What is man? If we are but the accidental byproduct of an evolutionary process that has no divine hand behind it, then in reality we are nothing. So what if we can gaze at the heavens through a telescope and see the wonders of all that is out there? If anything, such discoveries should humble us and make us realize how insignificant we are compared to the universe. What is the 70 or so years that we are on earth, or even a thousand years, compared to the age of the earth itself?
As a colleague of mine who is both a biologist and an atheist put it, we will be here for a little while, and then some other organism will replace us—maybe a rat, maybe a cockroach. In his words, it makes no difference! If there was no Creator, no Designer of the universe, no Maker with an express purpose in mind when man came into being, then what happens to us is ultimately of no consequence. Responding to those in his day who claimed that there was no resurrection of the dead, no such thing as eternal life, the Apostle Paul stated in his first letter to the Corinthians, “If the dead are not raised, ‘Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.'” (1 Corinthians 15:32)
When I studied Organic Chemistry as a freshman at Yale, my professor hinted that he believed in a Creator, to judge from his lectures and, particularly, from his biblical allusions. When friends took the same course several years later under a different professor, their teacher told the class an allegorical story. If you walked through a large desert and saw only sand for miles upon miles but then, after a long period of time, came across a beautiful watch lying on the ground, what would you assume? Students made various responses, none of which satisfied the professor, so he gave his own answer. He stated that you would immediately assume that someone had made that watch, especially since, unlike the sand, it was intricately designed. He then declared that the universe is infinitely more complex than the finest watch—but nevertheless claimed that it has no designer! He concluded that it is only the accidental result of a process with no higher intelligence behind it. Some of his students were puzzled to say the least, which is why I heard about the incident.
Maria Von Trap
If we were not created, then our lives are but a vapor which quickly passes away, never to exist again. You might as well get all you can while you can, because this is the only chance you’ll get. But, if we were created, then the chief object of life is not money or success, but to get to know the One who made us and why. For those of you who have seen The Sound of Music, either the movie or the play, I quote from Maria Von Trapp, “The most important thing in life is to find out what is the will of God and then go and do it.” If God is not a figment of our imagination, but instead we are the fruit of His divine creativity, then we dare not play games regarding who He is. We do well to go directly to the Source and ask the Lord Himself to show us who He is—especially since it is He who will one day judge us, not we who will judge Him. As 1 Samuel, chapter 2, verse 3 states, “Do not keep talking so proudly or let your mouth speak with such arrogance, for the LORD is a God who knows, and by him deeds are weighed.” Again, from Galatians 6, “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction,” but “the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.”
If I thought that God was imaginary, I would not be standing here before you today. When as a child I thought that religion was nothing more than a collection of human attempts to figure out the Divine Nature, I was not much interested. There were better things to do! If all God was depended on who people thought He was, kind of like picking your favorite flavor of ice cream, I had little time for religion. If Christ did not rise from the dead, then He was just one more religious historical figure in a whole cast of characters, some noble, some less so, who have claimed to reveal the true nature of God to man. All of these can be included under the heading, “Man’s Best Attempts to Climb the Mountain to Find God.” But if Christ did rise from the dead and lives today, then, as a dear friend stated recently, He was not man trying to ascend the mountain of God, but God come down from the mountain to become a man. As Isaiah prophesied regarding the Messiah who was to come, He was and is “Emanuel,” or “God with us.” Or as Jesus’ disciple, John, testified, “He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive Him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become the children of God.” (John 1:10-12)
Despite all my personal distaste for religion, God in His mercy dealt with me through a variety of means. I was not an easy nut to crack. I was proud, I thought I knew more than other people, especially those strange born-again Christians who had the impertinence to claim that they actually knew God personally. My father was a preacher and it was okay that my parents made such claims, they were my parents, and parents are different–at least in the eyes of their kids. As a minister’s son, however, I was obligated to go to church on a regular basis. I could shirk off most of what I heard, with all due respect for my father. But you know what got me? There was a song we often sang on Sunday mornings called, “O God, Our Help in Ages Past,” written by Isaac Watts more than two hundred years ago. Some of its verses read:
To this day, I don’t fully understand why that song affected me so greatly. Every time it was sung from about the time I was 12 to when I was 14, I trembled in my boots at the prospect of how short my life was going to be. That sense was powerfully combined with a pervading conviction that, one day, I was going to have to stand before an eternal God to give account for everything I had done in my short life, especially those things that I thought were secret. As the writer to the Hebrews declared, “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.” (Hebrews 10:31)
I fought as long as I could, but my curiosity was aroused enough to cause me to begin to read the Bible for myself. I read it from cover to cover over a two-year period until, at last, I was persuaded that, either it was an incredibly crafted piece of fiction, or there really was a God—and I did not yet begin to know what it was to know Him. Wanting to know the truth, at the age of fourteen in a converted barn in New Hampshire, I prayed something I had never prayed before. I told the Lord that I was a sinner and asked that I might know whether or not Jesus Christ really did die on the cross for my sins.
Again, I cannot fully describe what happened in that room. There was no preacher present, nor any other person that I can remember. Someone else may have been there, but all that I was aware of was an overwhelming sense of the presence of God, of my own sinfulness, and of the love and forgiveness of Christ. At the very moment that I was most deeply conscious of the evil of my own heart and how much I deserved hell, I also knew that Christ had taken away my guilt and lovingly accepted me into a personal relationship with Himself. Gone was the question of who God was, replaced with the question, how could I best get to know and serve Him? Twenty years later, I wrote a hymn describing that experience as best as I could:
You know something? Sin is really not as much fun as it is cracked up to be! “Stolen water is sweet” for only a little while, and then it turns bitter inside you, when the consequences of sexual immorality catch up with you—as eventually they will! Alcohol may be a lark when you are young, but it is a tyrant when you are older. Did you hear about the MIT student who died this week of an alcohol overdose? During my junior year, the dean of my college, when he could stand it no more, published a circular about the ten most stupid acts that students did that year and all of them were alcohol-related. One young man drank himself to death, another fell 45 feet off of a scaffold and broke his back because he tried to climb it while intoxicated. Still another impaled himself on one of Yale’s tall iron gates trying to climb it in an impaired state.
The Scriptures declare in the Book of Proverbs, “Wine is a mocker and beer a brawler; whoever is led astray by them is not wise.” (Proverbs 20:1) I remember only too well sitting at a table in the Calhoun College dining room on Saturday mornings, listening to the otherwise intelligent young men around me boasting about how blasted they got the night before. I can’t say that I understood what there was to boast about! In an earlier year, when my own brother was a sophomore, he was at a party. Someone who thought it was a joke gave him an alcoholic drink so heavily laced with speed that my brother, not realizing what he was drinking, had to be rushed to Yale-New Haven Hospital. My parents got to watch their son die slowly over a thirteen-year period from the long-term consequences of a drug-alcohol interaction. The blond-haired, blue-eyed athlete who, among other things, got an 800 on the Physics achievement test was never fully in his right mind again.
As Peter declared, “the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.” He hunts for “the precious life” to destroy it. (Proverbs 6) “Do not be deceived: God cannot be mocked. A man reaps what he sows. The one who sows to please his sinful nature, from that nature will reap destruction,” but “the one who sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life.” The apostle Paul also wrote, “Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God.” But Paul could also write of some of the believers in the Corinthian church, “And that is what some of you were.” Note the use of the past tense here! “But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ and by the Spirit of our God.”
Jesus is the one of whom Isaiah spoke when he declared: “Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows, yet we considered him stricken by God, smitten by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him.” We sinned, but Christ took the consequences of our sin upon himself, dying an ignominious death upon a Roman cross: “Behold the lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.”
Finally, to read another passage from the Gospel of John,
I thank God that you don’t have to take my word for it, or the word of others here today, regarding who Jesus is. You can ask Him yourself, as millions of people have. If He is dead as some have claimed, you have nothing to fear by asking—He won’t be able to answer you. But He is not dead, He is alive, and He will answer you Himself! You will know Him in a direct, personal way—and you will know that you know Him. The only real question is whether you want to know the truth, because with knowing the truth comes responsibility. What will you do with Jesus? He is the one who said of Himself, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” He is also the one who said, “Here I am! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, I will come in and eat with him, and he with me.”
Copyright ©1997 Christopher N. White
(Message given at St. Paul’s Chapel, Columbia University, 10/3/1997)