(How) does Jesus fulfil our longings?

142742092To long for things is characteristic of being human. It is in our nature to reach into the future, to envisage that things will be different from how they are now, to imagine our possessing of things, qualities and attitudes that we do not at present have—even to be people that we are not yet. This sense of longing often focuses on key issues, things of central importance to us:

  • The longing for a place to call ‘home’, a place of settlement and security
  • The longing for intimacy, for the sense of connection with another, a longing to know and be known. Although this longing, a misplaced form, is often behind the sexualisation of our culture, it is an impulse given by God. It is remarkable that, in the second creation narrative in Genesis 2, even though God has provided the human creature with everything he appears to need—including relationship with God himself—it is still ‘not good’ that he is alone.
  • The longing for significance or purpose—a desire to stand out from the crowd, or perhaps to make a difference in the world, to leave a legacy. If we were not here, would anyone notice? Would it make a difference? This longing is often a driver, particularly for men, of ambition in the workplace.
  • The longing for freedom. When we have a sense of being trapped, by our situation, our background, our personality, we long to be able to break free and redefine the boundaries of what is possible.
  • Lastly, the longing for spirituality, for a connection with the transcendent. We want to feel connected with something beyond ourselves, of greater significance than the limited horizons of what we can now see or know.

We all experience this sense of dissatisfaction with what is now, and desire to reach into the future of possibilities.

The Psalms form the praise-book of the Bible, and Psalm 37 explores some of the dynamics of this longing, this desire, this sense of dissatisfaction.

Trust in the LORD and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the LORD
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the LORD;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun. (Ps 37.3–6)

God promises to ‘give you the desires of your heart.’ But this idea raises two problems for us. First, it cannot simply be the case that God grants all our longings as they are. Is God’s role is fulfil our whims and wishes? What if they conflict with the desires of others? Second, and more seriously, despite our best intentions, we are aware that our desires are often misplaced and ill-informed, twisted by our wounds and stunted by our short-sightedness.

IMG_3099Our dog Barney loves to ‘help’ with the gardening, and yesterday he ‘helped’ me mow the lawn. He is very protective, always lying in doorways, and making sure we are all safe, and he clearly thinks the mower is some sort of threat to me. So he does a funny ‘dance’ in front of it, barking repeatedly. He also likes to chew things—and the mower has a very attractive orange cable on it which Barney clearly desires to chew! When Barney has the cable between his teeth, he is a bit like us with our desires and longings. They have great power, and can change and shape the world. But handled in the wrong way, they hold great danger—and when they are not channeled aright, they can harm us and those around us. If I granted Barney his desire, he would be very much the worse for it!

Oscar Wilde once commented:

There are two tragedies in life. One is not getting what we want; the other is getting what we want.

When we look at the story of God’s people in the Old Testament, we see entwined like threads running through it the twin themes of covenant and kingdom. The theme of covenant signifies God’s commitment to his people, and his invitation to them to be committed to him in mutual intimacy. The theme of kingdom signifies God’s rule over his people, his sharing of his power and authority with them, and his invitation to them to submit in obedience. By the time of the start of the New Testament, when Jesus arrives on the scene, these two themes had led to a series of expectations, of longings on the part of his people. They hoped for:

  • Freedom from the rule of the Romans
  • Recovery of their identity as the people of God
  • Restoration of holiness through obedience to God’s commands
  • Distinctive significance as a nation ruled by God alone—not as an insignificant corner of a global empire
  • At the heart of all this, the transcendent presence of God in his restored temple.

These longings are the particular expression of the kinds of things we all long for—in this sense, the story of Israel is actually our story, the story of all humanity in its longings and hopes. You can hear this sense of longing, of expectation and of hope for change on every page of the New Testament. At the start of Luke’s gospel we hear Mary’s heart burst with praise:

My soul glorifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Saviour…
He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. (Luke 1.46–53)

And in the same chapter we hear Zechariah declare:

Blessed be the Lord the God of Israel, who has come to his people and set them free.
He has raised up for us a mighty Saviour, born of the house of his servant David.
Through his holy prophets God promised of old to save us from our enemies,from the hands of all that hate us,
To show mercy to our ancestors, and to remember his holy covenant.
This was the oath God swore to our father Abraham: to set us free from the hands of our enemies,
Free to worship him without fear, holy and righteous in his sight all the days of our life. (Luke 1.68–75)

passion_supperWe have the same sense when Jesus bursts on the scene proclaiming the ‘The time is fulfilled—the kingdom of God is at hand. It is close enough to touch—if you will reach out and receive it’ (Mark 1.15). And at the end of his ministry, as he breaks bread, offering it to them as he offers his broken body, and blesses the cup, he declares ‘This is the new covenant in my blood’ (Luke 22.20). In Jesus, there is a new sense of the presence of God in power in his kingdom, and a new sense of the presence of God in intimacy in his covenant.

And yet Jesus does not fulfil any of the longings of his people in the way they expected. The freedom you need, he says, is not from the external power of the Romans, but the internal power of sin and evil. Your identity as the people of God is no longer found just in the yoke of the law, but in relating to me. The restoration of holiness will not come with obeying the letter, but in receiving the promised Spirit. Your significance will not be in breaking away from the empire, but in being the light to the world which was always your purpose. And the transcendent presence of God in your midst will no longer be found in the temple, but in my own presence as the Temple, the glory of God, amongst you.

3-jesus-and-samaritan-woman-9003-_I4C8789This reinterpretation of longing for the nation is found in detail in Jesus’ encounter with the woman at the well in John 4.4–29. Here is someone who has no place in the community; the only reason she is drawing water in the heat of midday, rather than in the cool of the morning, is that she has been ostracised. Here is someone whose attempts at intimacy have foundered—though in a culture where only men can divorce women, she is likely more sinned against than sinning. She has no security, no freedom, no significance. Their conversation begins in almost comic fashion; Jesus offers to meet her deepest longings, ‘living water’ which will quench every thirst, but she cannot understand the offer, let alone accept it. The answer to all her longings—the ones she can name, and the ones she is hardly aware of, is sitting in front of her, and she does not yet realise it.

Eventually, the conversation moves on from her to questions of spirituality and transcendence. Many people see this has the woman offering a smokescreen to disguise her personal needs—but I am not so sure. It is here that she articulates her deepest longing—to connect with God—and here that her eyes are opened, and she recognises who Jesus is. We can see the depth of engagement and connection in her final response:

Come, see a man who told me everything I ever did. (John 4.29)

Jesus is constantly meetings people’s longings—but they are longings they barely knew they had. I read this testimony online this week:

I had a kind of itch inside. I knew I needed something spiritual, but didn’t know what it was. I started exploring various different kinds of faith. Buddhism, paganism, Islam… Christianity would have been the last on my list, because it seemed to be a bit uncool. Really, there was a bit of social stigma about it – a prejudice – that is very prevalent in the liberal left world in which I had inhabited. But hey, I like to swim against the tide. Often that’s how you get to the truth.

When I first started going to church, and reading the gospels, I knew that there was something about Jesus that I wanted. I started seeking, and asking, and knocking. And as Jesus promised, I found. And what I was looking for was love – and the love of our Creator.

You can’t really describe spiritual experiences, you have to know it for yourself. But all I can say is that my worldview changed into one where love was the real meaning behind the universe, and the source of it all was God. Jesus is the visible image of God – how we can understand God and his love for us.

We need to allow Jesus to meet our longings, because we cannot do it ourselves. We cannot do it with religion—which is why the religious leaders hated Jesus. We cannot do it through politics—which is why the political leaders conspired against Jesus. We cannot do it by our accumulation of wealth—which is why the wealthy walked away from Jesus’ offer of life. And we cannot do it through violence, through our own force of will. The Greek of the New Testament incorporates a Latin word, sicarii (‘dagger-men’) to describe what we would call terrorists or assassins (Acts 21.38); Judas Iscariot may well have been one of them. Jesus included the religious, the political, the wealthy and the violent amongst his closest followers—and taught them a different way to see their longings fulfilled in him. It’s the same invitation he extends today.

Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest.

Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.

For my yoke is easy and my burden is light. (Matt 11.28–30)

(This is the outline of a sermon preached at St Nic’s, Nottingham on 19th October 2014. You can listen to the full sermon here.

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16 thoughts on “(How) does Jesus fulfil our longings?”

  1. Great post.

    ‘But all I can say is that my worldview changed into one where love was the real meaning behind the universe, and the source of it all was God. Jesus is the visible image of God – how we can understand God and his love for us.’

    That’s the most eloquent and down to earth declaration of the gospel that I’ve heard in a long time.

    Imagine imploring our congregations to adopt a worldview ‘where love is the real meaning behind the universe, and the source of it all is God’.

    Imagine encouraging a worldview that urges us to reach out from life’s distractions and hardships to grasp the transforming reality of Jesus as ‘the visible image of God (how we can understand God and his love for us’)’!

    We proclaim that if we reach out to Jesus, He will more than meet us half way. He will carry us to ultimate safety. The assurance of God’s invincible love is within our grasp: ‘The kingdom of God is at hand’!

  2. I agree with all of your items of central importance, except of course the last one.

    What exactly is transcendence? The ability to blur the line between reality and fiction? If it’s written in a book and it offers you a way out of your finite and humdrum existence, does it have to be true?

    I don’t believe in transcendence. I think we live and we die and that’s it. I didn’t exist before I was born and there’s no reason to believe I’ll exist after I die. Where’s the evidence? The Bible, a couple of other works of fiction, and Michaela Strachan’s “Great British Ghosts”?

    Transcendence is just another word for “I’m so important that the universe can’t possibly do without me so I refuse to believe I’ll cease to exist once I die!” That’s what drives all of this searching for “transcendence”. Ego.

    I’m quite content to know that once my time is up, I will cease to exist. My life will have been my life. Unique, unrepeatable and important only to me and a few others, for a time, until they disappear in their turn. The memory of me may last a few lifetimes in a limited circle because of what I did during my life, but eventually it’ll fade away to nothing just as the molecules that make up my body will crumble to dust and be recycled so that future generations can have their 15 minutes. That’s life, without transcendence. To know that is to know the true meaning of humility.

  3. Let us realise that the approach of the New Testament writers is primarily forensic (as it relates to the true origin of that word, forum), rather than strictly deductive.

    The forum was the ancient court that primarily collected and tested oral testimony in order to arrive at a verdict. There was no luxury of experimenting in the laboratory, not relying upon absolute conclusive evidence. The character and oral statement of a witness were even more crucial to establishing a person’s judicial fate than it is today. Arguments would need to be skilfully presented. The motives of each side would need to be examined. ‘By the mouths of two or three witnesses shall every word be established’ (2 Cor. 13:1) was the corollary. Some courts might even inflict an ordeal to test whether it might cause someone to recant their testimony. It is from this standpoint that the apostles were martyred: maintaining their united eye-witness testimony to Christ’s bodily resurrection in the face of death.

    The unique event occurs in history and over 500 people in and around Jerusalem claim to have witnessed the reality of it over a period of several weeks. The apostles themselves are no match for the control of Roman guards over Jesus’ tomb. Yet, when the Jesus movement could have been undermined by producing the body of Jesus, neither Herod (who acted swiftly enough to behead James), nor the Roman authorities can do so.

    Unlike a laboratory experiment, history cannot be verified by repetition. Yet, we accept a world that already consigns those convicted by another person’s testimony to long terms of imprisonment and, in some countries, death. We may even attend jury duty without wringing our hands in quandary over deductively provable evidence.

    As scripture says of the double-standard that permits a verdict upon such testimony by inductive reasoning: ‘We receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater’. (1John 5:9)

    So, why do we hesitate to apply induction to the scriptural account? Is it not because we are hopelessly prejudiced against the outcome and find the personal implications of accept the consequences intolerable?

    The first-century movement claimed a growing following of those who were convinced that the continuation of miraculous events corroborated the testimony that Jesus had returned to life forever.

    Hardened, but thoughtful critics were eventually won over by the positive impact on the lives of that following who saw virtue in eschewing personal gain for others. The calm, sane leaders of the movement were also willing to sacrifice their own safety, yet maintained their testimony of the resurrection without a hint of retaliation. Moreover, they extended compassion towards their persecutors.

    We can question the likelihood, motives, relative resourcefulness and credibility of the witnesses to the resurrection and their detractors. We may be swayed by rhetoric, the resonance of the testimony with our own first-hand experiences of personal guilt and what we know of human nature. This is as it should be in a courtroom.
    The process by which any verdict is reached involves induction, i.e. the case premises seek to supply strong evidence for (not absolute proof of) the truth of the conclusion. Scientists use inductive reasoning all the time. To pretend otherwise, that they only act on deductive proof that admits of no other explanation is a blatant falsehood.

    Here’s my own testimony of healing in my family. In November 2009, my father (who was terminally ill with prostate cancer) was rushed to St.Georges’ Hospital, Tooting suffering from profuse bleeding from his bladder. To keep him alive they had to pump over 5 pints of blood into him daily. The blood collected from his catheter was bright red, but they couldn’t identify the exact location of the bleeding. The doctors explained that, as a terminal patient, they couldn’t continue and would have to stop treatment soon. We asked about surgery, but the doctors said he was in his 70’s and too old for them to put him under anaesthetic.

    We also asked about a clotting agent. Unfortunately, my father also had blood clots in his lungs, so they couldn’t chance an embolism. They said that they would have to end treatment the next day.

    On that night, I prayed with my brothers for my father to be healed: for God to stanch the flow of blood. Principally, I prayed because had been estranged from my previously abusive father for over 20 years, but I wanted a chance for us to reconcile.

    The next day, the doctors were completely astonished because the flow of blood from his bladder had been staunched. He was released from hospital a week later and we were able to reconcile with each other. We became close and he died peacefully in August 2010.

    My father’s recovery from such profuse bleeding after prayer is just one piece of inductive evidence, much stronger than picking up a faint signal from a SETI telescope suggesting the existing of extra-terrestrial intelligence. But guess what? The latter would be persuasive of some action in the scientific world into action, even if it might admit of another explanation.

    So, there is one caveat. In another way, you and I, the jury for this case, are also on trial. The motives and prejudices of our own lives face as much scrutiny as the biblical witness itself. We sit in judgement and still desperately need to demonstrate that our own motives are above reproach.

    There is an awful responsibility for cherry-picking where we rely upon inductive reasoning, only to insist when it suits that nothing but the deductive approach will do.

  4. Entropy is the measure of the degree of disorder within a closed set of physical systems.

    As Professor Stephen Hawking explained in ‘A Brief History of Time’:
    ‘The increase of disorder or entropy is what distinguishes the past from the future, giving a direction to time.’

    Look at any natural process and, if there is no external agent or intervention, as time progresses, that system will move from order to disorder. Energy cannot remain localised. Instead, it dissipates.

    For instance, without the sustained removal of heat, the relatively more ordered state of ice crystals may turn into water and then into water vapour. Ice forms in a location because that space is not closed to external effects, like a cold source that extracts its heat.

    What won’t happen is for the entropy to go in the other direction. Without an external agency or heat transfer, vapour won’t condense into water and water won’t freeze into ice.

    When I studied engineering at university, we learnt this as the Second Law of Thermodynamics: ‘According to the second law of thermodynamics the entropy of an isolated system never decreases; such systems spontaneously evolve’.

    While this is an empirical axiom of science, we are left with one of its biggest conundrums. If we consider the universe to be a closed set of physical systems, and that entropy never decreases, why did the universe have such low entropy in the past, resulting in the distinction between the past and future (of which Hawking speaks) and the second law of thermodynamics?

    An atheist could continue to assert that the universe is a closed set of physical systems, but that does not explain the initially highest state of entropy in the universe.

    Of course, if there was an agent external to the universe, but able to impart order to it, inductive reasoning could begin to investigate this agent as an explanation for the existence of lower entropy (higher order) at the beginning of the universe, that is, by imparting a degree of order and segregation for heat transfer processes to happen at the beginning of Time.

    Such an agency would have to be omnipotent and be able to defy natural laws in order to effect such low entropy across the entire universe.

    Forget the Blind Watchmaker because we’re not discussing biological processes. The alternative that a natural process moved the universe as a closed set if systems from the complete chaos to its lowest state of entropy itself defies the second law of thermodynamics.

  5. We don’t have 500 witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection. We have one man claiming there were 500 witnesses. Not a single one of these 500 left any report of what they’re supposed to have seen. Rather odd, don’t you think? If you’d seen something as miraculous as a man who claimed to be God coming back to life, don’t you think you’d have written an account of it? But maybe only a few of them could write. Or maybe none at all. Or maybe all the accounts were lost. Or did the resurrected Jesus only appear to illiterates? So many questions, but no answers at all…

    The only account of these putative 500 witnesses comes from Paul. And as sworn statements go, it’s pretty unimpressive. There are no details of who these people are. No names. No possibility of corroboration, even at the time. He didn’t say “If you don’t believe me, go round the corner and ask Nobby. He saw it too.” We don’t have any kind of account from Nobby backing up Paul’s claims. All we have is one man’s word. And you accept it as Gospel truth?

    I suppose it’s your privilege to believe what and who you will. But let’s examine your evidence. There are four accounts of Jesus’s resurrection. One of them, Mark, most scholars believe was written by a second generation Christian more than 40 years after the event. Another of them, Matthew, was probably written a generation after that. Luke may have been written a few years before, or after, Mark. Which just leaves John, which is even later, having been written at the earliest 15-20 years after Mark. We don’t have a single contemporaneous account of Jesus’s life. Just a bunch of hearsay written by nobody knows whom a long time after the events. Nobody was sufficiently impressed by their encounter with a living god to sit down and record their experiences of him at the time. They waited a lifetime and even then they didn’t write their memoirs. They left that up to someone else, who may or may not have known them personally. That’s your evidence. It most certainly wouldn’t stand up in court.

    But of course, you can believe in whatever you want to believe in. The Bible. The Quran. The Silmarillion if you like. But if you present evidence to support that belief, it needs to stand up to basic scrutiny. Christian scripture does not. At best it’s historical hearsay. It’s what some random guy said that someone who knew an apostle said to him. Chinese whispers are not a solid basis for a belief system.

    And speaking to your attempt at a scientific justification for the existence of God, you should remember that time and entropy are properties of the universe. Talking about a time before the beginning of time, i.e. the beginning of the universe, is therefore nonsensical. There was no time before the beginning of time. If there had been, what you’re referring to as the beginning of time would actually have been just another random moment within time, not its beginning.

    We don’t know exactly what happened at the beginning of time, but to fill in the blanks with an omnipotent creator who stands outside the universe and can do anything he likes within it is pure supposition. We have absolutely no evidence for this creator. So at best he’s just a theory. You’re at perfect liberty to believe in your theory of course, but you’re not at liberty to create rules for all of us based on what you believe this theoretical God believes. If he really exists and wants me to follow these rules, let him reveal himself and explain them to me himself. Because his human glove puppets are doing a really bad job…

    • Etienne,

      It is clear that you have made no serious study of the reliability of NT manuscripts. There are well over 5,500 manuscripts of the NT in Greek, with a further 19,000 in Syriac, Coptic, Latin and Aramaic. If you think that’s less than impressive let’s compare it with other ancient histories:

      Herodotus = 8 MS copies
      Thucydides = 8 MS copies
      Livy = 20 MS copies
      Tacitus = 20 MS copies
      Caesar = 10 copies

      The earliest copies of the NT were written within 100 years of the original. Again if you think that’s less than impressive we can compare it with our five ancient writers all ready mentioned:

      Herodotus = 900 years after the original
      Thucydides = 900 years after the original
      Livy = ? years after the original
      Tacitus = 1100 years after the original
      Caesar = 900 years after the original

      If you are going to dismiss the NT writings as not being historically reliable, then all the histories listed above must be dismissed with far more vigour!

      By the way your claim that Paul’s account of the 500 could not be corroborated “even at the time” is nonsense. Paul states unequivocally, that Jesus appeared to more that 500 brothers and sisters “…most of whom are still alive …”. He doesn’t mention Nobby (probably because Nobby was not numbered among the 500), but he does mention the 12 and he does mention Cephas. And no doubt, had you been around at the time Etienne, he would have given you the names of the 500 had you bothered to ask.

  6. First, you haven’t explained your selective insistence on deductive reasoning when the inductive method is perfectly acceptable and scentific. You simply gloss over the ‘scientific’ fundiing of extraterrestrial life research, which is based on empty speculation, while singling out the lack of deductive proof of the resurrection.

    On what consistent basis, do you exonerate such indulgent speculation about ET among the scientific elite? Why such silence over the belief of science’s great minds, like Hawking, in the existence of extraterrestrial intelligence?

    Provide a deductive evidence-based approach to this aspect of ‘science’ so wonderfully espoused and encouraged by high-profile atheists.

    Secondly, you don’t appear to understand how historical and legal evidence works. You might as well say, ‘believe if you want that Tim McVeigh was guilty of the Oklahoma bombing. He’s only proven to have rented the van, but most of the evidence was only circumstantial. No-one was able to place him at the scene of the crime and the defence established serious doubts about cross-contamination in the FBI crime lab and an uninvestigated second suspect’.

    In the real world, ‘we receive the witness of men’ applying evidence that we rely upon for that may be circumstantial. McVeigh was executed upon such evidence, while you must be full of conjectural conspiracy theories.

    If, in ancient writings of battle, an ancient general related that 5000 of his troops were involved eye-witnesses to the action, historians wouldn’t require testimonies from each one. There is circumstantial evidence of the Jesus movement that you have chosen to ignore.

    Also, instead of producing deductive proof of what you claim ‘most scholars believe’ (sic), you simply assert those favourable to your cause as authoritative. So again, who are those you claim represent the majority of scholarship on this subject and what is their deductive proof? Please don’t resort to induction because you’ve closed thst door. You do know that I will subject your response (if any) to the same deductive scrutiny that you think you can level at Christian belief, don’t you?

    Perhaps, if you could explain your insistence on deductive proof (when science uses induction), your silence over speculation as the basis for wasteful ‘scientific’ search for extraterrestrial intelligence and your distaste for historical methods of weighing testimony, then it would be worth engaging with your other criticisms.

    As I indicated earlier, you’re just cherry-picking only those techniques of the scientific method, reasoning and historical analysis that serve your cause.

  7. I say, Mr Shepherd, you’ve outdone yourself! How much more wide-ranging can your red herrings get? From ET to the Oklahoma bombing to Stephen Hawking via Philosophy 101. And you accuse me of cherry picking?

    In any case, none of these things are under discussion here. What we’re talking about is an ancient Middle Eastern death cult transformed into a state religion by a wily emperor looking for an efficient way to control his diverse and rebellious populace. Handed down and refined by several more despots and then left in the guardianship of a Church modeled along the lines of an imperial bureaucracy, it grandly claims it can satisfy all of my deepest longings. But can it?

    When it comes to the fulfillment of longings, I certainly recognize a desire within myself for my longings to be fulfilled. But I do not believe Christianity can make that happen. Through a combination of good luck and striving I’ve managed to fulfill a few longings under my own steam. I have a loving and stable relationship with my partner. I have good friends and an interesting life in a beautiful city that I enjoy immensely. I’m in good health and good spirits. But I’ve been less successful on the professional front, with many ups and downs in my career and a current job that, while it pays the bills, doesn’t exactly inspire me. My life is the same mixture of fulfilled and unfulfilled longings that everyone, from Richard Dawkins to the Pope himself, is saddled with. I wonder then, what difference could Christ actually make in my life?

    Would he give me an even more fulfilled and stable intimate relationship, or at least validate the one I already have? Given that he says I can only be with a woman and that I’m not attracted to women, I don’t believe he could. At best, I’d lose what I have now and end up alone and celibate. So where’s the fulfillment there?

    Would he give me more and better friends than I currently have? Given that I’m already broadly happy with my social circle and the people and relationships within it, I wonder where all this fulfillment is going to come from. Should I be joining a happy clappy Christian club and marveling at how much more fulfilling friendships can be when we throw phrases like “hey, you’re my brother in Christ” or “witness my testimony in the Lord, beloved sister” at each other? How do superficial brotherhood and a stylized and fake vocabulary improve any kind of human relationship? At best, I’d exchange one set of friends for another. So where’s the fulfillment there?

    How about my geographical location? If I start to believe in Christ, will I suddenly find myself moving to an even more beautiful, exciting and historic city than the one I already live in? Considering where I do live, I’m not quite sure where that could be. What’s better than Paris? Rome? Venice? Stultifying museums both. New York? A drug-soaked ant heap. London? Would I be better off swapping elegantly carved stone buildings for squat, undecorated brick, and quenelles aux écrevisses for bacon butties? No, I don’t think I would be. I think I’d be significantly worse off, in fact. So when it comes to where I live, how can Christ fulfill any longing in me that hasn’t already been fulfilled without him?

    How about my health? Will believing in God make me live to 120 in perfect health and spirits? Looking at other Christians, that doesn’t seem to be the case. Of course they claim it will give me eternal life, but what on earth do I want with that? Eternity spent feeding the ego of God sounds like more of a punishment than a reward to me. I’ve never understood the desire for immortality, especially not on Christian terms. Give me a reasonably long life packed with human experience, followed by eternal oblivion, and I’ll be happy. Actually no, I won’t be. I won’t exist, so happiness and every other emotion will have died with me. But the prospect of the life I’ll have before I die makes me happy now, which is what counts. Faced with a choice between a lifetime of reasonable happiness followed by nothing, and a lifetime of miserable celibacy followed by eternal drugged-up servitude, and I know what my choice will be. It certainly won’t involve Christ.

    Which really only leaves my career as a possible field of action for God to work his miracles, doesn’t it? But will becoming a Christian suddenly propel me into a well-paid and fulfilling job that will satisfy my deepest longings for professional success and recognition? Looking at other Christians, I certainly don’t see any evidence of this. In fact the Christians I do know are just as likely to be trapped in boring, unfulfilling, underpaid work as anyone else. Christ has little to offer the prospective job hunter apart from a useful CV bullet point if he wants to work at Chick-fil-A, or World Vision, or a bleak little hotel in Cornwall where gay is verboten. None of these employment prospects sounds particularly thrilling to me. So when it comes to my deepest professional longings, where is all of this fulfillment in Christ?

    Let’s face it, from a fulfillment point of view, Christ fails on all fronts. He can’t fulfill my longings for an intimate relationship. I suppose he could find me better friends than the ones I have at the moment, but I happen to love my friends, so I’d rather not replace them thanks very much. In terms of my physical situation, I’m already living where I want to live and I already enjoy excellent health and a very reasonable life expectancy. He can certainly trump this with the promise of eternal life, but this is where he beats himself at his own game, because the prospect of eternity as his blissed-up slave is the single most repulsive part of his entire pitch. If you add career prospects that are no better than they are in my current state of unbelief, why do you think I would want to buy what he’s trying to sell? How could any of it fulfill any of my deepest longings?

    Of course I’m sure that Mr Shepherd will come back with more accusations of cherry picking. I’ll also be accused of refusing to deal with the whiffy red herrings he likes to strew across the paths of anyone who disagrees with him. But they’re his red herrings, not mine. If he really believes that all Atheists have an evil agenda to waste his holy Christian tax money on devilish SETI programs, then I don’t think we can have a sensible conversation. Although I have to admit, it’s dashed inconvenient to be unmasked like that. I mean, now the cat’s out of the bag, what am I going to do with that large radio-telescope the evil guvvermint just installed on my evil roof terrace? Use the dish as a birdbath? Or a planter? Or a chalice for libations to Baal? Ooops, there I go again, giving my evil agenda away …


  8. Etienne,

    Forget your use of indignant bluster and rhetoric.

    1. On what consistent basis, do you exonerate such indulgent speculation about extra-terrestrials among the scientific elite? Provide a deductive evidence-based approach to this aspect of ‘science’ so wonderfully espoused and encouraged by high-profile atheists.

    2. Who are those you claim represent the majority of scholarship on this subject (authorship of the gospels) and what is their deductive proof?

    3. Perhaps, if you could explain your insistence on deductive proof (when science uses induction)?

    The questions are simple enough to answer.

  9. Gents, I haven’t read all in detail, but I get the impression this exchange isn’t going anywhere.

    I wonder if you could both please keep things short, to the point and respectful. It’s worth continuing if there is mutual listening and engagement…but if not…?

    • Ian,

      The brevity advice is well taken, although the collective lethargy in responding to such objections is almost culpable. By comparison, ordinand education trends will attract no end of nostalgic clerical recollections and comments.

      The three brief questions above deserve three brief answers.

  10. David Shepherd’s “three brief questions” deserve no response at all. They have no relevance to the subject under discussion and are basically just ad hominem attacks. If you can’t refute the objectors objections, the next best thing is to undermine his credibility, isn’t it?

    The motivation behind the first question is to discredit me and my position by setting up the false proposition that all Atheists believe in ET, so we must crazy.

    The second question is designed to undermine my honesty by suggesting that I’m making things up or deliberately distorting the consensus of views on the probable dates and origins of the Gospel accounts.

    The third question is impossible to answer briefly. The clear aim is to goad me into getting bogged down in detail, thereby contravening the Rt. Hon. Doctor Paul’s command to keep it short and to the point. And the more detailed my explanation, the easier it is for soundbite and sloganny Christians to dismiss me as a ranting Atheist.

    Well, I ain’t gonna bite. To couch things in a register you might understand given your aggressive demeanor Mr Shepherd, either address my answers to the question “How does Jesus fulfill our longings?”, or shut it and let someone else have a go. If they can. Or if they want to.

    I’m not holding my breath though. The only response I ever get is the suggestion that my objections to Christianity mean I’m crazy, or have an ax to grind, or I’m an agent of Satan, or a troll, or a troublemaker … that’s the reality of Christian apologetics as they exist today: attack and vilify the non-believer and his objections won’t infect any of the faithful. It’s a siege mentality. You see it in all churches and all Internet sites like this one. It’s like watching the passengers on the Titanic all rush to their cabins, grab their hairdryers, run up on deck and point them at the iceberg. Revenge is sweet as it melts into the North Atlantic. Won’t stop the ship from sinking though.

    • I’d *respectfully* submit that there is an objective definition of what constitutes an ad hominem, i.e. an assertion about a flaw of the person, rather than the argument.

      Here are a few choice flaws, not of the argument, but of the person identified by Etienne:
      1. ‘Christians like you present no proof at all, just assertions and threats’. (instead of taking on each assertion or threat in the debate)
      2. ‘Your God is a creation that can only be mediated by your conscious mind. You base your fantasy on what you’ve read in a book, but you only read that book because you grew up where you did.’ (again, instead of applying the same inductive reasoning that modern historians apply to other evidence)
      3. ‘The phantom you talk about is the idealized reflection of yourself seen in some kind of perfecting looking glass.’

      In contrast, the *argument* that my esteemed and respected debating opponent puts forth treats as unacceptable is the idea that atheism is selective in accepting inductive reasoning when it suits the cause. Obviously, in respect of God, it doesn’t.

      The example of extra-terrestrial intelligence highlighted this inconsistency.

      ‘The second question is designed to undermine my honesty’ – This evades responsibility for an answer. ‘Are you questioning my integrity’ is a fallacious appeal to moral authority. Asking a debater to cite his sources doesn’t undermine their honesty. It’s the lack of forthcoming answers that does that.

      So, by comparison with quotes 1 to 3 above, I’m surprised that Etienne describes my demeanour is described as aggressive. I just consider it to be as confrontation-ready as his.

      In respect of longings, Jesus was quite distinguish the worldly longings of those who were focused on earthly comfort and advancement:

      “Very truly I tell you, you are looking for me, not because you saw the signs I performed but because you ate the loaves and had your fill. Do not work for food that spoils, but for food that endures to eternal life, which the Son of Man will give you. For on him God the Father has placed his seal of approval.” (John 6:26)

      It was soon after that saying that many deserted his following.

  11. So, in terms of an effective strategy for saving the diocese or church, there needs to be a metanoia about the historic mission of the Church and what sort of personal transformation is required of those whom God sends in the name of His precious Son.

    The crux of this issue is the heresy that the gospel is non-confrontational and that it’s goal is mere church participation with the priestly assurance of eternal reward for good works.

    Of course, many an Anglican minister would object to this assertion by reminding that our churches (or their Articles of Faith) teach that we are saved by God’s grace. In practice, however, churches rely upon ever subtler forms of ‘good works’ community engagement.

    These projects become a dance of slow persuasion, hoping that through an enjoyable social activity, those attending might eventually pitch up at church one Sunday and enjoy the service and company enough to return. And that’s what passes for part of the church growth formula.

    The strategy is naive in that it views assimilation, rather than challenge as a more effective basis for genuine Christian transformation.

    In contrast, Christ demanded metanoia by illustrating the dangers of complacency.

    Of course, the miracles heralded the dawn of a new era of divine restoration and compassion with crowds flocking Him because of them. Nevertheless, his hearers left his sermons realising that their unchecked passion, anger, greed, self-promotion, dithering and deferral of moral decisions would land them in as much eternal ‘hot water’ as the overtly promiscuous, adulterous, murderous and idolatrous.

    It meant that consciences were awakened to a new realisation of their absolute spiritual impoverishment (‘repentance towards God): that God was not ‘altogether such an one as thyself’; that the eternal Judge of all mankind wouldn’t turn a blind eye to the subtler expressions of human selfishness.

    Contrary to this approach, we are now quick to treat any form of involvement in a commendable public charity effort or church initiative as evidence of discipleship and salvation.

    I wonder how God compares this low bar of mere participation in church-run secular activities with the rigours of conversion undergone by apostles, like St. Paul, St. Peter? How do we square no more than a church trying to be the heart of any kind of social activity to the changes wrought among the many ritual-obsessed Jews and idolatrous Gentiles who abandoned their illusions of moral security for genuine daily reliance upon the teachings of Jesus Christ? Hmm…


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