“Counter-Intuitive Biblical Claims?”

Written by Steven Barto, B.S. Psy., M.T.S.

John C. Lennox is a mathematician, bioethicist, Christian apologist, and author. He has written many books on religion and ethics and engaged in numerous public debates with atheists including Richard Dawkins. I have a copy of Can Science Explain Everything? wherein Lennox writes, “There is what we might call, for convenience, the ‘science’ side. They view themselves as the voice of reason. They believe they are working to roll back the tide of ignorance and superstition that has enslaved mankind since we crawled out of the primeval slime” (1). Lennox provides a summary of what these empiricists believe: Science is an unstoppable force for human development that will deliver answers to our many questions about the universe, and solve many if not all, of our human problems: disease, energy, pollution, poverty. At some stage in the future, science will be able to explain everything, and answer all our needs” (2).

Lennox states that the other extreme, the so-called “God side,” believes that God is behind everything there is and everything we are. They discount heredity, micro-evolution, weather, culture, education, and individual discoveries, focusing only on a wonderful mind behind literally everything in our beautiful world. To a large extent, this viewpoint muddies the water regarding evil and happenstance. (Please see my blog post “Why Can’t God Stop Evil?”) These two dichotomies have led to centuries of fighting and name-calling, papers, counter papers, debate, editorial license, and shortcuts. It also leads to harsh rhetoric, like what Physics Nobel Prize winner Stephen Weinberg said: “The world needs to wake up from the long nightmare of religion. Anything we scientists can do to weaken the hold of religion should be done, and may in fact be our greatest contribution to civilisation [sic]” (3).

Lennox explains a valuable lesson he learned about a dark side to academia: “There are some scientists who set out with preconceived ideas, do not really wish to discuss evidence, and appear to be fixated not on the pursuit of truth but on propagating the notions that science and God do not mix and that those who believe in God are simply ignorant” (4). The history of modern science includes great Christian and theist pioneers like Galileo, Kepler, Pascal, Boyle, Newton, Faraday and George Mendel. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Men became scientific because they expected Law in Nature, and they expected Law in Nature because they believed in a Legislator” (5). Thomas Nagel made it known that his atheism arose from a personal dislike of the idea of God. He said, “It isn’t just that I don’t believe in God, and, naturally, hope that I am right in my belief. It’s that I hope there is no God! I don’t want there to be a God; I don’t want the universe to be like that” (6) [italics mine].

Lewis’s apologetic approach looks at a common human observation or experience that fits naturally within a Christian viewpoint. He said Christianity provides us with a bigger picture of reality that is intellectually sound. This stance certainly riles science. Alvin Plantinga, however, echoes Lewis in contending “…if there is deep concord between science and Christian or theistic belief, but deep conflict between science and naturalism then there is a science/religion (or science/quasi-religion) conflict, all right, but it isn’t between science and theistic religion; it’s between science and naturalism(7). J.P. Moreland responds to this dilemma as follows: “Scientism says that the hard sciences alone have the intellectual authority to give us knowledge of reality. Everything else, especially ethics, theology, and philosophy is, at least according to scientism, based on private emotions, blind faith, or cultural upbringing” (8). It is important to note that science is not represented through scientism, and that scientism is philosophy, not science. (Please see my blog post “More on Scientism.”)

You may have heard it said that Western civilization has become a post-Christian culture. Alister McGrath takes it one step further: “…we live in a post-truth world in which we just make up our beliefs… we decide what we would like to be true, then live as if it were true” (9). His post-truth comment is a reference to moral relativism: the view that moral judgments are true or false only relative to some particular standpoint (for instance, that of a culture or a historical period) and that no standpoint is uniquely privileged over all others. Relativism, secularism, and pluralism have attempted to take a bite out of Christian theology and theism.

McGrath quotes Bertrand Russell: “In the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt” (10). Russell believes people should study philosophy because it teaches us “how to live without certainty, and yet without being paralysed [sic] by hesitation” (11). The apologetic approach of C.S. Lewis serves to identify the common human experience, and then show how it fits, naturally and plausibly, within a Christian way of looking at things. Lewis believes the human sense of longing for something that is really real, truly significant, yet proves frustratingly difficult to satisfy, is a clue to humanity’s true fulfillment lying with God. I have heard this longing identified as “a hole in our soul.”

Lewis asks us to look into the Christian way of seeing things and to explore how things look when seen from its standpoint; as if to say try seeing things this way. Granted, worldviews and metanarratives (with all their preconceptions, biases, and presuppositions) can be compared to lenses. Lewis recommends finding out which view brings things into sharpest focus. Further, he notes in Mere Christianity that many people know a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, leading to emptiness and lack of fulfillment. I might add that this “God hunger” is worldwide regardless of culture or religion. For Lewis, there is a third viewpoint that sees earthly longings as a kind of copy, echo, or foreshadowing of our true homeland.

It is truly appropriate for science to be established through an evidence-based approach to theories. In order for these theories to stand, science must identify the evidence that needs to be interpreted, and then try (through the scientific method) to work out which theories are best able to explain empirical phenomena. Imagine the difficulty Einstein faced when proving his theoretical understanding of the photoelectric effect. He set out to establish whether light is made of particles or waves. This is a highly significant concept. Dawkins is rather suspicious of religious beliefs because they seem to involve a retreat from critical thinking and disengagement from evidence-based reasoning (12). Not surprisingly, Dawkins considers religious faith to be “…blind trust, in the absence of evidence, even in the teeth of evidence” (12). Faith is not blind trust, for that would make it illogical.

How is apologetics a part of all this? Groothuis refers to Huntington in Christian Apologetics, who said, “What means the most to [people] is, in the final analysis, their worldview: that complex of concepts that explains and gives meaning to reality from where they stand: given their diverse ancestries, histories, institutions and religions” (13). James Sire defines worldview as “…a commitment, a fundamental orientation of the heart, that can be expressed as a story or in a set of presuppositions (assumptions which may be true, partially true or entirely false) that we hold (consciously or unconsciously, consistently or inconsistently) about the basic constitution of reality, and that provides the foundation on which we live and move and have our being” (14).

For those who would blame God (or Christianity, or Islam) for the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, Gene Edward Veith, Jr. penned the following: “[Thomas C.] Oden saw postmodernism in a different light than I did. He saw it as a reversion to the sensibility of premodern times, marking the end of theological liberalism and making possible a return to Christian orthodoxy” (15). Veith said, “But immediately after the 9/11 terrorist attacks, I thought I was witnessing another of Oden’s milestones, a building’s demolition that marked the end of an era and the beginning of something new. Postmodernists believe that reality is a construction (of the mind, of the will, of the culture) rather than an objective truth. But those planes flying into those skyscrapers, taking everyone by surprise, were no mental constructions” (16). Veith notes that even as the dust was settling over lower Manhattan that fateful morning, he heard television broadcasts, readings in the press, and dozens of conversations that were decidedly non-postmodern. In considering the terrorists, their background and their ideology, no one sounded like a relativist. What the terrorists did was evil, people were saying. Veith remarked that not all cultures are equally valid after all. In fact, not all religions are equally beneficent.

Dawkins believes there is no room for faith in science. Evidence supposedly compels the drawing of a valid conclusion. “Science” resulting from the scientific method is decidedly true. Dawkins asks what is faith? He asks his readers if it is a state of mind that leads (“pushes” as he would argue) people to believe something (whatever it may be) regardless of a total lack of supporting evidence. McGrath, however, says, “The issue is that Dawkins here fails to make the critically important distinction between the total absence of supporting evidence” (17). McGrath argues that Dawkins seems to make an erroneous logical transition from “this cannot be proved” to “this is false.” Lack of empirical proof does not ipso facto conclude that something is untrue. Of course, science has established its reputation worldwide as an effective way of making sense of the universe for many reasons, including its skepticism about establishing truths beyond what can be observed. Otherwise, science would be a “faith” or religion.

Of course, as a Christian and a theology student, I do not see God as a physical object within the universe. This does not fit in with systematic theology. God is not a part of creation; rather, He has providence over creation. He is the originator, foundation, and grand cause of all things. Romans 4:17 says God called into existence the things that did not exist. Hebrews 11:3 states, “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.” What this signifies is that God did not use any previously existing materials when He created the universe. There were such existing materials. God created the universe ex nihilo (out of nothing).

McGrath suggests that Christians think of God not as part of a painting or diagram, but rather as the canvas on which the picture is painted, or the frame in which it is set. This concept seems to me to miss the point. Instead, I see God as the painter (the “Grand Artist”), not the canvas. God is identified as Creator in the OT (Isa. 40:28; 42:5; 45:18) and NT (Mark 13:19; Rev. 10:6). Creation occurs by God’s Word (Gen. 1:3; John 1:1-3). Since God as Creator is the explanation for the existence of the world and humans, creation establishes our deepest, most essential relation to God (18). Creation speaks of God’s great power and wisdom, for He alone established energy, substance, movement, gravity, and all that mankind has discovered and categorized. Hebrews 1:3 tells us that Christ is “…upholding the universe by his word of power.”

Footnotes

(1) John C. Lennox, Can Science Explain Everything? (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019), 9.
(2) Lennox, Ibid., 9-10.
(3) Weinberg, in Lennox, Ibid., 14.
(4) Lennox, Ibid., 16.
(5) C.S. Lewis, Miracles (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 140.
(6) Thomas Nagel, The Last Word (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1997), 130.
(7) Alvin Plantinga, Where the Conflict Really Lies: Science, Religion & Naturalism (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2011), x.
(8) J.P. Moreland, Scientism and Secularism: Learning to Respond to a Dangerous Ideology (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2018), 23.
(9) Alister McGrath, Richard Dawkins, C.S. Lewis and the Meaning of Life (London, UK: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 2019), 16.
(10) McGrath, Ibid., 17.
(11) Bertrand Russell, A History of Western Philosophy (London, UK: Allen & Unwin, 1946), xiv.
(12) Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene, 2d ed. (Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press, 1989), 198.
(13) Samuel Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations (New York, NY: Simon & Schuster, 1996), 21.
(14) James Sire, The Universe Next Door, 5th ed. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 20.
(15) Gene Edward Veith, Jr., Post Christian: A Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2020), 14.
(16) Veith, Ibid.
(17) McGrath, Ibid., 23.
(18) D.K. McKim, “Creation,” in the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017), 216.

The Practical Application of Narrative Apologetics

Written by Steven Barto, BS Psy

STORIES OFFER APOLOGETIC possibilities that are more effective than approaches that rely on rhetorical argument. Certainly, this is because stories engage audiences that would otherwise choose to pass on logical discourse. C.S. Lewis believed a well-told story opens the imagination to new ways of thinking and believing. He believed this approach allows the Christian story to be put forth in its “real potency,” allowing it to sneak past the watchful eye of rationalism.

Christian apologetics has three crucial tasks. First, it must engage cultural objections to religious belief that dominate public discourse in today’s post-Christian society. Second, it must show the ways in which Christianity connects with the lives and concerns of everyday people. Third, it must present Christian beliefs in a way that contemporary culture can relate and understand. Using the medium of story to achieve these goals should be considered by all who engage in evangelism and apologetics in the twenty-first century.

With the proliferation of “non-religious” theories on origin, morality, purpose, and destiny, the early twenty-first century has presented Christianity with a challenge like no other. The evangelistic and apologetic approaches that worked well in the 1950s and 60s do not fit the culture of today. Postmodern writers are attempting to move public discourse forward in a way that uses the best insights of the past without being trapped by it. Postmodern theologians stress experience over reason, subjectivity over objectivity, spirituality over religion, images over words, outward over inward. Are these things good? Sure. But this orientation can be taken too far, leaving Holy Scripture in its wake. Over-stressing such thinking when sharing the gospel tends to lean more toward liberalism. Today, experience is valued more highly than reason, which causes truth to become relative. This often leads to heresy and dogma outside the scope of truth.

But please realize there is no need for Christian evangelists or apologists to panic over the rise of postmodernity. It certainly brings some real challenges, but the Christian faith possesses many resources for meeting such challenges. The faith was able to thrive during the first century, when Jewish leaders persecuted Jews who joined “the way” of Christ. Christianity continued to grow during the rule of the Roman Empire despite torture, beheading, and crucifixion. Certainly, the negative mood today toward theism in general, and Christianity in particular, requires Christians to alter their methods. It is important to connect with people where they’re at rather than telling them where they should be.

Kevin Vanhoozer (1) suggests that postmodernity can be summarized in terms of four major tenets:

  1. Reason. The modern approach of reasoning by argument is viewed with suspicion by postmodern writers. Where modernity believed in a single universal reason, postmodernity holds that there are many different approaches to rationality. Postmoderns deny the notion of universality; reason is merely a context, a relative affair.
  2. Truth. Postmodernity is suspicious of the idea of truth because of the way in which it has been used to legitimize oppression, or give justification to vested interests. Postmoderns see truth as a compelling story told by persons in positions of power in order to force their way of seeing and organizing the natural and social world.
  3. History. Where modern writers tried to find universal patterns in history, postmodernity is “incredulous towards narratives that purport to recount universal history.” From the standpoint of Christian apologetics, this means any attempt to see universal significance in the narrative of Jesus Christ will be viewed with intense suspicion by some in today’s culture.
  4. Self. Postmodernity rejects any notion there is “one true way of recounting one’s own history” and thus concludes there is “no true way of narrating one’s own identity.” All ways of understanding the individual are open-ended and partial. Postmoderns decry universal answers to the question of human identity.

Alister McGrath said apologetics is not about inventing the rationality, imaginative power, or moral depths of the Christian faith. It is about pointing them out, and allowing people to see them clearly and appreciate them for what they are. He writes, “This means the apologist must be able and willing to develop a deep and informed appreciation of the Christian faith. Yet this is not enough: it is also important to develop an outsider perspective” (2). In other words, it is helpful to understand how the great themes of the Christian faith can be defended and explained to people who are not familiar with its vocabulary or practices. This “cultural” engagement involves establishing the Christian voice, conscience, and imagination within a culture so that Christianity is seen as true and satisfying.

A Theological Approach

J.R.R. Tolkien did not refer to Christianity specifically as a metanarrative, but he conveyed the same sentiment when he said Christianity is a story of a larger kind. He suggested that “myths” are ubiquitous, appealing primarily to the imagination and reasoning. Man relates naturally to story. No doubt, this is due in large part because man is created in the image of God (imago Dei), the Great Creator. Man possesses the unique ability to create stories that tend to reflect the divine nature of creation itself. Tolkien referred to this concept as “sub-creation” in his poem Mythopoeia. Accordingly, his theology of religion is grounded in Christianity’s metanarrative. Myth elicits a strong sense of wonder and imagination that fuels man’s longing for meaning. Myth contains deeper truths that otherwise might remain unspoken. Moreover, it creates intellectual and imaginative space for stories.

Tolkien’s position regarding myth persuaded C.S. Lewis to move from a general theism to Christianity itself. Lewis was finally able to see the Christian story as more than a set of doctrines or moral principles. Instead, he regarded it as a grand narrative that ultimately generated and supported such ideas and values. Lewis decided myths offer at least a gleam of divine truth. No longer did Lewis see Christianity as one myth among many, but as representing the fulfillment of all myths. What he called the true myth toward which all other myths merely point. In other words, Christianity tells the true story about humanity that makes sense of all other myths humanity tells about itself. As “dim dreams or premonitions” of the greater and fuller truth of the Christian gospel, Lewis believed the biblical narrative gives rise to a clear and complete vision or ontology of things. He said, “It is like watching something come gradually into focus.”

The writings of C.S. Lewis feature an invitation for his audience to decide if the story of Christianity rings true to life experience, and whether it weaved things together in a more coherent manner. He challenged his readers to consider whether they would like to enter into such a world. This approach is quite useful in apologetics and evangelism. He said we do not need to somehow rise above our “finite” mind in order to discover the “real world” of creation and redemption; rather, it has come to us through the incarnation.

Narrating the Incarnation

Jesus Christ is not merely the object of theological and doctrinal discussion. He is a person who is to be known and loved; to be understood and worshiped. This approach is refreshing given the usual debate regarding His deity and His humanity. Tertullian (A.D. 160-220) insisted upon the unity of the person of Christ while distinguishing the proper functions of His humanity and divinity. He essentially considered the incarnation to represent an amalgam (such as when two metals are fused together). Others during Tertullian’s time attempted to distinguish two beings in one person: saying that the Son is the flesh, the human being that is Jesus, while the Father is the spirit, or the God “part” of Christ. Of course, this approach served to divide rather than unite Father and Son.

The Word was not transformed into flesh, as this would imply destruction of what originally existed. Rather, the Word became clothed with flesh. Origen (A.D. 185-254) taught the necessity of a mediator between God and humanity, noting the respective importance of Christ’s divine and human natures in relation to His work. He wrote, “Therefore with this soul acting as a mediator between God and flesh (for it was not possible for the nature of God to be mingled with flesh without a mediator) there was born the God-man, that substance being the connecting link which could assume a body without denying its own nature” (3). Jesus had to be “without sin” in order for “God and man” to co-exist through the incarnation.

An integral element of Christian evangelism and apologetics is an effective explanation of the significance of Christ. Yet, words like “incarnation” are not well-received outside the theology of Christianity. It is important to accurately and faithfully translate theological terms into cultural dialects. For example, the apostle Paul views man’s condition regarding sin as spiritual slavery, from which mankind has been redeemed by Christ (see Gal. 4:5). For Paul, the analogy is not necessarily about moving from bondage to freedom; rather, it is about moving from the domain of fleshly servitude to the law to a new domain: that of belonging to God. Such concepts are heady and require an explanation that can be easily grasped. Narrative apologetics attempts to communicate the remarkable significance of the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ through telling stories.

The Gospel narratives (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) emphasize the transformative impact of Jesus upon those who believe in His ministry. God chose to enter into human habitation. The Word became flesh and lived among us (see John 1:14). God’s compassion for humanity is clearly expressed by the incarnation. Jesus taught us about our sinfulness, and provided the means by which we are able to rise above spiritual death. The narrative of Jesus Christ makes us want to turn our backs on the sinful past and embrace the gospel. The story itself does not save us. There is no incantation, memorization, or recitation that takes the place of redemption. What happened to Christ on the cross is the means by which we are saved. Faith in His sacrificial death can make us whole; allowing us to be healed by God’s grace. Not only does the incarnation help us understand the paramount importance of Jesus Christ, it also tells us something about the kind of God we love and worship as Christians. Yet, we must never misuse the grace of God.

McGrath writes, “Christians must engage the dominant stories of our culture, either by telling a better story that shows the myriad other stories are inadequate or coherent, or through subversive storytelling in which they enter into a cultural narrative and retell its story in light of the Christian worldview” (4). Christianity tells a story about God, humanity, and the world that is grounded in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This story is hard to promote in Western culture where the notion of sin and the need for a savior is vehemently rejected. Today’s militant atheists strive to put the blame of global violence at the foot of the cross. Yet the history of the twentieth century (supposedly the most “enlightened” and open-minded in human history) featured extreme violence, oppression, and destructiveness outside the scope of “religious wars” or “jihad” that question the overall goodness of humanity.

Philosopher and historian R.G. Collingwood wrote, “The chief business of twentieth-century philosophy is to reckon with twentieth-century history” (5). Some argue that the best apologetics is a good systematic theology. Stephen Wellum says, “We cannot defend the faith (apologetics) without systematic theology” (6). Systematic theology is the exegetical discipline that seeks to grasp the entirety of Scripture as the unfolding of God’s plan from Genesis to Revelation. It is through systematic theology (from the patristic era until now) that doctrine is preserved and the message of sin and redemption is shared. McGrath shares Charles Taylor’s thoughts concerning how to best do apologetics in today’s post-Christian culture: “Taylor persuasively argues that there is a need to move away from the traditional believers-nonbelievers paradigm to a new seekers-dwellers paradigm” (7). Taylor recommends this approach because of numerous alternate beliefs found where modern secularism abounds.

As I’ve said elsewhere, the days of fire-and-brimstone preaching are past. Systematic theology and dogma may speak to the heart of the “dweller,” but a different approach is required for engaging with “seekers.” Essentially, the same fundamental concepts are featured in theology and apologetics; the difference between them is the manner in which these concepts are presented. It is far easier to reach a non-believer through an organized discussion about their doubts and counter-arguments than it is to say unless you believe, you are going to hell. We should not engage in apologetics until we fully know God (including the Godhead), know ourselves as redeemed creatures, made new through the blood of Christ, and plug in to the Body of Christ through a local church. Gathering together, we come to understand our gifts and our calling. We must know the gospel truth as an entire worldview over against the errors of the world.

Apologetics and Evangelism

Apologetics and the Great Commission are complementary. Jesus clearly said we are to go forth, making disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that He has taught (Matt. 28:19-20). McGrath says apologetics allows for sustained engagement with others, answering questions raised, and showing how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers, but evangelism moves in a different circle. Where apologetics aims to secure consent, evangelism aims to secure commitment (8). Apologetics aims to establish the plausibility of salvation in Christ. Evangelism is inviting someone to become a Christian. Apologetics involves clearing the ground for that invitation. McGrath believes evangelism is like offering someone bread; apologetics is persuading people there is bread to be had and that it is good.

McGrath says, “Apologetics can be likened to drawing curtains to one side so people can catch a glimpse of what lies beyond, or holding a diamond up to the light and allowing its facets to scintillate and sparkle in the sunlight” (9). It is about building bridges, allowing non-believers and skeptics to cross over from the worldview they already have, and to experience the Christian faith. But the task of an apologist is not simply to win arguments or to establish the “rationality” of Christianity. Instead, it is critical to establish “true God” as a God who may be relied upon. It is also important to share the passion, beauty, and mercy of God. C.S. Lewis was attracted to the gospel story because it offers meaning, not merely “propositional correctness.” He said, “Reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning” (10).

For Lewis, belief in God was neither a distraction from life’s hardship, nor a psychological “band aid” for what causes us grief. Instead, discovering God involves discovering our “true self” and redirecting our lives toward that end. God is not a tangible object, but that does not mean He is not Him. He is, in fact, I am. Admittedly, when we first approach the gospel we do so with rational argument in mind. Lewis believed religious faith is grounded on rational norms that are not identical to those governing scientific theories. He wrote, “[The existence of God] is a speculative question as long as it is a question at all. But once it has been answered in the affirmative, you get quite a new situation… You are no longer faced with an argument which demands your assent, but with a Person who demands your confidence” (11).

NOTES

(1) Kevin Vanhoozer, “Theology and the Condition of Postmodernity, ” in The Cambridge Companion to Postmodern Theology (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993), 73-75.

(2) Alister E. McGrath, Mere Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2012), 47.

(3) Origen, “On the Two Natures of Christ,” in The Christian Theology Reader, Ibid., 230.

(4) Alister E. McGrath, Narrative Apologetics (Grand Rapids: Baker Publishing Group, 2019), 97

(5) R.G. Collingwood, An Autobiography (London: Oxford University Press, 1939), 70.

(6) Stephen Wellum, “4 Things You Can’t Do Without Systematic Discovery,” TGC (Dec. 26, 2017). URL: https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/article/4-things-you-cant-do-systematic-theology/

(7) Charles Taylor, in Narrative Apologetics, Ibid., 99.

(8) McGrath, Mere Apologetics, Ibid., 22.

(9) Ibid., 127.

(10) C.S. Lewis, Rehabilitations and Other Essays (London, UK: Oxford University Press, 1939), 158.

(11) C.S. Lewis, Essay Collection: Faith, Christianity and the Church (London, UK: HarperCollins, 2000), 213-14.