Evangelist and apologist Ravi Zacharias went to be with the Lord today. Born and raised in India, Ravi travelled the world speaking in places like Princeton and Oxford universities, where he spoke persuasively about Christianity and answered the questions of septics, encouraging people to put their faith in Jesus and equipping believers.
Ravi also founded RZIM, and he leaves behind this thriving and fruitful organization which promotes Christianity for thinking people around the world.
As a non-westerner, Ravi’s voice had particular credibility in Asia, and he built a team of evangelists, including the late Nabeel Quereshi, who had converted from Ahmadiyya movement of Islam. Another member of RZIM’s team is Sam Allberry, who has written a lot on the topic of sexuality, and whose book, Why Does God Care Who I Sleep With, I recently reviewed in these posts:
In my recent post Going Through the Motions, I talked about how the biblical metaphor of walking, which describes a pattern of life, implies small, continual actions which lead somewhere. With this in mind, habits can be vehicles for transformation. They help us build practices into our lives that shape us into certain kinds of people.
In his book, Desiring the Kingdom, James K.A. Smith pushes back against Rene Descartes assertion that we are fundamentally “thinking beings” who happen to have bodies, and asserts that are bodies play a much more integral part in our formation than many in Western society have tended to think (as a result of Descartes’s philosophy). Thus, the things we do with our bodies have a role in shaping our affections and forming sanctified habits.
“Spiritual disciplines” refer to actions such as prayer, church attendance, studying the Bible, giving generously, serving, taking communion, fasting, and more – which are taught in the Bible and were modeled by Jesus himself. Spiritual disciplines are habits which serve as vehicles of transformation: shaping us through repeated action into certain kinds of people.
Drew Dyke in his book, Your Future Self Will Thank You, points out how God prescribes routines and rituals designed to build holy habits into the lives of His people:
“God commanded the ancient Israelites to observe seven sacred annual feasts, keep the Sabbath, tithe their income, purify themselves, worship regularly, and present offerings and sacrifices at the temple.
Though the New Testament frees Christians from having to keep the whole Jewish law, there are still sacraments like baptism to symbolize our spiritual rebirth and the communion meal to remind us of the sacrifice of Jesus. On top of this, our weekly gatherings include rituals designed to instill beliefs and behaviors to bring us closer to God and each other.
Even in ‘low church’ settings that don’t use the liturgical calendar or recite ancient creeds, there’s often a rather predictable cycle of songs, prayers, and preaching each Sunday. There are Sunday school or midweek small group meetings.”
“But We Shouldn’t Be Religious or Legalistic, Right?”
I have met people who say: “Oh, I don’t want to be religious or legalistic — so I only do those spiritual disciplines sporadically.”
This is not about legalism nor empty religiosity. We do not believe for a minute that any of these things save us. Nor do we do these things in order to manipulate God into blessing us or giving us what we want. That is the definition of legalism: believing that your relationship with God is predicated on your ability to keep rules.
Instead, we do these things in order to be healthy and grow. Eating and sleeping and drinking fluids help us be healthy physically: to do these things only sporadically would be very unwise and cause you to be very unhealthy. The same is true when it comes to a neglect of spiritual disciplines.
Atheism and the Ache for Spiritual Disciplines
Drew Dyke shares in his book about a talk he heard from a man who “gushed about how brilliant the church is to establish such rhythms.” “He waxed eloquent about singing Christmas carols, looking at religious art, and the experience of paging through the Bible.” The surprising thing is that the speaker, Alain de Botton, is an atheist.
“We tend to believe in the modern secular world that if you tell someone something once, they’ll remember it…. Religions go, ‘Nonsense. You need to keep repeating the lesson 10 times a day. So get on your knees and repeat it,’” – Alain de Botton
He isn’t being critical of repetition; just the opposite. He acknowledges that Christianity is very good at creating habits which fuel transformation, and recognizes that atheists are poorer for lacking this.
I would argue that these spiritual disciplines cannot be translated into an atheist or agnostic framework because they are tied to Christian theology. Some humanists try to be “good without God” – but what they lack is the foundation of Christian spiritual formation, which is justification by faith: the fact that in Christ we are accepted and loved by God apart from our good works.
Alain, like James K.A. Smith, states that “The other thing that religions know is we’re not just brains, we are also bodies. And when they teach us a lesson, they do it via the body.” He also praised the biblical practice of dividing up time by having repeating holidays such as Easter and Christmas, which force us to “bump into” key beliefs and celebrate them again and again.
Essentially what this atheist man was rightly observing and praising was that spiritual disciplines are designed to help transform through the development of habits.
Spiritual disciplines are “Spirit-empowered, heart-calibrating, habit-forming practices to retrain our loves.”
Check out the discussion Mike and I had about transformation, and the roles of the hope of the resurrection and the empowering of the Holy Spirit. Also, about half-way through I spill coffee on my Bible…
Come back in time with me, all the way back to the magical year of 2007. I had a beautiful, thick head of hair… My wife was pregnant with our first child. I was living in Eger, Hungary, where we had planted a church which I was pastoring, and I had just gotten broadband internet hooked up in our flat. There was this new thing around at that time called YouTube, we weren’t sure if it was going to catch on or not… I mean, who wants to watch videos on their computer???
There on YouTube, I came across this video called Zeitgeist, which is basically a big conspiracy theory that says that everything you’ve ever been told about everything is a lie, conjured up by people who want to control you. Overall, I didn’t take the movie seriously, but… the beginning of the movie made some pretty serious claims about Jesus and the Bible that gave me pause when I first heard them…
For example, the video claimed that 3000 years before Jesus, the Egyptians had a god named Horus who was:
Born on December 25
Born of a virgin
His birth was marked by a star in the East
He was adored by 3 kings
He was a teacher at age 12
He was baptized and began his ministry at age 30
He had 12 disciples
Sound like anyone else you’ve heard of before? They went on…
The basic premise of their claims is that all the stuff the Bible says about Jesus was just ripped off and plagiarized from other ancient religions. For a moment, these claims surprised me and shook me, because I had never heard this before, and I realized that if these claims were true, then Christianity is just a myth and is not true…
The Reality: the “Christ Myth Hypothesis” is a misinformation campaign
I figured it was pretty important to find out whether the things this video claimed were true, so I immediately went and did some research.
Here’s what I found: these claims are nothing new, they have been around for hundreds of years AND they have been disproven and are not taken seriously by anyone who knows anything about history because their claims are false.
Several books and films have been produced by “evangelical atheists” such as Richard Dawkins, Bill Maher, and Tim Harper which promote these claims as the basis for why people should abandon belief in the Bible.
Not only are the claims of the “Christ Myth Hypothesis” not true, but they are intentionally misleading, which is even worse. This is no mere misunderstanding, this is a misinformation campaign aimed at swaying people’s opinions using underhanded and dishonest means.
The Reality: Historical Facts Disprove the Christ Myth Hypothesis
One of the big claims of those who promote the Christ myth is that Jesus never actually existed.
How Do We Know that Jesus Really Existed?
Edwin Yamauchi, Professor of History at the University of Miami says this: “Any argument that challenges the claim of a historical Jesus is so ridiculous in the scholarly community, it is relegated only to the world of footnotes.”
Why? There are at least 10 sources, other than the Bible, that talk about Jesus as a historical person. Here are 2 examples:
Tacitus (Roman official): “Nero fastened the guilt . . . (for a great fire that happened in Rome) on a class hated for their abominations, called Christians by the populace.Christus, from whom the name had its origin, suffered the extreme penalty during the reign of Tiberius at the hands of the procurator Pontius Pilatus.” (Tacitus, Annals, 15.44)
Josephus: “About this time there lived Jesus, a wise man, if indeed one ought to call him a man. For he . . . wrought surprising feats. . . . He was the Christ. When Pilate condemned him to be crucified, those who had come to love him did not give up their affection for him.On the third day he appeared . . . restored to life . . . and the tribe of Christians . . . has not disappeared.” (Josephus, Antiquities, 18.63–64)
Bart Ehrman is not a Christian, and yet he explains, “There is more evidence for the existence of Jesus Christ than there is for nearly any other person from antiquity,” and “Mythicists as a group, and as individuals, are not taken seriously by scholars,” because “the idea that Jesus did not exist is a modern notion. It has no ancient precedents. It was made up in the eighteenth century. One might as well call it a modern myth, the myth of the mythical Jesus.”
Another reason we can be sure that Jesus really existed is because of the rise of the early Christian church.
The rise of early Christianity doesn’t make any sense if Jesus never actually existed. It was a movement of people who claimed to have known, lived with, and witnessed the life, death and resurrection of this man, and as a result they willingly suffered persecution and death, including the torture and murder of their wives and children. Not even the leaders reaped any personal benefit from these claims at all. The history of early Christianity makes no sense apart from the fact that these people actually saw their leader crucified and then rise again.
Examining the Claims of the Christ Myth Hypothesis
Problem #1: Lack of Primary Sources
Problem #2:Gets basic facts about the Bible wrong
Let’s look at some of the specific claims, starting with the most popular: Horus.
Born on December 25 I hope I’m not ruining your Christmas, butJesus wasn’t born on December 25th. Nowhere in the Bible does it say when Jesus was born, in fact it is most likely it was not in winter, but in fall because it says in the Gospels that the shepherds were sleeping outside with their sheep – which they don’t do in Israel in December because it’s too cold.
It was around 400 AD, when Pope Julius I changed when the day when Christians celebrated the birth of Jesus, to December 25th — in order to subvert a pagan holiday which was celebrated on the Winter Solstice.
Christians have never actually believed that Jesus was born on Dec. 25th — that’s just the day we chose to celebrated it.If you want to celebrate it in August, go for it!So, December 25 is not an actual parallel.
Born of a Virgin
Here’s how Horus was conceived: His mom was a goddess named Isis — his dad was a god named Osiris. Osiris got into a fight with another god and lost (it’s such a bummer when your god loses…) The other god cut Osiris up and chopped him into pieces, and thenHorus’ mom came along and found Osiris’ severed phallus — and yada, yada, yada — she got pregnant, and that’s how Horus was conceived.
I’m pretty sure that doesn’t count as a virgin birth, and it’s certainly not a parallel to Jesus.
Star in the East — Attended by 3 Kings
Again, I don’t want to ruin your Christmas — but the Bible doesn’t say that 3 kings followed a star and arrived at the birth of Jesus. The only people who came at the birth of Jesus were the shepherds from the nearby fields.
In the Gospel of Matthew — it says that a group of magi came from the East, when Jesus was about 2 years old, but nowhere does it says they were kings… “Magi” were magicians, sorcerers, practitioners of Zoroastrianism (Persian traditional religion).
Furthermore, nowhere does it say that there were 3 of them. It says that they brought 3 gifts, gold, frankincense and myrrh —but there were probably more than 3 of them. There could have been 15 or 20 or 100.So, again: this isn’t a parallel.
Teacher at 12 and Baptized at 30
There aren’t any references to any of these things in ancient writings regarding Horus.
The Hieroglyphics show that Horus actually had 4 disciples — and they were: a turtle, a bear, a lion and a tiger. Also not a parallel
Some people say that Horus was crucified and then resurrected on the 3rd day. However, crucifixion didn’t exist in Egypt — it was invented by the Romans thousands of years later. Furthermore, in most stories of Horus, he didn’t die. In one story, he was killed and cut up into pieces, then thrown into a swamp, in which the pieces turned into a crocodile – and THAT is claimed to be a resurrection which was supposedly copied by the Gospels!
Mithra: Born of a Virgin
Mithra, legend says, was actually born fully-formed, out of a rock. That’s not exactly a virgin birth.
Another resurrection parallel that is sometimes claimed is the Greek god Attis, but if you look at his story, here’s how it goes:Attis gets killed by his father, then his father asks Zeus to resurrect him from the dead, and Zeus said: “No. But, here’s what I’ll do: I’ll make Attis’ pinky finger move eternally, and his hair will grow forever.”
Again that’s not resurrection, and there’s no parallel at all with Jesus.
Conclusion & Further Resources
It’s probably not a great idea to get historical information from YouTube videos and blatant propaganda materials, and yet many people do.
What makes Christianity unique is that it is not based on abstract ideas, feelings, or concepts, but it is based on historical events which either happened or they didn’t. The good news is that because of this, the claims of Christianity can be studied and researched from a historical perspective. Actual scholarly research and material refutes the claims of the Christ Myth Hypothesis and corroborates the claims of the gospel.
Earlier this year I added a page on this site where readers can submit questions or suggest topics. Recently I’ve received some questions both on that page and on Calvary Live regarding the Epic of Gilgamesh, an ancient Near East text which contains a flood narrative.
Some people claim that this text proves that the biblical story of Noah and the flood is just borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient Near Eastern mythology, and is not to be taken literally. This is part of a larger conspiracy theory which claims that much of Christianity is actually borrowed, or stolen, from other ancient Near Eastern mythologies, e.g. that Jesus was just borrowed from the Egyptian story of Horus and Isis.
Over the course of the next several posts, I will address various aspects of this conspiracy, and show why no real scholars believe this is true. The reason? Because it is simply not factual. It requires building a narrative which only sounds plausible until its claims are checked, at which time it becomes clear that they are not based on actual facts, research, or history.
Richard Dawkins & the Folk Religion of the New Atheism
Richard Dawkins is what you might call an “evangelical atheist”, which means that he isn’t content with just being an atheist himself, he is on a mission to convert the world to his views.
In his recent book, which is aimed specifically at converting children and young people to his brand of atheism, he claims that the Old Testament story of Noah comes from a Babylonian myth, the legend of Utnapishtim, which in turn was taken from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.
This claim caught the attention of George Heath-Whyte, a researcher at Cambridge who specializes in Assyriology and Near East history. Heath-Whyte then took to Twitter and wrote a scathing thread of tweets exposing the slew of factual errors in Dawkins’ book.
Dawkins' primary concern is apparently for The Truth. I’ve only read 60 pages of the book so far, but he keeps on demonstrating to me that, if you’re primary concern is also for The Truth, then he's not the person to listen to.
‘Well let’s start with “The Utnapishtim story … comes from the Sumerian Epic of Gilgamesh.” WHAT. The version of the Gilgamesh story that contains the flood narrative of Utnapishtim is NOT written in Sumerian, but Babylonian (Akkadian).
‘There are older Sumerian stories about the character Gilgamesh, none of which contain a flood story. There is even a Sumerian flood story too, but it’s not the flood story he’s talking about.
‘It seems he’s talking about a weird mix of one Babylonian flood story about a guy called Atrahasis and another Babylonian flood story about Utnapishtim (the latter being a part of the Babylonian epic of Gilgamesh)…
‘… but come on Dawkins, even Wikipedia could have told you that neither of these were written in Sumerian.’
That’s pretty embarrassing for a man who had just told Krishnan Guru-Murthy that he wants ‘to rid the world of all claims that are not evidence-based’. But Heath-Whyte was just getting into his stride.
‘Problem no. 2: “Arguably the world’s oldest work of literature, [Gilgamesh] was written two thousand years earlier than the Noah story.”
‘So he’s just stated that Genesis was written “during the Babylonian captivity” (sixth century BC), and now he’s stated that (what we assume he means to be) the epic of Atrahasis, or the Babylonian Epic of Gilgamesh, was written 2,000 years earlier – so roughly 2600-2500 BC.
‘Most likely Atrahasis was written less than 1,300 years before the Babylonian captivity, and the version of Gilgamesh that included a flood story was probably finished less than 1,000 years before the Babylonian captivity, and likely quite a few centuries less than a thousand.
From the above-linked article:
Other mistakes identified by Heath-Whyte: Dawkins mixes up the animals in the Gilgamash and Genesis flood stories, and claims that the Sumerian flood legend, like the story of Noah’s Ark, ends with a rainbow.
‘There’s no rainbow mentioned in any Mesopotamian flood story. Anywhere. There just isn’t,’ says Heath-Whyte, adding that in any case the former Oxford professor for the Public Understanding of Science has misidentified a Sumerian god.
I think we can take Heath-Whyte’s word for it. Not only can he read the cuneiform in which Gilgamesh is written, but he can also write it.
If These Claims Are Not Historically Accurate, Where Do They Come From?
Continuing from the above-mentioned article:
Just when Dawkins must be wishing that a non-existent God would send a flood to cover his embarrassment, he delivers the killer blow. As he says, even Wikipedia would have put the professor right on these matters. So what was his source? ‘A quick Google search suggests that Dawkins’ source for a lot of this stuff may be a cute little website called HistoryWiz.’
I checked, and he’s right: this is the version of the Gilgamesh as mangled by HistoryWiz, which invites you to ‘step into the past… Let the wizard take you to a different time’.
Alas, it looks as if you really do have to step into the past in order to consult the wizard. The site is ‘copyright 1998-2008’, there are loads of broken links and the design, c. 2000, is quaintly rudimentary.
It seems clear that Richard Dawkins and others who make these claims about Gilgamesh are so committed to the conclusion they already religiously believe, that they are not concerned with real scholarship when it comes to creating their narrative.
The “New Atheism,” we might say, is a kind of folk religion which has its own shared beliefs, stories, and mythos, which are not actually based on fact or history.
In my next article I will explain what the Epic of Gilgamesh and Utnapishtim character are, and how we should understand them in relation to the Bible.
Following that, I will discuss the “Jesus Myth” and the theory that what the New Testament says about Jesus is borrowed from ancient Egyptian and Near East mythology. What I hope to show in the end, is that these theories do not hold up to even the most basic fact-checking scrutiny, and are part of a mythos created by New Atheists and other who would try to discredit the Bible and erode faith in it.
A further question which follows from this is: Why are some people opposed to Christianity and the Bible? – a question which I plan to address as well.
There is a widely held assumption in Western society called the ‘secularization hypothesis,’ which basically supposes that as the world becomes more educated and more scientific, religious belief will decline. This did happen in Western Europe in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, and to a lesser degree in North America.
However, current trends are leading sociologists to predict that the world will become increasingly religious in the decades to come.
By 2060, Christianity and Islam are both projected to grow worldwide. Hinduism is expected to make a slight decline, and Buddhism is projected to decline by about 30 percent. Judaism is expected to hold steady at 0.2% of the world population.
Whereas the growth of Islam is mostly the result of birth rates in Muslim communities, Christianity far out-paces Islam when it comes to growth through conversion. In fact, the Christian population of China is growing so fast (mostly by conversion) that experts believe China could have more Christians that the United States by 2030, and that it could actually become a majority-Christian country by 2050.
Here’s what’s perhaps more surprising: by 2060, the percentage of the world population who identify as atheists, agnostics, or “none” is expected to decline from its current 16% down to 13% of the world’s population.
Secularization & Education
It turns out that the assumption that the more educated a person is, the more likely they are to become secular, is also pretty weak. Jews and Christians make up the majority of the most-educated people in the world. Christians also have the least amount of disparity when it comes to the education of women versus men.
While it is still common for nominally religious people in the United States to declare themselves non-religious if they are more educated, professing Christins with higher levels of education are just as religious as those with less schooling. In fact, highly educated Christians are more likely to attend church weekly than those Christians with less education.
The Likelihood of Becoming Religious vs. Becoming Non-religious
A recent study found that 40% of Americans raised non-religious become religious – typically Christian – as adults, whereas only 20% of those raised Protestant become non-religious. This means that secular families are twice as likely to raise children who become Christians as Christians families are to raise church who become non-religious.
Interestingly, it is “full-blooded” Christianity which is growing around the world, including in North America and Europe, and not a theologically liberal form.
What Do We Make of This?
Surely there is much work to be done, and projections do not guarantee that future outcome, but these numbers help us to see that there are many commonly-held assumptions about Christianity and society which are actually false. As Christians, we must keep our hand to the plow, endeavoring to preach the gospel, as we are called by Jesus to do.
Jordan Peterson is an interesting character. A Canadian clinical psychologist and professor of psychology at the University of Toronto, he has had a meteoric rise in popularity in the media as of late.
One reason for Jordan Peterson’s recent popularity is that he has been able to put words and justification to what many people consider “common sense”, not least of all when it comes to the idea that gender is not a social construct, but is rooted in biology. He then, as a psychologist, gets into the psychology behind this very relevant social issue.
I recently finished reading his book, 12 Rules for Life: An Antidote to Chaos, in which he brings some of his training and experience and makes it very practical, from everything to posture, raising children, and conversation.
Jordan Peterson and the Bible
Jordan Peterson states emphatically that he is not an atheist (nor does he believe that anyone is actually truly an atheist). He is also not a Christian, at least not in the traditional sense. He mentions in the book that he received a Christian upbringing, but departed from Christianity once he got out on his own.
Nevertheless, Peterson champions many things which are considered biblical or Judeo-Christian values. He argues convincingly for the doctrine of human depravity, and often uses the word “sin” – a word which even many Christian churches today try to avoid, as they feel it is off-putting and rubs people the wrong way. Jordan Peterson does not shy away from talking about human depravity and the need to take personal responsibility for your actions and decisions.
Peterson quotes generously from the Bible in his book; in fact, I mentioned to someone the other day that Peterson talks about and quotes the Bible more than the authors of many explicitly Christian books I have read!
However, Jordan doesn’t only quote from the Bible, he also attempts to exegete and interpret the Bible, particularly the opening chapters of the Book of Genesis, and it is here where I, as a theologian, take issue with what he says.
Presuppositions Influence Interpretation
Anyone who attempts to interpret the Bible will inevitably be influenced in their interpretation by their presuppositions, their commitments to already-held beliefs. None of us are truly objective. We all look at things through various lenses, and those lenses invariably and inevitably affect the conclusions we reach.
As a humanist who buys into the idea that all religions developed as the result of the shared consciousness of particular cultures, Jordan Peterson views the Bible as being a didactic mythology which served to help certain groups of people at certain times. He does not believe that it is objectively true, or even more true than the sacred writings of other religions, rather that it reflects the collective consciousness of a particular group of people at a particular time.
Thus, rather than taking what the Bible says at face value, he tries to fit it into his own framework of thinking. The reason this is sometimes confusing, is that it is unclear where exactly Jordan Peterson’s worldview comes from. It seems to be influenced by the Bible in large degree, and yet Peterson clearly has other influences, particularly Enlightenment thinkers, who championed the above stated views on the Bible in particular and epistemology in general.
Here’s the irony: while Jordan Peterson (rightly) argues against relativistic approaches to things like understanding gender and hierarchy, he himself has a relativistic approach to epistemology, truth and worldview! He has basically created it for himself, based on what he subjectively decides to borrow from various religions and philosophies.
Back to Issues of Epistemology and Worldview
For example, Jordan Peterson states (as fact) Wellhausen’s “Documentary Hypothesis” about the construction of the Old Testament having had 4 main sources and several redactions. Wellhausen’s theory is now considered deeply flawed and is not held by many contemporary Bible scholars. It is irresponsible and misleading, in my opinion, for Peterson to state this as if it is accepted fact, without even giving the caveat that this is a theory from the 1800’s which a great number of Bible scholars today (who have studied this subject in much greater depth than he has) no longer accept.
Irresponsible and Uninformed Exegesis and Hermeneutics
Furthermore, I would say that Jordan Peterson practices irresponsible and uninformed biblical exegesis and hermeneutics repeatedly throughout his book, particularly in regard to the significance of the opening chapters of Genesis. For example, in Rule 7: Pursue What is Meaningful (Not What is Expedient), he states that the Bible says that work is part of the curse of sin and death in Genesis 3. This is simply not the case! Genesis 1 & 2 show that work was part of the idyllic world which existed before sin came into the world, and it portrays God working. The difference after the curse, was not that people would have to work (they worked before the curse), but that their work would be characterized by frustration because of the introduction of sin and imperfection into the world.
Another example can be found in his further attempts to exegete and interpret Genesis 3:22-24, where it says that God drove the man and woman out of the garden after they fell into sin, lest they eat of the Tree of Life and live forever. Peterson expresses that this action of God seems mean and inexplicable. There is a very good and widely held view on why God did this, based on a clear reading of the text: God – in His mercy! – did not want the man and woman to be cursed to an eternal existence in their fallen state. Rather, he would allow them to die, so that he could then resurrect them once he had accomplished his plan of setting right all that they had done wrong. We call that: the gospel!
Nothing New Under the Sun
In summary, Jordan Peterson speaks with such confidence and bravado that he comes across as an authority, when in actuality he is merely recycling old Enlightenment approaches to the Bible popularized in the 1800’s, which are not considered to be consensus today.
All Injunctions, No Justification
My final critique of Jordan Peterson’s book would be this: he concludes the book by telling people that they must be strong in the face of adversity. He says that life is pain and hardship, but we must be strong in the face of it and persevere. But here’s the problem: he never gives a reason WHY we must persevere! Why push on? Why try to be strong and suffer well?
In other words: If we have no destination, and the journey is painful, then why bother continuing the journey?
Having rejected the hope of the gospel, Jordan Peterson has sawed off the very branch he is standing on, and at the end of his book, his message to be strong and persevere falls flat because he has not shown us that life has an actual telos: a destination, meaning and purpose.
As Christians, we absolutely do have a hope which goes beyond this life, and it is this hope which makes our lives meaningful and worth living, even in the face of hardship. We have a destination, and that destination gives us a mission in this life. Our goal is not only our own happiness, but to use our lives for God’s purposes until we do come into the great eschatological hope of eternal life because of what God has done for us in Jesus.
‘Why did the chicken cross the road?’ – with Ernest Hemingway:
A Farewell to Arms Q:Why did the chicken cross the road? Hemingway: To die. Alone. In the rain.
For Whom the Bell Tolls Q: Why did the chicken cross the road? Hemingway: To die doing something heroic…even if it was completely meaningless and accomplished nothing.
The Sun Also Rises Q:Why did the chicken cross the road? Hemingway: Because he was in love with someone who would never love him back; a fate worse than death.
I recently read each of these books as part of my decision to read more non-fiction literature. Tim Keller at one point suggested that pastors, who generally read a lot of non-fiction, ought to also read quality fiction in order to stimulate their creativity and imagination. Some of my favorites have been Tolkien, Dostoyevsky and Steinbeck.
And then there’s Hemingway…
The Charm of Hemingway
With Hemingway, you don’t get happy endings in which everything wraps up perfectly and people live happily ever after.
With Hemingway, you get a good story, but most of all, you get a lot of introspection and existential questions, which never get resolved.
Perhaps that’s the charm and appeal of Hemingway: he didn’t try to sugarcoat things. He presents life in all of its facets: joy and pain, longing and disappointment. He’s not afraid to leave a dilemma unresolved, or to have a character’s longing go unfulfilled.
Writing About Himself
As I read his stories, I can’t help but feel that Hemingway is writing about himself – and above all, about his inner struggle to find meaning in life apart from God.
He longs to be heroic and adventurous, and indeed he was – both in the stories and in real life. Yet in the end, even he himself questions what the meaning of life is – and he is never able to sufficiently answer the question, not even in a way that satisfies himself.
It’s no surprise that the main characters in Hemingway’s stories are all Americans living abroad – like Hemingway was. But more importantly, they are all atheists – like Hemingway himself. And not just atheists, but conflicted atheists, who realize the problems inherent to atheism…
In A Farewell to Arms, Hemingway’s character faces the tragic loss of his wife and child, and in a moment of desperation he forfeits his atheism and prays to God! I can’t help but believe that this is Ernest himself admitting that deep down inside, when faced with the reality of life, death and eternity, he knew there was a God – even if he didn’t like to admit it and didn’t want to acknowledge Him.
In For Whom the Bell Tolls, Hemingway’s character is fighting on the losing side of a war, in which the deaths of all those around him won’t change a single thing except to cause pain and loss. He tries to convince himself that all that matters is living heroically and all that matters is living for something bigger than yourself… except that too is completely meaningless. So life is a struggle, it is pain and strife – intermixed with some pleasure – followed by death.
In The Sun Also Rises, Hemingway’s thesis is that the point of life is to have fun and enjoy yourself – #YOLO, before #YOLO was a thing. The only problem is: what if you fail to attain that which you want, and therefore you do not succeed at enjoying yourself in life? What then is the point of living?
It is as if Hemingway, in each of his books, is desperately trying to convince himself that there is meaning in life apart from God – and constantly failing to do so.
At least he was honest.
And yet his life ended in self-inflicted tragedy, as if it was one of his own stories.
What Hemingway Missed: The Reality to Which All the Longings Point
What Hemingway failed to realize – and tragically so, considering that he asked all the right questions and seemingly came so close – was that all of the disappointment of the unfulfilled longings of this life points to a reality which is outside of this world.
This is the hope of the Christian gospel: that the unfulfilled longings we have now will actually be fulfilled one day. That the reason we are unsatisfied with life in this world is because we were made for perfection, and deep down we instinctually know the way that things ought to be – even though it’s not how they are right now. We long for a world in which there is love without parting. We long for a world of adventure and nobility, where love is reciprocated, a world of righteousness where injustice is no more and where life does not end.
And the promise of the Bible is that such a world is what we were made for; it has been lost, but it will exist again – and by the grace of God we will get to be part of it because of what Jesus did for us.
The knowledge of that gives actual meaning to our present struggles and direction and purpose to our lives here and now – something truly bigger than ourselves, which will result in the fulfillment of our presently unfulfilled longings.
An article posted by Relevant Magazine today cited a recent study published in the Religion, Brain and Behavior Journal, which sought to understand why people choose to become atheists.
Although the researches expected to find that most people became atheists because they grew up outside of a religious setting, what they found was that many who call themselves atheists became so, at least in part, as a result of observing their parents to be insincere, hypocritical or unfaithful.
The researchers pointed out that there were plenty of cases in which someone had chosen atheism in spite of growing up with religious parents who were devout, loving and sincere. However, it does seem that where hypocrisy did exist, it was a factor which contributed to their decision to reject their parents’ faith.
Interestingly, in a poll I took earlier this year, in which I asked the question: “What are the biggest hurdles that people have when it comes to embracing Christianity?”, the number one response I got was: “Hypocrisy”. This aligns with the results of a 2007 Barna research project, in which they asked people why they rejected Christianity.
It should be remembered, that Jesus himself took great issue with religious hypocrisy; he neither tolerated it, nor remained silent about it. In fact, he said something so extreme, that if Jesus himself hadn’t said it, most people wouldn’t dare go as far as saying something like this:
If anyone causes one of these little ones–those who believe in me–to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea. (Matthew 18:6)
Clearly, hypocrisy is a big deal – both to God and to people. Children are perceptive, and they intuit the discrepancies in people’s words and their actions, the latter of which tend to reveal our true values and beliefs.
May God help us who call ourselves Christians to be sincere, humble, repentant and loving, while we hold onto very important convictions about the truth – in order that we might shine like lights in the world (see Philippians 2:14-15) and draw people to Jesus.
Here is a message from a series I taught earlier this year called, “The Trouble Is…”, in which I address the issue of religious hypocrisy, both for Christians and for those who are not Christians, or who are unsure of where they stand:
In 2008, at the time of his untimely death, the Los Angeles Times declared that David Foster Wallace was “one of the most influential writers of the last twenty years.” He was an award-winning, bestselling postmodern novelist, who loved to push boundaries in his storytelling.
Although Wallace was an agnostic, he made some profound statements about atheism and worship in his now famous commencement speech, which he gave to the graduating class of Kenyon College in 2005.
Here’s what he said:
You get to choose what to worship. Because here’s something else that’s weird but true: in the day-to day trenches of adult life, there is actually no such thing as atheism. There is no such thing as not worshipping. Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what to worship.
And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god … to worship … is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive.
If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough. It’s the truth. Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally plant you.
Worship power, and you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out.
Look, the insidious thing about these forms of worship is not that they are evil or sinful; it is that they’re unconscious. They are default settings. They are the kind of worship you just gradually slip into day after day … without ever being fully aware that that’s what you’re doing. 
Wallace, although not a Christian, understood and communicated a very profound and very biblical truth: everyone worships, but anything you worship other than God will “eat you alive.”
Romans 6:16 tells us that there is no such thing as not worshiping, and that anything we worship other than God will enslave us.
Rebecca Manley Pippert puts it this way:
“Whatever controls us in our lord. The person who seeks power is controlled by power. The person who seeks acceptance is controlled by it. We do not control ourselves. We are controlled by the lord of our lives. (Pippert, Out of the Saltshaker, p. 53)
Whether we call ourselves religious or not, all of us have a lord, a master, and we are all worshipers.
The only way to be free, is by having a lord and a master who will not crush you, but who will liberate you – and in Jesus we have exactly that: one who came not to crush us, but to liberate us from all that enslaves us and to fulfill our deepest longings.
Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”
“Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” (John 4:10,13)
What a tragedy it would be to know this truth and not come to the fountain of living water and drink in order to be liberated and fulfilled!
Here is a recording of Wallace’s speech. The part about worship begins at 17:50.
Many people ask the question: Can you prove there is a God?
The answer to that question is: there are many proofs of God’s existence. Taken together, these arguments from cosmology, morality, design, etc. come together to form a very strong case for the fact that God exists.
Check out this video, in which Mike and I discuss the moral argument for God.