Clayton is one of my closest friends, a devout Christian and minister by occupation. I asked him to write an entry for Dead-Logic addressing a "simple" question: "Why are you a Christian?" I asked him to write this article for my blog for a few reasons:
One, Clayton was, as he mentions in his essay, one of my students, an Aristotle to my Plato so to speak, so to read his current thoughts - and see how they are as divergent from mine as Aristotle's were to his mentor Plato's teachings - is a curiosity to me.
Two, Clayton is eight years younger than me, and I can't help but think that I finally accepted my agnosticism eight years ago. Had I stayed on the Christian path, I think my line of reasoning would have sounded much like Clayton's (though not exactly the same). So I look at Clayton as a way of "looking into a mirror dimly" into a hypothetical parallel life - a path I could have followed but didn't.
And three, being a freethinker is about being open to ideas, scrutinizing them rationally and allowing our minds to follow the arguments wherever they may lead. I mentioned in a recent blog entry that most Christians discourage this practice, shielding themselves and other believers from non-Christian books, shows, music, websites, et cetera, which they consider a threat to their faith. Certainly a skeptic has nothing to fear from rational inquiry, so why not have an occasional post by a Christian, especially one like Clayton, who is willing to at least consider other points of view without casting judgment upon everyone who disagrees with him?
What Clayton submitted to me was quite a bit longer than I had anticipated. It's several pages long; nevertheless, it's worth taking the time to read, and while I found myself disagreeing with nearly all his main points, he also made several noteworthy comments that I think atheists should take to heart. Even the points Clayton made with which I disagree serve as rich soil from which good, thoughtful discussion and reflection can grow. So let us be scholars, for the sake of truth. Veritas Liberabit Vos.
Why Am I a Christian?By Clayton
My name is Clayton. You may know me from some of Bud's posts about our conversations (here, here and here for example). It's interesting to read about myself on the site and sometimes feel like Bud's token Christian friend. Bud always does me the service of writing of me very kindly, and I'll take a moment to return the favor. My being any type of thoughtful Christian whatsoever is entirely Bud's fault. I got to know him through a small group he led in a Steak 'n Shake when he was a minister, and learned the skill of critical thinking from him. Our journeys have taken us in remarkably different directions, and I suspect that we both hold out hope that the other will come back around to our way of thinking. We joke quite a bit about religion and philosophy, and frequently find ourselves without the ability to be around each other and not engage in some type of theological or philosophical discussion, all of which are occasions that make me think, and that I greatly enjoy. I owe a lot to Bud, in the past as a teacher and mentor, and in the present as a brother and friend.
When Bud asked me to write this post I was a bit intimidated, feeling like I was being asked to walk into a lion's den. When I was younger I enjoyed the fight that goes along with debate more than I do now. I get tired of the emotionally driven attacks that come from both sides. I hear Christians talk about everyone outside of the Church as if they were an enemy, someone to be feared or pitied or laughed about. At the same time, I get on YouTube and see post after post about Christians as if they were all judgmental or foolish or irrational.
This is most difficult for me in relation to the frequent attacks on the 'heroes' of either side. For example, my favorite theologian (for now, I'm afraid I am very fickle with this sort of thing) is Alister McGrath. I read reviews of his books or comments on his debates and hear people criticize his intelligence or scholarship. In my opinion, this is simply absurd. To interact with any of this man's prolific works and not come away with the feeling that you've been inside of a talented scientific and theological mind is difficult to comprehend. He is brilliant, holds multiple degrees, and is a 'heavy hitter' in Christian theology and apologetics. Disagree with him on every point, but don't name call or doubt his intelligence. The same is true of Richard Dawkins. Too often I hear Christians, whether on YouTube or in book reviews, criticize Dawkins as a scientist. This is absolutely foolish. The man is brilliant, and I take that as being beyond arguing. I disagree with him philosophically and I wish he were better read in matters of theology, but to deny that the man is more intelligent than I would be woefully ignorant.1
The issue at hand is one of truth, but too often it is made out to be 'us vs. them'. Again, I believe this to be prevalent on both sides of the issue. I have no doubt that some people on this site will read what I have said and will say and be offended, just as there would be some offended in the Church. If anyone is going to be honest and speak with people they disagree with, they're going to end up offending. If we are going to get to the truth of the matter of whether or not there is a God, of what the nature of reality is, we have to put away the 'us vs. them' that has come to surround the issue. C.S. Lewis said:
Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed. That is one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It is a religion you could not have guessed. If it offered us just the kind of universe we had always expected, I should feel we were making it up. But, in fact, it is not the sort of thing anyone would have made up. It has just that queer twist about it that real things have. So let us leave behind all these boys' philosophies -- these over-simple answers. The problem is not simple and the answer is not going to be simple either (emphasis mine).2
I didn't grow up as a Christian, it's a change I made when I was about eighteen. Since then I've done a lot of reading, debating, learning and trying to understand the Christian faith. I want to share with you some of the reasons that after wrestling with my faith, after struggling with and through doubt, I have decided to continue in life as a Christian. I have endeavored to write this article through the lens of 'Why I am a Christian' and not 'Why I think you should be a Christian'. It hasn't been easy, and I've left several issues untouched or without sufficient treatment because they have not affected my personal faith journey. The intention has not been to provide any type of comprehensive apologetic but to give the reasons that I have maintained my identity as a Christian, to explain how I view some relevant issues, and to discuss how I view the Christian faith.
In this article I will frequently refer to 'what Christians believe'. This is a bit of a misleading statement. There are very few things that all Christians believe. The religion is very segmented. Aside from tens of thousands of protestant denominations, there is the Catholic Church and the Eastern Orthodox Church, as well as other independent branches. Aside from official church teachings, there are over two billion Christians in the world who all hold individual thoughts and beliefs. To describe or debate Christianity is truly to try to pin down a very fragmented thing. I will talk more about this later. For the time being, when I say that 'Christians believe' such and such, I really mean that 'The way I understand and interpret the Christian faith on this matter is...'. I am not aware of any particular point of theology where I hold anything resembling a unique view, but I am also not aware of any other person or denomination who believes precisely as I do on every matter relating to the Christian faith. I have always believed that when two people agree completely, one or both of them are not thinking for themselves.
I will refer to 'non-theists' frequently in this post. The reason I do so is because I believe that truly irreligious people are very rare. There are, in my opinion, many religions that do not carry theistic beliefs, and when I am contrasting them with Christianity I use the term 'non-theist'. The terms 'atheist' and 'agnostic' have come to carry too many connotations to use them in effective communication, and so I strive not to.
One further note. It is my habit to write as if my audience has only a small amount of knowledge in the area of my subject. The reason for that isn't to insult anyone's intelligence, but to ensure that no one is left behind. As I strive to write at a level that my high school students could read comfortably, please do not think that I am implying that you are simple, or that I am not informed on the subject because of my vocabulary. My intention is to be as readable as I can be.
Before I talk about why I am a Christian, I want you to understand how I am a Christian. In other words, before I tell you about my beliefs, I want you to understand how I live.
For me, to be a Christian is to see the world through the lens of a Christian worldview. I endeavor to see everything that happens to me in my life with the idea that there is a God, and that idea changes everything. I don't believe that I belong to myself, I believe that I am someone else's work, someone else's person. This has been an evolving concept for me. As I've grown in commitment to it I have begun to change.
I've observed this change most in how I spend my time. I have never needed my hobbies less than I do now. My life used to be dominated by them. While I still enjoy my hobbies, the concept that my time isn't my own has changed how much time I feel like I need to spend on them. I read more than I ever have before. I spend time in prayer, commit myself to excellence in school and at work, because I believe that I am doing these things for someone else. I do not believe that God is angry if I spend an afternoon playing Xbox, nor is He happier with me if I spend that afternoon in prayer. But our mutual quest, my coming to more fully imitate His son, is furthered by one and not the other. And so, over time, I've gladly begun to use my time more productively.
My wife reaps more of these benefits than anyone else. She views the strength of relationships largely based on how much time they are given, and I was surprised at myself with how difficult it was for me initially that she wanted so much of my time. I have always valued solitude, time to spend on my hobbies, and my relationships with my friends. All of these are good things, but I have found myself increasingly and remarkably content with letting go of all of them as my understanding of my role as a husband has required me to. Some of this, to be sure, is that I am falling more in love with my wife as time goes on. The rest of this, I am convinced, is because I am growing in my understanding that I am not the most important thing in my life.
As this has continued, this seeing myself less (not less valuable, in many ways I see myself as more valuable now than I ever have before), and seeing others more, I cannot deny the changes in my character. This is the essence of Christian spirituality, and is the proof of my faith to me. This is why I don't know that I'll ever seriously wrestle with doubt again. My life makes the most sense through the lens of Christianity. To once again quote C.S. Lewis, "I believe in Christianity like I believe that the sun has risen. Not only because I see it, but because by it I see everything else."3
I know that none of this is proof to you. In fact, it may not be relevant at all. But it is important for me that you understand what I see the life of a Christian to look like. It is an ever increasing desire to see others first, to think of yourself and your own needs last. It is incredibly liberating to not feel 'owed' so many things. I am certainly not perfect. Bud is one of the people that I do not hide anything from, and he will be more than willing to agree that I do not love others perfectly. But I am growing, and that 'fruit' is part of the essence of a Christian life.
Before I go on to discuss the nuts and bolts of why I am a Christian, I want to share one more thing with you. I have come to realize that people can find a rational basis to believe or disbelieve just about anything. Three people can look at the same evidence for a crime, and one can find reason to believe one person is guilty, the second enough reason to believe another is guilty, and the third to believe that there is insufficient evidence that a crime has been committed. I firmly believe that absolutely any argument I might present here can be believed, or disbelieved, on a rational basis. My encouragement to you is to check your own motives, your own reasons for disbelief, and hold them fairly in front of you as you read. Even if you are not convinced by anything I say, I hope that you will at least understand why I am a Christian by the end.
Controlling Definitions Means Controlling The Debate
Part of the frustration of the theism debate is how wrapped up it is in agenda. The Science vs. Christianity issue is tired, and honestly I think, mostly the result of reactionary Christians in the late 19th and 20th centuries. Somewhere along the lines people on both sides started using their own definitions for things, and this is incredibly frustrating. Christians are guilty of it, sometimes even without realizing it, and non-theists are guilty of it as well.
If you can control the definition of a word, then you can largely decide a debate about it from the beginning. This is classic rhetoric or debate strategy. Unfortunately, it isn't very helpful in discovering the truth of a given matter. I want to take a bit of space to define some key terms for the discussion. I am not pulling from any authoritative source for these definitions, they are what I mean by them (or what authors I have read mean by them). One of the words that needs to be defined is Religion.
There are a lot of available definitions for Religion. It is interesting to me that most of them contain a word like 'supernatural' in them. I think that this is a misunderstanding of the idea itself that has been creeping into philosophy since the Enlightenment. If I accept religion as requiring a supernatural component, then I can adhere to a set of beliefs that inform what I believe is right or wrong, my self-worth, etc. while still attacking religion as long as my personal beliefs have nothing to do with the supernatural.
Incidentally, I don't like the word supernatural (except as it relates to one of my favorite TV shows). This is a matter of worldview. If the Christian God is real, then His interacting with the world around us is naturally part of the world around us. In other words, if God is within the realm of things that exist, then His actions are in that way natural. If there is such a thing as the spiritual, then it seems that it would be part of what we would consider natural. Supernatural is only useful as a word if you do not believe in God, and want a word to quantify His supposed attributes, activities or agents. The word itself implies that what we are talking about is less, or at least differently, real than the parts of the world that we can see, taste, touch, and measure.
A good definition for religion is this, "It is a set of beliefs that explain what life is all about, who we are, and the most important things that human beings should spend their time doing."4 I use this definition mostly because I acknowledge that there are religions with no supernatural component. I was an active Martial Artist for two decades. In that time I met a lot of people who considered Martial Arts to be their religion, whether they acknowledged it verbally or not. Darwinism is another philosophy, or worldview, that I believe firmly functions as a religion. Philosophical Darwinism isn't the same thing as evolution, it's a worldview which has lead to schools of thought such as 'Evolutionary Psychology', which I will discuss briefly later.
Christianity is that religion whose adherents have faith in an uncreated God; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, who created the universe from nothing, has interacted with mankind in history, sent His Son in the Incarnation of Jesus Christ, who was crucified and resurrected, to begin the process of reconciling His fallen creation to Himself.5
And that is where the definition of Christianity ends. In fact, that is where the definition of Christianity must end, because there are so many differences in the beliefs of its adherents from there on. The most well known type of Christianity in the United States today is Protestant Christianity. There are more Protestant Christians in this country than any other kind, and it is Protestants anyway who tend to be noisiest about their beliefs.
Most people whom I have spoken to who have rejected Christianity have done it for reasons outside of the definition I proposed. Again, my experience is by no means comprehensive, but those who have left the faith have usually drifted away, or have been hurt and disillusioned by Christians, or have fixated on one particular belief of a particular church and have found it implausible.
Please indulge me on a bit of a tangent. I think that it is important for people to know that most of what our country is aware of within Christian belief outside of the definition I gave above comes from Reformed Theology. Reformed Theology had its beginnings with John Calvin after the Protestant split from the Catholic Church, and in many ways, reflects his personality. Reformed theology tends to be the home of the most severe Christian groups, the most 'our way or the highway' churches. Even those Protestant churches that do not hold to many aspects of Reformed theology find their origin in splits from it or have been heavily influenced by it. There are two other traditions which actually have a stronger historical claim to being closer to the original form of Christianity, and those are Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy. This is a major over-simplification of the issue and I don't want to get into a lengthy discussion about any of this here. I do want to say that many people who reject Christianity are actually rejecting some form of Reformed Theology. I am not discouraging this theological tradition, I belong to a Protestant church heavily influenced by Reformed Theology, but I do think it is a tragedy that there isn't always an effort taken to see if there is a form of Christianity that better fits the specific issues that a skeptic finds implausible.
I want to clarify that whether or not you like, or find pleasant, the ideas within Christianity, has absolutely no bearing on whether or not Christianity is true. In other words, a person who says, 'I couldn't believe in a God who would send people to hell', aside from having a dramatic misunderstanding of hell, is asking the wrong question. The question that is key to Christianity is whether or not the historical event of the resurrection took place.6 If so, then Christianity is true. If not, then we really don't need to bother with it at all.
In The Reason for God, Timothy Keller reasons that if Christianity were true, and not the product of any particular culture, then we would expect it to cross all cultures at some point. In other words, if a person is not made uncomfortable, or even offended, by any aspect of Christianity, then it is most likely the result of a culture similar to one's own. But if it comes from a God who is separate from any culture, then there are bound to be sticking points in each culture. Are there aspects of Christianity that offend you? The idea of hell? Of submission and obedience? Of faith? Of prayer? None of those are ultimately consequential to the 'truth'. If the resurrection happened then it means that we belong to someone else, and are asked by our Creator to conform ourselves to Him.
Again, if God is real, and if He represents the perfection of morality, wouldn't it be utterly foolish to critique Him by a human moral standard? This would only make sense if Christianity were a purely human invention. We critique philosophies made by other people all of the time, and have the right to do so. But if there is a God, we should expect that He would offend us, unless we ourselves are perfect. I know that this is not the case with me. I am not perfect, in fact, in striving to imitate the character of Jesus Christ I become more and more aware of how imperfect I am. If an imperfect being is put in the place of judging a perfect one, then we should not expect a fair judgment. I submit to you that whatever your personal qualms are about Christian faith, they bear no weight on the truthfulness or falsehood of that faith. The only thing that matters is Jesus. If He is real, then it is we who are broken, flawed and imperfect. It is we who need to change, and God is the standard.
Before I talk about Jesus, I want to define one more term: Faith. This, perhaps more than any other, is a word that each side of the Christianity discussion is in a hurry to define and demand that the other side adhere to. It is a perpetually hot topic. I feel the need to spend quite a bit of time discussing the way that I understand faith, because so many people have an issue with the concept. This is how I understand the concept.
I think that most Christians, when they are allowed to give the definition of the term, define it incompletely. When a non-theist defines the term, it usually sounds something like this: faith is believing in something without evidence. I respectfully reject that definition. The most common definition for faith that I have heard from Christians is from Hebrews 11:1; 'faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.'7
This isn't incorrect, but it is incomplete. It would be like me saying, "Lisa is my wife." The statement is true, but it is incomplete. Lisa is so much more than my wife, and if I were to attempt to completely define or describe her, I would have to say much more. In some ways, trying to define faith is like trying to define a human being, it is difficult to do because it is a thriving and growing thing, continually changing and different from person to person.
I want to differentiate between two kinds of faith, both of which are seen as virtues in Christianity. The first kind of faith is simply belief. In the Christian religion this means accepting the propositions of Christianity as true. A lot of people have a hard time seeing this as a virtue because we do not see believing that anything else is true as virtuous. Belief comes when a conclusion is drawn from reason after an analysis of evidence. For some people the evidence is simply, 'I have heard it on authority'. In other words, my parents told me to believe it, and so I do. I know that many people believe that this is the engine that Christianity is driven on, but that is not entirely true. It is true in the sense that there are a lot of Christians whose faith is borrowed from their parents, or another authority, but there are also those like myself who have come to faith later in life without the involvement of any such authority. In fact there was a time that all Christians were that way.
The virtue of this kind of faith comes from holding to a belief that you have come to believe is true even in the face of, not contrary evidence, but a contrary mood. Most people who come to accept Christianity as true will inevitably go through a crisis of faith. Sometimes, albeit rarely in my experience, this crisis comes from conflicting evidence gained through reason. More often this crisis comes in the form of a depression, a feeling of abandonment, an attempt to cope with a tragedy or trauma, or a personality conflict with another Christian, particularly a Christian leader, or it comes during a time in adolescence characterized by rebellion.8 Then, this experience which is almost entirely emotional in nature, leads a person to reject certain premises that were accepted before the mood and accept other premises that were rejected before the mood based on the difference in... well, mood. I know that it is a common thought that most people accept Christianity on an emotional basis, it is my belief that most people reject Christianity for the same reason.
It is absurd to believe that our conclusions are based entirely on reason. Everyone has observed in other people the tendency to want to believe or disbelieve something about a person, or a food, or an organization, based more on emotion or fashion than on reason. But most people are very hesitant to acknowledge any such tendency in themselves. What I take in influences what comes out. If I am led to prefer a lifestyle that rejects traditional Christian values by my environment, the likelihood of me rejecting Christianity rises considerably. This is the reverse of the 'there are no atheists in foxholes' idea. People in danger are comforted by the idea that there is a God, and their likelihood to believe that it is true rises dramatically. People in the midst of a materialistic culture discouraging chastity, selflessness, peace and patience are more likely to reject a religion that holds those things as virtuous.
The Christian virtue of faith in this first type is to keep in mind the beliefs that we have accepted to be true. Belief needs to be fed to be immune to mood changes. To put the primary beliefs of Christianity in front of you daily, to repeat them, to say daily prayers, to read the Bible every day, all help to guard this kind of faith. It is a virtue to hold onto things that you believe to be true in spite of your environment. I cannot imagine that a freethinker would disagree.
A second type of faith is derived from the Greek word pistis. Anytime you see the word 'faith' or 'believe' in the New Testament, it is from pistis. The reason it isn't always translated as 'faith' is because we have no verb form for that word in English. People don't go around 'faithing' things. So the word 'believe' is chosen instead. This is unfortunate, because it gives the false impression that instances of this second type of faith are actually instances of the first kind. The best and simplest explanation that I have ever heard for pistis is this:
This is the idea that you believe something to be true, and strive to live in accordance or conformity with that belief. In this form, I am hard-pressed to understand why anyone would deny this as a virtue. I believe that my wife is not having an affair, that she is telling me the truth when she says that she is at work, and not with some other person. I cannot prove this to you. I cannot demonstrate empirically that this is true. I can only have faith. Now, there may be a time when I am presented with contrary evidence that may cause me to reevaluate that faith, but until that time comes it would be foolish of me to not strive to live in accordance with what I believe to be true.
I think a significant portion of the frustration associated with the idea of faith comes from those who have encountered Christians who are unwilling to consider evidence that is contrary to their faith. I agree that this is frustrating. To completely write off or deny evidence that is contrary to your current beliefs because of the fear or discomfort associated with doubt isn't faith; it's anti-intellectualism, or stubbornness, or foolishness. I think that it needs to be acknowledged that this tendency is present on both sides of the theism debate, but I take it as true that it is more commonly found among Christians than non-theists. The problem isn't faith, it's a lack of education.
How does a Christian have faith? By trying to live in accordance with the logical conclusions of the beliefs that he or she holds to be true. If there is a God, then I am not my own. If there is a God, then every human being has inherent dignity. If there is a God, then I am called to love others the way I love myself. If there is a God, then I am called to serve Him. I do not think that most would disagree with any of these 'If...then' statements. Some people may require further clarification, like 'If the Christian God is real and is knowable', but I think the idea is sound. The difference is in the belief of whether or not the 'If' statement represents reality. A Christian who lives with faith strives to be obedient to the 'then' statements that come with the 'if' of belief.
Jesus, Paul, and the Early Church
Jesus has been believed to be divine by every age of his followers since the end of his life. (I know that this is disputed... and I don't feel like it has been disputed well.) There are evidences that a Christian must be prepared to respond to which challenge the Christian faith, and ought to cost Christians sleepless nights. But, the same is true in reverse. For a non-theist to never have lost sleep over the historical Jesus, or the Apostle Paul, or the phenomenon of the early Church, cannot come from anywhere (that I can imagine) other than a lack of understanding of the issue. I am not saying I would expect any non-theist investigating these matters to pop up and say, 'ah! Now I'm a Christian!', any more than I would expect a Christian who wrestles with the reality of evil and suffering in the world to pop up and say, 'ah! There goes my faith!' Evidence doesn't work that way... proof does.9 Evidence lends weight to a case, provides additional data to consider, and eventually is used by a person to make a decision when proof is missing.
N.T. Wright is my favorite scholar in the third quest for the historical Jesus.10 If you are at all interested in reading what he has to say (as I would strongly encourage anyone to do if they want to take this issue seriously) I list several of his books that I recommend at the bottom of this post. The historical evidence is convincing; a man named Jesus who was associated with a place called Nazareth really did exist. There is reason to believe so from Biblical and non-Biblical sources. He really did live, preach an eccentric message that put him in political opposition to Rome and the Jews, and was crucified. I do not know of a significant number of Christian or New Testament scholars who dispute any of that. The question, of course, rests on whether or not he really claimed to be divine, whether or not he was resurrected from the dead, and whether or not his followers wrote anything down that can be relied upon today.
Most of Paul's letters aren't disputed as being genuinely authored by him, and they contribute to my faith in a few ways. First, Paul was brilliant. A person can claim that his letters are inconsistent, or ambiguous on a variety of points, but they cannot deny his brilliance. Paul uses rhetoric as a master, and spends his life starting churches with the clear belief that Jesus of Nazareth is God. Theologians like John Hick who attempt to discount whether or not the earliest followers of Jesus believed in his divinity have had to confess that Paul must be hijacking the message of Jesus11, because explaining away his claims to Jesus' divinity is simply too hard to do. You may be thinking that you've read Paul, and that he does not seem to saturate his letters with the idea that Jesus is God. But this comes from a misunderstanding of the 1st century world.
Paul frequently refers to Jesus as 'Lord', which is the Greek word kyrios, best translated into English as 'sir' or 'master'. The significance of this title comes in understanding that Paul's audience was primarily outside of Jerusalem and was not using the Hebrew version of the Old Testament. They most commonly read from the Greek translation of the Hebrew scriptures, called the Septuagint.12 In the Septuagint, the personal name for God, commonly understood to be Yahweh, was not written directly but substituted for the sake of reverence. The word they substituted in the Septuagint was kyrios. Kyrios, in the Septuagint, is the personal name of God. When Paul attributes this word to Jesus, he is alluding to Jesus' identity as God. And there is more: Paul splits the understanding of the Hebrew God into 'Father' and 'Jesus' in his reference to the Shema in 1 Corinthians 8:5-6; he cites hymns used by the early church clearly declaring Jesus equal with God in Philippians 2:5-11 and Colossians 1:15-20. The list can continue, the point I want to make is that Paul included Jesus in his understanding of the identity of Israel's God.13
Another major support for my faith comes from the earliest Church. There is a burden of proof that has to be answered here by the skeptic. The best evidence indicates that in the first twenty years after the death of Jesus, over 10,000 Jews had become Christians. This brought with it some extreme changes in their ideas of how they were supposed to live that were part of the national identity that came with being a Jew. For an incredibly nationalistic people whose faith was entwined in their identity as a people, these changes to lifestyle and worship truly are remarkable. Eating unclean food with unclean people, worshipping a man as God, rejecting the need for circumcision, a dramatic change in their understanding of the resurrection, rebellion against their spiritual authorities, the acceptance of a spiritual messianic kingdom; all of these are remarkable for a people known for their self-assurance of who their God is and what He was planning to do. What could cause something like this other than a strong belief at the time that the claims of the early Christians were true?
Ignatius of Antioch, one of the first Bishops of the Church, a student of the Apostle John, provides what is in my opinion a more compelling case. Ignatius writes his letters around the end of the 1st century on his way to his death. His claims about the divinity of Jesus, within (or very nearly within) the same century as Jesus' life, the Apostle Paul's writings, and the birth of the Church provide a magnificent testimony to the believability of the faith.
To quote a few things from Ignatius:14
There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first possible and then impossible— even Jesus Christ our Lord.15
Jesus Christ, who was with the Father before the beginning of time, and in the end was revealed.16
I desire to guard you beforehand, that ye fall not upon the hooks of vain doctrine, but that ye attain to full assurance in regard to the birth, and passion, and resurrection which took place in the time of the government of Pontius Pilate, being truly and certainly accomplished by Jesus Christ, who is our hope, from which may no one of you ever be turned aside.17
Perhaps you don't find this compelling at all, but I most certainly have. I have had (and continue to have) sleepless nights after reading some of these early Church Fathers. While they didn't have the kind of education we have today, they were in many senses more educated than we are. They were much more immersed in philosophy and critical thinking, trained in rhetoric, and all raised in belief systems fundamentally opposed to the Christian faith either because of its strict monotheism (the Greeks and pagans) or because of its flirting with polytheism and endorsement of an apparent blasphemer (the Jews). These men were not easy converts, but they were converts all the same, willing to die for their faith.
One of the major issues that I have with so many non-theists is their complete lack of respect for the amount of education required to even begin to offer serious critique of the Bible from anything close to an informed position. The more I learn and study, the more I realize that there is to learn and study. I've encountered non-theists from a wide range of Biblical literacy; from Richard Dawkins whose critiques of the Bible have been said to reveal an 'embarrassing' lack of Biblical literacy by Christian theologians, to those like Bud who have an undergraduate degree from a Christian University, to those who have graduate education or doctorates in Biblical literature. The issue is that the wealth of scholarship or information to be dealt with is massive, and even these levels of education aren't necessarily adequate to have anything resembling a comprehensive picture of the book to be able to offer a fair critique. For one, the Bible was written over an extended period of time throughout a variety of different historical and cultural situations, primarily in two different languages, neither of which is customarily read by common people today. The ancient middle eastern cultures were wildly different in many respects to contemporary western ones, and the book itself is very long. The Bible is the primary evidence for the Christian faith, but to be able to seriously offer an informed view of it takes a wealth of time and effort that most who do not believe it to be true have no desire to take in order to determine the validity of their stance.
The massive task of learning and understanding the Bible is one reason why Christians struggle so much in the world of debate. To support something, or to defend it, you must be familiar with it from start to finish. Christians are required to learn this book before they can seriously give any defense for it. To attack the Bible, one need only hone in on one passage. Often, this strategy, honing in on one passage without acknowledgement of the whole, is characteristic of attacks on the Bible.
There is an absolute wealth of scholarship on the question of the reliability of the Bible. Words get thrown around like inerrant or infallible. You will pick up one scholar who says something like 'All responsible New Testament scholarship believes that...' and then pick up another scholar who disagrees fundamentally with nearly every assertion made by the previous one who makes statements like 'No scholar seriously believes that...'. The world of Biblical Scholarship, Orthodox and critical, conservative and liberal, is a mess.
If you've read much on the Bible, I want to say that it is important to read authors who disagree with you. I encourage Christians who are critical thinkers to read historical critical scholarship to present themselves with something to wrestle with. I'll encourage you as well to read authors who are still arguing for the divine origins of the Bible and arguing well.
The very brief comment I'll make as the strongest reason for me that the Bible has strengthened my faith is its internal consistency with its own plot-line. The more I study, the more I learn about Greek and Hebrew, and the more I learn about the historical contexts of the books of the Bible, the more amazed I am by the clear continuation of themes from the very beginnings of the Bible to its end; as if the same author was at work from beginning to end. This is made still more amazing by the fact that the themes frequently do not become clear until you get much further into the book, themes clearly not perfectly understood when the book was written.
For example; the Temple. The Temple is a theme that begins in Genesis 1 and ends in Revelation 21 (the second to last chapter of the Bible). Temple language is integral in Genesis 1; a temple is where a deity rests, and a deity rests when something significant has been accomplished. Creation is described as God's temple. Then, Abraham is made three promises, and a temple is created when each promise is answered; the tabernacle, then the Temple proper, then Jesus. The temple theme continues to include Christians, the place where God dwells with His Spirit, and continues into Revelation to imply that the New Jerusalem itself will be the new temple. The plot-line is beautiful, multi-faceted and complex, continuous from beginning to end. If I came to this book with no agenda or awareness that it claimed truthfulness, and I studied it thoroughly, I think I would come away with the idea that the same author wrote it from beginning to end.18
I very much have debated writing this final piece of the explanation of why I am a Christian. Mostly I have debated it because it isn't strictly true that I am a Christian because of any of this. An objective standard of right and wrong has always been intuitive for me, a thing I believed in my core to be true without having to be convinced of it.
The Christian belief is that right and wrong are present in a person's life because they are made, somehow, in the image of God and that God has imparted grace to all people in all times. Of course, there are always exceptions. Just as a person can have a genetic anomaly a person might have a moral one, but by and large people are born with some basic conceptions of right and wrong which are, I would contest, as universal as such a thing could possibly be.
To borrow again from C.S. Lewis, can you imagine a culture where it was seen as virtuous for a person to be a coward and run in fear from battle, leaving behind his compatriots? It is easy to see how evolution would pass that type of a trait on, but it is not something we see played out in any culture that I am aware of. Further, can you imagine a culture that believes that rape is virtuous? Not just that it isn't morally reprehensible, but that it is a good and noble thing for a person to go about doing? Or a culture in which men considered their wives better for having been raped, and were thankful to the rapists? I cannot.
A challenge to this particular aspect of objective morality comes from Darwinism. The theory is called the 'Sociobiological Theory of Rape'. A fascinating and very disturbing book called A Natural History of Rape: Biological Bases for Sexual Coercion has been written on the subject claiming that there are legitimate evolutionary causes for rape to enter into human behavior, and we ought not to classify it by definitions of 'right' or 'wrong', but something more akin to 'desirable' and 'undesirable'.20 Evolutionary psychology provides us with one logical conclusion of philosophical Darwinism, and it is a place I sincerely hope that our society is not headed. For rape to be a thing that is classified as within acceptable activity, or even to be unacceptable simply because it is no longer biologically necessary instead of being reprehensible and morally wrong, is a place I do not want to live.
I have no desire to live in a society embracing literal moral relativism, but Darwinism does not even promise us that. In a totally relative society, there are still justifiable reasons for behaving as we would today consider morally, because a person may behave any way they wish. In a fully Darwinist culture, altruism itself can be considered undesirable behavior if it is not beneficial to the progress of the species toward a goal chosen by the thinkers of the day. That society, more than any other, is one that I have absolutely no wish to be part of. And the call for the abolition of theistic religion that is present in many of the 'New Atheists' books is a step in the direction of exactly that type of society.
I believe that rape is wrong. I believe that it is always wrong, and that any justification of its legitimacy is in itself an anomaly and cannot ever be considered the norm. The charge that I've heard that the Bible endorses rape comes from a dramatic misreading (or a lack of reading) the stories in which the events are described. God never endorses rape, or ritual human sacrifice, or a whole host of other things He is accused of endorsing by those without an extensive understanding of the Bible. There is an unavoidable sense of right and wrong deeply known to us human creatures, and I do not see how that possibly makes sense outside of theism.
The greatest proof to me of my faith is love. In the Bible, the Greek word for this is agape. I hadn't really begun to understand the idea of a selfless love until I got married a few years ago. Since that time I have experienced the thrilling joy that comes from those moments where I find myself able to truly lose the need for my own satisfaction in order to benefit someone else. This is difficult to explain.
The English language is completely inadequate to discuss this meaningfully. To borrow from Greek, there are two commonly confused types of love: storge and agape. Storge is best understood as a 'warm fuzzy', something that brings you a joy that feels innocent or pure. Storge can have a varied intensity. It is present both in how we feel about our favorite Christmas song coming on the radio and in a mother who is nursing her baby. The first example serves to brighten a person's day and attitude, while the other may be the defining or greatest joy ever experienced by that human being. But both are storge. When I love someone or something because of how it makes me feel, or because I am in search of an affective reward, this is storge. Most of Christmas is this way. The warm fuzzy people call 'the meaning of Christmas' is most often no more than the internal reward they feel from spending time with family, or giving money to a good cause, or watching children open presents.
Agape is true altruism, but not for the sake of altruism. Agape is a coming out from yourself, and making someone else a priority, even when it is of absolutely no benefit to you. This is a parent who encourages their child to go away for schooling even though they will miss them greatly, because they know it is best for the child. Francis Chan, who is a sometimes controversial Christian Pastor and writer, gave all of the proceeds of his book 'Crazy Love' to the ministries in Cambodia helping to free women from the sex trade that is arguably worse there than anywhere else in the world.21 I don't know Francis personally, and it is possible that he is receiving something in return for that immense amount of money given as a gift, but I would wager that this is an example of agape.
I have begun to experience this myself on a regular basis only recently, and as is true of most of the things I learn which are truly worthwhile, I have learned it from my wife. In striving to be the husband I want to be, I have been able to let pieces of myself die and be replaced by something better. For mere moments in the beginning, and then more regularly (though I am by no means any sort of an expert), I find myself seeking my wife's highest good without seeking any sort of a reward, affective or otherwise. The goal is the good of my wife, and I do it because I love her, and whether I would otherwise have felt bored, or resentful, or proud, has slowly become less relevant, because it is for her good.
I fear that I haven't explained this very well, but this is what I see at the heart of the Christian life. The liberation I have experienced in letting go of myself toward my wife, or towards God, to seek the highest good without regard for myself, has made me more fulfilled than I have ever been before. I say fulfilled, not because 'happy' isn't an accurate word, but because it is deeper than that. Change happens inside of me, and I cannot explain it other than to say that I do not believe that it comes from me. To quote Anthony Hopkins from The Rite, 'there's something that keeps digging and scraping away inside me. It feels like God's fingernail.' As that continues to happen, and as I continue to grow, I encounter more and more often those Christians who are on the same path that I am, much further along, living the type of altruistic and genuinely other's centered life that I have never seen outside of the Church, and that I am skeptical exists at all outside of communities of faith.
I considered taking time to answer objections to Christianity that I hear frequently; the character of Christians, or the undefined and unmeasured purpose of prayer, or the issue between Christianity and evolution, etc. I decided not to, partly because it has all been done by others much better than I could ever manage myself, but also because I do not think it would convince you. As I said above, anyone can find a rational basis for believing just about anything, and I think that all of us people believe a whole host of things for reasons other than simple deductive reasoning. Instead, I'd like to end this with one more thought.
Please understand that I don't think lowly of those whom I disagree with. Bud posted a blog entry a while back about whether or not a Christian could respect a non-theist. The answer, in my case anyway, is absolutely yes. Both my faith22 and my personal experience lead me to this type of thinking. I read books by those whom I disagree with, or entries on blogs like this one, and am impressed by arguments. I see clearly logical thinkers, many of whom are much brighter than I am, on the other side of this discussion and value them as people. I hope that the same observation can be made in reverse.
I am not giving these recommendations because I fancy non-theists to just need to read the right book to come to an 'aha' moment and convert to Christianity. Please don't read this list as being condescending. These are books that I have read (or referenced, or have read part of) that I found to be beneficial to issues relevant to the theism discussion.
Simply Jesus by N.T. Wright. This book is a very easy read which places Jesus within his original context of 1st century Jewish and Roman influences. It is easy to read and is the best and most succinct discussion of Jesus that I have read.
Christian Origins and the Question of God (vol. 1-3) by N.T. Wright. These three volumes are scholarly works, but are strong defenses for an Orthodox view of Christianity. The third volume in particular, The Resurrection of the Son of God is the book I most recommend, if you're willing to give it the time to read it.
The Reason for God by Timothy Keller. This is an easy read and can be done in a day, but it is a simple argument for Christianity. It isn't intended to tackle deeply scholarly issues, but he does discuss things like Pluralism, the problem of evil, the history of the Church, hell, Science and Christianity, the fine-tuning argument, etc.
Mere Christianity by C.S. Lewis. I hate that this book is so often recommended as the 'cure for atheism'. 'Here, read this book and call me in the morning. It should clear up that pesky little doubt issue you seem to struggle with'. Please don't read this book with that kind of endorsement in mind, because I cannot imagine that you could possibly come to it charitably. Mere Christianity isn't perfect, but there is a lot of explanation for the Christian faith in there, and it is by one of the few truly original thinkers of the 20th century.
The Lost World of Genesis One by John Walton. This book is the best discussion I have ever read on why Christianity is not incompatible with evolution. That issue is discussed mostly indirectly, this book is about how Christians should be reading Genesis One based on its context in Hebrew history and thought.
Why God Won't Go Away by Alister McGrath. I have started, but not gotten very far, into this book. I recommend it mostly on the recommendations of others as a thoughtful discussion by McGrath on New Atheism.
The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. If you wonder if the earliest Christians really believed in the divinity of Jesus by the end of the 1st century, then I would encourage you to read this book.
The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis. If you wonder what Christianity should look like, this is my highest recommendation. Not because I want to subversively get you to read a book on spiritual formation, but because I honestly think that if Christians lived the way that the greatest Christian teachers have encouraged them to, there would not be nearly the venom in this debate at all. I recommend the Dover Thrift edition, it usually sells for around $3 online.
1. I recently made an Amazon review of Christopher Hitchen's book God Is Not Great and gave him five stars. Not one hour went by and I received a heavy criticism by a Christian for endorsing such a terrible book. The lack of charity everywhere in this discussion is terrible.
2. C.S. Lewis, Mere Christianity. (New York, 2002), 42.
3. C.S Lewis, "Is Theology Poetry?" in The Weight of Glory. (New York, 2001), 92.
4. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, Kindle ed. (New York, 2008), 13.
5. This definition is mine, it wasn't taken from any other source.
6. While peer reviewing this article for me, a Christian friend of mine whom I greatly respect disagreed with me on this point completely. Again, this is an example of how fragmented Christianity is. Again, when I say 'Christianity', I mean 'Christianity as I see it'.
7. All Bible verses are taken from The Holy Bible: New International Version, electronic ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 1996)
8. I don't give much weight to teenage non-theists. In my experience as a Youth Pastor it is most often the result of rebelling against the most key philosophy of their parents, because they don't have the experience or the education to seriously examine the claims of Christianity rationally.
9. I really wish that these two ideas would cease to be used interchangeably by Christians and non-theists on discussion boards. I take evidence as a fact, debated or not, which can be seen to lead to or strengthen a conclusion. Proof is an irrefutable empirical decision on a matter.
10. See Wikipedia Article here.
11. See John Hick, The Metaphor of God Incarnate.
12. On the Septuagint, see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Septuagint.
13. N.T. Wright, What Saint Paul Really Said (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1997), 65-66.
14. There is a debate on the reliability of some versions of Ignatius' writings. These quotes are all taken from the shortest and least verbose version of his letters, agreed upon almost unanimously as the most likely to be reliable.
15. Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol.I : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325 (Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997), 52.
16. Ibid., 61.
17. Ibid., 63-64.
18. This is my plea to the reader. If you plan to offer a criticism of the Bible, take the time to get informed about it. Please do not presume that you are informed on the variety of issues regarding the interpretation or reliability of the book without serious academic study. Read from an author who believes it to be the divinely inspired word of God. If you are going to disagree with a viewpoint, you should always get your information from someone who holds that viewpoint. If you disagree with the need for that type of research, ask yourself how you feel about creationists who get their information on evolution from Answers in Genesis.
19. See Wikipedia article: Sociobiological Theories of Rape.
20. I must admit to be following a synopsis of the book I am describing. I have not read it, nor do I intend to. If this is a limitation of my understanding of the issue of evolutionary psychology, that I am not willing to read a book justifying perhaps the most heinous human action, then that is a limitation I am willing to take.
21. See an article about this here.
22. How any Christian can read Genesis 1:26-27 and not have an inherent respect for every person they meet is beyond me. No, none of us are perfect, but sometimes I wonder how much of the Bible is really believed by those claiming to be Christians.
Hick, John. The Metaphor of God Incarnate, 2nd Edition. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2005.
Keller, Timothy. The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism, Kindle ed. New York: Penguin Group, 2008.
Lewis, C. S. Mere Christianity, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2002.
Lewis, C. S. The Weight of Glory, New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2001.
Roberts, Alexander, James Donaldson, and A. Cleveland Coxe. The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. I: Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325. Oak Harbor: Logos Research Systems, 1997.
Wright, N.T. What Saint Paul Really Said. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1997.