Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today (Part One)

“But sanctify the LORD God in your hearts, and always be ready to give a defense to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you, with meekness and fear” (1 Peter 3:15, NASB).

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CHRISTIAN APOLOGETICS SEEKS TO build bridges to unbelievers by presenting reasons and evidence that Christianity is true, rational and worthy of belief. Oxford theologian Alister E. McGrath said, “…Christian apologetics represents the serious and sustained engagement with ‘ultimate questions’ raised by a culture, people, group or individual aiming to show how the Christian faith is able to provide meaningful answers to such questions. Where is God in the suffering of the world? Is faith in God reasonable?” Agnostics and atheists are quick to conclude that either God is all-loving but not powerful enough to stop the evil that exists in the world, or He is all-powerful, but not willing to wipe out evil.

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Apologetics in a Post-Modern World

If everyone already belonged to one religion, apologetics might still be necessary as a way to provide believers with the best possible grounds for their faith. But clearly that is not the culture we live in. Modernism, which became popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, is rather difficult to pinpoint because it encompasses a variety of specific artistic and philosophic movements including symbolism, futurism, surrealism, dadaism, and others. Its basic tenet involves rejection of all religious and moral principles as the sole means of cultural progress. Consequently, it includes an extreme break with tradition. Specifically, modernism developed out of Romanticism’s revolt against the effects of the Industrial Revolution and bourgeois values.

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When modernism failed to cure the ills of society—war, famine, disease, exploitation, global environmental crises—postmodernism came on the scene. Postmodernists believe there is no such thing as absolute truth; rather, truth is a contrived illusion, misused by people in power to control others. Truth and error are synonymous. Facts are too limiting, changing erratically and often. Traditional logic and objectivity are spurned by postmodernists. Traditional authority is considered to be false and corrupt. Postmodernists wage intellectual battle against traditional truth and reality. They despise the unfulfilled promises of science, technology, government, and religion.

We presently live in a deeply diverse world characterized by pluralism. Pluralism is a word we encounter all the time, but few truly understand what it implies. It has at least three primary definitions. Thoroughly exploring what we mean by pluralism will help us clarify a lot of what we encounter in contemporary society. And getting the definition clear is necessary for any apologist who wants to understand and address his or her audience accurately.

Pluralism as Mere Plurality.

The basic definition of pluralism means the state of being more than one. A rudimentary example would be choices of breakfast cereal in the grocery store. Sociologists suggest that such proliferation of choices in modern society—the characteristic of various goods, services, and ideologies—is a process they call pluralization. Although discussions about pluralism are not new, all the relevant questions need to be carefully considered. What is God like? Is God a personal being or an impersonal force of energy? If Christianity is true, does it necessarily follow that all other religions are wrong? Can so many be wrong, or are all religions at least partially or equally valid? The fact of a pluralistic world has required theologians to adopt positions regarding believers in other religions.

Today’s militant atheists are no longer satisfied with simply choosing to not believe in God. They’ve taken on the “mission” of attacking Christianity and its ardent followers as religious bigots who are elitist, narrow-minded, deluded, and exclusionary in their approach to God and heaven. Granted, worldviews are mutually exclusive of all other beliefs, but it does not mean holding a belief in one true God makes the believer an elitist. Christians do not think they are morally better than people in other religions. Because Christianity does not teach salvation through works but salvation by grace through faith, all boasting is excluded (see Romans 3:27).

Pluralism as Preference.

This second definition goes beyond mere recognition that there is more than one; rather, it affirms that it is good that there is more than one. Here pluralism moves from sociological description to ideological description. Rather than “what is,” there is “what ought to be.” Pluralism can be expressed even about ultimate questions of life and death. Someone might prefer there to be more than one philosophy, more than one ideology, more than one religion in a society because the presence of competing alternatives prevents any individual or any group from asserting unchallenged claims to truth, justice and power. Such pluralism, on this understanding, also can lead to mutual and complementary instruction from each particular point of view.

In this regard, we are all pluralists. But preferring plurality in some instances does not, of course, commit one to preferring it in all instances. Consider that some individuals prefer matrimonial pluralism (polygamy) over monogamy. Someone else might support private ownership of property while others might believe in communal ownership, or the rule of law to anarchy, and so on. We must resist the illusion that pluralism means everyone is right and no one is wrong. Pluralism is often touted on the campuses of our liberal colleges as the only way to believe. In reality, most of us are pluralistic in only some matters and definitely not pluralistic in others.

Pluralism as Relativism.

Someone might recognize a situation as pluralism: “There is more than one.” Someone else might actually prefer a situation to be pluralistic: “It’s good that there is more than one.” But this level of pluralism goes further, declaring that no single option among the available varieties in a pluralistic situation can be judged superior to the others. For example, consider the claim everything is beautiful. To hold the attitude that everything is beautiful is to see every option as good. But is this truly accurate? Even on the basic level of vanilla versus chocolate, we’re talking subjective preference not objective judgment. When it comes to flavors of ice cream, all have their merits and all should be affirmed.

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This is clearly not applicable to the bewildering variety of religions. Hinduism, Buddhism, Christianity, Native religion, Islam, Wicca—all are belief systems considered “good” by their adherents. All can be labeled as “spiritual paths.” This becomes a rather sticky situation, however, when lifelong believers of these various religions are convinced that his or her belief is in fact the best of all. Interestingly, many young college students, when pressed, tend to confess that they feel they shouldn’t think that way. Atheists such as Richard Dawkins believe parents should not be allowed to force-feed their doctrine on their children. In fact, he sees this as a form of child abuse, indicating it takes away the child’s freedom to think for himself or herself.

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Allan Bloom, in The Closing of the American Mind, complains that most college students today believe that everything is relative. Some are religious, some are atheist; some are to the Left, some to the Right; some intend to be scientists, some humanists or professionals or businessmen; some are poor, some rich. They are unified only in their relativism, and they take comfort in that unity. They believe relativism is vital to openness; and this is the virtue, the only virtue, to which all primary and secondary education in America has dedicated itself for more than fifty years. Therefore, openness is the great insight of modern times. The true believer is the real danger. Interestingly, the obsession that one is right no matter what has led to persecution, slavery, xenophobia, racism, chauvinism, and exploitation—not openness. The point is not to correct the mistakes and really be right. Instead, it is said that to think you’re right in the first place is wrong. This is precisely what has led to the modern-day concept that there is no way to tell good from evil!

It’s Not About Saying You’re Sorry!

Apologetics has little to do with how we understand the word apology today. Rather, it is derived from the Greek word apologia, which means to make a reasoned defense. Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance describes apologetics as “a speech in defense” or “intelligent reasoning.” Etymology indicates apologetics was originally the term for making a legal defense in ancient courts. Accordingly, as used in 1 Peter 3:15, it means “to make a defense to everyone” or “to give an answer to every man.” It is vital that we not ignore the second part of the verse, which admonishes us to defend the faith with gentleness and respect (NIV).

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The question is  How can believers both defend and commend their religion without needlessly offending their neighbors and exacerbating the tensions of their community? After all, apologetics can bless and apologetics can curse. When engaging in defense of the Christian faith, we must always look for the most loving approach. Peterson (2006) says in his translation The Message, “If I speak with human eloquence and angelic ecstasy but don’t love, I’m nothing but the creaking of a rusty gate. If I speak God’s Word with power, revealing all His mysteries and making everything plain as day, and if I have faith that says to a mountain, ‘Jump!’ and it jumps, but I don’t love, I’m nothing… no matter what I say, what I believe, and what I do, I’m bankrupt without love” (1 Corinthians 13:1-2, 7). It is vital that we show the ability to critique a position or argument without lambasting the other person.

Effective Apologists are Good Listeners!

Be prepared to actively listen to people with whom you are having a discussion. Seek to understand where they are coming from. Never presume to know their “character” simply because of what they’ve said or written about their religion or cultural beliefs. Let them have their say whenever they wish to speak. It is important to be wary of steamrollers, but be careful of not being one yourself. It’s better to allow them to speak too much than too little or you’ll be accused of cutting them off at the knees. Respond to what they actually said, not what you think they should have said. Try to keep them on point, however, which is not always easy.

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If you’re debating them about Scripture, ask them to stay within one passage and reach a conclusion with you on that passage before moving on to another. You might not realize it, but just because you disagree with someone does not mean there’s nothing you can learn from them! Every individual has unique experiences and ideas, and you never know when their thoughts might compliment yours. Remain teachable, even from those with whom you vehemently disagree. Everybody makes mistakes from time to time. When someone points out an error or mistake on your part, do not try to cover it up. Admit to it, noting it was an honest mistake. If someone insists you’ve made a mistake when you are well-grounded in what you’ve stated, promise to check your sources and get back to them on it. It takes grace and humility to admit when you’re wrong, but people will respect you for it.

Don’t be baited by personal insults. Ad hominem attacks, which are by nature leveled against an individual rather than an argument, have unfortunately become quite common when discussing sensitive subjects such as religion. We should never repay insult with insult. Remember, Christ never retaliated against or mocked those who mocked Him. 

What’s Next?

Next Monday I will present a detailed look at the classical approach to Christian apologetics. What exactly does Christianity believe? Can truth be objectively known? What are the three main arguments for the existence of God? Are miracles possible in a physical universe? Is the New Testament historically accurate? Did Jesus actually rise from the dead? We’ll also look at the hypocrisy of intolerant tolerance. For example, when our public schools shifted their policy from decidedly Christian to “neutral,” it did not take long for them to go from neutral to intolerance. Public schools have become “Christian-free zones” in the name of so-called separation of church and state. We’ve allowed our government leaders to interpret and enforce the First Amendment as freedom from religion rather than freedom of religion.

Please join me next week for Part Two of Apologetics: Defending the Faith Today.

 

An Argument for the Existence of God

Routinely, three tests for truth are applied regarding the existence of God: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experiential relevance. When submitted to these tests, the Christian message meets the demand for truth. Belief in a world birthed by accident, a life that has no purpose, morality without a point of reference except for those absolutes that have been smuggled in – well hidden behind the mask of relativism – and death that ends in oblivion makes me prefer the possibility of this oblivion to the sheer weight of the emptiness of a God-less world.

Judging that life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy. As we know, everyone has a worldview. A worldview basically offers answers to four necessary questions – questions that relate to origin, meaning, morality, and hope that assures a destiny.

Origin

Big Bang cosmology, along with Einstein’s theory of general relativity, implies that there is indeed an In the Beginning. All the data indicates a universe that is exploding outward from a point of infinite density. Of course, singularity is not really a point; it is the whole of three-dimensional space compressed to zero size. It is the point at which space ceases to exist. What’s important to note is at the point of the universe’s origin, there is something rather than nothing – a mystery that leaves science totally silent.

Nothing Cannot Produce Something

The very starting point for an atheistic universe is based on something that cannot explain its own existence. The scientific laws by which atheists want all certainty established do not even exist as a category at the beginning of the universe because, according to those laws of science by which atheists want to measure all things, matter cannot simply “pop into existence” on its own. In fact, the very mathematics and physics by which atheists define or explain the universe did not exist at the time the universe came together.

The Odds of Random Life

Donald Page of Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Science has calculated the odds against our universe randomly taking a form suitable for life as one out of 10,000,000,000¹²³ – a number that exceeds all imagination. Astronomers Fred Hoyle and N.C. Wickramasinghe found that the odds of the random formation of a single enzyme from amino acids anywhere on our planet’s surface are 1 in 10 to the 20th power. The trouble is that there are about two thousand enzymes and the chance of obtaining them all in a random trial is only 1 part in 10 to the 40,000th power, an outrageously small probability that could not be faced even if the whole universe consisted of organic soup. Moreover, nothing has been said about DNA and where it came from, or of the transcription of DNA to RNA, which scientists admit cannot even be numerically computed.

If you know enough about a subject, you can confuse anybody by a selective use of the facts. The inescapable fact for the atheist is that life is the random product of time plus matter plus chance. An unfathomable proposition.

MEANING

If life is random, then the inescapable consequence, first and foremost, is that there can be no ultimate meaning and purpose to existence. This consequence is the existential Achilles’ heel of atheistic belief. As individuals and collectively as cultures, we humans long for meaning. But if life is random, we have climbed the evolutionary ladder only to find nothing at the top. Meaninglessness does not come from being weary of pain, but from being weary of pleasure. Pleasure, not pain, is the death knell of meaning.  We have all come to know that our problem is not that pain has produced emptiness in our lives; the real problem is that even pleasure ultimately leaves us empty and unfulfilled. When the pleasure button is pushed incessantly – especially in the case of a drug addict or sex addict – we are left feeling bewilderingly empty and betrayed.

The greatest disappointment (and resulting pain) you can feel is when you have just experienced that which you thought would bring you the ultimate pleasure – and it has let you down. Pleasure without boundaries produces a life without purpose. That is real pain. No death, no tragedy, no atrocity – nothing really matters. Life is sheer hollowness, with no purpose.

Voltaire and the Fallacies of Religion

Philosophers such as Voltaire, who theorized on the fallacies of religion, had no better answer to give to the masses they had rescued from what they considered religious “tyranny.” Here is what Voltaire wrote:

I am a puny part of the great whole,
Yes; but all animals condemned to live,
All sentient things, born by the same stern law,
Suffer like me, and like me also die.
The vulture fastens on his timid prey,
And stabs with bloody beak the quivering limbs:
All’s well, it seems, for it. But in a while
An eagle is transfixed by shaft of man;
The man, prone in the dust of battlefield,
Mingling his blood with dying fellow-men,
Becomes in turn the food of ravenous birds.

Thus the whole world in every member groans;
All born for torment and for mutual death.
And o’er this ghastly chaos you would say
The ills of each make up the good of all!
What blessedness! And as, with quaking voice,
Mortal and pitiful, ye cry, “All’s well,”
The universe belies you, and your heart
Refutes a hundred times your mind’s conceit…
What is the verdict of the vastest mind?
Silence: the book of fate is closed to us.
Man is a stranger to his own research;
He knows not whence he comes, nor whither goes.
Tormented atoms in a bed of mud,
Devoured by death, a mockery of fate.

Contemporary atheists such as Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris are so blind to the conceit of their own minds that they try to present this view of life as some sort of triumphal liberation. Sartre, as atheistic intellectual elites know but are embarrassed to acknowledge, denounced atheism on his deathbed as philosophically unlivable. Sartre said, “I do not feel that I am the product of chance, a speck of dust in the universe, but someone who was expected, prepared, prefigured. In short, a being whom only a Creator could put here; and this idea of a creating hand refers to God.” And he used to be an atheist.

MORALITY

Not only does atheism’s worldview lead to the death of meaning, it also leads to the death of moral reasoning. Rather than a philosophy or a worldview, atheist Sam Harris says atheism is simply a refusal to deny what a person should see as obvious – that there is no God. Therefore, Harris believes atheism shouldn’t exist, saying “just as no one needs to identify himself as a ‘non-astrologer’ or a ‘non-alchemist.'” Examples of what Harris sees as God’s failure to protect humanity are to be seen everywhere, he says, such as the massive destruction in the city of New Orleans brought about by a hurricane in 2005. What was God doing while Katrina laid waste to New Orleans, he asks? Didn’t he hear the prayers of those who “fled the rising waters for the safety of their attics, only to be slowly drowned there?” These people, Harris insists, “died talking to an imaginary friend.”

Does the Reality of Evil Mean There is no God?

How conveniently the atheist plays word games. When it is Stalin or Pol Pot who slaughters thousands, it is because they are deranged or irrational ideologues; their atheism has nothing to do with their actions. But when a Holocaust is engendered by an ideologue, it is the culmination of four hundred years of Christian intolerance for the Jew. Atheists can’t have it both ways. If the murder of innocents is wrong, it is wrong not because science tells us it is wrong, but because every life has intrinsic worth – a postulate that atheism simply cannot deduce. There is no way for an atheist to argue for moral preferences except by this own subjective means. It is not okay to make absolute statements based on one’s personal feelings.

The antagonism of atheists toward God ends up proving that they intuitively find some things reprehensible. But they cannot explain this innate sense of right and wrong – the reality of God’s Law written on their hearts – because there is no logical explanation for how that intuition toward morality could develop from sheer matter and chemistry. When you assert that there is such a thing as evil, you must assume there is such a thing as good. When you say there is such a thing as good, you must assume there is a moral law by which to distinguish between good and evil. There must be some standard by which to determine what is good and what is evil. When you assume a moral law, you must posit a moral lawgiver – the source of the moral law. But this moral lawgiver is precisely who atheists are trying to disprove.

Can Morality Exist Apart from a Moral Lawgiver?

Why is a moral lawgiver necessary in order to recognize good and evil? For the simple reason that a moral affirmation cannot remain an abstraction. The person who moralizes assumes intrinsic worth in himself or herself, and transfers intrinsic worth to the life of another; thus he or she considers that life worthy of protection. Transcending value, by definition, must come from a person of transcending worth. But in a world in which matter alone exists there can be no intrinsic worth. Look at it this way: objective moral values exist only if God exists; objective moral values do exist; therefore God exists. Atheists, of course, will not admit that moral values are most unlikely to have arisen in the ordinary course of events, without an all-powerful God to create them.

But What About Reason? Can’t It Provide a Moral Framework?

Sam Harris, Richard Dawkins, and other leading atheists opt for reason as the source for their unbelief while maintaining belief in a moral code. Reason, however, cannot decide for us what is good and what is evil. Pure practical reason, even with a good knowledge of the facts, will not take us to morality. Harris claims that God breaks His own laws and is therefore evil or contradictory. This is to assume that God kills innocent people. When atheists do this, they are actually borrowing from the biblical revelation of justice and retribution while ignoring the big story into which it fits and by which it gains its purpose. In other words, they are taking God out of context.

We Can’t Have Free Will Without Suffering

Any discussion about why things are the way they are must include human autonomy (free will) versus God’s story of why we are the way we are. Though the sacred is offered to us, our will is arrogant and refuses to submit to God’s authority. No one of us is any different from or better than any other. This is true no matter their sin. Intrinsic value is not about behavior. It’s about who God says we are, and what He’s done to make us who we can become.

Could God really have created in us the ability to love without giving us the option to reject that love, the desire to trust and to be trusted without the freedom to doubt, or the privilege of making a choice without the responsibility of accepting the ramifications of that choice? A person may dismissively say that he or she does not see a moral order. The real issue is not an absence of moral order in the world, but the insistence on determining for oneself what is good and what is evil, in spite of what we intuitively know to be true. To believe that there is no moral order, one must assume knowledge of what a moral order would look like if there were one. If there truly is no moral order, any attempt to enforce one is sheer pragmatism, and is open to any challenge for other pragmatic reasons.

The Human Heart is Bent Toward Evil

Do you want empirical evidence that the heart of mankind is naturally bent toward evil? Witness the atrocities we see around us in our world. Today, October 2, 2017, we woke up to the news of a mass shooting in Las Vegas. The worst in U.S. history. As I am writing this blog post, the death toll stands at 59, with 527 people injured. The gunman waited until cover of darkness, then, using an assault rifle modified to operate on full-auto, he fired hundreds of rounds of bullets into a crowd enjoying a country music concert on the square below his hotel room. It would seem this man decided he knew what was an appropriate way to act out his frustrations. We cannot keep blaming this “ism” and that “ism.” The decisions and actions of each individual are determined by what is important to that individual.

The Need for Faith

The worldview of the Christian faith is simple enough. God has put enough into this world to make faith in Him a most reasonable thing. But He has left enough out to make it impossible to live by sheer reason alone. Many atheists tend to misinterpret Pascal’s wager. The French philosopher Blaise Pascal didn’t say he was wagering his belief. It was not a gamble, or a hedging of his bets. He was essentially saying that there are two tests for belief in God: the empirical test – that which is based on investigation – and the existential test – that which is based on personal experience. By denying the existence of God, atheists leave just one option in their pursuit of happiness and purpose, namely, the existential test of self-fulfillment.

It appears that no matter what evidence was offered, God could never prove Himself to atheists like Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins because it’s not proof they’re looking for. The are looking for a God they can cast in their own image. Neither of these men are the first to ask God to stoop to providing proof of Himself according to another person’s agenda. I immediately think of Satan’s temptations of Christ in the desert. (See Matthew 4:3, 6, and 9)

Jesus worked by changing the heart, not by legislating. Legislation can only force compliance. It can never produce the love necessary to change an attitude.

CONCLUDING REMARKS

Routinely, three tests for truth are applied to the argument for the existence of God: (1) logical consistency, (2) empirical adequacy, and (3) experiential relevance. When submitted to these tests, the Christian message meets the demand for truth. No physical entity can explain its own existence. Regardless of how physical reality is sectioned out, we end up with a state where the evidence of any physical entity explaining its own existence is zero. Obviously, something does not come from nothing. This violates the very laws of science atheists worship.

A can of alphabet soup dumped onto a table implies that somebody made that soup. You would absolutely deny that those letters fell out of the can in sequence every time; you would never even consider the possibility that it was accidental. In the same manner, the “raw materials” that have resulted in this universe have been brought together simultaneously in the most amazing combinations – combinations too amazing to have just happened by accident. The mathematics alone is unfathomable. This is the basis for the argument of intelligent design.

The one thing that atheists leave unaddressed is how to persuade the human heart to do, and to want to do, that which is true, good, and beautiful. Technological advance without virtue in the technician is like the nuclear button in the hands of a madman. Consider, if you will, the example of Muhammad. Islam is a religion that is academically bankrupt, for it fails to meet the ordinary tests of truth. How can a religion that claims its prophet came to the entire world then restrict its miracle to a language that is not spoken by the vast majority of the people of the world? How can a man whose own passions were so untamed gain the right to speak moral platitudes? An honest Muslim open to considering these things will readily see that the “god” of the Qur’an is not the same God spoken of in the Old and New Testaments, and that the edifice of Islam is built on a geopolitical worldview masquerading as a religion. Islam is a religion of power, willing to destroy for the sake of its ideology; the Christian faith is one of communion and relationship with the One who made us.

The greatest sacrament, compared to which all the others are types and shadows, is the Incarnation in which “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth,” We have beheld His glory as of the only Son from the Father. The word, the logos, combines two notions, one Greek, one Hebrew. For the Greek, the logos was the rational ordering principle of the universe. For the Hebrew, the word of the Lord was God’s activity in the world. In Hebrew, dabar means both word and deed. Science discerns a world of rational order developing through the unfolding of process devoid of a higher power. Theology declares the world in its scientific character to be an expression of the Word of God – literally the words spoken by God. For “all things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made.” (John 1:3, RSV)