Thursday, May 03, 2018


This is a sequel to my previous post:

Given popular interest in some of these FAQs:

I decided to give some of my own answers. I've been selective. Some of the Got Questions are unimportant while others are important, but I've discussed them in detail before, and I don't feel the need to recycle my answers. 

As a general point, we can think of lots of questions the Bible doesn't answer. Some of these questions are unanswerable, although we can speculate. Some conjectures are more reasonable than others.

1. Why are there so many Bible translations?

No one reason:

i) Given hundreds of human languages, there's a need for hundreds of Bible translations.

ii) Because the English-speaking world is a center of Biblical scholarship, it's overrepresented in Bible translations.

iii) Language changes, Greek and Hebrew manuscript evidence improves, while our understanding of biblical Greek and Hebrew improves.

iv) Some versions reflect a sectarian or ideological agenda, viz. Catholic Bibles, unisex Bibles. 

v) The multiplicity of translations is to some extent a business decision to saturate different market niches. 

2. Should we worship on Saturday or Sunday?

There's no divine obligation to meet for worship on any particular day. At best, it's a matter of symbolism. If you were raised in Judaism, then Sunday worship would mark a significant change, but for most worshipers, the difference is a theological abstraction. 

3. Do we have guardian angels?

i) There's no biblical warrant for believing that every Christian has a guardian angel. If a guardian angel is assigned to every Christian, then they sure play hooky a lot, given all the terrible things that befall many Christians. There needs to be a celestial M.P. for truant guardian angels! 

ii) Since angels are ordinarily invisible, we wouldn't necessarily know when they intervene.

iii) Although Christians don't have guardian angels, some Christians experience angelic apparitions, but that's unusual and unpredictable. 

4. Can Satan read our minds?

We don't know much about his abilities. He's a creature with a finite mind. It's antecedently unlikely that he can keep track of what 7 billion humans are thinking. For that matter, we don't know how many demons there are. Perhaps they're spread pretty thin and have to prioritize.

Presumably, angels communicate telepathically, and so they may be able to eavesdrop on what we're thinking. That said, human thought takes different forms. Sometimes there's interior monologue or imagery. But we can reason without simulating words or images, so there may be nothing for a telepathic agent to monitor in such cases. 

Perhaps it's less about reading minds than knowing human nature, and the predicable ways in which humans normally react. 

5. Can Christians be demon possessed?

i) One issue is semantic. Paradigm cases in the NT show a very radical condition. But is possession always that dramatic? Can there be a distinction between temporary and permanent possession? Can a demon lay low, but surface when he wants to? Can a demon control a person in more subtle ways? Are there asymptomatic demoniacs, who only manifest possession on occasion? Would it not be a strategic advantage for some demoniacs to pass as normal people–the better to infiltrate organizations? 

ii) There's some ostensible evidence that demons can jump from one person to another. What one Christian philosopher dubs "demonic transference". Cf. Phillip Wiebe, "Deliverance and Exorcism in Philosophical Perspective," W. Kay & R. Parry, eds. Exorcism & Deliverance: Multidisciplinary Studies (Paternoster 2011), chap. 8. 

iii) Another issue is methodological. Do we answer the question based on armchair theological assumptions or from experience? Missionaries and Christians report cases of Christian possession. Do we rule that out a priori or make allowance for a empirical evidence? Cf. Kurt Koch, Occult Bondage and Deliverance (Kregel, 1970), 67-71; Charles H. Kraft, “Dealing with the Demonization,” Behind Enemy Lines (Ann Arbor, MI: Vine, 1994), 79-120; Merrill Unger, What Demons Can Do to Saints (Moody, rev. ed., 1991), 141-67.

iv) A theological objection to Christian possession is that evil spirits and the Holy Spirit can't coexist in the same person. Perhaps. However, that's vague. God, Satan, and demons coexist. Since these are discarnate spirits, they don't occupy the same space. If a Christian were to backslide and do things that open himself up to the dark side, could he be possessed? There's also the question of whether converts with a family history of occult activity have a residual backdoor. 

v) The upshot is that I don't have an answer. I have no firm position. I make allowance for the possibility that the dark side can mess with a Christian's mind. 

6. Is there an argument for the existence of God?

There are many arguments for God. For instance:

Edward Feser, Five Proofs for God's Existence (Ignatius 2017)

Jerry Walls & Trent Dougherty, eds. Two Dozen (or so) Arguments For God (Oxford 2018)

W. L. Craig & J. P. Moreland, eds. The Blackwell Companion to Natural Theology (Wiley-Blackwell 2012)

Those are philosophical. Another line of evidence is the argument from miracles. For instance:

Rex Gardner, Healing Miracles: A Doctor Investigates (Darton,Longman & Todd Ltd. 1986)

Craig Keener, Miracles: The Credibility of the New Testament Accounts (Baker 2011)

Lee Strobel, The Case for Miracles (Zondervan 2018)

Tim Stafford, Miracles: A Journalistic Look at Modern-Day Experiences of God's Power (Bethany House 2012)

7. How can we recognize the voice of God?

i) Depends on what the question means. God can speak to someone in an audible voice or give them a sign. However, that's not something Christians should count on. That's very unpredictable, unusual, and not available on demand.  

ii) It's risky to ask for a sign because that primes one to interpret something ambiguous or coincidental as a sign from God. Signs, if and when they happen, may be less cryptic if they happen unexpectedly. There are, of course, some very specific and naturally improbable answers to prayer. 

iii) If the question means we might miss some subtle cue, there's no reason to suppose that if God wants to communicate with us directly, he will speak in vague, coded language that's open to multiple conflicting interpretations. That's counterproductive. 
8. How can I know God's will?

i) The primary source is biblical revelation.

ii) Sometimes we can't know God's will. Sometimes decision-making is simply a matter of making logical choices given the available evidence. A cost/benefit analysis.  

iii) It's possible to do God's will without knowing his will in advance. God can guide people providentially by orchestrating circumstances that create or impede opportunities.. Or through subliminal prompting–by planting an idea or suggestion in their mind, which they act on. 

9. How can I overcome sin in my Christian life?

In a sense, you can't overcome sin in this life. Sin is a lifelong struggle. You repent. Try to learn from experience. 

10. How can I get my prayers answered by God?

i) There's no surefire way to get your prayers answered by God. It's not mechanical or formulaic. Every Christian will experience unanswered prayer. Many or most of our prayers may go unanswered (in the sense that we didn't get what we prayed for). 

ii) There can be impediments to prayer. Defiant sin. Worldly prayers. Foolish prayers. Shortsighted prayers. Prayers based on false theological expectations. 

iii) Some prayers go unanswered if the supplicant is praying to the wrong god (e.g. Hinduism, Islam) or the wrong person (e.g. the Virgin Mary). 

11. How can I know if something is a sin?

Basically, by what Scripture forbids, explicitly or implicitly. To be sure, some things forbidden in the OT are defunct under the new covenant. 

12. Are all sins equal to God?

All sins are not equally evil. The dividing line is to die in Christ or out of Christ. 

13. Will I be able to recognize my family members in Heaven?

The Bible doesn't say, although it's hard to imagine heaven if you couldn't recognized your sainted loved ones. That doesn't require a physical body. It can be like a vivid collective dream. The way you dream about your late relatives–although this is real rather than imaginary. They can have the same appearance they do in dreams. 

14. Are there different levels of Heaven?

If everyone in heaven is sinless, then there's no basis for compartmentalization. At least, not for that reason. Heaven is polyglot, with people born in different countries and centuries. Perhaps the saints tend to gravitate to people from their own time and place. If, on the other hand, they've been there for centuries or millennia, they've had time to widen their ambit.

15. Can people look down on us from heaven?

i) Heaven isn't literally a place up in the sky. 

ii) It's possible that God enables sainted loved ones to be cognizant of what's going on in our lives. That's not a revealed truth. However, the phenomenon of crisis apparitions indicates that sainted loved ones are sometimes aware of our situation, although that may be confined to emergency situations. 

16. How do I convert to Christianity?

i) By understanding and believing the Gospel. Here's how J. I. Packer summarizes the Christian Gospel:

First, God: the God whom Paul proclaimed to the Athenians in Acts 17, the God of Christian theism.

Second, humankind: made in God’s image but now totally unable to respond to God or do anything right by reason of sin in their moral and spiritual system. 

Third, the person and work of Christ: God incarnate, who by dying wrought atonement and who now lives to impart the blessing that flows form his work of atonement.

Fourth, repentance, that is, turning from sin to God, from self-will to Jesus Christ. 

And fifthly, new community: a new family, a new pattern of human togetherness which results from the unity of the Lord’s people in the Lord, henceforth to function under the one Father as a family and a fellowship.”

ii) But that may push the question back a step: How do you come to faith? Sometimes that's the result of reading evidence for the Christian faith. 

iii) Sometimes that's the result of immersing yourself in a Christian atmosphere. Here's how C. Everett Koop describes his conversion experience:

It was Erna Goulding, a valued friend and a nurse at Children's Hospital, who sensed that I was searching for spiritual meaning. One evening, as Betty and I left our apartment to attend the musical program that attracted many to the first Baptist Church in center city Philadelphia, Erna suggested we walk a block beyond the Baptist Church and go to the evening service of the Tenth Presbyterian Church. She thought I would appreciate the intellectual approach to Christianity offered by its minister, Donald Grey Barnhouse. But we did not take her suggestion.

The next Sunday, however, I finished grand rounds early, and found my feet taking me to the Tenth Presbyterian Church, just a few blocks north of the hospital. I entered the back door and quietly slipped up the balcony. I was just going to observe.  I liked what I saw, and I was fascinated by what I heard. I saw the congregation respond willingly and generously to social needs; this was no empty religion. I heard teaching from one of the most learned men I ever knew, a true scholar who also possessed a gift of illustrating the complexity - and simplicity - of Christian doctrine by remarkable and incisive stories and similes. I was interested enough to go back the next Sunday morning. And then just a few hours later I returned for the evening service. I did that each Sunday for two years, and except when I was out of town I never missed a morning or evening service. Since I was a busy surgeon, the only pediatric surgeon on the East Coast south of Boston, going two years without a compelling Sunday morning or evening emergency seemed to me almost miraculous.

After about seven months, I realized that I had become a participant and not just an observer; what made sense to that congregation made sense to me as well. And it was new to me. I wasn't just shifting gears from my parents' faith to one of my own.

It was not until I sat in that Philadelphia church balcony that I really understood the basics of the Christian gospel: that we all are sinners, unable to satisfy God's standard of righteousness and justice, no matter how hard we try. I learned that "sin" did not mean just the big bad things we do, or even the little bad things we do, but anything we do that falls short of the righteousness of God. I learned that the word the Bible often uses for "sin" was also applied to archery, and it meant to miss the mark. We all miss the mark of God's righteousness, no matter how hared we try. Like many other nominal Christians, I suppose I had been trying to live as correctly as I could, but like them, I knew in the depths of my heart that my nature, like everyone else's, was sinful, and my efforts to reform myself were to no avail. I knew that, like it or not, we are all immortal, and we must spend eternal life someplace when this life is over. Over those several months, sitting in the balcony at the Tenth Presbyterian Church, the preaching from the pulpit made it all clear: that the essence of Christianity was not what we did, but what Christ had done for us. I understood the meaning of the crucifixion, I understood the meaning of Christ's sacrifice, I understood the meaning of divine forgiveness. I realized that either my sins were on my shoulders, or they were on the shoulders of Jesus Christ. I saw how the atonement of Jesus Christ was necessary to reconcile us to God.

Most of all, I understood the love of God. Like many new Christians - and many old Christians - I found the most meaningful verse in the Bible to be John 3:16:

For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.

I was a believer.

17. What makes Christianity unique?

i) For one thing, it's true–unlike the alternatives.

ii) In Christian theology, salvation is ultimately not about what we do but what God does for us and in us. 

18. Is being slain in the Spirit biblical?

It's a phenomenon of crowd psychology. Contagious suggestibility. An audience that's conditioned to believe in that.  A speaker who knows how to manipulate a crowd. 

19. What does the Bible say about depression?

A lot of depressed Psalmists and prophets. Read the Psalter. Read Jeremiah. Read Lamentations. Read 2 Corinthians. 

20. What is the Christian view of psychics?

Most psychics are frauds. There's evidence that some people are telepathic. In some cases that may be due to possession. 

21. Should a Christian see a psychologist / psychiatrist?

i) Hard to give a uniform answer. Many practitioners have secular education. So they may give bad advice.

ii) Christian practitioners can suffer from a formulaic theology. Cookie-cutter therapies. 

iii) Due to commonalities in human nature and human experience, psychology, at its best, is able to discover general truths about human behavior. That can be useful. For instance, pointing out that a particular condition is a temporary phase that people in that situation or time of life typically go through.

iv) Some people are depressed because they have a depressing outlook on life. An understanding of Christian theology can cure that.

v) Some people are depressed because their situation is depressing. If they can change their situation, that may cure the depression. Having the perspective of a detached observer can be helpful. 

vi) But some people need medication to function. No amount of prayer or devotional reading will cure them. And depression puts them in a high-risk category for suicide. Psychiatrists can prescribe antidepressants. Sometimes that's a lifesaver.

vii) However, psychiatry is politicized. Take medicating rambunctious boys for ADHD or hormone therapy for gender dysphoria. We have an epidemic of overmedication for normal or natural conditions, some of which are temporary, and resolve themselves. 

22. How was the Bible put together?

Because different books of the Bible were written at different times, the Bible was compiled incrementally. Combining one collection with another collection. Combining smaller collections to form larger collections. 

23. What is the origin of the different races?

A natural adaptation to climatic variation. When the human race dispersed, living in different ecological zones triggered physical adjustments to better suit their environment. 

24. Why did God allow polygamy in the Bible?

Why does God allow any particular sin? 

25. Why are there two different accounts of Creation?

Because it's inefficient to try to say everything at once. Better to separate things out. Gen 1 is about the creation of the world in general, as well as the creation of life in general. Gen 2 fills that out and narrows the focus by detailing the creation of man, in preparation for Gen 3. 


  1. Good stuff, Steve.

    '24. Why did God allow polygamy in the Bible?

    Why does God allow any particular sin?'

    On the surface, this may seem a flippant answer. But it is a great response. The question is so common. It assumes that God contradicts Himself, that He is involved in inconsistency. That His divine laws are not worth the papyri on which they are written. Hays' answer crushes the assumption. Because God allows something does not ipso fact mean that He *endorses* it.

  2. Just to add:

    Psychologists and clinical psychologists are different. It's the clinical psychologists who can see patients. For example, I believe Jordan Peterson is a clinical psychologist. I don't know the details, but I think clinical psychologists have a limited formulary of drugs they can legally prescribe dependent on state laws.

    At the same time, psychologists and psychiatrists are different. Psychiatrists have gone to medical school and had medical training in residency. At least to my knowledge, I think they typically have a full or unrestricted formulary of (psychiatry relevant) drugs they can legally prescribe. In any case, they can prescribe a lot more medications than a clinical psychologist.

    In some cases, it might be good to see a clinical psychologist. In other cases, it might be better to see a psychiatrist. Just depends what's happening with the person.