The Limits of Apologetics

Given all the evidence we have cited in the last blog, why does not everyone accept Christianity as true?

First, there are many people who have not heard of Jesus.  John Sanders, in his book What About Those Who Have Never Heard?, concludes that a majority of the people who have ever lived have never heard of the God of Israel or of Jesus. [1]  If one has not heard, one cannot believe.

Second, Christianity requires that we believe certain historical facts are true, namely that Jesus lived, died, and rose from the dead in first century Palestine.  In our blogs of March 7 and 14, 2011 we discussed some of the reasons why people do not believe in these historical events.  The bottom line is that God made us finite which means our ability to know what is true is limited.  Given our human condition, we cannot have certainty in regards to historical events; we must deal with probabilities.  John Warwick Montgomery in History, Law, and Christianity states that probability is the only method we have in deciding to follow Jesus but we must realize that we use probabilities daily in deciding what to do. [2]  Alister E. McGrath in Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths states that while Christianity makes sense, it ultimately depends upon a leap of faith. [3]  He also notes that essentially all human knowledge is uncertain including our apologetics. [4]  Any Christian who is intellectually honest would admit the same.

While it is a well-established fact that we must rely on probability to discover the truth of historical events, it is important to understand that our ignorance is not total.  Just because we must use probability in our search for the truth of distant events does not mean that we possess no truth at all.  The French scientist Poincaré notes:

If we were not ignorant, there would be no probability, there would be room for nothing but certainty.  But our ignorance cannot be absolute, for then there would no longer be any probability at all, since a little light is necessary to attain even this uncertain science. [5]

Christian apologetics sheds a considerable amount of light on the validity of Christianity.  It is very reasonable to believe in Christianity; it is not just a belief based on blind faith.  Anyone who states that Christianity is not a rationally based belief is not acquainted with all the facts.  However, we must also recognize that our apologetics cannot give us the absolute certainty that Christianity is true; there is still an element of doubt that remains.  And this raises a question about our theology which we will address in the next blog.

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[1]   John Sanders, What About Those Who Have Never Heard? (Downers Grove, IL:  InterVarsity Press, 1995), p. 9.

[2]   John Warwick Montgomery, History, Law, and Christianity (Edmonton, AB, Canada:  Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy, Inc., 2002), pp. 91-93.

[3]   Alister E. McGrath in Intellectuals Don’t Need God & Other Modern Myths (Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1993), pp. 59-60.

[4]   Ibid., p. 155.

[5]   Henri Poincaré, The Foundations of Science (Lancaster, PA:  The Science Press, 1946), p. 159.

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The Validity of Christianity

As stated in the last blog, we are starting on a series dealing with the validity of Christianity.  This will not be a course in apologetics.  There are plenty of other sources that can address that topic much better than I.  For example, Biola University offers courses in apologetics (www.biola.edu/apologetics) and there is a library of books on the subject.  Rather we will raise some issues that have not been addressed.

For myself, there are three main reasons why I believe in the validity of Christianity.  First, is the credibility of the Bible, second is the resurrection of Jesus, and third is the message of Jesus.

As Christians, the basis for our faith and our beliefs is Jesus and his disciples.  What we know of Jesus and his disciples comes to us primarily from the Bible.  So how do we know the Bible is a reliable and accurate witness to what Jesus and his disciples did, experienced, and said?  There are two main reasons:

1.         The Bible, in the words of Jeffery L. Sheler, has been “consistently and substantially affirmed as a credible and reliable source of history”. [2]  For example, during Jesus’ time, three lines of history meet—Jewish, Greek, and Roman.  Contemporary writers, in three languages (Hebrew, Greek, and Latin) are numerous and provide a cross-examination of Gospels in terms of habits, forms of government, general conditions. [3]  And the Bible withstands this scrutiny.

2.         The New Testament has better manuscript evidence than any other historical book.  We have more manuscripts and the dates of the manuscripts are closer to the original writings than other historical books.  The New Testament was written closer to the actual events they describe than other historical books.  The historical evidence for validity of the Bible is so strong that John Warwick Montgomery states if we disregard our historical knowledge of Jesus, we might as well disregard our entire knowledge of the classical world. [4]

However, the ultimate question for Christians is whether Jesus rose from the dead.  The apostle Paul recognized this and stated that Christianity rested on this one fact:  “For if the dead are not raised, then Christ has not been raised either.  And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile; you are still in your sins.”  (1 Corinthians 15:16-17).

The nonBiblical sources such as the Talmud agree that Jesus was crucified and died, that Jesus’ disciples claimed that he rose from the dead, and that the Jewish leaders maintained the disciples stole the body in order to claim Jesus rose from the dead.  So how do we know that Jesus actually rose from the dead?

1.         The experience of the disciples argues strongly that something turned them around from terrified men to confident men who were not afraid to die for their beliefs.  Peter denied knowing Christ at his trial.  All the disciples except John were absent at his crucifixion.  And yet a few weeks later they were confidently facing death for preaching that Christ rose from the dead.  What was it that turned the disciples around?  The most compelling reason for the disciples’ change had to be that Jesus appeared to them in person.  An empty tomb does not prove anything other than the body is no longer there; it could have been moved.  The appearance of one who had died would be life-changing.

2.         The disciples talked about Jesus’ resurrection in Jerusalem, the city where Jesus lived and died.  If the Jewish leaders or any other enemy of Jesus had stolen the body of Jesus they could have easily proved the disciples wrong by pointing out the tomb where Jesus was buried.  Also if the disciples said anything about Jesus and his life, death, and resurrection that was not true, they would immediately be challenged by multiple persons who had witnessed Jesus’ acts and heard his words.  And yet the only argument we hear from the first century against the resurrection is that the disciples stole the body.  If they had, it is doubtful they would have endured the persecution and suffering they did.  Habermas states that “Liars do not make good martyrs.” [4]  Most motives for frauds involve some earthly gain: wealth, prestige, power.  The disciples had nothing to gain from telling this story except persecution and death.  People will not die for a false belief if they believe it is false.  They will die for a false belief if they believe it is true as is evidenced by all the people who have died for beliefs that are opposed to one another.

The power of the person of Christ and his message is evidence the Bible is more than a human construct.  Sheler states:  “The power of its inspired testimony and the resonance of its timeless message has earned the Bible the fidelity and trust of countless millions though the centuries.” [5]  Will Durant has commented that the person of Christ and his message is so powerful and lofty that it could not have been invented in one generation. [6]  Alfred North Whitehead suggests that humans “most precious instrument of progress [is] the impractical ethics of Christianity” which are a standard to test the defects of human society. [7]  Something special much have happened in first century Palestine to have such an impact on the world and the ages.

The above are what I consider to be the strongest evidences of the validity of Christianity.  Christians have a wealth of evidence for their beliefs.  So why is not everyone a Christian?  There are a variety of reasons which we will discuss in the next blog.

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[1]   Jeffery L. Sheler, Is the Bible True? (New York:  Harper Collins, 1999), p. 254.

[2]   Irwin H. Linton, A Lawyer Examines the Bible (Boston:  W. A. Wilde Co., 1943), pp. 56-57.

[3]  John Warwick Montegomery, History, Law, and Christianity (Edmonton, AB, Canada:  Canadian Institute for Law, Theology, and Public Policy, Inc., 2002), p. 9.

[4]   Gary Habermas, The Historical Jesus (Joplin, MO:  College Press Publishing Company, 1996),  p. 227.

[5]   Sheler, p. 256.

[6]   Will Durant, The Story of Civilization:  Caesar and Christ (New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1944), p. 557.

[7]   Alfred North Whitehead, Adventures of Ideas (New York:  The Free Press, 1961), p. 17.

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Christian Apologetics

Christian apologetics is the explanation and defense of the Christian faith.  It follows Peter’s instructions to “Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.” (I Peter 3:15).  Our purpose in this blog is to ask questions about the Christian faith.  One of those questions, in fact the first question we must ask is whether our belief in Christianity is valid.

In the past few months, I have been taking a course in Christian apologetics from Biola University.  Biola offers a masters level course in apologetics.  This course can be taken as a distance learning course but it has the requirement that you spend two weeks during the summer at Biola.  Since I did not have that option, I took the certificate course which involves listening to about 48 hours of lectures on audio CDs and taking a test on the lectures.  The course also recommends, but does not require, reading six books which I did and they are well worth the read.

I highly recommend the Biola apologetics course.  The instructors are leaders in their fields and they present the topics in a manner that is easy to comprehend.  I had read extensively in the field of apologetics before I took the course but it still introduced new ideas to me.  The course will require time and effort from you but it is well worth it.

In the next few weeks, we will examine the evidence for the validity of Christianity.

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The Meaning of Faith

In this blog we have maintained that salvation is more than belief in Jesus and his death for our sins.  In previous blogs, we have documented other Christian thinkers who have also put forth this idea (see our blogs dated July 12, 17, and 24, 2011).  Recently, I have been reading a book by Alister E. McGrath on apologetics.  In this book he expresses some of the same ideas we have articulated in this bog but in a slightly different way. [1]  He maintains the word “faith” has a meaning that is greater in the Greek and Hebrew languages than the meaning we ordinarily attribute to it.  Faith includes:

  1. Belief that certain things are true.  This is solely what most people think faith means.
  2. Trust in the promises of God.  Faith is not just intellectual but is the response of the whole person to God.  As we have said in this blog, it is the response of our entire soul to God, not just our belief system.
  3. Acting on the promises of God.  We might believe and have trust in someone or something but until we actually act on that belief and trust, we will not accomplish anything.  If we do not put into practice what we believe, belief and trust are meaningless and irrelevant.

The view of salvation expressed in this blog is a view that any rational person would conclude is correct if they understood the human condition and examined what the entire Bible says about the subject.  God is interested in making a new creation of us (II Corinthians 5:17), not just changing our belief system.

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[1]   Alister E. McGrath, Intellectuals Don’t Need God, Grand Rapids, MI:  Zondervan Publishing House, 1993, pp. 49-52.

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Asking the Right Questions

At times, one finds simple truths in the most unexpected places.  For example, this past weekend, I watched an action/science fiction/fantasy movie for pure escapism.  However, the movie had a scene that told a truth which is simple but rarely applied.  In the move, Thor, who was in line to become king in his realm, was banished to earth.  Because of his sudden change in fortune, he was at a loss of what to do or believe. Eric, a scientist on earth, asked Thor if it was really so bad that he found out he did not have all the answers because being aware of that fact might now lead him to start asking the right questions. [1]

So many Christians are so confident that they have all the right answers.  However, the fact that God made us finite should make it obvious that what we think are the right answers are in fact, as Paul put it, a poor reflection of reality (1 Corinthians 13:12)..  The book of Job and Ecclesiastes also make it clear that we are very limited in our ability to know what is true.  Sometimes it takes a traumatic event or series of events to bring us to this realization.  It certainly did for Thor as well as myself.  However we get to this point, recognizing this fact should give us the motivation to ask a variety of questions about the Bible and our interpretation of the Bible.  And that is the purpose of this blog—to ask questions; hopefully they are the right questions.

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[1]  Kenneth Branagh, Director, Thor, with Chris Hemsworth, Natalie Portman, Tom Middleston, and Anthony Hopkins, Paramount/Marvel Entertainment, 2011.

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Works Theology II

In the last blog, we emphasized that it is not “works theology” to state that our salvation depends on more than just believing in Jesus.  We gave several reasons why taking action to put into practice the teaching of Jesus is necessary.

However, we do recognize there is a danger in such a teaching because some might erroneously conclude that all they need to do is to perform a few actions to be saved.  The fact is the Bible teaches God wants more from us than just our belief system or a few actions that we take.  He wants nothing less than the renovation of our entire soul, not just parts of it, so that we become like him.

As our blog of April 9, 2011 states each of the ways of salvation that have been taught by various people and organizations—belief, conduct, motivation, or repenting—has its problems.

. . .belief without change is the same as no belief, actions without the proper motivation is just acting, actions without knowing what conduct God requires may be the wrong actions, motivation without a goal gets us moving but maybe to the wrong destination, and repentance without a change in action will result in us repenting for the same thing over and over and over.   Beliefs, conduct, motivation, repentance, correct use of our abilities will not, done in isolation, make our soul like God.

Jesus tells us:  For the gate is narrow andthe way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few. (Matthew 7:14 ESV).  It is so much easier to restrict salvation to our beliefs or to a few actions than to embark upon the renovation of our entire soul.

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Works Theology

In the past few blogs, we have been discussing the importance of not just believing in Jesus but in taking action to put into practice the teachings of Jesus.  Now some will undoubtedly say what I am advocating is works theology.

Paul Copan makes the statement that there is more to religion than morality [1] and he is right.  However, he then goes on to state that moral improvement may not even be connected to religion. [2]  While it is true that one can be moral and not be religious, does that mean morality and religion are not connected?  What is the purpose of the 10 commandments?  Why did Jesus constantly talk about how we should live and give us the Golden Rule?  I simply cannot see how a Christian can say that Christianity and morality are not linked.  But it is not surprising.  Our theology states that the only thing that is important is belief; that is the only way of salvation.  So Christians sit around and debate theology and fail to put into practice what Jesus taught.  And anyone who dares to insist that our actions are important to salvation is branded a heretic because they advocate works theology.

Throughout the history of Christianity, various individuals have emphasized the importance of our actions in regards to our salvation (see my blogs dated July 12, 17, and 24, 2011).  Another example is Kant.  Will Durant in discussing Kant’s views on religion states:

Churches and dogmas have value only in so far as they assist the moral development of the race.  When mere creeds or ceremonies usurp priority over moral excellence as a test of religion, religion has disappeared. [3]

Kant asserts that the real church is a community of diverse people who are united by adherence to a common moral law, not a community that is bound by a set of theological beliefs and rituals.  [4]

We Christians, like the rest of the human race, want to take the easy way out.  It is easier to perform certain rituals or to discuss and debate theology than it is to put into practice what Christ taught us.

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[1]   Paul Copan, “True for You But Not for Me”, Minneapolis, MN:  Bethany House, 2009, p. 141.

[2]   Copan, p. 141.

[3]   Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York:  Simon and Schuster, 1933, p. 212.

[4]   Durant, p. 212.

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Habits

In the past few blogs we have discussed the importance of action.  We have stated that actions are more important than beliefs.  We have noted that the Bible, several philosophers, and even business principles conclude that actions are the most important element in our lives.  Why?

Epictetus, a Greco-Roman philosopher, said theory is like having food in the pantry and practice is eating the food.  Having stored food does our body no good; it is only when we eat it that we realize a benefit. [1]  He also says we humans prefer theory and word play to action because it is easier. [2]  All of us recognize that actually playing the game is more admirable than Monday morning quarterbacking. It takes actual skill to play the game while anyone can spin theories of how a game should have been played.

Now Aristotle has said that having virtue is not the same as doing outward deeds. [3]  At first glance this seems to downplay the importance of action.  However, it does not.  Plutarch, and the other Greco-Roman philosophers, believed our morals are formed by our actions.  Through repeated activity, our habits, we become virtuous. [4]

Dr. Gregory A. Boyd explains how our actions, our habits, become our character.

The more we choose something, the harder it is to choose otherwise, until we finally are solidified—externalized—in our decision.  The momentum of our character becomes unstoppable.  We create our character with our decisions, and our character, in turn, exercises more and more influence on the decisions we make.  It’s in the nature of free, created beings, and I don’t see how it could be otherwise.  Life, I guess, is a lot like the proverbial snowball rolling down the hill. [5]

C. S. Lewis says we are to take action as opposed to feeling or believing:

The rule for all of us is perfectly simple.  Do not waste time bothering whether you “love” your neighbor; act as if you did.  As soon as we do this we find one of the great secrets.  When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love him.  If you injure someone you dislike, you will find yourself disliking him more. [6]

He also talks about Christians being the sons of God and “dressing up as Christ”.  He advocates pretending to be like Christ because it will lead to a change in a person.  “Very often the only way to get a quality in reality is to start behaving as if you had it already. [7]

Rabbi Daniel Lapin states the path to becoming better at anything whether it be making an omelet or self-defense or business is to first learn the techniques for the new skill, second to understand the principles behind the techniques, and third to practice.  It is by practice that we integrate the techniques for the new skills into our being so they become automatic, so we don’t have to stop and think about what to do. [8]

It is the same with Christianity.  It is only by consistent practicing what the teachings of Jesus that they become part of us, part of our soul.  It is only by practice, by our actions, that we become a new creation.

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[1]   Luke Timothy Johnson, Practical Philosophy:  The Greco-Roman Moralists, Chantilly, VA:  The Teaching Company, 2002, Part 2, p. 44.

[2]   Johnson, Part 2, pp. 35, 39.

[3]   J. Budziszewski, Written on the Heart, Downers Grove, IL:  IVP Academic, 1997, p. 45.

[4]   Johnson, p. 134.

[5]   Dr. Gregory A. Boyd and Edward K. Boyd, Letters from a Skeptic (Colorado Springs, CO:  ChariotVictor Publishing, 1994), p. 42.

[6]   C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (New York:  MacMillian Company, 1952), p. 101.

[7]   Lewis, p. 147.

[8]   Rabbi Daniel Lapin, Thou Shall Prosper (Hoboken, New Jersey:  John Wiley & Sons, Inc., 2002), p. 13.

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Action

Clifton Taulbert and Gary Schoeniger have written a very good book about entrepreneurs entitled Who Owns the Ice House?.  The basis of the book is the entrepreneurial lessons Taulbert learned from his uncle Cleve who owned an ice house in Mississippi.  One of the lessons he learned is that one must take action if one is to succeed.  Uncle Cleve’s way of expressing that truth is:  “Yessir, if you ain’t got nothin’ planted, ain’t nothin’ gonna show up.” [1]  Ideas are great and they can provide us with a goal to aim towards.  However, as Schoeniger states:  “The truth is that good ideas are a commodity, but taking action is what really counts.” [2]

The Greco-Roman philosopher Lucian equates action with fruit and words with husks. [3]  Husks are important to the formation of a fruit but they are of minimal nutritional value to us.  Would we prefer husks to fruit?

Action has the same importance in our spiritual as in our physical lives.  Our beliefs, our ideas of how God has constructed our existence, are important but what is the value of our beliefs if we do not translate them into action?  The Bible, in the book of James, expresses this idea in this fashion:

If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? (James 2:15-17 ESV).

Anyone who just gave encouraging words to a poor person when they had the means to help them with the necessities of life would not be well thought of by almost everyone (there are a few sociopaths in the world who would differ).  So why do we think our relationship with God would be any different?  The Bible is very clear that God wants our actions, not just our beliefs.

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[1]   Clifton Taulbert and Gary Schoeniger, Who Owns the Ice House?, Cleveland, OH:  ELI Press, LLC., 2010, p. 75.

[2]   Taulbert and Schoeniger, p. 86.

[3]   Luke Timothy Johnson, Practical Philosophy:  The Greco-Roman Moralists, Chantilly, VA:  The Teaching Company, 2002, Part 1, p. 76.

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Christian Athletes

Last year, World magazine ran an article on Christian athletes and their public expressions of faith. [1]  The article noted these expressions of faith are noteworthy and have generally been well received by the press.  However, Kurt Warner is quoted as saying that Christian athletes must live the life of a Christian first and then words can follow.  Actions are what demonstrate sincerity of those words.  The article concludes that Christian athletes must not let their actions or lack of actions destroy the positive press they have received.

If we humans acknowledge that words can be insincere and that actions are what demonstrate the sincerity of our words, why do we think God is any different?  I love how Mark Twain asks this question.

For ages we have taught ourselves to believe that when we hide a disapproving fact, burying it under a mountain of complimentary lies, He [God] is not aware of it, does not notice it, perceives only the compliments, and is deceived.  But is it really so?  Among ourselves we concede that acts speak louder than words, but we have persuaded ourselves that in His case it is different; we imagine that all He cares for is words—noise; that if we make the words pretty enough they will blind Him to the acts that give them the lie.

But seriously, does anyone really believe that?  Is it not a daring affront to the Supreme Intelligence to believe such a thing?  Does any of us inordinately praise a mother’s whole family to her face, indiscriminately, and in that same moment slap one of her children?  Would not that act turn our inflamed eulogy into nonsense?  Would the mother be deceived?  Would she not be offended—and properly? [2]

In fact God is not different than us in this regard.  This blog has documented that the entire Bible tells us God’s primary concern is our actions, not our beliefs.  So why is our doctrine of salvation concerned solely with our beliefs?

It seems we Christians live our lives one way and construct our theology another.  In our lives we acknowledge that actions speak louder than words but in our theology we say that word are more important than actions.

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[1]  Mark Bergin, “Thanking God”, World, July 14, 2012, p. 76.

[2]   Mark Twain, Letters from the Earth (Greenwich, Conn.:  Fawcett Publications, 1962), p. 174.

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