Volume 18 - Issue 1

Which is harder to believe?

By Christopher J.H. Wright

‘Why does the universe go to all the bother of existing?’ This intriguing question comes towards the end of Stephen Hawking’s best-seller, A Brief History of Time: From the Big Bang to Black Holes.1 Hawking’s answer is that from a scientific point of view we still do not know, and cannot know until we can construct a grand universal theory that truly accounts for ‘life, the universe and everything’. However, in the course of his book he juggles with the idea of a creator God, though finally appears to reject it. It does not fit with his concept of the universe as completely self-contained with no boundaries or singularities, and therefore neither ‘beginning’ nor ‘end’. He realizes, however, that a creator God could combine with what he calls the ‘strong anthropic principle’, which states that the universe is as it now is precisely because we humans are here to observe it. If it had ‘begun’ in any different way (i.e. with even the slightest difference in the initial configuration of conditions at the Big Bang), then neither we would exist nor even the conditions for our life on this planet. In his own words:

The initial state of the universe must have been very carefully chosen indeed if the hot big bang model was correct right back to the beginning of time. It would be very difficult to explain why the universe should have begun in just this way, except as the act of a God who intended to create beings like us (p. 127).

But Hawking does not believe this, though it is hard to see that he has offered any more credible alternative explanation. He finds the anthropic principle simply unbelievable. Certainly, as he quite rightly observes, it is an astonishing view. On the one hand, he says, we have

the modern picture in which the earth is a medium-sized planet orbiting around an average star in the outer suburbs of an ordinary spiral galaxy, which is itself only one of about a million million galaxies in the observable universe. Yet the strong anthropic principle would claim that this whole vast construction exists simply for our sake. This is very hard to believe (p. 126).

Hard for Hawking to believe, but the very core of the faith of millions through the ages, ever since the classic expression of it in the profound simplicity of Genesis 1. At least it is refreshing to see that he acknowledges his rejection of it as a matter of faith (or lack of), not of relevant scientific argument. The evidence he so penetratingly sifts does not at all rule out, and indeed may be taken to point to, the reality of a creator God who designed the laws of physics with the minutest precision in order finally to produce creatures like us. But this is ‘very hard to believe’ and so remains unbelieved. And ideas which seem less believable, even to non-Christian commentators, are offered in exchange.

A few months ago, a pastor from Singapore who has been involved in the phenomenal growth of the church there in the last two decades was telling me about what happens when people from a traditional religion background (otherwise known as animist or primal religion) turn to Christ, especially if they are baptised. He related several cases where such converts faced hostility from unconverted family and neighbours on the grounds that they had brought a more powerful god into their midst, an act which threatened the efficacy of their own rites and ceremonies. That is, people recognized the reality of Jesus Christ as a god, and indeed a more powerful god than their own, but that did not mean they were willing to turn to him or accept him as sole Lord. They could ‘see’ the reality of God, and indeed witness his power in miraculous ways (just like many of those who heard and saw Jesus on earth), yet choose to stick to their own gods rather than turn exclusively to Christ.

Both examples struck me afresh with the astonishing capacity of the human heart for suppressing the truth, even when faced with it. Is there, after all, any significant difference, in spiritual terms, between a religious animist who refuses to turn to Christ even when fully convinced of his deity and superior power and a brilliant intellect capable of penetrating conceptually to the very limits of our understanding or the universe but refusing to believe in the creator God virtually staring him in the face? The biblical category of ‘folly’, which includes the rejection of God, is not a matter of intellectual deficiency, but rather of refusing the truth of God because of the implications it inevitably has in other areas of life.

Of course, human beings ancient and modern are very skilled at finding the simple and obvious truth of God’s revelation (in nature, history, Scripture and Christ) ‘hard to believe’, while simultaneously finding it easy to believe all kinds of other distortions and absurdities. There are those who reject a Father God, but affirm the deity of Mother Goddess Earth (under a variety of names), claiming it to be somehow less sexist to do so. A growing percentage of people in the West, finding the idea of resurrection hard to believe (a task not made any easier by some within the church itself), embrace reincarnation as a more credible personal future, overlooking the irony that in its oriental origins, reincarnation is a bondage from which you strive for ultimate release. There are always those who are willing and eager to give credence to the most fanciful theories about the historical Jesus (yet more having appeared in recent months) while dismissing with pseudo-scientific scorn the sober accounts of the earliest witnesses. And in what is probably the major current theological battlefield, Christian theology of other religions, there are those who find it hard to believe that God is as he is claimed to be revealed in Christ, and substitute an apophatic abstract construct, an ‘ultimate divine reality’, neither personal nor impersonal, which all religions reflect but which none really knows. One could say of relativist pluralism that it has serious inherent epistemological problems. Or one might say with greater simplicity. ‘This is very hard to believe.’ All the more urgent then is our apologetic responsibility to be ‘valiant for truth’ in a truth-resistant culture. We nave the Scriptures, but other resources are not lacking either, provided we use them diligently.2

With this issue we say farewell to three of our editorial panel and welcome two new additions. David Mcleod retires from the list of Assistant Editors, while Vernon Grounds and Masao Uenuma retire from the list of International Editors. We express our thanks for their support over the years. We have not previously had an Assistant Editor with particular responsibility for Missiology. This lack is now made good with the agreement of Bill Houston to join the team. Mr. Houston is Vice-Principal of the Evangelical Biblical Seminary of South Africa (EBSemSa), in Pietermaritzburg. He was formerly involved in student ministry in South Africa and has taught a variety of missiological subjects at All Nations Christian College for the last six years. On the International panel, we are delighted that Peter Kuzmic has joined us, representing Central and Eastern Europe. Dr. Kuzmic is principal of the Evangelical Theological Seminary in Osijek, Croatia (formerly Yugoslavia), which sustained damage in the recent fighting. Dr. Kuzmic’s article in this issue should urge us to prayer, not only for the critical needs of former Yugoslavia, but for the continent of Europe in general.

In this issue we begin a new column on the inside back cover, ‘Personally speaking’, in which we invite established scholars to reflect on their own pilgrimage in theology in a more personal fashion. For multitudes of theological students, old and young, the name ‘Wenham’ is synonymous with New Testament Greek, as they learned the language with the help of John Wenham’s Elements of New Testament Greek. However, as his column shows, his major interest lies elsewhere. We pray that he may be given strength in retirement to complete his lifetime’s project.

1 London, Bantam Press, 1988. The Editor’s holiday reading is at last catching up with everyone else’s talking point for the last few years!

2 The writings of Lesslie Newbigin repay careful reading, especially, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (SPCK, 1990). On pluralism H.A. Netland, Dissonant Voices (Apollos, 1991), is a very thorough critique. And most recently, see Alister McGrath, Bridge-Building: Effective Christian Apologetics (IVP, 1992). A future issue of Themelios will carry a ‘resource-list’ on the question of Christianity and science.

Christopher J.H. Wright

Principal, All Nations Christian College, Ware