addresses the issue from a different angle.  Specifically, while Layman argues that the existence of morality requires the existence of God or a certain sort of afterlife, he judiciously clarifies that he is not arguing that this is the case simply because morality is somehow dependent on God (even if that turns out to be the case).

Layman’s Overriding Reasons Argument

To motivate his argument, Layman makes two points concerning our reasons for doing or not doing something.

laymanFirst, Layman observes that many moral philosophers hold that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – and that that these reasons are more important than the non-moral reasons that a person may have for not doing that thing (where, for instance, those non-moral reasons are reasons of inconvenience or self-interest).  In short, moral reasons always override non-moral reasons.  For example, suppose one had promised to meet one’s friends at a specific time and was late for no good reason.  One has a moral obligation to be honest as to why one is late, and this obligation overrides the embarrassment that one might feel in admitting to one’s friends that there was no good reason for being late, even if lying would allow one to avoid the embarrassment.

Second, Layman introduces the claim that if there is no God and no life after death, then it is not true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are always the moral reasons for doing that thing.  In other words, if it is in one’s self-interest to do something immoral (and there is little chance of getting caught or little chance of greatly harming others in doing it), then the non-moral reasons for doing something wrong can override the moral reasons for not doing it – at least if there is no God and no afterlife.  However, that would mean that it is false to say that we always have overriding reasons for doing the right thing rather than doing the wrong thing.  The insight and force of Layman’s argument resides in pitting concerns about self-interests against concerns about morality.  If God does not exist and if there is no afterlife, then we face the possibility that “humans have overriding reasons to behave immorally.”  This is a suggestion that “people who take morality seriously” find “profoundly disturbing,” because it means that there can be cases in which “doing one’s duty would (at least sometimes) be irrational in the sense that it would involve acting on” what we normally take to be “the weaker reasons” – and this is supposed to be seriously problematic even if those cases are relatively rare.

The example that he gives to illustrate his argument involve a Ms. Poore who has lived many years in restrictive (but not life-threatening or health-threatening) poverty.  She has an opportunity to steal a large sum of money (without getting caught) that would permanently deliver her from poverty – and she knows that the persons from whom the money is stolen are wealthy enough that they will not be greatly harmed by the theft.  Further, if she does not steal the money she has reason to believe that she will remain in poverty for the rest of her life.  Layman says that stealing might not be wrong in every case, but if there is neither a God nor an afterlife, then Ms. Poore has stronger reasons for stealing the money than she does for doing the right (or moral) thing – and then it follows that moral reasons are not always overriding reasons that trump reasons of self-interest.

Further Considerations

Layman says that it is hard to see how we know that it is true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something (whether or not such a person acts accordingly) are always the moral reasons for doing that thing – he calls this the “overriding reasons thesis” or ORT.  However, he indicates that it is at least as reasonable to believe this claim as it is to believe other claims that we commonly accept (though we do not seem to know how it is that these others are true) – specifically:

(a)  The future will be like the past.

(b)  It is rational to trust one’s sense experience unless one has special circumstances showing them to be unreliable.

In the case of (a), any attempt to justify (a) by appealing to past experience to certify what our future experience will be like the past will simply assume the truth of (a) rather than proving it.  Again, with (b), any appeal to sensory experience to certify that (b) is true will just end up assuming the truth of (b) rather than demonstrating the truth of (b).  Most philosophers simply accept the truth of (a) and (b), and Layman thinks that something similar can be said about the principle of overriding reasons (or ORT).

To state Layman’s argument precisely, we get the following:

  1. If God does not exist and there is no afterlife in which virtue is rewarded, then it will not always be true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing.
  2. It is always true that the strongest reasons that a person can have for doing something are the moral reasons for doing that thing. (ORT)
  3. Therefore, either God does exist or there is an afterlife in which virtue is rewarded – or both. (from 1 and 2 by modus tollens and DeMorgan’s Law)

An Objection to Layman’s Argument

Layman then goes on to consider some objections to his argument and how he would reply to those objections.  One objection (and perhaps the most interesting objection) is that the argument does not establish that morality is dependent on God.  In this respect, it would seem that Layman’s conclusion may be more in line with Kurtz’s views than Craig’s (despite the former being an atheist and the latter being a theist).  Layman responds to this objection by agreeing that morality may not be dependent on God.  He writes:

I’ve not suggested that God by fiat (or otherwise) lends moral reasons their force.  Let’s just assume, for the sake of argument, that moral reasons have whatever force they have independent of God.  Nevertheless, what a good God can do is guarantee that moral reasons (requirements) are never trumped by other sorts of reasons.  Unfortunately, moral reasons can be trumped assuming naturalism is true.  [emphasis mine]

However, since Layman thinks that moral reasons can never be trumped by non-moral reasons, he believes that naturalism is false, and this leads to his conclusion that either God exists (in such a way as to connect self-interest and morality) or that there is some other sort of afterlife in which virtue is always rewarded.  So, whether or not morality can be grounded in God’s commands or God’s nature, the fact that there are necessary moral truths should (according to Layman) have certain consequences for what we believe about the existence of God or the afterlife.

Parting Thoughts

One aspect of moral truths that sometimes goes unmentioned is that such truths are necessary (if true at all), and one can appreciate that Layman does not overlook this intriguing feature of moral truths.  Given this, explanations of morality that appeal solely to contingent features of the world – features that could have been otherwise (such as our evolutionary history, our environment and education, or our genetic predispositions) – simply do not appear adequate to the task.  Further, if these necessary moral truths can exist independently of God (a possibility which Layman concedes – at least for the sake of argument), this would appear to run counter to Craig’s position that an objective morality must be dependent on God.  One hopes that Craig would address this issue in his response to these essays (as it constitutes a particularly interesting point on the relationship between the ontology of theism and the ontology of ethics).  So, while Layman does not analyze the debate between Craig and Kurtz, some of the issues he raises are pertinent to it, and his own variant of the moral argument is an intriguing one.

Image:By Hans Memling (circa 1433–1494) –, Public Domain,