faith-doubt-e1267639532859 Sermon Faith Doubt III

Reasons to Believe in God and Christ

Pastor John Gibson preached this sermon April 10, 2016 on John 21:1-19.

Louie Zamperini

Engine number three sputtered out and then engine four. The B-24 Liberator Bomber “Green Hornet” started careening toward the blue-green Pacific Ocean. Louie knew it was all over. The plane slammed into the water, breaking up and sinking all in one action. Miraculously, Louie was still alive, swimming to the surface through gasoline, oil and blood. After swimming over to the lone life raft, he paddled to Phil Phillips, the pilot, and Mac McNamara, the tail gunner, the only other survivors of the 11 man crew.

The men drifted without food and water, other than what they could catch from the sea and rain, for 47 days across 2,000 miles of ocean, surviving a Japanese strafing and a storm. Louie and Phil weighed sixty some pounds when they were captured by the Japanese. Mac died at sea.

Despite being brutally and incessantly tortured during his more than one year in Japanese concentration camps, Louie survived and returned to the United States, where he met and married Cynthia Applewhite. The two soon had their first child a girl Cissy. While they were starting their new life, the demons of his captivity haunted Louie. He constantly had nightmares of his tormenters trying to strangle them. One night in his sleep he strangled his wife, thinking she was Matsuhiro Watanabe, his worst torturer. Louie got drunk every night to obliterate the horrors of his imprisonment.

Louie had always gotten even. His Italian family had moved from New York to Torrance, California, when he was two. Other children beat him because he could not speak English. After Louie’s father taught him to box, he quickly learned to beat up others, which he relished. Louie started smoking when he was five, drinking at age 8 and stealing anything he could from his neighbors and local businesses. His older brother Pete got him on the track team to get him out of trouble. Louie came in last in his first race, exhausted, out of shape from drinking and smoking. Louie dedicated himself though to running, setting High School records and running in the 1936 Olympics. Unable to outrun his demons or get even with his former guards, Louie’s young marriage was on the rocks until his wife went to a Billy Graham crusade and became a follower of Jesus Christ.

In 1949, she and her friends convinced Louie to go to a Graham crusade. While listening to Billy Graham, he remembered the countless prayers he said at sea and in the concentration camps. Louie recommitted his life to Christ. In that moment, he forgave all his captors even Matsuhiro Watanabe and never had another nightmare. Louie eventually became an evangelist for Christ. He went to Japan personally forgiving many of his torturers, some of whom became Christians.

Angelina Jolie, produced and directed the 2014 movie Unbroken, based on the 2010 New York Times bestseller about Louie’s life. Cindy and I watched the movie a couple of months ago, which is how I learned about Louie Zamperini.  Jolie, who was an atheist before the film, became a believer in God through Louie. She showed him the movie on her laptop in his hospital room shortly before he passed away at age 97.

Reasons to Believe in God

Today we’re continuing our sermon series on Faith and Doubt. Over the last two weeks we have talked about how doubt can deepen our faith and how to deal with doubt. This week we will look at reasons to believe in God and Jesus Christ in a skeptical age.

This topic is particularly important because we live in a time of increasing doubt. While most Americans believe in God, those numbers are decreasing. A 2015 study found that one in ten Americans does not believe, double from one in 2007. Only 63% are absolutely certain God exists; down from 71%. In recent years, Christopher Hitchens, Richard Dawkins and other so-called New Atheists have commanded headlines even though disbelief in God is hardly new. Psalm 141:1 says, “The fool says in his heart, ‘There is no God.’”

It is important to say at the start that it is impossible to prove the existence of God or that Jesus is the Son of God. God is beyond space and time. By definition, therefore, we cannot prove or for that matter disprove God’s existence. My hope here is simply to show that there are good reasons to believe.

The first reason comes from the idea of the Big Bang. The philosopher William Lane Craig says that since everything that exists has a cause and that the universe began to exist, it has a cause. Some argue that the universe arose spontaneously from a multiverse. However, this assumes an impossible infinite regression of material causes.

Since the Big Bang created not only matter but also space and time, the first cause must be immaterial, non-spatial, timeless, changeless, and enormously powerful. The first cause would also be intelligent since the universe is fine-tuned to support life. A slight change here and there in the universal physical constants and life as we know it would not exist. Since this cause is uncaused, it further indicates a deliberate choice. All of these characteristics accord with what we call God. Genesis puts it more poetically saying, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth” (1:1).

The second reason is moral. Again according to William Lane Craig, if God does not exist, objective moral values do not exist. A society might, for example, permit a man to enslave, beat and rape a woman. But such treatment of another human is objectively wrong. If it is true that such treatment is objectively wrong, then God exists. Jesus says, “Love your neighbor as yourself.”

Reasons to Believe in Christ

If belief in God is reasonable, we might then ask whether it is reasonable also to believe in Jesus. We must first consider why God needed to become human. The answer is that the God needed to communicate with us in a way we could understand. The Bible shows that God has used many methods to speak to humanity. God spoke through a burning bush to Moses. God called a people, Israel. God sent prophets. Finally, the infinite God became a finite human being, still divine but also human like us.

The claim that Jesus is human and divine is, of course, extraordinary. The fact that Jesus lived and died on a cross is accepted by almost all everyone. His divinity though is doubted by many. The Bible shows that Jesus’ followers quickly believed after his death that he was God. The earliest writings that we have come from the apostle Paul, who wrote approximately 20 years after Jesus’ crucifixion. Paul repeatedly applied Old Testament passages about God to Jesus.

Mark, the earliest Gospel, written about 20 years after Paul’s letters, depicts a man who is a miracle worker, a teacher, a prophet, all of which could be found in the Ancient World. Jesus though uniquely dies a shameful death on a cross and then is raised from the dead. The resurrection affirms the divinity of Christ.

Some argue, however, that the resurrection was a hoax, that the disciples stole Jesus’ corpse. Roman and Jewish authorities had no reason, of course, to remove the body. When we look at the evidence, it appears unlikely that the disciples carried out such a hoax. The Gospels all show them hiding, afraid for their lives, after the crucifixion. Jesus, after all, had been executed for sedition. Their lives were at great risk. After the resurrection, they publicly proclaim Christ in the Temple. The tradition tells us that all but one of the Twelve were martyred for their faith. It is hard to believe that so many would give their lives to continue a hoax.

Perhaps, however, the disciples suffered from a mass hallucination of the risen Christ. Again, this appears unlikely given the evidence. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, again, one of our earliest records, “(Jesus) appeared to (Peter), then to the twelve. Then he appeared to more than five hundred brothers and sisters at one time, most of whom are still alive, though some have died. Then he appeared to James, then to all the apostles. Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me.” Today’s Gospel says that this is the third time Jesus appeared to the disciples.

Psychologists tell us that individuals rather than groups experience hallucinations. Even if there were somehow a mass hallucination or group psychosis, there would have had to have been multiple mass hallucinations, one after another. Even more telling is that hallucinations do not change people’s lives as happened with Jesus’ followers. The disciples had an amazingly powerful, life-transforming experience, which lends credence to the claim that the risen Christ appeared to them.

Perhaps more powerful than these reasons of the head are the reasons of the heart to believe in Christ. Louie Zamperini said that he knew all his life in his head that Jesus was the Son of God but he did not know it in his heart until he attended that Billy Graham rally in 1949. It was then that his life turned around.

When I was in seminary, I took Clinical Pastoral Education at UNC Hospitals. An elderly patient told me that she had encountered the risen Christ. She said in that moment God nailed her to the floor. She had had a drinking problem, but after her encounter, she stopped.

Countless people’s lives have been transformed by God in and through Jesus Christ. This is not to say that we followers of Christ have all the answers or have achieved perfection. We will talk more about that next week when we conclude this series. But it is to say that in a way which goes beyond our full understanding we have encountered the source of all life, the judge of all things, the lover of all souls, the one who through Jesus Christ changes our lives and the lives of countless others. Have you met him? Have you committed your life to Jesus?