In thinking of the Sovereignty of God at work in our world all the time, I was so intrigued by the story shared by Lennox in his other recent book ‘Can science explain everything?’. It was as if God physically stepped in and caused Lennox to be in the right place at the right time to witness to the two gentlemen. (I really thought twice whether this was sharing too much was in breach of copyright, but I have two copies of the book, one Kindle and one physical so hopefully it’s ok I’ll be buying copies of this book to give out as a witnessing tool into the future as well for atheists so I hope it’s ok ).
Conversation on a train
The main difficulty here is the concept of “religion”. I have tested this by asking many people what they think a religion is. The general consensus is that religion is a way of relating human beings to something beyond themselves, something transcendent, using teaching, rituals and ceremonies. A religion usually consists of rituals of initiation, a path to be followed on the basis of prescribed teaching, and an entry into the world to come based on merit gained on the path.
I vividly recall discussing this in a very unusual set of circumstances. I had been lecturing in a church in northern Hungary and was on my way by train via Budapest in order to catch a flight home from Vienna. I found my reserved seat in a second-class carriage and sat down. At once I began to feel uneasy about the seat—an experience I had never had before. I first thought that I was in the wrong seat but a check on my ticket showed that was not the case. It then occurred to me that I should go and sit in first class. This conviction became so strong that I got out of the carriage and walked to the front of the train and found there were two first-class carriages—one was shabby and old, and the other seemed brand new. As the train was about to leave, I tried to get into the shiny new carriage but bizarrely found I could not move one leg in front of the other. I began to panic, thinking I was having some kind of seizure. But when I turned towards the shabby carriage I found I could move, and so I dived in just as the train pulled out of the station.
I just about fell into the seat near the door of the compartment since the two window seats were occupied. At once I felt relaxed and normal again but very puzzled by what had happened.
I closed my eyes to get some rest and became aware of the two men in the window seats speaking quietly to each other in a language I could not understand. After a while they changed to French, which I could understand and speak, so I wished them good day and we chatted a little about our respective jobs. They were both senior international lawyers: one an ambassador, the other a judge from an international court. I explained I was a mathematician.
The conversation lapsed and I was beginning to doze off when one of them suddenly said, “Voyez les croix!” (“Look at the crosses!”). He indicated a cemetery through the window and then asked no one in particular, “Are there any Christians in this country?” I replied by telling them that there were indeed many Christians, and I had been spending a week with some of them, teaching them from the Bible.
“But that is not rational,” came the reply. “You are a mathematician; how can you possibly take the Bible seriously? And, in any case, we can approach God directly, even in the desert. We don’t need intermediaries like Jesus and Mary to help us.”
After more conversation, during which I said that my Christian faith was evidence-based the other man said this: “Look, we have another three hours on this train. Would you be prepared to explain to us the difference between Christianity and our religion?”
I asked them what the essence of their religion was and then I looked around for paper and pen to illustrate my answer. Not finding any, I noticed that the floor of the carriage was quite dusty and so I drew the diagram below with my finger in the dust asking: “Would it be fair to say that your religion amounts to this?”
“There is a door of initiation at the beginning, perhaps a ceremony of some kind, or it might even be your birth into a particular group, that leads to your starting a path or way indicated by the wavy line. You have people to teach and guide you (indicated by the academic hats), and the path goes up and down according to your success in following the path. You then come at death to a final assessment, indicated by the scales of justice where your life is scrutinised; and whether you are permitted to advance into a glorious world to come depends on your good deeds outweighing your bad ones.
“Since it is a merit-based system, no matter how good your teachers, advisers, gurus, imams, priests or rabbis are, they cannot guarantee success at the final assessment. In other words, it is very like a university course: you have to satisfy certain initial requirements, you follow the course and then sit the final examinations. No matter how good and kind your professors and teachers are,
they cannot guarantee you a degree since that depends entirely on your merit at the final exams.”
The two men agreed that this was not only what they believed but that it was what all religious people believed—that it was the essence of religion. Not only that, but they also agreed that religions had a great deal of moral teaching in common. “Well, then,” I said, “that means that I am not a religious person”.
“But you said you were a Christian,” they replied.
“Yes, I am a Christian, and what I now need to say is in direct answer to your original question: what is the difference between what I believe and what you believe? But let me say first that I agree with you that there is much moral teaching in common. Take, for example, what is often called the ‘Golden Rule’, one version of which says, ‘Treat others in the same way you would like them to treat you’. You will find that in every religion and philosophy under the sun, including those religions and philosophies that do not believe in gods of any kind.
“The differences arise in what religions have to say about how you relate to God or the gods. My illustration shows the common view that you share with many others. However, the Christian message is very different. It does not consist in a merit-based acceptance by God at the final judgment. Christianity teaches something utterly radical at this point. It tells us that we can be accepted at the beginning of the path. It teaches that the initial step is not a rite or ritual or ceremony performed on an infant or adult, but it is a step of commitment to a person, Jesus Christ, that involves believing that he is God incarnate, who has come into the world to give his life as a ransom for our sins, which alienate us from God.”
At this point I drew a cross in the doorway at the beginning of my sketch in the dust on the floor.
“Now,” I said to them, “if you want my answer to your question, please listen and try to understand it before passing judgment on it.”
“Carry on,” they said.
“Here is what Jesus said: ‘whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.’ (John 5 v 24). The context is the astounding claim by Jesus that he is going to be the final Judge of humankind.”
I turned to the judge in the window seat. “Mr Judge,” I said, “suppose I presented my case to you, and you declared me to be free; would I be right to believe you?”
He showed a burst of indignation: “Of course” he said, “I am the judge, the final assessor, and if I say you are free, then you are free.”
“Well, that is exactly it,” I replied. “Jesus is the highest- level judge in the universe. And he says that if we trust him personally, he will declare us to be right with God on the grounds that he has himself paid on the cross the penalty of the guilty verdict that our sins have merited. Moreover, the evidence that this is true is, as the early Christian apostle Paul said to the philosophers at Athens, that God has given assurance to all that this is so by raising Jesus from the dead.”
There was silence in the carriage for quite a while and then the ambassador said to the judge, “There is a great difference between Christianity and what we usually think of as religion”. Turning to me he said, “And it all depends on who Jesus Christ really is”.
“Exactly,” I replied.
They then told me the following story. That weekend they had been attending a high-level conference in Vienna and found they had a day free. They asked for an embassy car to take them to Budapest and, after spending most of the day there, they started on the return journey. Their car broke down just outside the train station. They had no option but to take the train.
“We don’t travel by train,” they explained, “We haven’t been in one for years.”
“Then we meet you on the train and have a conversation of a kind we have never experienced, not even in the leading universities in the world that we have attended. How do you account for that?”
“Very simply,” I replied, “I think there is such a thing as divine guidance and this is an example of it.”
I relate this story not just to help us see the difference between conventional views of religion and the heart of the Christian message. I have told it to make another important point. You see, God does not just “exist” in an academic, philosophical way. He is alive and active in the world, working in our lives, reaching out to us, speaking to us through creation and ultimately through his Son Jesus Christ. I have had far too many “coincidences” in my life to put down to blind luck; this was just one of many.
How we relate to God
I have often used the picture that I drew on the floor of the train, and I sometimes reinforce its message by amplifying it with another. Imagine that I meet a girl, fall in love with her and decide to propose to her. I approach her and give her a gift-wrapped parcel. She asks what it is, and I tell her to open it and I will explain. She finds in it a popular cookery book. She expresses appreciation, and I then say to her that the book is full of rules and instructions on how to do excellent cooking. Now, I really like her and would like her to be my wife; and so I say to her that if she keeps the rules and instructions and cooks for me to a very high standard for, say, the next 40 years, then I will think about accepting her. If not, she can go home to her mother!
It is a ridiculous scenario of course, and if she threw the book at me and never spoke to me again, I would be getting far less than I deserved. Why? Because my proposal is insulting to her as a person in the extreme. It suggests that I am going to wait for years to see how she performs in the kitchen before accepting her.
We would never dream of treating someone like that. That is not how relationships are formed. Yet, the remarkable thing is that this is precisely the attitude many people take towards God: they try to pile up their merit in the hope of one day gaining God’s acceptance, as in my illustration of the wavy path. Anyone can see this method doesn’t work with our fellow men and women. It won’t work with God, either, since God is the person in whose image we are made. And it is often our pride that hides this from us. It is remarkable how many people seem to be prepared to work for God to earn their salvation, yet they are not prepared to trust him.
It is worth emphasising once more: according to Christianity, “salvation” means exactly that—action on the part of God to rescue those who could not help themselves. At its heart is the magnificent doctrine of the grace of God. It says that, if they will, anyone can be forgiven and find a new life and friendship with God—whoever they are; whatever they have done.
Lennox, John. Can Science Explain Everything? . The Good Book Company. Kindle Edition.