Tag Archives: non-violence

Why Wishful Thinking Can Make Us Blind to the Truth

I have a few confessions to make (I am taking a short break from the “historical criticism” series of blog posts).

I did not know much about Vladimir Putin, but for years, what I knew about him was somewhat positive. Sure, he was a former KGB man, and he still harbored some socialist ideals. But he had renounced communism, which was a big improvement over the days of Soviet Russia. He appeared, at least for awhile, to be a supporter of the Christian faith in Russia. Former U.S. President George W. Bush said that he was able to get “a sense of [Putin’s] soul.” That seemed promising.

Under Putin’s presidency, things with Russia became light years ahead of the dark days of Bolshevikism and the U.S.S.R., and the constant threat of nuclear annihilation I feared as a kid growing up during the Cold War. Like many Enlightenment-guided Westerners, I was convinced that the days of World War II style naked aggression were over. He was not perfect, but at least, under Putin, the threat of nuclear war was remote.

Even Boris Yeltsin, the Russian president during the 1990s, and Putin’s predecessor, who sought to make Russia into a modern democracy, had confidence in Vladimir Putin, believing that Putin would carry on the reforms in the post-U.S.S.R. era.

I really wanted Vladimir Putin to be a “good guy.”

However, the events of the last month or so have shattered that. Though I wanted him to be a “good guy,” I discovered that he was not. I have since learned that he is a nationalist, or more accurately, an empire builder/wanna-be restorer, who cares nothing about the lives and aspirations of thousands, if not millions, of Ukrainian people. In Mariupol alone, we have reports that 90% of the buildings in that city have been damaged or even demolished, leaving civilians without food, water, electricity and heat. The horror of effectively destroying such a beautiful country, like Ukraine, and causing over a million to become homeless, does not seem to register in the mind of Putin as being a moral atrocity. The fact that Putin’s cover for this “military operation” had been blown for weeks before Russian troops crossed the border into the Ukraine, and that Putin went ahead with the “military operation” anyway, is ghastly.

What makes it all the worse is that Mr. Putin’s version of a politicized Christianity plays into the whole tragedy. Apparently, Vladimir Putin has been enamored by the concept of a “Holy Rus,” a vision of one unified Russian people, with one great church holding everyone together, made up of Russians AND Ukranians. This ideology is traceable back to 988 C.E., when Prince Vladimir chose to be baptized into the Christian faith, thus introducing Christianity to the Slavic peoples. Prince Vladimir, along with his warriors and families, were baptized altogether in the Dnieper River, in Kyiv. When the Mongols swept through destroying Kyiv a few centuries later, Moscow became the new seat of north Eastern European Christianity. With the conquest of Constantinople in 1453 to the Turks the mythological status of Moscow as the “Third Rome” took hold.

Now, in the wake of the collapse of the U.S.S.R., Mr. Putin wishes to restore that Moscow as the “Third Rome” once again, hoping to restore the glory of pre-U.S.S.R. ancient Czarist Russia. If you read Putin’s hour-long speech that he gave, upon the eve of the invasion, you can begin to appreciate the inner working of his logic. One might argue that Putin’s vision of a grand “Christian empire” may have been at one time well-intended, but as we see this story play out, the dark side of this has been revealed. Christianity has again been hijacked by the State, and millions are suffering in its wake. Thankfully, many Christians, including many Eastern Orthodox have condemned the violence, but Putin shows no signs of backing down.

The issues behind the Ukraine/Russia conflict are very complex, and very few people are aware of the spiritual/religious aspects that are deeply rooted in the history of the region. The Gospel Simplicity YouTube channel, started by Austin Suggs, as a theology student at Moody Bible Institute, features an interview with John Strickland, an Eastern Orthodox priest in America and historian on Russia, who dives deep into history behind the conflict, describing details that few even know about.

I was blinded by my own wishful thinking about Vladimir Putin. My wishful thinking kept me from seeing and understanding the truth.

Wishful thinking makes us feel better. Wishful thinking can help us to think we are good persons: moral, upright, and justified. But it comes at a cost.

Wishful thinking can easily blind any of us. Sometimes a reality check is what we need to cure us of wishful thoughts, that while surely well intended, do nothing but lead us along a path of deception.

This can be a really hard thing to accept, as I hate to be wrong about anything. But there have been times where evidence presented against my wishful thinking has forced me to change my perspective. It has not always been easy.

Sometimes, the costs of such misguided wishful thinking are not too terrible. In my younger years, I wished that I could be a successful guitar player, and even be a rock star. Reality set in, and I instead became a computer geek. I still play guitar, but I no longer fantasize about being the next Jimi Hendrix. I am quite okay with that now.

At other times, misguided wishful thinking can get you into serious trouble. For Westerners who believed that Vladimir Putin was merely bluffing about invading Ukraine, that type of wishful thinking has become deadly. Putin himself has quite a bit of wishful thinking himself, describing the Russian aggression as freeing Ukraine from the domination of “Nazis” and “fascists.”

Why does Putin make this claim? Because during World War II, certain Ukrainian nationalists aligned themselves with Hitler’s Germany, as liberators from Soviet oppression… that is, until they figured out what the Nazis were really up to. Many historians say that Putin is ignoring what Paul Harvey called “the rest of the story,” pointing out that the Ukrainian independence movement began earlier during World War I, in 1917, before the Soviets took over the Ukraine in 1922.

Putin’s narrative is this: Ukraine was, and is, and will always be part of Russia. End of discussion. This is the world that Putin wants to live in. It makes him feel good about himself. It makes him feel moral, upright, and justified.

Wishful thinking can deceive even world leaders, like Vladimir Putin. When we so desperately want something to be true, when the reality suggests otherwise, calamity is not too far behind.

 

The Corrective to Wishful Thinking: Fairly Evaluating the Evidence

In spiritual matters, wishful thinking that is not grounded in truth, as established by the evidence, can have undesired consequences, too. Much of what I say here will sound controversial to some. For the rest of this blog post, I will summarize where my thinking has either deepened, or even changed, on certain theological topics that I have explored over the last few years. A number of you may not like where I eventually land on these topics. Regardless of where you ultimately stand on these difficult topics, and how you evaluate the evidence, I hope you might appreciate the posture that I trying to take, as woven around this particular theme of “wishful thinking.”

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

There are times, surely, where we want something to be true, and it turns out that it is! However, wishful thinking can also deceive. What makes the difference is a fair evaluation of the evidence. This requires a willingness to rethink our assumptions and then follow the evidence wherever it leads.

Consider attempts that some Russian propagandists have made to try and get Ukrainians to give up against the Russian invasion, and re-assure other Russians that Putin is in the right, in this conflict. On March 16, 2022, a deepfake video of Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky had been shared around social media, calling on his soldiers to lay down their arms. If you look at the video it might look and sound convincing, particularly if you were harboring wishful thoughts, that this message was indeed true.

The real President Zelensky responded to the deepfake, and refuted its message, and in turned urged Russian soldiers to lay down their arms, and go home. Upon closer inspection, evidence from the deepfake video showed that it indeed was a fake.

Unfortunately, a lot of supposed “evidence” for a position are actually assertions, that lack sufficient merit. In this particular case regarding the deepfake Zelensky video, it was outright propaganda.

But how many people unknowingly and willfully are drawn into accepting these messages to be true, when their wishful thinking steers them in that direction?

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Universalism

For example, let us consider a very serious spiritual matter. On this, my thinking has not changed much over the years.

I really wish I could be a universalist. I wish everyone, even a Vladimir Putin, could be converted and come to know Jesus in the end, and hell could be emptied. Even before I became a Christian believer, I could not imagine why anyone would want to believe in an eternal hell.

But as I have taken an honest look at the Holy Scriptures, it just seems near impossible for me to read the Bible and conclude that universalism is true.  God’s judgment, as presented in the Bible, does not seem to work like that. As Revelation 22:15 teaches, those who “love and make lies” will be barred from entering the New Jerusalem. It is really difficult to get around all of that.

I know that a brilliant theologian, like David Bentley Hart, probably thinks that someone like me is morally reprobate, because I do not find the case for universalism that he champions to be supported by the teaching of Scripture. When I wrote a blog article in 2019, covering book reviews of D. B. Hart’s defense of universalism, That All Shall Be Saved: Heaven, Hell, and Unversalism, I received some of the most uncharitable and scathing comments, that misrepresented my position, in all of the years of my blogging on Veracity, even though I spent several hours listening to interviews Hart gave in defending his thesis, in order to try to give Hart’s viewpoint a fair hearing. In D. B. Hart’s mind, he is moral, upright, and justified. I, on the other hand, to such critics, must be a moral cretin.

So, let me state this clearly again: I wish I am wrong about the evidence against so-called “Christian Universalism.”  I wish all could be saved in the end. Perhaps I will be proven wrong at the end of all time, but I am not convinced that I will be.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (National, Ethnic Israel)

Are you ready for more?

I started off with the universalism issue because it helps to frame a compassionate, honest way of thinking through these type of issues that I will address below. I mean, you really have to be a moron if you gleefully want people to perish in hell. Nevertheless, the question of truth matters. There is a certain sense of anguish that anyone with a pulse should be feeling, as they wrestle with such difficult matters. The same sentiment applies on a lot of these other issues.

Before we get into some really touchy issues in our day, that get us even farther away from the Ukraine/Russia crisis, I will briefly address a relatively easier issue first: As a young believer in college, I was immersed in a type of dispensationalist teaching that really championed the modern nation/state of Israel. However, in the mid-1990s, I took a trip to the Holy Land, and frankly, I was deeply disillusioned with what I saw.

Israel looked a whole lot like “Sodom and Gomorrah” and a lot less like the Jewish, deeply spiritual population group that my college church envisioned Israel to be. Aside from visiting a lot of places where Jesus walked, etc., I just sensed that the country was a spiritually dark place. I was most deeply bothered by how poorly so many Palestinian Christians felt treated by the Israeli government. So, I abandoned my dispensationalist mindset and embraced covenant theology, which at that time seemed to be the best, theologically orthodox alternative to dispensationalism. It was not like I completely rejected any type of future for national, ethnic Israel. It was just that I was not convinced that the modern nation state of Israel had that much to do with it.

Then about 15 years later, a friend of mine challenged me on my beliefs. Frankly, I did not want to be challenged. I wanted my newer beliefs to be true, and I really did not want to be questioned.

But in 2014, I began about a four-year project, with about a two-year break in the middle, to study this topic of Israel (and Christian Zionism, in particular), and to set aside the wishful thinking that I had adopted, and be open to the truth, following the evidence, wherever it led me. Here is a link to the starting place of my research journey. I ended up in a more nuanced position, somewhere between the dispensationalist theology of my college years and the covenant theology of my post-Israel visit. It was a very humbling process, but looking back, I am glad I went through it.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Slavery)

Now, here is something that is really touchy.

For years, I believed that Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels, and not Paul’s letters, were the best source for addressing the evils of slavery. After all, the “Golden Rule” taught by Jesus seemed like an obvious defeater for slavery. Jesus’ love for the poor and outcast seemed to me to outshine anything I read from Paul. Paul’s teaching in various places about slaves being obedient to their masters made me uncomfortable, so I tended to want to favor the “red letter” Christianity of where Jesus was quoted in the Gospels, in so-called “Red Letter Bibles.

The inconvenient truth is that there is nothing in the Gospels that indicates Jesus saw anything about slavery as being evil. Slavery was quite common in the first century Roman empire, but Jesus never spoke out against it.

Go ahead. Search through the Gospels yourself. See if you can find any explicit statement, or even an implicit one, where Jesus condemns slavery. Instead, you will find numerous places where Jesus simply assumes slavery to be a given reality in human society.

I hated to admit that to myself. But the silence in the Gospels about the evils of slavery is deafening.

Instead, one must look to the writings of Paul, Jesus’ designated spokesperson to the Gentiles, for any critique of slavery in the New Testament. While Paul does tell slaves to obey their masters, he also tells masters not to mistreat their slaves, which was quite out of step with the pater familias ethic of Roman households, where the predominate male of the house had complete, absolute control over everyone in the household, including slaves.

But the real clincher for Paul is found in his shortest letter in the New Testament, the letter to Philemon: When Paul returned the runaway slave, Onesimus, to his master, Philemon, he challenged Philemon to adopt the same attitude Paul had developed towards Onesimus, that of treating him as both a brother and a son.

Some treat Paul’s statement here as a kind of rhetorical flourish, but it really is much more than that. Paul’s Jewish heritage, grounded in the Hebrew Scriptures, had informed him that it was morally wrong to enslave a fellow believer, much less a family member, thereby cutting at the very foundation as to why people should ever become slaves in the first place. Paul also knew the story of the Hebrew slaves being set free from underneath the rule of Pharaoh. It is no surprise then, that such a prominent early church father, like Gregory of Nyssa, became such an outspoken critic of slavery, a thousand years before the first African slave ever stepped foot on American soil.

True, Paul never comes out explicitly to tell Philemon to free Onesimus. Paul’s failure to do so might explain why it took so many centuries before slavery would be finally rejected as a moral evil, and why so many secularists today are dismissive of the Bible as not being more forceful in condemning slavery. But the fact that slavery gradually and eventually did become a moral evil to be rejected in civilized society can be traced back to Paul’s letter to Philemon (Thanks to Sarah Ruden, who helped me to understand this).

Sure, we still have slavery in the modern world, albeit in illegal ways. Thankfully, in our day, no morally responsible person, influenced by the Christian message, enslaves their own brother or son, and since we live in a world where the Gospel message can make anyone into a brother or sister in Christ, the enforcement of a slavery system becomes a mute issue. Alas, we find very little of this in the teachings of Jesus in the Gospels. But thankfully, we have Paul!

I wanted Jesus to be a slavery abolitionist, and leave Paul out of the discussion. One can infer truths like “love your neighbor, as yourself” as being abolitionist in intent, but history has shown that many slaveholders over the centuries have had no problem accepting Jesus’ teaching here, while still retaining ownership of another human being. But had those Christians really meditated on Paul’s short, little letter to Philemon?

Like many Christians have been tempted to want to believe, I had much preferred Jesus over Paul. However, the truth is that it all lands on Jesus’ spokesperson, Paul, and not Jesus himself, to voice that New Testament truth that undercuts the slavery system.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Non-Violence)

For a long time, I wanted to believe that the Bible strictly teaches an ethic of non-violence. I have sincere and wonderful Anabaptist friends who hold strongly to this belief. I still find myself looking away at some of the more violent passages of the Old Testament (I have a book on my reading list that I hope to review on this topic and report on, later this year).

Pacifists like Martin Luther King, Jr., and India’s Mahatma Gandhi have been heroes to me, and I still believe that there are cases where non-violence offers the best moral solution. I pray, pray, pray for peace. But in looking at the example of German theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a man who wrestled with the ethic of non-violence, he eventually concluded that it was morally right and indeed necessary to throw “a spoke in the wheel” to try to stop Adolph Hitler’s murderous efforts to eliminate the Jews, as a follower of Jesus. Likewise, as far as I am concerned, the current efforts by the people of Ukraine to use military force to repel the Russian invasion, as best as I can understand the issues, adequately meets Saint Augustine’s criteria for a just war.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Loving Those Who Experience Same-Sex Attraction)

I have been bothered by the fact that some dear friends of mine have struggled with same-sex attraction. I wrestle with trying to understand why these friends have been subjected to this costly struggle, through no fault of their own. Some of these friends have since convinced themselves that foregoing the traditional Christian sexual ethic, and embracing same-sex marriage, is somehow “OK” with God. In many ways, I wish I could believe that. I want my friends to be happy, and if same-sex marriage brings them that happiness, I wish for them to experience that happiness.

The problem is that I find no room in the teaching of Scripture for sanctioning and blessing same-sex marriage, within the Christian church. Instead, I trust that God can provide other ways for my friends to experience intimacy and fulfilling friendship, without same-sex erotic relations, in a manner that brings God the glory. One can live without sex, but one can not live without friendship. Because I am tethered to the authority of Scripture, that is the position that I must take (Look here for an expansive treatment on this issue).

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

The Dangers of Wishful Thinking: Some Touchy Theological Issues (Women Serving as Elders in a Local Church??)

Here is another divisive issue in some quarters, though not nearly as serious as the previous topic of same-sex marriage. This is not a hill I am going to die on, yet I have some important concerns about how the Scriptures are interpreted: For years, I wanted to believe that God desired women to serve in the same ways that men serve in the leadership of the church. I was actually a pretty opinionated egalitarian, believing that women can and should serve as elders/overseers, or presbyters, in a local church, which is in contrast with nearly all forms of complementarian theology.

Before anyone misrepresents my position (see this series of blog posts that examine this issue in great detail), I am still convinced that Scripture allows for and encourages women to serve in an incredibly wide variety of leadership functions, ranging from deacons, to church planters, to parachurch ministry workers, to ministry directors, to small group teachers and leaders, to members of a church board of directors, to theologians, to Bible scholars, and to prophets (Some of my more conservative complementarian friends these days think that my list is way, way too broad!). In fact, a lot of the research done, particularly over the past thirty years by egalitarian Bible scholars, has brought about a better sense of balance in our modern Bible translations. However, when I began to focus on the question of women serving specifically as elders/overseers in local churches, I have had to really rethink through the arguments and evidence presented in the New Testament.

I have many, many dear Christian friends of mine who are convinced in their own minds that Paul’s restrictions against women serving as elders/overseers in a local church, as found in 1 Timothy and Titus, are merely temporary commands, or otherwise they are commands limited to specific cultural circumstances and concerns found in first century Ephesus and Crete, respectively (where Timothy and Titus were). I held that view for a long time, too, so I am very sympathetic and respectful of such viewpoints. Those who disagree with me truly love Jesus, care deeply about winning others to the Gospel, and seek to honor and love the Scriptures.

In fact, I would argue that probably the best argument for an egalitarian reading of 1 Timothy 2:8-15 suggests that Paul is only forbidding the women of Ephesus from exercising spiritual authority and teaching because they might have been promoting Gnostic heresy.  I just no longer find that argument convincing. So, I must respectfully “agree to disagree” here with my egalitarian brothers and sisters in Christ, despite how much it pains me that we lack unity in this area.

But as I have studied the evidence more I have come to the conclusion that Paul’s view against having women serve as elders is not limited to the 1st century church in Ephesus or Crete, nor is this a temporary decree. Women have served in leadership in a wide variety of ways, particularly during the early church era. For example, the evidence for women serving as deacons, as early as the first decade of the second century, is overwhelming. However, the only time you find women specifically serving as elders/overseers during the early church era was in some extraordinary corner cases, and more commonly in heretical Christian movements, such as the Arians, the Montanists,  and the Gnostics, that were condemned across the board by the early leaders of the Christian church. Otherwise, the early church rejected the notion of having women serve as local church elders. Such evangelical luminaries as Tim Keller agree with me on these observations, as well as Francis Chan. (A quick note: this has nothing to do with women serving in the marketplace. Extreme complementarians try to force the Bible to inappropriately restrict women here… whoops, just made some complementarians mad!  Oh, well!!)

Furthermore, aside from certain evangelical egalitarian scholars, you will not find any scholars today, either conservative or liberal, who accept the arguments that the Paul of 1 Timothy and Titus would have endorsed women serving as elders/overseers in a local church. Instead, I have come to see that there is a powerful sacramentalist understanding of why Paul thought the way that he did, that does not fit the stereotype of chauvinism. Rather, a sacramentalist interpretation celebrates the mystery of the difference between male and female. Now, I can understand why other Christians are so troubled by the thought that Scripture forbids women to serve as local church elders. I wish I was wrong here, and perhaps new evidence will emerge that changes the story, but I find it necessary to follow the evidence that we already have.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

 

Wishful Thinking In the Midst of Struggle

Do I still struggle with issues surrounding the doctrine of hell, slavery, non-violence, how best to support my same-sex attracted friends, and charges of misogyny in the Bible? Sure I do. Only the most hardened conservative would fail to wrestle with these difficult issues. But hiding behind the thin veneer of wishful thinking has caused more harm than good.

When Christians are willing to fudge the data in order to make a case for something important to them, even if the intentions are good, it casts some serious doubt on the reliability of the Christian witness. It can come across as cheating. A bad apologetic can become fuel for the fire for the skeptic of Christianity.

 

Analyzing the Evidence for the Most Important Teaching in the Bible: The Resurrection

There are much more fundamental matters at stake. The bedrock of the Christian faith is the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus Christ. If the Resurrection of Jesus is true, then Christianity is true, period! But if the Resurrection of Jesus did not happen, then even the Apostle Paul admits that our faith would be in vain.

But how do we know if Jesus really rose from the dead? Is that, too, also a product of wishful thinking? Is there sufficient evidence to support the truthfulness of the Resurrection of Jesus?

I have non-believing friends of mine who have challenged me with this question: “What would it take to prove to you, Clarke, that your belief in Christianity is a false belief? What would convince you that the Resurrection was untrue?”

My first instinct is to say that if you can produce the bones of Jesus, that would convince me that the Resurrection of Jesus was false. But in thinking about it some more, this is a bit of cheating. For how could you reliably find out if you actually had the bones of Jesus? How would you go about doing DNA testing, to figure out if you even had a match on Jesus’ bones? That is a pretty unrealistic way to try to falsify something.

A more realistic way of trying to falsify a belief in the Resurrection of Jesus would be to focus on the reliability of those early witnesses to the Risen Jesus. For if one can demonstrate that those witnesses were somehow unreliable and deceptive, it would cast some serious doubt on the Resurrection claim.

As a young college student, I often heard the claim from Christian apologists, that with the exception of the Apostle John, every single one of the original apostles died a martyr’s death. That claim helped me to be convinced that Jesus really rose from the dead. Plus, I really wanted this to be true. So, it was quite a blow to me to learn that this claim was overstated. A few of the early apostles were indeed martyred, like Peter, Paul, and James, but the others probably died natural deaths. In several cases, we simply do not know for sure.

Wanting for something to be true simply does not make it true.

However, the rest of the story is vitally important. While not all of the apostles died as martyrs, is important to note that we have no evidence whatsoever that any of the early witnesses to the Resurrection ever denied their faith. None! Given the remarkableness of the Christian claim for the Resurrection, it is reasonable to conclude that they probably would have died for that belief, if the prospect of martyrdom became unavoidable. Just compare that with the story about the Book of Mormon, where several of the early witnesses to Joseph Smith’s story of the Golden Plates eventually did deny their earlier testimony regarding seeing the Golden Plates.

We still have good evidence that indeed the Resurrection of Jesus Christ is true, and not merely a product of wishful thinking.

When evaluating evidence for any truth claim, we must always keep in mind that we all have experiences that cause us to weight certain type of evidence as being more crucial than other types of evidence. We all have biases that can cloud our thinking. We all make certain assumptions that tend to shape the method we use, in which we discover truth.

But one of the most important challenges for us is to be willing take a reality check on our wishful thinking, to see if the evidence really stacks up in favor of what we believe, and often more honestly, what we want to believe is true.

This blog post has been a really L-O-N-G introduction to what might possibly the most important debate of all time. This might seem like an exaggeration, but here are the details.

  • Bart Ehrman is probably one of the world’s most recognizable skeptics of the Bible, a former Christian, who does not believe that Jesus bodily rose from the dead.
  • Michael Licona is an evangelical Christian, and a New Testament scholar, who has written one of most cogent defenses of the Bodily Resurrection of Jesus.
  • Both Bart Ehrman and Michael Licona have debated one another several times, and they are both friends, even though they strongly disagree with one another about the historicity of the Resurrection.
  • On April 9, 2022, Ehrman and Licona will debate the topic once again, but this time, it will be “The Debate to End All Debates!” This debate is scheduled to last SEVEN HOURS. That’s right: 7 hours!!
  • To view the debate, you need to sign up for pay-per-view, which will give you lifetime access to the debate material.
  • Check out the following video by Michael Licona, describing how the debate will work.
  • Join me in praying for Michael Licona, for what will be an incredibly informative and thoughtful debate, that will test the stamina of both scholars!

 


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