A review of The Story of Reality, by Gregory Koukl
The Big Picture
Koukl’s book is subtitled “How the world began, how it ends, and everything important that happens in between.” I have to admit that this kind of over-the-top title is off-putting, to me. It makes me think there’s nothing of substance inside. I would have passed it up, if I’d seen it first on a bookstore shelf, but it was recommended to me by someone whose judgment I trust, so I did read it. And was glad I did.
I’ve read other reviews of this book that say he doesn’t really present anything new. I’ve been thinking about that assertion because it didn’t seem right, and now I think I understand why. It’s not new only if we apply a hyper-reductionist lens to it. That’s the same tactic atheists adopt, in confining themselves to a scientistic vision of reality. We might as well say it’s not new because he uses the same old letters of the alphabet that every other writer in English does.
Yes it is new, so disregard the naysayers. The chief way in which Koukl presents us with something new is to take a step back and fully grasp the Christian paradigm in its entirety, so that it can then be contrasted with competing worldviews. He is giving us the sorely-needed big picture, and more accurately than, for example, Sean Carroll’s obscurantist work called The Big Picture.
The fact is that in our culture, it is necessary to get this zoomed-out view of what Christianity holds to be true, before it begins to make sense. Why? Because most people don’t approach it already steeped in the orthodox theology developed over millenia. They actually start with the materialist vision of reality, and are so steeped in the false science = reality paradigm that they’re apt to use the word “Christianity” only if it appears in the same sentence with words like “magic,” “wishful thinking,” and “imaginary friend.” They don’t know what they don’t know, and it’s high time someone told them. Thank you, Mr. Koukl.
Here are some key points that Koukl makes, in outlining the Christian worldview as it is distinguished from the prevalent materialistic worldview.
One first must understand that atheists have an identifiable belief system, and theists have an identifiable belief system, and it is just wrong to think that one is merely the negation of the other. Atheism is not just “not-religion.” It is a coherent ideology unto itself, and we must understand what it is, in order to distinguish it from reality. Koukl writes:
[T]here is no difference between an atheist and a religious person. None. Each believes particular things to be true about the world.
Exactly. One implication of this understanding is that it’s time to stop bashing Christians for holding their belief systems while pretending the bashers adhere to no belief system.
[E]veryone . . . believes his beliefs are true, [and] it has always struck me as odd when some have been faulted simply for thinking their views correct. . . . The person objecting thinks his own views correct as well, which is why he’s objecting. Both parties in the conversation think they’re right and the other wrong. Why, then, is only the religious person (usually) branded a bigot for doing so?
The ground needs to be cleared by identifying two competing world views. The first is what Koukl calls “Matter-ism,” by which he means what philosophers traditionally called materialism, the view that material reality is all there is. There is nature, but no supernature. This view denies the presence of Mind, other than individuals’ consciousness as an emergent property of the brain. So “Matter-ism” denies Mind understood as the mind of God, and even the human mind, consciousness, is entirely explainable in material terms.
The second is what he calls “Mind-ism,” a summary perspective for eastern religions which suppose that matter is secondary in some way to Mind; that matter is in a sense illusory, because it does not exist unto itself but only as a particular manifestation of universal mind. This view supposes a god conceived very differently from the monotheisms. This god is an energy or aura or electricity or presence that pervades the universe. Mind is not emergent from matter. Instead, matter is emergent from Mind.
Those competitors thus identified in order to avoid confusion, Koukl moves on to identify certain features of reality that are indisputable for everyone, in particular the understanding that the world has gone bad. There is evil. But, he says, this makes perfect sense in the Christian worldview. In fact, it explains features of that worldview that might otherwise be puzzling. The presence of evil is actually more of a problem for the materialist worldview than it is for the Christian worldview (what Koukl calls the Story).
In fact, the point of the Story is that this evil is a brokenness of the world that needs to be dealt with. The competing worldviews make no attempt to do so. The very concept of brokenness to the world is at best tangential to those worldviews. Of “Matter-ism,” for example, one should conclude that things just are what they are, there is no reason to call one situation evil and another good. Koukl rhetorically asks “How can something go wrong when there was no right way for it to be in the first place?” Brokenness implies that the world was designed for a Purpose not being achieved. Matter-ism and Mind-ism deny such Purpose. Those views therefore deny brokenness. And therefore, if consistent, deny the fact of evil.
With the foregoing set-up, Koukl commences to explain the Story, evidently mindful that many haven’t heard it, or at least have not heard it offered up on such a plane of generality. His rendering is full of sound insights. For example, Christians are fond of quoting Jeremiah 29:11: “‘For I know the plans I have for you,’ declares the Lord, ‘plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future.'” (NIV). Well and good, and it’s certainly true, but it’s a reassurance that we’re not just wandering around in a meaningless void, not another gimme from God, as if He were a cosmic event planner. “The Story is not so much about God’s plan for your life as it is about your life for God’s plan. . . . God’s plans are central, not yours,” Koukl writes. And he’s right. This is what the whole counsel of God teaches.
The Story is God’s story, not man’s, but man plays a crucial role; man is a special being. This is undeniable, but it’s one of those things that is so much a part of the furniture of our lives that we can overlook it. Everyone — not just those who buy into the Story – perceive this specialness. It’s the reason we believe humans to have more absolute value than chimpanzees, chickens, and microbes. There are worldview implications to this point of view, however, that are routinely missed by adherents of Matter-ism and Mind-ism. “Our innate built-in human value is the only reason we have any binding duties or obligations toward each other that we do not have toward any other kind of things.” It’s the only reason mankind has “unalienable rights,” for example. Koukl adds:
When man is reduced to a mere animal – when the force of one’s worldview logic demotes humans to mere biological machines [Matter-ism] – morality and human rights die and power is all that remains. This has happened with every communist regime, and happens with all governments as they get increasingly secular. It cannot be otherwise.
This special-ness of mankind does not translate to radical autonomy, however. We should not justify following whatever impulse moves us, whether we’re pleased to characterize it as “natural” or not: “The difference between ‘just doing what comes naturally’ and principled self-restraint is called civilization.” One of the reasons human beings are special among other things is that we have moral freedom, which means the ability to discern what is good and what is evil, and to choose.
One of the implications of our having moral freedom is that it is dispositive of the criticism that evil cannot coexist in a universe in which there is an all-powerful and good God. Man has freedom to choose the good, but has freedom to choose evil, as well. That’s what it means to have moral freedom. When God made man with moral freedom, He thereby created the possibility for evil. God could have created a world without evil, but it would require creating mankind with no moral freedom. We would not exist, or would exist as a race of beings which is not recognizably us. So the existence of evil in the world in this way proves the special-ness of human beings. It matters to God what we do.
All Things New
As important as good conduct is to God, it is not the most important thing, and moral teaching was not the principal reason for the advent of the Christ. Jesus’ teachings on that were incidental to His mission. Jesus came – get ready for the potentially most controversial line in Koukl’s book – “to rescue us from the Father.”
Wait, what? Jesus is God but He came to rescue us from God? Fortunately Koukl doesn’t leave us to wrestle overmuch with the nature of the Trinity, though he does delve into it in a way helpful to people who’ve not thought it through well. But if you reflect on this assertion, you see he’s exactly right. He’s not saying that God is scanning about to see who He can skewer next. That’s what the devil does: roam about like a hungry lion looking for whom he may devour. Mankind has already failed. We’re already in the dock.
Why we need rescue from the Father is that God is wholly just. Koukl does a great job juxtaposing God’s justice with His goodness, and so it makes perfect sense. The two just necessarily go together. Koukl writes:
Hell is not an example of God’s love. It is an example of His justice. His love is demonstrated by His free offer of pardon from hell, which many decline. But they will not be able to decline His justice.
If you still insist that that a loving God would never send anyone to hell, then you must settle in your mind that desperately evil acts will forever remain unpunished.
There is no contradiction between God’s love, which is wonderful, and God’s justice, which is terrifying.
The act of disloyalty by mankind to God is so profound that it results in the brokenness of the world, and that brokenness is much more complete than we imagine. Following our rebellion, we can never meet God’s standard. He loves us despite our rebellion, however, and so He provides a means of reconciliation: Jesus, the Messiah, who came to make all things new.
In those days when someone was crucified, it was common to affix their charges to the cross. In this case it was ordered that the notice “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews” be nailed to the cross with Him. This was purposeful nonsense for the Romans. The charge would normally be an indictment of the person punished, but there was no crime, really, in the case of Jesus. He was crucified because the community demanded it.
To most of the Jewish community, this “charge” was an outrage. By their lights, He wasn’t charged with being King of the Jews, He was charged with wrongly asserting that He was king of the Jews, by claiming He was God.
In those days it was common to mark a bill or a charge “telestai,” when paid, in much the same way we would mark a bill “paid” after paying it. The indictment of Jesus was just the truth. The Romans inadvertently got the charge right. And it is greatly significant as applied to us. The charge amounted to an indictment of people, not of Jesus, and when He expired on the cross, His last word was “telestai.”
The charge against mankind is paid, for those who identify with Him.